The cosmic tumblers that align the universe must’ve required a factory re-alignment after the two men’s caskets were nailed shut. To blame the events of February 1941 and what ensued on happenstance’s spinning needle is just too blighting, too painful—the kind of soul-crusher that could convert a devout monk into a rabid agnostic. This, I tell myself, was meant to be. Had to be. Always did. The San Quentin gas chamber was inevitable from the principals’ very first handshake in the underbelly of pre-World War II Los Angeles. Nat Ross, a champion for lost souls, needed a worker and Maurice “Mike” Briggs needed a job. It was no more coincidence they intersected than the moon’s gravitational orbit around the Earth.

Cotton Products Corp., a nondescript, rag-manufacturing factory south of Los Angeles City Hall, at 1627 South Broadway, was swimming in orders when they met in mid-1940; today it’s a patch of vacant lot shoehorned between a red-trimmed Jack-in-the-Box and a blah, gunmetal-gray freeway overpass. Briggs, who’d originally traveled to the West Coast to visit his father, seemed like a winner in his first weeks at the plant. Appreciating his skill-set, the company in short order promoted him from line worker to foreman of the washing machines. A smart aleck sort, he might’ve chirped he was the Grand Poobah of them. 

The 26-year-old newcomer with an Errol Flynn mustache and rakish smile wasn’t shy about something else: that he was an available bachelor. An attractive, pouty-lipped woman named Betty Susan, 21, certainly noticed. Soon they were flirting over textile orders, after that probably out on a few dates, followed by more intimate romance. Betty regarded him as such a keeper that after a whirlwind courtship she agreed to marry him. Mere weeks later, the new Mrs. Maurice Briggs was pregnant. And no longer a working girl either, after quitting the stability of Cotton Products for instant domesticity with this out-of-towner that she’d just met. 

On breaks from the grind, Nat, my great uncle, might’ve giggled to himself at how farfetched love stories can be, if not how ironic considering that the last film he was supposed to produce for Columbia Pictures was entitled “Accidental Father.” But that was before zigzagging life spun him here, miles from the Hollywood movie business that’d drawn him to California to work for Universal Picture’s Carl Laemmle. 

Briggs, meantime, had never been happier. A ho-hum job had led to a spouse and a future. Then again, voices in his head must’ve asked, when had happiness hung around him for more than the shelf life of a jar of mayonnaise? This bliss was no exception. Before the newlyweds had even celebrated three months together, they began quarreling in a fight with no end. During their last argument, Betty accused him of cold-cocking her in the face, tearing off her garments, then vowing she wouldn’t have “a stitch of clothing” to her name if she left him. Betty stood firm, anyway. She kicked him out of their place on South Grand Ave, sending Briggs, who’d buried his molten temper behind his hunky jaw and gift for gab, to a nearby flophouse, where broken men with nowhere else to go went to sleep.

Despite the domestic turmoil, Maurice kept his job at the plant, which gave him hope of reclaiming Betty’s heart. II’s just that the woman he earlier swept off her feet was now dead-set about eliminating any trace of him. Her first step was to lie to  him that she’d lost their baby in a miscarriage. She followed that deceit by informing him that she’d fallen in love with another man, a Gene Sperry. Give me a break, Briggs responded with an incredulous cluck. After he grilled her about some specifics, she admitted she was still pregnant. Bluff called, bluff lost. 

But her fabrications seemed not matter much as Briggs continued trying to woo her back. Over and over, he brought it up, promising to change his stripes, get out night shifts to spend the day with her. Every time he begged elicited the same reply: no. By January 1941, Betty lined up a Long Beach divorce attorney, and Briggs acted like he’d accepted there’d be no reconciliation. His negotiating stance was that he’d agree to annul the marriage if she kept the child, perhaps assuming that Betty would eventually want the baby’s father residing under the same roof. 

Briggs, living in a city swelling with transplants like him, was losing things left and right, and it was showing. After he came to the plant drunk, Nat fired him. The thinking was basic industrial safety: a factory reliant on heavy machinery, and dozens of people to operate them, was no place for an inebriated foreman to be in charge of anything. No one could’ve begrudged Nat for maintaining that stance, nor could anyone be surprised about leniency swooping behind it. He was a known softy about people down on their luck, and Briggs appeared as hard-luck as they came. So, he re-hired him with a probationary caveat that there’d be no third chances. Briggs, acting to character, disregarded that message. On Feb. 10, four days before Valentine’s Day, he was fired again. And for good. His new source of income would have to be state unemployment benefits.

Even job-less, reuniting with Betty, in some form or another, remained Brigg’s preoccupation. Two days after Nat cashiered him a second time, he showed up again at Betty’s doorstep, proclaiming that he’d do anything—anything—if she’d give their union another whirl. Betty stayed her ground: a single time living him, she said, was enough. In fact, she told him that she was terminating the pregnancy, for real. And since he refused to help pay for the abortion, she found someone chivalrous who would. Not only was her Nat Ross compassionate about this unwanted pregnancy, he awarded her back her old factory job so she could be her own breadwinner again.

Hearing about this double-barreled development, the paranoid maniac in Briggs took full agency of him. He immediately contacted the Los Angeles Police Dept. to prevent the abortion, which in the Fedora age was whispered as an “illegal procedure. The department refused to entangle itself in his soap opera. Be that way, Briggs must’ve thought. He’d play detective, with good reason in his twisted mind. As he confided to some, he suspected that his estranged wife was having an affair with Nat, the onetime showbiz wunderkind.

He then went searching for evidence. On one of the evenings he spied on Betty, he watched her leave Cotton Products with Nat in his car. Afterwards, he traveled to her neighborhood, parking himself on a Red Car bench near her house, for motives unknown. She didn’t return until 2 A.M.; perhaps because she’d visited a back-room abortion doctor. “I didn’t get a chance to talk” to her, Briggs explained afterwards, “because she ran up the steps and locked the door in my face.” 

Soon enough, Briggs was back on plant grounds, unraveling out in public. With liquor on his breath and a pocketknife in his hand, he hissed directly in Nat’s face, promising “he wasn’t going to be around much longer.” Nobody, including Nat, interpreted the threat as more than predictable bluster by a wife-beating, alcoholic drifter, rather than the smoldering dynamite it was. “I’m not mad at you, but am going to kill (Nat),” he told his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Either on that visit or another, the LAPD arrested him on a seemingly minor charge. He’d blown every chance afforded him to fly straight, or at minimum fly away.

Why hadn’t he just stuck to his washing machines and a little, off-hours hanky-panky? Because that’s not what those tumblers had in mind. 

On Feb. 24, 1941, Briggs’s divorcing spouse notified him that she was pregnant no longer. More trickery, Briggs said. Prove it! Fine, she responded, and showed him a bloody towel she applied to staunch the post-abortion hemorrhaging. Briggs was floored, floored numb, as if everything leading up to this moment was surmountable drama preceding a happily-ever-after ending. In his deranged mind, it was conflicting work schedules, not his sometimes-psychotic conduct, at the root of their strife. 

Now that he knew there’d be no baby or reunion with hits mother, Briggs went to work to make good on his promised vendetta. He’d thin out the city’s population by one. The very next morning, he cashed his unemployment check and spent $8 at a Main Street pawnshop and another store. Around sundown, he picked up his merchandise, walked a few blocks, and stashed them near an apartment house close to Cotton Products.  

Just after 10 p.m., Briggs knocked on the factory’s side door, behind which he’d moved his recently purchased goods. All polite-like, he told the person who answered the door that he’d like a quick word with his former-supervisor. Nothing heavy. Nat, who’d been chatting with some floor workers as they rushed an order for Navy battleships, sighed when he heard you-know-who had reappeared. “What does he want now?” he mumbled. “I’ll be back, girls.”


Nat Ross, my mother’s favorite uncle, already had enjoyed the sort of heartbreak-to-fame feel-good story upon which legacies are wired when Briggs requested to see him that fateful evening. Many are crowned a whiz kid in the breathy hyperbole of the business. Few, however, lived the archetype like him. And if Nat had a fondness for men named Maurice, it might’ve been due to its familiar ring.

He was born in teeming San Francisco in June 1904 as the middle child of Maurice and Sonya “Dearie” Rosenberg. Seattle would’ve been safer place for them. When the monster earthquake pancaked the Bay Area two years later, killing thousands and destroying more than three-quarters of the city, he barely survived it. Nat’s father needed to jump from the stoop of his collapsing home with toddler-Nat in his arms before they were both buried under tons of debris. The quick action should’ve been celebrated. Instead it was lost in the cold.

Despite hailing from an affluent family with a home on fashionable Nob Hill, Maurice discovered little assistance from them. The reason was class intolerance , relatives livid that he’d had the gall to wed, in their eyes, a commoner—a pretty, plump, vivacious woman who’d emigrated from Russia. Natural disasters, it turns out, can sway crystal chandeliers, just not stubborn heads from nouveau riche money beneath them. So Nat, his older sister, Rose (my maternal grandmother), her baby brother, Harold, and their parents made do. For a year, they supposedly lived in a tent in Golden Gate Park with other people made instantly homeless by tectonic convulsions.

Unable to see any future in the city by the bay, Maurice fixed his gaze on the American Southwest, where a relative he liked had relocated to El Paso. That vision was a catalyst. The enterprising, gregarious Maurice packed everybody up, got out of California, and went into business with him. Within a few years, his metamorphous was complete. Maurice had reinvented himself into a prosperous Texas merchant selling commodities and used goods from a store. 

El Paso, though within shouting distance of the Mexican Revolution across the border, brought his family money, shelter, and a driver in an age when cars were crank-started “machines” and men combed waxy, handlebar mustaches. Occasionally, Maurice’s pal, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, dropped by the family’s home on Montana Street for laughs and drinks, when Villa wasn’t otherwise occupied on raids in places like Tierra Blanca and Chihuahua. How they crossed paths no one can say.

Maurice’s second act was proceeding better than expected. Much better. That’s when J.E. Mullen, a young, dark-eyed entrepreneur, breezed into the shop, telling my great-grandfather that he was selling animal hides at a low cost. Interested? All Maurice had to do was drive with him to a clearing to inspect the fares and they’d have a deal. Four days later, in February 1915, workers trenching a ditch along the Rio Grande River discovered the grisly aftermath of that deception, noticing Maurice’s boots protruding from the silt. Attached below was a mutilated, bullet-riddled corpse of husband and father of three.

Mullen, Identified as the leading suspect, supposedly was chased by Villa’s own security men by car on dusty back roads outside El Paso. After giving them the slip, he fled to Juarez, Mexico. Eventually, police tracked him to a boardinghouse there and arrested him. Back across the border he went, right into the arms of local detectives. Prosecutors charged Mullen, just 21, with murder. Pinning down his motive was something else. Why, detectives asked, would a lowlife arms dealer selling munitions to both sides of Mexico conflict bother baiting a stranger into a deadly trap? If Mullen was after Maurice’s jewelry, why had he only lifted some baubles, like a gold-encrusted watch, while leaving others on the body? Had Mullen panicked in a robbery-gone-wrong, or was he part of a conspiracy – one involving a personal vendetta, or even Villa—to stage it as a botched holdup?  

The State of Texas vs Red Mullen, sensationalized lickety-split by the newspapers as the most twisted murder case in El Paso history, became the hottest ticket in town. People elbowed each other to secure courtroom seats to hear the evidential particulars. How the victim was forced to dig his own grave; about Maurice’s wealthy status, and his macabre end at the hands of shadowy, cocky Mullen. It was all raw titillation. One of the District Attorney’s star witnesses, a 14-year-old girl among the last people to see Maurice alive, hyped interest further. Pointing at the defendant in his blue serge shirt, she said, “He left with that man (over there) and I did not see him again until his body was found.”

So emotionally annihilated was she after her testimony that someone had to escort her to another city to recover. That “girl” was my future grandmother, Rose, older sister to Nat and Harold. 

The electrifying trial captivating the town ended with a guilty conviction and no death penalty. It was 35-years-to-life sentence for Briggs, whose friends called him “Red.” He’d been shamelessly indifferent during the proceedings, chewing gum, smoking a briar pipe, resting his legs flippantly on a chair, and he was similarly detached after the verdict. Asked he wished to appeal the ruling, he declined, saying he was “no fool,” whatever that meant. The motive for his grisly act has remained a mystery.


Maurice’s widow, Sonya, had seen her world blown up again, with little free time to grieve. She now had three children ton care for with virtually no work experience to support them. Not even this tragedy elicited sympathy from her husband’s San Francisco wealthy kin. The only compass point that made sense was northwest, where her older brother, actor Alexander Carr, performed on the Broadway stage, emoting for audiences with that a foghorn voice of his. Once they arrived, Carr subsidized the living expenses of his sister and her children in a cramped Brooklyn apartment. Compared to where they’d been, New York City was frigid, squalid, unwelcoming, and bitterly anti-Semitic, but they weren’t overflowing with options. Her family’s conversion from Judaism to Christian Science, changing their names to fit, Rosenberg shortened to Ross, made their hardscrabble existence only marginally better. 

But it didn’t have to be this bleak, suggested Sonya’s eldest son, Nat, now about 13. He volunteered that he wanted to start making more for the family in his father’s absence. Missing some school to contribute toward the rent was a noble tradeoff. Sonya must’ve thought so because Nat got lucky off the bat with a job. He persuaded Lewis Selznick, a Russian émigré who’d chartered a feature film and distribution company called World Pictures, to be his reception clerk. He parlayed that starter-job to a better one with Stanley Maustbaum’s theater chain. Well on his way before he could vote, Nat then was hired as assistant manager director of New York’s Strand Theatre and from there, an East Coast film salesman for an outfit known as Universal Pictures.

In 1920, Nat, the young go-getter from New York, by way of El Paso and San Francisco, returned to California. His new home would be Universal’s 230-acre lot astride the Cahuenga Pass, where silent films, serials, and newsreels were pumped out at a frenetic pace. Nat, who stood 5’8,” with penetrating blue eyes, short-cropped, curly black hair, and a creative streak that matched his ambition, longed to be a storyteller. In dues-payment before he could get behind a camera, he was named personal assistant to studio founder Carl Laemmle. Some film sites contend that Laemmle was Nat’s biological uncle, which is news to my current generation. Others suggest there was so much nepotism in Hollywood then that Laemmle was everybody’s “Uncle Carl.”

Nat’s vim and vigor and knack for learning things on the fly impressed Laemmle, whether he was Nat’s relation, mentor or both. In him Laemmle sensed executive material to be one of the Universal’s first leaders. He also recognized potential in one of Nat’s early L.A. roommates, who the studio hired straight from high school. Sometimes Nat and Irving Thalberg would have supper with Nat’s mother, Sonya, who Nat had brought out from New York. After a dose of palace intrigue over the right cadre to groom, Thalberg was promoted to management while Ross bowed out. He’d rather earn his stripes as a writer-director than sitting in an office, and Laemmle agreed. 

During the Roaring Twenties, Nat called the shots for more than 50 Universal films, the bulk of them silent Westerns, romantic comedies and madcap sports’ sendoffs. In 1922’s “The Galloping Kid,” he directed cowboy star Hoot Gibson. The next year he oversaw “The Ghost Patrol,” a short written by Sinclair Lewis. His cachet rising as one of Hollywood’s bright young talents, Nat then oversaw episodes of the boxing series “The Leather Pushers.” In 1926’s “April Fool,” about a hapless pants-presser, Nat cast himself in a role and used his benevolent uncle, Alexander Carr, as the lead. In that same year he led production of “Two Can Play” about the daughter of a wealthy financier and her two competing suitors. The heroine actress was a tortured beauty that Helena Bonham Carter could play today in a biopic. Clara Bow was Hollywood’s sexualized “It Girl”—and someone grateful Nat believed in her. Three years later came his most commercial movie yet, 1929’s “College Love,” about a university football star who took the blame for a drunken escapade the night before the big game. 

But Nat’s storybook arc suddenly ran ashore as inspirationally as it took flight. He filed for bankruptcy in July 1929, roughly four months before the stock market crash heralded the Great Depression. The following year, he barely escaped serious injury when a team of horses frightened during filming broke loose and knocked over a 15-foot-high camera perch, sending Nat tumbling down an embankment in the hills of Killer Canyon. His life seemed to regain its buoyancy during the teeth of the Depression when he married actress-dancer Audrene Brier, whom he’d met while directing her in a comedy. Nat by then was actor Jack Holt’s manager and a producer for Universal. Yet something happened, perhaps a falling out with Laemmle himself. Nat and his wife moved from Longden Avenue in Van Nuys to England to produce films for Columbia and MGM. On the eve of World War II, they came home. 

Nat was now co-owner and one of the superintendents at Cotton Product. He had a paunch now and receding black hair, but his face held on to its youthful earnestness.On February 24, 1941, when Maurice Briggs rapped on the plant door of a company doing the most modest of things — making rags, some for the military — it destiny’s way of ridiculing human plans.


As Nat grudgingly approached the man who’d assaulted his own pregnant wife, Briggs reached for something behind the door. A .25-.35-caliber Winchester rifle, known by many as a deer-hunting rifle, was in his arms. Before Nat could snatch the weapon away, Briggs pointed it chest-level, at point-blank range. There was a muzzle flash, then Nat’s ghastly scream, then the thud of him collapsing onto the factory floor. According to news accounts, Nat lay there moaning, not long for this world, when Briggs blasted an insurance shot into him. The killer committed his butchery wordlessly, not unlike today’s common mass shooters.

Twenty-five employees watched the execution. After the gunshots rang out, some fled in clattering shoes into the bathroom to escape harm. Others fainted or shrieked. Plant worker Frank Anderson raced over to disarm Briggs, this familiar face,, but Briggs aimed the Winchester at him with a deranged smile that implied, “Don’t even think about it.” Job done, Briggs tranquilly exited the property, walked two blocks to Olive and Seventeenth streets, and chucked the Winchester onto a vacant lot like it was an empty beer bottle. A passerby inquired what he was doing, to which Briggs, clad in a sport coat and black T-shirt, answered: “Oh, I just killed a guy. Better call the cops.” LAPD officers clapped handcuffs around him not far away. They paraded him in front of Cotton Products, too, where Briggs paused before Betty, his estranged wife. “You won’t need,” he said, “to get a divorce now.”

In the commotion that ensued, Ross’ slaying became a tabloid-esque feeding-trough for L.A.’s dog-eat-dog newspapers. Workplace violence was rare, and this homicide sparkled with Hollywood angles—a dashingly defiant suspect, a film producer, with beautiful women in the center. If it hadn’t been real, it could’ve been the script of a tearjerking, noir feature. “EX-PRODUCER OF FILMS SLAIM BY EMPLOYEE,” the Los Angeles Times’ read. “NAT ROSS SLAIN BY DISCHARGED WORKER,” said Variety. “JEALOUS HUSBAND KILLS’ WIFE’S BOSS,” blared the Los Angeles Examiner

“Why did I do it?” Briggs was asked from the LAPD’s Central Jail, at the beginning of the spectacle. “Because I didn’t like him. That ought to be enough,” he said. Sure, sure, but was he repentant or remorseful, the cops and press horde begged to know? “Am I sorry I did it?” Briggs famously gloated. “Yeah, I’m sorry I can’t do it again! I’m ready for gas or whatever they give you in California.” 

His sick bravado after he was booked earned him another wicked, front-page story in the L.A. Times. ‘SUSPECT IN MAN’S KILLING QUOTED AS HAVING NO REGRET.” In fact, he was not only un-contrite, he was verbose about his plans. Originally, he admitted, he’d intended to murder Nat with his own hands until he’d decided that “it’d be too much trouble.” He’d wanted to shoot him ten days earlier, but lacked the cash to acquire a gun and ammo. A photograph of him that accompanied one article depicted the stocky Briggs with the self-satisfied smile of a World Series winner and a face, you’d swear, chiseled from a Justin Timberlake ancestor. 

Briggs’ motives were as one-dimensional as his sadism. It was jealous hatred. He was “suspicious” that Nat was cheating on his own spouse, Audrene, by carrying on an affair with his wife, Betty, after he and Betty had separated. Even if there were no love triangle, Briggs said he didn’t appreciate the “attentions” that Nat showed Betty. Nor his assistance helping her end the pregnancy. Nor anything about him, really. Betty  was adamant that she was not sleeping with Nat. His now-widow was indignant at the notion her husband of five years was unfaithful. Come on. If he’d wanted to philander, he knew plenty of Hollywood starlets. But he wasn’t that sort of fella. The District Attorney concurred, saying there was “no evidence” that Nat was “in any way to blame.” 

Journalists and movie columnists clamored to score interviews with Audrene, who’d soon relocate to Europe to get away from the trauma. Through sobs – and probably tranquilizers – from a friend’s Beverly Hills home, she was at a loss to explain how such a gentle person could be cut down like that. “He was the kindest man I ever knew – a man who helped hundreds get their start (in Hollywood) and said that there is good in everyone if only you can bring it out …” Audrene said. “He often remarked that violence never accomplished anything.” 

As events demonstrate, my great uncle was wrong in his view about the futility of bloodshed. It’d achieved his death by the same man to whom he’d shown crates of compassion. It’d been Nat, Audrene explained, who had “pleaded” to get Briggs his job at Cotton Products in the first place, probably with the other part owner, Joseph Rosenberg, one of Nat’s San Francisco relations. It’d been Nat willing to re-hire him, before Briggs’ wild, alcoholic behavior doomed that. Now this?

Briggs, still riding bravado and a “dispassionate” veneer, refused to testify at the coroner’s inquest on Feb. 27, 1941. “Nothing,” he said, “can incriminate me that isn’t already down on paper.” The District Attorney subsequently charged him with murder with malice aforethought and remanded him to County jail without bail. This was not his first rodeo behind bars. Not that anyone from Cotton Products had known it beforehand. As a teenager, Briggs had served time in Connecticut for felony breaking and entering, and in South Carolina three years after that for felony bank robbery.

Whatever the premeditated nature of his crime, Briggs pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity so the gas chamber he’d welcomed before would not book his reservation. Unsurprisingly, that sneering swagger and delight with his gory handiwork had evaporated when his trial under Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles W. Fricke commenced four months after that rifle echoed. 

Briggs testified that he’d pulled the trigger less because he loathed Nat Ross and more out of suicidal depression. If so, he was questioned, why had he pre-planted the rifle at Cotton Products? Why had he massacred Nat and not himself? Briggs sputtered an answer. “When I definitely learned that (Betty) wasn’t going to be a mother, I bought a rifle to kill myself. I remember going to the factory with the gun. I shot (Nat), but I certainly hadn’t intended to.” Crazy people do irrational things: that was his point. A few days later, the panel of three women and nine men announced their verdict. “GAS CHAMBER DEATH VOTED JEALOUS SLAYER,” the L.A. Times headline said. Other than grimacing  when he learned the sentence, the accused was stoic. Trial observers heard Briggs whistling as he was led away from the courtroom. 

The second trial phase automatically kicked off using the same jury to determine if Briggs was insane during the murder, and thus not responsible for his actions. Now, Briggs wanted the jury to know he was sorry. That he’d “never learned to control his emotions.” That his comment to police fantasizing about getting to kill him a second time originated from dark, self-anger to make “everything look as bad for myself as I could.” Unlike before, Briggs appeared “deathly pale” in court. You could understand why. Three alienists testified that he was “entirely sane” throughout his crime. Briggs’s bid to yank the jurors’ heartstrings about his past had only yanked air.  


Judge Fricke sentenced him “to death” on Aug. 7, 1941, exactly four months before Pearl Harbor. Briggs immediately appealed to the California Supreme Court, citing errors with jury instructions, legal interpretations, and the verdict itself. That appeal was tossed out in March 1942. In May, the judge signed the death warrant for a state execution, scheduling it for July, at the state’s oldest prison in north San Francisco Bay. San Quentin had the drill down.

When it came to murder sentences in our grandparents’ eon, Golden State justice felt a little like modern Texas. Capital punishment was incorporated into the penal code in the rough-and-tumble 1870s and county sheriffs were assigned to carry it out in their own jurisdictions. After 1891, the job was transferred from men with badges on their shirts to prison wardens at San Quentin and Folsom. The ultimate punishment, officials understood, required exacting professionalism. Execution by poisonous inhalation, which replaced hanging as the official procedure for government execution, was inaugurated in late 1938. Close to 200 inmates would be gassed at a facility one writer likened to “an antiseptic form of hell” before lethal injection became Lady Justice’s way.

If you were on death row in Briggs’ era, you probably wouldn’t grow arthritic there. While Hollywood melodramas played up eleventh-hour reprieves from the Governor’s office, the reality was a fairly steady use of the gas chamber to mete out punishment, especially for homicides involving kidnapping and cop-killers. But change would soon blow. A reverberating, 1972 California Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the state constitution halted executions. The decision, which the U.S. Supreme Court backed the following year, removed 107 people off death row. It’d take until 1992—15 years after California voters approved a sweeping capital punishment law opposed by former state Supreme Justice Rose Bird and other liberal jurists —before another condemned man would exhale his last breath on taxpayers’ dime. By the point California’s death penalty was reinstated, the criminal justice landscape was far more polarized and complex, oiled by lawsuit-happy interest groups, victims’-rights organizations, and DNA testing that freed dozens of innocent people. 

But none of that was in play for the man who slaughtered Nat Ross. Briggs’ last hope was for a pardon or commutation of his sentence by Governor Culbert Olson, a New Deal Democrat elected in 1939. In a formal statement to Olson’s staff, Briggs sought forgiveness from a world that he hinted never much appreciated him. At 3, he said, his parents “deserted” him at an abusive orphanage. At 13, he’d gone to live with a farmer until he died, sending Briggs on an indigent path, so malnourished at points that he broke into food stores and associated with bank robbers. Released from prison, Briggs heard his father was stationed in Washington-state and came out to see him. Apparently, there wasn’t much paternal connection, because Briggs decamped from the Pacific Northwest for L.A., all the way to Cotton Products.

The State Advisory Board agreed to review his application for executive clemency. The question: whether the heartlessness shown to Briggs as a child turned him in a monster? Whether, in effect, the lack of “nurture” perverted his nature? Gov. Olson gave that argument the benefit of the doubt, granting Briggs, on July 8, 1942 , a 30-day reprieve to review extenuating circumstances. At the end of it, the Advisory Board decided there wasn’t enough of them to overturn the jury’s death-penalty sentence.

Having now exhausted all legal avenues, Briggs was forced to eat his infamous words about bringing on the gas chamber, how he’d prefer to meet his maker now instead of rotting away on the state clock in a cinder-block box. Thirty years later, convicted double-murderer Gary Gilmore asked the same thing in Utah, becoming the last person executed there by firing squad.

The doors of the San Quentin gas chamber were sealed airtight on August 7 when Briggs “calmly” entered it. The onetime industrial, washing- machine foreman glanced around at the witnesses assembled for his state execution. On the table, either in sympathy or in defiance, he mock-saluted observes with an arm that the prison guards had neglected to properly strap down. Minutes later, after authorities fixed that oversight, the cyanide pellets were dropped, and Briggs’ little goodbye became his farewell act.

You might be wondering, after digesting all this, how Nat’s blood relations reacted to the drip-drip coverage propelled by a mouthy suspect in a gaudy murder case? Hard as it is to believe, they emotionally covered their eyes and plugged their ears. Nobody, best I can tell, can remember them even stepping foot in the downtown L.A. courtroom to eyeball Briggs or opposing any of Brigg’s appeal. Nor where they quoted in any story or present at San Quentin. 

Nat’s big sister, my grandmother, Rose Zahler, had already weathered a snoot-full of personal loss in the hyper-publicized trial for her father’s murder in 1915 Texas. Besides, when Briggs pulled the trigger on his deer rifle, my grandmother had another crises on her hands. Her only son, Gordon, who Nat adored, was fighting for his 14-year-old life, with metal tongs drilled into his skull at County General Hospital in East L.A.. He’d broken his neck, and nearly decapitated himself, after a gruesome, Pasadena junior-high gymnastic accident in October 1940. Ever since, his mother had been at his bedside, trying not to accept the doctors’ prognoses that her boy would most certainly die while her husband, veteran Hollywood composer Lee Zahler, scrambled paying the medical bills. 

Had my grandmother been at the hospital when Briggs emptied his deer rifle at Cotton Products, she might’ve sensed the vibration a short four miles away across the L.A. River. She’d now lost her father and brother to murderers, and kept herself sane by dwelling on their loss as little as possible by trying to serve others.  

Years back, I took it upon myself to untangle the killings’ misconceptions from their verifiable facts. I’d crack open the crust of family repression that refused to give the fallen men the sunshine I felt their heroism deserved. When I took the birds-eye view of what I’d unearthed, I was aghast at the parallel lines. Maurice Rosenberg and his son, Nat Ross, had both been murdered at the same age (36), during the same month (February), almost exactly a generation apart, by men who hoodwinked them in similar fashions. I was 36 myself when I discovered this. 

Once I finally shook off my own paranoia that I’d researched my way into a broader family curse, which had either killed its most promising men or cut them off  from their dreams, an epiphany set me straight. Rose’s son, Gordon, miraculously made it out of County General’s intensive care ward and eventually to Hollywood. There, despite not feeling much from the collarbone down, he ascended above circumstance. He ran a hugely successful post-production company, hobnobbed with famous celebrities, married, and nearly introduced television to apartheid-gripped South Africa. Told he’d die within weeks of his harrowing fall, he lived 35 years. 

You can call all this random, coincidental, or a descendant’s grasping at straws. The way I see it, fate and free-will combined these plot-points to elevate Gordon as our family’s breakthrough figure precisely because of its sheer implausibility. To make that true, industrious Maurice Rosenberg and imaginative Nat Ross had planted seeds in the bloody soil that an heir written off as dead would one day harvest .

Do you know what LAPD detective found in Nat’s trouser pocket when they inspected his corpse? It was a contract to return to Hollywood moviemaking, as if his life wasn’t already cinematic enough.