by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has so often been noted here, it is remarkable how a rather mundane artifact in a museum collection can have so much more than is evident at the surface and the featured object from the Homestead’s holdings for his post is certainly no exception. The item is a rare surviving check from the Temple and Workman bank, owned by F.P.F. Temple and William Workman from November 1871 until its failure in January 1876, the first major business collapse in Los Angeles history, and it was written out by Temple to Workman for payment on the latter’s account to Joseph Walter Drown.
What this two-part post will focus upon is Drown and his story in Los Angeles, as well as that of the terrible tragedy involving his family’s migration to the Angel City along with the remarkable and short life of his father, Ezra. This first part will primarily deal with these last two elements and tomorrow we’ll return with more about the son, who was known commonly as Walter.
Ezra Drown, Jr. was born in Nashua, New Hampshire in 1825 to a well-to-do family. He was educated at the Newbury Seminary through what was equivalent to high school and then enrolled at Dartmouth College, one of the famed Ivy League schools of New England. An 1871 account by Charles Negus, who became a friend when Drown was a young man, related that a prank by some Dartmouth students, including Drown, involving the theft of watermelons from a local farmer went awry when he turned the offenders in and they were given a punishment they thought was not merited given the offense.
In retaliation, the students went to the farmer’s grist mill and inflicted major damage on it and the response was such that, likely facing a suspension or expulsion, Drown fled the school and the Granite State and joined an emigrant party that headed west to Iowa. He settled in Fairfield in Jefferson County in the southeastern portion of the state and, according to Negus, walked into the hotel run by Thomas Dickey and quickly ingratiated himself there. It was pointed out that the short, stout young man was clearly intelligent, but his clothes were well-worn from his long migration.
Drown was depicted as dejected and forlorn until some money arrived and Negus added that the windfall was from the young man’s father who was only then notified, from Iowa, of his son’s withdrawal from Dartmouth and his sudden exodus to the midwest. Flush with some cash, Drown immediately “read law” with a Fairfield firm, which, instead of going to law schools, was how most attorneys received their legal education.
Negus called Drown “an apt scholar, [and] a close student” who was quickly admitted to the bar, which did not involve an exam, but, rather, was a session with a judge who asked questions intended to elicit evidence of a solid understanding of the law. Once Drown became a lawyer, however, said Negus, “he was not very scrupulous as to what he did to accomplish his ends, but he was of a popular pleasing turn . . . and made many warm friends.”
Drown supplemented his work as an attorney by being editor of a Democratic Party newspaper in Fairfield “and he gained much notoriety for his sarcasm and wit,” though he also the prosecuting attorney, what we’d call a district attorney now, for Jefferson County for several years. Finally, he was a state militia general and was fond of being referred to as “General Drown.” Negus also told the story of what appeared to be Drown’s dalliance with a married woman, though he insisted that it was an innocent misunderstanding involving a drunken jealous husband.
In late October 1849, Dickey eloped with the hotel owner’s daughter Adeline and Negus reported that Drown used money he’d collected as administrator of a local farmer’s estate to pay for the expenses of the nuptial and honeymoon, during which he represented himself as a U.S. Army captain. Moreover, when an indictment was filed against Drown and discovery made prior to trial, Negus, who represented his friend, asked him to go to the prosecuting attorneys to gather documents for review.
When Drown returned to Negus’ office, he casually remarked that it was quite cold and they needed a roaring fire and tossed the papers into the stove. With the case so compromised, the matter was dropped but it was added that “Drown’s shortcomings . . . had very much prejudiced public opinion against him, so much so that it was not very desirable for him to stay in the vicinity of Fairfield.”
In 1849, as with so many thousands of people in the country and elsewhere, Thomas Dickey was stricken with “gold fever” when news of the discovery of the precious metal in California reached Iowa that he immediately set out and instructed Drown to handle the sale of his hotel and other property in Fairfield. Being the unpopular fellow he was (or made himself to be), Drown, his wife and their “interesting child,” this being Walter, who was born in May 1852, joined her mother and brother in migrating to southern California, though it appears the trips were not taken together, so that the Drowns traveled on their own.
The family likely took the Mississippi River south to New Orleans and then a steamer to one of the central American isthmus locales (Nicaragua, perhaps, or Panama) before crossing to the Pacific and embarking on the steamer Independence. On 16 February 1853, however, the craft approached Isla Santa Margarita off the coast of Baja California Sur when it hit some rocks and caught fire and sank.
In the horror that occurred, some 150 persons lost their lives. In the chaos, wrote Negus:
Drown put his wife in what he supposed would be a safe place for a short time, gripped his child by its clothes with his teeth and swam ashore with it, deposited it in safe keeping, and then went back to the wreck for his wife, but when he go back she was not to be found; in the confusion some one had jostled her from the place he left her into the boisterous deep. Her form never met his vision any more—she found a watery grave.
Another account stated that, as he swam back towards Adeline, Drown saw a man shove her off the floating piece of wreckage and she slipped under the water. He penned his own account, published in the San Francisco newspaper, the Alta California of 2 April 1853 and wrote:
On the 16th of February, ult, the Steamer Independence, of the Vanderbilt Line, Capt. Sampson, during on her upward trip from San Juan del Sud to San Francisco, when off the south point of Margarita Island, and within three hundreds yards of shore, struck a rock and immediately commenced to fill with water. The accident befell the steamer early in the morning, between daylight and sunrise. Nearly all the passengers were quietly enjoying their repose, when they were suddenly aroused from their slumbers by the severity of the collision of the boat upon the rock.
Drown continued that the order to reverse the craft was given, while buckets were employed to bail water with passengers joining the crew in this fruitless effort. The captain ordered the vessel steered toward the beach, but rocks prevented it from getting very far and water reached the furnace and set the ship afire.
Some passengers made their escape on lifeboats and others jumped into the water and tried to swim to shore, but the waves were powerful and a great many drowned, with Drown writing, “now was the agonizing time–The flames spreading rapidly, parents embraced their fond children, imperiling their cheeks with warm gushing tears; devoted husbands embraced their tender wives, meeting their lips in affection’s sweet kiss, relying upon god and their own exertions for salvation from the fiery and watery abyss that yawned to receive them.”
The account continued that the captain and others called for the lifeboats to return as well as those crew members who’d abandoned ship, but these were ignored, except for a steward who came back. As the situation worsened, Drown recalled, “men and women, as the flames were spreading, screamed frantically, the former smiting their breasts, the latter tearing their disheveled hair. The scene beggars description. Wealth and poverty were on an equality, and sank together to rise no more.”
He wrote of women who climbed over the sides of the craft, “clinging with deathlike tenacity” while others were caught by their clothing and they were unable to break free until the flames burned their garments and they dropped into the roiling water. He went on that “mothers, going to meet their husbands, threw their tender offspring into the waves, rather than to see them devoured by the fury of the flames, and trusted to fortune and chance to take their bodies to the shore.”
His dramatic and emotional account included his recollection:
O! but the shrieks and cries of the true and confiding companions and relatives, as affection’s and friendship’s ties were about to be sundered, are beyond human description. Many an eye spoke the gentle goodbye, though the lips moved not. Oh! how horrible were the lamentations of the dying as they were contending between hope and a watery grave! As I passed through the surf, how horribly sounded the piteous moans for help!
O God! What a situation to be in! Planks, spars, trunks and coops, covered with human beings struggling energetically for life, some wafted to the shore, others out to sea, some sinking, others being miraculously preserved. Here I saw females and children providentially rescued — then lost! Here was a kind husband who had sworn before God to protect her whom his soul loved, struggling for her safety; there was a father bearing his affectionate son to safety to the shore, looking around but to see the wife of his love dashed from the position in which he had left her, by mad and unthinking men jumping upon her and driving her to the bottomless deep.
On shore, he said there were people looting the bodies of clothing and their contents of their pockets, while the 250 or so survivors were left on an uninhabited island with no food or much water, aside from brackish tidbits from fissures in rocks, though one of the officers salvaged boilers from the doomed craft to boil a pint of water every seven minutes.
It was three days until assistance arrived with several ships bringing good and water and the captain was credited for his efforts to secure help. But, Drown then turned to the questions raised by the survivors about what the skipper had done in so dangerously steering the Independence in an area that they learned was well-known for its sharp rocks and the risks involved in going so close to the island.
Separately, Drown penned a damning accusation against the captain, subscribed by the signatures of some 25 male passengers, but this initial essay asked “does it not come irresistibly home to the mind of everyone, that the Captain, who would stand upon the wheel house of his ship, and permit her to be stove in upon rocks, plainly to be seen, is either insane or one of the earth’s most heartless creatures?” He concluded that it was clear “that the act was deliberate and intentional, can and we believe, will be successfully established.”
Bereft by the death of his wife (Negus wrote that they were devoted to each other) but with his nine-month old son to care for, Drown continued his journey to Los Angeles and reunited with the Dickey family. Walter was placed in their care and lived with them at El Monte for a couple of years until they relocated to San Bernardino in 1856 and he resided with his uncle for four years at the end of the Fifties and into the early Sixties.
Meanwhile, Ezra Drown was feted by Angelenos who obviously knew of his tragedy, though Horace Bell, whose Reminiscences of a Ranger, published in 1881, is often less accurate than intent on telling a good ripping yarn, wrote that the affair was an uncontrollable bacchanalian revelry, while he made no mention of Drown’s trauma.
In any case, Drown was quickly admitted to the bar; served as district attorney in two stints; was active in Democratic Party politics, including as a Union supporter during the Civil War, during which he was in a militia with F.P.F. Temple and other northerners; and was generally a popular and generous figure. He apparently had a common-law relationship with a member of the Badillo family, Costa Ricans who tried coffee farming in what later became Covina not far from the Homestead, and had two children by her, though neither survived into adulthood.
Drown was serving as Los Angeles County District Attorney and was in San Juan Capistrano in the southern end of the county when, on 17 August 1863, he died at just age 39. For some reason, almost no information appeared in the local press about his death. His son, then 11 years old, was then made a ward of William Workman ad this is where we’ll pick up the story tomorrow.