Photographs of American histories

Sites where gruesome, beautiful and bizarre events have taken place in Western history and film.


Note from the editors: "American Histories" is a series of photographs that investigates the intersection of landscape, history and film. Each image shows a location where a particularly provocative event—murder, death by birds, suicide—has taken place. Some of the events are historical, others are drawn from cinema, such as Alfred Hitchcock's "Birds" or the Southern California-set film "American History X," and some are a combination of fact and film narratives.

At High Country News, these photographs caught our eye because they reflect how any one landscape can contain many narratives. Nowhere is this more true than in the Western U.S., where the stories of people and the stories of landscapes are so tightly intertwined. 

Venice Beach, California, 2008
Joshua Dudley Greer

In 1998, a pickup basketball game on these courts turned into a confrontation between a group of neo-Nazis and African Americans. Derek Vinyard, a young skinhead leader, stepped into the game and led his team to victory, taunting his opponents with a swastika tattoo on his chest. The black men were told to leave and never come back.

Later that night, a number of black players attempted to steal Vinyard’s truck outside his home. Vinyard drew his pistol, shooting and killing one man while injuring a second. Wounded and bleeding, the young man tried to crawl away but Vinyard forced him to open his mouth onto a concrete curb where he kicked in the back of his head, killing him instantly. Derek Vinyard was sentenced to just three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.

Joshua Tree National Park, California, 2007
Joshua Dudley Greer

Gram Parsons was only 26 years old when he died of a drug overdose in a motel in Joshua Tree, California. Funeral arrangements were made in Louisiana and his body was taken to Los Angeles International Airport for transportation. Maintaining an earlier promise, Parsons' manager and a close friend managed to steal his body and drive it back to the desert in a borrowed hearse. After stopping for beer and gasoline, the two men came to Joshua Tree National Park where Parsons used to take LSD, write songs and look for UFO's. They placed his body here at this rock, doused it with gasoline and set it on fire.

Alamo Village, Brackettville, Texas, 2007
Joshua Dudley Greer

In 1836, Texas was under the control of the Republic of Mexico when a mounting fight for independence began. Generalissimo Santa Anna launched an offensive of men north into Texas to quiet the rebellion. Some 7,000 Mexican forces met 185 Texans at this former Spanish mission in what came to be known as the Battle of the Alamo. The battle lasted 13 days and ended when the entire Texas army was killed.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Utah, 2007
Joshua Dudley Greer

In 1868, Ethan Edwards returned to his brother's house after fighting for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Shortly after his arrival, Comanche Indians raided the farm, killing his brother and sister-in-law along with their only son. Edwards' two nieces were kidnapped and the family's home was burned to the ground on this site.

Edwards assembled a search party to find the young girls and was able to locate the body of Lucy Edwards discarded in a nearby canyon. It would be nearly five years before they found her sister Debbie still living with her captors. A large company of men including several Texas Rangers attacked the tribe's camp and were able to free Debbie and return her safely home.

5001 Gibson Boulevard SE, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2007
Joshua Dudley Greer

79-year-old Stella Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee from the passenger's seat of her grandson's car at this McDonald's drive-thru on February 27, 1992. Her grandson stopped the car so she could add cream and sugar and in the process of removing the lid, Stella spilled the entire drink into her lap. The coffee, which was served at a temperature over 180 degrees, caused third-degree burns and scalding over 6% of her body including her thighs, groin and buttocks. Stella was taken to the hospital where she stayed for eight days while undergoing a number of painful skin graft operations.

Stella Liebeck initially sought $20,000 to cover her medical expenses, but McDonald's refused to settle. A product liability lawsuit was then brought against McDonald's and in 1994 a jury awarded Liebeck $160,000 plus an additional $2.7 million in punitive damages. The final figure was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Blackwell's Corner, Highway 46, Lost Hills, California, 2008
Joshua Dudley Greer

James Dean had just finished filming the 1955 movie Giant and was on his way to a sports car race in Salinas, California when he stopped at this gas station for fuel. Shortly after, his Porsche 550 Spyder collided with a Ford Tudor coupe at a nearby fork in the road. It was determined that his vehicle was traveling at a speed of 55 miles per hour.

James Dean was the only one killed in the accident. He was only 24 years old and had acted in just three films.

Century Plaza Towers, 2040 Avenue of the Stars, Century City, California, 2008
Joshua Dudley Greer

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee on the sixth floor of the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. The burglary aroused suspicion and media attention because of the unusual circumstances of the crime. The men were found with $2,300 in sequential hundred-dollar bills, walkie-talkies, lock picks, door-jimmys, a police scanner, two cameras along with 40 rolls of unused film and sophisticated recording devices. One of the men was a former CIA agent and current security guard for President Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President. Notebooks found on two of the men contained a phone number followed by the inscription 'W House.'

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein researched the case and wrote coverage of the story over a period of two years eventually uncovering evidence that implicated members of the Nixon administration. Woodward's secret source for much of the information was a highly placed official within the Executive Branch, code name Deep Throat. Only Woodward knew of the man's identity and the two would meet in this parking garage to relay information.

Bodega Bay, California, 2008
Joshua Dudley Greer

Melanie Daniels was boating across this bay when she was unexpectedly and violently struck in the head by a passing bird. The incident was the first in a dramatic series of unprompted bird attacks that plagued the town of Bodega Bay in 1963. Witnesses reported massive migrations of sparrows, seagulls, and crows overwhelming people and property on ten separate occasions. The birds seemed to deliberately attack in waves, resulting in dozens of injuries and the deaths of at least three people. The birds’ behavior could not be explained.

Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 2007
Joshua Dudley Greer

Randall McMurphy was serving a short prison term for statutory rape when he was transferred to a psychiatric ward for his belligerent and erratic behavior. During his stay he forged close relationships with several other inmates including Billy Bibbit and "Chief" Bromden. Together these men devised a plan to escape the maximum security facility.

Before they were able to execute their plan, Billy Bibbit committed suicide by stabbing himself in the neck with a piece of glass. McMurphy became so enraged over the sight that he attempted to strangle the head nurse whom he blamed for the incident. He was subdued by guards and taken away to receive the hospital's most radical form of therapy at that time - a lobotomy. He was returned to the ward later that night in a vegetative state. The next morning his body was found in bed, apparently suffocated, and these windows were broken. "Chief" Bromden was the only inmate missing and was never seen again.

Alcatraz Federal Prison, Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, California, 2004
Joshua Dudley Greer

On the morning of June 12, 1962, guards at Alcatraz Federal Prison discovered three men missing from their cells. Frank Morris, along with brothers John and Clarence Anglin, had made realistic dummy heads complete with human hair and placed them in their beds so they would not be missed during nighttime counts. The three men exited through vent holes located in the rear walls of their cells which they had enlarged and built false wall segments to conceal. A utility corridor led them to pipes which they climbed to the top of the cellblock and eventually gained access to the roof of the prison. They then climbed down a drainpipe on the northern end of the cellhouse and made their way down to the water. Using prison-issued raincoats, they crafted life vests and a pontoon-style raft to aid them in the long and dangerous swim to shore.

After an exhaustive search of the bay, letters and photographs in watertight wrappings were found along with oars and two life vests. No bodies were ever recovered and the three prisoners were never heard from again. The FBI kept the investigation open until 1980 and the three men are officially listed as missing and presumed drowned. To this day, officials deny there has ever been a successful attempt to escape the prison at Alcatraz.

Desert Sands Motel, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2008
Joshua Dudley Greer

Llewelyn Moss was hunting in a remote Texas desert in June of 1980 when he discovered a grisly scene of dead bodies. Upon inspection he found a man still clinging to life along with a massive amount of heroin in his truck bed. Under a nearby tree, he found another body with a black, leather satchel containing $2 million in cash. Moss decided to leave the injured man and head home with the money, only to return to the scene later that night to help the lone survivor. When he arrived just before dawn, he found the man had recently been shot and killed.

Moss was then chased by a group of men in a pickup truck who shot at him, wounding his right shoulder. Despite his injuries, Moss managed to escape and return home where he immediately told his wife to pack up everything and leave town. While she went to stay with her mother, Moss drove around from motel to motel trying to avoid his pursuers. He checked into room 114 of this motel where his body was later found shot to death in the doorway. No money was ever recovered.

Off N. Beachwood Drive, Hollywood, California, 2007
Joshua Dudley Greer

Peg Entwistle was a young stage actress in New York City during the onset of the Great Depression. With theatre tickets sales dropping, the actress was involved in a series of Broadway failures in 1931. She migrated to Los Angeles in the spring of 1932 hoping to find salvation in the booming Motion Picture Industry. Without enough money to support herself, she moved in with her uncle on Beachwood Drive, just down the hill from the famous Hollywoodland sign. Peg's future seemed promising as she was cast in a number of roles, acting alongside Humphrey Bogart and in RKO's feature film Thirteen Women. But when her first film performance was almost entirely cut and her contract was allowed to expire, she became despondent and was unable to find work in film or theatre. At the age of 24, the actress sensed her career was over and slipped into a depression.

On the night of September 18, 1932 Peg Entwistle told her uncle she was going for a walk to a nearby drug store but instead made the difficult climb up the steep brush to the Hollywoodland sign. She neatly folded her coat at the base of the letter H and climbed a ladder to the top where she jumped 50 feet to her death.

Two days later Peg's uncle opened a letter from the Beverly Hills Playhouse which was sent the day before she jumped. It was an offer to play the lead role in their next production.

Snake River Canyon, Twin Falls, Idaho, 2008
Joshua Dudley Greer

Professional daredevil and motorcyclist Evel Knievel attempted to jump this canyon using a rocket-powered Sky-Cycle on September 8, 1974. The $150,000 craft which was built specifically for the jump had never been successfully tested. Despite the danger, Evel decided to honor his agreement with ABC's Wide World of Sports to broadcast the event live on that particular day. Almost immediately following takeoff a parachute deployed prematurely from the rear of the vehicle catching winds and causing the craft to drift backwards into the canyon. Knievel fell over 600 feet down onto the rocks below, narrowly avoiding the Snake River and sustaining only minor injuries. He would never attempt the jump again.