“Los Angeles Is All Right, My God, Sir!”: Two Photos of Los Angeles City Treasurer William H. Workman and Staff, 1903

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Within the last couple of weeks, the brothers Henry and David Workman, both successful in the legal field with the former once with the state attorney general’s office and then in private practice and the later starting off in the private world before becoming a long-time Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, passed away.  Henry, who was 94, and David, who was days from turning 90, were not only distinguished in their careers but were also deeply invested in their family history and staunch supporters of the Homestead.

One way in which they demonstrated that support was in donating and loaning historic artifacts from the Workman family, including the lending of the two photographs highlighted in this post.  The brothers descended from David Workman, brother of Homestead founder William Workman.  David was born in 1797, two years before William, and left their native England (the Workmans long resided in Clifton not far from the border with Scotland) for America at about age 20, taking half of a cash bequest made to him by his parents.

Los Angeles Express, 27 November 1900.

David wound up at the western edge of the United States, settling in Franklin, Missouri in 1819, the year before Missouri became a state.  Trained as a saddler, he opened his own business and three years later returned home to get the rest of his inheritance, while convincing William to join him in frontier America.  In fall 1822, the Workman brothers landed in Philadelphia, spent some time with their sister, Agnes, in Baltimore and then headed west.

While William left for New Mexico in 1825 and then went to California sixteen years after that, David remained in Missouri for thirty-five years, though he traveled extensively for business, including long trips to northern Mexico and two to Gold Rush California.  In one of the latter, he opened a store in Sacramento, but a fire that ravaged nearly the whole city burned his business.  Dejected, David headed south to visit William, who, somewhat turning the tables, convinced his older brother to join him on the Rancho La Puente.

Los Angeles Times, 4 December 1900.  Note the poor showing of two candidates from the Socialist Labor Party and Socialist Democratic Party—interesting consider current political connotations of socialism and democratic socialism.  In any case, Workman eked out a narrow victory over his Republican challenger.

In 1854, David, his second wife Nancy Hook, and their three sons, Thomas, Elijah and William Henry, along with Joseph, William’s son, migrated across the plains to California, passing through Salt Lake City, where Brigham Young tried to get them to settle.  After landing in northern California, they traveled by steamer to San Pedro, where William met them and brought them to La Puente.

David immediately began driving cattle and sheep for his brother to the southern gold fields of the Sierra Nevada range, but, on one summer 1855 trip, he went searching in the dark of night for a stray animal, and fell off a cliff, dying of his injuries.  His bereaved widow and sons moved into Los Angeles.  Thomas, who worked for prominent merchant and “Father of Los Angeles Harbor” Phineas Banning at Wilmington, died in a steamboat explosion there in 1863.  Elijah followed the family trade as a saddler and William Henry worked with a Los Angeles newspaper and then joined his brother.

Express, 2 December 1902.  Workman’s reelection was by a much more comfortable margin and he and incumbent Mayor Meredith P. Snyder were the lone Democrats to win office.

The Workman Brothers saddlery was a highly successful business for some twenty years and Elijah and William Henry moved into the economic, social and political elite as the remote frontier town gradually evolved into a small city by the mid-1870s.  Both served on the board of education and common (city) council and William Henry was elected by the Democratic Party county convention to be an alternate delegate to the national convention at Baltimore in 1872.  An article at the time praised the 33-year old, though it did observe that he could get a bit “warm” in political debate.

In 1867, William Henry married Maria (pronounced Mah-rye-ah) Boyle, whose father, Andrew, owned a large property east of the Los Angeles River in what was previously called Paredon Blanco, or “White Bluff”, for the eminence rising about the river.  After Andrew Boyle died in 1871, leaving the property to Maria, she and William Henry took advantage of the region’s first sustained period of growth and development to subdivide the tract and join local banker Isaias W. Hellman (former banking partner of William Henry’s uncle, William, and William’s son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple) and John Lazzarevitch, who was married into the López family, long-time owners of Paredon Blanco, in creating, in 1875, the neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

Times, 6 December 1904.  Workman won a third term by a healthy margin, as did Snyder, but for the most part Republicans won handily, except for street superintendent.

William Henry, meanwhile, retired from the saddlery to devote himself to continuing the operation of a vineyard and farm on the tract, while promoting Boyle Heights.  A national and local depression, the latter including the failure of his uncle’s bank, lasted about a decade, however.  Once the economic shadow lifted and a direct transcontinental railroad link was made by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in late 1885, the famed Boom of the Eighties burst forth.

William Henry was elected mayor of Los Angeles at the end of 1886 and served his two-year term during the peak of the boom.  Among the accomplishments of his tenure was a city charter and the first purpose-built city hall, opened on Fort Street, soon renamed Broadway.

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The Times’ explanation of why “Uncle Billy” defeated a worthy G.O.P. candidate.  The paper was a strong Republican organ.

In the 1890s, he was a member of the parks commission and had an active part in the creation of Westlake Park and, in Boyle Heights, donated two-thirds of the land for Hollenbeck Park, named for his late friend and near-neighbor, John E. Hollenbeck, whose widow gave the remaining third.

That decade was another one involving a severe economic depression and there were also several drought years locally, but with the new century came yet another boom and, again, William Henry was called to public service.  Though a Democrat in an era when Republican ruled the roost politically, he was both popular and moderate enough to win election at the end of 1900 as Los Angeles’s treasurer.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Tue__Dec_6__1904_ (1)
Workman was widely known for his use of the term “My God, Sir” in conversation so this cartoon from the Times on his securing a third term was an endearing portrait.

His victory was narrow, but he proved to be a very good steward of the city’s funds, and won reelection in 1902 and 1904 by solid margins, even as, again, very few Democrats could be competitive in city-wide officers.  The photos shown here appear to have been taken in 1903, as one of them was published in the Los Angeles Express newspaper in an article that commended Workman and his staff for their careful management of the municipal coffers.

William Henry’s assistant was none other than his eldest child, Boyle, and while the arrangement might have seemed nepotism to some, the younger Workman proved to be more than able as a civil servant, later serving for eight years as a member of the City Council (1919-1927), including as president of that body, and ran a strong campaign for mayor in 1929, though he lost (perhaps it was as well as the Great Depression erupted that year.)

Los Angeles Herald, 3 December 1906.  Workman declined to seek a fourth term and his management of the city’s coffers received this endorsement.

Others shown in the full staff picture were Thomas W. Kirby, an Ohio native who was the office bookkeeper and later was an auto insurance adjuster Antonio C. Roques, a Basque emigre from France who raised sheep in modern Oceanside before coming to Los Angeles and working as a bookkeeper for Jerry Illich’s restaurant, a hang-out for the city’s politicos; and John Kenealy, who was a couple of years older than Workman and a fascinating figure.

Born in 1837 in Cork County, Ireland, Kenealy survived the “time of troubles” including widespread famine on the Emerald Isle and went into the dry goods business as a boy apprentice.  He became a buyer for Queen’s Old Castle, a prominent importer in Cork, and spent much time on the European continent in that capacity.  He also was deeply invested in Irish nationalism and his role in 1860s political struggles led to his arrest by the British government.


Dillon & Kenealy Los_Angeles_Herald_Thu__Mar_18__1875_
Herald, 18 March 1875.  Kenealy had just arrived in Los Angeles after a colorful life as an Irish patriot and revolutionary who spent two years in the Australian penal colony after being convicted by the British of high treason.  He was released after two years, went to San Francisco and then to the City of Angels because he was unable to return home for ten years.  He remained in Los Angeles the rest of his life.

He and other Irish nationalists were tried and found guilty of high treason and were sent at the end of the decade to the notorious penal colony in Australia for ten-year sentences.  Two years later, however, Kenealy was pardoned thanks to lobbying from influential friends back in Ireland.  Unable to return home, however, he relocated to San Francisco and took up his former occupation in dry goods.

In early 1875, as the local boom was at its peak, Kenealy migrated down to Los Angeles and opened the firm of Dillon and Kenealy, which advertised itself as the first to deal exclusively in dry goods.  Five years later, with the ten-year period of banishment at an end, he traveled to Ireland and was warmly received by many in his native county.  Kenealy remained a merchant in Los Angeles for years and joined William Henry in the treasurer’s office in 1901 and worked with Roques as a street-bond clerk until illness forced him to retire.   Kenealy died in 1908.

Times, 26 October 1903.

As for William Henry’s tenure as treasurer, he was perhaps best known for his work in the bonds that were sold to raise funds to build the Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed several years after he ended his third term in office.  It was said that when the treasurer was in New York to sign each of the large volume of bonds, he was so focused on the work that he didn’t realize that, each time he dipped his pen in the inkwell, he was not aware of how vigorously he shook the pen to get excess ink off the nib and was shocked to see the light-colored carpet under the desk spattered with the ink.

Another well-known story related to his tenure was that, as the city’s funds were still carried by hand by staff from the office to a bank and without armed escort, the treasurer was on such an errand, when a bag carrying coin split spilling a significant amount of money into the bustling street.  Apparently, though, there was such high regard for “Uncle Billy” as the treasurer was known for decades, that every single coin was located and returned to the nervous public servant and a full deposit was made.

William H Workman And His Los Angeles City Treasurers Office Sta
The same image that appeared in the Times and which was loaned twenty years ago by the Workman family to the Homestead for educational use.  The paper, however, got the men on the ends out of order–Roques is at the far left and Kirby is at the far right.

The second photo shows Roques, Kenealy and Boyle Workman behind the counter at the treasurer’s office—this being a far cry from the arrangement one would see today in the city.  For example, the 1903 article reported that the office handled $4 million in 1902 and was expected to deal with $5 million for the current year.

More than a quarter century before that, city treasurer James J. Mellus, scion of a prominent family including a former mayor, was, in 1875, enticed by an offer of high interest to deposit the city’s funds in the Temple and Workman bank.  The offer was accepted and the monies placed in the bank, but, when the institution collapsed spectacularly early the next year, the city was unable to recoup its coin, which amounted to all of $23,000.

Los Angeles City Treasury Staff 2000.217.1.6
The other photo loaned by the Workmans shows Kenealy, Roques and Boyle Workman, from left to right, in the modest office of the city treasury at the city hall located on Broadway from the late 1880s until the current hall was completed in April 1928. 

The city, which had about 250,000 people when William Henry was treasurer and some 4.5 million today, has a treasury office which handled “a cash management program that exceeds $50 billion annually” and has an investment portfolio of $10 billion with returns of $100 million per year.

After leaving office early in 1907, William Henry returned to his work in real estate and managing his properties, living for just over a decade.  When he died in 1918 at age 79, he was celebrated as one of the most popular figures and civil servants in Los Angeles history.  His example of public service and an avid interest of history (William Henry was a prominent member of the Pioneers of Los Angeles County) is still manifest through his descendants including his grandsons, Henry and David.



2 thoughts

  1. I read these nearly every day. Thanks a lot! Hope you and the family are well.

  2. Thanks, Ion, for your continued support as we try to get our region’s history out to those who need distraction during these difficult days.

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