In 1836 a nine-year old Irish kid named John Power landed in Manhattan with his hopeful parents, disembarking the Ellis Island Ferry in a teeming nondescript swarm of other exhausted immigrant pilgrims making the exodus from the darkling wars and privations of the Old World to the glowing blank slate of the New. The little guy was likely clinging to his mother’s skirts as his family and hundreds of others spilled into a million-gabled New York City with its jammed tenements and dark alleyways and uncertain promise of reinvention.
John’s kid-dreams and kid-potential would soon carburate into a combustible mix as the excited and largely untethered nine-year old fell immediately in with the sort of mischief-making toughs that have ever been the heartbreak of stressed parents everywhere. Running amok in a rapidly metastasizing 19th century Metropolis, John would be raised not by his mom and dad, but by his pals in the Bowery – an unlikely derivation of the Dutch word bouwerij – meaning farm – from an earlier time when the fallen New York district, whose name would become synonymous with drunken debauchery and sordidness, was named for the pleasant boundary it effected between the city and the farmsteads the wealthy Dutch had built just outside of town.
By his teens John Power was a product of the Bowery and Hell’s Kitchen districts, as attractive and ruthless an urban animal as big American cities of that time produced, a self-possessed charmer and gifted horseman whose charisma and loosely fastened moral center would serve him well in an adulthood based almost entirely on adventurism. When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846 and a call went out in New York for volunteers to head west and help the U.S. cause, John and a bunch of his friends eagerly grabbed what was to them a brass ring; a one-way ticket to an unsettled frontier Shangri-la where you could do whatever you wanted and have a good chance of getting away with it. John Power in particular would use the expedition as a springboard to self-rewarding naughtiness, to use the salty frontier language of the time. Once out west he began calling himself Jack Powers, and his bad behavior would find its culmination, and the beginnings of a denouement, seven years later at the base of a Sycamore tree near the corner of State and Ontare, here in Santa Barbara. You know, near Jeannine’s bakery.
Powers’ Company F of the NY Regiment made their way to Santa Barbara the old fashioned way, sailing around Cape Horn. When they arrived in Santa Barbara they found that General Fremont and his men, in a daring storm-battered surprise attack over the San Marcos Pass (costing Fremont many men and horses owing to a nasty combination of torrential rain, mud, and cliffs) had already driven Mexican forces out of Santa Barbara. The newly self-christened Jack Powers took a languorous look around and saw that the possibilities were pretty much what he’d imagined. Once he’d been discharged (honorably) from the regiment on whose coattails he’d happily arrived in California, he wasted no time and booked it up to San Francisco, already the mayhem capital of the West, where he gambled, schmoozed and murdered his way into a kind of awesome infamy up there. When he left the City by the Bay, he fled just ahead of a lynching.
He made it back down to Santa Barbara and got a great gig with the highly respected de la Guerra family as their horse whisperer and all-around equine caretaker, a job he would leverage on the sly. It was like putting a bank robber in charge of 30 getaway cars. With de la Guerra’s horses and a network of entrepreneurial cutthroats Powers soon made the stretch of Camino Real between Santa Barbara and SLO one of the more suicidal routes in the state.
But they could never quite pin anything on the guy. Known for his crazy cool horsemanship, both in handling and in sheer velocity, Powers had once set a seemingly impossible land speed record for the day, riding 150 miles in six hours, unheard of at the time. Naturally he brought this talent to bear on No Good. He would keep fresh horses watered and fed at well-concealed strategic points between the highly profitable Santa Barbara-to-SLO route and L.A. When a rancher would turn up riddled with bullets and stripped of his cattle, area lawmen would naturally get their collective dander up and go looking for Powers. To the grudging admiration of many, he would typically be found 90 miles away in Los Angeles, quietly sipping a Shirley Temple in a local saloon with a book in hand and a choirboy’s “Who, me?” expression.
William Twist was a guy with a mission and, it must be said, a cool name; though the coolness factor may have been lost on the waxed mustache set. Twist had also come over to Santa Barbara as a volunteer with New York’s Stevenson Regiment, but that’s about all he and the overripe Jack Powers had in common. Their paths would cross spectacularly. Powers and his Louseketeers had holed up on someone else’s property in Santa Barbara, overtaking an abandoned building in San Roque Canyon, underneath the present day Foothill Rd. Bridge over Steven’s Park. Powers and his frat rats would not allow themselves to be evicted through the normal paper-shuffling means, and so it fell to the recently appointed Sheriff W.W. Twist to head over there and take out the garbage, as Stallone or someone might say.
Like everybody else for a hundred miles, Twist knew Powers by his habits and assembled 200 or so men, a posse, to help him get the Powers gang off the land. Powers, though, a fan of the “One Step Ahead” school of personal betterment, sent some guys over to where the posse was assembling, the Aguirre Adobe at today’s 27 East Carrillo Street. Powers’ tactless tacticians showed up waving pistols and a couple of them were summarily shot off their horses by the riled-up posse, but one of the bad guys got to Sheriff Twist and put a knife in his back, inflicting a wound that didn’t kill Twist but took him out of the picture for the coming drama on Ontare.
The steamed and self-righteous posse raced over to Powers’ San Roque redoubt, and as they approached the outskirts of the stolen fiefdom they were of course met with a hail of bang-bang and Powers’ explicit warning that should any one of them cross a line denoted by a large sycamore tree there, that hapless posse member would be immediately ventilated with flying lead. The tree in question is now believed to be one of the large Sycamores around 134 N. Ontare. In the event, the posse demurred, turning their horses around to schlump back to town.
But enough was enough. Within days the governor of California ordered a U.S. Navy warship to toddle down the coast from Monterey and drop anchor off West Beach. “Shall I order the Marines ashore, Mr. Powers?” Powers had also learned of a seething gang of pissed-off vigilantes from SLO coming down to turn the lights off. Ruthless and brave and cunning Powers was. A moron he was not. When several days later a jittery messenger arrived with an instrument of negotiation, Powers greeted him warmly and signed the paper.
And the story ends with a spoiler alert. Jack Powers, following years of variously tickling the locals pink with his charming exploits and then shooting them in the back for their gold, was eventually hounded out of the area by a fatigued victim pool. He became a successful rancher in Mexico and then, not completely predictably, was shot to death in a fight over a woman and his body fed to penned wild boars. No kidding. And Twist? After more so-so law enforcement in the American Riviera Twist was finally made to resign as Sheriff. Why? Here’s the scene: a Native American gentleman has been found guilty of murder and is due to be hanged, though interested parties and friends have petitioned the California governor for a commutation of the sentence to life in prison. A ship is said to be coming down the coast at full steam with the signed commutation but the hanging party can’t wait and begin to string the fellow up. At the last minute a guy races up on his horse and, using a roughly hewn species of Parliamentary hooha, argues for a temporary stay of the execution on the grounds that the commutation is likely aboard the ship that is set shortly to arrive. Twist grumblingly allows the stay, the ship arrives with the commutation and the nearly hanged gentleman is remanded to life in prison. This time Powers had used his vaunted speed on horseback to prevent a killing, and the frustrated townspeople of Santa Barbara fired Sheriff Twist for capitulating.
Ain’t life grand?
Expurgated version published in the SB Sentinel Vol 4/ Issue 4/ Feb 21- March 7/ 2015