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Jan 19

Vigilante Justice in Arroyo Grande

The Pacific Coast Railway crosses the Arroyo Grande creek on a bridge. Flooding quickly made it necessary to replace with a much sturdier bridge. Photo courtesy South County Historical Society

At first no one believed the school children, after all it was April Fools Day, 1886. As dawn broke in Arroyo Grande a man and his teen age son were dead, dangling from ropes below the narrow gauge railroad bridge. The children had seen the result of the only lynching documented in Arroyo Grande. The man was not guilty of murder and attempted murder, though he hadn’t prevented it. The teen likely pulled the trigger. A third man ran south along the tracks, rope still around his neck, spared by the masked mob that had acted as judge, jury and executioner. The constable and his assistants had been at dinner when the mob broke into the wood jail. The disputed land that precipitated murder was according to one account marginal gravel at best. The legal and law enforcement system would get stronger when Arroyo Grande incorporated as a city almost 25 years later. Here is another story leading up to the Centennial of Arroyo Grande.
The below is a composite of stories published March 24, 2004 and May 2, 2004 by Cynthia [Neff] Lambert and Carol Roberts.

ARROYO’S 118-YEAR-OLD LYNCHING STORY HAS MESSAGE FOR TODAY
HISTORIAN STAGES REQUIEM TO REMIND FOLKS TO GET ALONG

When nearly 100 people gathered just before midnight Wednesday in Arroyo Grande it wasn’t only to remember the town’s “terrible tragedy” on that date 118 years ago.
It was to promote a message of getting along — from neighbors in small villages to countries worldwide.
Arroyo Grande’s resident history buff Gordon Bennett staged the requiem with songs, speakers and horseback riders to tell the sad tale of a land dispute that led to the shooting death of Eugene Walker and the hanging from the old Pacific Coast Railroad bridge of his slayers, Julius and Peter Hemmi, by vigilantes.
Bennett staged a similar requiem in 1986.
Once again spectators gathered at the old Loomis family property on East Branch Street, about 400 feet from where the old railroad bridge once crossed Arroyo Grande Creek.
A choir of Bennett’s family and friends sang to the accompaniment of Arroyo Grande High School senior Andrew Summer on a century-old pump organ.
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” drifted down dark streets in the Village.
“This is incredible, ” Arroyo Grande Mayor Tony Ferrara told the crowd. “It’s almost midnight. Who says Arroyo Grande doesn’t have party animals?” Then somberly: “We’re here to commemorate the only lynching ever in Arroyo Grande.”
John Schlenker, co-founder of The Great American Melodrama in Oceano, reminded the crowd that all the deaths occurred because of “greed, hate and a pittance of land. This should be a lesson to us all, ” he said. “May these deaths give us everlasting vision.”
Kirk Scott, president of the South County Historical Society, said requiems are staged because “we learn from history.” He doubts the vigilantes thought they were committing a crime.
Bennett said the Walker and Hemmi families were well-liked in the community. They lived on adjacent properties near what now is Lopez Lake.
Seventeen-year-old Julius Hemmi, accompanied by his father, Peter, reportedly shot and killed Walker while the victim was gardening with his wife Nancy.
Nancy Walker was shot too, but made it to another neighbor’s home for help. She identified the Hemmis, who were put in jail in Arroyo Grande.
Masked vigilantes had taken the pair out of an old wooden jail near Branch and Bridge streets. A third man, George Gleese, the elder Hemmi’s nephew, was let go with the rope still around his neck.
At first no one believed the school children who reported seeing the men hanging there in the morning, said pioneer family member John Loomis, because it was April Fools Day.
To learn more
The South County Historical Society offers several books for sale about past events in Arroyo Grande, including the full story of the Hemmi hangings. Proceeds from the publications, available at Heritage House at 126 S. Mason St. in the Village on weekends, go toward collection, preservation and displaying the town’s history. For information call 481-4126.

Full disclosure, The Tribune’s  founder Walter Murray, was a vigilante before he joined the law as District Attorney and later judge.

The automated watermark incorrectly labels the top photo as a Tribune photo, it is courtesy the South County Historical Society.

Oil lanterns are used for light in the front of the Loomis Feed store while Andrew Summer, plays the somber 'Moonlight Sonata' on a 100 year-old pipe organ at the requeim of the Walker-Hemmi tragedy that occured in Arroyo Grande in 1886. Jan Trenner, of Arroyo Grande and Gordon Bennett (cowboy hat) watch. © The Tribune/ Laura Dickinson May 31, 2004

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