“Her General Character is Bad . . . I Would Not Give Her Credit Under Oath”: The Trial of William W. Jenkins for the Killing of Antonio Ruiz, August 1856, Part Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Our third part of this post dealing with the mid-August 1856 trial at the Los Angeles District Court of William W. Jenkins for the shooting death, about a month earlier, of Antonio Ruiz takes us to the editions of the two Angel City newspapers of the period, the English-language Star and the Spanish-language El Clamor Público, and, specifically, their issues of the 23rd, a week after the proceeding ended.

As in past issues, the Star, whose editor was 32-year old Henry Hamilton, a native of Ireland who’d been in California since the Gold Rush years and edited papers in the north before migrating to Los Angeles and taking over the paper, provided less coverage, while El Clamor devoted a substantial portion of its edition to the trial. The former in its column concerning District Court cases of the week, observed that “our readers will recollect the testimony in this case, as we published it in detail, as taken before Judge Hayes on the preliminary examination” so it deemed that “it is unnecessary to republish it now,” because the trial testimony was apparently identical, with one notable exception.

Los Angeles Star, 23 August 1856.

This, the paper added, concerned “the character of the principal witness, Maria Candalaria [sic] Pollorena, which was to the effect that she had been of bad repute, some of the witnesses stating that they would not believe her on oath.” The Star, however, did not provide the names of these witnesses or even selected quotes or paraphrases of what they offered and, yet, this was obviously a core part of the strategy employed by Jenkins’ defense team, comprised of Jonathan R. Scott, Myron Norton and Ezra Drown, the first two were judges and the latter a district attorney during their careers in Los Angeles jurisprudence.

What the Star felt was important, however, was to reprint a portion of Hayes’ jury instructions, stating that the jurist delivered these so that they “were very minute, putting the law and the facts clearly and explicitly, at the same time concisely, before the jury.” We will, however, defer this until later in the post, turning instead to the detailed coverage of El Clamor Público and its 19-year old proprietor, the brilliant Francisco P. Ramirez.

This and the remaining images are from the 23 August 1856 edition of El Clamor Público, with thanks to Paul Bryan Gray for providing his copies.

The paper painstakingly printed descriptions and excerpts of testimony from the trial, which was largely conducted on Friday, 15 August, and then resumed for the concluding portion on Tuesday, the 19th. It is worth mentioning that on the 14th at 4 p.m., Sheriff Charles E. Hale, recently appointed by the county Board of Supervisors to finish the term of the resigned David W. Alexander, brought 48 men to comprise the larger pool of potential jurors, of which a quarter of them would be selected as the trial jury. For some reason, El Clamor only published the names of 43, but, regardless, it is notable that all were Anglos, even though several of the grand jurors were Latino—there were property qualifications to serve on either the grand or trial jury, but why no Latino were in the larger pool, when the process was supposed to be random, is an obvious question.

The jury selection process, including the defense able to peremptorily challenge, without any stated reasons, up to 20 of the larger pool, while the prosecution could only do this with five persons, involved the names of twelve of the remaining members being written on ballots and placed in an urn and drawn by the county clerk, John W. Shore, or his deputy, J.A. Hinchman. Because of the complexities of the challenges and questions raised by either side about these, as well as the rejection of those who expressed opinions as to the guilt or innocence of Jenkins and one man who lived outside the county, there were a total of 41 ballots called before a trial jury was selected.

After the twelve jurors, with 23-year old Andrew J. King as foreperson, were seated, it was reported that a main witness, 19-year old Cesaria Navarro, was absent and Hayes issued a bench warrant for her arrest. That evening, Navarro and her husband, 29-year old Lafayette Cotton, were picked up and detained by Sheriff Hale so that she could testify. Cotton was a native of Mississippi who lived in Texas and was an Army volunteer during the Mexican-American War before coming to Gold Rush California, where he identified as a doctor at Tuolumne County in the gold fields in the 1850 census.

Horace Bell, in his fanciful 1881 memoir Reminiscences of a Ranger, called him “a first-class gambler, as well as an eminent fighting man” and wedded to “a native-born damsel of lascivious mien and voluptuous proportions,” this being Cesaria Navarro. The couple had a son, James, born in 1855 and this was the child Cesaria mentioned in her testimony as being with her when the shooting of Ruiz took place, and a daughter Cleotilda was born a few years later.

After Dr. Manuel Chariarse reiterated his basic testimony with respect to his caring for Ruiz in his dying hours, Pollorena gave her version of what happened, with not much variation in the trial from what she related in the preliminary hearing. There was, however, questioning as to something mentioned by the Star during that proceeding, namely, that Pollorena attempted to guide Navarro, who was extremely nervous, through her testimony. When questioned by one of Jenkins’ counsel, she averred,

I have not persuaded Cesaria Navarro to not give evidence in this court. I did not tell Cesaria that she should swear that the deceased did not grab Jenkins until he had drawn his pistol and was pointing it at me. We haven’t had any fights, Cesaria and I, about the reason that she didn’t want to swear to what I told her. I had not hidden a vihuela [an instrument shaped like a guitar, but tuned like a lute] in the presence of Cesaria. I had not said to her, “if you look for it, you will not find it.” I have not told Cesaria that she should not say anything, if they asked her about the vihuela [lute].

It was an obvious defense strategy to pounce upon this point and try to make Pollorena look like she was not trustworthy. When Navarro took the stand and was questioned by Jenkins’ counsel, she reiterated that, after the constable was asked to return to the Main Street house with the guitar he’d taken per the writ of attachment, Pollorena approached him to take the instrument, presumably because of the letter from her mother that she wished to retrieve.

Navarro added that Jenkins then warned Pollorena “halt there, Señora,” but that the latter continued towards him and grabbed the guitar, with the constable pulling it back towards him. It was then, she went on, that “Ruiz got behind Jenkins and grabbed him with both hands on his chest and arms.” She saw Jenkins raise his arm and Navarro noticed the pistol, but she took up her son and moved three paces and was some ten steps away from the trio and not in direct sight when she heard the firing of the weapon.

The witness then clarified that when Ruiz took hold of the constable, Jenkins “got up to his feet with Ruiz still holding on to him” and that “when Jenkins stood up, Maria took the guitar from him and carried it into an inner room.” Moreover, Navarro told the court “I am certain of this; I saw it. She ran and took it inside after the gun was fired . . . She took the guitar away from Jenkins before I moved with my child,” though she added that all of this took place within a very short span of time, likely a matter of some seconds, and then noted that “Ruiz grabbed Jenkins with great force.”

Adding to the mystery of the second instrument, Navarro testified that

Maria knew that there would be another guitar there, because it was on the table, and after we were before the District Judge in the preliminary examination, she gave the other guitar to her daughter and told me if they asked me, I shouldn’t say that there was another guitar . . . since then I have not seen the guitar.

William P. Reynolds (whose middle initial was erroneously listed as “G”) was a “hapa Haole,” or a half-Hawaiian, half-white native of Honolulu who came to California in 1845 as a trading ship crew member and who served as interpreter during the trial, as well as at a coroner’s inquest, the records of which were apparently lost prior to the proceeding. Because of the lack of records, Reynolds was asked to recall what Pollorena said during the inquest and he answered that, after Jenkins was enticed to return to the house, she asked for the guitar because of the letter purportedly inside it. When the constable refused, “she stepped forward and extended her hand, and he drew his pistol, and that after Ruiz grabbed him, he pointed the pistol at Ruiz and fired a shot at him.”

Importantly, when asked about Pollorena’s reputation, Reynolds replied, “I have known her by reports and reputation for five years.” The defense then asked him “what is her character generally, good or bad” by District Attorney Cameron E. Thom objected that this was not a legal query. After much discussion and the consultation of law books, Judge Hayes ruled,

That it was the special duty and right of the jury in any trial to judge the degree of credulity to which any witness is credited, and for them to do so it was fair that they not only judge the general character, but the veracity that a person enjoys. An individual may become so depraved and base by habitual disregard for many moral obligations, that he loses the confidence of the entire community, even though it cannot be shown that he has previously been examined in court as a witness, or that he has said a deliberate lie. However, one could tell the truth even if one lacks chastity or some other particular virtue. The jury must judge for itself, according to the testimony.

With Hayes allowing Pollorena’s character and presumed veracity to be probed by the defense, Reynolds then simply answered that “her general character is bad,” but elaborated by telling the court that “from my knowledge of her, I wouldn’t believe her under oath,” adding “I heard her mother say three years ago that she wouldn’t believe her under oath” while “a friend of hers, Maria Antonia Sanchez, told me the same thing three months ago.”

What then followed was a parade of seven witnesses, all prominent Anglo men in Los Angeles, including Benjamin D. Wilson, Abel Stearns, Francis Mellus, current mayor Stephen C. Foster, William B. Osburn, lawyer and judge Kimball H. Dimmick, and John O. Wheeler. Wilson testified that he knew Pollorena six year and that “her general character was very bad” and then stated “she belonged to a group of public women who walked the streets and committed robberies in stores.” When Thom cross-examined him, the former mayor and future state senator, replied “I don’t recall any other particular person telling me that she was of a notoriously bad character.”

While Stearns and Mellus both said that that they didn’t know about Pollorena’s character, Mayor Foster testified that “I know something of the quality of her character, but nothing regarding her truthfulness.” Osburn, a doctor and druggist who was a deputy sheriff, postmaster, school superintendent and photographer dubbed the “most useful man” by Bell, but who also was accused of desecrating the body of Miguel Soto in the aftermath of the Barton massacre in early 1857 while he was justice of the peace at San Gabriel, said “I have known her snice 1849; her general character is bad; and judging her, I would not give her credit under oath.” On cross-examination, he asserted “I have heard B.D. Wilson, A[bel] Stearns, Juan Domingo [actually, a German named Johann Groningen and married to a Latina] and her own husband [probably a first husband named Lazos] speak of her general character.”

Dimmick testified that he knew Pollorena three or four years and to his knowledge she was of a bad general character and would not believe under oath, while he cited lawyer Lewis Granger, former sheriff and justice of the peace George T. Burrill and others speak about her in that way. Wheeler, a former common (city) council member and co-publisher of the short-lived but colorful newspaper, the Southern Californian in 1854-1855, stated that “her character is bad,” though he demurred as to hearing anything about her truthfulness.

The final witness was Justice of the Peace Alexander Gibson who issued the writ of attachment that Jenkins served on Ruiz. After some argument about which portions of the writ and Jenkins’ report could be read into the record, Hayes allowed a short portion attesting to the fact that the constable took “a certain amount of property” after having read the summons and attachment at the Pollorena house. What he refused to allow to be read in the proceeding, however, was Jenkins’ lengthy statement about what he claimed took place:

And after having delivered the writ, I had gone a considerable distance from said defendant’s house with the guitar, when he caught up with me in the street and told me to go back to the house where he would fix the writ. I went back with him, and a little after having entered the house, the deceased grabbed me from behind exclaiming: “now we have it.” At the same time a woman took the guitar and, taking it from me, went out of the house with it. Several times I told him to let go . . . and fearing that my life was in danger, I took a Derringer pistol out of my bag, telling him that I did not want to kill him. I immediately grabbed the gun; and in the fight between us . . . the shot went off and he fell wounded. I immediately handed myself over to a public official who entered, leaving the guitar in the possession of said woman.

With this, the matter was deferred until the 19th at 9 a.m. We will return with the fourth and final part, including the instructions given by Hayes to the jury, the verdict, and some of the aftermath concerning Jenkins and his long, often controversial life, including his connection to the Temple family.

So, please check back for that ending of this post.

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