“One of the Most Startling Transactions that Has Ever Come Within Our Knowledge”: Lynch Law at Lexington and El Monte, May/June 1855

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There were regular reports sent by correspondents in Los Angeles to such major Eastern newspapers as the New York Times and New York Tribune and the Homestead’s collection has a few originals of the latter in its collection from the late 1840s to the mid 1860s with some interesting information (one from 1866 about the California wine industry will be shared in a few days) about the state and the greater Los Angeles region.

The 25 June 1855 edition of the Tribune had a few columns devoted to news under the heading of “Two Weeks Later From California” thanks to the arrival of the steamer The Star of the West. The vessel had some 500 passengers and carried about $625,000 in gold from the mines, even as the Gold Rush was petering out, while much of the news was about happenings in San Francisco.

The New York Tribune, 25 June 1855, from the Museum’s holdings.

There was, however, a “From the South” section with information from newspapers from San Diego, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, dated from 19-23 May. From the latter, the subheading blared “Lynch Law in Los Angeles—One Man Hanged and Another Shot” and there was a quote from The Californian, a San Francisco sheet, that stated that

One of the most startling transactions that has ever come within our knowledge . . . as occurring among a civilized people, has just been enacted in the village of Lexington, some twelve miles from this city.

It was reported that a Mr. Paine of that hamlet, adjacent to El Monte, “a few days since revealed to his neighbors the existence of an organized band [of criminals], consisting of some forty members, possessing written articles of agreement and signatures of members,” this being an unusual formality of organization among bandits. Moreover, it was stated that the gang had “for its object a regular system of robbery, and assassination if necessary to carry out their designs.”

Paine added “that he had been induced to join them by threats against his life made by some of the party, among whom were his own brother-in-law, Adolphus Moore,” with this latter having “borne a very bad character” and alleged to have killed a man in El Paso, Texas while on his way to California a year or two prior. Paine continued that the plan was to rob a man named Bacon, who lived at Lexington, “and if necessary to prevent discovery, murder him and his family,” while following up with robberies on other merchants.

It was further stated that Moore and other gang members went to the “Tehachapy” Valley, where Paine’s sister was being taken “and where it is supposed that the headquarters of the gang existed.” As they were fleeing, however, “a party of men immediately started out in pursuit and overtook Moore, with some four others at a grocery, near the entrance to Turner’s Pass,” this being in the mountains north of modern Santa Clarita along today’s San Francisquito Road. It was added that Moore tried to escape and was shot in the thigh and recaptured.

The account then noted that, on 12 and 13 May:

On their arrival at Lexington, the citizens formed a Lynch court, and after some brief proceedings, the prisoners were on Saturday last taken out to be executed. After reaching the place of execution, and making every preparation, a vote was taken whether or not the prisoners should be delivered over to the civil authorities, when a large majority decided in favor of so doing, and the prisoners were then handed over the Justice [of the Peace Charles O.] Cunningham, who placed them in charge of Constable Clark. On Sunday night, about 11 o’clock, a party of men seized and bound the guards, and proceeded to hang the prisoners to the ceiling of a building. In the hurry and confusion, one of them, by the name of William Hand, escaped, and arrived in this city [Los Angeles] on Monday afternoon, giving himself up to the authorities, in whose custody he now remains. Wa[t]son was hung, and one other by the name of Moore, shot, and another, fourth man, is though to have escaped with Hand. An old man, another of the party apprehended, had been set at liberty by the mob previously.

The description then concluded with the caveat that “we have been unable to get authentic accounts of the proofs against the party, and are consequently completely in the dark as to their culpability.”

There was also some coverage in the New York Times also of 25 June, in which it was reported that William Paine went to Justice Cunningham to make an affidavit, but it was added that “one BROWN—a brother of DAVID BROWN, who was lynched at Los Angeles some three or four months ago—had organized a band of men for the purpose of robbing and killing.” Paine told the justice he’d been forced through threat to join the gang and stated that some of its members were at Turner’s Pass.

This account noted that “the people of Lexington were very much excited upon hearing this statement” and formed a posse and found five men, including William Watson, William Hand, Adolpheus E. Moore, Pole Wilkerson and one only known as Garretson, this latter apparently being the elder figure “who was declared to be innocent of any crime” and freed. Mention was made of the “Lynch trial” where the decision was made to string up the other four, with the men having ropes around their necks, before the vote was made to turn them over to the authorities and have a citizen guard (there being only the justice of the peace and two constables in the El Monte Township).

On the following evening, some six to eight men “entered the building where the accused men were confined,” nothing being stated about the guards being overpowered, and “told them they could say their prayers, as they should be hung in ten minutes, and then proceeded to put their threat in execution.” Hand and Wilkerson were the first to be led out, “but, in the darkness of the night, HAND contrived to untie his arms and escape from the executioners” even as up to 14 shots were fired at him as he fled and then reached Los Angeles the next day and turned himself in. Wilkerson, too, got the rope around his neck loosened “and escaped to parts unknown.”

Moore, already having been injured when captured in the north, “was shot while in his bed” because, after the escape of the other two men, “one of the bystanders, named JOSE, a Mexican, . . . placed a pistol to his head, and literally blew his brains out.” As for Watson, he, too, was shot “although there were some evidences that an attempt had been made to hang him, his neck being considerably lacerated. In the morning his body was found riddled with balls [bullets].”

The Times report ended with the observation that there was considerable agitation in Lexington “and an attempt was made to bring the perpetrators of these outrages to justice.” Yet, it was averred, “Judge [Benjamin I.] HAYES, of the District Court, had taken ineffectual measures to have the affair judicially investigated, and it is now pretty certain that they cannot be brought to a trial.”

As for local coverage of these “startling transactions,” the Southern Californian, a paper that only existed for not quite two years, but operated during a period of tremendous violence and did so with a very transparent approval of so-called “natural law” in support of vigilantism, had a lengthy feature, titled “Lynching in the Monte,” in it edition of 23 May 1855. It noted that “the great topic of interest for the last few days has been the recent case of lynching at the Monte and the subsequent legal steps which have followed.

It recounted that Hand, known as “Little Bill,” (Watson being “Big Bill”) came to the Angel City to turn himself in after his evading execution and that Hayes “upon his complaint, issued warrants for the apprehension of the person of four of the alleged actors in the Lynching.” That quartet appeared and were “accompanied by a very large delegation of their neighbors and friends,” one wonders how much of all of this had to do with the somewhat nebulous and shadowy agglomeration known as the “Monte Boys,” who did not shy from joining larger vigilante efforts or carrying out their own.

Yet, while it was stated that the four vigilantes were in town to appear before Hayes, it was added that “at the appointed hour, however, it was found that the arraigned parties had quietly retired to their homes,” meaning, presumably, that they were released on their own recognizance, which, the paper, averred was “about as sensible a move as could have been made.” Perhaps this was a veiled allusion to potential problems from the “delegation” that went with them?

The next day, though, “a posse of some ten or fifteen started for the Monte to bring them back” and “some of them returned in the afternoon and reporting nothing [no one] found.” An unidentified officer (the sheriff, undersheriff or marshal?) remained “with a few law abiding citizens” in El Monte “with the forlorn hope of effecting the arrest of the party.” As for Hand, the paper added that he “remains snugly ensconced in the city prison, while his chum, Wilkerson, has, we understand, made his way up the Tulares,” that is, well into the San Joaquin Valley.

New York Times, 25 June 1855.

The paper then lambasted the authorities in Los Angeles, whose action “has been characterized by a gross want of judgment, and has had the effect of still further widening the breach between our citizens and the statute book.” Editors William Butts and John O. Wheeler then fulminated that the Court’s actions against the vigilantes, “after the multiplied cases of ‘higher law’ which have occurred in this County” and which were, it claimed “entire unnoticed by the constituted authorities, partakes much of the ridiculous.” It wondered if the urbanites in the Angel city felt “it is deemed improper for our neighbors in rural districts to take the same liberties which are tacitly allowed in our own citizens.”

This referred to previous “popular tribunals” held in Los Angeles during the first half of the decade, though Hayes was a rare public voice against such “extralegal” proceedings, but the Southern Californian continued that, if “Judge Lynch” had never before “asserted his supremacy” or if the courts were better at its purpose “to afford that protection and safety to life and property” called for in the statutes, “we would have looked upon the present action of the authorities with far more approbation.”

Southern Californian, 25 May 1855.

Instead, the history of the Angel City and the fact that “our Courts have quietly succumbed before the majesty of the people,” that is, vigilantism, and were clearly “tacitly acknowledging their own impotency to afford protection to the innocent, or mete out punishment to the guilty” showed, the editors proclaimed that the only peace and “security to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was “owing wholly and entirely to the retributive justice meted out by the people.” All the Court had accomplished were to be

Obsequious engines for designing men to strip the unsuspecting of their patrimony, to rob the widowed and the fatherless, and to carry terror and dismay, in the shape of long bills of costs, and fees and per centage, drawing tears of blood from the unfortunate to have the wheels of this legal Juggernaut.

There was almost no approval of what was being done against the poor vigilantes of El Monte because they were only acting necessarily “for their own safety and security” in its “condign punishment” of “a band of murderous assassins, whose guilt was undeniable, and who even after their arrest, swore deep vengeance against the lives of their fellows.”

The Southern Californian insisted “we are not wedded to lynch law” and “would gladly banish it from the Republic,” except that “there have been circumstances and cases . . . where the action of the people has been imperatively required” because the courts were simply “incapable of administering justice” and defendants, by “crooks and quirks and subtleties” evaded “the penalty due to their crimes.” Given that there were “villains of every shade and degree, murderers—horse thieves—robbers and swindlers,” there was every need “in ridding our borders of such pests.”

Claiming that a half-dozen years of experience, dating from the earliest days of the Gold Rush, demonstrably showed that “mob law” was almost never in error in its judgment, the editors further asserted “we have never seen its hand laid upon an innocent man,” though Hayes publicly pointed out the innocence of Cipriano Sandoval, a cobbler hung with others in 1852 for the murder of Joshua Bean at San Gabriel, as a preeminent example. Then again, the paper proffered that “those who are loudest in their condemnation of lynch law, are those who have lived in violation of all law, and are ever found sturdy advocates and supporters of a legal machinery” that protected them “in their career of vice and rascality.”

It was more than telling that the editors then averred that

Others are found, who as in this city, have cheerfully fraternized with the mob, in inflicting speedy justice on some worthless outcast from Sonora [that is, a Latino]; but when the grasp of an aggrieved and outraged populace is laid upon the culprits of our own race, a holy horror is at once manifested against the violation of written statute.

As to those, like Hayes, “who are opposed to mobs from principle,” but this only meant something if there was “the increased efficiency and purity of our Courts of Justice” which, thereby, would mean the community would “be relieved of all shadow of necessity for further demonstrations by the people.” If this could take place, mob law, which was “ever repulsive to a community,” would vanish.

A further reference to the incident was made more briefly in the Southern Californian of 6 June, as it was noted that “much inquietude is being manifested in the Monte in consequence of the threats made by the friends of the parties recently lynched at that point,” while repeating that the gang was said to be “lurking about the country, awaiting an opportunity to reek [wreak] their vengeance.”

The paper reported that there was a recent attempt at murder as well as horse theft, with the owner shot at, to no effect, and it was claimed that the Brown gang was responsible (though, without any adduced evidence.) Moreover, it was stated that these events “have conspired to cause a universal feeling of insecurity, and no man now pretends to leave his house at night” without being adequately armed and “it is considered unsafe even to travel about the country at mid-day.”

Given the “mortifying state of affairs” it was a time “which calls loudly for extraordinary measures,” so that “if there is to be peace, quietness and security to life and property, every vagabond must be put out of the way, driven from country, or strung to a limb,—and the sooner this work is commenced the better will it be.” It was claimed that there were “individuals scattered all over the country who have no visible means of gaining a livelihood” so, consequently, “there can be no question as to the dishonesty and crime perpetrated by this class.”

Southern Californian, 6 July 1855.

A recent law passed by the “Know-Nothing” legislature and given the extraordinary name “An Act to Punish Vagrants, Vagabonds and Dangerous and Suspicious Persons” gave broad powers to arrest and try anyone deemed (though how exactly was left to the imagination) to be a vagrant, but there was specific mention of “greasers” or mestizos of mixed Indian and Mexican blood, so it was often known as the “Greaser Law.” Local legislators like Joseph Lancaster Brent voted against the legislation and it is not known if the statute was ever enforced in greater Los Angeles, but it was a heinous legal machination by the anti-immigrant, racist “Know Nothings” who briefly controlled state government. The Southern Californian made no mention in this context of race and, of course, the purported Brown gang, not unlike the Red Irving gang of four years prior, was comprised of whites.

Tomorrow, we pick up the story with the second part of this post looking at some of the surviving documents from the Los Angeles County court case files and related material, so please check back for that.

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