Who Was Mumsie McGonigle?

A typical reaction from anyone who reads Geoffrey Homes’ hard-to-find 1946 novel Build My Gallows High (basis for the film noir Out of the Past) is: how on earth did he come up with a name like Mumsie McGonigle? The short answer is: he didn’t. There was a real Mumsie McGonigle, and she was much in the news in early 1940s Los Angeles. Her story involves depravity and corruption to equal any hardboiled fiction plot.

It began on August 26, 1941 when L.A. County D.A. investigators raided a residence at 611 N. Bunker Hill Avenue in the “Little Italy” district not far from City Hall. The building’s derelict appearance belied a luxurious interior, a “vice den” adorned with photographs of well-known local law enforcement figures- some autographed.

Across town, another raid was conducted at the Stockyards Hotel, 3327-3329 East 45th Street, which authorities describes as a full-time brothel that operated “around the clock” and catered to patrons “prominent in civic life.” Chief Deputy D.A. Grant Cooper, who led the raid, said they had tangible evidence that certain public officials had knowledge of the vice activities and were paid off to look the other way.

Los Angeles Examiner 8/27/41.

The raids netted the arrest of two persons: Augusto “Chito” Sasso, 54, and Rose “Mumsie” McGonigle, 56. The pair were charged with 5 counts of pandering- they oversaw the recruiting of young girls for various brothels that, D.A. investigators believed, they operated jointly. This was later amended to 48 counts. In addition, Mumsie was charged with 2 counts of pandering and -40- counts of statutory rape for her part in allowing a 15 year old girl she helped procure “entertain” that many men- 37 of them on the same day: April 12, 1941.

Los Angeles Times 8/27/41.

Though Mumsie and Chito denied being business partners, records show that they had been associated since 1920 at least. The 1920 US census records that they resided together at 411-1/2 N. Main Street, as landlady and her lodger, a “house painter.” In 1930 they had relocated to 328 N. Main Street; Mumsie is listed as Sasso’s “sister.” Their North Main Street establishment was noted for its “peppy French dinners” and clientele of judges and policemen.

Sasso, nicknamed the “Good fellow of North Main Street,” had taken over for Albert Marco, who’d run bootlegging and prostitution under the protection of Charles Crawford before being convicted for violation of the Volstead Act (1927) and assault with a deadly weapon (1928). Ten years before the raid at 611 N. Bunker Hill, Sasso made headlines when he was shot by an unknown assailant in October 1931, right around the same time L.A. crime boss Joe Ardizzone went “missing.” Sasso claimed to have no idea who shot him or why and suggested that police drop it, which they obligingly did.

Los Angeles had shed itself of a corrupt mayor several years earlier and elected Buron Fitts to the office. His clean-up efforts in City Hall and the police department sent the big shot gamblers and vice operators packing, at least in theory. But it was hardly the end of vice in Los Angeles. The mayor had no jurisdiction over the county territory, such as most of Sunset Strip, which was the sheriff’s purview. Nor did the D.A., Buron Fitts, seem to have much interest in prosecuting offenders. In 1940, reformers like cafeteria owner Clifford Clinton backed candidate John F. Dockweiler, who succeeded in unseating the longtime incumbent.

The arrest of Mumsie and Chito Sasso was the culmination of a six-week investigation by the D.A.’s office that began when a young woman went to the sheriff with a complaint of having been induced by a man she’d met in a Sunset Strip nightclub to work in the city’s “largest and finest call house in Los Angeles” where her clients would be no one but “film executives and celebrities.” Her story, along with the testimony of an even younger girl, led to the arrest of Emanuel “Mannie” Roesgarten in July 1941 and that of another procurer, who went by the name Joseph Di Marzo, on August 17. Through her, D.A. officials got wind of Mumsie and Sasso.

D.A. investigators Grant Cooper and Tony Joyce would later testify about their stake out operation on Sasso using a high powered telescope and a dictograph “bug” hidden in the icebox of his lodgings as 611 N. Bunker Hill. They observed various “public officials and politicians” visiting Sasso at the establishment. The most frequent visitors were George Contreras and Samuel Rummel.

Contreras had himself been a D.A. investigator in the early 1920s. During Prohibition he had headed the D.A.’s “booze squad” under Fitts’ predecessor Asa Keyes. He’d then become a sheriff’s deputy and until recently had been head of the vice squad there. He was stripped of that assignment, however, in the wake of a county jail scandal involving Bugsy Siegel. Siegel was in custody in the jail facing a murder charge in the Big Greenie case when the Los Angeles Examiner got a tip that he was being allowed special privileges, including in and out privileges. Curiously, Albert Marco had been involved in a similar scandal involving jaunts during his incarceration in the same jail back in 1928. Contreras was removed as head of Vice by Sheriff Eugene “Gene” Biscailuz in December 1940 and put in charge of the anti-subversive detail.

Sam Rummel was an attorney whose gangster clientele included Mickey Cohen and Tony Cornero- and Joseph Di Marzo.

Tony Joyce testified about hearing, through the bug, Sasso, Contreras and Rummel discussing the recent brothel-related arrests. Sasso said “Gene” had told him D.A. Dockweiler didn’t know much about being D.A. and that Grant Cooper was “causing all the heat.” Contreras replied that he was well aware of that, but after spending “17 years building up an organization, we can’t let that —— of a Cooper tear it down in three months.” Rummel joined in to suggest that they get some of their “respectable friends” to talk to the D.A.’s father, Isadore Dockweiler, and explain that Grant Cooper was destroying his son’s political future.”

At the hearing in early September, the young women told of seeing as many as 40 male clients during their 6-hour “shifts” and bringing in $120 a day, of which at least half went to the operators. Mumsie’s layers argued that, if in fact prostitution had been going on a the Stockyards, the girls had carried on in secret, without Mumsie’s knowledge. Sasso had been seen there bringing groceries, and money had changed hands between Mumsie and Sasso. Mannie Rosegarten was brought down from prison in San Quentin to testify but proved an uncooperative witness.

The proceedings followed the established pattern of others just like it in the past, from the Bixby case in 1913 involving a member of one of Long Beach’s founding families, to the so-called “Love Mart” case of 1931 involving prominent real estate developer John P. Mills and theater owner Alexander Pantages, or the pandering trial of Ann Forrester only the summer before: titillating hints in the newspapers of black books containing the names of prominent men and promises of big revelations to come, a parade of attractive young women witnesses, then…nothing.

Mumsie and Chito were held over for trial and released on $10,000 bond each. When the trial finally began a full six months later, on March 6, 1942, it was anti-climatic.

Times 3/12/42.

When they appeared in court (Mumsie having been wheeled in on a stretcher due to the after effects of an appendix operation), all but 8 of the 48 pandering charges against the pair were “unexpectedly” dropped due to “lack of evidence.”

Then at the trial for the remaining 8 counts on March 18, Superior Judge Clarence Kincaid dismissed ALL of the charges against Sasso and 6 of the 8 against Mumsie, stating that there was insufficient evidence to prove conspiracy between the two.

Further, Judge Kincaid ordered Tony Joyce’s testimony about Contreras and Rummel’s conversations obtained via dictograph stricken from the record. As for the groceries Sasso was seen delivering to Mumsie didn’t mean they were partners. The money witnesses had seen exchanging hands? Why, that was probably just payment for the groceries and “not for any other purpose,” the judge decreed.

Funnily enough, Judge Kinciad had presided over another big pandering trial the previous year in August 1940, involving Ann Forrester aka Ann Forst. In that case, Ann had testified that George Contreras tried to shake her down for $1200 to “forget the whole thing.” Contreras simply laughed off the charge, and that was that.

Back in court the next day, March 19, 1942, to  face the remaining pandering changes against her for employing a 15 year old girl as a prostitute, Mumsie “abruptly and unexpectedly” pleaded guilty. She continued to deny that she had operated the Stockyards Hotel as a brothel, and maintained that if girls had worked as prostitutes there they had done so without her knowledge.

The Stockyards Hotel was ordered closed for one year and all of its furnishings sold, in accordance with the county (Red Light) Abatement Act by order of the L.A. superior court. Mumsie appealed the decision, which was upheld in State Supreme County in February 1943. She died in Los Angeles in January 1946, not long before the publication of Build My Gallows High.

Harriet “Mumsie” McGonigle of the novel became just plain Kathie Moffat in the film adaptation Out of the Past (1947), played by Jane Greer. Dan Mainwaring, who wrote under the pen name Geoffrey Homes, also wrote the screenplay.

Notes

Sasso used the name Ettore Cito in the 1920 census as well as a 1922 immigration document. He lists it as Augusto Ercole Sasso in his unsuccessful 1937 naturalization petition as well as his WWII draft registration form. He avoided deportation in 1942 due to the US’s “strained” relationship with Italy, but was denied citizenship in 1944 by a federal court judge on grounds that he was a former associate of Albert Marco and had “failed to establish himself as a person of good moral character.” He died in Los Angeles in 1971.

D.A. John Dockweiler, though still a fairly young man, took sick and died suddenly in office in January 1943. Fred Howser became his hastily-named successor.

Joseph Di Marzo was convicted of pandering charges. Since the U.S. entry into WWII, as a non naturalized citizen of Italy, he was held in custody at the concentration camp for “enemy aliens” sited at Tujunga up until his conviction. His lawyer, Sam Rummel- the same one heard by D.A. investigators conspiring with Chito Sasso- argued that he ought to be allowed to serve his time there rather than state prison, but was overruled.

George Contreras died in July 1945.

Sam Rummel was murdered in December 1950. The case was never solved.

 

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