Column | The “Boss” of Signal Hill
August 6, 2020
The following is Part 1 in a new series by historian Claudine Burnett titled ‘Signal Hill’s Checkered Past’.
Up until the mid 1980s, Signal Hill was described by many as the last frontier in this part of the Old West. The 2 ½ square mile town was an oil town whose inhabitants included roughnecks, gamblers, prostitutes and those ready for a fight. The city was a gun-toting town, where police handed out pistol permits regularly. It was a place where some made it quite clear that Blacks and Jews were not entirely welcome. It sat on the edge of what many called the “Black Ghetto,” an area to its south where Long Beach African Americans were allowed to live.
It had its own form of politics, where recall elections were frequent, and where drifters were brought in for municipal elections. They lived in tents for the 45-day residency period and then voted and moved on. Both sides in a hot issue hired these tent voters, and the outcome of a city election in Signal Hill often depended on which faction had the most tents.
In 1981, Los Angeles Times reporters Mike Goodman and Richard E. Meyer wrote that up until his death in March 1979 the city was controlled by Thomas Webster Denham, Sr., a Southerner with a gracious, soft-spoken accent.
He sold his land and dairy farm in the east coast in 1945 and headed west to Signal Hill with his wife Carribelle, and three sons. By 1962 oil production revenue had dropped off to a point where the surface property for the first time in the city’s history was more valuable than the subsurface wealth. The city sought other avenues of revenue in order to compensate for the loss and encourage further improvement. By 1967, 96 substandard houses had been demolished, of 1300 old oil derricks only 50 were left and 50 open oil sumps cleaned up. Real estate was now becoming the “black gold” of the city. One of the major players in the real estate marker was Thomas Denham, who developed an interest in politics.
Denham was a trusted, even revered by man in Signal Hill. They called him Mr. Tom. He secured a seat on the Signal Hill City Council, a position he held from 1962-1974. He was also mayor from 1964-1965 and again in 1967-79. He took steps to secure his influence. He and other businessmen began subsidizing the Signal Hill Tribune, the town’s only newspaper by purchasing block subscriptions from publisher Fred Harris. Signal Hill began publishing its ordinances in the Tribune in type so large it cost the city extra newspaper space. David Caretto, future city manager of Signal Hill told the Times “The city was subsidizing the newspaper.”
With his father’s backing, Richard Denham was promoted to police captain. According to the Independent Press Telegram, Richard Denham was a graduate of Hamilton Junior High and attended Poly High School before moving to Georgia for a year in 1951, where he graduated from high school. On his return to Signal Hill, he attended LBCC where he took special classes in law enforcement including USC and California State College, Long Beach where he secured his teaching credential. He was the first member of the Signal Hill Police Department to graduate from the Los Angeles County sheriff’s training academy. He joined the department as a patrol officer in 1954, but resigned after 6 months to enter the contracting business. In July 1957, he rejoined as a patrol officer, promoted to sergeant in October 1960 and captain in September 1, 1966. When Chief William F. Stovall Sr. retired January 1, 1968, Captain Denham succeeded Chief Stovall in the job.
Richard Denham hired a number of new officers, most with no police experience. At least four had been fired or forced to resign from other departments, according to the Times. “They were losers or men he could control,” said John Jameson, city manager at the time. “Denham would give them one more chance. That’s what he’d tell him.” Among those hired was his brother Tom Denham Jr.
Richard Denham said he wanted his officers to be tough. Businessmen applauded the toughness. They saw themselves as a special target, surrounded by what they considered at the time to be the larger urban area of Long Beach and abutting the “Long Beach ghetto”. Toughness meant security for their property. At the same time, it meant security for Denham property.
Since 1968, when Richard Denham became police chief, forty-two of those arrested by Signal Hill police formally accused them of beatings without justification. Several suffered broken ribs, another a punctured lung, several were crippled and one was partially blinded. Two died. Most accusations of police beatings were hardly noticed. Few, if any, were reported in the Tribune. When anyone filed a claim for damages, the City Council routinely rejected it and turned it over to the insurance carrier.
Disclaimer, the quotes in this piece do not reflect the views of the Signal Tribune Newspaper and are based of off historical context.”