Read All About It in “The Greenbacker,” Los Angeles, 9 August 1879

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Homestead’s collection has three issues of the extremely rare and short-lived Los Angeles newspaper, The Greenbacker, a particularly prickly political publication that appeared in August 1879, a month prior to the county elections (there was a similarly short-lived newspaper for the 1875 elections supporting F.P.F. Temple and Independents [Republicans] running against what was then a dominant Democratic Party), and which was largely focused on the broad “greenback” movement, involving the question of paper as opposed to gold-backed currency, as discussed in the previous post here about the sheet.

Yet, publisher John W. Crisman and editor Alfred Moore were also devoted Workingmen, a labor movement that also was virulently anti-Chinese, an attitude that was found throughout the American West, while, in Los Angeles, it was most manifested in the horrific Chinese Massacre of 24 October 1871, in which eighteen men and a teen boy were lynched by a mob of hundreds of White and Latinx citizens.

This form of populism was hardly unique, before or after, in American history, though the fact that The Greenbacker did not have a long life nor were its principals well-known or remembered, doesn’t mean that this obscure paper lacks interest or meaning. The first issue was published on the 2nd and tonight’s highlighted artifact is the second edition from a week later. A prospectus of sorts minced no words when it came to the publication’s purpose:

[The paper is] devoted to the Greenback doctrine, and to the advocacy of “the greatest good to the greatest number,” intended to be a red-hot sheet, for the perusal and education of the masses and a help to their elevation to the proper sphere all good honest industrious citizens should of right attain in this great republic. In local matters it will go for [after] all bad men and handle them pretty roughly, it will at times sound loud and seem ugly . . . until the elections in September next we shall heartily advocate the plans of the party for the new Constitution [ratified by a special election on 7 May 1879] and see that its principles are fully carried out by men, who understand how, and are determined to interpret them for the benefit of the entire people as opposed to Rings, Rogueries, Rascalities and Monopolies.

A short piece titled “Moore’s ‘Greenbacker'” laid it out clearly, as “we want more greenbacks, more business, more prosperity, more employment for honest industrious labor . . . white men employed, Chinese banished, virtue rewarded and crime punished . . . these are some of the reasons Moore has started the GREENBACKER—let all honest men join in and help the cause.”

A front page article informed readers that “if sufficient support is given to this enterprise, the paper will be enlarged at an early day, so as to include miscellaneous reading for the family,” hardly “red-hot” content, though it was noted that “the main purpose of the paper in its present size will be to introduce the subject of Greenbackism to its fullest extent . . . as we consider that the most vital question to be agitated and explained” to “all men and women who labor [and who should want] to know why their noses should be held to the grindstone, and to understand the cause and POSITIVE CURE FOR HARD TIMES,” which had been in place for several years due to a national depression.

Elsewhere under the heading of “Getting Ready to Work,” it was professed that “the Workingmen’s movement sweeps over California to its mission” with the Union Greenback Labor movement following “now that the sod is broken.” A Los Angeles Greenbacker Club included Moore as president, while a provisional county executive committee included nine Los Angeles men and members from Los Nietos, Downey, Norwalk, [these three being farming communities along the San Gabriel River and Río Hondo) and Santa Monica. Of the fourteen men, just one, Pedro M. Vejar, was non-White.

With respect to the Chinese, another small reprinted item, titled “The Chinese Must Go,” ironically stated that the emperor of China must have been using that term “if one may judge from the steady increase of arrivals of Chinese emigrants in San Francisco already this year.” It was added that “fully 10,000 more Chinese will come to the United States this year than in any previous year.”

In the advertising column, there was a section labeled “Against Chinese Emigration” with Moore, as a candidate for justice of the peace; D.F. O’Leary running for recorder; A.M. Bragg, candidate for sheriff; and Henry K.S. O’Melveny, former county judge and running for superior court judge, listed below. Another article, headed “A Good Idea: Emigration,” noted that a meeting was held with fifteen prominent men appointed, including former Governor John G. Downey, banker Isaias W. Hellman, capitalists John E. Hollenbeck and James S. Slauson, and Phineas Banning on the list.

The paper added that “when they should determine to send weekly five thousand copies of the Los Angeles GREENBACKER to those places where they would do the most good, it could be made a first rate mddium [sic] of advertising Southern California as a place to come to, and the cost would be but trifling. In its Greenback mission it goes to every state in the Union.” The Los Angeles Herald reported, in its edition of the 6th, that there was an immigration confab held at the county courthouse room, and there was specific mention there of seeking migrants from England, Germany and France, while the Chinese were not directly referred to.

The executive committee of that gathering included some of those mentioned above, as well as future mayor James Toberman, Benjamin Dreyfus of Anaheim, merchant Eugene Meyer, and attorney and developer Robert M. Widney. Members of several committees included future mayor William H. Workman (nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workmaj), Jotham Bixby, Louis Phillips, John S. Griffin, Isaac N. Van Nuys, Leonard J. Rose, Ozro W. Childs, José Mascarel, and future governor George Stoneman. While there were several Jews among the roster, there were no Latinx members (Masacrel was French).

With regard to the upcoming election, the slate of the New Constitution Party was listed, but it was only partially completed with half of the offices containing no candidate as yet. Of the others, there was Moore and William H. Gray for justice of the peace, W.R. Mathes for constable, H.C. Graham for county supervisor, W.R. Steele for assessor, Louis Mesmer for treasurer, J.R. Conlee for county clerk, G.M. Holton for district attorney, and, for superior court judges, O’Melveny and Volney E. Howard.

The main concern in The Greenbacker at this early date was about this latter contest, which pitted Howard and O’Melveny against several other candidates, including incumbent Ygnacio Sepúlveda, one of the few Latinx men in positions of civic and legal authority at the time. While not referring directly to him in name, the paper took aim at an unnamed judge, with the biblical story of Absalom, a son of David, cited because that figure was quoted from 2 Samuel as saying, “Oh, that if I were made judge of the land, that every man who hath any suit or cause might come unto me and should do him justice,” though it was stated that, thereby, “Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”

For the paper,

Thus in like manner is one of the Judges of Los Angeles doing this day . . . He wants again to be a judge of this County, but he has been tried; found wanting. He has been weighed in the ballance [sic] and found to be all chaff, no wheat . . . Judge Howard and Judge O’Melveny are pure wheat, the chaff has been blown out . . . [and when the election comes and they win] the chaff will all be burned up in the fiery votes of the people.

Another front-page piece blared that “no man who voted against the New Constitution should be elected to office” and brayed “give us a change—the Court House ring is corrupt, let them take a back seat.” It repeated that “Howard and O’Melveny are two well-known citizens, without spot or blemish” and “they took an active part in favor of the New Constitution” with the jurists knowing where the corruption was and that “they are honorable men that will see that no corrupt man goes unpunished.”

The unnamed judge, if it was Sepúlveda who was the target, was not discussed in terms of race, but The Greenbacker was explicit enough in its racism about two other groups in the city: Jews and Blacks. With the former, in an article attacking those in city government who profited from their positions by submitting bills for reimbursement from the City in contradiction to City Attorney John F. Godfrey’s statement that no officials could “receive any pecuniary interest, pay or profit by reason of any contract made or work done by order of the City Council.”

While the piece lambasted the office of Sheriff Henry M. Mitchell for procuring “so many fat contracts,” it also averred that “some of our Hebrew supervisors would not make money quite so easy” if Godfrey properly executed the oath of his office.” Presumably this meant Charles Prager (1839-1911) was the sole Jew on that five-person body and a merchant and real estate investor (Prager Park south of downtown was established by him) with part-ownership of ex-governor Pío Pico’s hotel and Whittier-area ranch.

Prager, in 1879, was chair of the committee dealing with county roads and the paper alleged that “the farmers would have good County roads, and the squirrels would be poisoned throughout the County at near one-fourth the expense . . . but then alas this circumcised firm who is authorized to furnish squirrel poison would not be able to make a good thing out of this branch of County expences [sic].”

Then, there was the broadside against Lewis G. Green, one of the first Black residents of Los Angeles and long a prominent member of the city’s African-American community. With regard to the imminent election, The Greenbacker proclaimed that “in view of what may happen on the 3d of next month, we have supplied ourselves with a ponderous Battle-Axe, which we mean to wield with proper effect, when we shall discover whether the walls of the Court House are impregnable or not.”

Yet, the paper went on that “notwithstanding Mr. Green, the Black Janitor’s assertion that they mean to keep the fort, no matter who has the votes.” Whether Green said what was reported, the article continued to paraphrase him: “we have the money, so says that sable pap-sucker of the Court House Ring” and this seemed to implicate him as the mouthpiece of Sepúlveda, if the latter was the leader of this purported ring. The invective carried on:

Good God! is that an authorized challenge, from the head of the Ring of which he is the tail? Does he speak on his own account? or for his masters [note the use of that particular word], who have suffered him to grow fat and insolent out of the public purse . . . Yes, says this immaculate son of Africa, we have the money and will keep the Court House in spite of the Workingmen, Greenbackers and New Constitution men all combined . . . does he speak through the card, or by his own inflated ignorance?

The Greenbacker called upon voters to “show Mr. Green, that the old rotten and abominable black-leg ring will not be there on the 3rd” and that the corrupted politicos should then seek work on farms, fields, highways or even the chain gang of jail labor “for they must begone! and honest men fill their places.” The invective ended with the blast that “yes friend, we can do without him and his pals, from this time out for evermore. You might as well set up a Chinaman in his [Green’s?] place as to exclude ‘a poor workingman,” from that office any longer.”

When the election was concluded, of the sixteen candidates that filled the New Constitution Party ticket, including a couple who replaced the ones listed in this issue, a few emerged victorious, though whether they were solely identified with the party or not is unknown, but other than a couple more who finished in second, most candidates received very few votes compared to others (usually three more for each seat) in the campaign.

In any case, it does appear as if The Greenbacker, having carried through its virulent campaign for the month prior to the election, ceased operations and faded into oblivion, with online listings only showing one other repository having any issues, this being the California State Library, which has the inaugural number. As for the museum’s holdings, we have one more issue to highlight, so someday we’ll post on the 23 August edition of this fascinating publication.

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