A Forgotten Hero Remembered, Deputy Robert Lincoln Pope

A Forgotten Hero Remembered, Deputy Robert Lincoln Pope

There are no routine tasks in law enforcement. What appears mundane and common can turn deadly in a second. That is what happened on January 21, 1929 on the jail elevator at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles. Following a hearing in the Department 21 courtroom, Deputy Sheriffs Ames R. “Casey” Jones and Tom Higgins escorted two state convicts, Jack Hawkins and Robert “Zeke” Hayes to the jail elevator to return them to their cells on the jail floors above those housing the courtrooms. According to Deputy Higgins, “As soon as Elevator Operator [and Deputy Sheriff] Bob Pope slammed the huge doors shut and turned the large key in the lock, the fun began!” 

The “fun” Higgins went onto describe in his retelling of the incident to Sheriff William Traeger was an escape attempt by Hawkins and Hayes. When Deputy Pope closed the elevator, Jack Hawkins produced a handgun and thrust it into Deputy Higgins ribs then demanded the elevator be taken down instead of up. This did not happen. Hawkins actions were directed toward Higgins, but his orders were given to Pope. Rather than comply, Pope whirled and reached for Hawkins. Hawkins pulled the gun out of Higgins ribs and attempted to use it on Pope, but he managed to get his hand on the convict’s wrist just as he began to fire. A bullet grazed Deputy Pope’s shoulder, but he never lost control Hawkins’ wrist. 

Confusion reigned in the next several seconds. Higgins tried to assist Pope, but Hayes attacked him. Though restrained by Pope, Hawkins continued to fire six rounds from his gun. Besides the one which grazed Deputy Pope in the shoulder. Another struck Deputy Jones in the throat. Both Jones and Higgins managed to draw their guns and return fire. It did not go well for Hawkins. At his autopsy, the Coroner identified bullets from each of their guns in his body. Zeke Hayes took a bullet to the wrist, but suffered no other injury. Two other occupants of the elevator, bail bondsman James Cochrane and Alfred Spangler, a plumber employed by the county, were uninjured. Despite his grazing gunshot wound to the shoulder, Deputy Bob Pope completed the remainder of his shift, although the loud concussion of the gunshots so close to his head took its toll on his hearing and he was off work for two weeks until his ears recovered from the trauma of the close gunfire.

So, who was Deputy Bob Pope? The son of former slaves, Robert Lincoln Pope was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia in 1876 as one of the youngest of seven children. Except for his brief military service in the 1890s, he continued to live in Georgia near Statesboro for over forty years working as a farm laborer and coal miner. He married in the 1890s while in Arkansas with the military, but was divorced by 1900 by the time he returned to Georgia. 

Robert Pope’s native state was the harshest of all southern states on African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. Georgia led the nation in lynchings. One of the most heinous occurred in Pope’s hometown of Statesboro in August 1904. In this incident three men were lynched and their bodies burned. A fourth man was lynched later that month. Oppression of blacks in Statesboro and surrounding Bulloch County was so severe it contributed to a mass migration of African Americans away from the area. It was at that time when Pope moved to Los Angeles. 
He joined the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department as a deputy sheriff in 1924 assigned to the jail. In 1926, when the new Hall of Justice opened, it contained many manually run elevators to service its fifteen floors; the top six floors of the building housed the new county jail. Most of the building’s elevators only moved between its first eight floors. The jails were accessed by only a limited number with a specific one designed for the transportation of prisoners, personnel, as well as trash and freight. Due to the sensitive nature of the tasks performed within this elevator it was determined that a deputy needed to operate it; Pope drew this assignment. 

The escape attempt in January 1929 was the second incident in less than a year in which Pope’s quick thinking saved lives. Several months before while moving fourteen jurors between floors the elevator he operated suffered a catastrophic malfunction and began a rapid descent. Pope managed to throw the elevator into reverse and halt it after a four floor fall before it smashed into the base of the elevator shaft. 

On November 1, 1929, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission awarded Deputy Robert Pope the Carnegie Hero Award for his actions thwarting the escape attempt and saving his fellow deputies and the other passengers. He continued to serve with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department until his retirement on June 30, 1946. 
Ninety years after Deputy Pope’s brave actions we honor his memory and his heroism.