Street Stories The Call Box

The Call Box: Burn Barrels

By Ed Meckle, Retired LAPD

During the first half of the 20th Century (through 1957 and who knows how long before) everyone–businesses included, burned their trash in backyard incinerators. Everyone had a burner. The residential ones were what you would imagine a “pueblo” bread oven or a pottery kiln to look like.

Residential burners were usual 4 to 5 feet square and about 5 feet tall. They had a front-door loader and a 5 to 6-foot-tall chimney. Business/commercial ones were monsters the size of a family sedan on end with a 10-12 foot chimney. Even today some still survive.

The many Indian tribes that inhabited the LA basin in centuries past referred to the area as “The Valley of the Smokes” due to the inversion layer holding the smoke close to the ground.

Why have I filled your head with this bit of trivia?

Because after burning was outlawed the incinerators became favorite hiding/disposable spots for stolen items, guns, knives and a good stash spot for narcotics. Even the occasional body.

Modern incinerator-note stack on upper right

I was a detective sergeant working Robbery out of Wilshire Division. We had been inundated with a series of brutal street robberies over a period of several months. Our victims, usually elderly women, were beaten and robbed of their purses. We finally were able to identify our suspect and put together a bulletin for the patrol units. Within a few days a radio car bagged him. Half a dozen of our victims made him in a show-up and after some lengthy conversation he gave it up and admitted to 20-plus robberies.

What about the purses? There was an abandoned and shuttered apartment building on his block. In the rear there was a commercial burner and by stacking boxes up he was able to reach the top and drop the purses down the chimney.

I felt a great deal of satisfaction as I pulled purse after purse after purse out of the burner door, clearing a case with every one. I even thought to keep them in order to match crimes reports by date. 

As I recall there were 24 purses, 3 or 4 not even reported. Our robber was cooperative to the point of showing us where he had sailed several onto rooftops.

I think any officer will admit that when you do something even as simple as this, that you not only make someone’s life a little better but it gives you a sense of satisfaction—a sense of why you do what you do. 

Some of our victims even cried when reunited with items thought gone forever. We always thought of them as “our ladies.”


Don’t forget to check out Thonie’s three thriller/mysteries: By Force or Fear, Intent to Hold and With Malice Aforethought. All three are currently available through She’s putting the last touches on Felony Murder Rule, the fourth in the Nick and Meredith Mystery Series.

By Force or Fear, Intent to Hold, and With Malice Aforethought
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