Search Sheriff's Website
Information Detail

Hangings in the Old West

In the Old West, justice was often swift. Vigilante groups, acting both as judge and jury, often saw to it that miscreants they felt went unpunished for their crimes found themselves dancing at the end of a rope. The election of a Sheriff did not change this much. Many times vigilante groups were so determined that they overpowered the Sheriff who could only watch helplessly as prisoners were forcibly taken from his custody. Sometimes the citizens disagreed with the decision of the court, and a person who was released due to lack of evidence was hung anyway. Los Angeles County held its first legal execution at the brick jail on February 13, 1854. As hundreds of citizens watched this historic event, Ignacio Herrera was hanged for killing a young man involved in a love triangle. Between 1851 and 1874, Los Angeles witnessed 40 legal hangings and 32 executions by vigilance committee. Prior to 1891, when an official death sentence was passed by the court, carrying out the execution became the Sheriff's responsibility. Since skill as an executioner was not a requirement for the Sheriff, he simply did what was standard practice. Generally a rope was thrown over a corral gate cross post with the condemned man standing in a wagon or sitting on a horse. Once the horse or wagon was pulled away, the offender's neck was quickly compressed in the noose, causing the person to strangle to death. It wasn't until the 1870's that the use of gallows and a trap door became popular. This method produced a calculated "drop," which caused the neck to break and, if the person was lucky, instant death. Legal Hangings Legal hangings were conducted throughout the country on a regular basis. The most publicized execution involved the conspirators who were found guilty of killing President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, just days after the end of the long and bloody Civil War. These legal hangings became public spectacles, often taking on a festival type atmosphere. Families, brought picnic baskets, vendors sold souvenirs and photographers took multiple photos of the event. Many of the pictures ended up on postcards that were sold for a penny. It wasn't until 1936 that public executions were discontinued. Mob Mentality On October 13, 1854, the Sheriff and his deputies arrested Dave Brown for murdering Pink Clifford. Dave Brown was a notorious criminal who used to be a member of the Los Angeles Rangers. Brown was intoxicated and had gotten into a fight with Pinckney Clifford in one of the pueblo's livery stables. Brown won the fight by stabbing Pinckney to death.

As Brown was arrested and taken to the jail, an angry crowd gathered outside to lynch him. Mayor Stephen C. Foster appeased the crowd by promising that, if the courts did not find Brown guilty, he would resign and lead the lynching himself. A month later, Judge Hayes convicted Brown for murder and sentenced him to hang on January 12, 1855 along with Felipe Alvitre, another murderer. The men appealed to the California Supreme Court in Sacramento. Alvitre and Brown both received stays of execution from the court. Unfortunately for them, the mail was slow and inefficient. Some mail took 52 days to travel from Sacramento to Los Angeles. Brown's reprieve arrived, but there was nothing for Alvitre. The Hispanic citizens became outraged when they thought that white men were being treated differently from them. They felt that if Brown and Alvitre were both found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, then they should both live or die together. On January 12, more than 2,000 armed men gathered around the gallows. Sheriff Barton asked some of the good citizens in town to assist in guarding the jail. Most of them refused, but a few did step up to help. At 3 PM, Barton attempted to hang Alvitre before a crowd of angry spectators. The inadequate rope snapped when Alvitre's weight was placed on it. The murderer fell to the ground, writhing in pain. The crowd's anger exploded and they began to stone the guards. Barton hurriedly placed Alvitre back into a noose and hung him. The spectators were stirred to a frenzy, chanting that Brown be hung. Everyone turned toward the Mayor, who did not have to think very long about his decision. He resigned his position on the spot and agreed to head the mob. The angry horde stormed the jail doors, smashing them in. Brown was dragged to the nearest corral gateway where a rope was quickly strung. Forced to stand on a chair, a noose was placed around his neck. He was allowed to say a few final words to some of his friends in the crowd. Once his statement was completed, he jumped off the chair, ending his own life. A few days later, Alvitre's stay of execution arrived, but Mayor Foster didn't really care. He was soon re-elected in a landslide vote and there was nothing the Sheriff could do about it. Barton was so angry that he refused to run for re-election as Sheriff. He did, however, run for a position on the Board of Supervisors, and won. After a year of not being Sheriff, it appears Barton missed working outdoors and the excitement of tracking down and arresting outlaws. Eventually, he would be re-elected and began his second period as Sheriff in November of 1856. Swift Justice On January 23, 1857 Sheriff James Barton and his small posse were chasing outlaws near San Juan Capistrano. A group of 50 outlaws attacked the Sheriff and his small posse. During the fierce gun battle Sheriff Barton and two of his constables were shot to death.

When the citizens in Los Angeles heard about the Sheriff's murder, tempers flared. Vigilantes, bent on revenge, began rounding up every suspect that might in any way be associated with the gang that killed the Sheriff or the crimes that gang committed. They arrested Pedro Lopez who was never known to work but, it was said, got his money from cock fighting and cattle rustling. Juan Valenzuela was arrested on suspicion of stealing sheep. Diego Navarro was also taken into custody, despite the fact that he claimed he had nothing to do their crimes. Although the three men were not involved with the killing of the Sheriff, the Los Angeles Star newspaper claimed that they were the banditti who had murdered Sheriff Barton and his associates. The vigilante trial was described as follows: We met near the veranda of the Montgomery saloon and Judge Jonathon R. Scott having been made chairman, a regular order of procedure, extra-legal though it was, was followed: after announcing the capture and naming the criminal, the judge called upon the crowd to determine the prisoner's fate. Thereupon someone would shout, "Hang him!" Scott would then put the question, "Gentlemen you have heard the motion: all those in favor of hanging so and so will signify by saying Aye!" And the citizens present unanimously answered Aye!" During Navarro's execution, the noose broke and he fell to the ground. While he lay squirming, he was shot to death.

In December, 1859 the sheriff had won permission to use inmate labor to construct a ten foot fence around the jail yard. The fence was not built to keep inmates inside but to keep vigilantes out. Vigilantes In late 1870, Michel Lachenais got into an argument with another farmer named Jacob Bell over the use of water from a brick aqueduct. Michel left, but returned with a pistol. After murdering Bell, he headed for the saloon. Lachenais had been drinking for a while when he began talking about the killing. He bragged about shooting Bell and what a ridiculous look the victim had on his face when he died. He also described where he had left the body. A sheriff's deputy arrested the drunken Lachenais and placed him in jail. The vigilance committee got together to discuss the situation. Lachenais had already killed five or six men and been charged twice with murder. They decided he had gone free one time too many times and were not going to take another chance on the justice system. The following article appeared in the next day's newspaper.

"One by one citizens are dropping into their graves, sent hither by the bullet or knifeAlmost ere one victim is coffined we hear the ringing of the shot which sends another unprepared into the presence of his makerThis state of affairs is interfering with the growth and progress of our city and county We are no advocate of vigilance committees we warn the authorities that if the flowing tide of crime which is now sweeping over us is not checked, a terrible vengeance will be meted out." On December 17, 1870 at 11:00 AM, 300 armed men marched on the L.A. County Jail and demanded the keys. Sheriff Burns refused. He tried, but could not stop, the hostile mob. The jail door had been reinforced because of previous lynchings. It took half an hour of pounding with a sledge hammer, but the vigilantes finally smashed through the two heavy portals and jail gate. They took Lachenais to Tomlinson's corral and put a noose around his neck. After saying a few words to the crowd, he turned to the priest and said, "Goodbye Padre." The vigilantes kicked the box out from under him and his life ended. Michel Lachenais was the thirty-fifth man to be lynched by Los Angeles vigilantes and the last to be lynched in the city. The last man to be lynched in Los Angeles County was named "Romo." He had seriously injured a shopkeeper and his wife during a robbery in June of 1874. Romo gasped his last breath while dangling from the end of a rope provided by a crowd of angry El Monte residents. Vigilantism in Los Angeles County had finally come to an end. Executions When Sheriff Martin Aguirre took office he was forced to carry out court ordered executions by hanging. This always turned his stomach. He felt that the responsibility for executions should be transferred from local authorities to the state. He, along with several other Sheriffs, lobbied Sacramento to change the law, and was eventually successful. In 1891, the responsibility of executions was transferred to the state. Ironically, in 1899, Martin Aguirre became warden of San Quentin Penitentiary and once more had to carry out the executions that he so detested. Now, however, it was not just for Los Angeles County, but for the entire state.

Compiled from "Six Gun Sound: The Early History of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department" Sven Crongeyer

Image 1 Title
Image 1 Title

The® website has made reasonable efforts to provide an accurate translation. However, no automated or computerized translation is perfect and is not intended to replace human or traditional translation methods. The official text is the English version of® website. If any questions arise concerning the accuracy of the information presented by the translated version of the website, please refer to the English edition of the website, which is the official version.
Los Angeles County Seal

© Copyright 2014 .  LASD. All Rights Reserved             LASD Badge and Patch are Registered Trademarks.