“Will the Law be Left Almost Without Force?”: The Trial of William W. Jenkins for the Killing of Antonio Ruiz, August 1856, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A six-part post here last month went into detail about the shooting death of Antonio Ruiz by deputized constable William W. Jenkins, who was serving a process of attachment of property to satisfy a $50 debt owned by Ruiz and, when confronted by Ruiz’ common-law wife, María Candelaria Pollorena, over his seizure of a guitar and then was grabbed by Ruiz, pulled out a pistol and fired over his should, mortally wounding Ruiz, who died a day later.

As that post noted, the reaction among Latinos was strong, with anger and frustration leading to calls to storm the city and county jail where Jenkins was confined and lynch him, while Anglo and elite Californio citizens formed a committee to prevent this and “defend” the pueblo. A brief skirmish took place near the Plaza, with Marshal William C. Getman suffering a flesh wound from a bullet fired at him, but large-scale violence was avoided.

The coverage of these incidents varied significantly with the Los Angeles Star, edited by Henry Hamilton, expressing its regret about Ruiz’ death, but also taking a moderated position on Jenkins, while the Spanish-language El Clamor Público, published by the brilliant young Francisco P. Ramirez, called the shooting a murder and commenting strongly on the conditions involving Latinos and their treatment in the Angel City.

El Clamor Público, 2 August 1856.

As for those Latinos that gathered on Fort Moore Hill amid angry counsel about what to do, they were said to be led by Fernando Carriaga, a native of France, who fled towards San Gabriel and was captured near the mission town by Andrés Pico, hero of the Californio defense during the Mexican-American War and member of the elite aligned with prominent Americans including the Democrats who controlled local politics, and his men.

In its edition of 2 August, El Clamor recorded that Carriaga was held on a charge of an intent to commit murder and was released on $2,000 bail. The paper added that

Now the most perfect tranquility reigns and everyone hopes that it will always remain so. The military companies that were formed no longer see visions of Mexicans, and each one has left his pistol or rifle [at home] to follow his different occupations.

As for the Star of that date, its “Local” section began with the hopeful note that “the city and vicinity, during the past week has been rejoicing in its usual quietude” and that “no trace o the late riotous disposition of a portion of the population, can be traced.” With nightly patrols by deputy marshals William H. Peterson and Eli Smith, the paper expressed confidence “that everything that can be done to preserve order and counteract the designs of the evil disposed and riotous, will be performed with alacrity by those entrusted with the protection of the peace and safety of the city.” The Los Angeles Rangers were reported to have disbanded as its members “were informed their services were not required,” though the City Guards “have permanent organized” and elected Myron Norton, one of the defense counsel for Jenkins, as its captain.

Los Angeles Star, 2 August 1856.

Yet, it also reported that some Americans “patrolling the country” near San Gabriel were shot at by a group of Latinos, with one bullet going through the coat of John R. Evertsen, a resident of that locality and best known as the sole enumerator in the badly-undercounted 1850 census. The Americans fired back and chased the Latinos “but no trace of the party could be discovered.” As to Marshal Getman, he was said to still be in bed recovering, but was expected to return to work soon, while it noted Carriaga was examined by Hayes and that the sureties for his bail were a trio of fellow French natives. Lastly, it claimed that there were “many important particulars in regard to the nature and extent of the late Mexican outbreak, and the prominent actors, therein,” but demurred in publishing anything because of pending legal proceedings.

Finally, with the Grand Jury to be empanelled by County Judge William G. Dryden, who provided District Judge Hayes the affidavit, covered in last month’s post, that purported to explain the size and intent of the group on Fort Moore Hill that apparently sought to not only seize Jenkins from jail and lynch him, but ransack and pillage the town, the paper said that it was imperative for the jury to investigate how “justice is dispensed throughout the country—including every department every office.” This was because “there are serious charges against officials . . . that justice cannot be executed upon criminals” and it hoped that officials who “are impartial and efficient” would be so recognized, but “if there be defects in the law, let them be pointed out, so that a remedy may be applied, and no criminal be permitted to escape unwhipt of justice.”

Star, 2 August 1856.

After Jenkins was released on bail, the grand jury was empaneled to hear the matter and other criminal referrals. Twenty-three men were selected, including F.P.F. Temple and six Latinos including Agustín Machado, Juan Higuera, Antonio Salazar, Santiago Carrillo and Gerónimo López. On 9 August, the indictment handed down by the jury was certified by the District Court with the charge of second degree murder, with the difference from first-degree being that the killing was not determined to be planned or premeditated. Jenkins was then released on a new bail of $5,000.

The same day’s El Clamor observed that, in this post-Gold Rush period and just prior to a national depression that burst forth in 1857, there were tough times with little rain the prior winter, so that there was limited pasture for the stock-raiser, but locals could live with that because “truly, people can be poor, and be happy at the same time.” There was something that “a free people can never be happy with,” however, and “that thing is JUSTICE,” because “stripped of that, they utilize the force to complain and even make demonstrations.”

El Clamor Público, 9 August 1856.

The word “Justice” meant many things, young Ramirez continued, whether it dealt with acts against a person’s life, liberty or property, but the bottom line was that “if not punishment is applied to the wrongdoer, there is no justice” and “if one class favors itself with impunity, while the other is severely punished, there is no justice.” Clearly, he meant ethnicity rather than social class and added, “laws can be very nice in theory,” but both miscarriages of justice “can and do happen.” The editor went on to note that “many among us have loudly said that there is no justice” and “if this complaint is not satisfied in some way, the cry [el clamor] will not take long to be heard with a voice of thunder.”

The paper analyzed the function of grand juries, obviously looking to put some pressure on the one soon to hear the Jenkins case, and asked “who would want a Vigilance Committee if the grand jury took charge of the public interest?” Noting that “crime has countless strongholds that must be attacked and reduced,” El Clamor observed that, “it will not suffice to look over the rooms of the jail; [the grand jury members] have to direct a scrutinizing look even in the most hidden places of crime that abounds everywhere.”

El Clamor Público, 9 August 1856.

To conclude, the brilliant young journalist implored the Grand Jury to

study the moral aspect of the society in which we live . . . and see if by such means they achieve a favorable result for improvements in order, honesty and all the virtues of civilization.

While it was acknowledged that there was often good shown by the residents of Los Angeles city and county, Ramirez ended by declaring “we now present a solemn and sad spectacle worthy of the study of the philanthropist and the patriot” and he hoped that these were to be found among the members of the jury looking into the Jenkins case.

Elsewhere in the issue, El Clamor reprinted the lengthy statements made by Judge Hayes in the Carriaga matter and he commented on the fact that this was, he believed, the first case in California in which one man was tried “for the offense of a multitude” under a statute relating to the attempt by a vigilance committee to impose lynch law. Alluding to precedent, the jurist reminded those in court that, “in this city there have been three memorable instances of punishment for crime, done summarily and independently of the legally constituted courts” and that this “lofty prerogative [was] exercised by this same class of our population, a little over a year ago, when they were led by Americans and sustained by a universal sympathy of the people, to force open the jail at noon, and execute a convicted criminal.” Because of this, he continued, there was “on this recent occasion, an undue confidence in their power, and in the usual impunity.

El Clamor Público, 9 August 1856.

Judge Hayes allowed that the “natural excitement” demonstrated at Ruiz’ funeral and at the jail just afterward “had nothing particularly objectionable in itself,” but the problem arose with a secret gathering of up to 300 men which could have involved a “force of arms”, but which also fed a rumor mill that churned out a product that meant that “the majority of the American population was led to believe that the Mexicans in that meeting were animated by a bitter hostility towards all of the American race and had formed a plot for a general massacre and looting.” Hayes, however, firmly stated that “no evidence of this has been supplied at this present trial” and, while there was a residue at the general alarm raised before, it “should be dissipated as soon as possible,” even as certain grievances raised at the mass meeting beyond the Jenkins matter were not precisely defined.

The judge went on to assert that “the law knows no difference of races: its blessings are distributed, like the dew from heaven, on all equally,” but then claimed that “if the Mexicans have suffered oppression . . ., while the Americans are unfairly favored, they should go to the grand jury for their remedy,” otherwise “violence (I say this in a friendly way) would only end in their total ruin.” The decision of some of the group on the hill to “evidently [be] on the march to attack the jail . . . manifested a malicious intent . . . they wanted to kill without need or provocation,” even as Sheriff Alexander “used the greatest leniency and moderation.” Otherwise, averred Hayes, “the matter could have been settled peacefully and perhaps without a single arrest” had the group accepted “the protection of the law.”

El Clamor Público, 9 August 1856.

Should any of the 300 men headed toward the jail to seize Jenkins have been killed by a citizen, regardless of an order by the Sheriff, Hayes informed those present that such an action would have been justifiable and defensible. That said, the judge, careful to not be misinterpreted, added that any such situation had to be under a clear imminent and immediate danger. Otherwise, citizens were to wait for an order by the Sheriff or an authorized officer before acting, as “a mistake on this point could be very serious.” Hayes reminded those present that the use of arms was, by law, only to occur “as a last resort after all other means of keeping the peace and suppressing a riot have been tried and exhausted.”

The judge continued that “every individual involved in a mutiny is responsible for any act committed by the rest of the mutineers” and that this applied to the possible culpability of Carriaga in the shooting of Marshal Getman, who, because of the inherent risks of his job, was afforded to “broadest protection” of the law in the furtherance of his duties. Given the seriousness of the charge, but also bearing in mind the financial situation of the accused, Hayes considered bail of $2,000 to be reasonable, but a couple more observations to make.

El Clamor Público, 9 August 1856.

He implored that “good men should immediately engage in trying to repress the spirit of anarchy which I fear has lately spread greatly in this county” and expressed his view that the notorious San Francisco vigilance committee then in full sway had a “contagious influence” on many Angelenos. Hayes, though, pointed to another important cause, which, to date, “the laws have had no power to uproot” and which was pervasive among all classes and ethnicities in the Angel City and this was the desire of many to seek justice through “an excess of violence,” so he insisted that “the public spirit direct itself towards the true remedy of our disorderly and unfortunate condition.”

The jurist asked,

When shall we come to an end of this anti-social mistrust and this painful feeling of insecurity of life and property which at present so generally prevails? Will the law be left almost without force, for lack of adequate cooperation on the part of the people, in the efforts made by public officials to force its compliance? Should everyone take precautions for their own safety?

He simply responded, “this cannot be” and then noted that the events of the prior week “furnish a sufficient warning of the dangers we have run and must run hereafter if we listen to the voice of sudden passions and let ourselves be carried away by the impulses of any momentary excitement.”

Star, 9 August 1856.

The judge proclaimed from the modest bench in an adobe house (built by the Rocha family and sold by Jonathan Temple to the city and county) converted to a less-than-imposing temple of the law, that “the best guarantee for the rights of all classes and of all individuals is to maintain firm and constant confidence in the laws of the country and in maintaining its entire supremacy. If they are bad, amend or revoke them: but they should never be trodden down for momentary purposes that often hide a hasty revenge under the guise of true Justice.” Hayes added that “the laws need to be seconded by an enlightened and virtuous public opinion, which always demands and compels their equal and inflexible administration.”

In its edition of the 9th, the Star ran an article called “Crime in Los Angeles—What is the Truth?” in which it was stated “we have heard the question agitated recently—have the Mexicans had ‘fair play’ in our Courts?” It observed that Latinos “do complain that great injustice has been practised [sic] on hem by public officers” and that “this is an important grievance—if it really exists—and well worthy of investigation.” While issuing the caveat that there wasn’t time to look at anything more than jail records for the prior six months, but issued these findings.

There were 110 persons confined, of which 52% were Mexicans and 10% were Californios. Another 30% were indigenous, leaving 8% who were Americans and Europeans. Of the prisoners, a quarter were there for disturbing the peace, 31% for petty larceny, 22% for grand larceny (the different between the degrees was based on the amount stolen), and11% for “riot.” There were five persons committed for burglary, the same number for assault with the intent to kill, and a pair for murder, with one prisoner in for resisting an officer in a civil matter—this may have been María Candelaria Pollorena, though no names were provided.

Star, 9 July 1856.

With respect to convictions, 36% comprised this group, with a half-dozen sent to San Quentin State Prison for serious offenses and of which three were Mexicans, two natives and one American. The other 34, found guilty of lesser crimes, were to serve their sentences at the jail and included four with terms of between three and six months; nine whose terms were from one to three months; and 21 who were either sentenced to under a month or fined. Notably, there were two prisoners who were whipped with lashes, but not included among the 40 above, while there were five persons incarcerated in lieu of bail or awaiting the decision of the Grand Jury on their cases.

With respect to acquittals, it was stated that of 65 instances, 43, or two-thirds, were Mexicans, and that 14 of them were found guilty of crimes, which would be about a third (though the two prisoners who were whipped are not accounted for.) It was added that “invariable, on their trials,” Latinos “have had attorneys and mixed juries,” while with serious criminal cases heard by Hayes at the District Court, there were four murder trials, with two involving Americans and two Latinos; one manslaughter case with an indigenous defendant; and a robbery proceeding with a Mexican tried. This led the Star to ask, “in all this—has there been any persecution of Mexicans?”

The piece went on to report tat no criminal was detained without a hearing longer than the six days proscribed by law and most prisoners released within a couple of days, with many held for a day. Beyond any question of a “tyrannical disposition” by officials, the paper asked whether these brief confinements were also a matter of improper time to investigate the purported crimes. Stating that only the courts could determine that and, without any proof otherwise, the paper asserted that “the fair presumption is that [a court] has done its duty to the people” and that “the prisoners, or their friends, have no cause to complain on this score.”

Star, 9 August 1856.

There was no study of the Justice Courts, but the Star wondered if any of the 57 Mexicans arrested were confined without probable cause or a warrant, but claimed that Americans were nabbed without these requirements and none of this caused “any clamor [a play on the title of the paper’s competitor, perhaps?] or attracting any particular notice.” The paper promised to “return to the subject,” but this did not happen. As to whether this was a comprehensive enough review to buttress the claim that there was no pervasive discrimination against Latinos, one has to look at the short period of time covered and the fact that some records weren’t examined.

We’ll return tomorrow with part two and the trial of Jenkins, so be sure to check back for that.

Leave a Reply