Friday, January 3, 2020

The Trials of Simon Gless

Simon Gless was living on Alameda Street and working as a bartender when his well-to-do uncle, Gaston Oxarat, passed away in 1886.

Quiet, unassuming, twenty-four-year-old Gless - his uncle's favorite nephew - inherited Rancho Los Encinos, fifty acres in Boyle Heights, the Postoffice Block and Odd Fellows Block (home of the City of Paris department store at the time) downtown, properties in San Francisco and in France, and about $29,000 in cash (about $800,000 today). It would be impossible to put a price tag on the Oxarat-Gless real estate holdings today, but to give my dear readers a rough idea, Rancho Los Encinos was subdivided into Encino and Sherman Oaks after World War II. The downtown properties were, at the time, some of the most valuable in Los Angeles.

Oxarat's body was barely cold before the mess hit the fan.

Simon was sued, separately, by his uncle's son, by a woman claiming to have married Gaston in 1874, and by a woman who claimed to be Gaston's illegitimate daughter. All of them wanted a chunk of Gaston's valuable estate.

Simon agreed to pay a French Basque attorney, M.V. Biscailuz, either $45,000 or $60,000 (sources disagree) to handle his uncle's estate. This ultimately did not go well, and eventually led to Simon suing Biscailuz years later. Judge Van Dyke sided with Biscailuz but reduced his fee to $14,000. 

Benita Murillo, filing a lawsuit under the name "Benita Oxarat", claimed that she was Gaston's wife and that Gaston was the father of her son Francisco. The case went to probate court. When Benita took the stand, her story crumbled. She admitted that she was not Gaston's wife and that Gaston was not Francisco's father. In fact, she stated that Edward Amar (another prominent French Basque who developed much of old San Pedro) had persuaded her to contest the will and claim to be Oxarat's widow.  

The other cases weren't so simple.

Within a few weeks of Benita's confession, Simon was back in court with his own lawsuit - against the rancho's prior owner, Eugene Garnier, and Garnier's business partner F.A. Gibson. Garnier and Gibson claimed to own a partial interest in the rancho, but Gless believed the document was a forgery.

I'll let the Los Angeles Herald (February 23, 1887) elaborate:
Plaintiff alleges that the agreement was forged by Garnier and that the claim is false. He avers that Garnier removed a certificate of acknowledgement made December 1, 1877, before Charles E. Beane, Notary Public, from another document and altering the certificate so as to make it appear to be a certificate of the acknowledgement of Oxarat and himself to the agreement, pasted it on the forged paper and filed it recently with Recorder Gibson. The document is now in the Recorder's office, and as it is material for plaintiff's case that it should not be destroyed, he asks that an injunction be issued to the Recorder preventing him from delivering it to defendant. Gless alleges that it is evident that the names were not written so long ago as 1877 nor further back than a year since, a different kind of ink was used and the writing is much fresher.
(As a Notary Public for the State of California, I was trained to spot this type of fraud. This is why certificates of acknowledgement HAVE TO be attached - no matter how much a signer whines about it - and why notaries have to make a separate journal entry for each notarized signature. If this case happened today, the alleged forgery would probably go to the crime lab and Beane's journal would probably be subpoenaed as evidence.)

Simon won that case, but Eugene Garnier filed an appeal and requested that the judgment be vacated. Garnier added that the judge in the case had a financial interest in the Gless estate and that he and his attorney were not permitted to view the relevant documents before their court date.

Adela Freeman, who claimed her birth name was Adela Oxarat, kept coming after Gless for part of the Oxarat estate, and managed to keep her claim limping along for a good six years. She was so persistent that one newspaper reporting on the case incorrectly stated Simon Gless was no relation to Gaston Oxarat.

Basque genealogy site Bridge2Pyrenees lists over a dozen court cases involving Gless. Yet another French Basque, J.B. Leonis, retained Gless as a Basque translator for his own court cases.

With all of his appearances in court as plaintiff, defendant, or translator, Gless may very well have spent more time in a courtroom than he did on the rancho.

Life wasn't all bad - Gless married Juanita Amestoy, daughter of rancher Dominique "Don Domingo" Amestoy in San Francisco in 1886, a few months after inheriting Gaston's estate.

Juanita Amestoy's wedding dress

Simon and Juanita had three children - Constant Simon (1890), Domingo Amestoy (1892), and Noeline Elizabeth (1897). 

After fighting so hard to keep Rancho Los Encinos, Simon sold it to his father-in-law. Valley lore has it that he sold the rancho for $5 after buying a block of ice downtown and finding it had already melted away upon arriving home (I'm from Sherman Oaks...this story may or may not be true, but the southern Valley is hot enough that it's definitely plausible). Another source says Amestoy paid $125,000 and wanted to subdivide the land for farming. In either case, the Gless family moved to 131 Boyle Avenue in Boyle Heights.

Gless farmhouse in Boyle Heights
Long after his mother's admission of fraud on the stand, Francisco Morillo came after Gless himself, still claiming to be Gaston's son. The matter had already been settled financially, but Morillo wouldn't drop it.

In April 1891, M.V. Biscailuz accused Simon of assault. Simon was arrested and the matter went to court, along with that long-brewing lawsuit against Biscailuz. The case dragged on for some time, but Biscailuz eventually dropped the charges against Simon. 

Two months later, Simon checked into Santa Ana's Brunswick Hotel, where he suffered a mental breakdown. Simon claimed he had been attacked by two Mexicans, but wasn't able to recall the details of the alleged incident. He was monitored overnight, took the train home to Los Angeles in the morning, and fired a revolver in his bedroom five times that evening.

After five years of lawsuits and harassment, Simon was so fearful and paranoid that he nearly attacked a visiting friend with a music box (Juanita intervened). 

Simon was taken to the Amestoy ranch (near modern-day Gardena) to recuperate; however, his attending physicians weren't optimistic about his odds of recovery. 

Mental illness of any kind was highly taboo in the Victorian era, and apart from one news article, little seems to be known about Simon's condition. 

Simon contracted chronic intestinal nephritis ("Bright's disease") at age 41 in 1903 and passed away after a few months. He died at home, with Juanita and the children at his side. 

Although Simon was mercilessly hounded by dishonest people, he was loved and missed by family and friends - so much so that the funeral procession was over half a mile long. Interestingly, given all the time he spent in courtrooms, two of the pallbearers were judges. 

Simon is unique among French Angelenos in that TWO former residences remain standing today - and Gless Street in Boyle Heights is named for him. 

The Gless farmhouse was landmarked in 2010, with the support of Gless family descendants - including Simon's great-granddaughter, Sharon Gless. 131 Boyle Avenue served as the Hebrew Shelter Home and Asylum for many years and has since been divided into apartments. Most of the tenants are mariachi musicians - fitting for a house located so close to Mariachi Plaza.

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