by Paul R. Spitzzeri
We continue here with a look at Martin Walsh’s “Black Angels,” which covers some history of early American-era Los Angeles through selections of Horace Bell’s 1881 memoir, Reminiscences of a Ranger, a book that anybody with an interest in the Angel City, especially during the 1850s, should certainly read, but, rather than with a grain or two of salt, perhaps a shaker, because of his penchant for dramatizing, fictionalizing and exaggerating his stories.
After reviewing some of the more sensational accounts of crime and vigilantism, Walsh turned briefly to the political scene, stating that a reading of the book suggests that “elections were gala festivals and a citizen was regarded as highly derelict in his civic duties if he failed to vote at least four times.” In addition, to vehicles decorated with banners for candidates and “pitifully discordant” Mexican bands, it was stated that “skirmishers and scouts mingled with the crowds . . . snaring voters right and left” and taking them to polling places to “show” them how to vote. Bell was quoted as suggesting,
After voting the first time, which would be under gentle pressure, they would be taken to an improvised barber-shop [for a haircut to disguise them] . . . and then returned to the polls and voted under an assumed name . . . [after another trip to the shop] . . . another name would be given to the citizen, also another drink and another dollar, and another vote would be polled for some enterprising candidate . . . Every one of them would in all probability be Mexican and frequently aboriginal Indians, and in no wise entitled to vote.
With the reminder that Bell did not provide evidence and sources for his assertions and understanding that voting, at the time, was based on being an American citizen and on an official roll, there is no way to know whether this claim was possible. On the other hand, Boyle Workman, in his 1935 memoir, The City That Grew, related how his father, William H., assisted brother Thomas in an early 1860s campaign by enticing support from voters with alcohol, so some voter fraud would be expected in that period.
Next, Walsh turned to “frequent and prolonged fandangos,” or dances and balls, some of which were attended by “the more polite Spanish [Californios] and the elite Americans,” but others “under the auspices of the less responsible element . . . degenerated into saturnalian orgies.” Writing from the standard texts of romanticized accounts of early pueblo history, Walsh painted a picture of adobe houses “thronged with brilliantly attired guests in every color and combination of colors conceivable” as well as music and dancing featuring “obsidian-eyed señoritas [who] flirt coquettishly with their lithe partners,” as if the reverse was never the case.
The older citizens remembered bygone days, while there was plenty of food, wine and liquor (aguardiente or brandy), and single men gambled at monte and the cascarone (an egg filled with confetti) often was broken over the heads of those in attendance. At some of the fandangos attended by the upper crust, the account went on, there were some members of the hoi polloi whose jealousy was aroused and one notable example occurred on Washington’s Birthday 1853 at El Palacio, the massive single-story adobe house on Main Street, where U.S. 101 now passes, owned by merchant Abel Stearns.
Bell related that a few “of the more respectable gamblers” attended, but other sporting men were incensed and determined to crash the party. The story averred that a cannon and battering ram were procured and that, at midnight, the former was fired at the main door, though it was so old that it had no effect, so the latter was employed. In the ensuing action, the attackers were repulsed and some of the them wounded, with one guest injured, while it was claimed that tension remained for several days until Don Andrés Pico determined to “raise the native Californians en masse” if the gambling fraternity continued to threaten violence.
As with so many of this tales (tall, medium, or short), Bell wildly exaggerated what took place compared to an account published in the 26 February 1853 edition of the Los Angeles Star. For one, gamblers were not mentioned at all in the news account and, as for the cannon (perhaps the same taken from the , it was reported to have been discharged at 11 p.m., but not aimed at the house, as the crowd outside, said to be between 15 and 20, not the 200 claimed by Bell, also made a racket with pans, bells and firecrackers, a few of which got into the entry of the house, when the front door and a window were open to admit cool air to the overheated dwelling, “but were kicked out, and the door and window closed.”
At 1:15, the next morning, one guest started to leave but observed some hangers-on and headed back inside, upon which “several persons threw themselves violently against the door and window,” this apparently comprising the “battering ram,” while “gong, bells and voices commenced ringing.” After the ladies at the party were escorted from the Stearns house, Colonel James A. Watson, an attorney, jumped on a window sill and kicked through the iron bars (used in lieu of glass) at the crowd, when a gun was fired into the house and hit another lawyer, Myron Norton, in the shoulder. It was later stated that the first shot was from inside the building and that Robert Moore was struck and injured.
Watson then went to the doorway and, while some of the attackers fired their guns from around a corner with the bullets thudding into the adobe bricks, the lawyer, said the Star squeezed off four shots, killing two men, Elias Cook and Dr. James T. Overstreet—this latter, a native of Washington, D.C. was an assistant Army surgeon at a camp at the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino and, when the federal land commission met in Los Angeles in fall 1852, he served as its clerk. A coroner’s inquest was held and it learned the Norton fired the shots that killed Overstreet, while Watson killed Cook. A two-day hearing for the lawyers was held before District Court Judge Benjamin I. Hayes, who ruled that the killings were a matter of justifiable homicide.
The paper went to lament the too-common occurrences of violence in the Angel City and asked, “Is there no remedy? Is there no moral power in the community sufficient to check—nay, to bein to check them?” It suggested that if these were answered in the negative, then recourse to the “people’s courts,” that is, vigilantism, was required. The Star noted that “there is no country where nature is more lavish of her more exuberant fulness” but, despite the climate, fertility of the soil, and other advantages, “there is no country where human life is of so little account.” Only the significant and sustained of the people toward law enforcement and the courts could be that remedy, even though the paper advised the use of popular justice, as well.
Walsh also devoted some space to bullfighting, even if “the Angels, of ebony and otherwise, were poor bullfight patrons,” and a story by Bell was that one event was such that “the gringo part of the audience have become friendly to the bull [apparently a fairly docile ox]” so, when the toreador, named only as “Don Jesús,” a cook for John O. Wheeler, later co-publisher of the short-lived Southern Californian newspaper, headed toward the fence where the crowd sat, Cyrus Lyon kicked the matador who was then impaled on the animal.
Another tale concerned the Santa Ana winds being so strong they could change the direction of bullets, while Bell also wrote of stage company owner and driver Phineas Banning’s descent down what is today Newhall Pass to the loss of the coach (though the passengers wisely were on foot at the time!) The remarkable scam of Parker H. French and his “passenger train” that was to convey gold-seekers across the Southwest to California and was supposedly funded by a letter of credit from a New York bank allowing the schemer to purchase vehicles and supplies and then fleece them all, as well as customers, is also discussed.
So, too, is the idea of reclaiming vast areas of the desert regions of southeastern California bordered by the Colorado River, though Walsh wrote that “for ambitious projects . . . none can excel in magnitude the plan advanced in 1853 for the reclamation of the Colorado Desert” and then follows this with “it seems to have been born in the mind of Dr. Joseph P. Widney, who reached Los Angeles in 1868.” Why he and the editors of Touring Topics did not recognize the obvious and glaring fifteen-plus year inconsistency, including the fact that Widney was only 12 years old in 1853, is more than puzzling.
In any case, Widney did propose diverting Colorado River water to irrigate the desert areas to its west at the Salton Sea, but this was not until 1873. Walsh then gave a Bell-provided quote purportedly from General George Stoneman, who was a major figure for the Union Army during the Civil War and then in command in the Arizona Territory from 1866 to 1871 (after which he settled in the San Gabriel Valley and his well-known Los Robles estate), about the infeasibility of the idea and which not only provides statistics for what would be required, but mocks John C. Frémont, the famed Pathfinder and 1856 Republican Party candidate for president who was also Arizona’s territorial governor from 1878 to 1881:
Archimedes, you know, said that he could move the world, only give him a fulcrum. Fremont says he can make [a] sea, only give him plenty of greenbacks. The one is about as impracticable as the other chimerical. When he makes his estimates he will come to the conclusion that long ere he can fill his basin with water, the Great Engineer of the universe will have filled it with the sands of the desert . . . In the meantime it will probably be used for the purposes intended by the Almighty—the occupation by the horned toad, rattlesnake and [the] Southern Pacific Railroad.
This is a great quote, but Bell, as usual, did not indicate a source, so who knows whether it actually was from Stoneman? Walsh concluded the discussion by observing that “fatuous as the Widney Sea plan was” it eventually “stimulated action toward the reclamation of the Imperial Valley, one of the most productive regions on earth,” this happening decades later. The writer then offered that “of Bell himself, we know little” and that he “displays a commendable modesty, if not a freedom from exaggeration in his chronicle.”
What Walsh does note is that Bell was a nephew of the prominent early Los Angeles merchant, Alexander Bell; that he was an attorney and proprietor of The Porcupine, which was as provocative as the title suggests, though apparently little-read; was a member of the Los Angeles Rangers paramilitary organization of the 1850s—hence his book title; and “is reported to have served” in William Walker’s filibustering fiasco in Nicaragua—this was the case. Not mentioned was the Bell was a scout for the Union Army during the Civil War and fought for Benito Juarez in México in 1859 nor the fact that he was involved in several violent incidents, including an indictment for murder in January 1853, though the matter was dismissed.
Bell also was involved in a remarkable criminal libel case in the late 1880s involving rival Los Angeles attorneys with an accusation that Bell’s wife went insane because she found him in bed with a Black female servant and his combative and aggressive manner in the courtroom ruffled some feathers, including that of the Los Angeles Times as Bell defended a man convicted of incest in an 1889 case.
Considering the attention he received for his Reminiscences of a Ranger, Bell became far better known for his rollicking narrative than for his work as a lawyer and journalist and Walsh concluded his article by observing that Bell’s contemporary, Harris Newmark, in his 1913 autobiography, Sixty Years in Southern California, “may dismiss Bell with a faint mention.” Newmark was hardly alone, but Walsh then observed,
it seems probable that in its essence, the picture of Los Angeles that he paints closely approximates truth. The Peck’s Bad Boy [a fictional character in popular books from 1883 to 1908 and a 1921 film featuring child mega-star Jackie Coogan] of American cities learned wisely and well from its pranks. Black Angels they may have been, but the forebears of men and the founders of a great city they were, too.