Friday, July 14, 2006
DA Battled Union Troops, Confronted Lynch Mob, Helped Found Glendale
By ROGER M. GRACE
Third in a Series
CAMERON E. THOM is the “odd” Los Angeles district attorney of long-ago to be profiled today in what appears, so far, to be a series on odd DAs. He was “odd” in the numeric sense of having been the fifth district attorney for the county; I’ve previously looked at the first and third to hold that office, and next week will spotlight the seventh.
It’s pure coincidence that the DAs in the earliest days of the county who have struck me as being the most colorful and intriguing are the odd-numbered ones.
Thom had a varied career—as a state senator, a mayor of Los Angeles, an officer in the Confederate Army, and a founder of Glendale. He has the distinction of being the only person elected to three non-consecutive terms as district attorney, serving during the years from 1854-1857, 1870-1874, and 1878-1880.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office website includes this account:
“One of his first cases as a defense attorney was a controversial murder charge against Dave Brown, a well-known gambler. Brown had killed a man in a livery stable on Main Street. In the heyday of the vigilantes, a crowd gathered and decided to string up Brown and be done with him. Los Angeles Mayor Stephen Foster—not the songwriter of ‘Camptown Races,’ though they were alive at the same time—convinced the would-be lynchers to give the courts a chance to act. Foster vowed that if justice wasn’t expediently done, he would resign his office and lead a lynch mob himself. Brown was sentenced to death. But Thom and two colleagues, the high-priced defense lawyers of their day, were able to get a stay from the state Supreme Court. Foster, true to his word, resigned, led another lynch mob and Thom’s client was hanged. Foster was re-elected as mayor two weeks later.”
“Pioneer Notes From the Diaries of Judge Benjamin Hayes,” published in 1929, contains this recollection by Hayes of a trial in his District Court courtroom in which Thom was the prosecutor:
“The case of James P. Johnston, the unfortunate man who was executed Oct. 3, gave me much anxious thought. On the first trial, the jury did not agree, being in favor of finding him guilty only of murder in the second degree, which I then thought, under the evidence of the single witness to the material fact, they might well do. The District Attorney, Mr. Cameron E. Thom, as was generally understood, undertook in a dark way to assail me, as well as the jury, through the editorial columns of the Los Angeles Star. I am sure the testimony he offered was inadmissible, and I again excluded it on the second trial. He had made a very bungling business of the prosecution. On the second trial he did better.”
Harris Newmark, in his book “Sixty years in Southern California” (published in 1916), gives Thom credit for showing “great courage in facing the mob” that was seeking to hang a man during the Oct. 24, 1871 mob action known as the Chinese Massacre. The man was spared the fate that befell at least 19 other immigrants from China at the hands of white vigilantes seeking revenge following the fatal shooting of a white man who got caught in a tong war.
After going home for dinner, Newmark continues, “news of the riot had spread, and with my neighbors, Cameron E. Thom and John G. Downey, I hurried to the scene.” He recounts that he was “an eye-witness” to the “heroic” role played by Thom who, “having climbed to the top of a box, harangued the crowd.”
Boyle Workman, in his 1936 book “The City That Grew,” notes that at the time of the rioting, his father-in-law, Robert M. Widney, was president of the Law and Order Party “which substantial citizens had recently organized to suppress crime and violence.” Widney and other members lent support to the sheriff in his efforts to quell the riot, Workman writes, commenting that Widney (who was appointed to the District Court two months later) “always paid tribute to Sheriff J. Frank Burns, Captain Cameron E. Thom” and two others “for their courage in rescuing the Chinese and stopping the massacre at the risk of their own lives.”
W.W. Robinson comments in his 1959 book “Los Angeles From the Days of the Pueblo” that “[b]efore the night was over, almost two score innocent Chinese were dead, some by bullets, the rest by hanging.”
Thom, a Democrat, was in the California Senate from 1859-60, representing Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Bernardino counties.
“My seventy years in California,” an autobiography of banker Jackson A. Graves published in 1928, relates:
“Capt. Cameron E. Thom had a beautiful home at what is now Third and Main streets. He was a Virginian. When the war broke out he went back to his native state, enlisted in the Confederate army and served until the end of the rebellion.”
Graves proceeds to recount Thom’s arrival back in Los Angeles:
“He returned to Los Angeles, coming by steamer. At that time, my father-in-law, Mr. J. M. Griffith, was in the transportation business between Los Angeles and Wilmington. He chanced to be at Wilmington when Capt. Thom came onto the wharf from the lighter. Mr. Griffith, who was a native of Maryland, and a Republican and staunch Unionist, had known him well before he went East. He rushed up to Capt. Thom, seized his hand, and said:
“‘Well, you dirty old rebel! You are back here now, and if you behave yourself we will not hang you.’
“He thrust his hand into his pocket and brought out as much gold as he had there, which happened to be $300. He put it in Capt. Thom’s hands and said:
“‘Go and get your hair cut, and get some clean clothes, and look decent.’”
“Capt. Thom told me that while the reception was vigorous, he knew it was well-intended and meant for gentle raillery, and that at no time in his life did he ever see any money that looked as large to him as the gold-pieces which Mr. Griffith gave him.”
The Cal State Northridge website says:
“After the war, Thom moved back to California where he lost his property, his fortune, and his wife Susan Henrietta Hathwell. She left him and returned to her family in Marysville, Virginia where she later became ill and passed away. Luckily for Thom, J. M. Griffith, an old friend, loaned him $300.00 to help him get back on his feet. Thom pooled his money with others and became a co-founder of the City of Glendale California. Thom also received 724 acres of land during the ‘Great Partition of 1870’, which was one of the most famous land cases in California history.”
He served two one-year terms as mayor of Los Angeles from 1882-84. A retrospective in the Valley News in 1968 notes: “In 1882, 746 acres of land were set aside for Elysian Park during the term of Mayor Cameron E. Thom.”
What was to become the City of Glendale had been, according to “Historic Abodes of Los Angeles County” by John R. Kielbasa, acreage belonging to Thom, to law partners Alfred B. Chapman and Andrew Glassell, and to Prudent Beaudry.
Chapman served as district attorney in 1868-70; Glassell was the first president of LACBA, elected Dec. 10, 1878; and Beaudry was a multi-time mayor of the City of Los Angeles.
Kielbasa goes on to say that Thom was among “the men responsible for the creation of Glendale,” tossing in this information:
“In January 1887, a survey of the site was conducted. On March 11, 1887, the map of the town of Glendale was filed with the Los Angeles County Recorders Office. The name, Glendale, was actually decided upon three years before at a community meeting in a little schoolhouse. Other names considered, but deselected were Etheldean, Minneapolis, Porto Suelo (Portzuelo), Riverdale, San Rafael and Verdugo.”
Thom died in Glendale on Feb. 2, 1915, nine years after the township became a city.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF—It was 14 years ago today that the then-presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, Ricardo A. Torres, effected the forcible detention of three MetNews employees who had distributed a memo to courtrooms, for the eyes of the judges, lampooning him. Torres interrogated them, then haled them into open court and instituted contempt proceedings (soon dropped).
The memo, appearing at first blush to be from Torres to members of the court, was a parody, triggered by Torres causing mass cancellation of court subscriptions to this newspaper because we declined to report the news and express our impressions according to his wishes.
We sued him; he sued us. The only issue to reach the Court of Appeal was whether the parodic memo was actionable. In a 2-1 decision, Div. Three of the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that a demurrer to Torres’s cause of action for libel, which was overruled, should have been sustained without leave to amend. Any judge reading the memo would surely realize it was a joke, Presiding Justice David Sills said in the majority opinion, announcing that a writ was granted. Summarizing the memo (which I wrote), Sills wrote:
“The memo bore the letterhead and seal of the superior court, and a facsimile of the initials stamp of Judge Ricardo A. Torres, who in July 1992 was the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court. The opening paragraph alluded to a characterization, evidently made in the pages of the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, of Torres as a ‘despotic twit,’ and from that leaped to the conclusion—by reference to the author’s ‘august status’—that copies of the newspaper could not be ‘permitted’ within the confines of the Los Angeles Superior Court.
“The memo next warned the judges of the superior court that there would be off-hours searches for copies of the Metropolitan News-Enterprise and ‘other contraband’ which would include inventories of the contents of the judges’ chambers. The memo advised judges and court employees to conduct their ‘amorous escapades’ at ‘off-site locations’ so as to avoid embarrassing those conducting the search.
“The memo next returned to the theme that the judges of the Los Angeles Superior Court were to avoid reading the Metropolitan News-Enterprise. It threatened them with reassignment—to be made by a call from the author on his ‘car phone’—to a distant court if they were caught reading the paper.
“The final paragraph of the memo ended on a crescendo of megalomania, in which the author declared a ‘court emergency’ and suspended the election of his successor. The final sentence dwelt on the heavy burden and ‘considerable personal sacrifice’ imposed on the author by this sua sponte power grab.”
Sills came to this conclusion: “It is unreasonable to believe that any judge appointed by any of California’s governors in this century would be so stupid as to seriously author such a memo.”
A dissent was penned by Justice Thomas Crosby (since deceased) who observed that “Los Angeles’ legal history does not lack for examples of the occasional judge gone off the beam.” Some one thus “might conclude Torres’ conduct revealed a character capable of creating a retaliatory memorandum” of the sort in issue, Crosby wrote.
A portion of Crosby’s dissent was published in Harper’s; the opinion, itself, was depublished by the California Supreme Court; the case was settled, with the county paying.
Anyway, as I said, the whole thing was sparked by Torres causing the courts’ subscriptions to this newspaper to be slashed because we would not take orders from him concerning the content. Fortunately, a “despotic twit” like that does not often come into power.
But, alas, my daughter, Lisa Grace-Kellogg, has apparently encountered one. She owns some weekly newspapers, including the Compton Bulletin. And the mayor of Compton, Deputy District Attorney Eric Perrodin, has not been pleased by some of the coverage. Most recently drawing his ire was a report, based on documents obtained through a Public Records Act request, that a public relations consultant had overbilled the city for services.
Perrodin allegedly had a staff member telephone my daughter to threaten a cancellation of a city contract with her newspaper for legal advertising. That sort of threat does ring a bell.
The DA’s Office is conducting an internal investigation.
If Perrodin should go through with his threat, well, I have some memoranda of points and authorities from 1992 I’d be happy to supply my daughter.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company