Confronting Regional History Controversies: Jonathan Temple and the 1836 Vigilance Committee in Los Angeles

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times published an article concerning an ongoing reevaluation at the University of Southern California of the memorializing of key early figures in the institution’s founding and development.  A recent repost on our social media platforms here referenced long-time USC president Rufus von KleinSmid in connection to a blog post on prominent eugenicist Paul Popenoe and his racist views on “purifying” humankind.

Tonight’s post is in reflection of another dark aspect mentioned in the Times piece and connections to the Temple family, staring with the reported involvement of university founding trustee Robert M. Widney in an 1870 vigilance committee that led to the lynching of a suspected murderer, French-born farmer Michel Lachenais (who’d been directly implicated in at least two other murders, in 1861 and 1866, and was widely suspected in the sudden death of his Californio wife, María Reyes) at the end of that year.

The article mentioned, “at that time, vigilante groups were prevalent in the young city,” though this is only somewhat true.  By the 1870s, semi-organized groups or unruly mobs were much less frequent (though any one of these was to be condemned for acting outside of the law) than they were in the 1850s and first half of the 1860s, when such instances were all-too-common.

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The listing of local officers, including District Court Judge Robert M. Widney, who was appointed to the position on the death of Murray Morrison in late 1871 just after the horrific Chinese Massacre, Los Angeles Herald, 9 October 1873.

The Times piece added that lynchings “often targeted Native Americans and people of color” and it is certainly true that the majority of those executed by committees, popular tribunals (which had the pretense of trials), and mobs were Latinos, though some were Americans or Europeans and there were only very rare instances of indigenous people lynched, such as one named Tomás in 1860.  The worst example of lynching in the city’s history and one of the worst America has ever seen was the horrific killings of nineteen Chinese in late October 1871.

It was mentioned in the article that, when the Widney statue, which was only erected six years ago, was dedicated, then-U.S.C. President Max C.L. Nickias “praised him for saving a group of Chinese immigrants from a deadly mob in 1871.”  This is also true, as Widney, who was getting a shave in a nearby barbershop when hundreds of Anglos and Latinos descended on the Chinese enclave on the Calle de los Negros, now Los Angeles Street, and lynched one teenager and eighteen men, mounted a barrel and begged for the lynchers to stop.  Friends pulled him down when threats were directed at Widney and, purportedly, gunshots fired toward his direction.

Further complicating the situation is that, when the main trial was held over several men indicted in the murder of Gene Tong, a Chinese doctor and pillar of the community, the district court judge, Murray Morrison, died and his appointed successor was none other than Widney, a practicing attorney better known, however, for his real estate and business endeavors—one was the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, the first streetcar line in Los Angeles and of which F.P.F. Temple was treasurer.

So, Widney presided over the Chinese Massacre trial in spring 1872, after having been alleged to have been involved in the 1870 vigilance committee, which, however, was cloaked in secrecy.  When members of the committee communicated to the press, it was through the use of disguised member numbers.

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An example of Widney’s involvement in local affairs, specifically the first version of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and his report on improvements to the harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington.

The most commonly known source implicating Widney as involved in the lynching was Horace Bell, whose posthumous 1930 book On the Old West Coast is, like its 1881 predecessor, Reminiscences of a Ranger, filled with a heavy dose of tall tales and outright falsehoods commingled with factual renderings, all told in a fast-moving and entertaining style. As was often the case in the book, Bell did not refer to Widney by name, employing the appellation of “the real estate agent” as well as an oblique reference to the minister of the city’s Methodist Church, A.M. Hough.

By contrast, merchant Harris Newmark, whose Sixty Years in Southern California is more sober, tends to be more factual, but is a whole lot less fun than Bell’s page-turners, identified the ringleaders of the Home Guard and its lynching of Lachenais as French-born barber Felix Signoret and native of Ireland Patrick McFadden as the heads of the committee.

Yet, when Widney testified at the coroner’s inquest after the Chinese Massacre, before he was appointed county judge and presided over the main criminal trial, he told the jury “that none of the Old Vigilance Committee were engaged, except in rescuing Chinese from the mob.”  Was he speaking of himself?

Widney’s son-in-law was [Andrew] Boyle Workman, great-nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman and president of the Los Angeles City Council for much of the 1920s.  In his 1935 memoir The City That Grew, Workman referred to Widney as “president of the Law and Order party, which substantial citizens had recently organized to suppress crime and violence.’  According to this account, Widney called for members of this group to help guard areas in the Chinese quarter and prevent further attacks.

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An article on the formation of the first street railroad system in Los Angeles, the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, with Widney as president and F.P.F. Temple as treasurer, Herald, 10 February 1874.

Moreover, in the late 1880s, there was local news coverage of a civil trial in Los Angeles, in which Widney was representing one party and opposing counsel took the opportunity to refer, in his arguments, to Widney’s vigilante past.  Widney then pulled out a derringer from a coat pocked and pointed it at his adversary before being restrained by bystanders.

Was this a reflection of outrage over a very public personal attack and slight or some admission of guilt?  In any case, it is a stunning breach of courtroom behavior, though not unprecedented.  There were some examples of guns and other objects drawn, fired and thrown in 1850s courtrooms, including one shootout that led the county judge, William G. Dryden to hide behind the bench and yell out, “Shoot away, damn you!  And to hell with all of you!”

So, whatever Widney’s complicity with extra-legal activities, especially considering that he was an attorney and judge (though there were several of those engaged in vigilance committees and popular tribunals in the 1850s—a mayor even resigned his office to lead the lynching of David Brown, an Anglo, who was hung by a mob after Felipe Alvitre was legally executed just prior, and was returned to office in the ensuing special election), sworn to uphold the law, there were no shortage of supporters of vigilantism in Los Angeles and throughout much of the country during the era.

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The transfer of property from Ozro W. Childs, John G. Downey and Isaias W. Hellman (a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew) to the trustees of the University of Southern California, including Widney, his brother Joseph (a prominent doctor whose racist views have also been discussed recently), and others for the establishment of what was, for about thirty years, a Methodist Church school.  Herald, 6 August 1879.

Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, whose many volumes on the history of California from the 1880s and 1890s are still read and used today, published a two-volume justification for most vigilantism in the state called Popular Tribunals, arguing, as others did, that extra-legal actions by citizens were necessary and even sanctioned by “natural rights” when government and law enforcement could or would not act.

This is, of course, not anywhere near a valid rationalization or excuse.  The only way to improve criminal justice, even in the face of extraordinary violence and the lack of support for the criminal justice system, is the conscientious recourse to and unyielding support of the law, though it needed improved budgets, facilities and human resources to be more effective and that could only come through a painfully and frustratingly gradual change.

This takes us all the way back to 1836 and the first documented instance of vigilantism in Los Angeles and California.  It followed the murder of Domingo Feliz, whose well-known family owned their namesake rancho in what is now the Los Feliz and surrounding areas north of the pueblo.  Feliz and his wife, María del Rosario Villa, had marital troubles and she left him for Gervasio Alipas of San Gabriel, but a reconciliation was arranged by local authorities and Catholic clergy.

Jonathan Temple Rafaela Cota Temple Gregorio de Ajuria ca 1850's
Jonathan Temple, his wife Rafaela Cota and their son-in-law Gregorio de Ajuria, ca. 1855.  From the museum’s holdings.

As the couple headed north for the ranch, Alipas, who apparently swore to be avenged against Feliz, overtook them and leaped upon Feliz, stabbing him in the back and killing him.  Alipas and Rosario then buried the body in a ravine and decamped for San Gabriel with Feliz’ remains found several days later.  Though the couple was confined to a crude jail in an adobe house in the pueblo, community sentiment ran high.

On 7 April, fifty men gathered at the home of Jonathan Temple, who was the second extranjero, or foreigner (meaning American or European) to settle in Los Angeles, to form a “Committee for Defense and Public Safety” and deliberate over the fate of the two captives.  While the group included many Californios, there is no doubt that the small, but growing cadre, of Americans and Europeans were integral to its organization and process, with French-born Victor Prudon authoring, in Spanish, the document that purported to guide the committee’s actions.

Manuel Requena, the pueblo’s alcalde (equivalent to mayor) and the ayuntamiento (town council) resisted the demand of the committee that Villa and Alipas be turned over to it for punishment.  When armed committee members marched to the jail, Narciso Botello, who was secretary of the council, refused to hand over the keys, but they were forcibly taken from him.  Alipas and Villa were shot and it was reported that the former had filed down the shackles that bound him.  Their bodies were left exposed to public view at the jail entrance for two hours and the committee, purportedly, promptly disbanded.

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An account nearly a century later of the vigilance committee of 1836, the first in Los Angeles and California, and which met at the home of Temple, San Pedro News-Pilot, 21 September 1928.

A 1947 account of the incident looked favorably upon the lynching, saying that it was good that the execution of Alipas took place before he could escape after nearly freeing himself of his cuffs, adding that the work of some of “the best citizens of Los Angeles,” including Temple, meant that violence was stemmed and “order was observed for some time in the usually wild Pueblo.”

As noted in the mid-2000s by the late Eric Monkonnen, who researched and wrote extensive on violence, particularly, homicide in America, Los Angeles and its surrounding area had “little government, weak law enforcement, high transiency [people coming and going fluidly], anonymity, and, apparently, elite tolerance of violence.”  These elites often included prominent Californios as well as Americans and Europeans, including Temple and Widney.

Notably, Monkonnen felt that the 1830-1870 period established “a template for tolerating violence that persisted through the twentieth century.”  A broad generalization, to be sure, but he also asserted that “recently, there have been some changes, but the city and its surrounding region still invest far less in homicide suppression than do other places.”

Our current dialog about police brutality and the role of law enforcement in American society will likely lead to more discussion and debate about what to do in trying to limit homicidal actions, even as we see headlines about the enormous numbers of people killed and injured by violence in such major metropolises like New York, Chicago and, of course, the City of Angels.

Jonathan Temple photo
A circa 1860s portrait of Temple.

Vigilantism in greater Los Angeles is a dark, but complex, element of our regional history.  It is, obviously, appropriate and necessary for us to review and revise our appraisal of this and virtually any other topic pertaining to our complicated and often troubling past.

Robert M. Widney may have been a founder of what is now one of the most prominent (and prosperous) universities in the country, but his legacy is clearly tainted by his association with vigilantism, especially for a lawyer and jurist!  Jonathan Temple, who was a major figure in Mexican and American Los Angeles and had pivotal roles in business, politics (including as an ayuntamiento member sworn to uphold the law), and society, was the host of the first document act of vigilantism in Los Angeles and California and he, as well, should be judged accordingly.

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