The lynch mobs of old Los Angeles

Ransom Riggs

Think LA is violent now? It's nothing compared to the way it used to be: in 1854, fights and shootings claimed a life every day, on average. (Consider too that in those days, the population was only about 4,000; compare that with 3,694,820 in 2000.) In response to all the bloodshed, the level-headed citizens of Los Angeles decided to take matters into their own hands "“ vigilante-style -- by forming lynch mobs, which enjoyed widespread support through the 1870s. In fact, they were formally organized into what were euphemistically known as "vigilance committees," which were supplied with weapons, horses and equipment by local merchants and ranchers. But we think one story in particular illustrates the degree to which mob justice supplanted LA's court system:

"When the gambler Dave Brown murdered Pinckney Clifford in 1854, a lynch mob stormed the city jail. Mayor Stephen Collins Foster (no, not the songwriter) intervened and persuaded the crowd to allow the court to settle the matter, promising his angry audience that he would resign his mayoral office and personally lead a lynching party should the law fail to act. At the conclusion of the trial, District Court Judge Benjamin Hayes sentenced Brown to hang on January 12, 1855. But Brown's capable attorneys successfully petitioned the Supreme Court for a stay of execution until February 10. Mayor Foster, true to his promise, resigned his office the next day and formed a lynch mob which seized Brown and hung him from the crossbeam of a corral gateway just opposite the hall."

Needless to say, it's hard to imagine current mayor Antonio Villaragosa taking such action. So whatever you may think about the crime and punishment in Southern California, just remember: at least things ain't like they used to be.