Yda Addis and John G. Downey: A Love Story or a Tall Tale?

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted in yesterday’s post, the young Yda Addis was a literary sensation while a member, from 1873 to 1875, of the first graduating class of Los Angeles High School.  She immediately went into teaching, first in the new town of Tustin, in what became Orange County, and then in Los Angeles.

By 1880, her peripatetic father, Alfred, long a photographer in Kansas, Montana, northern Mexico and California, left the area and wandered off to Tucson and Silver City, New Mexico, before returning to Chihuahua, the state adjoining Texas in northern Mexico, leaving his family behind for a period.

Yda continued teaching into the early years of that decade and resided on Bunker Hill, at what was then the west end of Los Angeles.  She then left for Chihuahua and rejoined her family there, but, upon her father’s death at El Paso, Texas in 1886, Yda returned to the City of Angels.

Yda image San_Francisco_Chronicle_Sun__Jul_31__1892_
San Francisco Chronicle, 31 July 1892.

After she came back to Los Angeles, however, a startling story emerged, telling a tale that became something of a media sensation both in that city and in San Francisco.  It began with a terrible tragedy that took place in January 1883 when former California governor and prominent capitalist John G. Downey and his wife María Guirado were returning by train from the San Francisco wedding of Downey’s nephew and business manager, John Downey Harvey.

The train was stopped at the summit at Tehachapi Pass, southeast of Bakersfield, when several cars somehow were inadvertently detached and rolled backward down a steep grade, derailing into a mass of crushed steel, wood, and flame.  Downey was pulled from the wreckage and badly bruised, but his wife was trapped in the wreckage of their sleeper car and burned to death before his eyes.

The horror likely caused Downey to have what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it was widely believed he was a shell of his former self after the death of his wife.  Not long afterward, apparently, he made the acquaintance of young Ida, whose attractiveness, intelligence and personality captivated the much older man, who was not quite thirty years her senior.

Downey image The_San_Francisco_Call_Sat__May_25__1895_
San Francisco Call, 25 May 1895.

It was quickly determined, though how much of this was the trauma of his wife’s passing and how much of it was concern about his spending time with Yda cannot be known with certainty, that Downey needed an extended recuperative trip away, including to Europe.  When he returned from abroad and elsewhere in the United States, he was promptly sent to be with his two sisters in San Francisco.

Yda, meanwhile, left Los Angeles and went to Chihuahua to be reunited with her father, though he died in September 1886 while traveling to hot springs in Arkansas for his health and only got as far as El Paso, Texas, 230 or so miles from Chihuahua City.  With her father dead, Yda decided to return to California and it was then, in summer 1887, with Downey ensconced with his sisters, that her story about her previous history with him made the rounds in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

She claimed that she was living in penury in a home with barely a stick of furniture in the Angel City, with barely any means of subsistence for her and her mother when she and Downey became acquainted.  Though there were rumors that she accepted money from the former governor, she denied this, stating that she always returned what was offered—after all, this could have been interpreted as her being something of a “kept woman.”

Yda Downey A Mystery detail The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Fri__Jul_29__1887_
San Francisco Examiner, 29 July 1887.

In April 1888, Yda provided a lengthy letter, penned in Xalapa, Veracruz, east of Mexico City, of her version of the situation for the San Francisco Examiner, a paper acquired by United States Senator George Hearst and handed over to his young son, William Randolph, who built a media empire later, much of it on sensationalism and so-called “yellow journalism.”

In her telling, friends or acquaintances of Downey prevailed upon her to “rescue” him because “of the matrimonial engagement which existed between us.”  Yda, however, told the paper that “my attendant physicians have assured me that I am likely to die very shortly of quick consumption,” so, even if there was no hope of marriage, she could at the very least “set forth for the public understanding the facts of the situation as I understand them.”

She averred that, “early in the year 1883,” or not quite three months just after the Tehachapi tragedy and demise of Mrs. Downey, the former governor “made me the object of attentions whose meaning and end were unmistakable.”  Yda asserted that she was “in a certain sense humiliated and even degraded” by his course of action and decided to escape to visit a cousin, who was the sheriff of Tulare County.

Yda Downey found detail The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Sat__Jul_30__1887_
Examiner, 30 July 1887.

She was gone two or three months and, upon returning, found that her mother invested all of her money in a bad deal and was left penniless.  While Yda said she sought work, she also indicated that she contracted the “malaria of Tulare” and could not labor, but a friend of hers, who urged Yda to accept a loan, went to Downey to inform him of the Addises dire situation.

She continued, “this led to an explicit understanding between myself and Mr. Downey, and I . . . agreed to marry him at the expiration of his two years of mourning, provided that my mother’s future comfort was assured.”  She added that Downey planned to take her to Mexico and Europe “and then to settle in a beautiful home in Los Angeles” where Downey would entertain and “make his house a center for lovers of art and literature” while spending liberally on good works.

Yda went on to say that Downey offered a large sum, which she rejected because, she claimed, she had “to support myself and my mother on the pittance I earned from my writings.”  She told the Examiner that she kept her engagement quiet to quell gossip and kept Downey at a respectable distance, so that women in his household visited there was “no more warmth than that required by etiquette.”

Yda Downey detall The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sat__Oct_1__1887_
Los Angeles Times, 1 October 1887.

Then, she let it be known that “Mr. Downey’s fatal weakness of intemperance” reared its ugly head again and he had “one of his customary lapses from sobriety” which required, the story went on, him to be taken to his ranch “for the sobering-off process.”  Yda, it will be remembered from yesterday’s post, was a member of the Good Templars, a temperance fraternal order in Los Angeles.

After this, Yda continued, she didn’t see Downey for a couple of months or so, but he sought her out and called her to account “for my fickle conduct and bad faith in breaking with him.”  Yet, when he looked into her reply that she was “the aggrieved party,” she said he told her he found out that her letters to him were intercepted by J. Downey Harvey “for the purpose of causing a rupture between us.”  She concluded this part of the interview by averring that “I have heard of no other lapse from perfect sobriety on Mr. Downey’s part while my influence was exerted over him.”

Yda noted that, in August 1884, he spent time with her and her mother and that he was “more kindly and attentive and full of hopeful plans for the future in my companionship,” except that his term of mourning was some months away (January 1885).  She said he promised to send her a photo and insisted on her accepting some money before arranging some business with his late wife’s brothers and going on “a long absence.”

Yda dying detail The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Sun__Apr_22__1888_
Examiner, 22 April 1888.

After she accepted his check, Yda added, Downey spoke in Spanish to her, “I will see you to-morrow, vida mia, God willing,” but, she stated, “I never saw him again.”  She was told by an employee of the ex-governor that the bank draft wound up with Downey Harvey and a quarrel broke out between uncle and nephew and Downey “had yielded to his weakness for liquor.”

From there, Yda turned to the machinations of Downey’s family to prevent, at all costs, marriage to her, including her assertion that Harvey had her followed and that forged letters were purportedly written by her and which “would have hopelessly compromised me as on my own confession.”  She alleged that the forger was a former classmate “on whom I had inflicted some girlish slight” and who was a friend of Harvey.

Finally, she claimed that, because her mother was afraid she would be kidnapped or murdered, “I have exiled myself” by moving back to Mexico.  Some three years elapsed when Yda returned to Los Angeles in August 1887 and was approached by Horace Bell, a figure of note and controversy during his many years in Los Angeles.  An attorney and publisher of the Porcupine, an apt title for his style of journalism, as well as writer of the widely read Reminiscences of a Ranger, published in 1881, Bell had intriguing news for Addis.

Yda Downey in SF and LA detail The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Tue__Apr_24__1888_
Examiner, 24 April 1888.

Specifically, he claimed that Frank Guirado, Downey’s brother-in-law, went to him to ask for help in getting Downey released from the clutches of his family, saying Guirado’s brother, Bernardino, already tried and was told by Downey that he was held against his will, that he’d been drugged, and that Harvey absconded with $15,000 of his uncle’s money.  Just as they were to get a court hearing for habeus corpus, or a release from unlawful detainer, Downey was “spirited away.”  She said that friends of the ex-governor held a meeting and pledged to provide money to assist in securing Downey’s return, but Frank Guirado’s death forestalled the effort.

Moreover, Bell, Yda went on, met with Downey early in 1887 to discuss a legal matter, but learned, apparently, that Downey was given liquor and drugs, “that his life had been attempted by poison,” and that an effort was made to have him declared insane and committed to an asylum.  Yet, he was taken away by steamer on a long trip and then a return to San Francisco where his sisters lived, rather than Los Angeles.

Yda related that Bell went to Downey’s attorneys, the highly regarded John D. Bicknell and Stephen M. White (the latter later a United States Senator and hero of the “Free Harbor Fight” to make San Pedro the government-approved local port), but they deemed Downey to be crazy and Harvey to be “solid.”  Though Bell, Yda said, wrote something in his paper that was feigned agreement with how Downey and his affairs were being handled, she went on to say that Bell and others supported her in her plans to intervene with his being kept in San Francisco.

Yda Downey interview detail The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__Apr_25__1888_
Times, 25 April 1888.

Bell, she continued, met with Downey, who attacked Yda while the lawyer and publisher tried to defend her.  Yet, when Bell returned later in the day with a letter from her, Downey did a complete about-face and “spoke of me in such terms of praise—I may say of veneration” and asked that Yda be brought to him.  Though such a meeting was set, it was never held and she was told “Let Miss Addis sue for breach of promise” and that Downey was so wealthy “a suit will distribute some of his money among the rest of us.”  It appeared she attributed these words to White.

While she encouraged to file just such a suit, she claimed she would not do so as “inconsistent with my antecedents and my dignity” and she could not put herself in such a “humiliating” circumstance.  There were other news reports that she had a San Francisco attorney of note, Patrick Reddy, ready (!) to file a half-million dollar breach of promise suit.

Yda’s remarkable letter concluded by her claiming that “my sole desire is to save and serve Mr. Downey” saying that his friends “urged me to this step, and I have consented.”  She added that she was above “sordid motives” in writing the missive, as she sought only to have “my truthfulness vindicated” in the face of forged letters, fake telegrams “and divers other devices” calculated “to place me in a false position.”

Yda Donahue interview detail The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Thu__Apr_26__1888_
Examiner, 26 April 1888.

While the Examiner and other papers, including in Los Angeles, devoted more space to the Downey mystery and a friend of his appeared to have forcibly freed him from San Francisco and taken, after some three-and-a-half years away, back to Los Angeles, where he had two rooms at the Nadeau Hotel.  Yet, towards the end of April, Downey was interviewed at the hotel by the Los Angeles Times.

The paper observed that, previously, when it was reported by the Examiner that Downey was being held in San Francisco by his relatives, this likely in summer 1887, it contacted Yda who said that she was not “the main cause of Gov. Downey’s confinement” and that “she and the Governor had been good friends, but nothing more.”  Harvey said, at the time, that his uncle was free to go wherever and do whatever he pleased and the matter ended until the recent publication of Ida’s stunning missive.

Yda Downey marries Rosa Kelly Daily_Independent_Tue__May_8__1888_
Santa Barbara Independent, 8 May 1888.

Seeking to get some answers in the face of this latest bombshell, a Times reporter did secure a short interview with Downey the previous evening.  Though he was said to be loath to say anything, except to a sole journalist, he did reply when asked “How about that Yda Addis affair?  Is there any truth in her statement.”  It was reported that Downey answered:

All a pack of lies, so far as our relations are concerned.  I was never in love with that woman.  In fact, I am led to believe that the whole scheme was put up by blackmailing lawyers in this city.

With that, Downey ended the session.  Just under two weeks later, he married Rosa Kelly, said to be a housekeeper of the former governor.  A Santa Barbara newspaper account added, however, that

We do not dare to give any opinion, after all that has been said on the subject, but our sympathies are decidedly with Miss Yda Addis, who has genius much more worthy of adulation than any other female writer in the country, outside of two or three of the most prominent.

The Santa Barbara press would not, however, look as kindly upon Yda in a few years time, as will be seen in future posts.  The matter, then, abruptly came to a stark close and Yda remained in Mexico for a period, but more conflict with powerful men was to come and we’ll pick up the story with the next post.

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