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Death at Hotel Barclay

Behind the beautiful facade, gruesome slayings and bloody accidents

A photo of people on the sidewalk walking by the lettered arch over the entrance to the hotel.
The history of Hotel Barclay is filled with stories of deaths—and near-deaths.

In 1911, there was a minor car accident in front of the grand Van Nuys Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. As a result, a marble tombstone, inscribed with the name Teddy, fell from the back of a jolted truck. “‘Horrors,’ shrieked a telephone operator who happened to be near,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Two or three men stood and wondered while the poor porter rustled and tussled to get the obstreperous marble back into its packing case. He was too slow, however, to keep several others passing from seeing the thing. The question at once arose; ‘Who’s dead?’”

This would be a question asked frequently at the Van Nuys Hotel, known today as Hotel Barclay, where mysterious deaths were a way of life.

Teddy was the name of a dog. The white fox terrier had lived at the hotel with his owner, the wealthy W.A. Phipps, who had occupied rooms at the hotel for more than four years. Teddy’s tombstone had been brought to Phipps and his wife for inspection, before it, and Teddy, in a custom casket, were taken to the Phipps Ranch for burial.

From the start, the Van Nuys Hotel was a place where many living things left in decidedly worse shape than when they had arrived.

Built as an investment property by SoCal pioneer Isaac Van Nuys, the six-story, Beaux-Arts building at Fourth and Main claimed its first casualty, James McNully, in September of 1896, during its construction. According to newspaper reports, “McNully, in company with other workmen, was engaged in hoisting a large oil tank. The rope broke and a tank fell with a crash. McNully’s right kneecap was broken, he was badly cut over the right eye, and was bruised about the body.” He made a full recovery, and the building was soon completed.

The Van Nuys Hotel opened its doors to the public on January 19, 1897. Designed by the firm of Morgan & Walls, it boasted a luxe interior and modern conveniences that were still rare in the budding frontier metropolis. The ground floor included visiting parlors, a bar, offices, a grill and an expansive dining room. The upper five floors were reserved for guest rooms, and singled out for special praise by visitors. A writer for the LA Times reported on the new hotel:

A corner of the Van Nuys Hotel’s fancy dining room.
The main lobby with full length windows.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

The furnishings of the bedrooms are of rich character, the carpets are of late and elaborate patterns and the furniture of oak, birch, bird’s-eye maple and mahogany. There are sixty private and ten public baths in the hotel.

The stationary washstands in each room are conveniently arranged with mirror and electric light over each. A neat device for the electrical heating of curling irons in each room is a new feature of special interest to the ladies.

The hotel had only been open two months when tragedy struck, leading to the horrific death of a waiter named Charles Gamble. According to the LA Times:

Gamble was one of two waiters whose duty it is to deliver meals to the various rooms. He was sent to the third floor to get a tray of dishes, and returned by the elevator. When the cage neared the first floor the elevator boy, Robert White, turned the wheel of the lever the wrong way, and instead of stopping, the cage started up to the top again.

As they neared the third floor the elevator boy reached for the door, opened it and stepped out, leaving the elevator moving and Gamble inside. Apparently, Gamble became frightened, for he tried to get out also. As he stepped forward, stooping, the top of the doorway caught him and threw him forward, the floor of the elevator rising and pinning his legs above the thighs. They snapped like pipe stems, and the machine, still going up, held him by one foot only.

Finally, that was smashed and Gamble shot, head foremost, down the shaft, striking on the basement floor, three stories down.

Gamble’s skull was fractured, and he died at the Receiving Hospital one hour later. Over the next few years, more elevator accidents would occur, one of which, in 1901, took the life of Joe Kato, a hotel employee who looked down the elevator shaft only to have his head crushed by a 5,000-pound weight.

Hotel Barclay, designed by Morgan & Walls, opened as the Van Nuys Hotel in 1897.

Untarnished by these deaths, the Van Nuys Hotel prospered. The dining room was crowded every Sunday night with the most fashionable people in Southern California, who dined to the tunes of Romandy’s Orchestra, one of the most popular big bands of the time. Politicians, artists, and Gilded Age executives stayed over when in Los Angeles.

Overseeing it all was the beloved proprietor, Milo Potter, a “confirmed bachelor,” “popular club man, fancier of fast horses, semi-millionaire and enterprising businessman.” At his side was the refined housekeeper Nellie M. Jones, “who by her efficiency, cultured grace and tact,” had made herself “an indispensable governess” of the hotel. In 1901, the two were quietly married in Potter’s apartment in the Van Nuys, shocking Potter’s many sporting friends.

It would be a big year in the life of the Van Nuys. In May of 1901, President William McKinley and First Lady Ida McKinley visited the hotel while touring the Western states. According to the LA Times:

As the president’s carriage came to a stop directly in front of the Main Street entrance to the hotel, at the end of a double line of infantrymen who held back crowds from the passageway to the door, the enthusiastic people surged about the vehicle and beat against the solid lines of soldiers and police until it was impossible for guards to control them…the president, smiling…solicitously escorted Mrs. McKinley from the carriage to the hotel door, where three expectant little girls in white with baskets of flowers, waited to strew his path with blooms.

While Potter attempted to portray the hotel as a beacon of respectability and elegance, he could not escape the reality that Downtown Los Angeles was a teeming, wild neighborhood, filled with haves and have-nots. He fought hard to shut down the rowdy 400 Club Bar next door to the Van Nuys, complaining of the people it drew to the neighborhood. A LA Times vignette highlighted the stark inequities present in Victorian Los Angeles:

Two lean and hungry hobos stood in front of the Van Nuys Hotel last night. They were peeking in over the sash curtains at the blaze of light, at the gleam of men’s linen, at the clinking of crystal, glittering under the soft glow of shaded candles. Said the little hobo to the big hobo in esthetic tones, “Say, git onto de decorations, will you?” “Decorations,” snorted the big hobo; “Decorations hell! Look what they got to eat!”

It was the christening party of a new insurance company which has just been organized by prominent men of this city…The dining hall was exquisitely decorated with ropes of smilax studded with red flowers. The light was shed softly through shades of crimson upon tables all a-glimmer and strewn with scattered rose petals. With the men all in evening dress, it was a pretty scene.

This pretty picture of the hotel’s elegant inner-life was deceptive.

Thieving bell boys and waiters were a recurring problem at the hotel. Conmen and destitute women skipped out on their bills. Pacific Electric’s Henry Huntington was stalked by an insane man who had been injured by one of his company’s streetcars, and a patron was robbed at gunpoint. Guests fought in the barroom, and a knife fight between kitchen staff in 1902 left hotel butcher Evan Roberts dead.

Decorated side railings and posts lined a grand entryway.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Money didn’t always buy happiness. According to J.M. Moore’s fascinating book, The History of the Barclay Hotel, in 1909, Ada Tilt Otis, an athletic, popular Chicago heiress, checked into the Van Nuys. She had recently divorced her alcoholic husband and was in secret agony. “Although she had everything money could buy,” a friend recalled, “she was the most unhappy woman in the world.”

A few days before she killed herself by ingesting poison in her hotel room, she told a friend: “When I got my decree of divorce I resolved I would never marry again. I tried society, but its vagaries disgusted me. I feel that the whole game of life is not worth the candle that it takes.” Her body was quietly removed from the Van Nuys and shipped East for burial.

Then there was the strange case of the aforementioned W. Arthur Phipps, the wealthy, elderly man who haunted the hotel for years. Believing the “Black Hand” (organized

crime) was out to get him, he sequestered in his suite, his much-younger wife forced to stay with him at all times. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1911, the same year as his beloved dog Teddy, and his long-suffering wife was finally free.

Milo Potter retired from day-to-day duties around 1910, and competition increased as the city grew, but the Van Nuys remained a luxury hotel throughout the nineteen-teens.

It was often portrayed as a jovial place, where one could find a jockey-turned-bell-boy named Campbell McGavin composing ditties about the hotel’s more imperious guests. “His latest is ‘Thank You,’” the LA Times reported, “a descriptive narrative of how the present-day guest has lost the art of tipping and is passing out a mere, ‘Thank you,’ no matter how great the service of the bellman.”

As the 1920s dawned and the city boomed, the Van Nuys, like many Downtown hotels, began to play host to more and more lost, wayward souls. In 1920, a man attempted suicide at the hotel. Four years later, William Edward Collier fatally swallowed cyanide in front a hotel employee who was helping him pack. A petition for divorce from his wife and possibly the most vengeful suicide note ever written were found in his belongings:

To my wife Ida Collier: My darling; I go nevermore to return. I have done my best and this is the only way I can give you the freedom you crave. I leave you with your conscience. I wish I could prevent the suffering you are going to have to endure. You can’t escape that inner being which will gnaw at your vitals to your dying breath. You made me a cheat and a liar before the world and I gladly assumed the burden for you. You murdered my soul. Now you kill my body …So as you go through life think of the soul roasting in hell because of you. Each night watch my face float before you and each day hear the moans of the tormented soul you blasted and sent to hell for eternity.

In 1929, the lease on the Van Nuys was taken up by Consolidated Hotels, Inc. The famed dining room was closed, and the name was changed to the Barclay Hotel. The name change signaled a new transient era at the hotel—a dingier, darker era of noir occurrences with deadly consequences.

In 1937, Elizabeth Reis, a wealthy, 71-year-old woman from Akron, Ohio, took a solo trip around the Panama Canal. She then checked in to the Barclay, now a run-of-the-mill, faded hotel, on December 29th. A few days later, a maid found her seated in a chair, her skull horrifically fractured. “A brick was found in the woman’s bed,” a reporter wrote, “the bed clothing also was saturated with blood and articles of clothing scattered about the room.” Oddly, Reis still wore a large diamond ring, and a gold watch sat on her dresser. It is unknown if she survived the attack.

That same year, a pretty young woman with a strong Southern accent disappeared from the hotel without paying her bill. In her room, management found a paper bag stuffed with clothes and a college diploma. There was also a note, addressed to the Barclay staff:

For weeks I’ve been looking for a job and haven’t found one. Now I’m at the end of my resources. No money, no job. I haven’t eaten in three days. I haven’t any money to pay for this room. Isn’t it funny? I’ve a college degree and it means less than nothing. Life’s like that. Marvelous world isn’t it? Thanks for your kindness. -Doris Fowler

Fowler was found days later sitting on a bench in front of a gas station, with no recollection of who she was. She was taken to the Minnie Barton Home for Girls to recuperate.

There would be no one to save the Barclay Hotel’s next victim, Virgie Lee Griffin. A married waitress with a crippling drinking problem, she met a former sailor named Otto Stephen Wilson in a Downtown bar in 1944. Little did she know that the handsome man, who looked a bit like the actor Robert Taylor, was a vicious sadist with a “thirst for blood,” whose ex-wife claimed that he “slashed her buttocks with a razor and licked the blood as he apologized to her for his actions.”

Griffin agreed to accompany Wilson to the hotel, where they checked into a room under an assumed name. Wilson later claimed that she asked him for money, which enraged him. According to court records:

He choked the woman and then indulged in an orgy of stabbing, cutting, and severing parts of the woman's body, using the knife he had just purchased…He…claimed that the choking took place during an argument following a demand by the woman for $20 after reaching the room.

Defendant stated his original plan was to cut up the body of his victim so as to carry it out of the hotel in package form. To this end one leg was severed, but the plan was then abandoned because of the difficulty of its accomplishment. Instead, the severed parts of the body were placed in a closet of the room.

Once he was done, he went across the street to watch a show at the Million Dollar Theater. Eventually, Eva Dunn, a maid at the hotel, found Griffin’s horribly mutilated body when she opened the closet. Three days later, Wilson claimed a second life, when he butchered Lillian Johnson in another Downtown hotel. He was arrested on November 16 in a nearby bar, when his bruised, bloodstained hands caught the attention of Lieutenant Harry Donlan of the Los Angeles Police Department:

Calmly sipping a glass of wine at a bar, Otto Stephen Wilson, late yesterday was arrested on suspicion of committing two of the city’s most fiendish slayings… “What do you want?” the tall Wilson asked, calmly putting down his wine glass as Donlan tapped him on the shoulder. “This,” said Donlan, snapping on handcuffs.

Wilson was convicted of both murders, and executed at San Quentin on September 20, 1946.

A city landmark, the Barclay houses low-income tenants as the neighborhood gentrifies around it.

It all went downhill from there. Like the Hotel Cecil and other famous single-occupancy hostelries in the Skid Row area, the Barclay became a magnet for desperation, addiction, and crime.

There were three fires at the dilapidated hotel in the early ’70s, one of which killed three residents. On January 25, 1975, murder again came to the Barclay—room 528 specifically—when a drifter named Samuel Suarez became a victim of serial killer Vaughn Orrin Greenwood, “the Skid Row Slasher.” Greenwood was convicted of nine counts of murder in 1977, and was sentenced to life in prison.

The Barclay was granted Historic-Cultural Monument status by the city in 1985, but it continues its life of quiet oblivion. It is still a low-income residence and seems to be stubbornly resisting the gentrification that is going on all around. Tragically, death continues to visit the Barclay. Just this June, Los Angeles firefighter Kelly Wong fell to his death during a training exercise at the hotel.

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