American Horror Story: The Dark History of the Cecil Hotel

    Care to stay the night?

    The Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles has long served as the inspiration for any number of spooky stories, including the recent American Horror Story: Hotel. With recent recognition by the Cultural Heritage Commission in 2016 and historic status from the LA City Council in 2017, the building itself is clearly deserving of attention. However, its reputation mainly results from a rich history of mystery and murder.

    As James T. Bartlett demonstrated in his 2016 book, Gourmet Ghosts, hotels are more likely to be the scene of accidents, suicides, and murders because of the transient populations that occupy these buildings. Still, the Cecil has seen more than its fair share of death, from an early association with suicide to more recent phenomena. Like other haunted places, this hotel fascinates us because it defies explanation—and reflects our own anxieties back at us.

    Related: 11 Chilling Yelp Reviews from People Who Spent the Night at Haunted Hotels 

    In the 1920s, downtown Los Angeles was on the rise, and the Cecil Hotel, which began construction in 1924, was part of a wave of similar high-end hotels in this central area. Hotelier William Banks Hanner commissioned the construction, opting for a marble lobby, Art Deco flourishes, stained-glass windows, and alabaster statues to appeal to businessmen and tourists alike. In 1927, the Cecil opened and fast became a travel destination.

    cecil hotel
    Lobby of Cecil Hotel
    Photo Credit: alejandro jofré / Flickr (CC)

    However, the lingering impact of the Great Depression turned LA’s downtown neighborhood into one of the city’s most impoverished, with high homelessness and crime rates. Main Street was dubbed Skid Row in the 1950s, and the Cecil Hotel became a place for low-budget living that soon appealed to transients. The Cecil’s fate changed once more in the last decade, when it was transformed as part of the gentrification of downtown, and was rebranded as Stay on Main in 2011.

    The hotel’s 600 rooms were split into 299 low-budget hotel rooms and 301 small residences. However, with only 30 of the latter occupied in 2014, new owner and hotelier Richard Born announced plans to collaborate with Simon Baron Development in crafting the Cecil into a boutique hotel with micro rental units. In the process, amenities like a rooftop pool are set to be added, while preserving historic features like the grand lobby.

    A Series of Suicides

    Despite these grand designs, the Cecil has long been known as a suicide hotspot. In 1931, the first recorded case involved 46-year-old W.K. Norton of Manhattan Beach, who had checked in as James Willys from Chicago before taking poison pills. Eight years later, a 39-year-old sailor named Erwin C. Neblett who had worked aboard the USS Wright used the same method. Months later, 45-year-old Dorothy Sceiger followed their example.

    The most common approach to suicide at the Hotel Cecil, though, is jumping. In 1937, a woman named Grace E. Magro fell from the ninth floor, her body getting tangled in the telephone wire on the way down. Police were unsure whether her tumble was intentional. A year later, marine fireman Roy Thompson jumped from the Cecil's roof. Some deaths, like 50-year-old Julia Moore, who jumped in 1962 and left behind a handful of change, a bus ticket from St. Louis, and a bank balance of $1800, provided little reason for their suicide–much less for choosing the Cecil as their final destination.

    Related: How the Pierre Hotel Robbery Went Off Without a Hitch and Ended in Tragedy 

    In 1944, Dorothy Purcell, aged 19, awoke to stomach pains, went to the bathroom and delivered a baby she hadn’t realized she was carrying. Believing the baby dead, Purcell tossed the newborn out the window; at trial, she was found not guilty of homicide by reason of insanity. In 1962, 27-year-old Pauline Otton jumped from a ninth floor window after an argument with her husband. She didn’t look before jumping, and landed on George Gianinni, aged 65, who happened to be passing by on his evening walk. Both were killed instantly. 

    Other suicides have involved more violent methods. In fact, the second ever recorded at the Cecil Hotel involved 25-year-old Benjamin Dodich, who shot himself in the head in 1931. Three years later, 53-year-old Louis D. Borden, who had served in the Army Medical Corps, cut his own throat but left a note explaining his poor health. No matter the method or the reason, each death helped solidify the Cecil Hotel’s deadly reputation.

    A History of Violence

    cecil hotel
    Elizabeth Short
    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    On top of a being a suicide hotspot, the Cecil Hotel also has a long history of murder–and of housing serial killers in particular. It has long been associated with one of Los Angeles’ most infamous murders: the Black Dahlia case of 1947. Rumor has it that Elizabeth Short had her final drink in the hotel bar mere hours before her grisly demise just miles away.

    In 1964, retired phone operator Goldie “Pigeon Woman” Osgood was sexually assaulted, stabbed, and strangled in her room at the Cecil. A hotel employee discovered the long-time resident dead amidst her ransacked belongings. In life, she’d enjoyed feeding the birds in Pershing Square, the same place where Jacques Ehlinger was spotted wearing bloodstained clothes soon after the murder occurred. Although he was questioned, Ehlinger was released, and the crime remains unsolved.

    Richard Ramirez even called the Cecil Hotel home for a brief time in mid-1980s. As the Night Stalker, Ramirez broke into homes and attacked the residents within, eventually targeting straight couples in order to kill men and bind, rape, and demand valuables from women. While staying at the Cecil, this self-avowed Satanist would regularly toss his bloody clothes in the hotel dumpster and return to his room through the back entrance.

    Related: 9 Books About California Murders  

    In 1991, Johann "Jack" Unterweger was assigned an article on prostitution in LA and chose to stay at the Cecil Hotel. Although he’d been sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1974, Unterweger was released in 1990 as a model for rehabilitation in Austria. He soon began killing again, and during his five-week stay, Unterweger beat and sexually assaulted three women before strangling them to death with their own bras. He was arrested in Miami in 1994, and killed himself after being convicted to another life sentence.

    A Modern Mystery

    cecil hotel
    Elisa Lam
    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Perhaps the most compelling story of the Cecil Hotel is also one of the most recent. In January of 2013, 21-year-old Canadian college student Elisa Lam traveled to the Los Angeles area and checked into the hotel on January 26th. By the beginning of February, she had disappeared.

    Two weeks after her disappearance, several Cecil guests complained of low water pressure and an odd taste to the building’s drinking water. Upon inspection, Lam’s body was discovered floating in a water tank on the roof—contaminating the water supply.

    Authorities examined the hotel’s CCTV video and discovered eerie footage of Lam riding the elevator in the middle of the night. Upon entering the elevator car alone, the young woman presses several buttons before crouching in the corner. Lam then exits and begins gesturing to someone or something outside of the doors and off camera. Police released the footage to the public as part of their investigation, and it quickly went viral. 

    Related: The Bizarre Death of Elisa Lam 

    As more and more people analyzed the footage, some pointed to missing minutes, while others noted that Lam likely had bipolar disorder. In either case, friends and family were mystified, as she had been in good spirits prior to her trip to California. Compounding the mystery is the fact that accessing the hotel water tank would have been incredibly difficult, especially with no roof key and no ladder to reach the door. Although the coroner concluded that her death had been accidental, many continue to question what happened– and whether it might be connected to the Cecil’s dark and deadly history.

    A Haunting History

    cecil hotel
    Photo Credit: KABC-TV Los Angeles

    In its almost 100 years in operation, the Cecil Hotel has witnessed many dark moments. Some of these traumas seem to linger, as visitors and residents alike occasionally report odd phenomena. Hotel guests regularly report sightings of dark figures in their rooms, often waking to the tugging of their bed sheets. Perhaps the most famous recorded paranormal phenomenon to have occurred at the Cecil is the photograph (above) taken by a local resident Koston Alderete, which went viral due to the spectral figure seen hanging outside a fourth-floor window.

    From apparitions to other strange sights and sounds, specters like the one captured by Alderete are a reminder of the hotel's haunted past. Yet these visions may also be a warning for the future—reminding us to cherish the life we have. 

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