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Aggie Underwood stands in the midst of the newsroom holding an oversized baseball bat. The bat was a gift from her colleagues to commemorate her 10th anniversary as city editor of the Herald; it was inscribed, 'To Aggie, Keep Swinging.' Credit: Herald-Examiner Collection/LAPL Photo Archive (via LAweekly.com)
"Agness May Underwood (December 17, 1902 – July 3, 1984) was an American journalist and newspaper editor, and one of the first women in the United States to hold a city editorship on a major metropolitan daily. She was preceded by Laura Vitray who became city editor of the New York Evening Graphic in 1930, and by Mary Holland Kincaid who was city editor at the old Herald, likely in the early 1900s. She worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Record from 1928 to 1935, the Herald-Express from 1935 to 1962, and the Herald-Examiner from 1962 to 1968.
Agnes May Wilson was born in San Francisco, California, to Clifford Wilson, a journeyman glass-blower, and Mamie Sullivan Wilson, a housewife. Underwood would adopt the distinctive double "s" at the end of her first name in 1920. Underwood was the eldest of two daughters. The Wilson family's frequent moves were determined by where Clifford could find work. In November 1907, Mamie died in childbirth. Clifford's work required him to travel, which made it impossible for him to care for the girls on his own. Underwood and her younger sister were handed over to relatives in Terre Haute, Indiana, to be raised. Underwood recalled that she and her sister did not stay in Terre Haute and that they moved frequently, often winding up in the hands of public charity.
Clifford became distressed with the way his daughters were being treated and found two foster homes in Portland, Indiana, each willing to take one of the girls. Underwood's sister was sent to live with a farm family. Underwood's new home was with Charles and Belle Ewry and their three sons. She and the eldest of the three sons, Ralph, liked each other immediately. Ralph Ewry became her friend and protector. Underwood later described the Ewry household as a serious environment, made bearable only by Ralph's kindness.
Underwood did well in school and skipped three grades; however, by the time she entered high school in 1916 her enthusiasm for her studies had waned and she dropped out in the tenth grade. Underwood took as job as a clerk in the basement of Cartwright's department store in Portland, Indiana. She became increasingly unhappy living with the Ewrys, particularly following Ralph's deployment overseas as a soldier during World War I. Ralph sensed Underwood's discontent in her letters to him and, believing that she might be better off with a blood relative, managed to locate one of her distant relatives in San Francisco.
Underwood arrived in San Francisco in November 1918, and moved in with her relative who lived in an apartment on Geary Street. Underwood knew she would be expected to contribute to household expenses and set out to find a job. After a few frustrating days of unsuccessful job hunting, she arrived at the apartment only to discover that her relative had moved out leaving Underwood broke, alone, and homeless.
Another of Underwood's female relatives invited her to move to Hollywood, California, and live with her. Soon after her arrival it became clear that Underwood's relative was interested only in transforming the girl into a child star. When that plan failed, the relative put Underwood out on the street.
Underwood became a resident at the Salvation Army's home for working women in downtown Los Angeles and got a job at the Broadway Department Store. It was there that she met Evelyn Conners, a woman a few months her junior, who would become her lifelong friend.
Following a brief move to Salt Lake City, Utah, Underwood returned to Los Angeles, where she found work as a waitress at the Pig ‘n Whistle restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. One day in April 1920, she was lamenting to Harry Underwood, a co-worker, that her Hollywood relative had resurfaced and demanded that Underwood live with her again and relinquish her paychecks to her, or she would turn the underage girl over to the authorities. Harry told her that the relative could not do that if he and Underwood were married. The couple married three weeks later on April 28, 1920.
By 1926, Underwood and her husband had become parents to a daughter and son. Underwood's husband and sister worked outside the home, but the family still struggled to make ends meet. One of the small economies that Underwood practiced was to wear her sister's hand-me-down silk stockings. One day Underwood asked her husband for the money to buy a new pair of stockings, but he demurred. An argument ensued and Underwood told her husband that if he would not give her money for stockings, she would get a job and earn them herself.
In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman (Harper Brothers, 1949), Underwood said that she did not want to work outside the home, and that she had no idea where to look for a job. As it turned out, a job found her. The day following the stockings argument Underwood's friend, Evelyn Connors, called and asked her if she would be interested in a temporary job on the switchboard at the Record. Underwood seized the opportunity, and thus began her career in the newspaper business.
In October 1926, Underwood began her job as the switchboard operator at the Los Angeles Record. It was at the Record that Underwood learned the newspaper business from the ground up. She was a quick study and worked hard at any task to which she was assigned. She assisted Gertrude Price, who wrote a woman's column under the pseudonym of Cynthia Grey, in the Christmas basket program for the poor. Price recognized Underwood's innate talent and became Underwood's mentor. In December 1927 William Edward Hickman kidnapped, murdered, and then butchered twelve-year-old Marion Parker. Hickman was on the run when Underwood saw the United Press flash that he had been captured in Oregon. Underwood telephoned her husband with the news. Price overheard the call and reprimanded Underwood for talking about a story outside of the newsroom before it was in print. Underwood never made that mistake again.
Underwood worked her way up to reporter at the Record, and her first by-line was an interview with an elderly man who was credited with having planted the first cotton in California.
Underwood's first major crime reporting began on May 20, 1931, when Los Angeles was shaken by the murders of Charles H. Crawford and Herbert F. Spencer. Crawford was a former saloon keeper and was a power behind the scenes in the city's government. Spencer was a former police reporter who had become associated with the Critic of Critics, a political crusading weekly. The day following the murders thirty-three-year-old David H. Clark, a former deputy District Attorney and candidate for municipal judge, surrendered himself to the District Attorney and admitted to the murders.
Underwood had noticed a couple of gaps in the coverage of the murders. She thought it odd that no one had interviewed Clark's parents. Underwood managed to locate them and they gave her an exclusive interview and photographs. Underwood's interview with Clark's parents appeared in the paper under the headline "Mrs. Clark Says Son is Innocent", earning her a double column by-line.
Underwood was given an increasing number of major stories to cover for the Record, and her reputation as a reporter grew. She was offered a job at William Randolph Hearst's Herald-Express, but she turned it down. The Herald-Express expected her to provide her own automobile, but she did not own a car. In addition, she felt that she was gaining valuable experience in every aspect of the newspaper business at the perennially short-staffed Record, and she worried that she would be more constricted at the Herald-Express.
Early in January 1935 the Herald-Express again offered Underwood a job. She had decided to decline the offer when a couple of days later she learned that the Record had been sold to the Illustrated Daily News. Despite assurances that her position would be safe, Underwood decided to accept the offer to work for the Herald-Express.
Underwood's first assignment for the Herald-Express was to interview Amelia Earhart. The aviator had successfully completed a historic solo flight from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California. Underwood staked out Earhart's North Hollywood home for several hours before she turned up. The interview was worth the wait; Underwood discovered that she was the only Herald-Express reporter who had caught up with Earhart.
Three weeks after she began working at the Herald-Express, Underwood drew photographer Perry Fowler for a story on the rape of a sixteen-year-old girl. Underwood and Fowler worked together regularly after that and were unofficially regarded as a team. They made the early morning rounds (called "milk runs") of local jails. They visited the Lincoln Heights jail almost daily, ferreting out crimes and scandals on which to report.
Among the stories Underwood covered over the next twelve years were the untimely deaths of Hollywood stars Thelma Todd (whose autopsy she attended) and Jean Harlow. She wrote a series of articles on the lives of the women incarcerated in the California women's prison at Tehachapi, and she would report on nearly every major murder case in the city, culminating with the infamous murder of twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short in January 1947. she also reported on the case of Nellie Madison who was convicted of shooting and killing her husband on March 24, 1935. At first Underwood assumed Madison was guilty because she was married five times and produced no children from the marriage. She eventually became an advocate for Madison and garnered outcry of letters which had Madison's conviction from death to life in prison.
On January 15, 1947, the bisected body of a young woman was found in Leimert Park near thirty-ninth and Norton. According to Underwood, she was the first reporter to arrive at the body dump site. The dead woman was soon identified as Elizabeth Short from Medford, Massachusetts. Underwood stated in her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, that the popularization of Short's "Black Dahlia" nickname was the result of information she had received from a Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective.
In the midst of reporting on the Black Dahlia case, Underwood was promoted to city editor of the Herald-Express. Underwood said that she had been pulled from reporting on the case twice, each time without warning, or explanation. The second time she was informed that her new assignment was as editor of the city desk.
Wielding a sawed-off baseball bat and a starter pistol, Underwood ran a staff of hard-nosed reporters and photographers who called her "Aggie" (the nickname she had acquired while working at the Record) until her retirement in 1968.
In 1981, and in failing health, Underwood moved from Los Angeles to Greeley, Colorado, to live near her son and grandchildren. On July 3, 1984, she suffered a fatal heart attack. Underwood's funeral was held at St. James Episcopal Church in downtown Los Angeles on July 7, 1984.
Following her death, Underwood was eulogized in all of the local newspapers. The Herald-Examiner said:
"She was undeterred by the grisliest of crime scenes and had a knack for getting details that eluded other reporters. As editor, she knew the names and telephone numbers of numerous celebrities, in addition to all the bars her reporters frequented. She cultivated the day's best sources, ranging from gangsters and prostitutes to movie stars and government officials."
Underwood is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California, in the Court of Freedom, Sanctuary of Affection, crypt 1239..."
— Source: Agness Underwood Wikipedia
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"On the night of December 6, 1959, in a mansion that sits on a Los Feliz hilltop in Los Angeles, Dr. Harold Perelson struck his wife to death with a hammer, severely beat his 18-year-old daughter, and then ended his own life using a concoction of water, acid, and tranquilizer pills.
For the next 50 years, the Los Feliz murder mansion would remain completely untouched and uninhabited by anyone.
A year after the gruesome murder-suicide, the mansion was sold to a couple, Emily and Julian Enriquez, who only used the 5,050-square-foot house as a storage site. Neighbors recall seeing the couple bringing boxes to the mansion, but never staying overnight. In 1994, Rudy Enriquez inherited the house and, like his parents, neither stayed nor made any changes to the Perelson’s old decor.
Local neighbors and brave visitors of the Perelson mansion have shared their tales. Through grimy windows, one can see a 1950s-style television set, a Christmas tree, and supposedly, neatly-wrapped gifts. The furniture is covered in a thick layer of dust and the living room remains the exact same as it was that one December night.
Rudy Enriquez, now a retired music manager, has refused to sell the property, though he has admitted to frequenting the site to feed his two cats who live there. The exterior of the mansion is in slow decay, and the local neighbors have had to pitch in to help maintain the property.
Though no one has been formally invited into the home, it is rumored that the mansion attracted trespassers for some time. Former neighbors have even witnessed people having picnics in the backyard. One trespasser alleges that the house is haunted and that she was bitten by a black widow spider upon trying to break in. An alarm system has been installed and, to this day, remains one of the only changes made to the Perelson’s old home.
No one knows what exactly prompted Dr. Perelson to commit those atrocities fifty years ago. Some have speculated financial woes, while others have dug up old, unconfirmed rumors of Dr. Perelson having been secretly hospitalized. All three Perelson children survived the incident, though none have been mentioned in the media since.
What remains an even larger mystery is why the current owner has left the scene of the crime almost exactly as it was in 1959.
Update: In March, 2016 the house was put on the market for $2.75 million — that and a willingness to live with the mansion’s grisly past. The house was sold in July 2016 for $2.3 million as a probate sale. All of the family’s ephemera was removed prior to the sale..."
— Source: Atlas Obscura