Strange Fruta

The Inevitable Death of Francisco Torres

The coroner's jury was convened later that morning. The jury quickly ruled that Torres had died at the hands of "persons unknown" and then adjourned. There was no further official investigation. No one was ever held accountable for the lynching of Francisco Torres.

The verdict was no surprise; it was the same verdict that had been delivered in thousands of lynchings throughout the United States, regardless of the evidence—"persons unknown" was returned by coroners' juries even when there were photographs of the lynchers proudly posing next to their victims. "The coroner's inevitable verdict, 'Death at the hands of persons unknown,'" Philip Dray writes in his recent history of lynching, "affirmed the public's tacit complicity: no persons had committed a crime because the lynching had been an expression of the community's will."

For the most part, this was the stance taken by the editorial writers of the county's newspapers regarding the lynching of Francisco Torres. All included some pro forma statements about the need to follow the rule of law, before moving on to describe the lynching as either the logical or necessary outcome of the case. The Santa Ana Standard went so far as to boast, "It was the neatest and best executed job of lynching ever performed in California."

The Santa Ana Weekly Blade sounded the strongest note of dissent in its editorial: "Torres' crime was committed in anger against McKelvey and contrary to law; the act of the mob was committed against the law-abiding elements, in coolness and deliberation, and against all law." But the limits of the Blade's dissent can be seen in the title of the editorial, "Justice to a Murderer, but a Wrong Against Orange County," and in the paper's declaration that the case was closed: "The Bladehas tried to do its duty in this matter . . . and can do no more." This was self-serving nonsense, of course. The Blade, or any of the county's other newspapers, could have followed the example of two Spanish-language newspapers in Los Angeles, Las Dos Republicasand the Revista Hispano-Americana, and demand that the killers of Francisco Torres be held accountable. But none did. An impenetrable silence settled around the case, even before Torres's body was consigned to an unmarked grave in Santa Ana's potter's field.

In her History of Orange County, published in 1931, Adalina Brown Pleasants, the wife of one of OC's most prominent early "American" settlers, calls the lynch mob of 1892 "a group of great men" and laments that their identities have never been revealed, their full story never told. But she coyly hints that the identities are no great mystery: "My suggestion to the historical society is that it enlist the services of certain representative citizens for a committee to write the story. . . . Properly selected, this committee could give us the facts without having to go to anyone for their information."

I agree, though not for the reason she gives. I don't think a complete account of the killing of a defenseless prisoner by a masked, armed mob would reflect much honor on either those who did it or on Orange County in general. But it would give us some understanding of OC's early days—and perhaps, by extension, some insights into our own day—to know how and why on Aug. 20, 1892, Santa Ana's most prominent men murdered Francisco Torres and why the rest of the county stood by in silence.

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