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

By Jill Leovy

From: The Los Angeles Times

la-la-ca-eternity-street-70-jpg-20160316 (1)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?

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.

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.

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. Read Rest of Review Here

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