Gotta love Santa Rosa; just a single downtown street is named after someone, and that person was a criminal.

(RIGHT: Engraving of Otho Hinton from the 1876 book, "Guarding the Mails" - see sidebar in part two. It is doubtful this artist ever saw Hinton, whose crimes were committed more than a quarter-century earlier. There are no known surviving life drawings or photographs of Hinton)

The street doesn't exist as of this writing (April, 2016) but it will pop back to life soon as the east side of the reunited Courthouse Square as "Hinton Avenue," named in memory of General Otho Hinton who died here in 1865. Why and when he was so honored is unclear; nor is it known if anyone in Santa Rosa was aware he spent years on the lam from federal authorities.

Otho Hinton robbed stagecoaches, but not in "Black Bart" fashion with a mask and guns drawn. In 1849 and 1850 he was quietly sneaking into the mailbags which in that era could contain anything, including cash transfers between banks. When he was caught in a sting operation he was charged with stealing $17 thousand (nearly $800,000 today).

 The theft was news nationwide because in 1850 that was about how much a typical farmer would scratch together in an entire lifetime. Even more shocking, however, was the identity of the thief. At 48 or 49 years, Hinton was a respected, even esteemed character around Ohio; a popular speaker at political rallies; the founder of a renowned hotel and despite a company bankruptcy a few years earlier, considered a wealthy man with powerful connections. Imagine what it would be like to discover your favorite uncle was actually rich not because he ran a successful business but because he was heisting cars at night.

 As you read this account of Otho's rags to riches to rags to riches life, keep these things in mind: The man had a silver tongue and an angel's charm. People believed whatever he said. People trusted him even knowing the full nature of his offenses and went out of their way to help him, even putting their own jobs or liberty in jeopardy. Only a single person ever peered into his dank soul and knew him for the scoundrel he was and even wished him dead.

That person was his wife.

Otho Hinton was born in 1801 or 1802 in Maryland but when he was young the family moved to Delaware, Ohio, a village in the center of the state just above Columbus. History's first glimpse of him was selling walnuts to troops bivouacked there in the War of 1812. He had a simple education before he went to work as a carpenter. He married a woman named Rebecca Gordon and they immediately began having kids. It was an inauspicious start until the stagecoach came to town and his life changed.

Today it's difficult to imagine how a stagecoach way station would have transformed a backwater Ohio village like Delaware in 1826. The sleepy community that probably saw few outsiders would now have travelers coming through from all directions, sometimes stopping over. Major newspapers would be available to keep residents up to date; mail would arrive every day. And then there was the exotic glory of the vehicle itself, with a coach large enough to seat up to a dozen people behind a team of thoroughbreds capable of racing to the destination at over eleven miles per hour. My gods, the future had arrived. Hinton began working for the stage company before he was thirty and by the time he was forty was on his way to be the wealthiest man in that part of the state as a major investor in lucrative stage lines.

Every chapter of his story shows a man who oozed self-confidence, a man whose powers of persuasion must have been remarkable. He became a General not because of any military experience but because of his popularity (see sidebar). He was in demands as a speaker on behalf the Whig Party despite sounding like an uneducated hick. A local history remarked: "He was a man of ready tongue, slight education and great assurance, and his public speeches, though often ridiculed by his opponents on account of the grammatical inaccuracies they displayed, were generally effective and well received." Once he spoke for 2½ hours in closed room where it was over 100 degrees, and a paper reported he "riveted the attention of his delighted hearers...the audience was as large when he finished as when he begun. The speaker that can accomplish that needs no other praise."


Otho Hinton never led a single soldier into combat and was never within a thousand miles of a battlefield, yet he was called a General on the slimmest of authority. Still, it was enough for him to get an official military tombstone in Santa Rosa's Rural Cemetery.

(Note: He is not to be confused with the Otho Hinton who was a Confederate rebel, member of Quantrill's Raiders and died in Missouri in 1864.)

In Hinton's day each state had a volunteer militia, each broken down into regional divisions. After that were still smaller brigades which had a Brigadier that was was either appointed by the governor or elected by the men. This is how Hinton became Brigadier General of the 2nd Brigade, 13th Division of the Obio State Militia.

Every three months the militia met for several days of drills called "Quarterly Musters." One Ohio history reported Hinton "was always to be seen on muster days on a white charger, dressed in a uniform that would have made Phil. Sheridan ashamed of himself" (Civil War General Philip Sheridan famously commanded Union troops in battle while wearing a clean dress uniform with a silver cup in his hand).

When the U.S. declared war on Mexico in 1846 it was known only a select few brigades would be invited to fight alongside the regular army, and Hinton lobbied vigorously for his central Ohio brigade to be selected. He spent six weeks in Washington and traveling around the state seeking support from regional militia leaders. A southern Ohio brigade was chosen instead, possibly because Hinton's troops were only a "cornstalk" militia as a local history claims, which was a derisive term meaning the volunteers were so poor or unfit they were using cornstalks instead of rifles at musters.
His glory days came in 1845 and 1846. He had his military "career" whereupon he came to be called "General" exclusively, as if it were his given name. The stage lines through the town of Delaware were so successful he built the Hinton House, among the best and largest hotels in Ohio and boasting 100 rooms. His main business, O. Hinton & Co. had already expanded to offer stage service in the far west including Iowa Territory and Wisconsin Territory (this was the 1840s, remember) which included government contracts to carry mail. In 1846 he won a four-year Post Office contract to add parts of Illinois and Missouri. That demanded an urgent and substantial expansion of the company, so late in 1846 Hinton negotiated to buyout his largest competitor. But before that deal was sealed, disaster struck.

On December 30 it started to rain and would not stop. The downpour continued for eleven days. Stories appearing in the newspapers were horrific. Herds of animals drowned in flooded pastures. Evacuating residents found escape routes blocked by washed-out bridges. Homes, barns, sawmills and factories disappeared. Some floodwaters rose 18 inches an hour with no end in sight and an Ohio river overflowed its banks by a hundred miles.

With so many Midwestern roads impassible and a slow rebuild of the bridges expected, his company - which was already overextended - was incapable of the extraordinary efforts required to transport the mail on time, or even at all. Within a couple of weeks they started abandoning routes, first a portion of southern Illinois and soon the rest of the state. Within three months the business was ruined and in an attempt to embarrass him into paying an overdue bill for an advertisement, a Milwaukee newspaper published a letter from Hinton stating he could not pay the $6 he owed. The paper illustrated the item with a little engraving of a stagecoach which was printed upside down.

Lesser men might have been crushed by such a bankruptcy at age 45, but General Hinton was perpetually blind to his own failings. He also knew the stage business as well or better than anyone in the country and had a stellar track record lobbying both Congress and the post office. Soon he was an agent and then general manager for the Ohio Stage Company, which covered much of the nation.

It was savvy for the company to have Mr. Personality representing them on the road, but the General's greatest contribution was that he well understood the price of screwing up mail deliveries. The post office had a schedule of fines for mail that arrived late, wet or otherwise damaged. With penalties ranging from a couple of bucks to several hundred dollars, depending on the importance of the destination, a contractor could quickly find himself losing money or even going bankrupt as Otho did. Making sure a small army of drivers and other company agents working over several thousand square miles handled the mail flawlessly was a daunting job of great responsibility and trust.

The position gave him considerable freedom to travel where and when he liked, taking him away from his family for extended periods. The General apparently was not terribly lonely on those trips, as he petitioned Rebecca for divorce in 1848. She countered by accusing him of adultery.

Margie Hinton, a very distant cousin and an adept genealogist, traveled to Ohio for Otho research and found a trove of Othoabilia at the Delaware county library including papers related to the divorce suit, where his wife reminded him she knew how to load and shoot a gun, implying she would use it if she caught him again with another woman. He complained Rebecca was the cause of almost every setback he had suffered in recent years. The divorce was apparently never finalized.

Although he did not know it, the General had a far greater worry: The post office was aware money was being stolen from the mailbags carried by his company. Mail robbery is a federal crime which was then investigated by the Post Office's "Office of Instructions and Mail Depredations" (now the United States Postal Inspection Service). Working together, the Cleveland Postmaster and a Deputy U.S. Marshal found a pattern to the thefts and designed a trap to catch the one particular suspect they believed guilty: General Otho Hinton.


The Press Democrat is out with its 1906 earthquake anniversary item and it earns a D+ for historical accuracy, which is still far better than it has done in the recent past. (EDIT: The grade was originally was a C+ until I read the photo captions and found the slideshow included 1909 damage to the Sonoma mission, among other serious errors.)

There are two significant problems with the very first paragraph in the PD's new (2016) short unbylined piece, which claims "more than 100 people were killed in a community of roughly 8,700." Exactly 77 are certain to have died in Santa Rosa and it can be said with high confidence there were at least 82 (see 1906 earthquake FAQ). While it seems very likely that a hundred or more people probably were killed or died later because of injuries there is zero evidence, so using any number higher than 77 is speculation. Also guesswork is claiming there were "roughly 8,700" in the community. At the end of 1906, the PD estimated the population then at 10,990. There is a thorough discussion concerning the size of Santa Rosa in the FAQ, but I have never seen that 8,700 figure used. As with the death count, the PD does not reveal its source of information.

The mistakes continue into the second paragraph: "Entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble and the city struggled for years to rebuild." Only the courthouse and surrounding commercial blocks were destroyed. About two dozen houses collapsed or were knocked off foundations and many chimneys cracked or fell. Residential damage was blamed mostly on poor construction and no neighborhoods were wiped out. Nor did the city do much struggling to rebuild. Yes, downtown was a mess and major construction zone for the first year, but before the second anniversary the business district was mostly back to normal in lovely new buildings.

I have other quibbles with the anniversary piece. It mentions city hall operated from a table on the sidewalk but that probably was only for about a week before it moved to the business and government shantytown hastily slammed together on the vacant lot at Mendocino and Fifth. The item also states the Press Democrat had its own presses rolling again by the end of the month, which is about the least interesting factoid about the disaster. If anything at all should be mentioned about the PD after the earthquake it's that editor Ernest Finley argued vigorously that the needy didn’t deserve aid from the relief fund.

Although the little article gets almost all facts wrong, I still give it a passing grade because of the accompanying photographs, many of which I have never before seen from the PD archives. Check them out - but mostly ignore the captions.

But enough about the PD today; how did Santa Rosa commemorate the earthquake anniversary a hundred years ago? Answer: It didn't.

In San Francisco on April 18, 1916, an estimated 25,000 packed into the Civic Auditorium to hear a program that included a 500 voice chorus, military band and speeches by the mayor and other luminaries. Was there a public event that day in Santa Rosa?


That ten year anniversary was also the day Santa Rosa swore in a new mayor and city council. Was there a moment of silence at the ceremony to honor the dead?


That day in 1916 was the Tuesday before Easter and Santa Rosa churches were in high gear, with one church offering a three-hour drop-in service on Good Friday. Were any sermons announced giving thanks for parishioners having survived?


The Santa Rosa Republican and Press Democrat both offered short, mawkish "ten years after" editorials that really said nothing; the "city has arisen phoenix like from its ashes" because energetic Santa Rosans "with a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips" rebuilt the town better than it was before, blah, blah, yada, etc.

The only point to note is the remark in the Republican that "In proportion to its size Santa Rosa suffered more than any other city in the state." Today the claim that Santa Rosa had comparatively more damage and/or more deaths than San Francisco is another common myth. Over 80 percent of San Francisco was destroyed by the earthquake and fire and most of their population was homeless or displaced for up to two years. By contrast, Santa Rosa's relief effort lasted 17 days with no refugee camps or emergency housing. Electricity was restored within a week and most downtown businesses were operating again within four days at temporary locations. There were no fires in Santa Rosa residential areas. No matter how much one squints at comparisons, it's impossible to honestly claim Santa Rosa suffered more than elsewhere.

A quite interesting article did appear in the Republican a few days later, however, showing a tally of year-by-year building permits issued over the previous decade. It showed furious activity through the spring of 1908, then a flux following general economic trends. This data will be of great interest to local historians.

City Has Arisen Phoenix Like From Its Ashes And Anniversary Is Cause for Thankfulness

This morning ten years ago, Santa Rosa was visited by the greatest calamity in its history. The entire business part of the city was destroyed by earthquake and fire; many lives were lost, and the list of wounded was long. The property loss was estimated at nearly five million dollars. Some doubted that the town would ever be rebuilt, but most Santa Rosans were more hopeful, and some even predicted that the work of restoration would be complete in five years. But ten years was more generally regarded as the time that would probably be required.

It can be truthfully said today that the restoration is finished, and that the new city is architecturally far better than it was at the time of the disaster. Nearly every building destroyed has been replaced by a building that is larger and finer. The courthouse, the city hall, the banks and hotels are Class A structures, worth many times what the former ones were worth and a credit to the city in every way. The postoffice, the Masonic Temple, the Native Sons' building, the high school annex, and many handsome business structures, testify to the enterprise and the energy of the people in this town that was stricken. It has been a wonderful recovery.

- Press Democrat, April 18, 1916


Ten years ago today the Pacific Coast rocked with one of the heaviest earthquakes the world has ever known. Following in its wake came a sheet of flame that completed the work of ruin and destruction. Men retired the night before secure in the belief that they were well established in business, and that the future was secure. They were awakened by the temblor to face ruin, death and misery. In proportion to its size Santa Rosa suffered more than any other city in the state. For blocks Fourth street was a mass of ruins, debris and twisted iron. For a moment the people were stunned, helpless, and it seemed, hopeless. Yet before the bricks were cold, before the streets were cleared for traffic, the work of rebuilding began. Men who had been planning their businesses on a $5000 a year basis immediately outline plans calling for a business of double that amount. Men who had owned buildings of wood, or one story structures, planned at once for modern, fireproof two story structures that would be a credit to any city. With a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips; with not a hint of giving up, they set about their titanic task and have builded a city in ten years, better than was built in course of the slow growth more than fifty years previous. And that same spirit is present today and will be present in the generations to come. The will to do, to surmount any and all obstacles, the belief in one's ability to perform the task before one, has made possible the wonderful work of the rebuilding of the City of Roses. No greater monument was ever erected in memory of man's achievement than the achievement itself, in this instance.

- Santa Rosa Republican, April 18, 1916

City is Rebuilt In Ten Years
$2,705,000 And More Is Spent

It is a fact known to few people in Santa Rosa that approximately two and three-quarter millions of dollars have been put into permanent building improvements in Santa Rosa in the past ten years. This is one of the mighty proofs of the advancement of this city since its business district was laid low by earthquake and fire on April 18, 1906.

Included within the ten years that have elapsed since that disaster there are many other improvements, such as miles and miles of paved streets, cement sidewalks, curbs and gutters and countless other items that would swell the sum total of city improvements to an enormous figure. There are many other advancements that have been made, but that single total of improvements in permanent buildings, totaling in exact figures, $2,705,302.31, is one of the biggest arguments that Santa Rosa has to show what enormous strides have been made by the city in ten years. From almost nothing to that total in ten years is an achievement for the city which compares favorably with the total expended in San Francisco, considering the size of the two cities for that length of time.

The Republican is indebted to City Clerk Herbert B. Snyder for the actual figures covering building operations. Up to the time that he took office there were no summarized records kept of the building permits granted, and it was necessary to consult old records with the aid of the adding machine and bring them up to date.

In the two years following the earthquake and fire the building operations were especially heavy, but since that time they have maintained a high record. The permits, year by year, from June to July [sic] are as follows:


- Santa Rosa Republican April 22, 1916

If you ever come across a time machine, avoid Santa Rosa in July, 1913. That month had the all-time hottest temperature (113 in the shade) as enormous wildfires blazed in Marin and Napa; it was also the second year of severe drought, causing the town's reservoir to draw dangerously low. More about all that can be found in an earlier item, "THE AWFUL SUMMER OF 1913" but there was also something else: A terrible stench drifted up from Santa Rosa Creek.

The Press Democrat first reported PG&E was suspected as the culprit, as they operated the coal gas plant on the south side of the creek. A story in the PD the following day said the company investigated and it wasn't them, instead suggesting it was probably "vegetation that has decayed," causing the paper to skeptically snort, "at least that is their contention." After weeks of complaints, Dr. Jackson Temple, the town's Health Officer, and a reporter for the Santa Rosa Republican set off in a voyage of disgusting discovery to solve the mystery.

Ca. 1905 photo of Santa Rosa Creek, with the old Main Street bridge in the distance. Note the discharge pipe seen to the left. Photo Credit: "Santa Rosa, California in Vintage Postcards" by Bob and Kay Voliva

Dr. Temple and the reporter started behind the Levin tannery (the current location of 101 Brookwood Avenue). The tannery had a long history of polluting the creek with lime and highly toxic agents such as cyanide used in the manufacture of leather. Citizens had petitioned the City Council to get tough on the tannery and the Dept. of Fish and Game had sued over the poisoning of fish. But on the day of the creek survey, no problems were found - although cynics might wonder if the tannery had been tipped off about the creek investigation, given the business was Santa Rosa's largest employer.

More distressing was what they found nearby: "Several piles of rotting vegetables and garbage were found at this spot and were evidently from private houses. There was plenty of evidence that many persons had used the creek for a considerable distance as an open air toilet."

As their wagon continued bumping down the dry creek bed (drought, remember) they came to the PG&E gas plant, another source of frequent complaints about foul smells. And again, no problems were found that day, except for "a considerable deposit of lamp black" on the bottom of the creek. Dr. Temple proclaimed it harmless, but he was wrong; lampblack carbon residue was considered as toxic as petroleum tar even back then; in 1906 the Army Corps of Engineers specifically sued the Portland gas company for dumping it into the river and by 1913 PG&E had installed scrubbers at their plants in San Francisco and elsewhere to keep it out of the waterways.

So far, so good (mostly) - but as the Republican commented, "a short distance further on, however, came the worst conditions imaginable."

This area was just south of the Davis street bridge, which was named in the earlier odor complaints. Today this section of Santa Rosa is gone, wiped out by the highway, but it was just where the southbound onramp from West Third street merges onto 101.

The main offenders were two major businesses, side-by-side: The Grace Brothers brewery (today the location of the Hyatt) and the Santa Rosa Tanning Company directly to its south. "The stench arising from this was indescribable," the article said. "It filled the nostrils like blue smoke, filtered down into the lungs, and burned its way to the stomach, where it worked until it gave one the feeling of a bad morning after a worse night. The top of the water was covered solid with a green-black streaked scum, and the water beneath was as black as night."

And that wasn't all: "[A]nother sight was met which added greatly to the stench in the neighborhood. A toilet had been built of rough boards in the Mead Clark Lumber Company's yards. The rear of the toilet was open and hung over the creek bank and its contents covered the bank for a distance of many feet."

The next - and thankfully, last - horror was the cannery, where "two large streams of water were found pouring into the creek. The water was a wine purple in color and carried with it an orange colored scum, which was added to that from the brewery. Combined, the smell was almost overpowering" Just beyond that was a "great pile of refuse which was rotten and putrid, and which also gave off a most offensive odor." Even though there was no further dumping downstream, the Republican said the stench from the water carried as far as where the creek passes under modern-day Dutton ave.

Gentle Reader is probably wondering why these companies were stinking up the town instead of discharging their waste down the sewers. As it turns out, that always might not have been an option.

Santa Rosa indeed had a sewer farm at the corner of West College and Stony Point (think Finley Community Park and the the city bus transit center) and by 1913 there were multiple septic tanks and several in-line evaporating/seepage ponds before the residual water was dumped into Santa Rosa Creek. But the system was usually teetering on the brink of collapse, according to John Cummings' survey, "The Sewage of Santa Rosa" (which is a really fun read if you enjoy municipal screwups). In the decade before our stinky 1913 tour, town officials made a string of remarkably bad decisions. Some lowlights:

* In 1905 the city wrote to the Cameron Septic Tank Company in Chicago requesting plans and costs for a new tank. Told by the company that their system was patented and they required a deposit before providing plans, Santa Rosa ripped off the design and had locals construct it anyway. Cameron Septic sued, and Santa Rosa ended up paying back royalties plus the cost of building the copycat tank. That wooden septic tank was big enough to handle a population of 10,000, although there were already almost that many people in the greater Santa Rosa region. By 1912 the sewer committee reported the "sewage problem is in deplorable condition" as the system was beyond capacity.

* The original 1886 layout of the sewers called for eight-inch pipe west of Main Street/Mendocino, but only six-inch lines east of there into the main residential neighborhoods. By the early Twentieth Century, these pipes could not handle demands; every winter the sewer mains down Second and Fifth streets backed up. In 1913 the city approved a high water volume, "Wet Wash" laundry at the corner of First and A streets and every time it discharged wastewater, the Second street main line overflowed. The town's solution was to ask the laundry to build a private cesspool but according to the Republican article, they had been dumping it into the creek.

* Santa Rosa failed to make incremental improvements even when it had the opportunity. After the 1906 earthquake hundreds of connections were repaired and there were new extensions of the sewer mains, all using the inadequate six-inch diameter pipe. When the city added a new line to serve the booming communities south of the Creek in 1914 they used eight-inch mains, which predictably backed up just as they did on Second and Fifth streets. Santa Rosa's solution was to spend more on maintenance - installing new manholes allowing workers to use a sewer cleaning machine that cost the equivalent of about $24,000 today.

(RIGHT: Santa Rosa Creek at flood stage in 1925, as seen from the newer Main Street steel bridge. Photo credit: Sonoma County Library)

Compounding the odor problems of 1913 was the drought, which meant no moving water in the creek so pollutants stayed more or less where they were discharged. All that was about to dramatically change.

The winter of 1913-1914 was an El Niño storm season, and Sonoma county was hit hard; in the December 30 storm, Santa Rosa had four inches in 26 hours while Cazadero had fourteen. Many "wagon bridges" over creeks around the county were destroyed and the Russian River passed flood stage. Railroad crews and volunteers in Santa Rosa worked through the night to protect the Santa Rosa Creek bridges as "trees and timber of all kinds, fencing and all sorts of trash were being whirled along in the angry, muddy, turbulent stream," according to the Press Democrat. In the thrilling account transcribed below, men with axes and secured by ropes chopped for hours on a tree rammed against the side of the Davis street bridge.

The creek probably smelled pretty good after that big flush, at least for a while. But nothing fundamentally changed. According to the Cummings paper, "the city's own sanitary inspector described the condition of the creek in the spring of 1916 as being 'worse than a septic tank' and commented that nothing could be done about it."


People who have to cross the Davis street bridge are lodging complaints concerning the aroma that comes up from the stream. The befouling of the water is said to come from gas water from the gas works. It is hoped by the complaints that something will be done to relieve the present unpleasantness.

- Press Democrat July 24, 1913


Thursday morning's Press Democrat mentioned the annoying stench coming from the creek, supposedly caused by gas water from the gas works. It at once recalled the suggestion made long ago that there should be a commercial sewer, into which the drainage from the gas works, tanneries, etc., could be turned in. Several years ago this matter was up for discussion before the city council, and Mayor Mercier and the present council are also interested in the matter. So is Health Officer Jackson Temple, M. D. The gas people state that they made an examination, thinking that there was a leak of gas somewhere, but claim that the stench is probably caused by vegetation that has decayed since the fill was made for the Davis street bridge. At least that is their contention.

- Press Democrat July 25, 1913

Of Santa Rosa Creek With a Republican Representative

No one need go to an auto polo game, nor to seventy mile an hour races, nor on a scenic railway for thrills. The Alps, Mt. McKinley nor any other peak can have any terrors for the person who takes a light wagon or buggy and drives down the bed of Santa Rosa creek from city limits to city limits. Apprenticeship for a deep water sailor can be gone through with in less than regulation time by taking this trip.

It is not a pleasant trip in any sense of the word. So much has been said and so much written concerning the Santa Rosa Creek that the REPUBLICAN determined to find out the conditions of the creek from an expert's point of view, and let the people of this city know that condition, its cause and what it's effect will be. The blame for the conditions can be placed at once. When this article is read over and nearly every condition described is noted by the reader, let him say simply, "A commercial sewer will prevent this condition."

Blame for the condition lies entirely in this. If the city is to blame for not having such a sewer, that is another matter. But the direct blame for the conditions lies in the lack of a proper commercial sewer, or any commercial sewer for that matter, for the city is without one. There are certain factories on the creek which are creating more waste water every day than their sewer tappings are capable of carrying away. There are factories creating more waste water than the main sewer with which they are connected is capable of carrying, with no other factor or residence connected with it.

What shall these factories do? Shut down or use the creek as an outlet?

Certain it is that no more factories can be encouraged to come here until proper sewerage is provided for those already here, an epidemic will sweep this city and the cost of the sewer in dollars will be insignificant compared with the cost of an epidemic in human lives.

Now for the conditions. Dr. Jackson Temple accompanied a representative of the REPUBLICAN on the inspection of the creek. Dr. Temple is city health officer. He made the trip at the invitation of the REPUBLICAN because of the importunings of citizens who live along the creek and who have been keeping his telephones busy for the last few weeks sending in complaints of the unsanitary conditions which they claimed to be prevalent along the creek throughout the city.

The descent into the creek bottom was made in back of the tannery at the foot of F street. Several piles of rotting vegetables and garbage were found at this spot and were evidently from private houses. There was plenty of evidence that many persons had used the creek for a considerable distance as an open air toilet. This, by the way, is distinctly against the law. No waste water from the tannery was in evidence, at least not in any large streams. Had there been, the green vegetable matter noticeable in all stagnant water would not have been in evidence, as it was, through the pools at this point.

Passing from here after much violent pitching and rolling of the wagon, the back of the gas works was reached. Two large streams of water were being turned into the creek at this point from the works. A gas works sends its waste water through a long process of filteration with lamp black before it is turned into the creek or sewer, as the case may be. The water as sent into the creek is tested and passed by the Fish and Game Commission and therefore is pure enough not to cause trouble in the creek. For quite a distance below the creek, however, a considerable deposit of lamp black is noticeable on the bottome of the creek. According to Dr. Temple, this will not do any harm, nor cause any stench, and none was noticeable at this point beyond that arising from any gas works, and which is impossible to prevent.

Passing to the Wet Wash Laundry, the waste pipe which was recently broken and the water allowed to flood into the creek, was found to have been fixed, and there was no overflow, and has not been for some time as the ground where the flow had been was completely dried.

Dr. Temple, however, pointed out a white deposit left where the overflow had been and stated that this was to a great extent alkali and that turned into the domestic sewer, it would nullify the work of the septic germs in the tanks at the sewer farm. Along the creek at this point, however, there were many piles of garbage, again evidently refuse from residences. Piles were in various stages of decomposition and the stench was very strong although not spread over a very wide area.

Conditions along the creek from this point on for some distance were the best of any found. There were piles of tin cans festooned along the banks, rendering them very unsightly, but this offended civic pride more than bodily senses. Around the Davis street bridge, that is in close proximity to the bridge, everything was fairly clean.

A short distance further on, however, came the worst conditions imaginable. From the tannery came a small stream of bluish-white water, the odor of which was most unpleasant. A short distance on there was a good sized stream from the brewery, and still further on another larger stream from the same place. The stench arising from this was indescribable. It filled the nostrils like blue smoke, filtered down into the lungs, and burned its way to the stomach, where it worked until it gave one the feeling of a bad morning after a worse night. The top of the water was covered solid with a green-black streaked scum, and the water beneath was as black as night. This scum came down with the water over the banks and was traced to the brewery.

Just before reaching this another sight was met which added greatly to the stench in the neighborhood. A toilet had been built of rough boards in the Mead Clark Lumber Company's yards. The rear of the toilet was open and hung over the creek bank and its contents covered the bank for a distance of many feet. This also is in direct violation of the law and will be attended to at once by the health authorities.

Passing on from the back of the brewery as quickly as possible, the railroad bridge was left behind and the camping grounds near the cannery were encountered. The sanitary conditions here are very commendable. Nothing had been thrown on the banks except old papers and a few cans. This is due to the persistent efforts of Dr. Temple, who insisted that the rules of sanitation be lived up to as much as possible in the camp.

The scum on the water was deeper the further down the creek one went, and the stench correspondingly more unendurable. Reaching the back of the cannery, two large streams of water were found pouring into the creek. The water was a wine purple in color and carried with it an orange colored scum, which was added to that from the brewery. Combined, the smell was almost overpowering. Just below the cannery, on the bank was a great pile of refuse which was rotten and putrid, and which also gave off a most offensive odor. This pile was seen to be fresh on one side and badly rotted on the other.

From the cannery to the Seventh street bridge, there was nothing else added to the creek in the way of vegetable matter or waste water. But the stench from the water at the Seventh street bridge was just as strong as at the brewery.

In making a resume and comparing notes of the trip, Dr. Temple was asked what the result would be if these conditions were not attended to and speedily at that. "Sickness, much of it, and in bad forms," was his instant reply. Therefore, while no attempt will be made to point a moral, a question is left which needs a speedy answer: "Will the citizens provide a commercial sewer, or will they invite the inevitable epidemic."

- Santa Rosa Republican August 15, 1913

Much Anxiety Felt for Hours for Bridges--Big Tree Lodges Against Davis Street Bridge--Care Could Not Cross Electric Railroad Trestle Last Night

For some time last night when the storm was at its height considerable anxiety was felt for the safety of the Island bridge, the Main street bridge, the Davis street bridge, the electric railroad bridge and that across the creek at West Third street, as well as the old bridge at Pierson and West Sixth street.

Scores of people braved the storm and visited the bridges and at 2 o'clock this morning when a Press Democrat representative made the rounds people were still watching the mighty torrent racing along carrying al kinds of debris with it.

About 10 o'clock last night a big willow tree swept down and lodged against the Davis street bridge. Word was at once sent to Mayor Mercier and Street Superintendent Beebe and in a short time they were on hand with men and many of the big branches were cut away. This was accomplished by men with axes who climbed down onto the tree and were held from slipping by ropes placed about their bodies. At 1 o'clock this morning the tree was anchored with stout ropes so as to prevent if possible, its going further down stream to collide with the electric bridge.

The high water washed away considerable of the fill on this side of the Davis street bridge, but so far as could be seen the retaining wall on the Ellis street side was not damaged. A portion of the fill on the Main street side where the turn is mde onto the Island bridge, was also washed away. At 2 o'clock this morning Mayor Mercier, Superintendent Beebe and George Plover went out to the old pumping station to look at the bridge across the creek there which also carried the big water main. The bridge was in good condition.

Cars Don't Cross Bridge

The electric cars to this city stopped on the other sided of the trestle bridge across Santa Rosa creek as it was deemed dangerous, owing to the tremendous torrent to cross. A crew of men employed by the railroad were on hand endeavoring to dislodge any debris that rammed against the structure. This bridge seemed in great danger. The Northwestern Pacific railroad had crew of men watching its bridge across the creek. Santa Rosa creek was a boiling torrent and the roar of the stream could be heard for a long distance. At 2 o'clock the water had fallen considerable but it was raining and a high wind was blowing.

A portion of a bulkhead near the electric bridge was washed out. Horses were moved from stables on the bank of the creek. Many awnings and signs suffered from the force of the wind and storm. It was altogether a wild night and people living along the banks of the creeks in town and in the country adjoining were considerably worried..

...The amount of debris carried by the waters of the creek was wonderful. When the water was at its highest last night big pieces of wood and other material kept up an almost incessant banging against the Island and Main street bridges, at times somewhat alarming timorous people gathered there. Trees and timber of all kinds, fencing and all sorts of trash were being whirled along in the angry, muddy, turbulent stream.

Men employed by the city were kept patrolling the various bridges all night to give warning should occasion arise when additional help might be wanted.

- Press Democrat December 31, 1913

Sure, we knew he had a temper, but punching someone in the face at a City Council meeting? Good grief.

It was 1913 and the man throwing the punch was 63 year-old James Wyatt Oates, then Santa Rosa's City Attorney. The issue driving him to violence was the paving of Mendocino Avenue, where Oates was the owner of a home (which would become known as Comstock House). Paving contractor Charles Wagner had just begun addressing the Council when Oates charged at him and tried to interrupt. Wagner continued his remarks while Oates talked over him. The Press Democrat reported what happened next, with Oates shouting,

"You lie!"

"If you deny it, you lie," came the response from Wagner.

Bing! went Oates' fist into Wagner's face, while the latter jumped back and said:

"You are an old man; I wouldn't hit you."

Meanwhile Oates reached for his trousers' pocket as if to secure his knife, but was apparently so agitated that he was unable to locate the pocket.

Two councilmen rushed forward, one pinning Oates' arms at his sides and spinning him away from Wagner. "If you will listen like a gentleman, not like a Southern rowdy, I will explain. I am a gentleman, not a Southern rowdy," Wagner said to Oates.

Wagner explained he was making a simple contract proposal to the Council. "That was what I was trying to say when Oates called me a liar and put his hand on his hip-pocket for a gun. Why I should be abused and threatened with a licking I don't understand." He asked Oates for an apology. Oates told the Council he opposed Wagner's proposal. He made no apology, nor any reference to having slugged someone moments before.

Unfortunately, the PD did not explain exactly what was said to ignite the volatile Oates, except that Wagner was proposing the street work be done under "private contract." The Santa Rosa Republican - where Oates was President of the Board - did not mention the incident at all. From other articles discussed here earlier, however, we can piece most of it together.

In that era the town owned the streets as well as the underground water/sewer/coal gas lines. If you wanted the street in front of your house to be paved - or to be clear, if a majority of neighbors on the street wanted pavement - the businesses and homeowners on the street had to pay for it. Property owners also had to pay for concrete curbs and gutters. It was never mentioned how much all this cost, but a couple of years earlier a nearby church sold some of its land because of the "very heavy expense" of the street work.

Mendocino avenue was slated to be part of the state's new highway system which would lay pavement, but that would be a year or more in the future. At a special City Council session called by Oates earlier that year, he insisted the work had to be done immediately because conditions were "almost impassible." Or so said Oates, who could claim to know something about the topic as past president of the Sonoma County Automobile Association and an avid automobilist - a couple of weeks after socking Mr. Wagner, Oates traded in his old car for an ultra-luxe Cadillac, which had prices starting at about $3,000 (over $47k adjusted for inflation).

Today we might presume the city would have paved the street and mailed a bill or tacked the cost on to property taxes. In 1913 Santa Rosa, however, residential street paving was a new concept, and the precedent they had was creating sidewalks, where the homeowner either poured the concrete himself or hired a contractor, with the city stepping in only if the work wasn't done by the deadline. But streets aren't sidewalks - the work had to be done all at once. You can't have a roadway flipping between pavement and gravel for months while property owners dicker with contractors.

Apparently Charles Wagner believed Oates and others had given permission for contractors to negotiate contracts with each property owner, which would have resulted in piecemeal construction. Oates demurred saying anything like that - or as the Press Democrat eloquently put it, he went "Bing!" on the guy.

The Mendocino ave. paving issue came up again at Council three weeks later, with Oates asking the Council to go on record requiring the "completion of the work in front of all property when it was once begun." The contractor - which may or may not have been Mr. Bing's company - promised it would.

There are a couple of little footnotes to this story: At the Council meeting where Oates started swinging, his law partner and former protégée, Hilliard Comstock, was representing the Matthew Co. in another street construction dispute. That company was owned by his brother Frank and brother-in-law, Win Matthew, so it was quite a family affair in Council chambers that night. The reference to Oates as a "Southern rowdy" also implies he retained his Alabama accent, which was never elsewhere mentioned. Mr. Wagner was more accurate in that description that he probably knew, and he likewise didn't know how lucky he was Oates couldn't reach whatever he sought in his pocket; few, if any, in Santa Rosa were aware he had killed a man in his youth over a matter of honor.

City Attorney Oates and Street Man in Wrangle

There was a sensational scene in the City Council chamber last night, when City Attorney J. W. Oates used  the short and ugly word and followed it up with a swing of his right wrist and then reached for his trousers' pocket, presumably in an effort to secure some weapon to enforce his objection to a statement which had just been made by Charles L. Wagner, representing a street contractor, regarding the paving of Mendocino avenue.

Oates had explained his opposition to the private contract plan of doing the work, when Wagner took the floor to appeal to his members of the Council in favor of the private contract plan, and had only fairly started his argument when Oates jumped to his feet and rushing toward Wagner, attempting to interrupt him. Wagner asked Oates to wait, as he (Oates) had had his say without interruption, and he (Wagner) wanted to give his views.

Wagner then continued his remarks to the Council. Oates continued talking. Finally he was heard to shout:

"You lie!"

"If you deny it, you lie," came the response from Wagner.

Bing! went Oates' fist into Wagner's face, while the latter jumped back and said:

"You are an old man; I wouldn't hit you."

Meanwhile Oates reached for his trousers' pocket as if to secure his knife, but was apparently so agitated that he was unable to locate the pocket.

In the excitement Councilmen Pressley and Wolfe jumped to their feet and ran to the two men. Councilman Pressley grabbed the City Attorney from behind, pinning his arms down to his sides and pulled him around and away from Wagner, while Councilman Wolfe jumped beside Wagner, who was standing quietly awaiting the next move.

"If you will listen like a gentleman, not like a Southern rowdy, I will explain. I am a gentleman, not a Southern rowdy," said Wagner, addressing Oates.

Wagner is a very heavy man and the incident excited him greatly, and for a time he could hardly breathe. After quiet was restored he continued his remarks to the Council, while Oates returned to his seat.

"When I came to Santa Rosa," said Wagner, "Mr. Oates told me, street paving could be done by private contract here. Later, I learned in San Francisco, that he had told representatives of another firm that it could. I returned here and after a consultation with the Councilmen, Mayor and Mr. Oates, the latter admitted that paving could be done by private contract.

"That was what I was trying to say when Oates called me a liar and put his hand on his hip-pocket for a gun. Why I should be abused and threatened with a licking I don't understand.

"It is a business proposition and we were made certain promises by the Council, and if they are broken now it will not be fair dealing. I had no intention of insulting Mr. Oates and he can't take exception to anything I have said, and I think you owe me an apology, Mr. Oates."

While Oates took occasion to make his position plain to the Council, he made no reference to the sensational incident in which he had participated previously. He made no effort to apologize or extend the olive branch for his outbreak and assault.

No action was taken in the paving matter and it went over to the next meeting and the business once more proceeded in an orderly manner.

- Press Democrat October 3, 1913


...When the petition of the City Improvement Company of San Francisco for permit to pave Mendocino avenue from College avenue to the city limits was called up, City Attorney Oates addressed the Council, explaining that the only objection the property owners had to the plan was the fear that all the street would not be paved, and representing B. W. Paxton and Mrs. Paxton, he asked that the Council go on record to show its intention to force the completion of the work in front of all property when it was once begun. He was readily given that assurance and then declared there would be no further objection to the work.

J. R. Price, representing the Paving Company, explained that his company had secured 73 percent of the property owners' signatures to contracts and declared that the officers would find no lack of workmanship or defect in the work when completed, and if they did, it would be made to meet all requirements of the specifications...

- Press Democrat October 22, 1913

Hey, remember when we looked forward all week to having fun in downtown Santa Rosa on Saturday night? Me neither.

There's plenty of elbow room for anyone on downtown sidewalks after dark and Saturday nights are no different. Sure, if you like pub grub 'n' suds while watching sports there are at least a half dozen joints where you can park your carcass for a few hours. There are also very good restaurants, a first-run cineplex and live entertainment, but there's a catch - those places are at the outer reaches of the downtown core or in Railroad Square. Plan on a five block hike between destinations, walking past all those downtown banks which after hours are just featureless walls with an attached ATM. And if you plan trekking the circuitous route to and from Railroad Square after the Fortress Shopping Mall is closed, thou hast more stamina and courage than I. What once was boasted to be "the city designed for living" is now "the city designed for daytime banking" and not much else.

It wasn't always thus. A little over a hundred years ago, downtown was packed on Saturday nights. Stores were open late; a band toodled popular tunes from the old courthouse balcony. As the Press Democrat described the scene in 1905, it was a weekly celebration of community which seems impossible to imagine happening today:

Saturday evenings in Santa Rosa are bright and lively throughout the summer and the early autumn months. Five evenings each week the stores and markets close at 6 o'clock; but on Saturdays, the doors are open until midnight or thereabouts, and the town does its belated shopping...working clothes are laid aside, and "Sunday best" is donned without waiting for Sunday to come. After the evening meal, it is the custom for all the family to go "down town" together. No matter if there is no need of shopping (although generally there is), the head of the household, "and the missus and the kids," all want to go and listen to the band.

Alas, 1905 was probably the last year of the Saturday night shopping musicales; by 1913 the merchants wanted to close up by 6 o'clock because there wasn't enough business to pay for the lights and the workers. That came as no surprise; a few months earlier, most downtown stores closed early on a Saturday night so store clerks could attend a dog show.

What happened? The 1906 earthquake, for starters, which turned all of downtown into a construction zone for more than a year. Saturday was traditionally the day farmers came in to town for shopping, and post-earthquake downtown was less inviting to horse-drawn wagons and buggies, with fewer hitching posts (in 1912 the city finally gave in and set up the vacant lot at Third and B streets with posts as a kind of horse parking lot). When parcel post was launched in 1913 the need for farmers to venture downtown and shop in person was nearly eliminated, as same or next day mailing of packages from local stores was nearly free.

Another change after the earthquake was that downtown began developing a theatrical district, with a new movie or vaudeville house opening nearly every year in the 1910s. Entertainment was a reason to be downtown apart from shopping and the two might not mix. It's one thing to sit on the courthouse lawn with your groceries while listening to the band play a dance tune in 1905, and another to carry a bag of fresh onions into a theater in 1912 showing a Bronco Billy double feature.

There was no ordinance passed demanding retail stores lock their doors every night at six, nor one requiring them to stay open. And there's no direct link between today's situation  and their 1913 decision to not stay open on Saturday night (although all those the darkened store windows would look mighty familiar to us).

Yet the early closing and not resuming the Saturday night concerts were capitulations that the downtown was not something to treasure as the heart of the community binding us together, but instead merely an assortment of independent businesses. That attitude led to the downtown withering away after WWII, starting with Hugh Codding poaching stores from the retail district for Montgomery Village in 1952 and Coddingtown ten years later. After that came terrible planning decisions favoring bankers and bureaucrats. The entire south side of downtown was wasted on low-use federal, state and city administration buildings. City Hall was also unforgivably built on the site of a major Pomo village and destroyed access to Santa Rosa Creek, which was always the town's crown jewel.

Reunification of Courthouse Square may be an appealing notion (it certainly has my approval) but it's going to do nothing to mend a downtown which has been systematically dismantled for over a half century. The day when the old streets of Hinton and Exchange are reopened might be reason to celebrate, but nothing will really change. The Plaza will still remain an obstacle splitting downtown from Railroad Square as well as the transit hub from the SMART train station. There still will be no place downtown where anyone can buy an apple or an aspirin because there are no grocery or drug stores. The place will still be a ghost town after six.

Which brings us to "Smile."

A few months ago Gaye Lebaron wrote a column on the 1975 movie of that name which was filmed here. A brilliant satire about America's tacky culture (the plot centers on teenage girls competing in the "Young American Miss" beauty pageant) the film reserves its real jabs for the Jaycees and other Chamber of Commerce types who promoted the contest. Santa Rosa itself had a starring role although it was somewhat misrepresented - the title credits left the impression the town was mainly a series of trailer parks. Locals were apparently enthusiastic during the filming, with many of them having bit parts. When the movie debuted however, many angrily felt it made mockery of them. The director defended himself, saying "I was trying to show the people as they really are," and called Santa Rosa "the all-time happy place...[an] American kind of town that could be anywhere in the country." Small consolation after a major review said the town "appears to be blighted by a kind of inbred cultural smog."

But the movie "Smile" is a love letter to Santa Rosa compared to the musical "Smile." In 1983 composer Marvin Hamlisch announced the work-in-progress, telling the New York Times, "We want people to feel they're right there at Santa Rosa, Calif., watching 16 teen-age girls compete for the title Young American Miss."

A revised version of the musical made it to Broadway in 1986 (it ran only for six weeks) but the original had a different lyricist: Carolyn Leigh - best known for "Peter Pan" - who wrote the song, "Nightlife in Santa Rosa" to set the scene. It's pretty obvious all she knew about Santa Rosa was what she gleaned from the movie, but it's still a good sendup of the town that really did roll up its sidewalks on Saturday night, and had for a long time.

Excerpts transcribed from the CD "Witch Craft: The Songs of Carolyn Leigh" by Sara Zahn:

Nightlife, Santa Rosa
Talk about your all-time thrill
Nightlife, Santa Rosa
Never gonna get my fill
I got myself a 90-dollar organdy dress
but nothing but the iron steams
Nightlife, Santa Rosa
Is goin' to bed
'Cause everything's dead but your dreams

Nightlife in nowhere city
Talk about your madcap town
No sooner than the pretty
Santa Rosa sun goes down
There's nothing but the flushing of the chemical johns
From seven thousand mobile homes
Nightlife, Santa Rosa
You sit in the tub
And applaud as the bubble bath foams

Oh, God, what are we doing here
Oh, God, sittin' and stewin' here...

One bar, a bar-b-que stand
A counter man who don't wear shoes
They closed the all night newstand
Maybe 'cause they don't got news
They lit a roman candle on the Fourth of July
I hear it made the L.A. Times
Midnight, Santa Rosa
I'll trade you two of this town
For South Potawatomi and a lobotomy...

What's hot in Santa Rosa
Nothin' in the goddam place
Nothin' but a hotshot in Santa Rosa
Bettin' on a bedbug race
[spoken: Hello, operator? Get me Dave Shapiro at the William Morris Agency-what time did you say it was?]
Nightlife in Santa Rosa
Is going to bed
Because everything's dead
Except me and a head full of dreams

It's the stars growin' pale
And your hopes gettin' stale
It's like being in jail with your dreams

Looking northeast at the corner of Fourth and Hinton, ca. 1913, verified by James Whittingham's realty office at 626 Fourth street only appearing in that year's city directory. Photo courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection

Merchants May Lock Doors at 6 O'Clock

A petition is being circulated among the merchants of this city calling for the closing of stores on Saturday evenings at 6 o'clock. It is contended by the merchants that they do not transact sufficient business after 6 o'clock on Saturday evenings to pay for the illumination of their stores and the incidental expenses of operation.

When this is taken into consideration, the merchants and their clerks would prefer to remain at home with their families instead of standing about their respective places of business.

On Thursday and Friday the petition was signed by a number of the prominent merchants, and it is believed that it will be so generally signed that in the near future all the stores may be closed on Saturday evening.

- Santa Rosa Republican May 16, 1913

It's hard to imagine a worst curse: May you be remembered through the words of a lunatic who hated you.

(RIGHT: Mary Ellen Pleasant photographed by the San Francisco Chronicle, 1899)

Our story so far: Mary Ellen Pleasant - AKA "Mammy" Pleasant, although she never replied to anyone using that racist nickname - was an African-American woman of historic importance before the Civil War and during San Francisco's Gilded Age. Almost everything we know about her is filtered through the views of Teresa Bell, who lived with her nearly every day for at least thirty years and kept a diary. In the 1950s her diary was used to write a popular fictionalized biography, "Mammy Pleasant," and today, almost all that can be found about Mary Ellen Pleasant - both online and in print - flows from that book with its wild stories of Pleasant running a bordello, practicing witchcraft, blackmailing, murdering and doing every other kind of evil deed imaginable from her spooky "House of Mystery."
   Ignoring the novelization's invented dialogue and tacky purple prose, the credibility of the book rests on the accuracy of the diary and its author's truthfulness. But here are two important facts not revealed in "Mammy Pleasant:" In 1899 Teresa Bell abruptly turned against Pleasant and did everything she could to destroy her old friend's reputation, even after Pleasant died in 1904. Also important was this: Teresa Bell was barking mad.
   (By the way: If you haven't read part one of this series, "Seeking Mammy Pleasant," some of the rest may be hard to follow.)

  Bell was the wealthy widow of one of the Comstock Lode "bonanza kings" and spent the last thirty years of her life as a semi-recluse at her Beltane Ranch, halfway between Kenwood and Glen Ellen. Her days as a San Francisco socialite were long past; when she was mentioned in the papers it was usually because she was in court either being sued by creditors of her long-dead husband or fighting her grown children who were demanding greater access to daddy's bank accounts. After she died in 1922, however, her name was on Bay Area front pages for weeks.

  With her estate worth an expected $1,000,000, she left a will dividing it between the state, San Francisco orphanages and retirement homes, with the remainder going to "cousins if any are living" - a vague bequest made further difficult because she had claimed at various times to be from different families. Predictably, many "long-lost cousins" came out of the woodwork to claim a share of the fortune.1

  To her five surviving children she left five dollars each, along with the denial she was the mother of any of them. It was surprising that she disavowed the entire family, but over the years as the children took her to court over inheritance issues, her first act of defense was to claim the plaintiff was no relation whatsoever. As needed by the particular suit, she swore under oath she was the mother of five, four, two, one and none of them. She insisted oldest son Fred, the first to take her to court, was just some foundling her husband took in before her marriage - but towards the end of her life, Teresa told a visitor he was her only child by blood.2 Courts heard from elderly priests clutching baptismal records and from so many people who claimed to be present at the actual birth of a particular heir there must have been a stand of bleachers in the Bell bedroom to accomodate them all.

  The children sued to have the will thrown out on basis of Teresa Bell having an unsound mind. Naturally, they insisted it wasn't about the money at all but rather keeping the family intact.

  Newspapers had a field day when the court hearings revealed Teresa was addicted to a potent cocktail of opium and alcohol and suffered wild hallucinations. She believed she could fly and had "gazed from space into the face of her murdered mother." She could draw electricity from the earth and light candles with the tip of her finger. A neighbor told the court she enjoyed "pounding the piano and shrieking at the top of her voice in no known tune." A ranch worker testified she could have a violent temper and best avoided when she was "drinking paregoric and carrying a nine-inch dagger whenever she went about the ranch." Another fellow said he was hired to prospect on the ranch for platinum, gold and diamonds which she insisted were on the property.

Bigotry was another recurring theme in her madness. The Chronicle reported testimony she thought "Italians" had rustled about 10,000 cows from her ranch (which would have been so many they would have had no room to move) and "she had often floated over New York city; that she had looked down from such serial excursions and had been attracted by the gleaming white eyeballs of negroes..." Her personal racism is significant because right after Teresa split with Mary Ellen in 1899, there was a particularly vicious court speech by Bell's attorney attacking Pleasant as a "Black Mammy of the South...robbing and plundering" her employer.

San Francisco was titillated by the revelations that came out over six weeks of testimony (or at least, it delighted newspaper headline editors, who exhausted every possible combination of words such as, "Eccentric" "Heiress" "Insane" and "Delusions"). A surprisingly large amount of press coverage was presented as illustrated features, rehashing life in San Francisco's Gilded Age and the Bell family's connection with the mysterious and sinister Mammy Pleasant.

But San Franciscans were unaware that ten years earlier in 1913, the Santa Rosa newspapers had reported an incident at Beltane ranch which exposed Teresa Bell's madness. The Press Democrat reported John Ritzman, a local carpenter, said Teresa once attacked him with a club and he had been warned to take along a gun when asking for his pay, as "she carried either a revolver or a dagger." She refused to pay him the $100 (about three months' work at the time) and ordered him to go away, threatening to beat him again. Ritzman admitted to pulling his gun and firing before her son-in-law intervened. The tale had an unusual twist in Ritzman's wife being a former acquaintance of Teresa's, although she was now in a sanatarium because Teresa had gotten her hooked on drugs and liquor.

It seemed the Santa Rosa papers didn't know quite what to make of this business. Like Rudolph Spreckels and Thomas Kearns, she was mostly unknown in Sonoma county beyond the borders of her Valley of the Moon estate, so the local papers described her only in terms of money and class - "a wealthy San Francisco woman" and "a prominent resident of the valley." The first story in the Santa Rosa Republican presumed Ritzman (who they misnamed, "Richmond") had to be the crazy one: "He repeats constantly, even now, that he is sorry he did not kill Mrs. is thought that he may be mentally unbalanced."

When the case came before the court, Ritzman received a suspended sentence and two years' probation. "The shot, it is said, was fired after considerable provocation," the Press Democrat commented with no further detail, again probably deferring to her status. No matter what the court heard about the exact nature of the provocation, the episode had all the hallmarks of the stories which would come out in the fight over the will.

  Even though the 1923 coroner's jury didn't hear about that story, it didn't take them long to decide that Teresa Bell was of unsound mind when she wrote her will back in 1910. As a result, all the money went to the children.

(RIGHT: Teresa Bell and Mary Ellen Pleasant as drawn by a courtroom artist for the San Francisco Chronicle, 1897)

Normally our story would end there, with all the players dead and soon to be forgotten - but this is no ordinary tale. Just a few months after the will was settled, a new stage play began performances in San Francisco: "The Cat and the Canary" was a murder mystery set in an old dark house with a mysterious servant named Mammy Pleasant. The reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle remarked, "Mammy Pleasant dominates the play, for one is never sure just what she may do at any moment. She seems capable of murder or witchcraft or some other horrible deed." Now Mary Ellen's reputation was being trashed anew for the entertainment of the bathtub gin generation. The play was made into a hit movie a few years later and several other film adaptations followed.

Those biographies written in the 1950s - which again, are the basis of almost everything repeated about Mary Ellen Pleasant today - are better viewed as novels about the backstory of the creepy Mammy Pleasant character in "The Cat and the Canary." Which really is no surprise because they used the same primary source material: The mad, hateful ravings of Teresa Bell after she broke with Pleasant in 1899. But a playwright is not held to the same rigor as someone who claims to be a biographer such as Helen Holdredge, who had the further advantage of owning Teresa's diaries which offered proof positive she was insane. Yet Holdredge embraced every crazy allegation in the diary as holy writ while ignoring parts which revealed she was out of her mind from drug abuse or mental illness or both. Critics of Holdredge further point out she covered up or whitewashed episodes which reflected poorly upon Teresa, including the nature of her ties to the odious James E. Brown Jr. and Bayard Saville, discussed further below.3

Ultimately every serious discussion of Mary Ellen Pleasant wanders off into a resentful rant against Helen Holdredge, and justly so. Her books were immensely popular even though she flunked as a truthful biographer, a factual historian and even as a competent writer. Want an example? Unpeel this passage: "The rooms of the Octavia street house now contained something malevolent; the endless mirroring of the walls and the prisms hanging from the rock crystal chandeliers no longer reflected the lights and colors of the spectrum. Instead, they caught and held the dark and evil reflection of unspeakable things." Golly.

To those literary and objective sins I'll add another: It's unforgivable that Holdredge also screwed up the climax of the story. Besides the death of Thomas Bell, the most significant event in the lives of Mary Ellen or Teresa since they met in the 1870s was their abrupt and emotional separation. Holdredge devotes less than four pages to the events, and much of that is made-up dialogue.

In that version, Teresa was confronted by a farmhand from the Schell ranch in the Sonoma Valley who demanded his wages, telling a surprised Teresa that Mary Ellen had always paid workers on that ranch.4 The women began to quarrel over that, followed by arguments over who owned pieces of furniture. It went on for days. Teresa ordered her evicted from Beltane ranch and the San Francisco mansion. Ironically, Mary Ellen actually owned both properties but could not admit it - she had just claimed to be insolvent in court and if she showed proof of ownership, creditors could not only seize the properties (see part one) but she could also go to jail for perjury. Mary Ellen Pleasant was in a catch-22, or, as Holdredge wrote in her perfectly awful prose, "Like the blue goose flying over the Louisiana swamplands, she had exposed herself to Teresa, crouched hidden behind a blind."

As to what really compelled Teresa to completely break with Mary Ellen, Holdredge vaguely suggests in the months prior to the April, 1899 breakup her resentments were growing as she was feeling more self confident. Teresa wrote it was a "blessing" to learn some old business foes of her late husband had died, "a release from years of doubt and pain." She was angered to discover Mary Ellen was allowing an impoverished widow to live on another of the Glen Ellen properties. She felt newly empowered by having done her own shopping for the first time in ten years (!) and having recently stolen from Mary Ellen some papers she felt rightfully belonged to her. Never, of course, did Holdredge mention Teresa's insanity or drug addiction as a possible contributing factor.

Clearly something was seriously wrong with Teresa. Published excerpts of her diaries show her feelings shifted from a childlike devotion (Oct. 1898: "Outside of Mammy the world is empty to me")  to blind hatred of the "she-devil" (May 1899: "Mary E. Pleasant has been my evil genius since the first day I saw her...a demon from first to last"). An armchair psychologist might diagnose this as someone with borderline personality disorder "splitting" - emotionally flipping from viewing someone as completely good to completely bad. That may be true although there was another crucial factor: Teresa's hateful feelings were being fed by a man named Bayard Saville.

Speculate all you like about the nature of the relationships between Thomas Bell, Teresa and Mary Ellen Pleasant - and goddess knows people have been doing lots of lurid speculating for nearly 150 years - but this is a fact: Teresa thought Bayard Saville was the love of her life.

Saville appeared on the scene in 1894, less than two years after the death of Teresa's husband. He was aristocratic (old Boston family) and charming and handsome and rich and ten years younger and looking for a wife. Of course, he was actually a con man.

(RIGHT: Bayard Saville mug shot, 1896)

 Teresa waxed poetic in her diary about his visits to Beltane ranch, where they hiked and rode horses and did whatever she recorded with an "X" in the diary. "Went riding with Saville--X X X X," was one entry. "These X X X are to remember something I never wish to forget." Soon she named him manager of the ranch and soon after that they told the family they were engaged.

 Pleasant or her lawyers discovered he was recently released from San Quentin where he served three years for passing rubber checks and forgery. Eldest son Fred rushed to Glen Ellen and confronted Saville, threatening to shoot his mother's lover. It was partly because of their affair that Fred later tried to have his mother declared incompetent and removed as guardian of the younger children.

 True to form, before they could be married Bayard forged Teresa's signature on two checks, for $75 and $600 (more than an average annual income) and tried to pass them at the local drugstore. When arrested, the Call newspaper reported, "Mrs. Bell would not appear against him, as she was not only in love with him, but dared not make him her enemy." In 1896 he began serving a fourteen year sentence in San Quentin.5

 The next year Saville gave the San Francisco Chronicle a jailhouse interview where he complained Mary Ellen set him up, then lied to Teresa about paying his defense lawyers. He vowed revenge: "In my safe in the deposit vaults I have over a hundred documents concerning Mammy's manipulations with the Bell and Schell estates, and when the right moment comes I intend to have no mercy on her."

Saville's determination to destroy the relationship between Mary Ellen and Teresa is shown in his letters smuggled out of prison where "he told his lover she was doomed if she didn't get rid of [Mary Ellen]," according to what historian Lerone Bennett Jr. found among the Holdredge papers at the San Francisco Library. Saville's threat of blasting out a cache of incriminating documents is mirrored in an odd thing Teresa said in her big fight with Mary Ellen - that she had cataloged Mary Ellen's wrongdoings and mailed the proof to the Bancroft Library at UC/Berkeley (not true).

Nor was Saville alone in poisoning Teresa's addled mind. She was in regular contact with writer James E. Brown Jr., a yellow journalist who would later burglarize Pleasant's home with Teresa's approval. It was Brown who convinced her Mary Ellen had killed her husband to stop him from changing his will. (Teresa famously later wrote in her diary that Pleasant not only pushed him over the railing but "put her finger in the hole in the top of his head and pulled out the protruding brains," which would have been quite a feat considering his skull was unbroken.)

 Although there was no byline, we know from Teresa's diaries that Brown was the author of the "Queen of the Voodoos," a feature in the Sunday Chronicle, July 9, 1899, which was about six weeks after the big quarrel and breakup. That she was named as "Mary Ellen" once and "Mammy" 49 times is about the least offensive thing about the article, which casts her as a sorceress, master manipulator and probably the least likable personality since Simon Legree. No good deed is mentioned, even the smallest act of charity; the article is a matter-of-fact rehash of old gossip and awful rumors about her consumate evilness, including her "trapping" poor Saville. It probably goes without saying that many of the lies made their way into the Holdredge novelization.

"Queen of the Voodoos" was naked libel, but Mary Ellen was in no position to sue the Chronicle - she was claiming to be insolvent at the time, remember - so the article was left unchallenged. The bemused reader likely thought it to be an objective profile; after all, it carried the misleading subhed, "Remarkable Career of Mammy Pleasant and Her Wonderful Influence Over Men and Women." Few were still around who remembered most of the events described in the article.

And that's how Mary Ellen's actual history came to be erased. While there had been ongoing newspaper items over the years concerning the creditor lawsuits and the earlier Sharon-Hill court fight, by 1899 she was half forgotten. An entire generation and more had passed since her glory days in the Gilded Age, when her team of horses famously raced through San Francisco streets carrying the proud black woman. All her enemies had to do was NOT remind people how she had utterly demolished race and gender stereotypes, building a fortune in the process. Without that, her narrative invited suspicion: How could a woman of her era - particularly an African-American woman - become so wealthy by legitimate means? Brown, Teresa and others were ready with stories to tell you.

Mary Ellen Pleasant died January 11, 1904 at the home of a married couple. The obituaries were mostly kind, insomuch as they often mentioned her association with abolitionist John Brown as well as supposed voodoo rites. Popular descriptors were "weird," "mysterious" and "strange." She left several wills, including one which named only the Bell children. Six years later it was decided everything went to the couple who nursed her, including Beltane ranch, now reduced to just 114 acres. That didn't sit well with Teresa, who kept Mary Ellen's estate in court until her own death in 1922.

When she wasn't appearing in a courtroom, Teresa Bell spent most of her last thirty years at the ranch outside of Glen Ellen. After being dependent upon Mary Ellen for most of her life, forcing away her old friend and mother-figure was the most Pyrrhic of victories; as she was usually estranged from all of her children she was left with only a blind servant for companionship. Despite her foolishness and the troubles she caused so many, it's hard not to feel sorry for Teresa when you imagine her there in the Valley of the Moon as decades crept by, always alone except for the voices she heard on the winds and the mad visions she saw as she flew.

1 Teresa Bell was born in 1846 or 1847 near Auburn, New York. Two women who said they were her birth sisters told the probate jury she was born Marie Clingan and taken in by a family named Harris when she was about four, following the Clingans being sent to the poor farm. Supporting this interpretation is the 1855 New York state census which shows 9 year-old Teresa Harris in the Harris household, but not there in the 1850 federal census. But the coroner's grand jury also heard testimony she sometimes flipped the story, claiming she was born a Harris and adopted by the Clingans. "Whether she really believed herself a Harris or tried to make the world believe it, no one knows," the Chronicle reported. An article in an Auburn newspaper (reprinted in the Oakland Tribune, Jan. 20 1881) confirms she was born a Clingan but also lived at two other homes besides the Harris family. She returned to visit Auburn at least twice, in 1872 with her first husband John Percy and in 1881 with her five year-old son.

2 A profile from an Auburn, NY newspaper (reprinted in the Oakland Tribune, Jan. 20 1881) stated she had "two children, and one more by adoption" with the adopted child being Fred, the eldest.

3 "The Mystery of Mary Ellen Pleasant," Lerone Bennett Jr., published as a two-part article in Ebony magazine in 1979 and reprinted in 1993. A noted scholar and author of several books on African-American history, Bennett did original research in the Mary Ellen Pleasant document collection donated to the San Francisco Public Library by Helen Holdredge. His articles contain many details not mentioned in other research on Pleasant such as the condition of the Teresa Bell diaries, where "several pages and parts of pages have been cut out with a razor blade or some other sharp instrument." 

4 As per usual, it is difficult to determine if there was any truth to what Helen Holdredge wrote about this episode. According to her book ("Mammy Pleasant", pp. 224-227) Lucy Beebee was Mary Ellen Pleasant's last protégée and among the Sonoma Valley properties purchased by Mary Ellen in 1891 was a ranch given to Fred Schell, Lucy's brother-in-law. As a farmer Schell was such an abject failure, Holdredge continued, his wife "did not know whether she would have a pot of beans from one day to the next" and Pleasant was secretly paying his farmworkers. In truth, Lucy appears to be Fred's cousin, as his mother's maiden name was Beebee. The Schell family was well-established in the area by Fred's father since before the Civil War with the Schellville railway station and crossroads village named after them. After several years of office work, Fred returned to farm on "the old homstead" in 1896, according to the Honoria Tuomey county history. In 1899 - the same year that Schell farmworker supposedly demanded his wages from Teresa - Fred established the successful Schellville Hatchery which shipped eggs and chicks all over the west.

5 Saville was released from prison in 1911. It is unknown if he again contacted Teresa in person. He lived in Santa Cruz and died in Venice, California in 1914.

Oil was found on Southern California property Teresa Bell inherited from her husband, and in 1905 she became a millionaire in her own right


John Ritzman, who has been employed on the old Mammy Pleasant ranch, near Glen Ellen, by Mrs. Teresa Bell, relative of Mammy's, and a wealthy San Francisco woman, told District Attorney Clarence F. Lea yesterday afternoon that when he fired twice upon Mrs. Bell with a revolver on the ranch on Monday afternoon he did so because she had attacked him with a club and because prior to the near tragedy he had been warned to take a revolver with him when he went to demand of the woman a payment of his wages, as "she carried either a revolver or a dagger." She refused to pay him the $100 she owed him in wages, he said, and when he asked her for it, he said, she called him bad names and demanded that he leave the ranch forthwith, threatened him with a club, he admitted that he fired twice at her but did not hit her. He might have fired again but his desire was cut short when John Lavere, another employee of the face hit him over the head with a water pitcher and floored him. Then the desire left him and the next thing he knew Deputy Sheriff Joe Ryan had him in custody. Deputy Ryan brought Ritzman to the county jail yesterday morning and he will be charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Ritzman's wife is mentally unbalanced and in his interview with the District Attorney, Ritzman claimed yesterday that Mrs. Bell was responsible for his wife's condition, as she had furnished her with liquor and drugs.

Mrs. Bell will tell her version of the attack upon her by Ritzman when the case is heard in court. Ritzman has five children.

- Press Democrat, September 3, 1913

Sonoma Woman Fired at by Man

John Richmond, a resident of Sonoma valley, was arrested Monday afternoon by Deputy Sheriff Joe Ryan and brought to this city Tuesday, where he was lodged in the county jail on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.

Ryan states that Richmond fired twice at Mrs. Fred Bell, a prominent resident of the valley for whom he was working. Richmond was standing within a few feet of Mrs. Bell when he shot and her escape is considered miraculous. Richmond was about to fire again when another man rushed up from behind him and hit him over the head with a crockery water pitcher, knocking him unconscious.

Richmond admits the shooting and states that Mrs. Bell had been quarreling with him for several days. He is a carpenter and Mrs. Bell charged him with slighting his work and loafing on the job. He says that he lost his temper and determined to get even. He repeats constantly, even now, that he is sorry he did not kill Mrs. Bell. Richmond is a property owner in the Valley and has a wife and five children. He will be given a thorough examination, as it is thought that he may be mentally unbalanced.

- Santa Rosa Republican, September 2, 1913

Man Who Shot Twice at Mrs. Bell Will Be Tried for Attempted Murder

Mrs. Teresa Bell, a wealthy San Francisco woman who owns a ranch near Glen Ellen, took the stand in Justice Latimer's court here yesterday and told of the narrow escape she had when John Ritzman took two shots at her with a revolver on her ranch one day last week.  Ritzman's preliminary examination on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to murder Mrs. Bell was held yesterday and Ritzman was bound over i n a bond of $3,000 for trial in the Superior court. District Attorney Clarence F. Lea prosecuted.

Mrs. Bell testified that Ritzman became very angry when she criticized the work he was doing in the erection of a building for her. He used strong language tolde her, she said, and when she walked away he followed her. Once she picked up a stick to protect herself. Ritzman continued his abuse and ran to his carpenter's apron and pulled out a revolver and shot at her. But for the fact that the revolver caught in the apron, Mrs. Bell, testified, the bullet might have found a mark in her anatomy. Ritzman raised the weapon to fire again, but her son-in-law. J. Rullmith, struck Ritzman over the head with a water pitcher and the shot went wild. The son-in-law of Mrs. Bell was called as a witness.

Ritzman had very little to say. Of course he could not give the bail bond and had to return to jail. He claims that he acted in Self-defense and that he had been warned by another man to look out for Mrs. Bell. He claims his words with Mrs. Bell started when he asked her for wages. The question of wages was not brought out at the examination yesterday.

- Press Democrat, September 13, 1913

Aged John Ritzman Pleads Guilty and Sentenced is Suspended by Judge Seawell

John Reitzman, the aged carpenter, who took a shot at Mrs. Teresa Bell, a well known San Francisco and Sonoma Valley woman, on her ranch near Glen Ellen some time since, was allowed to go on probation after he had pleaded guilty in Judge Seawell's department of the Superior court on Saturday. Sentence was suspended for two years and in the meantime Reitzman will report to Probation Officer John P. Plover.

The case was deemed one in which clemency could be extended. The shot, it is said, was fired after considerable provocation. Reitzman has had a great deal of trouble, his wife is in a sanitarium and he had a number of children who are dependent upon him. Ritzman was represented by Attorney Roy Vitousek. It is not likely that he will get into trouble again. Mr. Plover will assist him in straightening out his difficulties.

- Press Democrat, November 16, 1913

Older Posts