Hotel Horror: The Dark, Disturbing Past of Los Angeles' Cecil Hotel

October 16, 2017
By: Catherine Townsend

Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles

Photo by: Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES, CA — It’s the infamous Los Angeles hotel that several serial killers called home — and it’s been the site of at least 16 gruesome and violent deaths resulting from suicide, accident, or murder.

The Cecil Hotel, located downtown at 640 S. Main Street, is the subject of a new Investigation Discovery series called Horror at the Cecil Hotel.

The new series focuses on three disturbing deaths that took place inside the Cecil’s walls, including the mysterious drowning of Elisa Lam, a history of serial killers who stayed in Room 1402, and a series of bizarre murder-suicides.

The Cecil was constructed in 1924 by hotelier William Banks Hanner as a destination for business travelers and tourists, and opened in grand style in 1927. Built in the Art Deco style to the designs of Loy Lester Smith, the hotel cost $1 million to complete and boasted 600 guest rooms and an opulent marble lobby with stained-glass windows.

But within five years, the U.S. had sunk into the Great Depression, and Main Street later declined into an area that would be known as Skid Row. By the 1950s, the hotel had gained a reputation as a residence for transients, prostitutes, and drug users.

Serial killers Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger both lived there — Ramirez in 1985, Unterweger in 1991. Ramirez was known for leaving his bloodied clothes in the hotel dumpster after a murder, and walking through the lobby partly undressed — which didn’t raise any eyebrows in the sketchy neighborhood. Unterweger is thought to have chosen to stay at the Cecil in homage to Ramirez.

Other unexplained deaths at the Cecil include Grace E. Magro, who fell from the ninth story window in an incident that the police were unsure had been an accident or suicide, and Dorothy Jean Purcel, a 19-year-old mother who threw her newborn son from a window. She was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Another strange death took place on June 4, 1964, when “Pigeon Goldie” Osgood, a retired telephone operator, was found dead in her ransacked room by a hotel worker distributing phone books.

Osgood, who had earned her nickname due to the fact that she befriended and fed nearby birds, had been stabbed, strangled, and raped. Near her body, police found the Dodgers cap she always wore and a paper sack full of birdseed — but no one was ever arrested for the crime.

It was also rumored that Elizabeth Short, also known as “the Black Dahlia,” made the Cecil her last stop before her death in 1947 — though this account has reportedly been debunked.

In 2011, new owners took over, and the Cecil Hotel was renamed “Stay on Main.” It took on a new identity as more of a hostel for young students and travelers.

The hotel’s most infamous crime took place on February 19, 2013, when the naked body of 21-year-old Canadian student Elisa Lam was found in the water supply tanks on the hotel roof.

Lam had gone missing almost three weeks earlier, and her decomposed body was discovered by a maintenance worker after several guests complained about low water pressure and water that “tasted funny.”

Authorities later ruled Lam’s death as an accidental drowning, but video surveillance footage from inside an elevator that was released by police appeared to show her acting strangely.

The four-minute clip that shows Lam pressing multiple elevator buttons, hiding in the corner of the elevator, and waving her arms wildly went viral and continues to be an obsession for amateur sleuths who speculate about her final moments.

After the elevator video was made public, many started to believe in a more paranormal explanation — and the death became the inspiration for many documentaries, and season 5 of American Horror Story. It later emerged that she had bipolar disorder that could have contributed to her death.

Lam’s mysterious demise led to an increased interest in the hotel’s history, and records that revealed a prolific history of suicide, murder, or unexplained deaths at the hotel almost since it was first opened.

Los Angeles based author and journalist James T. Bartlett, who has catalogued his findings in a 2016 publication, “Gourmet Ghosts,” acknowledges that, “with many thousands of guests per year, hotels are inevitably going to be the scene of accidents, natural deaths, suicides, crime, and even pure bad luck.

Noting that the Cecil seems to disproportionately affected by violence, he wrote that “it really is possible to wonder whether this building is cursed, or that there are negative forces inside.”

The hotel was sold to NYC hotelier Richard Born for $30 million in 2014, and another New-York based firm, Simon Baron Development, acquired a 99-year ground lease on the property. Born, who runs expensive boutique New York hotels like the Mercer, the Maritime, the Bowery, the Greenwich, and the Ludlow, said that he is set on transforming the hotel into “reasonably priced residences catering to young professionals.”

On June 13, 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that the body of a 28-year-old male had been found outside the hotel. According to the newspaper, a spokesperson for the county coroner told the press that the death was being investigated as a potential suicide — but that cause of death had not been determined.

On February 28, 2017, the Cecil Hotel was granted historic status by the Los Angeles city council.

Watch Investigation Discovery’s Horror at the Cecil on ID GO now!

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