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 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.