“The appetite grows with eating.” Many in the late 19th Century applied the French proverb to an insatiable urge to filibuster: to conquer foreign territories with private armies.
If appetite grows, then Captain John H. Janes was land-hungry. “San Diego,” he wrote in 1884, “the only salvation for you: raise a filibustering army, take [Lower California] and annex it…There is no piece of such geographical importance to the United States; it belongs naturally to Alta California.”
Since the long-awaited “Coming Man” never appeared, in the mid-1880s Janes anointed himself “Messiah of the Southland.” The “eccentric old salt” built a house in San Pedro from parts of wrecked ships. In his newspaper editorials, he advocated splitting California in two. The southern half would include Lower (Baja) California.
“San Diego, get ready to filibuster Lower California, and I will raise 500 men to help you!”
Janes made his offer despite a bloody tradition of failure. From 1850 to 1890, at least a dozen self-appointed saviors tried to conquer lands below the border. In 1888, while Janes recruited for his own invasion, Colonel J.E. Mulkey organized the Los Angeles chapter of the Order of the Golden Field. This secret society — connected, some say, to the slavery-promoting Knights of the Golden Circle — wanted to make Lower California the new “Republic of Northern Mexico.” The takeover, Mulkey assured Bascom A. Stephens, a Bohemian journalist, “will simply be the story of Texas all over again.” Capture the peninsula, annex it to the United States.
In July 1888, a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle disguised himself as an itinerant worker. He went to Los Angeles and begged Mulkey to let him join. Impressed with the young man’s fervor, Mulkey boasted that the Golden Field had men in “high authority” across the country. When the time came, over 20,000 soldiers would “strike the blow” in Baja.
They talked from sundown to 9:00 p.m. When his new recruit left, Mulkey grew suspicious. That kid asked pointed questions, like a reporter. So Mulkey grabbed his coat and tailed the mystery man through downtown Los Angeles — and watched him hustle up the steps of the Los Angeles Tribune.
Afraid he blabbed top secret information, Mulkey raced to the Los Angeles Times. He told an editor: “I just gave a rival reporter some ‘fill’” — minor details — “about a filibuster.” Then he outlined the entire scheme, “to break the force of the anticipated account.”
Next morning, the Tribune printed two vague sentences about a possible filibuster, no names, no dates. The L.A. Times printed Mulkey’s detailed retraction. In effect, he unwittingly exposed his plan. “The publicity,” wrote the Times, “proved fatal.”
By the time Mulkey sabotaged himself, the real estate boom of the 1880s began to bust, as did the gold rush to the mines of Lower California. At the height of the rush, the manager of the Hotel del Coronado had to telegraph San Francisco for help: all his employees ran off to the mines. Then land values tumbled. Struck hardest, along with San Diego developers holding property in Baja, was the Mexico Land and Colonization Company. The British consortium owned millions of acres in Baja. Only annexation, they believed, would raise property values and prevent bankruptcy.
Early in 1890, Janes was recruiting in Oregon and Washington for his filibuster. B.A. Stephens, Mulkey’s colleague, established a chapter of the Golden Field in San Diego. He started a newspaper with C. A. Harris, The Republic, devoted to annexation and anti-Mexico slurs. Augustus Merrill, editor of the weekly Informant, let them use his printers.
Merrill told Stephens and Harris about a fool-proof plan to capture Lower California. After demanding a pledge of secrecy, he introduced them to Walter G. Smith, editor of the San Diego Sun and local firebrand.
A former member of the New York legislature, the five-foot, nine-inch Smith lived with a wife and three children in Coronado. In an era of sleek Van Dyke beards and spikey handlebar mustaches, Smith was clean-shaven — and was so abrasive, a rival editor claimed he “could say more mean things in less space than another man could, and say them meaner.”
People wondered what Smith had more of, friends or enemies. One time, several outraged gents stormed the Sun’s office across from Horton Plaza. They picked him up and heaved all 200 pounds out the second-floor window. A balcony cushioned the fall.
“My father,” a daughter said, “has a way of stimulating people.”
Smith’s most ardent cause was Manifest Destiny. America is destined to grow. And since expansion stopped at the Pacific Coast, it was time to turn south. Although he denied everything in a letter 17 years later, Smith devised a grand strategy to capture Baja.
His idea: the Mexico Land and Colonization Company — called the “English Company” — says it will build a railroad from Ensenada to San Quintín. That way they could infiltrate 300 insurgents disguised as laborers to the peninsula. Instead of laying out tracks, they storm Ensenada. The town had 60 troops at best, and most were convicted criminals sentenced to military duty.
On April 7, the four men met at the Informant with eight fellow conspirators, among them Ranford Worthing, financier and former mining boss; Colonel Edward Hill, Civil War veteran with large holdings in Baja; and Captain John H. Janes. He came to San Diego to recruit for his own scheme but — out of curiosity? — decided to join the confederacy of editors.
The next night, the “Council of 15” met in a private room at the Hotel del Coronado. Smith declared himself “Governor General of the New Republic of Lower California.” To intensify involvement he made everyone a general: Merrill, commanding general; Hill, war general; et cetera. Janes, “the oldest filibuster of all,” became general of the navy.
Hill offered $5000 of his own money, plus another $20,000 if the English Company honored their $100,000 promise to fund the filibuster. Hill said everyone at the English Company favored the plan except the president, Sir Edward Jenkinson.