The Infamous Modesta Avila
There are a lot of people expressing their opinion regarding what constitutes a peaceful protest, and how far people are willing to go to make their viewpoint known. But did you know that the first female felon, indeed, first official felon and state prisoner from Orange County, was a woman named Modesta Avila. Her crime: Protesting. In fact, Avila died in prison for her crime.
What did she do? She hung up laundry.
Avila was born in the late 1860's (exact year unknown) in San Juan Capistrano, and managed, in her short life, to earn herself quite a reputation. She had prior arrests for "vagrancy," a general term that was very often leveled against women for prostitution. She was often described as attractive, and upon her death her obituary even described her as "a well-known favorite of the Santa Ana boys."
So perhaps she was a bit passionate when she took to defending her property. On her mother's death, she inherited a piece of property on the northern end of San Juan Capistrano, and raised chickens. But when the Santa Fe Railroad built their tracks across her land just 15 feet from her house, Modesta Avila protested by hanging her laundry across the railroad tracks.
Others say she went so far as to also lay a railroad tie across the track, and even erect a post between the rails with a sign that read "This land belongs to me. And if the railroad wants to run here, they will have to pay me ten thousand dollars!"Enter Max Mendelson, representative of the Santa Fe Railroad in San Juan Capistrano. He removed the blockage, informed Avila that the Railroad was most certainly in their rights to run there, and warned her to not try it again.
No arrest was made at the time, yet at one point, Avila somehow got the idea in her head that she had won, because she threw a large party in celebration of the impending collection of ten grand. But instead of the money, the county sheriff came and arrested her -four months after her protest. Single and now pregnant, the cards were stacked against Modesta Avila. The railroad wanted Avila to be made an example and warning against anyone else protesting the mighty Santa Fe.
It was also her misfortune to be tried by judge Edward Eugenes, who was anxious to seal his reputation as a law and order kind of guy. He had just been elected to the state assembly, and used the opportunity to make certain the first criminal to be convicted was his.
But there was a problem. The trial ended in a hung jury, 6-6. Eugenes set a retrial, and now it was becoming increasingly evident Avila was pregnant. Avila's attorney, George Hayford, confirmed the pregancy to the public. The reputation didn't help her case, and she was convicted and sentence to spend three years in San Quentin State. Hayford appealed, but lost the appeal on a technicality.
There is no record of what happened to Avila's child. One gentleman who called himself her boyfriend did so at his own peril. He was fired from his job as the county pushed forward a reputation for clean living and a low tolerance for criminal elements Just short of three years, Avila caught pneumonia and died in San Quentin, at about the age of 24.
That is pretty much the end of Modesta's story. She nearly got away with her protest, until she overplayed her hand and crossed paths with some ambitious politicians. She was the first person in the county to be arrested, tried and convicted. But there was one final note in her obituary Published in The Santa Ana Standard, the last words were this: "Let those who are without sin throw the first stone."
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