by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Homestead’s Curious Cases series of presentations and discussion, which is in its second year, has been a really interesting way to interact with museum visitors about the wild and woolly days of frontier Los Angeles (basically the 1850s to the 1870s) and the myriad problems of trying to administer criminal justice.
Borne from my twenty years of research and writing on the topic, the program looks at events relating to problems administering criminal justice in the face of so many forces and factors. These range from poorly funded government operations to largely accepted notions of so-called “popular justice” to the flux and turmoil in a frontier town struggling with major demographic shifts among groups divided by race, class, politics and other issues, just as a few examples.
Today’s session concerned a series of lynchings that took place at the end of 1863, involving seven hangings by mobs that appear to have been both broadly social (frustration with perceived inefficiencies in the courts and among peace officers) and highly personal (carrying out a lynching to revenge the death of a loved one.)
They also occurred in a particularly difficult context for Los Angeles. After some years of prosperity as the center of a cattle ranching empire that fed Gold Rush-era migrants, the town was wracked with economic uncertainty when the Gold Rush faded, a national depression erupted in 1857, flooding and drought hit in the first half of the 1860s, a smallpox epidemic broke out, and a crime wave roiled the community.
Matters came to a head to many in the community when a series of murders, larcenies and other crimes took place that filled the small city and county jail and perceived court inefficiency led to the formation of a vigilance committee that convened to take matters into its own hands.
A decade or so before, the so-called “popular tribunal,” in which citizens convened their own trial, subverting local courts, to conduct its own judgment on accused criminals was a preferred method of “popular justice.” In late 1863, however, the vigilance committee satisfied itself with passing a series of resolutions, asserting its role as aiding and supporting the law, while, again, bypassing it because it was believed the judiciary was incapable of administering justice.
On the morning of 21 November, some 200-300 men marched to the jail, which sat behind the west side of Spring Street behind an adobe building that, until two years before, served as the courthouse. When the mob demanded the keys from Los Angeles County sheriff Tomás Sanchez, the lawman refused. Shoving him aside in a fury, the vigilantes then spent two hours battering the fortified door of the facility, finally breaching the jail and pulling out five men.
José Olivas, Boston Daimwood (who was briefly a special police officer earlier in the year), Eli Chase, José Ybarra and Andrew Wood were led out to the front of the former courthouse and promptly hung from the beam that spanned the portico of the porch. Whereas much has been made by historians and other observers about the frequency with which Latinos were lynched by mobs in the Fifties (though there were examples of Americans who were hanged by vigilantes), this was a decidedly mixed group. None of them was in jail for a capital charge, however, though Olivas had been acquitted of a homicide in 1860–a fact likely not lost on at least some of the vigilantes.
Sheriff Sanchez actually publicly denounced the vigilantes and announced his intention to arrest its ringleaders. While this plan was abandoned for reasons unstated, his statements provoked a response in the form of an advertisement taken out in the Los Angeles Star‘s edition of the 28th. In it, the committee’s secretary, identified only as “21” restated the organization’s resolution stating its intention was
to aid and assist the police by every means in our power, in the pursuit and arrest of escaped convicts and of all persons accused of crime, or who may be under such reasonable suspicion as to make their detention or examination advisable
Obviously, the committee bypassed, rather than assisted the police, in their mass lynching and their assertion of determining what “reasonable suspicion” consisted of is notable. Two days prior to the publication of the ad, incidentally, the first official Thanksgiving holiday was observed and as the Christmas season approached, vigilante fever continued in Los Angeles.
On 7 December, John Sanford, a Stockton merchant was heading in a horse-drawn vehicle north from Los Angeles near Fort Tejon, still part of Los Angeles County until 1866 when Kern County was created, when he picked up a drifter named Charles Wilkins. Wilkins, looking for a quick buck, shot and killed Sanford. A week later, he was apprehended north of Santa Barbara and returned to Los Angeles, where a confession was published.
Meanwhile, on the 9th, Manuel Cerradel, convicted of trying to kill Los Angeles marshal Thomas Trafford and sentenced to 10 years at San Quentin, was taken by Sheriff Sanchez to Wilmington to be loaded with other convicts on a steamer, owned by Phineas Banning, who had a shipping business at the harbor there. A mob surprised Sanchez and seized Cerradel, hanging him from a part of the vessel and then tossing his body overboard. While Cerradel may have been killed because of his attempt on Trafford, he was also suspected of being involved in the November 1862 murder of Rancho Cucamonga owner John Rains–though that case was never solved.
As for Wilkins, a special term of the soon-to-be-disbanded Court of Sessions (replaced by a County Court) was ordered by county judge William G.Dryden. In one day, a grand jury was convened, heard evidence and issued an indictment.
On the next, the 17th, Wilkins was arraigned in District Court before Judge Benjamin Hayes, but during the proceeding, someone tried to kill Wilkins. The deputy sheriff, Frank King, deflected the attempt in which he and the asssasin, Nehemiah Beardslee, were wounded. In the melee, Wilkins escaped to a nearby house, but was retaken and returned to the court, where he pled guilty.
Hayes quickly ordered a sentencing date for the next day, but moments later, a mob rushed the courtroom, seized Wilkins and took him to the nearby corral of Phineas Banning and hung him. Banning was the brother-in-law of Sanford.
Remarkably, the next day, Banning wrote Nehemiah Potter, who had recently concluded service on the Los Angeles Common [City] Council, that a suspected horse thief and murderer was in custody at Camp Drum (later Drum Barracks) in Wilmington, where Banning had a prosperous shipping business. In the letter (which was unearthed by historian Tom Sitton while he did research on his excellent biography of Banning and his family), Banning told Potter of a plan in which he stated
If he is guilty sure let an officer come for him to go to Los Angeles and my men will capture him on the Road & give him to You or hang him, if we are very sure he deserves it.
While it does not appear that this plan transpired and it is not known what happened to the suspect, Banning’s remarkable letter is a rare and blatant example of how strong the vigilante impulse was in Los Angeles during the era.
A capstone to this staggering series of events came on Christmas eve, when a correspondent known as “Viejo” wrote in an article published in the San Francisco Daily Alta California and a copy of which was provided by historian Paul Bryan Gray:
For all this unhappy state of things, the blame rests upon the Courts and peace officers of this County, which for a long time have so conducted themselves that it is a common belief that no criminal is tried or punished because he is a criminal, but only when these officers may gain some benefit, or derive some advantage, or have some personal motive or some private revenge to gratify by the conviction. Justice, it is believed, is dead, and personal feelings and private animosities have taken her place in the Courts and its officers.
Justice was, of course, not dead, but it was, certainly, quite ill! It was so because of many more factors and forces than “Viejo” stated and the lack of monetary and material support for the criminal justice administration system and popular support for vigilantism were among the biggest ones.
There is one more Curious Cases offering for 2016. This involves the fascinating story of Michel Lachenais, who was the next target of a vigilance committee at the end of 1870. The presentation is Sunday, 16 October from 2:00-4:00 p.m. with reservations taken starting on 4 September. Hope to see you there!