Faragher (History/Yale Univ.; A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland, 2005, etc.) investigates the most lethal place on the planet during the mid-19th century: Los Angeles.
The author provides a concise and edifying history of the California territory, beginning with the Spanish missionaries who tapped the expertise of converted mission Indians as their workforce. Their promise was to secularize the land and return it to the Indians; of course, that never happened. The rich landowners hired the Indians because they were the only ones capable of making the land productive. It was a time of rapid social change, with Indian workers and migrants from the south coming into the town to work. This change increased incidents of violence: Indian against Indian and incoming Mexicans against Californios. As Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 and the Americans fought to annex California after the Mexican-American War, more migrants arrived, mostly Southerners accustomed to the brutalities of slavery. In the absence of a legitimate justice system, vigilance committees grew up based on codes of honor and vengeance. The Los Angeles Common Council accepted corrupt and ineffective law enforcement rather than hire more deputies and raise taxes to support them. The first deportation of undocumented immigrants occurred in 1840, and there were strict regulations against Indians and an abundance of men who were angry, volatile, and homicidal. Justice was parochial, dealing with the values and interests of groups, not the community. Vigilantism was an institutional feature encouraged by the press and condoned by authorities. Threading through this midcentury mayhem is the career of Judge Benjamin Hayes, whose strength of character and attempts to diffuse mob justice provided a small ray of hope. For fans of the Old West and frontier literature, Faragher provides a vivid and readable history.
A solid study of violence and an even better study of the beginnings of California and its social makeup.