Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A few months ago, I wrote a post on a presentation I have to the San Dimas Historical Society on the murder of John Rains (another talk was given at the Whittier Public Library), giving a basic outline of the incident, but cautioning that I would save more details once the Curious Cases presentation was given. That was today, so here is the fuller story:
There are some crimes that just never get solved. It’s frustrating for the families of the victims, for police and other law enforcement officials and for others, but it does happen. In November 1862, John Rains, owner with his wife, Merced Williams, of Rancho Cucamonga, was killed while traveling from the ranch to Los Angeles. Over the next three years, several people died in incidents relating to Rains’ death, but the matter remained, in modern parlance, “a cold case.”
Not that there weren’t plenty of potential suspects. Rains’ widow, his brother-in-law Robert S. Carlisle, and Merced’s close friend (and, to some, lover) Rámon Carrillo head the list and it is possible that he was ambushed by highway robbers. By mid-1865, Carlisle and Carrillo were dead and Merced’s life had been threatened. The tangled web surrounding Rains’ murder formed the basis of a Curious Cases presentation this afternoon at the Homestead and here is a brief summary of that discussion.
Rains was born about 1827 in Alabama, though not much is known about his life until he came to Los Angeles about 1850. He spent some years in Texas; volunteered for military service in the Mexican-American War; appears to have been a Texas Ranger; and drove sheep and cattle in northern Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California before arriving in the City of Angels.
In 1851, he acquired the Bella Union Hotel, a one-story adobe on the east side of Main Street and ran an unsuccessful campaign for Los Angeles County Sheriff. After leaving the area for a couple of years, he resurfaced at Rancho Santa Ana del Chino in the new county of San Bernardino and was hired by its proprietor, Isaac Williams (son-in-law of owner Antonio María Lugo) to superintend cattle operations there and in Temecula, where Williams had extensive interests.
Williams died in September 1856 leaving a pair of teenage daughters as his heirs. Three days later, Rains married the elder, Merced, while Francisca married Robert S. Carlisle, another Southerner, within several months. Immediately after Williams’ estate was settled in early 1858, Rains negotiated, on his wife’s behalf (or, perhaps, in spite of his wife’s legal ownership) the sale of her half of Chino Ranch to Francisca (or, Carlisle.)
Rains then purchased Rancho Cucamonga, which lay along the main road from Los Angeles to San Bernardino, had extensive vineyards when greater Los Angeles was California’s main wine-producing region, and also had sheep and cattle. It seemed a better investment and he quickly followed by acquiring interests in two San Diego County ranches from J. J. Warner, an early American settler in Los Angeles; repurchasing the Bella Union; expanding Cucamonga’s vineyards; building a fine brick home there, and more.
In fact, Rains’ plunge into expanding his business interests might have looked sensible in concept, but it was terrible timing. The end of the Gold Rush by the mid-Fifties, the national depression of 1857, and the deteriorating demand for local cattle were then followed in the early 1860s by the dual devastation of massive floods in the winter of 1861-62 and the onset of drought that lasted for the succeeding three years.
Financial problems quickly mounted and Rains was the defendant in two unpaid tax suits won by the state. In mid-November 1862, he induced Merced to sign a mortgage to Los Angeles merchant Phillip Sichel on Cucamonga and borrowed a couple thousand dollars from a Los Angeles doctor, J.C. Welsh. On the 17th, he left Cucamonga for Los Angeles to seek more money but vanished somewhere in the vicinity of what is now San Dimas.
His body was not found for eleven days. Carlisle leapt into action in the search for his brother-in-law, but it was later noted that he failed to be present for his swearing-in as a San Bernardino County supervisor the day Rains vanished and Carlisle threw a large party before Rains’ remains were discovered hundreds of yards north of the road in a badly mangled condition. Rains had been pulled from his carriage by a long rope, of the kind favored by Californios.
As Carrillo spent more time with Merced in the aftermath of her husband’s demise, suspicion fastened upon him. Don Rámon, however, submitted himself for examination twice to county officials (the death happened in Los Angeles County) and was released with no evidence of his involvement determined.
Meantime, Manuel Cerradel, arrested for the attempted murder of Los Angeles city marshal Thomas Trafford, contracted smallpox, which was ravaging the region in 1863, and confessed to his involvement in the murder. However, when Cerradel recovered, he retracted his statement. At the end of the year, convicted for the attempted murder, he was boarding a steamer at the harbor at San Pedro when masked men seized him from the sheriff and lynched Cerradel on the ship, dumping his body into the water. It may be that the killing was done because of the Rains connection.
Earlier in 1863, two men, Ygenio Villa and Luis Sánchez were jailed for unrelated incidents, but they were closely questioned on suspicion of complicity in Rains’ death. When Santiago Sánchez (no known relation to Luis) mounted the gallows in Los Angeles in June 1864 for the murder of a man named Gonzalez, he gave a lengthy statement in which he claimed that, while he was guilty of that murder, the real reason for his hanging was because of the Rains affair. He stated that the killers were Americans and made a point of saying that he didn’t know “Bob” Carlisle.
Just a few weeks before Sanchez’ execution, Carrillo spent three weeks at the Rains home, apparently recovering from an arm infection. On 21 May 1864, as he left the residence, Carrillo was felled from a shotgun blast and died shortly from his wounds. After this, U.S. Army dragoons, stationed in the region because of Civil War tensions in a Confederate-leaning southern California, spent about a month guarding Merced Rains over concerns her life was in danger.
Another ambush took place early in 1864 when Hyman Tischler and Edward Newman were on riding east from Cucamonga towards San Bernardino were attacked, evidently by Californios, and Newman fatally wounded. It was rumored that he was mistaken from Carlisle.
Carlisle, meantime, used none-too-subtle powers of persuasion, having Rains’ estate administrator and vineyard foreman Elijah Dunlap, Merced’s relative by marriage and former Los Angeles mayor Stephen C. Foster, Los Angeles attorney Jonathan R. Scott and two others attorneys join him in convincing Merced to turn over her power of attorney to Carlisle. Dunlap sold one of Rains’ San Diego County ranches to Carlisle and accusations of fraud and mismanagement were leveled against Merced’s brother-in-law. In early 1865, a court ruling stripped Carlisle of his position and appointed Andrew Jackson King, of an El Monte family from the South, as receiver.
Furious over the turn of events, Carlisle found an opportunity for revenge after a wedding party at the Bella Union, of all places. Spotting King in the hotel bar after midnight, Carlisle attacked his foe, though King managed to escape. At noon that day, King’s brothers, Frank and Houston, entered the hotel’s watering hole and confronted Carlisle (incidentally, the King brothers enacted a similar scene a decade before when their father was killed in El Monte).
A gun-battle of legendary proportions, even for Los Angeles in those days, ensued. Frank King was nearly instantly killed, a bystander (one of the attorneys present when Carlisle induced Merced’s power of attorney) badly wounded, and Carlisle dying of his wounds within three hours. The gunfight was so violent that the town’s common (city) council enacted an ordinance forbidding the carrying of any weapons (including, strangely, “slung shots”) in the city limits–a law so honored in the breach that it was repealed shortly afterward!
From then on, the violence abated, but Merced Williams Rains’ situation with Cucamonga worsened. Sichel filed for foreclosure, but outside of the time stipulated by statute and then died. A brother, however, filed a new proceeding that was successful. Merced had to sell the other San Diego County ranch to pay mounting legal bills. By 1870, Cucamonga came into the possession of Isaias W. Hellman, then the banking partner of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple. Under his stewardship, the ranch prospered.
This was not the case for Merced. She moved to Los Angeles and lived for years with her daughter Fannie, who married Henry T. Gage, a sheep rancher and lawyer. The Gages lived in an adobe (which still stands in a Bell Gardens mobile home park) on the Lugo family ranch, San Antonio, and Henry rose in politics to be the governor of California from 1899 to 1903. Merced lived with the Gages until she passed away in 1907 at age 68.
The story of John Rains’ murder is filled with interesting elements. Rains, seizing an opportunity to marry a wealthy boss’ daughter just days after Williams’ death, moved aggressively to capitalize on newfound wealth, only to overspend and overcommit as the local economy worsened. Facing mounting tax liabilities and debts and seeking more funds, he was suddenly killed. His brother-in-law, whose absence the day of Rains’ death and other forms of behavior are notable, stepped in to take control of the widow Merced’s situation.
Rámon Carrillo, who became closer with Merced and spent considerable time at Cucamonga, though twice cleared by the courts of involvement in Rains’ death, was gunned down after leaving the house. Manuel Cerradel and Santiago Sánchez, both convicted of unrelated crimes, died with purported links to the murder. Another man appeared to have been mistaken for Carlisle when he was killed. Finally, after having his power of attorney revoked, Carlisle sought revenge and died in a stunning shootout in broad daylight in Los Angeles. Merced survived over four decades after her husband’s death, but depended on family for her livelihood. It was an amazing story with no clean ending in terms of solving Rains’ killing.
There is one more Curious Cases offering this year–this concerning the long career of famed bandido Tiburcio Vásquez, whose final capture in Los Angeles in June 1874 ended a criminal career lasting nearly a quarter century and who is still the subject of debate about his status as either a quasi-revolutionary or a dyed-in-the-wool thief and killer. That program is on Sunday, 22 October at 2 p.m., with reservations available starting on 8 September.