by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings, a ca. 1900s photograph showing the Harrison Dwire House in Hollywood, is interesting for a couple of overt reasons.
First, it is a view of the suburb before it developed into the film capital of the world and was still a rural outpost that was incorporated in 1903 and merged with the City of Los Angeles eight years later. Second, it is a fairly rare example of a cyanotype, with its distinctive blue tinting, so there is some interest from a technological standpoint in the creation and development of photographs.
As is so often the case with artifacts, though, and what can make the process of researching objects so remarkable, is that this photo has a connection to other stories of wider interest and, perhaps, broader educational value.
So, while Harrison Dwire was an early settler in Hollywood, which was one of so many boomtowns (like Inglewood, the subject of yesterday’s post) in the late 1880s, there isn’t that much to say about him. He was born in Ohio and lived for years in Iowa where he was a farmer. He also served the Union Army through almost all the Civil War, attaining the rank of First Lieutenant in a Illinois volunteer regiment.
Dwire had a handsome house and a sizable estate as can discerned in the photo, though he also had a small ranch in Ivanhoe, a neighborhood near Griffith Park that was technically in the Burbank precinct of the Glendale township.
It is that ranch and that area that takes us off on a fascinating, but also highly disturbing, tangent and it has to do with Dwire’s son, David. Born in 1872 and, like his father, a veteran (in this case of the Spanish-American War), David was evidently an alcoholic and struggled mightily with the bottle, though he was left in charge of the Ivanhoe ranch, while his father resided in Hollywood. Unmarried and prone to bouts of intoxication that made him unstable in behavior, David was found dead in the ranch house in March 1910.
According to the Los Angeles Herald, Dwire was discovered in the bedroom of the small frame dwelling “with a jagged cut in the right side of his neck, his left breast torn by a gunshot wound, his wrist cut in several places and knife marks on his legs.” The paper reported that the coroner’s physician who investigated the homicide stated that Dwire likely committed suicide, there were “several peculiar circumstances.”
For one, about a hundred yards from the house, Dwire’s hat, right shoe and corresponding sock were found in a pool of blood and were discovered after sheriffs (the area was then just outside the corporate limits of Los Angeles) did their initial canvassing of the scene. This led to some speculation that the incident might have been a murder rather than suicide.
It is not surprising that his grief-stricken father (Dwire’s mother had died some years before) and siblings refused to believe that he took his own life, asked for an investigation, and pointed to George “Baldy” Kelley and a man known only as “A. Duke” to testify as to what they knew. The two men were questioned and Kelley gave some lengthy details as to his short-term residence at the house and the behest of Harrison Dwire, who was concerned about his son’s welfare.
Kelley told investigators that David Dwire was drinking heavily and acting very erratically, to the point that Kelley elected to stay with Duke in a tent at a nearby road graders’ camp the night before Dwire’s body was found. Additionally, there were reports from several people that Dwire talked about suicide just before he was found dead.
Still, the question was how Dwire could inflict the knife wounds to several parts of his body, then stagger home and shoot himself led his family to question the suicide theory. Alternatively, there was the thinking that shooting himself outside and then walking to the house seemed an impossibility. Though a shotgun and spent shells were found in the structure, “the fact that blood was on the walls led to the murder theory.”
In another Herald piece, Sheriff William A. Hammel asserted that, after further investigation, there was no alternative explanation other than suicide. He averred that Dwire removed his shoe and sock in order to use his foot to pull the trigger on the shotgun and then staggered to his bed where he collapsed and died. The smearing of blood on the wall of the kitchen came, it was stated, from Dwire’s standing up and falling against it on his way to the bedroom.
The coroner’s jury then ruled at an inquest that Dwire killed himself and inflicted the wounds to his throat, wrists and legs first and, that failing to be fatal, shot himself as described by the sheriff. This appeared to be a cut-and-dried (!) ending of the matter, whether or not Harrison Dwire, who died several weeks later in June of a stroke at age 70, and his family believed it. But, the story moved on to a more notorious and tragic case of the time.
In an editorial shortly after the Dwire suicide, the Los Angeles Times, using the headline “Separate Degenerates” argued for a state institution for “degenerates,” aside from asylums for “weak-minded children,” the insane, and reform schools for juvenile delinquents. To bolster its argument for such a facility, the Times pointed to the David Dwire incident, arguing:
He had been known to he “acting queer,” yet if he had been brought before a lunacy commission it is very doubtful if he would have been found worthy of restraint in an asylum for the insane. He had never done any act that would bring him into the criminal class, so far as was known, and justify his incarceration in the penitentiary. Yet undoubtedly he was an unsafe person to have loose in society. It is not at all improbable that the horrible murder of the little Poltera girl some time ago was the act of this moral degenerate . . . It would seem as if a proper statute might and should be framed to deal with just such cases as that of Dwire.
The reference to the “little Poltera girl” was an unspeakable rape and murder in May 1909 of Anna Poltera, only nine years old, and which took place very near the Dwire ranch. Poltera, whose Swiss/Italian and German parents, came to Los Angeles during the Boom of the 1880s, was apparently walking home from school on the Los Feliz Road when she vanished.
Notably, her father, John, did not report her missing until her mutilated body was found a few days later, covered by plant material near a water pump facility and discovered by a water works employee. She was not only sexually assaulted and stabbed in the throat, but strange circular marks were impressed in two places on her body as if it was some kind of grotesque signature by the murderer. Her school books, lunch pail and other effects were found later nearby and it was assumed by some that they were dumped there by the killer.
Sadly, the Poltera case went unsolved, though, in the weeks and months after the rape and murder, there were many leads followed, quite a few men arrested, and lots of speculation about the ethnicity of the killer. There were some curious assertions about the latter, with some thought that it must have been a Mexican because there were some Latinos spotted in the area.
When an autopsy revealed that there were freshly eaten tamales in her stomach, interpretations were made that, because a nearby homeless encampment was found with empty tamale husks, she must’ve been lured to it. But, the Times observed, “not only Mexicans eat tamales,” because other “yeggmen”, basically itinerant thieves, ate them as they were abundant in Los Angeles and were easy to carry to camps. The paper added, “there is strong reason to believe that they were given to her by a white man.”
Other theorists, however, speculated it must have been a white man also because it was asserted that Anna willingly went with her killer to where she was killed (assumed not to have been where her body was found) and she wouldn’t have done so with an ethnic minority. There were black, Latino, Asian and white men who were arrested and interrogated concerning the tragedy and rumor and fear was such that there were apprehensions and questioning of suspects in Long Beach, Imperial Valley and other far-flung places, including San Mateo near San Francisco.
Yet, each man brought in and examined by Sheriff Hammel and his investigators turned out to have alibis or were otherwise cleared. An 18-year old Ben Elliott was closely examined after he was arrested on suspicion of burglaries in the Glendale area, but, though he readily assented to those crimes and pled guilty, he steadfastly denied assaulting and killing Anna. Notably, years later the case still drew some attention and there was even one man a decade later who claimed to have been responsible for Anna’s death along with others he committed, though he was also determined to have been insane.
The assertion by the Times that David Dwire could have been Anna Poltera’s murderer appears to have come from one lone source. The Herald reported, some ten days after the crime, that a blood-spattered work shirt was found in the Los Angeles River bed, about three-quarters of a mile from where little Anna’s body was discovered. Sheriff Hammel was awaiting an opportunity to examine the article of clothing under a microscope to determine if any prints could be discerned.
The paper then reported that:
The shirt was found yesterday afternoon by E. W. Dwyer, on his farm in Ivanhoe. Dwyer had gone to look after his horse, which was pastured in a field near the riverbed. He found the best piece of evidence that has so far been brought to light in the case.
Dwyer did not disturb the shirt, but at once sent word to the sheriff’s office, and Sheriff Hammel hastened to the place and returned with the shirt. The location of the unmistakable blood spot [on the front of the garment] is indicative of that which would result from the treatment of Anna Poltera.
That looks to have been the sole mention of David Dwire, assuming that the “E.W. Dwyer” is him, though it seems obvious given the name and location, in the Poltera incident. The willingness of the Times to name him as a possible suspect, albeit with the “it is not at all improbably” vagueness, is notable in the context of the “degenerate” designation.
As an aside, the Poltera tragedy was discussed, shortly after her killing, in a eugenics magazine, with the obvious implication that the degeneracy of the rapist and murderer was reason to pursue the idea of eugenics through controlling breeding to purify the human population by getting rid of undesirable traits.
So, this post is another example of many in which artifacts from the Homestead’s collection which have a surface value or values can often have interest and importance lying beneath and which can provide new perspectives into our regional history beyond the obvious.