“Great Excitement in Los Angeles—The People In Arms”: Read All About It in the “New York Tribune,” 9 February 1855

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the wake of the seizure of California by the United States during the Mexican-American War, followed almost immediately by the Gold Rush, the town of Los Angeles underwent seismic shifts in its society as well as its economy during the 1850s. It was a decade often filled with ethnic tension, spasms of violence and rates of homicide that, while sometimes grossly exaggerated were, from what can be documented, spectacularly high for the era compared to the more “settled” parts of the country.

In the absence of an efficient government, including law enforcement and the courts, citizens (meaning the upper class Anglos and Californios) sometimes took the law into their own hands through “popular tribunals,” in which trials were held in a very rough simulation of the courts, though with a not-surprisingly high rate of convictions, usually followed by executions, or, dispensing with these semi-formalities, the lynch mob, in which a mass meeting might be held or a surprise storming of the jail take place, with a suspected criminal seized and executed, mostly by hanging.

Perhaps the three most extreme examples of this bypassing of the legally constituted criminal justice system were the popular tribunal in fall 1852 after the murder of Joshua Bean at San Gabriel, the early 1857 mass lynchings following the killing of Sheriff James R. Barton and a small posse, and, just about in the middle of those, the 12 January 1855 hangings of Felipe Alvitre, executed legally, and David Brown, strung up by a mob just afterward.

Brown, a notorious “hard case,” as they used to say, who once ran for city marshal, was apprehended in the gall for the murder of Pinckney Clifford during an argument at a livery stable. Because of his infamous reputation, even among the denizens of the Angel City, a public meeting was held at which the general acclamation was to seize the killer from the jail and lynch him. Mayor Stephen C. Foster, a long-time resident married into the prominent Lugo family, arrived, though, and implored the assemblage to give the District Court a chance to dispense justice while promising to resign his office and join a lynch mob if Brown did not get what was coming to him.

Shortly afterward, Alvitre was captured in Soquel Canyon in the Chino Hills between today’s Orange and San Bernardino counties after a manhunt following the slaying of El Monte resident James Ellington and other attacks. A member of a long-standing Californio family, of which two others were lynched between 1853 and 1861, Alvitre was lodged in jail, but there was no talk of popular justice in his case.

When both cases, after indictments were brought by District Attorney Cameron Thom, also in that office more than 15 years later when the Chinese Massacre of October 1871 occurred, were brought up before District Court Judge Benjamin Hayes, there was pointed commentary in both English-language newspapers, the Los Angeles Star and the Southern Californian, about the imperative for convictions and the likelihood of the people taking the law into their own hands otherwise. Despite these overt expressions, the jury in both trials found the defendants guilty and Hayes sentenced Alvitre and Brown to die together.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is the 9 February 1855 edition of the New York Tribune with its four columns of news from California including about a full column of dramatic dispatched “From the South” including the Alvitre-Brown executions. The reprint was from the San Francisco newspaper, the Alta California, and dated 16 January, which stated that the express firm, Adams and Company, delivered, just off the steamer Goliah, copies of the Star and the Southern Californian, but the Alta relied on an extra of the latter, which it largely replicated in its report to the Tribune.

Incidentally, a “printer’s devil” working for the Southern Californian and who just turned 16 years of age, was William H. Workman, whose family arrived in greater Los Angeles in October 1854 after migrating from Missouri and then settling on the half of Rancho La Puente owned by the teen’s uncle, William. While the young man’s father, David, assisted his brother with running stock to the gold mines, the source of William Workman’s substantial income, the young William H. was employed with both Los Angeles English-language papers in succession.

The report also noted that the Goliah carried

the order from the Judge of the [state] Supreme Court, granting a stay of proceedings in the case[s] of Brown and Lee, and leaving Alvitre to suffer the penalty which, by our [District] Court, has been awarded alike to them all, has been received by our citizens with general indignation.

The third man mentioned here was William B. Lee of El Monte, who killed a friend of a neighbor sent to discuss a property boundary dispute with Lee. His trial followed those of Alvitre and Brown and ended with a conviction and death sentence, as well. But, because of the intense press coverage, attorneys for all three men sent petitions for stays of execution to the state Supreme Court alleging that fair trials were not possible under the heightened emotions and circumstances.

Judge Hayes later wrote that the petitions for Brown and Lee were successfully received by the high court, but that, for unknown reasons, that of Alvitre failed to reach its destination in time. The report in the Tribune continued that, when Brown was arrested after killing Clifford, “the citizens were only deterred from hanging [him], in consequence of the very general confidence reposed in Judge Hayes and his Court” and that, if a conviction was secured and a death sentence decreed, “no outside or foreign influence should interfere to prevent its execution.”

The account continued, “interested parties have, however, thought proper to thwart the popular will in this matter—and we are now reaping its consequences.” Once news was received of the stays issued by the Supreme Court, “notices were sent out through the country” and Sheriff Barton called for citizens to help him guard the jail on the day of execution. Meanwhile,

Last night (Thursday evening [11January]) one of the largest and most excited mass meetings ever convened in our city, was held in the immense dining-saloon of the Montgomery [Hotel]. Upward of 600 persons, from all parts of the country, were gathered within and without—numbers being unable to effect an entrance—composed of all classes.

The meeting, said to have started at 7:30 a.m., though it was likely p.m., included a chair, two vice-presidents and a secretary. One of the two vice-presidents was Juan Sepúlveda of a prominent Californio family and one of the speakers was Alexander Bell, whose nephew Horace was a member of the Los Angeles Rangers militia, but whose 1881 book, Reminiscences of a Ranger, was highly critical of popular justice (even though he was not above joining the notorious filibustering expedition of William Walker to Nicaragua in 1856).

Mayor Foster also addressed the crowd and “he unequivocally proclaimed himself in favor of hanging Brown and Alvitre together.” The account reminded that it was “mainly [due] to his exertions at the former meeting is due the fact that Brown was turned over to the authorities, and he then pledged himself that if justice was not done he would resign his office, and assist with the people in carrying out the wishes of the people.” Given this, it was assumed he would tender his resignation, but “there can be no doubt that he will be reelected without a dissenting voice.”

Sepúlveda and two Anglos drew up resolutions stating that Brown should join Alvitre on the gallows the next day and “that a committee of five be appointed to devise means to carry into effect” by the time that the hanging of Alvitre was to take place. Notably, the report added that Barton and his men “spiked the different pieces of ordnance in the city during the past night” but that blacksmiths were busy “in drilling them out.” Barton went so far as to make out his will and it was expected that up to 20 men were to assist him in trying to prevent that seizure of Brown by the expected mob.

By late morning of the 12th, the hill to the west of the jail, located on the west side of Spring Street between Temple and First, was “fast becoming covered with the populace” and at Noon Barton was visited by committee members who urged him “to yield up Brown in view of the frightful crisis,” but he rebuffed them, while his friends employed “every exertion in their power to prevent the effusion of blood.”

In addition, “the citizens are arming, and cartridges provided for some pieces of artillery, to be used in demolishing the Jail building.” This was in the rear yard of the Rocha Adobe, which functioned as the courthouse and which was purchased from Jonathan Temple in 1853. The jail had a first floor of adobe, used by the city, and a brick second floor occupied by the county. By 1 p.m., it was stated, the owners of the town’s shooting gallery were paid $100 “by Californians,” meaning the Spanish-speaking locals, to load their guns and it was said 2,000 men were gathered in and around the scene.

Somehow, within a half-hour, it was asserted that the crowd swelled to some 5,000 and “the multitude, in overwhelming mases, are approaching the Jail.” At 3:00, Alvitre was led out to the gallows, but, when he was strung up, the rope broke. Many, especially Californios thought he should be reprieved because of this, but “he was, however, again put up and swung off. Following this Mayor Foster and Jesse D. Hunter, who came to Los Angeles with the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War and was the make of the bricks used for the jail, “took the vote of the masses on Brown’s case,” which, not surprisingly, yielded “one universal shout of ‘aye.”

The official press account then ended, but it was stated that “private advices inform us that after the execution of Alvitre, the people proceeded to the Jail, and were forcing an entrance to it, when the messenger left for San Pedro,” presumably because the steamer for San Francisco was departing. Later, a staffer with Adams and Company reported that, just after 3 p.m., Foster resigned as promised and asked the crowd for its pleasure with the response being “Hang him! Hang him!”

Then, the account continued, “the crowd then made a rush for the outer gate of the jail” on its south side on what was then Court, and later was Franklin, Street, “and succeeded in effecting an entrance, when they commenced breaking open the doors with axes; the Sheriff having already left the place.” By 3:30, the mob was “still breaking open the cells in search of Brown” while “no resistance was made by the Sheriff or his posse.” Significantly, the report theorized “that Sheriff Barton had previously removed his prisoners” as a “natural inference” given his professed determination to protect the prisoners.”

While the report ended here, Brown was seized, while Lee, who was expected to be lynched as well, was left behind, and taken out for his hanging. It was suggested in some accounts that Brown asked for white man to hang him, but also stated that Californios, in particular, called for his hanging because of anger over Alvitre’s execution while Brown was to be spared, if temporarily, even though there were no reports of them at the first public meeting upon his arrest and only Sepúlveda was named from that community as party to the committee that organized the lynching.

It was later stated that young William H. Workman composed a detailed account of Brown’s lynching even though he had to do so before the steamer left from San Pedro and, of course, before the mob execution even happened. But, the report sent to the Tribune seems clear that an incomplete account, ending at least a half-hour and the lynching almost certainly later than that, was hurried down to the port to be sent to San Francisco.

As for William B. Lee, not only was he reprieved by the lynch mob, but his stay of execution was followed by an order from the Supreme Court for a new trial. By then, he’d been imprisoned for about a year (the Homestead collection includes papers from the sale, overseen by William Workman, of Lee’s property, almost certainly to raise funds for his legal bills) and was said to be a shell of his former self, but Thom declined to seek a retrial and Lee returned to his El Monte home. Yet, on 7 January, his father-in-law, Micajah Johnson, who was formerly William Workman’s ranch foreman at La Puente, got into a fight with Samuel King, also of El Monte, and the result was Johnson’s killing of King, while the latter’s elder sons took out revenge on Johnson and killed him. A decade later, Frank and Houston King got into a notorious gun battle in Los Angeles with Robert S. Carlisle of the Chino Ranch and more about these incidents can be found in a multi-part post on this blog.

Other local news in this report include, from the Star, an inquest held concerning a teenaged Indian boy, said to be from San Diego, found murdered in the vineyard of Tomás Sánchez, who a few years later was elected county sheriff, a position he held for eight years. It was assumed the young man was killed by Indians the previous evening. News, also from that paper, from the Tejon Indian Reservation reported that 800 acres of wheat was planted, while thousands of bushels from the prior year’s crop were ready to be processed in a new mill lately constructed, with it added, “the Indians are peaceful and industrious, and everything goes smoothly and prosperously.”

From the Southern Californian, it was stated that Alexander Bell reported that he sent 60,000 grape cuttings to northern California, while an attempt to hold an election for the Common [City} Council apparently yielded no voters, with a second effort finding nine people willing to turn out, seven of which voted for Dr. Obed Macy, briefly an El Monte resident whose land was sold to Samuel King and who also ran the Bella Union Hotel in Los Angeles. Macy did not serve long on the council and died in 1857 with a prominent street just north of the Plaza named for him, but which is now Avenida César Chávez.

There is other material of wider interest in the issue, including about liquor law proposals in some states; an arrest of an accomplice in the Underground Railroad which aided slaves in escaping to free states; a blizzard on the East Coast; concerns about naturalization laws; and economic news, including a table of gold shipments from California totaling nearly $50 million, well over 80% of which stayed within the United States. Another table showed that exports rose from about $34.5 million in 1851 to a total of $51.5 million in 1854—the difference of some $2 million between the two apparently having to do with late December shipments not arriving until early in the new year.

Lastly, a piece titled “Chivalry and Culture” purported to show just how backward the Southern slaveholding states were culturally. One table showed five free states (California, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin) with a cumulative total of below 5% illiteracy, while Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia were, in the aggregate, above 20%. For the percent of children in schools among the general white population, four slave states (Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia) were between 12 and 15%, while Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and Wisconsin ranged from 23 to 33%. Finally, printed materials from 16 free states, including California which produced less than half the next lowest, aggregated some 334 million pieces, while 15 slave states generated under 79 million.

As other posts have shown, news from Los Angeles was a frequent feature in eastern newspapers in the 1850s, especially the more salacious stories of violence, such as that embodied in the notorious incidents involving the hangings of Felipe Alvitre and David Brown, and the Angel City certainly had a reputation, borne out by what we know of the murder rate, as a particularly devilish community when it came to violent crime.

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