Muckraker Bested Chief of LAPD
He was an outspoken critic of 19th century Los Angeles’ notorious civic corruption, an irrepressible gadfly whose weapons of choice were twin six-shooters and a muckraking weekly newspaper, The Porcupine.
Armed with those weapons and a fiery--often violent--temper, Maj. Horace Bell prodded what was then one of the frontier’s most crime-ridden towns into grand jury investigations and civic improvements, and he prompted the departure of four corrupt police chiefs--including one who attempted to kill him.
The Indiana-born Bell sailed into San Pedro in 1852, having run through the $500 grubstake his father gave him to work the gold fields. A towering 6 feet 2, the 22-year-old Bell cut quite a figure: sombrero over shoulder-length hair, miner’s red shirt, breeches tucked into his boots, and two or three Colt revolvers and a bowie knife or two strapped to his waist.
It was an arsenal well suited to life in the pueblo of Los Angeles, where American outlaws on the lam mixed with Mexican bandits.
Aided by his popular business-minded uncle, Alexander Bell, Horace won a place with the Los Angeles Rangers, a local law enforcement group whose policing style involved shooting first and asking questions later.
When his uncle offered Horace the choice of a fast horse or an arranged marriage with a local heiress who caught his eye, the younger Bell chose the horse and headed back north. There, he enlisted with American mercenary William Walker to try to overthrow the government of Nicaragua in 1856.
He survived that failed effort and joined the cause of Mexico’s great liberal reformer, the Zapotec Indian lawyer Benito Juarez, shortly afterward.
Some years later, after service as a scout with the Union Army during the Civil War, Bell, 32, eloped with 17-year-old Georgia Herrick, whom he met at a military ball in New York.
In 1866, the couple headed for Los Angeles with the first two of what would be 11 children. Faced with lingering pro-secessionist sentiment among many Angelenos, it was all the hot-tempered Bell could do to keep out of fights.
He purchased land near Pico Boulevard and Figueroa Street, eventually amassing 70 acres where Georgia Street now stands, named for his wife.
In 1870, Bell created a local sensation when he hurried a hanging. As the rope was placed around the man’s neck, a priest asked for a few minutes to administer the last rites. Bell kicked the box out from under the condemned man, shouting: “Let him arrange his religion in hell.”
After much nagging from his wife, Bell studied law with her assistance and passed the bar exam in 1872. Trading his six-shooters and cowboy hat for a walking cane with a hidden blade, a black cape and a red flower in his lapel, Bell subsequently spent almost as much time fighting his own legal battles as he did representing clients. As combative in the courtroom as he was on the street, he once threatened to kill the judge and throw the prosecutor out the window.
“He may have a great mind, but he has a lawless disposition,” recalled the judge.
When his six daughters grew old enough for suitors, he bought a bulldog to keep the boys away. The ones brave enough to knock on the door had it slammed in their faces.
Eventually, Bell launched a weekly newspaper called The Porcupine, described as a “prickly reform sheet,” with a circulation of 6,000.
Adopting the motto “Fearless, Faithful, Free” for the masthead, Bell’s satirically inclined publication quickly became the hottest selling periodical in Los Angeles. Its editorials appeared under another motto:
For the cause that needs assistance
For the wrongs that need resistance
For the good that I can do.
The first issue, in November 1882, described “abuses in the administration of law and justice.” Waging war on the “utterly corrupt” local government, Bell accused Police Chief Henry King of “drunkenness, indecency, bribe-taking and blackmail.”
King, he asserted, had financial ties to Chinatown’s opium dens, had released a prisoner in exchange for a bribe, was getting $200 a month for protecting gambling, and had accepted a gold-headed cane from the prostitutes of Los Angeles Street.
On June 23, 1883, seething from eight months of Bell’s muckraking, King gulped down some whiskey, grabbed his pistol and stormed over to Bell’s office.
Bell was reading at his desk when he heard the doorknob turning. Bell sprang from his chair and lunged at King, who fired wildly. Drawn by the commotion, Bell’s son, Charley, arrived and hit King over the head with a printer’s wooden mallet.
Bell escaped with powder burns on his hand, and King resigned three days later. Thereafter, Bell proudly displayed as trophies on his office wall King’s bloodstained hat and pistol.
Although an annoyance to many, Bell was esteemed for his integrity. He disclosed faulty sewer lines made with poor quality concrete, crooked probate lawyers and real estate swindles, including promoters who impaled oranges on Joshua trees in the desert to dupe gullible newcomers into investing in “orange groves.”
In 1885, Bell announced the progress of his police reform movement: “We have no more thieves and convicts on the force and the chief is a gentleman--not a drunken Arizona cowboy.”
Three years later, he turned The Porcupine over to his son Charley. Although it was never the same, the paper would continue publishing until 1897.
About the time he gave up The Porcupine, a bitter foe published an anonymous pamphlet: “Life of Horace Bell,” alleging that he was a “blackmailer, murderer, thief, house-burner, snake-hunter and defamer of the dead.”
The Los Angeles Herald called it “about the vilest and most abusive thing that has been seen in print for years” and added: “If he is guilty of a one-hundredth part of the crimes attributed to him, he would be a disgrace to the gallows on which he were hung.”
The pamphlet was read aloud before the City Council. Bell sued the booklet’s alleged author, a Los Angeles Express reporter, for libel and won. The decision was appealed and overruled on a technicality. Bell would later attribute the pamphlet to land baron “Lucky” Baldwin’s vindictive anger over losing several libel suits to Bell.
In 1904, a few years after his wife died, Bell retired from the law, sold his home and moved to his Calabasas ranch, El Scorpion, before moving to Berkeley. He remarried at 78. He and his wealthy new wife, Emily Jane Culver, divided their time between Berkeley and her home in Indiana before he died in 1918.
Today, Bell probably is best remembered--if at all--as the author of the first hardcover book published in Southern California: “Reminiscences of a Ranger,” a rollicking account of frontier Los Angeles that came out in 1881. A second volume of memoirs, “On the Old West Coast,” was published after his death in 1930.
Bell is buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, not far from many of the enemies with whom he can only now be at peace.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.