Anyone with the slightest interest in local history knows the story: About 100 years ago, a San Francisco gang sexually assaulted some women. Police tracked gang members to Santa Rosa where a shootout killed the Sonoma County sheriff along with two policemen. The gangsters were captured and taken to the county jail. A mob stormed the building and took the men to the Rural Cemetery, where they were lynched from a tree.

But that's not the whole story - far from it. Parts haven't been reexamined since events happened in 1920, and many details have never been revealed. And like the twice told tales about the 1906 earthquake in Santa Rosa, some of what has been written about it over the years is distorted or flat wrong.

It's also a surprisingly difficult story to tell because it is Rashomon-like, with three quite different ways to frame it. All versions interconnect as their storylines converge around the men who were about to be lynched - but each has people and places which are important to that viewpoint alone.

There's the San Francisco version, which is mainly about tracking down the Howard Street Gang and prosecuting them. Besides the assorted gangsters the main players are the District Attorney, police and politicians. This story winds up in 1928 with the capture of the last fugitive gang member. To learn more, you can't do better than "The Fall of San Francisco's Notorious Howard Street Gang," which can be downloaded as an e-book for three or four bucks.

The Healdsburg version has a narrow focus on seeking vengeance for the murder of Sheriff James Petray, who was from there and very well liked. Those who raided the jail and hanged the gangsters were not a typical liquored-up lynch mob - they acted with deliberation and precision, leaving many to presume they must have been San Francisco lawmen. Not until 2008 when the last member of the vigilantes died (at age 108!) was it confirmed they were all from Healdsburg and had conducted military-style drills prior to the operation.

And then there's the Santa Rosa version, which you're about to read. This story ends abruptly about one o'clock in the rainy morning of Friday, December 10, 1920 when the last of the gangsters twitches and dies in the beams of auto headlights. The main takeaway for this version is that the gangsters haddn't picked Santa Rosa as their hideout by throwing a dart at a map. One of them - the very worst of the lot - was a hometown boy, who by a quirk of fate just happened to have access to a big empty house here.

Ladies and gentlemen, get ready to meet Terry Fitts.

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

This would be a nice weekend to put some flowers on the grave of your Great-Great Aunt Virginia, who passed away during the Spanish Flu pandemic - so grab some posies and trek over to where she was buried in 1918. Is she still there? Why, yes. A cemetery is a place with people who generally don't move around much. This is widely considered to be a good thing.

Should you find yourself lost in the cemetery, there's usually an office (or at least a telephone number) where someone in charge can direct you to Aunt Ginny's most permanent address. That helpful person would have had little trouble finding her because the major cemeteries in central Sonoma county have a map and a master index of names. Sometimes very old records might not be perfect, but overall the picture of who's located where would be still mostly complete (see sidebar). The sad exception was always Santa Rosa's Rural Cemetery.

At some point in the early 20th century the burial listing book for Rural was lost. Or maybe it never existed - there's no proof it did, although it's difficult to imagine how the historic cemetery could have functioned otherwise. If Virginia was supposed to be buried in the family plot, it would be a really good idea for the mortician to know exactly where to dig.

So the ultimate mystery of Santa Rosa's Rural Cemetery centers on discovering how all its records were destroyed, and when - but until that can be answered (if ever) the adventure lies in trying to recreate the burial listing book.

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

It is where you might dream when you dream of Elysium. A gently sloping hill, dappled sun through the wild oaks, trails likely following the paths of cows that wandered there before the Civil War, greenery trimmed (but certainly not manicured) bestowing the peace of woods in its scent and hush.

Today this is the state of Santa Rosa's Rural Cemetery but until the late 1990s it was decidedly unlovely, choked with weeds, sapling trees, vetch and poison oak. Stories about the cemetery's abysmal condition are legion. It was said to be so overgrown at times that a hearse could not reach gravesites and caskets had to be carried in. A worker clearing brush came across someone's home - a vagrant had burrowed deep into a bramble patch and set up camp.

The cemetery has seen its moments of drama and chaos; there's the mass grave of 1906 earthquake victims and just steps away is the scene of the 1920 lynchings. But mostly it has been an uneventful place - although it also has mirrored the city's maddening pattern of chronic mismanagement. As often documented elsewhere here: A problem develops into a crisis and a quick fix is applied, only to find the same problem return (sometimes in a slightly different guise) and often worse.

This chapter about the Rural Cemetery tells the story of its changing conditions; the following article covers the extraordinary efforts made over a century by volunteers to document who lies there, and where.

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

Without doubt, it is the most important book on Santa Rosa history ever written.

The new edition of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery book is out and it's unlike anything that came before. Normally such a listing of burials is a dry reference work only used by genealogists or someone seeking where great uncle Fletcher is buried on the hill. This is more like an encyclopedic collection of grand short stories, more than five thousand tales long.

Volunteers Sandy Frary and Ray Owen dedicated nearly fourteen years assembling the material via primary source research, scouring all manner of databases and conducting interviews with descendants. The result is both highly accurate and readable; although he may not be your great uncle Fletcher, you'll enjoy meeting him.

The co-authors were well-suited for this kind of project. Sandy worked at the County Sheriff’s Office for a quarter century and since then has spent years as a volunteer at the Coroner’s Office researching old records. Ray had 33 years of experience in security background investigations with the Army and U.S. Civil Service Commission (now the Office of Personnel Management).

The book will be available June 1 and cost around $40. To order, phone the Santa Rosa Recreation & Parks Dept. (The exact price and contact number will be updated on SantaRosaHistory.com when determined.)


The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

Divorces are too easy to get and sought on a whim. A divorce harms the community more than the divorcing couple, so only an elected official can decide whether a bad marriage should be dissolved. The public has a right to know any and all accusations and embarrassing details about a couple seeking divorce. A wife or husband might lie about what happened during their marriage unless they face cross-examination in open court.

That snide little handbasket of equivocation, intimidation and false assumptions didn't come from clergy nor sanctity-of-marriage moralists; these were arguments made by top California judges in the mid-1910s, who viewed an option to bypass their judgeships as a threat to their authority.

What angered them was that married couples were using a new state law which made divorce less costly - not to mention being faster than waiting months for their date to come up on a Superior Court docket, usually jammed up with criminal and civil proceedings.

This alternative way of obtaining a divorce was decades ahead of its time - the concept of family court simply didn't exist during the early part of the century (California didn't get around to serious marriage reforms until the Family Law Act of 1969). And besides deserving a place in our history books for that reason it should be mentioned as part of the struggle for women's rights, as the conflict starkly pitted the powerful all-male judiciary vs. a class of (almost entirely) female plaintiffs.

By now Gentle Reader has probably guessed that this divorce option wasn't available for very long, and the whole episode was quickly forgotten - this is the first time it has been discussed since then, as far as I can tell. One reason it vanished from memory was probably because almost all of the events played out in Sonoma County, then still politically a rural backwater.

Forgotten, too, is this Believe-it-or-Not! nugget: In 1915, a Santa Rosa woman served as a Superior Court judge. It was the first time that had ever happened in the history of the United States.

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

Note to Santa Rosa: When things are so bad that you're on the side opposite the Women's Auxiliary, you might want to rethink your position.

It was 1923 and the smell of tort was in the air - among other things. Pressure was coming from neighborhood groups, which were either threatening suits against the city or demanding Santa Rosa sue its worst polluter. The state Board of Health was sending threatening letters to city hall because nothing was being done to fix serious violations of public health laws. And then there was the lawsuit filed early that year by a man who charged the city was responsible for his young daughters being sickened with typhoid and diphtheria.

What all of these complaints had in common was that they involved Santa Rosa Creek in some way - either something bad was being intentionally dumped into it or the city's inadequate sewer farm was overflowing and flooding the adjacent creek with raw waste.

None of these were new problems. Complaints to the City Council about the abuse of Santa Rosa Creek dated back over thirty years, to 1891. Ordinances against pollution were passed but not enforced and court orders were ignored - as for the sewer farm contaminating the creek, the city was violating a perpetual restraining order going back to 1896.

Last month (Feb. 2021) I was part of a Historical Society of Santa Rosa webinar about Santa Rosa Creek. My portion, "The Stink of Santa Rosa Creek" covers much of the history of pollution in the decades around the turn of the century, but I did not have time to discuss the pivotal year of 1923, when prospects greatly improved. This article is a companion to that presentation and wraps up the story.

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

"Honest & Fearless," someone scrawled under a snapshot of him in the California archives, but many more were inclined to denounce him as a disgrace to the State Senate in which he served. He claimed to be speaking on behalf of the natural order intended by "God Almighty," but critics argued he was the mouthpiece for the liquor industry. He insisted he was just defending the traditional domestic roles of women; a great many saw him as a bully demanding continued discrimination against them.

State Senator J. B. Sanford (D-Ukiah) was the de facto leader of those in California opposed to women's suffrage during the years before the October, 1911 vote in the state. Every voter was mailed a pamphlet with excerpts of his "grandmother speech" which mocked suffragists and their demands for equality.

His hateful and misogynistic opinions may seem ridiculous today but in viewing history, context is everything. The passage of suffrage in California is all the more remarkable once you realized how extreme Sanford's views were, and that so many male voters agreed with him. San Francisco, Alameda, and Marin Counties all opposed giving women the right to vote, and suffrage was likewise defeated in Petaluma, Sonoma, Windsor and Healdsburg. It won in Santa Rosa by 14 points, which gave it the boost to pass in Sonoma county overall by four percent. See "THE SUMMER WHEN WOMEN WON THE VOTE" for more background.

As part of the Petaluma Library & Museum suffrage centennial exhibit, we put together a "pseudo-radio play" that imagines a 1911 interview with Sanford. In it he reads a portion of that infamous speech and has a short debate with Frances McG. Martin, the eloquent President of the Santa Rosa Political Equality Club who frequently jousted with Sanford on the editorial pages of the Santa Rosa Republican. In the production almost all of Sanford's remarks and most of Martin's are drawn directly from original sources.

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

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