“The Leaders Boldly Avowed Their Intentions and Indulged in the Fiercest Maledictions Against the Americans”: The Killing of Antonio Ruiz by Deputy Constable William W. Jenkins, Los Angeles, 19 July 1856, Part Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Amid the legal proceedings that followed the 19 July 1856 shooting death of Antonio Ruiz at the hands of deputized constable William W. Jenkins, namely the coroner’s inquest and the preliminary hearing at the District Court, considerable tensions arose in Los Angeles between the Spanish-speaking community and Anglos, with the former angered by the killing and demanding justice and the latter rife with rumors about the intentions of those who gathered to discuss next steps.

Some of this was mentioned in the first part of this post, but both Angel City newspapers, the Star and El Clamor Público, but here we’ll focus on the anger, fear, rumor and action that swirled through the town and could well have led to a unprecedented level of violence. For the Star, its portion of the general coverage of the homicide and surrounding events included a subsection titled “Threatened Attack of the Town” in which it was averred that on Tuesday, following the hearing,

About sundown, rumors began to prevail, of meetings among the lowest and most abandoned of Sonorians and Mexicans, and that they were to attack the town that night. These reports were confirmed . . . Crowds were detected in several suspicious places, and at last about nine o’clock, all had withdrawn to their rendezvous, a hill [Fort Moore] behind the church, from which it was intended to march in, attack the jail and sack the town. This plan had been determined during the day, and warning to that effect had been sent to certain citizens whom they did not wish to overwhelm in the general destruction. The leaders boldly avowed their intentions and indulged in the fiercest maledictions against the Americans, stating their determination to wipe them out and sack the town.

The paper continued, notably, by recording that “meanwhile, our citizens were not idle” as “every man who could procure a gun or pistol, went to the aid of the Sheriff, D[avid]. W. Alexander, who had his rendezvous at the jail the point of the anticipated attack.” Alexander, a close friend of William Workman and the Temple family, took office as sheriff at the end of 1855, and had one deputy, Charles E. Hale. In town, there was the Marshal William C. Getman and his deputies, William Peterson and Eli Smith—these five men comprised the entirety of law enforcement in Los Angeles at that time, though there were two constables each in the several outlying townships and it is not known if any were summoned to help.

With the heading of “Siezure [sic] of Arms,” it was stated that “a party of banditti called at the residence of the Roman Catholic Priest,” the Rev. Anacleto Lestrade, who was the pastor at the Plaza Church from 1851 to 1856, “and while one or two others engaged him in conversation, the others ransacked the house, and carried of about a dozen stand of arms and a small brass cannon.” This news did not reach Sheriff Alexander until the following day and it is certainly interesting to ponder why there were so many guns and, especially, a cannon in the priest’s house.

“Alarm of Families” reported that rumor of an attacking having been purportedly verified, “the utmost consternation” was found among residents on the town’s fringes, with it added that some abandoned their dwellings and went into the city while “others congregated together for mutual protection.” The subsection, “Remonstrances with the Mob,” stated that “several gentlemen rode up, from time to time, to the hill where the insurgents were drawn up, to remonstrate with them on the madness of their course.” Even if there was some effect, the paper added, these “were immediately counteracted by the captain, a Frenchman [Fernando Carriaga], who ordered them to leave the hill.”

Included among those who attempted to dissuade the “insurgents” were José Rubio, who was a major property owner of Paredon Blanco (White Bluff) which became Boyle Heights; Pedro Romo; Juan Padilla, a prominent Californio leader of the period; and Tomás Sánchez, who was distinguished in the defense of the region from the American invasion during the Mexican-American War a decade before and who was the longest-serving sheriff for many years, holding that office from 1859-1867.

Speaking of the sheriff, the paper noted that, from 9 p.m. onwards, Alexander, along with Getman, Peterson and Smith “were unceasing in their efforts to gain information of the movements of the mob [a decidedly different description from “insurgents”], and arranging plans for their reception.” What was meant by the statement that “these gentlemen exposed themselves freely” during their reconnaissance efforts was not explicated, however. Meanwhile, there was reference to “all kinds of rumors” passed along by “horsemen galloping up and down the streets” with this activity said to have “tended to keep up the excitement,” but the Star added,

There was no provocation of the mob—there was no excuse for their premeditated attack, but the people awaited quietly the course of events; not desirous to be the aggressors, they resolved to deal out a terrible retribution.

At midnight, the account continued, Getman and Peterson on their horses, along with up to a half-dozen residents on foot, rode toward the hill “for the purpose of ascertaining the position and force of the mob,” which was assumed to contain up to 300 armed persons, a significant number on horseback.

It was then stated that as Getman and the others approached, “the mob were put in motion towards the town” and the marshal ordered his group to retreat, but “it appears he stopped too far behind, as the scouts from the insurgents came in sight of him, recognized him and fired.” The marshal returned fire, as did the citizens, and continued to return down the hill. The paper then recorded that it as a quartet of “mounted Mexicans” who shot at Getman, who sustained a flesh wound on the head and fell from his horse, which was also hit. As he lay on the ground, the report went on, “these ruffians rode past him, each firing at him [a total of fifteen shots], and then fled towards their crowd, which by this time had reached the Plaza.” A short report stated that, until Friday evening, “this gentleman remained in a very low condition,” but that Getman was expected to soon return to work.

The subheading “Arrival of the Military” reads as if detachments from local U.S. Army posts rode into town, something that did happen in 1851 in what is generally known as the Lugo Case, briefly discussed in a prior post here though we’ll look to expand on that in a future one. Instead, however, this refers to something less organized, as the Star stated that, with an alarm raised after the Getman shooting, “the military company [of citizens] on duty at the jail, having first removed the prisoner [where he was taken was unstated], marched up to the Plaza.” By the time they arrived, perhaps within several minutes, “the other party had marched off, to the shrill notes of a fife,” and, apparently, dispersed by “leaving the town in different directions.” The “military company” rode through town and the immediate outskirts but without finding any of the “insurgents.”

During these events, nursery owner Ozro W. Childs volunteered to ride to El Monte for help and he headed out at 1 a.m. Nine hours later, some three dozen men from that San Gabriel Valley settlement, largely populated by Americans from the Southern states and known for its loose confederation of “Monte Boys” who regularly joined posses in pursuit of criminals but whose actions were often in the vein of vigilantism, reached town “and were received with loud cheers” as they awaited “whatever duty might be required of them.” The paper noted that on that Wednesday morning, “a number of prisoners were arrested, and lodged in the jail.” With no indication of how many, under what charge, or what degree of legality, these persons were apprehended, it was merely concluded that “Judge Hayes examined them in the evening, and discharged them all but two.”

Wednesday afternoon brought the creation of further “military companies,” beyond the existing Los Angeles Rangers, which had a state charter as a militia and was known for its tracking down or attempts to of accused criminals, and the City Guards. The latter were in the command of attorney and judge Myron Norton, who was briefly noted in part one as a member of the regiment of volunteers from New York who came during the last phases of the Mexican-American War and who was key figure in the writing of California’s first constitution in 1849.

The Harvard-educated Norton was also the first justice of the peace and Superior Court judge in San Francisco. In the 1850-1851 wars with Indian chief Antonio Garra, Norton was an associate of militia General Joshua Bean (who was killed at San Gabriel in fall 1852—a future post here will cover that incident). In 1854, he served as Los Angeles County Judge, but, when he ran the next year for a seat state Supreme Court he was said to have been found drunk and lost the election. He resumed his legal practice, but a series of strokes left him “a mental and physical wreck” and he died in the county hospital in 1886.

Co-commander with Norton was Walter H. Harvey, a native of Georgia who was kicked out of West Point for demerits and came to Gold Rush California from Alabama. A lawyer, Harvey developed a reputation as an “Indian fighter” in the Tulare County area, but his viciousness towards the indigenous people led to a conflict with Indian agent Thomas D. Savage, who Harvey shot and killed in a fight, though he was acquitted in trial on the grounds of self-defense. Harvey came south and became a prominent figure in Los Angeles, marrying in 1859 the sister of druggist and land speculator John G. Downey, serving as a federal land office registrar and, when Downey became governor, secured a patronage position as immigration commissioner until his sudden death in August 1861.

Heading a “Citizens’ Company” was Dr. John S. Griffin, a Virginia native who counted the famed explorer William Clark (of Lewis and Clark) as an uncle. He earned his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, practiced at Louisville, Kentucky for a few years and was with the invading American army force led by Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny during the recent war. After leaving the service in 1854, he returned to Los Angeles and married the sister of Judge Hayes. Griffin was not only a prominent doctor (he employed Biddy Mason, brought to Los Angeles as a slave and freed in a hearing by Judge Hayes earlier in 1856 and who became a major figure in the Black community of the Angel City), but a real estate investor, including what became East Los Angeles, now Lincoln Heights, and Pasadena, and a major community figure at large.

In command of the Los Angeles Rangers was John Quincy Adams (known commonly as “J.Q.A.”) Stanley, who was born in Maine at the end of 1818 and was one of the hordes of “argonauts” who came to California in the Gold Rush in 1849. Coming to Los Angeles shortly afterward, he was a charter member and leader of the Rangers. He worked for some years as an agent of Phineas Banning and Benjamin D. Wilson at their forwarding and commission business at the harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington, was a federal special Indian agent, served as Los Angeles County assessor as a Union candidate just after the Civil War ended. After three years, he became a farmer on land annexed in 1872 below the south end of the city and an insurance agent. Not long before his death in 1884, he became a charter of the Historical Society of Southern California.

Also reported on were the “Mounted Californians” led by Andrés Pico, general during the late war and who commanded the victory of the Californios at San Pasqual in December 1846. He and twenty Latinos went “to scour the hills and ravines” near town and returned with “a Frenchman, one of those in command of the insurgents,” and who was spotted “on the road near the Mission [San Gabriel].” This was Carriaga, who fled and was captured at a nearby house. Pico and his men “had a most harrassing duty, having ridden fully seventy miles during the search.” He was examined on Friday before Judge Hayes with Padilla, Peterson, Romo and a fourth person as witnesses and it was stated, “the testimony proved him to be the leader of the Mexicans who took the arms from the Padre, that he was with the insurgents on the hill, and that he was designated as captain.”

On Wednesday evening, the Star reported, “a most audacious attempt to kill one of our citizens was made . . . by a couple of mounted Mexicans.” This pair was riding down Commercial Street, east of Main, at 9 p.m. and seeing two men crossing the thoroughfare, fired and them, with one hit in the ear. The horse riders then took flight “and swept out of town.” On Thursday, the local committee formed to protect the town met, but it was not known “what course of proceedings the have adopted,” while during the day, the Rangers patrolled “the country for miles around.”

With continuing watches and patrols at night, “all was peace and quietness,” something that continued on Friday as “the town assumed its usual peaceful [interesting to see given how much violence and conflict took place during the Fifties] character,” the Rangers were on the lookout, and “the citizens, relieved from their alarms, engaged in their usual occupations.” Even when the Saturday edition of the Star was published on the 26th, though, there was a notice to “The Citizens of Los Angeles to enroll as police officers for night duty, comprised of twenty men each evening,” with this to be done at the Masonic Lodge on Main Street—this 1854 structure still stands next to the Merced Theatre and Pico House hotel, both built in 1869-1870.

We’ll return tomorrow with part four and coverage of the week after the killing by the Spanish-language paper, El Clamor Público.

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