Just below the observation deck on the top of City Hall, there’s a weirdly quiet floor. It’s mostly inhabited by ghosts; stern-looking men staring out from fancy frames over a city they couldn’t possibly have imagined. These are portraits of LA’s past mayors. And no one knows more about them than Tom Sitton, a student of LA’s political past and the former head of the History Department at Natural History Museum.
Sitton guides me through the gallery, pointing out the oldest portrait. It’s of Stephen C. Foster, who was the first American mayor of Los Angeles, installed under U.S. military rule.He looks a little like Thoreau – thoughtful, with a big beard,
newspaper and spectacles. He led Los Angeles from 1848 to 1850, after the war with Mexico while California was still a territory.
At the time, Los Angeles was a scrappy little town of about 2,000. The roughians who’d fought in the Mexican-American war were now supposed to be keeping order. “Lawlessness was rampant in this area,” says Sitton. “This was a frontier town. But he became mayor and there was at one point two people in the city jail. Both accused of murder both convicted of murder basically. One of them was Hispanic and he was hung; and the white guy, who’d killed one of partners, was not hung at the time. And there was part of the population that was really ticked off about this.”
Los Angeles was incorporated as an American city in 1850. Ten years later, the population had more than doubled to a whopping 4,000. One of the city’s new citizens was a gambler from New Orleans named Damien Marchessault. He became mayor in 1869. But he got into a bit of trouble. “He was probably favoring a water company that was trying to get a lease on distributing water in Los Angeles at the same time he owned a large chunk of stock in it,” Sitton explains. “And after his term was up the story goes that he left a note for his wife saying he’s sorry that he disappointed her, he’s so embarrassed by that and his drinking and his gambling that continued that he couldn’t take it any more. And he went into the city council chambers at that time and put a bullet through his head.”
But there isn’t an image of him in the gallery. In fact there’s not one anywhere, says Sitton.
We move on to Arthur Cyprian Harper, mayor from 1906 to 1909. He and some of his police commissioners were selling stock in some worthless companies to a lot of brothels and saloons in the Tenderloin area for protection of prostitution, gambling and a lot of other things. And finally there was a big uproar with all the reformers and they decide that it’s time to get rid of him. So they started a recall campaign until he gave up and resigned.
Soon after Harper left office, water started to flow into LA from the Sierra Nevadas and by 1915, the population had grown to 400,000.
Charles Sebastian, looking a little like Lyle Lovett, became mayor, serving for just about a year. “He was a member of the LAPD and his beat was Chinatown and they said that he was the bag man for picking up payments for the LAPD,” says Sitton. Although he was married, he also had a girlfriend. When newspapers reported that he had written letters to his girlfriend calling his wife “the old haybag,” he was forced to resign.
Sitton and I walk past portraits of Frederick T. Woodman, Meredith P. Snyder, George E. Cryer, John C. Porter – white men who presided over a period of incredible growth. By 1930, the city had tripled its population again to more than a million and up in front of Frank Shaw and finally Fletcher Bowron, who is remembered as being one of LA’s best mayors.
It seems like LA’s mayors have been more concerned with the people’s business than monkey business. But that’s because modern Angelenos have been keeping a closer eye on our elected officials.