by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was a stunning rapid rise from beat cop in the Chinatown area of Los Angeles to chief of police and then to mayor and an equally staggering fall after just about fifteen months in office with a strange series scandals and a bizarre aftermath that ended with an early death, but the story of Charles E. Sebastian, even for Los Angeles, is a rare one.
Born in Missouri, Sebastian came west at a very young age with his family, settling on a farm west of Los Angeles. As a young man, Sebastian worked as a day laborer and a streetcar conductor before he joined the Los Angeles Police Department well into his thirties.
He quickly made a name for himself working the streets of the city’s Chinatown, then situated where Union Station was built in the late 1930s, and rose quickly to become a sergeant, responsible for the squad of officers in the area of town. He drew attention for occasional high-profile vice raids, but, strangely, was a tour guide for Elks members who came to the city in 1909 for a national convention.
When George Alexander came to office as mayor on a reform platform, he appointed Sebastian police chief, though the latter was only on the force a few years by then. For about five years, from 1910-1915 Sebastian served as chief, and one of his first acts was to travel the nation researching police departments and learning ways to improve what he claimed was one of the two finest departments in the nation, along with Detroit.
In 1915, Sebastian suddenly became a serious candidate for mayor, something no police chief had undertaken, but he had a number of hurdles to try to overcome. For example, it was asserted that he took two young women on joyrides and, though there were claims by some officials that these accusations were baseless, the chief was indicted.
Though this was eventually dismissed, simultaneously another scandal burst forth when it was reported that Sebastian was romantically linked to Mrs. Lillian Pratt, but, worse, that he and Pratt were indicted for subverting the morals of Pratt’s sister and charge, 17-year old Edith Serkin.
A sensational trial was held just prior to the election and, though Serkin testified in detail about how the chief kissed and groped her in a bed, on which Pratt was lying, in a boarding house, it was averred that Sebastian had perfect alibis for these occasions. Sebastian and Pratt were acquitted by a jury and it seemed obvious to many that the chief and mayoral candidate was framed by political adversaries.
On the eve of the election, it was reported that shots were fired through a window of the Sebastian residence in an assassination attempt, though it was also rumored that Sebastian orchestrated the event as a way to assist his campaign. Through all of this, the chief’s powerful attorney and campaign adviser Earl Rogers defended his charge and the two men were even indicted for trying to influence the jury in the incident involving the two girls and the joyriding incident.
Despite all of this, Sebastian swept into office with a several thousand vote majority and took his oath in July 1915. It didn’t take long, however, for a fresh wave of scandal to ride a high tide and devour the newly minted mayor. The Los Angeles Record newspaper published letters between the mayor and Mrs. Pratt and were known as “The Haybag Letters” because of that term of endearment used by Sebastian in reference to his wife.
Engulfed by the uproar, Sebastian invited a Los Angeles Times reporter into his home and was described as an emotional wreck as he first denied and then quickly confirmed that he would resign. Elsewhere, Rogers put it out to the press that the mayor had Bright’s disease (nephritis, or inflammation in the kidneys) and was told by several doctors that he would die if he did not step down and take it easy.
In early September 1916, not even a year-and-a-half after assuming office, Sebastian resigned. The Times issued a particularly cutting editorial about the poor quality of mayors the city’s electorate was prone to sending to office, including Alexander and Arthur C. Harper, who’d resigned in disgrace several years prior.
Sebastian retreated to Perris southeast of Riverside and briefly ran a store. Amazingly, he mounted a run for Los Angeles mayor in 1917, though he garnered just 825 votes. That year, he tried becoming an actor and was to be the star and subject of an eight-reel full-length motion picture to be called “The Downfall of a Mayor,” though the film evidently went unfinished.
Sebastian talked of running a dance hall, going on a lecture circuit to talk about his remarkable story, briefly had a private detective business (this is what his vocation was on his World War I draft registration card,) and sought reinstatement to the Los Angeles Police Department, though this was rejected.
Perhaps strangest of all, he was hired by the District Attorney’s office, the same entity that pursued him so avidly prior to the 1915 mayoral campaign. It was rumored that Sebastian was hired because of his potential value during investigations into current Mayor Frederick T. Woodman, who was appointed to replace Sebastian and who was accused of receiving bribes. Sebastian remained an investigator for the office for a short time.
The former mayor was also sued for divorce three times by his long-suffering wife, Elsie, by whom he had a son, Charles L. Sebastian, a long-time surgeon in a police department receiving hospital near today’s Staples Center. On one occasion, Mrs. Sebastian directly referenced Lillian Pratt in the filing. Remarkably, the first two tries were rejected but, in 1921, the divorce was finally granted.
Sebastian resided in Venice for much of his later years, living in a small cottage by the ocean, and, it is said, was faithfully attended by Pratt. He contracted pneumonia and, though his son dutifully tried to save him, Sebastian died of the illness in 1929 at age 56. Notably, an obituary in the Times lavished praise on Sebastian as an exemplary police officer and dedicated reformist police chief, but observed that he was way in over his head as mayor being too trusting of questionable friends and advisers.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead”s collection is press photograph of Sebastian when he was chief of police. He sits at his gleaming desk wearing a light-colored striped suit and in a profile view. On the walls behind him are maps of the city. There are some crop marks and inscriptions next to his head, though there are no captions or indications as to why the image was taken.
On the reverse is the stamp of the photographer, Stagg of Los Angeles, and a few date stamps, the earliest being 11 September 1914 and the others from 1918 and 1924, perhaps for use in articles during those periods.
Charles E. Sebastian is basically forgotten today, but his incredible ascent to power and dramatic decline are, even for that period of rough-and-tumble politics as the city and county grew by dramatic leaps and bounds, is a notable story about early 20th century greater Los Angeles.