Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The news of the suicide of William Workman, which took place on 17 May 1876, reached Los Angeles at about 11 p.m. Initial reporting in three major Los Angeles daily newspapers did not, because of the late hour, provide many details about the incident. That came with subsequent articles on the 19th.
One detail noted by the Los Angeles Express that emerged with the inquest held over the body by county coroner Dr. Joseph Kurtz was “that the fatal shot was fired at an earlier hour than nine o’clock . . . he was found at that time, and had probably been dead for several hours.”
For example, the Los Angeles Herald, featured a short article in which it observed “it is seldom we are called upon to chronicle the suicide of a person who has reached the advanced age of seventy-six years.” It went on to state that “old people are more tenacious of life than those of middle age, and the annals of self-destruction contain but few instances where men who have reached the age of WILLIAM WORKMAN have deliberately committed self-murder.”
Whether that statement about the elderly being “more tenacious of life” is true or not, the Herald‘s note that “the manner of his death has shocked the whole community” is almost certainly the case. Notably, the paper stated that
living as he did, a retired, quiet lfe, the effect of the failure of the bank with which his name was connected, was not known except perhaps to the members of his family, and non supposed the unfortunate affair weighed so heavily on his mind as to impel him to self-destruction.
What appeared to be the reason for the act, according to the paper was “the certainty that his cherished home, the Puente ranch, would be swallowed in the vortex and himself thrown upon the world without means.” As a result, the worry “drove the old gentleman to desperation, and in a moment of wild despair, he sent the bullet crushing through his brain.”
Elsewhere in its edition, the paper provided more of the lavish praise it bestowed in its first coverage of the tragedy. It noted that he “was a man of untarnished honor, cultivated mind and sterling worth.” Observing that he was held in high esteem by all who knew him, the Herald went on to say that Workman “used his great wealth in alleviating the wants of the distressed found worthy and in assisting those he believed deserving.”
In his last years, Workman spent most of his time in his home and “his old time friends and others who visited his house speak of him as a princely old gentleman, whose hospitality was as generous as his domain was extensive.” While “a stranger to society” generally, the paper stated that he was “possessed of a vast fund of information and fine conversational powers.”
More specific as to the cause of his death, the Herald, which stated that his contribution to the capital of the failed bank was $56,000, observed that
the hitherto even tenor of his closing days was disturbed and clouded, and when the arrival at the place of a receiver, forced the conviction that the cherished and idolized home was gone forever, the good old man’s heart broke and in the insanity of despair he threw away the few days that under other and brighter circumstances he might have remained on earth. It was a sad ending of an honorable life.
The reference to a receiver is notable, because it meant that the court-appointed custodian, who was Richard Garvey, an agent of Lucky Baldwin, who loaned the bank the money to reopen, was sent out to inform Workman that his property was being held in receivership.
The Los Angeles Star followed up its initial coverage by noting that “the sad intelligence of the death of Mr. William Workman . . . elicited general and spontaneous grief.” Observing that his health was good and that he might have lived another decade or longer the paper stated
the complications that have arisen from the failure of the Temple & Workman bank worried the good old gentleman into his grave. Unless they are very stony, there are hearts that must have nearly broken yesterday upon the realization of the dreadful fact that their acts had driven this honorable old man to a violent death.
It appears that this last comment was intended for Workman’s son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, the bank’s president, and others involved in its management, because Workman was, essentially, a silent partner with no active role in the running of the institution.
Elsewhere in that same paper was another criticism directed towards Temple and bank employees:
His honest, hard-earned possessions constituted in reality, a great reserve fund, from which the manager or managers drew, until, vampyre-like, they sucked the last drop, leaving the old man a wreck financially or otherwise. He saw, too late, ruin, irremediable ruin, on all sides, and in a moment of great despair, he sent the messenger of death crashing through his brain.
On the afternoon of the 19th, the funeral for Workman was held at the family cemetery, El Campo Santo. The Herald observed that it was twenty-one years before that the Los Angeles Lodge 42 of the Free and Associated Masons went out to the cemetery and presided over the funeral of William’s older brother, David, who was killed in an accident driving sheep to the gold fields.
Some 125 members of the lodge convened at the hall two doors down from the Pico House hotel (the lodge building still stands today) at 10 a.m. and, after a brief ceremony there, took a special Southern Pacific train to La Puente. The funeral was described in detail:
After the usual impressive ceremonies, the coffin containing the remains was conveyed to the hearse, the brethren forming in line and preceding the cortege. About one quarter of a mile from the ranch a picturesque chapel, which shows its front from out the willows which encircle the grave, and at its enclosure, a large crowd numbering perhaps 200 had awaited the arrival of the procession. The coffin was brought in and deposited at the place of burial and then the solemn rites of the Masonic burial service were celebrated, the coffin lowered and William Workman was laid in his last resting place.
With a dramatic flourish, the piece ended with “the weeping willows will wave and the wind will moan a sad requiem until the last trump shall sound.”