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Heathen LA


Los Angeles in 1871. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

Los Angeles was once the most dangerous city in America. In 1850, two years after Mexico officially surrendered, it boasted the highest murder rate in the country: one per day, on average. Its unpaved streets and adobe huts were the setting for constant shoot-outs: cowboys, crooks, and gamblers predominated, armed to the teeth. The justice system barely existed—lynchings were about as common as legal executions—and the law inevitably favored Anglos over Mexicans. Intense racial animosity between the two groups often erupted in violence.

When a Presbyterian minister from Massachusetts named James Woods visited, this is what he wrote in his diary:

April 29: 1855 Sabbath—

Between four and five oclock in the afternoon. And all around my house near the head of main Street, are hundreds of Spaniards in all sorts of revelry and noise—men on horse back—women on foot—children crying—and such a constant gibber jabber, as would remind one of bedlum. Horse racing is the object calling the crowd together. Several races have already occured this afternoon and also a fight or two… I would have left the house, but was afraid of its being broken open thefts committed… A poor child with its wretched mother I suppose, is crying constantly with cold—And now the dogs are in a fight. Just now a row was raised by one man trying to ride over another… I hear every few minutes the voices and conversations of Americans, betting, cursing, blaspheming as they stand leaning against my window blind—this is nominally a christian town, but in reality heathen.