Joseph Scott (1867-1958): Devout English Emigrant to Fame and Fortune in Los Angeles, Part Two

by John Sharpe

We return with part two of John Sharpe’s detailed look into the life of Joseph Scott, an attorney and civil leader who became known as “Mr. Los Angeles” for his many years of active involvement in so many areas of life in his adopted hometown. Here John takes us through aspects of the English native’s activities in the Angel City through the first few decades of the 20th century:

“Water is king” was the first phrase that caught Joseph’s ear when he was new to Los Angeles.   Then not much over a hundred years old and just forty-odd years since it was a sparsely-populated Mexican pueblo, the place that promised so much was founded on a semi-desert and drought ruined many a dry farmer. The crops, the cattle and all the wealth of the area cried out for water. Men were said to have killed each other for water holes, and the fields dried up for want of the precious liquid. When Joseph was a rookie lawyer in the 1890s, water disputes were everywhere and the courts were jammed with water litigation cases. 

Apart from the wells, the young city’s main water supply in those days was what was usually a small stream, the Los Angeles River, that flowed past a place where later would stand a monument to the Irishman whose modest home was at that spot and whose job it was to look after the increasingly inadequate water supply. “You can’t make a city out of that trickle of water,” was visionary Bill Mulholland’s contemptuous refrain as he sat looking at the snows on the tops of far-off mountains, dreaming of the day when an aqueduct like ancient Rome’s would bring plenty of melted snow for storage and use in the growing but desperately parched community.

A few years later, when Joseph Scott was president of Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, he appointed a committee of three to survey the aqueduct project to bring water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was going to cost over $25,000,000, right up against the city’s bonding limit, but the Chamber approved the proposal by eight to one and the city would soon be on its way to becoming the great metropolis of the Western United States.

Scott Aqueduct Los_Angeles_Express_Mon__Sep_23__1907_
Reference to Scott and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Los Angeles Express, 23 September 1907.

Electricity in its early days also threw up an interesting challenge for Joseph. Newly qualified as an attorney in 1894, he got out the horse and buggy and braved the dust and sand in his face on the hundred-mile drive over desert trails to Palm Springs to see clients who had a legal problem that gave rise to the question of how far electricity could be transmitted over power lines. As luck would have it, Joseph had recently met and entertained in Los Angeles the wife and daughter of an assistant to the electrical engineer Thomas Edison, and the two ladies had invited him out East to stay with them and meet Edison. Joseph’s well-off Palm Springs clients paid his fare for the 6,000-mile return rail trip to New Jersey, and Joseph returned with the great inventor’s expert opinion in writing.

Distance was no object to the irrepressible Joseph Scott, as many of his exploits in the early years of the 20th century would confirm – and so much the better if the journey would allow him to publicise his beloved California. As he said in later life, “Los Angeles became and remained through the years my number one client without fee.  It was very catching.” Needless to say, he was not shy of the limelight himself.

In 1902 Joseph was sent by the Knights of Columbus as a delegate to its national convention in New Haven, on the other side of the United States in Connecticut. Still in his thirties, he was a new member and unknown to that nationwide Catholic organisation until Missouri floods in Kansas marooned his train for three days. As soon as he could, he wired ahead to the convention people and let them know he was going to be very late but that he should be there for the closing dinner. As it turned out, the story of his dramatic escape from the floods really raised his profile with the Knights of Columbus and put him on the list of speakers at the great event – his big moment he thought, albeit as thirteenth out of 14 speakers.

Scott and LA Chamber of Commerce Los_Angeles_Herald_Wed__Feb_23__1910_ (1)
Scott featured with other leaders in the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles Herald, 23 February 1910.

At the big dinner Joseph was seated next to a boring individual who told him he knew all about California with its biggest oranges, pumpkins and mountains but that he was now on the Atlantic seaboard, New Haven, the home of Yale, was the place to be. After-dinner speakers started to take up the theme of boasting about their native States. “I’m from Massachusetts, the grand old Bay State with its Plymouth Rock . . . dawn of liberty . . .  Bunker Hill . . . .”   Then it was “What’s Massachusetts? Come to Pennsylvania and I’ll show you the cradle of liberty . . . Declaration of Independence . . . where the Constitution was written . . .”  The New Yorker told of his rich state and the “city with its banks . . . the Nation’s finances . . .”   The Virginian boasted of George Washington and Jefferson, Monroe and Madison. Then it was the turn of Ohio, the “state that gave the nation its Presidents,” and so on.

By the time thirteenth speaker Scott rose to his feet it was well after midnight and the wine bottles were empty. In no mood for any more of the blarney, he announced: “I’m from California. No doubt you have heard a lot about it. I’ll add only this.   If Columbus had landed on the Pacific coast, you suckers would still be undiscovered to this day!”

That brief but explosive speech in New Haven would help to bring the next and biggest Knights of Columbus convention to Los Angeles, more than 5,000 delegates in all, and Joseph Scott would be its chairman. More than that, the resulting publicity soon took him on to city bodies like the Board of Education and the Board of Trustees of the Southwest Museum. 

Scott Who's Who on the Pacific Coast 1913
Scott’s entry in “Who’s Who On The Pacific Coast,” 1913.

That 3,000-mile marathon from Los Angeles to New Haven, with a three-day delay in the middle, would surely have been enough for any mere mortal, even if he only had himself to think about. But that is not the whole story, not even half of it in fact. It all began in Los Angeles with an argument between Joseph and his wife Bertha. Joseph was so proud of his three-and-a-half-year-old first-born son Joe that he desperately wanted his mother Mary in England to see the little fellow. He pleaded with Bertha to let him take Joe with him to New Haven and thence to England, and she finally agreed.

In New Haven little Joe got chickenpox and a doctor advised against taking him across the Atlantic, but the child said he felt fine and no spots showed on his face so he was duly bundled up the ship’s gangplank. On deck was a lovely little girl of about his own age. His father Joseph told him not to speak to her or go near her, and he promised he would not. Two days out at sea, Joseph saw him with the little girl – kissing her full on the face. Soon after, her gentlemanly father came up to Joseph and said, “Mr. Scott, please don’t let our little girl near your Joe – she has just broken out with the chickenpox. . .”

Still, father and son got to England and Mary Scott duly met her little American grandson.   Anyone who doubts that outcome should know that a photograph was taken of 35-year-old Joseph flanked by his elderly mother and the little boy. Well preserved, this remarkable picture of a three-generation family group from a third of the way round the world appeared with an article about Joseph Scott in a Los Angeles newspaper fifty years later. Sadly, little Joe’s story would not have a happy ending: his doting parents were grief-stricken when they lost him in 1910.  

Scott WWI Appeals Board for Exemptions of Service Evening_Express_Tue__Oct_2__1917_
Reference to Scott as chair of the local board of appeals hearing exemption claims from men drafted to serve in the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, Los Angeles Express, 2 October 1917.

The court cases that would seal Scott’s reputation as a hard-hitting advocate soon began to make the headlines. But travel was always in his blood. Defying that 6,000-plus-mile marathon each way by land and by sea, he returned to England to visit his ageing parents in Darlington more than once – indeed as often as his growing family and law practice would allow, as he put it. He must surely have seen his mother again in 1908, but sadly his father Joseph had died the year before.

Joseph was back at Ushaw as a guest speaker at his old college’s hundredth anniversary celebrations. When he took his place in the college hall that momentous day in 1908, as an American visitor nervously awaiting his turn to address a large assembly of cardinals, educators and leading public figures of Britain and Europe while wishing he was back in his little Los Angeles office, he was seated next to Canon Rooney, the elderly Irish pastor from his young days in Darlington – and a man who had done much to get him into Ushaw as a boy. Motioning anxiously to the distinguished audience around them, he turned to his old mentor and confided, “Canon Rooney, I have cold feet.”  

The serious-minded old priest looked at him with concern and replied, “Joseph, that’s serious.   You must not neglect yourself. Cold feet is a sign of incipient pneumonia.” Joseph had not intended to mislead the kindly priest with unfamiliar American slang, but at least the humour of the situation calmed his nerves and the audience was good to him, as was the English press who commented on his address. In any event, he saw that 1908 invitation to Ushaw as the greatest honour of his life up to that time, and it would remain with him as one of his fondest memories.   

Scott Eucharistic Congress speech Illustrated_Daily_News_Thu__Jun_24__1926_
Coverage of Scott’s speech before 150,000 people at a Roman Catholic eucharistic conference in Chicago, Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 24 June 1926.

In a sensational case of 1911, Scott took on the defence of the two McNamara brothers, union men accused of dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building in furtherance of a dispute with the bitterly anti-union owner, Gen Harrison Gray Otis, a tough and uncompromising veteran of the Civil War and the 1898 Spanish-American war in the Philippines and hitherto an admirer of Scott as an “Irish” immigrant who shared the publisher’s Republican politics. The outcome went way beyond what the reckless conspirators had intended, for a gas main was breached in the explosion and 22 workers were killed. It was Scott’s view that the two defendants would only avoid the death penalty if they pleaded guilty, and they were eventually persuaded to do so with the assistance of the prison chaplain. This had the desired effect, and one of the McNamara brothers got life imprisonment while the other was sentenced to fifteen years.                                                         

Always the missionary zealot as well as the wily lawyer, Joseph Scott was said to have spent even more time trying to bring the wayward McNamara brothers back to their Catholic faith than representing them in court. However, that 1911 criminal trial ended the friendship between Scott and Otis, and damaging allegations were published repeatedly in the Los Angeles Times over the next four years as Otis attacked Scott in print and also in cartoons often portraying him as a hod-carrier, then a common caricature of the mostly working-class Irish immigrants.

Matters came to a head early in 1915, when the Los Angeles Times claimed that Scott had grossly mishandled a divorce case by persuading a wealthy lady client to file for divorce, against her true wishes.  Brushing aside the fears of concerned friends who urged caution in dealing with the hitherto all-powerful newspaper, Joseph started an action for libel which finally went in his favour. Awarded unprecedented damages of $47,700, he displayed a photograph of the cheque on the wall of his office. He always saw this bitter clash with the Los Angeles Times as a crisis, the turning point of his life.     

Scott as Julian receiverThe_Los_Angeles_Times_Tue__Oct_16__1928_ (1)
Reference to Scott as a receiver of the Julian Petroleum Corporation, one of the more notorious oil companies of the time because of the corruption of its founder C.C. Julian and other associates, Los Angeles Times, 16 October 1928.

Now turned fifty and a man of some wealth, Joseph moved his family out to Pasadena’s Orange Grove Boulevard, the city’s so-called millionaires’ row along the Arroyo Seco. Otis died that same year, 1917, and Scott felt that the era of what he called bitter personal journalism died with him. His friendship with the new Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler survived the battle with the general and proved lucrative in future fund-raising efforts for his various Catholic causes.

Recovering from his long-running dispute with Otis, Joseph was soon on his way to France at the behest of the Knights of Columbus, of which he was now a leading member, to organise welfare work for US soldiers at the war front. This was early 1918, but the German submarines did not catch up with his ship, as he put it, and he arrived safely in Paris. He was based for three months at a large military hospital near Paris and saw terrible scenes of suffering in the later stages of the conflict as United States servicemen joined French and British troops in the clash with the Kaiser’s invaders. Joseph had a personal interest in the Great War— just before leaving California for France he learned that his 34-year-old brother Walter, who had joined the Canadian Army, had died in action.

Back home in Los Angeles in 1919 and ever the Irish nationalist, Scott found time to organise a major public rally, attended by over 15,000 people and featuring a thirty-strong security contingent, for fugitive Republican leader Eamon de Valera, who had been spirited out of a troubled Ireland to his native New York as a stoker on a freighter.

Scott radio address for Fitts Evening_Express_Wed__Jul_23__1930_
A report on Scott, a frequent speaker on local radio, promoting the campaign of District Attorney Buron Fitts for governor, Los Angeles Express, 23 July 1930.

The future President of the Irish Republic was just one of many celebrities who were welcomed to Los Angeles by Joseph Scott. He was chairman of the reception committee for the formal visit in 1922 of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander-in-chief of Allied Armies during World War I.   He was chairman of the Lindbergh welcoming committee after the young aviator’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, and received Cardinal Pacelli, later to be Pope Pius XII. He met the legendary Irish tenor John McCormack and physicist Albert Einstein.

Although he never held significant elective office, Joseph Scott was an orator of dramatic power whose speeches were characterised by a transparent sincerity, spontaneous wit and exalted patriotism. At the Republican Party convention in Chicago in 1932 he was chosen to make the nomination speech for fellow Californian Herbert Hoover for the presidency of the United States.   

Tomorrow we conclude with John’s review of the life of Joseph Scott with a look at his later years, including squaring off in court with actor-comedian Charles Chaplin, Scott’s charitable and humanitarian work, political involvement, and more, so please check back for the conclusion of this remarkable survey of “Mr. Los Angeles.”

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