by Paul R. Spitzzeri
After Jesús Romo, known as “El Gordo”, was lynched on 5 June 1874 as the accused in a robbery and attack three days earlier on William and Rebecca Turner at the Workman Mill store, the county coroner was required to hold an inquest at the scene to determine what had happened and whether any guilty parties could be identified for possible indictment and trial.
Coroner Newton P. Richardson, a Los Angeles physician, summoned the six jurors called for by law and headed out with them on Saturday the 6th to the scene of the lynching. Five individuals testified, including El Monte Constable Benjamin S. Bryant, William R. Dodson (who discovered and wounded Romo the day he was hung), Ramon Moreno, J. W. Broaded, and Refugio Romo, the latter presumably related to the deceased.
In the press coverage, however, only the testimony of Moreno and Bryant were provided, though the Los Angeles Herald chose to say that Moreno “could furnish no evidence against the men who had executed Romo” and left it at that.
The Los Angeles Express, though, did summarize what Moreno stated, with the witness indicating he knew Romo for ten years, that he was from the state of Sonora in northern Mexico, and that he was 21 or 22 years old. Moreno stated he last saw Romo on the day before the attack and “I did not see him any more until he was carried by the house here in the custody of a number of men, I suppose about twenty-five more or less.” Moreno could not identify anyone in the group and went on to say that
I saw deceased no more until I saw him dead, near, Mr. Wm. Workman’s mills . . . he had the appearance of being hung, and way laying on the ground; the rope had been burned at the tree; I know nothing about who done it.
Constable Bryant informed the coroner’s jury that he was among the posse searching for Romo and noted that, after his wounding and capture, the accused was taken to the Turner home for identification. He continued
I took him in charge then and started with him to the office of Justice of the Peace [John] Hopper [in El Monte]. I proceeded about a half mile, when I was stopped by a part of men asked, who took the prisoner from me by force, carried him away, I know no more about it. I learned in the evening that a man was hanged near the mills.
Of course, there is no way to know how truthful Bryant’s statement was–it was common in coverage of lynchings to find that law enforcement officers, singly or in very small groups, were overpowered “by force”, though it is possible that, once approached, an officer might decide to yield a prisoner regardless.
In any case, with the testimony elicited, the coroner’s jury issued its finding that Romo died “by being hanged by the neck by a party or parties unknown to the jury” and that concluded the legal aspect of the matter.
Meanwhile, the Herald, which was clearly the paper of choice for information on the matter provided by people familiar with the incident, had a lengthy correspondence sent to it by a person writing under the name “By One Who Knows” and which was published in its edition of 7 June. Stating that previous accounts in the paper were “very incorrectly given” the writer offered details as “my duty to the public to rectify” the errors.
What the correspondent said was that Romo first appeared in the store the day before the attack to buy “a few bits of goods” and “at the same time no doubt examining the premises thoroughly.” Then, on the following evening, when he returned and bought between $30 and $40 of items, Mrs. Turner, who had gone to bed, got suspicious and went to the store with the couple’s gun and seated herself there. That’s when the attack took place.
As she wrote in her 1920s narrative, published in 1960, Rebecca ran up as Romo was cutting William’s throat and placed the five-shooter at Romo’s back, but could not fire the weapon “as she supposed afterwards, that she still retained hold of the hammer with her thumb.” When she grabbed Romo by his coat, William ran towards the house for the gun with Romo following and firing his own pistol three times to no effect. When Romo turned to head back towards the store, he encountered Rebecca and fired the one shot that severely wounded her and led to her miscarriage.
Specific details of the types of coins taken from the store’s till were given by “By One Who Knows”, who added that $78 loose in the drawer was left behind. Significantly, the correspondent wrote that previous accounts of Romo having accomplices, a Mexican and an American, were false and that he acted alone.
As to the first two days of fruitless searching, the only added information was that Constable Bryant, Constable Mark D. Hare and others learned that Romo “had lived for a year or two past, and also the fact of his intended marriage” as well as the fact that Romo had been paid $60 on the day of the attack for work done on the farm of nearby resident Pedro Verdugo, rather than one of the Lugo family who lived further southeast.
“By One Who Knows” added that Romo’s hiding place was along the river three miles southwest of the mill, where San José Creek emptied into the San Gabriel River, this being approximately where Beverly Boulevard crosses the river and the 605 Freeway in Whittier. Moreover, it was stated that Romo was “intending to leave the country at midnight” the day of his capture. It was 10:30 a.m. on the 5th when his location was discovered, the area surrounded and the shootout with Dodson enacted.
The information about Romo’s intention to cross the river to its west bank and a thicker growth of plant material before he was wounded was followed by the statement that “he pointed out to the party where the goods and money remaining from the robbery were hid.” Just under $80 was found “thus corresponding with the money lost from the mill.”
Though Rebecca Turner wrote in her memoir that it was not allowed for Romo to see her when he “impudently” requested it, “By One Who Knows” stated that, when the wounded man was taken to the house he was “recognized by them as the wound-be murderer.” At that, Bryant “procured a two-horse wagon and started with his prisoner to Lexington [a settlement next to El Monte].”
Swift, however, was the justice which overtook the evil-doer; for the wagon had not gone more than a quarter of a mile ere several masked men made their appearance, and overpowering the officer and his guard [this second person not being previously mentioned], a masked man gathered the reins, and turning back to the road leading to the Old Mission, came to a halt beneath a large oak tree some three hundred yards from the mill. The prisoner was stood up on the wagon seat; a hangman’s noose was placed around his neck and tied to a limb hanging very invitingly out; the horse started, and the prisoner was relieved of all future troubles in this world at 12 o’clock [Noon]. The corpse remained hanging until 5 o’clock P.M., when about twenty of his friends cut it down for burial.
The Los Angeles Star, which curiously contained very little coverage of the incident compared to its contemporaries did offer, on the 7th, an editorial titled “The Community Acquiesce in the hanging of ‘El Gordo’.” In its piece, the paper wrote that “swift and terrible as was the retribution meted out to this miscreant, we have yet to hear of a single person by whom the act is disapproved.” Of course, there was at least one very public example of disapproval, the letter of “Lex” published in the Herald and discussed in the last post on this incident. Romo’s “fiendishness of character” was stunted “by the courage and devotion” of Rebecca Turner, but, the Star continued:
We feel certain that if irregular and extra judicial punishment for crime was ever warranted in any instance, it was in this. Some of the worthiest and most respected citizens of Los Angeles county, we have reason to believe, were among his executioners.
The paper referred to its statement issued when legendary bandido Tiburcio Vásquez was captured in present Hollywood a few weeks prior that crimes such as those committed by Vásquez and Romo would not be unchecked.
Asserting that Romo “was no novice in crime, but on the contrary a hardened and blood-stained desperado, who deserved richly the fate which overtook him,” the Star repeated information, previously found to be questionable, that Romo participated in the brutal killing of a San Diego family and wished that he had been forced to tell what he knew of that event before being hung.
However, the paper went on, “his captors were wroth, and were not disposed to parley or hesitate” and concluded:
The terrible example ought not to be without effect upon those who feel disposed to emulate such deeds of outlawry as brought ‘El Gordo’s’ fate upon him.
Check back on Friday for more in the wake of the Workman Mill incident and the lynching of Jesús Romo.