by Paul R. Spitzzeri
F.P.F. Temple’s nearly four decades of living in Los Angeles began with his arrival in the summer of 1841 to the small, isolated pueblo on the northwestern frontier of México and included a remarkably array of activities through the startling collapse of his bank of Temple and Workman in 1876. A broken man, he died four years later on this date in 1880, aged just 58. History is not kind to those who fail, but Temple deserves remembrance of one the major figures in the Angel City over many years.
He was born Pliny Fisk Temple (being named for a prominent Congregationalist missionary in the Middle East) on 13 February 1822 in Reading, Massachusetts, where his family, migrants from England in the 1630s, lived since the latter part of the 17th century. He was the youngest child of Jonathan Temple and his second wife Lucinda Parker (he was previously married to Lydia Pratt and their oldest offspring was a namesake son) and received his early education in his hometown.
After completing his schooling, Pliny decided to make the half-year journey by sea around the Horn of Southern America to Mexican California and Los Angeles to meet his eldest brother, Jonathan, who’d left Massachusetts before Pliny’s birth. Reaching the pueblo of Los Angeles in July 1841, Pliny apparently planned to stay for perhaps a year before returning home, but he decided to remain permanently and became a clerk in his brother’s store, the first to open in the Angel City.
About four months after he arrived, the family of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste came to the area via the Old Spanish Trail from New Mexico. After their friend and former business partner of William, John Rowland, obtained a grant, the following spring, for the Rancho La Puente, the Workmans selected a site for their home. With them was a daughter, Antonia Margarita, and a son, José Manuel, though the latter spent much of his early life in Baltimore with his father’s sister.
Perhaps from visits to the Temple store, Pliny and Margarita, as she was commonly known, became an item and the couple’s marriage, in September 1845, was the first in the region in which both persons had English-language surnames, testament to how few extranjeros lived in the area in those waning years of the Mexican era. Pliny was baptized a Catholic immediately before the nuptials were held and took the baptismal name of Francisco—he was known afterward formally as F.P.F., while his friends knew him as Frank or Templito. Over the next twenty-seven years, the Temples had eleven children, three dying as youngsters, and the eight living to adulthood included six sons and two daughters.
After about eight years working for his brother, F.P.F. ventured to the gold fields and, while it is not known how much gold digging he’d done (the first documented finding of the precious metal was actually near Los Angeles in spring 1842 and he sent gold dust back east to the national mint at Philadelphia), we know that he acquired his first property in the “southern mines” area of what became Tuolumne County. Eventually he owned grazing lands, slaughter houses, butcher shops and other holdings in Sonora, Columbia (now a state historic park), Springfield and other communities, keeping some until the 1870s.
As cattle were in high demand during the famous Gold Rush, Temple and his father-in-law Workman realized fortunes driving thousands of animals on the six-week trek to the fields. Even as the rush receded, the two men continued to own large ranch properties on which were pastured many thousands of head of livestock. Workman’s half of La Puente was the prime area to raise cattle and horses, but, after he foreclosed on a loan to Casilda Soto de Lobo, granteee of the nearby Rancho La Merced, situated just to the west, he gave half to his La Puente foreman, Juan Matias Sánchez, who moved into the Soto adobe house, and the other to his daughter and son-in-law.
The Temples, in 1851, built an adobe house on lowlands just east of the San Gabriel River at what is now known as the Whittier Narrows, a cut between the Montebello and Puente hill ranges. Over the next quarter-century, they added greatly to the place, including, by the early 1870s, a two-story brick French Second Empire dwelling, outbuildings, extensive fencing and other aspects. The almost 1,200 acres of the Temple half of La Merced included the raising of cattle and horses (inclding some purebred exampes of the latter) and farming (including experiments with tobacco, cotton and other crops).
F.P.F., however, had other interests, including politics, serving as the second Los Angeles city treasurer from 1850-1852 and then was one of the first five members of the county’s Board of Supervisors when it was formed in 1852. He ran for supervisor twice more, losing campaigns in 1863 and 1871 (being a Republican, he had little chance of winning elections as Democrats dominated the political arena in greater Los Angeles). In 1873, he sought election as county treasurer and again lost, but he tried again two years later and pulled off a rare Republican victory–fleeting though that proved to be.
As successful as he was with ranching and farming, Temple aspired to make his mark as Los Angeles experienced its first significant and sustained period of growth following the end of the Civil War, which also marked a dismal period of flood and drought that ravaged the region in the first half of the 1860s. With the business community of the Angel City experiencing its first major expansion, Temple dove in headlong, with his father-in-law Workman as a silent partner.
The two made an exceptionally wise partnership with the brillian young merchant, Isaias W. Hellman, one of a cadre of Jewish migrants from Europe who found success in Los Angeles, and the trio, in 1868, opened the second bank in the city: Hellman, Temple and Company. If they’d let Hellman work his magic, who knows what the future would have held for Temple, Workman and their descendants, but Temple wanted more involvement and in ways, such as with loaning policy, that Hellman simply could not accept. He bought out his partners early in 1871 and teamed up with ex-governor, John G. Downey, who opened the first Los Angeles bank just before Hellman, Temple and Company, to form Farmers and Merchants Bank of Los Angeles, long a financial powerhouse in the Angel City.
Undaunted, Temple convinced Workman to continue on with their own private bank, which opened its doors in fall 1871 and in the last of four buildings comprising the Temple Block, the new center of downtown Los Angeles. The land was acquired by F.P.F.’s brother not long after he came to the pueblo and he had a two-story adobe at the northern end where Spring and Main streets converged and where Temple Street ran to the west. In the late Fifties, Jonathan built a two-story brick structure at the southern extremity, following that, in an “island” south of that, with the Market House, which became the county courthouse within a short time.
After Jonathan died in San Francisco, where he’d recently relocated, in 1866, his widow sold the Temple Block to F.P.F. for $15,000. Two years later, he added a two-story brick building to the block and, in 1870, another was added before the three-story structure replaced Jonathan’s adobe building. For the first half of the Seventies, F.P.F. was in the vanguard of the rapidly growing power block of Anglo business and civic elites, and he had a dizzying array of business enterprises, with the Temple and Workman bank as a funding source for most of it.
In real estate, railroads, oil, and a host of other enterprises, Temple established himself as a preeminent booster of the Angel City and his charitable endeavors, including funding schools when they were low, as they perenially were, on money, were widely known. Yet, for all of his personal popularity and the growth of his bank, the boom concealed serious fundamental management deficiencies at Temple and Workman, run by a British-Canadian named Henry S. Ledyard.
While times were good, no one was the wiser. In summer 1875, however, came the inevitable bust to end the boom. Grossly overvalued stock in silver mines at Virginia City inflated balance sheets at San Francisco banks, especially the Bank of California, headed by William Ralston. When a panic erupted, that institution crumbled immediately and Ralston was found floating in the bay, though it appeared to be an accidental death.
The ticking of the telegraph, relaying the horrible news south, ushered in a run on the two commercial banks at Los Angeles. While Farmers and Merchants could withstand the panic because of adequate cash reserves, Temple and Workman was not able to do so. Hellman was in Europe at the time, so Downey agreed to close his bank for a month to help Temple, who became known as the Ralston of Los Angeles, try to still the roiling waters. Furious, Hellman rushed home, stopping in New York to borrow cash, and reopened before the end of the thirty-day suspension.
Temple, who won election as county treasurer the day the banks closed but who would not take office for nearly a half a year, was in deep difficulties. He spent much of the fall in San Francisco seeking loans for his stricken institution, but no one was able or willing to advance funds, except for Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who made millions off selling his Virginia City silver mine stock to people like Ralston. When a deal was finally consummated in late November, Temple wrote home to Workman that it was “on rather hard terms.”
This was an overstatement of tragic proportions. While Baldwin eventually loaned Temple and Workman nearly $350,000, the interest and the terms of payment were all but impossible to meet. Why the pair didn’t simply declare bankruptcy and sell off what they could of their considerable assets to meet the demands of creditors can only be explained by either pride or abundant faith that jittery depositors, unnerved by three months of closure, would rally to save the bank.
Temple and Workman reopened in early December to great fanfare, but over the next several weeks, depositors quietly withdrew the borrowed funds and closed their accounts and, after Baldwin refused further advances, the doors were closed on 13 January 1876 in what was Los Angeles’ first major business failure (there wouldn’t be another significant bank failure for nearly fifteen more years). An inventory was conducted and, when revealed after several weeks, showed an unmitigated disaster of mismanagment and “wild speculations.”
Assignees did what they could over the course of most of the next decade, but Baldwin’s loan meant a mortgage on most of the valuable landholdings of the failed bankers, and depositors got very little out of the debacle. Baldwin waited three years to foreclose, but Workman, bewildered and blindsided by the events spinning wildly outside his control, committed suicide in his Rancho La Puente house in May.
Temple, who’d taken office as county treasurer, though he had to file larger bonds and agree to leave the day-to-day management of funds to a deputy, managed to serve his two-year term through spring 1877. By then, however, he suffered the first of a series of strokes, no doubt due to the stress, that eventually mostly paralyzed him. He declared personal bankruptcy in summer 1876 and his fortunes were so devastated that, it was later said, he tried to hock his $10,000 life insurance policy for less than a third of its face value.
All but reclusive in his last years and with further strokes wreaking more havoc, Temple, who gave a confused interview to historian Hubert Howe Bancroft in 1877, died at his La Merced home. Some accounts, no doubt trying to wring as much drama out of human suffering as it could, claimed he died in a “rude sheepherder’s hut” in a corner of the ranch. This was not true, but it is the case that he and his family were largely ruined by the disaster.
The Los Angeles Express, in its lengthy obituary praised Temple as “he contributed very largely to turn our city from a slow going Spanish-American pueblo into a center of commerce, where business, improvement and architectral progress marched hand in hand.” It explained away the financial ruin by claiming that “by unfortunate investments the bank became involved and a collapsed followed, bringing ruin not only upon Temple himself but upon all who placed confidence in him.”
After the bank’s failure, the paper went on, “he never recovered fro the shock, and those who were intmate with him, knew how poignantly he suffered in mind from the irreparable reveses his fortune had undergone.” There was nothing left and it was said that the La Merced property was owned by Margarita, which was not true. The Express then stated,
Mr. Temple was of a gently and pliable nature; a poor judge of men, and easily swayed by those in whom he reposed confidence into adventurous speculations. He was destitute of the cold, selfish, sagacious, calculating qualities which go to make up the successful banker . . . The death of Mr. Temple will be sincerely mourned by all who knew how warm and generous a nature he possessed; and the tribute of sympathy wil be sent out to one whose career was marked at its close with adversiites which few would have had the courage to support to the bitter end. To the fortunate children of earth death comes as an unwelcome messenger; but he must have come to F.P.F. Temple as a sweet summoner, relieving him of a load too heavy for common mortals to bear. May he rest in peace.
The Los Angeles Herald added some details as to the last illness, stating that there had been a first stroke about a year before (though it was said a few years prior that he’d had one then), and that another struck at Noon on the day of his death. Temple’s third son, William, a recently minted lawyer struggling to deal with the family’s financial collapse and the legal issues associated with it, rode into Los Angeles to summon Dr. Henry S. Orme, but when they arrived back several hours later, Temple had just died.
The paper closed by observing that “generosity and liberality were the predominating characteristics of the decades, which, with too great confidence in others, ill fitted him for a successful broker [banker?]. Temple Block and other substantial buildings of our city are monuments of his enterprise which will endure for many years.”
The Los Angeles Journal reiterated much of the same information as its contemporaries, though it waxed poetically that “his spirit, released from the cares, anxieties and the misfortunes of life, had taken its flight.” It noted that he’d had one or two strokes before the one that ended his life and that this was “from the overwhelming effects of business disaster” and that “he had gradually sunk until he was a physical wreck.”
The paper recited his “mournful” history, adding that the bank “flourished for a time, enjoying public confidence to a wonderful degree,” but the abysmal management of the institution meant that it “came down with a crash, burying hundreds in the wreck, beside the unfortunate men in whose names the business was carried on.” It added that “Mr. Temple was never a keen student of human nature” and “was easily imposed upon” by those who gave worthless security for loans.
With Temple and Workman “utterly ruined,” the latter was “driven to desperation by the bitter reflection that he had been ruined in his old age” in taking his life. As for the former, the paper somewhat incorrectly reported that “Mr. Temple, driven from his home, became a mere physical wreck,” as he did not lose his house, though he was increasingly paralyzed by strokes. The Journal ended by intoning
Would that the curtain might drop here; but the entailed hardships and deprivations will keep the memories of that unfortunate institution long in the minds of men. Mr. Temple was surely more sinned against than sinning.
Handwritten notes from “La Puente” and dated the following day was sent to friends with the simple statement that “F.P.F. Temple died at his residence at 6 P.M. on the 27th. ins[tant]. Funeral will take place bet[ween] the hours of 11 & 12 A.M. of the 29th at the Puente. Friends are invited to attend. The initials were then given of six surviving children, Francis, John, Lucinda, Charles, Walter and Maggie, though not of his eldest son Thomas or third son William, nor of his widow.
The reference to “the Puente” meant that F.P.F.’s funeral was in St. Nicholas’ Chapel, the Gothic Revival brick place of worship at El Campo Santo Cemetery, while the interment was in the fenced family burial plot behind the structure, situated at the Homestead, occupied since Workman’s death nearly four years earlier by his grandson, Francis W. Temple. In fact, six months later, Francis purchased the 75-acre “La Puente” or Workman Homestead from Baldwin for $5,000.
The featured object from the Homestead’s collection is the original invoice from the undertaking firm of Victor Ponet and Benjamin F. Orr and dated 3 May for services rendered on the date after Temple’s passing. The metallic casket cost $250, a sizable sum, with an engraved plate an additional ten dollars. The hearse ran thirty-five dollars, while sashes and gloves for the pallbearers, six yards of crape, and the disinfecting and “attendance” on the body cost nearly forty dollars, for a total of $324.
While it was true that the failure of Temple and Workman was long remembered and F.P.F.’s death was even reported on in newspapers in San Francisco, Cincinnati, Norfolk, Virginia and in the Montana Territory, these events have now been long forgotten. They shouldn’t, though, because Temple was a major figure in Los Angeles for the first quarter century of the American period and the collapse of his bank, being the first significant business failure in Los Angeles, marked the end of its first growth boom.