Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Monster of Calabasas: Michel "Don Miguel" Leonis

Michel "Don Miguel" Leonis, date unknown

I’m not going to mince words. Michel Leonis, a six-foot-four-inch, 220-pound French Basque dubbed “Don Miguel” out of fear rather than respect, was a human stain.

No one can say for sure why Leonis left France's Basque region for California. Some sources say that he was a smuggler wanted by both the French AND Spanish authorities. Others say that his penchant for illegal activity back in France shamed his powerful family so much that his father demanded he leave. We may never know the truth, but either way, he was not one of the good guys.

When he arrived in 1854, Leonis worked as a foreman on Rancho El Escorpion in the western San Fernando Valley. Some say that he was illiterate and only spoke Basque; others say he could manage limited amounts of Spanish and English. (His friendships with George Le Mesnager and Joseph Mascarel suggest that he could, at bare minimum, converse in French.) 

Interestingly, Woodland Hills' continuation school was formerly called Miguel Leonis High School (it closed in 2015). But regardless of how educated Don Miguel might have been, within a few years he’d bought out his employer’s half of the rancho.

The other half of the rancho belonged to a Chumash widow named Espiritu Chijulla Menendez. 

You know where this is going, right?

Espíritu Chijulla Leonis

Leonis married Espiritu in a traditional Chumash ceremony in 1859, took over her half of the rancho, raised sheep on it…and added to his land holdings many times over through threats, violence, and nuisance lawsuits. He was dubbed the “King of Calabasas”, but he owned or controlled most of the western San Fernando Valley and part of Ventura County. He also had a house and orchard downtown (he may have kept a mistress there) - the Aliso Village apartments now stand on the site. He confided in the few people he was close to that he wanted to build his own empire that could last forever. 

This is the Leonis adobe. Humble home for a man who dreamed of an empire.

The house was old and abandoned when Leonis stumbled upon it one day. He fixed it up, enclosed the back staircase, added the veranda...and never, EVER allowed Juan Menendez, Espiritu's son from her first marriage, inside the house. Instead, Leonis relegated young Juan to the barn.

Leonis had more than 100 employees, including Chumash and Mexican vaqueros whose sole responsibility was to scare off homesteaders who got too close to his property. One dispute resulted in a two-week standoff and culminated in a murder. His own employees were terrified of him. 

At one point, Leonis even tried to force the Garnier brothers, who owned Rancho Los Encinos (modern-day Encino/Sherman Oaks), off of their property. Eugene Garnier testified in court that Leonis' vaqueros had burned their newly planted wheat fields and beaten their employees. He also stated that he was testifying against Leonis only because he was forced to do so. It's not a coincidence that Eugene moved back to France (but we'll get to that when I get to the Garnier brothers).

When intimidation didn’t work, Leonis used the court system. He was a plaintiff in at least thirty property disputes. Just to put that into perspective, fewer than 4,000 people lived in all of LA County - which still included Orange County - in 1860. Leonis managed to sue at least thirty of them. And he wasn’t above bribing judges and juries with food and alcohol.

Marcelina Leonis, date unknown

Leonis did have one Achilles' heel - his daughter Marcelina, born in 1860 and named after Espiritu's aunt. Curiously, in spite of marrying her mother out of convenience, Leonis doted on his daughter and always gave her the best of everything. Marcelina received a better education than either of her parents did, and loved to play the piano. The few available resources on Marcelina state that unlike her father, she adored her mother and her older half-brother. But Marcelina’s life was cut short by smallpox when she was only twenty. For three days after Marcelina’s death, Leonis drank heavily - well, more heavily than usual.

One story states that after losing Marcelina, Leonis attempted to hang himself from a tree behind the adobe, using his horse as a hanging platform. But the horse stubbornly refused to budge. Only when Leonis dismounted did the horse bolt. Leonis was so angry that he allegedly cut off the tree branch from which he'd tried to hang himself.

You’d think that suddenly losing his only child might have prompted Leonis to rethink some of his life choices. But it didn’t.

In September of 1889, Leonis won his first court case since Marcelina’s death. He celebrated his victory in the saloons downtown before heading back to Calabasas. And got himself into what must be the earliest drunk-driving accident in Southern California history.

Somewhere in the Cahuenga Pass, Leonis fell out of his wagon, and its heavy wheels ran right over his face and chest. He was taken to a (coincidentally French-owned) roadhouse on the Valley side of the pass. After three days of agony, the man who had terrorized the western Valley was dead. He was buried at Calvary Cemetery next to Marcelina.

The very next day, Juan finally moved into his mother's house.

You’d think that would be the end of it. But several years earlier, Leonis had hidden the nastiest trick of all up his sleeve.

Leonis married Espiritu for her family’s land, then proceeded to treat her like the help instead of his wife for the next thirty years. He was the third richest person in California when he died. Yet, he left Espiritu a pittance of $5,000, willing the rest of his money and land to his siblings. Adding insult to injury, he referred to Espiritu as his housekeeper, denied that they had ever been married, and left the money with the caveat that she would only get it if she didn’t contest the remainder of the will. 

Espiritu wasn’t well educated, but she wasn’t stupid. And she had suffered enough. She hired the best attorneys in town - Horace Bell and Stephen Mallory White, who had previously represented Miguel in some of his lawsuits.

For five weeks, the case dragged out in court. Witness after witness swore to the court that Leonis and Espiritu either were or weren't married. Espiritu's name was dragged through the mud again and again. One witness even claimed that she had never been married to her first husband and had lived with two other men (an extremely scandalous accusation for the time). Poor Marcelina's headstone was even submitted as evidence. The jury deliberated for less than a day before legally awarding Espiritu the widow’s share of her husband’s estate. 

In spite of her toxic marriage to Miguel, Espiritu did marry for a third time - at the age of 65, to an 18-year-old man. The Los Angeles Times, which had gleefully covered Espiritu's court case in all of its ugly detail, reported on her remarriage with some extremely salty commentary I won't repeat here.

Espiritu had to fight for her house in court again and again for the next 15 years (early LA had plenty of shady characters more than willing to swindle a two-time widow out of her own house), but she won her final case in 1906, and died a few months later. Juan and his family inherited the house (take THAT, Miguel). Espiritu is buried at Mission San Fernando (where she was born and educated). Should you wish to pay your respects, do note that she is interred under her first married name, Menendez.

Mere months before he died, Leonis wrote to his nephew, Jean Baptiste Leonis, asking him to come to California and eventually take over his estate. It didn’t quite work out that way, but by the time J.B. died, he’d established an empire of his own - in addition to one of California’s strangest cities. More on that in a future entry.


  1. Hello, while I appreciate your blog on the French of early Los Angeles, many of the facts you write about Miguel Leonis are not true. It sounds like you used Horace Bell's book on Leonis as one of your sources. Bell's book on a Leonis was a FICTIONALIZED version of Leonis' life. Bell was known for telling tall tales and writing with a sensationalist slant. Unfortunately, many people have used Bell's book as a primary history source, which has led to the perpetuation of tales about Leonis. The story about Espiritu marrying an 18-year old is completely false. Journalism standards in the 19th century were not like today. Stories were planted all the time. Much of my graduate research was on the French Basques of early Los Angeles and while Leonis definitely was a physically imposing figure who defended his land fiercely, he was not the devil you write about. In fact, testimony from Calabasas residents, who were children when Miguel lived in Calabasas, reveals his kindness toward children. Court testimony from Espiritu's father and mother, state how well they were provided for by Leonis and how they wanted for nothing. I'd be happy to discuss the facts about Miguel Leonis and the French immigrants of early Los Angeles with you.

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  2. Hello,

    If there's one thing I know, it's to never trust Horace Bell! I've never read his book. For primary resources, I prefer Harris Newmark and newspaper accounts (plausible ones). I'd love to get my hands on the court transcripts from Espiritu's case. We *do* know for certain that she had to fight like hell to keep her own house.

    I'd quite like to read these accounts of Miguel's kindness towards children. It seems odd that such a man would make his young stepson sleep in the barn.

    Richard Nordin's "The Iron Fist", which is about J.B. Leonis and the city of Vernon, also yielded some information on Miguel. Since Leonis Malburg allowed Nordin unrestricted access to the family's records, I consider the book a reliable source.

    Let's compare notes.

  3. Hi, sorry for the delayed reply but I had no idea you posted a reply comment until now. Firstly, one of the most important jobs of a historian is to disseminate accurate information based on evidence. Secondly, it is also the duty of a historian to thoroughly verify sources. Without this process, history becomes compromised. I am quite familiar with David Nordin’s self-published book. It is not a work published by a university press or one reviewed by any academic institutions. Many of Mr. Nordin’s statements about Miguel Leonis are not factual and are not based on evidence. Mr. Nordin claims to know what Miguel was thinking as he arrived by ship to Los Angeles. To know Miguel’s thoughts is quite implausible and usually such notions are found in historical novels, not works of history. (No journals belonging to Miguel capturing his thoughts exist; and as you know, he was by all accounts, illiterate.) History is a discipline that requires meticulous research; it is not a platform for creative writing or hearsay. We know almost nothing about Miguel prior to his arrival in the San Fernando Valley. There are no records documenting how Miguel made his way to Los Angeles, and no record that he landed at Timms Wharf. Those are pure assumptions and cannot be stated as fact.

    Mr. Nordin used the Leonis Adobe as a venue to publicize his book but it was a very small, independent happening that was not officially presented by the Leonis Adobe Museum.

    I have copies of Miguel’s baptismal records from Cambo Les Bains (which I was fortunate enough to visit last October), and despite being a French Basque, his name is, in fact, Miguel, not Michel. I was also able to acquire the occupation of Miguel’s parents from his baptismal records and he did not come from a wealthy family. His father was a civil servant.

    I spent 18 months researching court cases from the Huntington Library and was also given access to the original journal of Juan Menendez, the diary of Marcelina Leonis, and all the historic building and land surveys by the Leonis Adobe Museum.

  4. The following statements are not true and/or are not based on fact, evidence or records:

    1) There is no evidence that Miguel was ever on the lam. That was pure concoction by Horace Bell.

    2) There is no record of any “traditional Chumash ceremony” for the common-law union of Miguel and Espiritu.

    3) There is absolutely no record of Juan Menendez ever being relegated to the barn as a young man. Again, that is dramatic story-telling. While the relationship between Juan and Miguel was not an extremely close one, they did have a civil relationship. Court records (Juan’s own testimony) show that Juan was one of the wagon passengers helping Miguel transport firewood during his fatal accident. The story about the trip being a drunk-driving accident is completely false.

    4) As time went on, the story of Espiritu became more sensationalized. The Los Angeles Times article written after her death, claiming Espiritu married an 18-year old was a complete fabrication. Please keep in mind the Los Angeles Times, along with many newspapers of the period, were not held to the rigorous fact-checking standards we have in journalism today. Newspapers were also used as personal vendetta vehicles during that period. Espiritu and her son and his wife, referred to as the “Leonis Family” by locals, were considered quiet, upstanding citizens. This is based on several oral interviews (conducted by professors, anthropologists, and graduate students) of local residents, including a long-term constable in the area.

    5) The story about Miguel trying to hang himself after Marcelina’s death is another sensationalized fabrication.

    6) To state that Miguel Leonis was a “human stain” is a bit histrionic. Charles Manson was a human stain; he murdered people for sport. Miguel Leonis defended his land both physically and through the court systems, as you already know. So did a lot of people during the period. It was a time of change and lawlessness.

    If you are interested in writing about history accurately, and it sounds like you are, I highly recommend you contact the Leonis Adobe Museum to verify information about Miguel Leonis and receive feedback about Mr. Nordin’s book. Simply talking to a tour guide with limited general information is not sufficient.

    1. Thank you for getting back to me on this; I do appreciate it.

      Regarding your statements:

      1. I do state that we may never know exactly why Miguel left France.

      2. Referencing Nordin here. Not sure what records, if any, the Chumash may have kept on the subject, but it could explain why a formal marriage record has proven elusive.

      4. I may not have been clear enough regarding the Times' despicable treatment of Espiritu. But from the sheer number of times I've written to various newspapers regarding factual error and lack of journalistic integrity, I'm not convinced things are perfect 130-ish years later.

      6. I might be a bit colorful with language (you probably don't want to hear the unladylike words I've used in reference to Manson etc.). However, given the fact that certain misdeeds of Miguel's can be found in court documents (chief amongst them trying to disinherit his wife, and regardless of whether they had a formal marriage ceremony of any sort or not, half of Rancho El Escorpion *was* hers in the first place), "problematic" might be apt.

      It sounds like I need to make another trip to the Leonis Adobe Museum.