Friday, July 8, 2016

Murders Most Foul: Michel Lachenais

While Frenchtown's residents were mostly decent people, a few bad grapes did get into the wine vat. Michel Lachenais was one of them.

Armand Michel Josef Lachenais, by all accounts a large and intimidating man, was born circa 1827 in Bascony (France's Basque region) and most likely arrived in Los Angeles in the 1850s. He received a town lot in 1857 and was married to Maria de la Encarnacion Reyes, daughter of a respected Californio family. The couple adopted a daughter, Serafina.

In the fall of 1861, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles died (I can find no reference to the deceased's name). Other French-born residents organized a wake in a private home for the evening of October 3.

The non-sectarian French Benevolent Society had been established in 1860 to see to the medical needs of the French community (construction on the French Hospital would begin in 1869). During the wake, after the mourners had been drinking for several hours, Lachenais accused the Society of neglecting the deceased.

Henri Deleval, a normally peaceful man who worked at the Aliso flour mill, defended the Society. Lachenais cursed out Deleval, prompting Deleval to punch him in the face. This angered Lachenais, who drew his pistol and tried to shoot the unarmed Deleval. The gun misfired. Lachenais pulled the trigger again, causing another misfire. Lachenais stepped into the light, reloaded his gun, and deliberately shot Deleval twice in the stomach.

Henri Deleval died later that night. An angry mob of Frenchmen went to Lachenais' ranch, but he had already fled Los Angeles, leaving his wife and daughter behind.

This incident was extremely embarrassing to the city's French community, who prided themselves on being law-abiding at a time when Los Angeles, with a population around 7000, averaged about twenty homicides per year. One French citizen offered a $100 reward (about $2,900 today) "for the apprehension, and delivery in the County Jail" of Lachenais.

After five years of hiding in Mexico, Lachenais surrendered to the Deputy Sheriff. He pleaded self-defense at the trial, and was acquitted. This was likely due in part to his claiming to be afraid of vigilante justice.

The community was furious. The very next day, barber and former councilman Felix Signoret (don't let the job titles fool you; Signoret was a massive man with hands the size of hams) led a vigilante group that overpowered the sheriff and hanged four other murderers who were slated to be defended by the same lawyers who had secured Lachenais' acquittal. Signoret, who had participated in lynchings before, let it be known that the vigilantes would consider hanging lawyers who secured acquittals for murderers.*

Meanwhile, Lachenais just couldn't seem to keep his nose clean. By the fall of 1866, he faced another murder trial. One of his vineyard workers, a Native American man named Pablo Moreno, was bludgeoned to death with the butt of Lachenais' revolver. When the body was exhumed, it did indeed have a badly fractured skull.

There had been no actual witnesses to the assault; Moreno gave a deathbed statement to another Native American before Lachenais could bury him in secret. Lachenais' other employees all stated that he was guilty. However, they could not testify against him in court; at the time, the law prohibited Native Americans from testifying against white men. Maria Reyes de Lachenais testified that Moreno had gotten drunk, fallen, and hit his head on a rock. (Which doesn't explain why Moreno, a Catholic, was secretly buried without last rites in an unmarked, unconsecrated grave.)

The jury didn't buy it. This time, Lachenais was convicted, albeit on the reduced charge of manslaughter (sadly, Native American laborers were of little or no concern to the authorities at the time). He was sentenced to three years at San Quentin.

Lachenais appealed his conviction, and his case was heard by the California Supreme Court (remember, this was the 1860s - less than 400,000 people lived in California at the time). Justice C.J. Sanderson ruled that, since the case was largely circumstantial and since the indictment had been based on testimony from Native Americans (which was inadmissible in court), a new trial was necessary. However, the new trial never took place, and Lachenais was free.

Lachenais went back to farming (near what is now Exposition Park), but kept getting himself into trouble. In July 1870, he was back in court, charged with malicious mischief for illegally diverting water from a zanja. This time, he was found guilty and ordered to either pay a $43 fine or spend 21.5 days in jail. His appeal was denied (it isn't clear whether he paid the fine or went to jail).

A newspaper account states that, just a few months later, Lachenais argued with a man known only as D'Arque and shot him in the face, blinding him. Lachenais was arrested, but there is no evidence he was ever tried for the shooting.

In October of 1869 or 1870 (sources disagree on the year), Maria Reyes de Lachenais died suddenly at the age of 48. It was widely rumored that Michel killed her, although he was never arrested or charged in her death. (Sadly, it's not unusual for abuse victims to cover for their abusers out of fear. I suspect Maria's testimony in the Moreno murder case was concocted to avoid her husband's notorious wrath.)

Finally, Lachenais shot and killed his next-door neighbor, Jacob Bell. It was no secret that he had threatened Bell over water taken from the zanja running between their farms and that the men had disputed the ownership of a piece of land. Lachenais could not resist going to the saloon, drunkenly boasting about murdering Bell, and stating where he had left Bell's body (history does not record whether he was criminally insane, incredibly stupid, or both). This time, he was swiftly arrested for murder.

The people of Los Angeles were fed up with Lachenais' violent behavior. He was due to be arraigned on December 17, 1870. The jailers summoned a priest from La Placita and allowed seventeen-year-old Serafina to say goodbye to her father. But the vigilante committee was determined to act. After a meeting which calmly reviewed Lachenais' life, Felix Signoret once again led the vigilantes, this time numbering about 50, to the jail and broke down the doors.

Lachenais was dragged to the city's hanging grounds - a corral gate at the corner of Temple and New High Streets (which no longer exists). He was made to stand on a large wooden box, with the rope around his neck. Incredibly, this time he did not resist. He did, however, ask to make provisions for Serafina's education** and shouted "I am hung by a set of Germans and Jews because I am a Frenchman!" (I have yet to find any proof of German or Jewish people in the mob - which was mostly Frenchmen.) History records La Placita's priest praying at the site. (Father Lestrade had retired by this point, so the priest was most likely Lestrade's Italian-born successor, Blas Raho.)

One of the youngest members of the lynch mob, incidentally, was 15-year-old Joseph Mesmer, son of French entrepreneur Louis Mesmer. Before he turned 30, Joseph would open one of LA's first bookstores.

Lachenais stated "Well, it's all through, and I'm going into the spirit land to fight the Germans." (The Franco-Prussian war was raging at the time.) He turned to the priest and said "Goodbye, Padre" before proclaiming self-defense in the murder of Jacob Bell. But the mob was having none of it; the hanging took place quickly. Lachenais was allegedly still talking when someone kicked the box out from underneath him.

There is a surviving photograph of the lynching (don't say I didn't warn you). William Godfrey, a photographer with a studio on Main Street, took the picture (and made extra money selling prints of it).

Lachenais' death is often called the last lynching in California history, most likely by people who have forgotten about the Chinese Massacre of 1871.

County Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda, wanting to rid Los Angeles County of lynching once and for all, asked the Grand Jury to seek out and charge the mob's leaders. The Grand Jury replied that if the court system had not previously failed to convict Lachenais, the lynching would not have happened.

New High Street no longer exists; per an old map in CSULB's collection, it disappeared underneath Little Tokyo sometime in the past 90 years. However, the former corral site is known to be the current home of the U.S. District Courthouse.

The Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum will be giving a talk on the lynching in October. I hope I will be able to attend.

*Friendly warning: do not mess with French people. I mean it. We have done battle with ravenous wolves (I'm not kidding), we helped the Colonies defeat the British in the Revolutionary War (you're welcome), we overthrew and executed our own ruling class (which includes very distant cousins of mine), we overthrew and executed some of the leaders of the Revolution, we successfully took over much of Europe before (eventually) getting rid of that Italian upstart Napoleon, we make awesome spies/saboteurs, and we fight like hell every time we go to war (barring extenuating circumstances like a severe shortage of soldiers - and we usually win). France's last execution via guillotine took place in 1977 - the year of Star Wars' theatrical release. It's true that we speak a fancy-sounding language, know how to make anything prettier, and are probably shorter than you, but we can still kick your dérriere. So please don't give us a reason to do it.

**Sources disagree as to the exact nature and order of Lachenais' last words. In compiling this account, I relied on recurrence of words, the age of the account given (accounts written soon after an incident are the most accurate), and logic.

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