top of page

Her Arms! : The History of the Cecil Hotel and Elisa Lam's Disappearance

Written by: Naomi

Trigger Warning: Suicide, Sexual Assault, Infanticide


In 1927 the Hotel Cecil was opened as a budget hotel with 700 rooms in downtown Los Angeles. It cost $1 million dollars to complete and was considered very beautiful for the time it opened with marble entryways and beautiful ballrooms and was fashionable destination during the 1940s.

But just 5 years after the Hotel Cecil opened the United States fell into the great depression and over time declined. What is known as skid row now became more dangerous and over 10,000 homeless lived in the area which made the hotel’s reputation decline. Because of the area, violence and suicides became very common on the hotel grounds. There were multiple drug busts inside the Cecil hotel for opiates and morphine and arrests for attempted suicides.

The first documented suicide at the Cecil was in 1931 when a 46 year old guest named W.K. Norton was found by a maid in his room after taking poison capsules. He had only been dead a few hours and according to the police he had checked into the hotel under a different name.

12 other notable suicides have occurred in the hotel earning the hotel the nick name “The Suicide” in 1962. Among them was a 27 yr old Pauline ottoman was having marital issues with her husband and either had jumped or fallen from her room on the 9th floor after her husband had gone to dinner. Her fall had also killed an elderly man walking below.

A 25 yr old man who shot himself in his hotel room, a year after that a young man was pinned against the hotel by a large truck, and in 1934, a 53 year old former Army Medical corps Sargent Louis D Borden slit his throat. He was found with suicide notes by his body that claimed he did it due to ill health and named one woman as his sole beneficiary. 25 year old Grace E. Margo fell from the hotel and died at a hospital, her male companion was apparently asleep at the time she had fallen and did not know what caused her to jump. A marine fireman named Roy Thompson had been staying at the hotel for a couple months and his body was found on the skylight of a nearby building after jumping from the Cecil hotel. In 1947 Another woman jumped to her death this same year after being checked into the hotel for a week under a different name. As recently as June of 2015, a 28-year-old man was found dead outside the Cecil after an apparent fall. Many suicides involved poison as well.

During this time the hotel also became a spot for sex workers to pick up clients and for cheating couples to meet up. In the 1940’s the Cecil became the home to the first regular AA meeting in LA. In 1947 Elizabeth Short - more famously known as the Black Dahlia- was seen at the Cecil’s bar before her disappearance.

In September 1944, Dorothy Jean Purcell, 19, was sharing a room at the Cecil with shoe salesman Ben Levine, 38 (Some sources say he was her partner). Dorothy apparently been unaware that she was pregnant, went into labor, she later testified that she did not want to disrupt a sleeping Ben, so she went to the bathroom where she gave birth to a baby boy. Thinking the baby was dead, Purcell threw him out of the window where he landed on the roof of an adjacent building. Purcell was charged with murder. Three psychiatrists testified that Purcell was "mentally confused" at the time of the incident. In January 1945, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

In 1964 the body of a retired telephone operator named Goldie Osgood, nicknamed "Pigeon" because she would always feed the pigeons in a park nearby, was discovered. She was found raped, stabbed, and strangled in her room at the Cecil, her body was next to the, "Dodger baseball cap she always wore and a paper bag of feed." One of her friends, a retired nurse named Jean, talked to a reporter in Pershing Square, while watering a bouquet of fast wilting flowers. "We were all her friends, all of us here in the square," she said. "I was just standing here this morning, thinking about what had happened, when someone suggested we get some flowers. No one has very much money around here, but all of a sudden, everyone started giving me what they could, and I got these. We just wanted her to know we remembered."

In the 1970’s and 1980’s there was an influx of drugs and crime so the Cecil became well known for crime taking place in the area and high profile arrests. the Night stalker Richard Ramirez is said to have stayed at the Hotel Cecil for a period of time and was a common presence on skid row since you could get rooms in the Cecil for $14 a night at this time. In the following years the Cecil continued to attract murderers; in 1988, a man accused of killing his girlfriend in Huntington Beach was arrested at the Cecil and in 1991 Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger supposedly stayed at the Cecil, killing 3 local sex workers. The Cecil was even the hiding place for murder suspect Eric Reed in 1995 after breaking out of jail.

In 2007 the hotel was partially renovated after new owners bought the hotel. A group led by Fred Cordova bought the Cecil for $26 million. They transformed part of the Cecil into "The Stay," a budget boutique hotel for hip, middle class tourists. Many of the poor, long term residents were pushed out.

In 2013 the most well known story about the Cecil Hotel emerged which is the story of 21 year old Canadian student Elisa Lam. She had traveled to LA on Amtrak buses and was originally put in a room that she would share with other people, but after a few days she was moved to a room of her own after her roommates complained of her odd behavior. Lam had diagnosed depression and bipolar disorder that she was on medication for but according to her family she has no history of suicide attempts or suicidal ideation, though Lam had gone missing for a small period of time in the past. She would talk to her parents every day while she was traveling but on January 31st they did not hear from her, the same day she was supposed to check out of the hotel. Her family called LAPD to report her missing an also flew out to LA to search for her. Those who had seen her that day say she was alone but happy and outgoing, even buying gifts to take back to her family. Police searched the hotel with dogs to the extent they could including every floor, her room, and the roof. They could not legally check all rooms unless they had probable cause.

A week after she went missing, February 6th, police finally put missing posters up online and through out the neighborhood. On the Feb 14th they released the last known sighting of Elisa Lam which is the now famous elevator footage where she is seen acting strangely, hitting all the buttons and hiding in the elevator that for some reason does not close. She seems to be hiding from someone and can be seen acting like she is talking to someone outside of the elevator.

Its not until she fully leaves the elevator and walks out of the cameras view does the elevator finally close and that is the last time she's ever seen alive. Some say that her behavior is caused by a party drug that is in her system but her strange actions mixed with the elevator acting strange has many thinking that's not the case. It was also said that she was hiding from someone that was pursuing her and trying to escape and that is why she can be seen talking to someone and hiding in the elevator. Most theories and inconsistencies could be explained by the suggestion that the video had been edited, extended and slowed down in some places or had parts cut out to hide the identity of some one if her death had been a criminal act.

On the blog You may be dead and dreaming, which had a lot of very good information on this case, they break this down:

One of the strangest elements of the case was the elevator video released by the LAPD. The timestamp has been redacted and nobody seems to have any idea why. But the timestamp is only partially redacted, you can still make out the numbers ticking away, you just can't see what they are. Online sleuths studying the video have discovered that about 54 seconds of footage was cut from the footage between the time that Elisa exits the elevator and when the doors close. It was later found that the video has been slowed down, again for unknown reasons. When watching the video at 135% "normal" speed her actions and behavior get a little less spooky, she seems less frightened and more playful. Here is a side-by-side comparison of the video at two different speeds.

This video makes her actions look a lot more natural and even points out where the video has been edited so I would highly recommend their blog where they cover this because it is a two part post that provides some interesting insight especially since the writer actually lives in the same town Elisa Lam is from. They even note a body language expert that examined the video and say that she is acting playfully and has low anxiety.

The weeks she was missing hotel guests complained of low water pressure and that the water would be black at first before running clear but had an unusual “sweet” taste to it. It wasn't until Feb 19th that her body was found in one of the four 1000 gallon water tanks on the roof of the hotel that provided water to all hotel guests, the kitchen, and coffee shop. The tank needed to be drained and cut open to remove her body since the hatch was too small to remove her body with the needed equipment. She was naked in the tank with her clothing floating in the water covered

in, ”sand like particles”, she also was bloated and starting to decay. The lab tests that could be done were incomplete since there was not enough blood left in her body to actually complete them. What they manged to get did show she had her prescription medicines in her system as well as a tiny amount of alcohol but no other recreational drugs. It was originally marked as an accidental drowning with her bipolar disorder being the main factor. But they could not explain how she got to the tank in the first place to drown. Roof access was locked for anyone but hotel staff and opening them would set off an alarm. However it has been shown that rooftop access was easy if someone used the fire escapes. A hotel guest has created a video of getting up to the roof themselves using that method and even found two of the hatched on the tanks wide open.

Supposedly all of these hatches are supposed to be closed and at the top of a 8ft tall tank that required a ladder to reach that is not permanently attached to any of the tanks. The hatches are heavy metal ones that even if opened from the outside would be hard to close from the inside. There is no clear signs if she had been raped or if this was an attack by some one else but her phone had been missing from her belongings and has not been found. She had a Tumblr where she reblogged fashion and talked about her mental illness, even days after her death and her body was found her Tumblr was still being updated so they are not sure if it was just her que or if it was someone uploading from her phone and that they could be posting clues.

Efforts have been made to turn 384 rooms at the Cecil not used by the Stay into housing for the homeless. However, business leaders in the up-and-coming areas around the hotel are against the plan.Currently it is being remodeled into a more modern hotel with a mix of hotel and residential rooms called Stay on Main (renamed in 2011) after being bought by a new owner for $30 million and renovations are expected to complete this year, 2019.

bottom of page