Politics in Early California: Slinging Mud and Slinging Lead
By: George Lee Cunningham
When people think of the Wild West, they usually think about Tombstone, Ariz., Deadwood, S.D., or Dodge City, Kan. They certainly don’t think about Sacramento, San Francisco or Los Angeles. But California was as wild as anyplace else in the West and sometimes even wilder.
Between September 1850 and September 1851, there were 31 homicides committed in L.A. and the vicinity, according to historian John Boessenecker. That may not sound that extreme, but the population of the area at that time was only 2,500. To put it in today’s terms, the murder rate in the United States in 2011, was 4.7 homicides per 100,000 people. The murder rate in Los Angeles in 1850-51 – adjusted for population – would have been 1,240 per 100,000. That makes it one of the toughest towns ever in the history of the West.
Glenna Matthews in her book, The Golden State in the Civil War, noted that more than two-thirds of the state legislature during the 1850s showed up for their deliberations carrying firearms. “The same legislature had made dueling illegal in 1854, but juries refused to convict and more duels were fought in California in the 1850s than in any other state in the union,” she says.
In September of 1859, David Terry, who had just resigned as the chief justice of the state supreme court, killed David Broderick, one of the two sitting U.S. senators from California, in a duel. Terry had insulted Broderick by scorning him as a follower of African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Broderick, who had backed Terry in the past, felt betrayed and challenged him to a duel, Matthews recounts. The two men met in San Mateo County, just outside the San Francisco city line.
Terry won the coin toss and was able to choose the weapons – dueling pistols with hair triggers. Broderick’s pistol misfired and Terry shot him in the lung. Broderick died a few days later and became a martyr in the fight against slavery.
Politicians don’t fight duels today. They just hide behind press releases and TV commercials and fling mud at each other. Politicians flung mud at each other back then as well, but they sometimes had to back up their charges or defend their honor with a gun.
The outcome was often less than just, but that’s the way it was in early California. And here we are today.
George and Carmela Cunningham are writing a history of the Port of Long Beach, due out in 2014. You can order George’s book, Kaboom, on Amazon.com