by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This afternoon was the final installment of the Curious Cases presentations covering aspects of crime and criminal justice in Los Angeles from 1850-1875. After four years, that sixteenth discussion covered judges in the several courts operating in the region during that quarter century.
Many of the jurists were notable, including Agustín Olvera, Benjamin Hayes, Ygnacio Sepulveda and Robert M. Widney, among others, who heard hundreds of cases at the District and County (Court of Sessions) court levels and did their best to oversee trials in an era when financial and material support was low; conditions in the courtrooms were usually primitive; and frustrated citizens were often all-too-willing to take the law into their own hands and employ vigilantism through lynchings.
One of the longest-serving and certainly the most colorful of the judges of that era was William G. Dryden. Born in 1807 in Kentucky, likely in Richmond, Dryden was a merchant and had a traveler’s disposition from early on. He was working as a merchant when he applied for a passport and then traveled to France in 1831, returning to the United States that September.
Several years later, he migrated to Texas, then an independent republic after the 1836 revolution against Mexican rule. He became something of a trusted informant to President Mirabeau Lamar, when Lamar pondered expanding the western boundary of his nation to the Rio Grande.
This meant annexing most of the settled communities of the Mexican department of New Mexico, with the principal towns of Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos in the sights of Lamar’s plan. When Dryden assured him there was plenty of support among Americans and Europeans in New Mexico for the concept, Lamar, in April 1840, issued a proclamation to residents there naming a three-person commission to help pave the way for what was advertised as the “Texas-Santa Fe Expedition” for peaceful commercial purposes.
Two of the three members of that commission were acquaintances of Dryden: John Rowland and William Workman. The pair were long-standing residents of Taos and Mexican citizens, with Rowland working as a miller and Workman as a merchant and the two jointly manufactured liquor.
It is not known whether Rowland and Workman actively solicited or even agreed to be named to the commission, but, after the planned expedition was postponed and then revived in 1841, the two were replaced by others and were busily planning to depart New Mexico for California.
Their own expedition, containing roughly 65 Americans, Europeans and New Mexicans left Santa Fe in early September. It followed a regular trade caravan over the Old Spanish Trail and covered the 1,200-mile route through mountains and deserts in about two months. The group arrived in greater Los Angeles about 5 November, which Workman commemorated as his arrival because it was on a British holiday, Guy Fawkes Day.
Speaking of traitors, Dryden joined the Texas-Santa Fe Expedition as it headed towards New Mexico late in 1841, but the effort was poorly planned and badly executed. Low on food and water and hardly prepared for any type of armed conflict, the stragglers who made it through to Santa Fe (many gave up and returned to Texas and some died) were easily rounded up by Mexican forces and imprisoned.
Dryden was taken south to Chihuahua, held there for an extended period, and closely questioned about the disastrous expedition, including the role of Rowland and Workman in its planning. He was then freed and continued to travel and work as a merchant. In 1845, he was on a ship sailing from Matamoros, just over the Texas border, to New Orleans. While on one manifest, there was no occupation listed for the 38-year old adventurer, another document shows his vocation as “Mexican army,” so perhaps he was something of a mercenary.
Perhaps because of the discovery of gold in northern California or maybe because of existing contacts in the City of Angels, Dryden migrated west and came to Los Angeles by early 1850. He soon was admitted to bar as an attorney, though there is no evidence that he had any prior education or training in the law. He also got reacquainted with Rowland and Workman and represented them in some land claim proceedings for Rancho La Puente in 1852 and afterward.
A fluent Spanish speaker who twice married women of local prominent Californio families (Nieto and Dominguez) and had several children, Dryden also worked as a translator in Los Angeles courts and was then elected as a justice of the peace for the Los Angeles township, which was a large area outside of the corporate limits of the city. While in that position, he twice acted as a coroner, when the official coroner was absent.
In one instance in 1853, he held an inquest over the body of an Indian named Basilio and Dryden issued an official verdict of “death from intoxication, or the visitation of God.” Whether this was an attempt at humor or an indication of his lack of concern over the dead man, the judge was indicted by the district attorney on a charge of misconduct in office the following year during another coroner’s inquest. After rendering his verdict, leaving the scene without making arrangements for the disposition of the body, which was exposed to the elements. Because it was determined that there was no specific statute covering Dryden’s actions, the matter was dropped.
Despite incidents like these, Dryden won the election in 1856 as County Judge, meaning he also presided over the Court of Sessions, which heard most criminal business, as well as civil cases. He was the reelected several times and remained in office for thirteen years until his death in 1869.
W.W. Robinson, author of Lawyers of Los Angeles (1959), described Dryden as “one of the most genial and colorful characters in Los Angeles” and an illustration of the latter quality has come down through a pair of anecdotes about the jurist in court.
One had to do with the trial of a brother-in-law of Dryden brought up on charges of grand larceny for horse theft. While the defendant was duly convicted, the jury evidently recommended clemency for unstated reasons. Dryden accordingly noted the jury’s request and ordered his wife’s brother freed so that he could go about his business. When a spectator blurted out, “What is his business?,” the judge responded, “Horse-stealing, sir. Horse-stealing!”
The other incident involved a dispute in court that led to guns being drawn and shots fired. Hiding behind his bench, Dryden bellowed, “Shoot away, damn you! And to hell with all of you!”
A 1906 article about early jurisprudence in the City of Angels cited an 1867 court order made by Dryden that stipulated “hereafter attorneys while in attendance upon court will be required to wear a coat of some kind and will not be allowed to rest their feet on the tops of tables, or whittle or spit tobacco juice on the floor or stove.”
Merchant Harris Newmark, in his memoir Sixty Years in Southern California, wrote of Judge Dryden that “at no time was his knowledge of the law and things pertaining thereto other than extremely limited. His audacity, however, frequently sustained him in positions that otherwise might have been embarrassing.” Yet, the citizens of Los Angeles must have felt the jurist had enough competence on the bench that they returned him to office several times.
Perhaps we should leave the last word to the ribald and entertaining judge, who was said to have commented that “a lawyer is but human and subject to the temptation of looseness of habits that are always engendered in a warm climate.”