Curious Cases: A Rare Photo of Jailer and Police Officer Francis J. Carpenter, ca. 1879

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

He’s been a “bit player” in several of the eight sessions of our Curious Cases program of presentations and group discussion about early Los Angeles crime and criminal justice, but Francis J. Carpenter is also symbolic of many of the important issues relating to the topic.

Carpenter, born in 1820 in Kentucky and raised in Platte County, Missouri, along the eastern edge of the Missouri River northwest of Kansas City, came to California in the Gold Rush years, following an older brother, Lemuel, who owned Rancho Santa Gertrudes in southeastern Los Angeles and northwestern Orange counties.

He had a long career in law enforcement, serving for many years as the jailer for the city and county and also as a officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.  He worked in conditions that were primitive and lacked professionalism by modern standards.  In one instance, he attacked a city council member who voted to disallow some of his expense claims and, after paying a fine on an assault conviction, was shot and wounded by his adversary in broad daylight in front of the jail and courthouse.

In the late 1870s, when he was pushing 60 years of age, he was appointed a police officer and towards the end of this life when he was about 70, he became an assistant at the city and county jail.  By then, conditions had improved markedly for the criminal justice system and for law enforcement.

The photograph highlighted here just arrived in the Homestead’s collection on Thursday and is one of the earliest, if not the oldest, surviving photographs of a Los Angeles Police Department officer in uniform, badge and all.  This was just in time for our presentation this afternoon on the lynching of Michel Lachenais, who, in mid-December 1870, was seized from jail by a vigilance committee of some 200 men who pushed aside Carpenter, the deputy sheriff and a handful of others trying to guard the facility.  Lachenais was then walked over to a lumberyard over at Temple and New High streets and hung.

This cabinet card studio portrait is of Carpenter and was taken by the “Helio-Art” studio of Tuttle and Parker, which only existed for a short time in Los Angeles during 1879.  The federal census of the following year included Carpenter’s enumeration and his listed profession as “policeman.”  At the top of the image, faintly in ink, is “Francis Jones Carpenter Born 1820.”  On the reverse is his name and the date of his death of July 1894.


Notice the sharp look of his outfit with the nine-button coat, hand-tooled leather belt, the tasseled club, his stove pipe hat with piping, and, of course, his eight-pointed badge.  It was just less than a decade prior that the police department was reorganized and the accoutrements certainly gave Carpenter a more polished and professional appearance.

In addition to his career in law enforcement, Carpenter briefly owned the Rancho Centinela in 1859-1860 in modern-day Inglewood, Westchester and Culver City; was part of a group in 1858 working on harbor improvements at San Pedro at what became Timms’ Landing; and had other property ownership; and, in 1887, joined his three daughters in opening up a cigar and tobacco shop in Los Angeles.

But, it was his years serving as the city and county jailer during some of Los Angeles’ most violent and lawless periods for which Carpenter is most identified.  He lived more than four decades from the boisterous and rowdy Gold Rush years to the more sedate days of the Gilded Age.

This rare photo may also provide him another distinction, being the subject of perhaps the earliest surviving image of a policeman in Los Angeles–but we’ll see if something older comes to light!

Leave a Reply