Built as an opulent destination during the Roaring 20’s, The Cecil Hotel has degraded into a den of suicide and murder as serial killers walk the halls and ghosts visit the rooms as often as the guests. Kraken was unfortunately under the weather, so Mo’s husband joins in on the conversation as we follow the story of one of the most haunted hotels in the United States.
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Before we get into today’s story, I want to preface that there are many suicides involved. If you or someone you know are in crisis and feel there is only one solution, please reach out to someone for help. There are many avenues like dialing 988 to talk to the 24 hour national crisis talk like or texting HOME to 741741. And now, onto our story.
Deaths happen in hotels. It’s inevitable. But there are some that just draw death to them like a supernatural magnet. One of the best known is The Cecil Hotel: a sparkling jewel of the Roaring 20’s turned vigil of death and the supernatural in Skid Row. So how did a decadent hot spot turn into a place said to have “insanity within its walls” and a place where “serial killers let their hair down”?
A trip back in time
Let’s take a trip back to 1924. Calvin Coolidge became the first president to deliver a radio broadcast from the White House. The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (aka CTR) renamed to International Business Machines (aka IBM….yes, that IBM). The very first woman governor in the US, Nellie Tayloe Ross, was elected in Wyoming. And the Roaring 20s were in full swing.
The 20’s saw a dramatic social, economic and political change in the states with the increase of a “consumer culture.” Between 1920 and 1929, the country’s wealth more than doubled. Over 60% of homes had electricity (up from just 16% the decade before). Women were now able to vote, and the Jazz Age rolled across the country. With part of the population letting loose with jazz music, flappers and booze, the rest cracked down with Prohibition from 1920 through 1933.
In Los Angeles in 1924, a pneumonic plague outbreak killed at least 30 people, and The Cecil Hotel was built.
A JOYOUS BEGINNING
The Cecil Hotel was the dream of William Banks Hanner, Charles L. Dix and Robert H. Schops. The dream? Build a destination for business travelers and tourists, a place that would awe and comfort its guests. Costing $1.5 million at the time (2022 equivalent of $26,035,789), the hotel boasted opulence with a marble lobby, stained glass windows, tropical plants and alabaster statues. The hotel boasted 700 rooms and the grand opening was an extravagant affair.
The area was surrounded with theaters, restaurants, and shopping, all located near the Spring Street Financial District. The hotel was also in close proximity to the railway lines of LA’s public transit system which was the largest electric railway system in the world at the time.
Everything seemed destined for greatness and future success.
There was one design flaw within the hotel structure: not every room had a private bathroom. The original pricing plan included rooms with a shared bath for $1 per night, rooms with a private toilet for $2 per night and rooms with a private bathroom $2.50 per night. Not wanting to wait to use a shared bathroom, most patrons opted for the higher priced rooms, creating and unbalanced demand. Since the hotel was already built (and overbudget), they didn’t change this situation.
Within the first year of opening, news stories already began from the depths of the hotel. John Croneur was arrested after stealing a diamond hairpin from the Rosslyn Hotel and then fleeing police from the Hayward Hotel.
An even more salacious story in the late 1920’s was when George Ford, an opium and morphine dealer and long term resident of the Cecil Hotel was arrested at the nearby Astor Hotel with over $10,000 worth of drug in his possession. That’s about $174,000 today.
DEATH VISITS THE CECIL HOTEL
Percy Ormond Cook had separated from his wife and son. On January 23, 1927, after failing to reconcile, the former real estate dealer left a note addressed to the press where he said he had spent $40,000 in an attempt to buy happiness. In this suicide note, he ended with, “Money cannot buy happiness. I have tried it and I find that it cannot be done. I have lost my wife, my son and my home, and I am doing the only thing left for me to do.”
On April 17, 1929, Mrs. Dorothy Roberson collapsed near the main stairway in the lobby from an apparent barbiturate overdose, however, survived the attempted suicide. She had been wandering around the hotel for a few days, grieving over the sudden death of her husband. After her collapse, she had been rushed to the hospital and received medical attention, but later took her own life after being released. Her husband had recently passed and she could not live with the thought of being without him.
The next death happened November 17, 1931 when W. K. Norton ingested a combination of opium and veronal poison. There was no sign of foul play or robbery, but also no suicide note. Police ruled it a suicide due to lack of evidence otherwise, however, the coroner could not determine if he was a habitual user or suicidal.
On September 7, 1932, a 25-year-old man named Benjamin Dodich was found in a blood spattered room with a gunshot to the head. Again, there was no suicide note and no signs of theft, struggle or disturbance in the room. Police canvased the guests in rooms on that floor as well as the ones immediately above and below, but no one heard a gunshot. Since the walls were known to be rather “thin,” this was noted as an oddity since someone most certainly would have heard something. However, based on the injury and evidence, the death was declared a suicide.
Sgt. Louis S. Borden was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1934. On July 26, 1934, the proud military man left several farewell notes on a bedside table before taking razor to his own throat.
On January 2, 1938, a 35 year old marine fireman named Roy Thompson checked into the Cecil Hotel in his attempts to find a better life for him and his wife, Mary. One week later, he received the news that his wife had tragically died in a swimming accident. The next day, filled with grief and guilt at not being there when the accident occurred, Roy climbed to the roof of the Cecil and leapt to his death. His body was found on the skylight of a neighboring building.
Inspection of his room after was considered quite odd. Everything was cleaned, neat and tidy. There was no suicide note. There were no drugs or alcohol.
This death is when the rumors of ghosts and other supernatural powers started to gain traction about the hotel. Some even though a spirit may have pushed Thompson from the roof.
A CHANGE OF THE LANDSCAPE
Starting in 1938, the effects of the Great Depression started to hit the area around the Cecil Hotel even harder than it had before. This area of the city was no longer opulent. The streets weren’t clean and devoid of trash. The homeless were building shelters and camps, and crime began to rise. The hotel lowered its rates and the guests were no longer the wealthy that graced the beautiful lobby.
THE DEATHS CONTINUE
U.S. Navy Radio Man 2nd Class, Erwin Neblett, was a sailor on the U.S.S. Wright. Erwin had foolishly entered a relationship with a naval officer’s daughter which went sideways when she claimed he hit her. He maintained that he never laid a finger on her, but the accusation and subsequent rumor mill led the Navy to force him to leave his dream career. On May 28, 1939, he was found unresponsive after ingesting strychnine poison. His body was in the bathroom near the toilet with rigor mortis already set in indicating he had been dead at least 4 hours when he had been found. Rigor will start to set in within this window, not returning to a normal flexible state until 36-40 hours post mortem.
A NEW DECADE BEGINS
On January 10, 1940, Ms. Dorothy Sceiger, a 45 year-old teacher checked into the Cecil Hotel under the name Evelyn Brent. After taking poison, she was found unresponsive and rushed to the local hospital. The papers listed her as near-death but she passed a few days later in the hospital. This one stumped me because I could find very little other than a few sentence article. In various articles and sources, her name was said to be Sceiger, Seger or Segar, but I couldn’t really find any details on her. Just another mystery of the Cecil Hotel.
In September of 1944, 19 year-old Dorothy Jean Purcell and her 38 year-old boyfriend Ben Levine checked into the Cecil Hotel. Unaware she was pregnant, she gave birth in the bathroom of the hotel while her boyfriend slept. I’m going to leave a warning her because this will be extremely sensitive for some. Purcell then threw the newborn out the window, not wanting to disturb her sleeping boyfriend. She told the police she threw him out the window because the baby was stillborn, but the autopsy showed that the infant was alive with air in his lungs before death. She was later convicted as guilty by reason of insanity.
In January of 1947, multiple witnesses saw Elizabeth Short in the hotel bar of the Cecil Hotel. This would be the last time she was seen in public before her gruesome murder which became the unsolved Black Dahlia case. We had previously talked a bit about The Black Dahlia in our episode on The Cleveland Torso Murderer. While the case is technically listed as unsolved, most believe it was George Hodel that murdered her, but it was unable to be proven in a court of law.
On November 1, 1947, 35 year-old Robert Smith leapt from the seventh floor of the Cecil Hotel to his death. One source stated that he was gay, and the struggle within the culture of the 1940s had finally been too much. His room showed no foul play or suicide note.
THE HOTEL FALLS QUIET
From 1947 to 1954, the deaths stopped. No major incidents were reported, however, the clientele and surrounding area continued to lessen in quality. The area known as Skid Row had now encompassed the once opulent hotel. Instead of celebrities and wealthy business men, the hotel now catered to transients, drug dealers, and criminals.
On October 17, 1954, a woman checked in under the name Margaret Brown and spent a few nights at the hotel. It was said she grieved her husband who had recently passed. On October 22, she leapt from a seventh floor window and landed atop the hotel marquee. She was later identified as 55 year-old Helen Gurnee.
On February 11, 1962, Julia Frances Moore jumped from the window of her 8th floor room and landed on a second floor roof in the light well of the building. In her room, they found identification but no suicide note. She only had 59 cents in her possession, but within her purse was a bank-book showing she had almost $1,800 (approx. $17,690 today) in the bank.
On October 12, 1962, Pauline Otton and her estranged husband Dewey had an argument in her ninth-floor room. After writing a suicide note, the 27 year-old leapt from the window and took her life. The event was made even more tragic as she landed on a pedestrian, 65 year-old transient George Gianinni. Initial theories were that the two attempted suicide together, however, George had his hands in his pockets and his shoes remained on his feet. Police determined that neither of these things would be true if he had jumped 9 stories.
On December 16, 1975, a young woman checked into the Cecil Hotel under the name Alison Lowell. She was approximated to be in her early 20’s, but her true identity and details were never discovered. She jumped out of a 12th floor window and landed on the second floor roof.
A playground for serial killers
In the 1980’s, Los Angeles was terrorized by Richard Ramirez, also know as The Nightstalker, a serial killer known for his brutal late night murders of at lease 38 people. During his famous spree, he stayed at the Cecil Hotel. Witnessed saw him strip off his bloody clothing in the alley outside of the building and toss it in the dumpster before entering and returning to his room wearing just his blood-stained underwear. He was arrested on August 20, 1985 and later convicted of 13 murdered. He was sentenced to the death penalty but died of cancer in 2013 before he could be executed.
In 1991, Austrian Jack Unterweger stayed at the Cecil. Initially convicted of a single murder in 1974, Unterweger wrote extensively while in prison and was able to convince the Austrian literar elite that he was rehabilited. After extensive lobbying for him, Unterweger was paroled in 1990. After his release, he killed women in Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany and America. He was a known journalist and developed rapore with the police when he would do ride-alongs and interviews. This helped keep suspicion off of him. Staying at the Cecil is thought to be an homage to Ramirez. The serial killer strangled and killed at least 3 sex workers before being caught and returned to Austria. He died by suicide in prison before he could be convicted for 9 of his 12 known murders.
On September 1, 1992, a man’s body was found in the alley behind the Cecil Hotel. It was determined that the man was approximately between 20 and 30 years of age, and he either jumped, fell or was pushed from the roof. The investigation revealed no answers and the case is still open and unsolved.
February of 2013 may be the most famous loss of life at the Cecil Hotel. A Canadian student, Elisa Lam wanted to travel and see the world. She came to Los Angeles and stayed at the Cecil Hotel. She then went missing for two weeks. Two weeks later, maintenance checked the rooftop water tanks due to multiple tennant complaints of murky water that tasted funny. Inside, they discovered her body, drowned. The case was officially classified as a suicide during a severe bipolar episode, but not everyone agrees with the official determination. Web sleuths around the globe have analyzed the released video footage of her strange behavior in an elevator as well as any information they have been able to dig up. Some believe it was a murder, others a supernatural event.
The last reported death was June 13, 2015 when an unidentified 28 year-old male was found outside the hotel. It is suspected he fell or jumped from the building, but he remains unidentified and the case is still open and unsolved.
Due to the long string of suicides, murders, accidental deaths and attempted deaths, many believe the Cecil Hotel is a hotbed for paranormal activity. Some believe the ghosts of the hotel are simply those who lost their lives to the building, others believe it draws other supernatural beings to it. A poltergeist is said to reside there which led me to look into the definition of the word. I was always under the assumption a poltergeist was a group of spirits (probably because I’ve seen the movie and Supernatural too many times), but Webster’s dictionary says that it is just a single mischevious ghost responsible for unexplained noises. It comes from the German words “poltern” meaning “to knock” and “geist” meaning spirit. So a poltergeist is literally just a knocking spirit.
There are rumors and gossip that Richard Ramirez, known for his satanic obsession, performed dark rituals on the hotel roof which could have caused a demonic infestation of the building.
On Ghost Adventures, Zak Bagans and his team investigated the hotel. Multiple incidents were noted such as unexplained scratches on the crew members’ skin, as well as Bagans witnessing a faucet turn on by itself. Common other observations noted online include screaming, odd smells and unsettling feelings throughout the hotel.
Additionally, many incidents over the years occurred on or from the seventh floor of the building, causing many to feel uneasy or simply avoid that floor.
The colorful history of the hotel even inspired a season of American Horror Story.
Modern Happenings at the cecil hotel
In 2013, the hotel was rebranded as Stay on Main in an attempt to change the image of the historic hotel, but unsuccessfully. In August of this year, the local government has approved a plan to repurpose the building as permanent housing for the homeless community.
Is the Cecil Hotel haunted? Cursed? We may never know, but what is certain is that the building has been steeped in death, crime and intrigue from the day it was initially built. And that is the story of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, California.