by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The fourth year of the Homestead’s “Curious Cases” program launched today with a presentation titled “Vigilantes and Vengeance: The Alvitre Family and Community Justice, 1853-1861.” The Alvitres were among the earliest settlers of Spanish Alta California, with Sebastian Alvitre, a soldier, and his wife María Rufina Hernández settling after his mustering out first in 1786 in San José, one of the first two (Los Angeles being the other) pueblos in the department.
Sebastian, however, got into significant legal difficulties. In San Jose, he spent four or five years in prison for “scandalous” and “incorrigible” behavior dealing with mistreatment of Indian women and/or excesses with the wives of neighbors in the sparsely-populated town.
By 1790, Alvitre and his large family, were sent to Los Angeles. Eventually, members of the extended clan migrated east to the Whittier Narrows near today’s South El Monte, where they were fixtures in the area around the original site of the Mission San Gabriel (founded in 1771, the mission moved after flooding from the old San Gabriel River or Rio Hondo, to its current location within four years) for well over a century.
The event discussed three members of the family who were lynched or executed in less than a decade and in ways that demonstrated different applications of justice. One of the examples was already covered in our very first “Curious Cases” offering and this involved Felipe Alvitre, a young man who was arrested, tried and convicted for the murder of El Monte resident James Ellington in late 1854.
Although he was legally executed, his death may in a way be classified as somewhat tied to lynching because of the way the media and others in greater Los Angeles publicly aired grievances about the inefficiency of the criminal justice system, especially in securing convictions for capital murder cases like that involving Alvitre.
The idea was that his case could have been prejudiced because of the environment surrounding his trial. Two other men convicted of murder at the same time, David Brown and William B. Lee, had stays of execution granted by the California Supreme Court pending a review. Alvitre, his trial court judge Benjamin Hayes, wrote, also filed a request for a stay but it was, evidently, lost.
When the date of execution, 12 January 1855, came, Alvitre was led to his execution, but a mob, led by Mayor Stephen C. Foster, who resigned his office to do so, stormed the jail, seized Brown (leaving Lee behind), and hung him from a gate across Spring Street from the courthouse and jail.
Six years later, Felipe’s uncle, José Claudio Alvitre, reportedly drunk, stabbed his wife, María Asunción Valenzuela, seven times, killing her. Though he evidently tried to escape, he was hunted down and, according to the Los Angeles Star‘s brief account, was seized by a group led “by his own countrymen.”
Without any deliberation, the mob led Alvitre to a tree, put on him on a horse, tied a lariat on a branch and knotted around the 50-year old’s neck, and spurred the animal, leaving Alvitre “swinging in mid air.” It was said that he was given to drunken sprees, during which he invariably assaulted his wife and that he’d just served four months for such a transgression. If the account in the Star is as represented, the lynching of Alvitre was one carried out by a small, close-knit community that appears to have acted in response to someone, related to so many in Old Mission, who’d crossed the pale.
Then there was José Claudio’s son Isidro, who, on 21 September 1853 approached the adobe house of neighbors F.P.F. Temple and Antonia Margarita Workman on horseback. When, it was reported in the Star, he asked for her, she “endeavored to deceive him by saying she was in the field.”
Alvitre dismounted, entered the dwelling, “and seized her around the neck, making known his purpose.” However, Mrs. Temple “broke away from him and escaped into the field, where the workmen were engaged, who advised her to return, and they would protect her.” She went back to the house “and found the foul fiend watching her,” but when the laborers followed, he climbed on his horse and “rode off to his father’s house.”
When the news reached Los Angeles, the following day “a detachment of the rangers and many of our most substantial citizens” rode out to Misión Vieja to investigate “and, if necessary, to inflict such punishment as would serve as a warning to all such men, disposed to violate the sanctity of domestic life.” The “rangers” were members of the Los Angeles Rangers, a citizen militia group recently formed during a crime wave to assist law enforcement.
Alvitre was seized and subjected to what is often called a “popular tribunal.” This involved a public meeting “called to order by Judge Scott,” this being Justice Court magistrate Jonathan Scott. Chairing the gathering was attorney Samuel Arbuckle and Stephen C. Foster, the aforementioned mayor in the Alvitre/Brown incident just more than a year later, was appointed secretary.
David W. Alexander (a close friend of the Workman and Temple families), John Reed (son-in-law of John Rowland), and Andrés Pico (brother of former governor Pío Pico and said to have been a suitor of Mrs. Temple) were a committee to nominate a jury. These consisted of a dozen men, more than half of whom were members of the Los Angeles Rangers.
Little was reported about the “trial,” except that
after examination the Jury retired and brought in the following verdict and sentence . . . 250 lashes be given him on the bare back; that he have his head cropped, and leave the county as soon as his physicians pronounce him able to do so. And that if he be again found in the county that he be hung.
The sentence was approved by the meeting, and ordered to be carried into effect. The punishment was inflicted, and the prisoner ordered to leave the county at the expiration of one week, and never to return on pain of death.
At today’s presentation, I mentioned that I thought “head cropping” was the shaving of the person’s hair so that they’d stand out as having been marked for punishment, but it actually involved cutting off the person’s ears, a horrific infliction on top of the already brutal number of lashes.
The Star article continued by observing that “many were in favor of hanging the prisoner on the spot, as he was a notoriously bad character, and the punishment and outlawry would only serve to render him desperate.
Yet, the piece added that Alvitre was said to be “a man of low intellect” and one given “to steal and to stab.” It was reported that was “covered with scars and must have engaged in many desperate affrays.” Moreover, it was said that he was known “as a great cattle thief.”
When it came to explaining why he committed the attempted rape on Mrs. Temple, Alvitre evidently replied that he was drunk. Finally, when he was seized, Alvitre “offered to send his father or brother for him.” Isidro’s whereabouts after the terrible retribution visited upon him are not known and a couple of sources indicated that he either died in 1854 or on 11 November 1853, indicating that his grievous wounds likely led to an infection which killed him.
Whereas the later lynching of Isidro’s father was apparently handled by fellow Latinos in the Misión Vieja community, that of Isidro was conducted by a broader sense of a community, including Workman and Temple family friends and neighbors and members of the Los Angeles Rangers citizen militia.
It is also worth noting that the “popular tribunal,” mimicking legal proceedings was more utilized in the earlier 1850s, whereas by the later years of the decade, this show of quasi-legal measures was dispensed with and mobs turned to public meetings and then the storming of a jail to satisfy their vengeance.
The story of the Alvitre family and their terrible encounters with vigilante justice is complicated and not easily explained. It would be far too simple to suggest there was “bad blood” from Sebastian’s description as an “incorrigible rogue” to the behavior of three of his descendants. Many large families have their share of “black sheep.”
Instead, the real story here is the easy willingness of members of the greater Los Angeles area, Latinos and Anglos, to embrace “popular justice” when they felt that the legal system was not equipped or managed to handle rampant crime. Notions of “natural law” placed above statutory law were very popular throughout America during the mid-19th century and were applied as rationalizations for lynching.
It is also too simplistic to look at these incidents from a purely or predominantly perspective of race and ethnicity. Community types and dynamics, personal relationships, class, and other factors are also important to consider. This is what “Curious Cases” looks to do: discuss the complexity of criminal justice in 1850s-1870s greater Los Angeles in a way that digs a little deeper than has generally been done.
So, we’ll get out our implements and keep delving through three more presentations, including a look at the lawyers of Los Angeles on 6 May (reservations open on 23 March); the saga of El Monte’s King Family on 12 August (reservations start on 29 June); and judges of the regional courts on 21 October (reservations begin on 7 September.)
We hope to see you at one or more of these!