Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, November 27, 2006


Page 7



1892 Sees Rough-and-Tumble Race for Los Angeles District Attorney’s Post



Eighteenth in a Series

In the early days of Los Angeles County, campaigns for the post of district attorney were humdrum. Every two years, the county Democratic Party would hold a convention; its nominees for district attorney (and other county posts) would be ratified by voters at the general election. After the Civil War, Republicans would band with members of other parties and put up candidates for DA, but would lose—except in 1873 when the “People’s Reform Party” emerged, comprised of both Democrats and Republicans. It was not until 1884 that a Republican, George Holton, was elected district attorney. Though a two-party system was now in place in the county, the campaigns were fairly bland. That ended in 1892 with a rip-snorting donnybrook between the Republican candidate and one put up by both the Democrats and Populists.


James McLachlan and Henry C. Dillon were the prime combatants in the race for district attorney in 1892 (with a Prohibitionist also in the race). Incumbent McLachlan was a Republican and Dillon was the nominee of both the Democratic Party and the People’s (or Populist) Party.

The contentiousness was no doubt heightened by the news reports and editorials (the distinction between them often being difficult to discern) carried by the county’s three highly partisan newspapers, the Times and the Express, with Republican loyalties, and the Herald, a backer of the Democratic Party.

McLachlan had been born in Scotland on Aug. 1, 1852, emigrated to the U.S.  with his parents at the age of 3, settling in Thompkins County, New York. It was in that state that he was educated and, after obtaining a law degree and master’s degree in 1878, was elected Thompkins County school superintendent on the Republican ticket, serving for three years. He became a lawyer in Ithaca, New York, in 1880, then he and his wife, who were newlyweds, moved to Pasadena in 1888. He was in private practice, and served as assistant district attorney under Republican Frank P. Kelly, the DA from January, 1879 to January, 1881.

In McLachlan’s first contest for district attorney in 1890, delegates to the Republican county convention on Oct. 3, by secret ballot, chose the 38-year-old over two old soldiers of the Civil War whose “Grand Army” records were ballyhooed by their supporters. The Los Angeles Express’s report of the following day says:

“Mr. McLachlan…came forward and said he regretted to oppose veterans with such records. But he asked consideration for the fact that he, though not a soldier, was trying to support a soldier’s widow and her infant child. He asked a chance for himself in ‘the great struggle of life’ on that account.”

Delegates conferred 236 votes on McLachlan, with 96 going to “Major” J.A. Donnell—who was to become the party’s successful nominee for the post two years later—and 25 to Jesse Hardesty.

That 1890 nominating convention was tame and civil, and a ho-hum contest ensued between McLachlan and the Democratic Party nominee, M.E.C. Munday, who had been a member of the state Assembly from Sonoma County in 1885. A speech by McLachlan in 1892 decrying Dillon’s ad hominem campaign contains this reflection:

“Two years ago, when I ran for this office against the Hon. M.E.C. Munday, the only reference I made to him in that long campaign was that he was a gentleman, a good lawyer and, if elected, he would make a good District Attorney, and I have yet to learn that Mr. Munday said anything less complimentary about me.”

In that first election, McLachlan garnered 9,987 votes, Munday 8,919, and Prohibitionist William T. Kendrick 1,155.

Dillon was born Nov. 6, 1846 in Wisconsin—his non-immigrant status being contrasted by him with that of his opponent during the course of the election. Dillon’s father came to the U.S. from Ireland and his mother, of Welsh ancestry, had been born in North Carolina.

“My parents were poor and my education had to be obtained by hard work,” a speech by Dillon, published Oct. 16, 1892, in the Herald, recites.

Dillon was educated in Wisconsin and was admitted to the bar in that state, then moved to Colorado, hanging out his shingle in Denver. His speech includes his claim that while in that city, “for 16 years, I conducted a larger practice than is found in any office in this county,” and that “[m]y practice has extended to all courts of this country.”

The autobiographical account continues:

“Overwork brought on insomnia in Denver, and I removed to this state four years ago, bringing my family, a wife and six children, and all my possessions. Here I bought 140 acres of land on the sunny slope of Cerritos, near Long Beach, and I have made it one of the most attractive and valuable orchards in the county. Without the use of any medicine but hard labor, I worked for two years to regain my health, and today I am indebted to this glorious climate for more perfect health than I have ever enjoyed….”

“Two years ago, feeling fully restored to health, I began the practice of the law in [Los Angeles].”

The candidate’s speech contains a reminder that “all of you who sat in the People’s party convention know how reluctant I was to accept” the nomination for district attorney, “yielding only to the imperative demand of the party,” and that he was in Northern California when the Democrats voted at their convention to list him on their ticket.

(The People’s Party, which was opposed to a gold standard, was gaining influence in various parts of the U.S. In 1892, its presidential nominee carried four states: Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada. Four years later, in tandem with the Democrats, it would nominate William Jennings Bryan as its candidate for president.)

The Oct. 15, 1892 speech that was printed in the Herald had been delivered by Dillon the previous day, a Saturday, in Downey, then an unincorporated area of the county (as it remained until it became a city in 1956). Although the text reflects that there had been previous attacks by Dillon on the incumbent—the challenger declaring that some of McLachlan’s “too ardent friends charge that I am conducting a campaign of personal abuse”—it was that Downey address that gained press attention and marked the start of the county’s first fiery contest for district attorney.

In that speech…


Dillon proclaims the “highest personal regard” for McLachlan, personally, adding that “it is not I, but the record which assails him.”

He recites that in 1885, the expenses incurred by the office were $4,472.88, while expenses during McLachlan’s first year in office were $18,151.46. This included, he says, $750 paid to former District Attorney Stephen M. White (a Democrat) for a legal opinion on title to the courthouse.

“In 1888, when the costs of this office were $6,800, the population was about 136,000,” Dillon tells his audience. “In 1891, when it cost over $17,000 to run it, our population was only 105,000.

“I am credibly informed that there was as much and perhaps more lawlessness in this county in the years 1885 and 1886 than now, and that during the administration of Judge [J.R.] Dupuy—1887 - 88—the volume of business was double what it is now.”

Dillon expresses astonishment at the high expenses of running the office in light of McLachlan having 10 deputies and a light workload.

After alleging lack of aggressive prosecution of certain criminal cases, Dillon notes that “the district attorney has been transacting some civil business, also.” He charges that in his campaign of 1890 against Munday, McLachlan pledged to enforce a judgment against the Southern Pacific Railroad for back taxes, notwithstanding that an action on the judgment had become time-barred. Dillon remarks:

“Munday’s handsome countenance would have won the race sure, if he had only promised, as Mack did, to sue the Southern Pacific Company for these taxes. But Munday was too good a lawyer and not sufficiently addicted to buncomb[e] [bunk] to make any such rash promises.”

He recites that McLachlan had sued, but insists that the litigation “has been allowed to slumber,” remarking:

“You may rest assured that its slumbers will not be disturbed during this campaign.”

Though McLachlan’s response was delayed, one came swiftly from the Express, appearing on Wednesday, Oct. 19. It mocked Dillon’s claim that his law practice in Denver was larger than any in this county, saying:

“The Hon. Stephen M. White and other well-known attorneys of long experience here are supposed to enjoy a goodly practice, but their business shrinks into insignificance in comparison with that which Mr. Dillon tells us that he formerly conducted at Denver. What a condescension in this great legal luminary to offer his valuable services to the county of Los Angeles for the comparatively light salary of the District Attorney!”

While accusing Dillon of “juggling figures,” the Express did not elaborate, nor did it provide substantiation of its allegation that Dillon paid to have the text of his speech run in full.

The editorial, commenting on Dillon’s barbs about the Southern Pacific litigation, says:

“It is a laughable commentary on the legal discernment of the great light from Colorado that on the day following the publication of his article by the Herald the Superior Court gave a decision favorable to Mr. MacLachlan’s side of the case. So far the district attorney has won every point in the litigation.”

(The editorial misspelled McLachlan’s name consistently, but it was spelled correctly in the list of nominees of the Republican Party appearing at the top of the left-hand column of the page, where the national, congressional and county GOP tickets were featured each day. The Herald listed the Democratic nominees in the same corner on the page bearing its editorials, and the Times set forth the Republican nominees each day on a page succeeding the editorials.)

The Herald’s Oct. 20 retort to the Express’s editorial says:

“The esteemed Express, being unable to wrestle with Mr. H. C. Dillon’s figures, as embodied in that gentleman’s address…, undertakes to be sarcastical in its references to the Democratic nominee for district attorney.…The people are ‘onto’ these figures, which Mr. Dillon and the Herald have made familiar to them, and it is pretty safe to predict that they are pasted in numberless hats for use on election day.”

Meanwhile, on Oct. 18, the Express carried a news item countering an allegation by Dillon in his Downey address. Dillon had questioned McLachlan’s veracity in saying he had never heard of him (and that he was just “one of those cranks from Long Beach”) declaring: “He knew me fairly well before my nomination, and he will know me still better before my election….” The candidate provided references, “particularly to [Superior Court] Judges [William P.] Wade and [J.W.] McKinley, before whom most of my cases happened to be.”

The Express article quotes McKinley, a Republican, as saying:

“Mr. Dillon has had but one case before me during the three years that I have been on the bench. That was a case transferred from a justice court, and involving less than $150. There were no complicated issues in it, and my acquaintance with Mr. Dillon is not sufficient to enable me to gauge either his ability or character. But I can safely say that the people of this county would make a serious mistake to elect as District Attorney a gentleman who has had very slight experience in our practice, in place of Mr. McLachlan, who has given the county the best administration in the conduct of its legal affairs that it has had for very many years, and who is an able, honest, and experienced lawyer.”

While McKinley’s factual recitation that Dillon had tried before him only one minor civil case is a statement of a sort which any forthright judge today should not hesitate to supply, the political commentary would be entirely out of line these days. But back then, judges, like district attorneys, were tied to the political parties that nominated them.

An article in the Express on Nov. 2 reports that Dillon had appeared in Wade’s court only on two pre-trial matters relating to the quieting of title, and quotes Wade as praising McLachlan’s abilities, as displayed in the “many” matters before him prior to McLachlan becoming district attorney. 

Tomorrow, I’ll relate McLachlan’s eventual response to Dillon’s charges, the outcome of the race, and what became of the two candidates after that, including Dillon bringing an action for $54.50 which wound up in the California Supreme Court.


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