by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been stated here many times, there is no end it seems to the surprises that can come from innocuous-looking historic artifacts. Today’s highlighted object from the Homestead collection is an excellent case in point.
The reason why this real photo postcard of the Bridge Crest estate in South Pasadena caught my eye almost a decade ago was because of the name of its owner, Albert Otis Birch. I’d come across him back in the 1990s when I was doing research on Walter P. Temple and his business endeavors. The two were part of a syndicate that built a pair of eleven-story business buildings in downtown Los Angeles, the Great Republic Life and National City Bank structures and I knew Birch owned a furniture company in that city. Other than that, there was little I found in that late pre-Internet age.
In 2011, though, when this image was acquired, the situation was, of course, totally different and not only did I find out more about Birch and his connection to Temple, but there was a whole lot more that turned out to be head-spinning. First, though, the basics.
Albert Otis Birch was born in October 1871 in Cuba, Illinois, in the west-central part of the state about 40 miles southwest of Peoria. The family migrated west when Otis was two years old and settled in the town of Santa Ana, established just a few years prior. The reason may have been the poor health of Otis’ father, Albert, who died in 1877, four years after the family came to the area.
When he became old enough, Otis farmed the land his father acquired and the family name is represented at Birch Park (where the 1877 house of Otis’ aunt and uncle, Sarah and George Minter, is preserved today) and Birch Street which runs south from downtown Santa Ana to Newport Beach. In 1899, Birch married Marguerite Estelle Conaway, whose father Benjamin was one of the early photographers in Santa Ana. The couple had a son who died young and they raised two nieces.
The following year he became a founding trustee of the Menges Oil Company, which acquired some acreage in Brea Canyon in the far northern part of Orange County. This was three years after Edward Doheny, who became an oil industry titan of great renown, followed his initial success opening the Los Angeles Oil Field with Charles Canfield by successfully drilling the first well at what became known as the Olinda field, a couple miles east of Brea Canyon.
The Menges firm, named for a neighbor of Birch, struggled for over a decade, however, to make their enterprise workable. Birch, who with his wife and two nieces and heirs, controlled a majority of the stock, bought out the remaining investors and renamed the company the Birch Oil Company. Shortly after, in 1911, the fifth well on the property came in a massive gusher, producing a few thousand barrels of crude and a substantial amount of natural gas to boot. It was reported that Birch reaped some $3,500,000 in profit from the well, while the other four on the property, known as Birch Hills, were decent producers.
Not surprisingly, the former partners in the Menges concerned filed suit in 1914 seeking $1,500,000 in damages and claiming that Birch misrepresented the condition of the property when he arranged to buy them out, knowing that the fifth well was in “deep sand” and likely to be a huge producer. The next year, an Orange County Superior Court judge sustained demurrers brought by Birch’s attorneys and forced the plaintiffs to appeal to the state supreme court and Birch emerged victorious in 1918.
One of the lawyers working for Birch was George H. Woodruff, who a few years later became Walter P. Temple’s personal attorney and fellow investor. Woodruff parleyed his relationship with Birch into becoming a director of the Great Republic Life Insurance Company, which Birch joined when it was created in 1912 and rose to be its president. Woodruff and his partner Clyde Shoemaker also represented Birch in a years-long battle with Orange County over the assessed value of the Birch oil property.
When it was decided in 1922 to buy property in downtown Los Angeles for a new headquarters for the insurance company, Temple became a partner, using funds derived from his own startling success in oil with his lease at Montebello. Birch was president and Temple was vice-president of the Central Finance Building Company, which oversaw the development of the Great Republic Life building, which was completed in spring 1924.
As for Birch, he used his petroleum-derived wealth to open the Birch-Smith Furniture Company and Birch-Smith Storage Company, both opened with a relative. He took a 141-acre tract in the Dominguez oil field in the South Bay and drilled wells there, in the Maricopa district southwest of Bakersfield, and also sought oil on a property near Porterville in Tulare County. He was a director of the People’s Thrift and Finance Company and the Securities Loan and Discount Company, both of Los Angeles, and a long-time director of the Orange County Trust and Savings Bank, although he moved from Santa Ana to the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles soon after his oil profits poured in.
With his father-in-law, B.F. Conaway, Birch acquired a huge 20,000+ acre ranch near Woodland in Yolo County northwest of Sacramento and the two couples, the Birches and Conaways, purchased, by 1920, the Bridge Crest estate in South Pasadena shown in the highlighted photo here.
Birch’s suit with his former Menges Oil Company partners was not his only high-profile legal issue. In the 1940s, the IRS sued him over some complicated financial wrangling over attempts to reclaim and develop swamp land on his Yolo County ranch. He spent $2 million in the endeavor after buying out his father’s interests and those of other family and took on major debt through the financing of bonds. He formed a securities firm and a holding company as part of the scheme.
As the Great Depression of the 1930s worsened, Birch, who couldn’t pay the interest on the principal, then issued new bonds as a refund on the original for the same $2 million. When he and his wife tried, in the early Forties, to “receive back” interest on this second set of bonds paid out to the county treasurer, they claimed it was tax exempt. The IRS disagreed and won at the superior court level, though Birch prevailed on appeal when the matter finally ended in 1951.
In a case involving his storage company in downtown Los Angeles, Birch signed a 99-year lease in 1928, but, when the economy staggered within several years, he stopped paying the lease amount, even when he negotiated a new agreement in 1934. It was stated in case documents that, in the late 1920s, Birch was worth over $3,000,000 and had a net income of beyond $100,000 per year. He claimed, though, that, after 1930, he was forced to borrow from a cousin, Ella Minter, because of financial distress.
An appeals court ruled that Birch, his wife and his cousin created a false narrative concerning his financial well-being so that he could win favorable terms for the renegotiated lease, even after which he defaulted on payments. The 3-2 ruling left Birch having to pay a $10,000 judgment to the plaintiff.
Despite these legal woes, Otis and Estelle Birch continued to live in the Bridge Crest estate well into their 90s and decades after the heyday of his wealth and influence in regional oil and other industries. They were under the care of their nieces, whom they raised from childhood, but as the elderly couple got older and their health worsened, a nursing service was contracted to provide in-home care.
In 1965, Pearl Choate was hired to be the live-in nurse for the aged Birches. The 58-year old Texas native who was six feet tall and weighed more than 250 pounds had a troubling past that was obviously unknown to her employer. Today’s background check systems would undoubtedly raised the red flag, but this was over a half-century ago.
For example, it was later revealed that Choate was married six times, in each case to olde men of means. One of them she shot and killed and, though she claimed self-defense, she was convicted of murder and sent to state prison.
Birch, however, seems to have stayed out of the public eye for about fifteen years after the 1951 IRS case, when he was, by the way, already 80 years old. In 1965, however, everything changed. By then, Otis and Estelle Birch were in their mid-90s and in failing health. The two still lived in South Pasadena, but were unable to care for themselves, while their nieces assumed control of their maintenance and support.
Consequently, a nursing service was contacted and a woman named Pearl Choate hired to care for the Birches. Choate, by any reasonable modern standard, would not be allowed anywhere near the Birches or anyone else in a nursing capacity, for that matter.
She was born in Texas in 1907, had been married six times to much older wealthy Texan men for whom she worked as a nurse and, when each died, she received handsome sums. Choate shot the last of these husbands and, despite claims of self-defense, she was found guilt of murder in 1947 and imprisoned. After serving twelve years, she was released and went right back to nursing and found her way to employment with the Birches.
In June 1966, the couple, who were briefly in a Pasadena nursing home, and Choate vanished from Bridge Crest. The Birches nieces learned through investigators that the three went to Mexico before showing up in Choate’s hometown of Odessa, Texas. In October, Estelle Birch died at age 93 under unknown circumstances. Three weeks later, Otis and Choate drove to Altus, Oklahoma and were married by a justice of the peace, but, because Otis could not walk, the ceremony was performed in the parking lot with Birch laying on a mattress.
The Birches nieces managed to secure a hearing to determine whether their uncle had been coerced into the nuptial by his nurse. Otis was completely deaf, so questions had to be written for him to read with a large magnifying glass. When asked, “is Pearl Birch holding you against your will?,” he responded, “no, she’s not.”
The two were released and returned to Odessa, where they lived in a trailer, and then decamped to similar housing in Dallas, which is where Birch died in March 1967 at age 95. Later in the year, Choate was arrested and charged with the intent to commit murder in a dispute with a tenant in an apartment building she owned. The money appears to have come from Birch’s estate and a will surfaced that was written shortly before his death and left nearly his entire estate to Choate. When the nieces challenged the legitimacy of the instrument, a court ruled in Choate’s favor.
Despite press reports that claimed that the Birch estate was worth about $200 million, the sad fact is that the remaining funds were under $50,000 when the estate was settled in 1970 and there were statements that attorney fees were double that. Online accounts state that Choate was a serial killer, who engineered the death of Estelle Conaway Birch so that she could marry Otis and then killed him to get his substantial estate. Yet, the coroner ruled that he died from circulatory collapse and heart failure “brought on by old age.”
In any event, the story of Albert Otis Birch is a remarkable one, from early Santa Ana resident, to an instant oil magnate, to a diversified capitalist in partnership with Walter P. Temple, to an aged invalid carried off to Texas by a nurse with a prior murder conviction.
As noted at the beginning of this post, it is sometimes astonishing where a simple artifact can take you when you dive into the rabbit hole of research!