“The Higher Possibilities of our City by the Sunset Sea”: George Wharton James and his “A Vision for Los Angeles,” Out West Magazine, May 1913, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In late 19th and early 20th centuries Los Angeles, a pair of eccentric writers, researchers, lecturers, and editors were engaged in a fierce rivalry within a limited field concerned with the ethnology of southwestern America’s native peoples, early California history and the promotion of the region. While Charles Fletcher Lummis (1859-1928) is better known, including for his founding of the Southwest Museum and the building, by hand, of his distinctive house nearby, George Wharton James (1858-1923) is largely forgotten.

What the contemporaries shared in common, as well, was that, at different times, they edited the journal Out West, which sprung from The Land of Sunshine, and after Lummis edited both for about a dozen years from the mid-1890s to the latter part of the following decade, James served as the editor of Out West for a few years from 1912-1914. The featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection for this post is the May 1913 issue of he journal and, specifically, James’ essay, “A Vision for Los Angeles.”

The 1871 British census listing for George Wharton James, age 12, with his family at Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, England. At the top is James’ future wife, Emma Smith.

James was born in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, England to Ann Wharton and John James, who was a basket maker, and he was a stationer and medical student in the 1881 British census as well as an ordained Methodist minister, shortly before leaving with his first wife Emma for the United States. For the rest of the decade, James was a Methodist minister preaching on the circuit in Nevada and California, including Oakland and near Fresno where his brother John resided and where his father migrated from England after the death of James’ mother.

By 1889, as the great Boom of the Eighties was coming to an end, the family, which included three children, ended up in Long Beach, where James was a a pastor. That April, however, there were reports in the press of spectacular and salacious allegations made against him by his wife, including of adultery, abuse and encouraging the cohabitation of a nephew and adopted son and his sister. Some press accounts were composed with the idea that James, who’d been known to preach extensively on social purity, was guilty of the accusations made against him.

The 1881 British census listing for George and Emma James, married just a few months prior and shortly before the couple relocated to the United States, where George, listed here as a stationer and medical student, became a Methodist minister in several towns in Nevada and California for nearly a decade.

Beyond the specified charges, there were also comments that James, who often used the initials of “F.R.A.S.” or Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and claimed that he was affiliated with other prestigious British organizations, including those pertaining to astronomy, a topic on which the minister frequently lectures, was masquerading as an expert and an affiliate of these institutions. When confronted about this, James was said to have acknowledged that he was not educated at college or university level, but that he was admitted as a member in learned societies because of valuable services he rendered to them.

The trial was covered with some significant detail in local newspapers, including his misrepresentation of papers comprising statements made by his wife and his distributing of pamphlets considered “not exactly suitable for family reading” and dealing with the physiology of children including the reproductive systems and his recommendation to parents that “self-abuse” by their children was to be assiduously avoided.

A brief summation of the Rev. James’ trials and tribulations involving his wife and the church, Oakland Tribune, 18 April 1889.

It was further alleged that James was asked to leave the pastorates of several locales in Nevada and California and, when he rejoined that his wife was guilty of adultery, the Los Angeles Herald retorted that “the villainy of this charge, coming out at this late day of the trial, is clearly known to the public.” It was added that the minister was persuaded by friends to make this claim and the paper referred to the incident as “such an outrageous proceeding was never heard of before.” It was even hinted that there were possibly incestuous relations between James and his sister.

After Emma filed for divorce with the superior court, he responded in early July with a detailed set of accusations about her adulterous and abusive behavior, including many claims of his affairs or untoward attention to young girls and older women. He affirmed that “he has a delicate constitution, and his nerves have been so acutely sensitive that he has suffered intensely from the harshness and cruelty of his wife,” leading, he added, to his having “an attack of cerebral congestion” so that “his reason was dethroned.”

James’ official response to the charges leveled against him by Emma and the church, Los Angeles Herald, 2 July 1889.

James included in his statement that he sought to forgive his wife and assist her in bettering her life, for her and the sake of their children, but “now he reluctantly discloses the misery and humiliation of their married life only because he is advised by his counsel and friends that it is necessary for the vindication of his own character as a minister of God.” His answer included a petition for divorce as part of the cross-complaint.

It was not until February 1890 that a judge finally issued a ruling and observed that James heard his wife’s evidence and added “it would have been easy for him to have contradicted it,” though, “his failure to do so . . . [meant] the Court may draw an inference of fact tending to corroborate the testimony” of Mrs. James. Leaving the question of alimony and child custody for later, the judge also cited an anonymous letter from “Atty,” or “attorney” which claimed “that the whole thing is a put up job against the Professor”—James routinely advertised himself by that title, though he had no higher education.

An account of James’ exoneration, though he was also denied reinstatement by the Methodist Church, Fresno Republican, 13 October 1892.

The missive continued that “the ministers” in the Long Beach Methodist church “are all jealous of him and were determined to oust him” while Emma “is insanely jealous.” Calling James “the smartest man in the M.E. Church,” the mystery correspondent said that the Los Angeles Times and the Herald well knew of the minister’s innocence and urged the jurist to “give James a chance and he will surprise with his doings in the future.”

Having secured her divorce, Emma James left the area the following month and returned to England with two of the three children with her, the third residing with James’ family in Oleander, a town near Fresno. James resumed his wandering, giving lectures at Chicago and in Kansas later in 1890 and then settling with his family at Oleander, while also spending time in Nevada.

The 1910 census listing for James, his second wife Emma Farnsworth and her daughter Edith, at the Pasadena residence where James lived for many years.

In late summer 1892, “Social Purity James,” as he was called by the Fresno Republican, requested the rehearing of his matter by the Methodist Church at a meeting in San Diego at the end of September. Armed with papers and documents to demonstrate his innocence, James apparently had difficulty in securing a hearing, but, once he was successful in so doing, an extraordinary decision was rendered by the committee appointed to deliberate over the matter, including the statements:

we believe that he was and is innocent of the things charged against him before the conference, and we extend him our sympathy in his trials, and wish him success in christian work in the church he had connected himself with. Nevertheless, it is the judgment of your committee that, owing to a study of abstruse sciences and devotion to the christian ministry, he has acquired a mental and emotional bias which unfits him for the office and work of the ministry.

Therefore, while James was formally exonerated of the salacious and deeply disturbing charges made against him and which led to his suspension two-and-a-half years prior, he was also officially denied reinstatement as a minister in the Methodist church. No matter how this is looked at, the result was nothing less than extraordinary.

James soon returned to Oleander and Fresno, where under the guise of “professor,” he continued to lecture on all kinds of subjects and appears to have forsaken any idea of returning to the ministry. After his father’s death in 1894, he returned to Los Angeles and took up residence at the Echo Mountain House, which was recently opened as part of the remarkable Mt. Lowe Railway system before remarrying late in 1895.

By the turn of the 20th century, James settled in Pasadena, where the 1900 federal census recorded his occupation as “litterateur,” and from where he engaged regularly in the writing of articles for journals as well as books and was a speaker, including on the history and culture of native Americans. One of his best-known articles concerned the killing of the Cahuilla Indian Juan Diego by Sam Temple (no relation to the Temple family of the Homestead and Los Angeles) that was an integral part of the story of Ramona, told by Helen Hunt Jackson in her famous 1880s novel.

With another period of major growth including at least two major booms in the first dozen years of the new century, the controversy at Long Beach was largely forgotten as James became increasingly recognized for his work and leading to his hiring as editor of Out West. The 1910 federal census recorded his vocation as “Author & lecturer [of] Books & Magazines and, like his rival Lummis, James was a gifted, if sedulously, florid writer, given to very long rambling sentences and excitable ramblings that made him a distinctive voice.

The beginning of “A Vision for Los Angeles” finds James waxing poetic about the glories of ancient Greece, including such monumental structures as the Acropolis and Parthenon before making references to Egypt, the Middle East, India, China and Japan, as well as cathedrals of medieval Europe. The connective theme appears to have been embodied in James’ assertion that “these great temples were erected in the youth of the nations to whom they belong” and that “youth in nations, no less than in individuals, is the time for the formation of high ideals.”

When it came to great cities, he went on that “the pure hearted youth who lives his city sees nothing impossible that other cities have accomplished; the higher the aim, the more difficult the achievement, the grander the result[,] the more eager he is to undertake it.” Having, at exhaustive length, talked of everything from the Taj Mahal to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and from the Arch of Titus to the cathedral at Canterbury, James, at last, got to the Angel City, by offering

And now the time has come when we must form our ideals, we must see our visions, we must allow our imagination to seize and direct us; that we must lift our eyes to the stars, dream dreams and conceive of the higher possibilities of our City by the Sunset Sea. We cannot begin too soon; we cannot soar too high; we cannot dream too greatly.

While it was averred that Greeks referred to “Europe and Greece,” James believed that “ere long, shall we Californians speak of ‘the United States and California,” in the sense that, as with the Greeks, denizens of the Golden State would “realize that their country is ‘different,’ their destiny is greater, their responsibilities are more focalized than are those of the rest of the United States.

The writer recognized that “we shall be laughed at for our ‘pretensions,” but offered “what prophet has there every been that was not laughed at?” What Angelenos felt, saw, envisioned led to the response to ridicule “that helps us the more fully to realize the ultimate worth and truth of that which we see.”

The core question for James was “what then is our vision?” and whether this could be expressed concisely before he asked “is it not worthwhile to spend a few minutes in looking over the subject in a broad fashion?” In doing so, it was clear to him that “the vision that already is actualized in our imagination has a definite basis.”

With that, we’ll return tomorrow with part two and discuss more of what James’ vision for Los Angeles involved. Please be sure to join us then as he outlined a quartet of characteristics that comprised that perception of difference for the Angel City compared to other areas of the country.

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