by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It is definitely one of the more remarkable photographs in the Homestead’s collection, showing a very aged woman seated in a simple side chair in a garden outside a two-story house. The caption reads “No. 193. A Specimen of Longevity at San Gabriel Mission, Cal.” but there is no other indication as to the subject and specific location, as the image was not actually taken on the grounds of the mission, though certainly nearby.
The photo was published by Isaiah W. Taber, a well-known San Francisco photographer, and issued as part of his “Pacific Coast Views” series. The mount states that this collection included images of “California, Oregon, and the Pacific Coast generally—embracing Yosemite, Big Trees, Geysers, Mount Shasta, Mining, City, etc. etc.” and that photos were “made to order in any part of the State or Coast.”
Taber, however, did not take most of the photos he sold in the series, because he purchased the inventory of famed photographer Carleton Watkins, widely known and highly regarded for his images of Yosemite and other natural subjects. Even though, the series was described as covering mostly Northern California subjects, Watkins did take images of Los Angeles and its environs (the Museum has about fifteen Watkins photos in its holdings.)
Yet, there was another photographer who sold his negatives and other material to the enterprising Taber. Alexander C. Varela, whose images have been featured here a few times in the past, was born in Spain in 1838 and came to the United States at sixteen years of age. He worked for many years as a federal government clerk and married the sister of renowned American composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa.
Perhaps it was a bit of a midlife crisis, but Varela quit his secure job and took up photography as a profession, spending a brief, but productive, period in Los Angeles at the end of the 1870s. The Homestead has more than three dozen of his views in its collection and many of them are very well composed and processed, with quite a few issued under Taber’s name.
The reason that it is easy to tell a Varela reissue is the very distinctive handwriting used in the caption—many photographers, for example, in the 1870s used typed captions. So, although the featured photo here would appear to be taken by Taber, it is very obviously one of the reissues taken by Varela.
Varela’s time in the Angel City can only be documented, so far, by a single short article in the Los Angeles Express stating that he was proprietor of the Sunbeam Gallery, opened by William M. Godfrey about 1870 and which was owned by others during the decade, including Henry T. Payne, Francis Parker, and Alfred S. Addis (whose daughter, Yda, will be the subject of the next Female Justice virtual talk at the Homestead on 7 June.)
After the partnership of Allen and Winkler ran the business, Varela took ownership by summer 1877. The sole article reported that the photographer was out “in our suburbs” and added:
He has shown us some very fine pictures taken in East Los Angeles [renamed Lincoln Heights in the 1910s], as well as handsome views of scenery in the vicinity of San Gabriel and Santa Anita.
The latter likely included images of the Mission San Gabriel and “landscape selections”, as he titled them, of bucolic shots of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin’s Rancho Santa Anita, of which we have examples in the Homestead collection. It may well be that today’s featured view was taken during this time, especially given that it was in the vicinity of the mission.
Varela’s tenure in Los Angeles was, as noted above, very short. As has been stated here before, the photography business was highly competitive and easily subject to the rises and falls of the economy, especially in smaller communities like this one still was. The financial downturn that came about in 1875-76, including the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank, was still very much in evidence by the end of the decade and Varela left for San Jose, where he was enumerated in the 1880 federal census. He then sold his materials to Taber and returned to Washington, D.C., where he became a clerk in the War Department (later the Department of Defense) in 1882, remaining in that position until his death in 1915.
Just as identifying the photographer means having some knowledge of Varela and his work, the unnamed woman depicted in the image requires some understanding of the history of the Mission San Gabriel and the area around it. The term “specimen of longevity” is an interesting one, as well, as “specimen” is generally understood to refer to an object that is representative sample of a group.
In this case, the “specimen” is Eulalia Pérez de Guillén Mariné and the reason for taking her photo was that she was commonly referred to during the 1870s as having attained an impossible age, with some sources claiming she was in her late 130s and others averring that she was even well into her 140s—true Old Testament territory! Moreover, the attention given to her reputed age involved some controversy and legal action, giving a measure of publicity at the end of her long life that was a far cry from the manner in which she lived previously.
Not surprisingly, details of much of her life are scanty and specifics on dates that would help to identify her age are lacking. On 10 December 1877, not long before her death, Thomas Savage, one of a team sent out by Hubert Howe Bancroft, whose monumental History of California project was published later and whose Bancroft Library is at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, conducted an interview with Doña Eulalia.
Savage, in his preface, wrote:
Whatever may be the real age of Madame Eulalia Pérez, she is certainly a very ancient person, there can be no doubt, from her personal appearance that she is a centenarian. . . . for a person of such an uncommon age, she is not entirely feeble or helpless, in as much as she can do some needle work, and walk ab[ou]t the house unsupported even by a staff. She sat by me upon a chair a while yesterday, but her usual seat is on the floor.
He added that, with some help and stops to rest, she could walk some 500 yards to a granddaughter’s home nearby. Savage noted that her memory was quite good in some respects, though, unsurprisingly, poor in others. While she could be “flighty” in her attention span, he found that, with directed attention in his questioning, “I found no great difficulty in obtaining intelligible answers.”
Because of Doña Eulalia’s advanced age, Savage noted, he needed the assistance of her daughter, María del Rosario White, “tho’ not to the extent of needing to be addressed in increasingly loud tones.” He concluded that he had to end the interview because of understandable fatigue felt by the subject and that he had to leave for Spadra, a town now part of Pomona. Another interview was conducted at that time with F.P.F. Temple, though the 55-year old, who was finishing his two year term as county treasurer, was so affected by a series of strokes he suffered after the failure of his Temple and Workman bank that Savage considered the interview to be less than successful.
Doña Eulalia related to Savage that she was born in Loreto, now a town of about 20,000 on the east coast of Baja California del Sur and where her father was a soldier at the presidio (fort) in that town, from where so many Spanish-era settlers to California emanated. She did not provide a birth date and she then stated that, at age 15, she married Miguel Antonio Guillen, another soldier from the presidio. She added that a daughter was 11 years old when the family moved, about 1800, to San Diego remaining there for eight years.
The first established date in the interview was notable because Doña Eulalia and her family were living at the Mission San Juan Capistrano, when a large earthquake struck on 8 December 1812 and caused immense damage, including the collapse of the stone church from which she was able to emerge in the aftermath.
It was in 1814, when the family resided at Mission San Gabriel that her daughter María del Rosario was born. Four years later, there was a return to San Diego and then, in summer 1819, Miguel Guillen died in Los Angeles and was interred at San Gabriel. As a widow with several children to support, Doña Eulalia stayed at the mission for the remaining sixty or so years of her life.
Her prowess as a cook led to her first position at the mission, but she evinced obvious managerial abilities and went on to oversee an array of tasks carried out at the facility, including the production of olive oil, wine, soap and candles. She also handled the vital function of midwife and then of llavera, or the keeper of the keys, where among the most important duties was something of a “matron,” keeping the indigenous neophyte women in their segregated sleeping quarters locked away from contact with men.
After years of intense lobbying from local Californios who desired land, but were frustrated that most of it was under the control of the mission fathers, the secularization of the missions was accomplished the early part of the 1830s. Doña Eulalia’s position of importance was essentially discontinued, but, perhaps as recognition of her value and service at San Gabriel, she was given the Rancho San Pasqual, though, with a caveat.
She had to marry again and her much younger second husband, Juan Mariné, proved to be both a poor spouse and a less-than-satisfactory ranchero. Doña Eulalia left him and settled in a small adobe house near the Mission San Gabriel church. Mariné, who did virtually nothing to improve San Pasqual, which covered Pasadena and surrounding areas, soon died and his son sold the ranch for a pittance.
Doña Eulalia’s life during the first quarter century or so of the American era appears to have been very quiet, living at San Gabriel and not even being enumerated in any of the four censuses (the federal ones in 1850, 1860, and 1870 or the sole state census of 1852). In fact, a review of each page of the San Gabriel sections for 1860 and 1870 turned up two of her daughters and their families, but no sign of their mother.
It was then that she suddenly turned up as something of a local media sensation as the nation’s centennial in 1876 included an attempt by one of her daughters, María Antonia Guillen de HIguera, “in consort with speculators,” to transport, for a unspecified fee, Doña Eulalia across the continent to Philadelphia to be something of an exhibit of curiosity at the centennial festivities (one of the attendees was John H. Temple, who owned the Homestead from 1888 to 1899).
In its 25 April 1876 edition, the Los Angeles Herald announced that “San Gabriel can claim the palm for longevity,” reporting that photographs were received “of a mother, Eulalia Per[e]z, aged 139, Mary Antonica [Antonia] Guillen [Higuera], her daughter, aged 80, and Eulalia Heguera [Higuera] the great-great-grand daughter, aged 13.” The paper noted that “it is their intention to visit the Centennial during the present summer as an advertisement of the healthfulness of the Southern California climate.”
Shortly afterward, María del Rosario White, Eulalia’s youngest child and who was married to the British-born Michael C. White (he came to Los Angeles in 1829, went to New Mexico for a period, and then returned with William Workman and John Rowland in late 1841) sought to intervene and a Probate Court hearing before County Judge Henry K.S. O’Melveny was held and he took the matter under advisement, while requiring Antonia Guillen to post $500 bond “not to take the person of Eulalia P. Guillen out of the county.”
On 17 May, the day a despairing William Workman, having received a visit from a court receiver concerning his property in the aftermath of the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, committed suicide, the Los Angeles Express reported
It seems that one of the daughters of the centenarian at the mission, Eulalia de Guillen [note the excision of the name Mariné], is determined to carry out her design of exhibiting the old woman at Philadelphia. Last night or early this morning, the old woman was spirited away, and Mrs. de White, the other daughter, came to the city to-day to lay the matter before [County] Judge O’Melveny.
The jurist ordered that “the power of guardianship [be given] to the other sister, Mrs. de White, who will doubtless retain the old lady here.” In the same issue, the Express reported that J.J. Warner, who came to Los Angeles in the late 1820s and was an authority on regional history, including from the pre-American period, was determined to debunk the preternatural “romance out of the reported great age of Eulalia P. Guillen.”
Specifically, Warner informed the paper that Doña Eulalia was able to ride a horse to his ranch in what is now northwestern San Diego County in the mid-1840s and “if she had then been 108 years of age, it is hardly possible she could have borne that great journey.”
Warner added that he spoke to her in 1872 and did not know her birth year or age at marriage, but she did mention being the midwife for José Sepulveda, of the prominent Los Angeles family and who was born in 1804. From this, he believed she was about 90, though the paper answered “we are inclined to believe that Eulalia is considerably older” but “we prefer not to conjecture.”
The Express then went ahead and did precisely that, opining that if she’d reached “the general age of” midwives, determined, without explanation, to be 40, that would make her 112, “an age which is not to be sneezed at when we talk about longevity.” A friend, however, offered to examine church records in Loreto to see if something more solid could be found, but there were no further reports located from the paper.
The question of Doña Eulalia’s situation continued, though, when Antonia Guillen Higuera filed a motion of habeus corpus with O’Melveny’s court, asserting that assigning guardianship to her sister Rosario White was unlawful. The Herald stated that the matter would have to revolve around the elderly woman’s competency and that “it is rightly held that if she is of sound mind she cannot legally be restrained of her liberty,” so that, if so determined, she could go to Philadelphia if she so desired.
On the 23rd, O’Melveny ruled that because she “is in the custody of a guardian duly appointed by the Probate Court,” which was also presided over by the judge, “this Court refuses to disturb the status of said Eulalia,” who was to remain in the custody of Rosario White. With that, the bizarre matter ended.
On 9 June 1878, the Herald issued a report that Doña Eulalia died “at the residence of her daughter, at the Mission San Gabriel, two days prior, but could not verify the news until later reports came in from people in that settlement. It added that there were claims that she “had reached the patriarchal age of 143 years.” It then gave some biographical information gleaned from J.J. Warner and it was repeated that family and friends claimed “that her age exceeds one hundred and forty years.”
The following day, the Express reported on the passing and, calling her “the oldest woman in the world,” repeated the assertion that “according to the best authenticated accounts, was 143 years [old].” It then reprinted Warner’s sketch published in the Herald. On the 14th, the latter gave further details, noting that Doña Eulalia became, on a Friday evening, unconscious for so long that it was assumed “the vital spark had fled,” yet “she came to again” and lingered until the following Wednesday afternoon. She was given the distinction of being buried next to the Mission San Gabriel Church with the clergy and the only other layperson to be so honored was Thomas W. Temple II because of his years of service as mission and city historian.
Generally speaking, most accounts today indicate she was born about 1768, though some have accepted the plainly impossible date of 1735. Given that María Rosario de White was born in 1814, it is certainly plausible for her mother to have been 46 at her birth, though clearly not 79! Savage certainly believed she was past 100 when he talked to her about six months before her death.
As to the photo, the aged Doña Eulalia is wrapped in dark clothing and wears a hood as she is perched on the chair near a recently planted palm tree and amid a variety of bushes and shrubs. It is an amazing photo of a remarkable figure from 19th century greater Los Angeles.
UPDATE, 28 May 2020: The original text of this post stated that, because Doña Eulalia was under the guardianship of her daughter Rosario White after the Probate Court hearings in May 1876 and that Alexander Varela owned the Sunbeam Gallery and took photos of San Gabriel in summer 1877, about nine and half months before his subject in the photo died, that it was clear the house shown in the image was the Michael White Adobe. BUT . . .
John Marnell, who has done extensive research on Michael White and his short residency at the Rancho Muscupiabe near Cajon Pass, contacted me and alerted me to the fact that the building shown here is not the Michael White Adobe. While it does appear that the house shown in the photo had a first floor of adobe and a second floor of wood frame, it is a different building. Thanks to John for pointing this out, so we’ll have to regard the structure as perhaps the residence of another member of Doña Eulalia’s family and maybe its identity will someday be established.
With regard to Doña Eulalia’s age, an article was located in the 9 April 1875 edition of the Express. In it, the unnamed writer discussed paying a visit to her and noted that, while some accounts claimed she was 137, “on her own authority, we must rectify this popular delusion. She claims to be only one hundred and four, and this modest figure is evidently supported by the facts.” This, then, would have made her age at about 107 or 108 when she died in early June 1878.