A couple of weeks ago, someone left a comment on the Lopez Adobe Facebook page (click here) simply saying “Charles Maclay the murderer,” in reference to the founder, in 1874, of San Fernando.
So, was Maclay a murderer?
Let’s go back first to his move west from his native Pennsylvania. Maclay was born in 1822 in the central part of the state and his father left the Presbyterian Church for the Methodist Episcopal Church. The intense interest the family manifested was such that all five sons became M.E. ministers, including Charles. The young man started keeping a journal in 1845, shortly after he was ordained, and he was a circuit-rider and avid fund-raiser for M.E. colleges in his area.
In 1847, Maclay’s brother, Robert, became the pioneer Methodist missionary in Asia when he sailed for China. There and in Japan over four decades, Robert became famed for his efforts. With this in mind, probably, Charles dreamed of his own missionary endeavors
In his journal in February 1849, Maclay wrote of his idea “to go to California & get a large quantity of gold,” with which to endow a college in Pennsylvania. The following year, in March 1850, he observed that “I am ready at the call of the church either for china or California.”
As 1851 dawned, Maclay learned he had been selected to go to the Pacific Coast to minister in the newest state of the Union, fully in the throes of the chaos and disorder of the Gold Rush. He married Catherine Lloyd of nearby Williamsport and the newlyweds left New York on April Fools’ Day, arriving in San Francisco on 5 May. From there, they were sent to Santa Clara to establish a church. He worked to build the church with his own hands, forming adobe bricks for the walls, and bought and cultivated a farm, as well.
Maclay also employed his fund-raising interests in helping to found a new college called California Wesleyan, the first Protestant college in California when it opened its doors in 1852. Later, it became the College (now University) of the Pacific, which relocated to Stockton. Maclay remained on the Board of Trustees until 1873, when he relocated to the Los Angeles area. Not surprisingly, one of his pet projects at San Fernando was to establish a theological seminary, which was covered in an earlier post on this blog.
Charles Maclay (1822-1890), founder of San Fernando. From the California Historical Society Photograph Collection, University of Southern California Digital Library.
As to his ministering, Maclay enthusiastically pursued street preaching in San Francisco in August 1851 during the church’s Annual Conference. One day, while he was working the crowd, a strange incident happened. Here’s how Maclay explained matters in a journal entry of 14 August:
I preached on the Plaza at 4 1/2 [4:30 p.m.] to a multitude of men of every cast. Gamblers, etc. When I was speaking of the death of the ungodly, how miserable they died, some poor wicked wretch cried out it is a lie & swore most profanely. he was shot I guess under the fifth rib & could not stand it much longer. They soon took him off, he had not one to back him. I told him to hold on a little that I was about to change the picture & no doubt the christian’s death would fall more sweetly upon his ear & not [word is illegible] up the sympathy of his heart. They showed him out of it.
It is said that Maclay then called for a collection to bury the man and raised $130.
Evidently, though, a granddaughter, not named, of Maclay stated that he had actually pulled out a pistol and shot the heckler. Whether this came from family lore or was how this descendant interpreted the somewhat cryptic diary entry is not known. On one hand, it seems fantastic that an ordained minister would, in broad daylight and before a large crowd, shoot a man amid the assemblage. Then again, it was Gold Rush San Francisco.
Notably, that city had two periods of turmoil during the 1850s that brought about the formation of citizen-led vigilance committees. The first was in 1851, the year Maclay arrived in the Bay Area and the other was five years later. In this latter, some 7,000 men were said to have joined the committee and about 3/4 of them were identified from lists published in newspapers.
Number 1161, with his $2.50 in dues fully paid up, was the Reverend Charles Maclay, who used his pulpit at the Folsom Street Methodist Episcopal Church to preach twice on 25 May on the topic of “The Life and Death of James King of William” and “The Duty of Citizens.” The grandiosely named King of William was a newspaper publisher whose murder was the flashpoint for the vigilante committee’s work.
A biographer, Charles Cole, wrote in 1996 that Maclay’s subsequent career in the California legislature showed that he was firmly allied with the Yankee merchant and professional class that was exerting its control in San Francisco and which embraced the new Republican Party when it was created in 1856.
One of Maclay’s allies was railroad tycoon and California governor and senator Leland Stanford. Years later, it was Stanford who advanced the $60,000 Maclay needed to redeem a mortgage for the 56,000 acres of Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando that included the town of San Fernando along Stanford’s Southern Pacific railroad line from Los Angeles to the north. The friendly relations continued even when Maclay switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party in the late 1860s, but remained an unabashed supporter of the railroad interests of the Southern Pacific.
A key reason for Maclay’s relocation to southern California was that his nephew, Robert Maclay Widney, who arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1860s, just in time for that small town’s first sustained growth period, was becoming a major player in the “City of Angels.” Widney, who parlayed his efforts in real estate into a handsome fortune, also became enmeshed, it was said, in vigilantism.
In December 1870, French native Michel Lachenais, who had once left Los Angeles for San Diego in the early 1860s after killing a fellow Frenchman, and who killed at least one other person (and, perhaps, his wife, who died young under mysterious circumstances), got into a dispute with a neighbor over the boundaries of their properties and killed his adversary. A mob of ciizens, enraged that Lachenais had again committed a homicide, stormed the jail where he was being held and hung him from the sturdy crossarm of a lumber yard gate. Horace Bell, in his posthumous memoir On the Old West Coast, claimed the leaders of the lynch mob were the Rev. A.M. Hough of the St. Athanasius M.E. Church and the “real estate agent” [Bell had a habit of not naming prominent persons by name] who was a church member. Merchant Harris Newmark stated it was a French barber, Felix Signoret, who was at the head of the mob that strung Lachenais up, but Widney’s reputation as vigilante continued.
Ironically, Widney became the District Court judge in 1871 just in time for the trials of men accused of lynching a man during the horrific Chinese Massacre that October. In the 1880s, when he was in private practice, Widney’s past was brought up in court, which compelled him to draw his weapon to defend his honor!
As for Maclay, his past as a vigilante in San Francisco and, if true, his pistol packing proclivities as a preacher, did not seem to factor in the seventeen years he lived in San Fernando. When he died at age 68 of eye cancer in 1890, there was no mention of these aspects of his life.