by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A significant phase in the protracted history of efforts to foment a claim to Alcatraz Island by those who professed a legal interest basically came to an end in October 1916, when William W. Jenkins died at the age of 81.
Notably, a few months prior to that, Edmund Burke, the attorney hired in 1902 to represent Jenkins, Angelo K. Moropoulos, and John H. Temple in pursuing a claim and who was successfully sued by the trio for not returning to original grant expediente (file) and map, sent a letter to Los Angeles lawyer W.I. Gilbert.
The 9 June 1916 missive stated that Burke’s position on Alcatraz was “entirely favorable to Moropoulos,” despite “some differences [that] arose concerning the same,” and that the men Burke dismissively regularly referred to as “the Greek” was in touch with him.
Burke proposed that an attached letter be signed by Moropoulos and forwarded to the United States Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory because the lawyer felt that there was still hope for a claim based on acts of Congress in the 1850s and 1860s concerning California land grants, stemming from the Act of 3 March 1851 and confirmation of claims on these grants.
In his lengthy statement to the Attorney General, Burke outlined a basic history of the grant to William Workman, its transfer to F.P.F. Temple, and its purchase by John C. Frémont, stating that “the events connected with the grant and its subsequent history are romantic.” He added “Workman and Temple were pioneers here and in the subsequent scattering of their fortunes the Alcatraz record only came to light recently.”
This last statement is not true, of course, as earlier parts of this post show efforts for a claim at least being discussed in the late 1850s, mid 1870s, and in the 1880s and 1890s, but, of course, Burke entered the scene in 1902. He went on to suggest, “there is absolutely no doubt as to the authenticity of the record.”
Referring to the 3 March 1851 California land claims act and its several amendments, the lawyer asked the Attorney General for “an expression from you concerning the attitude of your department concerning compensation to the present holders of title,” calling them “worthy people,” ironic given how strongly his “expression” for “the Greek” had been. Burke was also critical of the Temples.
Yet, the attorney noted a critical point, arguing that
altho[ugh] the grant was not presented for confirmation within the time limited by Statute, the equities are such that relief should be afforded through the Court of Claims or otherwise . . . no question can arise concerning the moral obligation of the United States to make compensation.
In a separate note to Washington attorney W.N. Mills, Burke asked for an opinion on “compensation or relief through the Court of Claims or otherwise,” asserting that “The U.S. simply jumped the island in early days.” With the Alcatraz grant papers considered authentic and his professing that all valid grants were confirmed during the land grant hearing process (which mainly lasted from 1851 to about 1870), Burke was hoping for a favorable assessment by Mills.
In a handwritten letter to Moropoulos included with copies of the above correspondence, Burke, however, alluded to something quite new in his tortured relationship with “the Greek.” He wrote that he “intend[ed] to satisfy you of my fairness” in the Alcatraz matter even “in view of the statements made on Friday to Mr. Houghton (threats to kill etc.)” and that “I have determined to have no further personal business with you.”
Whether Moropoulos did threaten Houghton’s life or not, Burke, who’d promised several times to end all communication with “the Greek,” then launched into a long, laborious discussion about the claim and it’s lack of validity, despite what he’d just written to the Attorney General and others. Basically, Burke argued, the grant documents given to him by Moropoulos in 1902 were worthless and any legal claim hinging upon the California land claims act of 1851 was superseded by amendments made later.
He told Moropoulos that if he could find an attorney who saw any value in the papers, he was free to sue Burke for the value of the documents which, the lawyer claimed, “I have not seen in Eleven years.” Moreover, Burke said he would agree not to bring up, in any litigation, the matter of the statute of limitations and that he would affirm the legitimacy of the grant to Workman and Moropoulos’ right of succession “to any and all title that Workman ever had.”
The problem, the attorney continued, was that the 1867 amendment to the 1851 land claims act stipulated the end of any claims being presented and “the Workman Grant was not presented” by then, so “the Grant becomes mere waste paper.” Burke then claimed that, when he was approached by Jenkins’ attorney Theodore Martin in 1902, he thought there were grounds for “relief,” but “later I was determined I was mistaken.”
Burke said he left the papers with James McAndrews in Chicago in 1905 “and I have not seen them since although I have tried to find them.” He opined that “I think they are simply mislaid and as they were bound in plate glass the light may yet reach them.” Saying he would hire a detective agency, the attorney then wrote:
he [McAndrews] did not have them or know where they were but if they exist I will find them and if I cannot find them I’ll pay for them if any Court will say they had value. I insist however that you act thru an attorney as I do not want again to proceed against you as I was compelled to do some years ago but at the same time I want you to realize that I want to do what is right in the matter.
Jenkins, in April 1916, tried to learn what Burke had in a safe deposit box at a Los Angeles bank, only to be told that the lawyer was overdue on his rent payments for it and that the box could not be opened without both paying what was in arrears and in getting the lawyer’s order to open the box–which was, naturally, not going to happen! Almost twenty years later, Jenkins’ daughter, June Owens, was able to get the box opened after Burke’s death and the 1902 receipt of the Alcatraz papers from Moropoulos was found there.
In the following decade, a new round of interesting elements transpired. John H. Temple transferred all of his interest in Alcatraz to his wife Anita Davoust in April 1920, signalling that he was done with any efforts on a claim. Six years later, he died in Los Angeles and was interred in the mausoleum his brother, Walter, recently completed at El Campo Santo cemetery at the Homestead.
In October 1924, Burke resurfaced to June Owens, that he’d received a letter from her or her sister Anita Kellogg several years prior about Alcatraz but that his answer was returned as unclaimed. The aging attorney then offered this little tidbit:
Some 10 years ago, owing to my carelessness, the original grant papers given to me by A.K. Moropolous were lost and only recently did I get trace of them.
After laying out his memory (somewhat faulty, whether by haziness or design is not known) of how the claims came together over twenty years prior, Burke told the Jenkins daughter that, even though “I had long ago abandoned the idea” of a successful claim, “the reappearance of the papers” and the lawyer’s recent victory over the federal government in another land claim matter “convince me I might recover in the Alcatraz matter.”
The problem, he continued, was the question of the claimants. Burke said that “your father was a friend of mine, M[oropoulos] is impossible, and the Workmans [really, the Temples!] equally so,” but that he would like to discuss the matter.
A couple of weeks later, Burke wrote Owens, saying “I have concluded to go ahead on the bases of the old  agreement,” but told her “I can secure the return of the proofs [Alcatraz expediente and map] but there is much labor and expense” involved. Saying that he’d been “unaided or rather disturbed by tumult” in the Alcatraz matter, the lawyer told her she, her sister and Moropoulos needed a “perfect unchangeable programme” to move matters forward, adding “it will cost me a considerable sum to secure the return of the papers,” with Moropoulos havin “first call on them if I remain in interest which I do not think of so doing.”
On 25 October 1924, the day after the first letter to the Jenkins daughter, Burke wrote Moropoulos that he’d been in contact with Owens, claimed that Fremont’s court-martial duly authenticated the Alcatraz grant to Workman, and added “it will cost me $2500 to get the papers I am told.”
He went on to note that he told Owens that if an arrangement could not be made with the claimants, “it would be necessary for me to secure them [the papers] and return them to you.” He concluded noting that “it will take time, money and hrs of work to secure success.”
In November 1924, Burke sent a letter to John W. Weeks, the Secretary of War (now the Secretary of Defense), laying out the history and argument for the Alcatraz claim, noting that he’d lost the papers, but that they’d been found, and that he was now presenting an argument for a claim. He argued that the federal government “has never urged the bar of the statute of limitations, nor the doctrine of laches or stale demands, in a meritorious case,” and asked if the department would “take the matter up for consideration.”
With that, the tortured and tangled trail of Burke’s involvement ended. There is no further mention of him in the record and the attorney, whose career included bankruptcy, a conviction of practicing without a proper license, questionable litigation and tactics, and lots of speculative business enterprises, died in 1931. Moropoulos, the slippery lawyer’s foil, passed away the following year.
Two years before that, June Owens received a reply from a Los Angeles attorney, James S. Kelby, that the Alcatraz matter was moot because of a failure to present a claim before the California land claims commission in the 1850s and which meant that the claim was, legally speaking, abandoned. Kelby added that he wondered why Burke was not aware of legal precedent about the land claims issue and, if he was, “what grounds he had for urging the Government to settle.”
In 1933, another effort was made by a local lawyer to inquire into the federal government’s position, and another conclusive statement was made in reply by the librarian of the United States Senate. This was a reiteration of the 6 November 1850 executive order by President Millard Fillmore of seven tracts of land in San Francisco Bay for military purposes, including Alcatraz. Officials at the War Department and Land Office were consulted and the consensus was clear that Fillmore’s order was definitive.
Charles P. Temple, Jr., whose father was the youngest of the children of F.P.F. Temple and Antonia Margarita Workman, asked his well-connected father-in-law, J.C. Vosbeck to contact Missouri Senator Bennett Clark about Alcatraz in 1936, but this led to nothing. Temple’s wife, Arvella, wrote a marginal note, saying that she and Charles, Jr. were talking to President Harry Truman’s physician in Los Angeles and Alcatraz was brought up, leading the doctor to reply angrily that Congress would do nothing about it, as if it was a valid issue but a dead one with a hostile Congress! A couple of other attempts for information on the status of Alcatraz were made by Temple through 1947.
In 1961, the Alcatraz papers of William W. Jenkins were donated by his daughters, June Owens and Anita Kellogg, to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and form the basis for most of the material in this post, thanks to copies provided by Los Angeles Municipal Court (later county Superior Court) Judge David Workman, a great-grand-nephew of William Workman, who organized an effort in the early 1970s to prepare a potential claim for the island.
While Judge Workman spent much time and effort contacting Temple family heirs and Anita Kellogg (June Owens having died shortly before he entered into the project), and prepared, in 1975, a very helpful synopsis of the federal government’s acquisition of Alcatraz, the only recourse was a mock trial he organized with a San Francisco judge and held in September 1981.
During the lighthearted proceeding, one participant alleged that “possession is nine-tenths of the law” and a staff member from the office of Senator Alan Cranston passed on his view in a letter “that essentially said the Lord owned Alcatraz.” San Francisco Superior Court Judge Harry Low, a pioneering Chinese-American jurist, ruled that the statute of limitations ran out for any claim to be made by F.P.F. Temple and that the island was, therefore, “an involuntary donation to the U.S. government.”
Judge Low, however, did request, as a remedy to the “Workman-Temple cause” that the National Park Service either rename a street on Alcatraz or have a plaque installed to, as put by the San Francisco Progress newspaper, “give the Workman family some historical recognition to the island.” Judge Workman signaled general satisfaction with the verdict and said the family would “take under advisement” what recognition it wanted.
In June 1996, Dan Dugan, a cousin of Judge Workman and San Francisco resident, organized a symposium at the San Francisco Public Library followed by a field trip to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the grant of the island to William Workman. I had the honor of being one of the panelists and discussed much of the history of the grant and the claim, thanks to the material provided by Judge Workman.
I reworked my presentation into an article submitted to a California history journal, but it was not accepted and was accordingly squirreled away. The recent news of the archaeological investigation that unearthed remains of the fortifications placed by the Army on Alcatraz after it was seized by the government presented an opportunity to revive this material.
The recognition of the Workman and Temple families at Alcatraz is basically still non-existent. The National Park Service web page’s history section begins at 1850 and, though there is a link to an exhaustive history of the island by the NPS’s Erwin N. Thompson with brief mention of William Workman’s grant and F.P.F. Temple’s claim, a visitor to Alcatraz will not find any physical, direct reference.
Obviously, the federal prison attracts the lion’s share of attention and interest, while the military presence gets the scraps, but it would be nice to have at least a little more available on site about the 1846 grant to Workman, the Frémont acquisition from Temple the following year, and the question of private ownership superseded by Fillmore’s executive order of 1850. This post, extensive as it is, seeks to fill some of the gap.