Bullet of Mystery – Part 1

  July 11, 1901, Bullet of Mystery  

Nov. 26, 1959, Lionel Comport Los Angeles history in the 1900s is an acquired taste. Most people limit themselves to  the Raymond Chandler era, the 1930s through the 1950s, as if Philip Marlowe moonlighted as a historian. Perhaps they find the city’s horse-and-buggy days too remote, but for me that era is like watching a modern metropolis slowly rise from the dust of a Wild West town.

I revisited 1901 when I met with Caroline Comport on Tuesday to help research her grandfather for a master’s thesis on how personal history shapes a family’s self-image. Or, as Caroline puts it, “How does who we think we are impact who we become?”

After spending years at microfilm machines and in various archives, I am always amazed at the relative ease of doing research these days. Our session was at Foxy’s in Glendale (free Wi-Fi!) and we delved into Los Angeles history while toasting English muffins. Truly the civilized way.
To summarize the story of Caroline’s grandfather, Lionel F. Comport was shot in the back July 10, 1901, while delivering milk from a horse-drawn wagon at 20th and Toberman streets in the University Park neighborhood. Police suggested various motives (Robbery? Dispute over a woman? A mad assassin?) but despite an intense investigation, officers never found the attacker.

The bullet  penetrated Comport’s intestines and by all expectations of medical care in that era, he should have died. However, he was rushed to a hospital (as fast as a horse-drawn ambulance would go, anyway) and survived the operation. He died in 1959 at the age of 79.

Here’s a brief case study in how we went about the research:

Caroline has a news background (you may recall her from KTLA-TV Channel 5), and she had already gathered quite a bit of material, so she asked particularly pertinent questions about The Times’ coverage of her grandfather’s shooting.

–Why is there no byline?

Unsigned news stories were quite common through the late 1950s or even the early '60s. A story that was by a top reporter like The Times’ Harry Carr or a columnist such as Alma Whitaker might have a byline, but articles were generally anonymous. Recall that of all the original 1947 coverage of the Black Dahlia case, the only major signed story was Agness “Aggie” Underwood’s interview with Red Manley in the Herald-Express.

–Why are there no pictures?

The Times rarely published photos in this era because the process was time-consuming and primitive. The Times used prepared photos such as studio portraits, but was much more likely to use a line drawing for breaking news.

–Why did the reporter omit first names?

This practice causes great frustration, but it’s typical in the early newspapers. It’s a treasure hunt through ProQuest to track down the full names of Patrolman (Thomas) Broadhead and Police Surgeon (Clarence W.) Pierce.  Judges, mayors, council members, police officers, attorneys, etc., were presumably so well known that they didn’t need to be identified by their first names.

–Why is his first middle initial wrong?

Comport’s middle initial was F instead of H. These kinds of mistakes happen – even now, although we do our best to avoid them.

–What about the style of writing?

Reporters had lots of space to fill, and without photographs, they detoured into long descriptions and tangential facts that would be ruthlessly cut today — if it even occurred to a reporter to add them.

For example, the shooting story reports when Comport immigrated from England, how long he had been a milkman, what kind of employee he was (we know, for example, that he worked as much as 18 hours a day, so police inferred he had no time for women and thus eliminated one possible motive). We even find out how many siblings he had and what his brothers did for a living.

We also get an anatomically correct description of Comport’s injuries. This is typical of the old newspapers, rather like the detailed descriptions of Jack the Ripper’s victims in the London papers.  No wonder Sherlock Holmes pored over the newspaper coverage of crimes he was investigating.  

Also notice how often investigators asked Comport to describe the incident. They clearly did not expect him to survive and were trying to get as much information as possible in case he died.

Coming up next: Where else we looked.

  July 11, 1901, Lionel Comport  

  Lionel Comport, July 11, 1901  

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in #courts, 1901, Animals, Crime and Courts, Film, Hollywood, LAPD, Raymond Chandler. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Bullet of Mystery – Part 1

  1. James Bierman says:

    Thank you for sharing this interesting story with us. Despite the span of 110 years since this random act of violence occurred on the streets of Los Angeles its similarities to current violent acts remain eerily similar. Random violence amongst strangers still happens to this day in the City of Angels…and just like in the Comport case we rarely find out why!?!?


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