Watching the Detectives: Emil Harris, 1839-1921

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s entry highlights an interesting artifact from the Homestead’s collection of items relating to criminal justice.  This one is a 21 March 1891 letter to the chief of police in San Diego by Emil Harris, manager of a Los Angeles detective agency.  The correspondence is pretty mundane, having to do with Harris searching for a couple of men who were hawking photographs but were wanted for an unstated reason.  More interesting, however, is Harris’ history, making him one of the more remarkable people and notable Jewish residents of 19th century Los Angeles.

Harris photo young man
Emil Harris, ca. 1870s, from the Los Angeles Police Department website

Not much is known of Harris’ early life.  He was born in December 1839 in Prussia, about three decades before the unification of Germany.  By the age of 14, he emigrated to the United States and lived in New York and San Francisco, where he worked as a waiter and in a billiard hall before working with an uncle as part-owner of a cigar shop and then owning his own billiard parlor in Visalia.   After another stint in San Francisco, he migrated to Los Angeles, arriving in spring 1869.

Harris 1870 census
Emil Harris in the 1870 census shortly after arriving in Los Angeles from San Francisco.  His occupation was listed as “Keeps Saloon”.

He first worked in a saloon, though the 1870 census stated that he owned one.  That year, however, he secured appointment as one of the half-dozen police officers on the town’s poorly funded and staffed department.  At the end of the year, there was a reorganization after a lynching and a police chief was created.  Within a year, Harris was involved in one of the most horrifying events in Los Angeles history–the killing by a mob of 19 Chinese in a massacre on 24 October 1871.

Involved in inter-Chinese disputes prior to the event, Harris responded to the scene of shooting that left an American who intruded dead and where a raging mob gathered.  Ordered to guard the building that was ground zero for the riot, Harris testified at a coroner’s inquest that he and fellow officers and some citizens tried to stem the tide of mass anger.

Harris Vasquez_Herald_May_15__1874_
Mention of Harris as among the posse who captured noted bandido Tiburcio Vásquez, Los Angeles Herald, 15 May 1874.

Once, a group of 100 men took a Chinese prisoner from Harris, who then returned to the scene.  He stated that he assumed the other Chinese who were seized were taken to jail and fellow officer George Gard testified Harris took a gun from one of the busiest of the rioters.  Harris’ actions have been lionized by some, though some of his actions, such as instructing members of the crowd to take Chinese prisoners to jail, can be questioned.  However, he may have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of raging mob members.

Two and a half years later, Harris played a prominent role in another signal Los Angeles event: the capture of noted bandido Tiburcio Vásquez in what is now West Hollywood.  The spring 1874 event featured Harris bursting into a house where the legendary criminal was hiding and forcing Vásquez to try and flee, before gunshots brought him down.

Former police officer and county sheriff George E. Gard’s challenge of Harris’ story about his role in the Vásquez capture, Herald, 4 September 1892.

Harris later claimed that, once he entered the house and Vásquez tried to escape, he shot and wounded the bandit, who then was hit by further gunfire outside the house.  Others present, however, either couldn’t verify that, recalled matters differently, or, in the case of Gard some eighteen years later, directly questioned Harris’ account after the detective offered to send Vásquez memorabilia (including his gun) to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  In any case, Harris certainly played up his role and this was often reported in later years.  Not long after the Vásquez capture, however, Harris was removed from the police force without a hearing.

In 1877, Harris was appointed by the Los Angeles Common (City) Council to be police chief, giving him the distinction of being the only Jew to hold that office.  He continued his affiliation with the department on and off for about another dozen years.  In 1881, he and W.R. Bettis formed a detective and collections agency, considered to be first private detective firm in Los Angeles.

Harris order from Workman Times_Jun_12__1888_
An order from Los Angeles Mayor William H. Workman to Harris to suppress illegal gambling, Los Angeles Times, 12 June 1888.

In 1888, Los Angeles Mayor William H. Workman, elected at the end of 1886 during the famed Boom of the Eighties and who was said to have employed Harris as a private detective, worked to get Harris appointed as a chief of detectives for the police force and succeeded in getting this done in June 1888.  By the first of 1889, shortly after Workman left office and was replaced by Henry T. Hazard, Harris was named captain of the department, overseeing officer deployment and holding other responsibilities.

By July, however, there was a significant change in the composition of the city council and a movement was led to replace the chief and Harris.  This caused some serious ruptures and Harris even challenged his main council opponent to step outside of the department office so he could “pull his nose” before being restrained.

Harris removal Times_Jul_18__1889_.jpg
Harris’ removal as police department captain, Times, 18 July 1889.

Shortly after he left the force, Harris and another partner formed a private detective agency.  It was this firm, the California State Detective Bureau and Los Angeles Merchants’ Patrol, that is on the letterhead of his missive to the San Diego chief of police.  Notably, Harris had a few instances of notoriety in his careers as an officer and private detective.

For example, he was sued in November 1889 for $10,000 by a man he’d taken prisoner, but the charge was false imprisonment, though the case was determined in Harris’ favor.  In January 1890, it was alleged that a wagon fund for the police department was improperly managed by Harris.  That March, a thief accused Harris of using him to obtain stolen goods for the detective’s benefit, but he claimed the thief was actually hired by the current chief, J. M. Glass, to spy on Harris’ former boss, James F. Burns.

Emil Harris detective letter 21Mar91
This letter from the Homestead’s collection is dated 21 March 1891 from Harris, as manager of the California State Detective Bureau and Los Angeles Merchants’ Patrol, to the chief of police in San Diego about two wanted men.

In September 1892, during a controversy about the police department’s laxity with illicit gambling, a police officer testified that Harris “told him to let games alone” and stated that he “had the impression” that Chinese gamblers paid officers handsomely to look the other way.  This, in fact, was an old question dating back to the pre-Chinese Massacre period when officers were said to receive cash for protecting certain Chinese businessmen against others.

In 1894, a major issue arose when Harris and another man were arrested on a charge of trying to blackmail a local businessman.  The victim’s story, corroborated by police officers, was detailed and seemed compelling, down to claims that Harris tried to hide and even eat evidence as he was being hauled to jail and questioned there.  Yet, the detective insisted that he was asking for a retainer in a matter of the businessman’s infidelities.

Harris arrested Herald_Mar_27__1894_
Harris and another man were arrested on suspicion of extortion, Herald, 27 March 1894.

Additionally, W.A. Bosqui, one of the officers, was sacked when Harris became police captain five years before and the police chief was also an opponent.  It should also be noted that two of the city’s major newspapers had diametrically opposed views of Harris, with the Herald asserting that his long law enforcement career was unblemished, while the Times claimed that his record was tarnished.

The first trial ended with a hung jury, when the panel could not come to a consensus.  A second trial was quickly held, but Harris hired high-powered legal talent, including future governor Henry T. Gage and U. S. Senator Stephen M. White.  The latter pointed out a technicality in the indictment and it was on that basis that the judge ordered the jury to acquit Harris.  There was evidently consideration of trying a third time, but a new indictment was never filed and the detective went free.

Harris Platt case headline Los_Angeles_Herald_Sat__Dec_1__1894_
The second trial of Harris ended with a judge’s order for the jury to acquit the detective because of a faulty indictment, a common problem in criminal justice cases, Herald, 1 December 1894.

Yet, Harris had other issues.  He and his brother Max were local agents for the Louisiana Lottery at a time when lotteries were frequently managed in a way that many considered criminal and this was raised early in 1890 by the Times in the context of Chinese lotteries.  The brothers also formed, in 1895, a firm, the Southern California Arms Company, to sell guns, ammunition and other sporting goods, but the firm collapsed when bankruptcy was declared in 1899.

Despite his ups and downs in law enforcement and its political connotations, Harris continued in his work as a private detective well into his seventies.  Married twice and the father of a son who apparently died young, Harris spent his remaining years living with his younger brother, Max, and died in 1921.  He was interred at the Home of Peace Cemetery for Jews in East Los Angeles and, in 1973, the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California installed a tombstone recognizing Harris as chief of police in 1878.

Harris photo older man
A photo of Harris in his later years from the Jewish Museum of the American West.

His status, especially in the late 1880s and early 1890s, as either a highly respected and ethical law enforcement officer (as represented by the Herald) or as a questionable and tarnished figure (such as noted by the Times) is indicative of the political squabbling of the era, though it is possible that some of the criticism and attacks on Harris was motivated by his being a Jew, though this was not overtly discussed. Knowing, however, that the Los Angeles Police Department had no shortage of controversies and troubles, real or imagined, it may be that Harris was neither quite the shining or the tarnished example his staunch supporters and determined opponents made him out to be.

Leave a Reply