by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Although he was a prominent person in the legal and political fields in greater Los Angeles for decades, John D. Fredericks is a large forgotten figure today. Tonight’s post, highlighting a press photograph from this day in 1912, summarizes the work of this interesting and now obscure lawyer, district attorney, candidate for governor, and member of Congress.
He was born in 1869 in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, west of Pittsburgh and near the West Virginia border, where his father was a Presbyterian minister. Educated in the public school of his small hometown, Fredericks went to nearby Washington (that is, Pennsylvania) where he attended a military academy and then Washington and Jefferson College, which still exists, and completed a law course there.
After his graduation, he migrated west to Los Angeles and found a position as a special officer with the Los Angeles Police Department and then an instructor at the recently opened Whittier State School, later the Nelles Youth Correctional Facility from 1941 until it closed in 2004. Fredericks got into some trouble while there, being convicted of opening someone else’s mail, though the punishment was all of a $1 fine.
He then enlisted in 1895 with the California National Guard in Troop D, a cavalry unit and advanced to the rank of captain, a title he proudly used for the rest of his public life. Meantime, he studied law and was admitted to the bar the same year he joined the Guard. He married Agnes Blakely in 1896 (the couple had four children) and they resided for a time on a ranch in the Downey township before moving to Los Angeles.
Fredericks rose rapidly in Los Angeles legal circles, becoming a deputy district attorney for the county at just 30 years of age as the nineteenth century was coming to a close. He was obviously adept at both the law and politics as he won election as district attorney in 1902 and the secured reelection again in 1906 and 1910. He vigorously prosecuted gambling halls and illicit liquor sales and other forms of vice.
He was best known for his successful prosecution of John J. and James McNamara, who were tried for the bombing of the Los Angeles Times headquarters, an incident of domestic terrorism that rocked the city and the nation in 1910. Then, Fredericks indicted the famed attorney, Clarence Darrow, who’d defended the brothers and surprised everyone by inducing them to plead guilty to the bombing.
The Darrow trial appeared to be a slam-dunk for the D.A. and his staff, but Darrow, who defended himself, utilized his legendary prowess for courtroom oratory and emotional argument. His closing argument was said to have brought forth tears from many in the courtroom.
Fredericks acknowledged the power of Darrow’s statement, observing that “You have listened to one of the most marvelous addresses ever delivered in any courtroom, but that only reflects upon the ability of the man; it has mighty little to do with his guilt and innocence.” Yet, the jury took only about forty minutes to return a verdict of not guilty. A second trial in 1913 led to a hung jury and the case was not tried again.
Still, the district attorney looked for higher office and decided to challenge incumbent Governor Hiram W. Johnson, who won office in 1910 and ushered in a range of progressive policies that led to such innovations of the initiative, referendum and recall, the direct election of United States senators, and the creation of a state railroad commission to try and check the dominance of the Southern Pacific.
Johnson, however, was enormously popular and went on to be California’s longest-serving United States Senator and the election was a landslide victory as he bested Fredericks by over 20 percentage points. After the resounding defeat, Fredericks returned to private practice.
Closely aligned with the powerful Times and president of the equally influential Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in 1922, Fredericks reentered the political arena in 1923 to run for the Tenth District seat in the House of Representatives. He won election and served two terms before deciding not to run for reelection in 1926.
Among his endeavors while in Congress was securing more funding for improvements at the Port of Los Angeles, an extension of his work with the Chamber, and getting support for the Wadsworth Memorial Hospital at the National Soldiers Home at Sawtelle, now the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. He also lobbied heavily for what became the Colorado River water project, including the Metropolitan Water District aqueduct.
After returning to Los Angeles in 1927, he resumed his private law practice and his connections obviously served him well. He bought a home on a large view lot in Bel-Air and it had a declared value of $200,000, a considerable sum, in the 1930 federal census. He worked with his son John D., Jr. in their own firm until not long before his death in 1945 at age 75, just three weeks after the atomic bombing of Japan that ended the Second World War.
The Times issued an editorial lionizing Fredericks, writing:
The career of Capt. John D. Fredericks covered stirring chapters of Los Angeles city and county history and was identified with notable phases and incidents thereof in which he was more than once a principal figure. Up to the very time of his brief, fatal illness, his influence was felt in the community in which he had lived and labored for so many years. He was, in the truest sense, one of the active, constructive forces in this community’s phenomenal progress. . .
. . . it was as a militant District Attorney of Los Angeles County from 1903 to 1915 that the able attorney first won national attention . . . he was feared by evildoers throughout his tenure and reached the height of his fame as a prosecutor when he convicted the McNamara brothers for their part in the infamous dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times Building and Llewellyn Iron Works in 1910.
Civic leaders, community builders and public servants like Capt. John D. Fredericks are hard to replace. He will long be missed.
Fredericks, however, was not long remembered, given his many roles in the civic life of greater Los Angeles, though he should be.
The photograph highlighted here was produced by the Pacific Bureau of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, which still exists, and has a date stamp of 3 June 1912. Written in pencil on the reverse is “Dist Atty Fredericks hearing testimony.” There is another NEA stamp from October 1922 through its research department.
The image shows Fredericks, glasses removed and wearing a light-colored three piece suit and sitting in a wooden chair in the courtroom. While the reason for the photo was not identified, there was a Times article about the Darrow bribery case a few days prior, so it is undoubtedly an image of the DA during the trial. It shows a confident-looking district attorney at the height of his prominent career as the lead prosecutor for Los Angeles County well over a century ago.