“The Picture of Los Angeles That He Paints Closely Approximates Truth”: Horace Bell and the “Black Angels” of 1850s Los Angeles in Touring Topics Magazine, September 1927, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Anyone interested in early American-era Los Angeles, specifically the 1850s, should read Horace Bell’s 1881 book, Reminiscences of a Ranger, as well as the much less-known posthumous On the Old West Coast, which was published close to a half-century later. This recommendation, however, comes with a gargantuan caveat because, while Bell’s work is entertaining and interesting, it is also laden with exaggeration, riddled with ridicule and invective, and filled with a casual disregard for facts when they got in the way of a good story.

Harris Newmark’s Sixty Years in Southern California, published in 1913, is far more fact-based, but it is also drier and a whole lot less fun to read and it is notable to see the assessment of Martin Walsh in Touring Topics, the monthly magazine of the Automobile Club of Southern California. In his “Black Angels,” based heavily on Bell and which appeared in the publication in its September 1927 edition, the author opined that “in its essence, the picture of Los Angeles that he paints closely approximates truth.”

Pomona Progress-Bulletin, 6 September 1927.

This is too generous a statement, but the only way readers can discern the veracity of the voluble and exuberant chronicler’s work is to carefully consult other sources, apply a liberal admixture of critical thinking, and then come to their own conclusion. Simply reading Bell and assuming that, because he has a confidently authoritative town and was published, that this makes him an unquestioned authority, is an ill-advised endeavor.

In any case, Walsh began his account with the interesting comparison between the Angel City of the mid 19th-century with Renaissance Florence and 15th century Paris calling those European cities “decorous and urbane . . . when compared with the Los Angeles of the scintillating sixties.” He did allow that the chronicles of that period “are not all reliable” or “veracious,” while averring that “every historian shows a tendency to glorify the age in which he lives,” though this is a questionable commentary.

When it comes to Bell’s Reminiscences, Walsh expressed that “its countless tales of sanguinary happenings veritably leers at me as I write” and even though “one may sniff a trifle skeptically at the garrulous Bell,” he added that “one unconsciously thrills with ecstasy over the foibles of the Black Angels,” as the denizens of Los Angeles are called in the piece, “which he describes with such gusto.” While the writer observed that the book was hard to find and could set a seeker back, it was reprinted in 1927 by Wallace Hebberd of Santa Barbara, who did the same with the multi-volume history of California released under the name of Hubert Howe Bancroft.

To support his view that Bell’s colorful take on the Angel City “closely approximates truth,” Walsh cited Robert E. Cowan, known for his 1914 bibliography of California and Pacific Coast history and as the first librarian at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, affiliated with UCLA. Cowan’s assessment of Bell was that Reminiscences focused “more minutely on the ‘seamy side’ of society than any other Californian author, and there is a fascination about his book.” Accepting the chronicle of the faults and foibles of “murderous villains, thieving scoundrels, and other unholy scoundrels,” Cowan suggested that “it would appear that the polite society of the south in those days was neither large nor extensive.”

Walsh recounted Bell’s arrival in Los Angeles in late 1852 to visit his uncle, Alexander, a long-time resident and prominent figure of the town, with the riotous ride by coach from the primitive harbor at San Pedro leading to a first impression that the Angel City “was certainly a nice looking place” with well-kept houses, but the den of iniquity in the community was Calle de los Negros, rendered by Americans into N****r Alley, where there were several popular gambling establishments and crowds so dense, Bell related, “that we could scarcely squeeze through” the crush of indigenous people, Latinos, Americans and Europeans racing to spend their money on games of chance.

With such a ferment of activity, it was small wonder that Bell wrote about the violence in this section of town and said that shootings and stabbings “were a matter of course, and no complaint or arrests were ever made” because no police official,” he claimed, would “have had the temerity to attempt an arrest” there. After asserting that “there were more desperadoes in Los Angeles than in any place on the Pacific Coast, San Francisco with its great population not excepted,” during the early Fifties, as “knives and revolvers settled all differences, either real or imaginary,” Bell claimed,

The year ’53 showed an average mortality from fights and assassinations of over one per day in Los Angeles. In the year last referred to, police statistics showed a greater number of murders in California than in all of the United States besides, and a greater number in Los Angeles than in all the rest of California.

What source there was to “police statistics” Bell referred to specifically was, of course, not cited and his statement about more murders in the Golden State than the rest of the nation combined and the same condition for Los Angeles in comparison to the remainder of California is also unsupported. Newmark, in his 1916 memoir, restated the “murder a day” differently by commenting that there were about a half-dozen homicides a week during that time.

The Los Angeles Star, the first newspaper in town, reported in the early Fifties that there was a fifteen-month period in which 44 homicides were recorded. The late sociologist Eric Monkonnen worked with researchers on compiling documented homicides in the Angel City over decades and the peak in the 1850s was about three dozen a year. John Mack Faragher in his excellent 2016 book, Eternity Street, computed about a quarter more killings over a 44-year period than Monkonnen. These sources show that there was nowhere near the level of homicide in Los Angeles that Bell (and Newmark) claimed, though the numbers of a few dozen in the peak years of the 1850s is still staggeringly high given the town’s population of perhaps 4,000 or so.

Walsh’s response to Bell’s unsupported claims, however, was this prime piece of prose: “And this was the City of the Angel! Angels they have been but not of Michael and Gabriel. Angels of Satanas and Melchizedek of a certitude!” Also adopting Bell’s summation of summary justice meted out by vigilantes, the writer observed the law enforcement was predicated on the supposed observation that “facts are illusive and truth is chimerical,” so the response was a mere “Hang them all!”

What was called “Los Angeles’ first great lynching,” though the 1836 vigilance committee, which was the debut of vigilantism in the Angel City, was probably unknown to Walsh, involved the lynching of several men accused of being part of the fall 1852 assassination at San Gabriel of Joshua Bean. One of these was Cipriano Sandoval, a cobbler who, while clearly innocent, was among those hung, while Felipe Reid, son of the recently deceased Hugo Reid, a well-known Scottish native, and his indigenous wife, Victoria, was spared, likely because of the prominence of his parentage.

Bell’s description of the mass lynching was as dramatic and embellished as could be, with this claim that the stormy weather included clouds so thick that it was “as though an angel had in charity thrown its mantle over the scene to shut out the horrid spectacle from the face of heaven. As it rained, the condemned men ascended to the scaffold and Sandoval professed his innocence while forgiving his executioners. As the quintet “were launched into eternity,” Bell claimed that “a peal of thunder announced the end of the tragedy” as some of the crowd slunk off the bar of the Bella Union Hotel.

These vivid illustrations were by Raymond P. Winters (1892-1939), a native of Denver who came to Los Angeles in 1915 and who also provided the painting for the cover art.

Walsh recounted Bell’s accounting of some of the famed criminals of the Fifties, including “Ricardo Urives” whose exploits purportedly included killing half a dozen men on the Calle de los Negros while being “shot, stabbed and stoned” and “his clothes were literally cut from his body.” This Latino Samson then got his wounds dressed (and presumably got himself dressed, as well) and then rode along Main Street “daring any gringo to arrest him.” There was a Ricardo Uribe who was involved in some criminal cases in 1850 and 1851, including one in which he was charged with attacking Deputy Sheriff William B. Osburn, but Bell’s account of “Urives” killing six men and bellowing out to any Anglo to arrest him were undoubtedly fictional devices to enhance his narrative.

There were other quasi-historical or completely fictional characters like “Crooked-Nose Smith,” “Cherokee Bob,” Joe Stokes, and Jack Powers, or John A. Power, this latter fairly well documented starting with his arrival in California with the regiment of New York Volunteers during the Mexican-American War (though Walsh wrote that he came to the Golden State in 1852), before embarking on a colorful career as a gambler, protector of Ned McGowan from the notorious San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856, and much else.

Bell’s story of Powers having a legal dispute over a ranch near Los Angeles, however, was a rewriting of a fracas that actually happened in Santa Barbara County, but, again, the author, refashioned the facts to fit his dramatic intentions. Similarly, he wrote of a duel between a doctor “whose name for some unknown reason has remained obscured,” this being, however, a frequent device of Bell’s in his book, and Col. John B. Magruder of the U.S. Army who went on to be a well-known Confederate officer during the Civil War. There is no corroboration (as was often the case with Bell’s tall tales) for this confrontation, said to have ended with the seconds to the pair of combatants putting corks in the guns rather than bullets.

Remarking that “justice was speedy in those days,” which was true, as cases were generally concluded in a day or not much longer and jury deliberations equally quick, Walsh added that “there was no haggling of lawyers over mooted points; no congested courts, and no technicalities that required prayer and meditation on the part of jurists.” This wasn’t quite the case, however, as attorneys did, indeed, haggle and quarrel, but another incident was cited in which Bell claimed that two Latinos, who were friends, were walking arm-in-arm through town when one said something offensive to the other and was promptly stabbed and killed. Bell wrote that “the aggressor was forthwith hailed before Judge Lynch, tried, found guilty and hung ‘before the body of his murdered victim was yet cold.'” Again, though, there were no names, dates or other identifying information provided, so we have to take Bell’s word for this account.

We’ll return shortly with part two of this interesting article, so be sure to check back for the conclusion!

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks, Dana, for the kind words about the post–check part for part two soon. And, yes, this is a very interesting period and Bell should definitely be read for his colorful, if embellished, take on that era while compared and contrasted to other accounts and sources, such as Newmark and others.

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