The Sexual Assault Trial of Alexander Pantages, Los Angeles, October 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

When the highlighted photo for this post was acquired in 2014, comedian Hannibal Burress was, in his stand-up performances, just recently calling out Bill Cosby for harsh judgments about young blacks while being accused of rape.  Burress’ statements about Cosby are often credited with bringing more public awareness of an issue that, very recently, culminated in Cosby’s conviction for the rape of Andrea Constand.

Pantages arraigned LA Times_Aug_11__1929_
Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1929.

In the last few years, accusations of sexual harassment by powerful figures in entertainment, politics, business and elsewhere in society have grown dramatically and more women are empowered to speak up about their experiences. The recent hearings and investigation into Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh were particularly politicized and the Me Too Movement that has emerged has been both praised and questioned as large-scale issues and movements often are.

The press photograph discussed here is from this date, 20 October, in 1929 and shows the seven-women, five-men jury in the criminal trial against theater impresario Alexander Pantages, who was charged in early August with the rape of 17-year old Eunice Pringle.  Pringle, an aspiring dancer, was at Pantages’ landmark theater at Seventh and Hill streets to discuss a skit, written by Nicholas Dunaev, that she wanted produced and in which Dunaev would get royalties.

Pringle photo LA_Times_Aug_10__1929_
Times, 10 August 1929.  Note the dishelved hair and subdued appearance of Pringle

Pringle, who spent much of her youth in the Orange County town of Garden Grove, where she graduated from high school before briefly attending U.S.C., claimed that she was lured to a small antechamber in the theater building where the 54-year old Pantages told her he hated his wife and wanted the young women for his sweetheart.  When she resisted his overtures, he attacked her, leaving her with bites and bruises, clothing in disarray, and jewelry lost or broken.  She screamed and ran out, eventually getting to the street where she summoned a traffic officer.

For his part, Pantages claimed that Pringle would not accept his rejection of her skit and became violent, tearing off his jacket and mussing up his clothing.  He then alleged that he was being framed and that Pringle was trying to shake him down for money.  Yet, there were independent witnesses who stated that they saw Pringle trying to run from the little chamber and was held on one limb from Pantages who was on his hands and knees on the floor. At the hearing, one of his employees admitted he was asked, after the incident, to put a desk in the space to make it appear it was used as a business office.  It was also reported that there were at least three other young women who asserted that Pantages made sexual advances towards them.

Pringle hearing testimony LA_Times_Aug_15__1929_
Part of Pringle’s testimony at the evidentiary hearing, Times, 15 August 1929.

A judge ruled after the hearing that there was enough evidence to proceed to trial, which began in early October with jury selection.  Notably, the theater owner’s wife, Lois, was convicted of manslaughter on 25 September for killing a man in an automobile crash at which it was determined she was drunk.  Lois Pantages faced a prison term at San Quentin but was given a ten-year probation sentence that was, within months, revoked.

When the Alexander Pantages trial came up, there was an even gender representation of six men and six women, but, once the proceedings began, one man asked to be excused because he couldn’t handle the evidence and he was replaced by a female alternate.  The testimony in the trial did not generally look good for the defendant, with Pringle being consistent in her account of the assault and testimony making it appear that Pantages was trying to get employees to testify for his benefit.  The first defense witness, Garland Biffle, alleging he heard the author of Pringle’s skit tell her not to get cold feet as she entered the building, was threatened with perjury and arrested by order of District Attorney Buron Fitts.

Pantages case summary LA_Times_Oct_4__1929_
Times, 4 October 1929.

Another strange element to the proceedings was the arrival of Kate Rockwell, who was in her fifties, but in the late 19th century in the chaos and excitement of the Yukon gold fields was known as “Klondike Kate,” dancer and proprietor of a dance hall in which a young Alexander Pantages was a waiter and janitor, as well as Kate’s lover.  Some accounts claimed that she grubstaked him for the purchase of his first theater in Alaska and that the pair cheated miners, but that he jilted her and married his first wife before leaving the area. Rockwell moved to Oregon, lived a more settled life and then showed up at the trial as a potential prosecution witness, though she was not called.

Though defense attorneys rarely allow their clients to take the stand in their own defense, Pantages did so on 22 October, perhaps because matters were going badly for him during the proceeding.  His claims that she attacked him and that there was no one for him to call to in his own building apparently did not go over well, either.  He was followed by Pringle who denied his assertions and then the trial concluded.

Pantages on stand LA_Times_Oct_23__1929_
Times, 23 October 1929.

Defense attorney Jerry Geisler, who built a very successful career with a particularly aggressive style that focused on breaking down the opposing witnesses and plaintiffs, but who was largely unknown before this case, stated in closing arguments, “don’t forget that from time immemorial a man charged with this kind of offense has had prejudice against him because of the very nature of the charge and before a line of testimony is heard.”

By contrast, prosecutors emphasized Pringle’s youth and innocence and that the attack would scar her for life.  One of them declared, “the very thing this child had to make her attractive has been stripped from her by the lust of this man, who has no bridle on his passion.”  Fitts added that Pantages “broke the body and soul of this girl.”

Pantages guilty LA_Times_Oct_28__1929_
Times, 28 October 1929.

On 27 October, after over fifty hours of deliberations, the jury returned with a guilty verdict, but also recommended clemency.  Why was not explained, though perhaps it was believed that Pantages acted with sudden passion rather than deliberation.  The judge, however, sentenced the theater mogul to a stretch at San Quentin, a stunning result for a defendant with the wealth and standing Alexander Pantages once possessed.  The term, however, was six months to fifty years, with the actual amount to be determined by the state prison board.

It has been written that newspapers, particularly William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner, portrayed Pantages in negative ways (his illiteracy, broken English, and looks being among the reasons) while Pringle was described in terms that emphasized her youth, looks, and innocence.  How this resonated with the jury is not and cannot be known.  Incidentally, just three days before the verdict, the stock market crashed in New York ushering in the Great Depression.

img20181010_23284372
This N.E.A. press photo from the Homestead collection, dated 10 October 1929, shows the 7-man, 5-woman jury in the Pantages trial.  Later, one man was excused and a woman alternate took his place.

Pantages was remanded to the Los Angeles County Jail after his conviction while his attorneys worked vigorously to free him on bail pending appeals.  The judge in the criminal trial, however, denied these efforts for months, though there were many claims that Pantages had significant heart problems that worsened in confinement.  In June 1930, he was freed on $100,000 bail while his appeal progressed.

Meanwhile, another claim of sexual assault was made against the theater mogul and two San Diego men in early 1931 in what was dubbed the “Love Mart” incident, in which young girls were said to have been taken to a hotel party in San Diego and at a mansion just over the border from San Diego in Mexico, near the Agua Caliente racetrack in which Pantages had racing interests.  In that case, there was a mistrial and the matter ended.

Pantages retrial LA_Times_Apr_3__1931_
Times, 3 April 1931.  Note part of the headline about the plane crash that killed legendary football coach Knute Rockne.

Regarding the Pringle retrial, Geisler was able to convince the California Supreme Court on appeal to issue a ruling for a new trial, claiming that Pringle’s past behavior and morals were fair game for the defense, a tactic denied by the Superior Court judge hearing the first case.  This established a precedence that was allowed to be a standard for decades, though it no longer is allowable.

Geisler produced several witnesses who testified to the romantic associations Pringle had with the skit writer and this evidently produced enough doubt about her story, along with other considerations.  In late November 1931, the retrial ended with an acquittal for Pantages, though it was reported that the jury, composed of eight men and four women, stood at 10-2 for that verdict on the first three or four ballots.

Pantages Pringle photo LA_Times_Apr_3__1931_.jpg
Times, 3 April 1931.

Notably, the jury foreman William J. Williams commented to the press, “there was never any question of finding the defendant guilty on a charge of forcible attack, but two of our number were inclined to believe at first that he was guilty of attempted attack, one of the verdicts allowed us.”  Then, unanimity came and Pantages was cleared of the charge, though one juror, who read a statement to the court on appointment by his fellows, observed, “despite my final vote, my heart aches for this young girl.  I believe that she has been the innocent victim of a schemer in this case.”

Among the statements made was that Pringle’s $1,000,000 civil suit, filed after the conviction and which did not go anywhere, weighed on the minds of the jury along with their dissatisfaction with Dunaev and his role in the affair.  A jury member commented that there were parts of the testimonies given by Pantages and Pringle that were reliable, while others seemed questionable.  This person added that reasonable doubt was a significant indicator of the jury’s decision, seeming to state that what happened in that small office at the theater could not be corroborated and was a “he said, she said” situation.

Pantages retrial verdict LA_Times_Nov_28__1931_
Times, 28 November 1931.

Pringle, when asked for comment after the verdict, offered,

It seems that anyone who puts up a fight for justice is doomed for failure.  This verdict shows clearly the value that at least twelve persons in the state of California put upon a girl’s honor. . . now that it is over, I will be able to return once more to the life of an ordinary American girl and that makes me very happy. . . you know, they say “in God we trust,” but it is written on a dollar.

Though Pantages was a free man and cleared legally, he was financially ruined and died five years later.  Pringle married twice, in 1935 and in 1947, and lived most of her remaining years as Eunice Worthington in the San Diego area.  Over the years, it was reported that she died in 1933 and left a deathbed confession that she’d been paid by Joseph P. Kennedy, a Pantages rival and patriarch of the political dynasty that included his sons, president John F. Kennedy, attorney general and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, and longtime senator and presidential contender Edward Kennedy, to frame Pantages.

Pringle remarks LA_Times_Nov_28__1931_
Times, 28 November 1931.

The allegation was, in fact, false, as Pringle lived decades beyond the purported statement, dying in 1996 at age 84.  A 2002 article in the Los Angeles Times clarified the misstatements and noted that Pringle’s only child, Marcy Worthington, was considering writing a book and a screenplay that would tell the truth and clear her mother’s tarnished name.  To date, nothing could be found that indicated these projects had been realized.

Given the attention being paid to sexual harassment and misconduct today, the Pantages/Pringle incident and trials are particularly notable predecessors and well worth remembering and considering in light of current events and it’s easy to wonder how differently the outcome might have been had the matter happened today rather than 90 years ago.

 

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