Victorian Fair Preview: Connecting with Nature in the Garden of Cameron E. Thom, Los Angeles, mid-1880s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We’re just a few days from this weekend’s Victorian Fair of the Far West and the weather looks like it’ll be fine for spring with temperatures in the mid to upper 70s.  The Homestead’s landscaping will be in a fine state, as well, with roses blooming, our demonstration vineyard’s vines rapidly growing, and other elements of color and greenery reflecting a healthy winter rainfall as well as the continued care of our landscape company.

An exhibit at the Workman House, focusing on urban gardens, will add to the historical interest at the fair, and the last two posts tapped into that theme by looking at photographs of two of the best-known city parks in Los Angeles, Eastlake (renamed Lincoln in 1917) and Hollenbeck, both established at the end of the Victorian era.

Southern Californian 30Nov54
Reference to Cameron E. Thom in a controversial period of high crime and community anger when he was  serving the first of three stints as district attorney, Southern Californian, 30 November 1854.

Today and tomorrow, we’ll examine a couple of photographic examples of private gardens that demonstrated a growing interest in connecting with nature through a profusion of landscape elements, including lawns, trees, bushes and shrubs.  These images came before the development of the personal camera, so the fact that professional photographers were hired to take these images means that generally only the well-to-do could afford to document their gardens (though, clearly, many of those less well off had often beautiful gardens at their more modest homes—they just usually weren’t documented by photos.)

This evening’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a stereoscopic image issued by the little-known A&A Lightning Viewing Company, headquartered on Main Street in Los Angeles, and probably photographed by F.H. Rogers, who was not particularly well-known either.

1880 census
The Thom household in the 1880 census when the family lived at the Main Street home depicted in the photo below.  The next door neighbors were the Lauths, with Philip being the owner of the Philadelphia Brewery mentioned in the recent post on this blog about the El Aliso (Sycamore) tree plaque.

Rogers, who seems to have worked in the city for just a few years in the 1880s, did take other landscape views, of which the Homestead has a couple of examples.  One shows an impressive mass of pampas grass, six years old and dwarfing a man placed next to it for scale, at what appears to be a private garden in Pasadena.  Another was in Millard Canyon above Pasadena and near Mt. Lowe, the subject of a post earlier this week, and showing a thickly forested area of trees and ferns.

The image here is of the heavily landscaped garden of Cameron Erskine Thom (1825-1915), a notable figure in Los Angeles for some six decades.  In fact, the plantings are so profuse that only a small portion of Thom’s Italianate home is visible through the dense thicket of material comprising the garden.  Palm trees, fruit trees, and many bushes and shrubs fill the scene with a dirt driveway or walkway leading to the residence through the menagerie.

0716025Stereoview Cameron Thoms Garden 2014.384.1.1
Thom’s Italianate home is obscured by the profusion of plantings shown in this Homestead collection stereoscopic photograph published by the A&A Lightning Viewing Company and likely taken by Frederick H. Rogers about 1885.

Thom’s home was on the east side of Main Street between Third and Fourth, which was still a residential area.  When the commercial development of the city took off shortly after this photo was taken, the home remained standing, but behind business buildings fronting the street, for a few decades.  It’s hard to image looking at the area now that there would have been homes and lush gardens like this in the concrete jungle that is now DTLA.

As for Thom, he was born in Richmond, Virginia and was one of the 49ers who flocked to California during the Gold Rush.  He actively mined for gold and there are conflicting sources about how well he fared, though he did pursue legal studies while at the mines.  He briefly practiced law in Sacramento, evidently, but came to Los Angeles by 1854, when he was elected district attorney.

Thom mentioned in a list of those marching in a Fourth of July parade in Los Angeles, Los Angeles Times, 1 July 1883.

Thom served in that position during the particularly interesting period of 1854-1857 (he was also Los Angeles city attorney from 1856 to 1858, when overlaps evidently were permissible), when rampant violence was at its peak and effective jurisprudence was at a low ebb.  There were many reasons for the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the judicial system, including poor financial backing, an inadequate courthouse, and a public often all-too-ready to veer towards vigilantism when capital murder cases, with high standards for conviction, did not yield a satisfactory verdict.

For example, Thom was new to the office when a trio of murders rocked greater Los Angeles.  Three men, including David Brown, Felipe Alvitre and William B. Lee, were housed in the county jail when vigilantes openly threatened to lynch them, with support from the press, if they weren’t convicted.

Thom mentioned in a promotional advertisement during the famed Boom of the Eighties for the new town of Glendale, Times, 1 July 1887.

One group even approached attorney and former judge Myron Norton to ask him to “assist” Thom in prosecuting these cases.  Norton replied in a letter published in the paper that he’d visited Thom about the matter and the D.A., who was not quite 30, told Norton:

Your request to me reflected upon his ability or desire, to prosecute the said prisoners effectively, and that he should have been first consulted in the matter.

I could not of course co-operate with, or assist the District Attorney unless it was agreeable to his wishes, inasmuch as we could not in such a case freely consult and advise with each other.

Consequently, Norton ended his missive that he had “to decline your very flattering request, but with the confidence that the law will be administered and punishment surely follow, upon those who may deserve it.”  Brown, Alvitre and Lee were duly convicted, but clear conflicts of a fair trial, led to appeals to the Supreme Court for stays of execution and transfer of the cases from Los Angeles.  Brown was given a stay, but was lynched by a mob following the legal execution of Alvitre (whose stay request evidently was delayed in reaching the state Supreme Court).  Lee evaded death and was eventually released when a new trial was not sought by Thom.

In fact, Thom had some indictments that were thrown out by the courts as not strictly adhering to the requirements of state laws, which further inflamed some citizens, along with other “quibbles” that were perceived to work to the advantage of criminals and against the interests of the people.

Thom listed as a director and stockholder along with many other Los Angeles luminaries in the powerful Farmers and Merchants Bank of Los Angeles, Times, 4 March 1888.

A few years after completing his term, Thom, an ardent Southern Democrat (this group basically controlled the politics of greater Los Angeles during the 1850s), returned to his native Virginia when the Civil War broke out.  He attained the rank of captain, fought in numerous battles and was said to have been twice wounded.  He was among a number of Los Angeles residents who fought for the Confederacy (only one, Charles M. Jenkins, was known to do so for the Union Army) and then returned to the City of Angels.

With assistance from a local, Thom got back on his feet financially and became district attorney yet again, serving from 1869-1873.  His most famous series of legal issues came after the horrific Chinese Massacre of October 1871.  With 19 Chinese males lynched by a mob of Anglos and Latinos in the space of a few hours one evening, Thom was faced with the task of issuing indictments to a staggering 150 persons, many who could not be identified.

Obit Times_Feb_3__1915_
Thom went “over the divide” and was eulogized in this obituary from the Times, 3 February 1915.

When several men were tried and convicted on second degree murder charges under Thom’s oversight of indictments and prosecution, an appeal to the state Supreme Court argued that the convictions should be overturned because the indictments failed to state that the sole Chinese victim mentioned, Dr. Gene Tong, was actually murdered.  On this legal technicality, a mirror of similar ones that plagued Thom’s tenure fifteen or so years earlier, the men were freed after a short time at San Quentin.  As in the Lee case, Thom decided not to retry the case, evidently believing he could not secure convictions a second time.

Yet, Thom returned again a third time to serve as district attorney and perhaps the third time was a charm as his tenure from 1877 to 1879 proved to be uneventful compared to the previous terms.  His popularity was such, though, that he was able to win election as Los Angeles’ mayor, serving a two-year term from December 1882 to December 1884.  The photo highlighted here specifically refers to him as “ex-mayor,” suggesting that it was very shortly after he left office.

Thom photo Times_Wed__Feb_3__1915_
Thom’s portrait from the Times obit.

Thom survived another three decades after leaving office and served as a director of the powerful Farmers and Merchants Bank, and owned a large ranch in Glendale, where he is considered as one of the city’s founding figures.  After he moved from his Main Street house, he took up residence on Adams Boulevard west of Western in a new, exclusive area. He lived to be nearly ninety, having been involved in and witnessed tremendous transformations in Los Angeles, and is buried beneath an impressive cenotaph at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.

Tomorrow, we’ll take another look at a Victorian-era photo of a private area garden in the run-up to the Homestead’s Victorian Fair of the Far West.

Leave a Reply