CLOTHESLINE, a story of early California

© Copyright 2015 by Douglas Noble
All rights reserved. This story or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the author.


A Treatment for a Screenplay
by Douglas Noble

This story is based on true events.

San Quentin Booking Picture

San Quentin Booking Picture

A young, third-class, California born Mexican woman takes on the railroad barons and the railroad controlled, corrupt California government of the late 19th century, over property rights, costing her freedom and her life.


TIME FRAME: 1888-1891



San Juan Capistrano, a small, near-coastal southern California town south of Los Angeles. The area is predominately agricultural.
A Franciscan Mission was established at this location on November 1, 1776 (All Saints Day). The Mission San Juan Capistrano is now world famous because the swallows return there to breed every year on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19).

Several adobe buildings were constructed near the Mission to house the indigenous people who worked there. This would become the main street.

The missions were probably as much law as was needed, but in 1832 all the land passed from Spain to Mexico and Mexico began secularization in 1834, with half of all mission lands to be turned over to local native groups. With that they lost a lot of their power.

In 1848 California was ceded to the United States by Mexico as a result of the War with Mexico (Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago.)

Gold was discovered east of Sacramento about the same time and the famous California Gold Rush of 1849 started. Most of the people who came to mine gold were white, although they came from many places.

The easy gold gave out in a few years and they went elsewhere to look for adventure.

In 1860 almost all of the land in southern California was owned by Californios (Mexicans living in California when it became part of the United States) and their descendants. They also controlled 75% of the economy with their farms, cattle, etc.

By 1870, ten years later, their land ownership dropped to around 10% as had the control of the economy. The major reason was that the United States government denied the validity of their Mexican Land Grants and allowed white Americans to move in and claim the land.

Many of the Californios sold their property to pay for the costs of fighting in court to keep it.

Society at the time is four-leveled. At the top are the Anglos, then the “Spanish” (rich Spanish landowners and Mexicans they like), Mexicans (Modesta and family) and finally, the local Indians.

Originally there was very little law or law enforcement and many “vigilante” groups formed to protect the people from thieves, rustlers, etc. By 1880 things were getting better as sheriffs, marshals and other police protection developed.

In 1884 the California Southern Railroad (division of the Santa Fe) started laying tracks on their way from Los Angeles to San Diego. This brought in more white people.

In 1887 the trains started running.

In 1889 this area of California was removed from Los Angeles County and a new county formed, Orange County, with its County Seat at Santa Ana.



Starting in the 1930s, people started reporting a ghostly woman, in a white flowing dress, walking along the railroad tracks. She is always in the general location where Modesta tried to block the train.
Many writers think she could be the ghost of Modesta here to remind people how badly they treated her. Some writers think she is another person.


A beautiful, American born, Mexican girl approximately 21 years of age (1888)and single. According to the prison records, she is 5 foot 2 inches, with brown eyes and black hair.

She lives in a house adjacent to the railroad tracks with her sister.

She is bilingual, able to speak and write in both Spanish and English. This is rare amongst Mexicans at that time and of concern to the Anglos.

Her father, mother and at least two brothers live in houses on the same piece of land about a quarter mile farther from the railroad tracks.

Her mother owned the land and gave Modesta the portion she lives on and the house in which she was born. Although California law didn’t allow women to own land, Mexican law did.

She is angry because the railroad put their tracks through the property without her being compensated. She will fight them at every opportunity until she is finally arrested for blocking the tracks.

There is a possibility that the land she is on was sold to an in-law in Mexico, but she still treats it as hers and her mother’s.


She lives with her and is opposed to Modesta doing something rash about the railroad problem. She may be Martha, who is three
years younger than Modesta.


He, who is most likely white and a bit older than her, is her “rock.” He will support her in spite of her actions and anger, and will end up being fired from his job for doing it.


He is Modesta’s father and is 56 years of age.

He lives a quarter mile away from her and gave the railroad permission to cross the property, even though it was not his. He will appear as a witness at her trial and it won’t help and actually hurt her case.


She is Modesta’s mother and is 46 years of age. Little is known about her other than she owned the property on which her family resided. She may board children for people (day care?)


At that time the railroads are the largest landowner and employer in the State of California. Politically, they control everything. Their word is law in an area with few laws.


George Hayford is Modesta’s attorney. He will “defend” her for free (pro bono) at both trials and will later attempt to get her freed from prison.

He is 30 and from New York. Marital status unknown.

He is a known drunk and possibly has only one arm.

His actions during the second trial are despicable.


The Sheriff, Richard T. Harris, is newly elected and supported by the railroad. He is 30 and born in Virginia. Newly married, no children.

He is concerned that after five felony trials, the new county has not won one and hopes they can win against Modesta.

He has one deputy, James Buckley, who had no uniform, but carried a sidearm which nobody taught him to use. One day he dropped his gun and shot himself in the leg.

Buckley also served as the jailor.


Eugene E. Edwards was the first District Attorney of Orange County and the one who prosecuted Modesta. He is probably around 40.

He too is elected and supported by the railroad. He has the same concerns as the Sheriff regarding their record in court.


He is the judge for both of her trials. He is tall, about 65 and born in New York. Married.

He is the first Superior Court Judge appointed in the new county. He is a Democrat and was the chairman of the committee to explore the feasibility of the new county, to which he was appointed by Governor Waterman, a Republican.

He is closely tied to the Oneida Community. He believes in free love and communal living.

A captain for the North during the Civil War, he lost sight in his left eye from a bullet.

He is also heavily supported by the railroad.


Max Mendelson is the railroad agent, postmaster and businessman. He is in his 40s and married with children. He immigrated from Poland in 1857.

He has become a friend (and possibly a lover) of Modesta. When she blocks the track it is he who helps her remove the blockage before the train arrives.

He is also the one who will be the star witness against her in court.


McKelvey is the Justice of the Peace for the Santa Ana Township. He is about 30 years of age and married with children.

Modesta has appeared before him several times. He will testify during her trial and paint a very bad picture of her.




There is a lot of noise and vibration as the train jerks to an unexpected stop on the tracks just outside the town of San Juan Capistrano.
Bags, food and even people, many of whom were asleep, are thrown forward in the seats, but nobody appears to be hurt.

This is the late night train that had left Los Angeles a few minutes after 10 p.m., scheduled to reach San Diego at 1 a.m., but it was only about 11:20 and, with this unexpected stop it will probably not make San Diego on time.

With late night flights into San Diego banned, it is the only way to get there this time of night and getting home on time was important to many.
As people pick up themselves and their belongings, they search for someone to tell them what had happened.

There are people running up and down the train outside and finally a conductor, trying not to appeared excited, tells them that the engineer had spotted what looked like a lady in a white dress walking between the tracks and she didn’t move when he blasted the engine’s horn.

He apologizes for the rapid stop and assures everyone that any injuries or losses should be reported at the station and will be taken care of.
Then someone asks the question on everyone’s mind, did they hit her. The conductor pauses a few seconds and then tells them no, explaining that they have looked and looked, but she is nowhere to be found.

Someone who is getting off at San Juan turns to a couple of people and says, “It was probably the Lady in White again.”

There is a silent moment and then several ask each other “Who is the Lady in White?”

An older Hispanic gentleman rises, crosses himself and says, “It is the ghost of Modesta Avila. She lived here over a hundred years ago and was sent to prison for fighting the railroad and, they claim, trying to stop the trains from illegally running through her property. She appears now and then to remind people how badly they treated her. To us, she is a hero.”


2. MODESTA’S HOUSE (late 1888)

Modesta’s home is a simple wooden structure about 30 years old.

An attractive 21 year old girl is sweeping and cleaning dust and soot from the sparse furniture in her small home. Like all of her family, including her parents, she is an American, born in California, but is of Mexican descent and treated as a foreigner, fi not worse. She is Modesta Avila.

You can see the California Southern Railway (a subsidiary of Santa Fe) railroad tracks through the window and they are only about 15 feet from her door.

The railroad is Modesta’s nemesis and adversary.

She has been fighting it continually, starting when they installed the tracks over her property a few years ago and increasingly as the trains started running less then a year ago. It is on her mind most of her waking hours.

A younger, sad faced girl comes in from outside and tells her that another hen is dead because of the train noise and that there is only have one egg, and it is very small.

She reminds Modesta that she can’t sell eggs if she doesn’t have any and without the eggs, they will have no money.

The young girl is Modesta’s sister who is living with her.

Modesta tells her sister not to worry, in a few days she and the other Mexican property owners are finally meeting with officials from the railroad and they will pay them well for putting the tracks on their property without permission.

Modesta’s sister reminds her that their papa (father) told the railroad it was okay.

Modesta replies that he had no right to do that since their mother gave this piece of land to her alone and she had owned it before she married their father. She continues telling he that their grandfather gave it to her and he had received it in a grant from the Mexican government before the Americans took California from Mexico.



A group of men representing the railroad are sitting behind a table. One by one, the Mexican landowners step forward and ask for compensation for the railroad tracks being put on their property, along with damages. The room is crowded and noisy (mostly in Spanish)

The railroad men seem bored and try to hurry along the “hearing.”

The men already know that they do not have to pay anything to these people because the United States does not recognize lands acquired by Mexican land grant. The hearing is a sham.

Modesta Avila is very vocal when she appears, complaining loudly about the damages to her property and her failing attempt to raise chickens and eggs as a livelihood as the trains with their noise, smoke and shaking are killing her chickens and keeping them from laying eggs.

She explains that there are very few things a young Mexican woman can do in a four level Anglo society where they, the landowners when California was acquired, are looked down on as barely human. She loudly points out that many women like her turn to prostitution because of the lack of other available occupations.

They ask her what she wants and she demands $10,000 in compensation. As the men do with all the others, they tell her she will be justly compensated.

She leaves believing she will get the $10,000 she asked for.



Modesta tells her sister that her boyfriend is going to borrow a carriage and drive her into Santa Ana, about 20 miles away, to talk with the bank to find out how she is going to be paid. She is already planning a party to celebrate her victory over the railroad.



Modesta, dressed in her best, arrives at the bank with her boyfriend and meets with an officer of the bank. She asks about the best way to receive the money she will be getting from the railroad and if they know when she will get it.

The bank officer is confused, having not heard anything from the railroad. Modesta is confused and becomes very angry, showing that she has a temper.

Her boyfriend insists they leave and they ride back home as he listens to her anger.

Accustomed to the treatment the Mexicans get, they stop at the Sheriff’s office to tell them about her upcoming party and ask if they know anyone who can be hired to help control the party should it get out of hand.

The may be a sincere request or just a bit of bragging.

She is laughed at and ignored.



Lots of people show up for the party and, in spite of Modesta’s attempts, the celebration gets out of hand.

The sheriff shows up and Modesta is arrested for disturbing the peace. She is not taken to jail, but just told she will be tried and to show up.



Modesta is brought before Justice of the Peace for the Santa Ana Township, Charles McKelvey, on the disturbance of the peace charge.
He decides to drop the charges, but Modesta takes the opportunity to loudly inform the judge and other officials that she has beaten the railroad and the whole multi-leveled society, including themselves.

The judge, sheriff and other officials are angry with her continuing outbursts towards them. The judge cautions Modesta several times to leave the courtroom before she is held in contempt of court.

Again boyfriend intervenes and hurries her out before he can do so.



The railroad officials are meeting with their attorneys in regards to the demands of the Mexican landowners. They are again told they have no responsibility or need to compensate the Mexican landowners at all and their tracks are legally in place.

The railroad officials are concerned, but their attorneys convince them there is no problem as the railroads are the largest landowners and employers in California. They also remind them that the new county of Orange is in the processes of being created and that they have made sure the new county government will be “railroad friendly.”



Her sister brings Modesta a letter from the post office. It is from the railroad and addressed to her. Believing it is her money she opens it excitedly.

There is no money. Instead it states that she will not receive any compensation for her land or her losses.

She becomes very irate and threatens to do something bad to the railroad.

Her boyfriend is there, but worried about her increasing anger he decides to leave and let her calm down for a while.

As he leaves she becomes angry with him. She tells him not to come back.



Modesta meets with the railroad agent, Max Mendelson. He has been friendly toward her before and offers to help her anyway he can.
They may be having a relationship, although he is married at the time.



Modesta is doing her wash. It is then that she decides to string her clothes line across the tracks as a protest. Her younger sister argues with her, but Modesta insists on doing it anyway.

Her sister leaves.

While hanging her wet clothes on the line over the tracks, she notices an old wagon axle and a heavy railroad tie left by the railroad workers. She spends quite a bit of time dragging them on to the tracks.

Satisfied that the train will now be stopped, she drives a stake between the rails and attaches to the top of it a note that says, “This is my property. When I get my $10,000 I will take this down.”

As she is waiting for the train by herself in her house, she begins to have second thoughts about what she has done. She decides to take everything down.

She is not sure she can get the tie and axle off the tracks or the stake out of the ground by herself before the rapidly approaching train arrives.

She runs toward the station and meets Max Mendelson who is already heading her way. He overheard some boys talking about the barricade and comes back with her and helps remove everything just before the train arrives.

He tells her that what she was doing was a serious crime and if she does it again, she will probably be arrested.



Modesta is again cleaning up the dust and soot from the passing trains when there is a knock at the door. It is the newly elected Sheriff and District Attorney of Orange County.

They arrest her for “Attempted Obstruction of a Train” and take her to the county seat, Santa Ana, to await trial.

She protests that nothing really happened, but they appear to be working under the direction of others and ignore her pleas.



The county’s rented jail is in the basement of Joseph Hilt-Brunner’s store in Santa Ana.

It was not designed for both men and women and often full of vagrants. That presents a problem to the Sheriff. He is finally able to find a cell where she can be away from the men.

Her bail is set at $1,000.

Family and friends are searching for an attorney to represent her in court, but because most all of them are beholden to the railroad in one way or another, they cannot. Besides, they have no money to pay her bail, let alone hire an attorney.

An attorney named George Hayford meets with her and says he is willing to represent her for free. He believes in her and the fight against the railroad.

George Hayford is a known drunk with a questionable past and may have only one arm.

Previously he has had his competency questioned by a group of judges and attorneys, including the judge who will hear her case.



The Superior Court Judge who will hear the trial, J. W. Towner, is meeting with officials from the railroad, the sheriff and district attorney at their insistence.

He, the Sheriff and District Attorney are reminded by the railroad officials that they are elected officials who received financial support for their recent election and that without the future support of the railroad, there will be no reelection for any of them.

The Judge is concerned with the pressure from the railroad, but the Sheriff and District Attorney point out that there has not been a successful felony prosecution in their new county and this may be the perfect case to win and show the state government officials in Sacramento that they are serious.

The Judge reluctantly bows to the pressure.



The courtroom is upstairs over a store in downtown Santa Ana. It is filled with spectators, many of whom are armed, as are the judge and attorneys. There is drinking, spitting, yelling and swearing going on. The judge is barely in control.

Obvious in the front rows, where they can been seen by the judge, are the railroad officials.

Modesta is escorted in by sheriff’s deputies and seated next to her attorney, George Hayford. He is sober, she is still angry.

She is asked to stand and the court clerk reads the charges against her. Her attorney enters a plea of not guilty for her.

As she returns to her seat, she sees that her boyfriend is seated right behind her. The exchange smiles, etc.

The court goes through the process of selecting a jury of 12 white male citizens.

Since there had not been any damage done by Modesta’s actions, the judge has to give very lengthy instructions to the jury regarding willful and malicious ’s acts, ending with “…all that is necessary for the prosecution to show and establish this charge, is to show that the act was done, and was done with the intent to do a wrongful act; whether it would have injured life or not.”

A lot of the prosecution’s case relies on the note Modesta allegedly had nailed to the stake and that it was an admission of guilt.
Max Mendelson is the prosecution‘s main witness as he was the only one who had supposedly seen the note. He tells them he had destroyed it.

The note itself concerns the prosecution and the jury. It reveals that Modesta is bilingual. This appears to give her more credibility as a landowner. The prosecution doesn’t like that.

The prosecution spends more time questioning witnesses about her ability to read and write in two languages than her supposed crime.

The jury returns a split decision, six to six.

The judge dismisses the jury and holds the case over for retrial in two weeks.

He reduces Modesta’s bail to $500, but she still can’t pay it.

Modesta’s attorney argues that he believes it is illegal to prosecute her twice for the same crime. There is little law to refer to, so the judge looks in the direction of the railroad officials and overrules him.



Modesta is brought into the courtroom. She sees that her boyfriend is again seated behind her.

She has been held in jail for the past two weeks because she could not pay even the reduced $500 bail.

Modesta is angry and becomes angrier when she finds her attorney is not sober.

She and her attorney rise and the charges are read. Again he pleads not-guilty for her.

Her attorney again argues that she cannot be tried a second time, adding that the County of Orange has no jurisdiction since the event with the clothesline happened before the county was legally created. The court ignores both issues.

Modesta and her attorney argue about his drunken state and it gets even nastier when she finds that two things have come to light since the first trial: One, she had previously been arrested for vagrancy, which often means prostitution, and, two, her attorney has confirmed that she is pregnant, probably to get sympathy from the court.

Modesta immediately denies both rumors loudly in front of the court, but is restrained by her attorney so she will not be held in contempt.

The judge impanels a new, all white male jury and gives them the same instructions he gave the first jury.

First the prosecution’s questioning of both his and her witnesses focuses on questions about her whereabouts at the time of the crime. This is followed by a number of witnesses who testify to observing her drunk, under arrest or in jail. Then the prosecution calls to the stand Charles Sumner McKelvey, Justice of the Peace for Santa Ana Township.

McKelvey testifies that she had been before him several times for larceny and drunkenness, including one time in early June for keeping a disorderly house. This apparently grew out of the party she held in anticipation of getting the $10,000 from the railroad that got out of hand.

The final straw comes when McKelvey testifies that he had overheard her in his court voluntarily bragging about what she had done to stop the train.

Curiously, Modesta’s attorney, George Hayford, refuses to allow her to testify in her own defense and to everyone’s amazement, tells the court she is a liar and that she was drunk at the time McKelvey heard her boast.

The judge is taken aback by his statements and even says that in all his years as an attorney and judge, this is the first time he had ever heard a defense attorney attempt to show bad character of his own client.

Modesta’s father, José Avila tries to show that she is a “good” girl as she visited him whenever she was in town, but it backfires and shows she was often out of town. Where, people wonder.

Several additional witnesses testify about her bad behavior and the fact that she is over 20 years of age and not married, something very uncommon in the Mexican society of the day.

The jury leaves the courtroom and after some time returns.

The judge reads the note from the jury.

The jury finds her guilty, but asks for clemency.

The judge informs Modesta that she has been found guilty of the felony and sentences her to three years at San Quentin prison.

Modesta breaks down and is comforted by her boyfriend and family before being returned to jail to await transport to prison, which happens almost immediately.
Her attorney yells at the jury accusing them of convicting her on reputation, not deed, and that her real crime is that she is a poor girl not having sense enough to have been married.



Modesta’s attorney has filed a writ with the California Supreme court asking for her to be released from prison because the County of Orange did not officially exist at the time Modesta allegedly tried to block the tracks.

The Supreme Court found that to be correct, but stated that even though her crime predated the opening of county business, it did not predate the creation of the county. The appeal is denied.



The Supreme Court having decided against him, Modesta’s attorney petitions California Governor Robert Waterman for a pardon on the same basis and that she was not really tried for a crime, but for her supposed reputation. It is denied.

He will do the same thing when Henry Markham becomes governor in January of 1891. That will be denied also.



Attorney Hayford arrives at the home with a letter from the prison.

The family asks if it is a letter from Modesta. He says it is from the warden at the prison.

He reads it to them. It says the Modesta died from a disease she contracted in prison (tuberculosis in some histories).



The family of Modesta Avila is gathered to pay their respects to her at her grave side funeral.

Slowly during the service more and more people show up and comment on how she had the nerve to represent the strength of the Mexican population. They apologize to the family for not being supportive of her during her fight with the railroad and the government.


© Copyright 2015 by Douglas Noble
All rights reserved. This story or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the author.

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