General Otho Hinton wasted no time betraying the friends and family who posted his bail; within days of his release on January 25, 1851, he fled Ohio, never to see his home or his wife again. He was an unlikely candidate to start anew as a fugitive at age 49, being accustomed to a life of privilige; his previous escape from the law lasted only six days after the General - described in the wanted notice as "very fleshy" and "stout" - turned himself in, complaining he was hungry.

(This is the third in the series on Hinton's life and crimes. See also part 1, "CALL ME THE GENERAL" and part 2, "ARREST, ESCAPE, REPEAT". Notes on sources for the entire series can be found in the final installment.)

As Hinton's trial date approached, his attorney brother-in-law Thomas Powell - who was among those who put up bail - presented an affidavit to the court stating Hinton sent him a farewell letter shortly after he fled, writing he was in New Orleans and was planning to bury himself and his troubles in the waters of the Mississippi. Since the fugitive General was now presumably deceased, attorney Powell argued, could we have our bail money back, please? The judge was not moved to agree.

Even though he was a wanted man, we can track Hinton's whereabouts over the next several years fairly well through mentions in the press; in fact, federal authorities might have nabbed the guy by simply taking subscriptions to a handful of Ohio newspapers.

Let's interrupt the story to explain almost everything previously published about Hinton's past comes from a 150 year-old book, "Guarding the Mails" - see sidebar in part II - and most of what appears there is provably untrue or dubious. Today, however, there are thousands of searchable historic newspapers online so we have a pretty good sample of what was being written about Hinton at the time. And there is plenty to read; he may not have been America's first criminal celebrity, but editors were eager to print every crumb of news or rumor they could about the notorious General. Readers all over the Midwest were kept abreast with little news summaries, sometimes only a few words long reprinted from another paper which might have picked it up from yet another paper. Most of the time the items didn't bother explaining who Gen. O. Hinton was. Everybody knew.

By far, the most repeated story about Hinton during his years on the lam concerns a supposed spotting of the General in Cuba. In May 1851, about three months after he fled, newspapers widely reported someone had seen and spoken to Hinton on the island where he was then going by the name of Hanten. Most papers stated simply those details, but some mentioned this news came from Sandusky, Ohio. Fortunately, the original newspaper story can be found online; the article from the Sandusky Clarion said its source was "a gentleman recently returned from California." That the witness wasn't named, did not say how he knew it was really Hinton nor provided any other details about running into the infamous fugitive makes the claim sound specious. While it might be true, it has more of the whiff of an Elvis sighting.

By the end of the year the government believed he was somewhere out west. Ithiel Mills - a Deputy U.S. Marshal based in Akron - was among the few lawmen who knew Hinton by sight, having been one of the officers sent to bring him back to jail after his six-day escape. Mills was appointed a special agent assigned only to tracking down Hinton and spent two or three months in pursuit before giving up and sending Congress a bill for $2854.50 - about $120,000 today - "for services and expenses," a remarkable amount for one guy on the road. Because his adventures involved the celebrity mail robber, an account of his chase appeared in many newspapers in the summer of 1852:

...[Mills] traversed California in various directions, crossed over the Sierra Nevada to Utah Territory and visited the most remote places in pursuit of the object of his search. It is fully ascertained that Gen. Hinton was in the state when Mr. Mills arrived, but this fact had found its way into the Atlantic papers, which probably reached there in time to put the General on his guard. The U.S. Marshal, however, has found several gentlemen who were formerly acquainted with Gen. H., who have been cognizant of some of his movements since his arrival in California, and who are fully aware that he some time since left for some other quarter of the world--probably for South America.

Marshal Mills should have stayed at home in Ohio and read the newspapers, which reported a few weeks later Hinton was in Oregon running a public house in Portland as "Samuel G. Gordon" - that being the maiden name of the wife he abandoned. And as they were apparently not divorced, Mr. Hinton-Gordon added bigamy to his crimes when he married 25 year-old Louisa Hopwood there in May, 1853.

(RIGHT: Engraving from "Guarding the Mails," a mostly fictitious account of Hinton's crimes and escapes)

The Ohio newspapers apparently didn't know about this marriage when a slew of news items about him appeared later that summer. Someone in Oregon recognized Hinton and tried to blackmail him. He - and Louisa, presumably - went to Los Angeles where he was identified by a stage driver who supposedly also demanded money for silence. The driver turned him in and Otho Hinton found himself arrested for the third time.

At his court hearing Hinton admitted he was indeed the mail robber, but lied outrageously that the government had decided not to prosecute: "According to his statement he was once arrested in Ohio on this charge, held to bail in the sum of $10,000, and subsequently discharged under a nolle pros, entered by the U.S. District Attorney of Ohio," read a widely-reprinted item. Perhaps it was while making that courtroom speech the thought first popped into his head, "yessir, I could pass as an actual lawyer!"

Hinton was taken up to the District Court in San Francisco, but discharged after a few days; the stage driver couldn't be found to testify against him - perhaps he managed to scrape together the extortion money after all. So yet again the crafty General escaped justice, this time staying behind bars for only a month and a day.

A warrant eventually arrived from Ohio, exactly 3½ months after his arrest in Los Angeles. The U.S. Marshall wrote back, sorry: Hinton had been released and "a few days thereafter he [sailed] for the Sandwich Islands, where I believe he now resides." His new whereabouts were no secret; Ohio newspapers were peppered with little items about his change of address.

 The Sandwich Islands - AKA Hawai'i - was a sovereign nation at the time, and Hinton family genealogists have presumed he went there because there was no extradition treaty with the U.S. That's not true; a treaty had been in place since 1849, but seems not to have been used in Hinton's lifetime. The government might have exercised it if John Wilkes Booth was hiding in paradise but the ilk of Hinton was just not worth enormous bother.

 About a year later, in January 1855, Rebecca's brother-in-law directly petitioned Congress  for the return of the bail bond. The plea claimed "Otho Hinton was indicted for purloining a letter containing a draft and a small sum of money" (an epic understatement) and now had "fled beyond the jurisdiction of the United States." Worth noting is it confirmed Rebecca and Otho remained husband and wife and almost all of the $10,000 surety had been property owned by her and their two daughters. Congress granted relief quickly and papers all over Ohio ran items. At the same time, readers from Chicago to New York were treated to this:

A private letter received in Cincinnati from Honolulu, a few days since, contains the following item of intelligence respecting the great mail robber, Gen. O. Hinton: "Among the foreigners residing in this city is Gen. O. Hinton, well known to many of the older inhabitants of Chicago as a mail contractor, &c. When I arrived here he was attempting to practice law. Subsequently he kept a hotel, but with indifferent success. Latterly he is working as a journeyman house-carpenter, and, as I understand, makes a good living at it. He is sober, industrious and quiet, and seems disposed to acquire the reputation of a good citizen."

Yes, our good Otho, his legal prowess unfettered by an actual legal education, was now advertising himself as "Attorney and Counselor at Law and Solicitor in Chancery" - while keeping his day job as a carpenter. During his Honolulu years he seems to have stopped posturing as a "General," maybe so Hawaiians wouldn't worry he was the advance man for a U.S. military invasion.

A very similar item appeared a few years later, this one in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Here was the first and only mention that can be found of Hinton having another wife:

Gen. O. Hinton, the noted mail-robber of Ohio, is a resident here. He came down from California four years ago with his wife and they kept a boarding house, but lost money at it, and the old man was finally reduced to working by the day at carpenter work. Finally, the rheumatism prevented him doing even this, and now he has turned lawyer, and manages, I presume, just to live and no more. I sincerely pity the old man, and I think that he is truly repentant.

Otho Hinton was down on his luck - or was he? Apparently his goal all along was just to bide his time in Hawai'i until charges were dropped, or so his son Edgar was telling folks back home. That happy day came in the summer of 1857; whatever the statute of limitations on his felonies - either 3, 6 or 7 years at the time (please consult an early 19th century legal scholar and get back to me) - the U.S. District Court at Cincinnati dismissed the case without comment. As you can imagine, papers nationwide could not resist printing that juicy nugget. He certainly was not acquitted and contrary to the most oft-told tale about the General, he did not escape prosecution by having himself declared dead in the Sandwich Islands.

Yet if he was free to return to the states, where should he go? Probably not back to Ohio, where his legal wife had already suggested she was itching to shoot him - and that was before he jumped bail and left her in penury, not to mention illegally marrying another woman.

General Otho Hinton sailed back to America sometime around August, 1858. We know he brought along his twelve miscellaneous Hawaiian Island law books, but we don't know if he was accompanied by wife Louisa and their son, Otho Jr., who was born in Honolulu in 1856. (In 1860 Louisa would marry a workingman named Patterson in Oregon, and together they raised junior and a daughter of their own. No record can be found that she divorced Hinton or had their marriage declared invalid.)

From this point our portrait of Hinton has less clarity. The Ohio newspapers lost interest once he was no longer a wanted fugitive, and what little they did print about his doings out here was often wildly wrong. Not that there was much written about him out here, either; during his years in Santa Rosa the town had a small weekly newspaper with almost all local news on a single page, which was later squeezed further to make room for dispatches from the Civil War. Otherwise, you might expect there would be some mention about the arrival of this affable 56 year-old guy who called himself a General.

One reason he might have moved to Sonoma County was because he had relations here. In Healdsburg at the time lived his first cousin, Charlotte Hinton Miller. Shortly after Hinton arrived in the area her husband died, leaving Charlotte and their five children destitute. Within a few months she married a Santa Rosa relative of her late husband, Joel Miller, a neglected figure in early town history. He was a pillar of the community - one of the founders of the Christian Church, County Recorder from 1857-8 and court clerk before and after. Someone new to the area who wanted to be a lawyer could hardly hope for a better family connection.

Hinton filed an application to practice law in Sonoma County and was examined by a panel of local attorneys on October 21. His request was denied, but an interesting comment was made explaining why:

The undersigned members of the Bar beg leave respectfully to report that we have examined the applicant [illegible] and find him qualified to practice law as an attorney and counselor of this Court. But there being in his past history some charges touching his moral character which although probably acceptable of full explanation, yet not having the evidence before us to satisfy us in that respect we recommend a postponement of his application as a member of the Bar until further explanation can be made.  

Unfortunately, they were not specific as to which "moral character" issue troubled them. The two felony charges for robbing the U.S. mails? Failing to abide by sworn promises to appear in court? Bail jumping and spending seven years evading arrest? Bigamy? We don't know how much the locals knew about his past at the time - or in years to come, for that matter. The Santa Rosa newspaper never mentioned his history, although Bay Area and Sacramento papers revealed some of it later.

But as always, Hinton could con anyone into believing he smelled sweet as a rose no matter what was on his shoes. The county Bar Association must have accepted his explanation because he was admitted to the state Bar a few days later, then opened a law office with a partner a few days after that. All told, it was only three weeks between his denied petition and having his name on the door as Santa Rosa's newest attorney at law.

Without deep plowing through court records we don't know how successful (or not) he was in his legal career; papers at the time usually didn't mention who was representing someone in court, although it is known he was the attorney for Judith Todd's abusive husband in her divorce suit (see: "RIDGWAY’S CHILDREN"). Hinton mostly kept a low profile in his final years except for his attempt to become County Judge in 1859, about a year after he arrived in Santa Rosa.

Running for public office was a bad move and it's difficult to see what he hoped to gain from it, aside from a regular paycheck. He had no chance of winning; the incumbent had been the judge for years and would remain so for more years to come. He ended up beating Hinton by almost four to one (cousin-in-law Joel Miller was the election auditor.) If he expected it to be a stepping stone to politics he miscalculated badly; he ran as an independent while most voters in the county, Petaluma excepted, were diehard Democrats - Sonoma was the only county in the state that never voted for Lincoln. And if he hoped it would raise his profile in Santa Rosa he was even further mistaken. The town was the most fiercely Democratic place of all; it was said in 1856 there were only two known Republicans living there. (One of those rare fellows, by the way, was William Wilks - Hinton's law partner.)

Santa Rosa's newspaper, The Sonoma Democrat, did not mention Hinton's candidacy even once, pro or con. Perhaps he wished the rest of the press ignored him likewise. The San Francisco Bulletin revealed his infamous past and the story was reprinted by the Sacramento paper, ensuring that most of Northern California now was aware of his thievery and flight from the law. "If the candidate for County Judge in Sonoma county is the same Gen. O. Hinton who robbed the mail in Ohio," the article ended, "it is to be hoped he will not be elected." Further away from the state the details were wrong: An Ohio paper said he was running for judge in Sonora county and a Honolulu paper said it was Solano. A paper in Indiana told readers, "It turns out that the man nominated is W. O. Hinton, altogether a different man from the General," before adding a cryptic and snarky comment, "[Hinton] is now doubtless, as he was in Ohio, violently opposed to the Democracy."

Running for judge seems to have exhausted his ambitions. Between then and his death in 1865 he didn't do much in public, although there generally was a passing mention of him somewhere in the Santa Rosa newspaper every year. He had been a prominent member of the Whig party back in Ohio and Lincoln's administration was dominated by former Whigs; thus on New Years' Day, 1864, Hinton penned a nine page fan letter to Lincoln, which would probably have been a hanging offense in pro-Confederacy Santa Rosa, had anyone around here known about it. He signed the letter as just Otho Hinton, leaving out his claim to be a General which was probably wise.

His personal life was quiet as well. His daughter Mary Ellen apparently joined him here in 1863, son Oscar in 1864, and his long-suffering wife Rebecca moved here in 1865. Before she arrived, however, he unexpectedly died at home on March 5 of that year, having been seen around town the previous day appearing in fine mettle. There is a family joke that once he learned she was coming he died of fright.


Why General Otho Hinton began robbing the mails in 1849 is a mystery. Perhaps he blamed the post office for his company's failure after the great flood of a few years earlier. A newspaper later claimed he was a big gambler (doubtful) and another suggested he wanted the money to become a political kingmaker by backing the 1850 Whig candidate for Ohio governor, William "Booby" Johnston (yes, that really was a politician's nickname - see Wikipedia).

Then on August 29, 1850, the Plain Dealer ran a story that began:

Yesterday our town was thrown into great commotion by the announcement that General O. Hinton, a gentleman who has represented himself in these parts as the Ohio Stage Company, but who, in fact, was merely a pensioned agent of said company, was arrested on a charge of robbing the mail of some seventeen thousand dollars.

Read that sentence again and break it down: This man known as General O. Hinton was arrested. He was charged with stealing a great deal of money. But even before those important newsy details, the paper wanted readers to know Hinton was just an employee of the Ohio Stage Company - apparently he had been posing as an owner or similar. And that was Otho Hinton's story in a nutshell: He was a sometimes crook but a fulltime fraud. He was that way before his thievery and remained so afterwards, making it hard to believe he was a better man once he moved to Santa Rosa in his final years. (The first part of this series, "CALL ME THE GENERAL," explores more about his background.)

Even while readers of the Cleveland Plain Dealer were reeling from discovering the guy they thought was a bigshot was actually a petty thief, the same article continued:

The following handbill in glaring capitals met our gaze this morning: Five Hundred Dollars Reward will he paid for the arrest and confinement, in any jail of the United States, of General O. Hinton...He is a man about fifty five or sixty years of age; weight one hundred and eighty or ninety pounds; has dark hair, almost black, very fleshy, stout built, florid complexion, and looks as though he was a hard drinker, but is strictly temperate.

Amazingly, the General escaped only a few hours after his arrest, despite being watched by two marshals. That's a rather remarkable turn of events, but even more remarkable was that he was recaptured only to escape again. And then he was jailed a third time and slipped away once more. There was always a bit of luck in his getaways, but mostly he relied upon his guile and easy charm.

In 1850 America there were only a few railroads connecting a few places on the East Coast, so usually the only travel options were bumping along awful roads by stagecoach. The stage lines also carried mail which not infrequently included cash. To make the stage transport as secure as possible, a postmaster would put all mail for a route in a heavy leather bag fastened at the top by a brass padlock. Postmasters along the way had a special key to open the locks and fish out mail for their own post offices. The major drawback to the system was the inability to detect when and where a piece of mail went missing along the way. It also might take weeks for postal authorities to discover there was a problem - even urgent followup correspondence between the sender and receiver also went by mail because telegraph lines were also rare because they were usually installed along with the railroad tracks which didn't yet exist because it was 1850 which was why the post office was using stagecoaches, see above.

Cleveland postmaster Daniel M. Haskell knew someone had been stealing parcels with cash and redeemable notes for some time, but there was no pattern he could see; it was vanishing on routes going all directions, which ruled out the possibility of theft at a particular post office or by any single stagecoach driver. He discussed the matter with Thomas McKinstry, the deputy U.S. marshal for the area and it was McKinstry who settled on Hinton as the only possible suspect. Haskell resisted the idea; he knew the General and the two were apparently friends. But Haskell came to agree. As general manager for the stage company, Hinton could be found on any route at any time and as he was usually on the road, probably no other person in the state of Ohio had a mail bag so often within easy reach.

Once Haskell learned Hinton was about to travel south he set up a trap. Knowing Hinton would visit the Commercial Bank before leaving, he asked the teller to have $1,000 stacked next to an envelope addressed to a fictitious person in the village of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, a way station on that route. Hinton indeed came to the teller while the bait was in full view. In their small talk, Hinton mentioned he was leaving later than he had planned - the following day, in fact. Of course, if the teller was making up a package of cash at that moment it would have been reasonable to expect it to go out on the next day's stage. Later it came out in court that Hinton had booked four seats on the earlier stage where he had been expected to escort two ladies and a gentleman on their passage, so his change of plans were not made impulsively.

Postmaster Haskell sent a man named John A. Wheeler ahead so he could board the stagecoach several miles down the road and covertly watch Hinton. Around 3 o'clock in the morning, the stagecoach stopped to change horses about a dozen miles outside of Mt. Vernon. Hinton got out to help unhitch the horses. All passengers in the coach were asleep except Wheeler.

While the driver was away (presumably working with the horses in a stable) Wheeler felt the coach shake. He saw Hinton walking towards an outbuilding carrying a mailbag. Wheeler later testified he heard sounds of papers rustling coming from there. Hinton returned with the mailbag, got back in the coach, and in a few minutes they were again on their way. Hinton woke up another passenger who had been using his carpetbag for a pillow and said he needed to put some papers in it.

When the stage reached Mt. Vernon around dawn the mail was delivered , then the stage continued on with Hinton aboard. John Wheeler remained behind to see if the General took the bait. He had not.

Wheeler's eyewitness testimony of Hinton walking off with a mailbag caused him to be charged with a separate felony for tampering with the mails, so it wasn't a complete waste of time. Why he didn't steal the fake package we can only guess, but the newspaper account of the court hearing states "no particular amount was put up" in the envelope, which suggests it contained just strips of paper. If so, perhaps Hinton was able to tell by weight or feel there was no real money inside. Or maybe he simply ran out of time before he could find it, as he was groping around inside a mailbag in the dark.

Now certain the General was the culprit, Haskell and McKinstry were alert for reports of any mail missing which had been on a stagecoach he was aboard. And just a few days later Otho Hinton left a trail of evidence so clumsy that he might have been caught anyway.

(RIGHT: Engraving from "Guarding the Mails," a mostly fictitious account of Hinton's crimes and escapes - see sidebar. The stagecoach driver in this incident was named Thomas Bryan, not "Jake")

It was mid-August and Hinton was on a stage heading east, from Columbus to Wheeling, Virginia (West Virginia didn't come into existence until 1861). As this was a major route, there were more mailbags than would fit in the stagecoach "boot" at the driver's feet; the bags were stacked on the top of the coach and tied down with a canvas sheet.

This time Hinton was riding outside with the driver. Around 10:30 that night on a stretch of road where there were no stops he told the driver he was going to lie down and climbed on top. The driver later testified he couldn't be sure if Hinton had crawled under the canvas or not, as his seat was about two feet lower. All he could see were the soles of Hinton's boots.

Hinton's stage arrived in Wheeling the next day and he took a hotel room. The manager there remembered him well because he asked for the fireplace to be lit despite the weather being "quite warm," and the innkeeper observed Hinton was nevertheless sleeping with the windows open.

To the General's misfortune, this theft was quickly discovered. Someone was able to visit the Wheeling hotel room before the fireplace was cleaned and there found ashes from other mail he had burned. Cleveland Postmaster Haskell tracked down where Hinton had exchanged "eastern money" for "Ohio money" on his return, and some of the stolen money was still in the office.* But worst for Hinton, one of the packages he snatched contained bills from a bank that recorded the "letter number and date" of all currency it sent through the mails. This would become the main evidence against him.

It was time to make an arrest. Hinton was staying at Weddell House, the best hotel in Cleveland. Haskell invited him to come by his home for cards and "dance a little with a few of his particular friends" (make of that what you will). While he was there, McKinstry searched his hotel room. The Deputy Marshal tried to pick the lock on Hinton's trunk but was unsuccessful.

With a warrant issued by a United States Commissioner, McKinstry arrested Hinton two days later, on August 28. The General showed no signs of guilt and welcomed the deputy to search his person and luggage. Hinton seemed saddened they thought a warrant was necessary, when all they would have needed to do was ask. He was that kind of guy.

In his trunk were found "fifteen to thirty keys," which presumably opened the brass locks on the mailbags. No mention was made whether it was legal or proper for a stagecoach company employee to have such keys. Hinton had several hundred dollars in his pockets and McKinstry determined six bills - five ones and a $5 - were from the bank that kept such careful records.

At that point, honest Otho asked for a lawyer.

He was brought before the same U.S. Commissioner for a preliminary hearing, where bail was set at $10,000. Apparently a crowd gathered as news spread General Otho Hinton was under arrest. The Plain Dealer reported the next day the town was "thrown into great commotion" and also that Hinton "applied to several of our citizens without effect."

Until witnesses could be assembled in Cleveland for his hearing, Hinton was led off to jail - or not. McKinstry later testified Hinton made "many urgent appeals" that he should be allowed to stay at his hotel under guard. Haskell objected strongly; if McKinstry permitted that, the postmaster would take no responsibility for what might happen.

Amazingly, McKinstry went along with it. Hinton was taken back to his room at the Weddell House where he would be watched by the deputy marshal and another officer. (The other guard was not identified in any paper that can be found, but a later source said he was Cleveland city marshal Colonel Seth Abbey.) In truth, the two men were probably looking forward to their guard duty; the hotel was luxurious with fine food and the General was the nicest fellow to spend time with.

The first evening was passing uneventfully. The door to the room was cracked open, probably for ventilation; the weather had been sultry. Hinton stayed up late, pacing. McKinstry was on duty at 12:30 in the morning when Hinton suddenly moved to the door and made his escape. The deputy rushed to the closed door and found it locked - for whatever reason, the key had been left in the front of the door. Hinton's guards were now Hinton's prisoners and as they hammered on the door for someone to let them out, Otho Hinton walked away to his freedom.

As you can imagine, the newspapers had a field day with this misadventure. From the Plain Dealer:

It appears the General in "The wee' sma' hours of night" committed a 'breach of generous confidence,' as he had often done before. He took his guard, while off their guard, and vamosed [sic] through the door which was left ajar, quickly turning the key upon them, locking them in. Here was a pickle and such a rumpus followed as made night hideous. Stamping, hallooing, and kicking against the door, brought up the sleepers of the Weddell from pit to dome, and in dishabille, such as ghosts are said to wear.

The Cleveland Herald:

The General, being a gentleman instead of being sent to jail was indulged in his request to be under keepers at his own room at the Weddell House. About midnight he dodged out of the room, shut and locked the door after him; thus caging his three keepers and setting himself free... Had he been a common rogue, arrested for stealing a sheep, instead of fingering the mail bags, he would have been safely lodged inside the prison walls.

Otho Hinton was now a fugitive but odds were he would be soon captured. He was a well-known man in Ohio thanks to his endless self-promotion. His arrest and escape was VERY big news, as was the sizable bounty of $500. He was a stout man of 48 used to an easy life, not hiding in shadows. On the plus side, McKinstry had only confiscated $10 in stolen bills and let him keep the rest of his money, which was several hundred dollars. He still looked like a gentleman. And he was still the wily Otho Hinton.

Later, several Ohio papers described his route with local anecdotes. He spent his first night on the lam in bushes on the outskirts of Cleveland; near Bedford he stole a pan of milk and a dried fish from a farmer's larder. When he reached Akron he bought a horse and saddle, having walked thirty miles in three days. He was recognized as he passed through the village of Mogadore where a lawyer made a citizen's arrest - and then let Hinton go free after he sighed, "What will my poor daughters think of this?" The lawyer taking pity because he had once met the family. After six days on the run Hinton sent Haskell a telegram saying he wished to surrender and gave himself up in Wellsville, just seven miles from the Pennsylvania border. He was famished and a newspaper snarked, "The General complains of the poor accommodations the country affords to one who is in a hurry to 'get along.'"

Hinton was hauled back to Cleveland, where a four day hearing was held. (Firsthand reporting of that hearing is the source of all information here about his crimes, except as indicated.) At the conclusion his bail was set at $15,000 - $5 thousand for mail tampering and $10 thousand for theft. He then asked to address the court, making a speech "ill-timed in spirit and manner, and regretted by his friends."
- -


The sneaky Otho Hinton might have continued his thieving if not for Post Office Special Agent Thomas P. Shallcross who first suspected his guilt by noticing him wince, chased him down after he escaped the Cleveland hotel, and eventually pursued the fugitive all the way to Cuba where they even met and had a conversation while Shallcross was in disguise. The story appears in several books and articles but was first told in a popular 1876 history of famous mail robberies, "Guarding the Mails." You should read the chapter on Hinton; it's a ripping yarn and a little of it is sort of true.

Shallcross was indeed a special agent during that time but absolutely no original sources can be found linking him to the Hinton case in any way. Mail robbery was always a newsworthy topic and this story was particularly big news because of its sensational nature; regional papers all over the Midwest were offering readers everything available about Hinton, including reprints of the complete coverage of his court hearing. Yet there was not a peep about Shallcross or there being a special agent on the case; the only sighting of him in a newspaper during those weeks placed him hundreds of miles away, arresting a man in North Carolina just as the sting operation was starting.

Some of the mistakes in the chapter are forgivable; dates and places don't match, names are wrong and there is florid and melodramatic (and racist) dialogue which was clearly made up. More serious is the error that the General died in Australia, along with the lengthy account of Hinton's flight and capture being entirely fictional.

While the book larded praise on Shallcross it was dismissive of the real hero of the day: Cleveland postmaster Daniel Haskell, portraying him as a bumbling wanna-be cop. Yes, the focus of the book was the derring-do of the post office special agents (author Patrick Henry Woodward was himself a special agent years after the Hinton affair) but promoting the service by brazenly stealing credit to this degree must have sparked outrage among those who participated in the events a quarter-century earlier.

At the final day of the hearing his lawyer wanted it noted that Hinton had telegramed Haskell, which he insisted showed he always meant to return, and only left custody to gather witnesses. A few days later when he was on his way to the jail in Columbus, a local history reported "he was permitted to harangue the crowd which gathered to see him, asserted his innocence, and declared that his reason for attempting to escape was the excessive bail exacted."

He pled not guilty at his October arraignment and again asked to address the court. According to the Ohio Statesman, "for half an hour he spoke with the voice of a Stentor [loud, trumpet-like]." Either because of this eloquent speechifying or some pull with the judge, his bail was reduced to $10 thousand a few days later. This set off a new round of indignant commentary about Hinton getting special treatment. The Cleveland Herald wailed in outrage:

If a petty crime is committed by a friendless heaven-forsaken scamp, he is sure to expiate it in the jail or penitentiary; but if a great robbery takes place, and one who has previously occupied a good position in society, is implicated, through the meshes of reduced bail or some quibble, he slips through the legal net...This farce of reducing bail to suit the pockets and convenience of large depredators, has been so often played, that no man expects a criminal with wealthy friends, partners, or employers to become the tenant of a prison...Ohio is peculiarly the paradise of criminals in this respect.

Hinton was a prisoner for three months before his next court date in January 1851, where he made bail. ("The General looks nothing the worse of his long confinement," quipped one newspaper.) The money came from an old friend in the stagecoach business, his brother-in-law and himself - which is to say it was secured by some of the property he owned with his wife, Rebecca.

The case was granted a continuance for another three months until April but by then he was far away. Sometime after his release he fled again, and this time not supposedly to find witnesses. Left behind in Delaware, Ohio, was Rebecca, who had to forfeit property pledged for his bail. The couple never saw each other again which was probably a good thing for the General - a few years earlier when he was attempting to divorce her, Rebecca filed an affidavit darkly hinting she might be inclined to shoot him over his adultery. One can only imagine her feelings towards him now that he had left her this mess.

* Key to Hinton's scheme was the ease of laundering money in that day. That was the wild 'n crazy "Free Banking" era when any bank chartered by a state could print its own currency. The dollar in your purse could have been issued by the state, county, city, or just the bank itself. It would not be out of order for someone like Hinton who regularly traveled long distances to be visiting banks and money changers to convert currencies, just as he dropped by a Cleveland insurance office shortly before his arrest to exchange "Chester county [Ohio] notes" for "Eastern" bills.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That person was his wife.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

- Press Democrat, April 18, 1916


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

- Santa Rosa Republican, April 18, 1916

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

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

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

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

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


- Santa Rosa Republican April 22, 1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

- Press Democrat July 24, 1913


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

- Press Democrat July 25, 1913

Of Santa Rosa Creek With a Republican Representative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Santa Rosa Republican August 15, 1913

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

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

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

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

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

Cars Don't Cross Bridge

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

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

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

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

- Press Democrat December 31, 1913

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

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

"You lie!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City Attorney Oates and Street Man in Wrangle

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

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

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

"You lie!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Press Democrat October 3, 1913


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

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

- Press Democrat October 22, 1913

Older Posts