by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This second part of a post on the King family of El Monte, which had a predilection for the use of personal justice during the period of 1855-1865, takes us to the latter end of that era. That sense of justice was heightened by the family’s following the codes of honor laid out in what is often called “Southern chivalry.” Having moved from the American South (Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and Arkansas) to southern California where many of their fellow Southerners also migrated, the Kings brought traditions of exacting personal justice with them.
Yesterday’s post highlighted a January 1855 incident involving Samuel King, the family’s patriarch, and his three sons, Frank Marion, Andrew Jackson, and Samuel Houston, and Tennessee native and El Monte resident Micajah Johnson. After the latter verbally abused one of the King boys, his father was summoned and confronted Johnson, with King firing first before the latter returned fire, mortally wounding his adversary, who died the next day.
The King boys or, according to one account, one of them, immediately took out revenge, as insisted by their father, and Johnson was killed. There were no legal recriminations, even though it was clear that Samuel King initiated the violence. In fact, it was even suggested by a newspaper that Johnson deserved his inglorious end because of his lack of respect and his verbal assault.
The Kings remained in El Monte after Samuel’s demise and, two years later, in early 1857, one of them was involved in another grisly incident. When Sheriff James Barton and members of his small posse tracking a bandit gang (the Flores-Daniel gang) near San Juan Capistrano were gunned down, a countywide movement to seek out the perpetrators and anyone deemed suspicious erupted. Some 150 Latinos were arrested in the following days and weeks and the search for criminals was, in many cases, spontaneous and not coordinated.
In San Gabriel, suspicions fell upon several men, including one who was chased into a nearby swamp by a group of Anglos from the area, who then set fire to the marshy locale. According to one news account, a “Mr. King of the Monte” then rode up to the scene, called for the fugitive’s surrender and then fired his gun, killing the suspect. Obviously, there was no attempt to apply any sense of due process into what seems a totally improvised scenario. Which member of the King family was involved was not stated.
As violence generally lessened by the end of the 1850s, the Kings settled in to their lives as farmers in El Monte, but a new era of challenges ensued early in the next decade. A faltering economy, with a national depression in 1857 followed by floods and drought in the first half of the Sixties, came along as the Civil War broke out back east. Then, there were personal animosities that arose, again involving Southern men very much part of that tradition of chivalry and the code of honor.
Out at Rancho Santa Ana del Chino, in modern Chino and Chino Hills, longtime owner Isaac Williams died in 1856, leaving a valuable domain of about 47,000 acres, to his teen-aged daughters, Merced and Francisca. This daunting situation provided opportunity, however, to two ranch employees, John Rains and Robert S. Carlisle, who both possessed abundant energy, intense ambition, and red-hot tempers when aroused to anger. Rains married Merced within weeks of Williams’ death, while Carlisle and Francisca were wed several months later.
Initially, the quartet shared ownership and management of the vast Chino ranch, but it was decided that Rains would sell his wife’s interest so that he could buy a nearby property of value and potential, Rancho Cucamonga. In the last few years of the 1850s and first couple of years of the subsequent decade, Rains moved quickly and aggressively, using his wife’s money to dramatically expand wine-making and ranching activities at Cucamonga, build an expensive brick home (still standing as a San Bernardino County historic site), and purchased other ranches as well as the Bella Union Hotel in Los Angeles.
It was a classic case of doing too much too soon and at a particularly bad time, given the conditions at the time in the region, including the floods and droughts. Carlisle, too, took control over Chino and expanded his dominance of his wife’s inheritance, but also contracted debts singly and in conjunction with his brother-in-law.
Then, in late 1862, Rains disappeared while en route to Los Angeles from Cucamonga and, after nearly two weeks, his mangled and badly decomposed corpse was found near the road in what was called Mud Springs (now San Dimas), within Los Angeles County limits. Despite vigorous efforts to find the killer (and involving lynchings and murders connected to the principal figures), Rains’ murder went unsolved. Carlisle, whose efforts at finding Rains’ killers may have masked his own involvement in the affair, blamed the Los Angeles County Under-Sheriff for not finding those who committed the crime. That official was Andrew Jackson King.
King was rising to prominence in the region, which was dominated by the Democratic Party because of the Southern-born population (enthusiastic supporters of the Confederate cause in the Civil War.) He became a member of the state assembly, an attorney and helped launch a newspaper called the Los Angeles News, in addition to his law enforcement duties. Then, in early 1865, a judge handed King power of attorney over the worsening financial affairs of Merced Rains—that is, after stripping that role over her situation from none other than Robert Carlisle, who now had two major reasons to hate A.J. King.
In early July 1865, a wedding took place in the Bella Union Hotel, once a prized possession of Rains, and where Carlisle and other Southerners were often to be found imbibing and praising the Confederates while they railed against the Union. Carlisle spotted A.J. King and launched a fusillade of invective against him, prompting the latter to slap Carlisle across the face. In the tussle that followed, including King’s misguided shot at his enemy with a Derringer, Carlisle managed to inflict a severe knife wound on King’s hand, severing an artery and sending the Under-Sheriff to seek emergency care from a doctor.
Rather than call upon his boss, Sheriff Tomás Sánchez, about the incident and abide by the law he swore to uphold, King turned to personal justice and Southern chivalry and the code of honor. The following day, his brothers Frank and Houston (he went by his middle name typically) arrived in Los Angeles and proceeded to the Bella Union, where the wedding party was preparing to leave town. Not surprisingly, the Kings found Carlisle at the hotel bar.
Accounts seemed to agree that the Kings, as their father did a decade before, wasted no time in firing at Carlisle as soon as they crossed the threshold of the hotel’s adobe first floor drinking gallery. Carlisle, however, managed to return fire and instantly killed Frank King. According to merchant Harris Newmark, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1853 and whose relative was the groom in the aforementioned wedding, the fight continued outside, where Carlisle fell to the ground and was pummeled by Houston King’s pistol, which broke during the beating. Yet, the former, described by Newmark as “a man of iron” managed to lean against the building, grip his revolver with both hands, and squeeze off one last shot, seriously wounding Houston King before collapsing.
Carlisle died on the billiard table in the Bella Union bar after a few hours and he and Frank King were buried the next day, while Houston King recovered from his injuries, was tried the following year for the killing of Carlisle and acquitted. As in 1855, it seemed clear that, even though the Kings initiated the violence, they were give wide berth for their actions because of the chivalric code which retained its prominence among enough of their fellow citizens.
In the aftermath, Rancho Cucamonga was lost by foreclosure to Isaias W. Hellman, a banking partner for a couple of years of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple. Merced Rains lived until the early part of the 20th century, dying at the home of her daughter, the wife of former California governor Henry T. Gage. The Chino ranch managed to stay in the hands of Francisca Carlisle for a period and she married a Los Angeles doctor who served as the city’s mayor for a term before his early death. She married again and lived in northern California for a long period before returning to Los Angeles where she died in the 1920s.
As for the remaining King brothers, Andrew Jackson was appointed in 1868 to serve out the remaining months of the term of a county judge who died in office and then returned to practice law for more than a half century, dying in 1923 at age 90. Houston King stayed in El Monte for another eight years after his epic gunbattle with Carlisle and then took his family east to several places, including Arizona, dying in the new state in 1915.
Twenty years later, his son, Frank M. (named for the uncle who was killed by Carlisle) published a colorful and freewheeling memoir, Wranglin’ the Past. Playing loose with the facts, or ignorant of some of them, the younger King claimed that, in the aftermath of the King-Johnson melee, his father tracked Johnson down, not to a nearby house as the newspapers reported, but 130 miles to Tehachapi Pass, where Johnson fired first but missed and Houston plugged his prey. It makes for a better story, but simply wasn’t true.
With regard to the Carlisle incident, the junior Frank King claimed his father gave him the actual account of how the author’s namesake was killed, after printing in full Newmark’s lengthy, but apparently erroneous in key places, account. Allegedly, it was Carlisle who fired first as the Kings approached the Bella Union, not as Newmark stated. Then, Frank fired at Carlisle, while Houston held off because of Carlisle’s superior position behind the adobe wall at the door. When Houston moved away from his spot, Carlisle shot him through the lungs, upon which the former poured four bullets into the latter’s stomach. Frank King then leaped upon Carlisle and hit him with his emptied gun sending Carlisle on the floor for good.
Then, the story went on, as Frank lifted Houston into a sitting position, “a friend of Carlisle,” who the younger Frank King would not name because he had family still living in Texas in the mid-1930s, ran into the room from the back of the structure and “shot Uncle Frank through the heart, killing him instantly.” It was claimed no one was in the room but the four men, the two Kings, Carlisle, and the unnamed assassin. The tale continued that, if Houston King had been convicted of Carlisle’s death, a hundred men would have busted him out of jail.
Concluding that “it has always been the custom of our family to kill anyone who kills any member of the family,” Frank King II related that his father left with the family from El Monte in 1873 “to find the friend of Carlisle who left Texas before father was released from jail.” After some wandering in Texas and Cherokee territory in what became Oklahoma, it was claimed that Houston King finally found his brother’s killer and shot him down on a Texas road in 1875. There’s no way to corroborate the tale told in the younger Frank King’s entertaining book, however.