“In Defending This People From Danger”: The Barton Massacre of 23 January 1857, Part Six

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After the lynching of bandit leader Juan Flores on Valentine’s Day 1857, a few weeks after the gang he led with Francisco “Pancho” Daniel massacred Los Angeles County Sheriff James R. Barton and posse members Charles F. Daly, Charles K. Baker and William H. Little, accusations were traded back and forth between the Los Angeles Star, which took the position that so-called “popular justice” by citizens taking the law into their own hands was completely justifiable when law enforcement and the courts were not effective in bringing criminals to justice, and El Clamor Público, which warned that the excesses of vigilantism could not be tolerated and that the answer to criminal justice administration defects was more support and cooperation as well as a complete fidelity to the state and federal constitutions and California’s laws.

El Clamor continued its impassioned editorials while also printing pointed pieces of correspondence from readers. One from “Amigo del Pais” in the 28 February edition of the paper, wrote “you have suffered enough from their [criminals’] depredations, and you will be liable to suffer still more if you let them go unpunished . . . I believe that Californians themselves—if they chose—can purify this county of the crime that brings a stain upon our name, wherever it is mentioned; but let this be done “according to the laws.” This writer noted that, between 1819 and 1846 when California was under Spanish and Mexican rule, there were just six murders among “los ‘de razon'” or the Californios, excluding the indigenous people. In the previous seven years, however, there’d been in Los Angeles County, almost fifty, exclusive of those among native people.

El Clamor Público, 28 February 1857. Thanks to Paul Bryan Gray for use of his copies of the paper.

In that same issue, “Varios” observed that “for the tranquility of the county, the so-called Lynch law must cease, because it is horrible, disgusting, inquisitorial and contrary to the Constitution, which fortunately governs us.” It was added that

Ultimately, as free citizens and governed by a Constitution that is one of the best in the world, let us take all steps to punish crime, but let us contain the arbitrariness of searching the houses of honest men, and the arrest and death of many unfortunately people who perhaps are not at fault.

Under the name “Viajero,” another correspondent lamented the lack of effective local government in remote places like San Juan Capistrano and Santa Ana, fifty miles or so from the county seat at Los Angeles (the 1889 creation of Orange County was the culmination of years of concern and complaint about that region being under supported). It was added that “Flores was considered safe [there] . . . and he was probably to be pretty secure if it hadn’t been for the extraordinary labors of the people of Los Angeles and the Monte, who came out because of the atrocity of the deeds they were committing. Rarely are such efforts made, rarely are such crimes committed.

El Clamor Público, 28 February 1857.

How many of these letter writers were Anglos is not known, though District Court Judge Benjamin I. Hayes wrote occasional pieces for El Clamor, including one in 1857 that decried lynching, though he did not identify himself beyond a nom de plume. In an editorial, also from the 28th, Ramirez wrote that “we admit the Californios are not easily aroused to violence, or if they are, that they can be reassured very easily.” Whether this was true or not, he continued that “all things considered, it is strange, how universally they prefer that those accused of crimes be fairly tried and punished by men of recognized responsibility and not be those who aren’t under the obligation of a [legal] oath and who in numbers participate with them in disorder.”

Separately, he called for more support from citizens who, if they would “present themselves when called upon by the constituted authorities, as they have done later, and if they manifested half as much zeal and activity, we should have very little cause to complain about the escape of the wicked or, even better, very few crimes of any magnitude would be committed.” In another editorial about the authorities in Los Angeles, Ramirez observed that it was never right for citizens to take the law into their own hands and instead called for readers to remember that “the reform of public ills must always begin in the conscience of the citizen,” while he added “the laws are really the only will of the people.” Curiously, given how much the journalist wrote about race and ethnicity, including his denial in May that there was a “war between the races,” calling it “a ridiculous idea” to pit Anglos against Latinos, Ramirez thought it humorous to state that, when the Chinese Daily News was launched in Sacramento, its editor was “Don Hongkongragtailcabeza.”

El Clamor Público, 28 February 1857.

There is much more to find in the pages of El Clamor during this time of tension, bloodletting and reflection, including his invectives against the lynching of Encarnación Berryessa, but the publisher, who wasn’t yet 20 years of age, wrote reams of passionate, compelling and carefully considered editorials to his readers about the imperative of the supremacy of the laws and duly constituted authority. The Star, for its part, generally refrained from much of these kinds of examinations of the conditions of the period. In its 7 March issue, it opined that

“Grim-visaged war has smoothed his horrid front,” [a variation of a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III] and our citizens have returned to the paths of peace. No more do we hear of stern alarms, no more the mustering of squadrons, the tread of armed men, or the rattle of musketry. No more does the courier speed swiftly through our streets, the bearer of important dispatches, or the still more important intelligence, that another robber has been captured and executed . . . We are left to quietude and peace.

All excitement has passed away; the felling of personal security has again become established among us, and with it a desire to cultivate the arts of peace . . . So that our citizens, having “conquered a peace,” are now settling down to the enjoyment of peaceful arts. So mote it be.

While this wasn’t quite as advertised, vigilantism on or near the scale of what transpired after the Barton massacre, following six months or so after another period of ethnic tension involving a killing of a Latino by William W. Jenkins (later well-connected to the Temple family,) this being the subject of a future post on this blog, would not be witnessed again for some time, though the multiple lynchings of 1863 and the horrific Chinese Massacre of 1871 amply demonstrated that Los Angeles was far from becoming a bastion of the “peaceful arts.”

Los Angeles Star, 7 March 1857.

The Star did publish a bitter invective against the the continued perceived ineffectiveness of the criminal justice system in Los Angeles after a trial began for James P. Johnston, who killed saloon owner Henry Wagner at the end of March. The paper fulminated that another recent wave of crime was such that “the rights of the accused must be protected,” while “Dead men have no rights” and “the community has no rights—requires no protection.” It raged that the Dame Justice had “garments filthy with pollution—and her robes rotten with corruption and debauchery!” It cried out “God of justice! How long—how long is this iniquity to be permitted? Shall the blood of our murdered fellow-citizens forever cry to Heaven for vengeance in vain?”

The paper went on to note that “we had supposed that better day was dawning on us,” referring probably to the quote above, but it castigated Judge Hayes for allowing the defense to claim Johnston was of a “peaceful character” while denying the prosecution the opportunity “to exhibit the malignant heart, the hellish desire for blood” in the defendant. The paper ran several columns of detailed reporting on the trial, but concluded that the proceeding was “the most humiliating, the most degrading, the most to be lamented legal farce, which has ever been enacted, even in California.” It was reported that the jury could not agree on a verdict, which undoubtedly raised the ire of the Star to an even greater degree, though Johnston was eventually convicted in the summer and executed in October

Star, 18 April 1857.

At the end of the year, the Flores-Daniel Gang member known as Leonardo López was captured and it was revealed that his true name was Luciano Tapia, a native of Jalisco, México, who worked in San Luis Obispo when he was recruited by Flores to join the gang.. Notably, there was no discernible movement by vigilantes to lynch Tapia. At his December trial, there was considerable testimony presented about what transpired in San Juan Capistrano as the gang terrorized the town, including witness Fernando Pérez identifying the defendant (the term “Las Manillas” or “The Handcuffs” being used to describe individuals as well as the gang broadly) as present when his business partner George Pflugardt was murdered in their tavern and store. An employee, Felipe Jimenez, also saw Tapia with Flores and other gang members in town during that period and that the prisoner was wearing clothes offered in the store. Jose Buelna of Los Angeles told the court that Tapia, Flores, Espinosa, Catabo, Varela and Santos robbed him about a week prior to the Barton massacre.

Convicted on the 16th, Tapia was sentenced three days later to death by hanging and, when asked if he had any comment, told Judge Hayes and the court that the witness testimony was not conclusive proof of his involvement in the Pflugardt murder and he added that Latinos were often executed on questionable testimony. On 16 February 1858, along with convicted murdered Thomas King, Tapia was hung and the Star noted that the condemned man “in full vigor must have been a formidable foe, as indeed his acts prove him to have been.” El Clamor recorded that, when he ascended the gallows and stood on the platform, Tapia told the assemblage that parents “should be careful to lead their children down the path of virtue” and “to take example of his death.” He added, “I had been led astray by the bad advice of evil companions,” while the paper warned readers that Tapia’s fate should “serve as [an] example to the young that they should abandon vice.” The executioner was Sheriff James Thompson, who’d captured Flores at Simi Pass and who was recently appointed to the position after the murder of Sheriff William C. Getman by a mentally ill man almost exactly a year after Barton was killed—Barton and Getman remain the only sheriffs to have been killed in the line of duty.

Star, 19 December 1857.

A few weeks prior to the hanging of Tapia, Pancho Daniel was captured while hiding in a haystack near San Jose and was delivered by the Santa Clara County sheriff to Los Angeles County authorities. The gang captain was indicted and the trial began before Judge Hayes in late March, but defense counsel Columbus Sims was able to get the case continued to the next term of the court because, he argued, he needed additional time to obtain witness testimony. When the matter resumed at the end of July, Sims and his co-counsel, Cameron Thom (a past and future county district attorney) filed a motion alleging bias on the part of Sheriff Thompson because of his role in the hunt for gang members after the Barton massacre. Hayes appointed a trio of triers to examine the matter and they concluded that there was, indeed, bias.

The result was that, instead of the sheriff calling for jurors as prescribed by statute, that function was undertaken by the county coroner, J.C. Welsh. When the case came up again on 9 August, Sims and Thom claimed that Welsh also was biased, though the reason was not stated—perhaps Welsh was among those in the military companies, as well. In any case, Hayes dismissed the prospective jurors and continued the case again. It was not until mid-November that Daniel again appeared in court, but, after Welsh called for jurors, he resigned the next day and Manuel Coronel was appointed to continue the selection process in lieu of the sheriff or coroner. Even still, Sims and Thom filed another bias motion against Coronel and, though Hayes brought in a new cadre of triers, they decided that no bias existed.

El Clamor Público, 20 February 1858.

Undaunted, Daniel’s counsel decided on a new strategy and motioned for a change of venue, claiming that their client could not get a fair trial in Los Angeles. Perhaps more than mindful of this issue as it related to Hayes’ presiding over the proceedings of Felipe Alvitre and David Brown, amid much furor and rabid media attention, almost four years prior, the judge agreed to move the matter to Santa Barbara County, where he would, because it was a circuit through the large district encompassing much of southern California, hear the matter with a new jury pool.

This was too much for those already well-disposed to take the law into their own hands and, on the last day of November, when Sheriff Thompson happened to be out of town, a mob stormed the jail and lynched Daniel by placing him on a stool under the crossbeam of the jailyard gate facing Franklin Street. County Clerk Charles R. Johnson scrawled an exceptional marginal note that encapsulated much of the problem with some local officials, as he cynically recorded,

The Gentleman who was defendant in this case, was accidentally hung, through the carelessness of some American citizens on Tuesday morning, November 30th A.D. 1858.

In a surprising change of attitude and perhaps because he was convinced that Daniel would be convicted and executed, the Star‘s florid publisher, Henry Hamilton, wrote that “we cannot express too strongly our disapprobation of this act” as he called the lynching a “high-handed and criminal proceeding.”

Star, 31 July 1858.

Ramirez of El Clamor Público, however, gave way to a bitter denunciation of those who, yet again, employed extreme barbarism in the lynching of Daniel. He noted that they used a cord and that the crossbeam was part of a flimsy gate structure, so that Daniel, as Flores did, suffocated in a particularly horrible and brutal manner. While he emphasized that he was not, in any way, defending Daniel’s life and actions, the publisher again decried the lack of humanity and civilized behavior and cried out.

Town of Los Angeles ! You will lower your head, humiliated, and confess that prisoners are here sacrificed in your name without hearing a word of defense! There is no sensitivity, there are no emotions, in the homicidal chest, which hears the heart-rending appear of the wretch who is going to expire on an outrageous gallows, asking for the consolation of religion or wishing to see his wife or tender children! A miserable existence is theirs! As soon as they are born, their suffering begins!

It was continued that the vigilantes undoubtedly felt that “justice takes a long time to render its rulings, so it is a matter of conscience to take him out and hang him.” Asking what this reasoning meant, Ramirez added that “instead of punishing a crime, they committed a greater one.” He observed that virtually all of the county’s residents viewed Daniel as a criminal, but that it was largely seen that the revenge consummated in his lynching was somehow less horrible. The publisher noted that “we believed the pernicious effects of lynching were already seen” and concluded that “if the laws are not made equal for all, if we are governed by the will of a few, then we say once and for all to raise the banner of anarchy and treason.”

Star, 27 November 1858.

In its edition of the 18th, El Clamor ran a lengthy editorial, which began with the statement that “the barbaric and diabolical execution that was perpetrated in this city has been met with silence. One of those monstrous crimes that lower the dignity of man and puts him on the level of brutes, has been committed in this town—and it will be forgotten, as have been many atrocious and horrific acts.” The question was what was to be done “when murder is the order of the day!” Ramirez continued that “from one end of California to the other, the blood of innumerable victims of this violence has flowed and which is becoming fashionable.” If something wasn’t enacted to stop the situation, “the perverse principles of brute force will spread” and there’d be nothing to prevent “such demoralization and barbarism.”

The piece continued that “the wretch who perished in this way was not to blame for our courts taking so long to judge him. The crime for which he was charged had not yet been proven, nor had his sentence been passed. We look in vain for some pretext to make the event which we had the misfortune to witness less abhorrent.” Moreover, there was no popular excitement and it was asserted that everyone was confident that Daniel would get his just deserts, so “it was reserved for those enervated persons to stain their hands and souls—if they have souls—with the most detestable of all crimes.”

El Clamor Público, 4 December 1858.

Yielding to a rage that could hardly have helped Ramirez improve his struggles with El Clamor Público by increasing subscriptions and advertising among his own people, he then turned his vitriol to local Latinos:

And you imbecile Californios! You are to blame for the unfortunate events we are seeing. We are tired of saying, “Open your eyes, it is time to defend your rights and interests.” It is embarrassing to say, but harder to confess: you are the sarcasm of humanity! Ignoble traffic makes us blush with indignation! Do you no longer have any noble feeling and will you be cursed by god and men? Cowards and idiots, you inspire nothing but contempt; you lie in the most degraded abjection and it only seems you prefer to end up like murderers and thieves—on the gallows! If you have forgotten you are citizens and not vile scoundrels, that you are Americans and have indisputable rights to intervene in all matters of public interest, that you must take the experience of example to conduct yourselves as rational men—then renounce once and for all [ig]noble sentiment, and prepare to take off the yoke of the slave.

Ill-advised as this jeremiad may have been, it is also somewhat understandable that the young Ramirez, idealistic and impassioned as many 20-year old persons are and venting his feelings after three years of publishing his paper and witnessing all that he had, including the vicious lynching of Daniel, would give way to an unmitigated anger, even that directed at those of his own ethnicity.

El Clamor Público, 18 December 1857.

There is much more to the story of the Barton massacre and its incredible aftermath, but, hopefully, this post has covered many of the core components with respect to the underfunded, understaffed and under-supported criminal justice system, the ease with which vigilantes could take control of a situation and give way to gross excess and barbaric behavior, the divergent views taken by the two local newspapers, and just how unsettled and frequently chaotic the environment was in 1850s Los Angeles, which often seemed as likely to be the den of deviltry than anything remotely resembling its name.

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