Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Page 7


J.A. Donnell Wins DA’s Post in 1894 Republican Sweep



Twentieth in a Series

JOHN A. DONNELL in 1894 became the first Los Angeles County district attorney to be elected to a four-year term. A term of that duration was created by the County Government Act of 1893, applicable to all county and township offices.

DAs were previously elected to two-year terms. Donnell’s single term was to last from Jan. 7, 1895, to Jan. 2, 1899.

Running as a Republican, Donnell gained the office after having been spurned in the two previous election years in seeking his party’s nomination. As recently noted here, at the Republicans’ Oct. 3, 1890 county convention, James McLachlan received 236 votes to 96 for Donnell (and 25 to Jesse Hardesty).

McLachlan was elected that year, and proceeded to assume responsibility for all of the county’s civil litigation. This meant a drop in income for the law firm of Campbell, Houghton & Silent, which had up to that time been hired as a contractor to handle much of that work.

Charles Silent—who might be termed the “Silent partner” of the firm—nominated Donnell for district attorney at the 1892 GOP convention, in impassioned oratory, citing charges of whitewashing by McLachlan alleged in the Democratic morning daily, the Herald. McLachlan gained the party’s nod by a vote of 176 to 141½. On motion of Silent (a former judge of the Supreme Court of the Territory of Arizona), the vote was then made unanimous.

In 1894, Donnell had formidable competitors for the nomination. An article on Aug. 2 of that year in the Los Angeles Times observes that “[t]he fight for the District Attorneyship promises to be the most spirited” of those to take place at the Republican county convention that year, adding:

“G. M. Holton, E. A. Meserve, J. A. Donnell, James Burdette and Horace Appel have all laid their wires carefully with a view of obtaining the nomination, and each claims a fighting chance.”

George Holton had been the first Republican elected as district attorney in the county, gaining that distinction in 1884, but losing the office two years later to Democrat George Patton. Edwin M. Meserve was a founder in 1889 of Meserve, Mumper & Hughes, and became president of the Los Angeles Bar Assn. in 1920. Burdette was to serve as a bar association trustee in 1903. Appel, who did not wind up being nominated, was later to help defend trial lawyer Clarence Darrow on a bribery charge related to his defense of two brothers charged with bombing the Los Angeles Times Building.

The Republicans held their convention on Sept. 7, 1894, earlier than usual. The lion’s share of votes went to Donnell; they numbered 330½, according to the Times, and 302½, by the Herald’s count. The papers agreed that there were 95 votes for Meserve, 53½ for Burdette, and 27 for Holton.

The Times’ Sept. 8 account says:

“Before the sound of the chairman’s voice died away after the announcement of the vote, a scene of the wildest excitement prevailed. An immense pile of tickets was hurled up to the skylight in the center of the hall, and as the delegates arose as one man with a roar to greet the successful candidate, a shower of paper snow fell upon them.”

The chairman blocked Donnell from coming to the podium to speak because earlier nominees of the convention had been denied that privilege…but the crowd was insistent, so the convention was recessed so that Donnell could say a few words during the break. As the Times tells it:

“Carrying a huge magnolia blossom which some friend thrust in his hand, Maj. Donnell was escorted to the platform and delivered a brief but telling address, expressing his gratitude for the honor conferred on him, and pledging himself never to persecute any man, nor to shut any innocent man behind the bars of the County Jail or penitentiary.”

The county Democrats held their convention a few days later. On Sept. 12, E.C. Bower was nominated for district attorney, beating out a former DA, J.R. Dupuy, on a vote of 352-292.

The Times’ story on Sept. 13 relates:

“D. K. Trask offered Bower’s name, and he said while doing so, that he wanted to beat ‘that man Donnell’ and thought that the nomination of Bower was the way to do this.”

Bower was already a candidate in the general election, having been nominated on July 26 by the Populists. Two years earlier, the Democrats had also piggy-backed on the Populist ticket.

The county Democratic Party, whose nomination was once tantamount to election, was in decline, while the “People’s Party” was in the ascent…but never ascended high.

The morning Herald, the Democratic newspaper, did not acknowledge the endorsees as Democrats, but endorsed them. Its editorial of Nov. 4 remarks:

“Bower [and four others on both tickets] are worthy Populists who are fairly entitled to receive the undivided support of the Democratic as well as the People’s party.”

A Nov. 3 unbylined political column in the Times, reflecting on the Democrats’ nomination of the very candidates sponsored by a rival party, says:

“In each of these cases, ... the Democrats would rise up their might and say that the candidates were all good Democrats, anyhow, and they were not to blame if the Populists had ‘indorsed’ them.”

The column in what was then a Republican newspaper adds that Trask “is engaged in endeavoring to bring Bower, the former partner of drunken Hugh C. Grant, into prominence as a candidate, but he has apparently been able to do little for the reason that Maj. Donnell...stands so far ahead of his obscure opponent in the race for the office of District Attorney.”

So active was Trask in promoting Bower’s candidacy, that he publicly challenged Donnell to debate him. That’s right...debate him, standing in for the candidate.

The Times’ article on Oct. 18, reporting a speech by Donnell, says the candidate mentioned at the end of his speech that he would be willing to engage in a debate with Bower. (Given that he was the frontrunner, his willingness to accord his rival a forum is puzzling.) The article recounts:

“When he concluded, D. K. Trask, a Democrat, arose and said that he would be pleased to announce that Mr. Bower or himself would meet the major. Major Donnell stated at once that he would debate with Bower and cancel all other engagements up to November 6 if meetings could be arranged for. Mr. Trask was evidently unprepared for so ready an acceptance of his proposal and he then wanted to know whether the major would not debate with him and not Bower in person. ‘No,’ sharply replied Maj. Donnell, ‘you said that Mr. Bower would meet me, and I have agreed to take you up on the offer.’

“At this Trask backed down somewhat and he merely said in a doubtful tone of voice, as he prepared to leave, ‘Well, I think that it can be arranged.’ ”

A debate did not take place.

Dummer K. Trask was appointed to the Los Angeles Superior Court on Dec. 28, 1898, by James Budd—the last California Democratic governor for 40 years—and served until his term ended on Jan. 7, 1901.

The Evening Express, a Republican newspaper, carried a story in column one of Page 1 on Oct. 25 questioning the validity of the nomination of the Democratic contenders. The headline reads: “ILLEGAL ACTS.” The next deck says: “Democrats Violate Election Laws.”

The article begins:

“For sometime it has been rumored that the Democratic conventions held and the nominations made by them in the new Turnverein Hall were illegal at both the county and city gatherings. The conventions were held on the second floor in the large hall. On the same floor and only a few steps from the auditorium, a pro tempore saloon was in each case established, there being direct communication between the hall and the saloon, and people could plainly be seen drinking in the saloon from nearly every part of the hall.

“The purity of election law on the subject is very plain and some of the best lawyers in the city, some of them Democrats, admit that the tickets were illegally nominated, but they have not cared to raise the issue just yet.”

The article cites a statute which barred the renting of premises in connection with “promoting the election of any candidate” if liquor were served on the premises, unless there were “no direct communication with any part of the premises on which any intoxicating liquor or refreshments are sold or supplied....”

One of the city’s “leading attorneys”—who was not named—is quoted as predicting that if any of the Democratic candidates won, the legality of his holding of office would be tested in the courts.

(If that had happened, it’s doubtful that a challenge would have succeeded given the lack of any hint in the provision that forfeiture of office was contemplated as a penalty for a violation.)

If a person back then took stock in what the Herald said, it would have to have been assumed that a court challenge would occur because the Herald declared that Bower would win. An editorial of Nov. 5 ends off:


“A good deal has been said by Maj. Donnell’s friends and organs about the former’s superiority professionally to Mr. Bower. Assertions of this character can be laid only to absolute ignorance or pure mendacity.

“In two years practice in this county Mr. Bower has had more than three times the number of cases in the superior court than Donnell has had in twice that period. Mr. Bower has had five times as many cases in the supreme court in two years as Donnell in eight years. The difference between Mr. Bower and Maj. Donnell is that one practices in the courts and the other on the streets and in the newspapers. The people want as district attorney a man whom the facts of record prove to be a competent, active, practicing attorney and not a bloviating cross-roads politician. They will elect Mr. Bower.”

They didn’t. Donnell captured 12,161 votes; Bower got 9,037; the Prohibitionist contender, F.M. Porter, received 1,720.

The Herald’s approach to reckoning a lawyer’s worth by the number of cases he or she has handled, without consideration of the complexity or nature of the cases, is obviously superficial. Nonetheless, if the counting of California Supreme Court cases handled by the two candidates were to be undertaken, it’s readily ascertainable now by a check of Westlaw that the first case in which Donnell represented a party in the state high court was decided June 16, 1891; between that case and the one closest to the 1894 election—decided March 1, 1894—Donnell had represented a party in six more cases before the California Supreme Court, for a total of seven.

The Herald alleged that “Mr. Bower has had five times as many cases in the supreme court in two years as Donnell in eight years.” Did Bower have 35 cases in the California Supreme Court in the two year period preceding the editorial?

No. He had three cases decided within that two-year period. The phrase “in the supreme court” would include those presently pending. Assuming that Bower’s three cases decided in 1895 were all pending as of Nov. 5, 1894, that makes six. (The total number he handled going back to 1891 was eight.)

Back then, not only could a lay voter not have been able to ascertain the falsity of the Herald’s proposition, appearing the day before the election, but an attorney would have had a formidable task in checking up on it. That would have required going through every decision of the Supreme Court, in book form, for the past two years to see the number of cases Bower had argued and for the preceding eight years to determine those Donnell had handled, and somehow finding out how many cases each had pending in the court.

The difficulty of verifying representations in those days inured to Donnell’s benefit, in a different context.

As you’ve seen from the quotes above from newspapers, the title of “Major” generally preceded his moniker. It would seem that no one questioned that he had, in fact, been a major in the Union Army.

But he hadn’t. Civil War records, now accessible electronically, show that Donnell’s rank when he was mustered out on Sept. 24, 1864, was actually that of adjutant lieutenant, a notch below a major. He served in an Iowa cavalry regiment.

In the next column, I’ll tell of his somewhat troubled term as district attorney—which included an order by a judge to show cause why he should not be tossed out of office and brickbats from the Los Angeles chief of police.


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