by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we move to the next phase of this multi-part post on the extraordinary drama surrounding the legal execution of Felipe Alvitre followed by the lynching of fellow convicted murderer David Brown, both taking place on 12 January 1855, we begin by noting that, despite media coverage that blatantly called for vigilante action against both, and a third man, William B. Lee, also found guilty of murder and waiting in jail for his sentence, the District Court, presided over by Judge Benjamin I. Hayes, went ahead and conducted the trio’s trials under what could obviously be considered a highly prejudicial environment leading to questions of whether a “fair and impartial” legal proceeding could be had for any of them.
As part two pointed out, Brown’s attorneys, Jonathan R. Scott (who was, along with other lawyers and local officials, was known to be part of “popular tribunals,” mimicking trials in dispensing summary justice) and James A. Watson, motioned Hayes to order a change of venue for their client based on the “inflammatory” content appearing in the Southern Californian, a recently launched weekly, competing with the three-year-old Los Angeles Star. The editors of the Southern Californian, William Butts and John O. Wheeler, vociferously denied that their paper was of any undue influence on jurors and Hayes concurred.
In its edition of 4 January 1855, eight days before Alvitre and Brown were to be hung as sentenced by Hayes, the paper briefly observed that “the allotted period of life is fast drawing to a close, with Alvitre and Brown who are to be executed on the 12th of this month, an attempt has been made to procure a new trial in both cases, but the effort will be futile.” Why this was thought so went, however, unexplained, but, a separate short note in the same edition noted that Sheriff James R. Barton has received orders from [Supreme Court] Judge [Hugh C.] Murray, to suspend further execution of Brown until further orders from said Court.”
A week later, the Star reported on the decision of Murray, who was actually chief justice of the state’s highest court, but who was also not quite 30 years old, and added that, since the order arrived, “there has been quite an excitement among the native Californians [meaning Latinos, not Indians] in regard to the same.” As part one pointed out, though, when Brown was arrested, a public meeting was held at which it seemed highly likely its attendees, apparently all white (at least, those named as “officers” were), intended to lynch him, but for the intercession of Mayor Stephen C. Foster, who pledged to resign his position and march at the head of the vigilantes if justice was not served. What was understood was “that if Brown is worthy of a reprieve and new trial, Alvitre is also entitled to the same,” an eminently reasonable and logical position, naturally.
The paper, however, continued that “we believe they were both equally guilty in the eyes of the law” and “that both had a fair and impartial trial none will questions,” while it called Justice Murray’s order one of “very questionable policy, and should not have intervened to prevent the sentence of the Court being carried into execution.” Why Murray was wrong, though, went unexplained, though the Star concluded its short notice by observing, “there is nothing that tends to prevent crime and bloodshed as the certainty that the criminal will receive prompt and speedy justice.”
As for the Southern Californian of the 11th, it went into a much lengthier and emotive discussion of Murray’s order and for it, the question was:
whether the citizens of this county will allow another evidence of injustice to be affixed to its skirts; whether money, friends, color, or race is to be henceforth, as heretofore the sole arbitrators in our Criminal courts; whether the citizens of this county will supinely submit to bear the damning obloquy which with justice has been the result of the miserable system of the past. The present crisis is one of solemn and impressive import. As good citizens, and having the future well-being of the community at heart, it becomes us at this time to determine the great question of the future character of our people.
Referring to the matter as a “spectacle,” the paper asserted that there were two men, “alike guilt of foul and cold blooded murder, both alike characterized by a past life of crime, apprehended and tried by a jury of their countrymen, both alike found guilty, no one redeeming feature appearing in extinuation [extenuation] of their crime, and both sentenced to death.”
There were, however, two additional key factors: ethnicity and class. Not only was it the case that “one happens to be an American, the other a Californian,” but the Southern Californian claimed that Brown “has had thrown about him the sympathy of a portion of this community, evinced in securing for his benefit a powerful array of legal talent and ability.” As for Alvitre, he was said to be “laboring under the prejudices of cast,” perhaps as a mestizo, that is, part Indian and part Mexican, “and race” and “quietly and helplessly past [passed] through the judicial ordeal, comparatively uncared for, and unthought of save as a predestined occupant of the gallows.”
For this dichotomy, the argument continued, “should this be so; is it fair? is it honorable? Must it ever be that crime in this county should be weighed by outside influences?” and, moreover,
shall powerful friends and money, color and race, and legal nothingisms continue to neutralize our judiciary, and shield the unprincipled scoundrel, who preys upon society; while its grasp should be payed upon the poverty-stricken wretch, whose whole career from the cradle to the grave, has been but a continued history of penury and ignorance, cut off from all healthy and ennobling associations, without respect, uncared for and despised?
The paper reminded its readers that “it has ever been the boast of an American citizen, that he has lived under a wise and impartial system of laws” which did not discriminate between the wealthy and destitute, those with powerful connections and those lacking them.” In the City of the Angels, though, “far different has been the case . . . and its ruinous result has laid heavy upon us.”
The Southern Californian added that “murders and outrages have thickly bestrewn the pages of the past, and a mighty aggregate of crime has gathered on our footsteps,” but “the flimsy and abortionary [sic—arbitrary?] courts” have been such that “the vilest outlaws have invariably escaped unwhipt of justice” and “laughed to scorn the futile attempts of a law-abiding people” and been “permitted again to riot in their wickedness, and carry terror and dismay to their hearts of their fellow men.”
It was only when “goaded to desperation” that “an outraged populace” rose up to take the law into their own hands.” The paper offered that “our own court,” and its magistrate, Judge Hayes, “has done its duty manfully, unshaken by, and oblivious to all influences, save those of law and justice.” The Alvitre and Brown proceedings were concluded “and richly merited punishment been awarded.” This, it was asserted, led to the state that “our citizens, gladdened beyond measure at this evidence of a new order of things, were looking forward to a future fraught with hope and better things.”
Wary of a situation in which there would be the “defeat [of] our best efforts for our protection and guidance, [so that] an interfering hand must be stretched from abroad to press us back upon the terrible history of our past” and exact inequitable vengeance “upon a poor, contemptible outcast” in Alvitre,” the paper lamented the fact that he would be lacking assistance and consolation in need, while Brown, “his equal in all the debasing characteristics of the murderous assassin” was, apparently, to walk free.
Butts and Wheeler opined that, for the pair of convicted murderers, “their destines should be united, and live or die together.” Otherwise, the editors had to hesitation in declaiming, should Brown live (though for how long was the question) and Alvitre die:
Are our citizens willing to assume this disgraceful role? are they prepared to herald themselves to the world as truckling sycophants to unholy prejudices? are they content to remain the aiders and abettors of the vile criterion by which crime is too often alas! determined in this country? are they ready to take the life of the groveling, ignorant and half-civilized Alvitre, and at the same time fear the responsibility of carrying out their own verdict upon an individual who, to our own disgrace, claims a kindred tongue and nation with us? If so, better that we henceforth give ourselves over to utter contempt, and nevermore prate of law, order or justice.
At the conclusion of this remarkable editorial, it was observed that the steamer brought news, the day before, of a new Supreme Court order staying execution of William B. Lee until the matter could be heard before that body. As for Alvitre’s petition for a stay of execution, not a word was reported.
As a side note, the Southern Californian reported that, the prior Sunday, the 5th, a “desperate affray” (one of many such during that period) at El Monte took place.” In this instance, Lee’s father-in-law, Micajah Johnson, who was briefly William Workman’s foreman at Rancho La Puente, was involved in what was stated to be “one of the most desperate and bloody encounters, of which we have ever heard” and such that was “unparalleled even in this unfortunate land of violence.”
Johnson, denoted as “a notorious character” and “under the influence of an old grudge” against Samuel King, who was said to be of “a very estimable character,” lambasted King and his family “in the most outrageous and obscene language” directed at the youngest son, 21-year old Andrew (later a prominent lawyer and judge). The upshot, literally, was that Johnson confronted Samuel King and killed him with a bullet from his pistol. The three King boys, Andrew, Frank and Houston, purportedly implored by their fatally-stricken father to avenge his impending death, and wreaked vengeance by shooting him dead.
Yet, the Star had a different version, in which, while Johnson, “in a drinking house,” assailed Andrew King, the latter retrieved his father and brothers, who then confronted their adversary as he apparently was leaving for home. An examination purportedly found that King actually fired first, wounding Johnson. When the latter ran to a nearby house, King rode up on his horse and was hit with the gunfire that killed him. After King told his sons to kill Johnson, the young men hunted him down and beat him before following him to the dwelling where they hit him with four shots, two of which were fatal.
Though the Johnson-King feud was covered here in a previous post, the reason for summarizing it again is partially because of the connection to Lee, but also to show how differently the Southern Californian and the Star covered the same events. When it came to crime generally, the latter was hardly sanguine about the bloodletting of the period, but there was no question that the former had a much greater interest in going into great detail about the seemingly unrestrained violence in Los Angeles, while also both printing letters and offering editorials that were openly highly critical of the criminal justice administration system and very open to citizens assuming the mantle of the law when it was believed that its failings were too manifest.
We’ll return tomorrow with the fourth and final part of the post, covering what transpired on the 12th, as well as some of the aftermath, including a role played by a teenage William Henry Workman in the Southern Californian‘s reporting of that day’s dramatic denouement and another tidbit involving his uncle William Workman and the manhunt for Felipe Alvitre. Please join us then!