When You Go to Court in Los Angeles, Please Don’t Bring Your Guns.

I have been off and on reading this little gem, Sixty Years in Southern California by Harris Newmark. Written in 1913, Newmark was a German Jew who emigrated to Los Angeles from northern Germany via Sweden, England, Nicaragua and San Francisco. It’s a fascinating tale, especially all of his details about Los Angeles in the early 1850s. Newmark was skilled as an ink maker in Germany, but joined an older brother in Los Angeles as a dealer in dry goods. I’m not through the 1850s at this point, but I’m guessing Newmark does pretty well for himself.

But this book, given all of his adventures (Nearly arrested in Liverpool for consorting with a Swedish bank robber! Nearly drowned in the North Atlantic when a storm wrecks sailing ship!), isn’t as well written as it could be. It does, however, have that matter-of-fact narration that lends itself to the understating of some very interesting and funny events. He writes at length about the state of the law and the legal profession in early 1850s Los Angeles, and tells this wonderful little story:

Speaking of the informality of courts in the earlier days, I should record that jurymen and others would come in coatless and, especially in warm weather, without vests and collars; and that it was the fashion for each juryman to provide himself with a jack-knife and a piece of wood, in order that he might whittle the time away. This was a recognized privilege, and I am not exaggerating when I say that if he forgot his piece of wood, it was considered his further prerogative to whittle the chair on which he sat! In other respects, also, court solemnity was lacking. Judge and attorneys would frequently lock horns; and sometimes their disputes ended violently. On one occasion, for example, while I was in court, Columbus Sims, an attorney who came here in 1852, threw an inkstand at his opponent, during an altercation; but this contempt of court did not call forth his disbarment, for he was later found acting as attorney for Pancho Daniel, one of Sheriff Barton’s murderers, until sickness compelled his retirement from the case. As to panel-service, I recollect that while serving as juror in those early days, we were once locked up for the night; and in order that time might not hang too heavily on our hands, we engaged in a sociable little game of poker. Sims is dead. 

More than inkstands were sometimes hurled in the early courts. On one occasion, for instance, after the angry disputants had arrived at a state of agitation which made the further use of canes, chairs, and similar objects tame and uninteresting, revolvers were drawn, notwithstanding the marshal’s repeated attempts to restore order. Judge Dryden, in the midst of the mêlée, hid behind the platform upon which his Judgeship’s bench rested; and being well out of the range of the threatening irons, yelled at the rioters: 

Shoot away, damn you! and to hell with all of you!”