Tangled Vines by Frances Dinkelspiel is a true account the greed, murder, obsession, and arsonist that have plagued the vineyards of California (available October 6, 2015).
On October 12, 2005, a massive fire broke out in the Wines Central wine warehouse in Vallejo, California. Within hours, the flames had destroyed 4.5 million bottles of California's finest wine worth more than $250 million, making it the largest destruction of wine in history. The fire had been deliberately set by a passionate oenophile named Mark Anderson, a skilled con man and thief with storage space at the warehouse who needed to cover his tracks. With a propane torch and a bucket of gasoline-soaked rags, Anderson annihilated entire California vineyard libraries as well as bottles of some of the most sought-after wines in the world. Among the priceless bottles destroyed were 175 bottles of Port and Angelica from one of the oldest vineyards in California made by Frances Dinkelspiel's great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman, in 1875. Sadly, Mark Anderson was not the first to harm the industry. The history of the California wine trade, dating back to the 19th Century, is a story of vineyards with dark and bloody pasts, tales of rich men, strangling monopolies, the brutal enslavement of vineyard workers and murder. Five of the wine trade murders were associated with Isaias Hellman's vineyard in Rancho Cucamonga beginning with the killing of John Rains who owned the land at the time. He was shot several times, dragged from a wagon and left off the main road for the coyotes to feed on. In her new book, Frances Dinkelspiel looks beneath the casually elegant veneer of California's wine regions to find the obsession, greed and violence lying in wait.
Blood on the Land
The troubles of Rancho Cucamonga started on November 17, 1862. Rains got up early that chilly fall day to ride into Los Angeles, a trip of about forty miles. It was a journey he took often, steering his horse across the mesa covered in chaparral, sagebrush, and manzanita and past the great Chino and San Antonio ranchos. Rains, in fact, had just returned a few days earlier from the pueblo where new two- and three-story brick buildings were replacing traditional one-story adobes. He was reluctant to leave his wife, Merced, and their four young children so soon again, particularly since the twenty-three-year-old was pregnant. But business was pressing. Debts were closing in on him.
As he prepared to depart from Rancho Cucamonga, Rains, thirty-four, entered his bedroom and walked over to the bureau where he stored his pistols. They were not there. Puzzled, Rains asked his wife if she had seen them. She had not, nor had anyone else in the household. Rains was concerned about traveling without a gun—few did that in the turbulent days of the Civil War—but he decided not to postpone the trip.
Around noon, Rains went out the corral behind his house, the one that looked down on his fruit orchards and vineyard spreading to the south. The vines were increasingly barren, dropping their leaves as winter advanced. But Rains must have had a sense of satisfaction, tinged with worry, as he looked over his property. It was prospering, producing high-quality grapes and wines, pears, apples and other fruits, even though it was heavily mortgaged. He had come a long way from his childhood in Alabama. He was now a land baron, owner of thousands of acres of prime ranch land in southern California, a man to be respected. Rains ordered his horses to be hitched to his wagon and began what he expected to be a six-hour journey west.
He never got there.
* * *
Two days after Rains departed, the horses he had hitched to the wagon turned up at Rancho Cucamonga. They were covered with sweat. They had no harnesses. They had no riders. But for some reason, the unaccompanied horses did not raise alarm.
In Los Angeles, Rains missed the appointments he had scheduled. The room set aside for Rains at the Bella Union Hotel on Main Street was never occupied. On Friday, five days after Rains left his home, Dr. Winston, one of the people who had expected to see Rains in Los Angeles, knocked on Doña Merced’s door in Rancho Cucamonga. He was traveling from Los Angeles on his way to the Colorado River and he decided to inquire about his missing friend. Rains’s wife, caught up caring for her young children and the three half siblings also in her care, had not thought hard about the whereabouts of her husband. But the unexpected visit from Dr. Winston made her realize something was amiss. She sent word to her brother-in-law, Robert Carlisle, at the nearby Rancho Chino: Rains was missing.
By the next day, a Saturday, scores of men led by Carlisle and Sheriff Tomás Avila Sánchez were combing the roads and trails between Rancho Cucamonga and Los Angeles. They rode their horses into washes, traveled up arroyos, and looked for freshly overturned soil. Nothing.
On Sunday, the search party fanned out in a hilly area that lay between the road to Los Angeles and one that cut away north to the old Mission San Gabriel. Someone spotted a hat hidden away in the brush. It was identified as Rains’s.
The next couple of hours were brutal ones as the searchers made their way up a sandy arroyo. Finally, as the sun was setting and dusk was descending, a searcher discovered Rains’s wagon at the bottom of a steep ravine, tucked into bushes to hide it from the road.
After a night of heavy rain, the search resumed on Monday. Rains’s harness, neatly folded, was found high in a sycamore tree. His overcoat was discovered a half mile away near a Honolulu newspaper that Rains had carried from home. It was soaked in blood. But no body was discovered.
“The melancholy fact that he has been murdered, in broad daylight, on the open road can no longer be doubted,” reported the Los Angeles Star. “The deed was the result of a deliberate plan, carried out more successfully than any ever heretofore attempted in this section of the State.”
The paper held out little hope for Rains, whom it characterized as a man who had a “courage that knew no danger.” Although Rains was “impulsive,” he was “of a most generous nature and we do not believe harbored ill will of anyone,” read the article.
Finally, on Friday, November 28, eleven days after Rains had left home, searchers, including Carlisle and A. J. King, an undersheriff for Los Angeles, spotted Rains’s body. It had been hidden in a cactus patch about 400 feet from the main road. The sight was not pretty. Rains had been murdered. The assailants had lassoed Rains’s right arm and tugged him off the wagon, pulling so hard they dislocated his shoulder. Then they shot him twice in the back, once in the chest, and once on the right side. His clothes were gone; all that remained was one boot. Coyotes had mutilated the corpse. Rains’s face had started to decay; his rescuers identified him by his black beard.46
“The murder was not committed for the sake of plunder,” wrote the Star. “It must have been the result of some slight, long brooded over by a black malignant heart, associating with itself others of like nature.”
Rains was just the first in a long line of men who would die because of Rancho Cucamonga.
* * *
More than 150 years later, I was sitting in the light-filled reading room of the Bancroft Library at University of California at Berkeley, thumbing through a fragile diary. Before me was a calculation of assets and liabilities that Rains had written. It showed that he had borrowed large sums of money just five days before his death, using his rancho as collateral.
The lined blue paper was brittle, and crackled as I handled the edges, making me afraid it might tear. The fact that it was still around seemed miraculous. Benjamin Hayes, a lawyer and the sole judge for Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Bernardino counties in the early days of California’s statehood, had preserved the paper. Hayes, who had come to Los Angeles in 1850, recognized he was living in the middle of a historic moment: California’s transition from Mexican to American rule. As an educated man with a degree from St. Mary’s University in Baltimore, Hayes decided to document the era. He amassed thousands of newspaper clippings about the region’s climate, agriculture, people, and business, into 138 scrapbooks. They now reside at the Bancroft.
I looked at the figures Rains had written down more than 150 years earlier.
“Amount due me from the government: $15,000,” Rains had written at the top. “Amount due me from wine: $3,500,” read the line below. And then, “Amount due me from other parties: $2,500. Wine on hand in San Francisco: $3,000.” In total, Rains was expecting $24,000 in income.
Then Rains listed his liabilities. They totaled $14,600 and most came from loans he had taken out from various Los Angeles merchants, all of whom happened to be Jewish. He owed Bachman and Fleishman and Sichel $5,000; Helman & Co. [sic] $2,000; Fleishman by himself $1,300; Lazard and Co. $500 and Kalisher & Co. $1,300. He also owed $2,500 for the Bella Union Hotel and $2,000 to others.47 Rains also noted that he had 6,000 head of cattle, horses, mares, rents due, and land totaling $184,000.
I was a bit in awe as I looked at Rains’s mathematical notations. It was if I was looking at a piece of evidence, a clue to a long-ago event that shattered lives and led to enormous changes in the ownership of Rancho Cucamonga and its famed vineyard. The paper connected to my life, too. My ancestor, Isaias Hellman, eventually took over that land. The grapes Rains planted had probably been used to make the wine that was destroyed in the Vallejo warehouse fire.
I wondered why Rains had been murdered. He was a wealthy and influential man, the kind who usually didn’t get gunned down in broad daylight. He may have had enemies, but he had many more friends, and they were the leading businessmen and merchants of the day. He had a beautiful and well-connected wife, one whose roots extended to the earliest days of Spain’s domination of Alta California. Who would want him dead?
Hayes soon found himself obsessed with that exact question. Hayes only knew Rains and his wife slightly before the murder. He had seen the couple a month after their marriage, when he visited one of the region’s ranchos. He noted their meeting in a diary entry, referring to Merced as the “rich heiress.”48 But as the region’s judge, Hayes found himself drawn into the search for Rains’s body and the hunt for the killer. He signed arrest warrants and held hearings for the various suspects. Hayes eventually became so absorbed with Rains’s death and the fate of his vineyard that he became the lawyer for his widow. He lent her money and got the Cucamonga Vineyard as collateral. He recorded his observations and growing involvement in the case in a section of a scrapbook titled “The Cucamonga Papers.” The notes and articles present a horrifying picture of death, vengeance, revenge, and betrayal. The murder and the hunt for the killer set off a reign of terror in southern California and deepened the distrust between the Californios and Americans. In total, five men would die because of struggles surrounding Rancho Cucamonga.
* * *
The mud was thick and water pooled in the carriage tracks on Main Street in Los Angeles as the group of Masons followed John Rains’s casket to the Bella Union Hotel. It was ten a.m. on November 30, 1862, two days after Rains’s body had been found under a cactus patch, and hundreds of people had come to pay their respects. After some brief remarks by the priest, a procession of mourners walked behind the hearse to the cemetery. A band playing somber music accompanied the procession. It was “one of the most sad and impressive spectacles which has ever been witnessed in our midst,” noted the Los Angeles Star.
Rains’s death threw his wife, Doña Merced, into a panic. She was only twenty-three and had always lived under the protection of a man—first her wealthy and generous father and then, scarcely three days after her father’s death, her husband. She was now a widow with four children under four and another one on the way. Merced, who had deep brown eyes and who piled her hair into an elaborate chignon on her head, had been raised to be a genteel woman, skilled in the arts of beauty, dance, and hospitality. She didn’t know how to run a rancho or vineyard, and hadn’t the vaguest clue how to navigate a changing economy where the unhurried ways of the Californios were giving way to a landscape ruled by commerce and competition.
It soon became apparent to Doña Merced that her husband, the man she had considered her gallant protector, had put her in a difficult situation. He hadn’t written a will. He had left significant debts. Most ominously, Rains had not put his wife’s name on any of the deeds securing Rancho Cucamonga or other large parcels of land in San Diego and Los Angeles counties, or on the papers that brought him partial ownership of the Bella Union Hotel. Rains had used Doña Merced’s inheritance to become a land baron, but had not ensured her legal right to the property. “He fraudulently contrived and intended to deprive her of her separate property and convert it to his own use,” Hayes wrote in his scrapbook.
To the men surrounding Doña Merced, she must have seemed like easy prey. She was young, she was isolated at Rancho Cucamonga, she had small children and sisters to care for, and she was naïve in the ways of the world. How else to explain their actions on March 14, 1863?
Doña Merced had just finished her breakfast and was bustling around her home when there was a knock at the front door. Standing in the entryway were six men, including three who were close to Merced—Stephen C. Foster, her forty-two-year old uncle and the first American mayor of Los Angeles under U.S. military rule; Robert Carlisle, who was married to her sister, Francisca; and Elijah K. Dunlap, the vineyard manager and administrator of her husband’s estate. Three others joined them.
A day earlier, Judge Hayes had ruled that all the land Rains had purchased also belonged to his wife, even though he hadn’t recorded her name on the deeds. As soon as the judge signed the order, Merced’s attorney rushed to the clerk’s office in San Bernardino and registered half of Rancho Cucamonga in her name and half in her children’s names. When Merced greeted her visitors, she was one of the largest female landowners in the state. All her landholdings in San Bernardino County, Los Angeles County, and San Diego County were worth more than $150,000.
Merced invited the men to her parlor, a room in the front of the house far from the noisy patio and kitchen. As they settled onto the silk-covered horsehair settee and dark wood chairs drawn close to a crackling fireplace, the men delivered a sobering message: Merced wasn’t capable of navigating the world of business, of raising grapes and making wine, or managing cattle. They told Merced that Rains had taken out close to $14,600 in mortgages secured against Rancho Cucamonga (about $5 million in 2013 dollars), and it would take expert management to pay off the debt. How could a woman with five young children know the best way to proceed?
The discussion continued for hours, through lunch, past the deepening winter afternoon, and into the evening. By the time the meeting was over, an exhausted and defeated Merced had signed a power of attorney giving control over all her land and her possessions to Carlisle. Her brother-in-law would now make the decisions for Merced and her children. He could buy, sell, lease, or mortgage her lands. He could collect all the income from the vineyard, cattle sales, and rent from the Bella Union Hotel. He could decide how much to send to Doña Merced and her children for living expenses.
The legal document, written in English, a language with which Merced was not entirely comfortable, made the transfer of power irrevocable.
It was a decision Merced would soon come to regret.
* * *
Carlisle and Rains had worked closely together when settling up their father-in-law’s huge estate, so it seemed to make sense that he would take over Doña Merced’s affairs. But Doña Merced soon became convinced that her brother-in-law was focused more on his own interests than hers. He rarely sent her spending money, leaving her so poor that she and her three half sisters started doing the laundry and ironing for the vineyard workers to buy enough food and provisions for the family. Carlisle and his wife did not visit Rancho Cucamonga for a five-month stretch from October 1863 until February 1864, even though Doña Merced was at home with five young children, including a newborn, and her siblings. Nor did Carlisle and her sister, Francisca, invite Merced to their rancho in Chino. Doña Merced’s modern brick marvel, once the expression of hope for the future, had become her prison. At one point Merced pleaded for help: “Judge Hayes, please to send me $30 to $40 if you can [spare] them for I have not a dollar in the house.”
While Merced was desperate for cash, Carlisle was busy selling off her assets and pocketing the funds. He sold fifty head of her cattle for $5,000. He sold the 1862 wine vintage to a local wine dealer for $2,665. He collected more than $2,025 in rents from the Bella Union Hotel. But he did not use one penny of the money to pay down the $14,600 in mortgages on Rancho Cucamonga.49
Then on February 13, 1864, the San Bernardino probate court approved the sale of Merced’s half-interest in one of her properties, Rancho Valle de San Jose, a 17,000-acre tract in San Diego County. Rains had purchased the land in July 1861 for $3,450. The new buyer? Robert Carlisle. The sale price? Three hundred dollars.
Carlisle’s actions infuriated Doña Merced and Benjamin Hayes, who had become so involved with the case that he regarded himself as Merced’s protector. Carlisle had gotten her land for a pittance, a fraction of what it should have commanded. It seemed clear that he was intent on enriching himself at her expense. By not paying interest on the mortgages either, Carlisle appeared to want to deliberately put Rancho Cucamonga in jeopardy. In a March 5, 1864, notice in the Los Angeles Star, Merced announced she was revoking Carlisle’s power of attorney. It had, she said, been obtained from her “without consideration and by fraud.”
The Star was the most widely read English-language newspaper of the day and many of Carlisle’s colleagues, the town’s merchants, farmers, and politicians, would have seen the insulting notice. Carlisle couldn’t let that slight go unchallenged. Four days later he ran his own notice in the newspaper. He denied all the charges and blamed the vitriolic ad on Hayes. “I declare such notice totally false in every respect and pronounce Hayes a low-lived nullifier, liar, and coward.”
Sides had been drawn for a new battle over the fate of Rancho Cucamonga. The consequences would be bloody.
Copyright © 2015 Frances Dinkelspiel.
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Frances Dinkelspiel is an award-winning author and journalist. Her most recent book is Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California