Title

L.A. vs. the Saloons, Part II: The Parkhurst Society Plays Vice Squad

Just before midnight on Dec. 4, 1896, two men asked to use the bathroom at Los Angeles’ Olive Saloon. The older and larger of the two had a well-trimmed black moustache and dark eyes. He looked like a stern headmaster who secretly enjoyed watching his pupils blush and stutter while reciting their lessons. The younger man stood in the shadows, trembling. Charles Pickenbach, the saloon’s owner, was just closing up. He had turned out the lights, taken off his apron, and put on his coat and hat. Reluctantly, he agreed to let in the pair. The men stayed in the toilet for approximately five minutes and then entered the bar. The older man asked for a beer, while his unsteady friend requested port wine. Noting that the man appeared to be in distress, Pickenbach suggested that if his “bowels were out of order,” blackberry cordial would be better than port. The two drank at the bar for a few minutes, bought a bottle of whiskey for 25 cents, and then hurried away.[1]

More in This Series

The following day, Pickenbach was served with a notice to appear in Judge D. C. Morrison’s Police Court for selling liquor after hours. The complainant was the Rev. Jesse W. Ball, a member of the Parkhurst Society’s Committee on Immoral Places and Practices. His companion, H. S. Ryder, was a young theological student at the University of Southern California.[2]

After a brief trial, the judge dismissed the case, stating that there was no evidence to suggest that Pickenbach intended to violate the closing law.[3] The decision was the first of many failures for the Parkhurst Society. Over the course of several weeks, they filed more than 300 complaints against the bartenders, saloon owners, and madams of Los Angeles.[4] The cases did not amount to much legally, but, for a brief period, the Society was the talk of the town.

Founded earlier in 1896 by a small group of eager citizens and zealous religious leaders, the Parkhurst Society took their name from Rev. Charles Henry Parkhurst, a New York political reformer. Like their East Coast namesake, the goal of the Los Angeles group was to root out corruption and public officials who supported vice. Their first target was the city’s saloons. In the years since passing laws that required saloons to close at midnight and all day on Sundays, members of the Parkhurst Society felt that not enough had been done to enforce the law. The group called on Los Angeles’ Police Chief Glass and Mayor Rader but were unsatisfied with the response.[5] The Society hired two private detectives from San Francisco who visited saloons after hours to gain evidence of wrongdoing. Members of the Society also began an undercover campaign in the city’s theaters, brothels, and dives.

Rev. John B. Wilson of the First Methodist Episcopal Church served as the Society’s president and spokesman. Rev. C. C. McLean, leader of the Simpson Tabernacle, chaired the committee responsible for the Society’s nightly excursions. Each was a firebrand preacher who saw “depravity spreading” from bad to good parts of Los Angeles.[6] Wilson suggested that their anti-vice campaign would shine a light on “harpies too vile to live”, while McLean described the crusade as one where he would enthusiastically taste the evil of the city “for the sake of God and law.”[7]

The Rev. J. W. Bell
Rev. J. W. Ball of the Parkhurst Society visited the Olive Saloon to collect evidence against its owner. Drawing from the Los Angeles Herald’s coverage of the incident.
The Rev. John Wilson
Rev. John Wilson was the Parkhurst Society’s leader and primary spokesperson. He had come to California after being dismissed from his ministry in New York. In Los Angeles, his primary foe was Police Chief Glass who described Wilson as a vindictive “knave.” Drawing from the Los Angeles Herald.
The Rev. C. C. McLean
Rev. C.C. McLean, of the Simpson Tabernacle, served as chair of the Parkhurst Society’s Committee on Immoral Places and Practices. Drawing from the Los Angeles Herald.

Story continues below

The Parkhurst Society’s outings were exhaustive. On Spring Street alone, they stalked the Hollenbeck, the Eintracht, Mike Pulanski’s Hoffman Café, Charles Bauer’s Anheuser, the McInnes Brothers’ Los Angeles Theater, the Nadeau Hotel and Gillmore and Zorb’s Fountain Saloon. Members of the Society attended boxing matches and a masked ball held at the Turnverein Hall to make sure that the dancers were not served beer after midnight.[8]

On the night of Nov. 26, Rev. McLean, Rev. Ball and three theological students visited Madam Lottie Van’s brothel on New High Street. The party arrived with flushed faces, having already visited the Los Angeles Athletic Club and a few other “parlor houses.” While various women sat on their laps, the group ordered drinks. A collection was taken up to pay a woman named Dolly for her high-kicking. Dolly was also offered $5 to do the “hula hula.” The woman danced for a minute or two but most of the evening was spent sitting around while the girls told “smutty stories.” Dolly’s dancing, or perhaps the conversation, must have been somewhat stimulating, because the group returned the following night with more committee members.[9]

During the trial that followed, Madam Van was accused of selling beer without a license. In court, under a “profusion of blond hair,” the woman appeared to be “unusually sober” and a picture of propriety. Her attorney argued convincingly that Parkhurst members had arrived to her establishment drunk and pointed out that it was not against the law for a woman to dance.[10]

Turnverein Hall
Turnverein Hall located at 321 South Main Street was the third building erected by the German American sport and social club. The building opened in 1894 and survived as a theater and men’s club until it was destroyed by fire in 1951. In December 1896, the Parkhurst Society attended a masked ball at the hall to ensure that no dancer was served beer after midnight. Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific National Bank Collection
Spring Street, 1885
Members of the Parkhurst Society sampled the saloons on Spring Street, including the Hollenbeck, the Eintracht, Mike Pulanski’s Hoffman Café, Charles Bauer’s Anheuser, the McInnes Brothers’ Los Angeles Theater, the Nadeau Hotel and Gillmore and Zorb’s Fountain Saloon. View of Spring Street looking north from First Street in 1885. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

Despite public support for the liquor laws and the initially positive coverage of local newspapers, the mood of the city quickly turned against the Parkhurst Society.[11] Some Angelenos accused the group of going too far, most found their methods distasteful, and still more suggested that the Society’s members found too much pleasure in their evening work.[12] In the course of their investigations, the preachers spent more than $300 on beer, whisky, and entertainment, a sum well beyond the public’s expectations. Police Chief Glass was a particularly vocal opponent of the “meddling ministers,” calling them “wolves who want to hang a man without judge or jury.” Glass accused the group of using their campaign to create fear in the city for their own aggrandizement.[13]

According to its members, the Society’s dissipation was solely “for the betterment of the morals of the city”. However, after 300 complaints and 21 trials, the group’s efforts led to just two convictions.[14] J.E. McDowell of the notorious White Wings saloon and a madam named Ella Rorick were found guilty of violating the liquor ordinances. Each was fined $2.[15] Charges were dismissed against Madam Van, who returned to a now famous and infinitely more profitable business.

Simpson Tabernacle
Reverend McLean served as pastor of the Simpson Tabernacle (also called Simpson Methodist Episcopal Church) at 730 S. Hope St. The church was constructed in the late 1880s and included a large auditorium. In the early 1910s, the church became Third Church of Christ, Scientist. The church sanctuary was demolished after it was damaged in the 1971 San Fernando-Sylmar earthquake. A fragment of the building remains as the Christian Science Reading Room on Hope at 7th Street. Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific National Bank Collection
The Christian Science Reading Room at 730 S. Hope
The Christian Science Reading Room at 730 S. Hope is a surviving fragment of the Simpson Tabernacle complex. Photo by author, January 14, 2016.

Notes

[1] “Moral Dissipation: The Parkhurst Society Lays a Snare” Los Angeles Times (1886-1922); Dec 6, 1896, pg. 24; “Taken Under Advisement: The First Case for the Parkhurst Society” Los Angeles Herald, Sunday Morning, December 6, 1896,

[2] “Parkhurst Methods: The Ministerial Union Approves” Los Angeles Times, December 22, 1896, pg. 7

[3] “Pickenback is Discharged” Los Angeles Herald, Thursday Morning, December 17, 1896, p. 3; “Paid to Kick: McLean Held Stakes while the Girls Performed” Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1896, pg.11

[4] “To Enforce the Law: Warrants Issued for Keepers of Saloons” Los Angeles Times (1886-1922); Dec 4, 1896, pg. 7

[5] “Parkhurst Society: Mass-Meeting for Men Only” Los Angeles Times (1886-1922); Dec 1, 1896, pg. 9

[6] “Parsons Prepare to Purge City of Vice” Los Angeles Herald, Friday morning, December 4, 1896

[7] “How the Ministers Went out Slumming” Los Angeles Herald, Saturday morning, December 5, 1896; “Parsons Prepare to Purge City of Vice” Los Angeles Herald, Friday morning, December 4, 1896

[8] “Taken Under Advisement: The First Case for the Parkhurst Society” Los Angeles Herald, Sunday Morning, December 6, 1896; “Parsons Prepare to Purge City of Vice” Los Angeles Herald, Friday morning, December 4, 1896

[9] “Kicked for the Preachers: Dizzy Girls Entertain the Parkhurst Committee” Los Angeles Herald, Thursday Morning, December 17, 1896, p. 3; “Paid to Kick: McLean Held Stakes while the Girls Performed” Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1896, pg.11

[10] “Kicked for the Preachers: Dizzy Girls Entertain the Parkhurst Committee” Los Angeles Herald, Thursday Morning, December 17, 1896, p. 3

[11] Parkhurst Evidence” Los Angeles Times, December 23, 1896, pg. 6

[12] “To Enforce the Law: Warrants Issued for Keepers of Saloons” Los Angeles Times (1886-1922); Dec 4, 1896, pg. 7

[13] “Parsons Prepare to Purge City of Vice” Los Angeles Herald, Friday morning, December 4, 1896; “Taken Under Advisement: The First Case for the Parkhurst Society” Los Angeles Herald, Sunday Morning, December 6, 1896

[14] “Reformers in Court: Appear as Prosecutors” Los Angeles Times (1886-1922); Dec 5, 1896 pg. 5; “Achieved Fame: Dr. McLean Has His Picture in The Examiner In San Francisco” Los Angeles Times (1886-1922); Jan 9, 1897 pg. 9

[15] “Scores Two Points” Los Angeles Times, December 29, 1896, pg. 7

Top image: John Black's Saloon in Bishop, California, ca. 1894-98. Photo courtesy of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles Research Collection, Loyola Marymount University.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes