Saturday, March 2, 2019

Vigilantes in Southern California

Vigilante groups saw it their duty to right wrongs when they felt criminals went unpunished for their crimes. In many cases their victims found themselves dancing at the end of a rope. In the California Gold Country, it didn't matter if you were Irish, German, French, English, Australian, Chilean, Black, Californio, Mexican, Miwok, or had any other background. All were held to pay for crimes committed. 

While vigilantism has a bad name today, we forget that in the absence of regular law enforcement, vigilance committees handed out punishment to the accused in the fairest ways they knew how. Among the penalties was hanging, but there was also banishment, branding, flogging, tar and feathers, being ridden out on a rail, or a combination of some sort. In the California's gold camps, it wasn't unusual for vigilantes to strip a man of his shirt, tied him to a tree, and flog him. The sight was said to deter many a man of copying what the accused did wrong. 

Of course, the problem with such power is wanting to relinquish it to lawmen once regular law arrives. Also, citizens who disagreed with decision of the court because of lack of evidence were taken to task as the law was seen as ineffective. Such was the case with citizens finally getting tired of seeing killers evade punishment through technicalities. Because of these facts, at times the election of a county sheriff did not change the way vigilantes did things. In many cases, vigilante groups would overpower lawmen who could only watch helplessly as prisoners were forcibly taken from his custody.

A reader wrote to ask if vigilantes were limited to San Francisco in California? He wants to know if there were ever vigilante groups in Los Angeles or Southern California?

Actually, vigilante groups were spread all over California. From as far north as the Oregon border to the Mexican border in the south, there were many large and small "citizens committees" also known as "vigilance committees." While some groups predate California becoming a part of the United States in 1850, it was the lawlessness of the California Gold Rush that created many vigilante groups. In reality, the vigilante groups in Southern California are believed to have been around before the famous San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1851.

A Vigilance Committee at Los Angeles

The New York Times
November 25, 1863

The Los Angeles Vigilance Committee --They Take a Murderer from Jail and Hang Him

The movements among the Vigilantes came to a head this morning. An impromptu Vigilance Committee forced open the Los Angeles jail on Saturday morning, taking from there five prisoners charged with murder, highway robbery, and horse-stealing.

The Committee then hung the prisoners under the corridor in front of the jail. This done, all suspicious characters were warned to leave the county within so many hours, or take the consequences.

Business was suspended in Los Angeles on the occasion, but the dispatch says the whole affair passed off with little or no excitement.

-- end of New York Times article.

This was not the first time that such a situation took place in Los Angeles.

When people think of the Old West, for some reason, they don't think about California. People certainly don't think of the town of Los Angeles being the highest in the nation. Yet, with a homicide rate of 1,240 per 100,000 in the 1850s, Los Angeles had the highest homicide rate ever reported in U.S. history. In 1867, a local militia commanded by Andres Pico hanged two outlaws involved in the murder of the sheriff of Los Angeles.

On October 13, 1854, Los Angeles Sheriff's deputies arrested Dave Brown for murdering Pink Clifford. Dave Brown was a known criminal was ironically also a member of the Los Angeles Rangers for a time. 

In the early 1850s, Los Angeles county was infested with outlaws. Some were very organized and used the law to their favor. Lawmen in the form of the County Sheriff was unable to apprehend them or maintain law and order. To protect the citizens of Los Angeles from raiding outlaws, a volunteer militia company was formed with the sole purpose of doing what they law couldn't. They were known as the Los Angeles Rangers. 

On August 1st, 1853, under the command of Captain A.W. Hope, the unit was formed. It was composed of 60 active members. Within a relatively short time, it's said that with the cooperation with the civil authorities there was a sharp decrease in the number of crimes committed in that area.

On February 22, 1854, the Los Angeles Rangers were there to assist in the first legal hanging in Los Angeles. The condemned was a Mexican man by the name of Herrera who was convicted of murder. 

On October 8, 1855, the Los Angeles Rangers arrested three men and a woman on charges of robbery and murder. The prisoners were convicted and sentenced to hang. However, after the captives were placed in jail they escaped, and again the aid of the Rangers was enlisted. The escaped party was readily recaptured and were held in the custody of the soldiers for safe keeping until time for their execution. The Los Angeles Rangers would be disbanded in 1857.

As for Dave Brown, he and Pinckney Clifford got into a fist fight in a local livery stable. The fight ended when Brown pulled a knife and stabbed Clifford to death.  

After Brown was arrested and taken to the jail, an angry crowd of citizens gathered with the sole purpose of lynching Brown. Los Angeles City Mayor Stephen C. Foster promised the crowd that he would resign and lead the lynching if the courts did not find Brown guilty. 

A month of his arrest, Judge Hayes convicted Brown of murder and sentenced him to hang. He was ti hang with another murderer, Felipe Alvitre. The lawyers of both men immediately appealed to the California Supreme Court in Sacramento. Believe it or not, both Brown and Alvitre received stays of execution. 

Because mail was know to take more than 50 days to travel from Sacramento to Los Angeles at the time, Brown's reprieve arrived. But no, there was nothing for Alvitre. The Hispanic citizens of Los Angeles were outraged as they believed that a white men was being treated differently from a Hispanic. While they felt both Brown and Alvitre were both guilty of murder, then either both should get reprieves or both should die together. 

On January 12, 1855, more than 2,000 armed citizens gathered around the gallows. Los Angeles County Sheriff James R. Barton asked some of the citizens in that town to assist in guarding the jail. Barton was actually the second sheriff of Los Angeles County history. And believe it or not, while some men did step forward to help him, most of those he asked are said to have refused because of the overwhelming odds in favor of the armed mob. 

At 3 pm, Sheriff Barton attempted to hang Alvitre. The first thing that went wrong was that the rope snapped when Alvitre's weight was placed on it during the drop. With that, Alvitre fell to the ground in pain. And yes, that's all it took for the crowd's anger to erupt. Soon they began to stone the guards. 

Sheriff Barton to his credit, quickly got Alvitre back into position, placed another noose around his neck and hanged him. The angry citizens started to go crazy and chanted for Brown to be hanged. 

The people soon turned to the Mayor, who in fact resigned his position on the spot and agreed to lead the mob. The mob stormed the jail, grabbed Brown and dragged him to the nearest corral gateway. Quickly a rope was thrown over the gateway and Brown was forced to stand on a chair. With a noose around his neck, he was allowed to say a few final words. Then to everyone's surprise, he actually jumped off the chair to end his own life. 

A few days later the mail arrived with Alvitre's stay of execution. By then, it's said that Los Angeles City Mayor Stephen C. Foster didn't care to hear about it when Sheriff Burton brought it to his attention. Because of Foster's actions in leading that mob in Los Angeles, believe it or not, he was re-elected in a landslide vote. 

On January 23, 1857, Sheriff James Barton and a small posse was in pursuit of the Flores Daniel Gang near San Juan Capistrano. A group of 50 outlaws led by Juan Flores and Pancho Daniel attacked the Sheriff and his small posse. During the fierce gun battle Sheriff Barton and three of his deputies were shot to death near present-day Irvine, California.

While the Flores Daniel Gang were being pursued, the bodies of the Sheriff and his deputies were recovered by a special party that was sent out. Several wagons filled with coffins returned the bodies to Los Angeles. Citizen Harris Newmark wrote:

"When the remains were received in Los Angeles on Sunday about noon, the city at once went into mourning. All business was suspended, and the impressive burial ceremonies, conducted on Monday, were attended by the citizens en masse. Oddly enough, there was not a Protestant clergyman in town at the time; but the Masonic Order took the matter in hand and performed their rites over those who were Masons, and even paid their respects, with a portion of the ritual, to the non-Masonic dead."

When the citizens in Los Angeles turned into a mob seeking revenge. They began rounding up suspects that were thought to gang members. They arrested Pedro Lopez who was a known cattle rustler. Juan Valenzuela was arrested on suspicion of stealing sheep. Diego Navarro was also taken into custody, despite the fact that he said he had nothing to do with the killing of the sheriff and his men. 

The local newspapers added fuel to the tempers of all by stating the men were connected to those who killed the sheriff. The mob took it from there and hanged all three. What happen during Navarro's hanging shows how truly angry a mob they were. It's said that the noose around his neck broke and Navarro fell to the ground. Instead of rehanging him, he was shot to death while he lay squirming on the ground.

While some think of Texas as being anti-Mexican when it came to violence against Mexicans in the 1800s, California had Texas beat as it led the way when it came to Mexican lynching. The same goes for attacks on Chinese, California has a long history of being anti-Chinese. One of the largest lynchings in American history took place during the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles. In that case, a Los Angeles mob erected impromptu gallows and used trees, lamp posts, awnings, business signs, all to lynch 18 Chinese-Americans. Yes, one of them was said to have been a child of 8 years of age.

While atrocities like what took place in 1871 gave vigilantes the name they have today, there were real criminals in California of every racial background. 

A Committee of Defense and Public Security

Long before the California Gold Rush of 1849, there was a man by the name of Jonathan Temple who arrived in California. He was an American born in Reading, Massachusetts, on August 14, 1796. He was a man who apparently got around. For example, by 1823, Temple was listed as a merchant in the Kingdom of Hawaii. Then a few years later in 1827, he is said to have arrived in the Pueblo de San Diego, modern-day San Diego. At the time it was Mexico's Alta California. 

To own property in Mexico, one had to be a Mexican citizen. To be a Mexican citizen, one had to be Catholic. So yes, to become a Mexican citizen, he was baptized a Roman Catholic in 1928. That same year, he moved to the Pueblo de Los Angeles where he opened the first store in that town. Two years later in 1830, Temple married Rafaela Cota. Together they had three children. 

During their long marriage, he ran his business for close to 30 years. He also bought up property and started a cattle ranch. He became extremely wealthy and one of the largest California landowners in that area. 

In 1836, Temple started the first vigilance committee in California right there at his Los Angeles rancho. That vigilante committee was responsible for executing two lovers who were accused of murdering a Los Angeles ranch owner for his money. 

Don Domingo Feliz lived just north of the town of Los Angeles. He was married to Maria del Rosario Villa, who had abandoned her husband and was living with a Sonoran vaquero by the name of Gervasio Alipas in San Gabriel. Alipas is described as a vaquero. But also, a peacock.  

After trying for two years to persuade Maria to return to him because he still loved her, Don Domingo Feliz asked for help from the Catholic Church. On March 24th, 1836, Maria del Rosario Villa returned to the rancho and a reconciliation was helped along by close friends. 

Vaquero Gervasio Alipas became angry at the loss of his mistress and threatened vengeance against Don Domingo. Then when the reconciled couple started up the river for their home on the rancho both mounted on one horse as was the custom in old California, the couple had traveled a short distance when they were ambushed by Vaquero Alipas. The vaquero pulled a knife and stabbed Don Domingo Feliz in the back. Once the vaquero killed him, he and Maria dragged the body Don Domingo and dropped him into a ravine with a reata. 

On March 29th,  Don Domingo's body was found and both the murderer and the woman were arrested in San Gabriel by vigilantes let by Temple. When they were brought back to Los Angeles, the people there wanted vengeance. Don Domingo Feliz was loved and people there wanted to avenge his death. 

At daybreak of April 7th, as it became obvious that nothing was being done about the two, fifty of the town's most prominent men met at the home of Don Juan Temple. They organized "A Committee of Defense and Public Security." 

At 2 o'clock in the afternoon a demand was made on the Ayuntamiento by the Committee that the prisoners be delivered to them within an hour. An hour after Alcalde Requena and the Ayuntamiento paid no attention to their demand, the band of 50 armed citizens marched out in front of the Public Hall and jail. 

At 3 o'clock, they notified the Alcalde that their hour had terminated. The secretary of the Ayuntamiento, Narciso Botello, refused to give up the keys to the jail. The keys were taken from him. Some say that Botello put up very little resistance when they were taken. Both prisoners were taken from the jail and shot. The peacock Alipas was shot at 4 o'clock and Maria was shot a half hour later. 

It was found out later that the vigilante committee acted at the right time. It was found that Alipas had his shackles almost filed off and was almost ready to flee. He was going to desert Maria and save his own hide. No wonder they called that vaquero a peacock.

As for the Committee of Defense and Public Security, it is said that in true vigilance committee style, they took the bodies of the two killers and hung them at the jail door for two hours before turning them over to the authorities for disposal. The effect of what was done had a quieting effect on the criminal element there for some time. 

Before quietly disbanding, the group is said to have offered their services to the Alcalde in case he needed them in the future to preserve law and order. It is believed that they were of the best citizens of Los Angeles. The Alcalde was duly warned to keep things on the straight and narrow, because though disbanded -- they would rise up again if need be.

As for Jonathan Temple, also known as Don Juan Temple, among other things, he's credited with organizing the first vigilante committee and orchestrating the first vigilante act in California. 

Tom Correa