L.A.'s Unknown Origin Story Is Violent as Hell

L.A.'s Unknown Origin Story Is Violent as Hell

Los Angeles suffers from (or enjoys) a kind of historical amnesia. In the popular mind, there's an almost complete lack of an “origin story” for the city. That isn’t unusual as cities go, of course, but hey, Los Angeles is famous, L.A. has personality, and that implies, you would think, a generally known and worthy life story that everyone is hip to. The vague (and lazy) assumption that the birth of the movie industry and the birth of L.A. were one and the same obviously doesn’t cut any ice; we’ve all seen the year 1781 right there on the city's official seal. The cliché that L.A. doesn’t care about its history seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy long fulfilled.

John Mack Faragher’s new book, Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles ($35, W.W. Norton), clears some of the fog to reveal what laid slumbering for centuries in the archives: a record of pure, unrelenting, bloody horror. L.A.’s history after statehood was one nasty business. “In the 1850s,” the book jacket warns us, “the City of Angels was infamous as one of the most murderous societies in America.” L.A. was nationally notorious, “a terrible place for murders,” as one prominent San Franciscan warned his fellow citizens. Taking its title from Calle de Eternidad, one of the original streets of the old pueblo, this book is a lean-and-mean slab of history at its most brutal. As a pure chronicle of criminality, Eternity Street pretty much qualifies as a true-crime book. More importantly, it is probably the most violent “origin story” of an American city that you will ever read.

“Frontier Los Angeles.” That almost sounds funny to us now, but that’s us. Nothing about this grim period was funny; life was plain precarious and “cheap.” At the height of the ugliness that Faragher describes, he quotes from an 1853 editorial from the old Los Angeles Star newspaper:

“There is no brighter sun, no milder clime ... no scenes more picturesque, no greener valleys, no fairer plains in the wide world, than those we may look upon here ... and yet, with all our natural beauties and advantages, there is no country where human life is of so little account. Men hack one another to pieces with pistols and other cutlery as if God’s image were of no more worth than the life of one of the two or three thousand ownerless dogs that prowl about our streets and make night hideous.”

With the Gold Rush up north in full swing, Los Angeles County (with a population of about 6,000) was overrun with hotheaded and violent single young men; soon enough, L.A. tabbed a higher murder rate than New York City.

“For every violent death in frontier Los Angeles there were scores of assaults, batterings, rapes and other acts of brutality. The county’s legal justice system proved unable to keep up with the carnage,” Faragher writes. “In the absence of state-sanctioned justice, vigilance committees and lynch mobs hanged at least a dozen suspected offenders. Most violent crime went unpunished. In the absence of formal justice, lethal violence ran rampant and outlaw justice prevailed.” (The book’s 19th chapter, "City of Demons," quotes a would-be settler: “This place will not do for me. There is no security here — I dare not venture out after the dark of night has set in.”) 

What is amazing to learn from this catalog of crime and violence is that frontier Los Angeles actually set the template for what many Western towns would become much later, predating the heyday of the so-called “Wild West” in other states by a couple of decades. “Los Angeles, the mother of all western cow towns, flourishing a quarter century before the halcyon days of Dodge City, Kansas,” Faragher, a Southern California native, exults with obvious pride. “Raucous saloons and gambling houses teeming with crowds of Indians and Californios, Mexicans and Americans. Violent men ambling down dusty streets, armed with Colt’s revolvers and Bowie knives.” Los Angeles, of all places! We did it first!

Every page of Eternity Street is hardcore, bloody, scabrous, fascinating. By way of example, the case of the once-notorious Los Angeles outlaw Dave Brown is a record of pure brute evil, his criminal career outrageously sordid: “After the (Mexican) war, under the direction of a former officer named John Joel Glanton, Brown and several other hardened veterans took up bounty hunting for the provisional government of Chihuahua. Their assignment was to stalk and kill Apaches, but finding their prey elusive, the gang turned to murdering Mexicans and counterfeiting Apache scalps. By the time the authorities caught on to the trick, Glanton and his men had departed for Gold Rush California, with its abundant criminal opportunities …”

Brown appears multiple times in this book (he just couldn’t stay away, apparently): “David Brown was arrested as he ran from a livery stable on Calle Principal, or Main Street, where Pinckney Clifford lay bleeding to death … Angry, volatile and homicidal, Brown would not be called to account until he murdered ... Clifford in the fall of 1854. Young Clifford was a hanger-on among the disorderly crowd of gamblers and shootists who haunted Los Angeles ... He and Brown shared a room…. Brown, drunk as usual, took offense at Clifford telling him how to spend his money ... the more Clifford attempted to calm him, the angrier Brown became, until suddenly he pulled a knife and plunged it into his roommate’s chest. Outraged bystanders seized him and delivered him to Sheriff Barton....” Los Angeles’ mayor told an angry crowd set on lynching Brown that if he were not properly executed, “I will resign my office and assist you in hanging him myself.”

But open to virtually any page of this thick slab of a book: There were thousands of Dave Browns in frontier Los Angeles. By way of contrast, righteous figures going against the tide do turn up in Eternity Street: A young judge named Benjamin Hayes emerges as a (pissed-off) voice of reason; he eventually sentenced Dave Brown and many another L.A. miscreant to death by hanging.

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Gentle-sounding, neutered terms such as “ethnic tension” and “demographic shift” don’t begin to describe the conditions that prevailed in 1850s Los Angeles. In the wake of the Mexican-American War, Faragher writes, “Violent conflict continued between the Spanish-speaking majority and the small English-speaking minority in control of the political system. The institutions of the new American state were weak, and ... social order depended on codes of honor and vengeance.” This conflict included that fascinating ethnic-cultural group of landed rancheros and vaqueros known as Californios: Castilian Spanish by blood, citizens of the original Spanish and Mexican California.

In spare and plain English, Faragher seems to let what he calls “this self-crafted narrative” simply unspool by itself, a seamless, chronological catalog of case histories; in fact they’ve been artfully stitched together from many original sources, including the often-outraged editorials that appeared in Southern California’s pioneer newspapers (whose names alone can make a historian’s mouth water: the Los Angeles Star, the Southern Californian, the Southern News).

Eternity Street isn’t just rough and morbid fun; you will also learn about L.A.’s founding, the funny street names (“Calle de la Zanja” or Ditch Street, which became Los Angeles Street) and the not-so-funny ones (generations of 19th-century Angelenos were familiar with Calle de los Negros, known “popularly” as Nigger Alley), and the early domination of the region’s Indians by the Spaniards and, eventually, by everyone else. “Let us remember, Indians built all the houses in the country, and planted all the fields and vineyards,” wrote Judge Hayes, noting that they also understood “the mysteries of irrigation;” yet, as Faragher notes, “the record overflows with instances of Indians killing Indians,” as he proceeds with graphic testimonials and autopsy reports of same.

So, a carnival of crime: a book with almost no happy endings except for the long, slow, eventual ascent of the courts and of the law. When Wyatt Earp, the last of the old Western lawmen, died here in 1929, he was already a legendary figure. But no one remembered Judge Hayes or Dave Brown. The whitewashing of our early history was already in full swing by then in cleaned-up, happy-happy boosterland L.A. This aptly titled, instant classic now revives the ragged and angry old ghosts, permanently. And here’s a tip for true-crime connoisseurs: This is one of the most enjoyable books you will ever read.

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