Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Exactly How Big was LA's French Community?

One estimate puts LA's historic French community at a mere 2 percent. Another estimate puts the figure at a whopping 20 percent - one out of every five Angelenos.

That's a pretty big discrepancy.

So which figure is closer to the truth?

I will, at some point, dig through census records and count all the French, Quebecois, French-speaking Swiss, and French-speaking Belgians (and their descendants). But for now, I'll share a rough approximation.

I recently read John W. Robinson's Los Angeles in Civil War Days. Robinson states "Foreigners make up a small but significant part of the population. Largest is the French community numbering more than 400, many engaged in wine-making." On the preceding page, Robinson states that the 1860 census counted 4,399 Angelenos.

"More than 400" out of 4,399 people. Robinson doesn't specify whether his "more than 400" figure included people of mixed French descent (i.e. Marcelina Leonis, who was half Chumash) or the American-born descendants of French Angeleno families.

Until I have time to go over the 1860 census myself (thank goodness for Ancestry.com), I feel comfortable saying French Angelenos accounted for about 10 percent of LA's 1860 population.

One out of every ten people.

That's an awful lot of people to just disappear from LA's narrative.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Whatever Happened to the French Benevolent Society? Continued...

For two and a half years, I have been trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to the French Benevolent Society. Read Part 1 here

Most sources refer to the entity that founded the former French Hospital simply as the French Benevolent Society. In one of my older books, the French version of the FBS' name - Societé Française de Bienfaisance Mutuelle de Los Angeles - appears, interchangeably with its English counterpart.

Thanks to one of my readers (beret-tip to James Lawson, again), I found out that Societé Française de Bienfaisance Mutuelle de Los Angeles is, or was, technically a separate organization. And it was the legal owner of the French Hospital site.

I know very little about the business end of nonprofit organizations, so I'm a little out of my element here. Bear with me, I'm trying.

There is a little information out there on the Societé Française de Bienfaisance Mutuelle de Los Angeles, but again, it's left me with more questions than answers.

The Societé Française de Bienfaisance Mutuelle de Los Angeles' address is identical to the FBS' address. I sent a letter to that address two months ago, via certified mail. I have never received a response, and the tracking number doesn't work on USPS' website. Presumably, the address has been defunct for some time. I'm guessing neither entity elected to have mail forwarded to a new address, either. Which seems really strange, since property sales often have straggling bits of paperwork to finish. (I'm a notary. I handle property transfers frequently, so I know this from personal experience.)

I'm no expert, but the Societé's income-to-expenses ratio seems unusually high. See for yourself. If this were a balance sheet for a publicly traded company, I doubt I would be buying the stock.

There is/was some investment income...but from what? And where has it gone all these years? Is there a forensic accountant in the house?

What happened to the Societé/FBS' charitable spirit? Zero charities supported and zero dollars donated (at least in 2014)? Really? Someone please tell me there's more to the story.

The Societé/FBS sure has shrunk (except for its income...). At least as late as 2014, there was still a nine-member board (a tradition dating to 1860). But only two employees? And apparently NO members (since there were no membership fees collected, going back at least as far as 2002)? Somewhere in the great beyond, Louis Sentous Jr. is quietly crying into a glass of Georges Le Mesnager's best wine.

I may finally have a usable lead. I have an address and I am going to try sending another letter. Who knows, I may finally get a response.

Wish me luck...

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Whatever Happened to the French Benevolent Society?

I started this blog in May of 2016.

Since then, I have come into contact with quite a few history buffs, preservationists, and French Southern Californians. I have been asked, plenty of times, if I've ever reached out to the French Benevolent Society, the entity responsible for the alpha and omega of this blog - the French Hospital and its Jeanne d'Arc statue.

I tried. Dear readers, I swear to you that I tried. And I have the certified mail receipts to prove it.

When the old French Hospital was sold again, I was able to track down Jeanne d'Arc within a few days. Tracking down the property's longtime owners, the French Benevolent Society, has been a very different story.

Internet searches for the French Benevolent Society didn't yield a website, directory listing, or contact information. It did, however, lead me to the California Secretary of State's website, which allows users to access some information on business and nonprofit entities.

A search for the FBS yielded two results: the French Benevolent Society of California and the French Hospital Benevolent Fund of Los Angeles. Both entities had their corporate status listed as "suspended".

There had to be more information. I ran a small business; I know from experience that they generate a paper trail. Logically, a bigger, older corporation had to have more information floating around out there somewhere.

I submitted a request for ALL of the filings the Secretary of State had for both entities. That went surprisingly well*. The Secretary of State's office fulfilled my requests pretty quickly, and even gave me a courtesy phone call to let me know there would be a delay on the French Hospital Benevolent Fund's filings because they'd been moved to archives long ago.

In the end, there wasn't much paperwork on either entity, and what I do have raised more questions than it answered.

The French Benevolent Society, founded in 1860, became a corporation in 1959. It was granted tax-exempt status by the Franchise Tax Board on the grounds that it was a social welfare organization. Okay, fine, that seems pretty normal.

The only other document on file for the FBS was a Certificate of Status indicating that "...the California Franchise Tax Board suspended the entity's powers, rights and privileges on April 03, 1972, pursuant to the provisions of the California Revenue and Taxation Code..."

The French Hospital Benevolent Fund, founded in 1947, had in its Articles of Incorporation a stated purpose of funding and aiding the French Hospital. It, too, was granted tax-exempt status. And it, too, was suspended.

Both the French Benevolent Society of California and the French Hospital Benevolent Fund had their "powers, rights, and privileges" suspended on the same day - April 3, 1972 - "pursuant to the provisions of the California Revenue and Taxation Code".

While this was going on, I found a physical address in Chinatown for the French Benevolent Society and sent them a letter, asking if I could interview someone from the organization for this blog. I sent the letter via certified mail, enclosing a self-addressed, metered envelope with a certified mail label already attached (I also included my email address and phone number). I wanted to reduce the risk of my letter getting "lost in the mail" as much as possible, and certification does help with that.

Whenever I try to track either certified mail label number, I get an error message. From considerable experience in dealing with the post office, I'd wager my letter is sitting in a dead letter office (I sent it nearly two months ago, so if it were going to be returned to sender, it should have made its way back to me by now).

It's very hard to provide answers on this blog when you can't get anyone to answer your questions. I have a few theories, but since I can't prove or disprove them, I won't share them at this point.

Especially since I now have more questions than when I started.

Why were there TWO corporate entities attached to a single hospital facility? I understand major corporations being made up of several smaller ones, but this was ONE hospital, in a city that was sizable but nowhere near as big as it is now (and not many people lived downtown in the postwar era).

Why did BOTH entities have their "rights, powers, and privileges" suspended? Why was it on the same day? This is why I, a few entries ago, asked if any of my readers had a legal background. I had hoped that someone who understands business law and/or tax law might be able to offer some insight. As for the shared date, I don't believe in coincidences.

Both suspensions dated to 1972. How, exactly, does a suspended business entity manage to keep a working hospital open until 1989 - an additional 17 YEARS? This is what baffles me the most. It doesn't make any sense at all. Knowing that the hospital's 125th anniversary party in 1985 was a big public event that featured a presentation from then-Mayor Tom Bradley just makes this even weirder.

What, exactly, has the FBS been doing since the hospital changed hands in 1989? The FBS was concerned with the public good, regularly holding fundraisers and an annual picnic. In recent years, its name has only been in the newspaper in regards to the hospital's closure and sale.

What, exactly, happened to the $33 MILLION dollars that the FBS made selling off the hospital site? Obviously, $33 million is a LOT of money. It can't have vanished into thin air.

If someone from the French Benevolent Society sees this, PLEASE contact me so I can get your side of the story. I promise there will be no tricks, judgment, or aggressive tactics. I'm not an investigative reporter, I'm a nerd with a blog. I just want to know what happened.

*I'm a notary. The California Secretary of State is technically my boss. After some negative experiences dealing with various government offices over the years, I was quite proud to be connected to one that did something right!

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Let's Take a Living History Tour!

Recently, I was contacted by the West Adams Heritage Association regarding their annual Living History Tour of Angelus Rosedale Cemetery.

This year's tour theme is The Immigrant's Story. Several noteworthy French Angelenos are interred at Angelus Rosedale, and I was honored to provide my input on Jean-Louis Sainsevain for this year's tour.

If you live in West Adams, check your recent WAHA newsletters...you just might find a biography of Sainsevain's ill-fated business partner, Damien Marchesseault, first published here by yours truly and reprinted with my permission.

Get your tickets now for tours on Sunday, September 23. If you take one of the midday tours and see a pale brunette with a guillotine-blade necklace, come say hi!

Monday, September 3, 2018

Welcome to Frenchtown...Washington!

Los Angeles was far from the only place in the United States to have its own French settlement.

The cities of St. Louis, Detroit, Green Bay, Mobile, and Biloxi were founded by French settlers (if I'm forgetting any, please comment below). There was a French settlement in Florida. Louisiana's French roots run even deeper than my hatred of ketchup.

Oh, and if you're ever in Walla Walla, Washington, you can visit the Frenchtown Historic Site.

Robert Foxcurran, one of my readers who lives in Seattle, asked me to send this poster for the upcoming Frenchtown Rendezvous to any interested parties. I don't know anyone else with ties to the Pacific Northwest, so I'm giving it a signal boost here instead. Please send this to anyone who might want to attend (October 6 in Walla Walla, WA). I had to shrink and screenshot the poster to insert it, so if anyone wants the full-size version, email losfrangeles (at) gmail (dot) com and I'll forward you the original file.

Genealogy geeks take note: there will be a workshop on writing family histories. A separate registration is required (buy Rendezvous tickets here). And don't forget: check the weather before you go. Apparently Washington has something called "rain".

Friday, August 31, 2018

Felix Signoret: Barber, Councilman...and Vigilante

Felix Signoret

Regular readers may recall that, two years ago, I wrote about the violent life and death of Michel Lachenais. Today, we meet the leader of the lynch mob that finally put a stop to his misdeeds. (Beret-tip to reader Bob Edberg, who referred me to this picture.)

Felix Signoret was born June 9, 1825 in Marseilles, France. He arrived in California in 1856, becoming a naturalized citizen a year later, and married Paris-born Catherine Pazzan in 1858. They had five children - Rosa, Anne, Caroline, Louise, and Felix. Tragically, baby Felix only lived for a month. Louise fared little better, passing away at four months of age.

For some time, the only barber in Los Angeles who catered to non-Spanish clients was Peter Biggs. Although Biggs was clever and entrepreneurial, he had no talent for cutting hair. When Signoret, a massive, ham-fisted man who happened to be a very good barber, set up shop in town, Biggs initially reduced his prices and wound up changing jobs.

Signoret established a fine barbershop and invested his earnings in a saloon, billiard hall (LA was still the Wild West, after all), and in time, his own business block. Per the ads in the Jan. 5, 1876 edition of the Los Angeles Herald, tenants included multilingual physician Dr. J. Luppo and V. Chevalier's French drugstore (we'll meet Chevalier again later). Signoret Block, with hotel rooms on the upper floors and retail space at street level, opened in 1874 and stood at 15 Main Street opposite the Pico House. It boasted brick construction (which was not cheap) and - something very rare for Los Angeles - a mansard roof.
Signoret Building
1876 view of Main Street. Signoret Building on the right.

Also boasting brick construction and a mansard roof was the Signoret family home, built in 1871 at 125 Aliso Street (in the heart of Frenchtown; where else?).

Signoret was elected to the Common Council (now the City Council) in 1863 and served on the County Board of Supervisors in 1866. Oh, and he was also very active in the local Vigilance Committee. At one point, he even threatened to hang two attorneys who frequently secured acquittals for murderers.

Let me be VERY clear: I DO NOT condone vigilante justice. Due process of law exists for good reasons, and vigilantes have killed innocent people. That said, there is a reason someone like Signoret would join the Vigilance Committee in the first place.

Early Los Angeles was pretty much lawless. Forget what you've heard about Tombstone, Deadwood, and Virginia City - Los Angeles was the toughest of the tough frontier towns. John Mack Faragher, Yale professor and author of Eternity Street, tallied 468 substantiated homicides between 1830 and 1874 (at a time when LA County's population grew from under 1,000 to about 6,000). And Los Angeles - with only a sheriff and some deputies - was ill-equipped to deal with its high levels of crime.

Michel Lachenais was a particularly nasty piece of work - murdering an unarmed man at a wake, beating one of his vineyard workers to death and covering it up, shooting a man in the face (the victim survived but was blinded), and, finally, murdering one of the owners of the farm next to his after an argument.

Previously, Lachenais had gotten away with his crimes. But he was clearly a dangerous man, and his antics were extremely embarrassing to the town's law-abiding French community. When he was finally arrested for the murder of Jacob Bell, vigilantes (many of them French-speaking) took notice.

Lachenais' arraignment was postponed for three days in the hopes that the vigilantes would calm down. It didn't work.

The vigilantes met at Stearns' Hall, named Felix Signoret the committee president, reviewed Lachenais' violent life, and decided that Lachenais should hang for his crimes.

On the day of the arraignment, Signoret led the Vigilance Committee to the jail. The mob overpowered Sheriff Burns and his deputies, dragged Lachenais to a nearby corral gate, and hanged him.

Many, many people have taken the law into their own hands when the justice system failed to secure any actual justice. Signoret wasn't the only respected civilian to participate in lynchings when the law failed to convict a known murderer.

Why did Signoret (and, for that matter, the rest of the mob) face no consequences? Judge Sepulveda, who was fed up with lynchings, asked the Grand Jury to investigate and indict the mob's leaders. The Grand Jury concluded that if the court had done its job the first time Lachenais committed murder, the lynching would never have taken place.

The death of Michel Lachenais was the very last lynching committed in California. The Chinese Massacre the following year qualifies as a race riot. (Incidentally, the Vigilance Committee - which still had Signoret as one of its leaders - issued a statement making it quite clear that they were NOT responsible for the brutal attack that left eighteen Chinese dead - and that they had, in fact, organized to stop the riot.)

Signoret and a business partner, Le Prince, had a bank exchange at Arcadia and Main (per the 1875 city directory).

Signoret passed away in 1878 after a long battle with edema and was survived by daughters Rosa, Anne, and Caroline (Catherine had passed away in 1877). The Signorets are buried together in Calvary Cemetery, along with their children Felix and Louise.

As for the Signorets' elegant home on Aliso Street, it was later repurposed...as a brothel.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

S'il Vous Plaît: Need Your Help, Readers!

Dear Readers:

I don't like to ask for help quite this often (in all fairness, the disappearance of Jeanne d'Arc DID make me panic). But I have two very important requests.

First: are there any attorneys, or at least a law student or two, in the house? I'm trying to solve a mystery and have a few questions about business-related law. I'll guest-list you for whatever my next event ends up being. Email losfrangeles (at) gmail (dot) com if you can spare a few minutes. (On the subject of events, if anyone is looking for a speaker, I do have some weekend availability throughout the year.)

Second: my next LAVA Sunday Salon, along with all other Sunday Salons, has been postponed until further notice. But, it's for a good reason - the organizers are hard at work on getting Times Mirror Square landmarked. Which means they could really use some extra help saving other threatened historic sites around LA. Send a letter, send an email, sign a petition, make a phone call - please just take a few minutes to do something. (If I hear anything on how you can help protect Times Mirror Square specifically, I'll update this entry.)

Times Mirror Square's location does hold some significance relevant to this blog: the land was previously owned by sheep baron Pierre Larronde (who had a business block there), and the Nadeau Hotel previously stood on the site. Both the Larronde block and Nadeau Hotel were torn down in the 1930s to make way for the Times building. It especially annoys me that pretty much everything Remi Nadeau built has fallen to the wrecking ball. But what's done is done, and it doesn't make the Times building any less important.

Merci beaucoup!

C.C. de V.