Monday, September 9, 2019

Sam Haskins (1846-1895): He Answered His Last Alarm, Part Three

This third and final part of Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board Member Rudy Martinez' post on Samuel (Sam) Haskins, the first black member of the Los Angeles Fire Department, takes us to the long-overdue recognition of Haskins, who died in line of duty in an 1895 accident, being the first department member to do so, and was interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.

On October 2, 1897, two years after Haskins; death, Los Angeles Fire Department commissioners hired George Bright as a call man and, just four weeks later, promoted him to a hose man, making Bright the first full-time black firefighter for the LAFD.

Bright made lieutenant in 1902 and was assigned to command Chemical Company No. 1, a recently formed company made up of black and Mexican-American firemen, ensuring Bright did not command white firemen. Bright’s hiring, however, ultimately opened the door for more full-time black firefighters in the department, though they were continually segregated to several all black fire companies.

In 1955, following the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision issued the previous year striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools, the LAFD commission ordered the department to integrate. The transition continued to be fraught with tension and hostility into the next decade as black firemen began working within what were once all-white fire companies.

A number of African-American firemen formed a group called the Stentorians in 1954 to lend guidance and support to black LAFD personnel experiencing acts of racial discrimination and segregation. Despite the racial animus, African-Americans continued to join the LAFD and to serve among white firefighters, and, like all firefighters and other first responders, were prepared and trained to face unexpected and perilous conditions.

The listing of Sam Haskins on the Fallen Firefighters Memorial at the Los Angeles Fire Department Museum in Hollywood.  Photo by Rudy Martinez.
Nevertheless, the department’s resistance during the first half of the twentieth century towards the idea of a racially integrated organization also contributed to long-standing errors to their historical record, beginning with the long-held belief that George Bright was the first hired black member of the LAFD. 

Another example of inaccuracy concerns the death of firefighter Thomas C. Collier on July 8, 1970. Collier was killed during a high-rise fire in downtown Los Angeles when the 85-foot snorkel (a hydraulic extending boom with a basket platform at the top) he was riding in lurched and collapsed onto the street. A highly respected 28-year LAFD veteran, Collier was declared the first African American firefighter in the department’s history to die during an active incident.

Along with George Bright, Arnett Hartsfield and other early black firefighters, Collier’s name is etched in department history as an example of the pioneering efforts and unselfish dedication African-American firefighters have contributed in service to the Los Angeles Fire Department over many years.

At the time of Collier’s death, however, LAFD personnel, including members of the Stentorians, were unaware that Sam Haskins was not only the first African American firefighter hired by the LAFD, but also the first LAFD firefighter killed during an active incident. No one even knew, or remembered, he existed. Moreover, it would remain that way for another 32 years.

The memorial headstone to Haskins at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. Courtesy of the African-American Firefighter Museum, Los Angeles.
In a November 12, 2002 article, the Los Angeles Times reported that a crime analyst for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department named Joe Walker, was conducting genealogy research at the county registrar-recorder/county clerk’s office in Norwalk when, by chance, he came across the name of Sam Haskins. 

There was enough recorded evidence, including newspaper clippings, to help Walker construct Haskins’ story and tragic death. Walker took his findings to then 92-year-old Hartsfield, who was a 21-year veteran of the LAFD (1940-1961), an attorney (graduating from the USC School of Law in 1955), and a college professor.

As a founding member of the Stentorians, Hartsfield was also a noted authority on the history of African American firefighters in the Los Angeles Fire Department. Never having heard the story of Haskins, Hartsfield was surprised and impressed with what Walker had uncovered concerning the fact that Haskins was indeed the first African American LAFD firefighter and the first department member to lose his life during an active incident. 
   
Led by the Stentorians, an effort was undertaken to ensure Haskins’ achievements and sacrifice would be properly honored, beginning with a new marble headstone for his grave site at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.

Haskins’ name is also included in the Fallen Firefighters Memorial at the Los Angeles Fire Department Museum in Hollywood. The Maltese cross, the firefighter’s emblem, is etched next to the name of any firefighter who died while responding to or at the scene of an active incident. As the second name on the list, Haskins is the very first firefighter with the emblem etched next to his name.

The reverse of the Haskins memorial tombstone listing the entities that dedicated it in February 2004.
Another memorial is in the form of a permanent exhibit dedicated to Haskins at the African American Firefighter’s Museum.  The museum was established in 1997 and is located at 14th street and Central, a historically black neighborhood in downtown, inside historic Fire Station #30, which was one of  two segregated firehouses in Los Angeles and in use from 1924 – 1955.

Finally, on February 28, 2004, a ceremony was held at Evergreen Cemetery to present a new headstone and monument dedicated to the memory of Haskins,  The effort was a joint project of The Stentorians, The African American Firefighter Museum, the Los Angeles Retired Fire and Police Association, the Los Angeles Firemen's Relief Association, and the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society.

For the second time in 109 years, a diverse group of individuals that transcended race and nationalities came together at the Boyle Heights grave site of Sam Haskins to honor the sacrifice and bravery of “a faithful and industrious fireman.” 

Monday, September 2, 2019

Sam Haskins (1846-1895): He Answered His Last Alarm, Part Two

The first part of this post by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez introduced us to Samuel (Sam) Haskins, a native of Virginia who came to Los Angeles in the early 1880s and became involved in the political world of the city's small but active black community.  In June 1892, Haskins became a call man (meaning he was on-call on an as-needed basis) with the Los Angeles Fire Department and was the first black firefighter in the department's history.  Now, we pick up the story of Haskins and thank Rudy for his excellent contribution.

On Tuesday, November 19, 1895, at approximately 6:00 p.m., the alarm sounded at Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) Engine Company No. 2, located at 412 North Main Street [editor's note: this is now a parking lot at the historic Plaza area next to the Pico House, Merced Theater and Masonic Lodge and just north of U.S, 101], where Sam Haskins was assigned as a call-man, meaning he was on-duty as needed.

The account of Haskins' death in the Los Angeles Herald, 20 November 1895.  The accident occurred in front of the Baker Block, formerly the site of Abel Stearns' adobe house, El Palacio, on the east side of Main Street and which is now where U.S. 101 passes through downtown.  This means the engine had only proceeded a short distance south on Main before the incident took place.
Many recent accounts mistakenly have Haskins responding from the Boyle Heights station at First and Chicago Streets, which was where Engine Company #2 relocated from the Plaza. This did not happen, however, until January 1896, shortly after the new Boyle Heights station house was completed at 2127 East First, where the Hollenbeck Station of the Los Angeles Police Department is today.

Responding to the alarm, the station crew immediately took their positions on the horse-drawn carriage and rode south down Main Street.  Haskins took a standing position on a running board at the rear, next to a shovel and a box of coal, which was behind a large and heavy steam pumper that was fixed at the center of the carriage.

Coverage of the tragedy in the Los Angeles Times, 20 November 1895.  The following day, the paper issued a correction, stating that Haskins was not burned by the boiler because it was insulated.
A small coal-fed fire was always kept burning inside the burn box of the steamer’s boiler so that it could achieve enough pressure to operate the pump and draw water from a hydrant to feed the hose line.

LAFD historians surmise that Haskins' position was that of a “stoker,” a task that required strength and coordination. Hanging on to the carriage with one hand while racing down the rough-hewn streets, a stoker’s responsibility was to maintain the fire in the burn box by using his foot to close and reopen the burn box and using his free hand to add shovels of coal.

The Times' account from 21 November of Chief Moore's report to the Los Angeles Fire Department Board of Commissioners about Haskins' passing.  Note the reference to Haskins' five years of association with the department, commission comments, and that funeral expenses, which amounted to $70, were paid out of a LAFD relief fund.
Traveling no further than two blocks from the station, however, the rig might have hit a particular deep rut in the road. At this point, Haskins lost his balance and fell between the boiler and the rear wheel, which led to his body being badly mangled.

According to the Los Angeles Times edition of the next day, the 20th, after the rig came to a quick stop, the wheel had to be removed first.  This took about ten minutes and only then could Haskins be freed, with his terrible injuries clearly visible to the growing crowd of onlookers. He was taken back to the station, where, after a few agonizing minutes, he died.

Reporting on the coroner's inquest from the Times, 22 November 1895.  See the end where it was stated that blacks and whites in large numbers went to pay tribute to Haskins.
Most of the city’s newspapers reported the story about this tragic event that next day. While highlighting the details of the agonizing manner of his death, these accounts described Haskins as the “colored politician” and the “the Herculean colored fireman,” noting that he “had many friends among the white as well as the colored population.”

One newspaper even recalled the time Haskins saved the life of police officer Valencia [see the first part of this post from last week.] Poignantly, LAFD Chief Walter S. Moore simply said, “The deceased was more than five years past connected with the department and was a faithful and industrious fireman.” [note the reference here to Haskins' association with the LAFD going back to at least 1890, though his assignment as a call man was two years after that.]

The brief account of Haskins' funeral in the Herald, 23 November 1895.
Haskins was buried in the segregated area of Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights on November 22. Marching to the cemetery from downtown, the funeral cortege, led by a band, was attended by both the chief and assistant chief of the LAFD, and a detail of thirty full-time firemen.

The Times reported that there were “profuse floral offerings, including a wreath from the Fire Commissioners and a star from the police department, with the services conducted by Rev. John A. B. Wilson, pastor of the First Methodist Church.” With no mention of family members, Haskins was simply described as a “bachelor” or “unmarried.”  His grave site, though, was left unmarked.

Coverage from the Times' edition of 23 November of the funeral ceremony, including a list of pallbearers.  Note the reference to pallbearer George Warner as "formerly a slave in company with the deceased in Virginia."
The third part of this very interesting post on a pioneering figure in the early Los Angeles black community and the Los Angeles Fire Department will conclude next week, so be sure to check back then.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Sam Haskins (1846-1895): He Answered His Last Alarm, Part One

Editor's note:  Rudy Martinez, a Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member and frequent contributor to this blog, provides another fascinating story of the community's history with this post about Sam Haskins, the first black member of the Los Angeles Fire Department.  The three-part post begins with some background on Haskins up to and including his joining the department.

When Sam Haskins, the first African-American firefighter in the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) tragically died in downtown Los Angeles in 1895, local newspapers depicted him as a rather exceptional citizen in his adopted city. Haskins was not only a LAFD pioneer, he was also briefly involved in politics and, occasionally, was unafraid to confront lawlessness as a private citizen.

At Haskins’ funeral, the Los Angeles Herald remarked that “the popularity of Haskins is shown by the large number of people, black and white, and of nearly all nationalities who have visited the morgue to view the remains.” After a large turnout at his funeral, the remains of the unmarried Haskins were buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.

A circa 1860s daguerreotype of Sam (Samuel) Haskins (1846-1895).  Courtesy of the African-American Firefighters Museum, Los Angeles.
The man and his deeds, however, quickly faded from memory, forgotten for over a century. This post examines his life in Los Angeles and the events in 2002 that led to the rediscovery of his unmarked grave in Boyle Heights as well as a newfound recognition of the significant legacy he left.

Haskins was born in Virginia, very likely into slavery, in 1846. However, little about his life has been documented before he arrived in Los Angeles sometime in the early 1880s. In Los Angeles City Directories from 1883 to 1891, Sam (or Samuel) Haskins is listed at several addresses, all near the vicinity of First and Main Streets. His occupations are given as a second cook, tradesman, bootblack, porter, and steward. 

Displaying an interest in electoral politics, Haskins also sought and was appointed the position of sergeant at arms at the Democratic City Convention in Los Angeles in February 1889. On September 12, 1890, the Herald reported “a number of colored Democrats” formed a new club called the Democratic Colored Zouaves (DCZ). “The purpose of the club is to advance Democracy and the colored race,” said Haskins, who was selected as its first lieutenant, but subsequent stories described him as the chairman, president, or captain of the club.

Los Angeles Herald, 12 September 1890.  The term "Zouaves" came from a French army light infantry regiment and was adopted by an Illinois volunteer regiment during the Civil War.
Later that month, a large parade of Democratic delegates marched in downtown Los Angeles gearing up for the state’s gubernatorial election in November. Significantly, the Herald briefly noted, “Capt. Sam Haskins, led the Colored Zouaves, headed by the Eureka colored band. These were the first colored men who have turned out in a Democratic parade in the city.” Though met with some initial enthusiasm, it appears the DCZ didn’t last beyond the gubernatorial election. 

Haskins also distinguished himself with the city’s police department in, at least, two interesting ways. Local newspapers reported that, on April 29, 1891, officer Valencia was bringing in an arrested man named Albert Spencer to the station when they were confronted by Spencer’s friend who demanded his release. When Valencia refused, the man took a shot at the officer but missed. According to the Herald, “before he could use it again, the pistol was seized by Sam Haskins, the colored politician, who sustained a painful injury when the descending hammer of the gun caught the fleshy part of his hand. Together, he and Valencia disarmed the man, then hunted down Spencer, who by that time, had run away.”

On June 7, the Herald reported that, the day before, Haskins calmly convinced a suicidal ex-police officer named Dan Lynch, who was holding a razor to his own neck in front of a saloon, to put it down. Lynch eventually complied and was taken in by police. The following year Haskins again distinguished himself in a significant precedent that would prove to be a milestone for the recently established Los Angeles Fire Department, the city of Los Angeles, and for African Americans. 


An 1893 photo of Los Angeles Fire Department Engine Company #4 at the south end of the Plaza in front of Fire House #1.  Haskins is seated second from left in the wagon.  The large tree at the center may be a Moreton Bay Fig planted by Boyle Heights resident Elijah H. Workman, whose brother William Henry, founded the neighborhood in the mid-1870s.  The fig tree fell recently leaving three others standing at the other points of the compass at the Plaza. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive.
On February 1, 1886, with only four staffed and provisioned fire stations, the LAFD officially went into service, largely replacing the volunteer fire companies that had served the city since 1869. Many of the initial members were likely former volunteers; however, all prospective LAFD members had to apply to the Fire Commission for assessment of their qualifications and suitability for the position.

The exact details leading up to Haskins’ selection to the LAFD’s reserve unit is unknown, but on June 1, 1892, Haskins was officially appointed by the Los Angeles Fire Commission as a call-man and assigned to Engine Company No. 4, located at Sixteenth Street, between Grand Avenue and Hope Street. A call-man generally worked a part-time schedule at an assigned station house and probably worked a couple of 24-hour shifts a month, filling in for members who were sick or not scheduled to work. They were also required to attend drill with their assigned outfit twice a month, and in return, call-men were paid a small honorarium.

Even by this early date, being a member of the LAFD was a prestigious position, and, with no shortage of applicants, this said a lot about Haskins. However, because he was black, department historians believe that, even though he was presumably well-liked and trusted to do his best, Haskins' bunk was most likely segregated from the other men within the station house. Additionally, he may not have necessarily taken his meals with the rest of the station crew. 


Haskins' listing in the 1895 Los Angeles City Directory as a call man for LAFD Engine Company #2, which was located at the northeast corner of Main and Arcadia streets next to the row of buildings still standing south of the Plaza including the Pico House hotel, Merced Theatre and Masonic Lodge #42.  The station site is now a parking lot next to those historic structures.
For Los Angeles firemen in the 1890s, just getting to an active fire could be a harrowing experience. When they responded to an alarm, the men took their places aboard a rig that was, essentially, a four-wheeled sprung carriage outfitted with various firefighting apparatuses, usually pulled by a team of at least two Percheron horses, a particularly muscular draft animal.

Most of the city’s unpaved roads were scattered with holes, wheel ruts, and cable car tracks. And fires were such a spectacle that large crowds would jam the streets with horses, buggies, bicycles, and even trolley and cable cars.  By late 1895, nine years after it was established, the LAFD had yet to lose a single member while fighting or responding to an active incident. But in November, the department would mourn the loss of their first fireman under those very circumstances.

Join us next week for the second part of this excellent accounting of the life of Sam Haskins!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

From Boyle Heights to Beijing: Lotus Blossom Blog Post Appears in Chinese Film Journal

Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member and frequent contributor to this blog, Rudy Martinez, put together a fascinating multi-part post a little over two years ago on the 1920s silent film Lotus Blossom, the first Chinese-American movie and which was filmed in Boyle Heights.


After Rudy's post was published, contact was made by Dr. Ramona Curry, an assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois and arrangements were made for Professor Curry to give a talk on the film's star, Lady Tsen-Mai (Josephine Moy) at the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum in the City of Industry, whose director, Paul R. Spitzzeri, edited the blog post and made the contact with Dr. Curry.

That lecture was given a year ago this week and one of the accidental outgrowths of setting the event up is that contact was made with a student at U.C.L.A. whose mother is a film scholar in China.  Though Professor Qin Xiping could not come out for Professor Curry's talk, she did arrange for a translation of Rudy's excellent post in the 5 October 2018 issue of the journal Contemporary Cinema, produced by the China Film Art Research Center of the Communication University of China.


Professor Qin sent copies of the journal to Rudy recently and a couple of scans from the article are shown here. It is really great that this happy accident transpired, so that the story of the first Chinese-American film and its making in Boyle Heights was shared, through the efforts of Professor Qin with readers of the journal across the Pacific.

Friday, March 1, 2019

In Memoriam: Col. Melvin "Bud" Weber, 1925-2019


Buddy was born on December 20, 1925 at White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights.  He attended Bridge Street School, Hollenbeck Junior High School and graduated from Roosevelt High School Class of 1944. 

He was a member of the Roosevelt High School Alumni Association where he participated in special events for scholarships and fundraising.  He was honored as a recipient of the Roosevelt High School Hall of Fame Award- Teddy Roosevelt.  This honor meant the world to him.

He was also a member of the Saxons, a club that lasted for several decades.  He was a recipient of the Saxons Pride of Boyle Heights Award. 

One of his most memorable experiences was serving as a project advisor for the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles.  The project was a large exhibit entitled – Boyle Heights Power of Place.  His love for Boyle Heights inspired the formation of the Boyle Heights Historical Society a year or so later and Buddy worked closely with the Society’s founding board of directors.


His love for Boyle Heights was apparent in all he did and as an advisory board member for the Boyle Heights Historical Society, he wrote and presented a special booklet entitled “I Am An American Citizen of My Birthplace in the Boyle Heights of Los Angeles, CA, USA” wherein he wrote “The Boyle Heights  - An Enduring Legacy of a Way of Life An Historical Treatise and Personal Perspective.” 

He also participated in the Boyle Heights History Day events as a presenter and guest speaker.  He was Grand Marshall in the 2008 Boyle Heights Annual Parade and it was a memory he said he would always treasure.

Buddy was a member of that generation we know as “the Greatest Generation” and served in the Army from 1944-47.  He received his Certificate of Retirement from the U.S. Air Force in December of 1985.

He was a recipient of the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit Medal, Combat Infantryman’s Badge and numerous other medals.  He also received the Presidential Unit Citation Battle of Okinawa. 


He worked in the education field for several years after his retirement from the Air Force. 

He never stopped doing all that was good for others.  He was a man admired and loved by so many and his friendships lasted a lifetime.  He was a long-time member of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Rancho Santa Margarita.  Buddy is survived by his beloved family: His wife, Brenda; his daughter, Tracie; his son, Kevin and his grandchildren and great grandchildren. 

With love and appreciation we say “farewell and thank you” to Buddy Weber with a final salute for a life well lived, a lifetime of service and always giving to others.  

Monday, December 24, 2018

Santa Teresa de Cabora: The Hummingbird's Daughter in Boyle Heights, 1902-1903, Postcript

Editor's Note:  The end to this remarkable tale brought to us by Rudy Martinez, Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member, about Teresa Urrea, known as Santa Teresa de Cabora, is in the form of this brief postcript.  In it, Rudy notes what happened to Santa Teresa in the few years after her leaving Boyle Heights.


Several months after the devastating fire that destroyed her house and consumed most of her worldly possessions, the Ventura County Superior Court finally granted Teresa Urrea Rodriguez her divorce in January 1904. In no rush to leave, she stayed in Ventura for a good part of the year. In late autumn, pregnant with her second child, Teresa returned with John Van Order to Clifton Arizona, now a bustling mining “boomtown.” She gave birth to daughter, Magdalena Van Order, before the end of the year.

Albuquerque Weekly Citizen, 20 January 1906.
Coincidentally, Teresa arrived in Clifton just barely one week after the town’s infamous, “Great Arizona Orphan Abduction.” This incident occurred when nuns from a New York orphanage brought forty Irish children for placement in the homes of various Mexican families in Clifton. Enraged that Mexicans would raise white children (though Mexican labor in the mines was invaluable), Clifton’s white citizens formed an armed vigilante group to “rescue” the children from the homes of Mexican families and insisting only white citizens had the right to raise them. (In New York, it was difficult for the nuns to find homes for the orphaned children because, as Irish, they were regarded as less than white). The legal wrangling that ensued eventually went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the abductors.  

With money she earned during her healing tour, Teresa built a two-story structure in which she lived on one floor and continued her healing practice on another. By this time, the father of her two children, John Van Order, was rarely a presence in their lives, spending most of his time outside of Clifton. But by mid-1905, Teresa began to grow visibly weaker, eventually confining herself to her home as her health rapidly declined. Her old Clifton friend, Dr. L. A. Burtch confirmed she had tuberculosis, a common disease in mining towns.    

Bisbee [Arizona] Daily Review, 21 January 1906.
Teresa passed away in Clifton, Arizona at the age of thirty-two on January 11, 1906, leaving her two children to be raised by a close family friend since her days at Cabora Ranch. She was buried in the town’s run-down Catholic Cemetery on Shannon Hill next to her father. Several newspapers throughout the southwest reported that it was one of the largest funeral processions ever seen in the area with almost four hundred people in attendance. 

However, just as in most of her life when she moved from country to country, and city to city, so it was in death, a final resting place would elude Teresa. To make way for a new smelter on the site of the cemetery just three years later, the Shannon Copper Company supposedly relocated the remains of all those interred, including Teresa’s, to a new Catholic cemetery a few miles away. No burial records were kept, or grave markers erected, though within a decade, the newer cemetery was essentially “abandoned” as cemetery displacement in mining country is common. With virtually no information, no one is sure where Teresa is buried; whether her unmarked remains lay in a remote and long-forgotten cemetery or if they were, in fact, never moved, but instead excavated and dynamited out of existence. Today, the small town of Clifton is virtually overwhelmed by the massive Morenci open-pit copper mine, the largest copper mine in North America and one of the largest in the world.

La Prensa [San Antonio], 28 February 1937.
Today, a four-story parking structure for White Memorial Hospital and Medical Center now stands at the southwest corner of State Street and Avenida César Chávez (formerly Brooklyn Avenue) where La Santa Teresa de Cabora once lived and "healed" in her simple "bumble bee cottage."  Although it's only speculation, perhaps Teresa had plans to resettle, maybe permanently, in Boyle Heights as soon as she was granted a divorce in Ventura County.  

At the time of the 1903 house fire, newspapers reported her Boyle Heights home was filled with her personal belongings, many of them collected during her "healing tour," and all of them destroyed in the fire.  Today, no personal items belonging to Teresa, or the remains of Teresa herself, appear to have survived.      

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Santa Teresa de Cabora: The Hummingbird's Daughter in Boyle Heights, 1902-1903, Part Two

Editor's Note:  This second part of Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez's excellent post on Santa Teresa de Cabora goes into detail about her brief residence in Boyle Heights during 1902 and 1903.  It reflects a little-known aspect of a remarkable life that has otherwise been well-chronicled.  The post begins with Teresa coming to California after time spent in other portions of the United States.


Settling in Boyle Heights, Teresa again resumed her home-based healing ministry in response to the growing crowds who appeared at her doorstep. Later, she would also boldly participate in a seminal act of economic social justice in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. This was a stance that would have certainly disappointed her well-heeled New York hosts. 

On October 30, 1902, the Los Angeles Herald published the headline, “Santa Teresa Here” and added, “The slenderly built and rather sad-faced young woman has led a life full of varied and exciting experiences.” The article also noted that she had “won wide notoriety as the reputed inspirer of the Yaqui Indians in several uprisings.” The Herald also reported that despite her quiet arrival at the home of her married sister on the “east side of the river,” people began to seek out the “Girl Messiah” almost immediately.    

Teresa’s arrival in 1902 seemed to be a precursor to an interesting period in Los Angeles and for Boyle Heights since the city’s populace was beginning to experience a burst of religious fervor, along with the growing influence of the Christian-led temperance movement. 

Los Angeles Herald, 30 October 1902.
For example, in April 1903, Carrie Nation, the radical leader of the temperance movement, spoke to members of the Boyle Heights Woman’s Christian Temperance Union at Korbel Hall, located at the southwest corner of First and State Streets, only three blocks away from the home where Teresa was conducting her healing sessions at the time. The stuccoed-over former Korbal Hall building still stands today.

The following year, the first small wave of Russian Molokans, members of a zealous sect of the Russian Orthodox Church, was just arriving in downtown Los Angeles; these immigrants eventually settled in for a decades-long stay in Boyle Heights. 

In March 1905, Seventh Day Adventists set up a “White Tent City” at the corner of First and Mott Streets in Boyle Heights for a day-long gathering of noted speakers, including Ellen G. White, one of the principal founders of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. (In 1915 the Adventists established the White Memorial Hospital a few blocks away). 


Los Angeles Times, 15 December 1902.

Not from Boyle Heights, in what became known as Little Tokyo, African-American minister William J. Seymour began, in 1906, the multi-racial Azusa Street Revival at a small church. The Revival eventually grew into the worldwide Pentecostal movement. 

In 1918, Canadian-born evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson arrived in Los Angeles and quickly made the city the home base for her popular brand of Pentecostal ministry. Though McPherson occasionally practiced “faith-healing” and "speaking in tongues" in front of large crowds, which helped launch her career early on, it could possibly be said that Boyle Heights-based Santa Teresa is actually the first media-celebrated “divine faith-healer” to practice in Los Angeles.  

On December 15, 1902, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Teresa has purchased a little cottage at Brooklyn Avenue and State Street” and is “daily besieged by a pitiful throng of Mexican enfermos,” with some arriving as far as Sonora, Mexico in “drawn up wagons.” They also reported that Teresa, “treats free of charge poor people who come to her accredited but is not so generous to the rich.”


Herald, 16 January 1903.

The Herald of January 16, 1903 recounted a reporter’s impressions after visiting the “sweet-faced, olive-skinned” Teresa in her “tiny, darkened, barley-furnished treatment room in a bumble bee cottage on Boyle Heights.” After stepping off “the trolley car that conveniently stopped at State Street,” the reporter noted, “the lawn is covered with men, women and children, the majority Mexicans or Spanish. While waiting, some of them can be seen eating chili con carne and tortillas, while in the rear, horses eat hay off farm wagons.”

The Herald journalist reported that Teresa’s home was also “overrun by some good folks anxious to satisfy their curiosity about the live saint,” and witnessed “two well-dressed woman who brushed past the front door, insisting they knew ‘Santa Teresa’ lived there.” Teresa eventually “asked for the advice and assistance of the district attorney in protecting her and her sister’s family from forced intrusion of strangers.” 

Concerning Teresa’s married sister, the newspapers never published her name (or a specific address for the Boyle Heights residence) but records indicate Teresa had a younger half-sister named Maria “Marie” Urrea who was born on March 16, 1882 in Sonora, Mexico to Tomas and Maria Urrea.  Sometime before Teresa arrived, Maria moved to Los Angeles, California where she lived with husband, Valente Balderrama. Maria died in Los Angeles on November 11, 1942 at age sixty. 


Herald, 1 January 1903.
Despite Teresa’s demand for a degree of privacy from the throngs of visitors to her Boyle Heights home, she, nevertheless, agreed to become publicly involved in a newly organized Los Angeles worker strike. Known today as the El Traque Strike of 1903, it has been described by late historian Jeffrey Marcos Garcilazo as “one of the most dramatic expressions of Mexican track worker militancy in the early twentieth century.”

In March 1903, approximately eight hundred Mexican employees of the Pacific Electric Railway (PE) — the Los Angeles street trolley system owned by real estate tycoon, Henry E. Huntington — formed La Union Federal Mexicana (UFM), arguably, the first union in the United States to represent Mexican track workers. The traqueros (track workers) mostly lived in the immigrant enclaves of either “Sonoratown/Little Italy,” which today encompasses the Chinatown area, or “Boxcarville,” located in the “Flats” area at the eastern edge of the Los Angeles River in Boyle Heights.

After Huntington refused their wage demands for overtime, evening, and weekend work, UFM voted to strike in mid-April, securing pledged support from the local Socialist Party, as well as Mexican and Japanese labor unions in Oxnard. The UFM strategy was to leverage the fact that PE crews were rushing to complete the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach line in time for the annual (and ironically themed, given that almost no Latinos were involved) Los Angeles Fiesta in early May. Huntington responded by ordering all striking Mexicans fired and replacement workers hired immediately at one-half-cent more per hour, far less then what UFM was demanding. 


Los Angeles Record, 28 April 1903.
Aware that La Santa Teresa de Cabora — famous folk healer and inspiration to the Mexican labor class and the indigenous resistance movement — was residing in Boyle Heights, UFM organizers invited her to participate in their collective action against PE. UFM was already up against the wall since PE quickly hired large numbers of scabs to replace striking workers and enlisted the help of a company-friendly police department to discourage demonstrations and picketing near work sites, all while receiving sympathetic coverage from the notoriously anti-union Times.     

In a display of solidarity, a group of women gathered at a downtown work site at Buena Vista Street (renamed Broadway in 1909), and according to the Times of April 26, 1903, “the women had come from Sonoratown and were relatives of, or sympathizers, with the Mexicans on strike. There were more than thirty Amazons [sic], and their declared intention was to take the tools from the workmen. The women threw the shovels to the sidewalk,” but the workers reaction was “simply walking over and picking them again.”

On March 27, the tactic was repeated, with Teresa leading the way. As reported by both the Los Angeles Record and the Herald on April 28, 1903, at 7:30 p.m. Teresa “marched” with 23 women to a rail trench at the corner of Sixth and Main Streets. Once there, a group of replacement workers (the Herald says 25, the Record says 50) threw down their tools, climbed out of the trench, and followed the women “to the headquarters of the Mexican federal union at 664 San Fernando Street.” According to the Herald, “members of the union assert that this visit by the women won thirty-eight men” with the “new recruits all admitted to membership at last night’s meeting.” 


Herald, 28 April 1903.
Although there are no direct quotes, the Herald briefly noted, “Santa Teresa addressed a union meeting at the Council of Labor Hall. She urged her countrymen to be true to their pledges to the union but avoid all troubles with authorities.” The latter part of her comment suggests a concern for the safety of the strikers and any potential confrontations with police. It was no secret that powerful Los Angeles civic and business leaders were adamant about maintaining the city’s open-shop (anti-union) reputation.

With the help of replacement workers, police intimidation, and a late-hour cancelled walkout by primarily white PE conductors and motormen, Huntington was able to break the Traquero strike and complete the track line just before the Fiesta took place. However, this pioneering labor-organizing effort by the Mexican track workers proved to be only a precursor to future militant labor activism by Latinos in Los Angeles and throughout California. Though better known for inspiring indigenous resistance movements in pre-revolution Mexico, less known is that Teresa also provided crucial inspiration to a nascent labor movement in one of the most aggressive anti-labor cities in the United States.   

In addition to press stories about her healing practice and labor activism, Teresa’s short-lived and disastrous marriage was well-documented by the time she arrived in Los Angeles to seek a divorce (on the grounds of “desertion and failure to provide”). Curiously, there is no mention in the press of John Van Order, or Teresa’s daughter, Laura, during her stay in Los Angeles. Regardless, some newspaper reports took on a mocking tone during her divorce proceedings, such as this report in the Herald on March 3, 1903: “Santa Teresa took off her halo yesterday while she donned a nice picture hat of the Merode pattern. Ordinarily saints are supposed to be too ethereal to marry, but since (she) was married almost by force at the point of a revolver, her marriage is not to be counted against her sainthood.”


Herald, 26 March 1903.

Such press reports may have been generated by Teresa’s own claims in court that she was forced into the marriage at gunpoint, contradicting Clifton eyewitnesses at the time of her marriage, and previous statements she gave to the press that she left with him freely. But her claim was likely designed to make the court more sympathetic about the circumstances for her request for an immediate divorce. However, the judge ruled the next day there was insufficient grounds to grant a divorce. After their testimony, he was left dissatisfied with the inability of Teresa, her sister, or her brother-in-law to give the court a “good reason” for their failure to make any inquiries about the fate of Guadalupe Rodriguez after he was arrested and jailed. 

Apparently realizing that it was going to be difficult to obtain a divorce in Los Angeles, Teresa left the city at the end of June. On July 1, 1903, the Herald reported that Teresa “has left her place of retirement in Boyle Heights” to “work among her people in Oxnard,” as well as “go to Ventura on a business trip.” By July 24 the L.A. Times briefly noted, “Santa Teresa, the notorious Mexican divine healer is now located in Ventura, where crowds of the poorer classes and many rich as well, call upon her for treatment for all imaginable ills.”


Los Angeles Express, 27 August 1903.
If Teresa had any plans to return to Los Angeles, they went up in flames on Tuesday evening, July 25, when a fire destroyed her Boyle Heights “cottage.” According to the Times of August 27, 1903, “Just as the last streetcar was making its trip, the light of spreading flames was discovered at the rear of the house. Before the fire department arrived, the flames had done great damage. Dashing water soon completed the ruin.” Noting the absence of her healing ministry, the same article claimed, “This strenuous life was a tax on la senorita. The blinds of the cottage were lowered, and the knocks of the sufferers were unheard. Santa Teresa had bled [sic] herself away to the pleasing retreat of Santa Barbara.”

Tomorrow we'll post a short postscript covering what happened to Santa Teresa after she left Boyle Heights, so check back then.