by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was Valentine’s Day as the two Los Angeles newspapers, El Clamor Público and the Star, continued their divergent coverage of the sweeping aftermath of the 23 January 1857 massacre of Los Angeles County Sheriff James R. Barton and three members, Charles F. Baker, Charles K. Daly and William H. Little, of his posse searching for the Flores-Daniel Gang, which committed a murder and robberies at the mission town of San Juan Capistrano.
As previous parts of this post have noted, a house-to-house search conducted in Latino-majority portions of Los Angeles and the grisly and barbaric lynchings of four Latino men at San Gabriel represented a broader eruption of anger and revenge, while the prominent Californio leader Andrés Pico lynched two members of the gang who were captured by pursuers from El Monte and then escaped before they were retaken by Pico’s contingent. Near Los Nietos, where Downey, Pico Rivera, Whittier and other cities are now, two Latinos were found hanging from trees while another’s body was discovered in a nearby canyon.
Two more were added to the growing list of those executed by summary punishment administered under the guise of so-called “popular justice” wholly absent of due process and other constitutional and legal protections. A quintet of El Monte men, led by Ezekiel H. Rubottom left this area on the 2nd for Santa Barbara, with two left at Ventura and the others continuing north. The Star reported that there were rumors that “certain of the gang of robbers would arrive that night in town” at Santa Barbara and, shortly afterward, a pair of Latinos arrived.
When the two men got to town, there was the cry by a sentinel watching them of “here they are, take them” and both jumped off the horse they were on and fled. One, Jesús Espinosa, was captured, while the other escaped and it was reported that he was “one of the gang who murdered Sheriff Barton and his party.” Consequently, Espinosa was tried by the people, in another “popular tribunal,” and, as was virtually always the case in these extralegal proceedings, condemned to death and “accordingly executed.” Before this, however, “he made a confession of his participation in the crimes charged against him.”
This admission was published and it was accompanied by a letter from the Rev. Domingo Serrano of the mission church at Ventura that said that the condemned, who was just seventeen or eighteen years old, issued his confession “considering the benefit which may result to the numerous unfortunates who are imprisoned upon suspicion of robberies and murders recently committed in or about Los Angeles.” Moreover, the priest continued, the young man hoped that his statement “might serve to quiet and tranquilize the feeling of the community which is much excited b the belief of numerous secret companies or societies,” while Serrano went to the extraordinary step of getting Espinosa’s approval to “reveal a part of which I had heard in confession,” a sacrament of the Catholic Church, as well as to provide it in writing. Here is what the Star published:
I, José Jesús Espinosa, fully convinced that after a few hours I shall have ceased to exist, and shall appear before the presence of God, to give a strict account of all the actions of my life, most truthfully say—that we, the thieves and murderers, are but ten persons [the list included Antonio María Varela, called Chino; Andrés Fontes; Juan Catabo; Juan Flores; a man named only as Santos; Santiago Silvas; Leonardo López; and one known only as Ardillero—though this last was called innocent as he joined the gang after the crimes were committed].
I also affirm that our organization dates back one month, or [a] little less, in which time we have committed four murders near San Juan, and one murder in that place.
We have stolen from three stores in San Juan, taking away goods and money, which with that taken from the murdered persons, I think might exceed $120, and about ten horses.
This is the truth, which I sign with a cross before my name, as I cannot write.
As Rubottom and his men, however, left Santa Barbara, “they proceeded to the house of a man named Berreyessa [Encarnación Berryessa], whom they arrested and brought to trial,” again in a popular tribunal. Because “it appears this man had been tried and found guilty of a murder, in Santa Clara county” and, when hung, was cut down before he’d actually died, he was revived by his friends. Berryessa retained the rope marks on his neck and it was reported that “since then, he committed another murder,” so, as “these facts” were “proved satisfactorily, he was also condemned and executed.” Fifteen miles east of Ventura, “a man in a rather suspicious position” who was deemed to be “acting as if wishing to evade detection” was seized and jailed, though he went unidentified because “nothing has as yet been elicited to inculpate him” for any crime.
Another item given to the Star to publish was a letter dated the 12th from Lexington (El Monte) by Frank Gentry and Bethel Coopwood, two of the leaders of citizen companies hunting the Flores- Daniel Gang, along with Warren W. Maxey and Charles O. Cunningham, a justice of the peace two years earlier when Gentry and Rubottom were among a group of vigilantes involved in the execution of two Americans and the threatened lynchings of others in that area. The paper noted that, when “Chino” Varela turned informant and gave away the hiding place of the gang in the Santa Ana Mountains, he was promised his life would be spared in return, though this, apparently, “has been a subject of controversy among our citizens.” The paper endorsed the decision to grant clemency to Varela and added that a statement would have published by it from Andrés Pico, “but for indisposition.”
The missive repeated the substance of what was previously reported concerning the collaboration of the El Monte and Californio companies in the prosecution of the hunt for the gang, but specifically noted that Pico and his lieutenant, Tomás Sánchez, promised Varela he would not be executed if he cooperated and then repeated this to the Americans involved once Varela surrendered after the gang was chased. It was also noted that Maxey and Cunningham were among those who accompanied Varela to Los Angeles so he could identify where gang members were hiding, though they had evidently fled prior. The writers added that, “Don Andres Pico, in every action was honorable, and acted in good faith, towards the Americans, and we are in honor bound to sustain him in the steps that he has taken,” while noting that El Monte citizens were also committed to “apprehending and punishing the robbers,” as were compatriots in Los Angeles. Having met the promise to Varela, the letter ended, “we are now under no obligations to him whatever.”
Also of note was that State Senator Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to this area fifteen years prior with the Rowland and Workman expedition, proposed a bill on the 2nd and which was rushed through and signed by Governor John B. Wheeler that provided $5,000 “for the suppression of armed banditti in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.” Presumably, these funds were tapped to pay for expenses incurred by the citizen companies as well as lawfully constituted peace officers. Another short article conveyed Rubottom’s thanks to those in Santa Barbara and Ventura for their assistance in the actions he and his El Monte compatriots took in recent days. A short reprint from the San Jose Telegraph observed that Pancho Daniel and others of his gang “are well known” in the city, having been residents there and in nearby areas, while local officers long sought to capture him but “he is a most desperate villain, and is always prepared for defence.”
Finally, the Star editorialized on “Our Local Affairs,” noting that “a great excitement arose among our citizens” after the Barton massacre “and retribution, deep, swift and sure, was vowed.” While this was adjudged “well enough,” the paper asked whether the promises were carried out and whether justice was met, while also querying “have the murderers been made to feel the just indignation of an outraged people” and wondered where some of those who ‘vowed to rest neither day nor night, till the ruffians had been arrested and executed,” this last, clearly, meaning summarily without due process. As if its support of “popular justice” was not obvious, the paper then raged that,
The leader of that gang of murderers, is reposing in our jail—feeding at the expense of the people, concocting, probably, further exploits of blood and murder, while there are those who talk of keeping him for weeks to come, when the “due course of law” will again let him loose upon the community.
Why the Star thought Flores would simply be set free went, naturally, unexplained, though prior examples of accused murderers being acquitted or not prosecuted likely was the basis, real or imagined, for this sentiment. In any case, the paper again asked about justice in other cases and posed the question, “have the housebreakings, the robberies, the shootings, stabbings and murders, with which our annals have been blackened and disgraces, been punished” and then answered in the negative. “Yet our jail is full of criminals,” it went on, “and Flores is there, and is to be kept there, in the hope, the vain, the futile hope, that he will give further information.”
Brushing this aside, as a “flimsey [sic] excuse,” the Star cynically noted that if Flores was to be released “and told to go away home and be a good boy, why not do it at once.” In the meantime, it thundered, “the blood of our murdered fellow-citizens may cry to heaven for vengeance; in vain. The memory of their gaping wounds, their mutilated bodies, their blackened corpses, must not be forgotten.” Still, it concluded by noting that a public meeting was to be held and it proclaimed “God bless the people, say we—they may be deceived and deluded for a while, but in the end they make all things right.”
El Clamor Público, in its edition of the 14th, briefly noted that hanging of Espinosa, adding that the lynching was carried out “by three Americans and various sons of the country.” With respect to the news of the three Latinos found dead near Los Nietos, the paper observed that the perpetrators were unknown but wondered “is if the fruit of that horde of savages that everywhere tries to make room to the infernal revenge that suffocates them” and concluded, simply, “Who knows?”
With regard to the savagery at San Gabriel, El Clamor addressed the latest explanation of the Star, including its labeling the Spanish-language sheet “incendiary,” by stating that its contemporary attacked it “to cover and alleviate the atrocity of these outrages.” The paper, moreover, went on to note that “this newspaper has been established with the sole purpose of defending our brothers and compatriots, who are everywhere harassed and overrun.” The young publisher of El Clamor, Francisco P. Ramirez, not yet 20, recorded that Diego Navarro was totally innocent of any wrongdoing and that those who knew him said there was nothing criminal in his behavior. Instead, he was putting tar on his roof when he was summoned by his father to go to Los Angeles with some wheat and had just mounted his horse when the confrontation followed that led to his death.
As to accusation that Juan Valenzuela stole sheep, the paper recorded that a neighbor named Muñoz had lost some of his animals and that a person said they may have heard some bleating at the Valenzuela place, but that Muñoz himself expressed that he didn’t think Valenzuela was capable of stealing the animals. Pedro López, it was said, was poor and, as such people have neither “voice nor vote,” Ramirez asserted that “he was treacherously executed by a gang of men who, forgetting the laws and the honor of their country, usurped the authority and the sacred name of ‘the people’ in order to get a vile revenge.”
El Clamor added that it was not true that “sons of the country,” meaning Latinos served on the jury of the popular tribunal because “they were all taken prisoner,” so it would certainly have been a novelty of justice if “prisoners judged each other.” The paper then wondered,
If there was a jury, who gave it the authority to murder its fellow citizens? Does the law of the United States authorize such procedures? In what time do we live? Is it barbarism or civilization that we are taught? In which country have you seen justices of the peace issue death sentences? These are questions that, if one reflects on their answers for a moment, bring to mind the horrific atrocity of the events at San Gabriel, which will forever be an indelible mark of infamy on those who took part in them.
In lambasting the Star for its approbation of “lynch law,” Ramirez lamented that his competitor “not only approves such horrible proceedings, but tears the hearts of their fathers, mothers, wives and sisters by publishing to the whole world that they were criminals of the lowest class.” Addressing his readers, he added, “Poor parents, wretched wives, wretched brothers! To what degree of infamy has the acrimony [of the Star] put you!”
Separately, El Clamor wrote of “The Death of Mr. James R. Barton” and began by observing that the late sheriff “was one of that energetic class of Americans” who came before the Mexican-American War (he was married to a daughter of Rancho La Puente co-owner John Rowland). Moreover, it was said, “the Californios knew him very well, and he was held in high esteem” while “in his heart, we believe, he was a friend” to the local Spanish speakers, “while never losing his character and dignity.”
Additionally, Barton was lauded while as sheriff as “a model of pure integrity and recognized courage,” while being known as calm and firm in his actions and always abiding by his oath to obey the Constitution and laws. In particular, he was cited for his conduct during the heightened danger and drama of the execution of Felipe Alvitre and the subsequent lynching of David Brown, recently covered in this blog in a multi-part post. In its lengthy encomium, the paper noted that there was more that could be said of the late sheriff, whose character “deserves the deepest respect” and whose conduct could be “recommended to everyone in this sad time.”
Finally, it was concluded that
No monument at his last resting place can truly represent him, unless it has inscribed in gold letters, that, if it were possible, time would never erase, these words of wisdom—The Supremacy of the Laws. The sentiment that these words teach is of true honor and praise to this lamented individual—and it is also the only guarantee and security for the living.
Yet, the situation would only become more difficult with what transpired later that Valentine’s Day with regard to Juan Flores and, tomorrow, we continue with the next part of this post, so please join us then.