Monday, September 16, 2006
1875: Future U.S. Senator Loses DA’s Race
By ROGER M. GRACE
Tenth in a Series
STEPHEN M. WHITE and RODNEY HUDSON battled it out for the post of Los Angeles County district attorney in 1875. White was to serve as district attorney of this county and would go on to become a leading member of the United States Senate…but his election as D.A. was not to take place for another six years. It was Hudson who won the 1875 election, later retiring to the bench in Lake County.
White was included on the People’s Independent County Reform ticket…but was the second choice of the delegates to the county convention of the ad hoc political party. The Los Angeles Evening Herald’s edition of July 29, 1875 recites:
“Major E.M. Ross was the only candidate placed in nomination [for district attorney]. After they had elected him unanimously, the Convention…found out that they had forgotten something. The Major was undoubtedly their candidate, but they had neglected the trivial preliminaries of gaining his consent to run on the ticket and his endorsement of the Convention. A messenger was at once dispatched to bring the gentleman up and find out about these things.”
The delegates took up other matters. Then, according to the Express….
“Major Ross appeared—summoned like Cincinnatus, into distinction without a moment’s warning. The Major, for once, was taken by surprise and non-plussed. He, however, listened to the formidable resolution of allegiance. When it came the moment for a nice little speech of acceptance and obligation, he had simply to say that he intended to vote the Democratic ticket. This was awkward. To confound the confusion still more, there was a loud and inappropriate applause from the lobby. It was a good joke to all except the worthy delegates, who sat aghast.”
Nominations were re-opened and delegates chose White, in absentia, over Will D. Gould, an advocate of prohibition.
By the way, “Major Ross”—Erskine M. Ross—did not fade into oblivion. He served as a justice of the California Supreme Court from 1880-86 and as a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California (in which Los Angeles was then located) from 1887-1895 and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from 1895-1925.
The Los Angeles Herald’s July 30 edition says of White:
“This young man is claimed to be of Democratic persuasion, but he has only been in the state for about seven months and his name does not appear on the great Register nor the Attorney’s roll, it is difficult to determine what was the political complection of the last ticket he voted.”
And from what far-off realm did this candidate hale? He was born in San Francisco—becoming in 1881 the first native Californian elected as Los Angeles district attorney. White moved here in 1874, setting up a practice in the “Downey Block” at the north-east corner of Temple and Main streets (then a prestigious location for law offices, now a portion of the terrain occupied by the U.S. District Court courthouse).
As far as not having been admitted to practice, well, he had been. Here’s a report from the Santa Cruz Sentinel on April 18, 1874: “Stephen M. White of Santa Cruz, upon the recommendation of C. B. Younger, Albert Hagan and A. W. Blair has been admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court.”
The Herald published a correction—of sorts—on Aug. 9, 1875. The item says:
“The young man, Stephen White, who our Republican friends…placed on the Independent ticket for District Attorney, says the Herald was incorrect in saying that he is a carpet-bagger of less than a years residence in the state. It was a mistake, we meant to say that Stephen was a carpet-bagger of less than seven months residence in this county. Stephen also asserts that his name was placed in the Great Register last March. That may be true, but a gentleman whose business it is to handle the Great Register could not find it there even a week ago.”
And what was a “great register”? It was a list of registered voters with other information on the registering individual, varying from county to county, such as date and place of birth and occupation.
White was, indeed, young, though certainly not so young that the newspaper’s reference to him by his given name was defensible. Born Jan. 19, 1853, he was 22.
In a post-election letter of Sept. 10, 1875 to Charles Bruce Younger Sr., a Santa Cruz attorney in whose office he had studied law, White recites:
“You probably have heard that I was a candidate for Dist. Atty of this Co. and that my opponent carried off the honors….In as nominated for the position during my absence and heard of it first in San Francisco, when I returned and took a look around I came to the conclusion that it would be well to make the race. That I was a stranger in a great measure and that if nothing else I could make many acquaintances....
“[C]omparatively, I made a very good run, being defeated by 318 in a total vote of over 5100, when the average majority against the Independent ticket was more than 700....
The buying of votes in that era was commonplace. White’s letter to Younger recites:
“The use of money among the noble aztecs of Los Angeles is carried on to such an extent as to be almost farcical. It seemed strange to me to see and hear men trying to get a bid on a room full of dusky voters. Some demanded a pretty high price — for the article — One fellow stated he had 6 voters for 50 — another told me he had or rather knew of 33 but as I made no bid — no proposition forthcame.”
Hudson, a relatively obscure lawyer, was able to grab the Democratic nomination from a three-time district attorney, Cameron Thom.
Lawyer/banker Jackson Graves, in “Seventy Years in California,” recounts:
“In the county convention held in 1875, after I came here, Mr. Cameron E. Thom, an old-time resident and a good lawyer, was a candidate for nomination for district attorney, and everybody thought he would be selected by the convention. He was nominated by some of the Democratic spell-binders, in a glowing speech, and the nomination duly seconded. Then a man named Palmer, from Azusa, took the floor. He eulogized Thom to such an extent that everybody thought he was going to also second his nomination. Finally, he told the convention that while he had every respect for Capt. Thom, knew that he would make an excellent official, there was a young man whose name he would present to the convention and whom he hoped, in its wisdom, it would select as the candidate of the party for district attorney. He added:
“‘I have known the father and mother of this young man from childhood. They were born Democrats, and Rodney M. Hudson, my candidate, was sired by a Democratic father, nursed at the breast of a Democratic mother, and imbibed the true principles of Democracy.’ He went on at this rate for half an hour, and his argument was so persuasive that he carried all the county delegates, and, much to the surprise of everybody, when the votes were counted Hudson was nominated. He was elected and made a dismal failure in office.”
It wasn’t simply a matter of Palmer’s oratorical skill that put Hudson across. There was a doubt as to the depth of Thom’s fidelity to the Democratic Party. As reported in the Express on Aug. 5, 1875:
“Mr. Palmer placed Rodney Howard in nomination, and said that he was the only candidate who had the courage to come out long in advance of the holding of this convention in the public declaration that his name was offered subject only to the decision of the Democratic Party. Captain Thom, who also sought this nomination, had not so announced himself, and had kept a door open so that he might catch the Independent nomination. He had coquetted with the Opposition and had balanced himself between the two parties.”
those days, candidacies were signaled by placing an ad in one or more of
the local newspapers. Here are the respective announcements of Hudson and Thom
as published in the Herald on multiple dates:
Hudson, as was traditional, conditioned his candidacy on nomination by his party. (The wording of his announcement reveals a supposition that the Democratic Party was going to place the names of candidates for county offices on the primary ballot, as it had in the past two elections, and award the nomination to the high vote-getters. Instead, it reverted to the traditional system of allowing Democratic voters to chose the delegates to a county nominating convention.)
Thom—who two years earlier had courted the nomination of another party of fleeting existence, the People’s Reform Party—made no reference in his 1875 announcement to the Democratic Party. He thus did leave the door open to being the Independent Party nominee or running in the September general election with no party’s backing.
At the county Democratic convention on Aug. 4, “Mr. Thom said that he was a Democrat pure and undefiled,” the report in the Express says. After relating a brief exchange between the two delegates who nominated the respective candidates, it continues:
“At this juncture, Mr. Hudson, who was outside the bar, raised himself up on the railing and addressed the Convention. He said that he had a conversation with Captain Thom in his office on the subject of nominations. He (Mr. Thom) was undecided about running, but said he believed the Independent Convention held the winning cards and that he (Thom) would probably accept that nomination.”
Thom remembered the conversation differently. The delegates apparently believed Hudson.
Graves, in the book mentioned a moment ago, elaborates on his assertion that Hudson was a poor excuse for a DA. Hudson apparently did not know the elements of crimes, enabling his law partner to pull a stunt that subjected him to ridicule.
Judge Anson Brunson had been district attorney of Napa County. He was a very able man and a good lawyer. He had a little red ledger, in which he had written the form of an indictment for every crime known to the statutes up to that time. When Hudson’s first grand jury was to meet, he came up and borrowed this book from Brunson….
[Brunson] had, in his youth, peddled lightning rods in Wisconsin and could climb like a monkey. Hudson’s office was in the Temple Block, on the second floor, one floor below ours. One day Brunson watched him go to lunch, and he went into the adjoining office, which was open, crawled out the window, crept along the ledge of the building, entered Hudson’s office through a window, recaptured his little book, went out by the office door, which closed with a spring lock, brought the book up to the office and locked it up in our safe.
In a few days Hudson came in, in great distress, and told Brunson that somebody had stolen that red book. Brunson looked at Hudson with great gravity, and said:
“I am astonished, Rodney, that you would be so careless with my property. I haven’t anything that I value more highly than I do that book, and now you have lost it.”
Then he put his hand on Hudson’s shoulder and said:
“But, come to think about it, I have a copy of it. I think it is up in my attic at home.”
“Have you?” said Hudson. “Let me have it and I will copy such indictments as I need and immediately return it to you.”
Brunson went down to Sam Hellman’s stationery store, hunted around until he found a book thoroughly shop-worn and discolored with dust, bought it, locked himself up in the library with it, and, in faded ink, copied into it every indictment that he had in the red book; but he left out just enough, from each indictment, to invalidate the same. For instance: if the indictment were to charge that a man had done some act wilfully or feloniously, he would omit the wilfully or feloniously. After he had copied the book he came back to the office, dug around in dusty corners, blew dust into the book, allowed some cobwebs to protrude from each end of it, and then sent for Hudson, and said:
“There, Hudson, there’s your book. It looks pretty bad. Has been kicking around the attic for some time. Now, don’t lose it.”
The grand jury met and returned something like forty indictments. Demurrers were sustained to each of them. Hudson was very soundly reprimanded by Judge [Harvey K.S.] O’Melveny for his carelessness in drawing the indictments.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company