Pity our children's children's children; if our 22nd century descendants want to do a little genealogy project they will probably find only our archived Facebook or mySpace pages, and there they will learn of great-grandma Tiffani's dismay that someone named Sanjay didn't win an American "Idol," or find only a missing-file icon for a youTube video of grandpa Trig's cat slurping spaghetti that was viewed 8,362 times. "Oh," our future kin will lament, "if only they still had real newspaper obituaries in that era, so that we could discover more about our ancestors!"
Don't count on it; newspaper obits always have been hit-or-miss. In recent decades, obituaries have become a major revenue source for newspapers, no different from any other kind of advertisement. Now a typical 50-line death notice in a major U.S. paper can easily cost over $500 (and that's usually just for the first weekday, not counting Sundays and not counting photos) unless the deceased is considered "newsworthy." But if your family can't afford it and no one on the classifieds staff recognizes the dearly departed's name, rei memoriam sempiterna oblivione delere.
In Santa Rosa a century ago, the dead were newsworthy or nothing -- there were no newspaper columns stacked up with short, paid obits, as found today. The deceased generally had to be white, well-known about town, revered as a "pioneer," or have suffered a ghastly, violent death. But Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley clearly loved to tell stories, and exceptions were sometimes made for those with unusually colorful pasts. Which makes it odd that Finley twice flubbed an opportunity to tell the story of Haln Killigrew Dunbar. It wouldn't have been a hard obituary to research; all Finley needed to do was drop by the nearby library.
Santa Rosa's new library almost certainly had a copy of the 12-year-old book, Hard Life in the Colonies, and Other Experiences by Sea and Land, by local author Catherine Carolyn Jenkins (spelled as, "Jenkyns" in the book, for whatever reason). Cobbled together from letters written by two of her brothers and friend Dunbar, the book covers their adventures from 1873 to about 1878. And adventures they had, indeed. Brother Arthur was conned into shipping out as a merchant seaman at age 16, and sailed around the horn; brother Gilbert saw Asia and India as a sailor, meeting Dunbar while serving as a mercenary hired to fight the Maori in New Zealand.
It is a ripping yarn, filled with events that might have appeared in 19th century novels by Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, or even Dickens. The narratives span the high drama of a moonlit battle against pirates in Hong Kong harbor to the down-and-out life on San Francisco's Barbary Coast, where Gilbert washed restaurant dishes alongside a French count while poor Dunbar cleaned the degutting chutes at a pork slaughterhouse. Gilbert was stabbed in the same spot on his head twice by bayonets, first by Calcutta police when he was among a group of rioting sailors, then years later by a drunken soldier he was attempting to disarm.
The supporting cast of characters is no less amazing, from cowardly ship captains to "Mercury Jack" Mitchell, whom Gilbert and Dunbar met in the Napa quicksilver mines, to poor Amos, who "drew but blanks in the lottery of life." But no further spoilers here; download the book for a good read, as long as you're comfortable with a slower, rambling 19th century style.
Gilbert and Dunbar bought a small, rundown homestead along Mark West Creek after the San Francisco chapter of their adventures, and their chronicle ended until this Press Democrat item appeared, 27 years later. The belated obit (misspelling Dunbar's first name as "Haley") stated Gilbert intended to move his old friend's body from the local potter's field to his own plot at the Rural Cemetery, but historian Jeremy Nichols, who is preparing a book on the burials at the Chanate site, says that Haln Dunbar is still there in the graveyard, his exact whereabouts now unknown. But presumably his long-time companion Gilbert sometimes visited and remembered happier times: Of the Englishman and Irishman friends tromping around New Zealand singing songs from the American Civil War, or memories of their little ranch, where Dunbar built an Aeolian harp in their shack window, "letting the winds tell their secrets in sweet sounds."
ONCE NOTED MAN DIES IN POVERTY
GRADUATE OF TRINITY COLLEGE, DUBLIN, BURIED IN A PAUPER'S GRAVE
County Physician Receives Interesting Letter Giving History of H.K. Dunbar Who Died Recently
Haley K. Dunbar, an old man who died at the county hospital on November 2, and whose remains occupy a grave in the county's cemetery on the hill near the poor farm, was in his day a man of note. This fact is brought out in a letter which was received on Wednesday by County physician J. W. Jesse from Gilbert C. Jenkins, an old friend of the deceased, who resides in the Freestone country. By accident Mr. Jenkins heard that the man had passed away and wrote to the doctor for particulars of his death. It seems that some time before Dr. Jesse became county physician Mr. Jenkins, so he says, made a request that in the event of Mr. Dunbar's death, he should be informed, so that the remains, instead of being buried [illegible microfilm] should be interred in his (Jenkin's) plot in the cemetery.
Mr. Jenkins says that the deceased was a graduate of the famous Trinity College, Dublin, and took his degree of Bachelor of Arts from that university. He was also proficient in Greek and Hebrew and other tongues. He was once prominent in fraternal life, and was a member of an old and distinguished family in the old country. He was an artist in modeling pottery, and some of his art work, Mr. Jenkins says, found its way and was considered almost priceless in the palaces of the late Queen Victoria. The late pioneer James Marshall of this city on the occasion of a visit [illegible microfilm] purchased some of the pottery modelled by the late Mr. Dunbar from the famous Belleck Pottery. Mr. Jenkins, who did what he could for his old friend after reverses overtook him, will now endeavor to have his remains moved and interred in the Jenkins plot in the cemetery.- Press Democrat, November 17, 1904
Another chapter from that book of a million tales, "How The Devil Did Any Of The Children Survive." Honestly, an 8 year-old riding a galloping horse bareback?
NEARLY BROKE HIS NECK
Milton Preston Is Thrown From a Horse by a Clothes Line
Milton Preston, the eight year-old son of Mr. And Mrs. W. H. Preston, was badly hurt Sunday by an accident that might have been much worse had the rope he struck been an inch lower. He was riding a horse without saddle or bridle at his home, guiding the animal by only a rope. The horse ran away with him, and dashed at full gallop under a clothes-line, which caught the boy across the mouth, knocking two of his teeth loose, cutting his lips and cheeks, and tossing him into the air and on to the ground. His father, who saw the accident, at first thought the boy was killed. He picked him up and carried him into the house, and telephoned for Dr. Crumb. The physician said the lad had a narrow escape from instant death. As it was, he was pretty badly bruised, and suffered a severe nervous shock as well, besides which he may lose the two teeth that were struck by the rope.- Press Democrat, January 30, 1906
According to the official statistics for 1905 (PDF), there were 101 deaths in the city of Santa Rosa -- exactly one percent of the population -- and the single leading cause was TB, killing 9. Santa Rosa was lucky; that was half the national rate for tuberculosis. A comparison of suicide rates, however, would probably not have shown Sonoma County so fortunate.
Why was suicide such a common occurrence in bucolic 1905 Sonoma County? Turning the microfilmed pages of the old Press Democrat, grandpa (rarely grandma) was killing himself with shocking regularity; sometimes every week another is found swinging in their barn, prone on the floor from swallowing carbolic acid, or his brains splashed six-ways-from-Sunday by the old family shotgun.
March of 1905 was a particularly grueling month, with Coroner Frank Blackburn holding four suicide inquests. A woman in Guerneville took poison; an 18 year-old boy fired a bullet into his forehead with his revolver at a Sonoma party, allegedly because his girlfriend was dancing with other guys; a lumberjack and father of five in Occidental chopped his head open with an axe then disemboweled himself (yet still lived for two days); and finally, at the aforementioned fellow's wake, another lumberjack and despondent "close companion" tucked a shotgun under his chin and blew his head completely off. If all of these incidents appeared in a Steven King novel, critics would accuse the author of overreaching for the sake of gratuitous shock value.
Today suicides are hushed-up and rarely mentioned by the media, even in obituaries, out of an evolved journalistic sensitivity for the family and community at large. But the sensationalist turn-of-the-century press loved these tragedies even more than gruesome accidents and usually reported about them at length, and with melodramatic flair. Read enough of them and a editorial formula even becomes apparent, with most articles beginning with the soon-to-be departed announcing intent: "I've only five minutes to live," the Sonoma boy told others at the party; "Just say good-bye to Mother," a man asked a bartender before downing strychnine. Usually the death is next described in gory detail, followed by the horrified reaction of witnesses and their frantic efforts to bring a doctor to the scene.
There are no scholarly writings specifically on reasons for suicide in that period (at least, no analysis that I can find), but as today, depression was probably a significant factor, its debilitating effects magnified by the sense of isolation in rural Sonoma County's horse-and-buggy days. Chronic pain was a cause often hinted at by the coroner, and also understandable given the primitive and often dangerous state of medical treatment at the time. Alcoholism, drug abuse... the list of usual suspects goes on. I believe it's likely that there was also an ongoing "Werther Effect" caused by the frequent and prominent reporting of suicides in the newspapers. Modern studies show that a suicide often inspires a rash of copycat suicides; if media reports on suicide appear regularly, it would make some sense that the act of killing oneself would appear to be part of normal societal behavior.
An article in a 1908 issue of McClure's Magazine, "The Problems of Suicide," debunked the popular assumptions about suicide that are still widespread today. More people actually killed themselves in spring and summer than in colder months, and usually in the day, and not after dark; suicides went down during disasters and wars -- San Francisco suicides following the 1906 earthquake fell from 12 a week to 3 in two months (at least, that's what was reported). Another study described in a medical journal the following year also noted suicides were steadily increasing and the greatest per capita increase centered in the Western U.S. with nearby Oakland being ground zero, reporting a one-third jump. (Note to other researchers: for buckets of data on early 20th century suicides, search for the name of Dr. Frederick L. Hoffman, statistician for the Prudential Life Insurance Company.)
CALMLY SAYS HIS DEATH IS NEAR
W. I. Martin Drinks Poison While Riding With Officer, Smokes and Dies
"Say, you had better drive fast. I have only about nine or ten minutes to live. I have drank some strychnine."
William Martin was the speaker, Sunday afternoon, and the man he addressed was Constable O'Brien of Occidental. O'Brien had arrested Martin on a charge of having defrauded Mrs. M. Nerton, an apartment house keeper, out of a board bill, and was bringing the man to Santa Rosa to turn him over to Constable Gillam, at whose request the arrest had been made. As he spoke, Martin threw a bottle to the roadside.
The man drank the poison near the cannery building on West Third street. Constable O'Brien drove rapidly to McGregor & Hockin's stables on Third street, where the rig in which they were driving had been hired on the previous night by Martin, who gave an assumed name and told another story as to why he wanted the horse and vehicle.
When the stable was reached Martin jumped lightly from the buggy and walked into the office. There he greeted Constable Sam Gilliam, Constable Boswell and Deputy Constable Frank Day and commenced to talk to them. Hardly before Constable O'Brien had the opportunity to state why he had driven so rapidly the last three quarters of a mile -- because Martin had told him he had taken poison -- Martin asked Constable Sam Gilliam to roll him a cigarette. The Constable did as he was asked and Martin lit it and commenced to smoke. Directly O'Brien mentioned that Martin had told him that he had taken poison, and despite the fact that the man's actions did not seem to bear out his assertion, the telephone was kept hot trying to get a physician. At least half a dozen doctors offices and homes were rung up but the physicians were away from home. Finally Dr. J.W. Jesse was intercepted as he was speeding along in his automobile and he came at once to the stables.
In the meantime Martin had stated that he would have to get the money to pay for the hire of the horse and buggy from a house on Second street and had also given the officers some other information they desired. Dr. Jesse did what he could to save the man but before he arrived Martin was past all human aid.
The tragic circumstances of the suicide spread through the city and soon a morbid crowd of spectators had crowded outside the stables on Main street and came again Sunday night to the H. H. Moke Undertaking Parlor where the inquest was held by Coroner Frank Blackburn.
From the evidence adduced at the inquest and from other sources it was probably not the fact that he was arrested that led to Martin to drink the poison. It may have been the "last straw" as the old saying has it. Putting aside, for some three or four months the deceased, who had been employed in the tanneries here, and his wife had separated and since then he had attempted to get his little son. It was within a mile of where the mother and child are living at Camp Meeker that Martin was arrested on Sunday morning by Constable O'Brien. It was stated here on Sunday night that Martin had been heard to say that his wife would either come back to live with him or else he would kill her and himself. Possibly the arrest on Sunday night was the intercepting of what might have been a double tragedy.
The deceased has a sister, Mrs. Weber, residing at Sebastopol, and there the deceased called on his way to Occidental on Saturday night. He told her that he was hungry and she fed him. Then he continued his journey to Occidental. His wife has several brothers and a mother residing in this city. In a note read at the inquest on Sunday night, where the deceased had written on last Friday, and had headed it, "On the Steamer Gold" (the vessel that plies between Petaluma and San Francisco), he stated briefly to all whom it might concern, that his wife had driven him away and that she would not let him have his little son and that she was abetted in the stand she had taken by her mother. He also mentioned that his wife was acting as housekeeper in another household. This letter indicates that he had contemplated suicide, possibly from the deck of the steamer Gold with the sea for his tomb.
Martin was twenty-eight years of age. It is understood that the officers wanted him for other reasons besides defrauding of the boarding house keeper. But let the veil fall over any other reference to this. From all accounts the man was not all that he should have been.
The jury at the inquest Sunday night was composed of [...]- Press Democrat, January 30, 1906
Here's an interesting little case study in journalism ethics: What does an editor and publisher do when an advertiser is exposed as a fraud? It's a delicate problem -- unless, of course, the advertisements appeared in a rival paper.
Even before America was a nation, its newspapers had an oily history with advertisers. Readers of the November 16, 1775 New York Gazette couldn't miss that splashy ad on page one, column one, for "Maredant's Drops," a snake-oil that promised to prevent scurvy and cure leprosy (scrofula, pimples and ulcers, too!) -- but more diligent readers might have noticed that other little item on the same page that didn't even have its own headline: King George had ordered the property of all colonial rebels to be confiscated by the crown.
Besides crowding out important news, there's always been the problem of truthfulness in advertising. Did Maredant's Drops work as promised? Probably not, and were even likely to kill you -- a key ingredient was the ultra-toxic mercuric chloride. (And by the way, that big advertisement may even have been selling fake deadly snake-oil; Maredant's Drops were frequently counterfeited.) More than a century later, a steady stream of pharmaceutical display ads appearing in the early 20th Century Press Democrat showed that the hucksters was still as bad, or even worse: A particular cod liver oil formula promised to cure tuberculosis; horehound syrup would stop you from coughing to death.
But let's give our dear old editors and publishers the benefit of doubt, and presume they didn't know that the nostrums they helped sell were often useless and sometimes potentially lethal. Likely those same quack cures could be found in their home medicine cabinets as well; anyone who thinks newspapermen were smarter and more well-informed than the general population should spend more time reading editorial pages.
We also should cut the 1905 newspapers some slack for running ads from fortune-tellers, mediums, and other spiritualist hokum. It would still be almost two decades before Houdini* and Harry Price brought media attention to exposing these con-artists. And again, maybe those in charge of the newspapers really believed in occult powers; as debunked in the earlier "City of Roses and Rubes" item, "The Great McEwen" passed through Santa Rosa with his skillful telepathy act in 1904, with the Press Democrat acting as his enthusiastic cheerleader.
Both the Republican and Press Democrat ran classified ads for spiritualists in 1905. Some examples:
MRS. CLARA MALLORY - Clairoyant, clanandant spirit card reader, born medium, honest, confidential readings, helpful advice, when others fail consult me, price 50c, Piedmont Hotel, room 6
CLAIRVOYANT - Consult Madame Florence, Clairvoyant, Card Reader and Palmism, on all matters pertaining to business, courtship and marriage. Spirit Pictures of future husband or wife, 10c. 533 Fourth St., room 8
SCIENTIFIC ASTROLOGY - SEND BIRTHDATE and 20c for characteristics and years prospects. Edith Lloyd, box 103 Santa Rosa, Calif.
But it was a 1906 dust-up over phony names that made offers of supernatural services newsworthy. The simple story is this: A woman in Santa Rosa sent a letter with questions to "Ismar" in San Francisco, enclosing a dollar (remember that her buck was the equivalent of $100+ today). While waiting for an answer, she learned that "Ismar, the Great Egyptian Spiritualist and Trance Medium" supposedly was now in Santa Rosa. The letter-writer -- exercising some long-overdue skepticism -- discovered that the fortune-teller in town was an impostor of the San Francisco seer. No arrests were made for false identity, by the way.
(At left: the "real" Ismar, from an ad in the 1905 San Francisco Call.)
The Press Democrat was running competing classified ads for "Madame Florence" at the time, and the bogus "Ismar" was advertising exclusively in the Republican (see ad below), which by itself gave PD editor Ernest L. Finley incentive for snark. As no display ad or classified appeared in the Press Democrat, Finley was also presumably miffed that she used another printer for flyers that must have been posted around town spelling her name as "Ismer." (The Press Democrat also claims that the letter-writer learned about the fake Ismar's arrival from a notice in the PD, although I couldn't find it on microfilm.)
To discredit the bogus psychic who advertised elsewhere, the PD tossed up her name as often as possible in the article. But even more astonishing is the equivalent Santa Rosa Republican story, where the reporter never mentioned the fortune-teller's name -- some acrobatic writing, that. Yet the Republican still continued to run the Ismar ad for the full week. Look, it's not our fault if you're defrauded by an impostor of a fake spiritualist that we sort-of warned you about.
*Until the recent biography, "The Secret Life of Houdini," it was little mentioned that he began his stage career as a fake medium. He had found the out-of-print 1891 book, "Revelations of a Spirit Medium," and although the anonymous author wrote it intending to expose chicanery, the teenage Houdini studied it to learn how to pose as a psychic as well as picking up several magic tricks used in his early stage career. When Harry Price and others reprinted the book in 1922, Houdini wrote a praiseworthy review in the New York Times crediting its influence on him and other magicians. Two years later, Houdini followed Price and other spiritualist debunkers with his autobiographical A Magician Among the Spirits.
WHICH IS THE REAL THING?
Two Fortune Tellers Who Look Alike But Yet Are Different
Who is "Ismar, the Great Egyptian Spiritualist and Trance Medium"? Is she the woman who is now in this city advertising her powers in the local papers, or is she the woman who is advertising in the San Francisco newspapers and still doing business at the original stand? That is what a good many people are asking themselves these days.
A few days ago a clairvoyant arrived here and began advertising herself as "A. Ismer, the Great Egyptian Spiritualist and Trance Medium, who created a profound sensation in San Francisco." She knows her business, according to the advertisement, for it goes on to say: "The sick and broken-hearted went away happy in mind and body. Lovers were united, and those who consulted her were not divorced."
When questioned last night as to her identity, the seeress now doing business here denied that she was or that she claimed to be "Ismar, the Great," and through her manager called attention to the difference in the way the two names were spelled. She also said that she had been "fighting" the San Francisco notability for some eight years, and that she had plenty of documents with which to prove her claims to occult power.
A few days ago a lady residing in this city wrote to "Ismar" asking some professional questions. No reply was received, and on picking up the Press Democrat one morning the seeker after information noticed that "Ismer" was here. On phoning to the latter at her Santa Rosa address and asking if the inquiry had been received, the seeress now here replied in the negative and explained that her mail had not been forwarded regularly. The next day the answer was received in due form from the San Francisco office. When questioned again by phone "Ismer" explained that when she left her San Francisco office she put a competent woman in her place. A message received from the San Francisco office last night claim [sic] that the local seeress is an impostor. She spells her name differently, however, and except in the general tenor of the advertisement and the similarity of the two names, both of which might be mere coincidences, there is no real proof of any intention to deceive.- Press Democrat, January 25, 1906
A San Francisco seeress of repute had sent a telegram to persons in this city that a woman doing business under her name is an imposter. The woman who is here under the name of the San Francisco seeress is alleged to use the same address as that given by the woman in the metropolis who claims to be the original of that name. The discovery was made by a Santa Rosan sending a dollar to the San Francisco woman asking answers to three questions, and after a long delay and no answer arriving, she telephoned to the woman at the address in this city. The latter declared that the letter had not been received, but that possibly her "secretary" had the missive. Finally the answer came from the San Francisco woman, and then the Santa Rosan called up the local seeress and asked if the letter had been received. The reply in the negative showed that something might be wrong and a hurried letter to the metropolis brought forth the response that was expected. It was as follows:
"Have not left San Francisco. Woman using my name is an imposter."- Santa Rosa Republican, January 25, 1906
There were 21 automobiles in 1905 Santa Rosa, and assuming you owned a gasoline model (instead of the steam variety), how and where did you get fuel to make the machine go? Most drivers probably had a 50-gallon barrel of gasoline tucked in the back of their
carriage house garage where they dipped in a bucket and poured the smelly, dangerous gas into the car's tank via a funnel. By contrast, imagine the luxury of pulling your Oldsmobile up to a "pump" and having an attendant fill 'er up -- ah, sweet progress! I tell you, if they could somehow put one of these filling stations on every major street corner, that electric trolley would be doomed.
This item is rich in the sort of details that are loved by tech-y historians. It reveals much that Santa Rosa's auto shop had a pit allowing mechanics to repair the underside without the car needing to be hoisted into the air on a crane (!) and that the gas station was using the new-fangled "Bowser Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump" (misspelled here as "Bouser"), which had been introduced just months before. Other factoids here raise intriguing questions, such as the mention of the "rubberoid" floor. This was the name of a roofing material that became an issue in a trademark suit that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1911, which ruled that products with similar names such as "Ribbero" were not in violation (none of the products actually contained rubber, by the way). Also interesting is the prominent mention of separate waiting rooms for men and women, with "wash stand, toilet, and all conveniences." So you were supposed to hang out in the bathroom while they replaced your spark plugs and changed the oil?
Of particular local history note is that this gas station/garage/auto dealership/cyclery was owned by the remarkable Fred J. Wiseman, who would make the world's first airmail flight six years later (see background in this blog's first post on Wiseman, or review all tags that mention him).
A GARAGE AND BICYCLE SHOP
Fred Wiseman Will Soon Have Best Equipped Place in This Part of the State
The new automobile garage which is being fitted up by Fred Wiseman of the Santa Rosa Cyclery, is to be one of the finest affairs of the kind to be found north of San Francisco. The garage is to be located in the new Overton building on Fifth street, and when completed will be made very convenient in every particular. It is to be both a bicycle shop and auto garage, the bicycle department being arranged on the east side of the building. At present the whole building is fitted with cement floor, but in the bicycle store, where there will also be a large stock of sporting goods, the floor will be covered with rubberoid, and the fixtures here will be the latest and most attractive obtainable.
In front and between the two departments is located the business office, and just to the rear of this there are both ladies' and gents' waiting rooms which are equipped with wash stand, toilet, and all conveniences.
Instead of equipping two machine shops, Mr. Wiseman has arranged so that he will unite both departments and one set of tools will do for both lines. It is the purpose of the proprietor to keep a place to store automobiles by the month, and also have on hand a number of new machines for sale. They have the agency of the Oldsmobile, the Winton, and the Reo, made by the Olds Company. There are now some nine or ten autos in the building.
At the present time everything is at a standstill on the building because of the strike which was declared Friday, and it was the intention to have the place ready for occupancy in a few days but it will now probably be the first of December before everything is ready for moving in.
The machine shop is especially well equipped, there being a good cement pit, so arranged that the machinist may get under the automobile to make repairs, without having to swing it in the air on a crane. There is also a wash rack constructed in the rear of the room where the machines may be cleaned easily, and the garage will be fitted with a Bouser gasoline pump for the filling of the gasoline tanks. This is the only gasoline pump which is recognized by the insurance companies as being absolutely safe. It is so constructed that when you want a certain amount of gasoline, the machine is set and the pump will only raise that much.
After everything is completed and the cyclery has been moved to the new quarters, Mr. Wiseman says he will keep open day and night, always having a man there to look after the wants of those who call. This is certainly a very interesting place and will be a great advance in the automobile and bicycle line in this county.- Santa Rosa Republican, November 5, 1905
An important lesson to remember when reading the old newspapers: all of your presumptions are probably wrong. Even the simplest news items may have a complex backstory mostly forgotten today, as is the case here. I had noticed that it was sometimes reported that boys were arrested for shooting robins, but hadn't thought the stories noteworthy -- surely the editor was filling column space on a slow day, or maybe throwing out a little civics lesson, like the Press Democrat's stern warnings over the downtown orange peel menace. I was wrong; there was far more to the story than Peck's Bad Boy plonking away at birds with his Daisy air rifle for the fun of it. Little Sammy Shooter might have been working for a smuggling ring in violation of federal law -- or might have been seeking to feed his family.
In the 19th century, America was of three minds about robins. Farmers, particularly in the south where the birds winter, considered them a pest bird like the crow, with flocks of hundreds swooping down to strip fruit trees bare. Northeners also lost berries and fruit (cherries in particular), but were more sentimental about robins, waxing about their cheery songs and that their appearances heralded the coming of spring. Both Yanks and Johnny Reb, however, agreed that the birds were delicious.
An 1883 ag report told farmers, "the robin is eminently a game bird, and makes the most delicate and delicious eating known, almost. If, therefore, you beg the question, kill a mess for a savory pot-pie at such time as when they are in the height of their plunder, you can accomplish your purpose, and can say conscientiously that you have not violated any law for the good of the community." And even Audubon (one of his American Robin watercolors seen at right) wrote in 1841 about the joys of cooking robins:
"In all the southern states...their presence is productive of a sort of jubilee among the gunners, and the havoc made among them with bows and arrows, blowpipes, guns, and traps of different sorts, is wonderful. Every gunner brings them home by bagsful, and the markets are supplied with them at a very cheap rate. Several persons may at this season stand round the foot of a tree loaded with berries, and shoot the greater part of the day, so fast do the flocks of Robins succeed each other. They are then fat and juicy, and afford excellent eating."
Under pressure from the new conservation movement, turn of the century attitudes and laws began to change. The small fruit and berry crops aside, it was recognized that robins were pretty useful birds; the rest of the year they mostly ate weed seeds and harmful insects, particularly the dreaded army worm. The 1900 Lacey Act was a landmark federal law to beef up protection of wild birds, and nearly two decades later, the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act finally put strict limits on killing birds like the robin.
Shamefully, some conservationists played race, regional, and class cards to drum up support for protection. A 1902 League of American Sportsmen author wrote, "no Northern man thinks of shooting a robin at any time. Yet in the South, white man and negro alike slaughter these innocent and beautiful birds at every opportunity." And although robin pot pie was a favorite dish throughout the south, the 1912 National Conservation Congress sensationalized it as ethnic threat:
How many people in the North know that the negroes and poor whites of the South annually slaughter millions of valuable insect-eating birds for food? Around Avery Island, Louisiana, during the robin season (in January when the berries are ripe), Mr. B. A. Mcllhenny says that during ten days or two weeks, at least 10,000 robins are each day slaughtered for the pot. "Every negro man and boy who can raise a gun is after them!"
But even though California had officially removed robins as a game bird in 1897, that didn't stop hunters with a taste for robin pie. A letter from an ornithological club in Santa Cruz complained bitterly that the law was useless as long as those hicks around San Jose couldn't control their appetites: "we cannot protect birds in this county when they can shoot across the line from the other county into ours...[as long as] that last relic of barbarism, robin pot-pie, is still existent in some households where they choose to believe that no protective ordinance was ever passed."
Robin hunting continued to be an issue for years, with seven states -- Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Maryland -- keeping the robin legally as a game bird. Pennsylvania continued to allow robins to be killed between May and July into the 1920s "to protect cherries and other small fruits," although the permit allowed for the birds to be used for "food purposes."
Amazingly, no specific recipe for robin pot pie currently could be found on the Internet (yes, I also searched for variant spellings of "robin pot-pie", "robin potpie", and "robin pie"). Hints were found that it could have been similar to this 1897 blackbird pie, this 1886 pigeon pie, or this 1906 "pie of small birds." Those recipes are essentially all meat baked in a crust; if this really was a food for the poorest people, it's likely other ingredients were added to stretch out the meat, and was probably more similar to this 1874 cottage pie recipe, heavy with mashed potatoes and onions. But it's also noteworthy that many sources mention robin pie as a favorite dish of young people; I wonder if shooting robins became a means of introducing children to the culture of hunting for food, with mommy serving their kill in a meat-heavy dish as a reward.
Finally: note below the inspector who seized the smuggled birds was named Vogelsang ("bird song").
(Story update available here)
KILLED ROBINS AND IS WANTED
Shipped Birds to San Francisco Under Brand of Dried Apples
A box of robins which had been shipped from Sebastopol to San Francisco by D. Cassassa, was seized by Chief Deputy Charles A. Vogelsang in San Francisco Saturday morning. The shipping tag declared the contents of the box to have been dried apples, and as such the railroad had given a special fruit rate to the shipper. The tag contained the name of D. Cassassa as the shipper.
There were about half a hundred robins in the box, and they were consigned to Lemoine & Co. They arrived in the metropolis about 11 o'clock Saturday morning, and within an hour they had been confiscated.
Deputy State Fish and Game Commissioner Ernest Schaeffle of San Francisco was sent to this city to arrest the offender, and to prosecute the case before the court. The deputy spent Sunday in Sebastopol and Forestville, but was unable to locate Cassassa, who is believed to be in San Francisco.
It is not believed that Cassassa shipped the robins to the city for sale, but that he intended to follow them and have a feast in one of the French restaurants of that city. The robins are considered the finest of the small game birds by the French people, and it is probable that Cassassa had planned a treat for his friends, which has been spoiled by the vigilance of the officers. The law expressly forbids the shipment of robins, and from the fact that the box was labeled as dried apples, it is apparent that the shipper was aware that the law was being violated.
A young son of Mr. Cassassa appeared before the court this afternoon, but nothing was done ending his appearance late this afternoon. The youth promised to return after schol this afternoon.- Santa Rosa Republican, January 15, 1906
SALMON INFEST RUSSIAN RIVER
Sand Bar at Mouth of River Blown Open to Permit Entry -- Best Run in Many Years
The salmon are running in Russian River at the present time in vast schools, and the residents of the vicinity touching that stream are having great feasts of the delicious fish daily. It is no task at all to catch more salmon than one can carry, and small boys are catching them on pitchforks, instead of the usual gaffs required.
The run of salmon is reported to be the largest in more than eleven years, and the fish are said to be above the usual standard from a toothsome point. The sand bar at the mouth of the river was unusually heavy this year, and prevented the fish getting across. The fish were seen in swarms just outside the bar by many residents, who determined that they should be assisted in getting into the fresh water stream.
Accordingly, when the tide was low, a quantity of dynamite was placed in the sand and a hold of considerable length and depth was made. Then a number of men and youths took shovels and dug away the sand to give an unobstructed entrance to the swarms of fish. This having been done at low tide, permitted the water in the river back of the bar to run out into the ocean.
With the rising tide came the swarms of fish into the river, many of which have fallen victims to gaff and pitchfork, and are furnishing the piece de resistance for many substantial meals.
The sport of catching these big fish is among the best afforded, and those piscatorally inclined are reveling in the fun.- Santa Rosa Republican, December 28, 1905
National news stories are off-topic here, but that 1905 Press Democrat headline, "Dr. Brown Would Drown the Idiots", is irresistible, and also lends the opportunity to briefly discuss Sonoma County's shameful role in the 20th century eugenics movement.
Like many other states, California had an institution for children that were diagnosed as "feeble-minded" (more about that offensive term below). Founded in 1883 by a pair of civic-minded women, the facility shuffled between four South Bay and East Bay towns until the state agreed to buy a ranch near Glen Ellen. With a band playing a cheery tune at the train stop, the first 148 children arrived in 1891 at what was then called The California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children. By 1904, the Home had 541 "inmates" and a staff of 70, making it the largest employer in the county. The state was also pouring money into the institution to expand it rapidly. (More on the history of the institution proper can be found in a November 19, 2000 Gaye LeBaron column available by searching the Press Democrat web site archives. The Home is still often referred to interchangeably as "Eldridge," which was the name given to the train stop.)
"It was with the idea of providing a home for the purely custodial cases as well as undertaking the training and development of the epileptic feeble-minded that the management in the past ventured its memorable struggle...from its former inadequate quarters to the present unrivaled location," the PD noted in a 1904 promotional insert that contained a full page on the Home, partially seen at right. But wait -- read that section again: why the mention of the epileptic feeble-minded?" That's because, according to a 1904 Census Bureau report, (PDF) about 18 percent of those institutionalized as feeble-minded were actually epileptic -- by far the largest category of those considered "physically defective."
Jack London visited the Home (which was adjacent to his ranch) in the summer of 1905, later writing a short story, "Told In the Drooling Ward." Written from the viewpoint of a "high-grade feeb" (who sounds more like a cousin to Huck Finn), the story follows the attempted escape from the institution by two boys with epilepsy. London's character described the world of the "epilecs" at the Home:
"You see that house up there through the trees. The high-grade epilecs all live in it by themselves. They're stuck up because they ain't just ordinary feebs. They call it the club house, and they say they're just as good as anybody outside, only they're sick. I don't like them much. They laugh at me, when they ain't busy throwing fits. But I don't care. I never have to be scared about falling down and busting my head. Sometimes they run around in circles trying to find a place to sit down quick, only they don't. Low-grade epilecs are disgusting, and high-grade epilecs put on airs. I'm glad I ain't an epilec. There ain't anything to them. They just talk big, that's all."
"Club house" or no, these children with epilepsy were still captives, warehoused until age 18 as "feeble-minded" alongside others with severe cognitive disabilities, such as microcephaly. What "training" they were given at the Glen Ellen facility is not apparent; photos from a few years later show inmates tending crops in fields surrounding the grounds. Contemporary pictures of East Coast institutions show girls sewing or doing needlepoint, and boys working in tailoring or leatherwork.
The children also may have faced a greater risk of harm from the institution itself than their disability. The late Victorian era believed that there was a dangerous form of epilepsy -- search Google books for "epileptic insanity" and you'll find it discussed in hundreds of articles and book chapters in medical literature between the 1880s and the 1920s. Although there was no scientific proof that epileptic insanity was an actual physiological disorder, some authors at the time confidently reported that it accounted for 10-30 percent of all epilepsy cases. Some also claimed that everyone with epilepsy was, by definition, mentally unstable; a 1883 text on insanity stated, "There are those who, as soon as they find the slightest indications of epilepsy in the person under investigation, instantly jump at the conclusion that, ergo, that subject cannot be of sound mind."
(Although their definition of epileptic insanity was fuzzy, it didn't stop doctors from prescribing specific medical treatment: A 1917 medical text says epileptic insanity attacks can be treated with a regular enema cocktail of chloral hydrate, tincture of cannabis and digitalis, although "use of opium for a long period has been known to break up recurrent maniacal attacks." Well, I should think so.)
Not only was their notion of "epileptic insanity" mistaken, but also was their certainty of precise underlying causes of epilepsy. According to our best science in 2008, about 100 diseases and conditions are thought to have possible links, but we admit today that no certain cause is discovered in 7 out of 10 cases. But a 1902 Clinical Psychiatry textbook noted "genuine epilepsy" was linked to unknown anatomical changes in the brain most of the time -- with the insanity form, however, "defective heredity" was diagnosed as the cause in most cases. Such certainty that "defective heredity" caused a non-existent disorder was an early step down the very dark road of eugenics.
Eugenics was a popular debate topic in the 1890s and first years of the Twentieth Century. America's leading popular scientist, Santa Rosa's own Luther Burbank, contributed a widely-reprinted 1906 treatise, "The Training of the Human Plant." To Burbank, "mingling of races" was healthy, but he thought it was a "crime against the state" if "degenerates" had children:
"Suppose we blend together two poisonous plants and make a third even more virulent, a vegetable degenerate, and set their evil descendants adrift to multiply over the earth, are we not distinct foes to the race? What, then, are we not distinct foes to the race? What, then, shall we say of two people of absolutely defined physical impairment who are allowed to marry and rear children? It is a crime against the state and every individual in the state. And if these physically degenerate are also morally degenerate, the crime becomes all the more appalling."
The truly appalling thing was Burbank's flawed humans-as-plants metaphor. Aside from implying that some people are no better than weeds, he lost what scientific authority he had in this essay by sweeping "moral degenerate[s]" into his definition of "absolutely defined physical impairment." As with his poorly-reasoned "kinetic universe" theory (see earlier post), Burbank didn't seem aware that he was spoiling the stew by tossing a dollop of pseudoscience into his pot.
To his credit, Burbank stopped short of linking "moral degeneracy" to heredity. But in the years that followed, there was no shortage of medical experts who sought to blame criminality and other anti-social behavior on impaired brains or bad genes. A 1916 Boston Medical and Surgical Journal article reported that one examining doctor found 1 in 3 delinquents were feeble-minded. The author followed with a sweeping generalization that "every person who is called a criminal is now thought to have some mental variation from the normal." Nor were epileptics exempt from this thinking. A 1918 study, "American Social Problems," went even further: "Many feeble-minded, however, are also epileptic, and epilepsy is a common trait of criminals."
Down the slippery slope of eugenics we tumble; if criminals usually had epilepsy (not true, of course), were epileptics usually criminals? If someone in authority, such as the 1916 "Special Investigator" for Massachusetts State Board of Insanity wrote in the article above that all criminals had some sort of mental disorder, wasn't having a brain impairment suspect behavior in itself?
The stigma of once being labeled (or suspected) of feeble-mindedness also carried the risk of incarceration at a state hospital. The Insanity Board investigator -- surely with the best of intentions of separating the disabled from the population of hardened criminals -- believed that cops and other law-enforcement officials could be trusted to pick out the feeble-minded and send them to an institution without court hearings:
My belief is that the first mental examinations should be made by probation officers, judges and police officers...I think that an examination several hours long is not feasible or necessary. I think that a good history of the life, brief and easy to get from every man arrested, obtained before sentence, would in the majority of cases enable a non-medical man to separate out most of the insane and feeble-minded.
Those sent to the Sonoma State Home (the new name for the institution, as of 1909) possibly faced harsher punishment than a regular convict. A just-passed state law allowed for the "asexualization... [of] any person who has been lawfully committed to any state hospital for the insane, or who has been an inmate of the Sonoma State Home, and who is afflicted with hereditary insanity or incurable chronic mania or dementia."
To be clear: The California law was authorizing forced sterilization of any inmate -- and with no more review than a signature from two health board members. As the years progressed, they must have suffered writer's cramp.
Although many other states followed suit before WWI, California was by far the most active. A 1922 study found 4 out of 5 forced sterilizations nationwide were performed in the state, with the justification being "mainly eugenic, also for the physical, mental or moral benefit of inmate, also partly punitive in certain cases." Women usually had their tubes tied, and men were given vasectomies; but about 5% of the time, doctors performed hysterectomies or castrations.
(For details on sterilization in all states in this era, see the Carnegie Institution's survey: "Eugenical Sterilization in the United States." The Carnegie Institution -- which, incidentally, was Luther Burbank's patron for a few years at this time -- actively promoted race-cleansing eugenics projects in the U.S. that were later studied approvingly by the Nazis, including a proposal for locally-operated gas chambers.)
Until 1918, sterilization was rare at Eldridge, with only 12 inmates forced to undergo the operation. But under new superintendent Dr. Fred O. Butler, it became virtually a factory operation, with about 5,400 sterilized between then and 1949, a thousand of the procedures performed by Dr. Butler himself. "We are not sterilizing, in my opinion, fast enough," he said.
In examining admittance records from Butler's tenure for her book, "Building a Better Race," scholar Wendy Kline found there was also a marked shift in the types of patients arriving at the Home: "...a large proportion of Sonoma's activities had nothing to do with the problem of mental deficiency and much to do with the problem of female sexuality." Kline cited a 1926 study of the Sonoma Home that reported almost half of the women were there because they were classified as sexually delinquent, with notes in their records that they were "passionate," "immoral," "promiscuous," or similar. The study found only 3 percent of the women were accused of actual crimes, such as prostitution. Male patients, however, were never found to have "sex delinquency;" most were adolescents sent to Eldridge for sterilization by their families because they were "masturbators" or "passive sodomists."
Like all eugenics true-believers, Butler and his staff always sought evidence of physical deformity to "prove" their crackpot theories. Wrote Kline:
Doctors took note not only of patients' sexual behavior but also of the sexual organs themselves. For example, of the eighty-two women admitted to Sonoma between January 1918 and August 1919 who were sterilized, forty-one, of 50 percent, were also noted for their "abnormal" genitals. Twenty-two of these patients were singled out specifically for enlarged genitals -- the clitoris, vaginal wall, or labia -- additional evidence (in the opinions of institutional physicians) of sexual deviance...and underscored the assumption that feeble-minded women were indeed "oversexed."
The valuable chapter in Kline's book aside, very little is written about Dr. Butler's house of eugenic horrors. What happened there certainly wasn't a secret; Butler was a prolific writer. And nothing is available (at least, nothing that I've found) about Sonoma County's views on the doings behind the walls at the Home, which continued through WWII and after, even as Germans were being rightly condemned for the same practices. This is fertile ground for an American History grad student seeking a thesis topic.
As for our theme item about Dr. Brown and the idiots, not much else is known; several newspapers around the country printed a small item like this, also usually quoting a quip from the Richmond Times-Dispatch: If we were to drown all the idiots like rats, "some states would soon be mighty hard up for legislators."
DR. BROWN WOULD DROWN THE IDIOTS
Special Dispatch to Press Democrat
New York, Jan. 28 -- Dr. Brown of the Board of Health created a sensation while speaking of the proposed new system of education for the backward scholars when he declared that idiots should be drowned. He argued that there was no time these days to spend on children that were deficient in mental powers and said that as there was no hope for idots [sic] their lives should be extinguished.
- Press Democrat, January 29, 1905
This endearing vignette of Saturday nights in 1905 Santa Rosa is a treasure; our local history would be rich if only Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley had spent more time writing such lyric first-hand observations.
Every other year or so, the PD produced a promotional section designed to be mailed outside the area, describing all the wonders of Sonoma county in hopes of luring new residents and businesses. Wedged between crop reports, glowing descriptions of prosperous industries and praise for local churches (and pictures of the more popular saloons) were a few thumbnails of places and characters such as French Louie, the frog king, who lived near Sebastopol's Lake Jonive ("strangers will take notice that it is pronounced 'Ho-nee-va,'" the PD noted, adding a syllable lost today), and events like these weekly downtown shopping concerts.
For those not tempted merely by brass bands on the courthouse balcony, Finley offered another item revealing that local women and girls didn't wear bonnets during these outings, which would've been considered scandalous elsewhere. "In their 'summer-girl' garments, and without hats or bonnets, your Santa Rosa women reveal the quintessence of feminine charm," leered a visitor from the hinterlands.
OH! LISTEN TO THE BAND!
Summer Saturday Nights' Diversion In Sonoma County's Capital
Saturday evenings in Santa Rosa are bright and lively throughout the summer and the early autumn months. Five evenings each week the stores and markets close at 6 o'clock; but on Saturdays, the doors are open until midnight or thereabouts, and the town does its belated shopping.
Summer and autumn are the seasons when the population of the town is greatest. All the factories are busy; those in the fruit-packing business employ at least a thousand people at that time. Of Saturday evenings these draw their weekly wage, as likewise the employees of the tanneries, the woolen mills, the wineries and all the other factories. Most of them are relieved from duty an hour earlier than usual. Then working clothes are laid aside, and "Sunday best" is donned without waiting for Sunday to come. After the evening meal, it is the custom for all the family to go "down town" together. No matter if there is no need of shopping (although generally there is), the head of the household, "and the missus and the kids," all want to go and listen to the band.
Each Saturday evening in the summer and the early fall, Parks' band gives a concert on the north balcony of the Court House, which overlooks the junction of Fourth and Mendocino streets. These thoroughfares are thronged for several blocks and so is the Court House park; and around the square, on Exhange avenue and Hinton avenue to Third street, promenaders fill the sidewalks, the streets are blocked with vehicles, and the stores and markets busy with buyers.
The concert program is generally of ten numbers, varied to please a wide range of musical tastes. Always first there is a military march, frequently one of Sousa's or Pettee's. Next, a waltz and a polka, or sometimes a schottische. Then an old ballad tune, a fantasie, a medley or a potpourri; a solo for concert or trombone or piccolo, something classic from Wagner or Mozart or Mendelssohn, or perhaps the "Anvil Chorus" from "Il Trovatore"; then, by way of contrast a bit of rag-time. Always, at the end, a frisky galop, giving a homeward hurry to the heels of the multitude.
Parks' band is one of the "institutions" of Santa Rosa. It was organized in the '70s by S. L. Parks, who is still its leader. Few towns of Santa Rosa's size have so good a band, or one so large. Besides the customary reeds and brasses of the ordinary town band, it musters a saxophone, a French horn, an oboe and bassoon, and kettledrums with all their accessories. Its players are all "readers at sight," and most of them solo performers. This band is frequently called upon to play for parades and other events at a distance, and acquits itself creditably in comparison with musical organization from the great cities. The people at home appreciate Parks' band and are proud of it.
The Saturday-evening concerts are given under the patronage of Santa Rosa merchants, and the courtesy is an acceptable one to the townspeople, who enjoy doing their shopping to music; also to the promenaders, and to the children who frisk and frolic and dance on the Court House lawns upon the only night when such trespass is permitted. But before the hands of the Court House clock in the dome have drawn together in token of midnight, the music ceases, the bright lights fade, and the shoppers, the promenaders and the children all go home, to sleep against the dawn of Sunday morning.- Press Democrat promotional insert, November, 1905
Hatless Girls"The prettiest sight imaginable, and one that I have seldom seen outside of California, is the promenade of your beautiful girls and young women on the streets of evenings without any sort of head covering," said an Eastern visitor who was watching the throng and listening to the band concert one Saturday evening in this city. "To my mind it is one of the neatest, most picturesque and fascinating customs that the fair sex ever adopted, and it seems to have reached the acme of development right here in Santa Rosa. In their 'summer-girl' garments, and without hats or bonnets, your Santa Rosa women reveal the quintessence of feminine charm."- Press Democrat promotional insert, November, 1905
No frog gigger enjoyed a greater paradise than "French Louie" had on the banks of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. His favorite food was at his doorstep, easily caught by his own hook or bought cheaply from local children. And whenever Louie needed some scratch for good wine, he could always sell a few dozen of his leftover catch to the Gilded Age restaurants of San Francisco -- although that was usually more work than he cared for.
More about the competitive world of frog farming can be found in an article about the Stege frog ranch, complete with pictures, from the July, 1904 issue of "Out West" magazine. (Jack London fans: don't miss the following article in the same issue, where Charmian Kittredge argues against women riding side-saddle.)
PLEASE PALATES OF EPICURES
Much Money May Be Earned by Raising Frogs for Market.
This advertisement, taken from a Sebastopol paper of recent date, presages the revival of an industry once followed in a small way in Sonoma county, but which lapsed with the death of its founder.
FROGS! FROGS! We want all we can get. Now boys, as you go to school all week, why not get out on Saturdays and have some fun and make money too? 5 and 14 cents each for frogs. Wurdig & Co.
Frogs' legs have ceased to be a distinctively French delicacy. Americans have learned the flavor, and now the largest frog markets in the world are the American cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The business has been of rapid growth. Five years ago no frogs were shipped out of Minnesota. Now the exports amount to more that $100,000 a year. Minnesota frogs are in great demand in New York, Nevada, California, and in face every state north of St. Louis; and the demand is constantly increasing.
California, however, claims the largest and most systematically-conducted frog farm in the world, where frog-raising is carried on the same as chicken-raising on a poultry ranch. This is at Stege, a flag-station near Berkeley. Ther proprietor is Miss Edith Stege, whose father was an early settler there.
The frog farm on the Stege ranch covers more than six acres. Last year Miss Stege marketed 2,600 dozen frogs' legs, from which she netted nearly $2,000 profit. Prices ranged from 26 cents to $2 the dozen, according to the seasons of the year. There is a demand for frogs the year round, but they are more easily caught in some seasons than in others.
"French Louie," an old veteran of the navy of France, had a frog farm on the banks of the Laguna de Santa Rosa several years ago. He didn't have to propagate the frogs; they were there by thousands, and Louie used to catch them with a fish-hook baited with red flannel. None of his neighbors ate frogs, but occasionally some wayfarer who stopped for a glass of wine (Louie had good wine) would betray the possession of an epicurean appetite, and would be rewarded by an invitation to a feast of frogs' legs cooked by Louie himself, and to a glass of wine and a dish of sa-lad (with the accent upon the last syllable.)
Louie shipped frogs to San Francisco, but he was distant from a railway, and he found it too troublesome to go to town every day; so he sent his consignments whenever it pleased him, unheeding the clamor of the restaurant men in the city, who would take all he wished to send and still asked for more. But Louie preferred to stay at home and eat his frogs and drink his wine himself. When he died the frog business died with him. A few frogs are still taken along the laguna, to supply the restaurants of Santa Rosa; but not many of Santa Rosa's bon-vivants favor the bachtrian-delicacy, and for most of the time the raucous murmur of the marshes is undisturbed.
In the Laguna de Santa Rosa and in many other streams in this county there are countless thousands of frogs, which will find a ready market if shipped to San Francisco. French Louie used to catch ten dozen in a day, at an average profit of five dollars...all the details of frog-farming are easily learned and there is no doubt that there is opportunity for somebody to make money by going into the business on the banks of the laguna...Many people have never tasted frogs, but after they have eaten them once they become steady customers for the delicacy.- Press Democrat, November, 1905, promotional insert
Did Jack London possibly have a happier year than 1905? He was acclaimed as an author, journalist, popular speaker, and was finally married to his soulmate, with whom he purchased a farm near Glen Ellen that he first called "Land of Dear Delight," later to be expanded into his beloved "Beauty Ranch." And if it wasn't for the fact that he was a damned Socialist, Jack might have presented Luther Burbank with serious competition for the throne as Imperial Sonoma's favorite son (adopted).
London at the time was not only the author of two recent runaway best selling novels, The Call of the Wild and The Sea Wolf, but won due respect for his exclusive coverage from the 1904 Russo-Japanese War front while other top-name reporters from Western newspapers were sequestered in Tokyo hotels. Writing for Hearst's San Francisco Examiner, London and his small troupe of guides rode hundreds of miles on horseback in winter through countryside that had never seen a Westerner -- only to be turned away by the Japanese command a few miles from the combat.
Early 1905 found Jack London at odds and under stress. He was in the middle of a divorce from Bessie, the mother of his two girls; his publisher, Macmillan, was demanding a new hit book, and even threatening to charge him interest on the advances paid so far; and worst of all, his doctor discovered a tumor (specific details unknown). London had surgery in March, and the tumor was found benign -- and to his doctor's dismay, London resumed smoking cigarettes immediately. But there was still a month or so of recuperation, where Jack and fiancee Charmian Kittredge spent quiet days together.
By spring, Jack London was in Glen Ellen at Wake Robin Lodge, where Charmian lived with her aunt and uncle. London had an adjacent two-room cabin which he shared with two dogs including one named "Brown," an Alaskan Husky with a limp that he had been given to him by relatives of "an old Klondiker." In her memoirs, Charmian wrote that the dog was slow to bond with London, which became the topic of a short story, "Brown Wolf," about the original owner's ironic return. As Jack was then starting to write White Fang (the companion novel to Call of the Wild, about the domestication of an Alaskan dog-wolf), Brown undoubtedly played a part inspiring that work as well.
Jack was well enough in May for a 50-mile roundtrip horseback ride to Santa Rosa and Mark West with Charmian. They dropped by to pester Luther Burbank -- "an old friend of my family," Charmian later claimed -- and the Press Democrat item below noted that Brown was also part of the entourage, as well as remarking that Jack and Charmian strangely did not wear hats. (Although the PD was normally a stickler for the Journo 101 rule to ALWAYS spell names of local people correctly, she was called "Charmion" in their 1905 coverage.)
Two weeks later, Jack and Charmian visited for the first time the farm that would be the core of their celebrated ranch outside of Glen Ellen, and the next day London made an offer to buy it. Soon thereafter the Press Democrat announced that the couple was engaged, and that Jack had hired a local contractor to build an elaborate "barn" where they would live until their "summer house" was built. The house-barn was never built; the project was abandoned by autumn. Worth noting are the shared architecture between the barn and later design of Wolf House, with heavy peeled-log beams, tile roof, and insistence that everything be almost fire proof.
Jack and Charmian instead lived, on and off at Wake Robin Lodge, shown at right in a detail from an undated photo (courtesy The Bancroft Library), until moving to the old cottage on their ranch in 1911. Charmian later devoted a chapter of her memoir to that halcyon summer of 1905:
"As the weeks warmed into summer, campers flocked to Wake Robin, and the swimming pool in Sonoma Creek, below the Fish Ranch's banks, was a place of wild romping every afternoon. Jack taught the young folk to swim and dive, and to live without breathing during exciting tournaments of underwater tag, or searching for hidden objects. Certain shiny white doorknobs and iron rings that were never retrieved, must still be implanted in the bottom of the almost unrecognizable old pool beneath the willows, or else long since have traveled down the valley to the Bay.
"There were madder frolics on the sandy beach at the northern edge of the bathing hole, and no child so boisterous or enthusiastic or resourceful as Jack, 'joyously noisy with life's arrogance.' He trained them to box and to wrestle, and all, instructor and pupils, took on their varying gilds of sun-bronze from the ardent California sky that tanned the whole land to warm russet."
When he otherwise wasn't writing best-sellers, recovering from surgery, and adventuring with his fiancee, London was highly active in politics that year, running for mayor of Oakland (he received 981 votes, and later said, "I wouldn't let my name be used if I thought there was the slightest possibility of winning"). He lectured often on the merits of socialism, leading the (usually) labor-friendly Santa Rosa Republican to denounce him as a "dangerous member of society."
JACK LONDON VISITOR HERE ON THURSDAY
Jack London, the well known novelist and war correspondent, rode to town on horseback from Glen Ellen, where he is rusticating, on Thursday and paid a visit to Luther Burbank with whom he discussed evolution and inspected for the first time many of the new Burbank creations in fruits and flowers. He was delighted with his visit.
In the party of callers with Mr. London was Miss Charmion [sic] Kittredge of Glen Ellen. From here they rode to Burke's to visit some of Mr. London's friends here.
Two automobile loads of people were also callers upon Mr. Burbank...
Jack London was accompanied by the dog he brought with him from Alaska, and the animal attracted considerable attention. London came to town hatless, so did his fair companion, that being the prevailing style among equestrians at the present time.- Press Democrat, May 19, 1905
NOVELIST LONDON SAID TO BE ENGAGED NOW
When some weeks ago Jack London the novelist rode horseback to Santa Rosa from Glen Ellen to visit Luther Burbank, hs fair companion, also on horseback, was Miss Charmion Kittredge. It was then hinted in the story of the visit that Miss Kittredge was London's betrothed. Ther had been rumors for some time that the novelist had won the hand and heart of the attractive girl, who has been spending considerable time at Glen Ellen with relatives and who has also resided at Berkeley.
Miss Charmion Kittredge and Mr. London are now said to be formally engaged in an announcement that came from Sonoma on Thursday. London has purchased a tract of land in the mountains near Glen Ellen from Robert P. Hill and it is stated that he will build a summer home there. Frequently during the past two or three months Mr. London and Miss Kittredge have enjoyed horseback rides all over the Sonoma Valley and to Santa Rosa. Both are passionately fond of horseback riding. Miss Kittredge us a literary woman and has done some writing.- Press Democrat, June 9, 1905
Jack London's Fine Barn
Hoyt Brothers of this city have been awarded the contract for the fine new barn that Jack London, the author, about to erect at his summer home near Glen Ellen. This barn is something new in barn construction, it will be almost fire proof. The roof is to be of red tile, and the frame will be of heavy rough beams, stained. The whole structure inside and out will be plastered with the beams showing. The floor to the upper loft will be in the celebrated Roebling wire construction with cement floor on top. Taken as a whole the building will be something entirely novel and unique and will be a very substantial structure. Mr. London will erect a fine dwelling on his place next year.- Press Democrat, August 13, 1905
JACK LONDON'S LATEST
Attention was recently directed in these columns to the refusal of the school directors in the City of Oakland to permit Jack London, the author, to lecture before the students of the high school upon socialism. At that time it was argued that the action of the directors was justified because London is an extremist, and such men are not the best to mould the minds of immature students.
Bit it has remained for London himself to supply the evidence which labels him an anarchist rather than a mere extremist, and proves conclusively that the school directors, by their timely forethought, saved the high school pupils from association with ideas which literally smack of treason so socially revolutionary are they if logically followed out.
In his "War of the Classes," London strives to identify labor unions with socialism and says this of the leaders of that movement: "They intend to direct the labor revolt to the capture of the political machinery once in their hands, which will also give them control of the police, the army, the navy, the country, they will confiscate, with or without remuneration, all the possessions of the capitalist class, which are used in the production and distribution of the necessaries and luxuries of life."
Now if that does not approximate anarchy, what does? It need not be argued that London, in attempting to place the labor organizations of the country in the attitude of destroying property, does that class of intelligent citizens a very grave injustice. However, he speaks as the representative, not of your true socialist, but of a radical, lawless, and turbulent coterie of so-called advanced thinkers whose theories have outrun their judgement.
If this is to be the character of London's future literary work, he is doomed to certain and early eclipse. His stories of sea life and Alaskan scenes have won for him a great vogue, for his is a virile, bold and striking style. But success apparently has turned his head so that his socialistic notions have actually run to seed placing him quite outside the pale of that large class with whom he was proud to associate.
A very natural question is raised by reason of London's strange preachment: "Would his ravings about the war of the classes, with their pointed invitation to lawless agitation, command even serious consideration outside of a very limited circle of ultraradicals if London, as a writer of successful romance, had not caught the popular fancy as a rather clever young man?" He is not yet 30, though that is not against him, and from press comment, enjoys almost as much respectful attention when speaking or writing upon his peculiar doctrines as do men twice his age who have spent thirty years in studying the various phases of socialism.
We have reason to set Mr. London down, in view of his theories, as a dangerous member of society, for he who strives by word of mouth or use of pen, to foment disturbances and riot among his fellows with such suggestions as the confiscation of property with or without remuneration, is an enemy of his kind.- Santa Rosa Republican editorial, May 13, 1905
Sunday funnies weren't the only entertainment threatening the morals of youth; penny arcade peep shows led directly to a life of crime and prison, according to this 1905 Santa Rosa Republican editorial.
It's a strange commentary for a couple of reasons. There apparently were no peep shows in Santa Rosa at the time, so the issue was only of concern to small town moralists liking to tut-tut over big city vice. It was also old news; the Hearst papers had indeed made a stink about peep shows, but that was six years earlier. Was this cribbed from "The Big Book of Op/Eds" to fill a couple of column inches on a slow news day?
These peep shows are an interesting topic, however, and worth a digression, here. The images were viewed on a Mutoscope, where the customer turned a crank to rotate a Rolodex-like drum with flip-card photographs. (Those primitive machines are not to be confused with Edison's Kinetoscope of the same 1890s vintage, which had the images on a loop of fragile 35mm film threaded through rollers.) Although Mutoscopes also served up minute-long vignettes of current news, comedy shtick, and sporting events from before the turn of the century, Mutoscopes were most often associated with saucy mini-dramas with titles such as, "The Way French Bathing Girls Bathe," "The Dairy Maid’s Revenge," and "How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed."
The ongoing controversy about the Mutoscope content was perfectly captured in the 1905 etching, "Fun, One Cent" by artist John Sloan, seen at right (click to enlarge). Here young women, not boys, are gawking at titillating images; the Hearst papers also complained that even small children were able to watch the little movies, and as seen here, stepstools were available for those too short to reach the viewer. An excellent paper, "Children at the Mutoscope," describes more about the scandalous scene portrayed:
"Another girl wears a look of mild shock, while three others peer into eyepieces. A predominant tone of amusement, however, is created by the broad smile worn by a laughing woman at the center of the image. She watches not the naughty peep-show but the face of her shocked companion. She appears to be an experienced older viewer introducing schoolgirls to the arcade. Sloan’s representation is not one of panic or indignation, but of almost-quaint celebration, relating a pedestrian pleasure gleaned from an entertainment that is only mildly risque. Fun for a penny is, if not altogether harmless, part of everyday urban life"
The rugged Mutoscope viewers remained popular at least until the WWII era, and were hauled around to even to the most rural parts the nation by carnivals and traveling shows, giving three generations of Americans their first peek at "dirty" moving pictures. Perhaps the occasional circus or fair that visited Santa Rosa had a sideshow tent with a few worn Mutoscopes, where the local boys and girls could pay a penny, crowd around the machine, and watch "The Corset Model."
One of the San Francisco papers has started a crusade against the so-called "penny palaces" where indecent moving pictures are exhibited and children - boys and girls - are permitted to go unrestricted by their parents and drink the poison that starts young lives on the downward path of crime. The United States Government has some very strict laws about the use of the mails for questionable literature and pictures, and now and again some bold offender pays the penalty. There should be just as much and in fact more care exercised by the authorities in permitting such pictures to be exhibited in the arcades in the various cities of the State where such institutions seem to flourish. If restrictive laws are not made and enforced society will in the end pay the penalty, for every precaution taken in the interest of training the children of the land into clean, wholesome-minded, useful citizens is so much saved from the prison maintenance account.
- Santa Rosa Republican op/ed, May 11, 1905
It's time to rewire the entire town! And how interesting that "Boss of the Road Overalls," which ran a rotating series of ads, normally showing bright-faced, happy workers operating machinery, chose to portray the electrical lineman looking like a morose hobo, appearing to contemplate whether or not to use that wire to hang himself from the nearby pole. But hey, demand the brand.
If it wasn't for the earthquake lurking around the bend, historians might say 1905 was the year of big changes for Santa Rosa. Autos were so common that Santa Rosa imposed its first speed limit; so many homes had telephones that you had to look up the number in the "Hello Book" before asking the operator for a connection; major streets were being paved, sidewalks were going in, and now, the whole town was being rewired so residents could enjoy good electricity.
Rewiring the entire town might seem odd, considering that it had been rewired only four years before, according to the definitive 19th c history by Gaye LeBaron et. al. (although it's unclear from the book whether that may have been limited to streetlights). But upgrades were certainly needed; electrical demand in Santa Rosa was booming. A Press Democrat promotional supplement observed that the power company now provided "300 horse power to various factories," known because electric motors still were so rare that the company could keep track of them all, as they did in 1904. The newspaper supplement also noted that there were then 12,000 incandescent lights used around town. (How did they know? Even if the Lighting Company sold all these bulbs, were they sure all of them were still working? Was there a burned-out bulb return policy?)
The surprise here is how expensive electricity was in 1905: ten cents per Kwh, just a penny less than it costs today. Adjusted for inflation, that means electricity was over 25 times more expensive for the 1905 Santa Rosan -- it would be the equivalent of PG&E now charging us over a buck to use a single 100W regular light bulb for an evening. No wonder that bulb wattage at the time was typically in the dim 30-watt range.
The supplement article also notes that the Lighting Company recently expanded its coal gas plant. As in San Francisco, those gas pipes would fracture during the Great Quake and fuel the fires that did the greatest 1906 damage.
WILL RE-STRING ELECTRIC WIRES
Lighting Company to Spend Five Thousand in Next Four Months in Local Improvements
Announcement was made today by Manager Danville Decker of the lighting company that within thirty days work will be commenced re-stringing all the wires of the company in Santa Rosa. This will cost over $5000 and will take at least three months' time. To handle the job will require the services of about six special men. In discussing the matter Mr. Decker said that the copper in the wire grows less able with use and exposure to the weather to carry the necessary voltage. With new wires in service it is expected that the lights will burn with a better crilliancy [sp] and that the power supplied to the various motors will be increased.
- Santa Rosa Republican, November 2, 1905
FURNISHES LIGHT HEAT AND ENERGY
IMMENSE CONCERN THAT SUPPLIES MANY TOWNS INCLUDING SANTA ROSA
Harnessed Energy of Mountain Streams Turns Many a Wheel and Transforms Night Into Day
No scientist has yet been able to give an accurate definition of electricity. However, we have a large and useful knowledge of what it does, and each year we learn more of what it can do...
...Interruptions are of rare occurrence; and when they do happen are speedily remedied by the auxiliary systems fed by stations in nearly all the towns on the line. In the station at Santa Rosa are steam engines and dynamos of nearly five hundred horse power. There is another emergency station at Sebastopol, and another at Petaluma. These are connected so that current from any or all of them can be turned into the main line to remedy an interruption or a breakdown at any point. When the long-distance lines were first installed the engines were frequently called into action, but the task of discovering and eliminating the imperfections was energetically prosecuted, and today the service is well-night [sic] perfect, and the engines have stood cold for a long time.
Here in Santa Rosa the company has more than 12,000 incandescent lights and 1000 arcs, and furnishes about 300 horse power to various factories. The Santa Rosa and Petaluma electric railway draws its motive power from the same source. The high-potential wires into this city carry a current of 60,000 volts, which is reduced by "step-down" transformers to 2,000 volts for the arc lights, to lighter voltage for motors and still lighter for the incandescent lamps. Current is sold at 10 cents per kilowatt per hour, with flat rates on a sliding scale for large consumers. The Santa Rosa Lighting Company has also a splendid gas plant with a daily capacity of 200,000 cubic feet, which supplies gas not only to Santa Rosa but to the city of Petaluma, sixteen miles distant, to which place the gas is piped into great storage tanks under heavy pressure, affording also gas facilities to residents all along the line, a convenience unusual to dwellers outside of cities. There are thousands of gas stoves in the two towns.
- Press Democrat November 30, 1905 promotional supplement