On This Day: The Death of William Workman, 17 May 1876

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Posts during January and February this year detailed the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, co-owned by Homestead owner William Workman and his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple.  By all accounts, Workman had no involvement in the day-to-day management of the institution and, being in his seventies, spent his time on near 18,000 acres of his portion of the massive Rancho La Puente.  Temple, as the bank president, looks to have left the administration of the institution to managing cashier Henry S. Ledyard while he pursued business and political opportunities during Los Angeles’ first boom.

It seems certain that Workman was blindsided by the bank’s suspension in late August 1875, but supported his son-in-law’s efforts to borrow money to reopen the institution, which occurred in early December.  Just over a month later, on 13 January 1876, with depositors closing their accounts and withdrawing the loaned funds, the bank closed permanently.  While Workman, represented by his grandson and attorney William W. Temple, hurriedly returned from England where he studied at the Inns of Court in London, quickly provided an inventory of his estate for the bank’s assignment, he probably had little idea initially of the fallout.

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The news of William Workman’s suicide from the Los Angeles Star, 18 May 1876.

Workman also changed his power of attorney from F.P.F. Temple to another grandson, Francis W. Temple, who was the winemaker at the Homestead.  This action, though highly symbolic, did not have practical consequence as the months following the failure revealed mismanagement in basic banking practice and risky speculation in business endeavors with the money of Temple and Workman’s depositors.

On Wednesday, 17 May, the shocking news reached Los Angeles that Workman took his own life.  I’ve been at the Homestead just under 30 years and there were several years in which the museum simply didn’t talk about the manner of his death.  Part of this, it seems, was sensitivity to Workman’s descendants, but there was also likely the matter of just not knowing enough about what happened to properly interpret the tragic event.

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In the early 1990s, I spent a considerable amount of time researching the Workman and Temple families and located a slew of newspaper articles from the days after his death that, if nothing else, amply demonstrated the effect on the region that Workman’s demise represented.  In my estimation, it wasn’t just a suicide. Rather, his death was a stark reminder of just how bad the situation was in the area after the bank’s failure.  After some eight years of growth and development that was unprecedented in Los Angeles, one of its oldest and most successful residents killed himself.  This was more than a personal tragedy—it was also a regional one.

The Los Angeles Star, in its 18 May edition, featured the large headline “A Dreadful Thing / William Workman Commits Suicide / He Shoots Himself With a Pistol.”  Because the news reached the city late the previous evening, the article was brief, but noted that F.P.F. Temple and his eldest child, Thomas, formerly a cashier in the bank, were informed of the news by a messenger and hurried out to La Puente.   The paper then stated

While we do not know the immediate cause for this sorrowful act, there is no doubt that it results from the late unfortunate business complications . . . although the news was brought to this city at a late hour last night, it created quite a sensation, and became pretty generally known throughout the place.

The Los Angeles Herald of the same day simply headlined its piece “Suicide” and reported that the messenger, a Homestead employee named Jackson, did not have much detail about the death because of his haste in riding the twenty miles to Los Angeles.  It did state that Workman committed the act at 9:00 that evening and Jackson reached town within two hours, a remarkable time, if true.  Repeating that the bank’s demise weighed on Workman, the paper added

Latterly, as the affairs of the bankrupt concern were narrowed down to foreclosure and sale, the unfortunate old man doubtless despaired of saving anything from the wreck, and the crisis was precipitated.

The Herald observed that Workman “bears the reputation of an honest and upright man” and noted that, while his death would not materially affect the disposition of the bank’s affairs, “it will yet be serious regretted by all classes of our citizens.”

The Los Angeles Express, an evening paper, issued its account on the 18th.

The third major daily paper in Los Angeles was the Express, which published a lengthy piece the evening (the other two papers issued morning editions) of the 18th.  It wrote that

The community has received a severe shock in the announcement of the suicide of Wm. Workman, the well-known head of the Temple family of this county, and a member of the late banking firm of Temple & Workman in this city.

It repeated the news that the deed was done at 9:00 the previous night and produced death instantaneously.  It continued that

Mr. Workman was a very remarkable man, and from his long residence in California, was perhaps as well known by reputation as any citizen . . . the assignment of his estate for the purpose of securing the creditors of that concern, preyed heavily on his mind, and . . . he gave way to dark and gloomy feelings which gradually urged him on to the rash and fatal deed he consummated last night.

The Express then offered a lengthy “biographical sketch” of Workman from his birth in England, to his migration to America and then settlement in New Mexico, in Mexican territory, and his move to this area and residence at La Puente.  The paper noted that

Mr. Workman was a man of inflexible will and indomitable energy.  Whatever he fixed his mind upon he pursued with irresistible purpose.  He was strong in his prejudices and firm in his resolves.  His frontier life had rendered the saying that necessity is the mother of invention of great force with him.  He was full of resources and expedients.  His genius was equal to every emergency.  He was perfect type of that race of self-reliant men who were the pioneers of civilization over this whole country.

The paean went on at great length about his honesty, conscientiousness, directness (even brusqueness), and ability to deal with any situation.  Except that, when it came to the bank’s failure, and his realization that “the savings of a lifetime were about to be wrested from him,” Workman “gave way to a sense of despair.”  He became reclusive and his spirit was broken.  Concluding its praise of Workman, the Express observed that, while he did not have much formal education, he was “well-read in a wide class of solid literature and had a remarkable taste for letters” and reported that his will left family property in England “for the benefit of the common schools” there.

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A notice of Workman’s death (albeit with the wrong name and error over the cause) from the San Francisco Chronicle, 18 May 1876.

The news of Workman’s death did not remain local, as two major San Francisco dailies, the Alta California and the Chronicle ran short notices of his death, although both gave the name of his nephew, William H. Workman, and incorrectly reported that “his property was sold at Sheriff’s sale yesterday.”

More information about Workman and the circumstances of his death were made available in subsequent days and we’ll pick up the thread of those accounts on Friday.


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