Yda Addis: Teenage Poet in Los Angeles, 1874

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s virtual Female Justice presentation was a look at the “Trials of Yda Addis,” which involved defining “trial” in terms of personal, legal and media senses as the talented writer, who made a name for herself at a time when California women were hardly recognized in the literary world, went through a stunning series of romantic and legal crises in the late 1880s through late 1890s.

Before her highly publicized and often bizarre relationships with former governor and Los Angeles capitalist John G. Downey and Santa Barbara lawyer, politician and district attorney Charles A. Storke made her more infamous than famous, Yda’s rising star in the firmament of frontier Los Angeles forecast a far different fate.

1860 census Leavenworth KS
The Addis family, including 2-year old “Ida”, as counted in the 1860 federal census at Leavenworth, Kansas, which endured bloody battles between pro-slaver and abolitionist factions until statehood was achieved in spring 1861, just before the outbreak of the Civil War.  Alfred, listed here as an “artist,” meaning photographer, was pro-slavery and was chased out of Lawrence, where he first lived, for the safe haven of slavery-supporting Leavenworth.

She was born in 1857 in Leavenworth, Kansas to Sarah Hillis Short, a native of Indiana whose father, Thomas, was a pioneer photographer in the fort town on the banks of the Missouri River above Kansas City, and Alfred S. Addis.  Alfred was from Pennsylvania and settled in nearby Lawrence in 1855, opening up a tailor shop there.  Once he met Thomas Short, though, Alfred not only married Sarah but joined his father-in-law’s photography business.

Briefly a member of the territorial legislature, Alfred was on the pro-slavery side during what was known as Bleeding Kansas, in which violence between folks like him and abolitionists was rampant.  By the time Kansas was admitted to the Union in 1861, just before the outbreak of the Civil War, Alfred operated his own photography studio and augmented that with the operation of the Union Theater.

Originally a tailor, Addis became a photographer with his father-in-law, Thomas Short, and then opened his own business.  He also operated the Union Theater in Leavenworth, but, after it burned down and likely for other reasons, he abandoned his family, married a second time (and had a daughter and twins who did not survive) and then abandoned that family.  He returned to Sarah, Yda and son Charles (Judge) in 1868 and took the family to Chihuahua, Mexico for several years.  Leavenworth Times, 13 December 1861.

As the war finally was approaching its end, however, a fire gutted the theater (it is not known if it was arson, though wooden buildings regularly went up in flames in American towns and cities) and, soon after, Alfred left, abandoning his wife and two children, including son Charles, or Judge.

He wound up Cincinnati and married Ellen S. Wallace in 1866.  They had twin boys, who died young, and a daughter, Maude, but Alfred not only had a wandering eye, but a restless disposition, and he abandoned his second wife and daughter.  Ellen, also known as Nellie, secured a divorce in 1872 on the grounds of abandonment and remarried two years after that.  Maude figured prominently in a strange aspect of Yda’s later life, but that’s a part of the story for another post.

Alfred photos Los_Angeles_Herald_Tue__Mar_31__1874_
By May 1873, the Addises migrated from Chihuahua to the Pacific coast of Mexico and then sailed by steamer to San Pedro and then traveled up to Los Angeles, where Alfred hung up his shingle as a photographer. Los Angeles Herald, 31 March 1874.

Alfred then wandered up to Montana and elsewhere in the middle west before returning to Kansas, where he married Sarah again in 1868, even though his divorce with Nellie didn’t happen for four more years.  The reunited (first) family then headed south and wound up in northern Mexico, principally in the self-named capital city of the state of Chihuahua, some 230 miles south of El Paso, Texas.

After several years there, the Addises pulled up stakes yet again and moved west across Mexico to the Pacific Coast and then traveled on the steamer Orizaba to San Pedro, from which the family presumably took a stage to Los Angeles.  This was in spring 1873 and the Angel City was then in the midst of its first major period of growth.

Yda first mention Evening_Express_Wed__Jan_28__1874_
The first located mention of Yda Addis in Los Angeles from the Express, 31 January 1874.

How Alfred learned of Los Angeles is unknown, but he opened a photography business, though, once more, he wandered California quite a bit, taking photos, including of Cerro Gordo, a silver mining town east of Owens Lake in eastern California’s Inyo County and where F.P.F. Temple was a major investor in mining and water operations.  Alfred also spent time in Ventura and Santa Barbara taking photos before he returned to Los Angeles to sell prints in his shop.

Meanwhile, Yda, who was fifteen when her family settled in Los Angeles, began attending the newly opened high school, the first in the region.  In very short order, the teenage poetical prodigy made a name for herself, penning verses that appeared in local newspapers, mainly the Los Angeles Express.

Yda LA Independent editor Los_Angeles_Herald_Sat__Sep_19__1874_
Yda was a member of a literary club and also editor of her own publication, the Los Angeles Independent, undertaken while she was still in high school. Los Angeles Herald, 19 September 1874.

Several months after the Addises came to the City of Angels, Charles Storke, newly married to the daughter of a wealthy Santa Barbara rancher, opened a new daily paper, with money advanced by his father-in-law, and which was the Los Angeles Herald.  The first issue even made mention of a young girl who went to the paper’s office looking for a job—it’s tempting to think the ambitious teen was Yda, but there’s no way to know.

Over the next couple of years, mainly in 1874-75, poems by Yda were printed in the Express and she garnered favorable notices from its editor and others in town.  Before she graduated, she even launched her own short-lived monthly literary publication, the Los Angeles Independent, an apt name for her own views, perhaps.  She joined the fraternal order of the Good Templars, who were avid advocates of temperance (the abstaining from alcohol) and joined the Los Angeles Lyceum and the local literary club.

Yda teaching Tustin Los_Angeles_Herald_Fri__Sep_17__1875_
Mention of Yda beginning her teaching career just a few months after being one of the first seven graduates in the Class of 1875 at Los Angeles High, Herald, 17 September 1875.

Immediately after being one of the first seven graduates of the Class of 1875 of Los Angeles High, she passed the examination to become a teacher and was assigned to a school in the newly created town of Tustin in what later became Orange County.  While she taught there, her father opened a photography partnership in nearby Santa Ana.  Just as she launched her new career (and Alfred his new shop), the state and regional economy nosedived, including the suspension and then failure of the bank of Temple and Workman.

Yda kept on at Tustin for a period and then took a teaching position at a Los Angeles school, but the dour economic period of the late Seventies appears to have had a strain on Alfred’s enterprise and, perhaps, his marriage.  In 1879, he and his partner decamped to Tucson in the Arizona territory and, the next year, Alfred moved further east to the mining town of Silver City, New Mexico.  Sarah, Judge and Yda stayed behind in Santa Ana and Los Angeles, respectively.

Yda 1882 LA directory
Yda in the 1882 Los Angeles City Directory.  She taught at Bath Street School near modern Elysian Park and lived on Bunker Hill.  Note the description of the city on the opposite page.  Above Yda is the listing for Lastenia Abarta, who was acquitted of the murder of her lover Francisco P/. Forster in a sensational trial the prior year.  After Lastenia married and moved to Mexico City and Yda wound up in Mexico’s capital, as well, they met there.

Still, after Alfred returned to Chihuahua during the early 1880s, his family decided to join him.  This was not, however, before Yda made the acquaintance of Downey and her personal troubles began to conflict with her growing literary reputation.  Again, though, we’re hold off on carrying the store further for future posts.

Here is the earliest of Yda’s published poems, appearing the Express of 28 January 1874, when she was fifteen years old:


I had a friend; and ere I left his side,

He gave a pearly casket, fair to see;

And said: “From worldly eyes its contents hide,

And they shall be an endless joy to thee,”


“But never lift its beauteous, glitt’ring lid,

To lay within it any foreign thing;

For then its treasures surely will be hid,

And bitter—bitter sorrow to thee bring.”


Thro’ many weary days of gloomy light;

I wandered from the home where dwelt my friend;

But his last gift o’er cast a lustre bright

Upon all things—and this did never end.


Until I roamed unto a distant shore,

Where shone a golden sand beneath the tide;

And ‘midst the shells that decked its beaches o’er,

A wondrous, glowing jewel I espied.


Its crimson ray rejoiced my weary eyes,

And eager to possess, I wildly cried—

“My casket merits well such noble prize!

I’ll grasp, and in it, deep, this jewel hide.”


I stopped, and lifted up the glist’ning gem,”

Unmindful of a pleading, warning voice;

And on a purple spread, with jewelled hem,

Enshrined the precious jewel of my choice.


There, day by day, I watched its beauteous gleam,

Nor favored with a glance another stone,

But laughed and tossed them to a babbling stream,

Until remained my Koh-i-noor* alone.


At least, I went one stormy day, to see—

And found—a pebble in my ruby’s stead!

My own dazed eyes had caused the light so free!

And all my dreams of splendor straight were dead.


The Koh-i-noor is a cut diamond from India that ended up in the collection of the British Crown Jewels.  We’ll be back tomorrow with more from the remarkable life (and trials) of Yda Addis.

4 thoughts

  1. Very true—did you see anything in this post from newspapers that were misquoted? Thanks for your comment!

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