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L.A.'s 1st Latino Sheriff Was a 19th-Century Hero

Although Los Angeles County Sheriff-elect Lee Baca will be the first Latino to occupy the office in this century, he is not the first.

That distinction belongs to one of 19th-century Los Angeles’ most beloved heroes: Martin G. Aguirre, a diminutive, one-eyed lawman who was nonetheless famed for his aim with a knife.

Gallantry and high spirits were the character hallmarks of the 5-foot-6-inch, 120-pound Aguirre.

But he was probably best known for his heroism during the 1886 flood, when he saved 19 people from the churning Los Angeles River. His friends, however, admired the humility that allowed him to serve as a simple deputy under three of his onetime subordinates when they were themselves elected sheriff.

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“He had the blind courage of a fighting bull terrier, the tender sympathies of a girl and a soul unblemished by dishonor,” a friend wrote.

Sea Captain’s Son

Aguirre was born in San Diego in 1858, the son of a Spanish sea captain. Orphaned at 9, he went to live with a relative, Joseph Wolfskill, the son of William Wolfskill, then Los Angeles’ citrus king. The family ranch was near the Los Angeles River, just south of where Union Station now stands.

Filled with restless energy and fond of practical jokes, Aguirre and his lifelong friend William Hammel--a straight arrow who would also become sheriff--once dammed up the zanja, part of the city’s brick aqueduct that ran along what is now Central Avenue. The result was a popular swimming hole into which the pair plunged stinging nettles that they anchored to the bottom with rocks. When their friends jumped in for a dip, they reportedly returned to the surface angry and screaming obscenities.

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Another moment of high spirits cost Aguirre considerably more. One day, while the two boys were playing with bows and arrows, Aguirre looked skyward and an arrow pierced his eye. He lost the sight of it, but the disability failed to deter him from pursuing a new boyhood enthusiasm--membership in the city’s volunteer Fire Department.

When the town’s fire alarm sounded, either by pistol or bell, little Aguirre would gallop on his pony to the fire station near 1st and Main streets, lassoing the back end of the horse-drawn steamer. He and the pony were pulled along as he choked on the dust billowing from the fire wagon.

Meanwhile, Aguirre pursued his education, first at Professor Lawler’s Institute in Los Angeles and later at the Jesuits’ University of Santa Clara.

Returning to Los Angeles, he was elected constable in 1885. The following year, he was appointed deputy sheriff and incurred what some regarded as the only stain on an otherwise unblemished reputation. Two ex-state senators and land-grabbers, Charles Maclay and George K. Porter, ordered Aguirre to evict Rogerio Rocha, head of a community of 10 Indians near the San Fernando Mission. Rocha and his wife, Manuela, lived on the 10-acre site where Rocha had been born 80 years earlier.

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Aguirre forcefully grabbed the old man and threw him onto a wagon; the others jumped aboard peaceably. Dumping them on a county road along with their sacks of live chickens, Aguirre headed back to the city.

Despite the unlawful eviction--Rocha held title under a legally recognized Spanish land grant--only a few Angelenos viewed it as racist conduct, voicing their concern in letters to newspaper editors. Others argued in greater numbers that Aguirre was just doing his job.

Night of Terror

Aguirre soon made headlines again, but this time for heroism that earned him a gold watch from the Los Angeles Bar Assn.

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On the night of Jan. 19, 1886, Aguirre stood on the crumbling bank of the Los Angeles River, as a raging torrent of water surged down the channel.

A storm with colossal wind and a deluge worthy of Noah hit like a hand from the sky, engulfing everything in its path. The water rose so swiftly that it left people and livestock marooned or carried them away. Houses were torn from their foundations with smoke still pouring from their chimneys.

The 1st Street bridge fell, trapping two horses in the middle, and a rescue party fed them from a rowboat for several days until the structure was repaired.

As houses came floating past 1st Street with people on the roofs screaming for help, Aguirre repeatedly charged into the river on his white horse, El Capitan, to pull out the victims.

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On his 20th plunge, he lifted a little girl onto his horse from the window of a house being carried downstream. But as his horse struck a partially submerged picket fence, toppling them into the water, Aguirre only had time to throw the girl onto the fence. As he came ashore at 7th Street and returned to find the child, she was gone.

Aguirre, who saved 19 others that awful night, would grieve over the lost little girl to the end of his days.

He was elected sheriff in 1888, defeating former baker Tom Rowan, who would later become mayor.

Squeamish over hanging condemned prisoners, Aguirre persuaded the Legislature to change the execution site to a state prison.

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A strict disciplinarian, he always told his deputies: “Bring back your man. I don’t want a report.”

He never carried a gun, only a knife that hung from a brown leather scabbard under his arm. “If anything starts, I don’t know where bullets might go or whom they might hit, but I know where this knife is going,” Aguirre told a friend.

But there were times he found it necessary to use a gun. When 14 prisoners tried to escape from jail, he forced them to the floor by shooting bullets over their heads and off the steel bars until help arrived.

Unimpressed with the position of sheriff, he resigned after two years and subsequently held other jobs in law enforcement, including bailiff.

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Gov. Henry T. Gage appointed him warden of San Quentin in 1899. Ironically, more men were hanged during his four-year term there than during any other previous period.

He was admired by inmates as well as guards. He implemented hot saltwater baths, recreational periods and substantially decreased the flow of contraband into the prison.

In 1901, more than 1,300 prisoners presented him with a scroll of their testimonials.

Aguirre returned to Los Angeles in 1903. A few years later, when his friend, Hammel, was reelected sheriff, Aguirre hired on as his deputy. He would serve 14 years for three sheriffs who had once been his deputies.

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He died of cancer on Feb. 25, 1929, as he sat in bed recalling old times with friends.

Rasmussen’s new book, “L.A. Unconventional,” a collection of stories about Los Angeles’ unique and offbeat characters, can be ordered by calling (800) 246-4042. The special price of $30.95 includes shipping and sales tax.


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