Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
After a 2 June 1874 late evening attack by a robber that left Workman Mill store owner William Turner with throat and neck injuries from a knifing and his wife Rebecca Humphreys shot and badly wounded and her baby miscarried, a thorough search of nearby areas commenced. The initial hunt was led by Los Angeles constable Mark Hare and El Monte constable Benjamin Bryant, with assistance from locals, but proved fruitless for two full days.
Finally, on the morning of the 5th, the situation changed. In a letter written to the Los Angeles Herald by “Monte Boys,” a moniker that was frequently used to describe men from the nearby town of El Monte who were involved in posses to hunt down and frequently exact extralegal retribution of accused criminals, it was reported that
About 8 o’clock this morning [the 5th] we received information concerning the whereabouts of the Mexican who attempted to kill Mr. Turner and his wife last Tuesday night and robbed the store at Puente ranch. The news spread like wild-fire through the town, and all hands rallied, every man who could procure a horse being on hand. A party consisting of thirty men started out. Arriving at the junction of the Puente [San José] creek with the San Gabriel river, where we had been infrmed that El Gordo was concealed, we surrounded the place and instituted a close search. After looking around about twenty minutes, Mr. [William R.] Dodson, one of the party, while passing along the bank of the river, among the bushes and grape vines, noticed a thick mass of bushes where a tree had fallen into the stream. He poked his gun into the rubbish by way of investigation and a man jumped out, revolver in hand. Dodson being an old Confederate soldier and not to be surprised in such matters, saluted the man with a double-barreled shot-gun loaded with buck-shot. Not being seriously wounded, the fellow made an attempt to cross the river where there was a thick undergrowth of willows. Dodson then fired upon him again, when he dropped on his knees, threw up his hands and asked for mercy. All hands were on the spot in an instant. The man who proved to be El Gordo confessed his crime, and showed us where he had the stolen money buried, all of which we recovered except about $6.50.
The Los Angeles Express did not have access to such details about the capture, but it added that the name of the captive was confirmed to be Jesús Romo and that “the crowd then started with their man for the scene of the attempted assassination of Mrs. and Mr. Turner, at the Puente Mill. He was at once recognized by both the parties as the author of the fiendish assault.” The paper stated that the crowd gathered at the scene numbered about 100 and offered that “the man was severely wounded, and doubtless under the impression that he had received his quietus, anyway, he volunteered to make a confession.”
The Express went on to observe that Romo “admitted his guilt, in the Turner affair, and confessed to other acts which showed him to be a great criminal.” An El Monte source claimed Romo admitted to taking part in a notorious murder of a family in San Diego.
The letter of the “Monte Boys” to the Herald, meanwhile, reported that Romo “said that he committed the deed for the money and besides this had no confession to make.” Weakening from the wounds perpetrated by Dodson, “Monte Boys” opined that “we think it doubtful if he could have lived more than twenty-four hours,” though how it made this calculation was not stated.
The account went on that Constable Bryant “took him in charge and started for Los Angeles” but that “shortly after leaving the place, the Constable was overtaken by several masked men who took possession of the prisoner and wagon.” Then, the missive continued:
The party drove beneath a large oak-tree and while passing under the prisoner’s neck-tie caught upon a limb and he was choked severely . . . no cost to the State or county [original italics].
In a separate short statement, the Herald wrote:
The account contains two warnings. One that deeds of rapine and murder in this part of the State are liable to cause the offenders trouble, and the other that while riding beneath the branches of trees one should not wear strong neckties.
In its reporting, the Express made it sound as if the lynching involved many more persons, writing that, after Romo confessed, “the crowd proceeded with him to a clump of willows on the [San José] creek near the Puente, and hanged him,” repeating what the Monte Boys claimed in that “it is said that ‘El Gordo’ could not have survived his wounds very long.”
With the deed done, the paper stated “thus has a fiendish outrage met with summary retribution at the hands of a people whose patience has been severely tried by the rifeness and boldness of crime in their midst.” In a separate lengthy editorial, the Express claimed “we are not generally partial to extra-judicial proceedings, and do not believe that we should have favored the summary punishment of the wretch who was executed by the populace near the Puente yesterday.” Yet, it went on, “we don’t believe the majesty of the law was very much hurt by that proceeding.”
Referring to what it called the recent “lionizing of [Tiburcio] Vasquez,” who was captured in what is now Hollywood in May and then jailed before extradition to San José, the paper opined that the hanging of Romo was “an offset in the shape of a little rough justice” and “an informal protest of the rural populace to the species of apotheosization” of Vásquez. To the paper, the adulation it claimed Vásquez received while in jail in Los Angeles was “an urban fashion to encourage murder and robbery . . . it is well that the suburban antidote interposes and swings the ‘Gordos.'” It concluded by claiming
We believe that this summary punishment of the assassin of the Puente will show the embryo scoundrels in our county that they have not even the slips and loopholes of the law to depend upon, if they seek renown by the bloody road.
Notably, the Los Angeles Star had very little to say about the lynching, merely reporting that “a rumor reached the city here last evening to the effect that ‘El Gordo’ . . . was captured by the citizens of the Monte and Puente yesterday and hung.” Strangely, it reported another claim “that the robber hung himself” before adding that news received since its short statement was begun indicated that Romo was lynched. All the paper said in conclusion was that “such an infernal rascal ought to be dealt with according to his desserts. Besides, it will save the county expense.”
The rationales employed by the press were typical of those used for over twenty years in Los Angeles, namely that if the law was incapable of halting crime, citizens could take the law into their own hands, that criminals like Romo deserved what they received, and that these “extra-judicial proceedings” also saved local and state government money.
Rebecca Humphreys Turner, in her 1920s account, stated that the original search was led by Francisco Bustamente, an employee of William Workman on Rancho La Puente, who was friendly with William Turner. She also wrote that Workman’s ranch foreman, Frederick Lambourn, and Walter Drown, who was the son of a former lawyer and county district attorney and adopted by Workman and raised by his daughter and son-in-law, Antonia Margarita and F.P.F. Temple, when Ezra Drown died in 1863, instigated their own search. Part of this meant rousing some thirty Latinos in a bunkhouse on a nearby ranch to search for the fugitive Romo.
Incorrectly stating that William Dodson was a constable, Rebecca wrote that he led the large party that scoured the river on the morning of the 5th. She also indicated that he and others were ready to give up when Dodson noticed the area where he was surprised to find Romo. Whereas the news accounts and that of “Monte Boys” said Dodson fired first, even as Romo pointed his revolver at the El Monte blacksmith, Rebecca claimed Romo shot at Dodson and then ran.
Moreover, she went on to claim that Romo escaped after being wounded and was not captured until the following day. Additionally, she stated that Romo “was turned over to the sheriff,” which was not true, and then, when the captive was taken to the Turner’s home, he “was brought up to be identified by Mr. Turner.” When Romo “impudently asked to see the woman he had shot . . . his request was denied,” another statement not mentioned in contemporary accounts.
Also varying from those was Rebecca’s statement that, as Romo was being taken to Los Angeles “three men, each with a handkerchief tied across his face, barred the way.” She wrote “the masks were an absurdity, as the three were well known.” One of the men was especially obvious to identify because he was “short and stout.”
Who were the lynchers? According to Rebecca Turner, they were Lambourn, the business partner of William Turner in the store, Drown, and Jacob Schlessinger, an El Monte merchant. Her account stated that, as they hung Romo
Mr. Lambourn lifted his thick arms, gripped the legs of the swinging bandit, and jerked them with all his might.
“I want him to die!” he grunted, “and die damned quick!”
Rebecca’s identification cannot be corroborated, as the press accounts, including those of the “Monte Boys” and others, did not mention names, probably intentionally, given that there had to be a coroner’s inquest and a grand jury investigation. If true, however, her version, varying from the crowd mentioned in the Express and at some odds with the claim of the Herald that the hanging was a “suburban” response to the urban lionizing of Vásquez, revealed that the lynching of Romo was very localized and personal, conducted by three men who were close to the Turners and demanded retribution, not for broad social reasons, but for narrow personal ones.
Finally, it is worth noting that there was at least one public expression of disdain and concern about the lynching of Jesús Romo. Using the name “Lex”, or “Law”, a correspondent to the Express wrote on the 6th that “if there is anything that will assure a country’s prosperity, it is the security that the law will be upheld therein, and that the citizens will be law-abiding.” Instead, the hanging of Romo was done “without any excuse whatever, for, according to their own showing, the proofs were so perfect that their victim could not have escaped punishment.”
Consequently, “Lex” concluded
The act committed by some of the inhabitants of the Monte, yesterday, is one which is in its nature reprehensible, and will have a baneful effect on the reputation of the country, and it should be denounced by the press and punished, if possible, by the arm of the law.
Though “Lex” wrote his letter to protest the approval by the Herald of the lynching, the Express was only slightly less enthusiastic about the work of the “suburban” people in their “protest.”
In fact, in its editorial, the Express referred to “the logical and legal argument of our friend in another column, who eloquently deplores the ills to come from the permature taking off of ‘El Gordo.'” Its response, however, was short and direct: “we have no tears to waste on the event.”
More on Wednesday dealing with the lynching of Jesús Romo and its aftermath, so check back then.