Wo/men at Work: Nurse Essie Kempson Beyea, Los Angeles, ca. 1910

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s highlighted photograph in the “Wo/men at Work” series of posts and from the Homestead’s collection is an interesting one on several levels.  For starters, it documents Essie Kempson Beyea, a working woman at a time when that was still not the norm and it shows her in the uniform of her vocation as a graduating nurse from the Clara Barton Hospital school of nursing in Los Angeles.

Secondly, the image, at least to this observer, radiates pride and confidence, not just because she’d finished her nursing school education, but because of her pose: right hand on her hip, left arm resting against the back of a chair and a facial expression that does appear to reflect satisfaction with her achievement.

This large-format photograph from the Homestead’s collection by Albert Witzel is of nursing school graduate Essie Kempson Beyea and dates to about 1910.

Then, there’s the fact that the photo has a number of inscriptions on the back, without which there would be no way to know anything about the life of the subject of the photograph.  It’s always great to have this information and then be able to trace down what we can of the person described.

At the top of the reverse is the name “Essie B. Kempson,” followed by a note that “Virginia B. Heath [was] born in Clara Barton Hosp[ital], 7/25/1916.”  After that was information that Kempson “graduated at U.S.C.” as well as the Barton school of nursing, the Los Angeles College of Osteopathy, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons.  At the bottom was a note that the Barton hospital was on Olive Street, just north of 5th Street. and a reiteration of Kempson’s graduation from the institution.

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A detail of the image shows Kempson posed in a way that, to this observer, shows confidence and pride.  Kempson was a young widow who went to college after her first husband’s untimely death, so her achievement may be reflected in the pose and demeanor she maintained.

A little searching found that Heath was Kempson’s daughter, but there was more to be found, as well.  Essie Kempson was born in March 1885 in DeKalb County, Illinois and was the eldest of two daughters born to William Kempson, a farmer, and Alice Gordonier.  The family migrated to San Luis Obispo County by the early 1890s, farming near the town of Arroyo Grande and then moved to the Gardena area south of Los Angeles.

Essie married young to a man named Beyea, but he died not long afterward and she returned to live at home.  As a young widow, she decided to go to college and was at U.S.C. at the end of the 1900s.  Presumably from there she attended the school of nursing at the Barton hospital.  it is not known when she attended the other medical institutions noted on the photo inscriptions.

Thanks to these and other inscriptions on the reverse of the photo, likely by her daughter Virginia, a little searching revealed some interesting details of Essie’s life, even if her nursing career was short-lived.

Yet, Essie’s career in nursing was short-lived, as in 1914, she married (Robert) Lee Heath, a former carpenter who joined the Los Angeles Police Department and rose to captain and eventually worked his way up to being chief of the department from 1 August 1924 to 31 March 1926.  After his retirement, Heath, who was still in his mid-forties, turned to another aspect of the law, working as an attorney for many years.

Perhaps in anticipation of his retirement from policing and his new career as a lawyer, Heath built an impressive Spanish Colonial Revival home in Tujunga.  The house, one of the largest in that community which is part of the City of Los Angeles, still stands and was identified as a potential historic landmark in the area in a recent survey.

Essie Kempson 1909 USC page
A page from a 1909 University of Southern California yearbook lists Essie Kempson “Be Yea” as a member of a sorority.

The Heaths, whose daughter Virginia, wrote the inscriptions on the photograph, lived at the home for many years.  Lee Heath died in 1974 at age 93 and Essie followed eight years later, living to be 97.  Their daughter, with those longevity genes, lived to be 96, dying in 2013.  Presumably, the photo made it way from her estate to the dealer who sold the image to the Homestead.

The photographer was Albert Witzel, who had a Homestead connection.  A well-known Los Angeles photographer during the 1910s and 1920s, Witzel took photographs of La Casa Nueva while it was under construction and there’s even a view of him standing by the house.  Perhaps the Temples knew of his work because of Witzel’s popularity among the Hollywood film industry set.

Essie Kempson 1930 census
Essie lived in Tujunga, northeast of Los Angeles, for most of her life, residing in a large Spanish Colonial Revival home built in 1925 with her husband (Robert) Lee Heath, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department from 1924-1926 and later an attorney.  The home is considered a historic resource and still stands.  The Heaths lived to their 90s, as did their daughter, from whose estate the photo of Essie presumably came.

Witzel, who opened his studio in 1909, probably started working with the film industry about the time he took Essie Kempson Beyea’s graduation photo, but he seems to have possessed a flair for dramatic poses in her portrait that translated well into his later work.  His images were frequently reprinted in newspapers, like the Los Angeles Times, and film industry magazines.

This great essay by Larry Harnisch on his excellent blog, The Daily Mirror, points out that one of Witzel’s best-known and notorious photos was one of comedy legend Harold Lloyd in summer 1919.  It was decided at the spur of the moment to have Lloyd pose with a bomb pulled from a prop box, but it turned out to be a real one.  When Lloyd lit the fuse and the bomb exploded, it caused some serious injuries, including to the hand which held the piece of ordnance.  His thumb and forefinger had to be amputated, but a special glove was made to mask the loss and Lloyd’s career skyrocketed in subsequent years.  Witzel died in 1929 at age 50 and his brother shut down the several studios the pair operated, retaining one in downtown Los Angeles which operated until the early 1950s.

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