A debut set of true crime essays explores San Francisco’s dark side.
Drexler wrote the column “Notorious Crooks” for the Sunday San Francisco Examiner from 2014 to 2018 and runs walking tours of the area’s crime hot spots. In this work, he collects bizarre, seedy tales of notorious culprits and unsolved mysteries, covering a century from the 1870s through the 1980s. The infamous characters surveyed include Juanita “Duchess” Spinelli, a “modern-day Fagin” who ran a crime school and was “the first woman to be executed in California”; obese “gambling czar” Elmer “Bones” Remmer; and Dorothy Ellingson, who in 1925 killed her mother for threatening to send her to reform school—her insanity plea failed. The press blamed cars and music for the 16-year-old’s degeneracy, branding her a “Jazzmaniac.” Drexler takes readers on a sprightly tour through the car thefts and holdups of the Terror Bandits, attempted jailbreaks (both Folsom Prison and San Quentin are in the general vicinity), murders, and more. The stories of female criminals feel less familiar and thus tend to stand out, especially those of Inez Burns, an abortionist who performed as many as 30 procedures a week and was rumored to have had Rita Hayworth as a patient, and Sally Stanford, who ran a speak-easy and then a brothel. The disparity in how these two women fared says something about the shifting morality of the 20th century. While Burns, whose services had formerly been considered a “necessary evil,” was indicted in 1946, serving two years in prison and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes, Stanford went on to run for the Sausalito City Council (she won on her sixth attempt) and was later elected mayor. A longer, final section deftly focuses on the Zodiac Killer case, which Drexler (who has appeared on television as an expert on the crimes) calls “the most famous unsolved murder mystery of modern times.” The author makes good use of primary sources such as court transcripts, providing an appropriate level of detail that never seems gratuitous or overly sordid. Black-and-white photographs are provided for many of the historical figures discussed.
A lighthearted, informative take on rather grim events.