LA: “A Place People Hack One Another to Pieces with Pistols”

By William DeverellApril 8, 2016

Eternity Street by John Mack Faragher

HISTORIAN JOHN MACK FARAGHER has come home. A Southern Californian who has spent an illustrious and influential career at Mount Holyoke and Yale, Faragher is one of the nation’s most distinguished American historians. His impressive body of work zeroes in on frontier settings and frontier stories: he has plotted trans-Appalachian settlement and town-building; he has accompanied Daniel Boone across the Cumberland Gap and into American legend; he has written movingly of the expulsion of Acadians from the maritime provinces during the French and Indian War; and he has walked overland with the men, women, and families of the antebellum overland trail. His books are big, important, and erudite.

His latest, Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, is built atop Faragher’s scholarly understanding of frontiers as places beyond the reach of usual institutions of justice and punishment, or the centralizing authority of nation-state structures and force. His mid-19th-century Los Angeles is just such a place — a perfect, if grim, case study of violence sprung from racism and the vengeful acts of men defending their honor in the face of perceived insult or affront.

It is a magnificent book, written with verve and care. Across 500 pages, Faragher keeps a firm hand on the tiller, even while he lets the drama and depraved pathos of his stories unspool into deadly chaos. Vanquished once and for all is any stubborn vestige of expressing Los Angeles as a romantic Old West caricature. Faragher’s Los Angeles is a far-flung place, where cycles of conquest never abate, and the basin’s agricultural landscape of fruit and grain is well watered by blood. Nostalgia does not stand a chance in the face of unrelenting brutality. In this telling, Los Angeles is a cauldron of murderous rage, a place where, as one eyewitness puts it, “men hack one another to pieces with pistols and other cutlery” in impulsive defiance of the better angels from which the place drew its name.

Faragher centers the book in the midcentury, but he reaches back further in time to start the bloody story. Spanish missionaries, along with settler and military partners, arrived at the spear’s point of imperial and inquisition ambitions late in the 18th century, and the profound toll they exacted on indigenous bodies and cultures is well known. That downward demographic spiral only accelerated in the 19th century, as Americans entered the fray. Despite its modest size of a few thousand souls in the 1830s and 1840s, Los Angeles was an immensely complicated tapestry of lives and behaviors. Newly arrived New England men on the make turned themselves Mexican and Catholic, married land-rich Mexican or mixed-race girls, and shimmied up the social and political hierarchy as “dons” atop often vast haciendas. Mexican officials tried — sometimes — to run the province and the region amid local turmoil and benign neglect (or just neglect) out of Mexico City. Secularization of the missions in the early 1830s seemed to promise material and landed advancement for the Indians, who had worked mission landscapes into agricultural and light manufacturing prominence that did not last. Natives fared poorly in the post-mission political economy: dependent; beaten down; demographically, immunologically, and physically assaulted. And it got much worse once more Americans wandered in. Throughout it all, throughout each space and place in tiny Los Angeles, violence ran amok — not episodic, not sporadic — violence so common as to be nearly prosaic by way of frequency (at least to them, if not to us).

The Mexican-American War came in 1846, and some of its most important moments and battles were fought in Los Angeles itself. Faragher asks and answers some rhetorical questions here — did the war end in 1848? Did the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which lopped off a huge northern chunk of Mexico as a war prize for the United States, mean that the victors honored a diplomatic peace? Hardly. The language of the treaty, its de jure declarations, makes a heady appeal to peace wrapped in justice. The cessation of hostilities was to be marked by a new era of “firm and universal peace between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic.” Previous residents of the Mexican province, citizens of Mexico, could transfer their allegiance to the United States by choice and, as such, retain rights and property (and respect) as new Americans, should they wish to do so. So doing would ensure their “enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States, according to the principles of the Constitution,” accompanied by their “free enjoyment” of “liberty and property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without restriction.”

Yet as Faragher recounts in gripping narrative, the postwar streets of tiny Los Angeles were gladiatorial battlefields, dusty sites where grievances racial, national, familial, and otherwise provoked fights, knifings, shootings, and assassinations. Curses flew thick as punches; drunkenness ruled; pistols did their grim work; and Bowies, short blades, and other weapons of rage were much in evidence. Racial and national identities drew thick lines of enmity and distinction — the war with Mexico had become more crudely a war with Mexicans (who, to be sure, fought back). The treaty’s frothy language promising a peaceable kingdom in the City of Angels looked naive at best, even before the ink dried.

Faragher is spot-on in the book’s passages about the ongoing brutality, and he has the semantic and identity struggles right, too. The 1850s were the high-, or low-, watermark of what we might call identity politics derived from a of Manifest Destiny hangover. Who was an American? Who was a Californian? Who was an Angeleno? Where did racial identity drive national identity, and how did they intersect? Who could decide, and, as a result of the contests of decision, who paid the often lethal price for being the wrong kind of person at the wrong time and in the wrong place? As Faragher reminds us, while everyone was brutalized by the violence, the region’s indigenous population suffered nearly beyond measure. The insults and assaults of the mission period — well within memory and experience in the bloody 1850s — grew as the native population declined, and those phenomena were inextricably related. Violence against natives became ever more fundamentally causal to population decline. It’s hard to reproduce when you’re dead, and it’s hard to prosecute murder when the cause of death is “an act of God.” Such were the unsubtle certainties of the godliness of the American possession of Southern California.

Things were no better off the streets. Behind the walls of the village’s adobes and simple framed buildings, women got battered, beaten, and killed. Husbands and lovers and johns slugged, shot, and stabbed the women they lived or slept with; the children hardly fared better. “This is an awful, awful town to live in,” wrote one observant, a frightened teenaged girl in the violent maelstrom of the 1850s. People asked aloud and in their private moments if this really was the place of “Los Angeles”? No, they declared, not at all — Southern California was ruled by the impetuous brutality of “Los Diablos,” lurking everywhere and in every human heart.

Eternity Street is not all 19th-century noir, though it could be perceived as such, and that alone would be a signal achievement given the author’s research and descriptive talents. Faragher has compiled so much grim gore and violence that the narrative can be a bit unrelenting at times; my graduate students, though grateful for — and deeply impressed by — the book’s erudition, admitted to having to put the book down at times and just shake their heads at the darkness of the human condition — a reaction the author likely wanted to provoke in his readers. What is especially powerful in his tales of murders and fights is that Faragher implicitly categorizes them in ways that help readers better understand the wrenching history of the pueblo as it bloodily makes it way toward American village and, eventually, town, city, metropolis. Grievance between drunken louts? Check. Battered wife? Check. Assassination? Check. Opportunistic crime spree? Check. Lynching? Check. Racially motivated serial killing? Check. Jilted lover turned killer? Check. The eight pages of photographic or painted images in the center of the book resemble mug shots as much as period parlor portraits. The good guys are almost indistinguishable from the bad, and that is part of the point here, such as in one photograph of icy-eyed serial killer Charles Wilkins, a man who admitted that he thought “no more of killing a man than a dog,” a man who died at the hands of a lynch mob who strung him up from a crossbeam atop a corral gate right after he’d been found guilty of killing a popular rancher (and likely would have been executed anyway). Caught up in, swept away by, currents of history, politics, and war so much greater and more powerful than they were, many of those men and women whom Faragher calls the book’s “characters” seem so overwhelmed by events and circumstances that their only recourse is lashing out with whatever tools of violence or rage they found handy. Faragher emphasizes that many an Angeleno “founding father” of the early American period, men of presumed honor and unquestioned social distinction, had or hid pasts pockmarked by violent acts they participated in or organized. That elderly pillar of the community, circa 1890, just might have been a cold-blooded vigilante and killer 40 years earlier, and those roles might be connected and not coincidental.

Eternity Street comprises such litanies of mayhem, but not only that: justice is in here, too, trying to make headway, trying to get a foothold in a frontier landscape made slippery by so much blood spilled. That is a complex issue, to say the least, and some of the most enjoyable parts of reading this book entail contemplation of justice sought, justice gained, justice denied, justice delayed, justice blasphemed, etc. Faragher is brilliant at running two narratives alongside one another: page-turning rollicking, fighting, and killing, complete with bilingual profanity direct and inventive, runs side by side the search for justice. The strands cross, of course; most, if not all violence, which humans inflict on one another is at its psychological root an attempt to seek justice for something from someone. That’s the puzzling anthropological, sociological aspect of Eternity Street: how could people do this to one another? We don’t really know, in the end, though Faragher is such a fine American historian that he brings to the “causal table” all manner of ideas and theories: race and racism, greed, pathologies of mind and behavior, misogyny, national aggrandizement. They are all true, they are all operative, and the questions yet remain. Why, in the notorious Chinese massacre of 1871, an orgy of lynching perpetrated by a mixed-race gang of whites and Latinos, did the murderers inflict so much violence on the bodies of already-dead victims? Why the post-mortem hangings, shootings, and dismemberments? It has something to do with the dehumanization of the Chinese by the dominant racial group, but there’s only so much explanatory weight that such thin truisms can bear. Even our best historians, when working in such environments as this, probably have to hand their notes and narratives off to psychologists to help figure it all out.

The other strand of justice Faragher follows is institutional justice, the maturation of the Los Angeles frontier into adoption of, and respect for, systems of jurisprudence and punishment. This thread in Eternity Street is even more important than story after story of people beating and killing one another. The rule of law, in the hands of a few brave and imperfect actors, seeks hold here: it is a tenacious effort, and it is not easy, to say the least. Mobs do as mobs do. Vigilantes claiming to speak for the people or a higher law rush in and do what vigilantes do. Nineteenth-century Los Angeles jails were flimsy, and so were the laws that decided who was imprisoned within them. Racial violence, in a racist society, was hard to punish or police.

That move from extralegal or unprosecuted violence to a reliance on firm systems of justice was not, in any way, uncomplicated nor simply linear, as Faragher is careful to note. For instance, he handles the ways in which the horrific Chinese massacre put men who knew a thing or two about vigilantism into positions of putting a stop to the mayhem and to the new crop of those who would take the law into their own hands. It is that herky-jerky move to law and its defense, that journey to justice imagined and sought, that carries this book and this history forward every bit as much as the “I will kill you!” rage of those we meet in its pages. Beyond horror is a place where Los Angeles justice resides and where redemption, to this day, beckons.


William Deverell is director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and chair of the USC History Department.

LARB Contributor

William Deverell is the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.


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