Strange Fruta

The Inevitable Death of Francisco Torres

Torres, for his part, was quiet and somber. Under questioning, he admitted killing McKelvey, but he insisted he had done so only in self-defense. Torres said that McKelvey had attacked him with the pickax handle, but he managed to wrestle the handle away and then struck McKelvey with it. Wounded and sprawled out on the barn floor, McKelvey reached for a gun, Torres swore. It was then that Torres stabbed him. Convinced that no one would believe his story of self-defense, he fled the scene, stopping only to take the money owed him from McKelvey's pocket.

The newspapers dismissed Torres' story as an obvious lie. It would have been impossible for Torres to overpower McKelvey. True, he was 30 years younger and had spent his entire life at hard physical labor, but—ran the logic of the newspapers, stripped to its essentials—Torres was short and Mexican. And since McKelvey was neither one of those things, he would have naturally won any fair fight between the two of them. Torres must have killed McKelvey in a sneak attack.

On Friday, Aug. 12, Torres was arraigned before Justice of the Peace George Freeman and ordered held for a preliminary hearing, scheduled to begin the following Tuesday.

Following a weekend when the newspapers seemed to be competing to see who could make Torres seem most repellent—the Santa Ana Standard's description of Torres as a "savage brute" pales next to the Times' more elaborate "he has a hard, brutal face that marks its possessor as being of low mind, beastly passions, vicious habits and murderous instincts"—the preliminary hearing began on the morning of Aug. 16. The proceedings moved slowly, stretching out over the rest of the week. The testimony of the Spanish-speaking witnesses had to be translated for the court, and the testimony of the English-speaking witnesses had to be translated for Torres. The Spanish-speaking witnesses were mainly called to establish that Torres and McKelvey had quarreled. The English-speaking witnesses seemed to be used mainly to establish that Torres was a Mexican of low character ("in no way superior to an Indian," according to the Times).

Only one witness, Joaquina Lugo, could place Torres at the ranch on the morning McKelvey was killed, and even she couldn't say what had happened between them in the barn. This fact was not lost on the Los Angeles Times. In its Saturday edition, the Timesreported Justice Freeman had ruled that Torres would stand trial for McKelvey's murder but warned its readers:

There seems no doubt that the accused man has many friends among the Mexicans in this locality, and it is likely that they will assist him in the trial. The main witness for the prosecution is a Mexican woman, and it is probable that every effort will be made to weaken and break her testimony.

But the Times' concerns were moot before the newspaper ever hit the streets. Francisco Torres was already dead.

At 1 a.m. Saturday, Robert Cogburn, the night guard at the jail, heard voices shouting for him to open the door. After he refused, the door was smashed in with sledgehammers, and a crowd of masked, armed men rushed in. Taking Cogburn's key, the men opened Torres' cell and dragged him out of the jail.

Except for his refusal to open the door, Cogburn offered no resistance to the mob. Nor did he do anything to raise an alarm. He didn't even summon for help once the mob left. Perhaps this was because although the men who took Torres were masked, their identities weren't exactly a secret.

Theo Lacy Jr., the sheriff's son, told Jean Riss the members of the mob were "the most prominent men of the town." Lacy Jr., who was 15 at the time of the lynching, said the men had spent the night "holed up someplace . . . planning the thing." They had everything ready when they broke into the jail.

Torres was dragged to the corner of Sycamore and Fourth streets, where a noose hanging from a telephone pole was waiting for him. The site was no accident: the mob wanted to send a clear message. Torres was killed across the street from the Hotel Brunswick, the center of social life in Santa Ana. And in case anyone missed their message of what a Mexican who had killed a respectable white man could expect in the way of justice in Orange County, a placard was pinned to Torres' chest. The placard read, "Change of venue."

But for all their planning, the mob still made a mess of killing Torres. Instead of cleanly breaking his neck, the noose slipped, dislocating Torres' jaw and leaving him to struggle as he was strangled by the rope. Once Torres was dead, the mob dispersed.

According to the Anaheim Gazette, Torres' body was still warm when the lynching was first reported by a night watchman, who discovered the hanged man while making his rounds. The body was clothed in only a pair of dark pants, an undershirt with the "Change of venue" placard pinned to it and a single sock. Torres' mouth was gagged, and his hands were tied behind his back. His body remained on display, hanging from the telephone pole, until 4 a.m., when the county coroner arrived to cut it down.

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