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Emil Harris: The First Chief of Police of Los Angeles
Thu Mar 18, 2010 9:54pm

This is an article from a recent issue of the Western States Jewish History Journal for you to enjoy.

from Volume 39 #4

Emil Harris:

The First Chief of Police of Los Angeles

by Norton B. Stern & William M. Kramer

Publisher’s Note: We found this rather extensive paper about Emil Harris, a well-known Los Angeles Police Chief, in the files of Rabbi Kramer. It looks as if it was published somewhere, but we know not where. Some notes indicate it was written in the early 1970s. —DWE

Emil Harris was not a typical policeman-if you can stereotype the police. But then, in the eighth decade of the nineteenth century, Los Angeles was not a typical American town. Long forgotten lawman Emil Harris served the city and county of Los Angeles in matters routine and adventurous. His career ranged from patrolman to chief of police and his responsibilities from quieting drunken Indians to deep involvement in the famous case of the infamous bandit, Tiburcio Vasquez, as well as his efforts to head-off the tragic events of the Los Angeles Chinese massacre of 1871.

Who was Emil Harris? He was German-born, pioneer in youth work in Los Angeles as a gymnastics instructor, a champion marksman, a devoted Odd Fellow, Turnvereiner, and Jew.

Emil Harris was born in Prussia on December 29, 1839. In 1853, in the company of an aunt, he came to the United States where some members of his family had previously settled. After living in New York for some time, he set out for California where he also had relatives. In 1857 he took passage on the North Star to the Isthmus of Panama and made the land journey to the Pacific side where he boarded the ship John L. Stevens for San Francisco, arriving there in March.

In San Francisco he had intended to learn the printing trade and actually began to work in this field, "but the work did not prove congenial and he soon left." Subsequently Harris was employed as a waiter in a Kearny Street restaurant. Later he went to work in his uncle’s Stockton billiard hall. He and his uncle returned to San Francisco and founded a cigar business as a partnership. Two years afterwards, Harris’ uncle acquired "a billiard hall of eight tables at Visalia," California. Harris managed the establishment until the business was sold. He then returned to San Francisco where he was naturalized on March 18, 1867.1

On April 9, 1869, Emil Harris arrived in Los Angeles.2 There he was employed as a barkeeper at the Wine Rooms on Main Street.3 He quickly became involved in civic life. In June 1869, he registered as a voter. Working in the commercial center of the city, he was aware of the need for fire protection. "Probably the first attempt to organize a fire company ... was made in 1869, when a meeting was called on . . . November 6th, at Buffum’s Saloon, to consider the matter."4 Among those present were Henry Wartenberg, who was chosen as president, and Emil Harris.5 Wartenberg was a leader of the Jewish community, having been president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society since 1864.6 As a partner in a tannery, he too knew of the pressing need for protection against the disaster of fire.7 In October 1871, Emil Harris was elected first assistant foreman of the Fireman’s Company.8

At the end of 1870, Emil Harris was appointed a patrolman of the Los Angeles Police Department.9 In his new capacity he continued his civic work in the general community while acquiring a well-deserved reputation for brilliance as a pioneer detective of the California southland. Almost at the beginning of his police career, Harris became a major figure in the events of Calle de los Negros and the Chinese massacre of 1871. Los. Angeles was a small town with a big underworld. The "Nigger Alley" area was the heartland of local vice.10 There was prostitution, gambling, a number of low saloons, and frequent violence often culminating in homicide. Indians, Mexicans, Caucasians and Chinese met there in a kind of reservation of impropriety.

While contemporary accounts11 generally ascribe the Chinese massacre in the alley as having been the result of a tong war between rival Chinese factions which resulted in the murder of a Caucasian, a retrospective view by local historian Major Horace Bell suggests that it was a race riot which had been triggered by Robert Thompson, who attempted to steal $7,000 from a Chinese merchant. Thompson was killed by Sam Yung (or Yuen), who had revealed in open court on the morning of October 24, 1871, that he kept this sum "in a trunk in the rear of his store." That afternoon Thompson entered the store of the Chinese businessman on the pretence that he was there to serve a warrant and to take Sam Yung into custody. When the merchant refused to leave his store and funds unprotected, there was an "ensuing scuffle" in which "the Chinaman shot Thompson dead." A careful reading of the Los Angeles Daily Star account of the cause of the massacre tends to support Bell’s version against the racist account in the press. The story of the killing of Thompson gives evidence that it was done by Sam Yung as a defense of his property and person, and not as a lawless act of a semi-civilized Chinese involved in a tong war, as portrayed in the contemporary news media.12 Subsequently, more than twenty Chinese were killed by the mob and some "forty thousand dollars was taken during the sack of Chinatown."13

Officer Emil Harris was among those who made every effort to control the mob and prevent the loss of life and property among the Chinese. He tried to place them in protective custody, but

The infuriated mob followed. Cries of "Hang him!" "Hang him!" "Take him from Harris!" "Shoot him," arose in every direction. The officers proceeded safely with their prisoner until their arrival at the juncture of Temple and Spring Streets. Here they were surrounded, and the Chinaman forcibly taken from them. ...14

In his testimony the next day during the Coroner’s Inquest, Emil Harris, after being sworn, said:

Between five and six o’clock yesterday evening, while on duty on Commercial Street, . . . I heard some shots fired and ran toward them to Los Angeles Street, and saw an excited crowd in front of Negro Alley. . . . [The Sheriff] requested me and all citizens willing to obey the laws to stand along side of him; a great number volunteered, and others, more excited, wanted to force their way into the houses . . . the excited multitude got the upper hand . . . one Chinaman came running out [and I] heard a cry by some white persons, "Here is one!" and I succeeded in capturing him . . . when some parties unbeknown to me, about 100 or more took him from me [and] that was the last I saw of him. They cried "Hang him" . . . [Later] a Chinaman called me by name; I told him to come out and I would protect him if I could. . . . I suppose the one taken from me was the first one hung. .15

At the conclusion of his testimony it was clear that Harris felt that none save one of the Chinese killed was culpable, and that the officer had attempted to save the celestials from the mob. This, in spite of the testimony. of his coreligionist, Mendel Meyer, who said that "the Chinamen shot at white people, [and] at the officers . . . [including] Harris."16

The Coroner’s Jury of eleven included five citizens of the Jewish faith : Herman Fleishman, M. Levy, B. Simon, P. N. Roth, and Leopold Harris. Another witness who testified before the jury was the merchant, David Solomon.17 On the grand jury named to bring charges against those arrested during the massacre, were the pioneer Jewish merchants, Samuel Norton and Kaspare Cohn.18

Three months after the tragic events in Negro Alley, the attitude of the Chinese community toward Emil Harris and his fellow officer George Gard, surfaced. The Chinese were aware that the two had attempted to protect them, their lives and their property from the attackers. The local press carried this item:

A Present. —Officers Gard and Harris, were yesterday the recipients of a beautiful gift, consisting of Chinese embroidery, presented by the Wing Chong company, as a testimonial of their appreciation of services rendered from time to time.19

"From time to time" was a euphemism for the Chinese massacre of 1871. Emil Harris was one of a minority who knew that the peril of lawlessness posed greater problems for Los Angeles than did the so-called Yellow Peril.20

The most famous bandit in southern California history was Tiburcio Vasquez. Those lawmen who took part in his capture became the most famous of that day. San Francisco’s Alta California, the leading newspaper of the metropolis of the Pacific slope, wrote of Harris’ part in the taking of the outlaw.

Harris was one of Vasquez’ captors, and stood his hand with coolness and courage, ready to go for that notorious bandit on "a short call." He took, with the others, strong chances for his life; but strategy secured the robber without loss of blood. The fact that he was there and ready with his rifle to do his part, redounds to Harris’ credit.21

In April 1874, when Sheriff William R. Rowland of Los Angeles County heard that Vasquez was in the area, he determined to make up a stand-by posse to be ready if there was an opportunity to capture him. Vasquez had a well-deserved reputation for murder and robbery, committed by himself and his gang. Historian Robert Greenwood states succinctly: "Vasquez emerges as perhaps the major figure in California outlawry."22 On May 8, 1874, California’s Governor Newton Booth issued a proclamation of reward, offering $8,000 for Vasquez’s arrest if delivered alive and $6,000 if he should be killed during his apprehension.23 Sheriff Rowland’s special posse included some of the most trustworthy citizens who could counter violence with marksmanship and physical strength. They included:

Mr. Albert Johnson, Under Sheriff; Major H. M. Mitchell, attorney at law of this city; Mr. J. S. Bryant, city constable; Mr. E. Harris, policeman; Mr. Thos. Rogers, of the Palace Saloon; Mr. D. K. Smith, a citizen of this county; Mr. B. F. Hartley; Chief of Police and Deputy City Marshal, and Mr. [George] Beers, of San Francisco and special correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle.24

On the evening of May 13, 1874, Sheriff Rowland learned that the Vasquez party was at the ranch house of "Greek George," which was near the mouth of Nichols Canyon, in what is now West Hollywood. The posse was secretly assembled at Mitchell’s law office in the Temple Block and moved out at 2:00 a.m. on the morning of the 14th. At daybreak the party made a run to "Greek George’s" house.

Through an open door, Vasquez was seen at the breakfast table, and [Emil] Harris, followed by the others, made a quick dash for the house. A woman waiting on Vasquez attempted to shut the officers out; but Harris injected his rifle through the half-open door and prevented her. During the excitement, Vasquez climbed through a little window, and Harris, yelling, "There he goes !" raised his Henry rifle and shot at him. By the time Harris had reached the other side of the house, Vasquez was a hundred feet away . . . then the officers used their shotguns. . . . Underneath one of the beds was found Vasquez’ vest containing Charley Miles’ [stolen] gold watch, which Harris at once recognized. The prisoner was asked whether he was seriously hurt and he said that he expected to die . . . asking Harris to write down some of his bequests. . . .25

In later years Harris was to regard his part in the Vasquez capture as "one of the most interesting recollections of his life," and he retained the bandit’s rifle in his personal possession.26 Just over a week later the Committee on Police of the Los Angeles City Council recommended that Harris be dismissed from the force for having been out of the city "without consent, as required to be obtained by ordinance, and had disobeyed the orders of the Marshal.27 It was undoubtedly Harris’ expertise as a detective that got him into this difficulty, for as in the Vasquez case in which he had been deputized by the county sheriff and thus was absent from his city police duties, he was frequently called upon by other law agencies, including the United States Marshal’s office for service in the area and even as far as into Arizona Territory.28 Harris’ supporters on the city council "warmly defended" him and "eulogized him as one of the captors of Vasquez," and the matter was quietly dropped.29

Harris’ reputation was now so firmly established that he was entitled to every benefit of the doubt. As the Star had reported: "He has detective qualities second to no man in the State; is brave, cool and energetic and just the man to have associated in such a hazardous undertaking [as the Vasquez affair].30 Emil Harris was a remarkable officer on a most interesting force. At the end of 1871, the local press made an observation which still holds true: that the police force of Los Angeles was small in numbers when compared with other cities of like importance. The force consisted of six officers operating under the marshal, who was the chief of police. They were divided into two watches of three men each. Two were mounted officers "on fleet horses." They received one hundred dollars per month salary while the four patrolmen received eighty dollars a month.31

In 1872 the Star reported that there was a marked improvement in the force with few offenders escaping arrest and punishment.

While it is apparent that the improvement extends throughout the entire police force, and that each and all policemen are faithfully endeavoring to discharge their duties; the large number of arrests lately made by officers Gard and Harris seem to deserve special mention. They have succeeded in "working up" and ferreting out some very important and difficult cases, and through their energy and vigilance, many rough and dangerous customers have been caught and placed in the hands of the law.32

The paper recommended that it would be to the benefit of the community if George Gard and Emil Harris could be assigned to special duty in order to utilize their skills fully, "besides special officers or detectives should be men of stability, good judgment, sobriety, and great discretion. All of these qualifications, we believe, are embraced in the officers above mentioned."33

Emil Harris’ methodology as a detective is basically unrecorded, however, the evidence of his ability is written large across the pages of the Los Angeles press. When a carpenter by the name of Grant lost such valuables as a silk velvet vest, two pairs of sleeve buttons, and a hair watch-chain, he informed Harris of his losses. "That expert and efficient officer fixed his suspicion on . . . Charles Miller . . . and found all the articles in his possession..34 When the old skating rink of Los Angeles was robbed, it was Harris who "after diligent investigation, succeeded in getting a clue, and ... arrested the burglar..35 When R. M. Towns lost his valuable gold watch, he gave Harris the case to work up. "Harris fetched the timekeeper, and Mr. Towns has now got his watch." The paper noted that "there is a real interesting batch of details connected with the case."36

In the Los Angeles of the 1870s, Harris seemed to know every law-breaker and potential lawbreaker among the populace. The city numbered under 10,000 during the period. Harris used his firsthand knowledge with a speed and energy truly remarkable. When Charles Norton’s house was entered by a thief, Harris was given the case and "captured his man in five minutes."37 Officer Harris and his partner, Gard, quickly solved a watch theft that involved a man from Compton, which showed "the shrewdness and competency of the officers," who were pronounced "hard to beat on either a warm or cold trail."38

Harris’ job kept him on the go beyond the limits of the pueblo. He "arrived from San Buenaventura . . . with three-fingered Jack and lodged him in jail.39 Another time he returned from San Francisco bringing back a bogus detective with a passion for counterfeiting greenbacks.40 When another passer of counterfeit bills was known to be in Los Angeles, Harris was assig

    • emil harrisa britt, Mon Apr 19 2:18pm
      great article, but LA history shows Harris was the second police chief. Jacob Gerkins was the first, but only last a year.
    • Thanks Leah, I enjoyed it. I also recommend the chapter on Harris in William B. Secrest's "Lawmen and Desperadoes. A Compendium of Noted, Early California Peace Officers, Badmen and Outlaws... more
      • Hi Mark, I am glad that you enjoyed it!Leah, Fri Mar 19 11:44am
        I enjoy Bill Secrest's books. I also mentioned down a few threads that my favorite of his books is "California Badmen: Mean Men With Guns". The research and the writing are first class,and the... more
      • Link to the above article And moreLeah, Fri Mar 19 11:36am
        This is the link for the above article on Emil Harris: And this is a link for Western States Jewish History Annnd some... more
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