Sharing History with the La Verne Historical Society on Curious Cases and District Court Judge Benjamin Hayes, 1852-1864

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Despite the rain, about 75 people showed up tonight at the Hillcrest retirement community for my presentation, the third for that group in recent years, to the La Verne Historical Society based on the Homestead’s Curious Cases program on Judges in Los Angeles, 1850-1875, otherwise titled “Shoot Away, Damn You!”

That exclamation was said to have been uttered by the colorful Los Angeles County Judge William G. Dryden, a friend of William Workman, while on the bench during his 13-year tenure as gunfire rang out in the courtroom.  Dryden was covered in a post here last October after that presentation was first given and there have been two encores since, including to the Sons of the American Revolution chapter in the South Bay and, this evening, to the folks in La Verne.

Not as colorful, but equally as compelling in very different ways, was District Court Judge Benjamin I. Hayes, who served two six-year terms between 1852 and 1864, making him about as long-tenured as his compatriot Dryden.  Tonight’s post delves a little into this fascinating figure of early American era legal history in greater Los Angeles.


Hayes was born on Valentine’s Day 1815 in Baltimore and was educated in that city, being a rare college graduate, earning his diploma at St. Mary’s University.  He migrated west and spent some time in Missouri before coming to Gold Rush California and arriving in Los Angeles early in 1850.

He at once began practicing law, being one of the first four attorneys admitted to the bar in Los Angeles in June 1850, and had several business partners, including Jonathan R. Scott, who also became a judge.  Hayes also served as the Los Angeles City Attorney and Los Angeles County Attorney and, during that period, was involved in the notable Lugo Case, in which two brothers in that prominent family were accused of murder.  One late night Hayes was fired upon by an unknown assailant who barely missed killing him, though it is unclear whether he was the target or there was a case of mistaken identity.

Hayes, who quickly developed a facility for Spanish, also became known for translating California’s laws into that language, and his fluency allowed him to write articles in the Spanish-language newspaper El Clamor Público on legal matters.

1857 drawing
A very sanitized drawing of Los Angeles from 1857 showing the frontier town with mostly single-story adobe buildings and done during the middle of Benjamin Hayes’ twelve-year tenure as district court judge.

In his twelve-year tenure, Hayes presided over many well-known and controversial criminal matters in Los Angeles and did so at a time of limited resources, continual distrust of the legal system by many locals who were often too willing to employ extra-legal vigilantism in response, and did this while “riding circuit” over a district that, at times, went as far north as San Luis Obispo and south to San Diego.

Hayes took his responsibilities very seriously and expressed gratitude for his position, writing in his diary in 1854 that “I hold an office that is grateful to my feelings, amongst a people who elected me, and whose confidence I seem to possess.”  His published statements from the bench often reveal a magistrate who thought carefully about the applications of the law, even as he often waxed poetic about the moral and ethical elements of the question of crime and punishment.

It was said that he moved nearly to tears when delivered a pronouncement of the sentence of the death penalty on convicted murderers, imploring them (which would be considered improper now) to reflect on their judgment in a religious way, though this was, in his mind, compatible with his devout Catholic sentiments.

benjamin hayes
An early photo of Benjamin Ignatius Hayes (1815-1877), a two-term District Judge from 1852-1864 who worked hard in very difficult and trying times in a frontier Los Angeles teeming with ethnic tension and extraordinary levels of violence.

He also took opportunities to counter statements made about perceived biases in the legal system by addressing them in published articles, including a notable one in El Clamor Público shortly after the massacre of Los Angeles County Sheriff James R. Barton in early 1857.  There, he used statistics from his court to buttress his claim that fairness was employed to Latinos as well as to Americans and Europeans.  Again, these measures would be unthinkable today by a sitting judge, but Hayes clearly thought that tensions of the time required that response.

In 1858, Hayes ran for reelection, noting that, although he was a Democrat, “I have determined to run without a party convention, as I did in 1852” adding that “this course is countenanced by a large majority of my Democratic friends.”  While he did face opposition from attorney Columbus Sims, Hayes, who also wrote “I have met with a support . . . which gives me the most delightful satisfaction,” won the election in a landslide, garnering over 1,200 votes to just over 200 for Sims (though note how few votes were cast in elections 160 years ago!)

Fortunately, he received a major bump in his salary during that time, which rose from $3,000 (payable in lean economic times, however, in scrip, essentially an I.O.U.) to $5,000, which gave him a comfortable income, when paid, that is.  He was also more than happy to secure the raise, because he added “I must pay some election expenses, and I owe a note of $500 with interest at 5 per cent a month.”  Note that 5% a month is a huge amount, even though the loan was small.  The raise did come with a provision that district judges spend time out of court conducting business, including issuing writs, addressing motions from attorneys and other matters.

hayes 1850 census
Because California was admitted to the Union in September 1850, that year’s federal census was not conducted in Los Angeles until early the following year (and was badly undercounted).  On 17 January 1851, Hayes was enumerated with fellow lawyer Joseph L. Brent, also a native of Baltimore and a Catholic, in household 68.


As a reflection of the esteem with which Hayes was held by many Latinos, Francisco P. Ramirez, the young and brilliant publisher of El Clamor Público, lionized the judge during that 1858 campaign, writing

Few jobs are as important as that of District Judge, and it is the duty of our fellow citizens to choose a just and honest person . . . we are sure that all Californios will given their votes in his favor, without considerations of party and alone because they desire to see as Judge a person that has given so many tests of justice and impartiality.

Hayes, as a devout Catholic and sincere moralist, vigorously disapproved of gambling and of Sunday activities that were outside of religious contemplation and church attendance.  Yet he was also said to be a heavy drinker, a condition which caused him to sometimes miss court proceedings.  Perhaps the stress of being the highest magistrate in the region contributed to his seeking solace in drinking, in addition to the tragedy of losing his wife at a young age.

In all, Hayes was as devoted a servant of the law, bearing high principles and idealism, and diligent in seeking to promote justice while navigating the difficult middle ground between the often violent tensions between Europeans and Americans on one hand and Latinos on the other.  He worked in extraordinarily difficult conditions, in which fiscal and moral support for the legal system was insufficient, securing convictions for capital crimes was very difficult, and professionalism was al-too-often sorely lacking.  Given the trying circumstances, Hayes performed generally admirably.

A report on activities in Hayes’ district court term in Los Angeles in summer 1856 from the Los Angeles Star.

In the 1863 election, however, he faced Pablo de la Guerra, a prominent Californio from Santa Barbara, who benefited as a Republican from a strong presence of military units stationed in the district during the Civil War years.  Though Hayes again distanced himself from the Democratic Party, in his belief that judicial offices were to be non-partisan, de la Guerra eked out a narrow victory, securing election by just 60 votes.

Deflated by defeat, Hayes pulled up stakes and moved south to San Diego, where he remained for a number of years before returning to Los Angeles at the end of his life.  He was one of a trio of contributors to a history of Los Angeles County published in 1876 for the centennial of American independence, just a year before his death at age 62.

Results of the 1858 elections as published in El Clamor Público including Hayes’ resounding victory in reelection as district judge, outpointing attorney Columbus Sims, 1229-209.

A prolific compiler of historical material relating to the region’s history, Hayes had a large number of scrapbooks, in addition to a voluminous diary.  Portions of the latter were published in 1929 and the scrapbooks are in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.  They were of great use to me in my research on early Los Angeles criminal justice during my graduate school research and have continued to be in various projects on the subject since.


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