Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

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Eleanor Stamps Blythe
(Aug. 6, 1900 - Feb. 15, 1933)

Baron Robert "Bobby" Blythe
(Aug. 2, 1924 - Feb. 15, 1933)

Dec. 4, 2016 -- An unusual grave marker can sometimes attract attention and raise questions, especially when there's a lack of the information typically seen on grave markers.

For example, a single marker in one of the older sections at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier identifies two people as simply "Eleanor, 1900 – 1933" and "Bobby, 1924 – 1933."

The first interesting feature is that they died the same year, but there's no exact date, no last name, and no additional information to help identify them.

Who were Eleanor and Bobby, and what happened to them?

The first clue can be found in the grave markers around them. On either side of the marker are members of the Stamps family.

Eleanor L. Stamps was born in Downey, Calif., on Aug. 6, 1900, the fifth of seven children born to Lucius and Eleanor Sanders Stamps. Her father worked as a rancher in Downey.

On Sunday, Aug. 11, 1918, in Long Beach, Calif., just a few days after her 18th birthday, Eleanor married Dr. Vernon Merchant Blythe of Monrovia, Calif., a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Southern California's College of Dentistry. Vernon Blythe was born in Norwalk, Calif., the eldest of three children of Boswell and Mary Merchant Blythe. His father, a real estate agent, died in 1914, when Vernon was 19.

Two months before he married Eleanor, Vernon Blythe registered for the draft during World War I. When he was called to serve in late 1918, his in-laws hosted a dinner party in his honor at their home at 1645 Huntington Drive in South Pasadena. Among the 20 guests were Dr. Blythe's mother and two younger sisters. Dr. Blythe was scheduled to report to the newly opened Camp Greenleaf, a medical officer training camp created as part of Fort Oglethorpe in northwest Georgia.

When the war ended in November 1918, Dr. Blythe and his new wife moved to Clifton, Ariz., near the New Mexico border, where Vernon set up his dental practice, and where their first child, Vernon Jr., was born on Dec. 20, 1920. The following year, the family moved to Phoenix.

In about 1924, the family moved back to Southern California, where Dr. Blythe worked in a dental office in Santa Ana. Their second son, Baron Robert "Bobby," was born on Aug. 2, 1924. By 1930, the family was living at 821 Kilson Dr., in Santa Ana. By early 1933, the family had moved a few miles north, to 2422 Santiago St., in Santa Ana.

On the surface, they seemed like the ideal family. Behind closed doors, it was very different. On the evening of Monday, Feb. 13, 1933, Dr. Blythe reportedly threw his wife out of bed, hit her, and chased her through the house, forcing her to flee in her nightgown to the home of a neighbor, where she remained until her father came to pick her up. Eleanor Blythe filed a petition for divorce the following day in Santa Ana, took their 8-year-old son, Bobby, and moved in with her parents, Lucius and Eleanor Stamps, on 12th Street in Downey. Their 12-year-old son, Vernon Jr., remained with his father in Santa Ana.

In her divorce filing, Eleanor cited cruel and inhuman treatment throughout their nearly 15-year marriage, requested custody of both boys, and asked for $150 per month in alimony. She also filed a request for a restraining order against her husband, which was granted.

Eleanor reported that her husband first threatened to kill her in Arizona in August 1918, shortly after they were married. She reported other threats and cruel treatment, and an accusation that Vernon Blythe had told their oldest son, Vernon Jr., that he was going to kill the boy's mother.

Eleanor had previously filed for divorce seven years earlier, on Jan. 25, 1926, with the same charges. The case was dismissed six months later, at Eleanor's request, when the couple reconciled.

In March 1926, Eleanor was visiting her parents in Downey when she noticed two men were following her. She called police and the two men were arrested. It was later determined that they were private detectives, hired by her husband.

The day after filing divorce papers for the second time, on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 1933, Eleanor took Bobby for placement at the Gallatin Grammar School on Lexington Boulevard in Downey. Fearing for her safety, Eleanor asked her father to accompany her to the school in the morning, but Eleanor and Bobby returned to the school alone in the afternoon.

Blythe discovered that his wife and younger son were at the Gallatin school, so he picked up Vernon Jr. at Francis Willard Junior High School in Santa Ana, and drove to Downey. Vernon Jr. said that his father told him they were going to see Bobby in school, adding, "We'll see whether your mother or I will get Bobby."

When Blythe arrived at the school shortly before 2 p.m., he left Vernon Jr. in the car, went inside the school, and knocked on the classroom door. When the teacher, 29-year-old Edith Unsworth, answered the door, Vernon said he wanted to observe the students at work. He was given a seat in the rear of the classroom, directly behind his wife and son, and about 25 other students.

Blythe appeared to be interested in the classroom spelling lesson but, when the teacher briefly turned away from the students, he rose up from his seat, pulled a revolver from his pocket, and fired a shot into the back of his wife's head. As Eleanor toppled from her seat, Blythe pointed the gun at Bobby and fired again, hitting the boy in the back of the head. The bullet was later found embedded in the boy's desk. Both died at the scene. Eleanor was 32 years old; Bobby was 8.

Amid the panicked and screaming students and teacher -- some students jumped out of the windows of the classroom -- Blythe, the revolver in his hand, pushed his way out of the classroom and headed for the main entrance of the school. He ran out the door, down the steps, and across the lawn toward his car where he left Vernon Jr.

After hearing the shots and the commotion inside the school, Vernon Jr. jumped out of his father's car and started running down the street, toward his grandparents' house. Based on his father's previous threats against his mother, perhaps Vernon Jr. had some idea what had happened inside the school. His father fired three shots at the boy, but missed.

"I was scared something was going to happen, because papa was awfully mad," Vernon Jr. later told police. "When I heard the shots, I started running."

Blythe ran back toward the school and encountered W.C. Metcalf, secretary of the school board, near the entrance. Metcalf had heard the first two shots, came out into the hallway to investigate, and saw Blythe shoot at his fleeing son. Blythe pointed his gun at Metcalf, but Metcalf ducked behind a pillar at the school entrance.

Blythe then returned to the classroom where he had killed his wife and son. Standing near their bodies, he took the petition for divorce and the restraining order out of his pocket, and placed them on his son's bloody desk. He then put the muzzle of the gun against his right temple. There was one bullet left. He pulled the trigger.

In Blythe's pockets, police found trust deeds, legal documents, insurance papers, bank documents, and complete information about his business affairs and property ownership. Clearly, he had planned the shooting spree in advance, and he didn't plan to survive.

Four days after the shootings, seperate funeral services were held for Eleanor and Bobby, and for the husband and father who killed them, then took his own life. Services were held at 10 a.m. at the W.A. Brown Funeral Home in Los Angeles for Blythe, and 2 p.m. at the Downey Baptist Church for Eleanor and Bobby.

Eleanor and Bobby were buried together under a single marker in the Sunset Lawn section at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier. Not surprisingly, their marker doesn't include Eleanor's married name or Bobby's last name. They were later joined by her father, Lucius Keeling Stamps Sr. (1866 – 1936); her mother, Eleanor Sanders Stamps (1866 – 1940); and her older brother James Leon Stamps (1891 – 1980), and James’ wife, Mary Snipes Stamps (1895 – 1974).

Dr. Vernon Blythe was reportedly buried alone at Live Oak Memorial Park in Monrovia, Calif., although the cemetery has no official record of his burial. His parents, Boswell M. Blythe (1855 – 1914) and Mary Merchant Blythe (1866 – 1948), are buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery, along with his sister, Virginia Blythe Madsen (1901 - 1990), and her husband, Wilfred C. Madsen (1895 - 1979).

In the midst of all these family members, next to Virginia and Wilfred Madsen and one row away from Vernon Blythe's parents, is an unmarked grave. It's likely that this is the final resting place for Dr. Vernon Blythe.

The son who escaped the carnage, 12-year-old Vernon Jr., went to live with his maternal grandparents in Downey, who were granted legal guardianship. Vernon Jr. married Janette Woodruff in about 1941, and the couple had three daughters. He worked as a Realtor in Downey. He died on Oct. 4, 2011, in San Diego, at the age of 90, and is buried at Eternal Hills Memorial Park in Oceanside, Calif.

* * *

Although the horrible tragedy at the Gallatin school in Downey was reported in newspapers across the country, it was overshadowed by another shooting a few hours later on the other side of the country. On the same day that Dr. Blythe shot his wife and son, there was an assassination attempt against President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Bayfront Park, in Miami, Fla.

Roosevelt was sitting in the back seat of an automobile when Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak climbed onto the running board to shake his hand. Cermak was shot in the lung and seriously wounded when an Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Zangara attempted to assassinate Roosevelt, but hit Cermak instead. In addition to Cermak, Zangara's shots hit four other people.

Nineteen days after the shooting, on March 6, 1933, Cermak died of his wounds. On the same day, Zangara was charged with first-degree murder. He confessed, and he was sentenced to die in the electric chair. On March 20, after spending only 10 days on Death Row, Zangara was executed.

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