Hell Hole of the West

63898-looking-south-west-on-spring-street-from-temple-block-1876El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. Los Angeles. The wild, wild west indeed. Before the city, there was the ‘hell hole of the west’, the most violent place at the end of the Pacific Special. The place where everyone went when they had no place else to go. When you were driven out of everyplace else, you went west, just like Horace Greeley told you to. And once you hit Los Angeles that was the end of the road.

Los Angeles always attracted the outcast, the misfit, people on the run and people seeking change. There’s never been anything normal or ordinary about the city of Angels or the people who inhabit it.


The first law in L.A. was a volunteer group of men who formed the Los Angeles Rangers in the early part of the nineteenth century. Unpaid, they lived off the largess of others for their equipment. The unit lasted roughly four years, then disbanded, leaving the already violent Los Angeles without a police presence. The county was overrun with bandits, gamblers, murderers and rustlers driven south by northern vigilantes. Vice of all kinds was not only legal, it was taxed.

To fill the void, the Vigilance Committee was formed in 1836. On October 13, 1854 Pinckney Clifford, a prominent businessman, was robbed and murdered by David Brown, a well-known bandit. The city Marshall jailed Brown, but the Vigilance Committee intended to take care of the killer. Mayor Stephen Foster intervened and convinced them to wait for the trial. But though convicted and sentenced to hang in January 12, 1855, his attorney convinced the California Supreme Court to grant a stay of execution. Instead another convicted murderer, a half-breed Indian was hanged.

Now provoked beyond reason, the Vigilance Committee, led by Mayor Stephen C Foster (who resigned his position to lead the lynch mob) forcibly removed Brown from his cell and hanged him. When Foster ran for re-election he was voted back in as Mayor on a landslide. Only in Los Angeles, you say? L.A. was also the first major metropolitan city to recall a Mayor from office, but that, as they say, is another story.


Before eBay there was Sears, Roebuck

Before there was an Internet, even before telephones and electricity were common in American homes, buying household good could be done from the comfort of your living room. Americans have always loved convenience. The first drive-through restaurant, the first automatic car wash, the first assembly line were all American inventions designed to make like easier and more convenient. Before the nineteenth century rolled out you could buy anything from groceries to houses through the mail, have it guaranteed and on credit. A Sears, Roebuck home ordered through the mail would go for a little more than a $1,000.00 and would be shipped by rail to anywhere in the US. Some of the Sears’ houses still stand, surely a testament to their quality. How many homes built today will be standing in 2120?

Browsing through an 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue is a fascinating glimpse into the past. Into a past where there was no FDA or USDA to set rules on the safety of items sold, even the ones meant to be taken internally. You could buy tinctures of arsenic, belladona, digitalis and of course laudanum, a liquid heroin mixture. Turpentine was sold for internal use. Many of these concoctions were sold as cure-alls for ailments we haven’t even heard of today.

For instance, you could purchase Peruvian Wine of Coca, It was “urgently recommended” for such ailments as cures for anemia, impurity, impoverishment of the Blood, Consumption, weakness of the lungs, asthma, Nervous debility, loss of appetite, Malarial Complaints, Biliousness, Stomach Disorder, Dyspepsia, Languor and fatigue, Obesity, Loss of Forces and Weakness caused by excess and similar Diseases of the same nature. It was especially recommended for persons in delicate health and convalescents.

Or try Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers. Sarsaparilla would cure scrofula tuberculoses. ‘Female pills’ containing one or more abortifacients that carried the warning that they must be taken carefully for female troubles. Many of these compounds were concocted by Sears, Roebuck themselves and came with money back guarantees. The ingredients were never listed in either the catalogue or on the products themselves. No way of knowing what dosage you were getting or ever exactly what was in each potion. It was truly buyer beware in those days.

On a lighter side, you could buy an Electric Washer made of the best Virginia white cedar for $3.50. An Acme Hay Tedder could be had for $21.00. For $19.95 you could purchase the 1897 Encyclopedia Britannica. A Columbus A Grade Canopy Top Park Wagon Surrey went for $79.00 or $76.63 if you sent cash.
Sears, Roebuck offered discounts for cash and encouraged club purchases where several people would send in order together for more discounts. Sears, Roebuck also introduced monthly payments for their pricier objects. To give an idea of what the prices mean, a dollar in 1897 had a consumer price index of $26.70 or a GDP Deflator value of $23.60.

These catalogues are a wonderful glimpse into a different world long gone.

Richard Sears illustrated the cover of his 1894 catalog declaring it the “Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone,” and the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth,” claiming that “Our trade reaches around the World.” Sears also knew the importance of keeping customers, boldly stating that “We Can’t Afford to Lose a Customer.”