~Updated October 2017
Two weeks before she passed away in 1988, Kamea "Kay" Okamoto Omata wrote to Clarence Nishizu that she wanted to write about Fanny Bixby Spencer, her adopted mother and a member of one of Southern California's most prominent families.
"I am writing her story,"Omata told Nishizu, who carefully noted the exchange in his 1982 oral history with Arthur A. Hansen, for California State University Fullerton's Japanese American Oral History Project, "and I think that I would like to call it 'A Hippie Before Her Time.' " Nishizu recalled an obituary in the Long Beach Press Telegram about Fanny Bixby, describing her as "a woman who, though she could have enjoyed the luxuries of life, chose to devote her energies to the betterment of mankind."
LEFT: Fanny Bixby Spencer, circa 1909-1910. (Photograph, Los Angeles Magazine, March 12 , 2103)
At her passing in 1930, Fanny Bixby had touched the lives of many Japanese immigrants, including those leasing land from the Bixby family and those in Wintersburg. In oral histories for the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project, Bixby is remembered with affection.
Nevertheless, Fanny Bixby scared people.
A socialite's life
Fanny was the daughter of one of California's richest men, Jotham Bixby, and his wife, Margaret Hathaway Bixby. Jotham Bixby and his cousins acquired the 27,000-acre Rancho Los Cerritos, 17,000 acres in Rancho Palos Verdes and a third interest in Rancho Los Alamitos of 29,000 acres. As an individual, he purchased 7,000 acres in the Ranchos Santiago de Santa Ana.
Jotham Bixby was president of the Bixby Land Company, the Palos Verdes Company, the Jotham Bixby Company, vice president of the Alamitos Land Company, the Alamitos Water Company, president of the Chino Valley Cattle Company of Arizona, president of the National Bank of Long Beach and vice president of the Long Beach Savings Bank & Trust Company. He was money.
In the 1932 California and Californians (Vol. IV, The Lewis Publishing Company), it was noted "today in Southern California are hundreds of thousands of home and property owners whose chain of title runs through holdings once owned by Jotham Bixby."
LEFT: Fanny Bixby showed an early tendency to compete, as noted in this 1898 society page blurb about activities at the shore. (Herald, Aug. 14, 1898)
An ideal childhood
Born in 1879 in Rancho Los Cerritos (the present-day Bixby Knolls section of Long Beach, California), Fanny Bixby attended the prestigious Marlborough School in Los Angeles, the Pomona Preparatory School and Wellesley College.
There is evidence the extended Bixby family made a visit from their Rancho Los Cerritos home to Gospel Swamp (the willows-covered peatland of Wintersburg Village, the future Huntington Beach Township, and Talbert).
ABOVE: Sheep dipping at the Bixby Ranch, the childhood home of Fanny Bixby, circa 1901. The man at the center is reportedly Jotham Bixby. (Photo, University of Southern California Libraries)
In her 1926 book, Adobe Days, A Book of California Memories, Fanny's cousin Sarah Bixby-Smith, describes a late 1800s Sunday afternoon, "We had all been over to camp-meeting at Gospel Swamp, not that we were much addicted to camp-meeting, but it was the only available service within reach, and of course we had to go to church on Sunday. We sat on wooden benches in the dust under the willows, not an altogether unpleasant change from the usual pew, at least for the children..."
"But Uncle Jotham had a more exciting aftermath," writes Bixby-Smith. "He and Papa and I were reading in the parlor after dinner when suddenly he gave a tremendous jump and ran upstairs three steps at a time, where we soon heard a great noise of tramping. In a minute or two he came down with a dead lizard almost a foot long spread on his New York Tri-weekly Tribune. Evidently it had mounted his bootleg over at camp-meeting and lain dormant for a couple of hours before attempting further explorations. The first jump came when the little feet struck my uncle's knee, harmless, but uncanny."
Fanny Bixby gave her father, Jotham, a bigger scare by devoting the majority of her inheritance to social efforts. He put her on an allowance.
Fanny get your gun
In January 1908, Long Beach's first appointed police chief, Thomas W. Williams, "did something which resulted in the Chief being 'swamped' with inquires about what was then considered a “shaky experiment," reported the Long Beach Police Officers Association, Rap Sheet (2008).
"Chief Williams appointed Fanny Bixby daughter of Jotham and Margaret Bixby, a 'Special Police Officer' for the City of Long Beach. The young woman who had been born on the Los Cerritos sheep ranch in 1879 had become a Long Beach Police Officer."
ABOVE: Fanny Bixby was the first woman to serve with the Long Beach police department, circa 1909. Eight years later, the Long Beach police opposed the community hosting a conference for the Christian Pacifists, of which Fanny Bixby was a member. (What was Fanny Bixby Really Like?, Independent Press Telegram, August 22, 1965)
The daily newspapers regularly had articles about Fanny Bixby being called to the scene to help with a destitute woman, a suicide attempt, or an orphaned child.
"The idea of having a woman on the force was a new one.” Williams is reported as explaining, “It occurred to me that such a plan would be feasible and Mrs. Spencer, then Miss Bixby, was willing to serve in that capacity. The idea was soon taken up by metropolitan cities all over the country.”
The Los Angeles Herald wrote in 1909, "California, which gives an example to the rest of the country and to the world in many respects, is now demonstrating that when necessary a woman can become a policeman, or should we say policewoman? Miss Fanny Bixby, deputy of a Long Beach constable, has been sworn into office and is wearing her special policeman's star."
RIGHT: Fanny Bixby receives "Policeman's Star" as a deputy constable in 1909, which the Los Angeles Times captioned as a "rich girl's office". (Policeman's Star for Fannie Bixby, Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1909)
The Herald continued, "Deputy Constable Fannie Bixby is wealthy, but...does not see in the possession of money merely an incentive to lead a useless or society butterfly life. She believes the possessors of the world's wealth should be the doers of the world's work."
"It is believed several young men of a set which is called fashionable are shivering in their shoes since Miss Bixby came to Los Angeles for her star..." waxed the Herald. "With a few fearless missionaries like Miss Bixby actively at work, society would soon be reformed."
ABOVE: The Egan Theater--today the Musart Theater--on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, where Fanny Bixby's play, The Jazz of Patiotism, debuted in 1928. (Photo, Historic Los Angeles Theaters, circa 1949)
Becoming an activist
By 1921, the tide had turned and Fanny Bixby was called unpatiotic, a socialist, and a radical. Having spent time in social and suffragette work in the East Coast and in San Francisco, Bixby built the Settlement House in Los Angeles, was aiding Russian newsboys, and financially supported the Walt Whitman School, providing aid and education to immigrants.
She had written an anti-war play the previous year in 1920, The Jazz of Patriotism, in which the protagonist refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Not exactly a popular theme for a country recovering from World War I.
In 1921, Bixby is listed as being on the national board of The League for Industrial Democracy--the successor for the Intercollegiate Socialist Society--which stated its object as being: "education for a new social order based on production for use and not for profit."
LEFT: A flyer for the opening of the Walt Whitman School in Los Angeles, "the first proletarian day school in the West," for which Fanny Bixby was a benefactress. (Image, Southern California Architectural History, Feb. 29, 1920)
RIGHT: Fanny Bixby had served as Long Beach's first female police officer by the time she was "criticized" for not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance in 1917. In typical Fanny Bixby fashion, she was blunt about her anti-war position. (Rev. F. Watry is pivot of gale in church at Long Beach, Santa Ana Register, June 15, 1917)
Long Beach Unitarian Church officers ended up voting on whether or not to retain Reverend Watry. He was reported by the Santa Ana Register as having been retained by a vote of 17 to 15 "followed by a stormy scene".
Fanny Bixby never changed her position regarding the Pledge of Allegiance. She doubled down. By 1925, she had taken on the state superintendent of public instruction about the requirement that children sing the Star Spangled Banner. The Santa Ana Register described Bixby as "well known social worker" that has "been associated with Upton Sinclair in many of his activities". To quote author Laurel Ulrich, "well behaved women seldom make history."
ABOVE: Fanny Bixby with her husband, Carl Spencer, on a trip to San Quentin to "visit a socialist friend" in 1923. They camped along the way. She is described as being free with her money to help others, but not extravagant with herself, preferring plain clothing and a simple lifestyle. (Miss Fanny, Tolstoy, 31 Goats, and Me, Martin Volkoff, Independent Press Telegram, January 24, 1971)
LEFT: The Los Angeles Times reported in 1988 that Bixby had been "almost tarred and feathered" for her stance regarding the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem during World War I and following years. She wore it like a badge for the rest of her life. (The Eccentric One, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1988)
"When the Alien Land Law was passed, she thought that it was a bad law because it affected the East Indians, Chinese, Filipinos and Japanese," Omata wrote. "Mr. and Mrs. Spencer did not have any children. They raised and educated thirteen different children of many nationalities. I was the last."
Bixby sent Omata to church--even though she herself did not attend--and insisted the children learn about their cultural heritage.
"She left properties to all. Since I had very little connection with the Japanese language, she left in her will that I spend some time in Japan to learn the language and culture of the land of my ancestors," explained Omata. "I could not truthfully say that she aided only the Japanese people because she helped all nationalities. She was an unusual lady in that she was a wealthy woman but gave all her money for causes that she believed in."
RIGHT: A poem published in the Santa Ana Register the same year Fanny Bixby is listed as a contributing author and artist for The Messenger, The World's Greatest Negro Monthly, with the poet Langston Hughes. As much as she stirred up people with her opinions, Bixby was clear in her love of the diversity of humanity and adopted over a dozen children from different regions of the world, permanently changing the course of their lives. Her generosity to those around her was often noted when Bixby was criticized, including the fact she shared flowers she received during her last days alive in a Los Angeles hospital. (My Native Land, a poem by Fanny Bixby Spencer, Santa Ana Register, March 17, 1924)
The Santa Ana Register reported at the time of her death on March 31, 1930 at age 50, that Bixby had received "both commendation and condemnation" for her social work and political opinions. She requested no flowers at her funeral, "except simple wildflowers and garden blossoms, such as little children may pick for me."
Two years before her death, Fanny Bixby wrote to her cousin, Sarah Bixby Smith, about how her early activism changed her life, "Since I have been a social outcast, clubs, like churches, are not in my sphere. I have three lines of work, bringing up my foster children, helping my neighbors (mostly Japanese farmers) and banging my head against the stone wall of militarism and conservatism that hems me in."
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