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Review: Frontier justice was brutal in Los Angeles, and ‘Eternity Street’ gets to the heart of the matter

Josef Lachenais hangs from the beam above the gate after he is lynched on Poundcake Hill in 1870.
(Huntington Library)

Now we’re talking.

This is the refrain that leaps to mind after plunging into John Mack Faragher’s “Eternity Street” — and it is a plunge. Think of every Western movie you’ve ever watched, then consider: The darkest of them are soft, pink cotton candy compared to what actually occurred in lawless frontier towns such as Los Angeles.

But Faragher’s fascinating account of the twisted threads of murder, ethnic violence and mob justice in 19th century Southern California is not just a treat for L.A. history buffs. His book is also is on point.

Unlike so many chronicles of violence, it gets to the right question: Why do people get murdered — certain people, that is, at certain times, in certain ways?

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Notice, the question is not why do people commit murder? That is a little like asking why people lust, hate and covet — and why they seek to prevail.

Because they do. Because they can.

The better question is, when can they? When are the murders of certain people tolerated? Why are some individuals and groups protected and others killed publicly, with impunity? What function does impunity serve? This is where the answers begin to be interesting. Now we’re talking.

Faragher’s history examines the chronic murder and mob-justice syndrome that infected Los Angeles in the century after its founding in 1781. The heart of the book is about 30 bloodstained years, from the 1840s to the 1870s, during which the dusty, drunken settlement’s lawless violence produced a death rate far worse than that in American inner cities during the crack epidemic of recent decades.

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Faragher digs deep into the savagery of life alongside the Zanja Madre, tracing the lives of dozens of people, some of whom we first meet as young fighters in the Mexican-American War. Decades later, these same battle-scarred, leather-tough characters keep popping up, sometimes growing old, sometimes meeting brutal, ignominious ends.

From its earliest days under Mexican rule, when the region was home to just a few thousand Indians and a few hundred Spanish-speaking settlers, the legitimacy of state justice was in question in Los Angeles. The first vigilante execution described by Faragher takes place in 1836. It was occasioned by a love-triangle murder and carried out by a mob-led firing squad not far from where the county’s criminal courts building stands today.

The scourge sets in for the duration. As murder proliferates, lynch mobs, vigilantes and various self-appointed arbiters of informal justice leave a trail of corpses across Los Angeles. They stage a dozen hangings in the first five years of California statehood alone.

Just as the legends suggest, gunslinger shootouts marred the sunny California idyll, and outlaws were duly hunted. But these bare statements of fact pretty things up considerably.

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People were tortured. Bodies were mutilated. And despite plenty of practice, California’s vigilantes remained strikingly inept at the art of hanging, inflicting one horrifying, clumsy and painful death after another.

Faragher lays bare how, from the start, the pueblo is vulnerable to frenzies of popular justice. Formal systems of state justice are weak. Courts are ineffectual and mistrusted, law-enforcement all but nonexistent. And willing usurpers of the government’s role abound.

Early on, the region’s Spanish-speaking inhabitants lynched because they considered popular justice superior to no justice. Mexican law provided for automatic appeals, and there existed no court in California to hear such cases — only in Mexico City. It meant formal justice was delayed for years, if it was not thwarted completely.

Later, it was much the same, even after California became part of the United States and the ethnic mix had changed. People argued that lynching was a superior, cheaper form of law enforcement.

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Mob justice was inflamed by racial and ethnic animosity. But quarrels, rivalries and alliances could be complex, interweaving ethnic strands and often belying any simple narrative of racial oppression.

Lines between the lawful and the lawless could be similarly blurred. Roles shift. Lawmen by turns were thugs, protectors or both.

Many legal norms were by modern standards unjust. And at a time when proceedings were crude and hangings public, the difference between a legal execution and a lynching could appear rather fine. One prominent vigilante swiftly changes his tune when he becomes a district judge.

Even the city’s worst and most lethal outburst of racist communal violence — the massacre of 18 Chinese immigrants by an enraged mob in 1871 — is tinged with ethnic and legal complexity in Faragher’s account.

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It begins with a street shootout between rival Chinese gangs and pivots when an Anglo bystander and a Latino police officer are hurt trying to intervene and a Mexican boy is caught in the crossfire. Some lawmen are brave in the line of duty. But others incite the mob.

When one rashly deputizes onlookers, the episode swiftly mushrooms into a riotous anti-Chinese pogrom. Amid the chaos, an Anglo passerby, Benjamin McLaughlin, steps up in defense of Chinese victims. “I said it was not right,” he recounted later.

Other times ethnicity plays little or no role. When, for example, in 1870, French immigrant Michel Lachenais is made the victim of yet another bungled hanging for killing an Anglo neighbor, another Frenchman, an Irishman and a Methodist preacher lead the mob. Lachenais is seen as simply a troublemaker, a thorn in the community’s side who has killed with effective impunity before.

In between such episodes, Faragher guides readers through a vast landscape of war at one extreme and petty, personal violence on the other. These don’t exist as separate phenomenon but underlie and inform each other, as the state’s legitimacy is contested at every level.

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Faragher shows how the political chaos of the Mexican-American and the Civil War shake down to the realm of saloon brawls. The focus on legitimacy ties it all together.

It yields an interpretive lens for both factional tension and of the kind of insult- and quarrel-driven violence that typically pits members of the same ethnic group against each other.

Such is the way of such violence everywhere. No scholar of contemporary violence would be surprised to learn that Indian-on-Indian murders were rampant in the early years of the pueblo, nor that the American war effort was riven with power feuds.

This is not just their world, it’s ours. Think Gaza, South Africa, Compton. It’s tempting to look down on the confusion and brutality of our rough frontier predecessors. But we are not much closer than they were to understanding the legal dynamics that leave people vulnerable to extralegal violence.

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For lynching is not exclusive to Southern white supremacists, and scholars have only lately begun the work of understanding the diversity of popular-justice phenomena worldwide.

What’s clear is mob violence happens among people of all colors, and what have been described as soft forms of popular justice — taboos against snitching, for example — are commonplace even in modern L.A.

Much work remains to be done to understand why. Faragher’s inquiry wraps up in the 1880s, although mobs and posses crop up in L.A. well into the 20th century. And yet he pushes in the right direction and cuts through familiar fables about racism and repression to expose the problems that permit extralegal violence.

He goes straight for hard questions. Did communal justice substitute for law, or compete with it? Was it effective?

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Again and again, we see how residents of this region genuinely struggled to cope with violence in their midst and advocated for popular justice on behalf of the public good. Advocates argued for it as community self-defense, as people throughout the world still do. They clothed it in flowery declarations and organized committees. They saw it as moral.

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Others wrestled with their consciences and vacillated — among them, the most enlightened, well-meaning and educated people in the frontier milieu, such as the brilliant newspaperman Francisco P. Ramírez. There are many astonishing characters here but no unsullied heroes. Such is real life.

Faragher chooses to focus on one episode in particular, a case study for those who assume they know American lynching from freshman readings on Jim Crow:

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In 1854, an Anglo minority and Spanish-speaking majority are attempting to unite in Los Angeles under American rule. Two men commit murders, one Anglo, the other a Spanish-speaking Californio.

Both are sentenced to death by local courts. Local leaders are proud; it’s a win for colorblind formal justice. Law “punishes the criminal with equal penalties according to the offense, no matter his country, his color, or his race,” a triumphant judge declares.

But this civil-rights victory soon sours. Local authorities receive a stay of execution from the state Supreme Court sparing the Anglo man but not the Californio. Hopes for multicultural harmony are dashed. Local Spanish-speaking residents are up in arms.

An English-speaking newspaperman calls on fellow Anglos to even the score — to stand up for equality on behalf of their Californio neighbors and ensure that both men hang. Failing to act risked “widening still further the breach” between the groups, he writes.

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Popular justice in Los Angeles had evolved to the point that both English- and Spanish-speaking locals believed “lynch law should be employed in the service of racial justice,” Faragher writes.

A lynching, in other words, meant not to serve racism but to fight it.

Faragher covers this and other mob-justice episodes with patience and a wealth of granular detail. He is to be praised for carrying forward the important work of the late UCLA scholar Eric Monkkonen and for the thoughtful comprehension he applies to domestic violence, in particular. Faragher understands that it is about power and that it is part of a bigger picture.

Killing in early California proves a vast, sprawling subject. As Faragher pursues one labyrinthine storyline after another through pages of dense passages, he aims more to catalog than to dramatize. It’s an occupational hazard: Randolph Roth’s “American Homicide” and Manfred Berg’s “Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America” are similarly crowded works. When so little history on a subject has been compiled, the historian’s first task is to get it all down.

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Despite this, the sheer power of these events, the craggy, inscrutable characters and the haunting magic of this only dimly familiar landscape — at one point it rains for a solid month — burn up these pages.

The hard way these people fought, lived and died lingers. “I’m killed!” more than one exclaims at the fatal blow.

Faragher’s telling yields new appreciation for the astonishing spectacle that was early California history and gives us new eyes for the place. How easily, for example, are its steep-sided canyons made into traps. How thick and muscular are the low branches of its native trees, oaks and sycamores. Just right for dangling ropes.

But Faragher should be praised most for advancing the framework for the study of violence generally — not just rough justice in the American frontier or the racial spectacle lynchings of the South but extralegal violence in societies around the world.

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The questions he raises are the right ones. The insights gained may help dissect gang violence, drug violence, honor killings, witch killings — even the unseen internal disputes of the various peoples subjected to recent counter-insurgency and state-building projects.

Now we’re talking.

Leovy, a Times staff writer, is the author of “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America.”

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Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles

John Mack Faragher
W.W. Norton: 624 pp., $35


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