Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Yesterday’s post on the aftermath of the Workman Mill incident and the lynching of Jesús Romo covered a threat to ex-governor Pío Pico posed by a correspondent to the Los Angeles Herald under the name “Monte Vigilantes.” Though the Herald and the Los Angeles Express did not identify the writer of the letter, Rebecca Humphreys Turner, who was badly wounded and miscarried after the attack at the store owned by her husband, William, who was also severely injured, did.
Rebecca, in her 1920s memoir, My Story, published in 1960, identified “Monte Vigilantes” as [Joseph] Walter Drown, who was also one of the trio, along with El Monte merchant Jacob Schlessinger and store co-owner and foreman for William Workman’s half of Rancho La Puente Frederick Lambourn, who lynched Romo. In her account, once Drown issued his warning to Pico against seeking to have the executioners held to answer for their extra-legal actions, the matter ended.
In fact, there were a few additional elements to the story to play out. For example, the Express, in its 11 June 1874 edition, offered this “report”:
We hear that a large number of Spanish Americans held meetings last night and the night before, at the Mission of San Gabriel to consider the lynching of ‘El Gordo.’ Great indignation was expressed. A party of Mexicans went to the Monte last night armed, and ‘sloshed around’ for a while, but no other demonstration was made.
The paper made no effort to distinguish between “Spanish Americans” and “Mexicans” nor did if offer any attempt to verify these rumors. But, given that its own response to Drown’s disguised letter to Pico was critical for unnecessarily stirring up emotions and that at least Drown’s letter was verifiable, the conclusion of this short article is notable:
They were given to know that if they commenced hostilities, the war would ‘be carried into Africa.’ It is just possible that some indiscreet men may provoke a grave quarrel about this Jesús Romo affair. If they do, it would require no prophet to predict truthfully how it will end.
The Herald, also on the 11th, addressed “Various Rumors,” as it titled one article, that Romo confessed to the San Diego murders of a family and that he was one of the members of Tiburcio Vásquez’s gang. The paper noted that Romo, “after receiving wounds from which he knew he must die in a short time,” denied both and this was “sustained by the Mexicans living near the scene of his capture who say he has lived among them for the past twelve months.”
The paper then reported that “it is also rumored that the Mexicans living on the Pico Ranch, about fifty in number, vow vengeance on the men who captured as well as those who hanged El Gordo.” This might have been tied in to the notion that ex-governor Pico was seeking to bring the executioners of Romo to justice, but the article makes no mention of Pico personally.
What the Herald did editorialize was that
This is perhaps a vain and idle threat, but even if so is a foolish one. An attempt at retaliation on the part of El Gordo’s friends will be the signal for more hanging.
Asserting that “no honest man, Mexican or American” could have sympathy for a man whose actions led to the miscarriage of Rebecca Turner’s child, the paper cautioned that “those who sympathize with him . . . may avoid a similar end to that of their friend, by becoming good law-abiding citizens as soon as possible.”
The Herald, in its edition of 13 June 1874 offered an editorial headlined “A Too Sweeping Assertion” that began with a statement that “it is a mistaken notion that the Mexicans and Californians as a whole or even a considerable portion of them, sympathize with [recently captured bandit Tiburcio] Vásquez or swear vengeance on the captors and executioners of Romo.” It then qualified that remark by offering that “we believe that we may safely say that only the lower class of these people feel any interest whatever in the bandit . . . and it is only this class that regret the death of Romo.”
While the paper didn’t offer any justification for this view, it continued by acknowledging that many Mexicans and Americans
regret the exigencies which compelled the people to take the law into their own hands, and it is not astonishing that people are found who desire that the circumstances which led to the death of Romo should be investigated before a legal tribunal; but it does not follow that these people regret his death or believe that he did not richly merit the fate he met. He was a murderer and he died as all murderers should die—at the end of a rope. It is only such Mexicans, Californians, and Americans as he was himself who regret his death.
Continuing with this stream of thought, the Herald opined that “the man deserved to be hanged, and we are not disposed to censure those who gave him his deserts” and that only “the low class named” could really believe that he would have escaped his fate if he was American.
The piece concluded by repeating that
It is as unjust as untrue to say that the Mexican and Californian population are swearing vengeance against those who placed Romo beyond the reach of harm to others by himself, or of harm to himself by others. A few of his own kind may do so, but only those few.
The Los Angeles Star, which offered surprisingly sparse and spare coverage of the whole matter, did provide details about the Grand Jury’s investigation into the Romo lynching, quoting verbatim from the report:
We examined as far as lay in our power into the matter of the late lynching of a man by the name of Jesús Romo, alias ‘El Gordo;’ that we were unable to find any indictment in the case for want of evidence identifying any of the persons who committed the crime, and hence are compelled to leave the matter to the next Grand Jury, with recommendation to the officers to search for evidence in the meantime.
Not surprisingly, no further actions were conducted by either the county’s law enforcement officers or future grand juries.
As to what happened to the surviving principals in the matter, Rebecca Turner had a lengthy convalescence after her injuries and stayed with family members. She recorded in her autobiography that “we went back to La Puente only once” and found “the cottage was a wreck . . . vandals had swept through the little house, leaving the rooms littered with our broken treasures,” though she did not suggest this was in response to Romo’s lynching.
Rebecca also wrote that “my husband’s hands were permanently injured. The fingers, save one or two, remained stiffened, twisted and rigid. But I was so grateful his life was spared that it did not distress me. I was never conscious of his disfigurement.”
The Turners then moved to El Monte, where William entered into a partnership in a store and his father, John, contracted with William Workman to run the mill. In a strange and troubling end to the matter, at least as far as her memoir expressed it, the Turners found out that Francisco Bustamente, an employee of Workman, who, as noted here previously, assisted in the search to locate Romo, was leaving for Mexico.
According to Rebecca, “Bustomente [sic] so distinguished himself in the hunt for the bandit that Mr. Workman sought to reward him and begged him to accept a purse of money. But Bustomente declined the offer.” The account continued that he stated “All I want is a pistol. You see, Mr. Workman, I am now out of favor with my countrymen and I wish to defend myself if necessary.” With this, Rebecca continued, “Mr. Workman presented him with the finest revolver it was possible to procure in the pueblo of Los Angeles.”
Rebecca’s account continued that, when Bustamente came to make his farewell to the Turners “he was profuse in expression of his regard, commending us to the care of God, and in the demonstrative way of his kind, embraced us both.” However, Rebecca continued:
As his big arms enfolded me, the old terror rushed back like a great wave. I shuddered inwardly and felt a knife between my ribs.
There was no earthly reason for the fantastic emotion since Bustomente was loyalty itself. But I couldn’t help it to save my soul, and I was glad when his foot was in the stirrup and he was waving his hand from the bend in the road.
The Turners stayed in El Monte for two years, during which time Frederick Lambourn was elected to the California Assembly (is it possible his role in the Romo lynching had anything to do with his election?) and served a two-year term in 1875 and 1876, just as William Workman’s Temple and Workman bank suspended business during an economic panic and then failed, followed in May 1876 by Workman’s dramatic and shocking suicide.
When Lambourn returned to Los Angeles, he and Turner (who sold his interest to his El Monte partner, Andrew Horn) recommenced their mercantile partnership on Aliso Street just east of downtown and Lambourn and Turner remained a successful business for thirty years, into the first decade of the twentieth century. Both Lambourn and Turner retired to Whittier after closing the business. Lambourn died there in 1914, but the Turners moved to Pasadena where William passed away in 1928 and Rebecca followed a year later.
Walter Drown, as mentioned earlier, was adopted after the death of his father, a lawyer and district attorney, in 1863 by William Workman and raised by his daughter and son-in-law, Antonia Margarita and F.P.F. Temple. After Workman’s death, he worked as ranch foreman at the Homestead for Francis W. Temple, who settled on the property after his grandfather’s death, bought the Workman House and 75 acres from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin after Baldwin foreclosed on the Workman estate in 1879.
About 1881, Drown relocated to Los Angeles and worked as the foreman on the Boyle Heights estate of Wiliam Henry Workman, nephew of William Workman. When the younger Workman ran successfully for Los Angeles mayor in 1886, as the great “Boom of the Eighties” was underway in the region, he faced criticism for his hiring of Chinese laborers in his vineyards. Drown was enlisted to justify the use of Chinese work because, he stated in newspaper interviews, Anglos would not do the work. When Francis Temple died in August 1888, Drown and Temple’s brother, John, served as administrators of the estate.
Drown then left W.H. Workman’s employ but was appointed by the Los Angeles City Council as superintendent of streets at the end of the 1880s and again in the early 1890s. He remained a resident of Boyle Heights and served as a volunteer firefighter in the community’s station house and an officer with the Boyle Heights Board of Trade.
In 1887, he went into real estate with Charles Bell as the boom continued, but then the business was terminated as the boom ended and Bell, leaving Drown with some debts from the firm as well as taking funds from his position as a deputy county assessor, vanished in 1890. Drown then worked as a solicitor, a clerk until his death at age 47 in 1899.
The lynching of Jesús Romo was, so far as is known, the second to the last extra-legal hanging to take place in Los Angeles County, with an incident occurring near Wilmington in 1881. While most lynchings in the region from the early 1850s onward involved large groups of community members, this one was highly personal, if Rebecca Turner’s identification of Schlessinger, Drown and Lambourn as the executioners is true. Lambourn was the partner of William Turner in the store (and then was for thirty years in Los Angeles), while Drown was a close friend.
Yet, the justifications by the Los Angeles press for the lynching are of tortured logic, at best. If Romo’s wounds from his gun-battle with William R. Dodson were so serious that he was expected to die within a day or so, as claimed by newspapers, then there was no justifiable reason to kill him. But, there were also claims that, if had lived to be tried in a court, then it was possible he could have escaped the death penalty. However, it seems highly unlikely, given the death of the unborn child of the Turners, that Romo would have received anything less than a life sentence.
Instead, the standard excuses offered by the press in the Romo lynching were substantially the same as they were during the peak period of extra-legal executions twenty years or so before: murderers deserved death; if the law couldn’t or wouldn’t function properly, then “the people” had the right to take the law into their own hands; and extra-legal action not only buttressed the law, but saved the county and state money.
Still, the letter of “Lex”, written and published in the Express on 6 June, says it all, as previously noted here:
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 thereof are law-abiding.