Lummis at the Los Angeles Times

Excerpts from American Character.

A Newspaperman’s Nirvana

Charles Lummis showed up for work at the office of the Times at 10 a.m. on Monday Feb. 2, 1885, ready for work, less than 12 hours after completing his 3,507-mile walk from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. He had hoped to have a week off to unpack, unwind, spend some time with his wife and get acquainted with his new home town. But the Times was seriously short-staffed. Editor and publisher Harrison Gray Otis needed his new man on the job without delay. Lummis obliged.

A newspaperman looking for good stories couldn’t have picked a better place and time than Los Angeles at the start of 1885. The town still bore strong markings of its Hispanic origins, the era of Spanish-Mexican rule having ended just 38 years before Lummis arrived. But the process of rapid Americanization was well underway. Los Angeles was bursting at the seams, and seething with excitement.

Old adobes still stood near the plaza in a district that the Americans called Sonoratown. But the commercial heart of the city was the thriving American section that stretched in a long plume to the southeast, fading into a comfortable residential quarter that reached as far as the five-year-old University of Southern California three miles south of the plaza.

There was plenty of news in the burgeoning city. In just his first few days in the office, a horse team that had been left untethered on a downtown street ran amok sparking cries for enforcement of the city’s hitching ordinance; a state senator said he would go to jail before submitting to a woman’s demand for alimony; a stack of valuable otter skins stored on one of the nearby Channel Islands was devoured by wild hogs; a group of Mormons complained of discrimination; six white orphans were rescued from Chinatown, reportedly just in time to save them from being sold to China as concubines; a man found howling in the Arroyo Seco was declared to be incurably insane; a Mexican man hung himself on Alameda Street; and 372 citrus growers turned in a petition calling for the county to be subdivided into pest control districts. Those were just a few of the smaller news items that appeared in the Times.

The big stories in the spring of 1885 included the first executions in Los Angeles in a generation. Rodolfo Silvas and Francisco Martinez were hanged one after the other on March 20, drawing an enormous throng that “blackened the hills” and roof tops around the low-walled prison compound. Men, boys and even women jostled to get a better “glimpse of this tragedy of death.” The macabre skeptical prompted the Times to run an editorial several days later remarking that the crowd was a “pitiful commentary upon humanity” and calling for private executions.

A 19th Century Police Scandal

Another big story, above all others, dominated the Times — and Lummis’s attention — in the spring of 1885. It was a bitter dispute pitting Edward McCarthy, the new Los Angeles chief of police, against the combined forces of a disgruntled City Council minority, a majority of his own officers, notorious Sonoratown madame Anita Sanchez, Chinatown gambling racketeer Ah Toy, and the Times’ two daily competitors, the Los Angeles Herald and the Evening Express. In this colossal brouhaha, Otis was the sole diehard defender of the chief of police.

L.A. Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis

Whatever his merits as a police chief, McCarthy was targeted from his first days in office primarily because he was a Republican, selected by the new Republican majority of the city council. Whatever his demerits, Otis defended him to the hilt for the same reason. For Otis, the battle over Chief McCarthy, like all such battles with political overtones, was a holy war. His intrepid new front-line warrior Lummis had arrived just in time.

Otis and Lummis managed to fend off the all-out assault on McCarthy for months. But it didn’t help his cause that the chief and his son beat up an attorney named Glowner, who was helping organize the effort to oust him. The Times insisted that it was Glowner who had jumped the chief and his son. But the circumstances strongly suggested otherwise.

The council scheduled a hearing about this latest incident May 8, but the chief didn’t show up. He sent word that he was sick in bed. The hearing proceeded anyway. More than a dozen officers testified about McCarthy’s unfitness for the job. Most of the Republicans on the council joined all of the Democrats in an 11-2 vote forcing the police chief out of office.

Otis Was a ‘Choleric’ Bully

The Chief McCarthy controversy made for an ignominious debut for Lummis in his career in journalism in Los Angeles. He had spent his first three months on the Times staunchly defending an incompetent tyrant as chief of police at the behest of his boss, whose own judgment and motives in the matter were suspect. Indeed, Otis was widely regarded as a tyrannical bully in his own right, a man who didn’t hesitate to use underhanded tactics and the pages of his newspaper to unfairly attack and undermine his opponents.

As one of his biographers, David Halberstam, in The Powers That Be, described him, Otis was “a zealot, an angry choleric man…an impetuous swashbuckler, poised for the provocation, ready to punch it out with either his fists or his newspapers at all who dared offend him.” Some of his contemporaries were even harsher in their assessment of the Times’ editor and publisher. Theodore Roosevelt, writing in Outlook magazine some years later, would say of Otis that he “is a consistent enemy of men in California who have dared resolutely to stand against corruption and in favor of honesty.” Hiram Johnson, the Progressive governor of California, campaigning in Los Angeles in 1910, offered the most scathing denunciation of all. San Francisco has its own “dregs of infamy,” Johnson said. “But we have nothing so vile, nothing so low, nothing so debased, nothing so infamous in San Francisco as Harrison Gray Otis. He sits there in senile dementia with gangrene heart and rotting brain, grimacing at every reform, chattering impotently at all things that are decent, frothing, fuming, violently gibbering, going down to his grave in snarling infamy.”

Lummis Forgave Otis His Faults

Lummis never expressed more than the mildest criticism of Otis, and then only when couched in effusive praise for such a powerful personality who was on the right side of so many issues.

His admiration was based in part on role the Times played in turning Los Angeles from a lawless frontier pueblo into a modern city. “Few people in Los Angeles realize today what they owe him,” Lummis recalled  in the unpublished memoir he was writing at the time of his death in 1928. “I don’t exaggerate when I say as one who has known and studied this town for 44 years that it owes no other man so much as this rough old soldier.”

In Lummis’s years with the paper in the 1880s, the Times was virtually a lone voice standing up to the forces that were railing for a boycott of Chinese businesses. The paper was the leading proponent of “high license,” a fiercely-opposed regulatory mechanism that imposed a licensing fee and other controls on businesses selling liquor. The Times also supported the first municipal bonds that financed construction of a sewer system and helped beat back the attempt by the Southern Pacific railroad to block construction of a city harbor in San Pedro, a port that competing railroads also served.

The Times also parted company with other papers in the region on black-white race relations. The issue surfaced early in 1885 when reports began to circulate that Lucky Baldwin was considering bringing black laborers to work on his 80,000 acre racehorse farm in Santa Anita.

The Santa Ana Standard was aghast at the thought. A devastating earthquake “wouldn’t be half as bad as a Nigger colony,” the paper wrote, prompting a rebuke from the Times. “We see no reason why they may not prove to be a desirable class of laborers,” the Times declared in an editorial. “It takes all sorts of people to make a world… Give the black citizen a chance, say we.”

Lummis wasn’t blind to Otis’s faults. In 1922 at a reunion of former employees of the Times, Lummis offered some frank comments on his former boss. “Col. Otis was brusque, rough, suspicious, vindictive…. He made innumerable enemies quite needlessly, as well as a large number that were greatly to his credit. It was good that every scoundrel, every criminal, every low politician hated him. It was a pity that so many thoroughly good people disliked him. He could have done a great deal more good if he had not antagonized so many good citizens. However as he did more for the community than all other newspapermen put together, I presume we may forgive him this loss of further achievement.”

A Good Reporter Never Rests

Otis ran his paper like a military campaign, demanding total devotion from his staff.  His philosophy was reflected in an article about the life of a Times reporter that appeared in the paper in the summer of 1887. Newspaper employees live in a “a continual whirl of excitement,” the article observed. The reporter is always “in the thickest of the fray.” With the ever-present fear that another paper will get a scoop, “times of immense nervous strain constitute the reporter’s everyday life…. Let it be noted that he holds himself in readiness to work from twelve to twenty hours a day, as occasion requires…. Whoever knew a thorough reporter to ‘fall down’ on his assignment so long as he could keep soul and body together.”

The article concluded, “Old Ben Franklin numbering the hours which should constitute a night’s sleep said: ‘Six for a man, seven for woman, and eight for a fool.’ Whether this rule is a good one or not – and there are excellent authorities who dispute it – newspaper writers rarely enjoy the luxury of ranking with Franklin’s class of fools.”

That story lends credence to a claim that Lummis often made about his time at the paper. “In my three years on the Times,” he recalled in his memoir, “I never got more than two hours of sleep in the 24 and for the final newspaper year not over one.”

The stress on Lummis was compounded in the fall of 1887 when he got himself entangled in one of Otis’s vendettas, this one against a former business partner, Col. Henry Boyce.  In the pages of the Times, Otis relentlessly attacked Boyce over everything from his lack of business ethics to his “malodorous” marital record.

Boyce returned fire with editorials that were mild in comparison. In the Nov. 30 edition of his rival paper, the Tribune, Boyce called Otis a “brute” and Lummis a “sneak” and a “little liar.” That insult was more than Lummis was going to take. At 4 p.m. on the day after the editorial appeared, Lummis confronted Boyce in front of the Nadeau Hotel on Spring Street and “whacked him across the face with my leather cane,” as he matter-of-factly recalled in his memoir.

Several eyewitnesses corroborated Lummis’s account, but Boyce denied that Lummis hit him. The “excited little man” never got closer to him than 10 feet, he told a reporter for the Express. The Times, which took great pride in the combative spirit of its reporter, insisted that Boyce “was struck, but made off in a hurry.” Lummis’s action was fully defensible in light of Boyce’s libelous tirade “to which no sober person would think of replying in words,” the Times added.

Lummis, however, did not emerge from the fracas unscathed.   “For several months I had admonitory symptoms,” he recalled. “My left forefinger went to sleep and stayed so. And sometimes the same crinkly feeling ran all around my heart.” Then he felt an odd tingling sensation in his left leg. “But I laughed to scorn those who warned me to look out.”

On Dec. 5, four days after his attack on Boyce, that routine was abruptly interrupted. “I went home for supper and lay down for a few minutes on the lounge. I couldn’t get up. I fought like a tiger. I knew what fighting was, too. Finally I did get up – but only to discover that my left side was helpless. I was paralyzed.”

Lummis would recover use of all his limbs eventually, but only after three hard years of roughing it in New Mexico.