by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This year is the third year of “Curious Cases,” a series of Homestead programs in which interesting criminal justice events and issues are discussed in a participatory setting. Based so far on work that I’ve done with the topic of criminal justice administration in greater Los Angeles from 1850 to 1875, the series took on a new twist this year when I presented one of the sessions at one location before it has been held at the Homestead.
About a month ago, as part of a Whittier Public Library series based on wine history, I gave a talk about the late 1862 murder of John Rains, whose Rancho Cucamonga was a major wine-growing locale in San Bernardino County, though his murder happened along the road to Los Angeles in what is now Los Angeles County. The presentation before a little under 40 persons seemed to go well (well, lots of things go well with wine, after all.)
Shortly after that, I was contacted by the San Dimas Historical Society about speaking at their spring dinner and gave that talk last night at the San Dimas Canyon Country Club, a beautiful location in the foothills of the San Gabriels. Just a little shy of 90 attendees waited out a few minutes of sorting through some technical difficulties before I gave an abbreviated and sped-up version of the presentation.
San Dimas was a particularly apt locale because the area where Rains was killed was once known as “Mud Springs” (it can easily be seen why the community’s name changed –who would be attracted to that name.)
Now, I still have to give this presentation at the museum in August, so I’m not going to give the story away in hopes that some of you might see this, be intrigued, and then will join us by making reservations for the talk starting on 30 June, but here’s what they call a “teaser.”
Rains, a native of Alabama, was a stock driver before coming to Los Angeles in the early 1850s. He later worked as a cattleman for Isaac Williams, owner of Rancho Santa Ana del Chino, in the Chino/Chino Hills area. Three days after Williams’ death in 1856, Rains married Merced, one of the two female heirs. The other shortly married another southerner, Robert Carlisle.
After the Williams estate was settled, Rains, who took over management of his wife’s substantial estate, sold her interest to Carlisle and bought Rancho Cucamonga. He quickly launched a series of business endeavors, including buying other ranches and expanding the existing vineyards at Cucamonga, where he also built a fine home.
His expenditures came, however, as the regional economy was faltering and would worsen with flood and drought by the time his mangled body was found nearly two weeks after his disappearance. One of his last acts was to mortgage Cucamonga for a loan. The murder, however, went and remains unsolved.
Eventually, a number of deaths related to the Rains murder followed, including a couple of criminals who were said to have been involved in his death, the blatant murder at Cucamonga of Ramon Carrillo, a friend of the widow Rains fingered by Carlisle as a suspect, and an innocent traveler mistaken for Carlisle who was gunned down not long after Carrillo’s demise. Finally, Carlisle, who wrested Merced’s power of attorney from her and then had it taken away by a court order, tried to take out revenge on the new administrator and died in a notorious gunbattle in Los Angeles in summer 1865.
A few years after the Carlisle-King affair, Rancho Cucamonga was lost to foreclosure and became the property eventually of prominent Los Angeles banker Isaias W. Hellman and Merced Rains, who married twice more, settled into a quieter and more anonymous life. She died in 1907 at the home of her daughter, who was married to former attorney and California governor Henry Gage on the ranch of Merced’s grandfather, Antonia María Lugo.
As I said, I don’t want to lay all of the story out there, just enough to inspire (hopefully) some of you to come check out the full story when it is presented at the Homestead on Sunday, 13 August at 2 p.m. with reservations starting on 30 June.