Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
We managed to conclude our “Curious Cases” program this afternoon on Los Angeles-area law enforcement during the 1850s just before the skies darkened, the lightning struck, the thunder rolled and the rain poured. It was a bit stormy 160 years with crime and criminal justice, too!
The presentation started by noting the major changes that hit greater Los Angeles from the American conquest of Mexican Alta California, followed immediately by the tumult of the Gold Rush. By the time Congress finally admitted California into the Union in September 1850, crime was rampant and there was virtually no check on it. Even when government and criminal justice institutions, like the courts, were established, they were playing catch-up and operating with revenue shortages based on a low tax rate.
Moreover, the administration of justice was conducted on a scale far different from our own. For example, police officers, usually known as constables, were elected to their positions, as was the town marshal (later, police chief) and the sheriff. They did not attend law enforcement academies or have established procedures or policies to follow except for what state law required.
In all of Los Angeles County during the period, the number of regular law enforcement officers was about twenty and they were spread out. In the city of Los Angeles, only a handful of men were there to serve and protect several thousand people in conditions of violence that were far greater than our own, if judged solely by numbers. Occasionally, there were other attempts to supplement the meager system.
In 1851, a voluntary police force was formed and appears to have served for a short period of time. Two years later, the Los Angeles Rangers militia organized and was, for a few years, an energetic group in the fight against crime. Less active were a cadre of other militia groups, including ethnic ones of French, German, and Spanish-speaking members, the existed at a peak in the 1850s and early 1860s, but of which there were a few later.
As noted above, a low tax rate meant insufficient revenues. Criminal justice entailed most of the expenses of local government, which often struggled to meet its expenses. Issuing scrip, essentially a credit in lieu of available funds, to employees of the city and county was common. Salaries were generally low, although a fee system instituted by the state could be subject to abuse and was lowered in the mid-1850s and revised several times afterward before being discontinued.
Being a law enforcement officer was a dangerous job in a violent frontier town. In five years, three men were killed in the line of duty, including constable Jack Wheelan (December 1853), Sheriff James R. Barton, who was also a city marshal for several years (January 1857), and William C. Getman, who was simultaneously sheriff and marshal when he was killed in January 1858. There are also several other documented examples of officers being attacked-—a risk that is often found today.
There were, however, also instances of malfeasance on the part of officers. For example, Marshal Alviron S. Beard resigned in 1854 because, in his role as collector of taxes and license fees, Beard failed to remit some of those funds to the city treasurer and admitted he was in arrears. While it may be that he eventually paid most or all of these monies back to the city, the marshal resigned. It probably didn’t help that he was also arrested for bigamy at the time, too!
Beard, stated by Horace Bell to have arrived in Los Angeles as a raggedly-clothed migrant just in time to volunteer as a vigilante hangman, actually served as a constable in San Gabriel several years later and also was charged with operating a gambling establishment in that mission town. He wandered the West for years before returning to Los Angeles in the 1870s. According to Bell, whose penchant for embellishment makes his autobiography Reminiscences of a Ranger (1881) entertaining, if often factually flawed, Beard, by then,
now walks the face of Gold’s beautiful green earth, a living and hideous mass of human rottenness and festering corruption, shunned even by the canine street scavengers, viewed not with pity, but with loathing and disgust, even by the most debased of mankind . . . [and] appeared on the streets of this fair city, an outcast from society and a begger [sic] for alms.
Alfred Shelby, who was marshal in 1855-56, was also in a situation in which his deputy did not forward collected funds to the city, creating another embarrassing situation for the city. This was exacerbated by Shelby’s killing of two men during a drinking session in town, for which he was released on $2,500 bail. When it came time for his trial in July 1856, Shelby skipped town and was evidently seen in company with Ned McGowan, a notorious San Francisco vigilante, in Arizona on his way to Texas.
After Getman’s death, it was found that there was a shortage of some $1,800 in what he was to have collected in taxes and fees and turned over to the city. Because all elected officials had sureties, who took financial responsibility for an officeholder’s fulfillment of their duties for a set amount of money, the city would seek those funds from the sureties.
In Getman’s case, city council member Hiram McLoughlin claimed that he couldn’t pay up because a recent fire damaged his blacksmithing business. In a highly unusual occurrence, it was decided to put the matter to the voters, who overwhelmingly gave the city the authority to relieve the council member of his obligation.
Over time, matters improved, both in terms of the conditions of the employment (pay, regulations, policies) and the behavior of most of the city’s law enforcement officers, though there were continuing concerns about individual officers’ attention to their duties, alleged receipts of gifts or cash to patrol areas of town where business people were located, and other matters.
In 1870, however, echoes of earlier days resounded after a constable, Job Dye, arrested a Chinese woman wanted by a warrant based on a complaint by a Chinese tong (association). Dye’s boss, Marshal William C. Warren, though, took charge of the woman and promptly went to collect on a reward issued by that group. Incensed (and lacking the patience his Christian name suggests), Dye confronted Warren on the street in broad daylight and a gunfight ensued. The result was that Warren was killed and Dye was absolved under the guise of self-defense.
Still, a stronger system of law enforcement mandated by the city and county, including printed regulations and policies, standardized uniforms with badges, the abolishment of the marshal’s office with a police chief overseen by a viable police commission of city council members, and other measures went a long way to providing more stability and responsiveness than there was in the rough frontier days of the 1850s.
Our next “Curious Cases” program is on Sunday, 13 August when we look at the unsolved 1862 murder of Rancho Cucamonga owner John Rains and the strange circumstances and aftermath of his death. Reservations for that free program can be made starting on 30 June.