The Cecil Hotel

The Cecil Hotel

The Cecil Hotel

640 S. Main Street, Los Angeles has been home to one of the USA’s most haunted hotels for nearly 100 years now. The Cecil Hotel has been the site of an alarming number of suicides and murders, as well as a temporary home for more than one notorious serial killer. From the Black Dahlia murder in 1947 to the disappearance of Elisa Lam in 2013, the Cecil has been the backdrop for more than its fair share of terrible things. Is it just a coincidence? Or is something wrong with the Cecil Hotel?

The Cecil began its long, sordid history in 1924 when it was built as a collaboration between hoteliers William Banks Hanner, Charles L. Dix, and Robert H. Schops. It was originally meant as a destination for businessmen who were in LA for work. It was designed by Loy Lester Smith in a distinctly Beaux-Arts architectural style and cost $1.5 million (over $22 million in today’s dollars) to complete. When it was constructed, it was opulent, sporting a marble lobby with stained glass windows and alabaster statues. It’s a whopping 19 floors, with 299 rooms and 301 suites. 

Cecil Hotel

An artist’s rendering of the Cecil shortly after it was built.

 

The original owners confidently invested in the project, knowing that similar hotels were popping up all over downtown LA, but within 5 years of its opening in 1927, the US was hit by the Great Depression. The hotel still enjoyed a small amount of success in the 1940s, but its proximity to LA’s Skid Row made it less and less popular with its intended customers, who had already begun moving on to another notorious LA hotel, the Biltmore. At the time, as many as 10 000 homeless people were living within four miles of the Cecil, and many transients and shady characters began using the Cecil as a base of operations because its rates were fairly reasonable. By the 50s, the hotel had a reputation. It was notorious as a place where sex workers conducted business and as a popular meeting place for couples engaged in affairs.

Before new owners began restoring the building in 2007, it had become less of a hotel and more single-resident housing, with more permanent residents than ones just passing through. This refurbishment also introduced “hostel-like” rooms to appeal to younger tourists.

With the decline of the area, the Cecil became a backdrop for violent death. The first documented case of suicide within the hotel’s walls was that of W.K. Norton in 1931. He had checked in under the assumed name of “James Willys” a week before his death. He swallowed poison capsules and died in his room at the age of 46. 

Newspaper Clipping

Throughout the 40s and 50s, many more met Norton’s fate at the Cecil, so much so that, by the 60s, those who frequented the Cecil had given it a new nickname – ‘The Suicide’. Some suicides include: 

Roy Thompson – January 1938: Thompson was a US Marine Corps firefighter, and had been staying at the Cecil for several weeks. He jumped from the top floor and was later discovered on a skylight of a neighbouring building. He was only 35 years old, and left no note behind, leaving the reason behind his suicide a mystery. 

Helen Gurnee – October 22, 1954: Gurnee was a 55-year-old stationery firm employee from San Francisco who had checked into the Cecil under an assumed name a week before she died. She jumped from the window of her room on the seventh floor and landed on top of the hotel’s marquee. 

Pauline Otton – October 12, 1962: Otton jumped from the window of her room on the ninth floor shortly after an argument with her estranged husband, Dewey Otton. Pauline landed on George Gianinni, a pedestrian who had just been walking by and killed him instantly. Police originally thought that they had committed suicide together because there were no other witnesses, but it was later discovered that not only had Gianinni had his hands in his pockets when he died, but his shoes were still on. If he’d jumped with Pauline, his shoes would have likely fallen off on impact, and his hands would not have stayed in his pockets. He was 65 years old when he died, and Pauline was 27. 

Pauline Otton Newspaper Clipping

A newspaper clipping describing Otton and Giannini’s deaths.

“Allison Lowell” – December 20, 1975: This woman, who is believed to have been about 23 years old, jumped from the Cecil’s 12th floor and ended up on the second-floor roof. She has still not been officially identified, but she checked into the hotel under the name “Alison Lowell.” She was staying in Room 327. 

In March of 1937, a woman named Grace E. Magro fell from a window on the Cecil’s ninth storey. Rather than falling all the way to the street, she became entangled in telephone wires that wrapped themselves around her body. She later died at the hospital. Police could not determine whether Magro fell accidentally or committed suicide.

In 1944, a 19-year-old woman named Dorothy Jean Purcell checked into a room with her boyfriend, Ben Levine, who was 38. During the night, she went into labour and gave birth to a baby boy, despite not having even known that she was pregnant. She said that she didn’t want to disturb Levine, who was asleep at the time, so she threw the newborn out of the window, after which he landed on the roof of an adjacent building. She later stated that she thought that he had been born dead, but it’s uncertain whether that is true. She was charged with murder regardless, and three psychiatrists testified that she was “mentally confused.” She was found not guilty by reason of insanity in January 1945. 

One of the Cecil’s most notorious connections is with the murder of Elizabeth Short, AKA “The Black Dahlia” in 1947. Days before her disappearance and subsequent brutal murder, Elizabeth was seen drinking at the Cecil’s bar. Though the hotel is not the last place she was seen, the connection mixed with the Cecil’s already terrible track record makes this an eerie coincidence.

In 1964, a woman named “Pigeon Goldie” Osgood was found dead in her room at the hotel. She was a long-term resident and was well-liked amongst staff and others who lived there. She’d gained her nickname because she regularly fed the pigeons in Pershing Square. She had been beaten and raped before being stabbed to death, and her room was in disarray like someone had ransacked it searching for something. A suspect named Jacques B. Ehlinger was charged with the crime but later cleared of any involvement. Her case remains unsolved to this day. 

Pigeon Goldie Newspaper Clipping

In September 1992, a John Doe was discovered in Cecil’s back alley. Authorities believed that he fell, jumped, or was pushed from the fifteenth floor. The LA County Coroner’s office states that he was between 20 and 32 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, and weighed around 185 lbs. He was wearing blue sweatpants and a black sweatshirt over a grey T-shirt. He has never been identified, and the circumstances of his death remain shrouded in mystery.

In 2013, the Cecil (or the “Stay on Main”, as it had been rebranded by then) experienced yet another mysterious death. Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian student, stayed there while touring the US’s West Coast. She began behaving erratically and was filmed on the hotel’s surveillance footage hiding in the elevator, pressing random buttons and moving in strange ways. She disappeared shortly after that video was taken, and her naked body later turned up in a water tank on the hotel’s roof. 

Cecil Hotel Water Tanks

Authorities inspecting the water tanks on top of the Cecil Hotel, where Lam’s body was found.

Horrifically, she was discovered only after residents of the hotel began complaining of problems with water pressure and black, strange tasting water. Lam’s death was ruled accidental by the LA County Coroner, but many believe that there is more to this mystery. Due to the elevator footage, there are some who believe that Elisa was playing “The Elevator Game,” a sinister urban legend that transports the player to an alternate dimension. They believe that Elisa could have been followed back to our dimension by something that caused her death. More likely, however, is the idea that she had a psychotic episode due to a mix of her bipolar disorder and her medication, and ended up in the tank due to accident or suicide.

Eerily, the circumstances of her disappearance are very similar to the plot of the film Dark Water, the tale of a mother and daughter who move into a rundown apartment building, only to start having supernatural issues with their plumbing. However, the film came out in 2005, eight years before Lam met her tragic fate at the Cecil. 

In the 80s, the Cecil welcomed a new kind of awful through its doors – Richard Ramirez, AKA “The Night Stalker.” Ramirez murdered 14 people between April 1984 and August 1985 and attacked many others. He was regularly known to hang around LA’s Skid Row and stayed at the Cecil for a few weeks during his killing spree.

Richard Ramirez

Following in Ramirez’s footsteps, Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger stayed at the Cecil in 1991. While staying there, he strangled three sex workers, crimes for which he was deported back to Austria and convicted. He hanged himself shortly after being found guilty in 1994.

Jack Unterweger

With a relationship with death that’s gone on as long as the Cecil Hotel’s, it’s no wonder that there are also a ton of ghost sightings in and around the building. There are various reports of cold spots in different rooms, as well as shadowy figures stalking the hallways. At one point, someone photographed a shadowy figure outside one of the hotel’s windows, looking as though it would jump at any moment.

Some people say that they specifically see a spectre that resembles Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. This is despite the fact that the Cecil was not the last place that she was seen before her death. 

The ghosts of the Cecil have even made their debut on TikTok – a user named Peet Montzingo recorded a strange encounter on camera while visiting the hotel and uploaded it to the platform last year. He stated that he caught sight of the figure of a woman standing in a window and called 911 because she looked like she was about to jump. 

Peet Montzingo

TikTok user Peet Montzingo in his video about the Cecil Hotel.

In 2011, the hotel was rebranded as “Stay On Main,” though they were still using the original Cecil Hotel signage in 2013. In 2014, a New York City hotelier named Richard Born purchased the property for $30 million and promptly leased it to Simon Baron Development for 99 years. 

In 2016, Matt Baron, Simon Baron’s president, stated that he was committed to preserving the hotel’s historical and architecturally significant elements, but he was going to redevelop the interior and fix some of the more “hodgepodge” work. The project also includes adding a gym, lounge, and a rooftop pool (though that may be ill-advised after the Elisa Lam tragedy) and is set to be complete sometime this year. 

In February 2017, the LA City Council deemed the Cecil a Historic-Cultural Monument, both because it’s a representative specimen of an early 20th-century American hotel and because its architect, Loy Lester Smith, is considered historically significant and much of his work has been preserved. The LAPD has reported a “dramatic drop” in calls from the Cecil since 2008; is it possible that the Cecil’s curse is lifting?

In 1987, U2 performed a surprise concert from the rooftop of a building right next door to the Cecil. It was later released as a music video for “Where the Streets Have No Name”, in which you can clearly see the Cecil in the background. It also appears in the background of the music video for Blink-182’s “The Rock Show”. 

The building’s reputation continues to precede it, and it functions as the focal point of LA’s true crime bus tour, “Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice.” Considering the hotel’s reputation, it’s no surprise that Zak Bagans of “Ghost Adventures” has also been interested in the hotel. According to Bagans, he’s been interested in the Cecil for almost a decade, and Ghost Adventures has just released a 2-hour special on the hotel, available exclusively on Discovery+. 

The hotel, and particularly the death of Elisa Lam, inspired American Horror Story: Hotel. It’s also known to be the inspiration behind Barton Fink (1991). 

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