The Bum Blockade of 1936

1933. The toothbrush mustache was in, Prohibition was on the way out. The nation was in its third year of the worst economic depression in US history. The Stock Market crash of October 1929 had caused banks to fail, and depositors lost their savings. There was mass unemployment and homelessness. On taking office in March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established a series of federal recovery and relief programs to try to address the crisis. One of the programs was the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) created under the Federal Emergency Relief Act of May 1933. The Federal Transient Service (FTS) was a division of FERA created in July 1933, designed to provide transients arriving in a new city with food and shelter and, if possible, a job- at no cost to the state or local governments. On August 10, Los Angeles’ new mayor Frank Shaw restored James E. Davis to power as Chief of Police.

1933: Chief Davis, in uniform, shortly after he reappointment. No, that’s not Hitler, it’s Mayor Frank Shaw sporting the fashionable toothbrush mustache. LAPL.

As severe dust storms and drought across the Midwest, great plains and southwest made agriculture in these locations untenable by the mid-1930s, individuals and families came to California with the idea that it was still a land of opportunity. According to FTS officials, as of July 1934, California had more transients registered with the program than any other state. In the whole of Los Angeles County, the agency was caring for approximately 3600 families, or 14,000 individuals.

7/11/1934

But FERA and all of the programs under its umbrella, including the FTS, was being phased out in 1935 and the responsibility for the migrant population shifting to local authorities. 

Until recently, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and other civic boosters had aggressively advertised and promoted tourism to the region. Now these same organizations were hand-wringing and pearl clutching over the “indigent influx” to the area. Fear mongerers painted a picture of “a city overrun with panhandling transients, the setting up of soup lines to feed them and even possible riots” as a result of the federal program’s end, predicting a “crime wave such as the city had never seen.

Los Angeles, while promoting itself as a tourist mecca, had always blamed its problems, particularly it’s crime problems, on “others.” During the (still-lingering) gangster era, for example, bootleg wars and crime waves were inevitably blamed on “eastern gangsters” pouring into the city, particularly during the cold weather months. That the city establishment was now horrified by the idea of people coming in from other states was ironic, considering that it was a running joke that most people in Los Angeles were from someplace else.

Chief Davis (Texas) decided to take matters into his own hands. On February 3, 1936, he announced that he had dispatched 136 Los Angeles Police Department officers to 16 different points of entry into the state to initiate a border patrol spread out over 9 counties that would stop “migrating indigents” from Crossing the California borders. Acting Captain Clemence B. “Jack” Horrall (Indiana) was appointed to general command of the unit. It was billed as a crime-prevention measure. As Davis’ main cheerleader, the Los Angeles Times, put it “neer-do-wells will be turned back in a move to check crime.”

Wait- what? Um, weren’t those place outside the city limits, and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the LAPD?

No problem, Davis explained. Sheriffs in the border counties had agreed to deputize the LAPD officers without remuneration, so they’d have “unquestioned authority” to operate there. But, he added, this wasn’t strictly necessary, asserting that any police officer had the authority to enforce state law.”  But, there was no state law preventing entry into the state. 

Also, if this was true, why did the LAPD throw up its hands and say it could do nothing about the illegal gambling etc. that flourished in unincorporated county territory such as Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards on the basis that it was outside its authority? Why not just say they were enforcing the state’s anti-gambling law?

News of the program brought a wave of criticism. The City Council met the following day and passed a resolution asking Davis by what authority he was sending his men outside the city limits and asked city attorney Ray Chesebro (Minnesota) to weigh in on the legality issue. Mayor Shaw (Canada), speaking for Chesebro, stated that they’d established the legality of the move prior to the officers being dispatched. Other legal experts, such as ACLU attorney John C. Packard, who had represented a number of clients arrested by Chief Davis’ “Red Squad,” opined that it was un-American and moreover, unconstitutional. Former LA City Councilman now US Attorney Pierson M. Hall, in an informal statement, rebutted this, asserting that he believed “any state has a right to keep any type of citizen out of its territory.”

Davis immediately went on the defensive. “I doubt if the people so ready with criticism of this plan know the facts,” he outed, going on to bolster his case with more false or unprovable statement: that 70% of the “foraging floaters” coming into California were bound for Los Angeles, that 60% of them had a criminal record, that the “hordes” were not coming to California to work but rather “with the idea of getting on relief rolls, begging or stealing,” and that the LAPD “confidently” expected a 20% decrease in the crime total in the next 12 months. Within a week, Davis claimed that crime had already decreased 25%. The Times acted as Davis’ free P.R. agent, with daily articles touting the asserted success of the efforts and citing the same made-up statistics.

Vagrancy had long been a convenient catch-all for arresting anyone any time. During his first stint as police chief 1926-1929, Davis proudly took credit for initiating the “rousting system” whereby any “suspicious character” could be “rounded up” and held for something or other. By his measure, anyone who had been arrested, whether for pan-handling or a traffic violation, could be turned away at the border or arrested.

Border crossing in Imperial Co. I wonder why these folks were singled out as “suspicious characters”? It’s a puzzler. UCLA digital.

Satisfied after two whole days that his bum blockade was a “rousting” success, on February 7, Chief Davis assigned 30 detectives and 45 patrolmen to a local vagrancy squad, headed by Deputy Chief of Detectives Homer B. Cross (Washington), to round up “undesirable characters in the actual city limits: pan-handlers, dissolute persons, suspicious characters and other with no visible means of supportwho were unable to explain their presence. By the 16th the vag detail had arrested 971 men for vagrancy or begging. They were fingerprinted and paraded through the police court, where they were given the choice of 5 days in jail or leaving town. Those who opted for jail were given longer jail terms; Deputy Chief Roy Steckel (Tennessee), who had succeeded Davis as chief in 1929 only to be himself demoted in favor of Davis in 1933, was working on a plan to put these holdouts to work on a rock pile.

These were not dangerous criminals and did not pose a threat to the people of Los Angeles, but the sheer number of arrests certainly made it seem as if Chief Davis was reducing crime.

Madera Daily Tribune, 2/7/1936.

The city’s top vice lords, like Jack Dragna (Italy), the late Charles Crawford (Ohio), Tutor Scherer (Wisconsin), Farmer Page (California), Albert Marco (Italy), and Davis’ former LAPD colleague, Guy McAfee (Kansas) had never been rousted on Chief Davis’ orders. In fact, when a rookie patrolman made the mistake of arresting Marco on an assault with a deadly weapon charge in 1925, Marco’s friends in the department had it knocked down to a misdemeanor. Former city councilman Carl Jacobson had been a vocal critic of the LAPD and Chief Davis’ curious disinterest in investigating complaints against people like Marco and Page in the 1920s; Jacobson was consequently framed on a “morals charge” in an incident engineered with the cooperation of high-ranking LAPD officers such as Special Inspector Harry Raymond, and Davis’ handling of this and other cases had led to his demotion in 1929. The county grand jury’s attempt to investigate vice conditions in the city and allegations of protected vice in 1935 had gone nowhere as the city’s “high gambling chiefs” dodged subpoenas. Frustrated, religious leaders and citizen groups pledged to conduct their own investigation.

It was also during this time Bugsy Siegel (New York), who had somehow “slipped through the bum brigade, made Los Angeles his permanent home. While Homer Cross and company were rousting drunks and pan-handlers, Siegel, in an uneasy alliance with Jack Dragna, was attempting to take over the McAfee-Page-Scherer rackets.

Outside Los Angeles, newspapers widely derided the effort to “save California from the hobo,” dubbing it the “bum blockade” and the “foreign legion. State authorities and the CHP at Truckee refused to let the LAPD commandeers its quarantine and check stations, but generally went along with it, as did most border county sheriffs.

A sign near Reno mocking the bum bloackade, 2/9/1036. UCLA digital.

Sheriff John C. Sharp of Modoc Co., however, after watching the bum bouncers harass several local citizens, on February 10, ordered the officers out of his jurisdiction by nightfall. “I’ve stood for a lot and tried to be fair, but you have violated all the rules of decency.” Chief Davis retaliated by threatening to move his men to neighboring Plumas County and dump all vagrants into Modoc. “I would regret to take such a move but we can’t leave a loophole in our line. If the Modoc sheriff will not cooperate our line will give ground but it will not break.” In the end, however, Davis backed down and moved the officers to Siskiyou Co. The following month Sheriff Sharp released a statement to the press announcing that any tourists wishing to reach California were welcome to come in through Modoc County.

San Bernardino Sun Times 2/16/1936.

On February 15, 1936, Carl G. Donaugh of the US Attorney’s office in Portland, Oregon, rejected a case filed by Spanish War veteran James A Taylor who said he lived at 1273 Normandy Avenue, Hollywood and had not only been prevented from going home but was assaulted by the bum blockade. They knocked out knocked out his teeth and destroyed his personal property, including proof of his California residency, Taylor stated. Donaugh took no action, declaring it a state matter, and advised Taylor he could bring a civil suit against the officers. Chief Davis refuted the allegations (the LA Times did not carry Taylor’s story; it only mentioned it in passing in reporting Davis denial of it), and submitted a report to the police commission stating that his men could not have knocked out Taylor’s teeth because Taylor had no teeth no knock out: Davis said Taylor sold them in Portland prior to trying to cross the border.

Los Angeles City Councilman Parley Christensen, who endorsed Upton Sinclair’s End Povery in Califoria (EPIC) campaign and would successfully opposed allocating city funds to ship the flag that had flown over the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic’s to Hitler’s Germany for the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, made a motion calling for the recall of Chief Davis, whom Christensen called a “Los Angeles edition of Mussolini.”

Border crossing at Blythe, 2/12/1936.

Conincidentally, it was on February 15, 1936 that author Sinclair Lewis reported from Washington, DC that Will Hays, the Teapot Dome scandal-tainted former Republican National Committee chair, now head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, had ordered the movie version of Lewis’ novel, “It Can’t Happen Here,” to cease production for fear, Lewis said, that it might offend Hitler or Mussolini.

On February 19, Hollywood film industry figure John Langan sued Chief Davis in US court, Southern District of California, for $5000 damages and an injunction to outlaw the special patrol on the basis that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution and that the officers, by interfering with interstate passenger travel, set themselves up as “peace officers, committing magistrate, jailor and Judge. Langan, a Hollywood resident, was halted at the border at Blythe on February 10, returning from a mining trip in Arizona. His attorney, John C. Packard, demanded that the City Treasurer and the and City Controller withhold funds from Chief Davis, arguing that city funds could not be used legally to support extra-territorial forces.

John C. Packard, James M. Carter and John Langdan. UCLA digital

City attorney Chesebro petitioned the court for a dismissal. In the meantime, on February 27, Davis requested $8000 to be transferred from the police salary fund to the “secret service” fund for expenses in maintining the border patrol.

On March 17, federal Judge Albert Lee Stephens, Sr. granted Chesebro’s motion to dismiss Langan’s suit on the grounds that it was a state matter and therefore the federal court had no jurisdiction. Langan amended the suit and refiled it in US Court on March 24, naming both Chief Davis and the City of LA as defendants.

3/31/1936

When the case was heard on March 30, Langan was not present in court. Packard, at his client’s instruction, requested that the suit be dismissed, adding that Langan and his wife had been threatened by the LAPD and pressured into doing so. Packard stated that he also believed his client was being restrained from appearing in court. Judge Stephens immediately asked US Attorney Pierson M. Hall to open an investigation into an attempted obstruction of justice.

In a statement to the Times, Langan was quick to deny he’d been intimidated in to dropping the suit. He had also suddenly became one of the bum blockade’s most ardent cheerleaders. “I wish to say that to my knowledge there has been no form of force or threat against me. I believe the police department of this city to be wholeheartedly working for the protection and welfare of everyone and I regret that accusations have been made on my behalf.” Adding that while sure, at first resented being stopped and questioned by the border patrol, he now felt it was “an injustice to the people of California to have the burden of relief for indigent transients thrust upon them,” and went on to praise the efforts of the border patrol.

In his own statement to the press, Chief Davis said “Any attempts to connect me with Langan’s disappearance are [an] unmitigated falsehood. He is not in the hands of the police. I have now instructed my officers to see if they can find him.” Davis also asked Hall if he (Davis) or a rep could appear with Langan to defend the LAPD against the charges made in open court by Packard. The next day, April 1, Hall asked the Department of Justice assign bureau of investigation (FBI) agents to the case.

The bum blockade collapsed under the weight of criticism later that month. Though Chief Davis lobbied for its revival the following winter, he had to content himself with merely blockading roads into Los Angeles, checking railroad cars, and rounding up vagrants in the city center.

AFTERWORD

On January 14, 1938, a bomb exploded under the car of ex-LAPD detective Harry Raymond, nearly killing him. Within days, DA Buron Fitts’ investigators linked the incident to a special police investigating squad, aka the “spy squad,led by Acting Captain Earle B. Kynette (Iowa) which reported directly to Chief Davis. Drawing from the same secret fund used to finance the bum blockade, the unit’s main purpose, apparently, had been to spy on political opponents and other perceived enemies of the department and Mayor Shaw’s administration. Also revealed in the wake of the scandal was the reason for Langan’s abrupt change in attitude toward the bum blockade.

4/2/1936

On January 26, the State Interim Co-ordinating Assembly Committee opened an enquiry into charges of vice, graft and corruption in Los Angeles county and city. In addition, it would look into “asserted terrorist methods used by the police.” Attorney John Packard was among its first witnesses, testifying under oath on January 27, 1938 that after Langan filed his suit in 1936, false reports were sent to business associates of Langans’ and Packard’s, accusing them of being “undesirable characters” with ties to the Communist party. Then, he said, Kynette began to “work on” Langan, inviting him to dinner and playing him recordings of illegally taped phone conversations by influential men of the city, including Packard, which Kynette said it could use to slow them down if they became “troublesome” to the police. The squad also had a collection of incriminating “lewd photos.” Kynette told Langan his 3-year-old daughter’s life would be in danger if he didn’t withdraw the suit. Langan’s wife Lorna (an actress who used the stage name Joan Manners) later became so nervous that at one point she threatened to tell authorities what was going on. Langan and her brother restrained her and called Kynette, who came to the couple’s apartment and taped Lorna’s mouth shut. Then Kynette called a doctor, stating that he was going to have her locked up in the psychopathic ward (as Kynette’s colleague Captain J. J. Jones had done to the mother of a missing boy, Christine Collins in 1928). The doctor refused to play along, however, and merely gave her a sedative. Lorna locked herself in the bathroom and screamed for help out the window. When patrolmen arrived, they were met at the door by Kynette, who told them he was in charge, and anyway it was “only a hysterical woman.” Lorna dropped a note out the window, which a newsboy found and per the note summoned Packard. Attorney James M. Carter, associate of Packard’s, corroborated the account. Langan himself appeared before the committee, but was “unable to recall” any of the incidents. According to Packard, he still feared reprisals by the police.

Kynette, through his attorneys, denied the accusations, saying he and the Langan’s were good friends, and “the fact that Mr. Packard is an attorney for the Civil Liberties Union and makes charges that can only injure his own clients should be self-explanatory.”

But on the same day Packard was giving his testimony, Kynette was arrested and booked on charges of wire-tapping. DA Fitts’ investigators had discovered evidence in the spy squad’s files linking it not only to an extensive spying campaign on Harry Raymond, but also found notes and dictograph recordings of private phone calls and conversations of citizens it had targeted.

Chief Davis at Kynette’s trial, 1938. UCLA digital.

On February 18, Kynette and two subordinates from the spy squad were indicted on additional charges of attempted murder in the Harry Raymond case. Kynette was convicted on June 16, 1938.

Earle Kynette in court, 1938. UCLA digital.

In the wake of the scandal, Clifford Clinton, another target of the spy squad, mounted a successful recall campaign against mayor Frank Shaw, who was defeated in a special election in September 1938. Chief Davis “retired” from the force on November 18, 1938.

Convicted felon Kynette with Lorna Langan in court, 4/21/1939

A strange footnote to the Langan bum blockade case came in April 1939. Kynette was brought out of the county jail, called as a witness by Lorna Langan, to testify in the couples’ divorce proceedings. Kynette said he’d met the Langans in 1936 “during an investigation of a suit ‘later dismissed’ brought by John Langan against Davis over the border patrol.” He claimed it was Langan who threatened to tape Lorna’s mouth shut and Langan who threatened to have her committed, that Langan told Lorna their marriage ceremony wasn’t legal; therefore he could have her deported to her native South Africa. Kynette said he advised them to get married. What Kynette, now a convicted felon, actually revealed was that he had had plenty of leverage to intimidate Langan with in 1936. The version of events described by John Packard, by far the more credible witness of the two, is more likely the true scenario.

***

Notes

Although it is sometimes reported (mostly in an effort to disparage the legacy of FDR) that the president eliminated FERA when it was no longer a political asset for him, in fact, the Federal Emergency Relief Act had mandated that FERA was to expire two years from its inception- that is, 1935. It was replaced by another work-relief program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), created May 6, 1935. More about FERA: https://content.lib.washington.edu/feraweb/essay.html.

At other times Davis would put the percentage of those with criminal records at 48% and 50%. 

James Fagan Culver was among the men arrested for vagrancy on February 16, 1936. But initial attempts to use him as an example of the kind of criminal caught in Chief Davis’ bum blockade didn’t go exactly as expected.

Roy Steckel was one of 23 high ranking officers “purged” from the department in 1939 following the reforms of Shaw’s replacement, Mayor Fletcher Bowron. Jack Horrall became Chief of Police in June 1941, serving until June 28, 1949, when he, too, would be forced to “retire” amid multiple police scandals– not the least of which involved female officer Audrey (“Audra”) Davis- daughter of former Homer B. Cross (who retired in 1942).

On September 6, 1940, his appeals having finally run out, Earle Kynette departed Los Angeles for San Quentin to begin serving his term. He fished a dime and three pennies out of his jeans, saying it was all the money he had. His final words before becoming prisoner #65444: “I was rousted.”

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