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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The sixth and final part of this post on the Chinatown in Los Angeles that included a newer section east of Alameda Street where Union Station is now and the older portion that was between that thoroughfare and the Plaza, including the remnant of Calle de los Negros, a street named for a dark-skinned Latino but which, in the American era, was racist rendered into Negro, or Nigger, Alley, looks mainly at the 20-foot wide Ferguson Alley.

This short passage between Los Angeles Street (including the part of the Alley that still existed) and Alameda was named for William Ferguson, who owned the land, and came into being by 1890. As prior posts have noted, it was lined by structures largely inhabited by Chinese, including those who ran stores, saloons, restaurants or were members of one of the companies, or tongs or had other ties to the place.

Los Angeles Herald, 3 June 1896.

Yet, there was a polyglot population in Chinatown, including those who patronized businesses run not just by the Chinese but those of other ethnic groups, with the French-born Jean Lenert discussed in the last part, or in buildings owned by them, including Thiebaud (Theodore) Bauer, also from France, and Bartolo Ballerino, a native of Chile, as well as some Anglos.

Media coverage focused largely on the Chinese and usually in terms reeking of racism, steeped in sarcasm, or immersed in exoticism with an emphasis placed on the sordid and seamy sides of life dealing with drugs (opium, in particular, though we can include alcohol, as well), gambling and prostitution, whether many of these reports were accurate or not. Sensationalism was a core component of the era’s “yellow journalism” and the Angel City’s papers partook in the practice.

There were, though, instances in which persons of other ethnicities were mentioned, again, generally for crimes and misdemeanors committed in Chinatown, including in Ferguson Alley. What this tends to show is that in a city section where there was high poverty, low resources and a notable lack of economic, political and social opportunity, there should be no surprise that crime was at elevated levels and, when it comes to the triple crown of sin: drink/drugs, gambling and prostitution, hardly a shock that those partaking were representative of the Angel City’s ethnic diversity.

Los Angeles Record, 25 March 1897.

African-Americans who were found in press accounts pertaining to the Alley and nearby locales included Hardy Moulton, with the Los Angeles Herald of 3 June 1896 observing that the “lean, lank Negro, who is said to be a hypo fiend [injecting drugs, likely cocaine, with a hypodermic needle]” pled guilty for the theft of halters, of headcollars for horses, after he was nabbed in Ferguson Alley by a police officer named Lennon.

The 25 March 1897 edition of the Los Angeles Record noted that

Mrs. Bunkey is a col[ore]d lady who resides in the somewhat select locality of Ferguson alley, and who carried beer and other desirable necessities to the fair denizens of Little Paree [Paris, as parts of Chinatown were called, as well as the local Tenderloin District].

While plying her avocation she chanced to enter a small store on Alameda street where cigarettes and other things are kept, and during her stay ther[e] the proprietor took occasion to tell her that she was a Hoo-doo, and not a desirable ornament to his establishment.

The term appears to have meant that she was viewed as a practitioner of black magic found in the Hoodoo tradition of enslaved Africans in the American South, though it was not explained whether this was the case. What was stated was that Mrs. Bunkey was offended and called the owner “high sounding names, many of which were left out of the Scriptures on account of their sensational significance.”

A San Quentin State Prison mug book page with the center images being of John Hyers, convicted of a burglary charge related to the theft of clothes from a Ferguson Alley crib—a crime for which Hyers received five years.

The ripostes continued after she went out onto Alameda and was then arrested by a pair of officers, whose action, the Record went on, had the effect to “purify the atmosphere of that part of town.” Found guilty of disturbing the peace, Bunkey was handed down the sentence of a $10 fine or ten days in jail, but reportedly told the justice at the city police court that “I’ll just stay in jail and you won’t get none of my money either” as she sat down and awaited being taken to the lockup.

The Los Angeles Express of 16 May 1898 reported that barber John Hyers, nicknamed “Jumbo,” was hauled before a justice of the same court and, after a preliminary hearing, was held to answer before the superior court on a burglary charge and bail set at $1,000. It was stated that Hyers and “a negro prize-fighter” known only as “Swifty” were accused of robbing a Black man from Cucamonga of $60 as they “were showing him the sights” in town, though there was not enough proof “to make the case stick.”

Officers were more confident, however, that, two or so weeks prior, Hyers “burglarized the crib [of prostitution] of a woman named Lillie Smith on Ferguson alley, and stole a lot of wearing apparel.” An investigation was said to have revealed that the clothing was found “in the room of a negro prostitute, with whom Hyers had been consorting” at the Buena Vista House on New High Street, across the Plaza to the west at the base of Fort Moore Hill.

A 1920s snapshot from the Homestead’s collection of Los Angeles Street, with the west end of Ferguson Alley at center left between the two power poles.

Allegedly, Smith and the other woman, later said to be Emma Freeman, identified the clothing in question. A Black man, James Stewart, was the main prosecution witness at a July trial with the Express saying testimony was provided by those who were salt (white) and pepper (Black), and Hyers was sentenced to five years at San Quentin. He served a little more than 3 1/2 years and was released in February 1902 and the Stockton native returned to his hometown, married, continued as a barber and died there of tuberculosis in 1913.

The 9 May 1899 edition of the Los Angeles Times reported that “L. Hopkins” caused a commotion in a Ferguson Alley saloon and, when a deputy constable counseled him to leave, it was stated that Hopkins came back and attacked the officer. The charge, however, was disturbing the peace, substantially lighter than an assault on a peace officer and Hopkins was fined $10 or ten days on the chain gang.

Los Angeles Times, 9 May 1899.

The same article observed that Francisco Escaler Lala, said to be an indigenous person, was picked up by an officer “wandering around Ferguson alley with a jag [a sharp instrument] and a big gun in his possession” and was fined $5 or “the usual alternative,” meaning five days in jail, though it was not said what the charge was for which Lala was convicted. The Times, however, identified the man as Francisco Escalero (Escalera), referring to him as “a drunken Indian,” and said that, when he was arrested at 1 a.m., “the customary search brought to light a huge, old-fashioned cap-and-ball six-shooter that his ancestors probably obtained from the first Argonauts,” meaning the Gold Rush ’49ers of half a a century prior.

A trio of reports from the last year of the 19th century involved Latino men nabbed at the Alley. The 4 February 1900 issue of the Times included the report that P.N. Estrada “drank a lot of bad whisky” and was emboldened enough to “clean out Chinatown.” An officer showed up as it was said that Estrada “was trying to put several Chinese to sleep in Ferguson Alley with the assistance of cobblestones”—it seems clear that beat writers sought to amuse themselves, their colleagues and editors and the reading public with jaunty descriptions of common, and often horrible, events.

Times, 4 February 1900.

In fact, the account continued that Estrada was so “drunk and excited that he could not tell a policeman from a pelican” and resisted arrest so that Officer Richards “found it necessary to tap him on the head with a club.” So restrained, “the obstreperous paisano was carted off to the lockup,” but then transferred to the hospital for the “tap” before being booked on a battery charge and a hearing at the police court—no adjudication was found in the matter, however.

The same paper of 15 September reported on José F. Jaramillo, who made “a sensational escape” from the jail at Albuquerque, New Mexico the prior summer after being confined for the alleged murder of a teenage boy. A pair of Los Angeles police officers “secured a clew” that led them to a local search that proved fruitless, until

Officer Singleton was looking around Chinatown when he espied the man he wanted, standing in front of a saloon on Ferguson Alley . . . he promptly seized the suspect and lodged him in the City Jail . . . the man [who gave as name as José Aveita] arrested is a Mexican, with Indian blood in his veins . . . and exactly resembles the picture on file . . . he was also identified by certain scars on his chest and shoulders.

The account concluded that the sheriff at Albuquerque was notified by telegram and asked for the suspect to be held while an officer was sent out by train for the Angel City. A few days later, the Express reported, Jaramillo was in tow with the New Mexico officer back to face a likely execution by hanging—he was, however, sentenced instead to 35 years.

The mug shots at Folsom State Prison of Carlos Hernández (a.k.a., Antonio Reyes).

Lastly, the Express of 16 October recorded that “an under-sized, swarthy, pock-marked Mexican” was picked up as he entered a Ferguson Alley saloon and held as a possible fugitive from Kern County wanted for the August murder at Kern City near Bakersfield of another Latino. Identified as Antonio Reyes, though he gave his true name of Carlos Hernández, the suspect was released the day prior to his arrest after being confined in jail for five days on a charge of vagrancy at San Fernando.

The constable for the town and township at San Fernando, Pedro (Peter) López, son of the owners of an adobe that is a city historic landmark, recognized Hernández based on descriptions and contacted the Kern County sheriff, who asked that a photo be taken. This was not done, however, before the five day sentence was served and the prisoner released with the paper commenting “the authorities did not appear to be very anxious to get him before he was released.” After the arrest in Ferguson Alley, however, a deputy was sent down from Bakersfield to take Hernández back for trial. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sent to Folsom State Prison, where he served a life sentence.

Herald, 1 January 1893.

As for Anglos involved in criminal activity in the Alley and adjacent areas, a couple of examples have been noted in previous parts of this post, such as the 1895 shooting of a few bullets by Eva Green at her husband George, a bartender at Jean Lenert’s saloon, a frequent locale for legal problems. On New Year’s Even 1892, Santa Ana resident I.H. Harris ventured up to “see the town,” but “seems to have ignored all other sights except Chinatown.” He claimed all he did was to call out to a Chinese man, “Hello, John,” a common pejorative.

At this, the latter “turned and used some very vigorous language,” said to be “neither Chinese nor English” and Harris claimed that the man pulled out a knife so “he ran rather than to be carved up.” The Chinese man, however, retorted that it was Harris who flashed the weapon. When the justice asked the defendant his reply to the charge of disturbing the peace, Harris answered that he would tell his story “and then you can judge for yourself,” though whether the use of the verb was a comedic play on the noun was not stated. Harris did request that the jurist not be “too hard on me” and “was let off with a fine of $10″—one wonders what would have been the sentence if a Chinese man was the defendant and the victim a white man.

The mug shot and registration information for Harry Coyne at Folsom.

The Herald of 28 October 1895 reported that putative private detective Harry Coyne, who figured in a witness bribery incident earlier in the year following the shooting death of tong leader Lon Suey, “was in a gambling resort on Ferguson alley on business,” the nature of which was not disclosed. When a white employee sauntered up and asked Coyne to join in a game and Coyne demurred, the former apparently started to evict the detective from the premises.

Coyne floored the gent and another white man who joined in also “got the worst of the fight,” but, the paper added, “several Chinamen caught Mr. Coyne by the back and held him” while his adversaries bolted into the Alley.” The detective apparently broke free, caught up to the two white men “and soon had them whipped,” though he had a cut inflicted on his temple during the fracas. Coyne, said to be all of 18 years old when he arrived in Los Angeles from Colorado (where he was alleged to have been involved in a killing as well as one involving the famous Dalton gang in Kansas), ended up being convicted for the dynamiting of the house of capitalist Thomas D. Stimson—for this Coyne got five years at Folsom from which he was discharged in January 1900 and you can read more about him in this interesting blog post.

Times, 29 August 1896. The end of the story wound up being considerably different and Officer James not quite a hero.

At the end of August 1896, there were reports in the Herald and Times about a deputy constable, identified only by the surname of James, who took his wife and a female friend to Chinatown “to view the new joss house [temple] just opened on Los Angeles street—the previous one burned in the spring as noted in a previous part of this post. As the trio sauntered down Ferguson Alley, “Louis Briggs, who was loafing in a shooting gallery, espied the ladies” and “began flirting with them,” which involved the “masher” having “whistled snatches of various suggestive songs” as he “smirked and tipped his hat.”

With these ladies deemed “eminently respectable and not accustomed to such familiarities,” James’ “blood boiled,” and he asked his wife and her friend to continue their walk while he confronted Briggs. The latter bluntly informed James that his actions were “none of your — business” and then apparently reached for one of the weapons. The officer soon had cuffs on Briggs and a revolver aimed at him with the order “now lay down, won’t you, or I’ll let daylight through you.” The “masher” was hauled off to jail and charged with disturbing the peace. Yet, while James was accounted a hero in this initial report, Briggs was acquitted as it turned out that there was “but slight foundation” and the constable was criticized for his “very peculiar conduct.”

Herald, 27 May 1897.

In late May 1897, the Herald reported on two private investigators, Frank Flood and James Benedict (a third man was later implicated, as well), who “after acquiring a good sized jag,” meaning getting drunk, “they started to make the round of the Chin[e]se s[t]ores, and by threatening the Celestials with arrest, compel[led] them to dig up [money] in order to keep from going to the police station.” This included threatening Gin Suey at his Ferguson Alley store and then trying their shakedown scheme on the neighboring establishment of Ah Toy, with a gun pointed to the merchant’s face. Both gave a few dollars to the detectives, but Ah Toy flagged down officers at First and Main, a fair distance away. Due, however, to uncertainties in the applicability of statutes on extortion, all three defendants had their cases dismissed a couple of months later.

The Herald of 9 March 1897 covered the arrest of three men in Ferguson Alley “for raising a row with some of the painted denizens of the cribs” for which they were subject to a charge of disturbing the peace. Louis Brisebat, however, filed a complaint that the men pummeled him in a fight, though no adjudication was located in the matter. On New Year’s evening 1898, “S. Pierce” wandered intoxicated in the Alley and “ran amuck among the soiled doves, breaking doors and windows, and wound up blacking the eyes” of French-born Adele Elus “in the most cold-blooded manner.” She chased him with a broomstick and hit him so that he fell and cut his nose on a rock and Pierce was arrested and given 50 days in jail.

Los Angeles Express, 29 November 1898.

At the end of November, young Charles Sherman, apparently 14-years old and dubbed the “Precocious Prodigal” by the Times was arrested after absconding with $11.50 from his mother and “spending the money n riotous living in the cribs on Ferguson alley.” Having launched early in his desire to “sow his wild oats,” Sherman was apprehended and the officer forced the prostitute the young man was with to return the money he paid her, while the boy’s mother did not want to charge him for petty larceny, so Sherman was held for violating curfew and sentenced to 60 days with the possibility of suspension for good behavior.

These are some of the many examples of instances of criminal behavior, real or not, in Ferguson Alley in Chinatown reported in the Los Angeles press during the 1890s and which show that ethnic diversity marked many of these. There were crackdowns on the cribs in the early part of the following decade, but the Alley and the west end of Chinatown continued to exist until “urban renewal” took place after World War II, including the connection of Los Angeles Street to Alameda Street, the establishment of what is now Father Serra Park, and, especially, the building of ramps for U.S. 101 as it was built through the area.

Times, 14 February 1951.

In early February 1951, the demolition of 19 structures, including those on Ferguson Alley and the Vicente Lugo Adobe on Los Angeles Street facing the Plaza, was undertaken. Ray Zeman of the Times commented that “it’s an atmosphere that Edgar Allan Poe . . . would love” with “Narrow stairways. Dark corridors. Winding runways. Buzzers and secret wires to signal the coming of police.” Zeman added that “to sentimentalists, it is a shock.” The Daily News noted that there were attempts to “convert the site into an ‘all nations’ settlement of bazaars, restaurants, museums and restoration of the Lugo House,” of which the entry door and pillars where to go to Loyola Marymount University, the predecessor of which, St. Vincent’s College, began in the structure in 1865.

Timothy G. Turner of the Times did offer a lengthy lament in his column with the headline reading “Progress Is Laying the Plaza Low.” He allowed that it was not realistic to save the entre district, but offered that “some of it might have been saved as period pieces.” He noted that “what was Ferguson Alley . . . is now, of all things, a parking lot,” this tucked into the onramp from Los Angeles Street to the 101 North, and he opined that “San Francisco or New Orleans, I think, would have saved Ferguson Alley.” He went on,

This narrow street, built on a slope rising from the east to the Plaza, was one of the purest relics of the Old West in existence—and they had to tear it down to make a parking lot! Until recent years it was the Chinatown, and it had shops, restaurants, a Buddhist temple and a tong house which faced the Plaza itself.

All, all are gone.

This post has, hopefully, provided some interesting and instructive information on Ferguson Alley and its central place in the Los Angeles Chinatown of the late 19th century, seeking to provide a diversity of accounts, sensationalist or otherwise, relating to the Chinese and persons of other ethnicities in the community during the so-called Gilded Age. We’ll continue to share artifacts from the Homestead’s collection related to the Chinese in future posts, so be sure to keep an eye out for those.

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