“The Most Debased Character Who Ever Appeared in These Courts”: A Wanted Poster for “Gold Tooth Harry” Dunlap, 5 January 1924

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Through the Curious Cases series from 2015-2018 and the Female Justice series since 2019, the Homestead has explored many dimensions of crime and criminal justice from the middle of the 19th century to the end of the 1920s. The museum’s collection of historic artifacts includes some very interesting examples related to the subject, including tonight’s highlighted object, a reward poster for information leading to the apprehension of Harry J. Dunlap and which was issued by Los Angeles County Sheriff William I. Traeger on 5 January 1924.

Dunlap had a checkered criminal career going back some two decades by that time. Born in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1885, Dunlap’s parents died when he was young and he lived, along with a couple of brothers, with his mother’s brother by the time he was in his mid-teens.. From that point, his life is mainly known by his criminal record. In 1908, he was convicted in Jasper County, Missouri, in the southwestern corner of the state near the borders with Kansas and Oklahoma, on a felony assault charge and was sent up for ten years, though he was released on a three-quarters rule in September 1915.

Los Angeles Record, 30 October 1923.

A few months later, Dunlap was arrested in two separate incidents involving disorderly conduct and passing bad checks in New Jersey, but he was then extradited to Omaha, Nebraska for defrauding a hotel while posing as a government officer. Because of the charge, he was convicted and sentenced to a year-and-a-half at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas with his release taking place in late 1917.

By 1920, however, Dunlap was back in the slammer for this third offense and was incarcerated at an Illinois state prison in Dixon (a nine-year old boy who moved to the town west of Chicago that year was Ronald Reagan.) After his release, Dunlap drifted west to San Francisco where he managed to find a job as a private detective, which included his carrying of a badge. In a notorious murder case, however, Dunlap falsely testified as to the guilt of the purported killer and was charged with perjury, though he was released.

Los Angeles Record, 12 January 1924.

Having made his way from coast-to-coast in his criminal career, Dunlap headed south to Los Angeles, where, in February 1922, he was arrested, under another name, on suspicion of robbery although he wound up being tried and convicted for vagrancy. Though he was sentenced to 100 days in the county lockup, he served just two. In August 1923, he was suspected in an attack on a man and woman parked in a car near El Monte and this was one of several reported instances in which Dunlap, flashing his badge and claiming he was an officer, interrupted couples in so-called “petting parties” in their autos in isolated settings and robbed them, while often raping the woman. A month later, in Sacramento, a man defending his female companion was shot and killed and Dunlap was a prime suspect. He was also wanted for robberies and attacks on women as far north as Seattle.

On 4 January 1924, William Jacobson and his fiancee were parked in car near Arcadia and were attacked under similar circumstances. At gunpoint, the woman was dragged toward an orange grove, but broke loose and ran back towards Jacobson, who wrestled with the attacker, got separated and rushed at him again and was killed, so Dunlap was again considered to the perpetrator. This led Sheriff Traeger to personally take command of the search for the suspect and the printing of what was reported to be 12,000 (later, the number was given as 30,000) reward flyers, one of which is in the museum’s collection.

The 6 January edition of the Los Angeles Times referred to the hunt as “one of the most intensive searches in the history of the Sheriff’s office” with “every available deputy” out searching for Dunlap. Tips poured in to the department and the search included Baja California, oil fields because he was said to have worked in such locations, drug dens because the flyer called him “a dope addict,” Lancaster in Antelope Valley, Roscoe (now Sun Valley), Laurel Canyon above Hollywood, and Beverly Glen above Beverly Hills, where it was reported that the wanted man was hiding out in a cabin said to have been a hideaway for Clara Phillips, the so-called “Tiger Lady,” whose story was told by my colleague Gennie Truelock in last October’s “Female Justice” presentation. It was noted that western movie star Tom Mix was involved with a posse of horsemen plying the canyons near Hollywood searching for Dunlap.

At the same time, a report came from northern California that a Placerville man with the same name and of the same age, birth state and also balding, with gold teeth and a scar on his neck was arrested by Sheriff Traeger and deputies for the Sacramento killing, though he was released. The enraged doppelganger, who ran a dry cleaning and laundry business in the historic Gold County town, filed an unsuccesful lawsuit against Traeger and the department seeking $50,000 damages, but was rearrested in May on the same accusation, though that was also dropped. Later, it turned out that another man was arrested as the killer of Jacobson, though he was reported to have told the couple that he was not the “badge bandit,” as Dunlap was known.

Dunlap with Los Angeles County Sheriff William Traeger on the return to Los Angeles from Detroit, where the fugitive was nabbed, Los Angeles Express, 22 July 1924.

The wily “Badge Bandit” also known as “Gold Tooth Harry” managed to elude capture and fled the west coast and surfaced in Detroit, purportedly one of his old hangouts. There, in early July, he relied on an old criminal maneuver and tried to pass a bad check buying silk stockings and the proprietor called the police, who made an arrest. Traeger and deputies, along with Assistant District Attorney Asa Keyes (who later was convicted of corruption and sent to San Quentin), traveled to the Motor City to retrieve the suspect, who considered fighting extradition but then agreed to be taken back to Los Angeles.

To avoid crowds of reporters and looky-loos, Dunlap was taken off the train in the San Gabriel Valley and driven in to the Angel City for jailing and arraignment. Before he disembarked, however, he cheerfully agreed to a photo with the sheriff and asked a black porter for a shoeshine, joking “I want to look presentable when I arrive in the big city.” When he asked for a cigar, Keyes handed him one and it was stated by the Los Angeles Express that he looked more like a traveling salesman than a hardened criminal. When the train got into Alhambra, Dunlap recognized the locale and someone added that the “Foothill boulevard” ran through the area. Known in the wanted flyer as the “Foot-hill bandit,” the captive said “that ‘Foothill bandit’ must have been a blamed wise guy” and observed that he hadn’t been caught so “I’d like to meet him. In comparison to that bird, I’m a novice.”

Los Angeles Express, 18 August 1924.

After his arrest, it was revealed that a letter was sent to the sheriff’s department claiming that the crimes attributed to Dunlap were committed by a man named Gordon, but Dunlap’s wife, who married him in Kentucky in 1918, had a son with him and then sought an annulment after his capture, submitted handwriting samples to verify the misssive was from her husband. She also agreed to get him on a Southern Pacific train to Glendale, but as it passed through the SP yard, presumably north of downtown, he recognized a deputy and telling his wife he’d get her for the subterfuge, he leapt off the moving train and vanished. It was noted that he had several aliases (Cox, Dunbar, Duncan, Duryea and Weaver.)

With it alleged that Dunlap had committed up to some fifty crimes in recent years, there was a good deal of speculation as to what he would be indicted with by the county grand jury and what he would be charged with by prosecutors in the district attorney’s office. Keyes told the Los Angeles Record that the capture of Dunlap was the “most terrible blow yet struck in the war against the assaults on women” and that “Dunlap is the most dangerous man of this class that ever operated in this county.” He praised Traeger and his department for its unrelenting efforts and pledged to obtaining a speedy trial for Dunlap, who pled not guilty and, while jailed, openly boasted about his criminal past, using colorful slang to describe his activities and gleeful about his long evasion of “the coppers.”

Los Angeles Times, 26 August 1924.

There were sixteen counts of robbery, assault, rape and murder by the grand jury, with nine included in the district attorney’s prosecution when the trial was held during the last half of August. Eight of these were robberies, one a rape, and the last an assault to murder (the Jacobson charge was dropped as another suspect was arrested, as noted above). Keyes led the prosecution and proclaimed “womanhood in Los Angeles County must and will be protected. No case in the history of crime in this county has meant so much to our mothers, wives and daughters . . . the future protection of these women demand a conviction of this man.”

The trial, presided over by Superior Court Judge Charles Crail, did move quickly and, on 25 August after three hours of juror deliberations, Dunlap was convicted on seven counts of robbery, rape and assault and acquitted of two county of robbery. These latter were the first announced and it was said the defendant’s face lit up only to darken when the string of guilty verdicts were read. The haughty and cocky Dunlap who bragged about his exploits and joked with members of law enforcement, reporters and others, showed his “tiger temper” as he kicked a reporter’s camera while being led out of the courtroom.

Los Angeles Express, 4 September 1924.

On 4 September, Crail handed down the sentence of two life terms and five more that totaled 214 years to the Dunlap and the judge, after denying a motion for a new trial, told him “you are the most debased person who ever appeared in these courts” adding that “I am going to keep you away from civilization forever.” In an editorial in his short-lived Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, launched the prior year, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., of the prominent New York family, wrote in a lengthy opinion piece that “Dunlap is one of the most desperate criminals in the west today” and observed that not since the “wild west” days of desperadoes and stage coach robbers “has anything so brazen taken place in the southwest.” Vanderbilt’s jeremiad was against the proliferation of badge-carrying officals, which could lead to abuse such as that exemplified with Dunlap and which is somewhat reminiscent of current issues with honorary law enforcement officials and their badges.

It took two months to get the convict sent from Los Angeles to Folsom State Prison and the Los Angeles Record took the opportunity during that time to publish a fifteen-part series titled “Why Crime Doesn’t Pay” and which granted Dunlap a byline albeit “as told to Record Staff Reporter R. Kenneth Evans.” Presumably, the paper justified these lengthy reminiscences on all manner of criminal types, activites, locales and ruminations of just why that life did not, after all, pay, as something educational and informative to readers.

Dunlap’s mug shot and registration information from Folsom State Prison, 9 December 1924.

It is more likely, though, that the sensationalism and notoriety of Dunlap was a way for the paper to attract as many readers and subscribers in a very competitive newspaper field in the Angel City. The Record even printed photos of the prisoner demonstrating the finer points of pickpocketing, with the assistant county jailer gamely playing the victim while nonchalantly reading a newspaper. On the 4th, the Express published a photo of a smiling Deputy Sheriff “Spike” Modie smiling down on Dunlap, who had a rare and wide smile as if going to the “big house” was a vacation.

On 9 December, Dunlap was processed at Folsom, given number 13361 and was photographed nattily attired wearing a striped bow tie in distinction to other prisoners on the same page of the “mug book” at the prison. The 5’5 3/4″ inch, 130-pound prisoner’s occupation was given as a steamfitter (pipefitter) and he settled in to what looked to be a lifetime at the prison. Over the years, Dunlap sought release on a habeus corpus petition, claiming he was wrongly convicted and then regularly sought parole.

Los Angeles Daily News, 1 September 1945.

By 1940, however, he managed to get himself sent to the Mendocino State Hospital for the insane at Ukiah, apparently by acting in strange and violent ways. On the last day of August 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, the 60-year old Dunlap and Richard Corts (a.k.a. Jensen) a 20-year old who had killed a friend when he was a young teen, having escaped from the hospital, came down to Los Angeles and robbed the Casablanca nightclub at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, where the Petersen Automotive Museum is now, of some $6,000. Dunlap, being long in the (gold) tooth, kept watch outside, while his youthful but nervous partner committed the robbery.

The pair vanished, though Corts was later apprehended in Ohio, and nothing could be located in newspapers about the capture of Dunlap. In early May 1949, however, the Mendocino Beacon reported, in its listing matters heard before the county superior court that “in re: Harry Dunlap—Committed to Department of Mental Hygiene for placement in the Mendocino State Hospital as a mentally ill person.” It seems highly likely it is the same person and all that could be found subseqently was that Harry J. Dunlap died in November 1964 and was buried in the old cemetery at San Luis Obispo with no known obituary or article chronicling the end of “the most debased character” who purportedly ever was tried in Los Angeles County courts.

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