Criminal Annals, Part 111 – Cowardly Assault

The September 7, 1852 edition of the Sacramento “Daily Union” has a lengthy story regarding what they call “attempts to muzzle the press.” It shows that a column, article or letter in the newspapers of that day, could bring more than written comments, including violence.
The first part of the story is a condemnation of the act, followed by an actual report on it.

To set the stage, the “Los Angeles Star” (1851- 1864) was not friendly towards then Governor Bigler. A. C. Russell, who worked for the Star, wrote articles in the paper condemning the governor’s actions. This did not set well with the governor’s staff and one of them, W. A. Cornwall, with our without assistance, apparently decided one article was really directed towards him and took action.

“Cowardly Assault – Another Base Attempt to Muzzle the Press.
“By the arrival of the steamer Ohio we have the particulars of a most outrageous assault made upon the person of our late associate, Mr. A. C. Russell, by one W. A. Cornwall, known throughout the State as Private Secretary to His Excellency, Governor John Bigler. It appears that Mr. Russell, on his avowal of the authorship of a card which he, himself, states “is intended for His Excellency,” was attacked in the most cowardly manner, knocked down and beaten by a personal friend of Gov. Bigler, who saw fit to appropriate to himself the subject matter referred to in the article. Now whether Mr. Cornwall was instigated to this outrageous assault by other particular friends of His Excellency, or whether he acted of his own free will in the premises, we care not – the fact is established beyond all doubt, that he did make a gross, unwarrantable, and dastardly attack upon one whom he knew would never wrongfully injure him in the slightest degree, yet one, whom he was equally certain, would never be deterred by threats of violence from exposing to the world any act of misdemeanor on the part of those holding official station. Mr. Russell, in the publication of the article signed ‘Cuidado,’ [caution, with care or watch out in Spanish] was actuated by no feelings of malice towards Mr. C.; on the contrary, he asserts that ‘he (C.) behaved in a very silly manner in taking it to himself.’ But Mr. Cornwall, not content with this explanation, sought to make a personal issue between Mr. R. and himself, and, therefore, committed a brutal and murderous outrage upon his person, being fully aware, at the time, that the attacked was suffering from a severe and long protracted sickness, and not possessing sufficient physical strength to attend to his ordinary avocations. Cornwall is a thick set, powerful man, while Mr. R. is under the medium size, of slender frame, and physically, far inferior to his antagonist.
“Such an attack then, was utterly inexcusable on the part of Cornwall, even though the offensive paragraph had even, line and letter, referred to himself. His conduct in this affair cannot be palliated, and he must, as he will receive, the scorn and contempt of all honorable and high-minded men.
“It seems as if the official misconduct of public officials cannot be shown up to the world in their true colors, or the public actions of the people’s servants commented upon by the public press, calmly and independently, without the revolver and Bowie knife are held up as a warning to all who have the courage and manliness to expose such corruptions. It is. however, only by this fearless course that the independence of the press can be preserved in its pristine purity. The annexed account of the transaction is from the Alta [Alta California newspaper]:
“We learn by the Ohio [steamer Ohio] that Los Angeles has been the scene of another bloody rencountre. Mr. A. C. Russell, editor of the Sacramento Union, was attacked in the billiard saloon of the principal hotel in Los Angeles, by Mr. W. A. Cornwa1l, Private Secretary of Gov. Bigler, and badly wounded by the thrust of a knife. The origin of this affair was the publication in the Los Angeles Star of a communication reflecting in strong terms on Gov. Bigler, and charging him with the issue of blank commissions for taking the census to Mr. Cornwall, ‘who is accused of dealing out the same to any person who will take them on the terms appointed.’ The communication also states that Mr Cornwall represents Gov. Bigler not only in this transaction, but in the latter’s ‘hedging around for a re-election.’ Mr. Cornwall, during the absence of Mr. Russell and the editor of the Star, ‘posted’ the author of the communication as a ‘liar and blackguard,’ and on the return of Mr. Lewis [editor of the Star], also ‘posted’ him, on the latter’s refusal to give him the name of the author. Mr. Lewis responded to this by a placard, in which he declared his unwillingness to ‘descend to a street fight,’ at the same time assuring the author of the card posted against him, that when a proper demand was made (or words to that effect) Mr. Cornwall could receive any satisfaction he might desire.
“At this juncture of affairs, Mr. Russell returned to the city, and immediately addressed a note to Mr. Cornwall, avowing the authorship of the communication. The following is a copy of the note:
“Los Angeles, August 29.
“Mr. Cornwall— Sir: I understand that a paragraph in yesterday’s Star, signed ‘Cuidado.’ has been taken by you in high dudgeon, and that you have said very ugly things about the author thereof. The personal appropriation to yourself of the paragraph in question is merely a matter of taste, with which I have nothing to do. ‘If the shoe fits, you are at liberty to wear it.’ I wrote the article and you will doubtless relieve me from the imputation of intending any inflection upon you – for you are sufficiently well acquainted with me to know that I would not take advantage of position to attack or injure you or any other man. The article was intended for his Excellency. John Bigler, and I must say that you have behaved in a very silly manner in taking it to yourself. But since you have done so, it is proper, as well as due to myself, for me to say that I hold myself responsible for the article that you have made so much fuss about.
“I am going out of town this afternoon, but will he at the Hotel (Bella Union) where I live, at 12 o’clock tomorrow (Monday) morning, when you can speak with me about the matter, if you wish.
“Resp. yours, A. C. Russell.
“No reply was received by Mr. Russell to this communication, and that evening he left the city for the Mission of San Gabriel. His return on the following day, (Monday, Aug. 3), did not take place until about 12 m., and from the office of the Star he shortly after proceeded to his quarters, at the Hotel La Bella Union. While standing at the bar of the saloon conversing with Mr. Lewis and another gentleman, Mr. Cornwall entered by the front door, and approaching behind him, called upon Mr. Russell’s friends to ‘clear the way.’ He was armed with a large Bowie knife and one of Colt’s largest navy revolvers, which he carried cocked in his left hand; a cloak was thrown over his shoulders. He approached within three or four feet of Mr. Russell, and upon the latter gentleman turning around he received a severe blow in the face with the handle of the knife, Mr. Cornwall at the same instant exclaiming ‘defend yourself.’ Mr. Russell retreated a step or two, warning his opponent that he ‘wished nothing to do with him.’ He was cut severely in the back of the head, and Mr. Cornwall, throwing off his cloak, made several successive passes at him, which were parried by Mr. Russell with his arms. The pistol which Mr. C. held in his hand at this instant was discharged, the ball passing through Mr. C.’s foot. Mr. Russell dodged another blow aimed at him, by escaping under Mr. C.’s arm, and retreated into the street, closely pursued by the latter, who dropped the pistol on wounding himself.
“In the street Mr. Russell drew a small pistol, and in retreating fired, but missed his antagonist, and, was the next instant knocked down. Mr. Cornwall had also dropped the knife, on reaching the street, and he now commenced a most brutal attack upon his prostrate victim with his fists, falling on him with all his weight. Mr. Lewis here endeavored to disengage Cornwall, but was torn away by the latter’s friends. Other citizens arriving on the ground the combatants were separated, Mr. Russell bleeding profusely from a gash in the head, and Mr. Cornwall quite lame from the effects of the pistol shot, which had shattered his great toe. Mr. Russell’s wound is not dangerous, though he was much weakened by loss of blood.”

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