“Say Your Prayers Quick, There is No Time to Wait Now”: Lynch Law at Lexington and El Monte, May/June 1855, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Following yesterday’s first part of this post on a lynching that took place in May 1855 in Lexington, a hamlet that became part of today’s city of El Monte, we turn from newspaper coverage of the incident to surviving material from Los Angeles County court records from that period. After a review over 1,200 case files spanning from 1850 to 1875 more than twenty years ago, it was rare, indeed, to find in surviving dockets, affidavits and coroner’s inquest records, because state law only required county clerks to keep the barest of records. They help to give more detail and context to news reports that were either based on hearsay, built on bias, and lacking further information.

As was noted in the previous part, William Hand, known as “Little Bill” in a gang reportedly led by the vengeful brother of David Brown, who was lynched in Los Angeles in January 1855, managed to escape from a lynching party at El Monte and make his way twelve miles overnight to Los Angeles, where he turned himself in and then filed a complaint against those who sought to hang him for alleged complicity in conspiring to commit robberies in that San Gabriel Valley town. Obviously, it is crucial to note that Hand and others were reportedly intending to carrying out crimes, which were not capital ones—they were not actually known to have actually done so!

Hand, who was a native of New York and came to California along a typical overland route, the Oregon-California Trail, via Council Bluffs, Iowa, gave his story in a preliminary hearing before District Court Judge Benjamin I. Hayes as he was under a grand jury investigation. He stated that he was at the El Monte house of William Payne (also spelled Paine) with Pole Wilkerson and William Watson (this latter being denoted as “Big Bill”) and the three decided to leave for points north. He added that, when they got to Hand’s house at Turner’s Pass north of today’s Santa Clarita, they were arrested by a posse which “had no warrant, but said they arrested us on what Payne had sworn against us,” meaning, the reported intent to rob those in Lexington and El Monte.

News from El Monte by “Carmel,” Los Angeles Star, 10 March 1855.

Meantime, Hand continued, Adolphus Moore, Payne’s brother-in-law, was separately captured and was held tied to a tree. The account continued that Hand and his compatriots asked to be turned in to the authorities so they could procure legal assistance, but were told “there was no necessity for counsel, they they would give us all the law we wanted. Taken back to El Monte, there was the “extralegal trial” also known as a “popular tribunal,” with the most limited of likeness to a legally constituted court proceeding, but while Payne’s complaint was read, there were no witnesses brought forward and a parson named Johnson basically served as a prosecutor, asking the prisoners questions based solely on Payne’s statement.

Hand then told Hayes and the court that “all the charge that I heard against me was [that] I was in connection with Watson & [the] others arrested, for the purpose of stealing in the Monte. Nobody accused me of having stolen anything.” Yet, he went on, as evening fell, “more excitement seemed to get up, and finally the majority decided to hang us all.”

Consequently, Hand stated, an extralegal trial, affirmed by a “vote of the people,” was held.  While Payne’s statement was read to the accused, no witnesses were examined and a Parson Johnson was appointed to ask the prisoners questions based on the victim’s statement.  Hand claimed that “all the charge that I heard against me was I was in connection with Watson & others arrested, for the purpose of stealing in the Monte.  Nobody accused me of having stolen anything.”  As the affair reached evening, “more excitement seemed to get up, and finally the majority decided to hang us all.”  Consequently, Hand went on,

On Saturday about dusk they took all five of us to a tree near Parson Johnson’s in the Monte, and had me and Watson on the cart, for the purpose of hanging us, and then the rest; our hands were tied behind us; and the rope was around Watson’s neck, when Bacon said ‘hold, they don’t hang;’ then were were let off the cart.  Mr. Cunningham, Justice of the Peace taking charge of us and on the road we were delivered to constable Clark, and placed under a guard of several men by the constable. . .

A reprieve seemed at hand, but on the following day, Sunday, the Sabbath, he related

The prisoners were awoke, and I saw Jno Ward with several pieces of rope in his hand, and a pistol in the other.  Doherty then spoke and said, ‘You can’t take the men out of here.’  Ward said ‘Well then, we have heard noise outside, whistling &c and we are afraid someone is coming to rescue them, and we want to tie them.’  Doherty said ‘you may tie them, but shall not take them out.’  Ward then tied our hands, our feet having been before tied.  Ward then said to us, ‘say your prayers quick, there is no time to wait now, we have commenced it now.  I have made up my mind, and I will carry it through.’  The man named John then said to us, ‘I have staid with you as long as I can, but you are bound to die, they are going to hang you.’  In ten minutes after they commenced tying us, they took me out.  Robinson took me out to the door, and delivered me to William Burt and Ezekiel Rubottom who took me to an adobe house near by, took me inside, and pulled me up against a box and then hauled me over it in some manner, then Rubottom said ‘there’s a barrel here.’  While they were feeling for the barrel in the dark, I jerked away from them, ran out the door, and up the road or street towards the house of Mr. Samuel King; there appeared to be men stationed a little above the adobe house I had escaped from.  As I was passing there, one of the men who had taken me into the adobe house, cried out, ‘fire, or shoot,’ when these men fired some 10 or 15 shots.  I could hear the balls whistling by me.  It was very dark.  When the men started with me for the adobe house, my hands were tied in front of me, my feet then being released so that I could walk; as I went along I untied the rope on my hands, keeping my hands in the same position as if I were tied.  At the time I jerked away, as they were feeling for the barrel, each one of the men had an arm around each of my arms.  I drew my arms out, and ran.  I laid out all night and got to Los Angeles on Monday (May 14th) and have delivered myself up to the magistrate here.

While Hand, as well as Wilkerson, fled, Watson and Moore were killed, as noted previously, though Hand added that Wilson ingested chloroform in a suicide attempt before the four condemned men were led out by the vigilantes for their hanging.

It’s tangential, but this bill introduced in the legislature to create a state in southern California called “Columbia,” was one of several attempts to divide the Golden State—an idea still occasionally introduced. Star, 10 March 1855.

It was happenstance that other material connected to the Hand case were located loose in a box and in another unrelated criminal case file and who knows if the misplacement happened in 1855 or at some other point in the 145 years before they were found? In any case, they included a deposition of William Paine/Payne and verdicts in the inquest carried out by the coroner, as required by law, over the bodies of Moore and Watson.

With the first, Paine (the spelling used in the document) stated that Wilkerson, “Big Bill” (Watson) and “Little Bil” (Hand) went to Paine’s house on 3 May and Wilkerson stated “he had quit work . . . that he could make plenty of money easier than by working” and requested that Paine join him. He also asked about a Mr. Bacon and whether it was true he had $2,000 in his possession that Wilkerson could “lift.” It was added that could make an easy $1,000-1,200 in Los Angeles “by fine watches and jewels as it could be made very easy.”

When Wilkerson darkly noted that anyone hearing such a secret could be killed,” Paine responded that “I rec[k]oned that I would have to se him out” and the answer was that he was then “mustered into service,” a military expression.” Wilkerson also wanted to have Paine “use your best exertions to procuring stock and asked me if I did not know of a nigg[e]r or spaniard that I could get to help me steal stock and hold it until they could come after it” and the latter said he’d speak to a Latino.

Paine then attested that Moore went to his house and told him the others were at the place of a man named Crandall, so they went there and rode from El Monte west to Lexington, with Hand saying “I suppose that you have joined in with us” and Paine answering “I supposed I would have to get in with them.” Hand then asked about a potential victim named Knox and told him to meet the gang for a rendezvous at a cottonwood tree next to a pond at Parson Johnson’s place the next Saturday.

Southern Californian, 30 May 1855.

He then told Paine, “before I leave this place I will have satisfaction from these damn sons of Bitches” and followed this with a statement that he would go after a man named Stewart “and that he would kill him sure and sayes [sic] there are several more who will catch it if they do not look out . . . we are resolved to have a pile [of money] and kill or be killed.” Finally, Paine claimed that Wilkerson mentioned another man, John Watson, who “is sure to be killed” because Moore purportedly “says that he will kill him and if he don’t kill him god damn his old soul.”

As for the inquest, it was found that Moore was killed by a gunshot through the jaw, while “Big Bill” Watson died from four bullet wounds and asphyxiation from hanging, both deaths having occurred on 13 May. There was, though, also witness testimony from the inquest, with Payne, who’d migrated from Texas not quite a year prior with Moore and Wilkerson, stating that he overheard the latter discussing plans for robbery as a means for “making money without work.”  Further, when he purportedly told Payne that “when we open a secret to a man as far as I have, and he does not go in with us, we are obliged to kill him,” this was taken as an unsolicited invitation to join the gang. 

When the quartet left El Monte, Payne claimed that Hand said to him “I suppose we can consider you as one of us” and asked him about whether he knew any blacks or Latinos to ask to join their gang (why was not stated) and, like Wilkerson, Hand solicited information on potential victims.  As for his having joined the bandits, Payne’s paltry defense was that this was solely to get information to have them arrested.

Another witness was John Blackstone, who was a guard over the quartet and the older man, Garretson, who was freed, along with constable David Steele, one of two in the El Monte Township who were the only duly constituted law enforcement officials in the jurisdiction along with Justice of the Peace Charles O. Cunningham. Blackstone (whose surname, incidentally, was the same as a famed English jurist whose legal commentaries formed the basis of much of the “common law” in American jurisprudence) identified those who seized the prisoners from him, Steele and others as John Ward, Ezekiel Rubottom (whose brother was an El Monte resident and later a founder of the community of Spadra in what is now southwest Pomona), Dr. Frank Gentry, E.P. Robinson and a Latino identified solely as José.

Southern Californian, 30 May 1855.

After discussing the lynching and Hand’s escape, Blackstone noted that Watson tried to flee, as well, but who was shot in the head, while Blackstone, accounted the ringleader, thought he’d be killed by the vigilantes but was able to vamoose. Moore, meanwhile, who’d been shot in the thigh in the capture at Turner’s Pass, begged Blackstone to save him by promising to tell all about the gang and its plans. In fact, Moore did confess that the gang had stolen seven animals and “he was still taking to me, when the men came in and killed him . . . I am certain that this Mexican [José] killed Moore.”

When it came to the brother of recently lynched criminal David Brown, Blackstone stated that this other reputed leader boasted that the gang comprised 300 men, an enormous total if true, and it was added that

Watson then told me that Brown had formed a company to revenge the death of his brother who was hung in Los Angeles sometime since, that is, David Brown: that Brown had about 50 or 60 at that time; some in Sonora, Tuolumne County, some in Mariposa, some in Santa Barbara, and some at the place where he & Hand and Wilkerson had been arrested; that all were to meet at Turner’s Pass on some future day and come to Los Angeles, to revenge the death of his brother. 

This refers to a brother of David Brown, who’d been lynched five months before in the famous incident following the execution of Felipe Alvitre.  Blackstone further stated that Wilkerson and Hand were part of Brown’s massive bandit force and said that Hand told him as much and that there reason for formation was to revenge David Brown’s death. Another witness, John Gordon, a menber of the posse that captured Hand and the others, related that Hand told him that he, watson and Brown’s brother ran the store at Turner’s Pass. Fielding Bacon, purportedly one of the robbery targets, said that Watson, before he died, cursed Brown as “one of the god-damnedest rascals in the world” and indicated Hand was in league with him.

Francis Tallmadge told the coroner that, in January, he saw Hand at the home of Micajah Johnson, who was very shortly after involved in a family feud, in which he killed Samuel King (mentioned above) and then was, in turn, killed by King’s sons (two of whom were involved in a notorious Los Angeles shootout a decade later!). It was stated that Hand and Brown went there to ask for Mrs. Johnson and her daughter, wife of William B. Lee, who was incarcerated for murder and narrowly escaped lynching when David Brown and Felipe Alvitre, who was from the Misión Vieja, or Old Mission (being the original site of Mission San Gabriel) community south of El Monte, were legally executed (Alvitre) and lynched (Brown) by a mob in Los Angeles in January.

Southern Californian, 30 May 1855.

Tallmadge added that Hand and brown were in El Monte because “what brought them to this country was to release David Brown out of jail,” even though, as Brown’s brother told Tallmadge, “it appears it is too late.”  That being the case, there was a offer to break Lee out of jail, if this was wanted by the family.

Benjamin Barton, another arrival with Payne from Texas in late 1854 and who knew Moore and Wilkerson in the Lone Star state, testified that, just before the lynching, Payne came to him with a plan to break up the gang, so Barton conducted some reconaissance at Turner’s Pass and saw Hand there at his house and farm. John Thurman, another guard of the captured men and a long-time El Monte resident, stated that Hand snarled, “it is none of your God-damned business” when asked, as the hanging was being readied, if he was innocent, while telling Watson as they waited for the ropes to be fixed, “let’s die like men.”

As for the Los Angeles hearing before Hayes, Hand was held to answer before the grand jury, after his attorney, Lewis Granger, failed to appear and the accused waived any continuance, but the jury ailed to find a true bill of indictment. Another attempt was made in August, but unsuccessfully and Hand was released. Hayes, though, did order Sheriff James Barton to arrest and bring to Los Angeles William S. Burt, Gentry, Rubottom and Ward for their reported hanging of Hand, who was jerked in the air and then let down repeatedly in an apparent effort to get a confession out of their prisoner.

Star, 2 June 1855.

In his scrapbooks, which are an immensely valuable sources of information broadly and for criminal justice in particular for that era and which are at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, the Judge described the interesting proceedings that followed:

This document was delivered to me by the Captain of some forty horsemen from the Monte, as they were passing down Spring street to the Court house.  I met them, as I was going from the Court house for a book.  I put the document n my pocket, in a few moments I returned to the Court house; found them formed in front of it; with a little persuasion, they yielded up the four persons accused.  After some delay in seeking their attorney, I committed them to the custody of the Sheriff till afternoon.  At the hour fixed, they did not appear—the Sheriff having allowed them to go at large.  Nothing further was ever done in the case.  The men they executed were undoubtedly bad men.  Hand, however, had to be discharged by me, for lack of evidence.

In the scrapbook, moreover, was a letter signed by many citizens decrying the arrest of the quartet and part of the missive read:

We the undersigned citizens of the state & county aforesaid have just been informed that some of our Best Citizens have been arrested on the oath of Wm Han[d], who escaped from them on the night of the 14th & said Han stating that they were the cause of the death of two men in the same night, in the town of Lexington.  It having been satisfactorily proved that the above mentioned two men were connected with a Band of Robers & Thieves numbering about three hundred.

Then, there was a letter from Burt, Gentry, Rubottom and Ward, in which they sought to justify their actions as an effort to preserve peace in El Monte in the face of robbers:

We write to explain to you concerning a letter which was dropped in the D. C. office in Los Angeles, dated Mon May the 15, which seems to be concerning those men executed at this place on Sunday night 13 inst. And which seems to bid the law defiance and warns you to look out for your personal safety.  The above we deny without hesitation of writing or of knowing anything abut it. It was written by designing men and enemies to us and we thing to everything Honorable, ——, & Just.  We hope that you will sustain us in our belief, and support us so far as you can conveniently or feel yourself at liberty to do.

On the reverse of this missive, which Hayes kept in his scrapbook (as opposed to the case file) the jurist inscribed:

The four men whose names are hereunto signed were of those engaged in the execution of two men at the Monte.  I sent the anonymous letter to one of their friends, in order to ascertain if possible, who was the author.  I never believed that any of them had anything to do with it.  A further account of this horrid affair will be found somewhere among my papers.  B. H.

In August, a case against E.P. Robinson for his involvement in the incident was heard in the Court of Sessions, but the district attorney filed a nolle prosequi, or decline to prosecute, motion for unspecified reasons. Meanwhile, at the end of May, just a couple of weeks after the lynchings, Brown and Wilkerson were reported to have been found dangling from a tree near the Rancho El Tejon between Los Angeles and what became Bakersfield, but no details were offered as to what transpired. The Southern Californian, typically, approved of this application of “popular justice” and “natural law” by opining that “so the work goes bravely on” and hoping that more such examples “will clean the land of all such gente [people].”

References to the poor state of the economy, a quiet Sabbath day with only one homicide, the terrible situation with the indigenous people and alcohol, to William Hand’s case before the county grand jury, and to William B. Lee on death row in the county jail, though he was soon freed when his conviction was overturned because of prejudicial public sentiment, like that expressed in this paper. Southern Californian, 6 June 1855.

Whatever Hand and his compatriots were doing in El Monte and Lexington in spring 1855, there was no proof whatever that they actually committed any crimes, yet citizens of these communities took the law into their own hands, amid vociferous complaints that the duly constituted authorities miserable failed in containing rampant crime, and lynched two men while two others barely escaped with their lives. The incident is another example of the many vexations gripping greater Los Angeles in the early American era, as covered in our 16-part lecture series “Curious Cases” and we’ll look to share more about this topic in future posts on this blog.

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