Written by Joe Walker, Los Angles County Sheriff's Department Crime Analyst
Inside the tiny cemetery at the San Gabriel Mission lie many small grave markers and many large ones. Right as you walk inside the imposing main gates, about 40 yards inside is a faded tombstone with the name Anton Harnischfeger on it. It notes his date of birth, July 4th, 1849, and his date of death, March 20th, 1889. What the marker doesn’t say, and which they rarely do say, is that Harnischfeger was one of the first lawmen ever killed in Los Angeles County, and he died protecting the citizens of Garvanza in Northeast Los Angeles, near Highland Park.
Anton Harnischfeger was in his early 20’s when he emigrated from Prussia, (modern day Germany). He became a naturalized citizen on October 7th, 1872, while living in the East Village of Manhattan. He soon fell in love with a New York City woman named Mary Herbeck and after they married their family quickly grew. Like most immigrants who came to the United States during this time period, Anton and Mary likely lived in crowded tenements under fairly deplorable conditions. One way out was to learn a trade. Anton trained to be a barber. He cut hair in Manhattan and did very well. He became known as the barber for high society. He enjoyed that life and lived well, but he always wanted a better life. He even became the barber of choice for New York City’s notorious William C. “Boss” Tweed. He even cut Tweed’s hair when he went to jail.
In the late nineteenth century, many Americans left cold, wet climates for health reasons. Anton was no different. His asthma forced him to seek a warmer climate. For several years Harnischfeger heard about the much better weather and open space “out west.”
When Anton and his family arrived in Southern California in 1885, most people who travelled from one side of the country to the other had one of two options. They either took long boat journeys down around the tip of South America or traveled on one of trans-continental railroads. Either trip was long and grueling. 1885 was the year that the Santa Fe railroad broke the Southern Pacific’s monopoly in Southern California. Rail fares were remarkably inexpensive and this touched off a land boom that of which the Harnischfegers were a part. Still, the long trip across country was no doubt a challenge for Anton, Mary and their four children.
Once the Harnischfegers arrived in Los Angeles, they were likely amazed at the contrast with New York City. Huge lots of land were available for next to nothing. The weather was beautiful with no extremes. Opportunity abounded. Anton set up his barber shop in Garvanza, (most likely near the Garvanza Hotel which was near where North Avenue 63 intersects with York Blvd in current Highland Park). This was an exciting time of growth in the area. Most notably, the Santa Fe just completed the first train trestle across the Arroyo Seco.
By 1889, Garvanza was a vibrant suburb of Los Angeles with a few hundred residents. Many of them lived in small homes on large lots suitable for small scale sustainable farms or ranches. Several retail stores catered to various needs of the Garvanza residents. It had its own utilities, its own school, and its own volunteer fire department. It also had its own “town sheriff” or as they were known then, their own “constable.” Constables were either appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors or elected and served as the resident lawman for the community. Constables prepared and served eviction notices and other legal records. They also worked closely with the local justice of the peace who was the local judge in the community. The arrest powers of a constable were limited. Unless a crime was committed in their presence, constables needed a warrant from a justice of the peace to make an arrest.
Anton worked as the Garvanza Constable in addition to his duties cutting hair. Helping maintain the peace and investigating crimes in the area, along with his barber duties, kept him busy. In early March 1889, he helped convict two brothers, Jim and George Cullen, who beat to death a local Garvanza rancher named William Patterson.
The Patterson murder was a big case at the time, and newly appointed Constable Anton Harnischfeger was widely praised for his hard, effective work. He was a true rising star that had a bright future ahead.
By 1889, Anton was well regarded as the local constable and when he got word of a dispute on the banks of the Arroyo, he did not hesitate to act. A man named B.G. Sprague lived in a shack near the rambling river. He was poor, but not as destitute as most people who lived in the dilapidated homes near the river,. News accounts describe Sprague as "a little off in his upper story" but none of his neighbors thought he was dangerous. He was originally from Illinois, but most of his family who moved with him to Southern California no longer lived in the area.
The Arroyo Seco dwellers lived on what they could derive from the creek. They caught small fish and hunted birds and small game. A decent rainfall fell on the night of March 17th, 1889, which meant that families that derived their livelihood from the stream would see a good onslaught of useable debris wash down the Arroyo.
One of Sprague’s more impoverished neighbors was the Lightener family. The Lightners had a 15-year old daughter named Ida. She took advantage of the river’s bounty and spent several hours gathering driftwood and laying it on the banks of the Arroyo to dry. Firewood was expensive and a precious commodity in the 1880's. Any wood that could be found was always a blessing that preserved precious funds for other things. Sprague discovered Ida's hard work which she stacked near his house. Rather than respect the unspoken laws of rural America, he used the cover of darkness and the full moon that night to steal all of Ida's drying fuel and haul it back to his hut.
The next day Ida saw that Sprague had absconded with all of her wood. She did not make a fuss about it. She simply went to his shack and took it back. She then proceeded back to the Arroyo to gather more wood to help her family keep warm and cook their meals. Sprague returned from an errand and was furious to see what Ida had done. She knew he was not very balanced but never saw him as a physical threat. That ended a few seconds later when he approached her with a large stick and attacked her, beating her until she fled back to her family home. Sprague, showing his increasing detachment from reality, did nothing to hide or conceal himself and went home.
Little Ida Lightener ran home and her mother and 10 year old brother, Hiram, were horrified to see her bloody and bruised head. Mrs Lightener talked with several neighbors who all encouraged her to file a report. In 1889 Los Angeles, if you wanted to report a crime, you went into town and saw the justice of the peace. The local justice’s office was a place where wedding licenses were issued, legal documents filed, and where justice of the peace ruled on criminal and civil matters. Mrs Lightener and Ida shared the details of the assault with Justice P.E. King and a warrant was issued for Sprague's arrest.
Constable Harnischfeger knew that Sprague was trouble. He had been heard making threats to local residents, saying he would "take the law into his own hands" if things didn't go his way. As was the custom back then if things looked risky, Anton deputized two local men, including his predecessor as Garvanza Constable W.F.D. Jones, and at around 2 PM headed to the Arroyo. The three men on horseback attracted two more assistants, and by the time they got to Sprague's home, there were five men in total surrounding the cabin.
Sprague was ready. He barricaded himself inside and refused to come out when requested. They called out numerous times to surrender, and Sprague could see there was no way out. The brave constable stood at the entrance and when the cowardly attacker of Ida Lightener wouldn't give up, he acted as he had to, and kicked in the door. The wood frame broke into splinters and rather than quietly give up and take the punishment due him, Sprague took careful aim with his Bulldog .38 caliber revolver, and a plume of deadly gunpowder delivered a lead bullet directly into the forehead of Harnischfeger, causing him to fall backwards onto the porch with his mortal wound. His assistants opened fire on the killer's home, and a fierce gun battle ensued.
Amazingly, none of the deputies' bullets hit Sprague, and he fled into the wilderness of the Arroyo, towards South Pasadena.
While a posse of men took off after Sprague, (news accounts are not clear, but it appears he fled on foot into the woods near the Arroyo while his pursuers were on horseback) Constable Harnischfeger was taken to the Lightener house to have his wounds treated. Newspaper accounts of his wound were graphic. Blood and brain matter was oozing from the wound and Dr. Whaley was summoned and pronounced the gravely wounded hero to be beyond help. He gave him injections to ease his suffering, and he was brought to the doctor’s home office a few blocks away to await the inevitable.
The town’s people in Garvanza were in an uproar. They used the telegraph to notify the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office downtown and soon lawmen from all over the area were joining in the pursuit. The constables of South Pasadena and Alhambra were both activated and checking their areas for any sign of the murderous river dweller. Sprague was not shy about firing at his pursuers, and in a rocky area of South Pasadena, one of his bullets ricocheted off a large boulder and struck a resident who happened to be walking by and knew nothing of the murder. In South Pasadena Harry W. Patton, a local resident and the Register of the United States Land Office, joined the posse.
As the pursuers closed in on Sprague, one of the posse members, John Lindsey, fired his shotgun into the dense brush at the criminal. Each blast struck Sprague slowing his pace. Finally, Sprague and the posse reached the San Gabriel Winery. The blood loss was affecting Sprauge and he was running on adrenaline. Harry W. Patton aimed his rifle at the frantic man. The shot from Patton’s rifle tore into Sprague’s side, knocking him down. The posse approached the wounded man who was still uttering his curses at those people that had done him wrong. Patton yelled out, “Throw down your gun or I will shoot again” and Sprague complied.
Sprague was brought to the nearby South Pasadena Raymond Hotel. As he was being carried away, he bragged that he had been shot before, but claimed that “this time I’m done for.” Both the lawman and the bad man lingered after receiving their fatal wounds. Despite his grave injury Harnischfeger lived two days longer, but soon his body lay next to that of his killer’s in the local undertaker’s office.
Anton Harnischfeger was given a proper Catholic burial at the San Gabriel Mission. Sprague’s body was taken by his family to an undisclosed resting spot. Even in death, his life was lonely and secretive.
Harnischfeger’s widow remarried and remained in the Garvanza area and was active in the community. In 1896, a newspaper account noted that she was part of a group called the Helping Hands Club that collected clothing for needy children. In 1905, one of Harnischfeger’s daughters, Lillian was an active member of the Garvanza Drama Club. In 1928, Anton Harnischfeger’s son Tony and his grandson Coder died in a catastrophe far more horrific than the murder of the Garvanza constable. Tony was the keeper of the St. Francis Dam in the San Francisquito Canyon. Both he and his son 6-year-old son were in the blockhouse of the dam on the night of March 12th, 1928 when the dam collapsed. They were among the nearly 600 people who perished in the disaster.
Constable Anton Harnischfeger’s story was unknown until it was discovered last year. In May, his name will be added to the California Peace Officers Memorial in Sacramento, the National Memorial in Washington D.C., and the Los Angeles County Peace Officers Memorial.