The Tragic Story of J. W. Leavitt

I normally choose to write about more upbeat stories, but meaning can be found in the tragic ones as well. This story started with the discovery of a humorous photo in an early 1900s newspaper. That photo led to the tale of a man who attained great success in the growing automobile industry before culminating in a disastrous end in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash. If you prefer happy endings, you will want to stop reading now.

This is the photo that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner:

The man pictured is putting up signs outside of Cloverdale, California, in a bid to warn tourists about the presence of a motor cop who will ticket speeders. The year is 1914, and the accompanying story told of how John W. Leavitt was ticketed and asked the justice of the peace to let him take the deputy for a ride in his car to prove that he had not exceeded the 30-mph speed limit while traveling a 38-mile route in 19 minutes. An unconventional approach to be sure, but the justice of the peace agreed, the deputy was convinced, and the case was dismissed. As it turns out, Leavitt was also an important figure of the west coast automobile scene for decades.

Before entering the automobile industry, Leavitt and a partner had started a bicycle business in 1894 in California under the name Leavitt & Bill, and it became the largest bicycle business west of Chicago. Prior to that, Leavitt had also been a champion bicycle racer. Seeing the potential of the automobile industry, he dissolved the bicycle partnership in 1906 and organized J. W. Leavitt & Co. for the distribution of motor cars. His protege at the bicycle company was a young man named Albert D. Plughoff who had begun working for Leavitt at 15 years of age. Described as Leavitt’s right-hand man, Plughoff transitioned to the new firm as VP and general manager.

The company served as distributor for several different makes including Reo and Stoddard-Dayton and then, in 1910, became distributor for Willys-Overland.

J. W. Leavitt & Co. flourished with the growing automobile industry. In 1916, the Los Angeles Times described the company as the largest single distributor of motor cars in the world. It seems that distinction would have belonged to someone selling Fords, but that is what was reported, and it was also said that the company was selling one-tenth of all cars produced by Willys-Overland. In 1917, J. W. Leavitt & Co. was appointed distributor for an expanded area to include the San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego territories. The article in the Oakland Enquirer described Leavitt as, “this country’s greatest automobile merchandizing wizard.”

The company was featured in an effusive Motor West magazine article written by an “eastern engineer” that found in Leavitt’s service department “conditions so extraordinary that I feel the whole world should be in possession of the details.” The writer added that the service department had the details worked out to perfection, and the following photos and procedures were documented in the write-up.

J. W. Leavitt & Co. rode the wave of expansion in the Roaring Twenties and, in 1928, announced it was taking over all of the Willys-Overland’s California factory branch properties, equipment, personnel, and stocks of motor cars as well as agreeing to market $15,000,000 worth of Willys-Knight and Whippet cars annually. In one of the newspaper articles announcing this development, Leavitt was credited with “originating vehicle sales on the installment plan. He inaugurated and developed the lease contract as it is used in automobile sales today.”

The above photo of a smiling Leavitt and Plughoff appeared in 1928. On the surface, everything seemed to be going well for Leavitt & Co., and they continued advertising right up through July of 1930:

However, the stock market had crashed the previous October, and automobile sales had been poor in recent months. Like so many other companies, J. W. Leavitt & Co. was facing financial difficulties and mounting debts. The doors of the firm were shut in the last weeks of July. Employees later said that Leavitt was upset at the prospect of being forced into bankruptcy after being an important figure along “automobile row” for more than a quarter of a century. He feared some creditor would become impatient and force the company into the hands of a receiver. According to his attorney, he also dreaded the necessity of looking for a job at 62 years of age.

Leavitt was also unhappy with Plughoff, his long-time friend, business partner, and right-hand man. Plughoff was leaving. He had accepted a position with an automobile firm back east that would pay $75,000 per year. Again, according to Leavitt’s attorney, all of these developments had left Leavitt feeling as if “the last prop, both of business and friendship, had been pulled out from under him.” Sometime during the first week of August, Leavitt borrowed a gun from one of his adult daughters, claiming he wanted it for squirrel hunting.

On the morning of August 11, Leavitt and Plughoff conferred alone in Leavitt’s office while, in an office across town, creditors were meeting to discuss the fate of the company. Employees heard a sound like a car backfiring. Leavitt then calmly left, commenting only, “Quiet morning,” to employees on his way out of the building. An employee entered the office and found Plughoff lying in a pool of blood. He had been shot in the head, and death had been instantaneous. Leavitt left a note at the scene that read, “Sorry to do this. This will provide for his family.” The note was an apparent reference to life insurance proceeds, and the family it referred to was a wife, now widow, named Myrtle.

Leavitt drove home where he sat and talked quietly with his wife for several minutes without referencing what he had just done. He then went into a bedroom, removed his shirt, and killed himself with the same weapon used to kill Plughoff. Reporters, already alerted to Plughoff’s death, were on the phone with Leavitt’s wife at the time. She was in the middle of saying Leavitt was too busy to come to the phone when reporters heard a shot and Mrs. Leavitt’s scream before the line was disconnected. Leavitt left a widow and six children.

While reports of suicides immediately following the stock market crash of 1929 were exaggerated, suicide rates did increase during the Great Depression. Recent studies have also shown that suicide rates increase during economic downturns, especially for men. Ironically, J. W. Leavitt and Co.’s difficulties appeared to have been more of a cash flow problem as the company had substantial assets. After liquidation of the assets, all obligations were met with $200,000 – $300,000 left over. To put that in perspective, $250,000 in 1930 is roughly equal to $4.5 million in today’s dollars. The attorney for one of Leavitt’s largest creditors stated, in the wake of the murder/suicide, that if Leavitt had only waited a couple of more hours, his fears of being forced into bankruptcy would have been averted. We would all do well to remember that the situation is often not as dire as it seems, and a day, or even a few hours, can drastically change your perspective.


Advertisement. Willys Knight. The San Francisco Examiner, 18 Jul 1915, p. 33.

“Autoist Free After Proving Legal Speed.” The San Francisco Examiner, 19 Jul 1914, p. 32.

Big Deal in Autos Is Made Public.” The San Francisco Call, 11 Sept 1910, p. 47.

“Control State Distributions.” The San Bernadino County Sun, 22 Jan 1928, p. 26.

“History of Leavitt Firm.” The Los Angeles Times, 30 Apr 1916, p. VI-6.

“J. W. Leavitt & Co. Shows Line of Willys-Overland Cars and Knight Trucks.” The Oakland Post Enquirer, 28 Jan 1928, p. 21.

“J. W. Leavitt Estate Will Total $200,000.” Santa Cruz News, 13 Aug 1930, p. 10.

“J. W. Leavitt Kills Partner, Ends Own Life.” The Fresno Morning Republican, 12 Aug 1930, p. 1.

“J. W. Leavitt Kills Partner, Suicides.” Contra Costa Daily Gazette, 11 Aug 1930, p. 1.

“Leavitt Kills Partner and Commits Suicide.” The Los Angeles Times, 12 Aug 1930, p. 2.

“New Representative for Willys-Knight in Oakland.” The Oakland Post Enquirer, 11 Feb 1928, p. 24.

“Rites Planned for Leavitt, Victim.” The Oakland Post Enquirer, 12 Aug 1930, p. 3.

“San Francisco Auto Dealer Kills Manager, Then Self.” Modesto News Herald, 11 Aug 1930, p. 1.

“S. F. Auto Row Figure Kills Friend, Self.” The Press Democrat [Santa Rosa], 12 Aug 1930, p. 1.

“The Sales Department Sells the Car, but the Service Department Must Keep It Sold.” (1928, July). Motor West, 54-56.

“Who’s Who on Gasoline Row.” The Bulletin: San Francisco, 19 Mar 1910, p. 18.