It was once a showplace home in Laurel Canyon, but only ashes were left of the 14-room house. Before its destruction on July 31, 1928, it was the scene of wild parties, a gun battle, an explosion and ultimately a fire.
In the early morning hours of August 1, 1928, hungry, orange flames licked the starlit sky as firemen and an amateur bucket brigade fought to put out a fire that engulfed an unoccupied mansion on Lookout Mountain near Laurel Canyon. The house sat about a mile off Horseshoe Drive, and was considered one of the finest homes in the area.
Three explosions were heard before the fire erupted, and fire investigators entertained the theory that arson gutted the home.
The last owner on record was Henry W. White, once a wealthy real estate dealer and Hollywood promoter. He built it in 1924. It had fourteen bedrooms and a large pool in the middle. He moved to 2133 Stanley Drive, after he lost the house in foreclosure.
At that time, White was running the Film Fan Photo Company on Sunset Boulevard. Two weeks before the fire he visited the mansion, the only time he had done this in several months. When asked about his whereabouts on the night of the fire, he said he’d met a fellow real estate investor, and that he didn’t return to his home until 4 a.m. on August 1.
Once the fire was extinguished, firemen searched the ruins of what the newspapers called the "Mystery House" for any sign of bodies since neighbors told them there had been a party going on before flames and smoke filled the canyon.
Later, two Boy Scouts recounted how they visited the property some weeks before, and saw sticks of dynamite and caps stored in the garage, located under the structure. Henry White confirmed this, saying he bought it for the purpose of blasting out a new road leading from the main highway to his home.
Since the gas and electricity had been cut off, it was believed the revelers had brought candles with them, and one of them turned over and caused the blaze. This would explain why neighbors heard what they thought were gunshots.
There was also a report of two men fighting high on a cliff where one wrong step would plunge them down 80 feet.
Many of the neighbors were convinced a murder had been committed, however nothing came of it; neither the reason for the fire, whether accidental or arson, or who ran from the house before it erupted in flames was investigated.
What was left of the Mystery House sat forgotten for months until June 8, 1929, when Frank Rider, a lineman for the Southern California Edison Company arrived at 230 North Canyon Road. He found only a charred ruin. He was stringing a power line when he saw animals poking around what he thought was a large bone. He pulled it from the ground and dug further, only to find an "ax-battered skull.”
The size of the skull and a number of hairpins found by the bones indicated it possibly belonged to a woman. It was theorized she was killed with an ax, the head which was found close by. There was also a depression in the skull that fit the blunt end of the instrument. A superficial examination indicated she was not more than 20 years old. The lower jaw bone was missing as well as the teeth in the upper part of the mouth.
This time, police went around and interviewed the neighbors. They all described in one form or another the same thing. Orgies, all night parties and women occasionally screaming had been playing out for weeks inside the deserted house.
The night of the fire a fusillade of shots boomed through the hills. Police found bullet holes in the walls still standing.
When asked, Henry White denied that anyone would hold drinking orgies in the property since it had been vandalized after he vacated it. He also explained the bullet holes saying he’d fired some shots in the house one night in jest.
A neighbor described how from her bedroom window she had a good view of the house, and the moon was bright that night. She saw two men run from the house, after the sound of gunfire. It was strange because they appeared to be fighting, and they took separate routes down the canyon trails. Then she heard the roar of a car as the motor was gunned and it barreled down Laurel Canyon Road. As it departed flames shot into the air from the garage.
Police reenacted her story and found she could have plainly seen all she said she did.
Two weeks before the discovery of the skull, a Hollywood policeman looking for vagrants, found the house unlocked. It was empty of furniture, except in one room where he thought the parties were held, because there was a bed and several chairs.
Fire investigators later suspected that gasoline was poured throughout the house. which is why it incinerated so quickly.
Another neighbor who lived fifty yards over the hill in Horseshoe Canyon said that many night the raucous parties woke up his family. He corroborated reports of hearing women scream.
The police now faced reviewing a list of more than 180 missing girls to find out if the skull belonged to one of them.
Sifting through the ashes, police found bones, charred clothing and other evidence to support a murder investigation.
However a medical report was issued that opined that the upper portion of the skull was planted, and appeared to be defleshed. No part of it had been charred by fire. But despite these findings, more bones were found, as well as women's underwear, jewelry and clothing.
High above the ruins of the house, a laborer started working on a natural stone fireplace and found several bones, a diamond ring set with two emeralds, two discharged .32-caliber shells, and "some vials believed to have contained narcotics". There was also a woman's glove, and a thermometer with "Ottawa Tubercular Colony 38651” printed on it. On a pencil was printed the name Carroll H. Dunning.
A picture of a popular actress, which the newspapers did not name, was found ripped across the center, with the name of the person to whom she dedicated it torn away.
Fifteen yards from the house in a little ravine, police found a blood-stained yellow couch cover. The spot appeared to be a dump site used by those who frequented the house, during the time it was allegedly empty. Hundreds of empty whiskey and gin bottles littered the area.
This discovery bore out the neighbors’ stories about the wild parties.
The police believed those who used the house as a rendezvous point were instructed where to find it, since it was hidden by shrubbery on an isolated canyon trail.
Then from one day to the next police changed their mind and branded the finding of the skull a hoax, placed there by neighbors, and the bones belonged to animals.
They explained their decision to end the investigation based on their theory that Henry White who entertained extensively, had gained the enmity of his neighbors, and they planted the skull in the house to scare him away.
He recently tried to purchase another house in the area, and owners of the surrounding properties banded together and refused to sell to him.
However from the beginning the police seemed to have bungled any type of efforts to discover if indeed someone had been killed.
The newspapers noted that the night of the fire, police were called to the scene especially after the sound of gunfire, however they only sent two officers that didn't even turn over a “spadeful of ashes”. If this had been done, authorities could confirm if the skull had been in the ruins on that date, or perhaps even stumbled across a body.
No further inquiries were made despite the discovery of the trash heap with the bloody couch cover, and hundreds of empty liquor bottles. If indeed the skull was planted, how could anyone guarantee it would be found since it was buried?
However this was not the last time Henry White found himself involved in a fire-related incident. Only a month later, July, 1929, a fire of undetermined origin burned five acres menacing homes in the vicinity of Laurel Canyon.
According to neighbors, laborers working on Henry White's house on Stanley Drive were seen smoking around a rubbish pile accumulated from the renovations they were working on.
Two months later in August, 1929, two hundred cases of contraband scotch and bourbon valued at $20,000 were captured by police when a truck was stopped in Laurel Canyon.
If indeed a woman was killed late in the night of July 31, 1928, who she was and what happened to her remained unknown. Her killer might have been one of those men who drove off into the night as flames erupted behind him.
Perhaps somebody owed Henry White a big favor, and he called it in, and the Mystery Mansion on North Canyon Road kept its secrets.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer