Alpheus Hodges: a Name to Remember for Obscure Reasons

A tip for the 24 hardy souls now seeking to become the next mayor of Los Angeles:

Remember Alpheus P. Hodges.

Or forget him. Everybody else has.

Nobody celebrates the birthday of L.A.'s first mayor. They couldn't if they wanted to. Nobody knows what day it is.

City Hall tour guides don't recognize his name. His portrait does not hang in the corridors of power.

Other mayors have seen their names slapped on streets, an airport terminal, a shopping mall, a water fountain, even a mountain. (Mt. Wilson commemorates the city's second mayor, Benjamin D. Wilson.) Not Hodges.

"History does not record much about Los Angeles' first mayor," says a brief biographical sketch at the Central Library.

No kidding. So herewith a cautionary tale for the two dozen stalwarts seeking lasting fame and political fortune as the leader of this fair city.

The search for the Lost Mayor of Los Angeles begins at the City Archives, a scholarly outpost tucked away in Piper Technical Center, a massive fortress-like building near Union Station.

"We have Mayor Fletcher Bowron's radio addresses," city archivist Rob Freeman says helpfully. "We have about 1,000 (Sam) Yorty photos."

City historians know plenty about other, more interesting mayors: Stephen Foster (1854-1856) resigned briefly to head a lynch mob. Damien Marchessault (1859-65) committed suicide by hanging himself in the council chambers because of a scandal. Jose Mascarel (1865-66) spoke Spanish and French fluently but hardly a word of English.

A book in the archives titled "Mayors of Los Angeles" contains only a few Hodges tidbits. Elected July 1, 1850--after the Mexican pueblo was occupied by U.S. troops but several months before California was admitted to the Union--he was "one of the leading physicians" of the town of 1,610.

Next to the biographical sketch appears a blank page--reserved for a photo. Written are the words: "No likeness known."

Next stop: history collections throughout Southern California. The Huntington Library. USC. The County Museum of Natural History. The city's first newspaper--the Los Angeles Star. The Historical Society of Southern California.

More clues, few conclusions. Here is what can be pieced together.

Hodges came here from Virginia and one claim to fame was his youth when he took office--28 years old, still a record.

He was not exactly presiding over a major metropolis. When Hodges became mayor, "the pueblo had less than 2,000 inhabitants," according to an article in the Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly. "Its homes were small, square adobes, with flat roofs. The narrow streets were alternately seas of mud and clouds of dust."

Hodges evidently was a busy guy, serving simultaneously as county coroner and mayor.

"While he received no pay as mayor," according to an article in the Historical Society of Southern California Journal, "the doctor was given $100 each time he presided over the inquest of a dead Indian, for example."

One source credits him with a major mayoral undertaking: "It is said that under his vigorous Administration, there was projected and carried to completion a wooden water ditch that remained long a monument to his intelligent enterprise."

Being a typical Southern Californian, he dabbled in real estate. Near the end of his term, Hodges became co-owner of the Bella Union Hotel, which served as the county courthouse until 1851.

He also seems to have been a hospitable sort, with several historical references to his generous hand with the drink.

And then there's this yarn from a historical journal, showing that Hodges could take a joke:

"When Hodges was mayor, a funny thing happened. Some leaders perpetrated a hoax on his honor. They raided the hotel where Hodges gave them free whiskey.

"That night they carried on sham attacks till morning against a supposed foe. The men had made their plans carefully and carried them out so realistically that, according to Horace Bell, they completely hoodwinked the mayor, who actually thought the pueblo was being attacked by a mob of rebels."

Oh, for the innocent days when Los Angeles could amuse itself with staged violence.

There are several possible explanations for Hodges' lost legacy. He served as mayor for only one year (a full term of office in those days).

He also must have had a hard time getting publicity. Los Angeles' first newspaper, the Los Angeles Star, did not begin publication until near the end of Hodges' term in 1851.

And public records were not what they are today. There is not even a death certificate to shed some light on how Hodges may have exited this world. Assistant Los Angeles County Recorder Richard Hughes said that a check of the oldest documents available--dating to 1877--turns up no record of Hodges' death in Los Angeles.

So mayoral hopefuls, take heed. In politics, fame is fleeting.

"What did Andy Warhol say about fame--everybody gets 15 minutes?" said urban historian Steven Erie, an expert on early Los Angeles. "Looks like good old Hodges got even less than that."

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