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Crime Seen: The Barclay Hotel

The Barclay Hotel
The Barclay Hotel today

The Barclay Hotel is, more or less, right in the navel area of the dark underbelly of downtown Los Angeles.The Hotel Cecil has become famous in the last few years, reaching a peak in 2021 with the Netflix mini-series The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. However the Barclay has just as dark a history as the Cecil, although it’s often over-looked. Like its famous neighbor on Main Street, the establishment has been a home to several serial killers and, unfortunately, the site of numerous suicides, deadly accidents, murders and unexplained deaths. Unlike the Cecil though, the Barclay has had an even more precipitous fall from grace, in that, incredible as it may seem, it was once the finest hotel in LA!

Early Years of the Barclay Hotel

The Barclay Hotel opened in 1897 as the Van Nuys Hotel, named after its owner, Isaac Newton Van Nuys. If you’re from LA you’ll recognize the name ‘Van Nuys’ from the boulevard and town of the same name, located in the San Fernando Valley. Van Nuys was part-owner of a 60,000 acre ranch there (the entire southern half of the valley, the lands of the old Mission San Fernando), which he and his partner later sold to build homes (in the largest property sale in the city’s history). His partner was his brother-in-law, James Boon Lankershim, who built the San Fernando Building across the street.

Van Nuys was also a director of the biggest bank in LA at the time (and the first one to incorporate here, in 1871), the Farmers and Merchants Bank – also across the street. Through various mergers and acquisitions Farmers and Merchants would become Bank of America, today one of the biggest in the U.S. At the time the neighborhood around the new hotel was transforming from being a residential district outside the heart of the old pueblo to becoming the heart of Los Angeles’ new commercial and banking district (now, ironically, it’s called the Old Bank District).

The Van Nuys Hotel was the first one in LA to have a phone and electricity in every room and until the Hotel Alexandria opened it was the city’s premiere establishment. President McKinley stayed there in 1901, as the first U.S. President to visit Los Angeles (shortly before he was assassinated by an anarchist). 

It remained a prestigious establishment, even as other, grander hotels opened, such as the Biltmore and the Ambassador, until the Great Depression when, like so much of downtown, it fell into a gradual decline. In 1929 it was rebranded as the Barclay Hotel and, although that didn’t seem to change its fortunes much, it is in fact the oldest continually operating hotel in Los Angeles.

Right from the beginning the Barclay proved to be a dangerous place. Barely two months after opening a waiter called Charles Gamble had a frightful accident in the elevator. Remember, the technology was quite new then. Unfortunately it seems that Gamble stepped out of the cage as it was going up. He fell forward and his legs were trapped between the top of the door and the still-rising cage. According to the Los Angeles Times: 

(His legs) 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.

Unbelievably, Gamble was still alive, dying an hour later in hospital. Ever since then guests have occasionally reported hearing a blood chilling scream in the elevator and seeing a hideously-injured, blood-covered man, seemingly dressed in hotel livery, holding out his hand and groaning the word “help” at them.

In fairness, it could be another hotel employee, Joe Kato, who unwisely poked his head into the elevator shaft in 1911. He was killed as the 5,000-pound counterweight dropped right onto him, sending Kato plummeting six-stories down, where he was impaled. 

The body count continued to rise. In 1902 a fight between kitchen staff turned deadly when the hotel butcher, Evan Roberts, was killed with a knife (the first of several). In 1909 an heiress called Ada Otis from Akron, Ohio, committed suicide by taking poison pills. Tragically, she too has been followed by others.

Thankfully, some episodes were not so tragic. In recent years many workers in the hospitality industry have complained that customers are either not tipping or leaving much smaller gratuities – apparently that was a problem a hundred years ago too. Campbell McGavin, a bell-hop, became famous for composing ditties about the hotel’s stingy guests. the Los Angeles Times reported:

His latest is ‘Thank You,’ 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.

However, the specter of death was never far from that corner of Main and Fourth Streets, in downtown LA. In 1937 there was a particularly nasty murder, when a seventy-one year old guest, called Elizabeth Reis, was found sitting in a chair in her room with her skull smashed. A brick was found on the bed, the presumed murder weapon, but her valuables had not been touched, so a motive was never established or even a suspect named.

Decline of the Barclay

It’s hardly surprising that the Barclay did decline in those years as it faced a perfect trifecta of business headwinds. First the main train station for Los Angeles relocated to Union Station, more than a mile distant, then in the 1950’s all the streetcar lines closed, one by one. Like many other old hotels in downtown the Barclay was unable to solve the problem that it never had any parking for cars, a very hard and expensive issue to overcome.

Finally downtown itself began a more general decline, as business, leisure and shopping activity relocated to other areas as freeway construction opened them up. These are the kinds of things that Environmental Impact Reports, and all the other City Hall red-tape, is meant to prevent, but those were different times. Of course now developers hate the red-tape, and fight it at every turn. Too much of a good thing?

Deadly Residents

As I previously mentioned there is a history of serial killers living at the Barclay too. The first one was a man by the name of Otto Stephen Wilson, later to become known as the LA Ripper. That name kind of gives the game away.

In 1944 he picked up a woman, Virginia Lee Griffin, in a local bar and brought her back to his room at the Barclay. He knocked her out, strangled her, cut her open right down the front of her torso, pulled out her entrails, cut off her breasts and then, just for good measure, almost cut off a leg and an arm. It took him all night. 

When he left in the morning he told the chambermaid not do disturb his wife, who was still sleeping. Eventually blood actually dripped through the floor and down into the room below via a light fitting, leading to complaints from the guests there. When they entered the room, the police described it as looking like a slaughterhouse. Ever since then guests in that room have reported a large dark red stain in its carpet. Housekeeping will try to remove it – but it always returns!

In the meantime, Wilson had gone to see a movie at the nearby Million Dollar Theatre and met another woman, Lillian Johnson. He took her to another hotel and killed her there. Unfortunately for him he’d left his butcher’s knives (his day job had been as a cook in the U.S. Navy) at the Barclay, but he did have a cut-throat razor and he went to work with it. 

Later he went out for another drink (I guess it must be thirsty work). However, the LAPD, having by then found Johnson, put a dragnet out and began trawling the neighborhood bars and cafes. While Wilson was trying to pick up a third woman he was spotted by an eagle-eyed cop and arrested. Within two hours he’d confessed and he was later executed. 

The other serial killer associated with the Barclay Hotel is the Skid Row Slasher, Vaughn Greenwood. His peak years were 1974-1975, when he killed seven transients in the Skid Row area. The last one was found in Greenwood’s room at the Barclay, on the fifth floor. 

Greenwood got his sobriquet because he would slash the throats of his victims so that they would bleed to death and there is considerable evidence that he drank their blood. He also surrounded the victims with a ring of salt and cups of blood, leading many to believe there was a Satanic element to his murders. 

After his killing spree in downtown, he turned his attention to Hollywood, where he killed two more people. Then, of all things, he tried to break into the house of screen-actor Burt Reynolds! Incredibly, he dropped a letter there when confronted by the startled star. Unfortunately for Greenwood the letter was was addressed to himself!

Even the LAPD couldn’t ignore a clue like that, and Greenwood was later picked up and charged. He was convicted and served his sentence at a prison in San Luis Obispo, where he died in 2020.

Barclay Hotel Today

Believe it or not, but the Barclay Hotel is still open. It was – at least when I last checked – one of the cheapest in the entire city, which is hardly surprising when you consider (incredibly it’s rated at four stars on Google). Its fame is such that a book has been published about the hotel by a former resident, although it has nowhere near the name recognition of the nearby Cecil. Perhaps that’s a good thing?

In 2021 it was announced that the Barclay Hotel would become supportive housing for low-income families experiencing homelessness, a very positive development for downtown and the hotel itself. The city sorely needs more housing for unhoused residents. It was the number one issue of the vast majority of residents in the recent Los Angeles mayoral elections, after all.

However, if you do end up staying there our advice is to take the stairs. It’s better for you. And don’t stay on the fifth or sixth floors.

The Cecil Hotel on our DTLA Murder Mystery Ghost Tour

Our DTLA: Murder Mystery Ghost tour visits the Barclay Hotel every Saturday night. Tour starts at 6pm, in nearby Pershing Square, and we usually visit a couple of neighborhood ‘haunted’ bars during the experience.

To learn about one of Los Angeles’ most famous unsolved murders read Crime Seen: the Black Dahlia.

If you have any feedback on Crime Seen: the Barclay Hotel please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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