A Serial Killer on Bunker Hill

There are many disparate, interconnected elements to the study of Old Bunker Hill. Component parts include the Hill’s architecture, and stories of its residents, and the famous tale of its slash-and-burn urban renewal. Then there’s crime. The true-crime genre often casts an eye on Bunker Hill—heck, there’s a website, and book, devoted solely to the subject of Bunker Hill’s crime—largely due to the intricacy and volume of criminal occurences, but also because your average Hill enthusiast’s initial exposure to Bunker Hill was likely via the hard-boiled prose of Chandler, or some Hill-filmed noir motion picture à la Criss Cross and Kiss Me Deadly.

Of all the Hill’s crime, arguably the grisliest criminal act ever perpetrated thereon was the 1937 Worden murders, committed by Robert Nixon and Howard Green. I consider the Worden slayings among the grisliest in all Los Angeles history, and that’s a tough crowd to join, our city having given the world the likes of Hickman and Manson and Ramirez.

So yes, a serial killer once visited Bunker Hill—but I write not of Liz of Angels Flight fame, nor real-life serial killer Stephen Nash, who lived on Bunker Hill (though he stabbed, but never actually killed, anyone there). Today we discuss Robert Nixon. Nixon will forever be tied to Bunker Hill in that he committed two of his multiple murders in the Hotel Astoria, 248 South Olive Street.

I wrote a bit about the Astoria killings in a piece for OnBunkerHill. Since I penned that post in 2008, there has been a Wikipedia page, begun in 2011. and a 2016 book partially concerning Nixon. The focus of the book is narrow and the Wikipedia page is flawed, thus accordingly, I shall endeavor to tackle the subject here (because no, editing Wiki pages is not a worm-can I shall ever seek to open).

Nixon and his doings warranted a two-page spread in Bunker Noir! — which I might add is available here. Nixon at the Astoria also made an appearance in the book Bunker Hill, Los Angeles.

About the arrangement of this post: being a Bunker Hill blog and all, in Part I, we cover the Olive Street Bunker Hill killings right off the bat. In Part II, we focus on the apartment-hotel-location in question, the Astoria at 248 South Olive Street.

But the April 1937 Astoria murders occurred about mid-way through Nixon’s vaster killing spree. Thus, after we tell the Worden murders tale, and recounting the Astoria’s history, in Part III we backtrack to detail Nixon’s story (early life, first Chicago crimes) leading up to Bunker Hill, and his continuing crimes in Chicago thereafter.

Part IV details the story post-capture. Parts V and VI are associated topics—V, the role Richard Wright’s novel Native Son has had in keeping interest in the Nixon case alive, and VI, a discourse on Elizabeth Dale’s 2016 book Robert Nixon and Police Torture in Chicago, 1871–1971.

I. The Worden Murders

April 1937. Los Angeles was on edge. Over the last few weeks, women had been attacked at an alarming rate. A young mother raped and beaten to death down on Stanford, while her baby cried in the adjoining crib. Another woman raped and beaten near death on Ingraham—they say she’ll never fully recover. Women attacked in the Rosslyn and Barclay Hotels; women attacked in Monte Sano hospital. A whole collection of rapes, and thwarted attempts, in assorted apartment houses. In each case, the same suspect, a tall African American male. In each case, the woman had her skull beaten with a brick.

Edna Worden lived on Bunker Hill with her preteen daughter. It was Saturday night, and devout Christian Scientist Edna made certain little flaxen-haired twelve-year-old Marguerite said her prayers before bed. Sunday would bring rest and devotion, and Marguerite, a top student at nearby Belmont Junior High, would prepare for a big day Monday—her first attendance at a new school, a prestigious Beverly Hills academy for girls.

Edna A. Blood was born May 30, 1888 to Frank and Anna (née Downs) Blood in Manchester, New Hampshire. Edna graduated from Manchester Central High School, a top student, and became a schoolteacher. On August 21, 1925, 37-year-old schoolteacher Edna married Raymond Arthur Worden, 32, a woodsman, in Goffstown, NH. A daughter, Marguerite, arrived soon after. In 1930 Edna and Raymond were living in Keansburg, New Jersey; census records list Raymond’s vocation as stocks and bonds. By 1932, Edna and Raymond had moved to Los Angeles, living at 1616 West Eleventh St. Soon thereafter, Raymond—a WWI vet with pronounced wartime PTSD that left him nearly disabled—departed Los Angeles and he moved back to New York and divorced Edna, charging desertion. Raymond, unemployed, moved in with his mother in Arlington, New York.

In September 1936 Edna and Marguerite were newly ensconced in their modest two-room apartment in the Astoria, 248 South Olive Street. The Astoria had been among the finest residential hotels in Los Angeles, once; thirty years after its opening, it had become a bit faded, but still suitable for the genteel and decorous, despite their financial straits. Edna made a meager but respectable living as a WPA worker, and took in a bit of money from Volunteers of America, and once in a while erstwhile husband Raymond sent a few bucks for Marguerite’s schooling. Edna and Marguerite’s humble apartment, room 206 at the Astoria, $18.75 a month, had two beds and a little kitchen. Edna was dutifully cultured; their rooms were crowded with books, in particular the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Scott, Milton, Dante, Byron, Poe and the Greek philosophers. In her spare time Edna worked on manuscripts for the Christian Science Monitor; a portrait of Mary Baker Eddy hung on the wall, keeping watch over Edna’s good works. In the corner was a blackboard, where little Marguerite kept a record of the time and length of her prayers—”7:45am – six minutes.”

The night of Saturday April 3rd, 1937, the Worden women went to bed; Marguerite clutched her wee rag doll. From a light fixture hung Marguerite’s freshly washed and starched blue gingham dress, which she would wear to Sunday school, or perhaps to her new school come Monday.

But that was not to be.

John D. A. Riley, elevator operator at the Astoria, had for months and without fail received a special early-morning Sunday visitor. Early each and every Sunday, when the newspaper arrived, little Marguerite would run to Riley and collect the Sunday comic supplement. This Sunday, April 4, she did not come to fetch the funnies. He already had a bad feeling; he had passed by the Worden’s room at six a.m. and had heard an odd noise…not quite like snoring, more like a gurgling. Or even a moan. He would later describe is as a “sigh, something like a nightmare.”

The hour got later—perhaps they had already made their way to church?—but at 12:30pm, when mother and daughter had not returned from services, Riley fetched the building’s manager, J. E. Harrigan. Harrigan climbed up on a stepladder to peer over the transom. What he saw was horror beyond compare.

Harrigan called LAPD who hurriedly sent Detective Lieutenants Thomas R. Bryan and Sosten R. Lopez. They encountered a ghastly scene. Edna Worden was nude, the lower half of her body on her bed, her head hanging down to the floor, her torn blue-striped nightgown pushed up to her neck, blood and gore around her smashed skull.

Similarly, preteen Marguerite had had her pajama bottoms torn off, and her pajama top pushed up to her neck. Her face was covered with a sticky, bloody pillow atop which lay a gore-caked brick. When investigators pulled the pillow from her face, they found her nose caved in and repeated blows to her right temple.

Edna’s purse was empty and discarded on the floor.

The Detectives called for a Coroner’s deputy, who arrived and determined the little girl had been dead for some hours, but that Edna has lived through the ordeal until comparatively recently. A detachment of officers arrived in short order—Police Chemist Ray Pinker, Officer J. B. Larbaig of the Fingerprint Bureau, and Detective Lieutenants Thad Brown and Miles Ledbetter. Uniformed officers cordoned off Bunker Hill, lining Olive and Clay Streets.

Pinker ascertained the killer or killers had entered through the kitchen window, pulling the upper half of the double-hung window down from the top. Pinker found twelve-inch footprints of stockinged feet, and made casts. Lopez discovered a one-third-full milk bottle on a ledge near the window, and then noticed the windowsill had a circle in the dust, indicating the bottle had been moved from the sill. Lopez immediately determined it had a greasy fingerprint smudge, and it was sent to the Research Laboratory for minute investigation. There, Lieutenant Millerd G. Gaskell lifted two prints from the bottle. Detective Lieutenants Bryan, and Raymond E. Giese, were put on the case full-time.

Given the state of the naked woman and child, with their bedclothes pushed up to their necks, and the child spread-eagle, it was stated in the press that they had been raped. Autopsy Surgeon Dr. Andrew Fremont Wagner deduced that while there was evidence of preteen Marguerite being attacked sexually, her attacker failed to complete the job.

For weeks thereafter, the homicide squad of twenty-four detectives, plus four squads of LAPD detectives, and fifty men from Metropolitan Division, in prowl cars and on foot, some in uniform and others plainclothes, spread out across the city in a human dragnet. Dozens of suspects were brought to LAPD Central (a stone’s throw from Bunker Hill at 318 West First St.) and had their fingerprints checked. Those picked up were almost entirely Black—multiple recent attacks and killings with a similar modus operandi invariably involved eyewitness accounts of a Black man fleeing the scene—though the net caught not only African American men but, for example, Don Raul de Vedas, a young violinist who late one night “accidentally” wandered into the bedroom of Bernice Cooper at 109 North Grand Avenue; and David Madrid, who was captured in the Little Sisters of the Poor home for the aged, 2700 East First St., strangling 74-year-old Mary Houlihan, because he was gripped by a “midnight urge to kill.” LAPD looked especially at car washers, as prints in the Worden and previous attacks involved automobile grease. After the Worden assaults, brick attacks abruptly ceased, and it was believed the suspect(s) left town.

A month into a fruitless investigation, Bryan and Giese, at the direction of Captain Wallis, prepared a circular letter and mailed copies of it to the police departments of more than 300 cities (including Mexico, Hawaii, Cuba and Canada), inquiring as to whether similar crimes, with similar perpetrators and MO (Black men; fire escapes and windows; robbery, rape, and murder; and bricks, always bricks), had occurred in their jurisdictions. They received a lot of responses, but only one city stood out as having a very similar series of outrages—Chicago.

On May 18, 1937, Bryan and Giese wrote to Chicago Chief of Detectives John L. Sullivan in search of a matching fingerprint. Unfortunately, a partial latent left at the rape attempt, purse looting, and murder of Mrs. Florence Thompson Castle—beaten to death by a brick-wielding killer in June 1936—was too smeared to be conclusive. Bryan and Giese, however, were certain the same killer was working in both Los Angeles and Chicago.

Not ten days later, on May 27th, 1938, Chicago wife and mother Mrs. Florence Johnson was attacked and murdered by a brickbat-wielding killer, from which Chicago picked up a man, identifying himself as one Thomas Crosby; he is covered in scratches and fresh blood (he insisted he had been killing chickens, but lab work quickly identified the blood on him as human).

After which LA’s Lt. Bryan read in the Hollywood Citizen News all about Crosby and, reading his description, looked into the name and, sure enough, there had been a Los Angeles arrest of Thomas Crosby on a juvenile burglary charge. And, sure enough, his fingerprints from juvie matched those left at the Worden murder, as well as prints left at the attack on Zoe Damrell, a week before the Worden killings. Lieutenant Bryan wired Chicago chief Sullivan to detain Crosby immediately; Crosby turned out to be one Robert Nixon. Sullivan fingerprinted Nixon, and his prints matched the Worden killings. The Brickbat Slayer had been captured.

Nixon and Green walked west up Second Street, turned south on Clay Street, and crawled up the dirt embankment between the Astoria apartments at 248 South Olive (left) and its neighbor the Blackstone at 244, and up into the Worden’s Astoria window, here
The window into which the killers gained ingress. We are looking down from near Olive, between the Astoria (r) and Blackstone (l). Three detectives stand on Clay Street. Hill Street structures in the distance. To further clarify, take a look at this—
The little bedroom with two beds pushed against each other. Marguerite’s rag doll, mute witness to the horror

II. The Astoria

The Astoria soon after its opening, 1906

In the summer of 1903 William Steppe Collins—the oil, orange, and real estate magnate (when he developed Newport Beach, all of Balboa Island was named “Collins Island”)—announced plans to build a grand hotel on Bunker Hill, called The Collins. On a 73×165′ Olive Street lot, two lots north of Third and the upper Angels Flight location, extending eastward to Clay Street, was to be a grand nine-story hotel, with rooftop gardens and dining room, topped by a massive belfry from which chimes would ring the hour.

The Collins’s architect was Arthur L. Haley. Its initial incarnation, left, was published in the Times, June 21 1903. A subsequent version published in the Evening Express October 3 1903, shows Haley has re-imagined the Collins with more Moorish flair

However, by the spring of 1904, the hotel failed to materialized and W. S. Collins was being sued for breach of contract. Alfred T. Finney (manager of Bunker Hill’s Hotel Normandie [which would be renamed the Nugent and later, the New Grand]) had signed a lease for the forthcoming Collins, and began renting the empty Hill Street lot that lay immediately east of the proposed Collins, so that the hotel could have a park and ornamental gardens. Collins countered that his inability to build the structure wasn’t his fault, but the City’s: they wouldn’t allow a 135′ wooden structure, rather, 65′ was as high as they would allow a wooden structure, and it was too expensive for Collins to build in steel-reinforced concrete, so, the rentals on a smaller building didn’t pencil out to cover construction costs.

Collins sold the unimproved lot to local real estate man Edwin W. Smith in May 1905. By July Smith had pulled permits for a hotel he shall name The Astoria. It was built in mere months and opened in January 1906.

Right, Los Angeles Times, 17 December 1905; Left, Los Angeles Herald, 14 February 1906

The architect for the Astoria is Albert Julius Daniels. Yes I know, I state in Bunker Hill Los Angeles that the Astoria’s architect is Arthur L. Haley. I’m not normally prone to misattribution so that blunder causes me no lack of shame; said mistake stems, I have deduced, from Haley having been on board to design the lot’s initial structure, and the fact that most of the Mission Revival buildings on the Hill are Haley’s. (Fact is, I never quite bought the Astoria as a Haley, so my Daniels discovery didn’t shock me. Haley was far too serious about his Mission Revival to include bay windows, e.g., Haley’s Mission at Second and Olive and his Munn at 438 South Olive.)

A. J. Daniels is less remembered than Haley, but he bears study. Let’s look at, for example, the house Daniels built at 1050 South Bonnie Brae in 1908, for he and his wife Ruby. It’s a handsome home, featuring some standard Edwardian styling, with its shingle and bay windows and prominent gabling.

From here

Then, flash forward to 1913, and the home Daniels built for himself and new wife Mary (Ruby having passed in 1910—she died on the operating table at Clara Barton—yes, that Clara Barton on Bunker Hill). Daniel’s house is a really rather remarkable Prairie structure at 2523 Tenth Avenue:

One wonders what Daniels would have gone on to do, had he not died in November 1913 at age 56

I’m not here to write an essay about Albert Julius Daniels, so suffice it to say, he designed the Astoria. As such, back to the Astoria:

The Astoria in 1945. Note the Blackstone (Walter Jesse Saunders, 1916) has been constructed to the north; it is between the Blackstone and Astoria that Robert Nixon creeped his way into the Worden apartment. Note as well that the Hillcrest Apartments to the south has had its rooftop balustrade and finials removed, and received a nasty stucco job
The Astoria in 1955, shot by Leonard Nadel
In foreground, the Elks Lodge across Third Street, at 300 South Olive, undergoing demolition in September 1962. The blue-grey bay-window’d backend of the Astoria can only look on, fearful of the future. The Hillcrest, between the Astoria and the Elks Lodge, had already been demolished in September 1961. Shot by Walker Evans
The Astoria between late 1961 (the demolition of the neighboring Hillcrest) and mid-1963 (the demolition of the Astoria). George Mann This shot was also captured by Arnold Hylen . The neighboring Blackstone Apartments was demolished in June-July 1964.
The Astoria, taken through eminent domain by the Community Redevelopment Agency, undergoes demolition, mid 1963.
The demolition of the Astoria, captured in Edmund Penney’s Angels Flight

IIIa. The Works of Robert Nixon

Robert Nixon was born in Tallulah, Louisiana, the seat of Madison Parish. While it is often stated he was born in 1919, there is evidence he was born closer to 1914: when picked up for burglary offenses, Nixon gave his age as a juvenile because they “went easier” on juveniles. No mention is ever made of Nixon having a father, but his mother worked as a cook for Andrew Jackson Sevier, the Sheriff of Madison Parish. Much of Nixon’s early life is murky, given the inconsistent and contradictory stories he told about himself. As best put together, he may have moved to Chicago in 1933 to live with his brother, or he may have stayed in Louisiana until 1935, when he finished fifth grade. He may have gone to Los Angeles at the same time, or perhaps to Chicago; his brother moved to New York, after whick Nixon drifted to Reno to Oakland and down to Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, during the first half of 1937, Nixon lived at 803 South Central, in a three-story apartment hotel. Nixon, after returning to Chicago in mid-1937, stated that from July to September 1937, he worked as a chauffeur for a “prominent Chicago wholesale businessman” (who remained unnamed); but also stated he had been a chauffeur beginning in 1933 (when he was ostensibly thirteen or fourteen years old). He claimed that he had not needed to resort to crime because he had saved “several hundred dollars” as a chauffeur, but subsequently claimed he had made that money working as an extra in two Hollywood movies, Souls at Sea and Slave Ship—which paid $17.50 a week.

IIIb. Nixon in Chicago, 1936.

June 29, 1936. Florence Thompson Castle, 24, worked at a nightclub called the Palace Gardens, at North Clark and Ohio Streets; in the 1930s North Clark was a gaudy land of hotcha joints known as “the Barbary Coast.” A former nightclub singer until derailed by a throat ailment, she became a hostess—or, in the parlance of the times, a B-Girl, or “come on girl”. It was her job to keep the gentlemen drinking, and buying her drinks—though the bartender always swapped her whisky for iced tea. For this, Florence netted 30% of what her male-customer-friends spent on her drinks. After work on a Monday night at 3:00am she walked east down Ohio, to her apartment in the Devonshire Hotel (once all mobbed up, now known as the Freehand).

Robert Nixon worked in the Palace Gardens as a porter, shining patron’s shoes. “I thought Mrs. Castle was the most beautiful woman in the world,” Nixon would later state to investigators. “Sometimes I shined her shoes, and after a while I began to speak to her. One night, I asked to see her home. She was angry and told me not to talk to her anymore.”

Nixon followed her to the Devonshire, witnessed her enter and waited until a light went on. That is how he ascertained which room was hers. He climbed the fire escape and brought a brick into the room. There he encountered Florence and her young son Jimmy, 7. Nixon ripped off Florence’s nightgown, and Jimmy lay beside his mother, watching, as Nixon attempted rape and then cracked Jimmy’s mother’s skull open with repeated blows from a brick, hitting her so hard as to split the weapon in two.

Nixon took Florence’s lipstick and wrote “Black Legon Game” and a skull and crossbones on the mirror. Nixon would later admit “there was a lot at the time about the Black Legion in Detroit, so I wrote that stuff on the mirror to fool the cops.”

At 5:30am Jimmy went down to see Elvin Richardson, the lobby clerk. He said his name was Jimmy Thompson, and he lived in room 814, and a big Black man had done something to his mama, and now she couldn’t wake up. Detectives rushed to the scene and found Florence nude, her torn silk nightgown discarded in the corner, her head split open, the discarded brick pieces sticky with blood and blonde hair. Luckily, Sergeant James Conlan of the Bureau of Identification lifted a full set of right-hand prints from the window sill.

Florence Thompson Castle, June 15, 1912-June 29, 1936
Little Jimmy, who lay next to her as she was beaten to death
Sergeant Edward Stepk holds the brick that spelled death for Florence Castle Thompson
Captain William O’Brien examines the mirror on which Nixon wrote a cryptic message

September 25, 1936. Alda Deery, twenty-three years old, was preparing for bed in her room, No. 515, at the Washington Hotel, 167 West Washington Street. A dancer from New York, Alda had just performed four stage shows in the “September Varieties” at the Chicago Theater, then out for drinks at the Three Deuces. Robert Nixon came up the fire escape, through her window, and hit her in the face with a brick. He tore her grey dress down the front and raped her. He used the brick to beat her unconscious and used one of her stockings to strangle her. Alda’s roomate, Dorothy Ryan, a 24-year-old singer in the varieties show, in adjoining room 515a, heard groaning at 4:30am and smelled smoke, so went in to check on her. She found barely alive, quickly losing blood and blue from strangulation. Authorities rushed to the scene and found Alda’s clothes in a pile in her closet, had been set aflame. Alda described a large Black man with a southern accent. She recovered, and by 1940 was living with her mother back in New York on West 98th St., and pursuing her career as a nightclub singer.

Alda Deery had appeared on Broadway in Fine and Dandy in 1930

IIId. Los Angeles January—June 21st, 1937

January 25, 1937. Xabie Alice Clark Koll, 42, wife of real estate developer Harvey W. Koll, had gone into Monte Sano hospital for an operation. At 3:30am she woke to a man above her, who beat her head with a brick. Her screams caused Nixon to flee.

February 2, 1937. Elizabeth Ries, 71, and elderly visitor from Akron, had checked into Room 415 of the Barclay Hotel, 103 West Fourth Street. At 2:00am Nixon climbed onto her fire escape and into her window, and with a brick, fractured her skull from the top of her head to the base of her left ear. The contents of her purse were scattered over the fire escape. She awoke from a coma six weeks later, deaf in her left ear, but alive; she survived till 1953.

Akron Beacon Journal, 4 February 1937

February 14, 1937. Mr. H. D. Nash and wife, visitors to Los Angeles checked into the Rosslyn Hotel, 100 West Fifth Street, were startled to find Nixon looting their room; Nixon fled out the window and down the fire escape, leaving a brick behind.

February 16, 1937. Miss Lola Torres was asleep in her ground-floor apartment on South Santee Street. The crash of an ashtray woke her, and she screamed as she saw a man climbing through her window. Screams awakened neighbors who saw the perpetrator, a Black man, approximately six feet tall and twenty-five years of age, running toward Maple Street. Unconfirmed as Nixon, but fits the profile.

March 2, 1937. Rose Valdez lived at 651 Stanford with her husband Florencio and four-month old baby, Flora. It’s 11:00am on a Tuesday morning, and apartment manager Pauline Fowler had been disturbed by an endless stretch of the baby’s piteous wailing from Apartment 4. Other tenants began to complain so she went to investigate, but knocks on the Valdez’s door produced no answer—only more baby cries.

Fowler let herself in with a pass-key and was met with a dreadful scene. Nixon had left Rose nude, her nightgown pushed up to her neck, her legs hideously spread. A pillow, soaked in blood, covered her face. Rose had been brutally raped, then beaten to death with a basal skull fracture, the bloody brickbat found discarded beneath the sink.

Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1937
Looking down the side alley along 651 Stanford, at the window through which Nixon entered.
Rose’s dresser, powdered for fingerprints

March 27, 1937. Harry Stead at 515 Wall Street found a man climbing through his window at 2:00am. When he confronted the intruder, the intruder dropped his brick and ran. Probable Nixon occurrence.

March 28, 1937. Zoe Gehde Damrell was not so lucky. Robert Nixon and pal Howard Jones Green were casing Wilshire Boulvevard for apartment houses to burgle. They came upon an alleyway between a small house and an apartment building at 1026 Ingraham Street. Nixon boosted Green up onto his shoulders and then Green lifted Nixon into apartment 105. They snapped on the light and encountered Mrs. Zoe Damrell, 45. While Green looted her pocketbook and stole the wristwatch off the nightstand, Nixon beat Damrell in the head and face with a brick. While she survived the attack, she suffered a fractured skull and permanent brain damage. She died in 1945, at the age of 53.

1026 Ingraham, a four-story apartment house built in 1922, where Zoe Damrell survived an encounter with Robert Nixon

April 4, 1937. The Worden Murders. Saturday night, Robert Nixon, Howard Jones Green, and Edgar Black shot pool and then went to an all-night Main Street theater. Nixon and Green departed about 3:00am Sunday morning, and walked up Second Street, looking for a place to rob. Nixon and Green saw a light in the Astoria, and peeped it. Then Nixon picked up a brick, removed the milk bottle on the window ledge, removed the screen, and crawled in the window.

Edna Worden was dispatched with great ferocity, Nixon and Green netting all of seven dollars from her purse. Nixon, or Green, or both, stripped and attempted penetration on preteen Marquerite, but were unsuccessful in their efforts. After murdering both woman and girl, it was time to skip town.

Inside the Worden apartment. Left to right, Detective Lieutenants Miles Ledbetter, Thad Brown and Thomas Bryan
Robert Nixon’s partner in Los Angeles crime, Howard Jones Green

IIIc. Chicago, Further Attacks, and Capture

July 16, 1937. Betty Bryant, 28, was in her room on the fifth floor at the Hotel Lorraine, 411 South Wabash. Her husband was on the road and she was alone. Nixon climbed the fire escape through her window, raped and beat her. At 2:00am a hotel bellboy heard a faint cry for help. The bellboy grabbed the manager and a passkey and they were met with a horrible scene—the room spattered with blood, Betty unconscious, a discarded brick on the floor.

Hotel Lorraine photograph from here.

August 15, 1937. Virginia Austin, 25, a doll designer for New York’s Fleischaker & Baum, moved to Chicago to demonstrate puppets she had carved herself, in a local department store. Nixon crawled up the fire escape into room 414 of the Washington Hotel, 167 Washington, where he had previously raped, beaten, and strangled dancer Alda Deery, and set her room on fire, in September 1936. Nixon beat Virginia with a brick, raped her, and stole $3 from her purse.

August 16, 1937. Florence Palmowski, a student nurse at the Chicago Hospital, 811 East 49th Street, was taking a short rest in her room, which she shared with a girl named Anna Kuchta, when a man stepped from the fire escape through the window into her room. She screamed and the prowler fled.

Florence Palmowski
A detective considers the window

August 21, 1937. Anna Kuchta, 19, another student nurse at Chicago Hospital and Florence Palmowski’s roomate, was at the switchboard at 4:00am. It was five days after Florence’s screams had scared off an intruder who had climbed into the window via the fire escape. Anna went to the room to take a quick nap, since she had to be back on duty at 6:00am. Florence Palmowski entered the room and encountered the same hulking dark youth who’d crawled through the window five nights before: Robert Nixon. Nixon fled back through the window, and when Florence snapped on the light she discovered Anna dead, nude save for her stockings and white shoes, brutally raped, her skull crushed, Nixon’s blood-stained brick abandoned on the windowsill.

Anna Kuchta, July 26, 1918 — August 21, 1937
A detective at the fire escape window of the Palmokski/Kuchta room
Anna Kuchta, and Florence Palmowski, who found Anna’s body

Prints found on Kuchta’s lamp matched those found in the Florence Thompson Castle killing. Police fanned out across the city, guarding the fire escapes at all hotels, hospitals, and other institutions where women lived. This made things pretty hot for Robert Nixon, who laid low, until…

May 27, 1938. Mrs. Florence Johnson, 34, a registered nurse, wife of a Chicago fireman, and mother to little Kenneth and Florence, was sleeping in the porch of her ground floor apartment at 4631 Lake Park Avenue. Robert Nixon and Earl Hicks, a friend Nixon had made in Chicago in the summer of 1937, entered through the children’s bedroom windown, traversed the apartment, found Florence and attacked her (although Dr. F. K. James stated she had been criminally assaulted, coroner’s assistant Thomas Carter, who performed the autopsy, concluded her sexual assault had not been fully realized) though when she screamed Hicks fled. Nixon remained and proceeded to crack her skull open with repeated poundings of a brick. Then Florence’s sister Margaret Whitton entered the room, whereupon Nixon dropped the brick and fled.

Florence Johnson, for whose murder Nixon was electrocuted
The structure still stands
Chicago PD points to the window, Acme Newspictures, 27 May 1938

Police were immediately alerted and found Nixon running along the sidewalk four blocks away, the south side of 47th between Ellis and Greenwood, covered in scratches and wet blood. He insisted that he had just been plucking chickens. He was taken in for questioning and his shirt turned over to Professor Clarence Muelberger of Chicago University, who later that day ascertained the blood was human, not chicken. Nixon’s footprints matched those left outside Florence Johnson’s home, and his fingerprints matched those left at the brickbat slayings of the Wordens, Florence Thompson Castle, and Anna Kuchta. The Brickbat Slayer’s reign of terror had ended.

IV. Confession, Trial, Conviction, Prison, Execution

Nixon originally provided his alias, Thomas Crosby, to Chicago authorities. “Thomas Crosby” had been picked up in Los Angeles three times in 1937 (burglary in February, purse snatching in March, and picked up as a robbery suspect April 23rd, nineteen days after the Worden murders), but because he had asserted he was a juvenile, those records weren’t looked at after the Valdez/Worden murders. At LAPD, juvenile prints were not placed in the regular criminal files, but in a locked cabinet, with no access to anyone but the Captain, a system employed for the protection of youthful law breakers. Juvenile records were, also, not checked since eyewitnesses usually described the attacker as about 25 years old (Nixon was, an argument can be made, 24 years old at the time of the attacks, but had lied about his age when picked up in 1937).

After Nixon’s April 23rd 1937 robbery arrest, he admitted that he, together with Howard Jones Green and Edgar Black, had brutally beaten a Japanese man named C. Kono and robbed him of seven dollars. The victim suffered a fractured nose, a severe cut over one eye and serious contusions.

It was then Nixon indicated himself to be a juvenile. Nixon was declared a ward of the Juvenile Court and committed to the Preston School of Industry, but pleaded so hard to be sent back to his parents in Tallulah, Louisiana that the sentence was suspended and the Chief County Probation Officer put him on a train home. Nixon got home, committed several burglaries, and fled back to Chicago.

When Lieutenant Bryan read of the Florence Johnson brickbat murder arrest of Crosby—Black, 5’11”, 140lbs—the physical description and MO convinced him “Crosby” was their man. Nixon’s prints were sent from Chicago and they matched those left at the Worden murder site perfectly. Even if found not guilty of first-degree murder in Chicago, Nixon would be extradited to California and certainly go to the gas chamber at San Quentin.

Friday, May 27, 1938, Robert Nixon had murdered Florence Johnson about 5:30am. When Nixon was seized immediately thereafter, he gave up the location of Hicks, and made a confession 11:00pm Saturday night, the 28th. He and Hicks then confessed again, together, two hours later, at 1:00am Sunday morning.

Sunday, May 29th, at 4:45pm, Nixon and Hicks walked detectives through the Johnson killing.

May 29th, 1938, Nixon and Hicks walk detectives through the Johnson murder
Nixon stated that he had taken an apple from Florence Johnson’s kitchen, ate a couple bites, and tossed it on the way out. At which point he found it again with ease.

Nixon, under questioning, when presented with the fingerprint evidence in the 1936 Thompson Castle murder, admitted it freely. He also gave up the whereabouts of his Los Angeles confederate Howard Jones Green, who had traveled to Chicago to be with Nixon, in a lodging house on 46th Street. Nixon was told he had left fingerprint evidence at the rape and killing of Anna Kuchta and thus admitted that attack, describing it in detail to the police stenographer.

Hicks was seized in a poolroom near South Michigan Avenue and 47th. He confessed immediately to being there but insisted Nixon had slain the young mother. Police believed this account; after all, Nixon had confessed to the vicious bludgeoning in the Castle and Kuchta murders; Hicks, a small man, had a long record as a petty thief, but no apparent inclination to murder.

Nixon drew a map of the Washington hotel for investigators, then confessed to raping and beating Alda Deery and Virginia Austin. He subsequently produced a map of the Lorraine Hotel, and confessed to the violent attack on Betty Bryant.

A man named Thomas McCall was in prison for Nixon’s attack on Virginia Austin, despite Virginia Austin asserting that her attacker was Black, and that he had climbed up the fire escape (McCall lived in the hotel). Though Nixon later attempted to repudiate his confession when later faced with McCall, McCall was released from Stateville and given full apologies.

May 31, 1938: Nixon and Hicks sign statements confessing to Florence Johnson’s murder, witnessed by members of the Grand Jury, Charles H. E. Arnold, William Caunt and Timothy Deneen.

Tuesday, May 31, 1938. After confessing to multiple murders to Chicago PD, Nixon and Hicks sign confessions for the Grand Jury. Meanwhile, LAPD Lieutenants Bryan and Gaskell arrived in Chicago at 6:00pm. Bryan brought with him a telegram sent to LAPD Homicide Captain Bert Wallis, from Sheriff A. J. Sevier of Tallulah, Louisiana:

Robert Nixon, negro, born July 19, 1919, has been a sneak thief and house burglar since he was six years old. Had no legal punishment suitable except chastisement. His mother is a cook. She worked for me while Robert was committing burglaries of residences here. Robert has been traveling between your city, Chicago, and here for many years. He came here from your city last July. Nothing but death will stop his career.

(Note that the 1919 DOB contradicts what Chicago Chief Sullivan was told by authorities in Louisiana Vital Records, that Nixon was twenty-four, making him born in 1914.)

LAPD Lieutenants Thomas Bryan (left) and Millerd G. Gaskell (right), during a discussion of the case with Deputy Chief of Detectives Walter Storms in Chicago.

June 3, 1938, Nixon and Hicks were taken from jail to perform reenactments of other Chicago crimes. First, Nixon scaled the wall and jumped onto the fire escape at Chicago Hospital, and into the room where he raped and murdered Anne Kuchta. Before he entered he drew a map of the room which showed a guitar case and souvenir walking cane, elements of the scene that had never been released to the public.

Robert Nixon demonstrates how he approached Anna Kuchta lying on the bed

Nixon was then taken to the Lorraine Hotel, of which he had penned a map:

There Nixon demonstrated how he had raped Betty Bryant in the Lorraine Hotel.

Nixon was taken to the Devonshire Hotel where, before a large crowd, he reenacted how he scaled the outside of the building to gain ingress into Florence Thompson Castle’s apartment in June 1936 :

The fire escape still exists behind the whilom Devonshire

After Nixon agreed to reenact the Castle killing, Assitant State’s Attorney John S. Boyle tried an experiment: he had all the furniture rearranged. After Nixon scaled the twenty-foot brick wall, reached the fire escape, and clambored into the room, he called attention of police to the fact that the furniture had been moved around.

Friday, June 4, 1938, was finally confronted by the Los Angeles detectives. Nixon drew a map of the Worden murders and confessed that he and Green, whom he’d known from Tallulah, LA since he was eight years old, had committed the killings. Green originally denied involvement, but on June 6, in the presence of Bryan, Gaskell, Sullivan, and Assistant State’s Attorney John S. Boyle, admitted his part, and returned with them to Los Angeles on June 17, 1938. On the train back to Los Angeles, he repudiated his participation in the Worden slayings, but admitted the beating of the Japanese man, and the attack on Zoe Damrell.

Nixon and Hicks were indicted for the murder of Florence Johnson. On January 27, 1939, the Hon. Judge John C. Lewe sentenced Hicks, who appeared as a states witness against Nixon, to fourteen years imprisonment, for his part in the Florence Johnson killing.

Nixon and Earl Hicks

Howard Green was convicted of Assault with a Deadly Weapon and Burglary in the Zoe Damrell attack. He was sentenced October 11, 1938, and received at San Quentin February 18, 1939. Green was paroled November 28, 1941, and found work at the Richmond shipyard during WWII. Green returned to San Quentin December 28, 1948, on a charge of Grand Theft, and was transferred to Folsom June 26, 1950.

Howard Jones Green

Nixon was convicted by the Cook County Criminal Court on August 6, 1938, and was sentenced to die in the electric chair October 21st. Immediately before he was to die, in an attempt to “clear his conscience,” Nixon called authorities to his cell and copped to the murder of Rose Valdez.

New York Daily News, October 23, 1938

He received eight stays of execution, and was electrocuted on June 16, 1939.

The Episcopal Chaplain at the Cook County Jail, Rev. Albert E. Selcer, comforts Nixon in his final hours, October 1938. Appeals and stays postponed his date with the electric chair until June

V. The Racist Press

The deeds of Robert Nixon and his killer compatriots would likely be forgotten, had it not been for author Richard Wright basing his popular novel Native Son on Nixon. Today, it is often said that Wright was moved to pen his book (which argues that Black men commit heinous crimes as a reaction to systemic racism) because the mainstream press surrounding Nixon was uniformly racist—and yet, Wright never stated such. Wright did mention in “How Bigger was Born,” published in the September 1940 Negro Digest, that “many of the newspaper items and some of the incidents in Native Son are but fictionalized versions of the Robert Nixon case and rewrites of news stories from the Chicago Tribune.”

The first person to contend there existed a surfeit of racist press was Arnold Rampersad, in his 1992 introduction to Native Son (Rampersad himself never spoke to Wright; the introduction was penned thirty years after Wright’s death) which states of Wright’s process: “securing virtually all the newspaper clippings about the Nixon case, Wright used many of its details in his novel. These details included copious examples of raw white racism, especially in depicting the black defendant as hardly more than an animal.” Thus people frequently repeat Rampersad’s claim about Wright, and that the press was widely racist, and point to the infamous article in the June 1938 Tribune, “Brick Slayer is Likened to Jungle Beast” as being characteristic of the press of the day.

This article, on page six of the Tribune, famously described Nixon to a “jungle Negro” reminiscent of the giant ape from Murders in the Rue Morgue

To be strictly honest, however, there is scant evidence of a “racist press.” There was, certainly, this one article (above), replete with lurid racist depictions of Nixon’s simian nature, up to and including snarling with bared teeth. It was penned by Charles Richard Leavelle, 32, an Oklahoma-born reporter for the Tribune, best known as editor and biographer for 1944’s The Dyess Story; Leavelle would die a decade after the Nixon “Jungle Beast” article at age 42.

Granted, there were times Nixon was referred to as The Brick Moron

31 May 1938

—but every serial killer gets a colorful sobriquet, and in Nixon’s case it referenced his style of killing and purported low IQ, not his race. (You might say “look, they call him a Negro!” but remember, even the Los Angeles Times used Negro as a descriptive, commonly, into the 1970s; the same holds true for the word colored [hence, for example, the NAACP].) Moreover, there are only five individual press stories wherein Nixon is called “Brick Moron”. All other stories about Nixon, which run in the hundreds, refer to him, quite accurately, as “The Brick Killer” or some variation thereof.

In short, despite the prevailing narrative, there is little evidence that there existed an overtly racist media repeatedly demonizing Nixon for his race. Apart from Leavelle’s ugly, lengthy screed, there does in fact exist one mention of Nixon’s “jungle” strength and agility, after Nixon lunged at and choked Florence Castle Thompson’s widower in court on 6 June 1938, the day after Leavelle’s “jungle” article. This is not to suggest there wasn’t racism in Chicago; the Great Migration led to an explosion of Chicago’s Black populace, and subsequent racial tensions led to all manner of ugliness. Nevertheless, except for Leavelle’s now-famous piece, contemporary reporting was not replete with racist tropes and language, despite repeated recent assertions otherwise:

The suggestion that media coverage was uniformly racist, based on there having been one overtly racist article, is roughly analogous to the common assertion that many families were forcibly evicted from Chavez Ravine, when the sum total of families forcibly evicted from Chavez Ravine stands at precisely…one

Whatever the merits of Native Son—James Baldwin most famously derided Wright’s work for reducing Bigger Thomas to a simple stereotype without agency, and a descendant of Stowe’s Uncle Tom—for our purposes, ultimately Native Son is a remarkable record of Robert Nixon. Bigger Thomas (“Thomas” from Nixon’s alias, Thomas Crosby) and his Hicks-like buddy hang out at pool halls, commit robberies, and ultimately murders (like Robert Nixon, who scrawled “Black Leg(i)on Game” on the mirror to throw investigators off track, Bigger scrawls a hammer and sickle to throw suspicion on Communists; there are many such details Wright took, e.g., both Nixon and Thomas worked as chauffeurs, etc.). Bigger rapes his girlfriend Bessie, then beats her to death with a brick; when he gets close to white girl Mary (his sexual excitation over Mary, excised from the 1940 edition), he kills her. Wright’s gift is the insight into Nixon’s mind: Bigger “did not feel sorry for Mary; she was not real to him, not a human being; he had not known her long or well enough for that. He felt that his murder of her was more than amply justified” (Native Son, p. 243). Bigger goes to the chair unrepentant, he states what he killed for “must have been good” and smiles.

VI. The Dale Book

A few years ago Elizabeth Dale, a professor of history and law at the University of Florida, produced Robert Nixon and Police Torture in Chicago, 1871-1971 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2016). In its 151 pages, Dale devotes 75 to Nixon’s crimes, his trial, and appeals. Absurdly simplified: Dale’s premises are that a) police torture is bad—and on that I think we can all agree—and b) Robert Nixon was the victim of police torture, and as such, his confessions should have been inadmissible, and Nixon therefore should have been set free. This, despite the conclusive Nixon fingerprint evidence from his multiple murders; and the conclusive footprint evidence; that moments after a murder he was the lone man running through a neighborhood, covered in scratches and human blood; that Nixon performed multiple reencactments, which contained actions only the killer could have known; that he was fingered by his compatriots, and positively identified by victims; and of course he provided multiple solid confessions, all of which contained information, again, known only to the killer.

Not to say that police torture doesn’t exist (in fact, Thomas McCall spent six months in jail for one of Nixon’s rapes because, McCall contended, he’d only confessed so as to cease beatings at the hands of the Chicago PD—and it was Nixon’s surprise confession that he had raped Virginia Austin, that freed McCall). But consider: Nixon’s primary claim was that they’d hung him out the window from the eleventh floor of police headquarters, when, it was proven, the building’s windows were on hinges and only opened a mere five inches, barely enough room to put a fist out the window, much less a man. Moreover the people Nixon claimed beat him, in the rooms he was held and at the times he was held, were shown by log books to have not been in the building. Nixon claimed in court that he was stripped naked, hung by his wrists, burned with hot light bulbs, beaten on his sides with fists, and sapped on his legs and knees with blackjacks. And yet no abuse was observed on Nixon. Nixon and Hicks were examined privately by Walter Adams, the African-American Clinic Director of Provident Hospital, and William McKee, African American psychiatrist at Cook County’s Institute of Juvenile Research of Cook County. Nixon’s confessions were made in the presence of state’s attorneys (including African American state’s attorneys) and they, and later members of the Grand Jury, repeatedly spoke to Nixon, asking if he was being treated well. He always replied that he was, and showed no signs of harm. A stream of attorneys, doctors, officers, etc. gave testimony during appeals that they had asked if any one had mistreated Nixon/Hicks in any way or forced them to make the statements, and they said they had not.

Nixon’s many claims of abuse were refuted by some forty sworn witnesses, among whom, besides police officers, were jailers and janitors and secretaries and guards working lockup. The judge, when faced with Nixon’s confused, contradictory, and often factually impossible recitation of abuses, acknowledged its implausibility, but still ruled it admissible, and allowed the jury to consider it: jurors would thus determine themselves whether Nixon had been beaten, and if he had, to discount his confession as evidence (reflecting the recently-decided Brown v. Mississippi). The jury found the tale unbelievable, accepting his confession and thereafter in a unanimous vote found him guilty, and sentenced him to die in the electric chair. Which he did, after seven reprieves, in June 1939, with Florence Johnson’s husband Elmer seated in the third row.

You might want to argue that the fix was in, that in all probability Nixon had shoddy legal defense representation, atop which, counsel for the prosecution was dirty. Yet, Nixon was defended by the esteemed Joseph E. Clayton, Jr., a top criminal defense lawyer (who is less remembered than his wife), whose co-counsel was Yale-trained Charles Burton, executive director of the National Negro Congress. And while the prosecution was mostly white, among those on the case was Edward Wilson, the African American lawyer and Assistant State’s Attorney. And while the jury was white, during jury selection Nixon’s defense made no objection.

And so, what began as a quick post about a 1937 Bunker Hill crime has blossomed into some 8,300+ words about its perpetrator. I presume the preceding is now the definitive account on the subject, but, should you have further information on Nixon or his crimes, please do not hesitate to write me at oldbunkerhill@gmail.com.

2 thoughts on “A Serial Killer on Bunker Hill

  1. Really well done, Nathan. Nixon (while aggressive and brutal) doesn’t strike me as a dummy.. maybe just aloof to investigative tactics. Would love to see this story on a big screen, but I know it wouldn’t be touched with a hundred-foot pole today.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Did my prior message get through? Just in case, wanted to share Oliver Hardy filmed Hop To It (1925) in front of the Astoria, prior to teaming up with Stan Laurel. Here are two images, if the links work. You can see the Angels Flight entrance at back

    Liked by 1 person

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