Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Rest in Peace, Mr. Mayor: Damien Marchesseault

Los Angeles has had three French mayors, and Damien Marchesseault was the first. (I hope you've all stocked up on tissues. Not every story gets to have a happy ending.)

Damien Marchesseault was born in 1818 in Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. In 1845, he left for New Orleans and became a riverboat gambler. (I should note that gambling professionally was considered socially acceptable at the time, not stigmatized as it sometimes is today.)

In 1850, Marchesseault left New Orleans for California, settling in Los Angeles. He soon partnered with another French Canadian, Victor Beaudry (whose brother, Prudent Beaudry, would also become mayor), in the ice business. In those days before refrigeration, ice had to be harvested and transported to cities to keep food from spoiling and keep drinks cold. Beaudry and Marchesseault built an ice house and operated a mule train to bring ice from the San Bernardino Mountains to Los Angeles and beyond (their customers included saloons in faraway San Francisco). Ice House Canyon, located between Mount Baldy and Mount San Antonio, is named for their ice house.

Marchesseault also owned a saloon - and kept up his gambling skills. He became a popular local figure and was asked to run for Mayor. Which he did, winning the election and serving a one-year term in 1859-1860. (Mayors of Los Angeles served one-year terms at the time, but could serve an unlimited number of terms.)

Before long, Marchesseault's mettle was tested by disaster. The winter of 1859-1860 brought the worst rains and flooding Los Angeles had seen in many years, and the Los Angeles River shifted its bed by a quarter mile. Much of the original pueblo was destroyed.

Undaunted, Marchesseault put his considerable energy to work helping to rebuild his adopted city, including the all-important Plaza Church.

Marchesseault was elected again in 1861, serving four consecutive terms afterwards. This was a very trying time for Los Angeles - the Civil War was raging back East, the economic effects of war were felt strongly in California, a deadly measles outbreak killed a number of Angelenos, another flood destroyed the primitive water system (again), and Southern California suffered a drought so severe that farmers let their fields go fallow and ranchers had no choice but to cull many of their cattle.

Through it all, Marchesseault was applauded by Los Angeles residents for his capable management of the city. Under his guidance, the Wilmington Drum Barracks were established (just in case...), new brick buildings went up, the first Chinese market opened, the city's first public mural was commissioned from Henri Penelon, gas streetlights and telegraph wires were installed, and the Mayor himself helped organize LA's first municipal gas company (remember, this was before home electricity).

In 1863, Marchesseault met Mary Clark Gorton Goodhue, who came to California from Rhode Island and had been widowed twice. She was a talented musician and spoke several languages. The Mayor and the sophisticated widow married in San Francisco in October of that year.

The onslaught of droughts, flooding, and more droughts inspired Marchesseault to seek better water management for Los Angeles. At the end of his 1865 term, he was appointed Water Overseer, a more important (and higher-paying) job than Mayor in parched Los Angeles, and served for one year.

Marchesseault temporarily served as Mayor for four months in 1867 and returned to his duties as Water Overseer before being elected Mayor again. He pushed on with improvements in the water system, awarding a contract to a business partner, engineer Jean-Louis Sainsevain. Sainsevain had been awarded the contract previously, in 1863, but gave up due to extreme difficulty and excessive costs.

Sainsevain and Marchesseault installed pipes made from hollowed-out logs, which had a frustrating tendency to leak or burst. By the middle of summer, stories about their water system turning the streets into muddy sinkholes were becoming all too common. Meanwhile, the fact that Sainsevain was Marchesseault's business partner did not escape notice, drawing accusations of corruption.

The Mayor was under a great strain. His administration was being harshly criticized, he had lost large amounts of money on bad investments and his partnership with Sainsevain, he had borrowed money from everyone he knew, and he was unable to repay his debts. The fact that the stress caused him to drink heavily and gamble more than ever didn't help. Mary offered to get a teaching job, but Marchesseault wouldn't hear of it.

Early in the morning of January 20, 1868, the deeply distressed Mayor entered an empty City Council chamber at City Hall. He wrote a letter to his beloved Mary:

My Dear Mary -
By my drinking to excess, and gambling also, I have involved myself to the amount of about three thousand dollars which I have borrowed from time to time from friends and acquaintances, under the promise to return the same the following day, which I have often failed to do. To such an extent have I gone in this way that I am now ashamed to meet my fellow man on the street; besides that, I have deeply wronged you as a husband, by spending my money instead of maintaining you as it becomes a husband to do. Though you have never complained of my miserable conduct, you nevertheless have suffered too much. I therefore, to save you further disgrace and trouble, being that I cannot maintain you respectably, I shall end this state of thing this very morning. Of course, in all this, there is no blame attached - contrary you have asked me to permit you to earn money honestly by teaching and I refused. You have always been true to me. If I write these few lines, it is to set you right before this wicked world, to keep slander from blaming you in way manner whatsoever. Now, my dear beloved, I hope that you will pardon me, and also Mr. Sainsevain. It is time to part, God bless you, and may you be happy yet.
Your husband,
Damien Marchesseault.
The progressive six-term Mayor then shot himself in the head with a revolver.* The next day, his suicide note appeared in the Los Angeles Semi-Weekly News and the funeral was held at his home.

Damien Marchesseault was buried in the Los Angeles City Cemetery. I surmise he was ineligible for burial at Calvary Catholic Cemetery due to his suicide. Mary remarried after his death (to Italian-born Eduardo Teodoli, who published Spanish-language newspaper La Cronica), but was buried in the City Cemetery along with Marchesseault and her son from her first marriage when she passed away in 1878.

When the old City Cemetery was taken over by the city and turned into (what else...) a Los Angeles Board of Education parking lot, surviving family members moved Mary, Marchesseault, and Mary's son C.W. Gorton to Angelus Rosedale Cemetery.

Although Marchesseault and Sainsevain were ultimately unsuccessful in their struggle to bring reliable water service to the city of Los Angeles, their successors prevailed. The Los Angeles City Water Company, which counted Solomon Lazard and Prudent Beaudry among its founders, was fittingly located at the corner of Alameda and Marchesseault Streets.

Good luck finding Marchesseault Street on a map today - it became Paseo de la Plaza. (Why, exactly, was it necessary to rename the street at Marchesseault's expense?)

There is a memorial plaque to the forgotten Marchesseault in the sidewalk outside the Mexican Consulate and Hispanic Cultural Center. I'm at a complete loss as to why it's not in a place linked to Marchesseault's history, but it's better than nothing.

Some historians credit Marchesseault's leadership with turning the Pueblo into the City of Los Angeles, citing his many accomplishments and capability in rebuilding the ruined pueblo. Today, he is completely unappreciated by the city that once loved him so.

Repose en paix.

*Okay, fine...the Semi-Weekly News reported that the bullet entered the Mayor's skull next to his nose and lodged in his brain. Which is a polite way of saying he shot himself in the face (think about it...). For Mary's sake, I sincerely hope it was a closed-casket funeral.

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