“Three Cheers for Jefferson Davis!”
The ballad of Peter Biggs, race rebel, “Black Democrat,” and first barber of Los Angeles
by Matthew Duersten
Reading time 28 Minutes
What’ll you do after the war, Corporal Clark?
What’ll you do after the war, Corporal Clark?
Work, sir. Perhaps you’ll hire me.
Perhaps I will.
But you should know, sir, that I get sick at the smell of bootblack and I cannot cut hair.
from Lincoln (2012)
Saturday, April 22, 1865. A blood-burning night in the feral pueblo of Los Angeles. Abraham Lincoln has been dead for a week, and an order has been issued by General Richard C. Drum of the Department of the Pacific banning any celebration of “the Act" of the Republican president's assassination. An army patrol arrests a trio of drunken revelers for doing exactly that. Among them is a barber and ex-slave from Virginia named Peter Biggs.
Biggs – identified in local newspapers as "Ethiopian" – is marched nearly thirty miles on foot to the U.S. Army Drum Barracks in the port city of Wilmington. On his way, ringed by six blue-clad Union cavalrymen and dragging “an iron chain and ball attached to his ankle," the black man repeatedly tosses his hat in the air and shouts, "Three cheers for Jefferson Davis!" to the huzzahs of the Southerners who line the streets.
It’s hard to unpack this strange and vivid scene without considering our current racial climate, where seemingly incomprehensible figures burst forth almost on a weekly basis. How would Biggs' march look as a viral YouTube moment – much less the memes, reaction videos, and the seesawing backlash that would fill every 'Comments' section? How would it look alongside Kanye West's performance as POTUS hype-man; the pro-Trump punditry of Candace "I've Never Been A Slave" Owens; the enthusiastic young MAGA-capped black men who applaud the President?
Not surprisingly, the mercurial life of Peter Biggs – he may have been the only free African-American living independently in Los Angeles the year California declared statehood – has recently been a subject of interest for historians, scholars, and even the odd online sleuth. "Biggs’s life – like many African American lives – fits neither the Jim Crow era’s racist mythology of the South’s 'loyal slaves' nor the post–civil rights era’s historiography of unwavering resistance," Kendra Field and Daniel Lynch write in their 2016 biographical study for Western Historical Quarterly. "Biggs fashioned a unique social and economic niche for himself in Los Angeles between the U.S.-Mexican War and the Civil War, and he confronted telling racial and political conundrums in the aftermath of general emancipation.”
In other words, Biggs threaded the American needle during a period as politically and racially volatile as the one we endure today— and for all practical purposes, he did it astonishingly well. Look upon his works, ye Mighty, and admire.
Born enslaved in Virginia around 1820, Peter Biggs would have been eleven years old when grisly retaliatory violence engulfed the state following Nat Turner's bloody rebellion in Southampton County. He was part of the lesser-known "Second Middle Passage," where nearly one million enslaved Africans were forcibly marched west, a process that separated one in three enslaved children from their families. In Illinois, he was sold to a frontiersman named Reuben Middleton, who in middle age had converted to Mormonism and followed its wagon trains west. Biggs was taken as far as Liberty, Missouri, where he was sold to Captain Andrew Jackson Smith, a West Point grad and U.S. Army officer whose Mormon Dragoon Battalion, in turn, brought him to Los Angeles during the outbreak of hostilities between the U.S. and Mexico in the summer of 1846.
A year later, when Alta California was annexed to the United States, Biggs was implicated in the theft of $650 earmarked for the U.S. Army payroll and was called to testify against two white soldiers accused of being co-conspirators. One of the soldiers maintained that Biggs was the mastermind, but Biggs "talked back," testifying before a military court martial that, while he did receive $30 for giving away the trunk's hiding place, it was the white soldier who was the ringleader. All three were found guilty. The two white soldiers received prison sentences, but Biggs did not. Ironically, his status as an enslaved aide to Captain Smith and not a U.S. soldier protected him from military wrath. Army officials – including one Lt. William Tecumseh Sherman, stationed up north in the port of Monterey – suggested that Biggs' punishment be meted out by his owner. So Peter Biggs, who had been human property since birth, was flogged. And then he was set free.
The end of the Mexican-American War and the nearly simultaneous discovery of gold created a murky social and legal environment for enslaved African Americans in California. Southern-born whites were already chain-migrating to Southern California, many bringing slaves to work their gold claims. (In Congress, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederate States of America, maintained that slaves were as important to gold mining as irrigation was to agriculture.) Between 1849 and 1850, nearly all people with African blood came to California in chains. Yet the laws of the new state – like the vast geographic expanses and tangled racial mix of peoples it contained – were diffuse enough that the power structures that dominated the South could be circumscribed or even nullified. In this sense, what Los Angeles offered Biggs was geographical isolation. Not yet connected to the rest of the country by the railroad, it was reachable only by punishing journeys via stagecoach, wagon train or steamship. Slave owners wishing to return back East would often defer the considerable cost of transporting their human property by striking informal "work release" bargains or simply let them go free, which is what Captain Smith did for Peter Biggs.
Finding himself in such a wilderness on the edge of a metastasizing empire, Biggs would make the most of the frontier’s possibilities. He started with cats. Wrangling as many as he could from the dusty byways of the pueblo, he shipping the stray felines north to deal with a growing rat problem in San Francisco. Soon, Biggs had cornered the market. "Pete was supreme dictator as to prices," wrote an admiring Horace Bell, "and sold his cats, several hundred in number, at price ranging from $16 to $100 each, and thereby made a handsome fortune." Unfortunately, Biggs lost 100 of his furry cargo when they drowned en route in a storm. He also had a weakness for gambling, which he indulged whenever he travelled north, and, in Bell's telling, gradually lost his fortune to "the gambler princes of the Bay City." So Biggs started over, drawing on a trade he may have first learned in his years of enslavement.
Historians have triangulated the beginnings of the African-American barbering trade
Historians have triangulated the beginnings of the African-American barbering trade to the 18th century, when slaves spent Sunday mornings – their only substantial period of leisure time — preparing themselves for Sunday worship. Some were given the loathsome task of "grooming" their fellow property for presentation on the auction block. Many more would serve as unofficial plantation barbers, carefully sliding straight razors across the alabaster necks of their masters. The reason more white jugulars weren't sliced to the bone may have been that enslaved barbers (almost all of them men) realized they could use the trade to buy their freedom. This established the dependence of the early generations of free blacks on the largesse of their wealthy, white clients. It could be, of course, a fraught and dangerous relationship. "Black barbers negotiated their position as captive capitalists in a slave society where their lives and livelihoods depended on shaving white men," Quincy Mills writes in Cutting Along the Color Line. "Economically prosperous yet socially and politically marginalized, black barbers endured the stigma of servility to achieve a measure of independence.”
With an influx of Southern-born slaveholders coming to power in both the pueblo and state capitol, Biggs opened Los Angeles' first barbershop in either 1850 or 1851. He took out newspaper ads and gave himself a dog-whistling nickname, “the Black Democrat." By the time he moved into the Bella Union Hotel, Biggs was advertising his "New Orleans Shaving Saloon" in the pueblo's most popular newspaper, The Los Angeles Star, which resolutely courted Southern sympathies: “Peter Biggs...having spent great expense fitted up, renovated and improved it in the most elegant and comfortable manner . . . is now prepared to shave, shampoo, and cut hair in the most fashionable Southern and New Orleans style.”' The savvy triumph of Biggs' upgrade to the Bella Union should not be overlooked: John Rains, the hotel's owner, was a well-known "Chiv" – shorthand for chivalry, a consortium of Southern sympathizers who use the hotel as their clubhouse. Yet again, Biggs had sidled up to power and prospered.
Proximity to the Bella Union allowed Biggs to charge for access to its baths, 60 cents for cold, 75 for hot. He also did laundry and ran errands, fashioned and groomed wigs, and blackened roots. (As barbers often did then, he may have groomed corpses.) The doors of New Orleans Shaving Saloon opened at sunrise and shuttered past nightfall. In his memoir Sixty Years in Southern California (1916), the Prussian writer Harris Newmark captured Biggs – whom he described as a "black-haired, good-natured man . . . about forty years of age" – in his ramshackle element: "In fitting up his place, he made little or no pretension. He had an old-fashioned, high-backed chair. ... People sat around waiting their turn, and as Biggs called ‘Next!’ he sprinkled the last victim with Florida water, applying to the hair at the same time his Bear Oil (sure to leave its mark on walls and pillows), after which, with a soiled towel he put on the finishing touch, for one towel in those days served many customers.”
Horace Bell was equally impressed by the Black Democrat's business acumen. Easing himself into Biggs' chair to submit to his “barbarous manipulations,” Bell recalled, "he informed me . . . that the community, ’specially de ladies and gentlemen’ could by no means get along without him." Bell himself was a Southern sympathizer known for his volatility – he once beat a drunken Californio to death in a street brawl. The tensions that ran between such men and their black barbers should things get too informal bubbled up briefly in the Indiana native's memoir Reminiscences of a Ranger (1881), and not just in the way Bell mocked Biggs' speech:
[Biggs] said he . . . was always ready and more than happy to introduce a stranger to female society. ... At this point, Pete came to a period, seemingly anticipating that the author would make some pertinent remark; failing in which, Pete broke the embarrassing silence by saying, 'Would ye like to make de 'quaintance of some of de ladies?' I thereupon informed him that I had friends here who would in all probability introduce me into such female society as would be proper for one of my youth and inexperience to know, and at the same time informed him who my friends were, at which Pete...soon rallied and said, 'You see I doesn't mean ladies ob dat high-up class; I means de kind ob ladies dat's always anxious to make de 'qaintance of strangers, 'specially dose dats gots plenty ob de spondulix [cash].'
On September 9, 1850, the same day that gringo California was born, the first U.S. census report for Los Angeles listed Peter Biggs as one of twelve African-Americans who resided in the pueblo and the only one who owned his domicile. He married a sixteen-year-old Mexican girl named Refugio Rodondo who bore him a daughter named Juana, and the family set up housekeeping on Commercial Street near the Bella Union. In the multinational pueblo, he became known by different names: the Spanish-blooded Californios call him "Don Pedro"; the Mexican vaqueros know him as El Bastonero (“Master of Ceremonies”); the Americans, somewhat predictably, call him "Nigger Pete." His apex as an “illustrious and necessary appendage to Los Angeles society" may have been the municipal election of 1853. Apparently, Biggs' shop was a haven for rampant voter fraud. "Voters" – frequently Mexican or Indian prisoners rounded up especially for the purpose of tipping the ballot – would return multiple times, with Biggs offering a few dollars and a swig of liquor in between visits. "Peter Biggs was in his glory,” Horace Bell testified. "His shop and its various branches were crowded all day.”
During Biggs' time in Los Angeles, the pueblo set its pocket watch by violence and death. In 1855, it recorded 33 murders, a state record. A beer saloon on Temple Street named Dockweiler's advertised "no killings within 300 yards of here." The "City of the Angels" became known worldwide as El Pueblo de los Diablos ("City of the Devils"), so much so that when its mayor staged a bandido-style "surprise party" for visiting U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, a terrified Seward assumed the welcoming brass band was a group of desperados intent of doing him harm. While Peter Biggs set about building his investments, other races seemed to be getting the worst of it. Mexicans focused their resentment on the moneyed, landed Californios; Indians mostly killed each other; Anglos preoccupied themselves with lynching both the Mexicans and the Indians. There were, of course, exceptions: Stephen Cribb, a young black man who had been brought enslaved to the pueblo from Arkansas, was assaulted twice in one night after retaining a lawyer to claim his deceased father's property. Another night, a drunken group of scofflaws cornered three black waiters into an adobe corral and tried using them for target practice. “No one dared to interfere or enter protest,” wrote one witness, as the perpetrators were Southerners who “held the town and ran it to suit themselves."
Inevitably, racial violence did find Biggs. In 1851 at a gala ball, Captain Alexander Bell, a Southern-born Mexican War veteran, asked a woman known as “Doña Ramona” for the first dance of the evening. Horace Bell (no relation) claimed to witness what happened next:
The music commenced, and what was Aleck’s disgust at beholding the rascally Pete, in all the glory of a swallow-tailed coat, brass buttons, white vest and gloves, redolent with all the perfume of Araby the blest, shuffle up to the much coveted belle of the ball-room, and with one arm encircling her spider-like waist, sail off in the whirling, giddy waltz. This was more than Southern blood could stand. . . . The music was stopped and Aleck stepped up to Doña Ramona, and inquired of her if she “preferred dancing with a nigger to a white man.” She replied that in this particular instance she did; that Don Pedro was El Bastonero, master of ceremonies, and she deemed it a high privilege to accompany him in the opening waltz.
This was too much for Captain Bell, who pulled a pistol and "blazed away at Pete, who bolted for the door." Horace Bell recorded an amazing scene that embraced dark comedy: "The hapless Pete . . . in passing the United States Hotel corner, narrowly escaped death from [a U.S. Army] sentry, who let fly at him. At the American Bakery corner he was treated to another fusilade [sic], which drew to the place a mounted patrol, who . . . turned loose on him with their revolvers." This was probably factually embellished (Bell didn't arrive in Los Angeles until a year later), as was the odd scene of remorse that followed: "The whole town grieved, none more than Aleck Bell, who had the best of feeling towards the gallant Don Pedro, and only tried to murder him in vindication of his outraged chivalry." Biggs, who had a reputation for drunken public brawling, was as contrite as he needed to be to re-enter the pueblo. But time for him was already running out.
In 1853, none other than writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass publicly weighed in
In 1853, none other than writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass publicly weighed in on a perceived new image problem in the community: the black barbershop. “Idleness is the parent of vice," he cautioned. "To shave half a dozen faces in the morning and sleep or play the guitar in the afternoon – is it noble, is it manly, and does it improve and elevate us?" Despite such reservations, black barbers had become anchors of their communities, involving themselves in politics and assisting abolitionist networks. However, since around 1850, immigrant barbers were becoming more successful than African-American barbers, partly because many of them brought their accrued wealth with them. They also scooped up poorer white customers who could afford haircuts but looked askance at them being performed by a black hand. For Peter Biggs, competition arrived in the form of a hulking Frenchman named Felix Signoret, who in 1853 established a "deluxe" shaving saloon near Biggs' on Main Street. The presence of Signoret, who also became one of the pueblo's prominent vigilante leaders, forced Biggs to halve his prices.
Perhaps reflecting new threats to his livelihood, Biggs' newspaper ads now included a personal entreaty: “My friends and fellow creatures who have heretofore had confidence in me are respectfully invited to continue...The patronage of all persons thankfully received and gratefully acknowledged.” In 1856 he and his wife opened a grocery store, while Signoret expanded his operation to include a billiard parlor and a saloon – eventually taking ownership of an entire business block. The year the telegraph came to the Bella Union in 1860, Biggs' competitors had mushroomed: Besides Signoret there was Mexican Alejo Rendon (to whom Biggs lost a legal dispute), Marylander William Leonard, Prussian George Peffer, and South Carolinian Louis Green.
Beneath these more prosaic tensions loomed a new era of Anglo volatility. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Unionist and Secessionist newspapers dripped with violent rhetoric, and Los Angeles saw alarming increase in homicides and extrajudicial lynchings. Before the war had broken out, Southern Democrats were already leaving California to support the Confederacy. Filling this void was the anti-enslavement Republican Party. These see-sawing power dynamics were on full view before the doors of the Bella Union. In spring 1862, Southern Democrat Andrew Jackson King addressed a large crowd gathered at the hotel, declaring the Confederacy "the only constitutional government we have." A year later, when news of the Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg reached the pueblo, a celebration by Unionists on Main Street was cut short when an armed group of Bella Union Chivs threatened "no demonstration of joy upon this event would be permitted." In his little rented shack adjacent to the hotel, Peter Biggs appeared unaffected. “During the great civil war," recalled Horace Bell, "Pete declared his allegiance to be due to his native Virginia," "and accordingly gave the weight of his influence to the ‘Lost Cause.’”
Caucasian paranoia spiked in the days following the Confederacy's collapse in 1865. On April 17, forty-eight hours after President Lincoln's assassination, additional troops were sent to Southern California to calm Unionist fears of rebel sleeper agents launching an insurrection. The next night, they nabbed Peter Biggs, who was toasting the president's demise with two other men. His arrest signaled the new dominance of the Republicans over the pueblo; that the Black Democrat wasn't immediately lynched may have been testimony to his remaining largesse in the community. Then again, both of the men he was arrested with were released soon after, including a German gunsmith named Henry Schaeffer, who according to Harris Newmark, had "influential friends." At any rate, after spending nearly a month at the fetid, disease-ridden county jail on Spring Street, Biggs gave his memorable, hat-tossing processional down to Camp Drum – where the majority of its garrisoned soldiers had helped tip the California ballots towards Lincoln. He found himself on a chain gang with eight white secessionists. Here he continued to distinguish himself, noted a journalist for Daily Alta California, by "continually [being] the vanguard of the secessionists and traitors of this place." Perhaps this is why he was kept in custody for two more months, after most of the other prisoners were released. They cut the barber loose on July 17th, after forcing him to swear “to abide by and faithfully support all laws...in reference to the emancipation of slaves.”
Horace Bell returned haunted from the Civil War, where he had fought for the Republican Union after becoming convinced of the wickedness of slavery. Most of his old friends, he discovered, had abandoned him." As I had gone from this town to do this nefarious thing," he wrote. "I was simply a red flag to the secessionist bulls." His old friend Peter Biggs kept up a strong front, back on the job in 1867 and once again offering his services "in an artistic manner, and at San Francisco prices." He placed the ad in the Los Angeles Weekly Republican. But he had enemies, too. Two years later, he lay on the sawdust-covered floor of Baker's Restaurant, a kitchen knife buried in his chest. According to the coroner, he "died with his boots on." As Horace Bell reported, Biggs’ acquitted killer walked the streets of the pueblo "proudly conscious of having killed a distinguished character.”
"The record of the past can reveal much but hide even more," writes John Mack Faragher in Eternity Street, an essential narrative of frontier Los Angeles where both Biggs and Bell play pivotal roles. Interestingly, Faragher's book, as well as Field and Lynch's biographical exhumation of Biggs in the Western Historical Quarterly, both appeared during the 2016 presidential election. That event inaugurated a new era – goosed by the vomitoriums of social media – that seems defined by a dark, surreal fluidity of racial and political identity. (Think Russian bots fanning the flames of racial discord or Jussie Smollett's attackers morphing from marauding Caucasian MAGA-hatters to Nigerian hirelings in real time.) Susan Anderson, director of Collections at the California Historical Society and author of the upcoming book African Americans and the California Dream, points out that what is known of Biggs is mainly through the second-hand memories of Southern white men, and emphasizes that Biggs' remarkable skill set was based mainly on transactional relationships he carried overland from the South. He was of a time – just not this one. "I don't think there is an equivalent of a Peter Biggs today. That's a little simplistic. I wouldn't even go there." No community is a monolith, Andersen maintains, and none should be expected to adhere to a certain set of beliefs or behaviors.
And yet, setting aside the impossibility of putting oneself in the skin of an ex-slave barber from antebellum Virginny, one can hardly encounter his story and not wonder if vestiges of him can still be glimpsed in the city he helped tame. Like the young filmmaker Charles Burnett, who a century after after Biggs' march confronted a group of elder philosopher kings in a Watts barbershop with the possibilities of revolution and became forever surprised at their reactionary heckling ("I'll getcha a ticket to Russia if you promise not to come back!"). Or the shocked response of conservatives and rap fans alike when gangsta mogul Eric "Eazy-E" Wright (wearing his L.A. Kings cap, no less) strolled into a $2500-a-plate Republican fundraising luncheon hosted by George H.W. Bush ("If you've got the money, they've got the time," he told the press). Or hell, even the young African-American man sitting in the seat next to me on the flight from Los Angeles to Albuquerque who extolled the virtues of the current President: "He's a businessman, I'm a businessman. He’s in real estate, I’m in real estate. That's all I care about.”
Mister Biggs . . . is that you?
Matthew Duersten is a Wisconsin-born, Los Angeles-based freelance journalist whose work has been anthologized in the books Da Capo Best Music Writing and L.A. Now. Alongside writing for the websites Artbound and LAist, he is currently working on a book for Asahina & Wallace on L.A. jazz after the Watts Riots.