Amnesiacs, hoaxes, and homicide cover-ups at the La Brea Tar Pits

A few years ago, I was giving an out of town friend the nickel tour of Los Angeles, which always must include a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits. As visitors tend to do, he pointed out what I normally overlooked: the sheer volumes of “Missing Dog” leaflets affixed to the light and telephone poles along Wilshire Blvd.

“Missing dog,” he’d read aloud, then, pointed to the park, then “Tar pits.” He’d repeat this as we walked. “Missing dog, tar pits. Missing dog, tar pits.” Mystery solved.

After all, what makes the La Brea Tar Pits a historical attraction isn’t the persistent reek that emanates from it, or the bubbling black vat of the pool of asphalt – it’s the secrets that have been uncovered within it, and for the morbid, what else may be within its depths.

Described as a “Death-Trap for the Ages,” the tar pits has been a boon for paleontologists who have been able to excavated tens of thousands of bones of animals that fell prey to the muck. Covered in leaves and dirt, creatures such as mammoths, saber-toothed cats and giant ground sloths would unknowingly venture over the pools of tar, and get stuck and starve, or slowly sink and drown.

As for humans falling in, the tar pits seems to want to keep some things secret.

The Amnesiac

In October 1935, 19 year-old Mary Alice Bernard told her mother, “some day you’ll find me in the bottom of the La Brea pits,” shortly before going missing. The LA Times front page covered the story with the headline, “BODY HUNTED IN TAR PITS,” and reported on how the tar pits were raked with grappling hooks on long ropes without results.

After what must have been a grueling four months, her mother saw Mary Alice’s photo in the paper once more, this time in a story about an amnesiac victim who was was being housed at a hospital in downtown LA. She believed her name was “Ann Page.”

The next day she was reunited with her daughter.

The Liar

Another search at the Tar Pits was undertaken in December, 1938, when a suicide note and clothing belonging to George W. Page were found nearby. Police and firemen engaged in the efforts were surprised when Page himself showed up to say hello. He was arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail for the hoax, which may have worked in his favor: he said he staged the suicide to get away from his girlfriend.

The Cover-Up

An oft mentioned urban legend is that the tar pits have also served as a convenient dumping ground for killers over the decades. But in fact, the only evidence of a human body ever having been dumped there is also the victim of L.A.’s oldest homicide, a fact that the operators of the museum and grounds have attempted to cover up.

Discovered in 1914, the bones of the since named “La Brea Woman” were determined to be at least 9000 years old. Her skull had a hole in it and broken jaw, believed to be from a crushing blow from a blunt object.

While the bones rested in a storage drawer, a cast of her remains were on display for decades until around 2004, when operators removed them without notice. According to several articles, there were fears that Native Americans would not only be offended by the display, but if they became aware of their existence they would demand the remains be seized to be ceremonially buried.

Alas, a recent search of the website for the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum finds no mention of the La Brea Woman, a surprising slight to someone who is indisputably the oldest know resident of Los Angeles.

The Weird

Surprisingly, this eerie, murky landmark seems remarkably free of any ghost stories.Then again, perhaps this isn’t that surprising. What sort of ghost would want to spend the afterlife at tar pit?

(The closest I’ve found to a ghost story at the Tar Pits is a passage in “Haunted Southern California” about a family that reported seeing the reflection in the tar of a saber-toothed cat hunting a bison.)

If there is anything supernaturally eerie about the La Brea Tar Pits, its that nearly forty years after two searches of the Tar Pits were made in vain, the grounds added a museum named after millionaire businessman George C. Page… no known relation to suicide faker George W. Page, or the name amnesiac Mary Alice Bernard came up with: Ann Page. Coincidence?


Those tar pits are deep, and just because the La Brea Woman is the only known body to have been found, it doesn’t mean others can’t be in there. Excavations in and around the pits continue to this day.