Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Page 7



County’s Seventh DA: Southerner, Soldier, Slayer, Secessionist




Fourth in a Series


EDWARD J. C. KEWEN was the seventh district attorney of Los Angeles County and the first attorney general of California. He was also a soldier of fortune, a defendant in a criminal trial for killing a man after lying in wait for him, and spent a brief time in Alcatraz on a charge of uttering treason.

Although newly arrived in California, Kewen ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in the Nov. 13, 1849 election, coming in sixth among the 10 major candidates. California was not admitted to the union until Sept. 9, 1850, so the two top vote-getters in that election had to wait 10 months to be seated.

On Dec. 22, 1849, a joint session of the two houses of the Legislature convened for the purpose of electing officers of the new “state government,” dismissing as a technicality the fact that California wasn’t a state. Kewen, at the age of 24, was elected attorney general over Charles T. Botts by a vote of 24-23.

The website of the Office of Attorney General notes that Kewen, in serving as attorney general, was “[s]upported only by part-time clerical help” and that “a frugal Legislature denied him office supplies.” After less than a year in office, the website says, Kewen quit, declaring that his pay “was simply too low.”

In the election of Sept. 3, 1851, Kewen was a candidate for Congress, running as a Whig. He lost—though in a “Dewey Defeats Truman”-like gaffe, newspapers in the east, including the New York Times, initially reported that it looked like Kewen had won.

A delegate in 1852 to the Whigs’ national convention, he later became a Democrat and served on the party’s state central committee.

Kewen, who had been a soldier in the Mexican American War, returned to that role, fighting in Nicaragua—one of the areas of Central America which Gen. William Walker was intent on conquering and ruling. Financed by tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, Walker built up an army of mercenaries, Kewen among them.

San Francisco’s Daily Alta California, on Oct. 21, 1856, reports:

“The steamship Sierra Nevada, Captain Blethen, left her berth yesterday at 4 p.m. Among her passengers were several well known residents of this city, the principal of whom was Col. E.J.C. Kewen, one of the Pioneers of California, and ranking among her most esteemed and valuable citizens. Col. Kewen has the command of seventy eight, well armed and able bodied men, whose destination is San Juan del Sud, to join Walker in the conquest of Nicaragua.”

Kewen’s brother, Achilles, had also signed up as a soldier in Walker’s army, and was second in command when killed in a battle in June, 1855—being described by the New York Times in a report on Aug. 6 of that year as having displayed “almost insane courage.” (He had left California the year before after slaying a man in Oakland in a duel fought with rifles.)

Edward Kewen returned to California following the defeat of Walker in May, 1857. He was elected superintendent of Los Angeles City Schools in 1858, and was district attorney in 1859-1861.

The Los Angeles County Bar Assn.’s 1959 book by historian W.W. Robinson, “Lawyers in Los Angeles,” says of Kewen: “In Los Angeles he entered politics, ran for district attorney, and was a fire-eating, name-calling orator, violent in speech and in temper….”

There have been three Los Angeles County district attorneys who have gone on to serve as attorney general—namely, Fred N. Howser, district attorney in 1943-1946; Evelle J. Younger (1964-1971); and John Van de Kamp (1976-1982). Kewen was the only DA here who had served earlier as attorney general.

Kewen, born in Mississippi, was a Southern sympathizer. In “California and Californians,” published in 1932, this portion of a speech by him assailing President Lincoln is quoted:

“What sorcery is there in the name of Lincoln that it should move the world to extraordinary homage and devotion, and obliterate all the monuments of ancient security and freedom? Alas! in the delusive dreams of loyalty propagandists, he doth bestride the world like a Colossus, and we Democrats, petty men, must walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves. It is not remarkable, therefore, that the Executive should be delirious with power, when the magic of his influence is illustrated by such extraordinary effects of willing obedience and fanatical proscription….

“Every man has a right, by the law, to think and freely express his opinions, but the inexorable spirit of proscription provides only for loyal thoughts and loyal expressions. I must confess, sir, I am not enamored with this word loyalty. It belongs to kingly and not to free government.”

That sort of anti-Union talk got him into trouble in October, 1862, a month after he had been elected to the state Assembly. The incident was recounted just last Sunday in the “L.A. Then and Now” column in the Los Angeles Times.

As Robinson tells it:

“Kewen, a secessionist, was arrested in October, 1862, for ‘treasonable utterance’ and was sent to Alcatraz Island. In two weeks he took an oath of allegiance, gave a five thousand-dollar bond and was released.”

The incarceration of the state’s first attorney general in the detention camp at Fort Alcatraz, headquarters of the Union Army’s California Volunteers, caused a stir—as reflected by an editorial on Oct. 11, 1862 in the Weekly Mountain Democrat in Placerville…reading in part:

“We do not believe that Col. Kewen has been guilty of any crime, but that he owes his arrest to the false testimony of some souless spy and informer, such as now skulk, assassin-like, in every community in this State, and who, at no distant day, will receive just punishment of their baseness.”

Harris Newmark, in “Sixty Years in California” (1916), informs us that Kewen, as an assemblyman, was an early proponent of public transportation in the county. In discussing events of 1863, Newmark says:

“In the month of March a lively agitation on behalf of a railroad began in the public press, and some bitter things were said against those who, for the sake of a little trade in horses or draying, were opposed to such a forward step; and under the leadership of E. J. C. Kewen and J. A. Watson, our Assemblymen at that session, the Legislature of 1863 passed an act authorizing the construction of the Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad. A public meeting was called to discuss the details and to further the project; but once more no railroad was built or even begun. Strange as it seems, the idea of a railroad for Los Angeles County in 1863 was much too advanced for the times.”

Newmark also recounts:

“To add to the excitement of the middle sixties, a picturesque street encounter took place, terminating almost fatally. Colonel, the redoubtable E. J. C. Kewen, and a good-natured German named Fred Lemberg…, having come to blows on Los Angeles Street near Mellus’s Row, Lemberg knocked Kewen down; whereupon friends interfered and peace was apparently restored. Kewen, a Southerner, dwelt upon the fancied indignity to which he had been subjected and went from store to store until he finally borrowed a pistol; after which, in front of John Jones’s, he lay in wait. When Lemberg, who, because of his nervous energy, was known as the Flying Dutchman, again appeared, rushing across the street in the direction of Mellus’s Row, the equally excited Colonel opened fire, drawing from his adversary a retaliatory round of shots. I was standing nearly opposite the scene and saw the Flying Dutchman and Kewen, each dodging around a pillar in front of The Row, until finally Lemberg, with a bullet in his abdomen, ran out into Los Angeles Street and fell to the ground, his legs convulsively assuming a perpendicular position and then dropping back. After recovering from what was thought to be a fatal wound, Lemberg left Los Angeles for Arizona or Mexico; but before he reached his destination, he was murdered by Indians.”

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s website advises that “Kewen was acquitted of assault in 1866.”

An article in the Daily News on Feb. 8, 2004 tells of the 1870 celebration in Los Angeles of the ratification of the 15th Amendment, extending suffrage to African Americans. The article notes that Kewen was “[a]mong the handful of white Angelenos who attended the predominantly black observance,” and says:

“Referring to blacks as his ‘colored brethren,’ Kewen addressed the assemblage, admitting that he had opposed all three Reconstruction amendments: abolition of slavery, federal guarantees for civil rights and equal suffrage. But he assured his audience that he now accepted their enactment. He had loved ‘Negroes’ (several Democratic editors referring to the speech used the n-word) as slaves and hoped that they loved him now that they were free. During the ball following the speeches, Kewen unashamedly danced with the black women present.”

Isn’t it funny how a little thing like enfranchisement caused the politician to suddenly gain fond feelings toward his “colored brethren”? It surely wasn’t that he was contemplated a further run for public office. Perish the thought. The Los Angeles News reports on March 8, 1871:

 “In publishing lists of aspirants for Congressional honor in this district, several papers give the name of Hon. E. J. C. Kewen, of Los Angeles. By authority, we state emphatically and unequivocally that Col. Kewen is not a candidate for the nomination for Congress, nor will he, under any circumstances, be a candidate for any political position, whatever. His professional and private business demands his undivided attention.”

Kewen became a candidate.

Journalist James J. Ayers, in “Gold and Sunshine,” published 1922, writes:

“At the general election in 1872 a representative in Congress was to be elected from the Fourth district, which then reached from San Francisco to San Diego, inclusive. The district was Democratic by from three to five thousand majority. Col. E. J. C. Kewen, of Los Angeles, was the Democratic nominee, and Col. S. O. Houghton, of Santa Clara, the Republican. Col. Kewen was a fluent, florid speaker, and very popular, especially in the Southern counties. Col. Houghton was a lawyer of ability, had come to California as an officer in Stevenson’s regiment in 1847, and had an excellent standing in all parts of the state. It was generally conceded that Col. Kewen had a walk-over, and his election would have been certain had it not been for a most unaccountable faux-pas he made in a speech at San Diego.”

The denizens of that area resented federal plans to construct a harbor in San Pedro, ballyhooing the natural harbor in their own locale. Kewen played to that sentiment. As Ayers recounts it:

“Col. Kewen…said that every dollar the Government spent at San Pedro might as well be thrown into the ocean for all the good it would do towards the creation of a harbor of any value at that point. When the report of this speech reached Los Angeles it was denounced on all sides as not only unwarranted by the facts but as treason against the interests of his own locality. The ill-advised remark turned enough votes to defeat him and to elect his competitor.”

The author remarks:

“Col. Kewen was one of those brilliant men of whom we have seen so many, gifted with fine powers of oratory, but who are deficient in that nice poise of judgment which renders their words weighty and decisive when applied to the practical questions of life. He was brave, generous and affable. He could not do enough for a friend, and was the most entertaining of hosts at his fine home, ‘El Molino,’ in the San Gabriel orange belt.”

The Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram, in its weekend magazine, carried a brief item on June 8, 1969 relating to a new book, “The Japanese of Los Angeles” by William M. Mason and John A. McKinstry. It recites that according to the book, the census of 1870 showed that “two boys are recorded, ‘T. Komo,’ 18, and ‘I. Noska,’ 13” and that they were employees in Kewen’s household in El Molino. “They were the first Japanese to arrive in Los Angeles, reaching there in 1869,” the article says.

For a time, it seemed as if Kewen, following his loss in the 1872 congressional election, had settled down to the role of gentleman farmer.

But not to subside were either his hot temper or his political ambition.

The Fresno Republican on June 23, 1877 reported:

“A fight occurred in the County Courtroom at Los Angeles, on the 19th, between two prominent attorneys—Judge Thompson and Col. E. J. C. Kewen. The latter struck the former in the face and Thompson knocked Kewen down. The quarrel was taken up by some of the principals and for some time a small sized Waterloo seemed imminent, but at length peace was restored.”

As to the continuing yearning for political office, the Weekly Nevada State Journal on April 14, 1877 observed that Kewen and three others “are each willing to be the Democratic candidate for the State Senate in Los Angeles county.” The Placerville paper also mentioned him as a possible contender.

Kewen died on Nov. 25, 1879, at the age of 51. According to a 1974 article in the California History Quarterly, El Molino had been up for sale for about two months. Kewen was deeply in debt.


Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company

MetNews Main Page      Perspectives Columns