“God Grant That Our Citizens May Never Witness the Like Again”: The Legal and Extralegal Executions of Felipe Alvitre and David Brown, 12 January 1855, Part Four

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the first three parts of this post discussed, the context of the executions of Felipe Alvitre and David Brown, the first held legally (those this is qualified, as noted below) and the other extralegally, on 12 January 1855 included many dynamics. One is that Los Angeles and its environs were wracked with astronomical levels of crime and violence during the Gold Rush, the conditions of which were examined in some detail in the first part. Another is that the criminal justice and law enforcement systems were small in scale and woefully underfunded, even as they took up the lion’s share of city and county budgets. Third is the fact that frustrated citizens, angered that the paltry numbers of officers available for protection and railing against the lack of convictions for serious crimes, particularly murder, were all-too-willing to take the law into their own hands in the form of vigilantism.

There are certainly more elements, but these are among those that stand out as paramount in these years. Alvitre, who was convicted of killing El Monte resident James Ellington, and Brown, found guilty for the murder of Pinckney Clifford at a Los Angeles stable, were tried under extraordinarily trying circumstances for Judge Benjamin I. Hayes of the District Court. Hayes faced intense scrutiny for much of his twelve years on the bench and it certainly did not help that newspapers, especially the briefly-operated Southern California during this period, sometimes openly espoused vigilantism.

Making matters more complicated, there was no shortage of involvement in “popular tribunals” and public meetings by elected officials, prominent denizens and lawyers among enraged residents clamoring for so-called “popular justice.” As noted before, when Brown was arrested for Clifford’s killing, it looked as if those at a public meeting were ready to storm the jail and lynch the accused before Mayor Stephen C. Foster clambered on a table and implored those present to let the court do its work—but also offered to resign his office and march at the head of the vigilantes if justice was not achieved.

This detail from an 1880s photo from the Homestead’s collection shows the city and county jail in the large courtyard behind the Rocha Adobe, purchased in 1853 from Jonathan Temple and used as the courthouse for about eight years, while the jail was used until the end of 1886.

Perhaps Foster thought it was a foregone conclusion that Brown would be convicted, as there was no reason, from the simple facts of the case as described in the press, that a conviction would not be forthcoming. What, maybe, was not counted upon in his mental calculus was that the Southern Californian would apply none too subtle pressure on Hayes and the District Court through the publishing of citizen letters and its own editorials. Sure enough, just before the execution date was at hand, Brown’s attorneys, who’d unsuccessfully petitioned Hayes for a change of venue, were able to secure a stay of execution from the California Supreme Court pending further review—this also applied to a third man awaiting his death sentence, El Monte’s William B. Lee, but Alvitre’s motion for a stay did not, as Hayes noted in his journal (parts of which were published in 1929), get to the Supreme Court in time.

So, when the appointed day and hour came for Alvitre’s execution, tension was palpable in the Angel City, but it is notable that the accounts in the Star and the Southern Californian were demonstrably different (something also observed earlier in this post.) The former began its account, from its 18 January 1855 edition, by reporting the Sheriff James R. Barton (a former son-in-law of Rancho La Puente co-owner John Rowland), having been presented the stay order for Brown, “proceeded at the hour designated to put the extreme penalty of the law into execution in the case of Alvitre.” This, however, raised the rancor of those assembled:

As great excitement existed and loud threats made that Brown should be hung with Alvitre, the Sheriff considered it necessary to summon a large number of citizens to assist him in doing his duty. Many of them answered promptly to the call, but a large majority refused to interfere.

Barton was supported by Dr. William B. Osburn, who was not only deputy sheriff, but opened the first drug store in town, tried his hand briefly at photography, was the second superintendent of city schools and was known by Horace Bell as a “most useful man” because of his many accomplishments in Los Angeles, as well as “a citizens’ guard” which led Alvitre to the gallows constructed in the expansive yard behind the single-story adobe building (sold to the county by Jonathan Temple) used the courthouse and in which the two-story (adobe on the first floor for the city lockup, with the brick second level for county prisoners like Alvitre, Brown and Lee.)

Los Angeles Star, 18 January 1855.

Shortly before 3 p.m., the paper continued, the condemned man spoke briefly to the crowd “forgiving all his enemies, and asking forgiveness from all whom he had injured.” Yet, when the terrible hour came and the trap door on the scaffold fell, “in consequence of the noose untying, the poor outcast fell to the ground.” This led to “a moment of intense interest, and shouts of a rescue were heard in the immense crowd outside the prison yard.” It should be noted that the area to the west included a sloping hill on which spectators gathered.

The Star went on to report that rocks were thrown at the Sheriff’s guard and which was prepared “to resist to the death a rescue of the prisoner” as they stood with the guns cocked and leveled “expecting every instant hat a rush would be made by the rabble to force an entrance.” It was believed that, if such an attempt was made, “the sacrifice of life would have been horrible in the extreme, and many innocent persons’ lives sacrificed by the lawless mob.” There was, however, no attempt to seize Alvitre, who then put back on the platform with the rope reset “and the poor Indian was launched into eternity.”

After twenty minutes, the corpse was cut down, placed in a coffin, and given to friends of the executed man. Yet, “instead of abating, the excitement continued to increase,” including when the guard was dismissed, having presented their weapons, and “addresses were made to the mob, and a motion to break open the jail to take Brown out and hang him was carried unanimously.” At 4 p.m., the crowd battered down the door of the jail and

the mob shouting and yelling like incarnate devils, seized the firearms that were in the jail, and having released Brown from his fetters, brought him forth from his prison. They then conducted him to a gate opposite the Sheriff’s office [across Spring Street], where at five o’clock he was hung in the most barbarous manner. We under he requested to be hung by white men, but none came forward to perform his last and only request. Thus ended this fearful tragedy, which, God grant that our citizens may never witness the like again.

This relatively straightforward and factual account was in great contrast to the much more expansive version, titled “Immense Excitement” that was published in the Southern Californian, also on the 18th. The paper began by noting that, when Brown was arrested for the Clifford murder, “the citizens were only deterred from hanging the latter, in consequence of the very general confidence reposed in Judge Hayes and his Court.” Moreover, “it was distinctly understood at that time, that if sentence of death were passed upon him by the said Court, that no outside or any foreign influence should interfere to prevent the execution.”

Star, 18 January 1857.

Then, on the morning of the 10th, came the stays from the Supreme Court (hardly an outside or foreign influence, given its direct oversight over the lower courts) and which prompted Sheriff Barton, “in view of the excited state of public feeling,” to seek citizen support for the hanging of Alvitre. What the Star did not at all mention, however, but which its competitor went into in great detail, was that, on the evening of the 11th, “one of the largest and most excited mass meetings ever convened in our City” at “the immense dinning [sic] saloon of the Montgomery [House],” a Main Street hotel owned by William C. Getman, a city marshal and county sheriff.

It was said that some 600 citizens gathered from all areas of the region and “composed of all classes,” inside the saloon and outdoors. Colonel Charles W. McClanahan, who ran for sheriff later in the year, was chosen as chair, while the vice-presidents were prominent Californio, Juan Sepúlveda, and Jesse D. Hunter, best known as the first brick manufacturer in the Angel City. Alexander Bell, uncle of the aforementioned Horace, read from the edition of the Southern Californian from the 4th, perhaps that concerning the stay of Brown’s execution, and whose oration “was received with unbounded applause, and its sentiments ratified without a dissenting voice.”

Mayor Foster “unequivocally proclaimed himself in favor of hanging Brown and Alvitre together” and the paper noted that it was “mainly to his exertions at the former meeting” that “Brown was turned over to the authorities” and reiterated that Foster “would resign his office and assist with the people in carrying out the wishes of the public” if Brown was spared on the 11th. Hunter, Sepúlveda and Samuel K. Labatt, first president of the city’s Hebrew Benevolent Society, the drafted a pair of resolutions that noted that “by some means Brown has received a respite and Alvitre none” but that “the committee think they should both be executed on the same day and at the same time,” as well as that a five-member committee was “to devise means to carry into effect the above resolution.”

Southern Californian, 18 January 1855.

On 10 a.m. on the 12th, “the citizens met and completed their organization, and measures for carrying out the will of the people were decided upon.” After mentioning Barton’s exertions for protecting the jail and yard, including the report that friends sought to get him “to accede to the wishes of the crowd,” it was stated that, on Thursday night, “all of the ordinance of the city, was spiked,” even as some persons were able to fix a large cannon.” On the morning of the execution, “immense masses of people from all parts of the country were constantly arriving, and our city and the surrounding heights [hills to the west] were thronged with the multitude,” said to number “thousands.” It was added that all of the crowd, “especially the Californian [Latino] portion were laboring under the most intense excitement.”

In recounting the hanging, including the botched first attempt, of Alvitre, the Southern Californian did not materially differ in its version from that of its competitor, though it added that it was considered a truism “among the Spanish population that any unforeseen accident occurring in the act of execution is considered an interposition of Providence in behalf of the doomed, and he in consequence is permitted to go free.” This, of course, was ignored and the condemned man was hanged with the sheriff’s guard released and the scaffold disassembled. The crowd, however, largely remained and

were addressed by Mayor Foster, who took occasion to acquit himself of his former pledge, by resigning his office [he was returned to office in the ensuing special election] for the purpose of assisting in his private capacity, for the seizure and execution of Brown. Capt. J.D. Hunter then called upon all in favor of taking out Brown, to follow him and led by himself, Col. McClanahan, Mr. Foster and others; the mass moved into the yard, axes were quickly provided and the Jail door, was after some difficulty forced and entered.

At this point, the paper interceded with an errata from its extra edition “published at our office, on Friday” that there were 20 armed men in the yard and that they were disarmed by the mob, this not being the case, though the weapons wielded by the guard and then locked up in the jail after their dispersal were taken. Brown was in his cell and fettered to the iron bars, so it took some time to remove him from this arrangement, while Lee was left untouched in the adjoining cell.

Southern Californian, 18 January 1855.

Taken to the impromptu gallows across Spring Street, Brown was placed on a chair as the noose was fixed from a heavy cross beam. As this was being done, he “evinced the utmost coolness, recognizing and speaking to his acquaintances in the crowd, and reflecting in jocular terms upon the crowd who were engaged in his execution.” Saying he had no memory of killing Clifford, Brown remarked “that those about were ignorant of the methods of preparing the rope,” so he called to someone he knew “and requested him to get some Americans who understood it, to hang him.”

Once the rope was adjusted, Brown “finally jumped off into eternity, with the same coolness and hardihood as had characterized him through life” and the paper noted that “thus ended one of the most exciting affairs that have ever occurred in this country and which we hope may never be ours to witness again.” Moreover, it was stated that “it is probable that no combination of circumstances will or could by any possibility be engendered which would bring us as near the brink of fearful anarchy, as the transaction of last Friday.” Even the showing of a pistol or snapping of its cap, it was claimed, “would have ignited a blaze of consuming fire through the dense columns of an infuriated populace . . . reddening our streets with the hearts blood of our citizens, and rolling up a mournful holocaust of ghastly mortality—their requiem the terrible cry of anguished bereavement.”

Southern Californian, 18 January 1857.

The Southern Californian, so ready and willing to fan the flames of that “infuriated populace,” then decided to conclude its coverage with an encomium on the majesty of “popular justice” in the City of the Angels:

And now that the omnipotence of justice has been vindicated in this city, and the solemn pledges of an outraged community so triumphantly redeemed, may we hope that thereafter its solemn and impressive lessons may have their effect in convincing the evil disposed that there is a power greater than all law, vested in the unity of purpose of an entire people, before which every barrier must inevitably melt away and the petty meshes intervening between crime and justice, by the cunning subtleties of legal abstractions torn away and trampled in the dust.

As a post from this blog has noted, an extra edition of the Southern Californian was prepared on Friday and sent by the steamer Goliah to San Francisco reporting on the drama of the day. The special issue detailed the public meeting on Thursday night and then continued with an accounting of the afternoon’s execution of Alvitre and the lynching of Brown, but some of the information was different than that appearing in the paper’s regular edition of the 18th.

Los Angeles Times, 19 July 1887.

Confusingly, the San Francisco Alta California newspaper of 16 January (copies of which were sent back east and appearing in such papers as the New York Tribune of 9 February—this paper being the basis for the post cited here) noted that “we copy the Extra almost entire,” but added that it was “issued from the office of the Southern Californian on Friday morning.” Of course, this would have been hours before the hangings.

Yet, the Alta California report mentions that, at 3:00, when Alvitre was being hung, the first attempt involved the rope breaking, and this is something that the extra edition of the Southern Californian, sent out much earlier, could not possibly have predicted! Fortunately for those of us who’ve studied this matter, the coverage from the Alta, as reprinted in the Tribune, noted that the report from Los Angeles ended with the recording of Alvitre’s hanging and the immediate appearance of Hunter and Mayor Foster to get a vote on seizing Brown, leading the conclusion that “the end [is] not yet.”

It was further explained that “private advices inform us that after the execution of Alvitre, the people proceeded to the Jail, and were forcing an entrance to it when the messenger left for San Pedro,” this appearing to suggest that, even after the extra was printed and dispatched by the Southern Californian, these “private advices” added information, including the botched first attempt to hang Alvitre, that were then forwarded north just after Alvitre’s death. The account concluded “it was probable that Lee and Brown would be hung by the people.” Lee actually was set free after about a year in jail when a new trial was ordered but an indictment not sought—he wrote a letter to the Star to support F.P.F. Temple’s 1873 campaign for county treasurer (citing Temple’s alleged not hiring of Chinese workers, though he did so for his Los Angeles and Independence Railroad project not long afterward)—and he remained in El Monte until his death in the 1880s.

Los Angeles Express, 15 March 1902.

More on this extra edition of the Southern Californian did not, it appears, become public until after John O. Wheeler died in 1899. William H. Workman, future mayor and city treasurer of Los Angeles, came to the area in summer 1854 and he and his parents and brothers settled with his uncle William at Rancho La Puente. Soon afterward, however, he secured a position as a “printer’s devil,” or an apprentice, who would, among other chores, set the type and work the press.

Though Workman wrote a short piece praising his boss of 45 years before, he made no mention of the extra until a few years later, when the 15 March 1902 of the Los Angeles Express quoted the chief financial officer of the Angel City as saying, “you ought to have seen the paper we used to publish. Mr. [Oscar] Macy and I were associated as owners and Wheeler was our editor.” This is patently impossible because Workman only 15 years old when he joined the paper and could not have become an owner in just a matter of months—recall the Southern Californian subsisted for not even a year.

Moreover, Workman added that steamships left San Pedro only biweekly, yet an advertisement from his paper on 4 January very clearly stated that there were two craft, the Goliah and the newly acquired America which “will hereafter make regular weekly trips” including a return to San Francisco that “will leave SAN PEDRO every FRIDAY.” Beyond this, Workman told the Express that “the advance story of the hanging was . . . printed a day early in order to catch the steamer” and claimed that the extra “with all the details of the affair was on the streets of San Francisco while the man was swinging at the end of the halter.” The problem there was that the ships had ports of call at Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey before reaching San Francisco.

Express, 29 March 1919.

Harris Newmark, in his 1916 memoir Sixty Years in Southern California, repeated this story of the extra, but stated that Workman “wrote out every detail” and that the steamer left San Pedro at 10 a.m. For San Franciscans, though, to have been able to read the extra as Brown was being hung would have meant a sailing time of some seven hours, when the journey was far longer. It should be added that, as an apprentice, with Wheeler’s high-flying rhetoric quite obvious, Workman could have had no role in writing the coverage, though he obviously could have set the type and ran the press along with the 25-year old Macy.

As for the expressions by the Southern Californian and the Star that these types of tragedies would not occur again, these were forlorn hopes. In summer 1856, the City of Angels stood at the precipice of a large-scale riot between Anglos and Spanish-speakers after a deputized constable, William W. Jenkins (later a friend of the Temple family), killed a man in a tussle concerning a writ of attachment of property for a small debt.—a future post will cover this incident. Six months later, Sheriff Barton and several members of his posse were ambushed in modern Irvine by the Flores-Daniel Gang of bandits leading to gross and bloody excesses throughout the country. As late as the lynching of 18 men and a teenage boy in the horrific Chinese Massacre of October 1871, too many Angelenos were all too willing to employ extralegal means to achieve what they considered justice.

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