I was born on the birthday of 12th President Zachary Taylor hours after the assassination of 35th President John F. Kennedy in 1963. My great-great-great grandmother, Emily Radcliff Simpson, was the aunt of 18th President Ulysses Simpson Grant (whose real name was Hiram). I spent the earliest years of my life in the Lafayette Park neighbourhood of Detroit where Grant lived in a white house (above) when President Taylor was poisoned by cherries on America’s 74th July 4th. Still, I never gave Grant much thought growing up because my parents named me after the Jim Crow sportswriter Grantland Rice, to whom I am not related. He was the Grant I always had to explain.

To escape the race riots of 1967, my folks moved eight miles north to Grosse Pointe where I graduated from public high school. I followed my Simpson family roots to Maine, fell in love with American Studies at Colby College, and enrolled in the History of American Civilization Program at the University of Pennsylvania. I earned my PhD from Brandeis University (1994), joined the faculty at The Ohio State University (1995), and published a book about the Fourth Estate (1997). Then I became an administrator at Tufts University (1999) and Harvard Law School (2001) before taking a job at the Claremont Colleges (2006).

The California job did not pan out. Compelled to remain in Los Angeles, I rented a townhouse a block from Muscle Beach. Painted on an adjacent brick building, a five-story portrait of Venice-founder Abbot Kinney loomed over my front door like the Doctor T.J. Eckleburg sign in The Great Gatsby (1925). It refused to me go. Looking to learn more, I dug into local archives. There I stumbled on the Sawtelle Tragedy in microfilm of the Los Angeles Herald.

Fruit (pears) poisoned early L.A. matriarch Maria Dionisia de Jesus Garcia at her family’s annual New Year’s supper in 1910. She died of ptomaine (Latin for “The Fall”) together with twelve children, grandchildren, and friends. Mother Mary Jesus Christ! It was New Testament; also Greek. Female Dionysus, goddess of feast and celebration, happened to be the daughter of the first woman to own the most valuable 6,656 acres in Los Angeles. The Boca de Santa Monica land grant was perhaps the closest thing to paradise in America (before it became Brentwood and Pacific Palisades).

Garcia’s mother, a Gabrielino slave, married a Garcia (most common name in Spanish) after her first husband, a Marquez (means nobleman), died in 1850. Her half-brother Pascal (Latin for Easter/Passover) was in court fighting two immigrants from Canada who ran a land company. Those brothers wanted to build homes for Civil War veterans across their property. One owned the town newspaper, which blamed the Sawtelle victims for their own tragedy (weirdly so did the L.A. Times). The other owned a pharmacy that sold strychnine and arsenic and literally had his name on it.

The more facts about the Garcia family I gathered, the more their tale became a cross between The Ten Commandments (1957) and Chinatown (1974); except it was all real. It became the non-fiction plot between the lines of my history of Los Angeles before Hollywood called SOUTHLAND. Pulling those L.A. facts together, I could no longer ignore Taylor or Grant. President Taylor brought California into the United States before he fell fatally ill on Independence Day in 1850. After Taylor’s son-in-law fell fatally ill on Independence Day in 1853, Lieutenant Grant left Detroit for California to take the place of Colonel Bliss.


Facts surrounding the demise of Taylor and his family read like fiction: also the Bible, like Garcia. Fruit (cherries) poisoned the 12th President on July 4, 1850 after he dedicated the Washington Monument to California. Zachariah was an Old Testament prophet murdered near a Jerusalem monument. What were the chances? Sticking to provable facts, most drawn from D.C. archives, it took me no time to identify Taylor’s murderer. That is because the United States government imprisoned the same man for orchestrating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I could not believe his middle name was literally Finis.

A decade before Abraham, Zachariah sacrificed his family to redeem his nation for the Mexican War (1846-7) he co-led but opposed. America stole California from Mexico because slave politicians in control of the White House wanted to bring their “peculiar institution” to the West Coast. A slaveholder himself (Grant was once, too), Taylor put his country first. He made sure California became a free state, which made him the last slaveholder to occupy the White House. Meanwhile, D.C. slave politicians, led by Taylor’s estranged ex-son-in-law Jefferson Davis, fought back. They schemed to invade Cuba to make it a slave state. When Taylor discovered the intrigue, he promised to hang Davis for treason. Days later Taylor was dead.

After, his First Lady (Margaret Taylor) and son-in-law (White House Chief of Staff William Wallace Bliss) died of mysterious illnesses, too. Their deaths occurred in the same coastal Mississippi town where Davis gathered filibusters to invade Cuba. In her memoirs, Mrs. Davis says she was in Pascagoula to witness Bliss fall ill on July 4, 1853. In his memoirs, Grant says Bliss died the next day: July 5th; he knew because he replaced him. Yet the War Department, run by Secretary Davis at the time, said Bliss died in August for some reason. Perhaps for the same lost cause his body was later dug up and shipped out to El Paso.

Too many coincidences; also too much déjà vu with Sawtelle. Lo and behold, before he died, Mr. Davis established the “Davis Land Company” to develop “approximately 6,000 acres” to support his children. Eureka! Two crime stories became one. The Davis sons were dead in 1872 and 1878, reportedly. They were underground when the Sawtelle poisonings occurred. Yet they died the same day: October 16th, which was both the former’s birthday and the anniversary of John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. Funny thing. Their mother died on October 16th too.

Finally, I caught on to the Davis game with holiday dates: cherries and pears. HOUSE OF DAVIS became the East Coast precursor to my West Coast book and for the first time in my life I began to suspect the history of my country I learned in school had been tampered with somehow. How else could a crime story so central to America be [almost] missing from its history?

The answer was politics, of course, where the truth usually lies. After the Good Friday 1865 murder of President Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, the Tennessee Democrat Republicans needed on the ticket to win re-election in 1864, returned to his base. Turning on Lincoln’s cabinet, Johnson forced the resignation of his attorney general. The replacement disbanded the U.S. Conspiracy Court responsible for trying Lincoln’s murderers, including Davis. Davis was deported to Canada: he never faced trial. Worse (for justice): although impeached, Johnson was not removed from office. That 17th President pardoned all the Davis insiders.

Louisville newspaper mogul Walter Haldeman led that cabal from inside his Pewee Valley compound outside Kentucky’s largest city. Haldeman was forced underground when Grant retook the White House in the Election of 1868 and launched eight years of Reconstruction. Yet he re-emerged after Grant left office following the contested Election of 1876. One rumor said Haldeman was the turncoat Democrat who traded his party’s claim to the White House (with Tilden) in exchange for the end to Reconstruction (with Hayes).

While Federal troops exited the South, Haldeman launched a media blitz designed to flip the truth about the Davis conspiracy. Thanks to his editor Henry “Marse” Watterson, the Lost Cause campaign was so successful by 1893 that Haldeman was able to dig the corpse of Davis out of its forgotten crypt in New Orleans and ship it to Hollywood Cemetery outside Richmond, Virginia. Haldeman promoted the first Hollywood spectacle with syndication: nationwide publicity gave the Davis insiders, most lawyers, the cover they needed to erect grey statues in front of white courthouses across the South. The Southern Poverty Law Center says those attorneys got away with murder: half of all the confederate monuments in America appeared in the years that followed.

To feed his press, which took up a whole building in Louisville, Haldeman assembled the largest collection of American history west of the nation’s capital. To guard his treasure, Haldeman founded the Louisville Public Library and Filson Club; thus he controlled the facts about the conspiracy he created with Davis; then covered up. Scouring the Filson Library for more evidence, I discovered decades of facts were missing for his oldest son. William Birch Haldeman never confessed to playing the part of L.A. Times wizard “Harrison Gray Otis” in real life. No matter. He worked with a whole troupe. The faces of his supporting players line up to expose his conceit.

SUNSET CLUB reveals the first Hollywood cast using facts and photographs from Kentucky archives. The cabal was led by the Wizard (William Haldeman a.k.a. L.A. Times owner “Harrison Gray Otis”), Scarecrow (Davis spy leader Thomas Hines a.k.a. L.A. Chamber secretary “Frank Wiggins”), Tin Man (City Point terrorist John Maxwell a.k.a. Times Mirror silent partner “A. Wiggins Francisco”), and Lion (either ex-confederate army inspector Jacob Thompson a.k.a. L.A. Chamber founding president “Edward Jones” or spy George Sanders a.k.a. Sunset Club founding president “Enoch Knight”) from The Wizard of Oz (1939).


Do not believe me. Believe Dorothy. That piece of fiction lies in bed below them in the grey ending to Tinseltown’s most famous film. Marvel, from the Midwest, leads the group. Remember Marvel? No one ever does. He is the Midwest magician who chats up Dorothy inside his poppy-lined circus wagon at the grey start. Fast forward, through the color, back to the grey end to find Dorothy finally done fooling around. She fingers Marvel as the Wizard. She also identifies Hickory as the “Scarecrow”, Hunk as the “Tin Man”, and Zeke as the “Lion” from Oz.

“It wasn’t a dream—it was a real place,” Dorothy declares. Then she points: “You—and you—and you—and you were there . . . and I remember some of it wasn’t very nice!” Racists called West Coast railroads Yellow Brick Roads because so many Asian Americans died building them. Did some wizard drug a girl with opium and twist her by train to the West Coast for some fun with his friends? Thatreally happenedonly worse!

Hollywood fiction! That is what I believed, too. Yet the truth is something else. Turns out the scriptwriter responsible for the grey bookends to The Wizard of Oz (1939), Florence Ryerson, was the daughter of the front man for the club that L.A. Times wizard “Harrison Gray Otis” created for his men. I obtained a photograph of Ryerson’s father “Charles Dwight Willard” and found myself staring through the spectacles of The Wizard of Oz (1900) author Frank Baum himself. “Me too,” he grinned. His daughter, in fiction, told the truth!


“The real scenes of early California exceed in strangeness any of the mere products of the brain of the novelist.” Grant knew because he replaced Taylor’s son-in-law. The California job did not pan out. Grant was forced to resign, a black mark later exaggerated by Jim Crow historians. Meanwhile, Ulysses (Latin: Odysseus) came back. He re-joined the army when Davis began the Civil War in 1861 on Good Friday. America’s top general by 1863, he won the war with the Palm Sunday surrender of Robert E. Lee in 1865; before Davis had Lincoln shot on Good Friday. After Johnson, Grant became the 18th President, delivered two terms of Reconstruction, and snuffed out the Ku Klux Klan; until the first Hollywood blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation (1915), brought it back.

Around our past goes, without justice, which is how and why James Baldwin knew “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” Speaking about silver screen conspiracy, would would believe “Founder of Hollywood” D.W. Griffith was born less than a mile from the Haldemans in Pewee Valley? There is no place like home when it comes to Tinseltown.