Frank A. Nance, Coroner to the stars
Frank A. Nance sits at his desk in the Los Angeles Coroners office (1932, LAPL)
By Allan R. Ellenberger
Frank A. Nance was not a famous movie star. He never appeared in a film, yet he came in contact with more movie stars than the average person – the only difference is, if a movie star was in the presence of Frank Nance, they were probably dead. You see, Frank Nance was the Los Angeles County Coroner from 1921 through 1945, during what is typically called the Golden Age of Hollywood.
During his term in the Coroner’s office, Nance investigated 121,000 deaths, including 2,500 murders and 17,000 traffic victims. He wrote numerous articles about his job and set up standards, many of which have become routine procedure in California Coroner offices.
Frank Albert Nance was born on May 25, 1875 in Galesburg, Illinois. When he was 12, his family moved to California where Nance was educated in Los Angeles schools and at Pomona College where he was a star athlete. In 1911, Nance married Bessie Marion Beaver, a native of Toronto, Canada. The couple settled in the Los Angeles suburb of Monrovia, living at 127 N. Canyon Boulevard.
Nance’s career in public service began on December 10, 1910, when he became bookkeeper in the County Auditor’s office. On March 25, 1921, the Board of Supervisors appointed him from a list of eight certified eligible candidates to succeed the late Calvin Hartwell as County Coroner. He officially took office on May 1 at a salary of $375 a month.
During his 24 year career as coroner, Nance performed or presided over many celebrity autopsies, including the murders of director William Desmond Taylor (1922), actor Ray Raymond by the hands of fellow actor Paul Kelly (1927), and the mysterious ‘Trunk Murders’ committed by Winnie Ruth Judd. The suicides of director Lynn Reynolds (1927), actress Peg Entwistle (1932), producer Paul Bern (1932) and Lupe Velez (1944) kept his name in the headlines. And Nance’s findings concerning the mysterious deaths of Thelma Todd (1935), Ted Healy (1937) and Marie Prevost (1937) fascinated the public.
Nance’s first headline-grabbing case was the murder of director William Desmond Taylor. The inquest was held at the Ivy Overholtzer undertaking parlor where Taylor’s body was present, covered with a satin sheet, except for his head. Actress Mabel Normand was scheduled to testify at 10 am however at the appointed time, Normand was nowhere to be found. Nance ordered a telephone search for her, however, it was learned that while the photographers waited at the entrance, Mabel was hurried in through the back alley and was waiting in the hall.
Mabel entered the rooms wearing a brown checked sport coat furred at the collar and cuffs, a black skirt and a cream lace waist and a green velour, wide-brimmed fedora. She wore white gloves and held a lavender silk handkerchief in one hand. Her voice was low and she spoke calmly.
“Did Mr. Taylor go to your car with you when you left?” Nance asked her.
“Yes, he took me to the car and stood talking with me a few minutes and said he would call me by telephone in about an hour,” Mabel replied. “He watched while I drove away and I waved my hand to him.”
“Did he call you up,” Nance asked.
“No,” she said. “I went home and went right to bed. My maid never wakes me anyway, once I have retired.”
It was during Nance’s tenure that both the St. Francis Dam disaster (1928) and the Long Beach earthquake (1933) occurred, each presenting extraordinary problems for the Coroner to solve. More than 450 people lost their lives when the St. Francis Dam collapsed and flooded the valley below.
The disintegration of the St. Francis Dam is one of the worst American civil engineering failures of the 20th century. Nance’s inquest concluded the disaster was primarily caused by the paleomegalandslide on which the eastern abutment of the dam was built. The coroner’s jury determined responsibility for the disaster lay with the governmental organizations which oversaw the dam’s construction and the dam’s designer and engineer, William Mulholland, but cleared Mulholland of any charges, since neither he nor anyone at the time could have known of the instability of the rock formations on which the dam was built.
Frank A. Nance (seated) and his staff go over notes from an inquest (LAPL)
In 1929, a scandal of sorts erupted in the Coroner’s office when it was charged that certain employees had sold funeral privileges to several Los Angeles undertakers. After an investigation by the Sheriff’s department, it was determined that no evidence was found to support the charges. Nance expressed pleasure at the outcome of the investigation.
“It confirms my opinion that none of my employees would be a party to such proceedings,” Nance said. “Should I ever find anyone guilty of such an act I will dismiss him at once. “
At times, Nance would publish statistics, especially if some form of death was more prevalent at that time. For example, during the mid 1930s, the suicide rate had steadily climbed in California and Los Angeles County over a fifteen year period. Nance reported that during the fiscal year of July 1, 1935 to June 30, 1936, there were 522 reported cases of suicide. Of this total 416 were men and 106 were women. The suicide ages ranged fairly evenly from 20 to 60 years. Poisoning was the favorite method of killing oneself, shooting, hanging, jumping and asphyxiation followed in that order.
In 1939, Nance relaxed procedures for an autopsy and inquest when Edward C. Crossman, veteran police ballistics expert committed suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning. Crossman was a friend of Nance and was an expert witness at many coroner inquests. Crossman left a special note to the Coroner:
“Dear Frank Nance: This is, of course, a suicide. No inquest is necessary, and for the sake of my family will you keep the matter as quiet as possible. Reason for suicide – the death of my beloved wife – Oct. 21 (1938), from the motor car accident which was my own fault. Best regards. Edward C. Crossman.”
Per the dead man’s wish, Nance announced that there would be no autopsy or inquest in this case.
In 1945, Frank Nance celebrated his 70th birthday, which was the compulsory retirement age for Los Angeles County employees. On May 29, civic leaders, public officials and county government workers packed the assembly room of the Hall of Records to honor Nance for 34 years in county government service, 24 of them as County Coroner.
“It is not my desire to retire at this time, but retirement is the penalty for having enjoyed one’s 70th birthday,” Nance said in response to many tributes by assembled speakers. “I resent the insinuation of the Retirement Act that I am an old man. One’s age is a state of mind.”
Nance left the coroner’s office on May 31, 1945 and was succeeded by Ben H. Brown, who became coroner as well as Public Administrator – a consolidation of both departments.
After his retirement, Nance accepted an executive position at the Utter-McKinley Mortuary.
“After 24 years as Los Angeles County Coroner, during which time I have had intimate contact with all local funeral firms, I take pleasure in announcing my association with the Utter-McKinley Mortuaries,” Nance announced. “I do so with the sincere belief that Utter-McKinley is the finest funeral firm in Los Angeles.”
Shortly after Nance’s retirement, his wife Bessie became ill and died two years later on August 8, 1947. The following year on November 7, 1948, Nance married for the second time to Ruthmary Barnes, a cofounder of the Executives’ Secretaries, and went on a cross-country tour with his new wife. When they arrived in Boerne, Texas, about 30 miles north of San Antonio, they found the climate to their liking and leased a ranch house.
In late September 1950, Nance became ill and was admitted to a San Antonio hospital where he died of pneumonia a week later on October 2, 1950. His body was returned to Los Angeles where funeral services were held at Utter-McKinley Wilshire Mortuary at 444 S. Vermont Avenue. He was buried next to Bessie at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.
The grave of Frank A. Nance and his wife Bessie are located at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale in the Kindly Light section (above), Lot 207, Space 1 and 2. They are directly across the road from the Finding of Moses statue near the cemetery entrance. If you know where Claire Windsor is interred, the Nances are two rows up and ‘about’ 20 feet to the right.
A month following his death, a bitterly worded will was filed for probate in Superior Court. The document, written entirely in Nance’s hand, identified his widow as Ruthmary Nance, 45 of 2124 Hillhurst Avenue.
It stated that during their brief marriage, Nance gave her joint tenancy interest in property worth $20,000, made her beneficiary in insurance policies of $15,000 and purchased a car for her.
“All of which,” the will said, “she now has in her possession exclusively and all of which she received from me on her promise to be a loving and loyal wife as long as I lived, which promise she has refused to keep or to tell her true name to others – persisting that her name is Ruthmary Barnes.”
Nance cut off his wife with $1.00 and left the remainder of his estate, valued at the time at $25,000 to his brother, sisters and a godson. Nance had no children.
The following September, Nance’s brother, Ira, sued his ex-sister-in-law, charging that Frank Nance was deceived into assigning her some $50,000 from his holdings. The inducement for these transfers was the “promise of marriage, but after the marriage, Mrs. Nance did not live with Mr. Nance as his wife despite her promise.”
Unfortunately the results of these charges were never made public, however, Ruthmary Barnes returned to her original name and died on March 14, 1972.