Skip to main content

Image / Ethel Whittaker

Have a question about this item?

Item information. View source record on contributor's website.

Ethel Whittaker
Alternative Title
Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection
Date Created and/or Issued
Circa 1932
Contributing Institution
Los Angeles Public Library
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
Rights Information
Images available for reproduction and use. Please see the Ordering & Use page at for additional information.
Photograph was edited for publication purposes.; Photograph was also used for articles dated March 19 and May 19, 1936 and March 10, 1937.
Retired church organist Samuel Whittaker and his wife, Ethel, had gone out on the evening of March 16, 1936. Shortly after their arrival home early the next morning, neighbors heard several gun shots. One of the neighbors, Henry Failer, came out of his apartment and saw a man leaving the Whittaker place. The young man ran up the stairs to the roof of the building while Failer entered the Whittaker apartment to see what was going on. He found Samuel holding a revolver in his right hand. Ethel was dead on the floor. When the police arrived Whittaker told them that he and Ethel had been ambushed in their apartment that morning. A masked man stepped out of a closet and trained a gun on them. He demanded money, but then shot Ethel anyway. Whittaker produced his own weapon and fired five shots, wounding but not killing the intruder. The cops found James Fagan Culver the next door rooming house suffering from multiple gunshot wounds. They busted him for robbery and murder. For the first couple of days following the crime, Whittaker was hailed as a hero. But Culver told a far different story. He said that earlier that year he had hitchhiked from Kentucky; that he had met Whittaker in front of a cafe early one morning and asked him for money so he could eat. They struck up a conversation and then saw each other frequently. One day Whittaker told Culver that he wanted to "thrill a lady friend" and stage a fake hold-up. Whittaker gave Culver a gun and instructions to wait in a closet until he and his lady friend were in the room, fake the hold-up, and then flee. Whittaker had left out the salient features of his plan when he described it to Culver. What Whittaker actually intended to do was to murder his wife, kill Culver, collect on an insurance policy, and walk away a hero. If he'd been a better shot he may have gotten away with it. Unfortunately for Whittaker, Aggie Underwood was present at a photo shoot which had the two men facing each other. Underwood was stunned when she noticed Whittaker deliberately wink at Culver. She drew LAPD detective, Thad Brown, aside and told him what she had witnessed. The detective uncovered the murder-for-hire plot and Whittaker was convicted for killing his wife. Whittaker was quoted as saying that he hoped God would strike him dead if he was guilty of Ethel's slaying. As he was being booked into San Quentin, he dropped dead.
Photograph used for an article dated March 17, 1936; the caption reads, "This photo shows the slain woman, who was the wife of Samuel T. Whittaker, well-to-do retired organist. She was slain when she screamed as the bandit tried to rob her and her husband. Whittaker says he then emptied his own gun at the fleeing bandit. Culver denies he killed Mrs. Whittaker and says he was shot by a fleeing man."
1 photographic print :b&w ;26 x 21 cm.
Photographic prints
Herald Examiner Collection
HE box 6237
Murder victims--California--Los Angeles
Women--California--Los Angeles
Uxoricide--California--Los Angeles
Portrait photographs
Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express photographs
Herald-Examiner Collection photographs
Time Period

About the collections in Calisphere

Learn more about the collections in Calisphere. View our statement on digital primary resources.

Copyright, permissions, and use

If you're wondering about permissions and what you can do with this item, a good starting point is the "rights information" on this page. See our terms of use for more tips.

Share your story

Has Calisphere helped you advance your research, complete a project, or find something meaningful? We'd love to hear about it; please send us a message.

Explore related content on Calisphere: