Rights Lessons Read in Century-Old Hanging : Ethnicity: Better understanding between various groups continues to be needed in the county where a Mexican laborer accused of murdering a ranch foreman died in California’s last lynching.
In the eyes of the public, there was never any doubt that Francisco Torres was the cold-blooded killer of a popular ranch foreman.
But before the fate of the Mexican laborer could be decided by a jury, a band of masked men used a sledgehammer to break down the door of Orange County Jail where Torres was held. One hundred years ago this month, the angry mob dragged the 25-year-old man from his cell and hanged him by the neck from a telegraph pole on the northeast corner of 4th and Sycamore streets in Santa Ana.
The display of vigilante justice in 1892 has been called the county’s darkest moment--the only lynching to ever occur here, and the last in California.
In today’s Orange County with a multicultural population that could not be envisioned a century ago, community leaders say the episode is a reminder of the need to safeguard civil rights and improve understanding among the county’s varied ethnic groups.
Some of the factors that sparked the Torres incident--the cultural divide, the Anglo power structure, the language differences--remain points of friction for some today.
“Orange County now faces the question of whether to live out of its past or to choose a new future,” said Msgr. Jaime Soto, Hispanic vicar for the Diocese of Orange. “Underneath whatever laws or institutions we might create to help protect justice and a sense of equity, there must be the good will on the part of the people to live together.”
The Torres lynching took place during Orange County’s formative years, three years after southeastern Los Angeles County residents had seceded to form their own government. Most of the county’s 16,000 residents lived on farms.
Orange County’s social scene at the time was graced by the presence of Polish actress Helena Modjeska, one of the first famous performers to live in Southern California. Madame Modjeska and her husband, Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, better known as Count Bozenta, lived on a wooded, 400-acre ranch in Santiago Canyon.
It was on this ranch that the destinies of Torres and ranch foreman William McKelvey--55 and a former sea captain--would cross.
On the morning of July 30, Chlapowski learned that the county road overseer had been unable to collect the annual road poll tax of $2.50 from Torres, who had worked at the ranch less than a month. Just before leaving the ranch that day, Chlapowski told McKelvey to deduct the money from Torres’ $9 salary, which covered six days of work at $1.50 per day.
According to historical accounts, Torres did not understand why his pay had been docked. And across their language and cultural divide, McKelvey was unable to explain it to Torres, who angrily demanded all of his money. Uttering threats, Torres left without his pay.
“Spanish-speaking Francisco Torres probably never understood the road poll tax,” according to Ellen K. Lee, whose “Helena Modjeska and the Francisco Torres Affair” was published by the Historical Society of Southern California. “Whether he comprehended that the ‘gringos’ were not engaged in a downright theft of his wages will never be known.”
Local historian Jim Sleeper said recently that the Mexican native probably never had paid taxes before and was confused. “Even had he understood why the money was deducted, I doubt he would have been very enthusiastic about the poll tax,” Sleeper said.
Early the next morning, as McKelvey milked a cow in a barn, Torres went there to demand his money. When a woman who lived in a cottage nearby heard blows and then groans, she and another worker went to the barn and found McKelvey. He had been struck twice on the head and stabbed through the heart. A bloody pickax handle lay nearby.
The murder at the Modjeska Ranch galvanized the community. Posses were organized, the Board of Supervisors offered a $200 reward for Torres’ capture, and Gov. Henry H. Markham offered another $300.
And there was talk of organizing a lynch mob.
Among the things contributing to the public outrage, according to historians, was the prominence of the victim and the ranch, as well as news reports that had embellished the facts. Many of these accounts assumed Torres’ guilt and freely reported talk in the community--complete with ethnic slurs--about saving the county the expense of trying Torres.
In its report of the murder, The Times attempted to re-create the crime, describing--as if the writer had been present--how the “sight of blood seemed to make (Torres) furious, and, smiling in ghoulish glee, he slipped a long knife, or Spanish dagger, from his bosom, and, raising the arm of the unfortunate man, plunged the glittering blade to the hilt in the quivering flesh and through the heart. . . .”
Ten days after McKelvey’s death, Torres was found in San Diego County. He was carrying the foreman’s purse containing $5.40.
When Torres was returned to Santa Ana, crowds gathered at the jail. Later, speaking to his friends through a cell window, Torres claimed that he had acted in self-defense--that McKelvey had attacked him first, and drawn a pistol.
Concerned by boasts about vigilante justice, Sheriff Theo Lacy Sr. asked the supervisors to send the prisoner to Los Angeles. Instead, the county authorized the posting of additional guards at the Sycamore Street jail.
On Aug. 18, following a preliminary hearing, attorney L.A. Mendelson said he would seek a change of venue to ensure a fair trial.
But two days later, the mob invaded the jail, intimidating the lone guard. Torres cried “piteously,” according to a newspaper account. But the vigilantes bound and gagged him, then dragged him outside where he was lynched.
Torres’ body hung there until just before dawn. Pinned to his chest was a placard with the legend, “A change of venue.”
Newspapers across the state condemned the lynching, though it was generally accepted that he was guilty of the foreman’s murder. And while a grand jury looked into the crime, it failed to identify any members of the mob, estimated at 14 to 30 people. Public sentiment may also have been reflected in a local funeral home’s public display of the noose used to hang Torres.
Looking back on the incident, Sheriff’s Department Investigator G.A. (Mike) Brown is amazed that the names of Torres’ killers were never revealed.
“In essence, what transpired had the approval of the general public, the judicial system and the social system,” said Brown, a historian for the Sheriff’s Department.
Sleeper ascribed the Torres affair to “too much emotionalism on both sides”--an angry and irrational Torres, and a riled public that mourned a popular citizen.
Others said the case demonstrates the needs to improve understanding between various cultures and to ensure civil rights.
Rusty Kennedy, the executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, said the Torres case underscores the need for familiarity with the languages of the growing immigrant communities in Orange County. Had Torres and the foreman understood each other better, Kennedy said, the violence might have been avoided.
Pointing to the various sub-groups and dialects within the county’s growing Asian community, for example, Kennedy said Orange County has a long way to go in understanding different cultures.
“Just like in those days, there’s lots of misunderstandings,” Kennedy said. “Communications then played a really crucial role . . . and it still does today.”
Santa Ana political activist Rueben Martinez said that the anniversary of the Torres affair is a reminder of the injustices visited on immigrant communities and the need for civil and human rights.
“We are still fighting for them,” he said. “Have we really advanced in 100 years? I don’t know.”
Latino rights activist Amin David said the Torres lynching must be seen as one in a long list of injustices against the immigrant community.
David, who heads Los Amigos of Orange County, said that even if the guilt of a defendant is not in question, a prisoner must always get his day in court.
“Would an Anglo have been given that kind of justice? Would he have been lynched? Who knows?” David said. “I kind of doubt it, though.”
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