The deaths and dark history of the Cecil Hotel

Catriona Harvey-Jenner
·5-min read
Photo credit: ROBYN BECK - Getty Images
Photo credit: ROBYN BECK - Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

Netflix's latest true crime offering comes in the form of a documentary - Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. The four-part series examines the disappearance and subsequent death of 21-year-old Canadian student Elisa Lam from the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, and combs through the dark past of the notorious landmark.

Opened in 1927, the Cecil Hotel was a grand destination at first. It was decked out in marble and attracted upmarket tourists and businesspeople alike. But two years later, the Wall Street Crash happened, leading to the Great Depression in the United States - and it saw the deterioration of local areas including Skid Row, which became notorious for violence and crime.

What followed was a steady decline of the hotel, which eventually became infamous for being the location of numerous suicides and deaths. Two serial killers, Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger, were known to have stayed at the hotel at different points, and the general manager at the time of Elisa Lam's death, Amy Price, said in the Netflix documentary that she saw 80 deaths during her time there between 2007 and 2017.

Who died at the Cecil Hotel?

One of the most notable deaths to have been linked to the Cecil Hotel before the body of Elisa Lam was discovered in a water tank on top of the building in February 2013, was that of Elizabeth Short. In 1947, the body of the young actress was found unclothed in a park near to the hotel. It has never been discovered who killed 22-year-old Short, also known as 'The Black Dahlia' in reference to one of her films, but the link to the Cecil Hotel comes as a result of unfounded claims she drank in the hotel's bar the night before her death.

The murder was mentioned in Netflix's Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, but since no perpetrator has ever been found for the killing of Elizabeth Short, any link to the Cecil remains unconfirmed.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

A Cecil Hotel murder case with less mystery but just as much tragedy involved 19-year-old Dorothy Jean Purcell, who stayed at the accommodation in 1944. It's reported that the teenager was unaware she was pregnant when she checked into the hotel with her 38-year-old boyfriend Ben Levine, and unexpectedly gave birth to a baby boy in the toilet of her room.

Purcell threw her newborn son out of the window of the high rise hotel, later telling authorities she had believed her baby was dead. An autopsy revealed he had air in his lungs at the time of death and had therefore not been dead prior to landing on a nearby building. The young woman went on to be found guilty of murder by reason of insanity, after numerous criminal psychiatrists testified that she was mentally confused.

Tragically, the Cecil Hotel has been the location of several suicides over the years. One of the most widely reported was that of Pauline Otton, as her self-inflicted death also led to the death of another person. While staying at the hotel in 1962, following an argument with her husband, Otton jumped out of her room window. She landed on a passer-by, 65-year-old George Gianinni, who passed away from his injuries.

Photo credit: MARK RALSTON/GETTY
Photo credit: MARK RALSTON/GETTY

The death of Elisa Lam was concluded as an accident, but there was plenty of speculation a murder had occurred - in part, because murders weren't unheard of at the Cecil Hotel. In 1964 a long-term resident of the hotel named Goldie Osgood - also known as 'Pigeon Goldie' due to her love of feeding the birds - was found dead in her room. There's continuing debate about Osgood's age, with some reports citing 65 but others suggesting she was 79 at the time of her death.

on 4 June, 1964, a worker distributing telephone books to hotel rooms discovered Pigeon Goldie's body - she had been strangled with a hand towel, as well as sexually assaulted and beaten up. A 29-year-old man, Jacques B. Ehlinger, was arrested for the murder after having been spotted wearing bloody clothing shortly after the crime occurred, but he was later released without charge and the killer has never been found.

What happened to Elisa Lam?

Despite various different theories, the experts working on the case concluded that Elisa Lam's death occurred due to accidental drowning, believed to be linked to her mental health issues (she had bipolar disorder and depression, and hadn't been taking her medication in the days leading up to her death).

The Cecil Hotel staff confirmed Elisa had exhibited some "erratic behaviour" during the early days of her stay. S had initially been sharing a room with other young women, but was moved to a room of her own after complaints about her leaving odd notes on people's beds. It's not known exactly how or why the young woman ended up on the roof of the hotel, but authorities ruled out any involvement of another person.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

What happened to the Cecil Hotel?

Unsurprisingly, it's no longer open. In 2014, hotelier Richard Born bought the hotel for $30 million and shut it for complete renovation in 2017. The hotel was supposed to open this year, more upscale and complete with a gym, lounge and rooftop pool, but that hasn't happened as of yet - likely due to delays resulting from COVID-19.

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