An important artifact of Sonoma County history hangs in a Washington, D.C. museum, yet there's always been gaps in what we knew about its past. This is the story of what happened to Fred J. Wiseman's airplane - with a Believe-it-or-Not! twist at the end.
Surely everyone who lived in this area in 2011 remembers the centennial celebration of Wiseman's historic first airmail flight from Petaluma to Santa Rosa and saw a picture of his odd little plane. It appeared delicate and clunky at the same time, hardly looking like an aircraft at all; if anything, it resembled a monstrous IKEA product someone tried to assemble without reading the instructions and abandoned halfway.
But aside from his famous flight, readers of this journal know Fred Wiseman crashed that poor plane like clockwork. Was he just a lousy pilot or was it due to crappy design of his homemade machine?
Certainly, flying was a risky business in the early 1910s, and Wiseman's history of plummeting wasn't nearly as bad as daredevil Charles Hamilton, who amazingly survived around sixty crashes. But at the same time, Wiseman wasn't trying to set records or perform death-defying stunts; he was simply trying to stay aloft for a few minutes sailing over a pasture or fairgrounds. When he made the Petaluma to Santa Rosa airmail flight in January, 1911, it took him two days to travel the 24 miles because he crashed. Twice.
Wiseman made a few more exhibition flights around the west coast that year. He crash landed at least twice more - the worst being a 500-foot fall in Salinas - leading to his retirement as a birdman. He reportedly told relatives he saw "no future in it" because so many of his colleagues were being routinely killed.
It's just as likely, though, Wiseman and his pals were out of money. Expenses mounted with each crash; a new propeller cost the equivalent of about $20,000 in today's dollars and engine rebuilds were frequently required. While fortunes were being made by celebrity aviators who drew big audiences to airshows where they often set records, Wiseman's appearances at backwater county fairs probably earned barely more than expenses - and that's assuming he didn't crack up the plane and add to the red ink.
Wiseman's primary financial backer - and likely the only one - was Ben Noonan, his boyhood buddy who shared his interests in competitive sports. Noonan's family had somewhat of a monopoly on the meat business in central Sonoma county, owning the slaughterhouse at the corner of College and (today's) Cleveland Avenues as well as operating the butcher shop on Fourth street in downtown Santa Rosa. When Wiseman retired the plane was stored at their stockyards. Thus ends the first chapter of our little plane's story with it sitting in a cow lot, its wings probably being used to scratch the backs of cattle and horses with an unreachable itch.
Just a few months later chapter two began with the appearance in Santa Rosa of a 28 year-old Oakland man named Weldon B. Cooke, who was in town to make some money on exhibition flights over the New Year's holiday.
Cooke couldn't know at the time, but he was at the zenith of his aviation career during his Santa Rosa visit. Just a few days earlier he was the first to fly over the summit of Mount Tamalpais, a feat once considered so insanely risky that prize money for the accomplishment had been withdrawn. A few weeks after flying in Santa Rosa he competed in the Los Angeles Air Meet where he set a record for altitude (5,800 feet) and the longest time in the air, winning over $7,000 as a result. And in between these accomplishments he was awarded pilot's license #95 from the Aero Club of America, making him only the second flyer in California with official recognition.
There's no evidence Wiseman and Cooke ever met, but they were cut from the same cloth. Both had brief careers as race car drivers before getting hooked on aviation. Both taught themselves to fly using airplanes built by men who knew nothing about aerodynamics and learned aircraft design from reading magazines; Wiseman's team was auto mechanic Jean Peters, himself and sometimes Don Prentiss, while Cooke's machine was put together by a Sacramento River boat builder and a dredge boat captain. Their finished planes were also nearly identical - both fundamentally rip-offs of the Curtiss design with a propellor at the back and the pilot sitting in front of the engine. (A photo of Cooke's plane, called the "Black Diamond" and now on display at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, can be seen here.)
Before his New Years' visit to Santa Rosa, a reporter from the Press Democrat asked Cooke whether he would try out Wiseman's plane while he was here. Cooke replied he might consider making it part of the upcoming exhibition at the fairgrounds (he didn't). But Cooke agreed to something far more important to the PD; the weekend after his paid-admission show, Cooke would fly over Santa Rosa.
The Chamber of Commerce had been long yearning for a Santa Rosa flyover, so great was the mystique of early aviation. It was strongly hinted Wiseman might do it during an exhibition flight at the 1910 Rose Carnival (he didn't fly at all because of winds) and both town papers swore he would buzz the town during his 1911 flight from Petaluma (he crashed outside city limits). Now that it happened, the PD babbled incoherently, "Santa Rosa was aviation crazy on Saturday afternoon and the flight made by the daring young aviator aroused the greatest interest and admiration of everybody."
But Weldon Cooke wasn't done in Santa Rosa. About a month later he slipped into town and met with Ben Noonan to look over the Wiseman plane. He made a few short test flights, including a 15-minute loop around the Laguna plain. "Well, I certainly guess she will fly all right," he was quoted as saying. A deal was struck for Cooke to lease the plane and it was shipped down to the East Bay, with the Press Democrat waving goodbye with a good-luck-he'll-need-it sendoff: "[T]here is little doubt but that Cooke will make a very satisfactory showing with the machine, which has appeared to hold a hoodoo for Santa Rosans."
Hoodoo or no, Cooke was probably desparate to strike a deal because he no longer had a plane. For reasons unknown, the Black Diamond was packed up after the Los Angeles Air Meet a few weeks prior and sent back to the owner's shipyard, never to fly again. (It's possible they were threatened with a patent infringement lawsuit by Glenn Curtiss - which would have been ironic, as Curtiss was himself being sued by the Wright brothers over his own patent piracy.)
Cooke had extra urgency to secure a plane quickly because in a few days he was expected to appear at a six-day, two weekend aviation meet in Emeryville where it was being advertised he would race Lincoln Beachey, one of the most famous flyers at the time. Cooke showed up with the Wiseman plane, but it was a rout; even with a 90-second head start as a handicap Cooke not only lost, but Beachey literally flew circles around him, executing several "spiral dips" around Cooke so close they nearly collided. On another day at Emeryville his engine stalled and he glided down, narrowly missing a fence.
Cue foreboding music.
That spring of 1912 Cooke became a bonafide barnstormer, crating up his plane and shipping it to the next local fair or exhibition. Part of his schtick was air mail delivery, where he would carry a pouch of mail with aviation souvenir postmarks and chuck it overboard at the local post office. He also dropped local newspapers at a news stand or the rural homes of some subscribers, both stunts Wiseman pioneered in his trip from Petaluma.
In April he flew over Humboldt Bay and Eureka, then had a hard landing that crumpled the plane. It was apparently his first crash in the Wiseman aircraft and his second serious accident, having earlier ditched the Black Diamond in Lake Merritt.
After repairs were made Cooke spent the summer working his way east, where he became "the boy aviator," reported in the papers as being 23 or 21 and only having a few months experience. He was also being credited with creating the airplane; the Salt Lake Tribune reported he "went home to Oakland and built a machine of his own" after being part of Curtiss' crew. In Salt Lake City, by the way, he amazed crowds when he flew above the clouds for several minutes, leaving some to declare he must have been "lifted upwards by unseen hands."
But Cooke was tinkering with the Wiseman airplane, upgrading the engine and tweaking the airframe. The reconstructed airship currently on display in Washington is clearly more powerful and sleeker than the funky kite-like thing that left Santa Rosa in early 1912. It seems most likely Cooke was using parts of the Wiseman airplane - which had to be completely disassembled and crated after every appearance anyway - as the framework for an experimental design that would fully emerge at the end of the year. He hinted as much at the Emeryville air show after he only had the Wiseman plane for a few days; the Oakland Tribune mentioned he hoped to show off "a new principle in plane and wing construction," which he could not have possibly built from scratch.
He set some minor records that summer in his hybrid Wiseman-Cooke, being the first to fly in Idaho and then winning some prize money in Illinois. He was also beginning to appear in the news because of increasingly frequent crashes. In September he wrecked the plane near Chicago. Thrown clear but knocked out, he regained consciousness to find "a large crowd around his machine breaking pieces from it to carry away as souvenirs." Cooke grabbed a "stout club" and held them off until police arrived.
(RIGHT: Weldon B. Cooke flying over Sandusky Ohio, c. 1913, in the Wiseman aircraft showing only minor modifications from the original design. Photo courtesy Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)
In November he landed at his destination: Sandusky, Ohio, home to the Roberts Motor Company. (The Black Diamond had used a Roberts motor and early on Cooke had replaced Wiseman's 60 HP engine with a 75 HP Roberts.) The company knew him well and was already touting his name in its catalog. Roberts allowed him to use a portion of their facilities to work on his experimental planes while the town of Sandusky was equally welcoming, dedicating an airfield.
He incorporated the Cooke Aeroplane Company and spent the winter building a smaller racing plane he promised could easily clock 75 MPH. Show any aviation history buffs this photo, explain that the aircraft shown was designed 1912-1913, and kindly scrape their jaws off the floor. He was years ahead of his time.
Cooke also unveiled the "Flying Dutchman," his new aircraft for exhibition flying. This was an elegant rethinking of the Wiseman/Black Diamond designs, with a simpler tail assembly and no canard at the front. With possibly the widest wingspan of any biplane it would have been graceful to watch, but not fast. Presumably the Wiseman plane was mothballed at this point.
Another advantage of the new plane is it could be equipped with floats and used as a seaplane (Cooke called it a "hydroplane"). Many of his 1913 exhibition appearances were with the Flying Dutchman configured for use on water.
Few newspaper articles about Cooke crashing can be found for 1913, but we don't know if he was flying less or because the new plane was substantially safer. He did have a bad time of it that summer while doing shows at a county fair in Canton, Ohio. On one landing his airplane overturned, breaking struts between the wings; on another day his motor died and the plane crashed, catapulting him out. Shaken but undaunted, he said his show would resume in a couple of days after he telegraphed back to Sandusky to ship him "another biplane of much heavier type," according to the local paper. Presumably that was the old Wiseman plane.
Cooke built yet another type of aircraft that year: A "flying boat" that could hold three passengers and probably scooted along only a few feet above the waves. Of all his various projects, he apparently saw this as offering the best chance of commercial success. He helped a colleague start a St. Petersburg-Tampa passenger service using his plane, and talked about operating a fleet based in Sandusky fanning out to other towns and cities across Lake Erie. He applied for a franchise from the upcoming Panama-Pacific Exposition to run an airboat shuttle between Oakland and San Francisco. Alas, his dreams were bigger than his bank account; the Cooke Aeroplane Company went bankrupt in 1914.
He returned to California and piloted flying boats of someone else's design for a short-lived air ferry service across San Francisco Bay. Despite a promise he had supposedly made to his mother to quit barnstorming, he took the Flying Dutchman back out on the exhibition circuit. On September 16 in Pueblo, Colorado, he was performing a fine show when the thousands in the audience heard a faint explosion when he was at an estimated 2,000 feet. "The biplane careened and like a shot dropped sheer from the clouds," the wire service reported. "It was almost one minute before the aeroplane hit the ground with a sickening crash."
Cooke was dead and the Flying Dutchman was a "tangled mass of junk," according to accounts, but the Wiseman plane was presumably still crated up back in Sandusky. The boxes were sent to Cooke's brother in Oakland, who kept them in storage at home until 1933 when the Oakland Airport asked to borrow it. As an example of an old biplane, it was put on display for years near Cooke's earlier Black Diamond. The tale would have ended there if not for the Smithsonian Institution's declaration in 1947 that Wiseman had made the first official airmail delivery, an incredible story of an accidental discovery told in an earlier article appearing here. The Wiseman-Cooke airplane was finally restored between 1983-1985 and now hangs above visitors at the National Postal Museum with a mannequin Fred J. Wiseman at the controls.
But here's the Believe-it-or-Not! angle: The airplane on display is quite possibly not the one that made the famous flight.
There were two Wiseman biplanes. The first machine, designed and constructed 1909-1910 by Wiseman and Peters was built under a tent in a Windsor pasture. The other was made at a Petaluma planing mill in the late summer of 1910 as they continued flying practice in the original. The new plane was intended to be easier to take apart for shipping and was also some 200 pounds lighter than the prototype, which weighed 670 pounds (lengthy description here). It's doubtful Wiseman ever flew the old plane again, as long as the newer one was in working condition. He certainly would have used Model B on his airmail flight.
Given the choice between the older, often-crashed beater and the new, improved model, Cooke would have picked the latter - if he had the option. But Noonan had already sold one of the aircraft a few weeks earlier.
"NOONAN SELLS HIS BIPLANE", was the hed of a Santa Rosa Republican article appearing the same day Cooke was making his New Years' exhibition flights at the fairground. There it was reported the purchaser was "Lieutenant Jack Handy of the U. S. A." Lt. Handy attempted to make a test flight, but - predictably - crashed, causing him to make immediate repairs.
The buyer was actually Army Lieutenant Courtland Waite Handy. For Fiscal Year 1912, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Signal Corps to purchase a few aircraft and it was reported they bought five, although only three manufacturers were named. But which airplane did Noonan sell the government? With no other buyers on the horizon, presumably he sold the one worth the most money, and that would have been the newer plane with the improvements. Regardless, Weldon Cooke had no choice when he showed up six weeks later on his shopping trip, desperate to buy/lease an aircraft for the Emeryville competition just days away.
Evidence that Cooke was using the earlier plane points both ways. One of the changes with the Model B was it being a "knock down" machine for easier shipping, and Cooke certainly often packed and unpacked whichever version he used during his 1912 barnstorming. But Model A could be disassembled as well; it was carted by wagon from Windsor to Santa Rosa (and to at least four different locations around town) and then to Petaluma. When Cooke cracked up the Flying Dutchman at that 1913 county fair and switched to "another biplane of much heavier type," it suggests he had the Wiseman Model A, which weighed considerably more even before Cooke added a larger and heavier Roberts engine.
So is the historic airmail plane on display at the museum the real deal? Alas, further research here is above my pay grade; an answer may be found by prowling through the National Archives. Certainly the Army Signal Corps would have required Lt. Handy to describe precisely what he purchased - although what I'd really like to read is the report to his C.O., explaining how he bought an expensive biplane and immediately managed to trash it.
NOONAN SELLS HIS BIPLANEArmy Aviator Buys Machine Built for Wiseman
Ben Noonan has sold his biplane to Lieutenant Jack Handy of the U. S. A., and the latter attempted to make a flight in the machine Sunday afternoon. Owing to the sweater the aviator was wearing catching in one of the levers of the biplane, an accident occurred which did considerable damage to the aeroplane. The biplane had just risen from the ground on its way for a flight when the accident happened, and the front part of the aeroplane dived into the ground. The engine continued to go and the propeller revolved at a fast rate, the aviator being unable to stop the engine. Lieutenant Handy has charge of the army aviators.
It is stated on good authority that Ben Noonan got a good price for his aeroplane. However, the price he got for his air craft does not anywhere near clear him of the expense he has been to by being mixed up in the aviation game, It was planned Sunday that Aviator Handy was to fly out to the race track and make a double attraction for the afternoon. The accident to the machine prevented the second biplane giving the exhibition. Luckily Aviator Handy was not hurt in the accident.
Mr. Handy was in San Francisco on New Year's day getting a new propeller and other parts to replace those injured Sunday. He will return today.
- Santa Rosa Republican, January 1, 1912
LADY WILL MAKE ASCENT HERE WITH AVIATOR COOKE
Word was received from Aviator Weldon B. Cooke late yesterday afternoon that the aeroplane would arrive in Santa Rosa early this morning and that he himself, instead of waiting until tomorrow morning as he had at first thought would be the best he could do, would be on hand on the 11 o'clock train, as to be sure that everything would be ready for Sunday's flight. One of his mechanicians has accompanied the car from the time it left Elmhurst, to see that nothing went wrong.
Carries Lady Passenger
One thing has been definitely decided upon, namely, that a popular and daring young lady of this city will be taken up as passenger, probably the first day. Although she does not want her name mentioned as yet, she expressed her delight at the prospect of really "going up in the air," and said she hoped Mr. Cooke would go high enough so that she could see all the surrounding country from an aeroplane. Cook has already carried many passengers, including his wife and sisters, so that he has no fear about being abole to take up the young lady here.
May Try Wiseman's Machine
It has been rumored that on one of the two days Cooke, after making all of the flights as he had planned there on his own machine, which he knows he can fly, might also take a chance with a local machine formerly used by Aviator Wiseman. Cooke said over the long distance telephone that if he did try to make such a flight he would assume no responsibility for its success, and would not consider it except in the light of a possible incidental feature of his regular program with his own machine. However, there are undoubtedly many local people who would be interested in such an exhibition.
In speaking of the prospects of flying Sunday and Monday, his manager, who has been in the city the past few days promoting the meet, said that if weather conditions were at all favorable, there would certainly be flying to please the most critical. Mere cloudy weather will not prevent the bird man from going, and if it should rain after any tickets had been bought so that he could not fly, rain checks would be issued to purchasers entitling them to admission on the first favorable day following. This is a new feature in conducting aviation meets which will be much appreciated.
The program as outlined at present will include exhibitions of bomb throwing at which Aviator Cooke has demonstrated that he is an expert; passenger carrying on both days; mail carrying, and including the taking up of mail bags at full speed as well as dropping mail, an entirely new "stunt" in aerial navigation; attempts at speed and altitude records; and an exhibition of all the flights required to secure pilot's license, such as quick starting, cutting figure eight's, etc., the first opportunity anybody in Northern California will have had to see these flights. Cooke does not plan to make only one flight each day, but to make three or four, each illustrating some special feature in flying in heavier than air machines. Moreover, the flights on the second day will be entirely different from those made on Sunday.
- Press Democrat, December 30, 1911
AVIATOR COOKE WILL GIVE FREE FLIGHT OVER THE CITYWeldon B. Cooke, who made very successful flights here Sunday and Monday in his aeroplane, has been secured by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce for a free exhibition over the business section of town next Saturday afternoon.
This is a feature which will no doubt bring a large crowd to town for the day. General Passenger Agent J. J. Geary of the Northwestern Pacific railroad has agreed to give a round trip rate of one and a third fares to Santa Rosa from all points north on regular trains for that day.
Mr. Cooke has proved that he can and will fly when he says he will if the weather permits, and now that he has shown the public his ability to fullfil this promise there is no doubt but that he will be watched by the largest throng which has ever gathered on the streets of Santa Rosa. There will be no charges of any kind and any one who is on the streets will be able to see all there is to see without money and without price.
- Press Democrat, January 3, 1912
VAST CROWD SEE COOKE'S DARING FLIGHT SATURDAYBirdman Reaches an Altitude of 2,500 Feet EasilyWith thousands of people gathered in the down town district in Santa Rosa on Saturday afternoon to witness his daring, Aviator Weldon Cooke made one of the most anticipated and successful flights ever attempted in aerial navigation in the State. He crossed and recrossed overhead and rose to a height that at times made him and his big aeroplane look like a speck on the horizon.
Santa Rosa was aviation crazy on Saturday afternoon and the flight made by the daring young aviator aroused the greatest interest and admiration of everybody. To the majority of the people in the vast assemblage, the aviation was a novelty, and they were fortunate in seeing the true art of aerial navigation as their introduction to the sport. Cooke is a wonder and he richly deserved the compliments that were showered on his daring.
Cooke reached an altitude of over 2,000 feet while flying over the city. He estimated the distance at between 2,000 and 2,500 feet. Principal Searcy of the High School made a calculation which fixed the altitude at something slightly over 2,000 feet. Press Smith, who had a surveying transit at work in the country, turned his glass on the aviator while he was flying and made a calculation of about 2,2500 feet.
Many will be interested in knowing that the aviator can't hear anything after he gets a few hundred feet from the earth, owing to the noise of his motor. The noise is so great that Cooke fills his ears with cotton to deafen the sound. He said last night, while discussing the flight, that he looked down while directly over the Court House and waved his hand to the crowd below, but his height was so great it could not be seen from the ground.
While the wind was light from the southwest on the ground at the altitude he was flying, it was blowing about 15 miles per hour from the north, he says, and that explained why he appeared to fly so much faster when going south, and why he always climbed higher as he went north. It is easier to ascend in the face of the wind, he says. A feature of the flight was that he circled both to the right and left with equal ease. The motor is set slightly to the right, and the aeroplane turns to the right much more easily than to the left.
Several times during Saturday's flight the aeroplane had to buck rough air currents. Those familiar with weather conditions saw this at the time and remarked it. The starting and alighting are the most interesting features of aeroplaning. This the crowd missed Saturday, but the finish was as spectacular as any part of the flight. Cooke landed as easily as he flew through the air. Those interested can see this feature today by visiting the race track during the afternoon, when more flights will be made.
Cooke does not wear leather clothing, but simply adds more garments between his pantaloons and under his coat he places layers of newspapers which keep out the wind just as well as the heavier leather clothing.
- Press Democrat, January 7, 1912
COOKE MAKES FINE FLIGHTSurprises People by Flying in Noonan MachineWeldon B. Cooke, who established himself as an aviator of considerable ability a few weeks ago, when he flew over this city, surprised and added to his popularity with the people of Santa Rosa Sunday, when unannounced he came to this city on the morning train and drove to the Noonan field, where the former Wiseman biplane has been stored, and after a few trials around the field in the morning, he took the machine in the afternoon, arose in the air and flew for about ten minutes. After coming to the ground and adjusting his carburetor the better to enable the machine to gain more power, he again arose in the Wiseman machine and made a handsome flight for a period of fifteen minutes, and made a grateful landing.
On alighting from his flight Cooke said, "Well, I certainly guess she will fly all right," and it certainly did.
In an interview after the flight he stated that he had found nothing wrong with the airship in any way whatever, claiming it was a better balanced ship than his own, and that he thought it very good. He said, "The machine has hardly power enough to make any great speed, but after I became better acquainted with the working of the engine, I expect to increase its power. Although the air seemed very quiet on the ground today, I found that it chopped when I had arised [sic] about three hundred feet. I will take the machine to Emeryville during the week, where I am to use it in the meet that is to be held there commencing next Saturday, and lasting for ten days. In my contest with Beechy [sic - Lincoln Beachey] I expect to use this airship, unless something goes wrong."
Cooke is building another airship, but does not expect to complete it until after the Emeryville gathering is over. He has leased Noonan's biplane and will use it in exhibitions that he will give around the country.
There was not a very large crowd at the field as Cooke, in his unostentatious manner had suggested that nothing be said of his coming by his mechanics, who are handling the machine for him here, Bob Schieffer and Al. B. Cooper. Those who were present to see the fine flight were attracted there by the humming of the engine, or had seen him testing it out in the morning. All were loud in their praise of the daring flight he made on his second attempt to leave the ground in this strange machine. On the second flight he traveled first to the north and skirted the foothills about Fountaingrove vineyard, and flying west about four miles. He was about three hundred feet in the air on this flight and remained up over fifteen minutes, making the turns in a very graceful manner and showing his faith in the engine by removing one of his hands from the wheel and waving to the cheering crowd below. Mr. And Mrs. Cooke returned to San Francisco on the afternoon train.
- Santa Rosa Republican, February 12, 1912
SHIP BIPLANE TO WELDON COOKEThe Wiseman Airship Sent by Southern Pacific to Oakland Yesterday AfternoonThe Wiseman aeroplane which has been stored on the Noonan property at the foot of Carrillo street for several months was taken down, packed and yesterday shipped to Oakland over the Southern Pacific to be used by Weldon B. Cooke at the Emeryville race track during the aviation meet beginning Saturday.
Robert Schieffer and Al Cooper accompanied the machine and will look after it while Cooke is using it. After the successful flight here Sunday afternoon there is little doubt but that Cooke will make a very satisfactory showing with the machine, which has appeared to hold a hoodoo for Santa Rosans.
- Press Democrat, February 14, 1912
GETTING READY TO BUILD AN AIRSHIPWiseman and Peters Will Construct New Bi-Plane in Petaluma Within Thirty DaysThe Wiseman-Peters airship people have secured the use of the building on Copeland street Petaluma, formerly occupied by the silk wire factory and there they will make their headquarters for the next thirty days, during the construction of their new airship. The huge machine will be constructed at the Camm & Hedges planing mill near by, but the wire works building will be used as the headquarters of the airship people and for storage, assembling and other details of the big task which is before them.
The new airship will be different from the present machine in many details and will be an improvement on the one now in use. It will be a "knock down" machine and will be built in sections so that it can be taken apart, crated and thus shipped in the baggage car of trains, on steamers, or in vehicles. From this plan it can readily be seen that the owners intend to do some travelling and will not go on the road with their exhibitions.
In the meantime aviator Peters will practice flying every day and the old machine will be kept at Kenilworth park for that purpose. He intends to increase his flights daily, both as to distance and elevation and some sweet day in the very near future he is going to surprise the natives of a distant city. --Petaluma Argus.
- Press Democrat, August 6, 1910
1912 was a pretty good year for the Santa Rosa newspapers, particularly for readers fond of mysteries concerning violent killings.
Shocking murders were usually big-city crimes in the early 20th century, but starting in 1910 Sonoma County had more than its share of sordid headlines. Reporters from as far away as Los Angeles camped out here that year to cover the arrest and trial of Dr. Willard Burke, a respected and wealthy physician accused of trying to kill his mistress and their child with a stick of dynamite. Also in 1910 was the gruesome slaughter of the Kendall family near Cazadero, where the killer was never caught or positively identified. The following year saw a scandalous double suicide in Santa Rosa caused, in part, by vigilante behavior of a popular woman's club in town – a story the local papers tried to suppress, but still made Bay Area front pages.
Then in early 1912, this headline appeared in the Press Democrat: "KILLS CHICKEN AND THEN BLOWS OFF HIS OWN HEAD". Well, that's something you don't read about every day.
The short article stated a farmer near Two Rock "killed a chicken and carried its bleeding carcass into his room in the ranch house, and then sat on the edge of the bed and blew off the top of his head," reported the PD, adding unnecessarily, "death was instantaneous."
But as it turned out, the paper got nearly everything wrong.
The farmer's body was found in the kitchen, not the bedroom, he had been shot in the chest and not the head, and he did not die immediately. The farmhand who said he found his boss on the floor with the gun between his legs lived long enough to say, "I'm dying."
Coroner Frank L. Blackburn and other officials met at the scene the next day where they tried to interpret the evidence. John Albertoni had been killed by a direct blast from the shotgun found on the floor. Still presuming suicide, they couldn't figure out how he might have done it, try as they might. "The man has unusually short arms, and it is said he could not have reached the trigger," the Press Democrat reported. "He had his boots on and could not have the shot with his toes. There was no stick, no string and nothing with which he could have discharged the gun." They even considered whether the chicken might have flailed about and fired the shot. Attention turned to the man who found the body, farmhand Rocco Zanetti. He was arrested and taken to the jail in Petaluma.
Zanetti – who spoke no English, an important detail not mentioned by the local newspapers – was questioned through an interpreter at the coroner's jury. It was announced suicide had been completely ruled out. Hearing that from the interpreter, Zanetti asked the interpreter for advice on whether he should "tell the whole truth," apparently believing any fellow Italian who knew English would provide sound legal advice. After being told he should 'fess up, Zanetti talked to the prosecutor.
According to the San Francisco Call, he confessed through the interpreter: "It was an accident. Albertoni had killed a rooster with the gun, which was a new one. We were joking about the bad job he had done and Albertoni handed me the gun and said: 'See if you can do better.' Albertoni told me that it held but one shell but did not tell me that it was cocked. It being a new gun, and I being unfamiliar with it, pulled the trigger by accident and the shot struck Albertoni in the breast."
It sounded fairly plausible, including the part of the confession where Zanetti admitted he was frightened to admit his role, although the jury also heard testimony that the two men had recently quarreled over something. The verdict was that Zanetti had indeed shot his employer, but the jury made no recommendation on how to charge him.
But the prosecutor was unable to prove maliciousness and couldn't gain traction on the curious detail of the double-barreled shotgun containing only one spent shell. Rocco Zanetti was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years at Folsom State Prison. He was released in 1918 and died in 1954 at San Diego.
"Adam Clark is a boy who apparently never had a chance," the Press Democrat explained to readers in its unusual coverage of court proceedings later that year. "He started and looked inquiringly at the Court when he was told something about a mother's love. He did not know what was meant."
The reporting was unusual because "sob sister" journalism rarely, if ever, appeared in the PD during that era. It was also unusual because the youth being described so sympathetically had just committed the premeditated murder of his mother.
Fifteen year-old Adam Clark was not on trial in the Santa Rosa courtroom that morning; the hearing was a Superior Court investigation to determine what should become of him, as per the landmark Juvenile Court laws passed in 1909 and discussed in the previous item. Instead of prison or county jail for anyone under 21 who committed a serious crime, the emphasis was now on rehabilitation.
The crime was front page headline news in the Santa Rosa papers, and because of its sensational nature the story was spotlighted in Bay Area newspapers as well. Details vary; it's not clear whether some reporters were able to question the boy or were just making stuff up or repeating hearsay. The version of his confession that appeared in the San Francisco Call is comically absurd, making him sound like a two-bit gangster, sneering and defiant even as he spills his guts to the coppers.
From the various accounts it seems certain Adam was developmentally disabled. The Press Democrat stated he was "fifteen as years are counted, but possibly about seven or eight when reckoned by the degree of mentality he possesses." He seemed to feel little or no remorse or grasp the severity of his crime other than understanding he would be punished for it, in some way. It's not even certain he intended to kill his mother or if he just wanted to make her sick as payback because "[she] always gave me the dickens." As a result of these ambiguities, papers such as the Call looked at him and saw a scheming murderer while the PD painted him as an abused child.
All that can be said with certainty about the backstory is that Augusta Clark and her teenage son were not getting along that summer. The youngest of five children and apparently the only one still living at their place west of Windsor, Adam was working on a traveling crew of hay balers and coming home only on Sundays for a change of clothes. Recently she had demanded his boss fire him and threatened to send Adam to a reformatory. We don't know, however, if she objected to that job in particular or instead wanted him to work somewhere else, such as on their family farm. We also don't know if he was still attending school, but in that era a great many kids his age were employed somewhere full time. At the same age of 15 his sister, Ethel, was working as a servant, according to the 1910 census.
What we do know as absolute fact is Adam returned home on Sunday, July 28 and found his mother was out. He grabbed a handful of 'Rough on Rats' and dumped it into the coffee canister and sugar bowl. That particular rat poison contained forty percent arsenic.
The next day, when Adam was back at the farmworker's camp, his mother began feeling sick. Augusta had such a violent headache she asked for a neighbor's help and a doctor was called. She stayed with her neighbor briefly and her condition improved. Once she returned home, however, she immediately became ill again. Her neighbor was leaving on vacation so she accepted her husband's offer for him to stay around to look after her.
Augusta, it seems, couldn't get along with her husband James, either, the couple having been separated four years. He was "addicted at times to the inordinate use of liquor," according to the PD, "but otherwise was an industrious, well-meaning man." He kept in touch with youngest son Adam and slipped him pocket change.
The 61 year-old James promptly began showing the same symptoms as his wife. A friend of his visiting from Merced nursed the pair of them and after a couple of days he was sick as well. Amazingly, the local doctor did not suspect something might be amiss with the situation.
James was taken to a neighboring house as the man from Merced left for home. It was a Saturday evening when the Windsor doctor finally asked a colleague for a consultation on Augusta's case. She was rushed by auto to the hospital in Santa Rosa where she died even before she could provide a history of her illness. The cause of death was pneumonia, after having been continuously sick for almost two weeks. Although two other people were showing the same symptoms, apparently no one still suspected foul play.
The funeral was two days later. As mourners gathered at the family home, Adam reportedly told someone the strangest thing: "I would not touch that coffee or sugar, as there is poison in it." Word of that reached Santa Rosa and the next day the sheriff and District Attorney visited the Clark ranch house and took samples to analyze. The arsenic was found and Adam was arrested. He quickly confessed, apparently after being told that his dad had been poisoned as well and would likely die. James Clark indeed died the following day, with the friend from Merced eventually recovering fully.
Adam's warning about the poisoned sugar and coffee was tantamount to a confession of course, and lends much to the view his brains were seriously scrambled. He also told police he had used the poison on rats and found it failed to kill them immediately. That issue was another difference between the papers that portrayed him as either cunning or clueless – perhaps he planned the delay would provide him an alibi of not being around when his mom died, or perhaps he believed it demonstrated the poison was barely deadly to rats and thus probably wouldn't be seriously harmful to humans.
The delinquency hearing – Press Democrat coverage transcribed and partly summarized below – did little to clarify Adam's intentions. He told Judge Seawell that he had not intended to kill his mother, yet thought he was justified in poisoning her. It also came out in court that she had Toxophobia (the fear of being poisoned) which adds another note of horror to the tale.
It took a few weeks for authorities to decide what to do with him. "Are you going to hang me?" the PD reported he asked a member of the probation committee, "his face like marble and his frame all of a tremble." Those were the last words of his recorded in any newspapers.
Clark was sentenced to six years to Preston School of Industry at Ione, which was a prison-like reformatory with armed guards. On release after he turned 21, he was to be on a thirty year probation, subject to be re-sentenced as an adult for the confessed murder of his mother – a judgement that was extreme and appears unprecedented.
After he was released in 1918 he lived with one of his older brothers in Montana, then returned to Sonoma County where he worked as a teamster in Petaluma. Given the heavy newspaper coverage of his crimes eight years earlier, it's hard to imagine there wasn't finger-pointing and whispering. Adam H. Clark died at age 24 in Los Angeles in 1922.
GOOD WOMAN PASSES TO HER REWARDThe death occurred on Sunday of Mrs. Augusta Clark, a well known and highly respected resident of Windsor. Her passing is deeply regretted by the members of her family and a large circle of friends.
The deceased lady was forty-five years of age [JE NOTE: she was 54], and was a native of Norway. She came to this state when a baby.
The deceased was the sister of Mrs. Latimer, wife of Justice of the Peace Hugh N. N. Latimer of Windsor, and the mother of Ben, Ernest, Adam and Ethel Clark.
- Press Democrat, August 13, 1912
ADAM CLARK TELLS STORY OF THE DUAL POISONINGNever Had Chance In Environment of Home LifeStillness as of the tomb pervaded Judge Seawell's department of the Superior Court on Wednesday afternoon. Judge, court officials and spectators bent forward eagerly. An unusual story was being told. It came from the lips of a fifteen-year-old boy, fifteen as years are counted, but possibly about seven or eight when reckoned by the degree of mentality he possesses.
It was Adam Clark's narrative of the poisoning of his father and mother at Windsor that aroused everybody in that quiet courtroom. The confession had been told previously by him into the ears of officials of the court. This was the first time he had told it in public.
The story came from him in fits and starts. It was not a connected recital, except when it was linked by questions put by the Court. The boy said that his mother was always nagging him, as he put it, "giving him the dickens." A short time prior to his awful deed he said she objected to his going to work on a hay press, and had threatened him repeatedly that she would send him to the reform school. Then he made up his mind that he would put up with it no longer, and when on one Sunday he visited his mother's house and found no one at home he placed a handful of poison he had bought some time previously to kill rats that had molested his rabbits in the coffee canister. He killed his mother, willfully, as viewed by the eyes of the law. He killed his father, too, but he maintains that he did not mean to do so. The other details have already been published in these columns.
Adam Clark told Judge Seawell that he had never known a mother's love. He started and looked inquiringly at the Court when he was told something about a mother's love. He did not know what was meant. There was no mistaking from his words and demeanor that he felt his mother had not used him right, and that she had nagged him, as he expressed it. He said he liked his father better than his mother. He said, too, that he realized that he had done very wrong, but as far as taking the life of his mother was concerned he did not express the same degree of concern as he did at the killing of his father. The boy told Judge Seawell that he had not intended to kill even his mother.
Judge Seawell reminded him that the fact that his mother might have been overbearing in her treatment of him, he (the boy) could not tell what had prompted that action on his mother's part. She might have thought sending him to the reform school was for his good. Anyway, the Court impressed upon the lad at his side, that it did not minimize his terrible deed. He told the boy that more than likely if it were possible for his mother to come back to life she would be in the courtroom pleading with him (the Court) to forgive his act.
When Adam Clark left the witness stand he also left an impression with all who listened to his story that he does not realize the enormity of his offense and that in his limited mentality, still thinks that he was justified in the taking of his mother's life.
"Boy Without a Chance"
Adam Clark is a boy who apparently never had a chance. His home life, according to the testimony any number of witnesses, was not conducive to point to the better things of life and did not embody in its rule principles of right living. It was a house divided against itself, and it fell and the climax of that fall was the toll of two human lives. Witnesses testified that Mrs. Clark was unfortunately the victim at times of an ungovernable temper, and that her language in the presence of her children was not what it should have been. It was also stated that she was as the boy claimed, constantly finding fault with or nagging him. Then it was shown that the father was addicted at times to the inordinate use of liquor but otherwise was an industrious, well-meaning man, although it is said, he lacked some of the requirements that should be embodied in the good father.
At the outset of the proceedings on Wednesday morning Judge Seawell stated that the inquiry was not in the nature of a court of law. It was an investigation as provided for under the Delinquency act. He also asked all the witnesses to speak out frankly and tell freely what they knew concerning the habits of Adam Clark, his life, and environment, as well as the family history as far as they knew. At the outset Justice of the Peace Hugh N. N. Latimer of Windsor was asked by Judge Seawell to represent the relatives of the deceased and the boy and interrogate any of the witnesses that might be called on any matters he desired. District Attorney Clarence F. Lea examined the witnesses.
Adam Barth testified that he had known the boy since birth and had been acquainted with his mother and father. He said he regarded the boy as one whose environments had not been good. He said if they had been better he believed that the influence would have been felt by the boy. He spoke of his acquaintance with the Clark family, and said at times he had not thought the boy was very bight. Mr. Barth testified further that he had heard Mrs. Clark use language that was not calculated to command respect.
Afraid of Being Poisoned
Dr. J. W. Seamell testified that he knew both Mr. and Mrs. Clark, and the boy. In his opinion Adam was born under a stigma of degeneracy when the proclivities of the parents were considered. He said he considered Mrs. Clark paranoic [sic]. She was constantly afraid of being poisoned, and stated so frequently.
Justice H. N. N. Latimer testified that he had known the Clark family for many years. He said he was aware that Mrs. Clark was continually nagging Adam, and she thought more of the other children than she did of him. She had some sort of a feeling that no matter what Adam did it was wrong, and she told him so, the witness stated. He said the boy was of a listless disposition, did not want to go to school, wanted to be out in the open in freedom. Mr. Clark, he said, was good to the children; he said, was an industrious woman. She was a woman of a high temper and very unreasonable in her demands at times, it seemed to him, the Judge said. He added that he was always of the opinion that if the boy had been used to the right kind of influences he would have been a better youth.
...[seven witnesses, including the boy's brother and teacher, testified he was friendly and showed no signs signs of cruelty but he skipped school and sometimes stole small things.]...
W. H. Hickman, owner of the hay baling outfit with which Adam Clark had worked, testified. Mrs. Clark had told him she did not want Adam to work on the baler, and he had told the boy so. He also had heard Mrs. Clark threaten that she would send Adam to a reform school. She was very angry.
Under Sheriff Walter C. Lindsay corroborated the testimony of other witnesses regarding the unhappiness in the Clark family, Mrs. Clark's disposition, and as to other matters.
Joseph C. Pohley testified that Mr. Clark worked for him some time prior to his death. He knew the family intimately. He also agreed that Mrs. Clark was very unreasonable at times and did not speak well of people. It was Mr. Pohley who was told by Clark that he was taken ill each time he drank the coffee, which later turned out to have been poisoned by his son....
...Miss Ethel Clark, sister of the lad under investigation, was the next witness. When she learned of her mother's illness, she went up to Windsor from Santa Rosa where she had been residing for some time and assisted in nursing her mother. The day after her mother's death, or the day for the funeral, her brother called her attention to the coffee in the canister and said it "looked funny." It had the appearance of being moldy, she said. No more coffee was used out of the can. At the time her father was also sick. After the funeral of her mother, Mrs. W. C. Chisholm kindly invited the girl to her home, and she went there. Miss Clark also detailed something of the unhappiness of the family life, particularly as regards Adam and his mother.
- Press Democrat, August 29, 1912
WAS IT MURDER? MAN JAILED ON SUSPICION IN PETALUMAAs a result of the investigation conducted by Assistant District Attorney George W. Hoyle Thursday into the tragic death on Wednesday of John C. Albertoni, a well known Two Rock Valley farmer, Rocco Zanetti, an employee on the Albertoni ranch, was arrested Thursday afternoon and detained in jail in Petaluma over night...
...John C. Albertoni, a well known young rancher, whose home is on the Freeman estate, four miles west of this city, where he leased a tract of 240 acres, and was engaged in dairy and poultry raising, was found dead in the kitchen of his home at 3:30 on Wednesday afternoon, and while it is presumably a case of suicide, the coroner is not satisfied, and on Thursday morning notified the county officials. Deputy Sheriff Don McIntosh, Assistant District Attorney George W. Hoyle and Court Stenographer Harry Scott arrived here on the morning train and with Coroner Frank L. Blackburn are busy investigating. They left in an auto for the scene on Thursday, and prior to departure spent several hours here. None of the officers will speak for publication, but it is learned that the nature of the wound and the implement which was used, to wit, a double barrel shotgun, has raised a doubt in the mind of the officers, whether or not the wound could have been self-inflicted. The body is at the Blackburn parlors and it is understood that a post mortem examination is being held. The inquest will probably be held this evening of Friday morning at the parlors. There are several strange phases to the case.
The man, who lives at the Freeman place with one hired man, named Rocca Zanetti [sic], purchased a new shotgun in this city a week ago. On Wednesday afternoon he went into the yard and shot a rooster with it, re-entered the kitchen. A short time later another shot was heard, and when the hired man entered the room he found Albertoni dead on the floor. The bird he had killed was on the table and Albertoni lay on the floor, with the gun between his legs. He was shot in the body at close range; the body being badly torn and a portion of the heart being shot away. The man has unusually short arms, and it is said he could not have reached the trigger. He had his boots on and could not have the shot with his toes. There was no stick, no string and nothing with which he could have discharged the gun, near the body when found. It may have been possible that the bird which he had shot might have discharged the trigger in its last convulsions, but this idea is scouted. The gun contained an empty barrel and one empty shell. It was a new weapon and in perfect condition.
- Press Democrat, January 26, 1912
CONFESSES THAT HE KILLED MANRocco Zanetti Admits Shooting, But Claims That it Was an Accident Done in Playful MoodRocco Zanetti was brought to the county jail in this city yesterday afternoon and is detained there pending the placing of a formal charge of murder against him. At the inquest held in Petaluma yesterday morning on the remains of J. C. Albertoni, a Two Rock farmer after much endeavor to avoid the finger of suspicion already resting upon him being made to press all the heavier, Assistant District Attorney George W. Hoyle, who had investigated the death of Albertoni on the previous day, and had satisfied himself that Zanetti had fired the fatal shot, wrung from him a confession of the deed. Zanetti stoutly maintaining, however, that the shooting had been accidental, and done in a playful mood.
Prosecutor Hoyle, in the light of the investigation he had made, and the knowledge gained that the men had quarreled during the time Zanetti had been employed on the Albertoni ranch, is not prepared to accept the claim on the part of the accused that the shooting was accidental, and he will delve thoroughly into the case.
The shooting occurred on the Albertoni ranch on Wednesday afternoon and Rocco claimed to have discovered his employer in a dying condition in a room in the ranch house. He went so far at first to say that when he came in and raised Albertoni's head that the latter had remarked to him, "I'm dying." Under the fire of examination at the inquest held by Coroner Frank Blackburn yesterday morning Rocco admitted that he had accidentally shot Albertoni with the gun which, he says, his employer had stated was unloaded. He picked up the weapon, he said, after this assurance and pulled the trigger and shot Albertoni. This information he vouchsafed, it is said, after he had listened to the evidence from the undertaker and physician, which put his previous statements at variance and showed that it was hardly likely that the man could possibly have shot himself.
The Coroner's jury found that Albertoni met his death as the result of a gunshot wound inflicted by Rocco Zanetti, whether accidentally or maliciously the jury did not know.
Assistant District Attorney Hoyle further questioned Zanetti after he was brought to this city yesterday afternoon. The man maintained, however, that there was no maliciousness in his act, and that it had been entirely accidental and inflicted as he had deposed.
- Press Democrat, January 27, 1912
Explain this puzzler: Why didn't Santa Rosa police in 1912 seem concerned about finding the boys who incited a riot? And here's another mystery which may (or may not) be related: What happened to our run-of-the-mill hooligans?
Just five years earlier there were regularly stories in the the Santa Rosa papers about hometown hoodlums. Kids as young as 10 were described as "incorrigibles" for their involvement with crimes petty and large: Arson, "immorality," chicken snatching and armed buggy hijacking. The following year of 1908 boys were mentioned in the papers for stealing horses, burglaries, and trying to derail a train. But after that the kiddie crime wave seems to have subsided. What changed?
One factor was probably the new state laws passed in 1909 that modernized the juvenile justice system. Previously children who committed crimes were treated like minature adults, subject to trial by jury. Sentencing was geared for punishment rather than rehabilitation, with the courts able to send boys as young as 14 to state prison. Judges could be arbitrary and capricious; as an example, consider what happened to that pair of young boys who threw rocks through train windows and placed objects on the railroad tracks. The boy who was ten years old was sent home after promising to be good but his companion, just a year older, was packed off to the Preston School of Industry at Ione (AKA San Quentin for Kids). Under the new laws anyone under 21 would be allowed to stay at home under probation. If their family was too dysfunctional or didn't want the child, the next step was now to send the child somewhere like "The Boys' and Girls' Aid Society" in San Francisco, intended for boys "not sufficiently wayward to require assignment to the reform school, and too hard to manage to be placed in family homes or orphanage." (Longtime readers recognize "the Aid" as the institution supplying most of the child labor used in the Sebastopol child labor camps.)
But the better laws don't explain the dropoff in local juvenile crimes. Did they continue but the newspapers held back from reporting about them out of a newfound compassion that the articles could damage reputations for life? (Not to mention the embarrassment their descendants may experience a century later after some jerk digs up those old news stories and reposts them to a global communication network.) As smart-alecky scientists love to say, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
Perhaps there was an agreement between the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican to engage in some discreet self-censorship; the coverage of Adam Clark, the troubled boy who killed his parents was gentle, almost sympathetic. Other evidence points both ways; one of the items transcribed below withholds the name of a 17 year-old burglar, yet another item published in the same paper about the same time named an even younger boy who committed a similar robbery, and on the front page no less (this boy, however, was not a local).
An easier explanation for the lack of juvenile crime news is that there really was less to report. Santa Rosa and Sonoma county was not the same place in 1912 that it was just a few stressful years earlier. The economic pendulum had swung from the scary months after the 1906 earthquake and the 1907 bank panic to a time of prosperity. A clue that the overall mood had improved was far fewer suicides, unlike the dismal month of March, 1905 when Coroner Frank Blackburn held a suicide inquest nearly every week. And another sign people were happier overall: The Press Democrat, previously a font of invective against Republicans and reformers and anyone else who didn't kowtow to the Chamber of Commerce, passed through the major election year of 1912 without slinging mud at anyone. Well, hardly anyone.
Not to say that our kids were suddenly little angels; there was, for example, the matter of that riot.
The new Rose theater was apparently nearly full that Friday summer night when the building began shaking and creaking – apparently two or more youths were jumping up and down on the roof (the building was a converted storefront, not the sort of heavy construction movie theater as we have today). Some thought it was another earthquake. "I thought I heard a cry of 'Fire,'" someone told the Press Democrat. "Many people left their seats and made a break for the front and back exits, and three women fainted," the PD reported. "Two of them were assisted out in front and another was carried out by the stage entrance. Many people were frightened, and altogether it was very lucky that no one was hurt."
You will never read about another event so literally close to someone "shouting fire in a crowded theater," and today the response would be outrage and demand for the perps to be held to account. But in 1912 the response was...meh. The cops looked around a bit but gave up when no suspects fell into their arms. No furious op/ed followed in the papers.
There was even a surprising tolerance for boys carrying weapons. The Press Democrat editorialized against the "slingshot nuisance" in 1911 and mentioned several people had been injured, but a year later kids were still packing and had added air guns to their arsenals. A 1912 PD article warned it was against the law to use them but except for a couple of boys having their slingshots confiscated, nothing more was said. Boys will be boys and try not to put someone's eye out. Good times.
BOYS PUT AWAY YOUR AIR GUNSPolice Given Instructions to Confiscate Air Guns and Sling Shots and to Make ArrestsThe police have given repeated warnings to boys and youths against the use of air guns and sling shots, and Thursday Officer Andrew Miller took a gun and a sling shot away from two youngsters and gave dire warning that hereafter all boys caught with them will be arrfested. It is against the law to use them, and also to shoot the birds which the boys are ruthlessly slaughtering. It behooves parents to see that their sons are not armed with these weapons, if they do not want to pay fines as the police are determined to stop the use of them before some one is dangerously injured.
This notion of the part of the police department is the result of numerous complaints from people in this city who seek both to stop the killing of the songsters and the danger that result in people being hurt.
- Press Democrat, February 2, 1912
NOISE ON THE ROOF OF ROSE THEATRE CAUSES A PANICPresence of Mind Prevents Serious CatastropheWhat C. N. Carrington characterizes as a deliberate attempt to break up the business in vaudeville and moving picture entertainments he and his son are building up at the Rose theatre in this city last night caused a small panic at the playhouse and but for the presence of mind of a number of men and women, the immediate breaking forth into music of the orchestra at the call of the leader, Mrs. Joe P. Berry and other diversions, the result might have been very serious. As it was many people left their seats and made a break for the front and back exits, and three women fainted. Two of them were assisted out in front and another was carried out by the stage entrance. Many people were frightened, and altogether it was very lucky that no one was hurt.
Whether it was as Carrington declares "a deliberate attempt to break up his business or not, or whether boys or men were on the roof and jumped about on it, or possibly shied a brick across just for a lark, unmindful that such horse play might cause death and injury in a panic in the theatre below or not, the excitement was occasioned by a noise on the roof."
According to Manager Carrington noises on the roof of the theatre--it is a flat roof and comparatively easy to climb--have been frequent on two or three previous nights. As late as Thursday night some one poked a piece of brick through an opening in the ventilator over the moving picture machine and hit Nick Quintero, the operator, on the head. This lends color to the suggestion that it might have been a prank.
Many people in the center of the theatre apparently did not know what had happened when others at both ends of the building jumped to their feet and made some confusion.
"I thought it was a fight," said one man to a Press Democrat interviewer.
"I thought possibly from the creaking of the roof that it was a shake," said another.
"I thought I heard a cry of 'Fire,'" said another.
"One woman jumped over me in an endeavor to get out and pulled my coat over my head," was another man's version.
"I did not hear any shout at all, but could not understand what had happened," said another.
"I knew something had happened," said another.
"Some people were scared, but I wasn't," declared another in a spirit of bravado.
"I shouted to people to sit down," was the heroic declaration of another.
In every big audience there are a number of timid people.
Two men were seen on the roof, according to the statements of several people. One of them, in his shirt sleeves, ran to the Fourth street front and looked out over the sidewalk as if to see how many people ran out of the building.
Whatever it was there was a noise on the roof, enough to startle people. Manager Carrington says that one man started to run from his seat some distance from the door, and that he called "fire" as he ran. Whoever this was, Manager Carrington says, he made his getaway up the street as fast as possible.
Mr. Carrington wishes the Press Democrat to assure all patrons that from now on an officer will be on guard and that there shall be no further disturbance of performances. He naturally very much regrets the fright given people last night.
Chief of Police Boyes and members of the police department were quickly on the scene and searched the roofs of the theatre and adjoining buildings. Undersheriff Walter Lindsay was in the audience. He says, "I thought at first that the stage end wall was falling out." Therefore it must have been some noise.
After the excitement the people went back to their seats and the show proceeded.
- Press Democrat, June 22, 1912
YOUTH ARRESTED FOR BURGLARYSchool Boy is Taken up for Entering StoresRecently the stores of Jenkins Bros. and Roof Bros. have been entered and merchandise and money taken. Cigarettes and chewing gum seemed to be the mania of the robber. From the Roof store less than five dollars in money was taken, while from Jenkins Brothers store but little cash was found. The boy took the cigarettes to school and gave them around, saying that a drummer had given them to his father. He hid them in the back of various stores on Fifth street and when it began to rain moved them to different places. For a week or more the officers have been watching for him and on Sunday morning he was taken into custody and charged with burglary.
The boy comes of good family and his parents are among Santa Rosa's most respected citizens. He is but 17 years of age.
- Santa Rosa Republican, October 28, 1912
It was like part of a riddle: What's an orphanage with few orphans, a detention home that has no guards or locked doors? Answer: The Salvation Army Orphanage at Lytton Springs.
In the early 20th century it was formally called the "Boys' and Girls' Industrial Home and Farm," or just the "Industrial Farm" by those who ran it. The Salvation Army still quietly uses it as an adult rehab center, but a century ago the facility about three miles north of Healdsburg was well known, highlighted in newspaper Sunday features and something of a tourist attraction.
(RIGHT: Children at the Lytton Industrial Home and Farm, 1910. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)
The Lytton farm in that era was just one of many outposts in the state's vast child welfare/child labor system. California had more kids per capita in institutions than anywhere else in the United States; in the early 1910s it was estimated more than one child out of 50 was in some sort of institution each year.1
Those staggering numbers reflect the complicated attitudes towards children a century ago. Although Lytton was also known as the "Golden Gate Orphanage," only eight percent of the kids were truly orphans; "Mother Bourne," the driving force at Lytton and wife of the superintendent said most children were there because of unfit parents, particularly drunkenness and "looseness of the marriage tie" (another writer listed "modified hoboism or Bohemianism" as a factor). Altogether, two out of three were there for such reasons or because they were deemed to be "unmanageable." The good news was that very often their stay at Lytton was temporary, with a child returning to his/her family once the situation stabilized.
But "mild delinquents" were also sentenced to Lytton by the courts, and one who made news locally in 1912 was Jimmy Gillespie. The 11 year-old ran away immediately and made his way to Santa Rosa, where he burgled two houses and stole a bike. After being captured by a deputy he escaped before he could be sent back to Lytton, this time stealing $4.60 from the purse of a woman on Orchard street. Superintendent Bourne came to town to pick up the boy after he was caught, promising he would be closely watched, according to the Republican paper. But a week later Jimmy ran away once more, this time breaking into a general store in Geyserville and making off with valuables, including "some marbles." This time he was nabbed after robbing a railroad station of tickets he planned to use to flee to San Francisco. The paper reported he was "rated as an incorrigible by the Sonoma County officials" with "a record of petty offenses that is appalling." One of the headlines in the Republican went so far as to call his mini-crime spree "evil acts."
Jimmy's next stop was probably one of the seven reformatories where he would be locked up until adulthood. Three of those were run by the state but Lytton and the 78 other institutions like it in California were privately owned, and nearly all were operated by a religious organization.2
Conditions at the Lytton farm were among the very best of the institutions; at the other end of the scale were operations that crammed up to fifty kids in a cottage. There were no state standards for living conditions, nutrition, medical care or basic record-keeping on the kids, aside from a statistical report to the State Board of Charities. Nonetheless there was public money available from the state and counties to take care of the children, and that contributed more than half of operating costs in some cases. Lytton was in the middle, with about 30% of its funding coming from taxpayers.
Then there was the tradeoff between education and work. With an average of about 230 children, Lytton was large enough to have its own county grammar school staffed by public schoolteachers. But that was as far as education went in that era; older kids were allowed to attend Healdsburg high school only if the "boy or girl has capacity for high school training and wants it," according to a 1909 feature article in the San Francisco Call, a year when there were only three high school students from there.
This may be the cruelest aspect of the "orphanage" system: Even if your parents' divorce leads to you being sent to one of the nicer places such as Lytton, it ends up costing you an education beyond readin', writin' and 'rithmetic. While Santa Rosa High School was then offering typewriting classes and teaching other office skills which were in growing demand, Lytton was preparing kids for a 19th century future.
Lytton was very much a working farm, with a particularly successful poultry and egg business. Kids had plenty of milk thanks to their own dairy but the place wasn't entirely self-supporting; there wasn't enough water available for irrigation, so they had to buy vegetables and fruit. Choice eggs were sold to the St. Francis hotel in San Francisco, which in turn donated its chipped dishware to the orphanage.
(RIGHT: Children clearing rocks in a field at the Lytton Industrial Home and Farm, 1909. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)
Yet there's no getting around that Lytton was a commercial farm being subsidized by public monies and nearly free child labor. (The Salvation Army did pay them something for farm work, but no articles could be found describing how much.) Functionally it was not much different from the Sebastopol child labor camps, where many Bay Area institutions sent youngsters to work during summers – often from dawn to dusk during harvest season – and a 1917 study found that work could only be justified as a reason for kids to be outdoors.
For young people inclined towards egg sorting and milking, Lytton was a sanctuary, and some received permission to stay on past the age where the institution received charitable subsidy for them. And while the Salvation Army's main objective was always trying to get each kid into a normal home as soon as possible, state law partially blocked such efforts because Lytton was not a licensed child-placement agency. (The need for adoption regulation seems obvious but before the law changed in 1911, the Salvation Army in Santa Rosa gave away a 7-month-old baby at one of its services.) In 1912 only eleven of those agencies existed in the state; closest to Lytton was Santa Rosa's branch of the Native Sons' and Native Daughters' Central Committee.3
It's a bit surprising to learn the Native Sons of the Golden West and Native Daughters auxiliary ran an adoption agency; the organization is best known today for erecting historical monuments and such. (Their Santa Rosa lodge still exists on Mendocino Ave. near Fifth St.) But in 1912 they ran a notice in the Santa Rosa Republican listing all the adorable "tots who are free for adoption," ages from less than a month to thirteen years. Many were probably Lytton kids except the youngest; Lytton was not setup to handle infants, and only accepted children under three when there were other boys or girls from the family.
Children were listed by religion with the notice, "Protestant children must be placed in Protestant homes and Catholic children in Catholic homes." Categories also specified race/ethnicity: Chinese, "Colored," Jewish or "Spanish." From the descriptions apparently the children could be attractive or smart, but not both. There was a girl that was so pretty it had to be mentioned twice: "Beautiful girl, 11 months old, part Spanish, very beautiful." One also has to feel sorry for the 3½ year old girl someone felt compelled to describe as "not pretty but bright."
1 1910 California census: 621,666 under 20, with over 14,000 different children in care each year
DOES ANY ONE WANT A CHILD?Native Sons Seek Homes for Orphan BabiesSanta Rosa Parlor, Native Sons of the Golden West, met at Native Sons hall on Thursday evening...The Native Sons' and Native Daughters' Central Committee on Homeless children have a large list of little tots who are free for adoption and whom it is wished to secure homes for. C. A. Pool, Jackson Temple and J. M. Boyes compose the committee of the local lodge that has charge of finding homes for the children. The following list includes some of the most attractive children from which proper people can secure a lovable baby by applying to the local committee.
Protestant children must be placed in Protestant homes and Catholic children in Catholic homes.
Brown eyes, 3½ years old, not pretty but bright.
Black eyes, 7 years old, very attractive.
Pretty girl, brown eyes, light hair, 5½ years old.
Attractive girl, 9 years old, brown hair.
Lovely little girl, 2 years old, dark eyes, brown hair.
Handsome boy, blonde, 2 years old.
Two baby girls, 1 year old.
Beautiful girl, 11 months old, part Spanish, very beautiful.
Two pretty babies, 2 years old, have been delicate, need good homes.
Pretty baby 6 months old.
Very attractive baby, 3 months old, blue eyes, brown hair.
Attractive girl, 10 years old.
Italian girl, 13 years old.
Nice girl, 7 years old.
Very attractive and pretty little girl 2 years old.
Lovely girls 2½ years old, brown eyes and grey eyes, curls.
Several lovely baby boys under one month.
Handsome boy, 2 years old, light curls, gray eyes.
Fine boy, 9 months old, brown eyes, light hair.
Bright lad, 3 years old, blue eyes, brown hair.
Three boys, about nine years; want home in country.
Handsome Spanish boy, 2½ years old.
Six fine boys about 3 years old.
Nice boy, 5 years old.
Beautiful boy, 2½ years old, blonde.
Two fine babies, 1 year old, a very high type, brown eyes.
Two nice boys, 5 years old.
Handsome Spanish boy, 7 years old.
Handsome, bright little girl, 3½ years old.
Fine boy, 7 months.
- Santa Rosa Republican, August 16, 1912
BOY CONTINUES HIS EVIL ACTSJimmie Gillipsi Escaped From Detention HomeJimmie Gillipsi, the 11 year old boy who was arrested here Friday by Deputy Sheriff C. A. Reynolds and turned over to Probation Officer John Plover, continued his evil ways later that evening. It will be remembered that the lad entered two houses and stole a wheel before being caught here. After his arrest Probation Officer Plover found that the boy had been sent to the Lytton orphanage from Alameda the evening before he ran away and was arrested here.
He was taken to the detention home Friday night, to be cared for before being sent back to the orphanage. While a room was being prepared for him at the detention home and while he was left in the sitting room by himself, Jimmy escaped. When the matron, Mrs. Parish, returned she discovered the boy had gone and the police and probation officer started out to search for him. He was discovered about 2 o'clock in the Northwestern Pacific depot.
Evidently the first course de determined upon after his escape from the detention home was to resume robbery attempts, for he went into the home of Mrs. Wells on Orchard street and took a purse from the lady's handbag. The purse contained $4.60. The boy came down town and purchased another purse, throwing the one away he had stolen, so that the money could not be identified. When arrested he had spent 80 cents of the stolen coin. This he had used in getting the new purse, ham and eggs for supper and an ice cream soda. Saturday Major Bourne took the boy back to the orphanage, where he will be closely watched and cared for.
- Santa Rosa Republican, September 28, 1912
SMALL BOY IN TROUBLEIncorrigible Lad Has Record of Many TheftsJimmie Gillespie, who is rated as an incorrigible by the Sonoma County officials, was captured neatly by Conductor Ab Shera on Tuesday morning and turned over to Officer Andy Miller at the local station when the train from the north arrived here.
During Monday night at the depot of the railroad company at Lytton was robbed and some tickets taken. Conductor Shera was notified of the robbery by the agent at Lytton Tuesday morning and was on the lookout for the pasteboards. Gillespie boarded the train at Healdsburg and passed one of the stolen tickets up for transportation to San Francisco. He had realized that the tickets must be stamped to be good, and had placed a stamp on them, using the postoffice stamp for that purpose.
What will be done with the boy is a matter of conjecture. He has been in trouble before and it looks like he will get a pass from the county to the Ione reform school. The lad is only 11 years of age, but has a record of petty offenses that is appalling. He was taken into custody and placed in the Detention Home here and broke away from that institution, and robbed the Wells residence. He secured $4.60 and some articles of value. He was placed in the Lytton orphanage, from which institution he broke out Sunday night and went to Geyserville. There he robbed the rochdale store of a couple of knives, a watch and some marbles, a stick pin, some other jewelry and some change. Returning to Lyttons he robbed the depot, which led to his capture.
- Santa Rosa Republican, October 8, 1912
Driving to Santa Rosa? Be forewarned police there are enforcing unreasonable new laws, such as requiring cars to have mufflers, red tail lights, and drivers to stay on the right side of the street.
It was 1912 and cars were now seen everywhere, thanks to new inexpensive designs such as the Ford model "T" and the introduction of dealership loan financing. But California still had no motor vehicle code, aside from some basic laws such as requiring drivers to stop after an accident. Cities and counties were expected to set their own rules and regulations. In Santa Rosa drivers were required to honk the horn at intersections; in Lake County motorists had to stop and turn off their engines if a horse was approaching. Petaluma police would write a ticket for having a car without a muffler but until 1912 Santa Rosa didn't care. Speed limits varied everywhere, leading to the birth of the speed trap as a boon for government budgets everywhere. All that and more is covered in an earlier item, "The Rules of the Road are Relative."
Santa Rosa's City Council passed a few new road rules in the summer of 1912, none of them seemingly controversial today. No U-turns in the middle of the street; have lights on after dark; stay to the right, pass on the left. The latter may seem like a particular no-brainer but consider the two photographs of Fourth street below, from 1910 (L) and 1911 (R), both showing a car toodling down the wrong side of the street. (Photos courtesy the Larry Lapeere Collection)
According to the local newspapers, these new laws created a terrific uproar. "[M]any persons expressed disapproval of the new law in the most expressive terms," reported the Santa Rosa Republican. "One man even declared he would never return to Santa Rosa again. Several times during the day it seemed that trouble would ensue and that arrests would have to be made."
Tempers flared at a big Chamber of Commerce meeting a few days later as store owners complained "many of their patrons had told them and many other merchants that rather than be held up for failing to comply with the ordinance they would trade elsewhere." A resolution was passed to create a committee to advise City Council on what downtown wanted for traffic enforcement, and by the end of the year the part of the ordinance was repealed that made U-turns illegal in the middle of the street. The police officers, who had been "busier than bird dogs" when the new laws took effect, also backed off writing tickets.
But come the beginning of 1913, enough was enough. According to the Press Democrat, "Every effort has been made to instruct the traveling public in the new ordinance and to give them the benefit of all doubt. Recently a man has been placed on duty at Fourth and Mendocino avenue, to enforce the ordinance, and he has barely escaped being run down repeatedly himself."
It seems Santa Rosa's driving maniacs were keeping to the proper lane only on the straight-away, but when they made turns some were cutting the corner dangerously. "Plans are being made to place officers on duty at various corners in the city without further warning and arrest every one who fails to make proper turns...A string of fines will, it is believed, have the most effect that warnings have failed to give," noted the PD.
Of course, this gave the city cops – who already had great discretionary power to judge who was speeding, in those days before radar guns or other tools – the ability to write tickets based on the degree to which they thought drivers strayed out of their lanes while turning. "It will also enrich the city treasury," the PD added. You bet it would.
LOOK OUT! DON'T VIOLATE THE LAWTraffic Ordinance Regulations Regarding Cutting of Corners, Etc., Will Be Strictly Enforced NowOwing to the persistent ignoring of the traffic ordinance by auto and team drivers, drastic steps looking to a strict enforcement of the measure. Every effort has been made to instruct the traveling public in the new ordinance and to give them the benefit of all doubt. Recently a man has been placed on duty at Fourth and Mendocino avenue, to enforce the ordinance, and he has barely escaped being run down repeatedly himself.
Plans are being made to place officers on duty at various corners in the city without further warning and arrest every one who fails to make proper turns. The law is made for the safety of drivers as well as of those in vehicles, and when an accident occurs it is always because some one has ignored the right of road.
Monday afternoon a motorcycle was run down at the above-named corner, owing to an auto driver ignoring the law and cutting the corners. The police are determined that the practice shall be stopped. A string of fines will, it is believed, have the most effect that warnings have failed to give. It will also enrich the city treasury.
- Press Democrat, February 11, 1913
WARNING GIVEN AUTO DRIVERSMust Carry Tail Lights as Required by Law or Arrests are Likely to FollowThe attention of the police department has been called to the fact that many of the automobilists are not observing the law in regards to carrying tail lights on their machines. Several rear end collisions have been narrowly averted of late.
Chief of Police John M. Boyes wishes automobile drivers to see to it that they carry lights as prescribed by law, and which includes a tail light. He hopes this warning will be obeyed immediately or else arrest and prosecutions will follow. A lamp in time means the saving of a fine.
- Press Democrat, January 28, 1912
AUTOS AND MOTOR CYCLES MUST ALL BE MUFFLEDThere are doubtless many people who will give vent to a fervent "Amen," or something of the sort equally as expressive when they read that at last night's council meeting an ordinance was introduced by Chairman R. L. Johnston, and passed the first reading, which provides among other things for the use of mufflers on all automobiles, motor cars and motorcycles driven or ridden in the city limits. When this ordinance is adopted it will mean the ending of a decided nusiance.
The ordinance contemplated also provides strict regulation for the observance of the rules of the road, compelling drivers of machines, etc., upon meeting each other to go always to the right, and in overtaking to go to the left. It also provides for the proper turning of street corners and a number of other desirable changes from the old order of things, which daily causes much confusion.
It also provides that after nightfall all automobiles, motorcycles and ordinary bicycles shall carry lights. There are many other requirements in this ordinance which was referred back to the Ordinance Committee.
- Press Democrat, May 22, 1912
CITY FATHERS TRANSACT BIG VOLUME OF BUSINESS[..]
An ordinance regulating the driving of automobiles, motorcycles and bicycles in this city was adopted. It provides that mufflers on motor vehicles be closed; that all motor vehicles pass to the right, and to take to the right side of the street. In passing vehicles of all kinds from the rear, motor vehicles must turn to the left, while the one in front must turn to the right, and that on the business streets motor vehicles must not turn around except on street corners. In turning into a street, the motor vehicles must keep to the center of the street crossing. With the exception of motorcycles all motor vehicles must maintain two white lights facing to the front and a red tail light one hour after sunset.
Bicycle and motorcycle riders must not ride without having hands on their handlebars. Vehicles must run to the edge of the curb and stop when the fire bell rings. The penalty for disobeying the ordinance is a fine from $10 to $250 for each offense.
- Press Democrat, June 5, 1912
TRAFFIC SQUAD BUSY SATURDAYMany People Express Indignation Over Law
The Santa Rosa traffic squad, consisting of Officer I. N. Lindley and Officer George W. Mathews, had a busy day on Saturday. As one of them expressed it, they had been "busier than bird dogs," and at nightfall they felt that they had doubly earned their stipend.
It was the duty of these officers to instruct drivers of vehicles in the new ordinance which has been adopted and to them many persons expressed disapproval of the new law in the most expressive terms. One man even declared he would never return to Santa Rosa again.
Several times during the day it seemed that trouble would ensue and that arrests would have to be made. These were avoided, however. After a certain time in instructing the people, arrests will be made for violations of the ordinance.
- Santa Rosa Republican, June 15, 1912
MERCHANTS DISCUSS THE NEW TRAFFIC ORDINANCEMany Present at the Meeting Held Last Night
The special feature of business at the meeting of the Chamber of Commerce Thursday night was a discussion of the new traffic ordinance. There was the largest attendance of the members that has been noticed in some time, and the interest taken in the discussion was very marked. Many business men of the city participated and gave their view. Two resolution prevailed.
[Resolution to create three member committee to advise City Council]
A further resolution, offered by A. O. Erwin and seconded by Max Rosenberg and carried was to the effect that the present ordinance, inasmuch as it provides a regulation that traffic keep to the right, is all that should really apply to Santa Rosa at the present time, this suggestion not including, of course, those regulations regarding speeding, riding on sidewalks, lights and other essentials for the safety of the public alson in the ordinance.
Among those who spoke on the subject were...
One of the main faults found with the ordinance by the speakers at the meeting was the requirement that wagons be unloaded alongside the curb and not permitting wagons to be backed up against the curb at heretofore. It was stated by several that in large cities where similar ordinances are in force wagons are allowed fifteen minutes to unload or load while backed up against the sidewalk.
Another objection was the requirement that people drive to the corners of streets before they can turn around. An opinion was expressed that this requirement rather aggravated instead of relieved congestion.
It was suggested that people be permitted to turn in the center of the street, where it could be done without putting traffic in a hazardous condition.
Not Criticizing Council
It should be stated that the speakers made it plain that they were not speaking in a spirit of criticism of the City Council's enactment of the traffic ordinance, but rather in the interests of the city as many of their patrons had told them and many other merchants that rather than be held up for failing to comply with the ordinance they would trade elsewhere.
- Press Democrat, June 26, 1912
TRAFFIC ORDINANCE IS AMENDED FRIDAY EVENINGPersons May Turn Any Place Desired From Present TimeMayor Jack Mercier and members of the city council passed an amendment to the traffic ordinance at a meeting of the city fathers held on Friday evening.
Under the terms of the amendment section five was permitted so as to permit teamsters and drivers of any kind of vehicles to turn any place on the streets without the necessity of going to the intersecting corners, as was necessary under the former ordinance.
The ordinance regarding vehicles keeping to the right side of the street is still in full force and effect and all vehicles must turn to the left in reversing their direction on the street.
Many persons will hear with pleasure that the obnoxious section of the ordinance requiring the going to intersecting streets has been abolished and that they may turn at will wherever they find it necessary or take the notion.
- Santa Rosa Republican, August 17, 1912