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Dangerous Desperadoes In Los Angeles

When one thinks of lawmen of the old west, such figures as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, and Pat Garrett come to mind. These men established their reputations as peace officers long after the Gold Rush and belong to the post-Civil War West of 1865-1900, a period that in the popular imagination came to be known as the "Wild West." It is that historic West that saw the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday shoot it out with the Clanton band in the streets of Tombstone near the O.K. Corral, as well as Pat Garrett's killing of Billy the Kid and the Texas Rangers' gunfight with Sam Bass's gang.

But in reality, the popular images of the Western lawman - facing down lynch mobs, shooting it out with multiple opponents on Main Street, and pursuing outlaws on horseback - all had their genesis in the California Gold Rush. The Gold Rush not only produced America's most violent frontier, it also produced some of the frontier's finest lawmen and many of its most durable and romantic images.

William C. Getman was an ideal example of the gunfighting western lawman. Born in Fort Plain, New York, in 1828, he was a daring soldier in the Mexican War, and was wounded in the battles of Monterrey, Cerro Gordo, and Mexico City. Billy Getman arrived in California in 1849 and soon settled in Los Angeles, where he ran the Montgomery House, a popular hotel and saloon. On August 1, 1853, prominent citizens organized the Los Angeles Rangers, twenty-five volunteer mounted police led by Dr. Alexander W. Hope, a physician and druggist. Getman became one of its founding members and soon was elected lieutenant. At first the Rangers were all Anglos, but within a few months Cahformos agreed to join. The Rangers, supported by both taxpayers and private donations, assisted the county sheriff in tracking down outlaws and policing the large county. But since they were volunteers, the rambunctious young Rangers were occasionally distracted from their duties.

Two of the most dangerous desperadoes in Los Angeles were Jesus Senate and Luis Burgos, -who had reportedly been members of Joaquin Murrieta's gang. On December 7, 1853, Constable Jack Whalen foolishly tried singlehandedly to arrest Senate on a murder charge. Senate drove his long knife into Whalen's heart, killing him, and then fled the city on horseback. Sheriff James Barton offered a $500 reward for Jesus Senate but the Los Angeles Rangers were unable to capture him. A month earlier a bevy of prostitutes from San Francisco had opened the first Anglo bordello in Los Angeles in a large and elegantly furnished house on Mam Street. To celebrate their new enterprise, the girls held a grand ball on the night of January 20, 1854. The house was packed with gamblers and patrons when suddenly a dozen masked Mexican bandits burst in. One of their leaders spoke English, and announced that the building was surrounded by a hundred armed men. The stunned guests had left their six-shooters in the wine room and could offer no resistance. They were all systematically searched and robbed. Even the prostitutes lost their jewelry. The bandidos rode off, but pulled up a short distance away at the adobe of a Frenchman, Martin DeLong. They looted the house, stealing coin, jewelry, and a gold watch. After gang raping DeLong's wife, they escaped.

Billy Getman and the other Rangers set off on a long and fruitless man-hunt. Meanwhile the bandits circled back into town, raided several houses, and carried off some Mexican girls. Wild excitement prevailed. Recalled Horace Bell, "That a formidable band of robbers were within easy striking distance of the city was a conceded fact." Five days after the bordello raid, at daybreak, a Mexican drove an ox cart up to Sheriff Barton's office. He was accompanied by a lone horseman, Atenacio Moreno, a respectable Mexican merchant who had left town after losing his business a few months earlier. Inside the cart were the dead bodies of Jesus Senate and Luis Burgos. Moreno explained to Sheriff Barton that he had been kidnapped by the gang and held for ransom. At an opportune moment he had seized a sword and killed Senate and Burgos. Mrs. DeLong was sent for, and she identified the dead men as two of her attackers. Needless to say, Angelenos of both races were delighted. Sheriff Barton raised the reward money in just two hours and paid it over. Townsmen began to rest easy, and Atenacio Moreno was the toast of Los Angeles.

Two weeks later the hero Moreno rode up to the jewelry and hardware store of Charlie Ducommun, a Swiss watchmaker, and offered to sell a valu-able gold watch. Ducommun examined the watch and -was shocked to see that it was one he had sold to Martin DeLong. Telling Moreno that he needed to get some money from his back room, Ducommun slipped out of his shop and raced to the drug store of Dr. Hope, captain of the Rangers. Billy Getman and Horace Bell were with Hope, and Ducommun excitedly told them about the stolen watch. The three Rangers raced to the shop and found Moreno's horse in front, with a bridle rope leading inside the door. As Getman and the others stepped into the store, Moreno dropped the rope and went for his six-gun. The three pounced on him and wrestled the gun away. Moreno was lodged in jail, and the Rangers summoned Martin DeLong. The Frenchman identified him as the leader of the bandits. DeLong recognized the stolen watch; the shirt Moreno wore had also been taken from his house. He said that Moreno had brandished a sword and took his watch while several of the other desperadoes raped his wife. Moreno soon confessed and admitted that he had killed Jesus Senate for the re-ward; when Luis Burgos returned to camp and demanded to know -where Senate was, Moreno killed him too. Moreno also revealed that Burgos was the masked bandit who spoke English in the bordello raid. Atenacio Moreno was convicted of robbery and grand larceny and sentenced to fifteen years in San Quentm. He escaped a worse fate because he had not taken part in the rape and because he had killed the other two bandit leaders.3

On May 5, 1856, Billy Getman defeated four other candidates and was elected city marshal of Los Angeles, one of the most violent communities of the American West. Murder, committed in mutual combat, was so common that the Los Angeles Star often did not bother to record the names of the dead, particularly if they -were Indians. Its editor viewed such violence so casually that he once reported, "On Sunday morning last, a shooting affair occurred here between two men named Smith and Phillips, the combatants, unfortunately, escaping with their lives, but causing the death of a fine horse.

Billy Getman would encounter more than his share of gunsmoke in Los Angeles, but his first scent of it -was from his own gun. A month after being elected he was taking off his pistol when the hammer caught on the gunbelt and discharged. The ball entered his hip, inflicting a dangerous wound. But the resilient Getman quickly recovered, only to be shot and owounded again in the July 22 riot involving Constable William Jenkins. Once more Getman recovered and soon was again in the line of fire. On August 31, he and Undersheriff William Peterson tried to arrest Diego Nieto for slashing another Hispanic with a sword. Several of Nieto's friends drew their knives and gathered around to protect him from the officers. Getman, pistol in hand, warned them off, and they wisely complied. Nieto warned the lawmen that "there was a determination among his countrymen to kill them [Getman and Peterson] off."5

The following night Getman, Peterson, and another officer were standing in the plaza when a Mexican horseman rode past at a very leisurely pace. One of the lawmen remarked that "it was singular to see a Mexican riding so slowly." He passed by, but soon returned at a quicker pace. When directly opposite the officers he drew a pistol and fired. The ball 'went between Get-man and Peterson and lodged in the wall of the building behind them. Putting spurs to his horse, the Mexican escaped in a shower of pistol balls. He owas never captured.

In January 1857, Getman set off in pursuit of a man accused of horse theft. Getman's horse owas exhausted by the time he came in sight of his quarry. At the marshal's order to stop, the thief broke into a dead run. Getman opened fire at a distance of sixty yards but failed to bring down his man. The horse thief drew pistols and fired back. Undaunted, Getman remained within revolver range and kept pace with his quarry. The thief unbuckled his saddle at a full gallop and threw it into the road. Thus unencumbered, his horse darted off like an arrow and was soon out of sight. Getman lost his man but recovered five stolen horses that the thief had abandoned during his flight.7

That same month the marshal played a prominent role during the manhunt for the Juan Flores-Pancho Daniel band, as told in chapter 6. By now a highly popular officer, Getman, who ran unopposed, was reelected city marshal on May 4, 1857. The lawman was politically astute; pioneer lawyer Joseph L. Brent recalled Getman's skill at manipulating and controlling the "various factions," including Anglos and the landed Cahformo ranchero class. On September 2, 1857, City Marshal Getman was elected sheriff of Los Angeles County.8

Some of the troublemakers that Getman had to police were his own friends. One of them owas fellow Ranger Gabriel Allen. A Los Angeles pio-neer, Harris Newmark, recalled, "This Gabe Allen was really a notorious character, though not altogether bad. When sober, he was a peaceable man; but when on a spree, he was decidedly warlike and on such occasions always 'shot up the town."' Newmark described how Getman controlled him: On one occasion . . . while passing along the street I observed Gabriel Allen ... on one of his jollifications, with Sheriff Getman following close at his heels. Having arrived in front of a building, Gabe suddenly raised his gun and aimed at a carpenter who was at work on the roof. Getman promptly knocked Allen down; owhereupon the latter said, "You've got me, Billy!" Allen's only purpose, it appeared, was to take a shot at the innocent stranger and thus test his marksmanship.9

Just a few months after taking office, on January 7, 1858, Getman received word that a crazed Texan named Reed, armed with three pistols and a Bowie knife, was causing a disturbance on Aliso Street. With Constables Robert Hester and Frank Baker, Getman found Reed in the street and walked up to him, saying, "I want to speak to you." "Keep away from me," Reed responded, drawing a derringer. "Don't come near me." "You don't want to shoot me," Sheriff Getman remonstrated. "I merely want to speak a few words to you. Don't shoot." No sooner owere the words spoken than Reed fired point blank into the sheriff's heart. Getman crumpled into the dirt street. "Boys, I am shot," he gasped, and was dead.

Reed ran inside the Monte Pio, a pawn shop, and opened fire on Constable Baker, who was mounted on a mule. A bullet tore through Baker's coat before he could take cover. Reed then turned his fire on Constable Hester, who shot back, then the killer locked himself inside the building. The gunfire drew Officer William Jenkins and Under sheriff William Peterson. Reed continued firing at the officers, stopping only to reload. Jenkins climbed to the roof of the Monte Pio, and fired at Reed behind the door through an opening near the awning. Reed swung up his pistol and shot Jenkins in the thigh. Jenkins continued firing at Reed, and finally a shot grazed Reed's scalp. Now Reed burst out the front door of the Monte Pio, pistols flaming. Peterson, Hester, and Baker opened fire and Reed fell dead, riddled with a dozen balls.

In death Billy Getman joined at least five other Los Angeles lawmen who had been slain by badmen in the 1850s. Compared to Los Angeles, San Francisco was relatively orderly during the Gold Rush. The amount of violent crime, especially homicide, was pro-portionately much less than in Los Angeles. Much of this difference was due to San Francisco's well-organized police department, which was headed by highly professional officers.

John Boessenecker. Gold Dust and Gunsmoke: Tales of Gold Rush Outlaws, Gunfighters, Lawmen, and Vigilantes . John Wiley & Sons. March 1999.

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