Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Lynching of Lashenais

Sounds so poetic, doesn't it? Like a Victorian melodrama. Here's the picture of the event, taken in 1870.

That is Temple Street at the corner of New High (Justica) Street, Los Angeles. Clicking on it should bring up a much larger image. According to USC's caption:

A crowd of people gathers around the gate to the lumber yard. Lashenais, who was lynched for killing Jacob Bell, hangs from the archway. Many people towards the outside of the crowd simply sit, inactive. Tents and other spectators can be seen on the hill in the background. The image also shows Pound Cake Hill, which would later become the site of the Court House and then the Criminal Courts Building.

Just for comparison's sake, I found this pictures of Temple Street in 1876--just a few years later. The Los Angeles Library's caption says that Court Circle is laid out on the left.

Of course, that doesn't answer the tantalizing questions of who Lashenais was, why he killed Jacob Bell, and why the manly men of Olde Californy named a feature of their rugged land Pound Cake Hill.

This was the last lynching in Los Angeles, so it does get mentioned by the history books on occasion. According to page 191 of James Miller Guinn's A History of California and an Extended History of Los Angeles and  Environs, Also Including Biographies of Well Known Citizens of the Past and Present, Volume 1. (Is that a long enough title?) (Volume 1 contained 935 pages. Was there ever a Volume 2?) 
(I know I didn't finish the sentence but I think we all need to pause for air here.)

Anyway, according to Guinn, Michael Lachenais was a French hot head who owned property south of the city, next to a farm owned by poor, inoffensive Jacob Bell. Lachenais rode up and shot Bell with a revolver one day. Why? A minor disagreement over the use of water in a zanja. Lachenais was arrested when he bragged about the killing later. Guinn says he'd already killed four or five men before, which--even in those days--was not a method often employed to endear oneself to one's neighbors. So on December 17, 1870, anywhere from fifty (per the LA Times) to three hundred (per Guinn) armed men from the Vigilance Committee took matters into their own hands.

In 1927, an aged J. J. Mellus--one of the vigilantes--recalled the day for an LA Times reporter. "We didn't waste much time in arguing the case...we were a body of men enrolled and sworn by oath to obey our captain's orders. Our leader was Bill Harper. We decided that Lachenais had committed murder too often in Los Angeles, and that we would take the law into our own hands.

"We marched to the city jail, broke in the doors, went to the cell where Lachenais was held, smashed in the door with a 6 x 8 timber, put a rope over his head and marched him down to Tomlinson's corral at the corner of Temple and New High streets. There was a wide gate leading into this corral, which had a heavy cross beam, upon which many a desperate character had been swung into eternity.

"Lachenais made no resistance; he knew it was useless. Some time previously he had shot and killed a man named Delaval, while the two men, with others, were holding a French 'wake' over the body of a recently deceased countryman. Lachenais was acquitted at the trial.

"Arriving at Tonlinson's corral, Frank Howard mounted a box and tried to dissuade the Vigilantes from haning Lachenais, pleading for the law to take its course. But the Vigilantes were obdurate. The murderer was hoisted on to a dry goods box and his arms and legs quickly pinioned. WHen asked if he had anything to say, he remarked that he would like to see a priest. His request was granted. He then said, "Well, it's all through, and I'm going into the spirit land to fight the Germans." (The Franco Prussian war was then at its height.)

"After these statements the rope was drawn taut and the box pulled out from under the victim. It took a long time to strangle him, the drop not being sufficient to break his neck. In fact, when the body was cut down an hour or so later, word was passed around that Lachenais was yet alive, and the Vigilantes were again ordered to assemble and make a better job of it. However, the report proved false."

Mellus remembered that a photographer showed up and took pictures, but "hanging a man in those days was not accounted very much of a sensation. There was no attempt on the part of the authorities to stop the lynching."


Anonymous said...

Cool story as for me. It would be great to read more about that topic. Thnx for sharing this material.

Laura said...

Here's a great resource for those who want to read more about the history of lynching in California. It's called Lynching in the West and it's by Ken Gonzales-Day, a historian and photographer.

Vix said...

Thank you both!

Jim C said...

Maybe need to be more "obdurate", as we see what's happening in our nation, (2010)where it's "open season" on women and children, and make the cretins pay dearly for their crimes against society, instead of having them "lawyer up" in a new suit in front of Liberal lenient judges, and walking free. Our prisons are FULL of men who need to be out there repairing our Interstate Hiways and AMTRAK, instead of sitting in a computer lab, or shooting baskets, or watching porn videos..Put 'em to WORK.

Vix said...

Can't say I agree with you, Jim--I think mob rule would easily be more dangerous and nasty as anything we see today. But thanks for checking in--

Anonymous said...

Regarding additional volumes of the History of Los Angeles County, I have volumes 1, 2, & 3. Was there a 4?

Anonymous said...

As has been long said in the southern US, "Some folks just need killin'" and it seems this band of citizens finally did just that...

Anonymous said...

My family's name is Deleval.
We came to Los Angeles from France in the 1850's. I have never heard of this incident. What is the first name?

Vix said...

Mr/Ms Deleval--
I'm afraid all I found was contained in the post, so I can't tell you more. But I hope you find some information! The old newspapers tended to print whatever comments they heard, verified or not, so this Lashenais may or may not have killed someone with your last name.
I would check census records or anything that the Los Angeles City Historical Society might have. They're at

Erin McCormick said...

My name is Erin McCormick and Jacob Bell (the victim of the crime) was my ancestor, He fought in the Civil War for the North and I actually have a couple of letter he wrote back to home LA just after the war about having a hotel and 2 saloons and what a great town it will be someday! I have some copies of the letters and the posting in the newspaper about the whole scene.

Vickey Kall said...

Erin, that is fantastic! I hope you will consider giving copies of those letters to one of the universities (USC or UCLA) or perhaps even to the Autry Museum or Los Angeles Historical Society. That way students and researchers can fill out the history and learn about your ancestor. So he actually owned two saloons and a hotel? How sad that he was killed.