Thursday, May 26, 2022

What's In a Name?

I finally got a chance to start watching Bosch: Legacy.* 

I highly recommend it, don't get me wrong, but I couldn't help cringing when the very first scene of the first episode involved multiple instances of Vignes Street being pronounced "VIG-nezz". 

There has been considerable debate over how Vignes Street should be pronounced.

Vignes means "vines" in French (fitting for a vintner from Bordeaux), and in French, "vignes" (referring to vines) is pronounced more like "veen" (I'm simplifying, but I'm sure you get the idea). 

However, French rules of pronunciation don't necessarily apply to proper names. Case in point: Taix is pronounced "Tex". 

The few references to pronunciation I can find state that Jean-Louis Vignes' surname is pronounced "vines". Frances Dinkelspiel, who is an award-winning journalist, the author of Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California, and a descendant of another prominent Los Angeles winemaker (Isaias Hellman), says it's pronounced "vines"

Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times helpfully suggested via Twitter that an older newspaper account might spell the name phonetically. In 9 years of digging as deeply into the family as I can, I have yet to see that.

(I checked again, since more old newspapers are digitized each year. No luck again, and to my consternation multiple newspapers - mostly small ones based in NorCal - mistakenly claimed that El Aliso winery was on the site of Union Station - no wonder that tired myth has hung around for so long - and a 1972 article in the Desert Sun referred to to Vignes as "young". He was, in fact, 52 when he arrived in Los Angeles. I also found a very long and detailed article about Vignes' children suing their cousins for a cut of El Aliso. Boy, did it get ugly!)

When Jean-Louis Vignes was alive, French speakers outnumbered English speakers by a wide margin (incidentally, Vignes himself was the reason for this). The Vignes-Sainsevain family was prominent enough in a town of about 6,000 people (about one-tenth of whom were French) that the pronunciation of their names was probably well known, and Vignes (who died long before English became LA's dominant language) was "Don Luis del Aliso" to most people anyway.

None of this is still the case in 2022, 160 years after Vignes' death. Most Angelenos don't even know who Vignes was.

So I'll just put this out there: Are there any Vignes/Sainsevain descendants out there who would be so kind as to clarify how "Vignes" is pronounced?

I suspect it's "vines" (for starters, I trust Dinkelspiel's expertise). Maybe it was "veen", and I've also heard "vin-yay".

But there's no way in hell it's "VIG-nezz"; what native French speaker would brutally butcher their own name like that in a city where most people spoke Spanish or French? Hearing "VIG-nezz" makes my ears bleed (and I'm a metalhead with noticeable traces of Valspeak in my speech, so THAT is saying something). So I'm hoping we can get some clarification on that and hopefully send "VIG-nezz" to go live on a nice vineyard upstate with its friends "Pick-o" and "Sepple-veeda".

*I'll let you find out for yourselves which classic detective novel was referenced in the first episode. I was also amused when one character stated that his family made their money first with gold, then steel, then aerospace - shades of the Ducommun family.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

The Humble Surgeon

Those of you in the medical field may have heard the name Dupuytren. 

Baron Guillaume Dupuytren, a brilliant surgeon, pathologist, and professor of medicine, had humble origins as the son of a penniless lawyer in Pierre-Buffiere, France. He attended medical school in Paris while the French Revolution raged, became Chief Surgeon of the famed Hôtel-Dieu during Napoleon's reign (supposedly treating the Emperor's hemorrhoids), and amassed a huge fortune. Eleven medical terms bear the Baron's name. He was widely disliked due to being pompous, combative, conniving, miserly, and a harsh critic, but he was such a talented surgeon and teacher that it didn't stop him from treating an estimated 10,000 patients a year (including Napoleon, King Louis-Philippe, and King Charles X).

Some of the Baron's huge fortune went to establish a chair at the ècole de Médecine and some of it went to establish a home for doctors in distress. The Baron had also offered a million francs to Charles X when he was newly overthrown and bankrupt. 

The Baron was also quite generous with his nephew.

Dr. Jean-Baptiste Pigné-Dupuytren

The Dupuytrens had been far from wealthy; the Baron attended school on charity and still had to work at the same time. His sister and her husband were struggling farmers in Limoges. Their son Jean-Baptiste Pigné was delivered in 1807 by a colleague of the Baron's, one Professor Cruveilher. 

The Baron had no son to inherit his estate or title, and legally adopted Jean-Baptiste with Napoleon's assistance, adding his own surname to his nephew's. He then enlisted Professor Cruveilher to see to the boy's education, making it as complete as possible. Jean-Baptiste attended the best schools in Paris, received a bachelor's and master's, and had the Professor as his own private tutor when studying medicine and surgery. 

After completing his medical studies in France, Jean-Baptiste was sent to Heidelberg, Germany for further studies (for which he also mastered German). After graduating, the Baron sent him to the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh for still more medical studies under English-speaking professors. 

Dr. Jean-Baptiste Pigné-Dupuytren, by now 38 years old, was put in charge of the Museé Dupuytren, an anatomical museum founded by the Baron, and was made prosector of dissection materials for anatomy students at the Hôtel-Dieu. He did not care to stay in France due to ongoing political upheaval (the 1848 Revolution was just around the corner), and left for New York, bringing all the medical equipment and furniture he would need to set up a practice. (Le Guide Francais states that as of 1932, the bed that had come over from France with the Doctor was still in the possession of his daughter Leona. Does anyone out there know its current whereabouts?)

Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren rubbed elbows with the likes of railroad barons and the owners of Delmonico's restaurant in New York, but wanted to see the rest of the United States. Armed with multiple letters of recommendation, he visited Niagara Falls, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Richmond, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans (a city he favorably compared to France). He attempted, unsuccessfully, to set up a practice in New Orleans. Upon returning to New York a few months later, the Delmonico brothers asked him to go to San Francisco to oversee the second restaurant they had just established. San Francisco was booming, and the restaurant would only take part of his time. The doctor accepted. 

Legend has it that Commodore Vanderbilt offered Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren a free ride around Cape Horn on one of his ships. However, another source states that he in fact sailed on the Sea Witch, which was owned by Howland & Aspinwall, and which was known to sail from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn during and after the Gold Rush.

San Francisco's population was growing so exponentially that the Doctor's first practice was in a tent, owing to a severe shortage of office space. Or, for that matter, any indoor space at all.

Before long, Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren backed the Marquis de Pindray, Count Gaston de Raousset-Boulbon, and dozens of other San Francisco Frenchmen on a failed expedition to Arizona and Mexico, with the goal of reopening old silver mines and establishing a French colony. The people of Sonora, understandably, weren't having it, and the Marquis was killed in a raid. Most of the survivors returned to San Francisco.

Just a few years later in 1856, Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren was called to perform autopsies on James Casey and Charles Cora, lynched by San Francisco's Vigilance Committee for allegedly murdering a newspaper editor. The doctor was the founder and first President of San Francisco's prominent French organization Ligue Liberale, and doubled as editor of French-language newspaper Courier de San Francisco. He was such a prominent San Franciscan that he was one of a few residents chosen to represent the city at the 1867 World's Fair in Paris, and brought over 3,000 mineral specimens to exhibit. While living in San Francisco, he became friends with both Prudent Beaudry and the diplomat J.A. Moerenhout, who we'll meet at a later date.

In 1874, the Doctor sent his wife Isabella (née Grain, born in New York to a French colleague) and their daughter Leona to Los Angeles to establish a new home. He followed on the Orizaba a few months later, and at some point purchased a plot of land at what is now 7th and Grand downtown. And, of course, he renewed his friendships with Beaudry and Moerenhout.

One source states that Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren traveled back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles until permanently settling in LA around 1883, another states that he took on a smaller clientele in LA so he could spend more time on other interests. Newspaper accounts seem to place the family in both cities off and on, and one indicates that Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren's Los Angeles practice could have opened as late as 1877.

Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren served a term as President of the French Benevolent Society and had a stint as Vice President of the Southern California Medical Society.  The Los Angeles Times described the doctor, in part, as "one of the best-informed men to be found, and could talk well and to the point about any given subject, his store of knowledge on all topics being apparently inexhaustible." The doctor also doubled as an editor for two of LA's own French-language newspapers, unsuccessfully attempting to revive L'Union (which had a negative reputation for its prior owners' irregular publishing schedule) and going on to edit Le Progrés. Due to his advanced age, he resigned after one year and was succeeded by Georges Le Mesnager.

When the well-heeled surgeon died in San Diego County in 1886, his friend and colleague Dr. E.A. de Cailhol delivered the eulogy at the funeral. In part:

"The deceased has often laughed with me over the circumstance, which seemed to run counter to his modest desires, arguing that he would never bear the title for several reasons: First, because he himself was unworthy of it, having never done anything remarkable; second, because being an unflinching and determined Republican, it would be a reproach to accept an empty title." (Note: Dr. de Cailhol's use of the word "Republican" probably referred to French politics. Although Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren was a naturalized US citizen, the threat of the French monarchy's restoration had a hand in prompting him to leave France.)

True to his word, Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren had never accepted the title of baron (his famed uncle had died in 1835). He seems to have been content to be a doctor, polymath, and sometime adventurer in the Old West.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Open Letter to the Los Angeles Times

Dear Editors:

I am posting this publicly because whenever I contact publications privately regarding factual inaccuracies, they ignore me and never correct anything.* 

I’m honestly not trying to put LA’s paper of record on blast (for the record, I am a subscriber myself and read the Times every single day). I just want greater awareness of the facts.

I am writing to ask that the Times please issue two corrections to an article published on May 3rd, regarding the origin of some local place names.**

I am not in any way faulting the writer of the piece; her work is excellent and I enjoy reading it each week. However, two errors still somehow made it to print. 

Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer Griffith was not, and could not have been, a Verdugo descendant. Her parents Louis Mesmer Sr. and Katherine Forst Mesmer were both immigrants from Alsace, France.

There is no record of the Mesmer family having any ties to Jose Maria Verdugo’s native Mexico. There is no record of the Verdugo family having any ties to eastern France or western Germany (Alsace changed hands while the Mesmers were alive). I have spent considerable time exploring and there is no real indication that the Mesmers could possibly be related to the Verdugos.

Additionally, while Louis and Katherine Mesmer were indeed land barons, they did not inherit their properties from ANYONE, let alone the Verdugos. The Mesmers were very successful entrepreneurs who invested their earnings in land. 

Mrs. Griffith did inherit a significant amount of real estate, but it had belonged to Andre Briswalter, a friend of her father’s. Briswalter was also from Alsace.

As to the second correction, Mrs. Griffith was not blinded in one eye. The bullet destroyed her eye and what was left of it had to be removed. The veil she wore for the rest of her life also hid scarring from gunpowder burns (Griffith shot her from approximately two feet away).

Again, I am not faulting the writer of the piece. I happen to know that someone else is entirely to blame for spreading the myth of the Alsatian-born Mesmers somehow being descendants of an early Californio family.

Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer Griffith went through quite enough when she was alive and has mostly been forgotten. I believe we owe it to her to be as accurate as possible when mentioning her life.



*Sole exception thus far: the good people at Mental Floss, who promptly corrected an inaccuracy regarding the number of generations between Louis XIV and Louis XVI.

** May 10, 2022 - one week since the errors ran and no correction has been made. This is why I post the facts!