Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Homestead’s History Book Club is a great program in which participants discuss works relating to regional, national and world history that ties into the museum’s interpretive period of 1830-1930. Then, the group, led by facilitator and Homestead volunteer Tony Ciarriocco, meets on a Friday morning for two hours of discussion about the current work.
Often, I put together a little presentation and share artifacts from the museum’s collection that relate in some way to the topic of the book. Today, I met with club members who, as part of a trio of books connected to World War I, have read and were discussing John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, which was the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919.
My remarks looked at the museum’s interpretive time period and the enormous transformations in public health that took place over that century. Los Angeles was a remote village in the furthest reaches of the Republic of Mexico in 1830, when doctors were very few in number, hospitals non-existent, and most medical treatment was handled by family members without the medicines, drugs and other standard items we take for granted.
Over time, matters improved as the town morphed slowly into a city by the late 19th century. Improved water supply, the beginnings of sewage dispersal and treatment, and better sanitation practices came as the germ theory of disease was taking hold and medical practices got markedly better. These trends amplified in the first few decades of the 20th century, so that infant mortality and general life expectancy made significant strides.
Yet, the mass pandemic of 1918-1919 showed that immunity for catastrophe was far from the case. Anywhere from 20 to 50 million people died worldwide and the death toll in the United States was relatively low given the virulence of the contagion: some 675,000 Americans died in the epidemic. At least one member of the Workman and Temple families died during this period, Charles P. Temple, younger brother of Homestead owner Walter P. Temple, died in October 1918, though it is not known what the cause of death was.
However, a quarter century prior, the family suffered a tremendous blow when, during a flu epidemic that struck Los Angeles in the first years of the 1890s, three generations of the Workman and Temple family died of what was also called la grippe within eighteen days.
On 24 January 1892, Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, daughter of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, owners of the Homestead from 1842 to 1876, died at the age of 61 at her home on Rancho La Merced in the Whittier Narrows. Eleven days later, on 4 February, Nicolasa, who was 90 years old, was claimed by the illness in the Workman House, her home for a half-century. Then, on the 11th, Thomas W. Temple, Margarita’s eldest child, succumbed to the flu at the age of 45, also at the Temple residence at La Merced.
It is difficult to imagine what went through the minds of their survivors as they lost the trio to the dreadful contagion. There is, perhaps, no more poignant and stark reminder of the tragedies that overtook the Workman and Temple families, than three surviving printed funeral notices for the three that are in the Homestead’s collection.
Services were held for Thomas, who was the publisher of the Spanish-language newspaper, La Cronica, at the time of his death, at the Plaza Church in Los Angeles. Those of his mother and grandmother were probably at St. Nicholas Chapel (named for Nicolasa Workman) at the El Campo Santo Cemetery, established in the 1850s by the Workmans and owned, in 1892, by Thomas’ younger brother, John.
The idea of family and friends making the trip out to Puente (as it was then known) and then taking the long walk or carriage ride from the Workman House down to the cemetery several hundred yards to the east to pay their final respects to Nicolasa, Margarita and Thomas must have been heartbreaking, to say the least.
The previous fifteen or so years had been very difficult ones for the Workman and Temple families, after the failure of the family owned bank in 1876, the loss of most of their fortune and land in the aftermath, and the struggle to stay financially afloat during the turbulent times of the post-bank economic swoon, the rise of the boom years of the late 1880s, and then the inevitable bust that followed by decade’s end.
Even the last resting place of the three and other family members, employees and friends was not immune from the ravages of circumstance. After John Temple lost the Homestead to foreclosure in 1899, the next owner, Lafayette Lewis, of Anaheim, was determined to raze the cemetery, chapel and all, and use the land for grazing his stock. He had completed much of the destruction when Walter Temple, then living at his parents’ homestead near today’s South El Monte and Montebello, filed a lawsuit to stop the desecration.
Though Walter was successful in his court action, Lewis sold the ranch to avoid fulfilling the judgment, which required rebuilding much of what he had torn apart. The largely-ruined El Campo Santo languished until Walter, with a tremendous stroke of fortune through the discovery of oil on his property, was able to buy the Homestead late in 1917.
His first priority, after a farmer’s lease expired at the end of 1918, was to restore the cemetery. This included building a mausoleum where the chapel had stood and, in the new Neoclassical structure, Walter had the remains of his brother, mother and grandmother, along with other kin, reinterred there.
Visitors to the Homestead can take a self-guided tour of El Campo Santo and the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum, where they can also see the last resting place of Mexican California’s last governor, Pio Pico, as well as Nicolasa, Margarita, and Thomas. Their stories and those of others, which will be told here in future posts, interred there are part of a family and regional history that historic sites like the Homestead are particularly well-equipped to tell.