Curious Cases: Lawyers of Los Angeles, 1850-1875, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This afternoon was the second of four Curious Cases presentations about criminal justice in greater Los Angeles from 1850 to 1875 and covered the work of pioneer attorneys.  One of the main points raised early in the talk was that, being a frontier town with a small population, Los Angeles was a tough place to be for a barrister.  Yet, there were a number of successful practitioners of the law in the rough-and-tumble community.

The first four lawyers to be admitted to the bar, which was done by oral interview with a sitting judge in open court not by an exam, were William C. Ferrell, Albert H. Clark, Jonathan R. Scott and Benjamin I. Hayes.  The first two did not remain long in town, but the latter pair became partners and well-known in local legal circles.

Hayes will be discussed in detail at this fall’s final Curious Cases talk on judges in early Los Angeles, because of his twelve-year stint as district court judge.  Scott, a native of New York who abandoned a family in that state and wound up with a new family in Missouri before migrating to the west coast, “stood very high, both as to physique and reputation,” according to merchant Harris Newmark.  Newmark added that Scott “was identified with nearly every important case” in town.

LA Star ads lawyers 1852
Advertisements from attorneys in the Los Angeles Star newspaper, 14 August 1852.

Towering at 6’4″ (the same height as Abraham Lincoln, at a time when people were much smaller than now), Scott, who died in 1864 and had a son who was a Los Angeles attorney, was an imposing presence in the tiny adobe courtroom in use during the 1850s.  Of him, fellow lawyer J. Lancaster Brent wrote in an unpublished memoir

he was one of the most remarkable men I ever met.  He was a very large man, and gave you the impression of a wood-chopper.  His mental gifts were very great, his process of reasoning clear, and his ability as a trial lawyer unrivalled . . . a thorough and accomplished lawyer.

Brent added that “under his garb of roughness of manner . . . he possessed the power of moulding [sic] judges and juries equal to any met I ever knew.”  Yet, Scott did have “one special characteristic, and that was a constant readiness to head a lynching party, which was inconceivable in one trained as he was to law.”  There were, in fact, other attorneys who got involved in “extra-legal” proceedings in these years.

Another interesting figure was Lewis C. Granger, whom Horace Bell (who wrote very cuttingly and colorfully of people he didn’t like and rhapsodize about those he did) in his memoir, Reminiscences of a Ranger, described as “one of the ablest and best of our pioneer lawyers, and one of the most generous of men, and withal a most classical scholar.”  Granger was an Ohio and a 49er who traveled overland with a group that split, with the other contingent being the tragic “Death Valley 49ers” who suffered grievously in the infamous desert in eastern California.

Payne Franklin St Jail
The Los Angeles city and county jail at the center with the courthouse in the long one-story adobe building behind it at Spring and Court (north of First) streets, ca. mid 1870s.  This is a detail from a panorama stereoscopic photograph in the Homestead’s collection.

Granger, in a reminiscence, arrived in Los Angeles on New Year’s Day 1850 and marveled at his new home, writing that “noting could exceed the beauty of the valley . . . it had all the loveliness with none of the chilling winds of Spring.”  He was dismissive of Latinos who, to his mind, were “never known to be guilty of manual labor” and mocked “the mud palaces” of their adobe houses.

As to the law, Granger seemed ambivalent and apparently tried his hand at a restaurant before turning, in dire straits, to “the only resources left me, of entering the profession which I first studied.”  Writing in 1854 to a brother-in-law, he added, “poverty drove me to labor hard and incessant to procure a comfortable support for the dear ones trusting to me for their all in the world” and mention the “constant and unremitting study,” including learning Spanish.

His first case, though, netted him a handsome $500 fee and he provided a rare, if simple, balance sheet of his practice when he stated his fees amounted to several thousands of dollars, while his overhead was about $4,000.  Later, however, Granger relocated to Oroville in northern California and remained there until his death.

Courthouse area Payne 1870s
Here is another stereoscopic photo from the Homestead collection, showing the Market House built by Jonathan Temple in 1859, but soon converted to city and county administrative offices and the courthouse.

Brent, too, found the law to be difficult, stating that “when I arrived at Los Angeles . . . I was rather disappointed . . . there seemed to be so little business or trade going on.”  An acquaintance informed him “that when the American courts were first opened [late spring 1850], there had been some business in the town, but now it had all been done and there was nothing in prospect.”  He added that “cases came in slowly and irregularly, barely enough to keep me . . . and [a] reserve fund became exhausted, and about three months after my arrival I found myself quite poor.”

Luckily, Brent was hired by the Lugo family to represent two members accused of the murder of two men in early 1851.  The Lugo Case was unusual in that it dragged on for over a year-and-a-half and had all manner of strange legal contortions before County Judge Agustín Olvera ordered the release of the brothers for lack of evidence.  For his work, Brent was paid, it was said, the staggering sum of $20,000.  His account of the case claimed that he also saved his clients from murder and Los Angeles from being ravished by a bandit gang, though that is certainly overstated.

What isn’t, though, is Brent’s powerful grip on the dominant Democratic Party in the region so that, while he stated “most of the [legal] business of the place [Los Angeles] came to me,” he also was able to secure the election of any candidate for local office he wished.  Having come from New Orleans and being, as many southerners in greater Los Angeles were, a dyed-in-the-wool Confederate sympathizer, Brent returned to Louisiana to fight for the South during the Civil War and remained there.

E.J.C. Kewen
Lawyer, orator and all-around hot-headed firebrand, E.J.C. Kewen.

Another rabid Confederate supporter was E.J.C. Kewen, a budding poet and journalist from Missouri who practiced law in St. Louis before coming to California for the Gold Rush.  He, at only 24 years, was California’s first attorney general and later was a filibusterer with the notorious William Walker in Nicaragua (as were others in Los Angeles, such as Horace Bell.)  In Los Angeles, Kewen was widely known for his fiery speechifying and bitter invective as well as his physical clashes with enemies.

While district attorney in an 1860 murder case, he and defense attorney Columbus Sims, another hot-head, had a verbal confrontation that led to Sims flailing a water glass and pitcher at Kewen, who produced a Derringer and fired just as he was grabbed by bystanders.  A Latino man was wounded and Kewen was carried out.  The Los Angeles Star mildly stated that the incident

places the District Atttorney in a very awkward position, for, after this display of lawlessness, how can he consistently demand the punishment of offenders against the law?

In the early stages of the Civil War, Kewen, a member of the state assembly, was arrested for openly stating his preference for the rebel cause and was briefly imprisoned at Alcatraz Island (owned by William Workman and then his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple before being seized as military property.)  After posting a $5,000 bond and swearing a loyalty oath, Kewen was released.

In 1866, Kewen got into a fight and was knocked to the ground.  He procured a gun, laid in wait for his adversary, and then shot and wounded him.  Kewen somehow avoided conviction after being indicted for assault with a deadly weapon.  Just over a decade later, the cantankerous counsellor got into fisticuffs in court and was, again, floored.

These are just a few tidbits of what was covered in today’s talk and tomorrow, we’ll continue with other accounts of early Los Angeles attorneys, including some of the very few Latino lawyers in town.

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