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.

Even when the reporting wasn't simply melodramatic fantasy, it was usually surprisingly incompetent. To cite one telling example, on Aug. 11, the Santa Ana Weekly Bladelamented that the search for the missing Torres was going badly because "Torres was never observed close enough by white persons to obtain a very minute description from that quarter." Perhaps few white persons had noticed Torres, but others had, and a very minute description could be had by anyone willing to make the effort. Ten days before the Blade's complaint, Orange County Sheriff Theo Lacy had sent post cards to all the law-enforcement agencies in Southern California alerting them to be on the lookout for the fugitive and providing them with a complete description of Torres, from his complexion ("dark olive") to his shoe size ("about a No. 5"). Reading press accounts leaves one with the distinct impression that none of the reporters for the county's newspapers could speak Spanish.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors offered a $200 reward for the capture of Torres, and the prospect of big money drew more people into the search, most notably Keno Wilson, a detective from Los Angeles with a reputation for brutal efficiency. Wilson was known for getting his man—dead or alive if white, just dead if Latino. But while Wilson provided much colorful copy for the newspapers, he proved useless as a detective.

Days dragged by with no sign of Torres. The newspapers began to speculate that the county's Latinos were sheltering him. References to the unreliability and dishonesty of Mexicans became common. The tension between OC's Anglo and Latino communities grew.

In a move reminiscent of the way Southern newspapers ginned up popular hatred of a fugitive prior to a lynching, the Times ascribed new crimes to Torres. On Aug. 3, the paper reported that Torres could not possibly have fled south, since according to an "old Mexican," Torres had once killed a soldier in Mexico. This charge disappeared as suddenly as it appeared. The next day, the Timesreported that Torres could not possibly have fled north because he had killed a ranch foreman near Mono Lake in June. How Torres managed to make the 750-mile roundtrip necessary to commit this crime while working six days a week at the Modjeska ranch was unexplained.

The Timeshad ruled out north and south, the Pacific ruled out Torres heading west, so only one direction remained. And sure enough, on Wednesday, Aug. 10, word reached Santa Ana that Torres had been sighted in the mountains of eastern Orange County, attempting to kill a young white boy. Actually, it turned out that the boy had panicked when he heard shots fired by a farmer hunting rabbits. With a head full of stories about the murderous "greaser" still at large, the boy had assumed the gunfire meant he was about to become Torres' next victim.

But Torres wasn't in eastern Orange County, as Sheriff Lacy learned from a telegram waiting for him when he got back from investigating this false alarm. Francisco Torres was in the San Diego County jail.

Constable S.A.L. Woods had spotted Torres, whose description he knew from Lacy's post card, sitting alone in the general store in Mesa Grande, 40 miles east of Escondido, and arrested him. Torres offered no resistance.

The same could not be said, however, of the San Diego sheriff's office. When Lacy arrived on Thursday to collect his prisoner, San Diego officials refused to release Torres until they received the reward money, or at least a $100 deposit. After some negotiation, Lacy was able to persuade them to accept his word of honor that the reward would be paid. In return, Lacy received Torres and some advice—knowing that feelings were running high in OC, it was suggested that Lacy bypass Santa Ana and instead take his prisoner to Los Angeles for safekeeping. No one in San Diego was concerned about Torres' well-being or his right to a fair trial; they were worried that if he were lynched, the reward money wouldn't be forthcoming.

Lacy and Torres returned to Santa Ana by train. At the station, a crowd of several hundred was waiting to get a look at Torres, whom the Blade described as a "short, villainous-looking Mexican" with "an apish grin." Lacy's deputies hurried Torres into a waiting carriage and headed for the jail. All along the half-mile route from the train station to the jail, the street was lined with curious onlookers hoping to catch a glimpse of the prisoner.

The Orange County jail was a small, brick building with a redwood door. Usually it was left unguarded at night—in fact, the doors of the jail's three cells were usually kept unlocked, and Lacy and his two deputies allowed the prisoners to wander about inside the small building. But given the extreme tension surrounding Torres' case, Lacy decided to tighten security. He ordered the cell doors locked and persuaded the Board of Supervisors to hire a night guard for the jail.

At first, the mood of white Orange County seemed to reflect the editorial line taken by the newspaper—Torres deserved to be lynched, but it would be better to the let the law take its course and have the state's hangman kill him after he was convicted and sentenced to death, an outcome all the papers took for granted. The public's anger was now mixed with curiosity, and a steady stream of visitors to the jail gawked at Torres in his cell, as if he were some exotic specimen on display at a zoo.

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.

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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