Los Angeles was a flea-bitten, murderous, mean little town in the early 1850s. Rancho beef went north to the gold fields; gold came south to be gambled on horse races and cards or spent on Chinese silk and Manila embroidery or paid out for fandangos that filled whole days with dancing.
In the saloons and brothels that fronted on the city’s unlighted dirt streets, aguardiente – “ardent water” (wine distilled into white lighting) – fueled so many deadly brawls among cattle drovers and vaqueros that Los Angeles was possibly the most violent city in America.
In fact, it was barely a city even in mid-19th century terms. There were no hospitals and no services for the orphaned or abandoned. Genuine piety was on daily display, but charity was a family matter. In a town filling with Anglo strangers after sleepy colonial decades, to be helpless and alone was a curse. When periodic epidemics of smallpox and cholera swept through the town in the early 1850s, the sick were quarantined in a wretched “pest house” or were nursed by boarding house proprietors paid so much a head by the county.