by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Monday night’s talk on the lives of Merced and Francisca Williams, heiresses of Rancho Santa Ana del Chino, included the dramatic stories of the violent deaths of their husbands, John Rains and Robert S. Carlisle, who controlled the fortunes the sisters received from their father Issac Williams after his death in September 1856.
Rains was particularly aggressive in seeking to capitalize on his wife’s fortune to develop his own. He sold Merced’s half-interest in Chino in 1858 to Francisca; used the funds to buy Rancho Cucamonga later that year; expanded the latter’s vineyards and built a large brick home there; acquired two ranches at Warner Springs in San Diego County; and repurchased the Bella Union Hotel in Los Angeles which he’d owned in the early 1850s.
All of this was done as the regional economy was weakening after the end of the Gold Rush, amid a national depression that broke out in 1857, and as floods and droughts that wrought havoc on the cattle industry which predominated in the area were just around the corner. Rains simply did too much too soon, a common problem for enthusiastic investors, and was badly leveraged.
He borrowed money and took a mortgage out on Cucamonga, among other efforts to stanch the flow of debt that was quickly rising, and, in November 1862, as he was riding from Cucamonga to Los Angeles to transact more business involving his precarious financial situation, he was murdered. The crime went unsolved, though a string of deaths followed in its wake. Carlisle, who, for a time, assumed control of Merced’s affairs to add to his control of his wife’s inheritance at Chino, was killed in summer 1865 in a blazing gunbattle at the Bella Union.
The poor pun utilized in the title of this post applies in a few ways. First, when matters go bad, there is usually a succession of negative news that is involved—hence, the cliche. Secondly, there was a period of heavy rains and downpours in 1861-62, not long before Rains’ death, that preceded the drought that ravaged the region. Finally, the tumult surrounding Rains and his widow is indicative of a downpour of troubles that continued for several years after his death.
A couple of years ago, an interesting document was acquired for the Homestead’s collection that ties into the Rains story. Dated 13 March 1863, four months after his murder, it constituted a grant deed to the widow Merced from Rains’ estate administrator and Rancho Cucamonga foreman Elijah K. Dunlap. The document is incomplete, though appears to be mostly present and the consists of several pages separated at folds from long periods of storage. The deed was filed at District Court on 19 September 1863 under the authority of Judge Benjamin Hayes.
It is not known if Rains had a will, so, if not, the estate went into probate. This was handled by the District Court, which was presided over by Hayes, based in Los Angeles. The judge’s jurisdiction, however, extended through much of southern California, including San Bernardino County where Rains lived.
The property, moreover, included Warner’s ranch in San Diego County, which was obtained by Rains through a sheriff’s sale (he loaned money to John J. Warner with the ranch used as collateral) in September 1861. The document notes, however, that the ranch was subject to a partition from 1858 after a suit filed against Warner ended in favor of the plaintiff, J. Mora Moss.
Another piece of property mentioned in the deed was a September 1859 note on a $1,200 loan made from Rains to María Antonia Apís de Holman, whose father, Temecula Indian Chief Pablo Apis, was an associate of Merced’s father.
Then there was the Bella Union Hotel property, situated on the northeast corner of Main and Commercial streets, right where U.S. 101 runs through downtown Los Angeles now. As noted before, Rains was a part-owner for a short time in 1851 before leaving the area for a couple of years. As his financial situation worsened, however, he borrowed $7500 from Alice Flashner in August 1862, putting up the hotel as security.
Finally, Rancho Cucamonga was also mentioned with respect to Merced’s ownership of a cattle brand registered in July 1859 in the name of her late husband so that she “is the owner of all the stock not heretofore sold bearing said ear marks & brands or either of them.” Moreover, she was deemed “the owner of the wine and brandy . . . and other products of said Rancho of Cucamonga.” This included “the casks, tubs & all wine making & distilling machinery & utensils.” As with the hotel, Rains borrowed, this time from Los Angeles merchant Philip Sichel the day before he was killed.
As noted in the presentation, Merced had to sell the Warner ranch to pay legal fees for other matters pertaining to the stricken estate. The Bella Union was lost as was Cucamonga, which Sichel foreclosed upon, though there were some legal matters that arose because he waited to long to file. By 1870, the rancho came into the hands of prominent Los Angeles banker Isaias W. Hellman instead. What is not known is whether Merced was able to collect on the Apis note.
The surviving pieces (it appears two more separated sheets have been lost) of this grant deed are pieces of a complicated puzzle involving Merced Williams’ inheritance and its assumption (and squandering) by her husband. At the time the document was drawn up, Robert Carlisle enlisted Elijah Dunlap and a group of other men, including Los Angeles attorney and judge Jonathan R. Scott, attorney James H. Lander and others to pressure Merced to assign her power of attorney to Carlisle.
Carlisle, successful in his aim, assumed that whatever was Rains’s property (acquired, again, through his wife’s inheritance) would become his, in practical terms, if he controlled Merced’s properties as attorney-in-fact. With two years, however, on grounds of fraud and mismanagement, an action was filed and a decree issued to strip Carlisle of that role. The new attorney-in-fact was Los Angeles County Under-Sheriff Andrew Jackson King, who’d been in charge of investigating the Rains murder.
Carlisle, unhappy about King’s work on the Rains case and especially about the under-sheriff taking over Merced’s power of attorney, sought revenge when he attacked and wounded King at a wedding celebration at the Bella Union. The next day, King’s two brothers, Frank and Houston, showed up to avenge the injury done to their sibling. The resulting gunbattle, long remembered in Los Angeles, resulted in the deaths of Frank King and Carlisle.
Merced was effectively ruined financially. She remarried for several years and lived quietly in Los Angeles, dying in 1907 at the home of her daughter Fanny, wife of former California governor Henry T. Gage in what is now Bell Gardens (the adobe home still stands, mainly neglected, in a mobile home park). These documents are rare artifacts from the Rains estate and are part of one of the more dramatic stories of 19th century greater Los Angeles.