“There Needs to be Unity in This Town So That There Can Be Security”: The Trial of William W. Jenkins for the Killing of Antonio Ruiz, August 1856, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the trial of deputized constable William W. Jenkins, charged with second-degree murder in the 19 July 1856 shooting death of Antonio Ruiz during a service carried out by Jenkins to seize property of Ruiz to satisfy a debt of $50 in a civil proceeding before a Los Angeles justice of the peace, came before Judge Benjamin I. Hayes of the District Court, the coverage of the two Angel City newspapers in their editions of 16 August could not have been more different, reflective of their overall opposition on so many matters, local or beyond.

The English-language Star chose to take a minimalist approach, providing only the barest of summaries of the proceeding over the period of the 9th through the 15th. On that first day, it stated that “Indictment this day certified to the District Court, for murder in the second degree,” after the Grand Jury issued that document to the Court of Sessions, headed by County Judge William G. Dryden, assisted by justices of the peace James F. Burns (who fifteen years later was sheriff during the Chinese Massacre of October 1871) of San Gabriel and Charles O. Cunningham of El Monte, which then referred it, as required by state law, to Hayes and his higher court. It also noted that a bench warrant was ordered for Jenkins, who’d been released on bail soon after the killing, and that a new bail was set at $5,000.

Los Angeles Star, 16 August 1856.

Two days later, on the 11th, on motion of District Attorney Cameron E. Thom, the bail bond was revoked by Judge Benjamin I. Hayes, though the reason was not stated, and Jenkins was released to the sheriff, this being an appointee, former constable Charles E. Hale. David W. Alexander, a close friend of William Workman and the Temple family who was elected to the position the prior year, recently resigned. A sheriff’s department timeline of the era records that

Stressed from the incident, Sheriff Alexander went to his friend, former Sheriff James Barton. Barton told Alexander that he would much rather be Sheriff than County Supervisor. Alexander said that he was through chasing down criminals. Resigning as Sheriff, Alexander took over the remainder of Barton’s term as County Supervisor.

Barton, a former son-in-law of Rancho La Puente co-owner John Rowland and who’d served as sheriff from 1851 to 1855, when he was elected as a supervisor, may have wanted his old job back, but his second tenure was a brief one. On 23 January 1857, Barton and five members of a posse heading toward San Juan Capistrano, where the Flores-Daniel gang of bandits were committing robberies and murdered a store owner, were ambushed in modern Irvine and the sheriff and three of his compatriots were killed.

Star, 16 August 1856.

Two decades after he resigned, Alexander returned for another term as sheriff, serving in 1876-1877, when conditions were considerably calmer. The statement from the department, however, is not true. Hale remained sheriff until a new election, when Barton was voted into that office, but Alexander did not become a supervisor, his only tenure there being in 1853-1854.

On the 12th, the defendant, represented by Jonathan R. Scott and the duo of Myron Norton and Ezra Drown, all of whom were either district attorneys or judges during their legal careers in Los Angeles, pled not guilty and a trial scheduled for two days later (note how much faster these proceedings moved in the small town of nearly 170 years ago!) including the order for a jury pool of 48 men. Bail was cut to $4,000 and he was again released on the bond. When the 14th came, at the end of the day, a trial jury was selected, though all of them were white men, including future attorney and judge Andrew J. King, whose family was involved in some notorious gun-battles before and after this period.

Notably, when it was found “that Cesaria Navarra [Navarro],” who was one of the two eyewitnesses with Pollorena, had not appeared, under a subpoena issued by the District Attorney, defendant applied for an attachment against her and her husband, upon cause shown, which was ordered, and they being arrested, were by the Judge committed to the custody of the Sheriff” until the next day’s proceedings. It should be added that, during the preliminary hearing after the killing, it was reported that Pollorena attempted to guide Navarro’s testimony. The trial took all day on Friday the 15th and the Star concluded that the matter was adjourned until the following day, with Saturdays being a regular day for court operations at the time.

This and the remaining images are from El Clamor Público, 16 August 1856. Thanks to Paul Bryan Gray for loaning his microfilm copies.

The Spanish-language El Clamor Público, in its “Local News” section, observed that “the greatest tranquility has reined during the week,” while also reporting on the resignations of Sheriff Alexander and Supervisor Barton and, with regards to Hale’s appointment as sheriff until the end of the term, the paper said “we cordially approve . . . [the selection] could not have been better.” Lastly, it noted that “the grand jury returned its verdict against William W. Jenkins for second degree murder. Yesterday the case began to be judged before the Honorary Benjamin Hayes, and it will probably end today.” As noted in the first part of this post, one of the grand jury members was F.P.F. Temple, who later had a notable connection to Jenkins.

A lengthy feature in the paper on the 16th was titled “Reform—Organization of the Courts” in which the 19-year old proprietor, Francisco P. Ramirez, presented a detailed look at several elements of the system. This included a review of the preliminary examination of accused criminals, after which referrals to the appropriate court were made if it was determined by a magistrate that probable cause existed. Also analyzed was the role of the judges of the plains, who largely worked with issues concerning disputes among ranchers, though there were rare utilized powers to execute arrest warrants for the theft of livestock, and the list showed that 17 of the 23 holders of this position were Latino.

The Justice Courts, staffed by a half dozen justices of the peace and supported by a quintet of constables, handled most of the minor crimes, larceny of under $50 of goods and simple assault charges, but the small number of these judges and police officers led Ramirez, along with others, to wonder “is there no matter for reform on this point?” while he stated that he would return to his point in the future.

The Court of Sessions comprised the county judge, this recently being William G. Dryden, a very colorful lawyer with an adventurous past that included his lobbying for the Republic of Texas to seize most of New Mexico and which involved interactions with John Rowland and William Workman with whom Dryden got reacquainted in California, and justices of the peace James F. Burns (who was sheriff during the Chinese Massacre of October 1871) of San Gabriel and Charles O. Cunningham, handled most of the criminal matters from more serious larcenies and assaults, with the exception of homicides (murder and manslaughter) and arson. These last came under the province of the District Court, which spanned a wide swath of central and southern California in those years and was presided over by Judge Hayes.

In his introductory remarks, however, the publisher stated that, “in our previous issue we have given a definition of JUSTICE and the way the word can be applied in criminal cases.” The problem was that “the laws governing such cases must be understood by every citizen” and this was lacking, so, “in a humble way we propose to help our readers to get a better idea of ​​them, which probably many of them do.” That way, Ramirez continued, “when we understand something well, we complain no less about it, and if we complain we are better qualified to find a remedy for the evils we suffer.”

There was a major reason for reform behind this, as he added, “this task that we have imposed on ourselves seems to us like a duty” and that was “because the laws are not printed in the language of the majority of our population,” which they previously were by statute. With the rise of the Know-Nothings, or the American Party, and their California adherents, however, in recent elections, this requirement was stricken from the laws, so Ramirez prioritized this as “the first reform that we ask for—the next Legislature should order the publication in Spanish of a collection of laws that affect the most important civil relations and criminal responsibilities of society.” He then observed that such a project, “if it is written properly,” should embrace no more than 100 pages in length, but, in English, the statutes were a mind-numbing 2,000 pages “with all their tiresome repetitions.”

What remained was the remarkable main editorial for the issue and which not only directly addressed the killing of Ruiz by Jenkins, but sought to put the homicide in local and state context in some very interesting ways. Ramirez began by observing that “today is four weeks since our Spanish society lost one of its best members with the unexpected death of Don Antonio Ruiz” and added that “all those events that occupied our attention” following the shooting, including the gathering of the Latino group on Fort Moore Hill, the talk of lynching Jenkins and the skirmish at the Plaza that led to the wounding of Marshal William C. Getman,
“have already passed and we can now calmly reflect on what has happened.”

The young journalist went on to comment that “we have seen with all too much feeling that the San Francisco newspapers have misunderstood the character of the popular movement [that arose after Ruiz’ death], and in order to correct this mistake, which can have serious consequences, we propose to give here a brief explanation of everything that happened.” Looking back on the young history of American-era Los Angeles, Ramirez asserted that “the people were already tired of witnessing so many murders and robberies that have taken place in this city and county during the last six years.”

He cited the fact that “many remember very well that one Sunday when fourteen corpses of Indians that had been murdered were found in the streets,” though he did not identify when this happened. The editor continued that “last year these bloody tragedies were repeated again” and noted that “sometimes criminals were arrested, but in the end, due to the negligence of the magistrates, they were never punished.” In this environment, the pueblo was on edge and “only waiting for an opportunity to display all of its power and sovereignty.” This came “by a cruel fate” when “a poor Mexican, Don Antonio Ruiz, was the victim of the bloody ferocity of a public official.”

Observing that “our readers are already well aware of the way this heinous murder was consummated,” Ramirez averred that Latinos in Los Angeles “are convinced that it was not due to resistance to the fulfillment of [Jenkins’] duty” because “the deceased had no weapons of any kind.” Once, however, the shooting of Ruiz took place, “the unfortunate news of his death circulated everywhere like electricity. All his friends were filled with consternation and feeling; which was increased much more when seeing his murderer marching freely through the streets.”

With Jenkins freed on bail, Ramirez went on, “from that day the population was divided into two different parties. The Spanish side wanted justice to be done, and the authorities, protecting the murderer, attracted the cooperation of their mercenary satellites,” this latter phrase a very interesting choice of words. Once Ruiz’ funeral, “which was one of the most attended that this town has ever seen,” was concluded, “a commission was appointed to notify the competent authorities not to let the criminal escape as has always happened all too often. A mob of onlookers came out in pursuit of this commission and crowded around the jail.”

With tensions running as high as they were, the journalist continued, “The Americans hardly saw this movement when they believed that an attempt was being made to summarily execute the prisoner in the way that they used to do in accordance with the famous “Lynch Law” and began to arm themselves to protect him.” Here, of course, Ramirez turned the proclivities of Anglos to so-called popular justice on them, though it should be noted that there were elite Californios who often were involved in popular tribunals, which mimicked the forms of law before they were replaced by mob meetings and quick votes by acclamation to carry out the premeditated results.

The journalist, however, added that “there is no doubt that this movement would have ended here, if the prisoner had not been released on bail, and making common cause with the others, did not outrage the feelings of the honest and virtuous citizen, by arming himself with his “revolvers” to mock the laws.” Provoked by this, he returned to the problem of summary justice by claiming that “the Mexicans met because they already had the example of the Vigilance Committee, and they had done so last year with Alvitre and Brown.”

In 1856, San Francisco received international attention for its second major vigilance committee, though the earlier one from five years before was much different in that the newest form was largely political. In fact, attorney Volney E. Howard tried to restrain the vigilante impulse in that city and wound up leaving and settling in Los Angeles because of the anarchy and turmoil. Ramirez, meanwhile, insisted that Latinos “wanted Ruiz’s death to be to Los Angeles what the assassination of Mr. James King of William [a newspaper editor and reformer] was to San Francisco,” but he added that, they failed to achieve their goal because they did not have enough forces.”

Hearkening to the July post on this topic and the remarkable affidavit provided by Judge Dryden to Judge Hayes with claims that Latinos were bent on sacking the town, pillaging its houses and businesses and killing the American residents there, Ramirez wrote,

We were very sorry that the general impression among the Americans was that the Mexicans were trying to raid and rob the city. Every sensible man is satisfied that this was not his intention; no, his breast have never entertained such lovely thoughts.

Then came the evening of 22 July and the sortie by some of the Latinos from Fort Moore Hill as Marshal Getman and other Anglos were in reconnaissance to determine what the group on the hill was discussing and planning. After Getman received his flesh wound, Ramirez recorded, “the following day the American portion was very exasperated, as might be expected from the events that had taken place during the night.” This led to the popular meeting at which “some resolutions forged with the intention of hypocritically harming the Spanish population.”

Yet, the account continued, “on the committee there were some Californians and Mexicans who would rather remain silent than vote in favor of a committee of twenty individuals to decide their own expulsion.” Despite this, Ramirez felt that, “fortunately, the appointment fell on our best citizens, and thus we saved ourselves from ruin and humiliation unparalleled in any savage or civilized people.” He added that “no logic can convince us that those resolutions had another purpose than to banish the unfortunate people who had committed the crime of asking for justice.”

Moreover, Ramirez asserted that “the Spanish people did not gain anything from this demonstration, and they have been sorry—yes, they have been very sorry for having done it. We sincerely hope that this is the last time they take up arms against the authorities.” Even if, however, “the Spanish people did not acquire anything” from the movement, “neither have any reforms been made for the better security of our life and property—we have remained in the same way as before.” In this expression of reconciliation, the brilliant young publisher concluded with this remarkable statement:

There needs to be unity in this town so that there can be security. That all work together animated by a single feeling so that their compliance with the laws. That there are no differences between the different nationalities and that the hatred that one race professes against the other be transformed by the most sincere friendship.  This is what the time in which we live requires. Let’s respect ourselves by respecting others. If a Spaniard commits a crime, we do not want to defend him just because he is Spanish; rather, on the contrary, we must manifest more severely with him to let him know that hospitality and the laws of the country should not be abused.

While both the Star and El Clamor Público were published on Saturdays, the Jenkins trial did not conclude after the issues of the 16th were published, so the coverage of that last day of the proceeding and its outcome had to wait until the following week’s editions appeared.

We’ll return tomorrow with part three and, again, the diametrically opposed approaches of the rivals as they discussed the result. Please check back with us then.

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