by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Reading the “Our History” page on the website of the regional division of The Salvation Army makes it appear that the origins of the evangelical organization, widely known for its extensive charitable work, in Los Angeles were smooth. This was, however, far from the case. Tonight’s featured object in the “Portrait Gallery” post is a circa 1895 cabinet card portrait of a young woman Salvationist in her uniform comprised of a black uniform and bonnet and the distinctive organizational badge on her jacket.
The photo was taken probably within a decade of the first “campaign” of the Army, which took place on the streets of the Angel City in 1887, but there was a strong reaction against the organization in the local press as well as by fierce resistance to their operations on the streets. An early mention in the New Year’s Day edition of the Los Angeles Times was benign, as the article was promoting the growth of the city during the famed Boom of the Eighties and noted that, among its amenities, were “elegant churches, in which worship Roundheads and Cavaliers, the Salvation Army and Unitarians.”
Actually, this manufactured description of religious diversity and tolerance by the paper was frequently dispelled by the regular vitriol hurled at the organization. A 4 April article headed “A Hopeless Case” mocked Salvationists who “have made up their minds to save some of the hard cases who are now lingering in the city prison.” It was reported that the Army marched to the hoosegow and “prayed and sang for an hour, and came out feeling that they had done their duty,” even as, the piece ended, “the police blotter does not show that any converts were made.”
On the 18th, the Times ran a lengthy piece about a visit to a meeting in the basement of the building at First and Spring streets housing the Southern California National Bank and it was stated that “the visitor who is bold enough to dive down the narrow little stairway” into the space dimly lit by coal oil lamps entered an environment such that:
the strange, weird sight that meets his eyes is too much for him . . . the “meetin” was under full headway. “Singin” and “shoutin” held high carnavil [sic] and the “amen corner” seemed to flit about from one end of the room to the other. There were about 125 people in the room. A majority of them seemed to have been gathered from the byways of the city. . . Three men and two women are on the stage. One of the women, who does a great deal of talking, is the happiest-looking creature that one ever saw in any church. . . The other lady is there, and in physique would make a good match for [stage actor] Sarah Bernhardt. She never smiles, and when the “amen corner” gets under headway she can do more shouting than all the rest of the crowd put together.
The article was not particularly critical, just indicative of the perception of the Army as a fanatical organization. But, coverage for the rest of 1887 by it and the Los Angeles Herald was increasingly decidedly against the Salvationists, especially as its soldiers marched through the streets and held outdoor gatherings.
On 28 April, the Times stated that “it has been reported in street-preaching circles that about a dozen members of the regular “army” have been detailed [from Oakland] to drive the devil out of Los Angeles. While the soldiers had not yet made their appearance on the streets of the Angel City, the article purported to prepare readers for what was in store, including the booming of a bass drum, the clattering of tambourines, and “cornets that are blown in a half-heathen tone that would drive the poorest German musician in the land crazy.”
The next day’s Herald reported that “the visiting Salvation Army, numbering about eight members, men and women, took up their fort on Court and Spring streets about eight o’clock,” but “hoodlum youths” descended and “set up an uproar which drowned all other voices and the Salvation Army wisely concluded to move to pastures more congenial.” When they reached the Nadeau House at Spring and Second, however, there were some 400 people and “prolonged hoots and yells were heard” as the soldiers entered a hall “and began to sing a hymn in prefect defiance of the ignorant mob.” This coverage was still tolerant of the Salvationists.
The Times also held back on harsh deprecations of the Army, but chose to portray the event in a more darkly humorous vein, starting with the observation that the soldiers “attempted to rout the devil last night and came near being pulverized by a band of hoodlums and dudes. Once the yelling and the horns, drums and tambourines started, the hooligans descended “in numbers only equal to the fleas in San Francisco.”
The result of this threat was that “the army was so hemmed in that its female soldiers could hardly feel their corsets expand, and the lieutenant ordered a retreat down Main street.” A riot looked to be likely until a police officer intervened and “the officers in command [of the ten-soldier Army] wisely decided that they had had enough of Los Angeles for one night” and dispersed. The Times later reported that the police chief, unaware of the presence of the Salvationists, ordered a squad of officers to protect the Army should they take to the streets again.
The soldiers returned on 8 May and set up a tent at the corner of Temple and Fort (soon renamed Broadway) with the six soldiers exiting and marching down to Main Street, where a mob of hoodlums, said to be hounding a Holiness band playing in front of the fountain on the Plaza, then headed south to confront the Salvationists. The Army high-tailed it back up Temple and to the presumed safety of “the canvas house,” where “the work of wiping the devil out of existence was begun at once.”
A minstrel tune was struck up and the Times noted that “the singing was very funny” as “each member of the army had his own tune, and their chief ambition seemed to be to see who could raise the greatest number of discords in the shortest space of time.” One soldier, “Happy Joe,” was said to be “a converted Turk” and his broken English was quoted as suggesting he was a San Francisco shoemaker before he enlisted to “licka old devil, and I licka old devil wherever I goa.”
The Army’s commander told the paper that he was determined to drive off the devil or die trying and added that the organization was not fad, having been organized by William Booth in London in 1865 to minister to the poor and neglected in society. It was stated that there were, in 1887, 1,800 stations and 6,000 officers worldwide with efforts in seventeen nations, with China the next country for the efforts of the Salvationists. It was claimed that the number of soldiers was 2 million, though only 35,000 were in the United States. One speaker was quoted as proclaiming, “if I can’t get people here in any other way, I will order my soldiers to walk on their heads. If we can’t get a crowd by being espectable, we will take another course.”
Subsequent campaigns during the month were similarly treated with some light-heartedness, though it was pointed out that Los Angeles County Sheriff James Kays showed up as the Army raided the streets” with its blaring music “and vociferous lungs” and the officer “ran them back to their tent.” On the 23rd, “a young tough named Willie Otto” tried to drive off the Salvationists and was arrested. By the end of the month, the Army had temporary “barracks” at the city’s athletic club, but the tent was still up when the local Woman’s Christian Temperance Union chapter, unable to afford hall rentals for its Sunday meetings, used it.
On 22 June, the Army “changed its base of operations to Merced Hall,” or the Merced Theatre on Main Street, next to the Pico House hotel off the Plaza. In its first battle from that location in the “veritable war with the world, the flesh and the devil,” more hoodlums showed up and “the world was called on to assist” in the form of a police presence. One of those disturbing the meeting was convicted for disturbing the peace and fined $20. Five days later, the Times reported that the “howling band” scared the horse pulling a doctor’s buggy and the animal bolted, turning on a side street and then to New High Street west of Main and crashed into a pepper tree, destroying the conveyance while the horse was impaled by a shaft.
When soldiers returned to the city jail on 24 July, the Times wrote that they “came very near saving the soul of a handsome police officer who happened to be in a cell talking to a prisoner” believing him to be “one of the worst criminals in Southern California.” It was averred they formed a prayer circle around him “and would have kept him there two hours had he not knocked three or four of them down and escaped.” The piece ended with the claim that the Salvationists “were telling a greasy mob” that night “about the terrible fight they had with the devil in the City Prison.”
Two weeks later, the soldiers left the Merced Theater and marched, with their red shirts, instruments and flame torches, down to the Temple Block, but, before they could begin their gathering, they “were quickly hustled off by the large crowd who gathered to see the circus.” A decided change in tone towards the Army came with a purported act of violence on 13 August, during which, asserted the Times, “the howling mob of fanatics . . . was holding one of it blasphemous meetings” in front of the Temple Block.
Another large gathering of people, however, led the commander to order a march back to the Merced Theater, but, the paper continued:
Instead of gently moving through the closely pressing circles of curiosity seekers, the brawny men and the women composing the Army made a vicious break endeavoring to literally force themselves through at a quickstep time . . . these fellows, with a total disregard for everybody but themselves, not only pushed and shoved . . . but at the same time swung their arms and sticks in close proximity to the heads of those nearest them and in several instances badly bruised innocent people, whose only crime was that they responded to the howl made by this fanatical Army for an audience.
It was claimed that 11-year old Aleck Newlands, whose father ran the St. Charles Hotel across Main Street from the fracas, was hit on the back of the head by a lamp carried by one of the Salvationists and suffered a deep cut (and, a later account claimed, emotional trauma, which led his father to file a criminal complaint.) Meantime, Mr. Newlands, an officer, two witnesses and the reporter went to the Merced to find the purported perpetrator, but found “the brute had been spirited off by his companions.”
While the Herald lamented the “disgraceful row . . . where the Salvation Army was making a farce of religion and beating salvation into the people with a bas drum and tambourine,” nothing was stated about the reported attack on the crowd, much less little Aleck Newlands. The paper did ask, “why are these disturbers of the peace allowed to shout along the streets every day in the week?”
The Times followed up by reporting that “the cowadly action” of the blow struck against the boy “has brought disgrace and trouble oln the heads of the whole outfit” and added that the police chief, John K. Skinner (whose tenure ended two weeks later), ordered the cessation of outdoor meetings by the Army, but it persisted with a march down to Spring and Second, where the Nadeau House was located.
The usual mob followed and “it seemed that a regular pandemonium had broken out in Los Angeles” before Skinner sent a cadre of officers in and arrested twenty soldiers. They were released when they promised the chief they would not march in the streets and returned to the Merced, though the Herald, in its coverage, stated that soldiers told Skinner they had to consult their commander before agreeing.
The next evening, that paper reported, the Army was back out parading, though the women stayed behind while the men did the marching. When they got to Spring and Court streets, officers arrested them and the Herald stated that 2,000 persons surrounded the jail. While the commander was held, the remainder of the soldiers were allowed to return to the Merced, but “hoodlums followed, and, . . . commenced to break the furniture.” The Salvationists telephoned the police station and officers began to clear the hall when the gas lights were turned off, though that was soon rectified and the venue was emptied.
In an editorial, the Herald asserted that religious freedoms under the Constitution were well understood, but
Our city just now is being made the scene of antics of a peculiar and fanatical kind by a detachment of the Salvation Army. It is not too much to say that these persons have made themselves a nuisance of an intolerable order . . . It is scarcely the right of one man or a set of men to yell at others at the highest pitch of the voice, day in and day out, simply because the name of religion is invoked and abused. This positive and highly flagrant nuisance might be supported if it were to last but for a single day, or one day out of seven, but no human patience can be expected to stand it as a steady proposition.
The piece lambasted “these exotic fanatics” and “the outlandish pranks of the so-called Salvation Army” and deemed its members “to be like seven-year locusts and other pests, sporadic and abatable.” It did, also, castigate “the spirit of hoodlumism” as “one nuisance is as flagrant as the other.”
The male members of the Army were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, though attorney S.C. Hubbell paid the bail for all but four. The Times reported that those released went to East Los Angeles, now Lincoln Heights, “and carried on high jinks for several hours” before a crowd threatened them.
Yet, attorneys filed a habeus corpus (unlawful detainer) motion and Judge H.K.S. O’Melveny heard the matter on 19 August, and, while he criticized the behavior of the “Turk” drummer, the jurist invoked the principles of the freedom of the exercise of religion as well as the sordid history of religious persecution and released the soldiers from confinement. The Herald castigated the Army for returning that night to the streets in a way that was “certainly abominable to man and not pleasing to God.” Again, the soldiers and the crowd engaged in conflict that led the Salvationists to return to the Merced.
The paper editorialized that, while “under American traditions it is hard to see how the Judge could well have decided otherwise,” it bemoaned that someone claiming to be religious “seems to have a special license to make a nuisance of himself.” The truly religious person could only “suffer and pray” and hope that “such hysterical forms of physical energy exhaust themselves after awhile.” It ended with the cry to the Salvationists to “Now, men and brethren, howl! Sound your trumpets and beat your tambourines until the very welkin [heaven] rings!”
Despite the continued and increased vitriol leveled at the Army, there was a defender, using the moniker of “Justice,” who wrote on 27 September to the Times:
If the people would only remember the principle of American liberty, and allow those who are trying to do good in the world to do their good unpersecuted . . . the city of Los Angeles would be far worthier of the name it bears. . . Let us have law and order in our streets, but let this law and order be established in an unprejudiced manner. Let justice be dealt out to all.
“Justice” lambasted the street hawker, circus barker and others who equally disturbed public tranquility, while others were calling for the banning of Sunday baseball games because of excessive noise, prompting one council member to suggest that he would support such an ordinance if the Salvation Army were also subject to the prohibition.
The Times answered this letter by claiming that “Justice” set out to make the Salvationists martyrs, but that they were anything but innocents. “Their hideous horns and bass drums, their tambourines and all their ridiculous paraphernalia” and “their outlandish demonstrations” brought the hoodlums “to prankish demonstrations.” It concluded by observing that, “No, these people are not worthy to be made martyrs of, and the severest punishment that can be meted ot to them is to ignore them.”
The Herald took the more aggressive line of “abate the nuisance” in a 2 October editorial because of the effects on business and the “bloackading of the street.” Such tactics “to hold the crowd” was not permissible and “no law human or divine can give them the right to interfere with the business of other people. Move them on, and keep them moving.”
Unsubstantiated claims, however, of a woman Salvationist neglecting her children during evening activities and a 15-year old girl “detained by the army against her will” were hardly reasonable positions for the press to take. By the end of 1887, there were a few convictions against rioters attacking Army soldiers at outdoor and indoor meetings, but, eventually, the rancor seems to have subsided significantly. The Salvation Army was no longer the subject of that early level of press and public prejudice, while its outdoor meetings were also curtailed.
The photo of the young woman Salvationist is reflective of how much the situation had changed for the organization and its public persona within less than a decade of the controversies of its inaugural campaigns. This is a story with many layers about the uneasy relationships between traditional and unorthodox religious organizations, contested acceptable social conventions, and the role of law and order—all hidden behind, so to speak, this demure portrait.