The Homestead Blog

The Safe End of the Rope: The Alvitre/Brown Affair of 1855

Looking for an alternative to the traditional lecture and for a way to involve visitors directly in the action, the Homestead has created Curious Cases, a series of programs that will focus on interesting and important criminal events in early Los Angeles. After learning details of specific cases, participants will work in groups to analyze and discuss primary source material including newspaper accounts, journals, autobiographies, and court documents. This year’s series is dedicated to the late Gordon Bakken, a prolific and passionate historian of legal, constitutional, and western history. The first program takes place Sunday, January 25. Here’s a preview from the Homestead’s assistant director, and program facilitator, Paul R. Spitzzeri.

In the first half of the 1850s, the small, remote frontier town of Los Angeles was in a good deal of flux. The American conquest of Mexican California followed by the Gold Rush contributed to turmoil involving ethnic tension, high crime rates, and struggling systems of policing and the administration of justice. These and other factors came to a head in late 1854.

In a matter of weeks, three men:  Felipe Alvitre, David Brown, and William B. Lee were arrested and jailed on murder charges after conflicts in El Monte, Los Angeles, and nearby areas. While all three were tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang together, Brown, who was briefly a deputy constable in Los Angeles and a known petty criminal, was the subject of greater concern. 

Legal vs. extralegal justice and the role of the press are subjects that participants will explore as they review primary source material related to the cases of David Brown and Felipe Alvitre.

Legal vs. extralegal justice and the role of the press are subjects that participants will explore as they review primary source material related to the cases of David Brown and Felipe Alvitre.

In fact, just after his arrest, a public meeting was held at, ironically, the town court house, and a lynching appeared imminent, when Los Angeles mayor Stephen C. Foster jumped on a table and called for the legal system to be given a chance.  If it failed to serve justice, the mayor offered to resign his office and lead the lynching party.

Attorneys for the three convicted men filed stays of execution requests with the California Supreme Court and, while Alvitre’s was evidently lost, those of Brown and Lee were received and approved pending orders for new trials.  This set the stage for one of the more remarkable days of many in frontier Los Angeles as the date of execution, January 12, 1855, loomed.

To learn more about this amazing tale of crime, criminal justice, and the growing pains of a small, frontier American town, make a reservation to join us on Saturday, January 25, from 2 to 4 p.m. If the program fills up by the time you see this, check the program flyer for future reservation dates.

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