Through the Viewfinder: A Photograph of Chinese Men at Ferguson Alley, Los Angeles, ca. 1890s, Part Five

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we move closer to bringing this post based on a circa 1890s photograph from the Museum’s holdings of Chinese men at Ferguson Alley, likely at its intersection with Los Angeles Street southeast of the Plaza, to a close, we look further at press reports concerning this western end of the Angel City’s Chinatown with the emphasis on prominent property owners and lessees involved in the seedier parts of the area.

This is because a great deal of attention was paid in articles to either the criminality, real or presumed, with drugs, gambling, prostitution and tong violence in the community or the otherness embodied in the exoticism expressed about cultural aspects of the Chinese in Los Angeles, such as with funerals or festivals, whether these latter be for Chinese New Year or triennial religious ones in the fall.

La Crónica, 29 January 1887.

Much of the media fascination was with the prurience of prostitution and, while much of these centered on Chinese men and their tongs or companies using Chinese women as sex slaves, there were other examples of “soiled doves” of various ethnicities living and working in “cribs” in structures owned by individuals, usually men, of other ethnicities. Of these owners, we’ll focus primarily on two: Thiebaud (Theodore) Bauer and Bartolo Ballerino, though Jean Lenert (1848-1900) is also a figure of note.

Lenert, whose naturalization in 1888 included the statement that he was from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, while other sources indicate he was from a nearby part of France or from Belgium, also adjacent, came to America in 1881 and he was in Los Angeles not long afterward. He ran a saloon on Upper Main Street across the Plaza from Chinatown until summer 1890, when he relocated to North Los Angeles Street in Chinatown.

After an ex-police officer died in his establishment, Lenert, whose license was suspended pending an investigation into the incident, moved to Ferguson Alley, setting up his saloon there in fall 1893. Police Chief John M. Glass told the city police commission, which issued licenses, that Lenert ran a respectable establishment and was not to blame for the recent incident. His place was often mentioned in connection with problems involving prostitutes and others in the Alley.

Los Angeles Times, 18 January 1900.

This included the March 1895 incident in which George Green, who was involved in several scrapes in the so-called Tenderloin section and was apparently a bartender for Lenert, was shot at, though missed, by Carrie Smith (a.k.a., Eva King), who identified herself as a “dressmaker,” a common euphemism for a prostitute. Remarkably, Smith was not tried even though she clearly committed the act, as it was explained that she was so close to him she could easily have hit him with one of the three bullets fired, but that the incident was clearly a bluff in the dispute—an uncle took her in his care, which seemed to satisfy authorities!

When Lon Suey was killed around that time, an incident mentioned in this post, a Lenert employee, B.N. Koch, provided a statement to authorities about what he saw and the Los Angeles Herald, which extensively covered Chinatown events, asserted that the saloon, amid what one newspaper account called the “Trust of Sin,” was largely patronized by Chinese and filled with undesirables.

Los Angeles Herald, 30 March 1896.

Koch said he was standing with a police officer at the time of the shooting of Lon Suey, but Lenert warned him against giving any information, especially as another officer named W.A. Bosqui was in the good graces of the tong implicated in the incident. Koch related that Green told me there was no place for him at the saloon and that Lenert said to him, “we’ve got to make our living off of cutthroats and thieves, and you have too much to do with the policemen.” Not surprisingly, Bosqui went on a very public crusade during this period against saloons and owners of buildings in which “cribs” were operating, seeking arrests and convictions for Lenert, Bauer, Ballerino and others.

In April 1896, Lenert wrote to the Herald and disputed allegations about how much control of the red-light district in Chinatown that he wielded, acknowledging he owned seven “cribs,” but adding that he had a five-year lease with Bauer and his wife, Leonie, at $220 a month and expended $10,000 in improvements to the structure. Noting that he had no other property interests whatever in the area, Lenert concluded, “if anyone is envious of my position I will be glad to let him have it for one third of what I have invested in said premises.”

Times, 10 March 1895.

In subsequent years, Lenert’s Ferguson Alley saloon was mentioned in reference to minor crimes alleged to have been committed by Latinos, whites and others, while he was said to have been seen at East Lake Park, now Lincoln Park, in what was then East Los Angeles, now Lincoln Heights, “annoying ladies and young girls.” As the century came to a close, Carrie Smith/Eva King, who was married to Lenert’s bartender, George Green, tried to kill herself by taking poison in front of her spouse. On 17 July 1900, Lenert died of pneumonia in the rear living quarters of his place.

Thiebald Bauer was born about 1846, purportedly in the Alsace-Lorraine region of northeast France, not far from where Lenert hailed. Apparently, he became a skilled Graeco-Roman wrestler in his native country and, by the mid-1870s, was in the United States and built up quite a fearsome reputation in his sport. Jimmy Wheeler, in an article on a wrestling website, noted that he was in San Francisco as early as spring 1874, facing off against challengers there and defeating all comers. One of his notable opponents was “Professor” William Miller and their contests drew large crowds, with Bauer claiming after winning a contest that December that he was the holder of the Pacific Coast Championship, which may have become a national one. Wheeler noted, however, that Miller and Bauer had a partnership in these battles, which would not shock anyone who knows even a modicum about professional wrestling, and, after an early 1875 bout, which was halted because of a fix, the two men left San Francisco.

Times, 27 May 1888.

Bauer ended up in New York later in the year and was part of a “Grand Gladitorial Tournament,” while he and Miller reunited at Baltimore in June 1876 and again at Cincinnati a couple of months later, where Bauer claimed a “World Graeco-Roman Championship” before a large assemblage. The duo fought this same title match in several places, but, in New York, in spring 1877, authorities cracked down on their scheme, even as the men continued their barnstorming in the northeastern part of the country and in Cuba in 1878.

A new opponent sought out Bauer, however, and William Muldoon challenged him to a contest at Madison Square Garden in the Big Apple in early 1880 with several thousands watching. In several contests over the next few years, the young American bested the aging French wrestler and Bauer lost other matches, but won once in a while. By the end of 1883, as he was in his late thirties, Bauer’s career seem to come to an end and he headed back to San Francisco, where Wheeler noted that he invested money from his wrestling career into property in the Tenderloin district.

Herald, 4 October 1888.

What Wheeler did not discuss was that Bauer came under the “guiding hand” of Christopher Buckley, whose loss of vision gave him the moniker of the “Blind Boss,” a reference to his deep involvement as a Democratic Party boss, as well as a saloon-keeper, in San Francisco. Also not mentioned was that Bauer migrated south to Los Angeles by 1887—and, in fact, had another of his matches with Miller. Naturalized in 1884 up north, Bauer registered to vote in the Angel City at the end of June 1888 and gave his profession as “athlete.”

Yet, he soon developed into a significant property owner, no doubt with the “assistance” of Buckley, including the acquisition of an Alameda Street holding near Aliso Street, just south of Ferguson Alley, from attorney Myer J. Newmark, scion of one of the most well-known Jewish families in Los Angeles. This transaction, for $17,000 in November 1891, was under the name of Bauer’s wife, Leonie Desmarett. Over the next several years, Bauer became known as the “King of Little Paree,” a mocking reference to the area with a good many French residents and business owners.

Herald, 4 May 1898.

Leonie died in April 1897 and was given substantial credit for Bauer’s success, though it was also intimated that they were not legally married. She did, however, leave him any interest she had in property in the Angel City. Two years later, a scandal broke out when a woman came to Los Angeles and claimed she’d been married to Bauer from 1876 to 1879, during his career in New York City and subsequent travels elsewhere, and that he abandoned her. Moreover, there was the assertion that he had a second wife before he took up with Leonie Desmarett.

Because this woman claimed a legal marriage, said to be verified by a medium who said she confronted Bauer in front of his Alameda Street property as well as the son of the famous Pinkerton detective agency, she demanded a share of the estate, said to be quite substantial and derived, of course, from the income of the “cribs” as well as any other uses of his holdings. The women even claimed that, when she returned to France, her homeland, as well as Bauer’s, she miraculously got acquainted with a “Mrs. Bauer,” and, seeing a portrait of Theibald in the house, learned it was his mother.

Bauer listed as #43 in the 1900 census at his Alameda Street address with the occupation of “Capitalist.”

Eventually, however, it was determined by a judge in Los Angeles that the claim, which included the allegation that Bauer used the name Claude Alfred Durand in Chicago and New York, and this was the surname claimed by this purported wife, was unfounded and the medium was arrested on a perjury charge. Shortly afterward, however, Bauer’s prodigious drinking and, perhaps, years of physical activity in wrestling ring, led to his dramatic physical and mental decline. Buckley took charge of his protége, who died in an asylum in northern California at the end of 1901, with a media report stating that the cause of death was determined to be toxic meningitis. Check out Wheeler’s very interesting article on the long-time wrestler.

Also a remarkable figure, Bartolo Ballerino (1829-1909) engaged in his own wrestling, though these were bouts in Los Angeles courtrooms over many years. A native of Chile, he was among the many people from his South American country, who headed north to try their hand at the California Gold Rush. Whether from racism and exclusion from the mines or the realization that a better way to make reliable money was at hand, Ballerino wound up in Calaveras County as a merchant when the only California state census was taken in 1852.

Ballerino on line 14 of the 1852 state census in Calaveras County in the center of the California Gold Rush, listed as a merchant from “Chili.”

Within a few years, however, he and his wife María Amparo Salcido, who hailed from another mining center, the northern Mexican state of Sonora, specifically the port city of Guaymas, migrated to Los Angeles. Ballerino wisely acquired 160 acres on the southwestern edge of the pueblo limits, spending just $1.25 an acre, and he and Amparo settled on what is now the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Hoover Street. There they raised ten children as well as tended vineyards and made wine, with Ballerino’s occupation given as wine manufacturer in the 1860 census.

Around this time, Ballerino’s relations with local Latinos was such that he loaned money and became estate executors to some, including José Vicente Guerrero, who owned property on Calle de los Negros, and who borrowed money from Ballerino in 1861. After Guerrero’s death, Ballerino was executor and took possession of that property, keeping it for decades. While some sources suggest that prostitution was carried out in his “Negro Alley,” or “Nigger Alley” as white racists called it, domain from very early on in his ownership, this information was not public until near the end of the century.

Los Angeles Southern News, 6 June 1862,

With his suburban ranch, which was his residence, and his holdings on the Calle, Ballerino amassed significant wealth, though this really was not manifested until the great Boom of the Eighties came after a direct transcontinental link was made to Los Angeles at the end of 1885. As property values skyrocketed over the next few years, his net worth climbed accordingly, though Ballerino chafed at the assessments doled out by the board of equalization. A candidate for public office a few times, always finishing at the bottom of the ballot, Ballerino developed a penchant for legal controversies, with local officials and neighbors.

At the Calle, after protesting the intended removal of the Chinese in the mid-Seventies and then the destruction of most of it a little more than a decade later, which left him with his property along a remnant of the thoroughfare, where the terrible Chinese Massacre of October 1871 took place, he battled for many years with the neighboring Bigelow family. Expending a large sum to retain attorneys, usually the irascible and entertaining Horace Bell, Ballerino basically lost his effort to claim more of the location for himself and incurred suits filed by Bell for non-payment of fees.

Times, 12 July 1909.

He was taken to court by local officials, as well, on several occasions, including for non-payment of taxes and he usually appealed these to the state supreme court and, again, generally came out on the losing end of these battles. In 1887, he was charged for malicious mischief for allegedly poisoning a neighbor’s chickens, though it is not known what the adjudication of that matter involved. Later, when the City wanted to extend streets through his property west of town, Ballerino fought those efforts, though much of the land was sold in the late Nineties for the Lone Star Tract and where the exclusive Westmoreland Place subdivision was created.

His biggest legal battle, at least in terms of media coverage, was undoubtedly the divorce petition filed by Amparo in 1896, after more than 40 years of marriage. What was not know to the papers as the proceeding was played out was that, in 1862, Ballerino filed a notice in the paper stating that his wife had abandoned him and he was not responsible for any of her claimed interests in such financial dealings as the Guerrero property on the Calle. Yet, almost thirty-five years later, she sought a share of that and the other family holdings.

Times, 13 April 1895.

Typically, Ballerino dug in his heels and, even when ordered to pay some court costs and temporary alimony during the litigation, he refused and was jailed for contempt of court. At one point, Horace Bell announced, Ballerino agreed to deed his wife a half-interest, but, when her attorney, showed up to the ranch to finalize the agreement, Ballerino dallied. Yet, the judge ruled against Amparo, denying her a decree of divorce, and enabling Ballerino to retain control of his property, though she later sued over the half-interest. The couple remained in the same household until his July 1909 death, however, and she followed at the end of that year.

As for his Chinatown holdings, Ballerino was arrested in 1895 during the crackdown by local officers, though a judge tossed out the charges because officials did not conform to state laws applicable to houses of ill-fame requiring proper public notices. When Amparo filed for divorce, the Herald of 11 February 1896, noting his miserly predilections, added “he owns a great deal of property on Alameda street and portions of it are leased to women of the half-world” while it reported that “two of his daughters are themselves occupants of cribs in the district known as ‘Little Paree.'”

Los Angeles Express, 10 February 1896.

It is not clear if the paper insinuated that Ballerino’s daughters were prostitutes, but it was reported by it and others that Amparo’s grounds for divorce was adultery, as a Belgian woman named only as Anne, residing on Alameda, was “destroying her domestic peace.” Ballerino countered that Anne was merely his rent collector because the denizens of the dens of iniquity would not accept having to pay to a man. Notably, however, a son, Richard, was convicted of disturbing the pace for digging up the front of some cribs and piling up debris to block access to the doors in disputes with the “soiled doves” who lived and worked in them. An 1895 Herald expose, titled “The Seamy Side of Los Angeles,” recorded that a two-room crib rented for about $15 per week.

In May 1909, the Herald observed that Ballerino, the reputed “king of the red-light district” was found in a small room on Paradise Alley off the Alameda Street portion of his holdings and was in a bad way. It was noted that, “with the closing of the crib district five years ago,” his dominance in Chinatown had been erased, but it also asserted

Ballerino reigned absolute and undisputed in the lower world of this city and his houses, which were used for immoral purposes, were known the world over. Holding absolute sway in his garish and sodden kingdom, Ballerino was a power in politics and courted by men who at that time were seeking favor at the hands of the people . . . For the past two years Ballerino has been living in one of his squalid little shanties in the old crib district, known as Ballerino court of Paradise alley. He lived alone, doing his own cooking and bed making, and the place was wretchedly dirty and foul.

There is much exaggeration here (it was still the days of “yellow journalism”) about his control of the red-light district, his “worldwide” reputation, and his political power—he lost badly in the races in which he run and nothing was found that showed outsized influence on his part. The Herald, along with its contemporaries, the Express, the Record, and the Times, often sensationalized the situation in Chinatown, though there was plenty of vice and violence, to be sure.

Times, 25 February 1896.

Unconscious and paralyzed, Ballerino was taken to California Hospital and lingered until his death under two months later, but the Times called him the one-time “Emperor of Chinatown” and “king of the cribs” as well as “one of the most notorious characters in the Southwest.” Adding that “his disgusting business reaped for him a rich harvest,” the paper continued that, until a half-dozen years prior, he was “the tenderloin boss” and described its denizens as “wretched inmates [who] cowered or smiled in hope of gaining his favor.”

Ballerino was mocked for his devoted attention to his hair and efforts to get it to grow back, while he dyed it a “shade of crushed strawberry.” It was stated that, after the closing of the cribs, Amparo secured a divorce and had almost no contract with him afterward, but was allowing his funeral to be held from her home on Pico and Menlo Avenue. It was claimed that, even in his dotage, Ballerino hired housekeepers and offered marriage, but reneged, leading to breach of promise suits, sometimes paying settlements. It ended the account by commenting, again with exaggerated effect, “Ballerino was known in every city on the Pacific Coast because of the nefarious traffic by which he made his money.”

Herald, 16 May 1909.

While it was intended for this part five to be the last, there is more to share about Ferguson Alley and the Chinatown area around it, so we’ll come back tomorrow with the concluding sixth part. Please check back then and also read this fascinating article by Hadley Meares, with remarkable illustrations, on early Los Angeles prostitution.

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