Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As noted in previous posts about the robbery and attack at the Workman Mill store and the resulting lynching of suspect Jesús Romo, the Los Angeles Herald, of the three major daily newspapers in the area, had the most detailed coverage. This continued in the days after the summary execution, including an article on 9 June 1874 titled “The Puente Ranch Tragedy.”
After discussing the results of the coroner’s inquest, which the last post here dealt with, the article updated readers on the condition of Rebecca Humphreys Turner, wife of one of the store’s owners, who was badly wounded and miscarried as a result of the attack. The paper then reprinted a letter dated the 7th from “Monte Boys,” a name long in use by men from El Monte who rode out in posses to dispense justice outside the law.
The missive stated that there’d been mention in a previous edition of the Herald about a reward offered for the capture of the suspect in the attack, but claimed “Not one of the Monte boys or men have received, nor would they take, one cent of reward; nor was it offered them.” Continuing with the explanation, “Monte Boys” stated, “they captured the assassin, found the money and stolen goods and delivered the prisoner to the officer . . . and went home and had no hand whatever with Judge Lynch.”
It wasn’t the prospect of a monetary reward, “but the hellish deed which had been committed upon our friend and neighbor” the led the “Monte Boys” to join in the search and capture” and they were fully satisfied by his capture. The letter ended with “we captured and delivered the man up, and there were enough, without us to execute the law of Judge Lynch.”
Elsewhere in the Herald that day was a lengthy editorial, “Law and Protection,” in which the paper addressed, as the Los Angeles Star had previously, the criticism by “Lex,” a correspondent to the Los Angeles Express, about the ready support offered by the Herald for Romo’s extra-legal execution, a charge the paper denied by replying “the Herald did not editorially give its sanction to the unlawful taking-off of the murderer.” It then hedged by asserting that it believed in the enforcement of the law “so long as the law is able to maintain order.”
It went on that:
When the law is powerless to maintain the peace and to preserve the lives and property of citizens, then we believe in assisting the law to the attainment of those ends. The proposition that mob law is not justifiable in any case may hold in communities where unlawful killing is in every instance held to be murder, but the people of California do not recognize the invariable correctness of either axiom.
Continuing that there were examples in which justice could only be meted out by extra-legal action, the paper stated “the hanging of ‘El Gordo’ was one of those instances.” While claiming that “no one will say that the wretch received more than he merited,” the Herald also held that “no one will pretend to argue that he would ever have been hanged by process of law.” Repeating that only through Rebecca Turner’s “intrepid coolness” was Romo prevented from committing a triple murder, the paper offered that
We deprecate mob law as sincerely as ‘Lex,’ but we recognize the principle of self-preservation as the first law of nature—a principle underlying all law. When it comes to a question of shoot or be shot, there are but few men who will not shoot. When a community realizes that they must hang somebody or be murdered, hanging is very apt to commence. While we are glad to know that ‘El Gordo’ was hanged, we are sorry that he was unlawfully hanged.
The paper referred to new laws that made capital punishment, in its view, nearly impossible to conduct and claimed “experience in other and more civilized States than California has demonstrated that the abolition of capital punishment is always followed by an increase in crime.”
The Herald concluded by boldly stating, “if we do not legally hang murderers, they will be hanged illegally” and then solidified the old argument that ran rampant during the heyday of lynching in the 1850s and early 1860s:
We may preach law and order as long and as strong as we like, but when the people find the law will not protect them, they will protect themselves. We must protect ourselves—legally is possible; but we must protect ourselves.
Finally, the paper fired a return volley at the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, which criticized the “Monte Boys” statement in its coverage of the capture and lynching of Romo, mentioned in a previous post, that Romo’s necktie was caught in a tree limb as the wagon he was riding in passed a large tree. The Bulletin found the remark, which was recast in a Herald editorial stating that criminals should beware of wearing strong neckties when riding under tree branches, as “very ill-timed joking.”
In response, the Herald reminded its contemporary “that it owes its very existence to the unlawful shedding of human blood” during the famous vigilance committees of San Francisco during the 1850s and mocked “its affected horror over the ‘Monte Boys’ description of how the Mexican went off” by calling such a protest as “hypocritical cant.”
Tomorrow, another development in the post-Romo lynching involves a former California governor and a response that threatened more violence, so check back with us then!