Wilma “Billie” Carnes (Wilson) and Camarillo State Hospital


The Wonderland book is coming along great. I don’t want to share much here, because it will all be in the book. I might post some samples later though. I have been trying to write five pages a week, so…

But today, I’m making a post about Billie Carnes. A friend and I have been doing some research to find out more about her. She was an actress back in the 1920s silent film era, mostly. She was a dancer too, and performed in water ballet shows of the era, as well as did some body double work for films. She is not on IMDB – because it was so long ago and those movie credits are probably lost. I don’t even know what films she was in, or if she did chorus line dancing, that sort of thing. And… she was murdered in 1943.

Billie authored the book They Call Them Camisoles in 1940. It’s an autobiographical story about her stay at Camarillo State Prison near Oxnard a year earlier. She was an alcoholic, and after getting caught drinking while on “parole” (probation), her mother recommended “psychopathic treatment”. And the judge complied, giving Billie four months penance (just for drinking!). This was soon after Prohibition and one’s family could have a loved one involuntarily committed. It was a huge travesty of justice. The book may be downloaded here for free (pdf format). I also believe it is now public domain.

The endorsement below to the LA County Sheriff at the time, strikes me as a big “Hey, fuck you man!” type of thing. I bet she hand delivered it at his office. I love her guts and sense of humor. The book came out about a year after she was released from the mental institution.

In 1925, Billie graduated high school and was set to enter USC. However, she had not taken algebra. After several tutors, she gave up and became a dancer and entered showbiz. She later got married at age nineteen to an unknown man, but later in 1934 she married a man named Harold Wilson. In 1925, Billie’s mother and sister were living on Dana Street in the same house. Her mother worked as a saleslady and her sister was a clerk.

1925nellie-and-frances-1466-dana-st

Ten years before the book was written, Wilma is featured in a crime story – for drunken driving. Back in those days (and maybe still today), reporters and citizens would hang around at night court to see what the cat dragged in. It was usually great and free entertainment. If you’re going to get a DUI like Wilma did, might as well crash into a parked police car…go all out! But seriously, Billie was an exciting woman and very funny. She never did anything half-ass. This article is from 1928 or 29 and includes a good bio also:

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In 1929, the LA city directory shows Billie, newly divorced, living with her mother (her father died in 1928). Billie is listed as a “dancer”. Her mom worked for the county.

1929-LA-City-Dir-CARNES

The house where she was living with her mother, Nellie, and younger sister, Frances, is on Dana St, which is very close to USC. The houses were most likely demolished since the address was at the school playground down there. Unless the street was renumbered and it was one of the houses below. Her mother did like big houses, as you will see further down this blog post. I’m told this area has gone to pot, but was probably nice some ninety years ago, when the Carnes family lived there. It looks shitty now:

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1400 block of W. Dana St.

A small family tree. Billie’s father and mother were divorced and her dad later married a woman named Ada. Billie’s sister, Frances, lived until 1973.

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By 1935, public records show her mother Nellie living at this big house on Crenshaw, which is today a pretty rough area but again was probably nice back then. This house is now a mortuary.

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So if you read the book up there for free, then you will learn a lot about this place- Camarillo State Hospital. Billie’s stay was not tremendously bad, but she did not belong in a hospital for the insane just because she liked alcohol and she was a “spree” drinker anyways. The state was getting free labor by incarcerating alcoholics. Wilma always had employment, but as wild as she was – she got into some minor trouble, always having fun doing it: One time with her girlfriend, they tried to bring a horse into the friend’s apartment. One of many funny stories from the book.

By 1942, Billie was living over in Hermosa Beach at an apartment. She was waiting tables by then, two years after the book’s release. There was some press done for the book, and she is interviewed by the newspaper, but I have not located that article yet.

Also in 1942, her mother was living at this cool house on Budlong, near the LA Memorial Coliseum. Nellie was still working as a laboratory assistant for the county health department. This house is 3,000 sq ft on a 10,000 sq ft lot. It last sold in 1978 for $45,000. Today its estimated value is at half a mil.

1942-nellie-house-3973-budlong

By 1943, things were going bad for Wilma. She got involved with an Army man named Michael Strignano. He was a private from Queens, NY and ten years her junior. Billie also started drinking again. At her apartment in Hermosa Beach in early June, 1943, Billie was found slain by the young man’s commanding officer, a lieutenant. Strignano had gone AWOL and the officer was looking for him, but found the body of Billie instead.

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Michael Strignano was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, at least ten of which was served at Alcatraz. In 1953, he sued the warden over civil or human rights stuff. I’m not sure what the outcome was.

RIP, Billie.

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There is a lot more about Wilma in her book, of course. And some of the things mentioned in these articles I could not verify. But she died too young. Billie was initially buried at Rosedale Cemetery in central L.A., but having been well traveled – she loved Hawaii – her family decided she would have liked her ashes spread at sea, so her family got permission and had mortician E.B. McCormick disinter the body for cremation. Her ashes were scattered at sea off the coast of Honolulu, Hawaii by her surviving family. If you want, go to the findagrave memorial that I set up and give Wilma some love.

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