A Good Soaking at the Hammam Bath House, Los Angeles, 6 January 1888

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection has a couple of main points of interest.  The printed letter from Los Angeles Police Department Chief Patrick Martin Darcy to his counterpart in San Diego and dated 6 January 1888 is one of the earliest criminal justice related artifacts in the museum’s holdings.  It also refers to a burglary that took place at the Hammam Bath House, which reflects something of a trend in late 19th century Los Angeles for those seeking both cleanliness and purported improvements of health.

With the latter element, public baths of several types have been a feature of our regional history for many years.  For example, hot mineral springs have been operated near San Juan Capistrano, at a couple of locations in Carbon Canyon in both Orange and San Bernardino counties (one just a few hundred yards from my house), and at the Alvarado springs in Rowland Heights, which operated from 1929 to the early 1960s.

Los Angeles Herald, 12 August 1879.

Another is the seaside bath house, of which there were several prominent examples from the late 1870s and well into the 20th century.  The earliest was at the new coastal town of Santa Monica, where the bath house there opened in 1877.  Others were found in such prominent resort towns as Redondo Beach and Long Beach and were also known as plunges.

Then, there is the type of bath referred to by several names, including Turkish, Russian, Hammam, and others.  These could include both wet and steam bathing options as well as massages and other services and have histories of varied types going back millennia in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and Asia.  Perhaps the first of this general type to open in Los Angeles was Hughes’s Russian Baths at a location only identified in the 12 August 1879 edition of the Los Angeles Herald,as “across from the Pico House,” presumably on the west side of Main Street.

Los Angeles Times, 23 September 1885.

Observing that this facility was “in many respects superior to the Hammam baths in San Francisco,” the first such enterprise on the Pacific coast, the paper stated that the proprietor offered “not only the Russian bath, but sulphur and other medicated baths and applies the electric battery to those whose cases require such treatment.”  The article concluded by nothing that “Hughes’ baths is the principal summer luxury in Los Angeles” and that “it is positively rejuvenating in its effects.”

The Hughes facility may not have survived long, especially as the local economy was still in malaise due to national economic conditions as well as a regional depression that followed the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, but, when matters improved by the mid-1880s, a new enterprise was launched.

Times, 13 December 1885.

This was the New Hammam of Los Angeles, which opened adjacent to St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, which still stands at the southeast corner of Main and Second streets.   An ad from September 1885 noted that the business offered “the finest Turkish, Russian, Electric and Medicated Baths on the Coast,” with many of the same features available at Hughes’ facility.

A single bath cost $1.00, a significant sum when a full meal at a restaurant could be much less than that, though a dozen tickets were sold for $10.  Notably, women’s hours were from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., except Sunday, while men could use the baths from 1 p.m. to Midnight each day, including Sunday.  On 8 December, the Los Angeles Times reported that the baths, operated by a Dr. Cohn, “not only inculcates cleanliness, but it promotes good health.”  Moreover, it was said that “the baths are proving very popular.”

Herald, 3 September 1886.

Five days later, the paper went into much more detail about Hammam, including the statement that the Turkish baths “once enjoyed it will readily be pronounced one of the greatest luxuries which can be obtained.”  Whether using the “swimming” or the “hot” bath, which seemed to mean a pool, on the one hand, and a steam room, on the others, the user would find a “return to the labors of life refreshed and invigorated.”

There was more promised with respect to purported health benefits:

Patients suffering from colds, catarrh, rheumatism, dyspepsia, neuralgia, diseases of the kidneys, nervous diseases and a thousand other disorders, find almost immediate relief in the Turkish bath.  An eminent professor [who, however, went unnamed] has said that no person who has failed to take a Turkish bath understands what perfect cleanliness is.  The sense of comfort, the improvement of the circulation of the blood and the immediate relief from all physical ills, make the Turkish bath one of the most enjoyable luxuries of life.  Go to the New Hammam and demonstrate these facts for yourself.

The era was filled with all manner of medical treatments promising to cure the wide range of physical ailments listed in the ad, so the Turkish bath craze was in line with a variety of cures through patent medicines, massages, electrical stimulation and other means that proliferated locally and broadly at the time.

Times, 11 September 1886.

By early 1886, the Hammam also offered a barber, chiropodist, and a hairdresser for women, with the latter technician said to have lately come from the “Las Vegas Hot Springs.  An ad from that period noted that there were “elegant cooling rooms, where the bather can enjoy to comforts of an Oriental siesta,” an interesting mixture of terms to be sure!  Besides, who can resist “elegant toweling” and “polite attendance”?  By then, women had expanded hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., while men could use the facility from 9 a.m. to Midnight.  For both, electricity could be had after the bath at no charge.

Later that year, by September, a competitor opened up shop at Spring and First streets, as Dr. E. Robbins, employing the same Turkish-like symbol of the Hammam, advertised himself as a “medical electrician and proprietor of the celebrated Hammam, Turkish, Russian, Sulphur, Medicated, Steam and Electric Baths.”  Robbins, who previously ran an “Electro-Magnetic Institute.”  operated his facility from 8 a.m. to Noon, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and then 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., even provided that “diseases [are] diagnosed without explanation from the patient.”

Herald, 21 October 1887.

Not to be outdone, the New Hammam, under new management at the same time, expanded its offerings to include Roman, Mercurial, Vapor, Plunge and other treatments in addition to the others previously provided.  Moreover, it decided to expand its services to men, so that the facility “can accommodate any number of gentlemen who desire to remain all night—and at no further charge.”

There were occasional problems that arose with these facilities.  For example, the New Hammam, soon after opening in 1885, was accused of spreading inordinate levels of pollutive smoke from its heating system to neighboring businesses, including a laundry.  In March 1887, another proprietor, a Dr. Case took out an advertisement to address rumors that smallpox was being spread at the facility and claimed “that heat will destroy the germ effectually and absolutely prevents infection,” while taking care to generally note the presumed health benefits of the Turkish bath.

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Herald, 2 January 1888.

By fall 1887, there was yet another owner of the Hammam, this being a Dr. Alexander de Bossa, and it was under his proprietorship that the burglary occurred on New Year’s Day of the following year.  As reported in the Herald of 2 January 1888, a man showed up at 4 a.m. “and asked for a sulphuric bath.”  Dr. de Bossa left a porter to watch the office while he attended to the customer, but the employee left the office unguarded by standing at one of the establishment’s doors.

The paper explained that “when the doctor returned he found that some one had been in the office and pried open the bars [to a window], and abstracted the drawers containing valuables amounting to about $2500.”  De Bossa went immediately to the police department with a list of the customers in the facility (it is noteworthy that the Hammam then operated at all hours for men) and an officer later found one of the drawers tossed behind the nearby stable of “French Charley.”

This artifact from the museum’s holdings is Los Angeles Police Department Chief Patrick Martin Darcy’s request of 6 January 1888 to his compatriot in San Diego for assistance in locating stolen goods from the Hammam Bath House burglary.

While de Bossa made good about roughly half of the value of the missing property by repaying customers some $1200 in cash, it was left for Chief Darcy to ask his compatriots in nearby cities to inquire as to possible whereabouts of sixteen listed items, including watches, diamond sleeve and collar buttons, charms, chains, gold pencils, pins, and a snuff box.  It does not appear, however, that any of these items were located and they were likely sold through the black market.

As for Chief Darcy, he will be a major character in the first of the Homestead’s second year of “Female Justice” lectures, this one given by my colleague Gennie Truelock on the 26th of this month.  The talk concerns the fascinating case of Hattie Woolsteen, accused of the murder of a Los Angeles dentist in late 1887 and a major focus of the incident involves the highly unusual methods employed by Chief Darcy in questioning the suspect in what is a clear case of unlawful detention.

Herald, 13 June 1879.  Both notices here apply to Darcy, who, though failing in his bid to become Los Angeles County Sheriff, did serve three terms as commander of the Los Angeles Guards citizen militia in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

Part of the situation is that policing was still in the process of becoming more professionalized in the late 19th century.  While much improved from earlier decades when Los Angeles was a hotbed of violence amid very paltry financial and other support for law enforcement or the courts, the system of policing was still rife with corruption, party politics, and inefficiencies.

Darcy, born in Ireland in 1842 and naturalized in Pennsylvania when he was 21 years old, lived in Stockton and San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles about 1877.  A longtime section boss for the Southern Pacific Railroad, which completed its line from the Bay Area to Los Angeles the prior year, and who also secured a contract to grade the line for the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley Railroad through the Highland Park area toward Pasadena, Darcy was also the commanding officer of the Los Angeles Guards citizen militia and was denoted a captain.

Los Angeles Express, 2 August 1880.

Although he ran failed campaigns for Sheriff (running as a member of the Workingmen’s Party, which was virulently anti-Chinese and pro-labor) and Los Angeles Township Constable (he finished third with two candidates elected,) Darcy was appointed Deputy Sheriff by County Sheriff George Gard in 1885 and served two years in that capacity.  Though allied with the Republican Party, he fell out of favor with the dominant party in Los Angeles politics over his hiring to ferret out illicit voting and then demanding a fee the party refused to pay.  He later sued a member of Congress over a similar claim for a fee for work done for the representative when he was campaigning for election.

When police chief John K. Skinner resigned his office in 1887, the Los Angeles City Council (the mayor was William Henry Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman) appointed Darcy to the position that September.  He soon became embroiled in the Woolsteen incident and then found himself facing a challenge to his position by the end of the year as the council considered whether to retain or replace him.

Times, 4 January 1885.

Delays in the council’s deliberations allowed Darcy to stay on as chief when the Hammam burglary took place, but, by the end of January 1888, the council decided to bring in Thomas J. Cuddy, who’d been chief from 1883 to 1885, to replace Darcy.  It is worth noting that the position frequently changed hands.  In the decade plus one year since Jacob Gerkins became the department’s first chief in 1876, there were nine chiefs before Darcy.

Cuddy’s second tenure only lasted eight months and his successor only served a matter of days and there were three more chiefs in 1888 and 1889.  When Chief John M. Glass took office in 1889, he proved remarkable stable, serving eleven years in the office, a tenure not bested until that of William H. Parker, who was in office from 1950 to 1966.

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Herald, 6 September 1887.

As for Darcy, he did secure a position as a deputy federal marshal soon after stepping down as police chief, though he later worked as a contractor.  He died in February 1900 at age 57 and was buried at the New Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles.  You can learn more about him and his strange methods of interrogating Hattie Woolsteen at Gennie’s Female Justice talk on the 26th.  Call 626.968.8492 or email info@homesteadmuseum.com for more information and to reserve your seat.

One thought

  1. This is some very interesting information. Always value a trip to the past; it’s a great way to appreciate where we came from. Thank you for sharing.

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