by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This Friday’s Non-Fiction Book Club discussion will focus on Gary Krist’s The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination and the Invention of Los Angeles with three notable figures taking center stage: William Mulholland, the “father” of the Los Angeles Aqueduct; D.W. Griffith, the pathbreaking filmmaker of the racist film, Birth of a Nation (released originally as The Clansman), and Aimee Semple McPherson, the compellingly charismatic and controversial evangelist who garnered legions of parishioners through her Angelus Temple (Church of the Foursquare Gospel) in Echo Park.
This blog has had several posts concerning McPherson’s phenomenal rise and dramatic decline in the Angel City’s religious realm during the 1920s, though this evening’s post takes on a different dynamic through the highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings comprising a reward poster from 26 September 1924 issued by McPherson’s church seeking the missing Martin sisters, [Pansy] May, age 12, and Nina, just shy of her 9th birthday.
The girls, residents of the Glen Airy neighborhood and, with their mother Vera Buus, part of the large congregation that attended Sister Aimee’s church, vanished on 23 August after leaving their modest house in the West Adams district to visit their maternal grandmother, Carrie Lovelace, who lived just a few blocks away. Initially, suspicion focused mainly on the girls’ father, Eddie Martin, who was divorced from their mother several years prior, but tried to secure custody of them along with two brothers (though it was stated he gave the boys up for adoption.) Martin, who lived in Washington state and was traveling on a belated honeymoon to Minnesota, was actively sought by authorities and discussed in the press.
The oft-dramatic Los Angeles Record, in its 28 August edition, writing of “screams—from a lonely wooded glade. Screams of children! A smothering scuffling. Then silence.” It was claimed that neighbors saw a large car drive through the area where the sisters were purportedly last seen and then, after it drove away, “a few moments later came the screams from the glade, at the end of sparsely populated Homeside Avenue, several blocks away” to the west. After it was mentioned that a boy saw a man cross a bridge on that street, the paper asked, “Did Edward E. Martin, the childen’s father, kidnap them?” His ex-wife, however, while hoping that he did have the girls, rather than dwell on an alternative, expressed that he wouldn’t have done so without letting her know he had them.
One of the early search parties, notably, was a local troop of Boy Scouts scouring the slough, where an old storm drain once dumped its contents, near where these screams were said to be uttered, while the sisters’ stepfather, Paul Buus, led his own party. After a week or so, however, there was no sign of May and Nina and the family and others grew frustrated with what they perceived to be a decided lack of urgency on the part of law enforcement, so a cadre of some 200 officers were sent out to do further searching.
In one Record article, from 11 September, the lack of the discovery of the whereabouts of the girls led to the statement that “the girls might as well have faded into the summer air of an enchanted forest in one of their storybooks,” though their mother surmised “I guess the police don’t bother much. We’re poor folks. Nobody wanted to steal my little girls for ransom. We wouldn’t have too much money for rewards, either.” As to her ex-husband, she reiterated the view that he wouldn’t have taken them as “he ain’t ever seen them, nor bothered his head about them, in all these years. Never even wrote a letter.” She did allow that he gave up their boys for adoption and his second wife didn’t have children, but she again doubted his involvement.
Moreover, as doubt mounted that Eddie Martin was not involved, the Record reported in mid-September that “new developments discovered . . . that the girls were taken for a ride by two strange men and later met with foul play in the lowlands surrounding Baldwin hills,” which was to the south of their residence. An unidentified neighbor asserted she saw the sisters get into a vehicle the evening of their disappearance, saying she recognized their coats and knew them as playmates of her daughter.
Meanwhile, as local residents began to gather a reward fund, the paper noted “at the sunday morning services, the Angelus Temple, of which the girls were members, raised $1000 towards the fund. In an interview with the Record’s José Rodriguez (one wonders how many Latino journalists there were in Los Angeles at the time), their mother added that they attended a branch of the Temple and that they “knew well Roberta McPherson, Mrs. McPherson’s little girl.” Tellingly, Rodriguez wrote that “detectives and police are helpless in this case” as a return would only come from their discovery by a local resident.
There were also the expected false clues and hoaxes associated with a case garnering significant media attention. In its edition of 17 September, the Record reported that a purported note was written on a street corner near the Buus house, saying “If I get $2000 I will return your girls” and subscribed with a name and the location of Berkeley in the Bay Area. While witnesses stated they came across a dark-complexioned man who spoke in a foreign accent, it proved to be nothing. The paper added that “the theory that the children were victims of moral degenerates who lived in the neighborhood was practically abandoned” by authorities who’d interviewed local likely suspects.
On the 20th, the Venice Vanguard reported that Paul Buus received a note scribbled on the margin of a recent issue of that paper and dated two days prior telling him that May and Nina “had been attacked and that the writer would deliver the girls to Buus the next morning at Ocean Front and Windward avenues,” but, of course, that turned out to be a hoax, as well. Even the vaunted Nick Harris private detective agency got involved in the search, while tips were checked out about pairs of young girls sighted in Glendale, Hynes (Paramount) and Long Beach and a Los Angeles Police Department detective even went to Colorado and Utah and wondered if they’d been taken to México.
By 25 September, a month after the disappearance, the Record stated that the mystery “has become a great raw nerve, exposed to every tremor of suspicion, of speculation” and that “neighbors who discuss the vanishing—apparently into nowhere—of the two youngesters are like tautened violin strings.” The LAPD’s detectives chief professed that there had been “nothing like it in the history of Los Angeles police cases” while swatting down any idea that gypsies may have taken the girls, while even referring to the infamous Leopold and Loeb case in noting that plenty of young men and boys had been questioned. The officer, though, became animated when suggesting that a $5,000 reward would surely “smoke someone out.”
The Angelus Temple reward was not nearly as substantial, offering $500 if the girls were found living and half that for the recovery of their bodies. Along with detailed descriptions of the siblings, the poster noted that “the Angelus Temple is also cooprating with the authrities and other committees, but this special reward is offered only for information first given direct to Angelus Temple Executive Search Committee, comprised of a half-dozen people, including “Mother” Kennedy, Sister Aimee’s mother, and was to expire on the 1st of October.
More than a week after that deadline, the Los Angeles Express reported that “Professor” A.E. Wilson of Milwaukee stated that “a distant relative of the father has the children and they are being held directly southwest of Los Angeles” and that the kidnapper wanted a ransom “but is too frightened to ask for it.” Having been at a spiritualists’ convention in the Angel City, Wilson told the paper he’d taken some of the girls’ toys with him and “that he could find the misisng girls.” He even described the blue-eyed kidnapper as being just over 5’6″ tall and a stammerer driving a 1916 automobile with 1924 plates.
In mid-October, the Los Angeles Times reported that “S.C. Stone, said to be a night watchman of a special police patrol” and who was arrested and then pled guilty to “mistreatment” of a 13-year old girl was to be questioned in the Martin sisters’ disappearance. He was accused of taking the teen on a ride in his auto before she escaped and it was alleged he’d been in the area where May and Nina were last seen on the day they vanished. He was, however, released and the case continued to elude a solution.
On 6 December, the Record reported that Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Chester Allen opined that the Martin sisters “are alive and happy with relatives in another state” based on conversations he’d had with neighbors of their mother and stepfather and Vera Buus, it was said, “does not appear disolated [desolated?] with the grief of a mother whose children have met a terrible fate.” Meanwhile, it was added that
Rewards of $500 and $250 for the discovery of the Martin children, offered by Mrs. Aimee Semple McPherson, evangelist who has a considerable following in the Glen Airy district, have been withdrawn, it was learned Saturday. Interest in the search for the children seems to have been generally lost.
Even the uniformed night watchman, C.S. Stone, father of Jack Hoxie, movie actor, bound over at the examining trial in justice court for contributing to the delinquency of a 12-year old child inthe Glen Airy district, is back on his beat on West Adams Street.
Jack Hoxie was a popular Western film star of the time and was a step-son of Stone. Yet, Stone, who was born Calvin Scott Stone and generally went by his middle name, became a suspect again after, at long last, the decomposed bodies of May and Nina were found on 4 February 1925 in a remote area at the base of the Baldwin Hills, near where the the mall of that name is today. The remote location, several hundred feet south of a Pacific Electric streetcar track, now the route of the Metro Expo Line, was in a shallow and wide ditch filled with high weeds and debris.
Julio Martinez, an employee of Leo Sauique, a rancher leasing land from the estate of Anita Baldwin, daughter of “Lucky” Baldwin, who took possession of the hills from William Workman, F.P.F. Temple and others after foreclosing on a loan made to the Temple and Workman bank in the 1870s, stumbled upon the remains while clearing a field for planting oats. It was astonishing to observers that the location of the bodies was so long missed and routing searching took place in that area.
The girls’ grandmother, Carrie Lovelace, was the only of the family who was able to have the strength to go to the scene to identify the remains and the Times reported in disturbing detail that the sisters were assaulted and strangled on the night of their disappearance, though it was unclear if they were taken to the field immediately or later. The paper stated that “she stood stolidly by the two bodies . . . and carefully examined their garments. There were no tears or words—just silence and a few nods of assent and [a] bowed gray head.”
As for Vera Buus, it as stated that she collapsed when apprised of the news and was taken to a hospital. Groups of onlookers gathered at the scene when news got out of the finding of the Martin sisters’ bodies and it was noted that “the first arrivals were a few Mexican women, one of whom made a crude cross and stuck [it] in the ground near the heads of the tots.” It was reported that the West Adams Community Citizens’ Association, which raised $500 as a reward for information leading to the discovery of the sisters, gave all of its available funds to the Buus family
Because the location was just outside Los Angeles city limits, the case was taken over by the county sheriff’s department and it was noted hat the last the girls were heard of was actually in front of their house “and shortly after their laughs had died an automobile was seen speeding from the scene” and headed in the direction where the bodies were found. When Stone was to be arrested and taken to where the remains were found, it was stated that crowds gathered there with shotguns and rope determine to seize and lynch him.
Undersheriff Eugene Biscailuz, who served for over a quarter century as sheriff, was quoted, after it was reported that photos of the discovery scene were to be kept as evidence in a trial, told the press:
Those pictures are so horrible that they would almost insure the conviction and hanging of anyone connected with the crime. For this reason we must be very careful about accusing suspects, and filing charges against them. To punish the wrong man would be much worse than punishing no one at all.
It took some time, however, for an indictment to be found against Stone, who pled guilty on a lesser charge in the mistreating of the 13-year old Glen Airy girl and served six months in the interim, though the grand jury did do so for two counts of murder filed by District Attorney Asa Keyes (later convicted of bribery and sent to San Quentin) on 1 October 1925. Two women who identified Stone as the driver of a car that contained the girls on the night of their disappearance were the main witnesses, but the case was entirely circumstantial. When Jack Hoxie was asked whether he would defend his stepfather in the matter, he simply replied “I don’t see why I should.”
Just before Christmas, Stone was convicted for the murders of May and Nina and sentenced to be hung, but he appealed unsuccessfully and it was not until a year later that he was sentenced to be executed in March 1927. Meantime, a groundswell of support was generated by those concerned about his being subject to the death penalty for what was a circumstantial case. Among those petitioning Governor C.C. Young for clemency were some of the law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, jury members and Vera Buus and Carrie Lovelace. At the eleventh hour, as Stone sat on Death Row at San Quentin, the governor commuted the sentence to life without the possibility of parole and cited public excitement and the desire for a conviction as material, in addition to the circumstantial nature of the matter.
Another key witness was Alva H. Floyd, convicted of embezzling funds while city recorder in nearby Culver City. Floyd provided a great deal of detail purported to come from conversations he had in summer 1925 with Stone as they were in county jail together and a review of this material certainly looked highly convincing and damaging to Stone. For example, he allegedly told Floyd that he gave May Martin drinks, something he purportedly did quie a bit with young children, and that she was a loose girl. He supposedly added that he told girls he’d get them into the movies with his stepson while plying them with wine and peach brandy.
Stone was said to have admitted to carrying a bundle to the field where the bodies were found and all but confessing to the murder, though he told Floyd “to hell with the district attorney’s office and the sheriff, let them prove that I murdered the Martin girls.” He also apparently discussed his accomplice, “Shorty” Smith, explaining that he was glad Smith was in Arizona and would not prejudice him.
Evidently, one of the women who was a key prosecuting witness visited Stone in jail and, when she told him she could positively identify the Martin sisters in his car, Stone exclaimed “My God, what is the use to fight? If you say that, it is the rope for me.” Yet, Governor Young believed that Floyd “wormed himself into his confidence” but secured no admission of guilt.
Stone remained at San Quentin for just over fourteen years, but, in February 1941, the State Advisory Pardon Board recommended release on parole, which was approved by Governor Cuthbert Olson, and the Salvation Army in Los Angeles offered to take custody of him. Release was delayed for several months, but, by August, Stone was living in the home of a Pasadena religious welfare worker who worked in the county jail. He was quoted by the Times as saying:
God doesn’t let innocent men die in prison—I knew He’d save me from that just as He saved me from the gallows.
I faced it [death] twice, you know. Once I was within seven and a half minutes of hanging, and again within four and a half minutes—first three steps and then two from the trap.
But I wasn’t afraid. I was innocent, and I knew that God would save me.
Stone lived just two years in freedom and died in August 1943, a week after his 80th birthday. If he wasn’t the murderer of the Martin sisters, then the case remained unsolved. Eddie Martin died in 1960, at age 61, while Vera Buus lived until 1980, passing away at age 87. The ashes of the girls are interred at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory next to Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery and an inscription there reads:
Two beautiful souls that love still holds,
They played and sang together.
These pure earth lives were sacrificed —
They “crossed the bar” together,
To breathe the breath that knows no death
Where crime may enter, never.