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

by John Sharpe

This conclusion of John Sharpe’s three-part post on Joseph Scott, a native of Penrith, England, a few miles from Clifton, where William Workman grew up and where John lives, takes us through Scott’s civic, religious, and political causes along later-life work, such as his courtroom battle with actor and comedian Charles Chaplin, and demonstrates why the 65-year resident of the Angel City was called “Mr. Los Angeles.” Thanks again to John for his detailed look at this remarkable public figure!

Years of public service and courtroom battles followed, none more famous than his 1945 paternity suit for 23-year-old starlet Joan Barry against Charlie Chaplin, in which he called the great comedian a lecherous swine, a master mechanic in the art of seduction, and a grey-headed old buzzard! Scott was 77 at the time and Chaplin 55. In a particularly dramatic courtroom scene, Scott held up his client’s red-haired baby daughter and invited the jury to note the resemblance to Chaplin. There was no likeness, but Scott won his case, despite blood tests seemingly exonerating Chaplin and evidence that Miss Barry had been stalking the film legend—one night even entering his mansion with a gun, according to the butler—and seeing the multi-millionaire oil magnate J. Paul Getty.

The 26-year-old Englishman with the Scots/Irish genes who stepped off the transcontinental train in Los Angeles that day in 1893 surely found his destiny when he threw himself into the legal profession.  Any ordinary man would have been content to learn his trade before seeking to broaden his horizons, but this Penrith-born son of Joseph and Mary Scott would soon demonstrate his view of life’s opportunities for service to his fellow man in countless ways, formal and informal, religious, and secular. His vision and unfailing energy would win him papal honours five times by three Popes, including the Knight of St Gregory in 1920 for services during World War I. Two universities honoured him with prestigious medals as an outstanding lay Catholic and the Holy Name Society gave him its Vercelli Medal in 1947. For many years a dean emeritus of the Loyola Law School of Los Angeles, he was awarded honorary doctorates by four universities. As a Catholic layman, he made nationwide lecture tours and addressed attendees of the International Eucharistic Congress in Chicago, Budapest, Manila, and Buenos Aires.

As early as May 1896, Scott was president of the Los Angeles Catholic Beneficial Association in aid of the sick and unemployed. He was actively involved with the Los Angeles Orphanage by 1898, in areas as diverse as arranging the children’s music and consulting with the nuns on financial and legal matters, and in 1944 he was busy organising the orphanage’s Advisory Board under the chairmanship of his son-in-law, J. Howard Ziemann, while establishing a reputation among the Sisters for always answering their letters the same day. Scott’s concern to help the young was likewise evident in 1926, when he set up the Catholic Big Brothers in the Diocese of Los Angeles and San Diego for young people in trouble with the police and juvenile courts.  He organised the Los Angeles Council of the Knights of Columbus in January 1902—the year of that remarkable trip with his little son to Connecticut and onward to England—and was elected its first State Deputy.

Scott Emergency Relief Commission Los_Angeles_Record_Mon__Oct_16__1933_
Reference to Scott’s chairing a committee for Great Depression relief services, Los Angeles Record, 16 October 1933.

If it is true that Joseph was best remembered for championing justice and freedom of conscience, his vigorous defence of a united Ireland was evidenced by his articulate leadership as president of the American League for an Undivided Ireland and as permanent chairman of the International Irish Congress. In San Francisco, on 8 November 1953, he was honoured for his efforts on behalf of Irish freedom by luminaries such as Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, Bishop Joseph T. McGucken, Governor Goodwin J. Knight, Los Angeles Police Chief William A. Parker and Congressman Gordon McDonough. Principal speaker John Henning of San Francisco went so far as to draw a parallel between the 86-year-old Scott’s career and the story of the Irish struggle for independence.

Scott’s determined support of humanitarian projects was not confined to the Irish cause. He gave assistance to Lithuanian refugees while at the same time promising his continued help to the Archbishop of China, the Most Reverend Thomas Tien Ken-sin, when the archbishop appeared at the Los Angeles Breakfast Club in 1953 to solicit aid against Communist domination of his people. 

One of his strongest denunciatory crusades against oppression was on behalf of the American Knights of Columbus when they pledged a million dollars to stamp out Communism in Mexico and the United States. At a Philadelphia meeting of the Knights on 5 August 1926, Chairman Scott told the 1,000 delegates they would be neglecting their duty if they failed to register their unqualified protest against the policy of President Calles of Mexico for his despotic use of armed force against his own people, who were struggling for the right to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience. His defence of the Polish people against Communism in the late 1940s earned him the title of honorary president of the Society for the Promotion of Polish Independence.

Scott Chaplin case photo The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__Jan_3__1945_
The 77-year-old attorney sits in the foreground left listening as Charles Chaplin’s counsel makes a closing argument in a paternity suit involving Scott’s client Joan Barry. The headline’s reference to the film legend being called a “menace” was directly from Scott’s characterization of Chaplin, Los Angeles Times, 3 January 1945.

In 1894 a virulently anti-Catholic organisation calling itself the American Protective Association had gained a strong foothold in southern California with the express aim of excluding Catholics from public affairs and opposing them in business and the professions. Scott joined other Catholic laymen under Bishop George Montgomery in thwarting the tactics of the APA.  An early public meeting in Los Angeles showed how strongly Republicans opposed the APA, and it was their stance against bigotry that decided Joseph where his political allegiance would lie. In a similar vein, the Ku Klux Klan in southern California in the 1920s met forceful opposition under Scott’s leadership, and the Knights of Columbus sent him into the southern states where he told the KKK “to get out of their nightshirts if they were 100 per cent American!”     

Going beyond mere opposition to bigotry against Catholics and other minority groups, Scott actually sought better inter-racial and inter-faith relations, to the extent that he could be considered an early promoter of ecumenism. Indeed, Scott was a founder of the Los Angeles Newman Club, which was sponsoring such activity as early as 1899. Likewise, in the early 1900s he was already emphasizing the important role of laymen in the Church—a concept much stressed in mid-20th century Catholic ecclesiastical circles. Many years later, in 1946, when the National Conference of Christians and Jews was launched in Los Angeles, Scott was an original charter member of the Advisory Board, proving himself fearless in upholding what he deemed right, even if, at times, his views were contrary to some higher authority.

Joseph was an active member of Catholic organisations like the Holy Name Society, whose objective was to help the poor and homeless, and in 1939 he founded the Nocturnal Adoration Society, remaining an active member for the rest of his life. This society required members to pledge themselves to spend an hour one night each month before the Blessed Sacrament at the Plaza Church of Our Lady Queen of the Angels in the city’s old Mexican quarter. A wall plaque on the church, built in 1822, still has a bronze image of Joe Scott and a reference to him as district commander, Ronda Caravan No. 84, International Order of the Alhambra.

Scott political ad radio speech Monrovia_Daily_News_Post_Wed__Oct_30__1946_
A widely known orator, Scott frequently gave radio addresses on all manner of subjects, including stumping for Republican office-seekers, in this case, successful Attorney General candidate Fred Howser, Monrovia News-Post, 30 October 1946.

Such was Scott’s stature in his adopted city that at the Civic Testimonial Dinner for his eighty-fourth birthday in 1951 he was referred to by a former mayor as “First Citizen of Los Angeles.” He was always seen as a figure of great importance to the Republican Party. When President Taft visited Los Angeles in 1909, Scott was principal speaker at his reception, and, later, he was a staunch supporter of Herbert Hoover in his political ambitions at the highest level. Yet the only political office he held was a relatively minor one: he was elected to the Los Angeles Board of Education in December 1904, becoming its president three years later and serving in that capacity until 1915.

Election to the school board was seen as essentially non-political, in furtherance of a policy of selecting non-partisan members without political affiliations. As early as 1910, it seems, a seat in the United States Senate was considered a possibility for Scott, but nothing came of it. At the Catholic Missionary Congress in Boston in 1913, where Scott was principal speaker, it emerged that the vice-chairman of the congress, the Very Rev. Dr. Kelley, had been asked by President Woodrow Wilson—perhaps rather pointedly—for the name of a Catholic lawyer living somewhere west of the Mississippi and a man of great ability who might be considered suitable for the United States Supreme Court. Dr. Kelley said he did know of such a man (Joseph Scott), but he doubted if he would leave his beloved California even for so strong a temptation. Perhaps the fiery Scott would have seen political office as limiting his ability to speak freely on any subject that caught his attention.

Two highly prestigious posts this remarkable man was offered were hardly political but would certainly have taken him far from California. Would he become Governor General of the Philippines? Would he take the Governorship of Puerto Rico? No, he would not, was his firm response to both, although he appreciated the honour of being asked.    

Nearer to home, around the same time as Joseph was on the Board of Education, he was also, from 1907 to 1918, a member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, serving as president from 1910. This was a particularly challenging time for the Chamber, with its interest in great undertakings like the completion of the breakwater at San Pedro Harbour—a project in which Scott took a conspicuous part in dealing with problems of land acquisition—and the monumental 250-mile-long Owens River Aqueduct to bring desperately-needed water into the city from the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  

Scott Vercelli Medal The_Tidings_Fri__Sep_26__1947_
A report on Scott’s receiving the newly established Vercelli Medal by the Holy Name Society in the Los Angeles Roman Catholic newspaper, The Tidings, 26 September 1947.

Scott was prominent at various times on other Los Angeles bodies such as the Charter Revision Commission, the Conference on Social Work and the Community Chest. A humanitarian organisation that was founded in the 1920s to assist the needy, the Community Chest was designed to bring most charitable groups and welfare agencies together into one powerful body for fundraising purposes. This cause was near to Joseph’s heart, and he became its president in the distressing aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street crash as the Chest was swamped with cries for help from people facing unemployment, hunger, and disease.  He was deeply moved to be honoured in 1932 for his work with the Community Chest, with an award by the Los Angeles Realty Board and their designation of him as “Los Angeles’ Most Useful Citizen”. In 1933 he also served as chairman of Los Angeles County Emergency Relief Commission under the federal and state relief programme.                                                                                    

A founder member and trustee of the Southwest Museum, he was active in the Irish American Historical Society—he was awarded the society’s medal in 1948 for scholarly contributions—and an official of many southern California athletic, social, and historical clubs and societies.  Scott became chairman of the Los Angeles Boys’ Week committee in 1931; chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Army and Navy; director of the United Service Organisations of the Los Angeles War Chest; honorary vice-president for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco; was appointed by President Hoover to the George Washington Bicentennial Commission in 1932; and was a member of the Los Angeles and American bar associations. He was a member of the California Club and the Catholic Newman and Sunset clubs (serving as president of the latter in 1923-24) and was a member of the Los Angeles and Pasadena athletic clubs. Scott served as chairman of the District Draft Board for southern California during the First World War and was a special commissioner for the Knights of Columbus in France and England in 1918 during that terrible conflict.

Scott 90th Hollywood Citizen_News_Wed__Jul_17__1957_
Governor Goodwin Knight, left, and County Supervisor Warren Dorn, presenting the 90-year Scott a plaque signed by such prominent figures as ex-presidents Herbert Hoover and Harry S. Truman, Hollywood Citizen-News, 17 July 1957.

Joseph’s 90th birthday celebration at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles on 16 July 1957 was attended by 900 people. Anyone who contemplates the range of activities he crammed into his long life must wonder how even 90 years could possibly have been enough to do it all.  Yet, above all, he was a family man who insisted that he reserved weekends for his children and who, in his eighties, could look back on “those Sundays 45 and 50 years ago when we’d get up early for Mass, breakfast and get our lunches packed. Mother stayed home to rest. She needed it after the week. This was my day with the children. The older ones each had a bike and had them ready for the road. I tossed the little ones in the back of the surrey, hitched up Babe the horse, and off we went to the beach.”

Joe Scott was a great American. He died of pneumonia in hospital on 24 March 1958, ten days after a fall in his law office.  Four days later, the House of Representatives in session in Washington, D.C., heard a glowing tribute to him in which it was said that “a rich chapter in the history of Los Angeles has been completed with the death of Joseph Scott. It would be difficult to say whether the growth of this great city paralleled the life of Joseph Scott or vice versa.   Probably to say both would better serve the truth.”               

He was survived by his wife Bertha and their three sons and three daughters, as well as 23 grandchildren. His body lay in state at the City Hall, and at his funeral in St Vibiana’s Cathedral his son Msgr. George Scott sang the solemn requiem in the presence of the Cardinal Archbishop. The Bishop of Sacramento preached the sermon and five other California bishops were there, together with many priests and around 2,000 friends. Ireland’s ambassador to Washington represented his country’s president, and official condolences were issued by Vice-President Nixon.

Scott obit Los_Angeles_Examiner_Tue__Mar_25__1958_
The death of Scott was major headline news in the Extra edition of the Los Angeles Examiner, 25 March 1958.

Joseph Scott was regarded as Ushaw College’s best known layman.  Despite remembering its Spartan regime in terms of “blue milk and East wind”, his abiding loyalty to Ushaw was evident in his speech at the 1908 centenary and also in 1948, when he flew from Los Angeles at the age of eighty for the college’s Grand Week. He was there in September 1913 to enroll his three sons: Cuthbert aged eight, George, ten, and Alfonso, eleven. His Irish mother Mary, whose “indomitable Catholic spirit and uncompromising heart” had ever been his guiding light, died in nearby Darlington on 15 December 1913, six years after the passing of his father.                          

He never tired of recalling his birthplace at Penrith in “that most beautiful corner of England, about five miles from Lake Ullswater.”

Note: Background sources include many Congressional papers and newspaper articles on file in the Los Angeles Public Library; Irish genealogical records; UK census returns; and Ushaw College archives and college magazine articles by Joseph Scott.

2 thoughts

  1. It was mentioned here that Joseph Scott provided continued support to the Archbishop of China, Thomas Tien Ken-sin (1894 – 1967), whose name I am quite familiar with. As said, Mr. Scott’s support to him took place at the same time while he was giving assistance to Lithuanian refugees, so by this inference it might possibly be around 1929 – 1930, many years before Mr. Tien was appointed as the Archbishop in 1946. Also in 1946, Mr. Tien was appointed as the first Cardinal from China, and a few years later he moved from Beijing to Taipei, Taiwan.

    I felt a bit related to Cardinal Tien, because in 1965, two years before his death, a Cardinal Tien Cultural Center was established in honor of him, which has since become an important performance venue up until now, and many other catholic organizations under the same name including the foundation and a hospital were all founded during the following years in its adjacent areas. As to the location of the core building – the Cardinal Tien Cultural Center, it was built right on the parcel of the residence of my family, and it was also my birth place.

  2. Hi Larry, thanks for the comment and your personal connection to Archbishop Tien Ken-sin. We’ll convey this to John, as well.

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