by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With the financial backing and spiritual support of Union Oil Company of California president Lyman Stewart, the Pacific Gospel Mission was incorporated in Los Angeles in December 1891 with the goal to “reach the unchurched masses.” During the Gilded Age, as financial inequities rose to staggering proportions, these masses were increasingly in dire financial straits. The interdenominational institution, about a decade later, became the Union Rescue Mission with a focus on working with the downtrodden among the City of Angels at a time when a powerful religious movement, including by Pentecostals, was also afoot.
In September 1902, William C. Trotter (1865-1935) arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago, where he had worked at the Pacific Garden Mission, the same facility where his brother Melvin E. (1870-1940) who gained renown for his work with a rescue mission in that furniture-making capital, was converted, perhaps by his brother, from a dissolute life five years before. Will went into mission work in the early 1890s and was in St. Louis as well as the Windy City and Grand Rapids before coming to the Angel City.
Mel, as he was commonly known, got into serious trouble with alcohol in the late 1880s and, while living in Chicago and purportedly having missed the death of a two-year old child while on a bender, was taken in as he was headed to drown himself, presumably in the Chicago River or Lake Michigan. Mel quickly became a leading figure in that Windy City facility before moving to Grand Rapids to run the mission there. It was later stated that Mel stationed Will to run the Union Rescue Mission in his stead.
As William settled in as superintendent at the Pacific Gospel Mission, just before its name change to the Union Rescue Mission, he was joined by younger sibling George W. (1880-1950), who was the assistant manager. The Los Angeles Times reported, in September 1903, that there were some 500 conversions since the Trotters took over management. George stayed for a couple of years and then returned to Grand Rapids and rejoined Mel.
Meanwhile, Will continued his work in Los Angeles, but began to struggle with his responsibilities when a young daughter was killed in a streetcar accident just a year after the family came to the city. He took several leaves of absence and was reportedly never the same after the tragedy and decided to resign in July 1906. Though he remained after that for a period, he decided to join a Pentecostal church, which led to his removal from the Union Rescue Mission. He then relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he lived for the rest of his life and remained active in rescue mission work.
Ater his brother left, then, George returned to Los Angeles in July 1908 and took over his brother’s former position. When he was hired, George was praised by the Times for his “work and character [which] so impressed the directors at that time” when he assisted Will in running the mission a few years prior “that they made every effort to secure him” for the superintendent position.
George ran the Union Rescue Mission for about five years and was credited with making many improvements, a raft of converts, and other important changes to the facility, then located near the Temple Block, established by the brothers Jonathan and F.P.F. in the 19th century, and now where City Hall is situated. During his tenure, he had “Spiritual Anniversary” events, for which postcard invitations were created, two of which comprise tonight’s featured artifacts from the museum’s collection.
The “Spiritual Anniversary” referred to George’s own redemption from alcohol, reported to have taken place on 24 March 1900 through the intervention of Mel. In a Los Angeles Times article of 25 March 1910 for George’s tenth anniversary, for which one of the cards was produced, it was reported that
George was a drunkard ten years ago yesterday, and had gotten into trouble through his love of drink, and had refused to listen to the counsel of his brother, “Mel,” who was superintendent of a mission at Grand Rapids, Mich., as he still is. On the evening of March 24, 1900, however, George went to the mission and was converted, and at once became a successful worker among other men of the “down and out” class.
The paper added that he worked for William until “the latter took up other religious work,” which is a charitable way to put it, and then took over management of the Union Rescue Mission. He was lauded because “the mission has greatly prospered under his direction, and he is known for his untiring efforts in the task he has set for himself.” At the event, George told his life story and Mel explained how he brought his brother into the fold.
For the eleventh spiritual anniversary in March 1911, with the other postcard in the museum’s collection sent out to invitees, George had just returned back to his job after four months off taking a rest, as it was called, although the Times reported that he was out leading revival meetings during that period. In any case, he was back on the job and, once again, Mel came out from Michigan and spent time on Santa Catalina Island, where he apparently had a place for his frequent visits to Los Angeles, before appearing at the anniversary event.
It was added that the festivities were to include “instrumental and vocal music, and some artistic whistling solos, and the team of Trotters will tell some things worth hearing.” Mel was described as a “globe-trotter” beyond his job in Grand Rapids and the paper noted that “he travels everywhere and is in great demand, other places as well as Los Angeles, because of his remarkable success with men.” As for George, it was restated that he “was a drunken young fellow” when “he was won to a better life” by his brother “and when a fellow can get his younger brother, that is ‘going some.” The article ended with the observation that “they look for a big crowd at the meeting tonight.
In March 1912, the twelfth spiritual anniversary for George was held and it was said that, for the Union Rescue Mission, “the last year has been the most successful in the history of the mission and plans are now on foot [afoot?] for greatly enlarging the work.” It was reported that there were almost 2,000 conversions in the previous year, over 300 men were found jobs, and thousands provided food and shelter. George’s life story was again to be told, along with music by the mission’s orchestra and vocal recitations, solos and duets, including one of the latter including the superintendent.
As successful as George was said to be in his management of the Union Rescue Mission, however, the Times of 7 December 1912 stated that he’d been away for several weeks because of a nervous breakdown, perhaps because of those “untiring efforts” mentioned above, though another cause may have been legal trouble recently incurred by his wife, Jennie, who he married in Los Angeles eight years before (there were no children) and with whom he lived in Highland Park.
The prior August, a case was in the Superior Court in which an infant child of actors was taken by the city’s Humane Society and placed the child with Jennie Trotter, who then had the infant cared of in the home of a fellow Highland Park resident. When money promised to the caregiver stopped coming, a complaint was filed and the child’s case was taken up by the Juvenile Court. The parents returned from Los Angeles after being on the road with a theatrical troupe and the father testified that he’d been sending money to Trotter for the maintenance of his child. When Trotter twice burst out with protests that this was a lie, she was admonished and then fined for being in contempt, while the child was returned to the caregiver.
In early 1913, Mel returned for his annual winter sojourn in southern California and the Times called him “without doubt the greatest rescue mission worker in the world, being in charge of a chain of thirty missions, from ocean to ocean.” It added that there were efforts by rescue mission figures in London to lure him there, but Mel was quoted as saying “my work is in America. It was here I was brought to the light and it is here that I propose the battle to fight [to fight the battle?]”
Purportedly, he was offered $10,000 a year to relocate his headquarters to Pittsburgh. In Los Angeles, he was general superintendent of two facilities operated by the Union Rescue Mission Corporation, the titular facility run by his brother and the City Rescue Mission on Fifth Street near where the Union Rescue Mission is today on San Pedro Street.
The article of 11 February included some notable statistics, such as that over 10,000 meals were served in the two missions in 1912, with a thousand each at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and 10,000 pieces of clothing given away. Nearly 1,500 jobs were found for men and women, 30 families were reunited, and homes found for a dozen orphans. There were almost 2,000 religious meetings held with some 75,000 persons attending and about 1,700 conversions. Nearly 4,500 “testaments and copies of the gospels” were handed out and there were 1,500 visits to hospitals and jails, among other reported accomplishments.
Whether Jennie’s legal issue was contributory or not, George soon quit his Union Rescue Mission superintendency and took a similar position with a mission, likely established by Mel, in Pittsburgh and his wife followed later. They remained in the Steel City for the remainder of the decade and into the Twenties before George returned to Grand Rapids to work for Mel, likely soon after the latter went through his own messy legal fracas.
As Mel’s fame in that Michigan city grew, so did some whisperings among his fellow missionaries. In summer 1922, a scandal erupted when his wife, Lottie, who married Mel in 1891 and suffered through his alcoholic lost years, including the loss of that toddler, before he was redeemed in Chicago, filed suit against him and made shocking allegations.
Among there were that he had been physically and mentally abusive, had her confined without cause at the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium (made famous by the brother of the Kellogg cereal magnate, Will K. Kellogg, who later owned an Arabian horse breeding farm where Cal Poly Pomona is today) and, finally, confessed to her that he’d fathered a child in 1917 with his unmarried secretary and bookkeeper.
This woman, Florence Moody, testified that she was encouraged by Lottie Trotter to return to the mission after she gave birth to the child, but denied under oath that the father was Mel. When the court handed down its decision, it ruled there was no evidence to support the purported love child of Mel nor his alleged cruelty, but Lottie was given the couple’s house, an adjacent rental home, all of the furniture, $5,000 in cash and reimbursement of legal fees and court expenses, while she was denied maintenance. Mel, who’d filed a cross-complaint for divorce, was granted that by the judge, but publicly said he was left broke.
Mel, with George’s help, managed to rebuild his damaged reputation and continued to operate the Grand Rapids mission until his death in 1940. George then took over and ran the facility until he passed away a decade later. Meanwhile, William, who’d remained in Portland, died in 1935. Notably, all three were in their seventieth year when they passed.
The history page on the website of the Mel Trotter Ministries does not make mention of the divorce and its associated troubles, though it does note, as did obituaries at the time, that Mel and his siblings started nearly seventy rescue missions throughout the United States. While the history is brief, it does state that Mel was born “to an alcoholic bartending father and a Christian mother” and did not receive much education, suggesting that this upbringing led him, at 19 (the same age George was said to have become a wastrel), to begin drinking and gambling over the course of nearly a decade.
Census returns show that William Trotter, a Civil War veteran of the Union Army and of Indian wars prior to that, was a barber and a house painter. He and his wife Emily had seven surviving children, including a fourth son and three daughters, and William lived to be 82 years old, dying in 1921, while Emily survived seven more years, living with Mel after his divorce and passing away in 1928. Whether the account that William Trotter was an alcoholic was true or not cannot be verified, but it did create a compelling creation story for the waywardness of Mel and George, whose lives, however, were not unblemished from controversy after their conversions, though they were widely acclaimed for their extensive rescue mission work.