by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the rough-and-tumble world of frontier Los Angeles, one of the deeply rooted problems in the little city was crime and the difficulties the criminal justice system had in dealing with it. Between 1850 and 1875, lynching was sometimes employed by citizens whose frustration with perceived and real ineffectiveness of the courts boiled over into extralegal action.
This is a major theme of the “Curious Cases” series which, over the last four years, has examined a number of incidents of lynching during that quarter century. One such example was the December 1870 hanging by a vigilance committee of Michel Lachenais.
Lachenais, a native of France, committed at least three murders, including the killing of Henri Delaval in 1861 that led Lachenais to flee Los Angeles for San Diego where he remained for a few years. Spurred to return by Benjamin Hayes, recently unseated as district court judge, Lachenais faced a trial for the Delaval murder. During the proceedings, it was stated by his defense attorneys that Lachenais actually returned to Los Angeles in late 1863 intending to turn himself in, but learned that vigilantes strung up several men from the city and county jail. Fearful the same fate would happen to him, the fugitive headed south for two more years when he was enticed to go back to Los Angeles by former district court judge Benjamin Hayes.
Amazingly, in 1866, Lachenais was acquitted in the Delaval case on grounds of self-defense, but then wound up back in court for another homicide involving an Indian employee of Lachenais named Pablo Moreno. This time, Lachenais was convicted on a lesser charge of manslaughter, with the jury believing it was a crime of sudden anger, but, on appeal to the state supreme court, the verdict was overturned and Lachenais evaded justice for a second time. The high court found the case was built purely on circumstantial evidence and poor jury instructions by Hayes’ successor, Pablo de la Guerra.
Lachenais remained quiet and peaceable for a few years, but, in 1870, trouble rose again. He was found guilty in the county court of illegally diverting water to his farm from a city-owned zanja (water ditch) and sentenced to 21 1/2 days in jail or a $43 fine. An appeal to Judge De la Guerra’s district court was denied.
That fall, Lachenais got into a fight with a man named D’Arque and evidently shot his adversary in the face, causing blindness. There was no indication of an arrest, much less a trial. Then, in October, Lachenais’ wife Maria Reyes de Lachenais died and rumors flitted about that she’d been killed by her violent-tempered spouse.
Finally, on 14 December 1870, Lachenais got into a boundary dispute with neighbor Jacob Bell and shot and killed his adversary. This time, there’d be no trial with a chance of yet another reprieve. Citizens took the law into their own hands in the form of an organized vigilance committee.
Enter another native of France, Felix Signoret. Born in 1825 in the southern sea port of Marseilles, Signoret was a veteran of the Mexican-American War and came to Los Angeles in the 1850s. At the time, the only barber in town who worked on Americans was Peter Biggs, brought as a slave to California at the end of the Mexican-American War by his military officer master. Freed when the new possession outlawed slavery in its 1849 constitution before statehood was approved, Biggs built up a good business . . . until Signoret arrived and opened his own tonsorial parlor. In 1857, Signoret was naturalized as an American citizen at the district court in Los Angeles and, about this time, married widow Catherine LePrince, who had two children. She and Signoret then had three daughters.
Signoret prospered in his trade and began to acquire property in Los Angeles as well as hold some positions of political responsibility. In 1863, the year of the mass lynching, he was elected to the Common [City] Council and was on its police committee for his one-year term. Three years later, he was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and also served a one-year term.
Despite his public service, Signoret decided he could not wait to learn whether Lachenais would be convicted of Jacob Bell’s murder. According to prominent merchant Harris Newmark in his 1916 memoir Sixty Years in Southern California, there was a mass meeting at a hall in town at which “Lachenais’s record was reviewed and his death at the hands of an outraged community was decided upon.
Everything being arranged, three hundred or more armed men, under the leadership of Felix Signoret, the barber—Councilman in 1863 and proprietor of the Signoret Building opposite the Pico House—assembled on the morning of December 17th, marched to the jail, overcame Sheriff [James F.] Burns and his assistants, took Lachenais out, dragged him along to the corral of Tomlinson & Griffith (at the corner of Temple and New High streets) and there summarily hanged him.
Remarking that the corral was a popular place for “this same gruesome purpose,” Newmark stated that County Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda ordered the grand jury “to do its duty toward ferreting out the leaders of the mob, and so wipe out this reproach to the city.” The jury, however, evidently determined “that if the law had hitherto been faithfully executed in Los Angeles, such scenes in broad daylight would never have taken place.”
Interestingly, Horace Bell, whose autobiography Reminiscences of a Ranger, published in 1881, did not identify Signoret as the ring-leader, but claimed it was prominent realtor and lawyer Robert M. Widney (soon to be district judge) and A.M. Hough, minister at the Methodist Church.
Yet, the Los Angeles News corroborated (or, perhaps, provided source material for) Newmark by observing that Signoret and former county school superintendent Patrick McFadden were the leaders of the mob who strung up Lachenais (whose killing was the only photographically documented lynching in Los Angeles history). Presumably for Signoret, this was personal, as he likely knew Henri Delaval and chafed for almost a decade at the ability of Lachenais to evade the penalty for that crime.
Incidentally, it is commonly misstated on the Internet that Signoret was the leader of the late 1863 lynch mob, but this is mistaken for his documented role in the vigilance committee that hung Lachenais seven years later.
It was also reported that the vigilance committee that Signoret led was angry at the law firm of Edward J.C. Kewen and James G. Howard, who’d evidently been too successful at defending criminals. According to one perhaps apocryphal tale, Howard approached Signoret in the street and said “Signoret, I understand you are going to hang Kewen and Howard.” Sheepishly, Signoret replied “Yes, that was our intention last night.” With that, Howard jovially responded
Come now, Signoret, we are old friends. Be generous. Let’s compromise. Hang Kewen; he’s the head of the firm.
If there was any community disfavor shown to Signoret, it is not reflected in his business activity following the lynching. He soon left his full-time barbering career (though he did occasional weekend work). In 1873, he operated the Bank Exchange Billiard Saloon and cheerfully advertised “Everybody Knows the Old Man Signoret,” who was then 48 years old and noted he “has been in attendance [service] since 1849.” Barber services were also part of this business.
In 1874, he built the French Second Empire Signoret Building on the west side of Main Street across from the Pico House. The following year, he added another brick structure, the three-story Signoret Block, also on Main Street at Arcadia Street, just south of the Pico House and where a parking lot is now, the first sustained growth period in Los Angeles, which spanned from about 1868 to 1875, came to a dramatic halt.
The failure of California Bank in San Francisco due to a stock bubble collapse in silver mining stock at Virginia City, Nevada, precipitated a financial panic that reached Los Angeles at the end of August. Among the casualties was the bank of Temple and Workman, which failed in early 1876.
Signoret was apparently over-extended with his real estate endeavors and got into financial trouble. This was compounded by the death of his wife, Catherine, in early 1877. Felix did not live much longer, dying of dropsy on 28 July 1878. He left his three daughters, with one of them administering his estate, including a fine French Second Empire home that was subject to foreclosure proceedings. His Signoret Block was sold, in 1882, for $25,000, while the Signoret home on Aliso Street, built about 1871, later wound up being used by the late 1880s as a brothel.
A recent addition to the Homestead’s collection is a remarkably clear and crisp carte de visite photograph portrait of Signoret taken by Valentine Wolfenstein, one of Los Angeles’ main professional photographers of the first half of the 1870s. This great acquisition appears to be the only known likeness of Signoret, a find similar to that of a CDV acquired a couple years ago of another prominent French resident of Los Angeles, former Mayor Damien Marchessault, who was profiled in the “Portrait Gallery” series here.