“Shall Powerful Friends and Money, Color and Race and Legal Nothingisms Continue to Neutralize Our Judiciary?”: The Legal and Extralegal Executions of Felipe Alvitre and David Brown, 12 January 1855, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For most of the 1850s, greater Los Angeles experienced levels of crime and violence that, for a town of its relative small size, around 3,000 to 4,000 souls, are not only shockingly high for the conditions of our time, but for that period. While memoirists Horace Bell (in 1881’s Reminiscences of a Ranger) and Harris Newmark (in 1916’s Sixty Years in Southern California) asserted that there was about a murder day at the peak of the bloodshed, a detailed 2009 study from a team working at Ohio State University of existing materials suggested that there were no more than a few dozen documented homicides (whether some were justifiable or not was another question) in any year during the decade. Even then, the homicide rate is stratospheric compared to modern ones.

Whatever can be said quantitatively, the qualitative reality is the the City of Angels was far too often the denizen of devils and the reasons for the staggering level of violence are probably more complex and nuanced than is usually considered. One is that the Gold Rush, with its allure of quick wealth more found in fantasy than reality, attracted more than the usual share of emigrants with shady pasts and questionable characters, morals and ethnic, including a grossly disproportionate share of young single men untethered from the social constraints found in their hometowns, in whatever country those might have been.

Los Angeles Southern Californian, 21 September 1854.

Another is that there may have been few, if any, previous historical parallels of the motley assemblage of gold seekers and others who hastened to California for the rush. Mexicans, Central and Southern Americans, Chinese, Europeans, Australians and Americans found themselves often in very close quarters in the mining regions and principal cities and towns and ethnic and racial antagonisms were, of course, to be expected to be frequent and, often, violent. What was sorely needed was a decently functioning administration of civil government and criminal justice and there was anything but that.

When the stunning news of the discovery of the precious metal spread rapidly throughout much of the world, California was in a sort of legal limbo with the newly seized territory, wrested from México by the United States in 1846-1847, the subject of hot dispute by Congress about its status. Much of this was animated by its geographical position belying the convenience of admitting new states according to the division of the Mason-Dixon Line following the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In other words, California was both North and South and as the nation edged closer to Civil War, the practice of admitting free and slave states one after the other simply wasn’t going to work in this case. The American military was left to govern California for far longer than it should have and, when news of gold reached camps and forts, a great many soldiers and sailors simply went AWOL to see their fortunes.

While a Compromise of 1850 was effected that allowed for the admission of California in September as the 31st state (almost a year after frustrated citizens, most new arrivals during the early stages of the rush, formed their own constitution and government), trying to play administrative catch-up amid the fast-paced ferment during the frenzied search for gold. So, while state, county and municipal governments, put into operation months before statehood, were in place, it was simply unrealistic to think that a smoothly functioning criminal justice system was going to develop in short order.

Southern Californian, 21 September 1854.

It should be added that, compared to modern times, tax rates were very low and revenues were paltry, so that, while administering justice gobbled up large majorities of budgets, the available monies were always insubstantial. Chronically cast-strapped counties and cities often, when funds were low, paid peace officers and others in the criminal justice system in scrip, so that a later redemption date would, it was promise, lead to the payment of deferred wages or fees. The fee system, by which an official would be paid by functions or tasks completed, was later abolished.

The existence of low wages and fees, even when paid on time, could, of course, mean that candidates for positions in the system may not have been of the highest caliber, while most of the jobs were secured by election, even for constables (police officers). So, if the main criteria for becoming a peace officer was securing one more vote than the other candidates and low and often irregular pay might lead to dereliction of duty or bribes from merchants or other interested parties to pay more attention to their interests rather than the general welfare.

Southern Californian, 21 September 1854.

Beyond this, professional standards were almost nonexistent, even for those at the upper echelons of the criminal justice system. Very few attorneys had law degrees and “read law” with a sole practitioner or small firm, there were no bar associations or bar exams, and being admitted to the bar did not necessarily mean that competence and understanding were demonstrating during an interview with a presiding judge.

William G. Dryden, who knew William Workman and John Rowland when lived in New Mexico and he was an agent for the Republic of Texas as it planned to annex most of its neighbor, was a lawyer and, from 1856 until his death in 1869, a county judge but there is no known evidence of any legal education or training. Yet, while he was a colorful character from the bench, he was elected to the judgeship several times. Does his lack of identifiable background mean he was unqualified or couldn’t do his job? Not necessarily and this would be true of other judges and attorneys, as well as police officers, marshals and sheriffs.

It is not surprising, though, given the lack of professionalism and funding, among other reasons, that the Los Angeles County criminal justice system was viewed with great cynicism by many citizens concerning its efficacy. Matters were not helped by the fact that, with murder charges, as the most prominent example, the legal standard was a high one to meet for prosecutors, including unanimous jury verdicts. Moreover, while state and county prosecutors were paid set wages, a good defense attorney with plenty of clients would earn substantially more and, the latter, pointing out in court the slightest breach of statutory requirements with indictments, as just one example, could win a case for the defendant, while just getting one juror to have a “reasonable doubt” about the guilt of a defendant was an advantage for the defense attorney and a bane for the prosecutor.

It was not further reported whether Felipe Alvitre was involved in this incident on the Rancho Santa Gertrudes in modern Downey. Southern Californian, 21 September 1854.

Los Angeles, with its generally prosperous rancher class, proximity for escape through rugged mountains and passes to wide expanses of desert, and other conditions, was quite attractive to many a criminal, including many who’d passed through on their way to the gold fields. It should also be added that alcohol consumption was enormous compared to the modern era and the introduction of the Colt six-shooter pistol, just in time for the Gold Rush, made killing, bluntly put, far easier and more efficient. While the above doesn’t delineate all the applicable conditions, we can see that the incredible level of violence in the Angel City in the 1850s was largely due to a broad range of circumstances, much of which beyond the capacity of local officials.

This, in turn, led to mounting frustration among many citizens about crime and the lack of justice to be found in the area, which is, in great measure, why “popular justice” had such strong currency among a large segment of the population at the time. The right of ‘the people” to take the law into their own hands, in the absence of real or perceived shortcomings by officials, was accepted and practiced by many—even by some in the legal and political fraternity.

Los Angeles Star, 21 September 1854.

Earlier in the 1850s, for example, a “popular tribunal” might be held with a judge, jury, defense attorney, prosecutor and other mimicking of the legally constituted courts, though the outcomes were virtually always guaranteed to lead to a conviction and execution. By the end of the decade, these barest of legal proceedings were dispensed with and citizens resorted to a “public meeting” leading to a general acclamation of the guilt of the accused and an immediate storming of the jail and lynching of the prisoner.

Another dynamic was the establishment of citizen police forces and militias, including a volunteer force organized in 1851, the creation of the Los Angeles Rangers two years later and other similar entities that were purportedly formed to support the authorities or fill the often expansive gap in the administration of justice. Another manifestation was the ad hoc posse, perhaps called by a sheriff or marshal or, in other cases, arranged by a citizen or group of citizens—this was most evident in January 1857 after the murder of Sheriff James R. Barton, which we’ll feature in a post here in a couple of weeks.

Finally, there is the role of the media. The first newspaper in Los Angeles, the Star, was launched in mid-May 1851 and, three years later, a competitor, the Southern Californian, briefly operated. The ways in which these (and others afterward) addressed criminal justice are not just important for documentation, but about attitude—of the publishers, editors and writers of content and as reflections of public sentiment (whatever portions of the populace that might involve.) This post relies on accounts from these two papers concerning one of the more explosive and dramatic criminal justice events of an era filled with them: the legal and extralegal executions of Felipe Alvitre and David Brown on 12 January 1855.

Star, 21 September 1854.

Alvitre was from a family that was among the earliest Spanish-era settlers of California, with the patriarch, Spanish soldier Sebastian called “an incorrigible scamp” by historian Hubert Howe Bancroft and who was jailed and moved to other posts because of his behavior in the late 18h century. Descendants, from about the 1830s, settled in and around the original site of Mission San Gabriel, in the community known as Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, and two others of the clan were lynched in 1853 and 1861.

In the first case, Felipe’s cousin, Isidro, was accused of an attempted rape of Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, daughter of Homestead owners William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, and, though, his “popular tribunal” did not lead to execution, the whipping administered to him likely led to his death not long afterward. The second instance involved Felipe’s uncle, José Claudio, who was intoxicated when he killed his wife, María Asunción Valenzuela. In this matter, local citizens of Misión Vieja seized and hung the murderer and the Star reported that the lynching was carried out “by his own countrymen.” It should be added that the Alvitre family was very large and, as the story of Charles P. Temple, chronicled in a several-part post, shows, the wealthier, upper-class folks in Old Mission were not immune to so-called “black sheep.”

As did the Southern Californian, the Star, in this 21 September 1854 article, assumed this attack was committed by Alvitre and others, but the assertion was unproven or at least not further reported on.

On 17 September 1854, James Ellington, who lived on the east side of the San Gabriel River (now the Río Hondo) with his wife and five young children was reportedly among his livestock about a mile east that morning to select one to take his family to a religious camp meeting when he was attacked and some fourteen wounds inflicted with a sword. His hat was stolen as was a pistol and more than $200.

A hat left at the scene appeared to be one that, as the Star put it, was owned by “an Indian, or low Sonorian,” while the Southern California characterized it as “to have belonged to an Indian or some low Mexican,” while it added, which its competitor did not surmise, that the wounds were “most likely by swords such as Californians commonly carry on their saddles.” Moreover, the paper reported that “Californians and Sonorians were in the habit of coming about his house” and presumed the killer knew of Ellington’s habit of carrying large sums of cash on his person.

Southern Californian, 19 October 1854.

Significantly, both papers had almost identical opinions on what local residents should do:

Southern Californian: the occasion has arisen when every good citizen should constitute himself a police-officer in his own neighborhood, to aid the authorities, and make inquiry into this matter.

Star: In a case like this, every man in the county should at once constitute himself a public officer to aid the authorities.

The italicized portions of the statements are original and also worth highlighting, because the latter emphasized the assistance to legal officials, while the former spotlighted the self-appointment element. An obvious question is: what would have a self-designated “police officer” have done if they came across Alvitre? As it turns out, he was found by another Latino, Palomares, who then took him to Los Angeles for placement in jail and legal proceedings.

Southern Californian, 19 October 1854.

Another tidbit of interest is that Dr. Henry R. Myles, who was at the camp meeting, was called to the crime scene at 5 p.m. and, when he suggested the coroner be called to hold the legally required inquest with a six-man local jury to hear evidence and issue a statement about the death, he was told that the coroner was in Tejon, at the far northern end of the county. When he suggested the local justice of the peace, “they said there was no Justice of the Peace to be had and another doctor, Joseph R. Creal (who was killed in an argument at El Monte in September 1855), nominated Myles, who protested it was illegal. Despite this, he went on, “they unanimously said I must act.” Two witnesses testified that they found Ellington’s body together, but other than that, the jury simple recorded that Ellington had been killed by a person or persons unknown, as typically stated in these proceedings.

A few weeks later, on 13 October, the Southern Californian reported that Pinckney Clifford was murdered by David Brown at Achard’s Livery Stable after “some altercation of a trivial nature took place” and Brown approached Clifford “and plunged a knife into his heart” leading to nearly instantaneous death. A hearing was held on the 16th and the accused “perfectly cool and unmoved,” was sent back to jail to await legal proceedings. The night after the murder, however, angered Angelenos convened a public meeting, chaired by Alexander Bell (uncle of the aforementioned author) with the paper recording:

our citizens in considerable numbers, assembled at the Court House [then located on the west side of Spring Street between Temple and 1st streets in an adobe building purchased recently from Jonathan Temple and behind which was the jail] for the purpose of considering the enormity of Brown’s crime, and take the adjustment of the whole matter into their own hands; and no longer wait for the tardy, tricky operations of the law—which had too often and too long robbed justice of her dues, by setting villains afloat in the midst of our people.

Brown had been, on and off, a resident of Los Angeles for several years and already had a reputation as a criminal. He and a brother were said to have been part of a gang from Texas led by John Joel Glanton, who purportedly were on their way to seek gold in California in 1849 but ran out of money and supplies in northern México and and were hired by Mexican authorities as bounty hunters, catching, killing and scalping Apache Indians. Glanton was killed by Yuma Indians in April 1850 and, shortly afterward, Brown showed up in Los Angeles.

Southern Californian, 19 October 1854.

For a time, he served as a constable, likely appointed, and, in 1851, ran for marshal, though he was unsuccessful in this campaign. Brown appears a couple of times in the surviving court case files from the county. On 18 January 1851, he and Charles Lavelle were acquitted on a charge of assault and battery against Charles Burrows. A little over a year later, he faced a charge of an assault with an intent to murder an unidentified Indian, but there is no record of an outcome. In any case, Brown’s reputation was more than enough to raise concern about those at the meeting about his guilt, while their concern about the dispensation of justice was also clear.

While there was apparently just one witness, who was present at the homicide, the proceeding then moved to a decision, with the Southern Californian reporting, “on the evidence being adduced the meeting concluded that Brown was guilty of an unprovoked murder.” Then came a surprising twist:

Just at this time his Honor, the Mayor [Stephen C. Foster], appeared and wished to be heard for one moment. He mounted the table and stated that . . . as the authorities were exhibiting such commendable zeal [in moving the matter through legal channels], he was anxious, and he hoped the people would be so too, to give them one more chance in the speedy administration of the law; at the same time promising that in the event of the prisoner escaping by any quibbles or tricks, he would at once resign his office and be the first to go and inflict summary punishment upon Brown.

With Foster’s promise (he may well have thought there’d be no way that Brown would not be convicted and hung for the killing of Clifford, so his pledge could not conceivably need to be redeemed) considered, those present “determined to act with his Honor the Mayor” even though the paper added that “our citizens are now worked up to such a pitch, that should brown be released from the charge by any neglect of the proper authorities, we would not vouch for the consequences.” Not only this, but it went to warn, “let then every officer of our courts watch closely that every part of his duty be done according to law that no advantage can be taken of any remissness on his part, and injustice prevented by quibbling lawyers.” If a case was properly submitted to a jury of Brown’s peers, “then the public mind will be satisfied and submit to the course of law.”

Southern Californian, 2 November 1854.

Not quite two weeks after this public meeting, Ygnacio Palomares, the well-known co-owner, with Ricardo Vejar, of the Rancho San José, comprising what became Pomona and surrounding areas, was searching for stolen horses in the Chino Hills and, entering Soquel Canyon, near where Orange and San Bernardino counties meet, saw two saddled horses. He then “discovered Alvitre, and an Indian woman dressed in male attire, running over the hill,” but Palomares captured the pair with Alvitre turning over a knife and six-shooter to the ranchero.

After Palomares brought the pair to Los Angeles, Alvitre was questioned and said “that he was hiding on account of crimes which he had committed; and confessed to his having killed the American in the Monte and subsequently a Chileno [native of Chile] near the {Rancho] Coyotes [modern Fullerton/Buena Park].” When he was under a preliminary examination before District Court Judge Benjamin I. Hayes, Alvitre was said to have asked his attorney, who was not identified, “what were the lives of the two murdered men worth, and he would pay for them.”

Moreover, he reportedly told the court that his reason for murdering Ellington was he “thought he might as well kill him as not,” while he shot and killed the Chilean (with Ellington’s gun) because of “some sharp answer made to him on the road.” There is no evidence, notably, that there was any public outcry about Alvitre as was the case with Brown and both sat in jail awaiting their trial, along with El Monte resident William B. Lee, arrested for murder after he killed Frederick Leatherman over a property dispute and who awaited his trial.

Southern Californian, 2 November 1854.

This is as good a place as any to stop, so please come back tomorrow for the second part of this post including public and media commentary on the Alvitre and Brown (and, to a much lesser extent, Lee) cases and leading up to the dramatic denouement of 12 January.

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