Politics Can Be Brutal: The Painful Life of Buron Fitts

Buron Fitts served 696 days as Lieutenant Governor, for which he is scarcely remembered. After his resignation in 1928, Governor C. C. Young appointed an equally anonymous H. L. Carnahan to fill the vacancy.

What Fitts is remembered for, when he is remembered, is for the scandals from his time as Los Angeles County District Attorney. Fitts was accused of covering up murders for movie studio owners (see “How to Get Away With a Hollywood Murder“) and even his official biography on the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s website includes a paragraph repeating an accusation against him that was eventually dropped;

The grand jury responded with and indictment of Fitts — and his sister, who worked as his secretary — for bribery and perjury. The grand jury charged that Fitts and his sister had sold Mills a useless orange grove that the family had owned, receiving much more than it was worth in the trade — essentially a bribe to Fitts to drop the rape charge. Two years later, Fitts was acquitted.

Most modern accounts describe him as “thin-skinned,” but it really is amazing how much Fitts was able to accomplish during a career marked by repeated serious injuries and 

His first major injury happened during the first time was a serious injury to his right knee caused by shrapnel from a 7.7 cm high explosive artillery round (during the Battle of Argonne on the night of September 30, 1918), resulting in a wound that eventually led to the amputation of his right leg in 1928. “the mutilated form in the shell hole”

“He was beginning to think that there were no German shells made with his number on them, as the doughboys say, when a high explosive struck his right knee. He pitched forward onto his face. He attempted to move and found that he could not. An effort was made to stop the flow of blood by first aid, but this was impossible. A heavy rain was falling and he lay in it for several hours before stretcher-bearers reached him.”
“A Conquest of Obstacles: The Story of Lieutenant-Governor Fitts” by W. Leon Roper, Los Angeles Times (3/25/1928)

Another news report gave some clue as to the severity of his injuries.

While leading a platoon in the Battle of the Argonne, he was struck by a high explosive shell which completely shattered his right knee… Fourteen months in a hospital passed by before he was able to walk.
FITTS HURT IN CRASH: Airplane Falls at Carpinteria; Los Angeles Times, Oct 27, 1922

After having surgery on his leg and a cast placed on his leg to immobilize it, his leg was broken in a train wreck on November 3, 1918.

“…the jinx that pursued Fitts in those days was not satisfied. At Nevers the train ran into an open switch, resulting in a serious wreck. Fitts’s leg and cast were broken.”
“A Conquest of Obstacles: The Story of Lieutenant-Governor Fitts” by W. Leon Roper, Los Angeles Times (3/25/1928)

Four years later, Fitts was seriously injured in an airplane crash in Carpinteria on October 26, 1922 (7:30 pm)

FITTS HURT IN CRASH; Airplane Falls at Carpinteria
The plane struck the ocean a dozen feet from shore, caromed onto the beach and turned over. The pilot was thrown free, but Mr. Fitts was pinned under the debris of the plane. Lieut. Patrick summoned help to lift the machine. Mr. Fitts was unconscious when taken from the wreckage…
Los Angeles Times, Oct 27, 1922

Fitts was involved in another airplane crash at Dunsmuir (June 6, 1927) and another crash (in later 1927).

On May 11, 1928, Fitts finally had his injured leg amputated.

“Lieut.-Gov. Fitts, after having undergone seventeen operations in the past ten years in a futile struggle to save his right leg, which was shattered by shrapnel during the World War, will have the leg amputated Friday morning at the government hospital at Sawtelle… “My decision to permit the amputation was the hardest I ever had to make,” said Lieut.-Gov. Fitts yesterday. “It has been a long struggle which has ended in failure.”
Los Angeles Times (May 10, 1928)

After being elected Los Angeles County District Attorney, Fitts resigned as Lieutenant Governor on November 30, 1928.

Five months later, Fitts was involved in yet another airplane crash, this time in Galt. He was uninjured. (April 8, 1929)

The Galt high school and junior college airport beacon and flood lights paid for themselves on Thursday evening when Buron E. Fitts, former lieutenant governor, and Lt. Carroll were forced down on the field by lack of gas at 7:45 p.m…
Knowing they had only a few minutes supply of fuel left they were prepared to use the parachutes when they reached Galt and circled the town…
The plane landed and in doing so hit a fence doing some damage to the wins.
Lodi Sentinel (April 6, 1929)

Fitts then had almost eight years without a major injury before he was shot during an assassination attempt near his home. On the night of March 7, 1937, a car pulled along his and fired several shots at his vehicle. Fitts raised his hands to protect himself and one bullet hit him in the left elbow.

Buron Fitts, caustic Los Angeles district attorney, escaped with his life Sunday night when an assassin’s bullet pierced his upraised arm and was deflected from his chest. The bullet was fired from a car containing three or more men. It crashed through the windshield of the prosecutor’s car and tore a channel half the length of his forearm. Several nerves were severed and surgeons feared his arm might be paralyzed.
Milwaukee Journal (March 8, 1937)

Fitts later provided a description of the shooting to reporters.

Reward for Fitts Assassins Planned Today in Hunt for Gang
“My home at 1443 Royal Oaks avenue is a few hundred yards north of Duarte Road, and in reaching the home of my father at 1434 Foothill Boulevard, it is necessary for me to turn right for a few hundred feet off Royal Oaks on Duarte and then cross the railway tracks to reach Foothill Boulevard.
“As I crossed the tracks and turned on Foothill toward my father’s place, I saw a large sedan parked in the shadows, which pulled alongside of me as I passed.
“I sensed that something was going to happen, and slammed on my brakes. At the same time a shot came from the other machine and struck me in the left arm. A second bullet crashed through the windshield.”
Los Angeles Times, Mar 9, 1937

Los Angeles voters were apparently not impressed and Fitts lost his next election.

The lesson is this; politics is freaking brutal.

Oh, and then they’ll call you thin-skinned.

Culbert Olson Talk at the Mosk


State Librarian Greg Lucas introduces Debra Deanne Olson

Debra Deanne Olson, a granddaughter of Governor Culbert Olson, spoke about her grandfather today at an event organized by the California State Library. Joining Debra was her daughter, Kaitlyn.

Olson, who served as Governor between 1939 and 1942, was the first Democrat to hold that office in almost 50 years. His four years in office were marked by building international tensions that exploded into the second world war halfway through his term.

Today’s lecture included family photos of the Governor and his children, as well as personal anecdotes about his friendships and family.

Debra Deanne Olson and Kaitlyn Olson look at documents relating to Governor Culbert Olson

Debra Deanne Olson and Kaitlyn Olson look at documents relating to Governor Culbert Olson

Also in the room were a collection of documents relating to Olson’s term in office, including the document used to pardon Tom J. Mooney in 1939. Mooney, a prominent labor leader, had been convicted of the 1916 San Francisco Preparedness Day Bombing and served 22 years in prison before his pardon.


HOW LONG AGO? Attorney General for Senator


In the past week, speculation has exploded as U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer announced her retirement in 2016 and Attorney General Kamala Harris began her campaign. By Thursday, Harris had become the leading candidate (of two announced; Merv Evans has also announced his candidacy), with Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters asking “Does Kamala Harris have free ride to Senate?

It seemed like a good time to take a peek at the history books.

For the record, it has happened only once before. James McDougall, California’s first Attorney General (1850-1851) [and also the AG in Illinois in 1842-1846] was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1861. In the century and a half since, none have been successful.

Interestingly, two of California’s Attorneys General had previously run unsuccessful campaigns for U.S. Senate (Fred N. Howser (elected AG in 1946 and lost for Senate in 1944) and Jerry Brown (elected AG in 2006 and lost for Senate in 1982).

Alternatively, one of our U.S. Senators, Aaron A. Sargent, won election to the Senate (1871) after having lost a campaign for Attorney General (1857).

In short, while not completely unprecedented, making the leap from Attorney General to Senator is not something that happens every day. Antonio Villaraigosa, another likely candidate, will probably take heart from the fact that three of California’s last five U.S. Senators had experience as Mayors; Feinstein (San Francisco), Seymour (Anaheim), and Wilson (San Diego).