Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Charles Mial Dustin to Walter P. Temple, 26 August 1919

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

That old chestnut cliché of “the truth is stranger than fiction” has certainly applied to any number of posts on this blog, but perhaps no more so than with this one, which features as its highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection, a 26 August 1919 letter from Charles Mial Dustin of Long Beach to Walter P. Temple. The three-page missive is interesting enough on its face, as Dustin, who was listed in the Long Beach City Directory for that year as a bookkeeper for Southern California Edison and had a wide experience as a journalist and writer, discussed with the letter’s recipient a proposed book on the history of the Temple family.

We’ve had several posts that have touched on this topic, with the involvement over roughly a dozen years of Luther Ingersoll, best known for his compiled histories of such local communities as the Santa Monica Bay cities and San Pedro and Wilmington, and Johnstone Jones, a Los Angeles lawyer. The latter made some progress on drafts before ill-health led him to bow out and J. Perry Worden, who put the dictations of merchant Harris Newmark into the well-known Sixty Years in Southern California (1916 and subsequent editions), took the reins. Years went by, however, and the prissy historian’s letters have been highlighted here several time, though Worden never did complete the tome.

As for Dustin he began his missive by telling Temple, “I have reduced the nature of my visit in writing, deeming that the better way,” it appearing that he went to the Temple house in Alhambra and found Walter away. He continued that “my call has a double purpose; first, to secure, if possible, whatever information you might have as regards the Temple family, including photo’s [sic] and other things” for Ingersoll’s work on the harbor cities, but, he went on,

My primary purpose in calling, was in response to a letter from you, which I received some months ago, relative to writing a history of the Temple family. The parts which you father, uncle and self have played in the development of the state are of too great value to the public to lie unknown—except in a meagre and disconnected manner [to date].

Referring back to your uncle, Don Juan and your venerable father, a man whom all Los Angeles people delight [in remembering?], it seems a pity than an account of their achievements should be unknown, when our institutions of learning, and libraries so eagerly search for such information to enlighten the public.

Having properly buttered up his potential patron and client, Dustin laid it on even thicker, beyond Ingersoll’s work, Dustin no doubt having been hired to assist him, “there is but little historical work on southern California and the name of Temple was so big as a determining factor in the founding of Los Angeles, city and county, that it seems a propitious time to give the public a history which is complete and authentic.”

With Dustin’s help, of course, Temple would “honor your forbears, yourself, your children and your children’s children” with this “fitting tribute” that would also “be something which your father’s friends would very highly prize” beyond being a product “of which you would be justly proud.” Not content with this fulsome praise, though, Dustin brought in “the sacrifice of Father [Junipero] Serra” as an exemplar of how history was “the most essential part of every man’s education” and that “no man is truly intellectual, unless he is well grounded in the history of his native state.”

While his prose was not as pronouncedly purplish as Worden, Dustin was not to be outdone in self-praise, telling Temple, “I am the only person in the state of California, who has acces[s] to the fine Ingersoll Historical collection, in the Los Angeles Public Library, aside from the donor,” while he was “on such friendly terms with him, that I can rely upon having him proof-read my story, thereby eliminating any possible error.” As to Jones, Dustin said that “the [National Guard] General and I are very friendly” and he added that “it would seem especially desirable that your good friend . . . collaborate with me, as I understand he has much valuable data as regards the early life of the Temple family,” and, he concluded, “I would esteem it a privilege to work with him.”

Like Worden, Dustin professed to be able to “furnished much historical data which has never been published” and that he could provide photos of William Workman, F.P.F. Temple, the Workman House, St. Nicholas’ Chapel at El Campo Santo Cemetery at the Homestead, the Temple Block and more. He added that “I am creditably informed that you are the owner of many things which could be photographed and used as marginal ornaments.” A sample of Dustin’s work was enclosed, but that appears to have been lost, to “show you my style of writing.”

As to the final product, he proposed a pair of ideas. The first was a deluxe memorial book “for private circulation, to be numbered and autographed by you for your friends and relatives,” while the second was to be a library binding and distributed “for library circulation and the trade.” The work “should have a title page of special design” including “a monogram or other design in the center” and in color so that it “would really amount to a coat-of-arms for the Temple family.”

Racine [Wisconsin] Journal-Times, 6 November 1893.

If the latter concept was chosen, Dustin observed, “the outlay of money to produce it, would be returned thru the sale of books by the publishers to libraries and the public,” while “it would be especially valuable in a school library.” Suitably attractive, the tome “will remain a constant source of pride to you, [in] that it was made possible thru your efforts.” The letter ended with mention that Dustin had “an old picture of San Gabriel mission, about the time Don Juan Temple came to California,” this being a copy of a well-known 1828 sketch by Ferdinand Deppe.

He also noted that he possessed a copy of the official government map of the Battle of San Gabriel of January 1847 during the American invasion of Mexican California, though perhaps Ingersoll would have corrected Dustin, who claimed that the conflict “was fought on the Puente Rancho,” when it was several miles to the southwest. It was true, though, that “the whole story of the founding of the Mission, centers around your old home, near the oil district” by Montebello, which Temple commemorated with a granite tablet on his lease property—though the mission site was a short distance to the north.

Benton Harbor [Michigan] Daily Palladium, 14 December 1900.

As noted above, Temple ended up choosing Jones as his historian and then working (on and off) with Worden for many years, but to no avail. While, otherwise, Dustin’s missive would have no other interest, a little searching revealed a remarkable history that could be classified under the term, for who like polysyllabic words, “peripatetic,” meaning those who wander from place to place for relatively short periods, but also “pathological,” at least in Dustin’s younger years.

He was born in Chicago in 1868, but spent most of his childhood in Kewanee, a town in the western part of the state not far from the Mississippi River. While still in his teens, Dustin went to work for the O.B. Green Dredging Company in Chicago and became the firm’s paymaster while also serving as superintendent for the Lake View Baptist Church Sunday School. He was engaged to Ethel, the daughter of the church pastor and everything seemed to be as upright as could be until early June 1892.

Vancouver [Canada] Daily World, 29 June 1909..

One recent evening, it was reported in the Chicago Tribune of the 10th, Dustin told of how he was riding in a horse-and-buggy with a satchel containing $1,500 of company funds to be distributed to employees when a man stopped in front of him forcing a half and a second gent clambered aboard and began threatening Dustin with a knife. The paymaster’s clothes were ripped and he had some superficial wounds, while the horse and buggy were gone and the satchel slashed open and the money removed. While Green first told the press that he’s employed Dustin for several years and found him reliable and trustworthy, he soon demanded an arrest, though a police captain insisted on a formal complaint, which Green decided against as the evidence was questionable for proving wrongdoing.

Five months later, Dustin married Ethel Leonard and, in October the following year, she gave birth to a son, Howard. Within a month, however, and Ethel died in mid-October, followed a little more than a week later by the baby, but it turned out that Dustin was arrested in Milwaukee on a charge of horse theft. In early November 1893, he was convicted for stealing a horse-and-buggy that were later found in Chicago and the Racing [Wisconsin] Journal observed, “it is claimed that he has for a considerable time been in the habit of going to towns in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, hiring rigs from liveries and driving them to his private barn in Chicago.”

Dustin was mercilessly mocked for inquiring from Portland about what would be expected if he tried to go into the crater of the famous Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, Honolulu Advertiser, 8 July 1910.

He would trade the animals for others than he then sold as a side business and it was said he did this at least 40 times. Notably, it was added he’d left the Green company a year-and-a-half prior, or after the purported robbery, and turned to horse trading, while continuing as church secretary and Sunday School teacher—truly living a double life! Dustin was sent to the Wisconsin state prison at Waupun, northwest of Milwaukee, on for a five-year term.

After his release, in late April 1898 during the Spanish-American War, Dustin joined an Illinois cavalry unit and served for five-and-a-half months as a private before being mustered out. He then returned to Chicago and formed a firm called Keerle and Dustin that worked with chemicals for carpet cleaning. In mid-December 1900, Dustin was in Benton Harbor, Michigan, across Lake Michigan from Chicago, when he was found unconscious near a streetcar station. When he came to, Dustin told a story of how he’d been accosted by a pair of men and beaten and robbed of $20. While there was some suggestion he should have been taken to the city jail to recuperate, he was put up at a hotel until he got better, but, given his experience in Chicago eight years before, the coincidences are noteworthy, to be sure.

Salem [Oregon] Statesman-Journal, 1 January 1911.

Dustin’s next stop was Lake Mills, Wisconsin, west of Madison, where, in 1902, he married Jennie B. Brown, who had a young son and, when the state census was taken three years later, he was listed as a traveling salesperson. The following year, 1906, however, found Dustin and his wife (it is not clear what happened to her son) in Bellingham, Washington, north of Seattle, where he formed the Dustin Lumber Company. That enterprise seems to have gone nowhere, as the couple, who had a son born in 1907, moved nearby to Ferndale, where Dustin became editor of the Ferndale Herald weekly newspaper.

In September 1909, though, with the marriage collapsed, Dustin went to visit his son and then took him by train to Vancouver, British Columbia, just over the Canadian border. he then telegraphed his estranged wife to say that he had the child and intended to keep the boy with him. Apparently, something was soon worked out and contemplated kidnapping charges were never filed, though Jennie later filed for $30 a month alimony from Dustin, who drifted south to Portland, Oregon.

Pacific Monthly, Volume 26, Number 5, November 1911. From Google Books.

For a time, perhaps a year or so, he worked as a newspaper reporter there and, in 1911 moved further south to Salem, where he opened “The House of Quality printing establishment.” A local paper stated that he’d worked in journalism in Chicago, Seattle and Portland and was “a Chicago man and knows how to do things” while also being “a live wire and a man with energy who is bound to succeed.” Purportedly, Dustin knew everything about the printing business and “his samples show that he is a clever craftsman” and had a modern set-up for “a fine class of job work.”

Dustin’s sojourn in the state capital was, again, of a brief duration, and he kept going south, ending up in Los Angeles by 1914. If anyone knew his name at that time, it would have been for an article he wrote for the Pacific Monthly, published in Portland, on the Pacific coast operations of the secretive “Knights of the Golden Circle,” which was established in 1854 and lasted just under a decade to create a sovereign slaveholding nation within America as the country edged toward a civil war. While Dustin’s article has been cited several times in academic works, his shady past did not apparently follow him to that point or, or that matter, afterwards.

Los Angeles Express, 6 August 1918.

In 1916, he became editor of a Pasadena journal, published by John Arden Reaves, called the Southern California Magazine, but which folded soon afterward. He occasionally printed letters in the Los Angeles Express received from America’s World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. The next stop was Long Beach, where Dustin was the Edison bookkeeper, but also a publicity manager for the city’s First National Bank, a lumber office worker, and then, for a short time in 1920, a feature writer for the Telegram. By 1923, Dustin was in Berkeley and while staying that fall at the tony Hotel Astor in New York City was quoted by the New York Times with some colorful commentary about greater Los Angeles. For example, Dustin rattled off these remarks:

It’s good thing the Middle West was settled before California, or it never would have been settled. Take your New Yorker and drop him in Pasadena on Christmas day, let him put on a Palm Beach suit and he will forget all about New York . . . They say you never can take the census of Iowa until you count Los Angeles County, for there are 40,000 Iowa farmers, who don’t like to pay taxes, in Los Angeles County . . . Lots of people think that Los Angeles is just having a boom, but that’s a mistake, for it is a good healthy growth. Nothing can stop it . . . One can swim every day in the year at Long Beach and there is not more than 10 degrees difference in the temperature here at any time of year, so why shouldn’t Californians boos[t] their state?”

Four years later, Dustin was in suburban Boston and then, before the Roaring Twenties sputtered into the Great Depression, he was back in Long Beach where, according to the 1930 census, he was president of an aircraft company, though nothing could be found about it. Then in his early sixties, Dustin may finally have decided to generally stay put, though almost nothing could be found about him in subsequent years, other than that he apparently suffered through a 90-hour bout of hiccups in 1944 and lived in Pasadena and at the veterans’ home in Sawtelle/Westwood. He died in 1953 at age 84 with a military funeral at the VA chapel and burial at the facility’s cemetery.

Long Beach Telegram, 27 September 1920.

So, who could know, perusing the letter Dustin wrote to Walter Temple, interesting through it is, that there was a great deal more to be found “Reading Between the Lines”? Odds are, though, that more examples of “truth is always strange; stranger than fiction,” this attributed to Lord Byron, are surely to be found in other letters in the Museum’s holdings.

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