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PHOTOS: What smells in LA City Hall? In 1941, a cologne fan led to an eavesdropping investigation

LA Public Library/Herald-Examiner collection

Sometimes, I amuse myself by browsing in the LA Public Library’s online photo archive by picking a search term at random and seeing where it takes me. This time, I picked "smell."

Up came this Herald-Examiner photo with the caption: “Councilman Roy Hampton noticed a fan in the room and then found the strange gadget shown above on April 24, 1941. It is a machine which sprays cologne over the room through receptacles in the fan. What the purpose was in making the room smell sweetly is as much of a mystery as the real purpose of the room.”

This led me to another photo:

This photo shows the fan which scented the room of mystery with sweet cologne. On April 24, 1941, the City Council passed a resolution demanding the room be fully investigated by the Federal Grand Jury and the U. S. District Attorney.

Turns out, something did smell. Hizzoner was wiretapping!

More photos show the "mystery room," which "Mayor Fletcher Bowron said ... had been used by district attorney's investigators and by Wallace N. Jamie, his own investigator.”

... and recording devices found inside:

 This is the room of mystery over which a sizzling row rages in City Hall on April 24, 1941. It is an office of the Board of Public Works that was used, it is charged, as a "listening post" where 6 to 10 girls with headsets have been on duty constantly for months listening in on phone conversations of councilmen and city officials. The arrow points out a recording device which was found in the room by Councilman Roy Hampton.

(Here’s something newspapers don’t do any more and I wish they did: put big white arrows in photos to make  sure we get the message.)

What the heck was going on? I get why there’d be secret recording devices in City Hall, but why a cologne fan?

I don’t know the outcome of the investigation. Hampton, an anti-Communist and a “stormy petrel,” would apparently kill himself “over ill-health” in 1951.

Mayor Fletcher Bowron was no saint himself. He commented about Japanese internment camps, “There isn't a shadow of a doubt but that Lincoln, the mild-mannered man whose memory we regard with almost saint-like reverence, would make short work of rounding up the Japanese -- people born on American soil who have secret loyalty to the Japanese Emperor -- and putting them where they could do no harm.” In 1968, he had a heart attack and his car slammed into a brick wall, killing him. It is said few people to pay their respects when he was resting in state at City Hall.