Read All About It: The McDonald Murder in the Los Angeles Express, 29 September 1874

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

With the several hundred newspapers in the Homestead’s collection, there are many notable stories that emerge from them, often with wider interest beyond what appears in the columns of any given sheet. This is certainly the case with the featured paper for this post, which is the 29 September 1874 edition of the Los Angeles Express and its reference to the dramatic and strange case involving accused murderer John McDonald, a restaurant and boarding house owner, and his family.

There are other items of note in the paper for that day, such as an experiment in the cultivation of grapes in what became Orange County by Dr. Albert B. Hayward, who practiced as a doctor in Los Angeles in the 1860s, but turned to fruit raising in the new community of Orange. The article noted that Hayward specifically was growing grapes that, with his experiment of avoiding irrigation and using techniques of German viticulturists along the Ohio River, purportedly providing immense yields. This, in turn, looked promising for the newly developed Alden fruit drying process being readied in Los Angeles and with which F.P.F. Temple was financially interested, though it appears little or nothing of significance came from this latter effort.

In “Local Items,” it was noted that work was continuing on the grading of Temple Street in the hills west of downtown as far as Olive Street (which no longer goes north of 1st) as the county supervisors building complex is at the site today. Herman W. Hellman, who went on to be a very prominent business figure in Los Angeles, was just married, as was Romulo Pico, nephew of General Andrés and ex-Governor Pío Pico, with former state Senator Charles Maclay hosting a reception for the groom and his bride.

The McDonald family in the 1870 federal census at their Commercial Street house and restaurant. Listed as John, Eliza and eldest child, Mary Jane, along with a Chinese cook and an American cook. At the bottom is architect Ezra F. Kysor, designer of the Pico House hotel, Merced Theatre and, purportedly, the remodeled Workman House, all completed that year.

Also of interest was that “the Royal Japanese troupe” was in San Diego after having toured in México and was to soon give performances in Los Angeles. “Round House George” Lehman, a colorful character who owned the distinctive “Round House” adobe structure on Main and 2nd streets, “has astonished the town with a gaudily-painted wagon” with which he delivered loaves of bread and pretzels from his bakery, as bells tinkled to let everyone know that “the odd equipage paraded out streets.”

Another short note concerned the fact that the paper’s rival, the Herald, “cites another case in which Mr. [F.P.F.] Temple gave munificent relief to a worthy applicant,” this being a $150 loan from the Temple and Workman bank handed out to a “a man with a wife, six children, and a broken-down team as the only visible collateral.” The paper added,

We fear the papers are doing a questionable service to Mr. Temple, in exposing his acts of bounty. A general knowledge that he had “a hand open as day to melting charity,” may overwhelm him with importunity.

Translation: if everyone knew Temple handed our money so readily, he’d be overwhelmed with those seeking similar gifts. The quote was a common one in the 19th century.

Los Angeles Herald, 15 March 1874.

Finally, there was a short note of a recent Sunday evening celebration of Mexican Independence Day (which is commemorated on 16 September) “in the new building of Mr. Terans [Jesús Teran]” in Sonora, this meaning the Sonoratown neighborhood immediately north of the Plaza, the historic center of pre-American Los Angeles. It was reported that “the large company sat down to a bountiful supper, and afterwards joined in the festive dance, which lasted till Monday morning.”

Then there was the story of the case against McDonald, indicted for the murder of his wife Eliza. As reported by the Herald of 30 June, the previous day, “John McDonald, the keeper of a low boarding-house on Commercial street, put a miserable end to the life of his wife. In a fit of rage he threw a large butcher-knife at her and inflicted a mortal wound, as she sat in a chair, nursing her babe.” The paper added that McDonald, who ran his restaurant in conjunction with the boarding house, was long known for abusing her and it was said he was often arrested, paid fines and then returned to continue the mistreatment.

While nothing was located in press accounts, McDonald was known to get into fights with others, with one case yielding a $160 fine and another involving a Chinese man, who was mocked for his broken English rather than sympathized with for being strangled by McDonald. In this case, employee José María Tamarin, who witnessed the killing, told the coroner’s jury at the inquest that his boss went looking for Eliza at a friend’s house, had the door slammed in his face, and, when she returned home, hit her in the face and kicked her.

The Herald was far more concerned with mocking the Chinese victim than McDonald, who would kill his wife just a few months later, in this 14 April 1874 article.

Eliza then went to the second floor to get baby Daniel, the youngest of the couple’s three children (the others being daughters Mary Jane and Eliza), to nurse him, but, as she was doing this, McDonald struck her twice more before a waiter, known only as Fernández or Fernando, intervened and prevented more hitting. McDonald then went to slice some cheese and, after a few minutes, said something to his wife, whereupon he

then threw the knife at her, striking her in the side and inflicting the wound. She drew the knife out and said, “I’m dead!” and told me [Tamarin] to take the baby, which she held in her arms. I did not take it quick enough, and she laid it down on the table and ran out of the room and into the little store-room and fell.

It was added that Eliza had no weapon nor was she any kind of threat to her husband when he threw the 18-inch long butcher knife at her from about four feet away across a table. The Herald account stated that she actually ran out of the building and up Commercial Street some fifty yards before turning into a grocery store and collapsing, uttering “I’m killed! Send for the doctor,” though she died right then.

Herald, 30 June 1874.

It was added that McDonald “struck with contrition for his dastardly act, followed his wife and reached the store as she fell. He stooped over her and began cutting away her for the purpose of examining her wound, at the same time shedding tears as he saw what he had done.” When confronted about what transpired, he simply said “I did it.” Though McDonald was lodged in the jail on the west side of Spring Street between Temple and First, “a crowd of incensed citizens gathered around the place, and had he been in their hands we are inclined to think that desperate measures would have been resorted to.” This was a little more than three weeks after the lynching of Jesús Romo at the Workman Mill, which was the last recorded lynching in Los Angeles County, excepting one near Wilmington in the 1880s.

The paper noted that Eliza was a native of County Antrim in Ireland and was married to McDonald for some eight years, with the couple having four children (only three were found a few years later, however) from three months to six years of age. The rashness of McDonald in the throes of a terrible temper was highlighted and it was reported that

After being placed in jail, McDonald acted like a mad-man, throwing himself about the cell and calling down imprecations on his own head for the crime which he had committed. It was feared that he would put an end to his life if given an opportunity, and he was closely watched to prevent this, by the direction of the jailor. Some apprehensions were also entertained from vigilantes and a part of the Los Angeles Guards [militia], twenty-five in number, were called out to protect the jail from any possible violence.

The account of the Los Angeles Express, also from 30 June, was lengthier and began with reference to “the intense excitement by one of those brutal murders, which are the offspring of a malignant heart and a vicious temper, and the only palliation for which is the extreme depravity of the nature of the perpetrator.” Called “a green-eyed monster,” McDonald was said to be one of those “born brutes, and with low, fierce and brutal instincts” and “placed outside the pale of humanity and only formed for deeds of violence.”

Los Angeles Express, 30 June 1874.

The paper continued that the couple “have worked very hard, and built a good business” and “secured quite a valuable property” with their home and business on Commercial Street, though it was stated “they led a cat and dog life” because McDonald “was always ready for a quarrel” and there were “frequent unseemly scenes between the unamiable couple.” More details of the incident that led to the throwing of the knife were presented, including his statement that Eliza was “too high-toned for him” and “she had to put on airs,” such as when they went on a buggy ride together the prior day.

It was also stated that, at one point during the final confrontation, she had a knife and told him to stay away as she would use it and that he grabbed her arm and bit it, telling the waiter, Fernando, to stand back as he would hurt him. Purportedly, as he got angry again, she rose from the table and that’s when, this version recorded, “he leaned over the table and thrust the knife he held in his hand into his wife’s right side,” rather than threw it as otherwise reported. Then, McDonald “coolly pulled it out, wiped it on his apron” and went back to the cheese he was slicing as she ran to the McLaughlin store for help and then collapsed, dying within five minutes. Fernando followed her and then went back to McDonald and said, “Well, John, Eliza is dead.”

Express, 29 September 1874, from an issue in the Homestead’s collection.

It was then that McDonald ran to the store, saw his wife and “threw himself beside her, and enacted a scene of loud and declamatory grief,” which continued when he was ensconced in jail, though it was suggested he “betrayed either a feigned or real paroxysm of repentant sorrow.” He reportedly did not excuse his killing of his wife and “admitted that no punishment could be severe enough as a penalty for his horrible act.” Gathering crowds included “mutterings summary punishment” while it was noted that “it was perhaps well that the murderer was secure beyond the reach of the exasperated crowd. As for the children, the two older were in the Sisters of Charity school at the time, while the two younger were crying “piteously” at home and then taking to the Sisters’ asylum.

Remarkably, McDonald furnished a statement for the Express in which he related that, after his wife returned home, he slapped her after “she spoke crossly back to me” when he launched his first round of imprecations. Notably, he added that “I had been drinking beer and whisky” before “in the heat of passion” he threw the butcher knife at Eliza, “not intending to give her a fatal blow,” though what he was trying to do is the question. He claimed that “seeing that I had hurt her, I was so vexed that I wish somebody would kill me” and that when he saw that she was bleeding, he followed her to McLaughlin’s establishment “and was wild to see what I had done in the aberration and excitement of the moment.” He concluded with “This is God Almighty’s truth.”

An editorial from the same edition.

The next day, 1 July, Eliza’s funeral was held, starting at her house and including a mass at the Plaza Church, after which her remains were interred at the original Calvary Cemetery at the base of the Elysian Hills, where Cathedral High School (nickname, the Phantoms) is now situated. It was observed that her children included the six-week old baby boy, a fifteen-month old son “and the two others [daughters] are just old enough to feel their great sorrow.” The Express ended that “it is to be hoped that the estate may be so managed that as much as possible will be saved out of the wreck for the benefit of these worse than orphans.”

In fact, there were financial issues, as McDonald engaged in a major remodeling and addition to his building completed just a few months prior to the killing, while, in early August, a debt of $65 plus interest and costs led to a constable’s sale of the property, including two wooden store rooms and attached structures and the remaining eight-month lease, while an adjacent lot remained in the name of the children.

Express, 6 November 1874.

The 29 September edition of the Express featured here included news that Judge Ygnacio Sepúlveda of the Superior Court instructed the jury hearing the McDonald case that they had to rule that the matter was dismissed because of a faulty indictment by the district attorney, who was the venerable Volney E. Howard. It was, and still is, a standard defense tactic to attack the indictment as faulty if it did not meet exactly the statutory requirements and many a trial was dismissed for that reason. In this case, the problem was that Mrs. McDonald was denoted as “Louisa” in the indictment, but her true name was “Louisa,” and two witnesses, Tamarin and Thomas Leahy, affirmed her actual name in the courtroom.

This led Howard, or his deputy, to move that the case be withdrawn and referred to the next grand jury, but Judge Sepúlveda denied the motion and instead ordered the jury to render a verdict of not guilty. The jury was discharged and the judge ruled that a new indictment had to be filed with the next grand jury while McDonald was remanded to jail in the custody of the sheriff. When the defense sought his release pending that action, Sepúlveda denied that motion and sent the accused back to the pokey.

Express, 3 December 1874.

In an editorial, the Express fumed that

If John McDonald, the man who so cruelly murdered his wife in this city a few months since, has escaped the judicial halter, he will owe it to an error of negligence which would have been unpardonable in a newspaper paragraph merely recording so grave an event.

The paper opined that the mistake made by Howard and his office was such that McDonald would probably escape “any penalty for his heinous crime” and stated that the report from the court “is a sorry commentary on the careless manner in which this important case has been managed on behalf of the people,” adding “there can be no sufficient excuse for so grave a mistake.” It also claimed that “the course this extraordinary case has now taken will tend to remove what little faith the people had left in the potency of the law to reach notable murderers in this county” and it ended with the rebuke that “the whole thing is shameful and demoralizing and reflects discredit on the District Attorney’s office.”

The San Quentin State Prison register listing for John McDonald being received there, 9 December 1874.

In its edition of the 30th, the Express reviewed the case law in California concerning cases where faulty indictments led to judge-instructed verdicts of not guilty and offered a revised opinion that “there would be no obstacle in the way, in case of a future conviction, of punishing McDonald for his awful crime.” In fact, the next grand jury did find another indictment and, in early November, he pled both an acquittal for the first case and not guilty to the new charge and then faced trial in early December. At that proceeding on the 2nd, he was convicted and then sentenced three days later by Sepúlveda to life imprisonment.

McDonald was shipped to San Quentin State Prison and entered into the institution’s register on 9 December as prisoner #1281. Yet, the defense, comprised of future mayor Henry T. Hazard and James G. Howard, filed an appeal on 23 January 1875, though the transcript was not filed until the end of the year. A hearing before the Supreme Court took place in April 1876 with the high court, ruling on the 10th, that a new trial was required because Judge Sepúlveda erred on his instructions to the jury, another favored line of attack for defense attorneys, in that he did not properly give the possibilities for a verdict.

The return of McDonald and three other men to Los Angeles for new trials, Express, 20 June 1876

The Express of 21 June thought “it would be a singular exemplification of the force of the old injunction, to leave well enough alone, if John McDonald, in the new trial he has secured, should be made to suffer the extreme penalty of the law, and hang for the murder of his wife,” given that his recent sentence was imprisonment for life. It opined that “there are but few if any mitigating circumstances in it which appeal to the quality of mercy.”

When, more than 20 years ago, I was doing intensive research in the criminal case files transferred by the county to the Huntington Library and I compiled a database of the surviving materials, what was not there was the McDonald file. Well, it turns out that the 19 August 1876 edition of the Express reported that officials were “severely exercised over the mysterious disappearance of all the papers connected” to the case, including the voluminous notes taken by the court reporter. The paper noted that important files were supposed to be locked in a vault in the county clerk’s office, the staff of which searched extensively for the file. The new proceeding would not be compromised by the loss, though delays were expected, as copies were to be obtained from the Supreme Court archives.

The 1880 census listing of Mary Jane and Eliza McDonald at the Sisters of Charity’s Los Angeles Orphan Asylum.

While the local papers examined for this post did not have coverage of what was basically McDonald’s third trial, he was convicted again, though this time under the second degree, accounting for the “heat of passion” in which he acted. The convict returned to San Quentin and was enumerated there in the 1880 census as working as a prison druggist. That same census recorded the McDonald daughters, Mary Jane and Eliza, as residing in the Sisters of Charity orphans’ asylum and they also attended the nuns’ school, where Mary Jane was a classmate of Mary Julia Workman, whose father, William Henry was future mayor of the Angel City.

Thomas Leahy, mentioned above in the first trial, was the administrator of the McDonald children and a mortgage sale of the property in their name was held in May 1882. Six years later, Daniel, who was the baby in his mother’s arms when she was killed, was arrested in East Los Angeles (now Lincoln Heights) for burglary. The Express of 18 June 1888 reported that the 13-year old appeared in Superior Court and told the judge he was a Los Angeles native, that his parents died when he five years old and that, until April, was in an orphans home in Watsonville, near Monterey. He was sent to the Angel City by a priest and worked as a laborer, being described as “a bright appearing lad, but has evidently got into bad company.”

Express, 21 August 1888.

Daniel was acquitted, but was again nabbed in East Los Angeles two months later and charged with vagrancy. The Express noted that “Dan is a son of John McDonald now serving a life sentence in San Quentin for the murder of his wife, some eighteen years ago [fourteen]” and it added that the youngster, denoted “A Chip Off The Old Block,” was to be sent to the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society in San Francisco. The Herald of 22 August called him “A Wandering Boy” and “a very bad character in spite of his youth” and stated “there is no hope of reforming him,” though he was sentenced to two months with the Society. From then, nothing could be found on the youngster or the second brother, who might have been named Joseph.

In May 1889, John McDonald as granted a pardon by Governor Robert Waterman and the Los Angeles Times of the 10th extensively covered the action, including quoting verbatim from the Los Angeles Star and its account of Eliza’s murder. It was noted that the infant boy held in her arms at the time “has turned out badly, and has been before the courts several times for burglary, and was sent to the reform school at San Francisco about a year ago,” while the other son “has disappeared, and no one seems to know what has become of him.” As for Mary Jane and Eliza, the paper recorded that “the girls are in this city, and are hard-working, industrious girls.” Moreover, “the elder, has worked hard to secure the pardon of her father, and it is mainly through her efforts that he was released.” All of the family property was gone and it was not known where McDonald planned to go.

Los Angeles Times, 10 May 1889.

In a Times article of 19 August 1900 concerning Commercial Street’s former reputation as a “street of murders,” the McDonald case was recapped. A man only identified as “Uncle Johnny,” though it is not known if he was the McLaughlin noted in the accounts at the time of the murder, told the paper that he had a store next door to the McDonalds and that Eliza came to him to say she’d been killed by her husband and that he caught her in his arms.

The piece ended its summary by observing that John McDonald was residing in Seattle and that year’s federal census shows a 56-year old waiter of that name, though the year of immigration was recorded as 1872, long after the ex-con came to America—though he may have given false information to disguise himself.

Times, 19 August 1900.

In any case, nothing further could be found of the McDonald family, but their story is a tragic one of domestic abuse and violence with connections to problematic legal system operations, stirrings of vigilantism and other notable elements relating to the fact the, while the Angel City’s worst bouts of crime and ineffective court proceedings came in the 1850s, conditions were still far from stellar two decades later.

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