by Paul R. Spitzzeri
After several years of dispute over the failed contract between Los Angeles lawyer Edmund Burke and the trio of Alcatraz Island claimants, William W. Jenkins, Angelo K. Moropoulos, and John H. Temple, who hired him to press the claim forward, the latter sued the former for the return of the original land grant papers for the island when it was given to William Workman by Governor Pío Pico in spring 1846, just prior to the American seizure of Mexican Alta California.
While the 1902 agreement between the four clearly specified that Burke was to be compensated for his work out of any proceeds generated from the recovery of Alcatraz and its sale back to the United States government, which took possession by executive order of President Millard Fillmore in late 1850, Burke withheld the documents claiming he was owed $600 for trips he made to San Francisco and Washington, D.C. At times, however, he told Jenkins that he was returning the papers without such a condition, but then sent an invoice to Jenkins in May 1908.
That triggered the expected lawsuit, the summons of which was in late 1907 went to trial on 6 October 1910 at the Los Angeles County Superior Court. Jenkins, Moropoulos and Temple were represented by Charles W. McKelvey, who’d been acting as the Jenkins’ attorney on trying to get the Alcatraz documents returned for a few years prior. Burke, however, who spoke in letters to Jenkins of defending his legal rights, was a no-show.
Judge Nathaniel P. Conrey ordered proceedings to commence and:
oral and documentary evidence was introduced, and the court finds that all the allegations of the plaintiff’s complaint are true, and that none of the allegations of the answer of the defendant Edmund Burke are true . . . the court finds that the plaintiff is entitled to a judgment against the defendant for the possession of personal property described in the complaint . . . the title papers showing a grant of the property known as Alcatras Island in the Bay of San Francisco including the expediente.
Conrey ordered that, if Burke did not deliver the papers as required by the judgment, Jenkins, Moropoulos, and Temple could recover damages of $10,000 for the value of the documents, $5,000 in damages for Burke’s retention of them, and the costs of the suit. The problem was enforcement of the decree, which was officially entered in mid-January 1911.
So, the trio went back to court to seek further action to compel Burke to either release the papers or pay the value, damages, and cost. The hearing was at the end of 1914 by Judge Curtis D. Wilbur and new attorneys, Jones and Bender, represented the plaintiffs. The following April, a writ of attachment was ordered, but, in early July, the sheriff reported to the court that he “could not find property out of which to make a judgment.”
Burke then wrote James McAndrews, a Chicago business owner and member of the House of Representatives, in March 1914, a strangely worded note:
Imperative I should get at once that record enclosed in glass sheets relating to Alcatraz Island[,] please wire me collect Security building here, where same are deposited[,] by so doing at once you will greatly oblige me as I wish to return the papers to the owners.
It appears that McAndrews had some documents separate from those Burke clearly stated were in his office building, but the wording is confusing.
In August, using the letterhead of his son Walter, also an attorney, Burke wrote to W.J. McAllister of Chicago, stating that he’d learned by telegraph from Representative McAndrews “that you had in your possession the Alcatraz papers. The letter was in care of W.A. von Kettel and Burke referred to settling up a claim by von Kettel for $250, which seemed to have been the reason why the papers were not handed over earlier.
Adding that he wanted the materials handed over to Jenkins, Burke thought it worthwhile to add, “the papers are of no more value to me, and I do not think they will be of any value to Mr. Jenkins, but he wants them, and I want to turn them over to him.” He continued, “the matter has cost me quite a bit, and I trust that you will appreciate the situation.”
McAllister, however, who was the chief clerk to the auditor in the Cook County Treasurer’s office, wrote on the top margin of the letter, “Can’t find papers,” added his signature and included a date of 23 September 1914. That day, an agent for the Order and Commission Department of Wells Fargo and Company Express in Chicago sent a message to a colleague in Los Angeles, stating that “Mr. W.J. McAllister . . . cannot find the papers.” On 7 October, Burke wrote Jenkins, “I’ve done all I can about the Alcatraz papers.”
Meanwhile, Jenkins and John H. Temple rebooted their flagging effort for a claim. On 20 March 1914, the pair executed a new agreement, in which it was stipulated that they would take all measures “to acquire any and all outstanding interests” in Alcatraz “which are not recognized as of any validity and value.” The purpose for this was “removing whatever opposition might be encountered” and then pursuing a claim for the island from which any proceeds would be distributed “equally, share and share alike” from a “joint and united action” by the pair.
The instrument recognized that Jenkins and Temple would “use and exercise the best of his skill and ability with diligence, patience and vigor,” and also allowed $1,000 out of any proceeds to be forwarded to Jenkins, who was expected to expend more of the vigor by leading the charge on the claim. As a nod to the massive problem that developed with Burke, the document specified that any expenditures were to be recorded in a book of accounts.
The pair then went to the remaining Temple siblings, William, Lucinda, Margarita, Charles, and Walter, and acquired all their rights and then agreeing to pay an amount to all five equal to a quarter of one-sevenths of one-half of any proceeds emerging from a successful claim involving a sale of Alcatraz to the U.S. government. This followed efforts by Walter Temple to get the interests of William, Lucinda, and Charles assigned to him, perhaps on behalf of John, while Margarita agreed initially to transfer her rights to Jenkins, though this was rescinded for another indenture with Jenkins and John Temple.
By mid-August 1914, however, John H. Temple was ready to throw in the towel on the Alcatraz matter, drafting a letter to attorney A.G. Hinckley of Los Angeles, who was given Temple’s power of attorney on 30 March, that “matters have not been as represented by Mr. W.W. Jenkins in the matter of Alcatraz . . . nothing have been done and being no nearer to the accomplishment of the original ideas.” Consequently, that power of attorney was revoked.
Another phase of the Alcatraz Island matter passed with more preparatory activity and greater setbacks and the next part tomorrow takes us into the last part of this remarkable story, so check back then.