“Let Us Be Ready, When the Time Arrives, To Act”: The Legal and Extralegal Executions of Felipe Alvitre and David Brown, 12 January 1855, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we moved into the second part of this post on the hangings, one legal and one extralegal, of Felipe Alvitre and David Brown in Los Angeles on this date nearly 170 years ago, we pay particular attention to media coverage, especially that of the short-lived, but colorful, Southern Californian of this case specifically and of criminal justice administration (or the real or perceived lack of it) generally.

The paper was launched in July 1854 with Willliam Butts as editor, but John O. Wheeler joined in early November, just as the Alvitre and Brown cases were getting ready for trial. The blatant way in which the Southern Californian addressed the shortcomings of the justice system and encouraged citizens to consider taking the law into their own hands were obvious examples of media influence and bias, but there seemed to be consideration of that possibility with respect to the cases.

Southern Californian, 12 October 1854.

In the 26 October edition of the paper, which was heavily focused, understandably given the incredible amount of violence in the Angel City, and editorial began by noting that “the general morals of our people has much to do—either for or against the community in wich [sic] we live.” When it came to Los Angeles, however, it was asserted that “frequently do we hear, and with regret do we say it, ‘this place will not do for me,’ ‘there is no security here—I dare not venture out after the dawn of night has set in,’ &c.”

Yet, it was added, that Los Angeles was not alone in its levels of violence and the piece continued, “she has suffered and suffers still, in common with her sister cities throughout the land—crime unpunished has been perpetrated in our midst, it is true, time after time, leaving the victim unavenged, and the majesty of an insulted law unappeased.” Broadly speaking, the Golden State, in the later stages of the famous Gold Rush, “has been the receptacle for all people—the good and the bad, swarming hither from all the nations of the earth . . . the vile, the wretch and the villain have travelled the length and breadth of our fair land to plunder, rob and murder.”

Southern Californian, 12 October 1854.

The Southern California profiled the nattily dressed gent “without the first visible means of support” and called upon locals “to scrutinize these men closely” and either “account of their means of living or to vamos the ranch instanter,” that is, hightail it out of the area. It averred that “there should be no compromise; and our word for it our criminal statistics would present but few subjects for bitter reflections.” Noting that it was a religious and moral obligation of self-government, the paper reminded readers, “it is a duty we ow to our God, ourselves and our country, that we exercise the means within our power to drive crime from our midst—our interests call for it—our safety demands it.”

The mayor, Common Council, marshal and other officials were imported to employ the means “to rid our city of a terrible growing evil—an evil that palsies the best energies of our people and destroys the common interests of us all.” One of the solutions was to enforce the law banning the sale or provision of alcoholic beverages to an Indians, other than that for health reasons. It was reported that the statute was only honored in the breach, especially on any given Saturday night, during which,

we see certain portions of our city infested by a lawless, drunken, degraded set of beings, mixing in with Indians who go about streets, “all seas over,” caring nothing for our authorities or the consequence of an insulted law.

On 12 October, the Southern Californian addressed an El Monte resident who wrote to the Los Angeles Star to castigate local law enforcement or its inability to stem the tide of violence in the region. Giving special praise to Sheriff James R. Barton (of whom we’ll cover much more in about two weeks on this blog), the paper noted that it wasn’t a lack of ability by him and his few colleagues—the fact that there was just a handful of police personnel was just one of the many problems, as noted in part one of this post.

Southern Californian, 19 October 1854/

Rather, there were also “those, who first witnessing the act done, placing themselves out of the way, and refusing to appear to give their testimony—hence the discharge of the culprit.” Another issue was that, even when trials were conducted and juries don’t convict defendants, this was, purportedly, because “many of our most intelligent citizens excuse themselves from attending,” that is, serving on juries. Again, this was not the fault of the courts, which could not “be held responsible for the neglect of others.”

Finally, there was apparently some criticism leveled at the citizen militia, the Los Angeles Rangers, of which Wheeler was an officer (as was his mercantile partner Ozias Morgan), by the El Monte correspondent to the Star and the Southern Californian was sure to expressed “regret to see any unkind reflections upon the Rangers.” Instead, it avowed that “they have always evinced a commendable willingness to do their duty in bringing violaters [sic] of the law to meritted [sic] justice,” with the piece ending with the admonition that “public good and public protection are all they have sought, which to say the least of it, should command our thanks.”

Southern Californian, 26 October 1854.

The next edition of the paper, the same that reported on Brown’s murder of Clifford and the resulting public meeting that might have led to the accused’s lynching had not Mayor Foster pledged to lead a hanging party if the law did not yield the expected conviction of the prisoner, had another analysis of current concerns, titled “Murders—Robberies—Assaults.” The article expressed that “we fear the oft repeated crimes” of these types, including those in broad daylight, were such that they “have so accustomed our ears to the dying groans of the murdered, and the lamentable cries of the robbed and assaulted that we no more heed them!” This being the case, readers were queried, “is it not, fellow citizens, incumbent upon us to be and doing—to arm ourselves en mass[e] for individual and general protection?”

Warning that no one was safe, including “our most secluded families,” the Southern Californian warned that criminals acting with impunity would stop at nothing and leave no one unmolested and it asked, “who can think of the result without shuddering[?]” The only resort, it claimed, was, “in the name of all that is dear to us,” to form a police force of citizen volunteers—which had a brief precedent in 1851. It asked for “some one [to] take the lead and call out citizens” for this purpose and specified that Los Angeles be divided into districts with a trio of officers on four-hour shifts over twelve hours from dusk until dawn.

Southern Californian, 26 October 1854.

In the issue of 23 November, a reader subscribed as “Citizen” wrote of “The Present Crisis” and specifically “with respect to the criminal cases now before the District Court.” The crisis was such that Los Angeles was “fast becoming a ‘hissing and a by-word'” because of “the impunity which which crimes have gone unpunished.” Decried was “the cunning of the bar” in hindering the administration of justice, as well as “errors in juries, errors in indictments, blunders of Sheriff’s [sic], Clerk’s [sic], Prosecutors and Judges.” Beyond these, there were the aforementioned no-shows of witnesses at trials and the “friendly hole in the roof, floors or walls of our jails” and the result was simply a “sad farce presented by our criminal [justice] administration.”

For Judge Benjamin I. Hayes, presiding over the trials of Alvitre, Brown and William B. Lee, the key questions were:

Is this state of things to cease? Is murder and outrage to stalk abroad unchecked? Are criminals to be punished by our constituted courts, or are we to form ourselves into one good Vigilance Committee, and Judge Lynch to visit every crime, with prompt and condign punishment?

Professing to believe that “our Courts will now do their duty,” the writer opined that “of the particular cases now arraigned before our Court, I have nothing to say” as it was expected that the proceedings were to be carried out as mandated by statute. The warning, though, was that “we are in no state to permit technical quibbles to step between the guilty and his just punishment.” The crossing of a T and the dotting of an I “or any of those legal nicities [sic]” employed by “a great criminal lawyer” were not to be permitted to upset the prompt disposition of punishment when it was merited.

Southern Californian, 23 November 1854

Instead, while it was asserted that the trials were to be left to the operations of the courts, “let us be organized, and resolved that the punishment of the guilty, shall not be delayed.” Otherwise, it was high time for citizens to rise up and take matters into their own hands, so “let the merchant leave his ledger, the mechanic his shop, the farmer his plough,” and come up to work.” Rising up to a righteous anger, the jeremiad concluded,

By the bones of the traveller bleaching on our plains, by the cry of the widow, and the fatherless, as the bloody corpse of a husband and father, is brought before them, by the young man cut down in the morning of his days, and hurried to the presence of his God, by the young mother, and her unborn babe, pierced by the bullet of the midnight assassin; by all the holy ties that blend mankind together, thus rudely severed, by the red hand of Murder, by the outraged feelings of the community, and the violated laws of the land, by our love to those nearest and dearest, let us be ready, when the time arrives, to act.

The paper’s publication of the strident correspondence certainly caught the attention of Brown’s lawyers, Jonathan R. Scott and James A. Watson (Harris Newmark, in his 1916 memoir, Sixty Years in Southern California, wrote that Cameron E. Thom was a defense attorney, as well, but Thom was actually the District Attorney prosecuting the case), as the Southern Californian, in its 30 November issue, issued a lengthy editorial under the heading of “The Judiciary and the Press.” It was reported that the trio of attorneys motioned for a change of venue, “alleging as a cause, therefor[e], that the Press of this place, had embittered the public mind against the defendant; by publishing inflammatory articles, &c.”

Southern Californian, 23 November 1854.

The piece noted that Judge Hayes denied the motion and continue the impaneling of a jury, but that the jurist also “rather censured, the course we had pursued in publishing the article over the signature of ‘Citizen.'” The paper claimed that, in reporting on Brown’s murder of Clifford and the resulting proceedings, it avoided commenting on testimony, because “we had in mind the deliterious [sic] effect that would result from an agitation of the matter,” including citizens making up their minds so that “it would be difficult to get a fair and impartial jury.” Consequently, it averred that it limited its reporting to brief, factual accounts so that the trial could be held “where it was most probably [probable] justice would be meted out.”

In reviewing the assertions made by “Citizen,” the Southern Californian asserted that the writer’s intention “was not to prejudice the public mind, but to put the people on their guard in case the courts failed to do their duty, and take the execution of public justice in their own hands.” As such, the paper believed that the letter’s contents “meet with the wishes of the people and we feel that we have done no more than the public has demaded [sic] of us.”

Southern Californian, 30 November 1854.

As to the role of newspapers, it “is the great exponent of public opinion, and as long as it keeps within the bounds of propriety, [it] should be unfettered.” That said, the paper admitted that it “should not have the liberty to bias public opinion,” though it should be able “to fully state the truth on all subjects pertaining to the welfare of the people.” It took pains to point out that,

with the exception of one solitary instance [the legal execution of Ygnacio Herrera earlier in 1854], every execution has been enacted at the hands of a mob. Past experience has led our citizens to be wary of implicitly relying upon courts of justice, and yet . . . they feel to once more award the law opportunity to retrieve, its commanding position, as the arbier of our destiny, and looking upon the present as a crisis, big with good or evil, for the future . . . they feel a deep solicitude, in the result, and manifest their interest, in the great question of the supremacy of law, over mob violence, by clearly watching every movement, evincing a settled determination, to put an end to murder, in this community at all hazards.

So concerned was a significant bloc of local citizens that 103 of them wrote to the prominent lawyer Myron Norton, a member of the convention that wrote the 1849 California Constitution and later a local judge, and stated that, “fearing under the existing circumstances, and the legal talent, engaged for the defence [sic] in the cases of Lee, Brown, and Alvetre [sic] . . . that the end of Justice may be defeated,” Norton was asked to work with District Attorney Thom in the prosecution of those cases “for the cause of Justice and the reputation of our community.”

Southern Californian, 30 November 1854.

In his response, Norton wrote that just after receiving the missive, “I had an interview with Mr. Thom, the District Attorney, shewing him the communication which you had addressed, and offering my services to assist him in the prosecutions.” Thom did not take well to the petition, telling Norton that “it reflected upon his ability or desire, to prosecute the said prisoners effectively” and he commented that he should have been approached with any concerns. Because of this, Norton told the petitioners that he had “to decline your very flattering request,” but did so “with the confidence that the law will be administered and punishment surely follow, upon those who may deserve it.”

With this as subtext during the trials of Alvitre, Brown and Lee, we’ll return with part three of this extraordinary story, so be sure to check back in with us for the next installment!

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