“I Hope That All Good Citizens Will Consider it Their Duty to Calm Public Opinion”: The Killing of Antonio Ruiz by Deputy Constable William W. Jenkins, Los Angeles, 19 July 1856, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Continuing with this look into the tragic and terrible situation involving the killing of Antonio Ruiz by deputized constable William W. Jenkins in Los Angeles in July 1856, we turn to some of the early legal proceedings, including the inquest and, especially, the preliminary examination of Jenkins, with the latter occurring under a constant guarding of the prisoner as we has was confined to the jail, situated behind the court house on Spring Street between Temple and First streets.

As noted in the first part, there were two newspapers in the Angel City, the Star, which was about five years old at the time and was recently acquired by Henry Hamilton, and El Clamor Público, which launched in 1855 and the proprietor of which was the brilliant young Angeleno native Francisco P. Ramirez. A report of the inquest, held by the coroner “over the body” of deceased persons, was not located in the latter, though it may be that there was nothing that would have been materially different from what was covered by the Star, though it is also quite possible that there could have been some details not found in the latter.

Los Angeles Star, 26 July 1856. The next several images are from the same edition.

In any case, the Star observed that, for the Monday morning proceeding which preceded the funeral, Coroner L.H. Snead had eleven jurors, all Anglos, sworn in, with William Reynolds serving as an interpreter for the one witness, Ruiz’ common-law wife, María Candelaria Pollorena, who testified in Spanish. She told the jury that the prior Saturday morning, Jenkins came to her house and asked for Ruiz. After “sitting for some time,” Pollorena went to another section of the dwelling and was followed by the deputy constable and “then exhibited a paper,” this being the writ of attachment, “and read it, and said he wanted the guitar.”

Jenkins then took the instrument and left, but “when deceased saw the paper, he said he would go after the officer, and bring him back, and settle the matter with the prosecutor.” Jenkins did return but told the pair that “he could not make such an arrangement,” whereupon Pollorena asked for the guitar, but this was refused. “She then snatched the guitar, saying she wanted to take a letter from her mother out if it” and the constable answered that “she must not take anything out of it, and again seized the guitar, both had hold it it.”

At this, Pollorena testified, “deceased threw his arms round the man from behind” and Jenkins “pulled out a pistol, pointed it over his shoulder and fired the ball [which] took effect in the breast of Ruiz, from which wound he died on Sunday evening.” This, of course, would become central to the legal proceedings which followed, as the physical struggle between the constable and Pollorena, which then led Ruiz to grab Jenkins from behind, and then the officer’s drawing of his gun and firing over his shoulder—all of which happened in seconds—would become the course of action that would determine what charge to make and how the defense would structure its arguments.

William C. Getman, the city marshal who was later killed just after assuming the office of county sheriff early in 1858, was the only other witness, though he told the panel that he “did not see the shot fired” and only “heard the shot.” Notably, he “came into the house within 4 or 5 seconds,” and added that Jenkins “seemed excited” and told Getman “he had fired the shot in execution of his duty,” though “was sorry for having done so.” The city’s chief law enforcement officer said he called for doctors (see below for more on that) and that concluded his testimony.

Snead showed the jurors the remains of Ruiz and “explained the nature of the wound,” upon which “the Jury being satisfied declined further medical testimony.” They left and, after some ten minutes, returned and rendered the verdict, which simply stipulated that “the said Antonio Ruiz died by a pistol ball fired by William Jenkins.” With that, the proceeding came to a close and Ruiz’ body was released for the funeral and interment, while Jenkins was ordered to appear before District Court Judge Benjamin I. Hayes for the preliminary hearing, held to determine whether there was probable cause to hold him answerable before the Grand Jury for a possible indictment.

That proceeding was held at the courthouse, which was a one-story adobe building constructed by the Rocha family, owners of the Rancho La Brea, west of town, and which was owned by Jonathan Temple before he sold it to the county in 1853. In the rear yard, the two-story jail (the lower of adobe and used the city and the upper of red brick and housing county prisoners) was constructed and this was also where legal executions were conducted, though the first of these did not take place until 1854—citizens frustrated by the lack of capital murder convictions, these always being hard to secure for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the requirement of unanimity among jurors, turned to lynching to secure what they insisted was justice.

The doctor’s surname was Chariarse, instead of Carriaga.

Notably, the Star reported,

In consequence of the excitement which prevailed throughout the town, a military company was drawn up under arms, outside the Court House, and remained there throughout the day. The court was densely thronged.

District Attorney Cameron E. Thom, later a state senator and mayor as well as serving other stints as the county prosecutor, presented the case for the people, while Jenkins was represented by the towering (he was 6’4″, far beyond the average height for men of the time) Jonathan R. Scott, Hayes’ former law partner; Myron Norton, who came to California with a New York volunteer regiment during the Mexican-American War, played a crucial role in writing the 1849 constitution, and was a judge and Common (City) Council member earlier in the Fifties; and Ezra Drown, an attorney and later district attorney whose orphaned son was under the guardianship of William Workman and raised with the Temple family.

Drown motioned and Hayes approved that “the court [was] to be cleared except of those persons whose presence was necessary,” but there was an interesting and notable exception in that “a certain number specially invited to attend” included “a committee of six persons from those personally interested, the Americans, [Spanish-speaking] Californians and Mexicans.” This was clearly done to convey a sense of fairness and equity to the public given the mounting tensions between ethnic groups in the Angel City. A special constable brought Jenkins to the courtroom and County Judge William G. Dryden, an associate of William Workman from 1840 in New Mexico and one of the most colorful legal figures of the period in Los Angeles, was sworn in as interpreter.

The first witness was Manuel Chariarse (given the last name of “Carriaga” by the Star, who undoubtedly confused him with the French-born “leader” of the group that paper reported was planning to storm the town) and who treated Ruiz after he was shot by Jenkins. The physician, under questioning from Thom, attested to his patient’s death and that he was learned about what happened “from an American,” while Ruiz “did not recount how the affair happened. Under cross-examination from Scott, Chariarse stated that it was Jenkins who hired him to treat Ruiz, saying he would pay whatever was asked and imploring the doctor “to use great diligence in effecting a cure.”

María Candelaria Pollorena was next and told Thom that she and Ruiz “were sitting down sewing,” when Jenkins entered the house and also sat before getting up and going into another room without a word. She followed “supposing he went with a bad intention” and was accompanied by Ruiz, and both “encountered accused coming out of the room with a guitar in his hand.” He set the instrument down and then gave Ruiz the writ and left. Pollorena then stated that Ruiz told her, “I now remember your letter [from her mother] is in the guitar” and sought Jenkins, who returned and sat down. When asked if he would allow her to remove the missive, this was refused and the constable “covered the guitar with his hand.”

Pollorena told the court that she asked Jenkins, “why do you want that letter? It is mine, give it to me,” with Ruiz echoing here by saying “give her the letter—it is here—what do you want with it? Jenkins still refused and she then said that she

took hold of the guitar; accused then rise up and drew his pistol; accused pointed pistol at witness; deceased caught accused by the arm; accused then immediately pointed the pistol back and fired, and deceased fell; accused then went out of the house; deceased had no arms; he was sitting in the room sewing when defendant came.

When Scott took his turn in questioning, Pollorena said the guitar belonged to Ruiz and testified that she did not know was said between him and Jenkins on the latter’s return and that, when the two men were seated, she did not hear what they discussed. She then said that Ruiz told her the letter was being taken with the instrument and that “the affair occurred almost immediately after” as she grabbed it and tried to remove the document, adding that “after the shot accused threw down the guitar on the floor.” She added that “Jenkins pulled out [the] pistol, nd immediately after fired” and, when he did so, Ruiz “was standing close behind him with a hold on his arm,” so that the defendant “pointed [his] pistol back and fired.”

This and the remaining images are from El Clamor Público, 26 July 1856.

Pollorena also testified that “Jenkins did not tell her not to take [the] guitar, only that she must not have the paper” and some questions then were asked about the size of the instrument, with her saying “the opening [is] very large, and she could have easily taken it [the letter] out.” It was then reported that she said that Ruiz “did not attempt to o into [the] room when she took hold of [the] guitar . . . he was standing at [the] door.” Scott was evidently trying to suggest there were two instruments, including a smaller one, but Pollorena denied this.

Next on the stand was Cesaria Navarro de Cotton, age 18 or 19, though her married name was not included in the Star‘s report. Questioned by Thom, she stated that she “was outside of the house” and “saw Ruis [sic] catch hold of Jenkins from behind, and saw him raise [the] pistol and put it backwards.” Cotton, though, “did not see the pistol when it was fired,” though she heard the shot, adding hat “when she saw the pistol pointed she took her child [son James] and left,” concluding “that’s all she saw the defendant doing to [the] deceased.” A parenthetical note in the paper’s summary added, “the witness was very nervous and timid . . . and the principal witness [Pollorena] attempted to tell her wat to say, which, of course, was prevented by [the] defendant’s counsel.”

It was requested that the Court go into a recess and this was down for an hour and, notably, when Cotton’s testimony was resumed it was in his chambers, with the Star noting “there being only those in attendance whose presence was required.” As the district attorney continued his questioning, Cotton said that she “was in the corridor sitting [on] one side of the door” when Jenkins emerged with the guitar and then “sat down were Ruis was.” Just afterward the constable left the dwelling and “after Jenkins had been gone awhile Ruis went out also: with two returning and taking a seat in a room. Ruiz then told Pollorena, who was doing some washing outdoors, to go in to the residence.

After specifically identifying Pollorena as “the lady of the house,” Cotton continued that she and Ruiz went into the structure and “the lady cauht hold of the guitar” as Jenkins sat in a chair, “and Ruiz caught hold of him, while thus seated, at which time [the] accused arose.” From there, the witness, as recorded by the paper, testified, “the first thing witness saw was accused with a pistol in his hand; did not seem him draw it, and then she stepped away; when she heard the pistol fired she hid herself and saw no more.”

While she remembered it was a Saturday and then said she couldn’t be positive that it was, she did not know what the date was, how many days passed since and knew the funeral was on a Monday, but could not recall if it was the prior day or not. When questioned by Scott, Cotton said she was some fifteen feet away from the three and saw that “Maria caught the guitar and Ruis caught the accused,” these actions being simultaneous. Thom then asked about any conversations between Ruiz and Pollorena and she heard nothing, nor did she see Jenkins give any documents to Ruiz.

The defense chose to present no witnesses and the only testimony given after that of Cotton was by Justice of the Peace Gibson who confirmed the writ of attachment, dated the 18th and given to Jenkins, and that it was returned to his office on the 19th with the proper endorsement. County Clerk John W. Shore provided from a file a document from constable George N. Whitman appointing Jenkins as a deputy constable. Thom objected to its introduction as evidence and Hayes “took [the] motion under consideration.”

Coverage of the hearing in El Clamor Público was more condensed than that of its contemporary and nothing was said about Cotton’s nervousness and especially the Star‘s reporting that Pollorena was trying to coach Cotton on her answers, while sometimes there was no indication of which attorney was questioning witnesses. When it came to Pollorena’s testimony, her request for the letter was reprinted in the Spanish-language sheet as being very formal, whereas the Star‘s rendering seemed like it came from notes in shorthand. It does not seem that there was much materially different in terms of the key elements of the affair, other than these areas, but the statement about Pollorena seeking to provide answers for Cotton and the subsequent removal of the witness to Hayes’ chambers is significant.

On Wednesday morning, the judge then issued his decision, after stating he considered publishing his reasons for submitting the case to the Grand Jury when it met the first Monday of August, and observed, as reprinted in El Clamor, that

From the testimony of the two ladies it is clear that the homicide was carried out suddenly without deliberation, and without cold malice; in short, it was done on the spur of the moment. This heat is more easily aroused in a very young person, without much experience in business of this class and somewhat timid—than a man with more experience and more patience. These ladies have proven that the seizure of the guitar, and the shooting by Jenkins happened almost at the same time. Such a case, in our laws, is very different from that kind of cold-blooded, premeditated murder which inspires horror in every honest man, and generally arouses such a feeling in a virtuous community. Every good citizen must conform to the final determination that a grand jury impartially chosen from the mass of citizens, according to law, brings an indictment against the defendant. The distinction between the different degrees of murder, under our laws, must be carefully observed, so that no injustice can be done to the accused, and we ourselves commit a crime while we only intend to punish it in others.   This distinction will be explained later. I am satisfied that this case should be left to the grand jury for its impartial decision based on the testimony, and that the defendant should be allowed to post bond to answer any charges that the grand jury brings against him. Having given such bail in the sum of $3,000, with four responsible bondsmen, you [Jenkins] are free. In the meantime, I hope that all good citizens will consider it their duty to calm public opinion, until the authorities can carefully investigate and finally determine their cause.

With this, we will move to part three and the drama of confrontations between Anglos and Latinos, the formation of a sort of “Committee of Public Safety,” and more, so be sure to join us tomorrow for the continuation of this post.

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