I was born on the birthday of Zachary Taylor only hours after the assassination of JFK in 1963. My great-great-great grandmother Emily Radcliff Simpson was the aunt of 18th President Ulysses Simpson Grant (his real name was Hiram). I spent the earliest years of my life in the Lafayette Park neighborhood of Detroit where U.S. Grant lived when 12th President Taylor was poisoned by cherries inside the White House on July 4, 1850. Still, I never gave “Uncle Sam” much thought growing up because my father named me after 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, my parents moved us eight miles north to Grosse Pointe where I graduated from public high school. I followed my Simpson 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 went on to earn a doctorate in American Literature from Brandeis University, joined the faculty at The Ohio State University, and published a book on the history of the free press. Then I became an administrator and fundraiser at Tufts University (1999) and Harvard Law School (2001) before taking a job as a vice president for the graduate school at the Claremont Colleges.

The California post did not pan out. Compelled to remain in Los Angeles, I rented a townhouse a block from Muscle Beach where a five-story portrait of Venice-founder Abbot Kinney painted on a nearby building loomed over my front door like the Doctor T.J. Eckleburg sign in The Great Gatsby (1925). It refused to let me go. Seeking to learn more about him, I buried myself in L.A. archives. That is where I stumbled upon the Sawtelle Tragedy while spinning microfilm reels of the turn of the century Los Angeles Herald.

Fruit (pears) murdered Los Angeles matriarch Maria [Spanish: Mother Mary] Dionisia [Greek: god(ess) of celebration] Jesus [Spanish: Christ] Garcia [most common name in Spanish] de Valdez [her missing ex-husband] during her family’s annual New Year’s barbecue in 1910. She died of ptomaine [Latin: “The Fall”] poisoning with 12 others, including her children, grandchildren, and friends.

Facts read like the New Testament (with a little Greek theater). It was so Hollywood. Garcia was the daughter of the first family to own the most valuable 6,656 acres in Los Angeles. When she died, her half-brother Pascal [Latin: Easter/Passover] Marquez [Basque: nobleman] was in court fighting two immigrants from Canada. Those brothers ran a company that wanted to build homes for Civil War veterans across their Boca de Santa Monica land grant. One owned the town newspaper, which blamed the Sawtelle victims for their tragedy (as did the L. A. Times). The other owned a pharmacy nearby that sold strychnine and arsenic. It had his name literally written all over it.


The more facts I gathered, the more the Sawtelle Tragedy became a cross between The Ten Commandments (1957) and Chinatown (1974); only real. It is the non-fiction plot at the center of my history of Los Angeles before Hollywood called SOUTHLAND. Pulling those L.A. facts together, I could no longer look past Taylor and Grant. President Taylor brought California into the United States before he fell ill on Independence Day in 1850. Lieutenant Grant left Detroit for California to replace “Perfect” Bliss when Taylor’s son-in-law fell ill on Independence Day in 1853.

Truth about the demise of President Taylor reads like fiction; also the Bible, like Garcia, only this time the Hebrew version. Fruit (cherries) murdered “Old Rough and Ready” on America’s 74th birthday only hours after the Kentuckian dedicated the Washington Monument to California (“Let it Rise”). Zachariah was an Old Testament prophet murdered next to a Jerusalem monument. What were the chances? Sticking to documented facts, most drawn from D.C. archives, it took me little time to identify the man behind President Taylor’s murder in 1850. That is because the United States imprisoned the same villian for orchestrating the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865. Who would believe his middle name was Finis [Latin: “The End”].

A decade before Abraham, Zachariah sacrificed himself and his family to redeem America for the Mexican War (1846-7) he co-led but opposed. The United States took California from Mexico because pro-slavery 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 nation first. He made sure California became a free state, which made Taylor the last slaveholder in the White House by electoral means. Far-right Democrats, led by U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis, fought back. They schemed to invade Cuba. When Taylor discovered their intrigue, he promised to hang his estranged ex-son-in-law for treason. Days later, President Taylor was dead.

Soon after, Taylor’s wife Margaret and White House Chief of Staff, son-in-law William Bliss, fell victim to mysterious illnesses, too. They happened to die in the same coastal Mississippi town where Davis gathered filibusters to invade Cuba. In her autobiography, Mrs. Jefferson Davis says she was in Pascagoula and saw Taylor’s son-in-law ill on Independence Day in 1853. Grant says in his memoirs Bliss died the next day or July 5 (Grant knew the date because he replaced Bliss in California). Yet the War Department, run by Secretary Davis at the time, recorded his death a month later for some reason. Perhaps for the same lost cause, it later dug up his body and shipped it out to El Paso.


Too many coincidences. Too much déjà vu with the Sawtelle Tragedy. Turns out, before he died in 1889, Davis founded a “Davis Land Company” to develop “approximately 6,000 acres” to support his children. True his sons died years before him, in 1872 and 1878 (reportedly). They were underground in Hollywood Cemetery when Garcia was poisoned in 1910. Yet the brothers died the same day: October 16, the birthday for one of them; also the anniversary of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry. Unbelievable, Mrs. Jefferson Davis died on October 16, too!

It was too much coincidence; again. Finally, I caught on to the Davis family game with holidays and fruit. I pieced together more facts and HOUSE OF DAVIS became the East Coast precursor to my West Coast crime history. Missing in between was something that seemed even more impossible. For the first time in my life, I began to suspect the U.S. History I learned in school had been tampered with somehow. How else could a true crime story so central to the history of the United States be [almost] missing from the public record?

The answer was politics, of course; where the truth usually lies. Not long after Lincoln’s murder, Andrew Johnson, the vice president added to the Republican ticket to get Lincoln reelected, returned to his base. The Tennessee Democrat forced the resignation of Lincoln’s Republican attorney general. The replacement disbanded the U.S. Conspiracy Court trying Lincoln’s murderers, including Davis. Davis was deported to Canada; he never stood trial for the Lincoln assassination. Worse: Because Johnson was impeached but not removed from office, the 17th President pardoned all of the Davis insiders.

Louisville newspaperman Walter Haldeman led that cabal from inside his Pewee Valley compound outside Kentucky’s largest city. Haldeman was forced underground when U.S. Grant retook the White House for Republicans in the Election of 1868. While Grant carried out eight years of Reconstruction, the Democrat quietly purchased a Republican newspaper and seemlessly merged it with his own. He reappeared in the midst of the contested Election of 1876 that followed. One rumor said Haldeman was the key insider who traded his party’s claim to the White House (with Tilden) for the end to Reconstruction (with Hayes).

After the Compromise of 1877, Federal troops exited the South. Free from scruitiny, Haldeman launched a media campaign designed to flip the truth about the confederacy he promoted for Davis. Tapping newspaper editor Henry “Marse” Watterson, Haldeman launched the “Lost Cause” blitz. It was so successful, by 1893, he was able to dig the corpse of Davis from a forgotten crypt in New Orleans and ship it by train to the “Graveyard of the Confederacy” outside the Virginia capital.

Haldeman heavily promoted that first Hollywood spectacle. Nationwide publicity, through syndication, gave the Davis insiders, nearly all of them lawyers, the political cover they needed to erect confederate statues on courthouse lawns across the South. The Southern Poverty Law Center says they got away with murder: Half of all confederate monuments in America appeared in the two decades 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 house it, he founded the two biggest archives of Kentucky history, the Filson Club and the Louisville Public Library. They gave Haldeman extradordinary control over the facts about the conspiracy he created with Davis; and then covered up. He could not hide everything, however. Scouring the Filson Library, I discovered decades of facts were missing for his oldest son. William Birch Haldeman never confessed to playing the part of L.A. Times newspaperman “Harrison Gray Otis” in real life. No matter. Haldeman worked with a troupe of actors. Black and white photographs of their faces, together with his, all line up to tell the Hollywood truth.

SUNSET CLUB presents that original Tinseltown cast using facts and photographs from Southern California and Kentucky archives. The cabal was led by William Haldeman (Los Angeles Times wizard “Harrison Gray Otis”), Davis spy captain Thomas Hines (L.A. Chamber of Commerce secretary “Frank Wiggins”), City Point “Tin Man” [bomb-maker] John Maxwell (Times Mirror Company silent partner “A Wiggins Francisco”), and Confederate Army Inspector General Jacob Thompson (L.A. Chamber of Commerce founding president “Edward Wadsworth Jones”). They were the inspiration behind the Wizard, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion from the The Wizard of Oz (1900) by Frank Baum; and its 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer film version.


Do not believe me. Believe facts, photographs, and innocent Dorothy who lies in bed below that cabal at the end of Tinseltown’s most famous film. Marvel from the Midwest leads it. Remember Marvel? No one ever does. He is the magician who chats up Dorothy inside his poppy-lined circus wagon in the film’s grey start. Fast forward, through the color, to the movie’s black end. Dorothy is finally done with all the 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 place,” Dorothy tells her truth. “And you–and you–and you–and you were there . . . this was a real, truly live place. And I remember that some of it wasn’t very nice.” Racists called West Coast railroads Yellow Brick Roads because so many Asian Americans died building them. Why is it impossible to believe the wizard drugged an innocent girl with opium and twisted her by train to the West Coast for some fun with his friends? It happened to Madge Oberholtzer in 1925. The end for that Midwestern girl, at the hands of a genuine KKK Grand Wizard, was unspeakably worse.

Tinseltown fiction! That is what people want to believe. The truth is always something else, especially when it comes to Hollywood. For example, take Florence Ryerson, the scriptwriter behind the black and white bookends that were added to the MGM film version of Baum’s book. Ryerson grew up the daughter of the front man for the club “Harrison Gray Otis” founded in L.A. for his spies. I found a photograph of “Charles Dwight Willard” and found myself staring through the spectacles of Frank Baum himself. “Me too,” he grins. Baum was in on it! 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 the truth about the Golden State because he literally stood in for Taylor’s son-in-law on the West Coast. His California job did not pan out; he was forced to resign, a black mark exaggerated by Jim Crow historians. Their footnotes continue to mislead scholars today.

Meanwhile, Ulysses [Latin: Odysseus] came back. “Uncle Sam” rejoined the army when Davis began the Civil War on Good Friday in 1861. America’s top general by 1863, he won the Civil War with the 1865 surrender of Robert E. Lee on Palm Sunday five days before Davis had Lincoln murdered on Good Friday. Following the Johnson impeachment, U.S. Grant became the 18th President, delivered Reconstruction to the South, and snuffed out the Ku Klux Klan until the first Hollywood blockbusterbrought it back in 1915.

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.” Imagine it so sensational it can never be forgotten let alone reversed. Speaking about silver screen conspiracy, the “Founder of “Hollywood” who brought back the Klan with The Birth of a Nation (1915)was born less than a mile from the Kentucky estate of William Haldeman. There is no place like home when it comes to Hollywood.