FORGET THE MILLENNIUM; WE'RE STILL IN THE 1880S

     Australian bugs threatening the city's trees?  A downtown parking and 

traffic problem?  Overcrowded transit that doesn't run on time?  Sewage 

polluting Santa Monica Bay?  Sales lady or salesperson?  Prisoner abuse in the 

jail?  Overly lenient judges, tricky defense attorneys and jurors who foolishly 

acquit?  Animal control agents lassoing dogs?  That may read like today's 

newspaper, but it's taken from letters to the editor printed in the city's 

dailies in the 1880s.  We may be approaching the millennium, but we still 

haven't solved the problems of the 19th century. 

     Today an Australian blight has attacked our eucalyptus trees and the 

solution is to release a million ladybugs from down under.  In the 1880s the 

Australian white scale infested the city and so devastated the orange groves 

that vast orchards were cut, burned and subdivided into residential lots before 

the county, responding to criticism in the letters column, brought in ladybugs 

from Australia to save the citrus industry in the rest of Southern California.

     When they weren't worried about white scale, parking was a paramount 

concern to the large numbers of frustrated farmers who had business downtown.  

Their problem?  Finding an empty hitching post.  They groused about having to 

circle the block endlessly while looking for an unoccupied spot, or about the 

inconsiderates who had double parked their teams.  "Rusticus" complained that 

it was necessary for a farmer to travel "about the streets for half an hour 

awaiting an opportunity to swoop down upon the first vacant post.   Progressive 

though they were, city fathers hadn't yet thought of topping the hitching post 

with a meter.

     Radio traffic reporters who today warn about distractions created when 

protest groups unfurl banners from freeway bridges are in the tradition of 

1880s commuters.  Disturbed when enterprising businessmen took advantage of 

newly constructed bridges over the river, "Traveler" wrote: "I notice two rival 

sewing-machine men have hung huge painted signs across the First street 

bridge.... (Considering) the insecurity of such a practice, there should be 

some city official whose duty would call him to remove the nuisances without an 

hour's delay."

     Those who rode public transportation in the 'eighties could teach the Bus 

Riders Union something about overcrowded transit lines.  It was not uncommon 

for horse-drawn streetcars to be loaded to the runningboards, with only a small 

portion of the passengers able to find seats.  "Carpenter" complained that a 

6x12 car, pulled by one horse, held sixty to seventy men, "and even the roof 

was covered."  Yet his concern was for the welfare of the poor horse rather 

than the sardine-like conditions in the car.

     Suburbanites, long before the Big Red Car, depended upon inconvenient 

railroad schedules that had the homebound train leaving before most wage 

earners could get off work.  Elias Longley, a Duarte resident writing on behalf 

of fifty fellow riders, noted that many commuters who had "bought homes in the 

beautiful towns along this road have for months been rooming in the city in the 

hope that 'the great, the enterprising, the accommodating' Santa Fe would rise 

equal to the necessities of the people."  Santa Fe did respond, moving 

departure time for the afternoon train from 5:30 - - - to 5!

  Those who simply took the train to the city for pleasure faced another 

nuisance.  An annoyed Pasadenan complained that " 'the so-called theater train' 

left on Tuesday evening not only before the theater was over, but even before 

schedule time."  How he got home wasn't explained.

     Even progress had its critics.  After 110 years LA's Hyperion sewer works 

may finally have it right.  But when the Santa Monica Bay outfall sewer was 

first proposed - and voted down - in 1889 contributors to the letters column 

predicted massive pollution along Southern California's most cherished 

shoreline.  Abbot Kinney, perhaps anticipating the Venice project that he later 

undertook on his waterfront holdings, urged the city to create a sewer farm 

rather than face "10 years of litigation (that) must result in attempting to 

force the city sewerage down Santa Monica's throat."  Despite his warning, the 

outfall sewer went into operation in the 1890s, dumping untreated sewage into 

the bay.  Kinney's "10 years of litigation" stretched into decades before the 

city was forced to install a modern facility at Hyperion for a system that 

still suffers occasional failure.

     It wasn't just letters about the infrastructure that paralleled the modern 

era.  Readers' thoughts about women's rights and the justice system sound 

familiar.  One of the most heated exchanges occurred over whether women working 

in retail stores could be called salespersons and resembled arguments in our 

own era over the use of gender-neutral designators.  When "One of the 

Unfortunates" used the terms "sales-lady" and "salesperson" interchangeably in 

her defense of working women, "M.D.L." replied that "I saw in a recent paper 

the pompous and ridiculous term, 'Salesperson.'  One knows there are modesty, 

goodness and refinement enough among 'shop-girls,' but among 'salespersons' one 

is at least sure of a foolish affectation."

     The Los Angeles of that era didn't have an ACLU, but Horace Bell, 

crusading editor of the gadfly weekly Porcupine, was a one-man civil rights 

movement when it came to conditions in city and county jails.  Joining inmates 

who had complained in letters to the editor about beatings, filth, poor food 

and other assorted mistreatments, Bell wrote: "There is a man now lying in the 

Los Angeles city jail in a dangerously injured condition, his injuries having 

been inflicted at the jail by a policeman of Los Angeles, who beat the said 

injured man over the head with a heavy Colt's revolver."  

     Not all letter writers thought the justice system was too harsh.  When 

Lucky Baldwin was brought to trial for seducing a 19 year old, "A Mother" urged 

a $5000 prize be given to the legislator who would be instrumental in enacting 

a law "making castration the penalty for the seduction of any girl under 20 

years of age."  "A Father" pledged $25 to the fund, provided the punishment was 

extended to pimps.  "A Friend to Humanity" offered another $15 to bring back 

the whipping-post.

     Lawyers were as detested then as they are today.  "A Bleeding Taxpayer" 

whined that "We have too many laws and too many lawyers.  If the army of 

officials we have to execute the laws would execute half the lawyers, and then 

cut off half their own heads, it would be a long way on the road to 

retrenchment."  "Justice" added: "I believe the professional criminal lawyer 

more dangerous in a community than a burglar or a murderer."

     Nor did juries fare much better.  In a case that might parallel the O. J. 

Simpson murder trial, a writer declared that "To-day I was mortified beyond 

expression (to learn that) a jury of citizens of Los Angeles had virtually 

turned loose upon this community the embodiment of angelic purity and innocence 

in the person of one Don Amaranto Castillo.  This gentleman was charged by 

District Attorney White with having presented a pistol at the breast of an 

unarmed countryman, and shot him to death.  Now, sir, there are thousands in 

this community who would like to know the names and residences of those same 

gentlemen of the jury, and I am 'One Of Them.' "

     The similarities between then and now go on.  A President was denounced in 

the letters column as a womanizer and draft dodger, although Grover Cleveland 

had a few supporters among the writers.  One writer thought "patches" would 

turn smokers into non-smokers, but the patches referred to were blotches of 

leprous skin caused by the use of nicotine.  

     Finally, they weren't rotweilers or pit bulls, but the dog nuisance of the 

1880s brought forth passionate appeals for a solution to the problem.  Half the 

letters complained about the dogs; the other half about the brutal 

strangulation of dogs resulting from the use of a lasso in rounding up strays.  

According to recent newspaper reports, the lasso has returned.  Can the letters 

be far behind?

                                     - - -

     "Letters From The People, 1881-1889," an anthology of letters to the 

Los Angeles Times compiled by Ralph E. Shaffer, is available at 

   www.csupomona.edu/~reshaffer