Fits the Bill: A Bill for Lodging from Charles P. Knowlton, Proprietor of the Pico House, Los Angeles, 5 June 1874

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It’s been said here before, but bears repeating, that there are so many historic artifacts in the Homestead’s collection that have their surface value and then also have underlying meaning that can often be surprising. This is certainly the case with the featured object from the Museum’s holdings for this post: a bill for lodging at the Pico House hotel in Los Angeles, dated 5 June 1874.

The hostelry was built by the last governor of Mexican Alta California and close friend and neighboring ranchero to the Temples and Workmans, Don Pío Pico. Pico, using proceeds from the 1869 sale of the southern portion of the massive Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando to Isaac Lankershim, erected the impressive Italianate structure the following year.

An 1868 photograph, taken in San Francisco for a U.S. Army surgeon’s report, of Confederate veteran, Captain Charles P. Knowlton, demonstration movement of his badly wounded right leg, injured in the Battle of Mine Run, Virginia five years prior.

It was designed by the first professional architect in Los Angeles, Ezra F. Kysor (who was said to have worked on the remodeling of the Workman House, conducted at the same time) and Pico embarked on the project in an attempt to keep the Plaza area, the historic center of the Angel City economically viable as Americans, like F.P.F. Temple and his Temple Block, were building to the south.

Don Pío then entered into a partnership with Antonio Cuyas, so that the latter would manage the hotel, but the pair quickly had a falling out that led to a complicated lawsuit that dragged on for several years. In late March 1873, Pico leased the hotel to Charles P. Knowlton for two years at $750 per month, while he continued his legal battle with Cuyas.

Another image from the 1868 examination with Knowlton showing his leg, shortened because of the surgery that removed 2 1/2 inches of his tibia and femur, while also taking out his patella, removed from his trousers and standing on a book.

Knowlton almost immediately raised concerns with the Los Angeles Common (City) Council, which included William H. Workman (nephew of Homestead owners William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste) about sewer gas leaks that plagued the hotel and vicinity. He also got into a bit of a battle with the Los Angeles Star newspaper over his accusation that a chambermaid, arrested in San Francisco subsequently, stole linens and other items from her room, though it was found that Knowlton could not actually prove his charge.

Upset that the paper sympathized with the woman, Knowlton issued a letter to the Star expressing his displeasure, while the paper lambasted his veracity in what it cutting called the case of Knowlton vs. Knowlton. It added that “this Knowlton may know how to run a hotel, but he is hardly competent to dictate” what should be published in the pages of the paper.

Knowlton and his family enumerated in the 1870 federal census while he operated a hot springs hotel in what became Paso Robles in central California.

An early ad for the hotel the following fall , in addition to informing potential guests that the Pico was “a FIRST-CLASS HOTEL . . . superior to any in Southern California” with frontage on three streets so that “the view from the windows cannot be excelled,” assured that “the unpleasant odor of gas has entirely disappeared since the building of the new sewer.”

In 1874, the Star’s proprietor Benjamin C. Truman, who published several books in addition to his journalistic endeavors, wrote Semi-Tropical California, which was a notable booster of greater Los Angeles and much of which came from the pages of the Star in columns he wrote to promote the potential of the region. Perhaps he and Knowlton had a meeting of the minds, because Truman approvingly wrote in his book:

The Pico House, situated on Main Street (as indeed all four of the leading hotels [the Clarendon, Lafayette, and United States being the others] are), its eastern side fronting the plaza, is one hundred and twenty-five feet square, three stories high, originally costing $48,000, and was furnished at a cost of $34,000. It has eighty-two rooms, including twenty-one suites, elegantly furnished throughout, and provided with bath rooms and whatever else can contribute to the comfort of its guests. It is lighted throughout with gas. The parlor is eighteen by thirty-four feet, handsomely furnished, and is daily the center and rallying point of a refined and accomplished circle of permanent and transient guests. Under the able management of Mr. Charles Knowlton, the affairs of the establishment glide on smoothly, and “complaint” is a word unknown in its vocabulary.

Despite this, Knowlton’s two-year lease expired in March 1875 and was not renewed, with the Los Angeles Express of 1 April 1875 reporting “The Pico House yesterday ceased to be run as a hotel, and is now a simply lodging house.” With Knowlton no longer running the enterprise, the dining room was shuttered and the bar closed “and guests must now take their meals outside of the building.”

The earliest located reference to Knowlton as operator of the Pico House as he filed a complaint to the Los Angeles Common (City) Council about sewer gas problems, Los Angeles Star, 25 April 1873.

The paper added that “Don Pio Pico has not yet leased the hotel” (the short story is that the operation reverted back to Cuyas as part of the legal wrangling between him and the former governor) and then praised Knowlton, saying “this gentleman has exhibited considerable administrative ability in his career as a hotel-keeper.” The Express then concluded by observing, “in fact, Knowlton know ‘how to keep a hotel’ and in whatever lines his future business career may be cast we hope they will be pleasant ones.”

Short as his Angel City stay was and little as has been written about him, Knowlton had an interesting and varied long life spanning nearly nine decades. He was born in upstate New York, probably southeast of Buffalo, in 1835 to Thomas Knowlton, whose father was a Revolutionary War officer of some note, and Lucy Blanchard. As a teen, he worked on a farm near the Pennsylvania border, but, otherwise, his life is little-known until he wound up in New Orleans, where he worked as a clerk when the Civil War burst forth in spring 1861.

Part of an article on Knowlton’s complaint that a Pico House chambermaid stole bed coverings and other items, Star, 23 May 1873.

The 27 year-old enlisted with the Confederate States of America’s 10th Louisiana Infantry in July 1862 and he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Given command of a company at the Battle of Sharpsburg, better known as Antietam, in Maryland, and which was fought on 17 September 1862, Knowlton was wounded and captured by Union Army forces. He was part of a prisoner exchange the following month and was promoted to captain. Again, however, he was wounded, this time at the Battle of Mine Run in Virginia on 27 November 1863, and his right leg was badly injured by a gunshot wound.

His treatment was such that it was extensively covered in publications, including Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion and Photographs of Surgical Cases and Specimens. It was noted that Knowlton, with assistance, walked half a mile and, on the field, the bullet was removed. The captain was then taken on an ambulance over rough roads to the nearest railway station and taken to Richmond, the Confederal capital, where he was hospitalized two days after the battle.

The earliest ad found with Knowlton as the hotel’s proprietor, Star, 14 September 1873.

While his condition was initially considered good and his knee joint movement excellent, infection set in and it was decided to excise the joint, which involved removing his knee cap, sawing away an inch-and-a-half of the femur and an inch of the tibia, and these two portions shaped so they were wired together though “the limb was slightly flexed.”

There were some further complications in the healing process, but, by March, Knowlton had the wires removed and began to walk with crutches. The following month, he was released with a leather splint and “there was still slight motion between the femur and tibia, but the ligamentous union appeared quite firm.”

A brief note of the work of mediums conducting seances in their room at the Pico House the same day as the bill below, Los Angeles Express, 5 June 1874.

Being discharged from the Confederate Army, about a year before the surrender at Appomattox, Knowlton went to the Bahamas to recuperate and a New Orleans doctor examined him and “the found the consolidation very firm.” In 1866, the veteran was back in New Orleans and “was able not only to walk almost as well as ever, but to dance even the round dances.”

Knowlton, who married Kate Andrews in 1865, and had a son, Charles A., in New Orleans then moved the family to San Francisco, where he was employed as a purser with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s Senator, which included San Pedro as a stop on the coast route. He registered to vote in San Francisco in 1868, listing his occupation as a clerk.

Express, 1 April 1875.

On 17 December 1868, an Army surgeon examined Knowlton and also had at least two photographs taken, which are shown here, and it was recorded that “the muscular development of the limb was good” while “the only inconvenience suffered” was “the inability to flex it at the knee.” With this, it was determined that this constituted “a result as gratifying as it is unusual.”

In 1876, when Knowlton returned to San Francisco after his two-year stint running the Pico House, the medical director of the Presidio, reported “that he experienced no disability save that due to the shortness and stiffness of the limb, and walked for miles without fatigue.” Given the horrific injuries, many Union and Confederate soldiers suffered from battlefield wounds, Knowlton’s situation was clearly noteworthy for the success of his treatment.

A reference to Knowlton’s possible proprietorship of the Alameda Hotel in connection to an employee’s terrible death after dental surgery, Los Angeles Herald, 3 March 1883.

Knowlton’s work on the Senator looks to have lasted for perhaps no more than a year or so, as in mid-March 1869, a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner writing on “Things in Southern California,” noted that as he returned to San Francisco he “sojourned a couple of weeks at this famous hygienic establishment” known simply as the Hot Springs on the Rancho de Paso Robles north of San Luis Obispo. It was added that “a new landlord, Captain Charles Knowlton, has recently assumed management, under lease for a term of years.” Incidentally, one of the owners, Drury James, a Gold Rush ’49er, was also the uncle of the notorious bandit Jesse James.

It may well be that the term at Paso Robles was two years because, by mid-October 1871, Knowlton was in Los Angeles, where he registered to vote and gave his occupation as hotel-keeper. It is not known what he did between then and late March 1873 when he secured the lease to the Pico, but he likely worked at one of the other hostelries in the Angel City.

Line 46 of this sheet enumerating “inmates” at the New Orleans branch of the National Home for Disabled Veteran Soldiers lists “C.P. Knowlton,” aged 84, and working as a clerk in the commissary. He died four years later just shy of his 89th birthday.

After returning to San Francisco in 1875, Knowlton returned with his family to Louisiana and was a farmer at Baton Rouge when the federal census was conducted five years later. There may have been a brief return to the Angel City shortly afterward, because a Charles Knowlton operated the Alameda Hotel, situated at the intersection of Upper Main and Alameda streets just north of the Pico, when it opened in early 1883. In May, Knowlton earned a $5 fine for a physical altercation with a guest about a bill. By March 1885, there was a new lessee and the hostelry was renamed the Cleveland, so it may be that, after another two-year run, Knowlton returned to Louisiana.

For many years, Knowlton worked with sugar, a major crop in the state, at Baton Rouge. In 1897, his daughter Inez (Kate) Mercer, who was born at Paso Robles, died and the following year his wife Kate followed. In 1903, his son, Charles A., who became a civil engineer specializing in railroad projects and hydraulics for water works as well as spending some years working with his father, was operating a sugar plantation at Guanatanamo, Cuba, where the United States prison of notoriety is located, when he suddenly took ill and died.

By 1910, Knowlton moved into the former Camp Nicholls, which was one of the branches of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, one of which was at Sawtelle in West Los Angeles. He remained there, at times working as a clerk in the commissary, until his death in 1924. While he was remembered as a Civil War veteran, his years in California, including the two years operating the Pico House, were apparently long forgotten.

As to the bill, it is a simple one, made out to what looks like “Mr. T.D. Mildram” and includes $14.00 in board (perhaps for a week?) as well as $3.00 in cash, with the notation “Paid” and the proprietor’s last name. It is a modest artifact connected to the building which still stands today over 150 years later, but the story of its proprietor from 1873 to 1875 is a notable one, albeit “hidden beneath the surface,” as it were.

2 thoughts

  1. It’s very impressive to learn that more than 150 years ago an operation of very complicated surgical procedures was done on Knowlton’s leg including knee cap removal, and it turned out to be a very successful surgery. Considering the fact that knee arthroplasty was not yet developed until 100 years later, his surgeon’s medical achievement in 1860’s was really amazing!

  2. Hi Larry, thanks for the comment and, yes, it does look like this was an impressive accomplishment for the time. The Civil War did lead to a number of advances in medical science amid general improvements, including identifying the causes of many diseases, sterilization of hospitals and instruments, the development of vaccinations and so much more.

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