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The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City

August 3, 2015 to January 10, 2016
Central Library, History & Genealogy Department

"The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City," explores some of the most deranged L.A. stories that were covered by Agness "Aggie" Underwood, a local reporter who rose through the ranks to become the first woman city editor for a major metropolitan newspaper. Curated by Joan Renner (Author/Editrix/Publisher of the Deranged L.A. Crimes website, Board Member of Photo Friends), and featuring photos from the Los Angeles Public Library's Herald Examiner collection.

Agness “Aggie” Underwood never intended to become a reporter—all she really wanted was a pair of silk stockings.  She’d been wearing her sister’s hand-me-downs, but she longed for a new pair of her own. When her husband told her they couldn’t afford them, she threatened to get a job and buy them herself. It was an empty threat. She had no idea how to find employment. It was pure serendipity when a close friend phoned the day after the stockings kerfuffle and told her that there was a temporary opening for a switchboard operator at the Los Angeles Record. The job was meant to last only through the 1926-1927 holiday season so Aggie jumped at the chance.

Aggie arrived at the Record knowing nothing about the newspaper business, but she was a quick study and it was apparent to everyone that, although untrained, she was bright and eager to learn. The temporary switchboard job turned into a permanent position.

In December 1927 the city was horrified by the kidnapping and cruel mutilation murder of 12 year-old school girl, Marion Parker. Aggie was at the Record when they received word that the perpetrator, William Edward Hickman, who had nicknamed himself “The Fox,” had been captured in Oregon.  The breaking story created a fire storm of activity in the newsroom—Aggie had never seen anything like it. She realized then that she didn’t want to be a bystander. She wanted to be a reporter. 

When the Record was sold in January 1935, Aggie made the leap into the big leagues by accepting an offer from William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper the Evening Herald and Express. Working for Hearst was completely different than working for the Record.  Hearst’s reporters were expected to work at breakneck speed, after all they had to live up to the paper’s motto, “the first with the latest”.

From January 1935 until January 1947 Aggie covered everything from fires and floods to murder and mayhem, and frequently with photographer Perry Fowler by her side. She was considered a general assignment reporter but developed a reputation for covering crimes.

Sometimes, she helped solve them.

In December 1939 Aggie was called to the scene of what appeared to be a tragic accident on the Angelus Crest Highway. Laurel Crawford said that he had taken his family on a scenic drive, but lost control of the family sedan on a sharp curve.  The car plunged over 1000 feet down an embankment killing his wife, three children, and a boarder in their home. He said he had survived by jumping from the car at the last moment.

When asked by Sheriff’s investigators for her opinion, Aggie said she had observed Laurel’s clothing and his demeanor and neither lent credibility to his account. She concluded that Laurel was “guilty as hell”.  Her hunch was right. Upon investigation, police discovered that Laurel had engineered the accident to collect over $30,000 in life insurance.

Hollywood was Aggie’s beat too. When stars misbehaved or perished under mysterious or tragic circumstances, Aggie was there to record everything for Herald readers. On December 16, 1935, popular actress and café owner, Thelma Todd, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of her Pacific Palisades home. Thelma’s autopsy was the first Aggie ever attended. By the time it was over all of Aggie’s colleagues had turned green and fled the room—only she and the coroner’s staff remained upright.

Though Aggie never considered herself a feminist, she certainly paved the way for female journalists. When she was suddenly yanked off the notorious Black Dahlia murder case in 1947 and made the editor of the City Desk, she was the first woman to hold this post for a major metropolitan newspaper. Known to keep a bat and startup pistol handy at her desk, just in case, she was beloved by her staff and served as City Editor for the Herald (later Herald Examiner) until retiring in 1968. 

When she passed away in 1984, Aggie’s the Herald Examiner eulogized her by printing, “She was undeterred by the grisliest of crime scenes and had a knack for getting details that eluded other reporters. As editor, she knew the names and telephone numbers of numerous celebrities, in addition to all the bars her reporters frequented. She cultivated the day’s best sources, ranging from gangsters and prostitutes to movie stars and government officials.”

Through the Los Angeles Herald Examiner’s photo archive, now held by the Los Angeles Public Library, the cases Aggie covered are more than just faded headlines, but come to life in light and shadow. As you can see, her notebook was filled with some of the most Deranged L.A. Crimes ever perpetrated in Los Angeles, and Aggie sometimes served as more than just an observer.