Take It on Faith: Soup, Soap and Salvation in Hell’s Half-Acre at The Midnight Mission, Los Angeles, 1917-1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This Christmas marked the first time since before the pandemic that the Midnight Mission, which has been serving those in need for over a century, situated on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, held its gift giveaway for families who are or nearly are homeless. As this segment of the population has skyrocketed in numbers in recent years, the demands on charitable institutions are enormous and are especially notable during the holiday season.

The highlighted artifact for this post is a small broadside issued by the organization early in 1929 and one side noted that it offered “undenominational” chapel services continuously every day from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. After a slogan: “Do Not Commit a Crime – – – You Will Surely be Caught,” it was added that the Mission provided free meals, beds, baths, clothes, medical care and salvation for any person in the city. Just below this, there was the statement that “our report would be much larger, but we were moving” to the new location on the northeast corner of Los Angeles and Fourth streets.

The Liddecoat family listing in the 1871 British census at Phillack, Cornwall, England. Thomas’s birthplace was listed as being in Lancaster in the north, though the instructions at the bottom left to “drawn the pen through such of the words as are inappropriate” may indicate that his birthplace notation was incorrect and that he was from Phillack.

That report, covering 1928, included the statistics that the institution provided well over a half million means, more than 136,000 people lodged, above 20,000 haircuts and beyond 12,000 baths, while north of 15,000 folks “professed salvation.” At the last Christmas dinner, there were over 5,000 meals served and attendance was about 194,000 in all facets, making the organization “the largest Mission in the world.” In addition, it was proclaimed that more than 35,000 “men and women [were] sent home in the past 12 years as useful citizens.”

The Mission did not sell any products, pay any salaries to officials and those who helped in the cause, took no collection and, very important, “no questions asked” and “every thing free.” These were cardinal principles for an organization that did request donations of clothes and food, though there were also the questions of “Who will help us to pay for our New Building?” and “Who will give us an Educational Farm.”

The enumeration of the Liddecoat family (family group 24) in 1880 at Central City, Colorado, a mining boom town west of Denver.

The sole name associated with the Mission on the document is that of “Brother Tom” Liddecoat and, while the institution’s website states that the founder opened the doors of the Mission in 1914, the broadside does clearly state that those tens of thousands of persons were “sent home in the past 12 years,” which corresponds to contemporary evidence that the opening was in June 1917.

As to the leading light of the Mission, Thomas H.W. Liddecoat had quite a journey to get to the point of establishing the institution. He was born in 1864 and, while most accounts, including his obituary, state that he was from the west coast of Cornwall, in the extreme southwest of England, the 1871 British census states that he was the only member of his family born outside of that county, listing, instead, that he was from Lancaster, not far south from where William Workman was from. A line drawn through this, however, may indicate a mistake and, therefore, Liddecoat may well have been from Phillack in Cornwall.

Thomas Liddecoat, his wife Mary Imhoff and their daughter Mary enumerated in the 1910 federal census, shortly after moving to Los Angeles, at their residence on Bunker Hill.

Liddicoat’s father, also Thomas, was a copper miner who took his family to the United States, specifically to Colorado just about the time it became a state in 1876. The elder Thomas remained a miner at Central City, west of Denver, until his death in 1884 and his namesake, relocating to the state capital, soon got into the grocery business, then worked as a butcher and finally was a produce broker. In 1900, he married Mary H. Imhoff and the couple had one child, Mary, born in 1907.

In 1910, the family moved to Los Angeles and Tom established the T.H.W. Liddecoat and Company fruit brokerage, though, while it has been suggested he was a millionaire, his modest residence (no longer standing) in Highland Park and the modest beginnings with The Midnight Mission suggest his means were nowhere near that level of wealth. It has also been recorded that he gave up the wholesale fruit business in 1914 when he decided to establish The Midnight Mission, but city directories show he was engaged in that industry for at least another decade.

Van Nuys News, 5 December 1913.

In any case, the Los Angeles Express of 26 June 1917 reported that “good food served on clean linen will be the basis of spiritual salvation at the Midnight mission, which has opened its doors at 120 [actually 121] South Los Angeles street.” Within two months, the Los Angeles Times ran an article that quoted police officials as stating that, since the facility opened, “the diminution of crime, through the uplift of the criminal, has been marked . . . in that section” and “proving what can be done in quickly and economically cleaning out vice.”

In its edition of 27 March 1918, Jerome Lynch of the Los Angeles Record recorded that anyone needing a place to sleep the night would find that, at the institution, “there will be more variety than you can every expect to find in cabaret or theater.” Any evening would find the “tattered pilgrims of the night” making “their despairing way” to the Mission and, while “nobody else wants them . . . the Midnight Mission has a light of welcome burning all night.”

Los Angeles Express, 26 June 1917.

With Liddecoat and a few others providing sole financial support, it was added “sometimes the place is perilously near failing,” though in the previous nine or so months, it was said 47,500 persons went to religious services, some 12,400 were fed monthly, and 40,000 men found shelter. In its dramatic evocation, the paper continued,

The usual congregations form a motley gathering of the city’s tattered and battered. Blackened and bleary eyes are there. Hands tremulous with drugs are nightly held aloft at the beckoning of the service leader seeking souls. There are men that are winy and wobbly, shaky and weary, destitute and despairing.

Service starts apathetically. Shivering forms huddle up to the warm that is slow in reaching their bones. Hymns are flat, and sometimes a tattered wag essays a derisive joke. He is silenced with a nudge or open blow. Then the heat spreads, hymns grow rollicking, and the pilgrims feel that the world is not so bad after all. There is expectancy, too, for the fragrant odor of a “mulligan” [stew] in the making waft into the room.

The institution’s name came from the fact that the meal was served at midnight, after which those wishing to spend the night found a place on a bench or the floor. The following morning, there might be some clothes for those needing them. Towards the end of June, the first anniversary was celebrated and Mayor Frederick T. Woodman was present for a short address, while several clergymen spoke, including the Rev. Charles Edward Locke, the prominent Methodist minister known for his fight against “white slavery” in the Angel City. Music was also provided by the male quartet of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA, now in La Mirada) and it was reported that the inaugural year included 57,000 attendees, 7,280 conversions, and over 15,500 suppers served.

Los Angeles Record, 27 March 1918.

This being the era of the First World War, it was not surprising that the Mission was part of the lives of some soldiers, in current service and afterward. One man, rejected for the American Expeditionary Force because of a disability, traveled to Canada to enlist with that country’s armed forces, but, while in training, his health suffered, and he was discharged. On returning to Los Angeles and being broke, he found refuge at the Mission and was looking for work, according to an Express article from late August 1918.

Several days after the armistice was signed ending the war, the Highland Park Herald, which proudly reported about the good works of one of its residents, reported on the receipt of a letter from a soldier in France, who said that, since his conversion while at the Mission a year prior, “ask a soldier who has been at the front and he will tell you that God is good!” The missive, incidentally, was written from a military hospital where the “doughboy” was recovering from wounds suffered in battle.

Record, 25 October 1920.

Also of interest from summer 1918 was the publication of a poem by “Robin Romany” (obviously a pseudonym) about the institution:

Down to the wholesale heart of town

Did you ever go,

Where a helter-skelter of ugly blocks

Stand row by row,

And rich and poor scramble and rush

For golden dough?

Right down there, in the thickest part,

Is a Mission small,

Which closes up when the sun is hot

But welcomes all

When the work of the day is laid aside

And the shadows fall.

And none is too poor, none too weak,

To be tendered its best,

To come and enjoy its music and song,

Its comfort and rest,

To sits at its table and freely eat

That which Christ has blest.

Down to the little Midnight Mission

I bid you go

When your soul is sick or over-tired

With struggle or woe,

And you’ll return with happy spirit

And cheeks aglow.

Yet, despite the glowing reports and features of those first few years, it was quite a shock when the Los Angeles Police Department conducted a raid (and did so at the Y.M.C.A, as well) in early December 1920 and arrested dozens of men on a charge of vagrancy. There were mounting complaints from nearby business owners about the growing numbers of homeless men congregating the area as well as the purportedly unsanitary conditions at the facility, but the action stirred up bitter criticism from the Record, which was more liberal than the Express or Times, though these papers also expressed concern

Record, 6 December 1920

The Record’s columnist, Eleanor Barnes, under the headline of “Soup, Shelter, Salvation—Jail” lamented the detention of 79 men who “have no place to spend the night, other than the Mission, save perhaps the ‘jungles’ at the river bed or—jail.” At the institution, however, they were given decent food, “a bit of encouragement from the workers who nightly sacrifice pleasure to bring straying souls back to the right path,” and the gospel to nourish those souls.

Barnes spoke by phone with “Brother Tom,” who told her “I am discouraged today” and felt that “this slur on the name and work of the Mission will take a long time to live down” because “all we try to do is to try to help the helpless help themselves.” While he lacked the funds to provide beds and blankets, Liddecoat added a stove for cold evenings, but he’d long envisioned a “transient hotel” for his charges, whom he called his “brothers,” and who “do no harm while sleeping here.” Instead of promoting vagrancy, he ended, “all myself and workers want to do is to give a helping hand to less fortunate ‘critters.'”

Record, 6 December 1920.

Alarmed by the outcry, Mayor Meredith P. Snyder, a rare Democratic officeholder in a Republican dominated city (and this would become even more the case into the Roaring Twenties) not only professed sympathy with the arrested men, but even claimed, apparently without evidence, that there was a conspiracy to discredit the police department (which was long understood to be a bastion of corruption in many of its aspects) to demean his administration. In fact, Snyder was defeated in the next election by George E. Cryer.

In an editorial on 6 December, the Record excoriated those who carried out the raid:

It is not a CRIME to be without a job. It is not a CRIME to be homeless, penniless. It is NOT a crime to be HUNGRY. It is a MISFORTUNE. The Record does NOT believe criminals ought to be allowed to congregate in Los Angeles, or that loafers or idlers ought to be converted into criminals here. But The Record DOES believe it is passing strange that 79 of the greatest criminals in the country walk Los Angeles’ streets undisturbed while 79 men whose only offense is that they have NOT STOLEN the money necessary to REMEDY their sad plight are arrested without crime.

A little over a week later, the paper amplified its concerns by noting “there is a difference between the criminal vagrant and the unemployed man” adding “[the] police must draw this distinction clearly and wisely.” Continuing that “driving unemployed men from pillar to post does not good” and, in fact, was very harmful, the Record called it “illogical and inhumane” to push men from benches in parks to The Midnight Mission and then to jail.

Times, 27 March 1921.

It observed that each instance that a non-criminal was taken to the lockup, it was likely that a criminal was to be then created and it concluded, “the only solution is to show idle men jobs, and to try to keep those who cannot get jobs from starving.” Another revelation, again unsurprising, is that many of the arrested men were veterans of the world war and a March 1921 report in the Times observed that there were over 150 homeless former soldiers at the Mission with the recently established Disabled Veterans of the World War pointing out the need for immediate assistance for over 4,000 veterans in the Angel City, including those without jobs or homes.

An unintended consequence, however, is that the raid appears to have garnered more support for the institution while inspiring it to become more organized with the establishment of a board of directors in summer 1922 as well as developing great connections with other charitable entities and the city and county, as assistance for those in need did see some marked improvement in many ways during the Twenties.

Times, 11 July 1922.

In September 1921, a new development with respect to the institution was noted when it came to the large number of men needed to help fight forest fires. County officials scoured the Plaza and nearby areas for volunteers and also visited The Midnight Mission, where, the Times reported, “soap-box orators were ranting from the curb,” with one telling a young Black man that “he was on the road to Hades.” The youth apparently was the first to signup for service in battling blazes in the mountains, but the paper thought it necessary to quote him in racist dialect: “That holy roller says ah’m going to h[ell] anyway, so I might jus’ as well start fightin’ fire now.”

“Brother Tom” resorted to writing a letter to the Times, published in its 3 February 1922 edition, in which he observed that “no one understands or cares for the man and woman who is down and out, or unemployed . . . it seems strange that beautiful Los Angeles should not have some place for these people.” He expressed frustration that so many homeless were out in the rain while most Angelenos had their houses, warm beds, and furnaces for heating and he added, “no wonder we have crime” as the “hobo squad” in the police department, which he acknowledged did some good work, was “driving the men who are hungry and cold, with no shelter, out to the residence district” and who were “the class who are driven through desperation to crime.”

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 30 November 1923.

A month later, the Hollywood Citizen enthusiastically responded to Liddecoat’s request for an editorial promoting the Mission’s work, exclaiming “God Bless you, Brother Tom, we’d write a dozen editorials for you if you believed they would help your cause.” The paper assured him that it had not forgotten the valuable work he and his associates were doing for those in need as they “reached down a hand, pulled them out of the gutter of the street and the gutter of despair, put them on their feet and sent them out in the world to become useful to themselves and to their country.” It readily advised readers to contribute to a building fund and concluded by telling Liddecoat, “the world will be richer for your having lived.”

In a lengthy feature in the Times from July 1923 on “Brother Tom” and the good works of the Mission, Liddecoat was quoted as saying,

Los Angeles has been widely advertised as the white spot of the world, and it is. But that very fact brings here a great many people. We get the best, and we get the worst, here in Los Angeles. Down here at the mission we get the worst of the worst, the vilest of the vile. Some people shrink away in disgust from them and declare that if they had their way they’d dip the whole gang in gasoline and touch a match to ’em . . . But I know from experience what fine gold [interesting metaphor given his family background] is often hidden under all the dirt and rubble of that depravity. I’ve seen too many cases of regeneration to believe that any human being is hopelessly lost, no matter how low he has sunk.

Yet, the unrelenting toll of running his wholesale produce business by day while tending to those coming to the Mission until late at night became manifest with several years for “Brother Tom.” He was hospitalized several times during the 1920s for exhaustion, pneumonia and other maladies and stepped away from active management of the institution for a couple of short periods. There was a move a block or so the south on Los Angeles Street until the expiration of a lease and ejectment came in spring 1928.

Express, 16 April 1928.

Then, some friends stepped forward and helped the Mission move to its quarters at Los Angeles and 4th, from which the broadside was sent, though “Brother Tom” was again hospitalized when this was publicized. Through the Twenties, there was consistent coverage of the work of the institution, with a special focus on such major holidays as Thanksgiving and Christmas, during which thousands of persons were provided meals, a place to sleep, a bath, clothing and other services.

In summer 1929, with his health again in poor shape, Liddecoat and his daughter, who was attending the University of Southern California, took an extended trip to the Holy Land and Europe and did not return home until the opening days of the following year. By then, the Great Depression had burst forth after the crash of the stock market in New York in October and the pressing needs and demands on the Mission expanded dramatically.

Times, 26 December 1929.

In summer 1931, a scathing Grand Jury report blasted the county’s charitable officials for poor management of taxpayer funds and accused the Mission of purchased poor quality food and buying used coffee grounds from restaurants, drying them on the roof of its building and reusing these. In the face of this and his continuing physical issues, Liddecoat stepped down from active management of the institution, though he and his daughter remained identified with it until his death a little more than a decade later, in November 1942, at age 78. He was lionized in the press for his work with the Mission and nothing was said in the obituaries about the issues of the early Thirties.

An interesting side note was that Liddecoat and his daughter became friendly with Albert M. Johnson, a wealthy Chicago capitalist who purchased a large tract in Death Valley where he built the famous “Scotty’s Castle” for Walter Scott, who persuaded Johnson there were valuable gold mines in the area, but, even after that proved to be a chimera, Johnson built the substantial Spanish Colonial Revival mansion.

After Liddecoat’s death, the property, as well as a large northern California ranch, were bequeathed by Johnson to The Gospel Foundation, which he established just after the end of World War II and which was overseen by Mary Liddecoat, who died in 2005 at the age of 98. The archive amassed by her, her father and including The Midnight Mission were donated to the special collections section of the USC Libraries.

This post, and another dealing with the Union Rescue Mission, are interesting windows into religious charitable organizations for the poorest, most destitute and least advantaged of Angelenos a century and more ago. The Homestead’s collection also has a 1926 annual report for the Union Rescue Mission, which we will certainly highlight in the future, so be sure to look out for that post.

Leave a Reply