02 July 2008

A Little Historical Tidbit

OK, I don't know if we can say this happened exactly in Carbon Canyon or right near, but I think it's close enough. Besides, it's a pretty interesting little part of the region's history.

In September 1854, an El Monte farmer named James Ellington was killed on the lower road from Los Angeles to San Bernardino (now known as Valley Boulevard) in what is today the Bassett neighborhood between El Monte and La Puente. Because some of his clothing was missing, a manhunt focused on potential suspects with those articles.

After about a week or so, Ygnacio Palomares, co-owner of the Rancho San Jose, encompassing the Pomona area (in fact, a 1930s reconstruction of Palomares' 1850s adobe house, as well as earlier and original 1837 adobe home, are museums in Pomona) was grazing his cattle in the Chino Hills, which was then public land set aside under Spanish and Mexican rule for ranchers in neighboring properties to graze their animals. Palomares, aware that their was a hunt for the murderer of Ellington and equally knowledgeable about the value of hilly areas for criminals to "lay low," noticed an indication of an encampment. With the aid of some of his vaqueros (cowboys), Palomares approached the site and captured a young man named Felipe Alvitre.

Alvitre's family dated back to among the first Spanish soldiers to be stationed in California and were longtime residents of the area known as Misión Vieja (not be confused with the gramatically incorrect Mission Viejo in Orange County.) Translated as Old Mission, the community where Alvitre was raised was the site of the original Mission San Gabriel and later a small community of Latinos, Americans, and others alongside the Rio Hondo (the old channel of the San Gabriel River). This area is now unincorporated flood control land governed by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and adjacent to Montebello and South El Monte. The Alvitre family were no strangers to problems with the law, as we'll see in a moment.

At any rate, Felipe was turned in by Palomares to law enforcement and housed in the county jail in Los Angeles. After a trial, he was adjudged guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to hang in January 1855. It turned out that another man, David Brown, was also arrested, tried for murder, and sentenced to die on the same day as Alvitre. Brown, however, had been the subject of a public meeting at a Los Angeles hotel with threats of lynching before the mayor of the town, Stephen C. Foster, arrived and promised to resign his office and lead the lynching party if justice was not secured in the courts. Sure enough, Brown was convicted.
Naturally, Brown's defense attorneys found this curious circumstance adequate ground for an appeal to the California Supreme Court and filed an affidavit requesting a hearing. The Court received the request and ordered a stay of execution pending further review.
In the meantime, according to District Court Judge Benjamin I. Hayes, who presided over the Alvitre and Brown trials, Alvitre's attorneys also filed a request for a stay for their client. Unfortunately for Alvitre, this was lost and didn't reach the Supreme Court in time. When Alvitre's date with the executioner arrived, he was marched out to the yard next to the jail and hanged.
Enraged citizens, remembering Mayor Foster's promise, insisted that Brown ascend the gallows, as well. Foster duly appeared, resigned as mayor, and led the lynching party to the jail. After a brief struggle with the sheriff and jailer, Brown was seized and, as they used to say in those days, "launched into eternity." There's positive spin for you! A third convicted murderer, another El Monte resident (what was it about El Monte anyway?) named William B. Lee, cowered in the jail expecting to be dragged into the lynching party, but was spared. Lee's conviction was also appealed to the state Supreme Court and overturned and he lived a long life.

There is a variation of the story that suggests that it was the Spanish-speaking community that called for Brown's death as revenge for the execution of Alvitre. It is certainly possible that many Latinos in town were upset about why Alvitre was hanged when Brown, an American, appeared to be spared and were perfectly content to see Brown strung up. It is worth noting, however, that when Brown was arrested and that public meeting held, it was called for and attended by Americans and Europeans. Moreover, Mayor Foster had taken the lead for the future lynching by his offer to resign. Another interesting sidenote: when the special election was held for mayor, Foster threw his hat in the ring and was reelected! Probably on his position of being tough on crime!
One notable resident, a merchant named Harris Newmark, later claimed in his memoir that a local newspaper, The Southern Californian, wanted to cover the proceedings but had to get their papers aboard the steamer for San Francisco before the appointed time for Alvitre's execution (and, therefore, for Brown's lynching.) According to Newmark, the paper's "printer's devil", a young man named William H. Workman, went ahead and wrote a full article describing the details of the executions before they took place, so the paper could be printed and copied for the steamer. It turns out that Newmark's story is almost certainly just that, but it adds a little grim humor to the proceedings. Incidentally, young Workman became a Los Angeles mayor and city treasurer in subsequent decades.
Felipe Alvitre was one of three members of his family to be involved in corporal punishment. Almost exactly a year prior to Felipe's crime, his cousin, Ramon, was captured after an attempted rape of a prominent Old Mission resident, Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple. Ramon was tried by a citizen's jury, outside the operations of the courts, found guilty and sentenced to a whipping and banishment from the county. Within a year or two, Ramon died, possibly from the injuries incurred in the punishment. Then, in 1861, Felipe's uncle, Jose Claudio, murdered his wife in a drunken rage, was seized by locals in the Old Mission area (or perhaps from El Monte, known for its lynching proclivities), placed on a horse with a noose around his neck, and executed.

Back to the Chino Hills and, possibly, the Carbon Canyon connection: Alvitre, after his arrest, was said to have not only casually admitted to killing Ellington, asking his captors what the life was worth so that he could pay for it, but that he also killed another man in Los Nietos (today's Santa Fe Springs area) after fleeing. This suggests that Alvitre headed south from the Ellington murder scene, then cut across through northern Orange County before seeking refuge in the Chino Hills. Given the Carbon Canyon is a prominent passage through the hills from north Orange County it seems quite possible that Alvitre traveled what must have been first an Indian trail and then later a dirt road to locate his hiding place. Then again, he might have ventured up Brea Canyon, Tonner Canyon, or even Soquel Canyon. We'll never know for sure, but it seems like his capture in the Chino Hills by Palomares is of a close enough proximity to make the incident part of Carbon Canyon's general, if not specific, history.

Sources for this little exercise: Harris Newmark's biography, Sixty Years in Southern California (1916 and several reprintings); the Southern Californian and Los Angeles Star newspapers; Robert Blew's early 1970s article on lynching in the journal Southern California Quarterly; among others. Obviously, any errors are mine.

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