Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Los Angeles certainly has had more than its fair share of curious characters in its history and today’s “Read All About It” entry features a true eccentric in Dr. Benjamin M. Lawrence. The Homestead has in its collection a rare July 1910 issue of Lawrence’s publication, the Quarterly Tybaca Magazine, subititled Orignial Story, Music and Song Book. With a title like that, the good doctor had to be an unusual figure!
The word “Tybaca” appears to be both a play on the word “tobacco” and a long acronym for “The Young Boy’s Anti Cigaret Association,” the latter evidently being something of a related organization to Lawrence’s “The Anti-Cigaret Club,” which had its office in the Los Angeles Times building at Broadway and 1st streets. Harry Chandler, the longtime publisher of the paper was a subscriber to the publication.
Lawrence’s life, however, is shrouded in mystery. While he was said to have been born in Indiana, he has been located in just one census and there is no indication as to his education, how he became a doctor, what his practice involved, or what brought him and his wife, Louise, to Los Angeles.
As to the magazine, it is a strange mixture of articles promoting the Anti-Cigaret Club; Lawrence’s crusade against cigarettes and saloons; quotations about tobacco from all business leaders, educators, judges and others; and scores and lyrics decrying cigarettes and adapted from religious and popular songs.
For example, there is “The Cigaret Must Go” set to “Oh! Susanna” by Stephen C. Foster or “Don’t Smoke the Cigaret” to the tune of “Nearer My God to Thee.” Lawrence had some experience at this, as his stated occupation soon after coming to Los Angeles after 1900 was as editor of “The New Century Song Book,” which featured similar adaptations of well-known tunes with his lyrics against cigarettes and saloons.
There was a short piece about an anti-cigarette picnic at a Los Angeles park that had some 175 boys and girls in attendance with the serving of “ice cream under the shade of the trees” and “lunch was enjoyed with the Indiana Society” (Lawrence hailed from the Hoosier State.)
It also was asserted that “assurances were secured from all the boys that they would not smoke before they reached the age of 21 years,” though the assumption seems to be that it was all right to do so afterward! Lawrence also “gave an impromptu talk” at the gathering including a poem he composed and a bit of a wandering presentation that took in boxing, hunting wild game, athletics, and the fight against tuberculosis.
Another article featured the Lawrences visiting Riverside as part of their crusade and talking about establishing the center of their activities in that citrus capital of the Inland Empire, though that move never took place. Notably, in that piece, it was mentioned that Mrs. Lawrence was injured in an explosion at a Los Angeles restaurant several years before.
It continued that she, as an invalid, moved with her husband to the Hollenbeck Home for the Aged in Boyle Heights before the couple moved to a small bungalow (which they called “Pilgrim’s Retreat” in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles. Interestingly, the 1910 census, the only in which the couple could be found in a search, did show Dr. Lawrence as a resident, but no record of his wife.
A piece called “Will Wage War on Cigarette” had more information on Lawrence, stating that he had “devoted a long life time to preaching the gospel of temperance and sobriety, fighting particularly against the cigarette habit.” It mentioned that “he celebrated his eightieth birthday September 13 last year by running a foot race of 100 yards in 19 seconds, on the bridge of Hollenbeck Park” across from the Hollenbeck Home.
A little search found an article in the Los Angeles Herald about that race, with the additional information that the doctor ran against a Civil War veteran named Pierce who argued that smoking and drinking alcohol was a good thing–unfortunately, we don’t know who won the contest!
The inside front cover of the magazine included a short statement that the Lawrences “have lived most of the time for the past four years in a Camp Wagon,” a picture of which was included, but that, to continue and expand their work “to visit every city and county in the State, before the next session of the Legislature, they need to have an ‘Auto Home on Wheels.'” There was an interesting example of trying to take advantage of technological advances when the automobile was still relatively new.
Finally, the back cover had “The Souvenir Pledge” composed by Lawrence, which required the reciter to promise not to use alcohol and narcotics (these including cigarettes, chewing tobacco, snuff, medicines with alcohol and opiates) and to avoid gambling and profanity, while promising, in cooperation with the Humane Society, “to always provide kind” to “dumb brutes and birds.” At the bottom of the pledge were spaces for the date, age of the reciter, and a name and address.
It is not known how long the Quarterly Tybaca Magazine lasted and most references to Lawrence’s work in the anti-tobacco and anti-saloon movement are from about 1910 and earlier.
Sadly, the Camp Wagon house the couple utilized proved to be the undoing of both the Lawrences. A 1924 Los Angeles Times article stated that, in 1909, the couple were living in the vehicle under an oak tree in Highland Park when an oil stove overturned, catching Mrs. Lawrence on fire. As she fled the conflagration, she fell and broke a hip, It was said she died a short time later from her injuries, though the magazine referenced her being alive the following summer.
As for Dr. Lawrence, he continued his proselytizing, but, about 1919, the oil stove in the wagon again overturned when Lawrence was away and this time destroyed the vehicle. Friends provided the funds, however, to rebuild the wagon to the specifications of the older one and the doctor found a new location to reside in his reconstructed camp wagon.
However, on a Sunday in October 1924, Lawrence, then about 94 years old, returned to his wagon from a church service and fell asleep. It was reported by the Times that, once again, the oil stove fell over and the wagon was caught in flames, fatally burning the aged doctor.
Lawrence, whose funeral was on the 15th, was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. It was a terrible end to a remarkable life for a Los Angeles crusader who attracted some attention during the first part of the 20th century for his work against cigarettes and prefigured modern efforts against tobacco use.