For all the energy expelled in expunging from Los Angeles that most dreaded of species, the gangsterous easternicus, one of the biggest fish of all of them was a hometown boy. Milton Bernard Page, known as “Farmer,” was born in the city in 1887. Though the gambling den was his natural habitat, he was also said to have dealt in liquor during the early Prohibition years.
By the early 1900s, Farmer Page worked as a newsboy at Second & Spring streets along with brothers Stanley and Ross. By 1909, all three Page boys had been picked up and cited for gambling at least once each. Stanley also launched a brief but brilliant career as a jockey during this time.
In 1917, Farmer Page listed his occupation as “cigar business” on his World War I draft registration form.
On April 1, 1918, Los Angeles passed its own dry law in advance of national prohibition, called the Gandier Ordinance, which closed the majority of the city’s saloons. For others it was an opportunity.
On October 24, 1919, Star Social Club, a gambling club Page assertedly operated out of the basement of the old Del Monte Tavern, was raided by the LAPD’s Metropolitan Squad, including officer Guy McAfee and Harry Raymond, lately fired as the Venice chief of police, now working as a special investigator for the LAPD. All three Page brother were arrested. In April 1920, Farmer and Stanley were arrested as bookies along with Zeke Caress at the old Jeffries Bar, 326 S. Spring St., which Caress had bought in 1918. The brothers were arrested again at 120 W. 3rd St. on March 20, 1920. Police raided 120 W. 3rd again in January 1924. No arrests were noted, but telephones believed to be used for bookmaking operations were removed.
A few months later, on October 19, 1924, 120 W. 3rd was referred to as Farmer Page’s “soft drink establishment” when an incident there blew the “proverbial lid” off commercial gambling in the city. What actually happened is fuzzy. The official story was that “restaurant man” Sam Brody (also spelled Brodie) lost $1100 and a diamond ring gambling at 120. Demanding $500 of it back, he drew a gun and threatened to kill himself. Page told authorities that Brody fired the gun at him as Page was descending the stairs. Page heard “a lot of shooting” from up above, then Brody came tumbling down the stairs. Brody was rushed to the French Hospital with two bullets to the leg, or perhaps the groin. He lived, and on October 25, D.A Keyes concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to issue a complaint against anyone.
City Councilman Robert M. Allen protested the wide open gambling he alleged was going on in the town, particularly at Page’s 120 W. 3rd St. dive.
“When it is possible for a person to ask a man on the street where a gambling game is running and he can inform you that you can ‘get in’ at 120 W. 3rd St., and when Farmer Page openly boasts that he has run and will continue to run a gambling house, it is time that Page and men of his type were run out of town.” Allen wrote in a letter to the Police Commission.
But Mayor Cryer denied that there was any “situation” in Los Angeles, declaring that the “little dust up” at Page’s “amusement place” didn’t amount to much. The new Chief of Police Heath denied that there’d been any complaints about 120 W. 3rd St. on his watch (that is, July 31, 1924).
Three months later, on January 26, 1925, there were sweeping gambling raids on the Western Athletic Club at 534½ S. Spring (run by Tutor Scherer), 326 S. Spring St. (run by Zeke Caress), and 120 W. 3rd St.
It was a few days after that, on February 6, 1925, that Farmer Page shot Al Joseph, fellow patron at The Sorrento Club, “palatial booze palace” and noted hangout of bootleggers, at 1348 W. 6th St.
Joseph’s two companions, Patsy Welch, a “pretty underworld consort” and “Lightning” Nelson Billings, rushed him to the receiving hospital next to police Headquarters at First & Hill but he was dead.
Page, described as a “picturesque gambling king” and “one of the most colorful characters in the local gambling world,” turned himself in to police hours after the incident, claiming self-defense. He told authorities that the affray was the result of an extended feud between himself and the slain man, whom Page had once employed at one of his gambling clubs. Josephs, Page said, had been threatening to “get” him in retaliation for being fired.
Coroner Nance conducted an inquest for Joseph. Page’s bodyguard John “Jake” Barrett backed up his boss’s story of self-defense as did café man Tommy Jacobs. Albert Marco, said to be a “friend of Page’s” produced a gun that he said had been found under the body immediately after the shooting, a .32 automatic- later determined to be stolen, supporting the idea that Joseph was a “gunman and gangster” as Page’s lawyer asserted. To Page’s surprise, the Coroner’s jury found him guilty. D. A. Keyes, however, hesitate to issue a murder complaint.
The next day, Page walked out of jail on a writ of habeas corpus, free for the time being on $50,000 bail. D.A. Keyes reluctantly indicted the gambler. His preliminary hearing a few days later was held at the scene of the crime. The Sorrento Club had since undergone a transformation, however: the bar had been removed, the windows were boarded up and the floor scrubbed clean. The case never went to a jury trial. On February 21, the judge dismissed the charges.
A rather romanticiszed biography of Page that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in the midst of the Joseph shooting predicted that Page was “finished.” In fact, he had hardly begun.
The summer of 1925 saw Page, behind the scenes, engaged in a bootleg war with independent bootlegger Tony Cornero. It began in June, when one of Tony’s loads was hijacked and one of Tony’s men, Jimmy Fox, was shot. Tony subsequently broke into one of Page’s warehouses and stole back the cases of booze that were rightly his- plus a few more to even the score. Snatched off the street and ordered to return the liquor or else, Tony made arrangements for the transfer to take place August 4, 1925, on a foggy road near Long Beach. But when the other side arrived, they were met by machine gun fire. Three of Page’s crew, included Jake Barett, and Les Bruneman, were wounded. Questioned by the D.A., Tony admitted that there was a bootleg war going on between independent operators and the “bootleg trust,” which, he said, was headed by a “well-known Los Angeles gambler.” Following this incident, however, Page and Tony appear to have settled their differences.
“Barefoot” Rafer Dooley told author John Kobler of his experience as part of his brother Ben’s hijacker gang that went after one of Farmer Page’s loads in the early 1920s:
“Well, the gambling czar of Los Angeles at this time I’m telling about, in 1922 or ’23 was Farmer Page, and he was in liquor too. One of his drivers told his girlfriend where he was going to collect a load of whiskey off a boat- in a little town that sits right on the ocean, adjacent to Long Beach. She happened to be a better girlfriend of my brother than she was of the driver. She revealed the information, so naturally we went in force with sawed-off shotguns eight or ten of us…. We waited until they loaded the truck. Then we merely told them to get out of the truck, that we were taking over. No harsh words, We didn’t harm them. We just drove off and left them as is.
We had a drop for the whiskey with another competitor of Page’s….It became know that it was is that did it. There was a confrontation, and quite a few of my brother’s constituents fell and became deceased on the spot….” (1)
In the midst of the 1925 bootleg war, Page also came under fire from the ladies of the W.C.T.U., who complained to the City Council about a gambling and bootlegging joint he reputedly ran at 1361 E. 7th St. Men with suitcases were lurking about outside the place at all hours, the ladies complained. An ex-policeman guarded the door. Councilman Allen charged that Page was running 8 or 9 clubs, and all were protected by the police. Page laughed off the reports, saying he no longer had any interest in gambling. The City Council called for a police investigation. Vice squad leader Inspector James E. Davis, another former colleague of Guy McAfee’s, claimed his officers visited 1361 and found the dive dark.
Another City Councilman, Carl Jacobson, continued Allen’s fight against gambling and the protection of vice and in the city into the summer of 1927. On July 28, 1927, federal dry agents raided Albert Marco’s North Side Pleasure Club, a “bootlegging dive” at 130 S. Spring Street, arresting Marco on Volstead Act charges. At the City Councilman’s meeting August 3, Jacobson proposed a council resolution to commend the federal agents for carrying out the raid, and pressed for a police investigation into a gambling club he alleged was being run by Farmer Page. Less than 48 hours later, the councilman was implicated in an alleged moral office- which the woman in the case later admitted was a frame-up initiated by Marco and others including Harry Raymond and Guy McAfee, the raiders of McAfee’s Star Social Club back in 1919.
These days, Guy McAfee was described as a gambler “high in the Councils of the Farmer Page faction.” That Page and McAfee also interacted socially was revealed in 1927, when the two and other Page were fined for violating state game laws on a hunting trip in Inyo County.
In January 1928, Page, “popularly recognized as the king of the gamblers,” voluntarily submitted to questioning by the sheriff’s office in the death of suspected bootlegger William Henry Lafferty (alias George Rosen) who had been found shot, gangland style on Western Avenue near San Pedro. Page admitted he had once employed Lafferty/Rosen at one of his gambling clubs near Fifth St. & Central Avenue. Page was not held. The case was never solved.
In March, 1930, Page was arrested in a gambling raid at 710 S. Broadway. Police charged him for possession of liquor when they found a bottle on him. Two months later, on May 14, he was arrested at his offices in the Loew’s State Building (703 S. Broadway) on the more serious charge of possessing racing forms, a misdemeanor under a Los Angeles city ordinance. On June 2, he was convicted and sentenced to 6 months in the city jail. He did serve some of that time, but the ordinance was later declared unconstitutional in the District Court of Appeal.
In October 1930, it was announced that Page and Tommy Jacobs, the onetime witness in Page’s shooting death of Al Joseph, and others had purchased the passenger liner Rose Isle and were outfitting her as a “floating Monte Carlo.” Two months later, the Rose Isle figured into the botched kidnapping of Zeke Caress. The D.A., Buron Fitts, used the incident to raid the ship and claimed to have found a stash of machine guns. Page’s old Spring Street associate Tutor Scherer was also said to be invested in the Rose Isle, which suffered more bad publicity in August 1932 after a murder occurred on board.
As of 1933, with Prohibition coming to an end, Page and Scherer, Eddie Nealis, Nola Hahn, and other partners were invested in land-based casinos, most notably the Clover Club on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood and the Airport Gardens in Glendale (later renamed the Continental Club), the latter managed by Tommy Jacobs.
In January 1935, Page, Hahn and three others were subpoenaed by the county grand jury investigation into whether city and county officials were being “paid off” by gamblers. Nothing came of it.
Then in August, 1937, Page was one of 8 men identified as the “captains of the Los Angeles underworld,” along with Tutor Scherer, Guy McAfee, Eddie Nealis, Chuck Addison, Ross Page, Johnny Rosselli, and Jack Dragna, and subpoenaed before the grand jury to tell what they knew, if anything, about he attempted murder of Les Bruneman, the onetime henchman of Page’s, wounded in the bootleg wars of 1925. This inquiry, too, went nowhere, but fed-up citizen and church groups launched their own investigation into the city’s vice conditions, most notably cafeteria owner Clifford Clinton’s CIVIC.
On January 14, 1938 Harry Raymond, now working once again as a private detective, was nearly killed in a bomb attached to his car. The bomb was traced to a police detective, Earl Kynette. The ensuing trial of Kynette and expose of corruption at high levels of City Hall by CIVIC led to the recall of Mayor Frank Shaw and the election of his replacement, Fletcher Bowron, a reform candidate, on September 16. Chief of Police Jim Davis retired in November.
Just after Christmas 1938, Page and Guy McAfee were sought for questioning in the murder of a bookmaker, Weldon “Duckie” Irvin, who had been found shot to death behind the wheel of his car in the 6000 block of Selma Ave., Hollywood on December 28. Page admitted having had business dealings with Irvin but denied any knowledge of the murder. As in the Lafferty/Rosen case ten years earlier, he wasn’t held. The case went unsolved.
In June 1939, the Los Angeles Times reported that Guy McAfee had left Los Angeles for Las Vegas, while Farmer Page was said to be on a gambling boat. That August, new State Attorney General Earl Warren launched a successful effort to shut down the four gambling ships that still operated off the Southern California coast: the Tango and the Showboat near Long Beach, and the Rex and the Texas at Santa Monica. Long Beach papers reported that Farmer Page was said to be a backer of the Tango. A subsequent lawsuit involving the Rex also listed him as an investor in that ship, which belonged to Tony Cornero.
D.A. Buron Fitts hinted that there was a more sinister reason for the old Spring Street gamblers leaving town than the mayor and his reforms, indicating that a “well know figure” was squeezing them out, establishing a dictatorship over local gambling.
In any case, Farmer Page did turn up in Las Vegas along with McAfee and Scherer. In 1942 he and Tutor Scherer opened the Pioneer Club on Fremont Street. Page was also said to be operating the casino at the Colony Club in Las Vegas, a swank club recently opened by Nola Hahn. In 1948, Page, McAfee, Scherer and other took on the casino at the El Rancho Vegas.
As of the late 1950s he owned a piece of the Boulder Club on Fremont Street. In late June 1955 he took on the gambling operation for Tony Cornero’ spectacular $6 million Las Vegas Strip casino, The Stardust, when Governor Russell declared that the ex-gambling ship operator (Tony, that is) would never get a gaming license in the state. Tony didn’t live to see the project completed in any case- he died of a heart attack at the dice tables on July 31, 1955. Farmer Page, lone among the old L.A. gamblers, attended the funeral of his onetime competitor.
Page died in Los Angeles on September 9, 1960 and is buried at Cavalry Cemetery.
(1) John Kobler, Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (1973).