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The curse of Santa Monica’s Mooney Mansion

The mansion—built by one of a handful of women landowners in early Los Angeles—mysteriously burned to the ground on New Year’s Day

It was New Year’s Day, 1903 in Santa Monica. Notorious wastrel and once prominent landowner Thomas Jefferson White and his buddies had the run of the infamous Mooney Mansion, the home of White’s adopted mother, Mary Mooney Hotchkiss, who was away on vacation. Around 2 a.m., the mansion, high on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, caught fire. It burned so intensely the fire marshal didn’t even attempt to put it out. Although young White and his merry band of drunken revelers escaped, the house was a total loss. Everything in the house was destroyed—well, almost. Suspiciously, all of White’s possessions had been saved.

“Jeff White, sensible young man that he was, stood ready to face any emergency and when the alarm was raised all he had to do was to move out his trunks that were already packed and in order,’ the Los Angeles Times reported with a good deal of side-eye. “He saved even his hairbrushes.”

It was a fitting end for the imposing old mansion (now the site of Mary Hotchkiss Park), which had harbored the secrets and scandals of Nancy Lucas and Mary Mooney Hotchkiss, two pioneering Wild West landowners, for three decades.

“California is one of the few states that has allowed women to hold property in their own separate estate from the very beginning, from the very first state charter when the United States won the Mexican-American War,” says Santa Monica historian Nina Fresco, who has extensively researched both women. “That is a really unique thing.”

In a new, wide-open state with a booming population, land meant power, wealth and influence, and women in some cases equal partners at the table. Fortunes were made ranching farming, developing, subdividing, and drilling for oil on land that until recently had been owned by a few rancho owners.

During the Victorian era, there were a number of important women landowners in Los Angeles County. In Hollywood, founder Daeida Wilcox battled with fellow landowners Mary Moll and Grandma Wakeman for supremacy in the small settlement. Ida Hancock Ross oversaw her oil-rich portion of Rancho La Brea, while Emma Summers controlled many of the Downtown oil fields. And then there was incomparable Biddy Mason, who owned a good of portion of what is now Downtown LA.

Nancy Lucas would join this sisterhood late in her long life. Nancy Talbot Jones was born in Georgia in 1805. She married a shopkeeper from Indiana named John Lucas, and the couple had at least eight children, though several died in childhood. They eventually made their way to California, where John became a prominent landowner in what is now Santa Rosa. After John’s death in 1872, Nancy sold the family ranch and bought in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. “I don’t know why, that was her plan,” says Fresco. But “she was out of there.”

The grand Victorian mansion was topped with a romantic widow’s walk. It burned to the ground and today is the site of Mary Hotchkiss Park.

According to reports, in 1874 Nancy purchased 1,200 acres of what is now West Hollywood. Her Santa Monica purchase included 860 acres of rural ranchland that was once part of the Rancho La Ballona. According to Fresco, this acreage spanned what is now the south side of Santa Monica, from the ocean to around 20th Street (although she only controlled the northern beaches of this tract).

In 1875, Nancy and her three remaining sons decided to build a grand mansion on her new Santa Monica ranch. In her upcoming Santa Monica history Along Came Jones, Fresco says that in October of that year, it was announced in the local paper that “the site is the highest point in the vicinity of town and affords a view that will be a perpetual delight.”

The mansion was designed by architect Charles Wellington Davis, who had practiced in San Francisco and Santa Cruz before coming to LA in 1874. Davis specialized in stately, ornate structures, including the Jewish Synagogue on Sutter Street in San Francisco, and a magnificent stick villa with Eastlake ornaments that still stands on Mission Hill in Santa Cruz.

For Nancy, Davis designed a grand Victorian mansion—topped with a romantic widow’s walk—that cost at least $8,000. As Fresco points out, most new homes at the time cost no more than a few hundred dollars, and most homes in the Santa Monica area were little better than shacks.

Nancy settled into her new “large, pretentious house” with her eldest son, James, a bachelor in his 50s. Here, she oversaw her growing empire, conspiring with fellow Santa Monica developer Ivar Weid, whom she sold portions of her land. He then sold land parcels to wealthy and influential LA businessmen, who bestowed prestige and glamour on the nascent seaside community. Nancy also spent time overseeing ranching operations, which included the production of corn and potatoes.

Nancy also developed a rather unpleasant reputation, as did her son and housemate James. Soon after arriving in Santa Monica, James and a partner opened a seashell store, catering to the increasing number of tourists making day trips to Santa Monica. “They had this little boat that they would take out to go and look for seashells,” Fresco says. “And one day the boat was missing. And then a few days later, it washed up on shore with a dead body inside. And he had his head bashed in.”

The death was declared accidental. Fresco has been unable to find out who the dead man was, but it appears that the seashell store folded soon after the gruesome discovery.

Around 1879, Nancy became partner in a development project on the Santa Monica shore. “Ivar Weid has a plan—he thinks that they need to build their own wharf on his land, on Strand Street, and he gets Nancy Lucas involved,” Fresco says. “She invests a bunch of money, and both she and Weid put in a bunch of land so that there’s room for warehouses and a wharf and they invest money, and they form a corporation with bylaws and the whole deal and they start getting investors.”

The planned wharf would accommodate independent schooners only, since the encroaching all-powerful Southern Pacific Railroad controlled bigger ships. It would also be reachable by wagon road, not a railroad. The proposed road was to skirt the site of Nancy’s mansion, so she could continually overlook her handiwork.

But this grand scheme was not to be. “On the morning of June 10th, 1881, Mrs. Lucas, who was in what appears to have been a rather commonplace, grumpy mood, calls her Chinese servant Sam Sing and says she wants cake for breakfast,” Fresco says. “And he’s like, ‘well, I’d love to make you cake, but we don’t have any eggs right now.’ And she starts screaming and yelling at him and throwing a fit and he’s says, ‘Ok I’ll figure it out.’”

According to Fresco, while Sam Sing went in search of a suitable cake for his moody mistress, her son James had risen early, jumped on his horse, and gone to run an errand. Meanwhile, having found a cake, Sing covered two slices in icing and served it to Nancy at 8:30 a.m. He and some other servants reportedly ate the rest of the cake, sans icing.

As Nancy ate her peculiar breakfast, James came home, but avoided his mother and went straight to his room.

“A few minutes later, James starts hearing screams from downstairs,” Fresco says.

“And she’s screaming because she’s been poisoned and she’s a mess. He comes downstairs and sees she’s the mess,” she says. “And he gets back on his horse to run and get a doctor. And while he’s gone, she’s in this terrible state. She writes a note and leaves it on the desk that says that Sam Sing poisoned her.”

When James and the doctor arrived back at the mansion, Nancy was suffering such terrible convulsions the doctor was unable to administer an antidote orally. Through her suffering she continued to blame Sam Sing until her dying breath. The Los Angeles Evening Express reported that “Lucas was well-advanced in years and possessed of considerable property.”

According to Fresco, a dramatic inquest was held, though the records are now lost. It was discovered that a bottle of strychnine, kept for pest control, had disappeared from a desk drawer in the mansion. It was later found, half-empty, in the garden. Sing was arrested, but released due to lack of incriminating evidence.

Fresco believes that Nancy may have written the note accusing Sing to protect her son James, who may be the actual culprit. Not only was Nancy’s death a major financial windfall for her three surviving sons, it was also a gift to her development competitors in growing Santa Monica. With Nancy’s death, the wharf deal fell apart and the venture failed. Nancy was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica, on land she is said to have donated.

Nancy’s sons, involved in a nasty quarrel over their mother’s holdings, soon sold much of her land, including the mansion. The buyer was Mary Mooney, a woman of even more mysterious independent means, considered one of the most beautiful women in Los Angeles. Born in Kentucky in 1849, Mary appears to have been a very astute investor. “She was a very savvy business-person,” Fresco says. “She was like Nancy.”

She was also very prolific in the area of matrimony. While already married to a man named Drury, Mary had started an affair with Daniel Mooney, a local LA businessman. After her divorce they married and lived in a large mansion at the corner of Main and Jefferson in West Adams. Mary spent much of her time in the nearby courthouse, fighting for custody of her young nephew Thomas Jefferson White, an orphan with a considerable fortune and inherited valuable property in LA, including 15-acres on and around Macy Street (now Caesar Chavez Boulevard) near the old Plaza.

Fresco believes it was while in court that Mary heard of the upcoming sale of the old Lucas Mansion (both she and the Lucas estate were in court the same day). The Mooneys quickly bought the old mansion, and she and Daniel took possession of the imposing house on the hill.

On August 22, 1885, the Mooneys set out in their horse and carriage from the mansion, headed to the theater in Los Angeles. Daniel took the reins, while Mary sat behind him in the backseat, arranging her evening gown. Suddenly, disaster struck. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Mrs. Mooney’s statement is that he was sitting on the front seat of the carriage and she on the back seat. The revolver was in his pocket, where it inconvenienced him, and he took it out and passed it back to her, saying, “Here, Mollie, take this.” She was arranging her skirts, and before she could rise and take the revolver the wheel went into a chuck-hole, the pistol fell and was discharged. Mooney sank forward. She threw her arm around his neck and said “Dan, are you hurt?’ He said only “Oh, Mollie” and never spoke more. The horses began to run, and holding the dead man with one hand, she caught the lines and directed the team with the other.

Not surprisingly, rumors that Mary had killed her husband were inevitable. “Mrs. Mooney is generally defined as a very handsome woman,” the Los Angeles Times wrote. “Her maiden name was Mary A. Green. Neither she nor her husband have enjoyed a strictly first-class reputation.”

Although Mary inherited her husband’s sizable estate, most said the couple was happily married. “There was no evidence that their marriage was in trouble, they weren’t living in separate places, there weren’t weird lawsuits going on,” Fresco says. “Maybe it was an accident.”

Now widowed, Mary moved on. She was soon having an affair with a married LA lawyer named Albert B. Hotchkiss, a well-liked playboy. Hotchkiss, known as A.B., helped Mary in her ongoing battle for custody of her nephew Jeff, who was “kind of a problem kid,” Fresco says. “Nobody loved him. Everyone just wanted custody of him for his money.”

In 1889, Mary was finally granted permission to adopt the now 14-year-old. White, his money, and his sizable inherited real estate portfolio were now in her possession. She and A.B. held tight to White’s valuable Downtown land, fighting any plans that would decrease its value or size.

But occasionally, Mary’s past came back to haunt her in one way or another. In 1891, John Mooney, one of the brother’s of her deceased husband, traveled to Los Angeles to uncover what had really happened back in 1885. He tracked down the old carriage and claimed to have information that the Mooneys had quarreled the morning of the shooting. According the Los Angeles Times:

“The matter was hushed up as soon as possible and for a long time nothing more was heard of the story until a few weeks ago, when the dead man’s brother arrived from the East, and as near as can be learned, he is hard at work and may create a sensation in the near future.” The writer also affirmed that Mrs. Mooney was “one of those women that would rather die than compromise.”

They were right. A letter from A.B. Hotchkiss soon arrived at the Times. In it he claimed that Mary had been sick in bed in Santa Monica when her servant boy brought her a letter of intimidation from John Mooney:

“It is in fact a letter of threats, intimating that Mrs. Mooney has been guilty of crime, causing the death of her husband, secreting his property and concealing the fact of his death.”

Unable to prove his sister-in-law had done anything improper, John Mooney soon headed back East. Mary and A.B. were victorious again. The couple married in 1894 and spent many happy hours in the mansion overlooking the sea, despite the rumors in town that Daniel Mooney haunted his wife in their former home.

But there was still the annoyance of White. “As soon as he was old enough, he starts selling off his land that he inherited, squandering the money, drinking, gambling and partying,” Fresco says. He married a showgirl and they went on a spending rampage, with White “throwing around the sheckles as though he were afraid they might pile up and smother him,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Soon, White was broke and without his wife, who had left as the money ran out. “Mary was really disgusted with him,” Fresco says. “And she took him to court again and tried to annul the adoption. And the judge was like, ‘you should have been a better mother. It’s your fault.’”

With no other options, White moved in with Mary in what had come to be known as the Mooney Mansion. “He’s broke and surly,” Fresco says. “They don’t like each other at all.”

In December of 1902, Mary and A.B. traveled to San Francisco, leaving the mansion in the charge of her sister and White. This designation of responsibility was perhaps an oversight. A few days earlier, the estate’s old caretaker, an insomniac who prowled the grounds every night, had died suddenly. “He was the guy who used to keep an eye on Jeff and make sure he didn’t get into too much trouble. Now that guy was gone,” Fresco explains. Around the same time, someone also shot and killed the family watchdog.

On New Year’s Eve, White had some of his best friends over. According to the Los Angeles Times:

While the heads of the household were away it is stated that Jeff White held his carnival with his boon companions. It is positively averred that on the night of the fire he and two male companions, roisterers of Santa Monica, got around a keg of beer and proceeded to get gloriously happy. It was about 2 o’clock in the morning when the fire broke out, but from that day to this the insurance companies have not been able get satisfactory account or reason given how or why the fire began.

The mansion that Nancy Lucas built as a pioneering Santa Monica landowner was burned to the ground. “The whole house was a total loss and everything in it, except that every single one of Jeff White’s possessions to the hairbrush was saved, neatly packed in a trunk,” Fresco says.

Although many, including the insurance companies, were highly suspicious of the fire, nothing was ever proven. A.B. Hotchkiss died in 1905, and Mary soon remarried. She never rebuilt her mansion on the hill, and developed a reputation as a mean old lady, obsessed with her money and her power. Mary died in 1934, leaving a fortune of $1 million, and real estate including a beach house at Ocean Park and property on South Olive Street. She donated 5 acres of the old mansion site to the city of Santa Monica, to be used as a public park named Mary Hotchkiss Park.

Today, the park is a simple, serene green space in middle of congested Santa Monica. You can still see the Pacific Ocean, except when it’s obscured by fog in shades of gray.

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