“For Revenge on the Ones Who Have Slain Them”: The Barton Massacre of 23 January 1857, Part Five

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the few weeks after the 23 January 1857 massacre of Los Angeles County Sheriff James R. Barton and posse members Charles K. Baker, Charles F. Daly and William H. Little as they passed through present-day Irvine seeking the Flores-Daniel Gang after a murder and robberies were committed in the mission town of San Juan Capistrano, what amounted to something like martial law, though not so declared, took hold as fear and fury ruled in place of duly constituted law.

For the Los Angeles Star, this was deemed necessary. It declared that “the people,” whoever this really constituted, operated under a higher law as it took matters into its own hands through the formation of “military companies,” but which were actually vigilante groups, including one of Californios led by Andrés Pico, general of the local resistance against the American invasion of a decade prior. While some of these groups acted with relatively more restraint, as Pico, for example, demonstrated leadership in the hunt for the gang that was acknowledged and accepted by Anglos, though he still lynched two gang members, others acted with less regard for order.

This stereoscopic photograph from the Museum’s holdings shows the two-story jail right of center at the corner of Franklin Street, lower right, and Spring Street. At the upper left is the Market House, built by Jonathan Temple in 1859 and long used as the county court house. Juan Flores was taken from the jail and lynched a quarter mile away, probably on or near Fort Moore Hill out of the view to the left.

At another mission town, San Gabriel, the lynchings of Miguel Soto, Diego Navarro, Juan Valenzuela and Pedro López, were much more haphazard and shorn of all but the very barest pretenses of the imposition of justice. The sheer brutality of the killings, including the decapitation of Soto, purportedly for easier identification, and the failed hangings of the others, who were then shot dead, demonstrated that, absent of any sign of careful deliberation, much less any form of due process, the actions of any actual criminals being sought for were grossly overshadowed by the barbarity and uncivilized behavior of vigilantes.

While the region-wide hunt dissipated, attention largely turned to Juan Flores, one of the leaders of the gang, who was captured at Simi Pass at the northwestern corner of the San Fernando Valley and who was ensconced in the two-story adobe and brick jail in Los Angeles on the west side of Spring Street. The last part of this post included a quote from the Star bitterly decrying the fact that Flores was incarcerated at the county’s expense, but darkly hinted that something was afoot.

This and the following two images are from the Los Angeles Star, 21 February 1857.

In fact, it was later that very day, Valentine’s Day, that, as the paper reported on in its next edition on 21 February, that “the people of this city, and a large number from the principal towns of the county, assembled together for the purpose of determining what should be done with Flores and the other prisoners then in jail.” After the usual haranguing, the predetermined outcome was achieved in a vote which took place “without a dissenting voice” and which sentenced Flores to death, while “it was resolved to hand the other prisoners over to the authorities, their crimes being only attempts at murder, burglaries, and horsestealing.” The Star claimed that, while it wanted to discuss the details of the proceeding in terms of “the inference justly deductible therefrom,” it decided rather than “we had has so much of this of late, that we have no disposition to return to the subject.”

In any case, with the meeting concluded, “the people marched to the jail and took possession of Flores,” who was, it was said, hardly surprised. He was taken by the military company of William W. Twist, “who guarded him to the place of execution,” this being a hill a quarter of a mile from the jail—presumably this was Fort Moore or in that vicinity. Following in the procession were a French militia and “a large company of mounted Californians and Americans,” while the priests of the Plaza Church “accompanied the prisoner to his last scene.” Flores was reported to have “walked with firmness, and seemed as composed as any one in the crowd” while his dress was described and the condemned man, aged about 22 years, was said to be possessed “of a pleasing countenance” and that he did not look like “the formidable bandit which he had proved himself to be.”

Arrived at the gallows, Flores was taken to its edge, while “the armed men [were] forming a hollow square, supported by the cavalry in [the] rear.” After the prisoner’s arms were pinioned to his body, he walked up to the platform and asked to address the crowd, saying “he was now ready to die—that he had committed many crimes—that he died without having ill-will against any man, and hoped that no one would bear ill-will against him.” Saying again he was ready for death, Flores then saw some persons in the assemblage which he knew and asked them to make arrangements for his body, while also asking that his white handkerchief be used to cover his face. After his legs were bound and the rope placed and adjusted, with Flores talking to those around him, the handkerchief was tied and the platform was cleared:

immediately after the plank was drawn from under him, and the body of Flores swung in the air. The fall was too short, and the unfortunate wretch struggled in agony for a considerable time. In his last, despairing efforts, the rope around his arms slipped above his elbows and he grasped the rope by which he was suspended. It required considerable effort to release his hold. After a protracted struggle, very painful to behold, the limbs became quiet, and finally stiff in death. This ended the brief but stormy life of the bandit captain, Juan Flores.

Here was yet another act of barbarism and brutality in the badly botched lynching of a person who, whatever his crimes were, was subjected to an incredibly tortuous death because of the bungling of those who erected the gallows. To add to the cruelty, “the body was kept hanging for about an hour” before it was turned over “to those who had engaged to take charge of it.” With this, the Star merely concluded that “the people dispersed. The execution took place about two o’clock P.M.”

In a separate short article, the paper reported that, “when the citizens of this county were solemnly deliberating what should be done with the prisoners in custody” two prisoners in jail “were so deeply convinced that they, too, would be condemned to death upon the gallows—whether from a consciousness of guilt, or a dread of popular fury . . . that they prepared themselves, externally, to undergo the expected sentence.” One was said to have donned apparel “for his ‘last appearance,'” while the other had his clothes readied, but, the piece ended, “the people, more benignant than the malefactors dared to hope, spared their lives, and they still remain in prison.” Just below this, the Star discussed the weather and rhapsodized that recent rains led to the fact that “the tender herbage sprang up and covered [the land] with the lovely mantle of spring” so that “despondency has been chased away by Hope, and cheerful Anticipation has located in our midst.”

In the edition of the 21st of El Clamor Público, there was a fascinating reference to the fact that, after midnight hours after Flores’ lynching, “a party of men climbed the walls of the jail, and woke the honest jailer [Francis Carpenter, who held that position on and off for many years] from the sleep he so badly needed after his constant sleeplessness for a week: they went to ask for the prisoners whom the whole town, in the light of day, had decided to leave at the disposal of the courts. Such is the nature of personal revenge.” It was added that those who knew Carpenter could understand his response “to such a low proposition” and the paper congratulated him for his “acts of fidelity and humanity” while it forbore mentioning the names of the men “who withdrew in shame, in view of the firmness of this noble jailer.”

This studio portrait, also from the Homestead’s collection and dating to 1879 when he was 59 years old, is of long-time jailer and later police officer Francis Carpenter.

In a lengthy meditation titled “Thoughts About the Past,” the publisher, Francisco P. Ramirez, who was not quite 20 years of age, observed that most people avoided excesses of behavior and this was shown the prior Saturday when Flores was lynched. He added thought that “we have had sufficient reasons to distrust the few when they act by themselves in isolation and with no other guide for their discretion than the internal fire of their own exaltation while they have the opportunity to gratify their passions without limits.” These outliers might ignore the views of most people while thinking they interpreted the public will or were acting as agents for the larger populace and these “carry their malice to such an extent as to employ ‘fire and sword,’ to exterminate the objects of their hate or aversion.”

Notably, the editorial made distinctions between the lynchings committed by Andrés Pico, the victims of which were “known bandits,” Rubottom and his compatriots who “were not afraid to bring another prisoner with them from far away so that they could at least have a mock trial,” and Gentry and his men and Thompson, who captured Flores, from the nameless vigilantes who hung the pair of Latinos and shot another near Los Nietos. It added that “we hope that the heroes of the Los Nietos tragedy do not hide their facts” and asked “did the people authorize secret murderers?” Moreover, the paper stated that “in the name of truth, justice and humanity, we ask for an explanation from those who have spread such a black stain on the American character!

This and the remaining images are from El Clamor Público, 21 February 1857.

There was a review of past vigilante activity and it was asserted that, if an American were killed in the townships of San José (Pomona), Santa Ana or San Juan Capistrano, there would have been “a general uprising” and if Ned Hines, who escaped after being jailed for the murder of Californio, was lynched in any of those places, “no one can doubt that there would have been a terrible retaliation.” Given this, the piece went on, “we are obliged to ask for an explanation for the killings committed in Los Nietos.” There were occasions, however, when a plurality of citizens agreed with extralegal action, such as when Doroteo Zabaleta and Jesús Rivas were lynched for killing two Americans on the banks of the San Gabriel River in 1852 and when David Brown was executed after Felipe Alvitre was legally hanged in January 1855. Also mentioned was the 1851 killing of eleven bandits in the Red Irving Gang by Cahuillas in a box canyon near modern Redlands, which, it was noted, was determined to be reasonable by a Coroner’s jury. It was stated that “in these events the great majority of the town gave its approval” and “thus it has been with the execution of the bandits of San Juan Capistrano.”

El Clamor wondered “will order and the peaceful administration of the laws no longer be established in this county? Are we not capable of governing ourselves, under a well-arranged cooperation of the people with the courts and officials they people themselves have elected?” The problem was that word “cooperation” and it was argued that, had Sheriff Barton, received more of that, he would have had a sufficient force when ambushed “and we do not doubt he would have achieved” the goal of breaking up the Flores-Daniel Gang.

Another long piece was “Thoughts About the Future” in which it was noted that “the Californios are the ones who have suffered the most from thieves” but it was added, “no doubt, a salutary terror has been give to the wrongdoers.” Still, it was argued “that this would have been done more completely by legal means” even as “we recognize that something has been gained toward our future well-being.” Education and religion were highlighted as vital to a better future for the City of the Angels and readers were implored to recognize that “there is still much to do” as Ramirez continued that, “we don’t go beyond our bounds, Californios, to beg you to take more effort in educating your dear children during their tender age, and under the lessons of human and divine wisdom.”

Observing that most criminals were young men, Ramirez lamented that “it is much sadder to contemplate the soul devastated by an early initiation and perseverance in vices” and he suggested that “young people should take the example of the short careers of Flores, Espinosa and Juan Catabo” to heart. They should also “remember Zavaleta, Rivas and Alvitre” as well as to “remember [Ygnacio] Herrera, the best of them, and the steps that led him to his unfortunate end,” as the first legally executed convict in Los Angeles County when he was hung in spring 1854. Role models were cited, including members of the Estudillo and Argüello families, who were “firm and prudent leaders” as well as “benevolent advisors and almost the tutors of the [Californio] people.” Ramirez even suggested that “California was happier when we were all poor” and suggested readers ask the older members of the community if this was not the case. To him, “idleness is the origin of crime in this town.”

Finally, the paper had another editorial, titled “Americans! Californios!” which began with, “it is very difficult, in writing or in conversation, to use these two words without leaving room for misconception among those unfamiliar with our local relationships.” Wanting to clear the air, Ramirez asked “when will the time come when inhabitants will speak to each other and be intertwined with each other under the same title as brothers of the same family?” He queried whether Angelenos were all of the same country and had the “same equal rights and protection of the laws?” He wondered whether the disease suffered in the social and political elements of society constituted “an incurable caner” or “a tumor that can be cured with the help of science?”

Calling for an honest and candid discussion “full of reflection and truth,” Ramirez sought for the Pico, Dominguez and Olvera families and other older citizens “to present some of their ideas for the work of uniting of the two or more races: and he suggested that,

If Californios have failed in their duty as citizens to the best of their ability, we hope that their faults will be clearly manifested, so that they may be remedied, and the dissatisfaction, with all its gossip, quarrels, and dissensions, and all the fears and threats (if such exist) may forever disappear and be forgotten. Let’s have a perfect compromise. Let us make efforts to live under the rule of nothing but just laws, and a firm administration of them that is characterized by equality and purity. Only in this way, in our humble opinion, can we advance with prosperity typical of the genius of a free people.

Tomorrow, we continue with this post and ongoing ramifications of the Barton massacre’s aftermath, including the fate of Pancho Daniel after he was captured in northern California and extradited to Los Angeles for trial in 1858. Please join us then.


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