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Hotel of Horrors: The Dark and Terrifying History of L.A.’s Cecil Hotel

Care to stay the night?

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  • Photo Credit: Jim Winstead / Flickr (CC)

The Cecil Hotel located in Downtown Los Angeles has a long and spooky history of suicides, murder, and mysterious deaths. In 2011, the hotel has renamed to the Stay on Main. But no amount of rebranding will erase the building’s sordid past.

In 1924, hotelier William Banks Hanner commissioned the construction of the Cecil Hotel. He envisioned a lavish, 600-room building with stained-glass windows, alabaster statues, and a gleaming marble lobby. Hanner hoped the hotel’s luxe design and accoutrements would attract tourists and businessmen alike. In 1927, the Cecil opened its doors, and it soon became a hot spot in downtown L.A.

Related: 10 Haunted Places to Explore This Summer—If You’re Brave Enough 

The good times of the Roaring 20s, however, were short lived. In October 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed, signaling the start of the Great Depression. Cities across  the country and throughout the world were impacted by the economic collapse, including Los Angeles. While the Cecil held onto its glamorous appeal through the 1940s, the bright lights of the surrounding neighborhood dimmed, and poverty set in. Main Street, where the hotel stands, became known as Skid Row. 

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  • Lobby of the Cecil Hotel. 

    Photo Credit: alejandro jofré / Flickr (CC)

In the years that followed, the hotel fell on hard times, transforming into a hotbed of crime, prostitution, drug use, and violence. It was during this time that a number of the Cecil Hotel’s darkest moments took place. 

In 2007, new owners took over the hotel; renovations breathed new life into the structure as revitalization efforts took root across downtown L.A. In 2011, the hotel was renamed the Stay on Main. What was once a home for illicit activity is now a historical-cultural monument in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, the building’s dark history still entrances travelers and Angelenos alike. American Horror Story mastermind Ryan Murphy reportedly drew inspiration from the hotel while crafting the fifth season of his show, American Horror Story: Hotel

But all of these modern turns toward rebirth cannot eclipse the years of chilling events that gave the Cecil Hotel its horrifying reputation.

Decades of Death and Tragedy

The first of many suicides to occur at the Cecil happened in November 1931, when 46-year-old W.K. Norton, who checked in as James Willys. After getting his room, the man took a large amount of poison pills and ended his life.

Roughly a year later, 25-year-old Benjamin Dodich checked into the hotel, concealing a gun in his belongings. When a maid went to go clean the room on September 17, 1932, Dodich was found dead with a self-inflicted gun wound in his head.  

In 1934, 53-year-old former Army Medical Sergeant Louis D. Borden was also discovered dead in his room. He had cut his throat open with a razor, and also left behind a series of suicide notes, which detailed his poor health as the main reason for his choice to end his life.

In 1937, Grace E. Magro became the first of many people to fall to her death from one of the hotel’s higher floors. As Magro plummeted from her ninth floor window, her body became tangled in the telephone wires. Authorities were unsure as to whether her death was intentional.

In 1938, 38-year-old Marine fireman Roy Thompson threw himself off of the top floor of the Cecil. That same year, 39-year-old Navy officer Erwin Neblett checked into the Cecil, and similar to W.K. Norton, poisoned himself to death. 

Related: Room 873: Beware the Ghosts of Banff Springs Hotel 

In 1940, 45-year-old teacher Dorothy Sceiger consumed poison at the Cecil. The Los Angeles Times described Sceiger's condition as "near death." No other reports were filed about her. 

Seven years after Sceiger’s death, suicide struck again. In 1947, 35-year-old Robert Smith jumped out a window on the Cecil Hotel’s seventh floor. In 1954, 55-year-old Helen Gurnee also jumped from the seventh floor to her death.  

In 1962, 50-year-old Julia Moore jumped out of an eighth-floor window. That same year, 27-year-old Pauline Otton jumped to her death from the ninth floor of the Cecil, and killed 65-year-old pedestrian named George Gianni in the fall.

In 1975, an unidentified woman jumped from the twelfth floor of the building. She registered herself as “Alison Lowell” when she checked into the hotel, and authorities were never able to fully trace back her identity. 

The most recent suicide associated with the hotel occurred in 2015, when a 28-year-old unidentified man was found dead in front of the building. Some presumed he too fell to his death, though no official cause of death was determined. 

Violence, Murders, and Grisly Deaths

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  • Elizabeth Short. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the suicides, the Cecil Hotel also possesses a dark history of violence, murder, and grisly deaths. One of the hotel’s more haunting stories occurred in September 1944, when 19-year-old Dorothy Purcell birthed a child and then threw her baby boy out the hotel’s window. 

According to Purcell, she had no idea she was pregnant when she went into labor. After giving birth, Purcell claimed she believed that the baby was stillborn, and threw him out of the window. The newborn’s body landed on the roof of the building next door. Purcell was charged with murder and tried for the crime. In January 1945, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Related: Ghost on the Staircase: The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

Violence struck again in 1964, when a hotel staff member found “Pigeon Goldie” Osgood dead in her room. Osgood, a retired telephone operator, was known throughout the area as someone who liked to feed the pigeons. When investigators examined the scene and her body, they concluded that she was raped, stabbed, and beaten to death. 

A few hours after her murder, authorities arrested 29-year-old Jacques Ehlinger. Ehlinger was spotted walking through Pershing Square—where Osgood often fed birds—in bloodstained clothes. He was arrested, but was later cleared of the charges. To this day, Osgood’s murder remains unsolved. 

Perhaps the most notorious murder connected to the Cecil is the Black Dahlia slaying. It’s highly believed that Elizabeth Short, the aspiring actress who was brutally slain in January 1947, had a drink at the hotel bar in the days before her murder. 

Related: Who Killed the Black Dahlia? 

A Home for Serial Killers

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  • Richard Ramirez. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Cecil Hotel also served as home base for a pair of notorious serial killers. In the mid-1980s, Richard Ramirez, also known as the Night Stalker, broke into the homes of unsuspecting women to bind, rape, and brutally murder them. During this time, he often stayed at the hotel, and sometimes tossed his bloodstained clothing in the hotel dumpster.

Related: 9 Books About California Murders

In 1991, Austrian serial killer and journalist Johann “Jack” Unterweger also called the Cecil home when he was assigned to write an article about prostitution in America. Unterweger was first convicted of murder in his home country of Austria in 1974, but was released 15 years later after convincing authorities he was “reformed.”

Sadly, he soon fell back into his old habits, murdering three sex workers while on assignment in Los Angeles. Unterweger was later arrested in 1992, convicted of murder, and in June 1994 was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The night of his sentencing, Unterweger hanged himself in his cell.

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  • Elisa Lam. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the strangest occurrences to happen at the Cecil Hotel involved Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian college student who checked into the hotel on January 28, 2013. She was scheduled to leave the hotel and travel to Santa Cruz on January 31. But when her parents didn’t hear from her, they called the police. 

A little over two weeks after Elisa Lam’s disappearance, guests at the hotel complained of low water pressure. On the morning of February 19, when staffers went to check the hotel’s four rooftop water tanks, they found Lam’s naked body floating within one of the tanks.

Related: The Bizarre Death of Elisa Lam 

The eerie case transfixed the public, with many struggling to make sense of Lam’s final hours and her mysterious death. Access to the hotel rooftop is off limits to guests and the public; the doors are locked and only staff possess keys and passcodes. Any attempt at forcing open these doors should have triggered an alarm. Similarly, the rooftop water tanks are difficult to access, and presuming Lam was alone, also challenging to seal up from within. Then there was the elevator surveillance video recorded at the hotel. The footage shows Lam behaving erratically inside a hotel elevator, mashing buttons, stepping in and out of the open elevator doors, waving her arms, rocking in place, and pressing herself into the corner of the elevator cab. 

Investigators released the clip as part of their investigation. It soon went viral, with many viewers finding it unsettling to watch.

The Los Angeles coroner’s office ruled Lam’s death was the result of accidental drowning, with Lam’s bipolar disorder contributing to the cause of death. Still, many questions remain, fueling speculation and internet conspiracy theories. Some point to Lam’s mental state. Others suspect foul play. While others still, especially those focused on the eerie elevator footage, believe paranormal forces were at work. 

A Ghostly Guest - Captured on Camera?

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  • Photo Credit: Ernie_ A104 / YouTube

With such a dark history, it’s of little surprise that the Cecil Hotel possesses a reputation of being haunted. Many guests that check into the hotel report odd sightings and dark figures in their rooms. A handful of these paranormal experiences involve apparitions tugging at the guests’ bed sheets.

The most famous recording of this paranormal activity was a photo taken by Koston Alderete, a local resident. Alderete took the above photo of a what looks to be a specter hanging outside the four-floor window of the hotel. The photo went viral, and many link the paranormal phenomenon to the many suicides that have occurred during the hotel’s operation.  

Featured photo: Jim Winstead / Flickr (CC)