Strange Fruta

The Inevitable Death of Francisco Torres

Francisco Torres was going to die, that much had been clear since the beginning of August. What other outcome was possible for a Mexican laborer who had killed his white boss in 1892 in Orange County? The only real question was how he was going to die. The answer came early on the morning of Aug. 20, when Torres was dragged to a noose hanging from a telephone pole on the main street of Santa Ana and "roped into eternity at the hands of a mob," as the Los Angeles Times reported the next day.

Francisco Torres is the only person to have been killed by a lynch mob in Orange County since the county was established in 1889, but he was far from the only victim of lynching in 19th century Southern California. In his memoir, Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853-1913, Harris Newmark, one of Los Angeles' leading merchants, writes that he had witnessed "many such distressing affairs." But however distressing Newmark may have found lynching, he defends it as necessary to ensure "the safety of the better classes," a widely held belief of the period—at least, among the better classes. And in Orange County in the 1890s, "the better classes" were white. Francisco Torres was not.

Torres came to California from Colima, Mexico, but even if he had been born on the steps of the capitol in Washington, D.C., he'd still have been considered a Mexican in Orange County. The white, English-speaking residents of the county described only themselves as "Americans," referring to Latinos they found admirable as "Spanish" and the rest as "Mexican," regardless of actual citizenship. The 44 years since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had ceded California to the United States had done little to bring together the English- and Spanish-speaking citizens of what was now Orange County. As Jean Riss writes in her monograph, "The Lynching of Francisco Torres," "Though Anglos and Mexicans shared the same soil, they were separated by language, custom and inherited conflicts, and their two worlds flowed along together like oil and water."

But official Orange County wanted to project to the rest of the world an image of this place as sunny and free of any division. The Board of Trade was busily promoting the county as "second to none for business, health and the richest enjoyment of life." Santa Ana was the fourth-largest city in Southern California and represented OC's claim to being civilized. The city had nine churches and six newspapers (two daily, four weekly) available to its 3,800 residents. There was an opera house: only two years old in 1892, it had opened with a gala performance by the county's most famous resident, the celebrated Polish actress Helena Modjeska. And it was on Madame Modjeska's ranch in Santiago Canyon, 23 miles east of Santa Ana, that a dispute over $2.50 set in motion the events that ended with the lynching of Francisco Torres.

Jean Riss lays out the facts in her monograph, published in 1972 in the short-lived Journal of Mexican American History. In 1892, Francisco Torres was 25 years old and had worked at the Modjeska ranch on and off for several years. Nicknamed "Shorty" because he was five-foot-two, he had a reputation as a good worker, a quiet man who kept to himself.

On Saturday, July 30, Torres lined up alongside the three other laborers the ranch employed to receive his weekly wages from their supervisor, Captain William McKelvey. But instead of being paid $9 like the others, Torres received only $6.50. McKelvey said the missing $2.50 had been withheld for taxes. Torres returned his pay to McKelvey and insisted on being paid in full. McKelvey refused, and following a heated exchange, Torres walked off, vowing he would return and get the full amount owed him.

Why taxes were withheld only from Torres' pay would never be explained, but Torres' promise may be Orange County's first official tax protest.

The next day, at 6 a.m., Joaquina Lugo, a housekeeper on the ranch, saw Torres arguing with McKelvey in the ranch's barn. Her understanding of English was extremely limited, but she knew the word "pay," and it was clear that was what Torres was demanding. It was also clear that McKelvey was refusing. Still, as she later testified in court, "It did not seem that they were angry."

A little while later, she heard the sounds of a struggle in the barn. Investigating, she saw McKelvey lying on the floor, moaning. Frightened, she went for help. Returning with her boyfriend and the gardener, she found McKelvey dead on the barn floor. His head was gashed and bloody, and he had been stabbed in the chest. A blood-stained pickax handle lay near the body. Torres was nowhere to be seen. Lugo sent for the sheriff.

News of McKelvey's death spread quickly. The 55-year-old former sea captain was popular in Orange County. The immediate reaction to his killing was summed up in the San Francisco Chronicle's two-word headline over an article on McKelvey's death and the disappearance of Torres: "Lynching Probable."

The behavior of the county's newspapers only served to increase that probability. Led by the Los Angeles Times—then, as now, the overshadowing presence in Orange County journalism—the newspapers presented the killing as unquestionably a case of deliberate murder. Lurid speculation and sensational rumors filled the news pages. Though there were no witnesses, the Times printed a seemingly firsthand account of what its Santa Ana correspondent decided must have happened:

Torres, seeing his chance, grasped a wooden pick handle . . . and dealt his victim a powerful blow. . . . Not being satisfied with his work, the fiend dealt him another blow. . . . The sight of blood seemed to make him furious, and, smiling in ghoulish glee, he slipped a long knife, or Spanish dagger, from his bosom and . . . plunged the glittering blade to the hilt in the quivering flesh and through the heart of the gasping dead.
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