by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the late 1860s, William Workman established a grist mill along San José Creek near its confluence with the newly established channel of the San Gabriel River (created in flooding in 1867-68; prior to that, today’s Rio Hondo was the San Gabriel channel). Soon after, he hired William F. Turner as miller and the establishment not only was used for Workman’s expanding field crops, especially wheat, but also served local farmers.
Turner was born in 1839 in Baltimore, Ohio, southeast of Columbus, to Elizabeth Littlejohn and John C. Turner, both of Maryland. John was a miller by trade and after his wife died in 1854, he relocated to Los Angeles where he went into partnership with Abel Stearns at the Capitol Mill north of town in what is now the Chinatown area. William worked with his father before heading out to Rancho La Puente to take up the post at the Workman Mill by 1870.
The mill was located on the south side of the creek as it ran against the northwestern corner of the Puente Hills and today’s approximate location would be where Workman Mill Road meets Crossroads Parkway South in the City of Industry, just south of the 60 Freeway. A small wood-frame house was built next to the mill and occupied by Turner, his wife Sarah Rebecca Humphreys, who he married in 1871 and went by her middle name, and their family.
By 1874, Turner, looking to supplement his income, engaged in a partnership with Workman’s ranch foreman, Frederick Lambourn, to open a store that would serve nearby residents. From the outset, the store did well and had a steady clientele, among whom were local Latinos with whom Turner, a northerner, got along well. His wife, however, who was from Arkansas, was deeply disturbed by this. In her autobiography, written in the 1920s and published in 1960, she wrote of “my husband’s strange fondness for the Mexicans”, observing:
There was an affinity, an accord in temperament, inexplicable to me. . . his back turned [while talking to them] , anybody would have thought he was one of them. His laughter was an echo of theirs. The lifting of his shoulders, the waving of his hands, were precisely the same . . . how gentle he was—and how unsuspecting.
I was afraid of them [Latinos]. They were alien to me, and looking on their swarthy faces, I thought of Vasquez—Vasquez the notorious, whose name was a terror throughout the state. And the robberies and murders of the lesser bandits occurred far too frequently for one’s peace of mind. I distrusted the whole race.
William’s father had remarried, to Placida Rodriguez, a neighbor in Los Angeles, and adopted her two children while fathering a few more with her. Rebecca must have been deeply disturbed by that, as well as her husband’s warm relations with Latinos at the store.
Then, on 2 June 1874, after the store was closed, a visitor arrived, asking to see some goods. William obligingly opened the business for the man and Rebecca described the scene by telling her sister, “I don’t like the looks of that Greaser,” grabbing a pistol from the house, and following her husband. Then, she continued, as her husband showed the customer some boots and she sat watching nearby:
The Mexican . . . surveyed me with hostile eyes . . . and began to select his boots . . . my husband anxious to please, and with no thought of treachery, reached for another pair.
As he bent over, the Mexican , without warning, drew a curved pruning knife and before my horrified gaze threw an arm around my husband’s neck and started to cut his throat. . .
Then I remembered the pistol and leaping to my feet I jammed it against the bandit’s back, over his heart, and pulled the trigger. But it wouldn’t fire—in my fright I had failed to cock it.
Rebecca wrote that she grabbed the man and pulled him away from her husband, who managed to get his hands up to his throat and prevent fatal wounds. William sprinted toward the house yelling at his sister–in-law to give him the pistol only to hear that Rebecca had it. The attacker followed William, shooting at him with his own gun, and Rebecca was behind them both.
Suddenly, she continued
As I neared the gate he was coming back and met me face to face. Instantly he pointed a pistol at my breast, I whirled and caught the bullet through my shoulders. I fell to the ground crying, “Oh, I’m killed!”
The attacker fled and William carried his wife into the house and then sent for assistance.
Notably, the first newspaper coverage of the event, from the 3 June 1874 edition of the Los Angeles Herald differed from Mrs. Turner’s recollections. For example, the paper reported that the unidentified man “came to their door, and said he wanted to get some flour.”
Additionally, it stated that Mrs. Turner followed with her pistol and got to the store to find the attack in progress. The Express then wrote that “she had enough strength and presence of mind to fire the pistol in the direction of the assassin.” Moreover, the report was that the attacker left William and went after Rebecca, wounding her when one bullet “entered Mrs. Turner’s back, coming out at the breast.”
To add to the tragedy, Rebecca was pregnant with the couple’s second child and the incident caused a miscarriage. For awhile, her life was also in some doubt.
The Los Angeles Star, in its coverage on the morning of the 4th, had other information closer to that written by Rebecca, namely that the man, then known only as “Gordo” (“fat” in Spanish) “purchased a bill of goods, amounting to about forty dollars . . . and at the request of Gordo, Mr. Turner stooped down to show him some boots” when the attack commenced.
The paper also stated that when she pulled the pistol “as she explains it, was so paralyzed by excitement that she could not shoot.” It repeated the statement about how William ran to the house to get his gun, with her following and then Gordo shooting her “striking her on one of the shoulders and passed around her back.”
As for the third major local daily paper, the Herald, there were different particulars offered in its coverage of the 4th. While it repeated the remarks about Gordo pulling a pruning knife to attack William, it did not mention Rebecca’s trying to fire the gun while in the store, only that “the courageous woman seized the Mexican, and by main force pushed him out of the door, at the same time firing upon him.”
According to this account, Gordo shot four times at William, missing each time, before he turned to encounter Rebecca and shot and wounded her. The paper then added that there were two other men, an American and a Mexican “who had previously remained in the background, and the three proceeded to rifle the store, taking some clothing and $44 in coin, while leaving $80 in gold and Gordo dropping his own purse containing $20. The trio then mounted their horses and rode off.
Check back for the continuation of the story of “The Incident at Workman Mill,” which will follow in parts over coming days..