Wellspring

September 13, 2021   •   By Jeffrey Burbank

Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy That Transfixed the Nation

William Deverell

I GREW UP in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly in Temple City, and heard many legendary tales of a toddler who had fallen down a well nearly two decades before. This cautionary story kept us looking out for unexpected holes in the riverbeds and vacant lots where we played.


The little girl in question was named Kathy Fiscus, and her entrapment in an abandoned well near her San Marino home over the weekend of Palm Sunday, 1949, became a national media phenomenon. Noted historian William Deverell, who holds dual roles as professor of history at USC and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, admits that this story haunted him. His new book, Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy That Transfixed the Nation, represents more than a decade of research on a topic that, surprisingly, has not been the subject of a full-length treatment until now.


On April 8, 1949, Mrs. Alice Fiscus had driven from her modest San Marino home with her young daughters, Barbara, age nine, and Kathy, age three, to Los Angeles’s Union Station to pick up her sister, brother-in-law, and two nephews, who had traveled from Chula Vista, near San Diego. When the entourage returned to San Marino, the children went out to play in a mostly vacant field just beyond the house while the adults visited indoors and began to prepare dinner. Alice Fiscus was able to keep an eye on the children from her vantage at the kitchen window, where she could observe Barbara, Kathy, and their cousins Gus and Stanley Lyon, along with the Fiscus family dog, scampering about in the distance, perhaps in a game of hide-and-seek. Suddenly, Alice could no longer see Kathy — she counted only three heads running about the expansive field. Her alarm was immediate, and she rushed outdoors to look for her young daughter, first driving to an adjacent schoolyard and then returning to the vacant tract. It was five-year-old Gus who heard his little cousin’s cries emanating from a deep hole in the ground — what turned out to be the long-abandoned Johnson Well, drilled nearly a half-century before.


When San Marino police officers and local firemen started arriving, it was nearing dusk, and rescuers were in a quandary: Should they lower a rope and instruct Kathy to harness herself to it and then haul her up? Should they find a diminutive person to send headfirst down the small opening — only 14 inches in diameter — to try to bring her out? The risks were extreme. Kathy’s father arrived from his office and absolutely forbade rescuers from using the rope (which had already been lowered for Kathy) out of concern that she could entangle and strangle herself. He paced and chain-smoked in what Deverell evocatively calls “an unbearable choreography of worry.” By the time of sunset, Kathy’s cries stopped.


What would ultimately take place would be an elaborate, if no less risky, undertaking — an open-pit excavation next to the well casing and a near-simultaneous endeavor to drill a parallel shaft adjacent to the well, each in a dangerous attempt to then tunnel perpendicularly over to the area of the Johnson Well where little Kathy was assumed to be trapped some 90 feet below the surface. But this overall rescue effort entailed more than that: it truly engaged the community. Several thousand Southern Californians ultimately flocked to the scene to offer help, prayers, and encouragement — and they had largely done so because word had gotten out over the airwaves, and, more importantly, via live televised images.


Deverell chronicles the arriving cast of characters: the first rescuers; the news reporters, and then the television camera crews; local plumbing, excavation, engineering, and even mining experts; Navy Seabees; jockeys from the nearby Santa Anita racetrack; and the character actor Johnny Roventini, famous as the “Call for Philip Morris” bellhop spokesman of radio, television, and print. These and other tiny individuals — even terrified young children — were summoned under the assumption they’d somehow fit down the well’s narrow confines in rescue attempts. Perhaps most significantly, local television crews from KTLA and KTTV rushed to the scene the next day and were able to broadcast live from the site for the duration of the weekend. In 1949, television was still a novelty and luxury, and Deverell notes that in the Los Angeles area, only around 20,000 households possessed TV sets. But enterprising appliance stores also placed televisions in their storefront windows, and the Fiscus broadcast would attract sidewalk viewers and doubtless spurred an increase in TV sales.


On-air reporters Bill Welsh and Stan Chambers, later to become mainstays of Southern California news coverage, cut their professional teeth in this seminal broadcast. Also present was 19-year-old photographer Leigh Wiener, who managed to capture images of Kathy’s sister and cousins and whose photo of an empty swing on the Fiscus property became a sad emblem of the incident. (The opportunistic Wiener would later gain notoriety for convincing morgue attendants to allow him to photograph actress Marilyn Monroe’s corpse more than a decade later.)


Throughout Southern California, newly initiated TV viewers were glued to their sets as KTTV’s Welsh and Chambers and others from rival KTLA began broadcasting around 6:00 p.m. on Saturday evening, April 9, and would continue doing so — uninterrupted — for more than 24 hours. Deverell points out that while many may assume that this incident marked the first live television coverage of a news story, that milestone took place 16 years earlier when the destruction wrought by the 1933 Long Beach earthquake was broadcast by station W6XAO to the mere handful of televisions that existed in Los Angeles at the time. Likewise, in 1947, a telecast of a Los Angeles chemical-plant explosion marked the first remote broadcast of breaking news, at a time when only about 250 sets existed in the city.


The Kathy Fiscus incident was different in its impact and human drama, although not without precedent in other respects. The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. in 1932 and the Hindenburg airship disaster in 1937 were just two memorable tragedies that had dominated radio airwaves, newspaper headlines, and newsreels. Even more apposite was the now-folkloric 1925 Floyd Collins cave entrapment, which Deverell specifically references. Collins’s attempted rescue dominated newspaper stories and early radio broadcasts for more than two weeks, but he died several days before rescuers reached him. In the case of Kathy Fiscus, not only was there a heart-wrenching aspect of a child’s life in peril but also the melodramatic sense of participation and suspense that accompanied the televised rescue effort. Deverell disabuses readers of the notion that the Fiscus television coverage was a live national broadcast — that wider-ranging technology was not yet perfected, and anyone’s memories of having seen coverage on television beyond Southern California would have been recollections of broadcast filmed footage, not a live telecast. The Fiscus coverage demonstrated that the “electric eye” was not merely a frivolous sports and entertainment medium as many then saw it but a viable news source.


As was true of many California stories, water played a key role. Southern California’s trademark Mediterranean climate is defined by minimal rainfall, but in the San Gabriel Valley especially, underground water storage is a local natural phenomenon; the author describes the Raymond Basin as a bountiful artesian resource, soaking up the runoff from the San Gabriel Mountains to the north, a precipitous range that John McPhee memorably reminded us in The Control of Nature rises higher from its base than the Rocky Mountains. Millennia of alluvial buildup from the San Gabriels’ drainage formed a porous storage system.


Those of us who grew up in this valley were schooled in a romanticized local history focused on the land barons and captains of commerce who owned property there, lent their names to the region, and plumbed its natural resources: Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin, Benjamin “Don Benito” Wilson, Hugo Reid, and Henry Huntington to name a few. We were not educated in hydrology, which Deverell masterfully explains. Ours was a history of The Cattle on a Thousand Hills, as Robert Glass Cleland recounted it. And while we may have been taught a sanitized narrative of the Franciscan missionaries’ treatment of the Indigenous population, it was still true that both native people and colonials settled the region for its water resources. The Franciscans relocated Mission San Gabriel Arcángel five miles to the northwest (not 15 as Deverell has it) partly because of water: the mission’s first site was hazardously close to the Whittier Narrows drainage, and the original structure was wiped out in a flood, whereas the new location near the Kizh village of Sibangna rested on a stable aquifer. As the author observes, “with enough water, anything and everything grows” there. And, indeed, the San Gabriel Valley of more than a century ago resembled lithographed citrus-crate labels depicting ripened orchards against a backdrop of denim-blue mountains. What enabled this lushness was an intricate if haphazard network of wells, reservoirs, pumping stations, flumes, and ditches, many of which were abandoned decades later.


Just as water percolated into the Raymond Basin, other human intersections obtain in Deverell’s narrative. He notes that David Fiscus’s job as the regional manager for the California Water and Telephone Company likely meant that the Johnson Well was within his jurisdiction. On the day Kathy fell into the well, her father had very likely just returned from Sacramento where he had testified to the legislature about the public hazards of abandoned wells. Deverell goes back further to trace the family histories of Kathy’s mother and father and notes that the Fiscus forebears had moved to California from the same part of upstate New York that spawned Henry Huntington, who in turn would purchase the water company that earlier owned the Johnson Well. Deverell relies heavily on census and other online data, which can sometimes offer partial or inconclusive information. “Our view into the past is always murky, opaque,” he says early on. So it is surprising to read in the same chapter that Kathy’s grandfather, Homer Fiscus, came to California from the East to work as an overseer of a reservoir (yet another water connection) in San Diego County and that “we do not know when he died.”


That definitive statement intrigued me, even given our often “murky” view of history because it seemed discoverable, thanks to the many networked databases that can help us bring history back into focus. The Find a Grave website in this instance tells us that James Homer Fiscus died in San Diego on May 31, 1933, and is buried in Forest Park Cemetery in Camden, New York, along with his wife, Elisabeth, and includes his published obituary. Interestingly, the same database genealogically maps Kathy’s father, David Fiscus, to the wrong Homer Fiscus, one buried in San Diego but obviously unrelated. It is clear, though, that the Camden, New York, information is correct. Perhaps this material was not yet online when Deverell drafted this chapter, but it demonstrates the changing, and ever-hopeful, aspect of digitally integrated scholarship.


With the stage set, Deverell returns us to a chronicle of the rescue efforts, the stories of some of the key responders, and the “feverish” aspect of the entire endeavor. He continues to employ images of circularity and concentricity to aptly characterize the scene — a round well, 14 inches in diameter, is being accessed by another parallel circular hole with a diameter of 28 inches, and “radiating” out from this space are circles of more workers, then the press corps, and, finally, a vigilant throng of local citizens, camped out with folding chairs and Thermoses of coffee. Of course, the Latin word for circle is circus, and the carnival aspect of the proceedings were all too evident. Literal circus performers from Clyde Beatty’s big top were present — including sideshow “thin men” who were thought to be able to squeeze themselves down the original well casing. Vendors sold food and drink to the gathered crowds. Klieg lights donated by Twentieth Century Fox illuminated the scene during the nights of the rescue effort. Hundreds of phone calls came in with offers of help and countless suggestions of ways to rescue the little girl.


The final hours of the rescue culminated in the excruciating spectacle of the Fiscus family doctor’s associate physician being lowered in a claustrophobic panic into the well to reach the girl’s body. It is no secret that the outcome of all this activity was a tragic one. When the doctor finally encountered Kathy around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday night, he determined she was dead — something the rescuers had already known for several hours. The subsequent autopsy indicated she had been dead since Friday evening right after her cries had stopped. How Kathy Fiscus died was another matter: Deverell mentions conflicting remarks from physicians and rescuers, and while the official cause was “asphyxiation,” reports may have been modified in deference to the family as well as the public. Kathy had in fact fallen so far down she had entered the water table and very likely drowned. The temperature in the well was a surprisingly hot 90 degrees. No record of her autopsy now exists, Deverell says, so we will likely never know.


Donations flooded in to the Fiscuses and others but were ultimately parceled out to the rescue volunteers. Movies and television also seized on the moment, most notoriously director Billy Wilder’s 1951 Ace in the Hole, a deeply cynical film about an unscrupulous journalist (portrayed by Kirk Douglas) who capitalizes on the incident of a man trapped in a Southwestern pueblo ruin by prolonging the rescue to keep the story in the headlines. Deverell cites a TV movie called The Well, also from 1951, which was actually a theatrically released film nominated for two Academy Awards that more directly paralleled the Kathy Fiscus story. In this treatment, the little girl who falls down the well is Black, and there is an element of racial tension and distrust. Not mentioned is the Robert Wise film Three Secrets, which was released in 1950 and while likely already in development prior to the Fiscus tragedy, was clearly influenced by it: Bill Welsh himself appears as a reporter at the scene of a plane crash where assembled journalists are awaiting the rescue of a little boy. Welsh went before the cameras in this film just after the Fiscus incident, and his appearance would have undoubtedly resonated with some audiences as a nod to the Fiscus story. In more recent years, echoes would be heard in the work of Woody Allen (Radio Days) and in an episode of The Simpsons.


The foregoing Hollywood references may seem like a footnote, but they also speak to the relevance of the Fiscus story as a media milestone and to its very proximity to a broadcasting mecca. Los Angeles was home to Klaus Landsberg, a pioneer of television technology who coached the broadcasters in how to preside over the Fiscus coverage by suggesting they approach it as if they were announcing a play-by-play sports event. Local live broadcasts required a clear line of sight to transmitters atop Mount Wilson, and the Johnson Well location enjoyed such proximity. The Fiscuses also lived nearly walking distance from the San Marino Police Department, so first responders were not far afield. Even David Fiscus’s office was just a few blocks away. All these aspects of nearness made the story possible as a story and not simply the report of a discovered death. What if this tragedy had occurred in the middle of Kansas and didn’t involve a little blonde, blue-eyed girl? Conjectural, to be sure, but a question that begs to be asked, and certainly television cameras would not have raced to the scene.


So the Fiscus incident became grist for media self-reflection and analysis, and it’s easy to understand how the opportunity for much theorizing would prevail in the era of Marshall McLuhan. That is not the province of Deverell’s book, however. It remains purposely laser-focused on the story itself and is a compact volume that could serve as the lead essay in a hypothetical Fiscus Festschrift that assembles media theory, popular culture, public safety, and even psychological and literary interpretations of the tragedy. Just one example of this ancillary analysis is a monograph titled The Well and the Web: Phantoms of Community and the Mediatic Public Sphere by John Culbert, which begins its preamble in the present tense as it describes the Fiscus broadcast to make larger “mediatic” observations: “News media cover the story as it unfolds, unaware, however, that they are covering not a rescue but an exhumation.” Culbert goes on:


The first live TV coverage was not live but belated; viewers were held in suspense not by the present, or even by a future revelation, but by the uncanny and retrospective temporality of what will have been. Live TV news is born in this Orphic turn that captures not the present instant but only a belated moment and a spectral presence.


You get the idea. In Culbert’s formulation, hauntedness is an element of the effect such live coverage had on the viewer, and Deverell admits that he, too, has been haunted by the story of Kathy Fiscus. In his final chapters, he relates some of the surprising sequels, as if there was a jinx or curse on the entire enterprise. Rescuers with memorable names like Orpheus Kelly, Whitey Blickensderfer, and Bill Yancey, as well as many other responders and their spouses, suffered personal tragedies of their own — from accidents to murder to suicide to alcoholism. Deverell is careful to conclude, however, that these sad outcomes were more a function of the stresses and pitfalls of their professions. Life marches on, and the fate of the story’s participants simply illustrates the darker side of suburban existence. After all, the picket-fenced, clean-scrubbed communities of Kathy Fiscus’s day would have their more louche precincts chronicled by James Ellroy in My Dark Places (1996). Ellroy’s memoir of his search for the perpetrator of his mother’s grisly 1958 murder gave us a noir version of the San Gabriel Valley: at once an Arcadia as well as a milieu of dive bars and racetrack bookies.


Deverell cautiously proposes that a surge in 1950s births of little girls named Kathy was a triumphant form of homage to Kathy Fiscus. He references accounts of correspondence to the Fiscus family from parents who confess as much. He then produces astonishing Social Security data that show a virtual doubling of children named Kathy in the 1950s compared with the previous decade, suggesting that “people were naming their children after Kathy Fiscus.” Well, some people, to be sure:


[A]s powerful and moving as this is we have to be careful with interpretation and possible meaning. […] The 1950s saw the biggest spike in the fertility of American women in United States history. There were a lot more baby girls in the 1950s than in the 1940s. The baby boom was roaring, and all those babies needed names.


Indeed, readers may not be convinced, since the assertion seems anecdotal rather than empirical. Depending on one’s cultural background, for example, it might be considered bad luck for a parent to name a child after someone who had died in an accident. Certainly, some parents named their daughters after Kathy Fiscus; how many is still a question to ponder.


And yet there is perhaps something in the American grain that contributes to the obsession and hauntedness and the resonance of this story. Deverell is a scholar of the American West, and he notes that the Kathy Fiscus incident may seem distant to some but is comparatively recent, within many living persons’ lifetimes. The fact that at the time one could still find “miner” as a common job description (as the author points out when he describes the professions of many rescuers) illustrates that the California Gold Rush was just a century old in 1949, and that the vision of the land as a frontier was not a distant memory either. The sense of fear and incipient danger that lurked in newly settled communities was a staple of early American literature and folklore, and I think of the ballad “My Darling Clementine,” that late-19th-century American standard that so familiarly begins, “In a cavern, in a canyon excavating for a mine, dwelt a miner, forty-niner.” Though his daughter, Clementine, does not fall down a well, she is swept down a river of “foamy brine.” Edgar Allan Poe gave voice to another specific horror — taphephobia, the fear of being buried alive — in his story “The Premature Burial.” This Gothic device — freighted with its effects of claustrophobia, helplessness, and entombment — may not be solely American, but it is a pathology that certainly comes to mind in so much of our literature and folklore. Deverell refers to later, similar entrapment/rescue episodes, such as that of little Jessica McClure, who was trapped in a well in Texas in 1987 but who was rescued alive, among others. More recent stories of trapped miners in Chile, for example, or a Thai soccer team confined in a flooded cave, capture empathy and concern that may in part be rooted in this fear of premature entombment.


For all the arguably similar entrapments that have taken place and received their time in the media spotlight, the Fiscus story seems to have become the Ur-tragedy of a postmodern kind that obsessed a nation for several days and has obsessed some ever since. Deverell concludes his brief chronicle with this reflection:


I walk the Kathy Fiscus neighborhood. I ride my bike up and down those streets. I have stood out front, conspicuous and nervous, of the home the Fiscus family later moved into. I doubt many in the neighborhood know anything of what happened near there on that Palm Sunday weekend a lifetime ago. But if some number of those little girls named for Kathy gained a special measure of devotion, love, and care because of the tragic loss of a single Kathy, is that a meaningful legacy, parallel to the pain?


Maybe that is reckoning enough. I don’t know. What I do know is where the Johnson Well once dropped into the aquifer. I know where the Fiscus house was, and I can stand pretty close to where Alice Fiscus stood in her kitchen on that April afternoon, chitchatting with her sister.


The Fiscus house is gone, the window is gone, and the Johnson Well is gone. Water and memory, and hopefully something else remain.


I no longer live in the San Gabriel Valley, but I occasionally drive there to visit family members. One weekend not long ago, I visited the site of the Fiscus tragedy, something I had never done. If one travels east on Interstate 210 and takes the exit for the Huntington Library, in the absence of any other directional signage, one proceeds southward, not to the Huntington Library, it turns out, but down Santa Anita Avenue until it elbows into Robles Street, on the northern edge of the San Marino High School campus. This is the very spot where the Fiscus house once stood, and next to where the nearly century-old Danford Reservoir still stands as testimony to the water-rich Raymond Basin. From here you can glimpse the western end zone of the football field of the San Marino Titans, a rival team of my own high school, which Deverell tells us is the approximate location of the Johnson Well.


If you drive a few miles farther, to the intersection of Main and Almansor streets in nearby Alhambra, you will pass the stone chapel where Kathy Fiscus’s open-casket funeral took place, looking much as it did more than 70 years ago, when several hundred mourners gathered and hundreds more converged outside. In making this detour, I realized I now understood some of the author’s obsession. To be sure, the study of history itself can be an obsession, as Deverell admits, but some stories will speak to us more emphatically than others. In so many ways, the Kathy Fiscus story is an everyman’s story as much as it is sui generis. In one respect, it speaks to the sheer arbitrariness of calamity and the innate human need to offer hope, comfort, and solace to its victims and survivors. But it also reminds me of the celebrated line in John Ford’s 1962 movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This story, because of its accidental standing in the annals of television journalism, may never have been lost, but Deverell’s book has ensured that we now have been vouchsafed the facts as well as the legend.


¤


Jeffrey Burbank is a Los Angeles–based writer and editor who has contributed articles to numerous periodicals.