by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This evening I had the opportunity to share elements of greater Los Angeles criminal justice history with about 50 people from the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. Just a short distance from the mission and the Los Rios Historic District, at the city’s community center, I talked about the massacre of a posse led by Sheriff James R. Barton by the Flores-Daniel Gang.
The incident was preceded by a crime spree in January 1857 in the mission town by the bandit gang, during which shopkeeper George Pflugardt was killed. Barton, who was known to be brave, but also headstrong and reckless, only took a handful of men with him when he rode from Los Angeles south to San Juan.
A night was spent at the Rancho San Joaquin, where members of the Sepulveda family, which owned the ranch, warned Barton that he lacked enough men to face the Flores-Daniel Gang. Undaunted, Barton and his men rode out the next morning and got to near today’s intersection of Interstate 5 and State Route 133 in Irvine. As the posse rode down a declination in the road, the gang sprung out and made quick work of Barton and three of his posse members. Two men managed to escape and relayed the news of the disaster to folks in Los Angeles and El Monte.
When the bodies recovered from the scene of the massacre, a shocking discovery was made: Barton and two of the men with him were all shot in the right eye after death, a clear sign that this was an execution-style ending to the battle. What resulted was a palpable anger and ferocity in the response of some of those engaged in the manhunt to find the gang’s members.
Mass arrests were made in Los Angeles without probable cause, much less search or arrest warrants. At another mission town, San Gabriel, four men were killed, three who were being hung when the poorly knotted rope broke and so the trio were promptly shot and killed and the others burned out of a swamp before he was killed by gunfire and then decapitated. The latter, Miguel Soto, may have been linked to the Flores-Daniel Gang, but the others do not appear to have been.
Then, at a third mission community, Ventura, Jose Jesús Espinosa, still in his teens, was captured and an El Monte posse promptly took him out for a lynching. When it was found that Encarnación Berryesa, who survived a lynching in Santa Clara the previous year, was in Ventura and there were rumors he was engaged in crime there, the posse decided to summarily execute him.
Back near the scene of the Barton killings, a massive presence of native indigenous scouts and companies from El Monte and Los Angeles, including a Californio posse headed by Andrés Pico, scoured the rugged canyons and steep slopes of the Santa Ana Mountains. A few men were captured by the El Monte contingent and then escaped, one being Juan Flores. When the other two men were recaptured, Pico was determined that there be no chance of them cutting loose again, so he ordered their executions.
Flores was found trying to cross Simi Pass, nearly 100 miles away, and was seized and jailed in Los Angeles. Hungry for retribution, citizens held a public meeting and voted by acclamation to storm the jail, pull the bandit chief from his cell, and lynch him. The hanging was badly bungled and Flores struggled in agony for fifteen minutes before he died.
Although one accused gang member, Leonardo López (a.k.a. Luciano Tapia), went to trial for his role in the Barton massacre and his trial led to a legal execution, the other reputed leader of the bandits, Francisco “Pancho” Daniel, was apprehended in Santa Clara County at the end of the year.
Whereas López/Tapia had a rather standard one-day trial, Daniel’s able legal team secured three continuances of his case through successive terms of the District Court and then Judge Benjamin Hayes approved a change of venue to Santa Barbara. Determined not to let Daniel slip out of their hands, a citizens group broke open the jail early one morning in December 1858 and strung Daniel up. In the original minute book for the court, the county clerk wrote that Daniel was hung through the “carelessness” of citizens.
The degree of lawlessness and blind anger on the part of many who participated in the violence perpetrated by vigilantes and citizen posse members was stunning even for 1850s Los Angeles, which featured a number of particularly violent acts of so-called popular justice.
The attitude of many of those involved in or supportive of these “extralegal” activities was expressed by a teenage poet with the birth name of Josephine Smith, but later widely known as Ina Coolbrith, one of California’s famed 19th century poets. In her “Lines on the Recent Massacre,” penned very shortly after the Barton killings and published in the Los Angeles Star on 26 January 1857, young Ina gave full vent to vengeance and what became a fully realized retribution:
Aye, lay them rest in the damp, cold earth,
And “let there be wailing and weeping,”
For no voice but God’s can again call them forth
From the graves where they’re silently sleeping.
Yet first bend above them to take one last look,
At those who have passed through Death’s portal,
Ere the cold earth has closed over four as brave hearts,
As e’er beat in the breast of a mortal.
Then hark, to the sod on their coffin lids fall,
As their forms to the grave we have given ;
Never, no never to behold them again,
Till we meet them, all glorious, in heaven.
Alas, for their kindred in lands far away,
When, at length, they shall hear the sad story,
How the forms of their lived ones, far over the sea,
Were found, all so mangled and gory.
Parent, brothers and sisters, will mourn for the lost,
For, alas, they can never regain them,
And in heart-breaking sorrow will pray to their God
For revenge on the ones who have slain them.
Aye, revenge on their murderers! Is there no true man,
Not one, to act as the avenger
Of the four noble beings who lost their own lives
In defending this people from danger.
Go, seek for the inhuman, ruffianly horde
Nor strive, as ye do, to avoid them,
Go forth in the names of the brave men they’ve killed,
And rest not until you have destroyed them.
And they, who are sleeping in death’s cold embrace,
Time can ne’er from our memory estrange them ;
Then, O! while the sod is yet damp on their graves,
Go forth, in God’s name, and avenge them.
For more on the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, please click here.