Live Noir

Henry Ford McCrackens 1952 Santa Ana murder trial launched the age of broadcast voyeurism

Photo courtesy of Old Santa Ana
Courthouse MuseumIn Buena Park on May 19, 1951, the parents of 10-year-old Patty Jean Hull told police their daughter was missing. Four days later, television cameras zoomed in on Hull's uncoiling story. As real-time TV signals from Santa Ana's jail radiated throughout Southern California, we entered the age of broadcast voyeurism.

Stan Chambers, a living legend of television news, was at the mic to bring viewers a "first-hand picture of developments" at California's first live broadcast of a crime case. The tease: Where is Patty Jean Hull?

Today, Hull looks straight at me from my computer monitor. A bitmapped jpeg of a grammar school class photo taken at the midpoint of the 20th century, her image is processed into a future she never saw. It's an amplified future where TV programs starring reluctant celebrities like Gary Condit, Elizabeth Smart, Jon-Benet Ramsey, and O.J. Simpson push the value of image above the value of language. But even more, as philosopher Jean Baudrillard said in The Ecstasy of Communication, we live in an age in which "the scene and the mirror have given way to a screen and a network."

If Hull's case was tried today, CNN, Fox and Court TV might showcase her story as an infotainment docudrama—a "Missing Girl Mystery." They might weigh episode tie-ins and hire ad agencies to determine her demographic appeal.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of her case, it's time to retell Hull's story in the medium her tragedy helped fashion. The only question is what screen and what network will premiere her story of death—and the birth of reality TV?


Jurors exit after the deadlocked
first trial.
Photo courtesy of Old Santa Ana
Courthouse Museum

"It's in a rough stage now," I say, describing my Patty Jean Hull docudrama to Nancy Meyer, a development executive at Universal Studios. "But here's what I see."

It is midday on May 19, 1951. A hard light flares off the marquee at the Buena Park Valuskis Theater. In the distance, a man in a green gabardine sport suit approaches. A few cars scroll past on Beach Boulevard in this agricultural community of citrus growers. Suddenly, Patty Jean Hull's face pops into full frame. A 10-year-old in pigtails, a red sweater, blue jeans, bobby socks, and saddle shoes, she smiles, turns, takes the hands of her two younger brothers and walks to the ticket window for the matinee.

Meyer listens intently as I continue.

Theater interior. The Bird of Paradise, a motion picture playing that day, fills the screen. Tiki Room music and Technicolor palm trees set the scene, as André, a white man who has sailed to Polynesia, is about to marry Kalua, an island princess. We zoom in on the screen as Kalua's brother Tenga explains a native honeymoon night to André:

TENGA: You will kidnap Kalua. It would bring great shame to the chief if he let her go easily. She must be taken from him by force.

ANDRÉ: But I don't need to take Kalua by force. She wants to come with me. She loves me.

TENGA: That is true, but when you kidnap her, she will fight you and bite you. That is the custom. It proves that she loves her parents. It proves that she does not willingly run from their happy house.

At the Valuskis Theater, Patty Jean Hull is seated alone, away from her brothers and the crowd. Someone approaches. It's the man in the green gabardine sport suit: Henry Ford McCracken. He sits down immediately next to her.

"I'm a little lost now," Meyer says. "Who is McCracken?"

"McCracken was 34," I say, "a handyman and country musician. Slicked-back hair, clean-shaven, inconspicuous-looking. He never touched alcohol. In fact, he wouldn't drink Coke at a bar for fear it was spiked."

McCracken was also a sexual psychopath on a short fuse. In 1946, his concerned mother petitioned the Orange County Superior Court to have him committed to a mental hospital. His behavior and record as a serial child sex offender, however, failed to impress medical examiners who said he had "mild schizophrenia with anxiety neurosis but can distinguish between right and wrong." Diagnosis: no big deal.


Patty Jean Hull.
Photo courtesy of Old Santa Ana
Courthouse Museum

"What else can you tell me about McCracken?" Meyer asks.

After his "mild schizophrenia" diagnosis, McCracken moved from Orange County to Michigan, where his string of child sex offenses continued. In the fall of 1950, after nine arrests, Detroit Police prepared documents to have him permanently committed to a mental institution. Before the documents were filed, McCracken fled back to Orange County. A few weeks later, he was arrested in Santa Ana for failing to register as a sex offender. He served a six-month jail sentence. On May 6, 1951, he was on the streets again.

McCracken immediately gravitated to an auto court cottage down the block from the Valuskis Theater where he took up residence. He worked nights entertaining at the nearby White Elephant Cafe. Just 12 days after his release from the Santa Ana Jail, he took an empty seat at a Saturday matinee, next to Patty Jean Hull.

Meyer shifts in her seat. "We'd have to look delicately at a child sex-offense case like this," she says.

"I can go that way," I say. "Let's fast forward."

Hull never returned home from the theater. Her parents called the police that night. By the next morning, nearly every family in Buena Park, a community of 5,000, sent someone out to look for the missing girl.

That afternoon, on a tip from the owner of the White Elephant Cafe, police took Henry Ford McCracken into custody. He went quietly. A bloodstained green gabardine sport suit was found in his cabin.

Outside the jail, one of the most exhaustive searches in Southern California history continued. More than 1,500 people, including Boy Scout troops and Marines from El Toro, scoured hillsides, orange groves and back yards for Hull. They searched for days with no luck.

"Now, for the electronic moment of truth," I say to Meyer. "On Wednesday, May 23, camera crews arrived on the scene to provide Southern California's television audience its first exposure to a live crime drama. After the Hull case, TV would never be the same."

"I think if I were to develop this," Meyer says, "I'd say the murder sounds—I don't mean this the wrong way—but almost incidental."

"But as history," I say, "I think this story would be a great lead-in to a live crime series. Let me just wrap up the pre-trial."

It is Thursday, May 24, 1951. Our view pans across Live Oak Canyon. A State Forest Ranger crawls under a barbed-wire fence and moves toward a tiny mound of dirt marked by a broken branch. The ranger drops to his knees and begins digging with his hands. He stops. Hesitates. Digs down deeper. We zoom in. We see a black-and-white saddle shoe breaking through the loose dirt that covers this shallow grave.

"This is this all true?" Meyer asks. I nod.

The camera tilts up and lingers for a moment, registering the emotion of the ranger and the grave. The shot dissolves into the same scene a few hours later as police detectives surround Patty Jean's body. She is fully clothed, face up, hands folded across her stomach.

Back at the Santa Ana Jail, McCracken is taken out of his cell. Police wait outside to transport him to the grave site. As he walks down a corridor in front of cameras, District Attorney James L. Davis holds out a bloodstained yellow bed sheet found near Patty Jean's body. He asks McCracken, "Is this yours?" There is no reply.

"This might be something that Court TV would consider," Meyer says. "What happened next?"

I relate McCracken's version of events. He admitted to police that Hull visited his cottage but said she panicked when she thought her neighbors were approaching. Embarrassed and trying to evade them, she attempted to escape out a screen window, slipped and accidentally cut herself. According to McCracken, she passed out. After he attempted to revive her, he claims he, too, passed out.

Meanwhile, the autopsy report had been completed. It documented "small bruises on the girl's arms and on the area of her thighs, dilation of her rectal orifice, some 15 gashes on her scalp at the back and sides, and three fractures of her skull."

The TV cameras surrounding the murder were beginning to have their effect. Before the Aug. 3 trial, McCracken attorney George Chula Jr. filed a change of venue request based, in part, on the claim that live coverage had "aroused the anger and indignation of the people." Request denied.

Drawing media coverage across the country, the first trial ended with a deadlocked jury. McCracken was found guilty of child stealing, but one juror dissented on the murder charge. As Superior Court Judge Robert Gardner dismissed the jury, McCracken reacted like a child. "I knew I wasn't guilty," he chanted over and over again in court.

As the jurors walked down the stairs from the third-floor courtroom, they hid their faces. A reporter on the stairway landing lunged forward with his camera. A male juror shoved back, smashing the camera into the reporter's eye. As he stumbled backward with blood running down his face, the reporter caught the juror with a left hook to the jaw. A brawl followed between jurors and newsmen. A sheriff's deputy intervened.

There was outrage everywhere in Southern California. Orange County citizens organized rallies to protest the verdict. District Attorney Davis was so angered by the outcome that he berated the jury for failing to convict.

Trial No. 2 was set to begin on Aug. 13.

"So what was the final outcome?" Meyer asks.

I tell her that the prosecution at the second trial was meticulous. The jury was bussed to McCracken's cottage. This time, there was no mistrial. McCracken was found guilty of first-degree murder.

On Feb. 19, 1954, after a three-year battle to escape the gas chamber, McCracken was executed.

I wait for Meyer's response. "I see murder stories all the time," she says. "I think the real story here is how this changed the community and the way people look at murder. Have we lost our innocence?"


McCracken at his second trial.
Photo courtesy of Old Santa Ana
Courthouse Museum

"That's exactly how I would focus the story," I explain. "This is about the birth of crime and reality TV. Cops, Investigative Reports, The People's Court—all owe a debt to the Hull case. Think two words: 'live noir.'"

"Well, then," Meyer says. "I'll give my friend at Court TV a call. It might be something they'd be interested in."

The meeting is over. I drive to North Hollywood and bolt down a cup of coffee—reassuring myself that I can live with Court TV. Now, I just have to figure out if we've lost our innocence.

According to most late-20th-century cultural historians, the official date of America's "innocence lost" is Nov. 22, 1963—the day of JFK's assassination. The payoff for fans of early live crime coverage came two days later on Nov. 24, when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald dead before a live TV audience. Like a NASCAR race car hitting the wall on ESPN, Ruby's act of expedient justice was the spectators' defining moment in vicarious danger.

With those same visceral and yet unrealized expectations in mind, any Southern Californian who owned a TV in 1951 witnessed the spectacle of McCracken "live." How did this affect the audience? What innocence were we presumably losing? It occurs to me that the best point of view for my Hull tele-tragedy might be found through the eyes of someone on the scene.

"This was a groundbreaking event in television news," Stan Chambers tells me. Chambers, KTLA-TV's on-the-scene reporter, has covered most of the major events in Southern California over the past 50 years, including the Hull case.

"You really have to give credit to station manager Klaus Landsberg," Chambers says. "His philosophy was to get the cameras out of the studio and into the field. It all fell together on the Patty Jean Hull case. It was his idea to cover it."

So it's Landsberg who lost our innocence, I think.

"When the word came out that they were holding McCracken," Chambers says, "we went over to his house. Our cameras looked through his front window and saw all this pornographic material."

Pornography broadcast live in 1951 to all of Southern California? That's another first. I ask Chambers to describe it.

"It was mainly magazines," he says. "There wasn't that much pornography around, so it's hard to be relative about it."

When news of McCracken's whereabouts got out via live TV, a crowd of angry locals gathered at the Santa Ana Jail. "We were there live," Chambers says. "It was almost what you would call a lynch mob. There were some very nervous moments."

Later, during the trial, KTLA had cameras in the hallway outside the courtroom. "When people would come in and out of the courtroom door," Chambers says, "our cameras would get a peek as to what was going on. Then, when witnesses finished their testimonies, we would do interviews. There were little games being played."

The Hull case also marked the first time in California history that newspaper and TV reporters competed for a crime story.

"Once, someone mysteriously knocked the power line out of the wall so our cameras went off the air. We were looking around wondering where our signal went. It was chaos."

Then I ask Chambers the magic question: "Do you think we lost a part of our innocence as a result of our exposure to the Hull case?"

"The audience has changed a lot," he says. "In those days, there was such a thing as real shock. Nothing like this had happened to us as broadcasters before, and it hadn't happened to the people we were interviewing—or the audience either.

"The scope of news was broadened by events like this," Chambers says. "News became very much more visual and began to have a much stronger impact on people. You were there right as it was happening. It was reality."

There's "reality," and then there's "reality."

The instant communication of television removed the wall between crime and public reaction. We saw Patty Jean Hull's mother covering her own face from the camera's unblinking, shameless gaze. We saw her listless brother crying. We saw her father pleading for justice.

According to Baudrillard, "It is futile to imagine space if one can cross it in an instant. Picturing others and everything that brings you close to them is futile from the instant that 'communication' can make their presence immediate."

With the advent of live crime TV, an immediate presence confronted us. We could instantly see ourselves in a victim's circumstances. We could imagine what we would do. We could judge their reaction. But as viewers—as voyeurs—the current flows only one way. We could take in the victims' first-hand reactions—to place, time and circumstance. But we could not touch the scene through the airwaves.

"In the McCracken case, you've got the ingredients for making people watch: molestation, sex and a guy who's a sexual psychopath," Clay Calvert says.

Calvert is the author of Voyeur Nation, a study of the cultural phenomenon of media-driven voyeurism. He seemed the most likely candidate to help me determine if we've lost our innocence since this first electronic moment of truth. "When we watch things like the McCracken case on television, we are removed from actually dealing with those people. We dip in and out of their lives. We turn off the TV set, and our responsibility is nil. We're feeding off their tragedy and grief."

"Yes, but haven't we always had an interest in other people's misery?" I ask without shame.

"Mass voyeurism has been around at least since 1836, when the New York Herald covered the ax murder of a prostitute," says Calvert, an assistant professor of communications and law at Penn State. "But the McCracken case helped to break the mold. It was live. For the audience, it was the first time that the outcome was unclear. There was drama, suspense, it was unscripted—we didn't know what to expect."

"How is that different than what we see on TV today?" I ask.

"Since then, it's been a case of constantly pushing the envelope. Each generation's audience seems more willing to see more of other people's private lives—more willing to tolerate certain uses of cameras than previous generations were."

"Have we lost our innocence?" I ask.


Second-trail jurors visit
McCracken's cottage.
Photo courtesy of Old Santa Ana
Courthouse Museum

"We gaze at our new reality, feeling involved when we may not be," Calvert says. "With an increasing amount of TV reality shows, fact and fiction, acting and being are getting harder to distinguish."

The scene shifts. It is 1951, and we are once again inside a theater at the screening of The Bird of Paradise.

TENGA: As soon as you kidnap her, the big drum will sound the alarm. My father will rush out in anger because someone has stolen his daughter. And I will rush out with my weapons, and all our warriors will come with their weapons, and we will look for you. We will look everywhere.

ANDRÉ: Where will I be?

TENGA: You will have carried Kalua into your house.

ANDRÉ: But that's the first place anybody would look.

TENGA: Yes. But we will not find you. That is the custom, too.

Did McCracken find it increasingly difficult between "acting" and "being"? Did he imagine Patty Jean to be Debra Paget, who played Kalua in The Bird of Paradise? Was his kidnapping of Hull part of some movie-based delusion? Are we guilty, today, of sharing a similar part of McCracken's delusion?

I turn on the TV and surf through the channels. There's Judge Judy providing us with a 21st century pillory. There's the parents of Danielle van Dam, the once-missing seven-year-old San Diego girl whose body was found by a roadside. There's Daniel V. Jones, the Los Angeles man who on May 1, 1998, pulled his truck to the side of an offramp, set it on fire and then shot himself in the head with a rifle on live TV. There's Law & Order and Fact or Fiction and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. There's Elizabeth Smart playing the harp and the skull of Chandra Levy.

When I get the call from Nancy Meyer at Universal Studios, I'm taken off-guard. She goes straight to the point.

"I talked to my friend at Court TV," Meyer says. "Unfortunately, because there are more alarming and lurid cases that have come along, your story is not the kind of thing—as she understands the marketplace—that she would want to incorporate into programming."

"Incorporate into programming" echoes like a dub remix in my head.

"That doesn't mean this is the end of it," she offers. "Everyone has a nose and an opinion. Someone else may have an interest in this."

Today, a hard light flares off the cars at Ken Grody Ford in Buena Park. This is where the Valuskis Theater once stood. After Patty Jean's kidnapping, customers stayed away, business declined and the place shut down. By the 1960s, the Valuskis had become a Pussycat Theater. Now it's a car lot. The Hull family home has been torn down, too—so has the White Elephant Cafe. A little farther down Beach Boulevard, a law office occupies the lot where McCracken's cottage once stood. Santa Ana's Courthouse still stands at the corner of Broadway and Santa Ana Boulevard, but now it's a museum. If you want, you can sit in a juror's chair or walk down the hallways where TV cameras made history.

When I visit these places, Baudrillard's observation of the futility of imagining space when distance can be diminished by time settles hard in my consciousness. I wonder how far we've actually come in so short a time and how much, if any, innocence we have lost.

This July 22, 50 years will have passed since the Supreme Court of California ruled on Henry Ford McCracken's appeal. That ruling set another precedent. It was the first appeal in California history in which live television coverage of a crime case was considered in the determination of a fair and impartial trial. In response to the inauguration of the electronic moment of truth, the appeal failed.

Since then, we tell ourselves that everything has changed. Because of television's prying eyes, we believe that our TV reality, as Baudrillard wrote more than 20 years ago, "is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real."

Yet, there has always been a fascination with crime and its consequences. In the past, we turned it into folklore and staged it in theaters. Since the first cave drawings, we visualized ourselves in a victim's circumstances from a distance. We have always been voyeurs, only now we have another buffer zone—our television screen—between "the signs of the real and the real."

In the presence of projected images of crime and its consequences—and other people's grief—we may feel guilty, but we still watch. Live or not, the future and the past coalesce in little more than a retinal response. In the end, Patty Jean Hull stares out from this page, and we stare back.

Nathan Callahan's bookSuburban Manners: The Politics, Wealth and Culture of Orange County, California will be released in the fall by Albion Publishing.

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