Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Frank Hervey Pettingell of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange to Maximilian F. Ihmsen of the “Los Angeles Examiner,” 6 February 1917

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There have been many instances in which an historic artifact has been acquired for the Homestead’s collection that has a surface value, while in the background, on the margins, or on the reverse there is something else completely different and unrelated that is also of interest. Such is the case with tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings, a 6 February 1917 letter from Frank Hervey Pettingell, president of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange, to Los Angeles Examiner publisher Maximilian F. Ihmsen.

The letter was between two men of some power and influence in the Angel City during the Teens and into the Twenties, which is notable on its own. Ihmsen (1868-1921) was born in Pennsylvania to a wealthy window glass and bottle manufacturer, though, by the time he was twelve years old, his parents had died within a few years of each other. After finishing high school in his hometown of Alleghany and then completing his education at the Pittsburgh Catholic College, the young man worked briefly as a post office clerk before beginning a journalistic career.

Pittsburgh Post, 17 January 1880.

Ihmsen joined the Pittsburgh Leader in 1888 and, the following year, became an employee of its competitor, the Post, and apparently was the first reporter on the scene of that year’s horrific Johnstown Flood. After a brief period as the paper’s Washington, D.C. correspondent, the young journalist was hired by the New York Herald and moved to the Big Apple, where he remained for two years with that paper.

In 1895, William Randolph Hearst, who would become a major media figure in short order, hired Ihmsen to work for his New York Journal, first in Albany and then in New York City before returning to Washington in time for the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. His work burnished the journalist’s already growing reputation, though he regarded his finest hour to be coverage of American involvement in the Boxer Rebellion in China.

Los Angeles Herald, 31 December 1909.

After a short stint as the Journal’s city editor in New York, Ihmsen transferred to a new Hearst publication, the New York American and not only was editor, but moved into New York politics, including his attempt to get his boss, then a member of the House of Representatives, nominated for president in 1904, though that attempt failed as did runs for New York City mayor and New York’s governor in the next two years. In 1907, Ihmsen, with Hearst’s backing, ran as an independent candidate for sheriff of New York county, but lost.

Shortly afterwards, Ihmsen was tasked with running the Los Angeles Examiner, which Hearst founded in 1903, and he remained its publisher until his death. In a biographical sketch in John Steven McGroarty’s From the Mountains to the Sea, published in 1921, it was said,

During the last ten years Los Angeles could count upon no better informed, more forceful or public spirited citizen in every worthy undertaking than Mr. Ihmsen. He is interested in the city and southern California personally, as well as through the great institution of which he is managing director.

Purportedly, just before his death and as planning for a memorial stadium in Exposition Park was ramping up, Ihmsen proposed to local power brokers that Los Angeles should put in a bid to host an upcoming Olympic Games. Real estate developer William May Garland traveled to Antwerp, Belgium, site of the 1920 Games, to pitch the idea and three years later the Angel City was selected to host in 1932.

Los Angeles Times, 5 May 1921.

Ill for two years, Ihmsen, who is credited with introducing the crop that gave the High Desert community of Apple Valley north of San Bernardino its name, succumbed to his unstated malady in early May 1921 at age 53. He was buried under Catholic rites at Calvary Cemetery with prominent developer Moses H. Sherman (Sherman Oaks) as one of his active pallbearers, while among dozens of honorary pallbearers were Garland, former Senator Frank P. Flint, lawyer Henry O’Melveny, businessman Marco Hellman, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, oil titan Edward Doheny and his partner Dr. Norman Bridge (subject of last night’s post), developer Herman Janss, former Mayor Meredith P. Snyder, Union Oil executive Isaac B. Newton (also recently featured here), and film studio mogul Thomas Ince (who died three years later aboard Hearst’s yacht).

The missive’s author Frank Hervey Pettingell (1868-1926) was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, northeast of Boston, just a couple of months prior to Ihmsen, though not in the same social sphere, as his father was a sailor and then a shoemaker, though he died young, as did Ihmsen’s parents. He was, however, an eighth-generation New Englander. After completing his education in the Bay State, Pettingell moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado to take a job with a bank. He was successful enough there that, in the 1910 census, his occupation was “Own Income,” meaning that he appeared to be living on a substantial passive income stream.

Los Angeles Express, 13 January 1915.

His Christmas present to himself and family was a relocation to Los Angeles, where he opened a stock and bond brokerage and he operated the business until his death. In 1915, he was elected president of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange and, during his decade in that position, the longest such tenure of its kind, save one, in the country. Moreover, the value of the business conducted on the exchange grew from just under $3 million to over $122 million, becoming one of the four leading stock markets in America.

The letter was short and literally sweet, as Pettingell wrote Ihmsen to thank the publisher for “the policies with which you are identified in your able management of the Los Angeles ‘Examiner.'” The newspaperman was also congratulated for his positions on local, national and international matters such that he was “to earn the admiration of all fair-minded persons and ultimately the ungrudging approval of those views had been biased.”

Times, 6 February 1917.

The stock exchange head added that he was following the Examiner and its views and economic, financial and investment issues and he added,

Aside from the fair and accurate presentation of the current news on such subjects, your expressions of editorial opinion exercise a wholesome, uplifting influence in the market for securities.

By reason of its fearless, unremitting efforts to safeguard investors, the “Examiner”, in my opinion, may justly claim the title of “Champion of clean business.”

Pettingell lived just five years longer than Ihmsen and in the early evening of 8 May 1926, he called for a taxi so that he could get some fresh air. He asked the driver to stop at a drug store so he could purchase some “port olive,” which Pettingell’s wife said was “a concoction used by her husband on one previous occasion for relief for indigestion.”

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 10 May 1926.

It was not until three hours later that, having become stricken in the cab, Pettingell was taken to the city’s receiving hospital, where he was immediately pronounced dead. His wife did not learn of his death until the next morning and told the Times that she became worried and called the hospital, but was told that no one by his name or description was there. A police captain told the paper that he could not get in contact with Mrs. Pettingell because of a mistaken address.

Beyond this, rumors were afoot that Pettingell had been poisoned, though his wife quickly discounted this, saying he long suffered from acute indigestion and believed that he suffered from a heart attack because of it. An autopsy was conducted and it was determined that he had advanced heart disease. One of Pettingell’s most important public service roles was on the board of the new Central Library, which was opened just two months after his death.

Express, 10 May 1926.

While the missive has value for its associations with two prominent businessmen in 1910s Los Angeles, the reverse provides a surprise, albeit one that is largely a mystery. It comprises part of a handwritten letter, written from Los Angeles and dated 18 August 1918, but only one page that abruptly ends without a signature or clue to the identity of the author. The recipient was “Mother Wilson,” who obviously was the mother of the correspondent, but there is no way to know if she was living in the Angel City or elsewhere.

In any case, the document is dramatic, as it begins with the instruction that “this letter I want you to keep in remembrance of me” because the author added that he was soon to be deployed with the American Expeditionary Force heading to France to fight for the Allies against Germany in the waning months of the First World War.

In preparation for his departure, the solider told his mother that he was going to mail a bond and a deed to two lots when he returned to the San Joaquin Valley town of Corcoran. Moreover, he wrote, “you are to have my insurance if I am killed” and added that bonds were to be given to a couple, Bob and Marie, “when they are married, that is if I am killed.”

The writer cautioned that “you are to say nothing to the girls about this letter” and continued,

I am going to war to represent you and the girls in this war for freedom.  I will always try & keep you three with me in my heart & when temptation arises I will try & cast same aside & do as I think you three would want me to do. 

He then asked his mother to “write me at least once . . .” before the missive is cut off because any additional pages were not included when the document was acquired. A search of people named Wilson in Corcoran found no one of that surname in the 1920 federal census that matched a woman with a son and two daughters and a wider search with a common name of Wilson was too daunting to take on!

An obvious question is how the letter got from Ihmsen to the unidentified soldier. Was the latter an employee of at the newspaper and, if so, did the publisher give the letter and other documents to write his missive and why? There is a hole punched at the upper left corner as if it was going to be filed, but was that by Ihmsen or someone on his staff or by “Mother Wilson”? It certainly is a strange little puzzler, but the wartime missive in addition to the original letter between two prominent Angel City figures makes for a most unusual object in the Homestead’s collection.

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