There's no better time than April Fool's Day to remember Santa Rosans loved practical jokes around the turn of the last century, and nothing offered more bang for your buck than tricking some poor dupe into lighting up a 5¢ exploding cigar.

Until states began outlawing the explosive gag in the 1910s, "loaded" cigars and cigarettes could be purchased in probably every town in America. The trick, which had been around for decades, involved wrapping a tiny amount of gunpowder in tissue cutting the fuse off a small "lady fingers" firecracker and packing it about an inch from the lighted end, which would presumably give the perpetrator a few minutes to anticipate the hilarity that would soon come (or seek a safe distance). After the laughs, however, lawsuits sometimes followed; fingers were blown off, victims were scarred, and a pregnant woman sitting on her husband's lap suffered a miscarriage from the fright. (Curiously, though, I found no accounts of cigar-related fatalities, except for a poor soul who puffed on a stogie packed with black pepper.)

According to an 1886 article from the New York Tribune, the suits forced the novelty cigar industry to switch to a (very slightly) less dangerous product. Gunpowder was substituted with "red fire" - a simple pyrotechnic mixture used today in road flares and sparklers - inside a little shaped cartridge. Now the joke was that the cigar became something like a roman candle. "There is no sudden explosion which shatters the wrappers and sends fragments of burning tobacco in all directions, but from the end of the cigar a stream of fire shoots out to a distance of about three feet in a direct line." Well, that's certainly a safety improvement.

Alas, the jokester's need for explosive humor brought back the old techniques (or similar), as seen here in a couple of panels excerpted from a 1913 "Bunker Blinks" Sunday color comic. Worse, some pranksters were rolling their own hoax Havanas; in 1910 the Oakland police were searching for someone who was handing out cigars laced with dynamite caps.

The injurious era of joke-smokes mostly ended when dribble-glass and joy-buzzer mogul S. S. Adams began mass-producing a cigar containing a spring kept coiled by a bit of twine, which burned and caused the spring to "explode," comically ripping up the end of the cigar as we've seen in so many old cartoons. But in reality, it was far less a heart-stopping BANG than a feeble pop. Oh, if they only had today's NRA to advocate for the right of Americans to bear explosive tobacco products.

BOSWELL HAS AN EXPERIENCEPuffs an "El Stinko" Until It Explodes

Constable James Henry Boswell was the victim of a practical joke Friday afternoon that caused consternation to the officer of the law and merriment tot hose who witnessed the denouement. The constable was entertaining a large crowd of listeners with a good story, and just prior to starting in the narrative, he had been presented with a cigar by Sheriff Jack Smith.

Between sentences the conservator of the peace would puff on the El Stinko, and permit his mind to wander back over the scenes of the particular story he was engaged in telling. After having smoked for about ten minutes, and when his fears had all been allayed as to any suspicion he may have regarding the cigar being loaded, the "thing" went off with a bang.

Boswell turned many shades of color within the successive minutes and wound up with an ashy color foreign to his usual mobile countenance. For several minutes he was speechless and motionless, and then joined in the laughter that his predicament with the El Stinko had created.

It transpired that Sheriff Smith, who had presented the cigar to Boswell, had been the victim of a similar experience the night previous in Ukiah, and he was but playing even on the local constable.

Boswell reflected on the experience of one McNulty, alias Harriman, who had been presented with one of a similar variety and whose hair stood on end when the explosion came.

- Santa Rosa Republican, February 8, 1908

Here's a recipe for trouble: Take a farmer in a slow vehicle on a narrow country road and add an impatient driver trying to pass. Mix in lots of horn honking and simmer until tempers are hot. What do you get? A large serving of road rage, and an incident all the more remarkable because we apparently* have a first-hand account of the events by 9 year-old Helen Finley, who would marry Hilliard Comstock almost exactly a decade later.

Reports of horses spooked by inconsiderate auto drivers were not uncommon in that era, but this incident seemed to be outright malicious. Combining the newspaper version with details provided by Mrs. Comstock, what happened was something like this:

The Finley family was traveling by horse-drawn wagon to Calistoga for a week's visit with in-laws. As they climbed the grade on Mark West Springs road, an auto approached from behind, the driver honking for the wagon to pull over. The Finleys yielded at the first safe turnout, and the car passed.

Then without warning, the auto slowed and began moving backwards. It crashed into the wagon.

The horses panicked, and the Finley men struggled to calm them as their wives clutched the sides of the wagon in fear. The children jumped to the ground. The car driver shouted that the Finleys should cut the horses loose, apparently because the rig might tip over the embankment.

The crisis was averted, but Harrison Finley, Mrs. Comstock's grandfather, was so angered that he immediately swore out a complaint against the driver, a San Francisco lawyer named Jacobs, charging that he "deliberately backed down" the grade to crash into them. Jacobs' defense was that his "automobile became uncontrollable" after he passed the wagon. The judge accepted his version of the accident's cause.

Gentle Reader might now be thinking, "hey, that's not right; cars don't roll backwards unless they're in neutral or reverse gear - and besides, Jacobs could have used his brake." So I also believed - until reading about another runaway reverse incident that happened just two weeks later. The engine of that car stalled when the driver shifted into low gear to climb a hill, and the vehicle likewise rolled backwards, unable to be stopped by the brake. Jacobs may have had the same problem, or simply lacked the horsepower to reach the top of the hill. Still, it certainly should have been possible for him to steer his car away from the wagon and not endanger others. Not owning an auto, Harrison Finley may not have understood the foibles of the machines, but he was justified in his anger towards the driver, who acted in all ways irresponsibly.

* It should be noted that it's possible that Helen Finley Comstock was describing another incident in her oral history account. She says her father was driving the buggy, not her grandfather, and the newspaper accounts do not mention the presence of a family in the wagon. Still, the basic details, including the time of year, make it highly likely that this is the same event. As Mrs. Comstock does not mention her grandfather at all in the story, one possibility is that he did not complete the family trip to Calistoga, instead riding one of the horses back to Santa Rosa so he could quickly file a complaint against Jacobs.


Constable J. H. Boswell arrested Attorney H. A. Jacobs of San Francisco at Burke on Sunday morning on a complaint sworn out by Harrison Finley, charging him with disturbing the peace. Mr. Finley alleges that the San Francisco lawyer backed his auto down a steep hill on the Mark West Springs road and crashed into his buggy and nearly threw him, the horse, and the rig down the embankment. Just before this incident Jacobs drove his machine up behind the Finley buggy and sounded his horn a number of times to get Mr. Finley out of the way. The latter says he allowed the autoist to pass just as soon as he could. The lawyer's temper is said to have been a bit ruffled. He put up twenty-five dollars in cash and a hearing will be given him on Friday before Judge A. J. Atchinson.

- Press Democrat, June 30, 1908

Backed His Auto Into Buggy Near Burke's

Henry A. Jacobs, an attorney from San Francisco, was arrested at Burke's sanitarium Sunday morning by Constable James H. Boswell. The attorney was charged with disturbing the peace and put up twenty-five dollars cash bail to insure his appearance before Judge A. J. Atchinson when wanted on the charge. His examination will take place the latter part of the week.

The arrest of Jacobs was made on complaint of Harrison Finley, the hop grower, who resides on the road to Burke's. Mr. Finley was driving along the road toward his home, when he alleges that Jacobs came up behind him in an auto. Jacobs blew several blasts from his horn, and Finley found a convenient place to turn aside and let the auto pass. He charges that after Jacobs had gotten past his vehicle the autoist deliberately backed down a hill and crashed into his buggy, almost upsetting the vehicle on the grade.

After consultation with officials here regarding the matter, Mr. Jacobs [sic] decided to bring Jacobs into court and prosecute him and may bring a civil action against the attorney for damages.

- Santa Rosa Republican, June 29, 1908


Henry Jacobs, the attorney who was arrested on complaint of Harrison Finley for backing his automobile into the latter's buggy and damaging it, was not held to answer for the offense when he came up before Justice Atchinson on Friday. Mr. Jacobs showed that he did not have any intention of backing against the buggy of Mr. Finley, but that his automobile became uncontrollable and in trying to get up the hill the machine ran back down the hill and into the buggy. He offered to pay for any damage and the judge felt that he was not to blame for the accident, so dismissed the case.

- Santa Rosa Republican, July 6, 1908


While driving her automobile on the grade near Alder Glen Springs last Wednesday, Mrs. E. Irving Kincaid, of Cloverdale, had a very narrow escape from being seriously hurt. The Revellie gives the following particulars of the occurrence, and Mrs. Kincaid's many Santa Rosa friends are very glad the accident was no worse than it was:

"While ascending the hill in her automobile at the entrance to Alder Glen Springs Wednesday, Mrs. E. I. Kincaid had a narrow escape from death. She had changed the speed from high to low, killing the engine, and it seems [the auto] was unable to hold the brake and the auto backed down the steep road into the county road at a rapid rate. She was unable to steer the machine and it turned completely over at the bottom of the hill, throwing Mrs. Kincaid out, but fortunately not injuring her and doing but little injury to the car. Prior to the time the machine commenced to back, the other occupants had gotten out. Mrs. Kendall and three children, friends of Mrs. Kincaid, were in the car before the accident occurred. One of the little girls walked to "The Old Homestead" and phoned Mr. Kincaid, who went to the Glen and soon had the machine righted and drove it into town. Fortunately the top was not up or else Mrs. Kincaid surely would have been severely injured, if not killed."

- Press Democrat, July 12, 1908

Your business was lost in the 1906 earthquake, the insurance company won't pay, yet everyone yuks it up in court recounting the funny things they did "getting clear of debris or in steadying their nerves after the fright." They sound like the very sort of witnesses you want for reliable testimony: People who were scared senseless or immediately got drunk.

The court appearances in early 1908 were the the start of a long legal battle for R. C. Moodey, whose shoe store on Fourth street was destroyed by the fire that followed the quake. It was important for Moodey to prove that his merchandise was burned before the building finally collapsed; his insurance policy had a "fallen-building" clause that did not cover damage caused by earthquakes. Unique among all insurers, the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company refused to pay any Santa Rosa losses, and were sued in 1908 by five policy holders, including Moodey. The company lost each case, but their appeals slithered through the courts for years; the California Supreme Court in Sept. 1911 finally decided conclusively in Moodey's favor, over five years after the disaster.

Much of the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company's defense rested on proving that a "material portion" of a building had collapsed before the fire. A glimpse of how finely those legal hairs were split can be found in the questions put to the jury in another case a few weeks later.

Moodey's shoe store was at 539 Fourth street, currently the location of a hair salon. Between there and the building next door (now the address of Caffe Portofino) was the stairway to the Princess lodging house, where bones and ashes were found four days after the quake. It was first reported to be the remains of a man, woman, and child, yet the coroner issued a death certificate for a single unknown person. This discrepancy is one of several mysteries about the true earthquake body count.

(RIGHT: 1908 ad for R. C. Moodey's post-quake store)

Trial of the Moodey--Connecticut Suit is Resumed Before Judge Denny and Jury Wednesday

The tale of that eventful morning, April 18, 1906, was again rehearsed, at least portions of it were, in Judge Denny's Department of the Superior Court on Wednesday at the trial of the suit brought by R. C. Moodey against the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company to recover $500, the insurance he carried in the Company and which account the Company refused to settle.

Time has worn on but the reminiscences related on the witness stand on Wednesday served in a measure to recall some of the scenes on the morning when man's thought and vision ran wild. There was so much to see and hear then. The proceedings in court often during the day lent a touch of the humorous in the testimony of some of the witness while describing some little personal stunt executed to getting clear of debris or in steadying their nerves after the fright...among the witnesses were Fire Chief Frank Muther, Ed M. Faught, the Rev. A. B. Patten, John Halson, John Brobeck, J. A. White, W. J. Doggett, M. G. Hall, Ed Rohrer, W. H. Bailey, H. F. Wilson and J. H. Fowler. After hearing these men a brief recess was taken, the courtroom being stuffy, and the questioning arduous work. The witnesses in the main were those who could describe the appearance of the Moodey building and other buildings in the vicinity after the quake...

- Press Democrat, February 27, 1908

Jury Gives Major Fountain Verdict Last Night

The Connecticut Fire Insurance Company lost again in the Superior Court of this county last night. The jury in the suit of O. Fountain against the Company found for the plaintiff for the full amount claimed $1,116.66. A few weeks ago R. C. Moodey who sued the company got a verdict in full for the amount of his policy. There are still three suits against the concern.

The verdict was returned into court at nine o'clock last night after the jury had been out deliberating since before three in the afternoon. It seems that the delay in the jury room was not over the finding of the verdict but in the answering of a number of interrogatories which are mentioned below.


Question: Did the building described in the policy herein sued on and mentioned by the witness fall as a whole prior to its destruction by fire from a cause other than fire?

Answer: No.

Question: Did a part or parts of the building described in the policy hereing sued on and mentioned by the witness fall prior to the destruction of said building by fire from a cause other than fire?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Did a material part or parts of the building described in the policy herein sued on and mentioned by the witness fall prior to the destruction of said building by fire from a cause other than fire?

Answer: No.

Question: Did a substantial part or parts of the building described in the policy herein sued on and mentioned by the witnesses fail prior to the destruction of said building by fire from a cause other than fire?

Answer: No.

Question: Did a trivial or inconsiderable part or parts of the building described in the policy herein sued on and mentioned by the witnesses fail prior to the destruction of said building by fire from a cause other than fire?

Answer: Yes.

Question: If you find if a part or parts of said building described in the policy herein sued on and mentioned by the witnesses fell prior to the destruction of said building or from a cause other than fire, was the usefulness of said building for the purpose for which it was constructed impaired by reason of the said falling?

Answer: Don't Know.

Question: If you find if a part or parts of said building described in the policy herein sued on and mentioned by the witnesses fell prior to the burning of said building and from a cause other than fire, state whether or not the falling of such part or parts exposed the interior of said building or its contents to the inclemency of the weather?

Answer: Don't Know.

Question: Did a substantial or material part of said building described in the policy sued on and mentioned by the witnesses fail from a cause other than fire prior to the burning of the stock of goods of plaintiffs contained in said building and insured under said policy?

Answer: No.

Question: If you find that any part or parts of said building described in the policy sued on and mentioned by the witnesses fell prior to the burning and from a cause other than fire, state whether such falling occurred before the said goods insured were attacked by fire.

Answer: Don't Know.

After Clerk Jack Ford had read the verdict and the queries and answers Attorney Plaw [for the insurance company] ... asked the court to order the jury to give a definite answer to those queries to which they had relied "don't know." Judge Seawell declined to do so and Plaw took an exception to the Court's ruling...

- Press Democrat, April 11, 1908

As thankless jobs went, writing for the Santa Rosa newspapers must have ranked high. Reporters and columnists rarely had bylines in the early 20th century; only the names of the editor/publisher (Ernest L. Finley at the Press Democrat, and Allen B. Lemmon at the Santa Rosa Republican) appeared on editorial mastheads, along with their city editors (Herb Slater and J. Elmer Mobley, respectively). Those who harbored ambitions of being the next Mark Twain or Finley Peter Dunne or Upton Sinclair had the bitter solace of a small paycheck and the satisfaction of reading their precious prose in print, albeit after it was thoroughly mangled by that semi-literate oaf of a copy editor.

Aside from editorial cartoonists, only gossip columnists had some measure of recognition and freedom. Long a staple in the big city papers, the Republican introduced a gossip column in 1905 and was ridiculed by the Press Democrat for what it called, "Sussiety news," although the PD followed suit a year later with its own "Society Gossip" column. Written under the pseudonym of "Dorothy Anne" (real name now lost, but her identity surely was well known at the time), she was an insufferable snoot who fawned over Luther Burbank and wrote catty remarks about those in her own social circle. If Dorothy Anne were alive today, she would be blasting out snarky tweets complaining that the other residents of the nursing home just bored her to tears.

By 1908 the "women's section" in both papers settled down to mundane reviews of mundane lodge dances, weddings, and card parties. At the Republican, however, the column still flashed occasional sparks. Now dubbed "Pencil Gatherings Among the Social And Other People" (it would later be called the even more irreverent "Unclassified News of the Social and Other Things"), the author(s) sometimes took a good-natured swipe at the rival PD, Santa Rosa's morning newspaper:

A lady correspondent asks: "A morning paper, speaking of a dancing party, mentions 'the lady patronesses.' Why the modifying adjective to the noun?"

I don't know.

In "Pencil Gatherings" that year appeared the funniest item (well, intentionally funny) I've yet found in these papers: An account of an "up-town citizen" dropping by the newsroom for a "nice, long, social visit" with a harried editor. Likely it was a composite portrait of many such annoying visitors, and I couldn't read this without thinking of Major Hoople, a pompous blowhard who was the central character in the popular "Our Boarding House" newspaper comic after WWI. Hoople was a bit like the characters played by W. C. Fields, minus the likability. He was always boasting of some great achievement in his past or a get-rich-quick scheme underway, and rarely without a lit cigar in his hand; the Major's trademark was distressing throat-clearing sounds (probably caused by his cheap stogies) such as "faugh", "awp", and "fuf-f-ff-f-s-s-sputt-t". I can easily imagine Hoople perched there on the end of a desk fully believing that he's holding court, while heads were bent low over the typewriters and fingers furiously banged on the keys, hoping against hope that he'd take the hint and walk across the street to bother the guys at the Press Democrat instead.

(RIGHT: A 1927 panel from "Our Boarding House" reprinted in a fine paperback edition from Algrove Publishing.)

"Mr. Society Man," said an up-town citizen the other day, as he settled himself on the edge of my desk for a nice, long, social visit. "I hear they are a-goin' to have a bench show." I continued writing and he continued talking.

"Now, I like a good dog," said he, "though I never had one; and would like to see a string of fine bow-wows line up for prizes. If I had a decent dog I'd put him in and win all the blue ribbons, by jimminy, I would. Say, if any of the ladies who are gittin' up this fair want any help. I'll be on hand. Awful fine dog up our way, on King street. Great Dane--bigger'n a mule, and he has a chum, a stubby little English pug--nose smashed all over his face--thoroughbred--his father was kenneled at Windsor Castle--Queen Victoria brought him up by hand. Haven't got a cigar about you, have you?"

I hadn't, and kept on writing and he went on talking.

"Them two dogs is a team. One big, 'tother little. Society would just go wild over them. 'Nother feller up on College avenue has a Spitz--long white whiskers all over him; famous breed, too. His sire help haul a sled clear through the northwest passage from Baffins Bay to Bering Sea. I, I'm some on dogs. Got a match?"

I had no match and went on with my work without a break, and he did the same with his statements.

"I would like to take the contract to round up the stray ki-yis for the pound man," said he, putting the unlighted cigar stub in his pocket. "Up our way I have registered about 4000 cur dogs running untagged and untaxed. If a man in this town has a good dog, he is taxed for the privilege of keeping the canine. If the dog is worthless, it doesn't cost him a bean. So you see, it pays to have a durned mangy cur slinking around nightly, raiding the neighbor's slop cans. A feller over other side of the College park has three half-starved dogs and I have been keepin them alive for months. By jinks, they just live in my back yard. This ain't a nature fake story. I'm going up to the council some night and set in banc with the city attorney, and we'll get out the doggondest dog ordinance--one that no superior judge'll knock out, durned if we don't. We'll just load the treasury with dog tax money. We'll patch the holes in all the streets, have a public park for every ward and provide Frank Muther with plate glass fire boxes so the lightning won't get in 'em stormy nights and blow the corks--I mean plugs out. Got a Kansas City paper 'mong that pile of exchanges over there?"

Nobody went to see, and the citizen resumed: "By George, I'm awful glad to see they're goin' to have a bench show and encourage good dogs in the town and pay license on them. A place that can get up such thoroughbreds as Anteeo, Lou Dillon and Sonoma Girl should raise better bow-wows. Say give me a paper. I don't know whether I got mine last night or not."

- Santa Rosa Republican, January 18, 1908

Santa Rosa had that "certain something" in early 1908: Sounds of everyone gagging and coughing, plus a pervasive stench that was like an open sewer mixed with sulphur. O, City of the Roses, by any other name would thy stink be less ironic.

The horrible smell came from the town's gas supply, which was still used as lighting in most homes. The odor was so foul and unhealthy that Dr. Jesse, Santa Rosa's Health Officer, reported to the city council in February that the fumes were dangerous to infants and were causing respiratory illness. Two councilmen agreed that it was a serious issue. By the following week, however, everyone agreed problem solved: While the manager of the company admitted no negligence on the part of the business or any employee, he stated "the conditions" had been improved.

The gas in question was neither propane or the natural gas (LNG) that we use today; it was coal gas, more commonly known in that era as "town gas." Delivered to homes all over Santa Rosa and Petaluma via underground pipes, the pressurized mixture varied depending upon the type of coal used, but according to a 1907 book, it was always primarily hydrogen and methane with about 15 percent carbon monoxide. If the vent was left open without a flame, the seeping gas could be fatal; reports of accidental deaths and suicides in the San Francisco Bay Area were regular items in the local papers. As mentioned in "Santa Rosa: a Nineteenth Century Town" by Gaye LeBaron et al, all school teachers had to pass an annual exam, and one of the questions, c. 1890, was "How would you resuscitate a person asphyxiated by coal gas?"

Manager Cited to Appear Before the Council Next Tuesday Evening and Must Make Explanation

"I would recommend that the city take some action in the matter of the gas furnished for fuel and light by the Santa Rosa Gas Company. The gas as furnished is very deleterious to health, in 'that it is not properly washed,' causing bronchial troubles and catarrh when it is burned in closed rooms. It is not right for us to expose our babies to such dangerous fumes."

Such was the report of Health Officer J. W. Jesse, M. D., to the city council last night. As a result Manager Ralph Van der Naillen was asked to appear before the council next Tuesday night and explain matters.

Councilman Burris stated that he had been informed that the company, now that it has floated its bonds, will soon proceed to install a bigger and more efficient plant here to cost $100,000.

Councilman Hall said that there had been many complaints regarding the gas.

Councilman Reynolds said the matter is a very serious one, and should receive attention.

Consequently "Van's" familiar figure will be seen at the city hall next Tuesday night.

Fire Chief Muther said the fumes from the gas would turn polished brass black and green in the engine house in a few hours.

- Press Democrat, February 5, 1908

Health Officer Pleased With Improvement in Quality--Professor Van der Naillen Speaks

Health Officer J. W. Jesse reported to the City Council last night that since he made his report a week ago regarding the foul gas that was being furnished by the Lighting Company, the quality of the gas had been considerably improved and he had no fault to find with it now. He said the gas was practically free from the unhealthy fumes of which he had complained.

Manager R. L. Van der Naillen was present and he addressed the council. He said the company was doing all in its power to furnish good gas. As expeditiously as possible, he said, the new gas plant, one of the immense proportions, would be installed. He explained the conditions under which the company is working. He also explained the causes that lead us to the conditions found by the health officer and complained of by many consumers of gas here.

- Press Democrat, February 12, 1908

Manager Van der Naillen Explains to Council

The gas which is being supplied to the city of Santa Rosa has been materially improved since Health Officer Jesse called attention to its being deleterious to health. Such was the report of the health officer to the city council last night. He said that the gas which formerly was so offensive to the nostrils and caused people to cough was now so much better there was hardly any room for complaint at the present time.

Manager Van der Naillen explained to the council the efforts that his company are making to give a good quality of gas for consumption here and told of the difficulties which he had to overcome in handling the plant. He said the purifiers at the station for a long time had to be forced beyond their capacity owing to the great quantity of gas that had to be manufactured here because of the leaks in the pipe to Petaluma. He declared to the council that there had been no negligence on the part of any of the employees which permitted the gas to become of poor quality.

- Santa Rosa Republican, February 12, 1908

1908 was a rough year for kids in Santa Rosa - or maybe it was a year of rough kids.

It appears there was far more juvenile crime than in recent years, possibly continuing the trend of 1907's summer of the incorrigibles, where the newspapers reported robbery, arson, burglary, armed buggy hijacking, and habitual chicken snatching. Came 1908, and hooliganism was so rampant that the kiddie crime docket must be split across several posts, this one specializing in the breaking-and-entering variety.

The little boy who crawled through a school window and stuffed his pockets with scissors (which could be of high quality and quite valuable in that era) apparently stole them in a crime of opportunity - although he and his buddy crossed other lines by trying to hock the shears and lying to police. Far more sorrowful is the account of 8 year-old Tom Downey, caught attempting his second (known) break-in. "He is a hardened little criminal," one of the papers editorialized.

We know little of the back stories of these children, except for egg and chicken thief William Heliel, who spent a few years at reform school after attempting to derail a train. But we know nothing about the Bowman boys, who robbed a barber shop, lumber yard, dry goods emporium and hardware store. Yet of them all, their stories may be the most sympathetic; they seemed to be thieving only for practical things needed to survive.

Eight Years Old and Caught Entering a Store

On Sunday Probation Officer John M. Boyes arrested a small boy named Tom Downey, aged about eight years, who is an incorrigible, and detained him in jail. The youngster recently broke into the skating rink and on Sunday was found attempting to enter the rear of the store of Kopf & Donovan on Third street. He is a hardened little criminal and his relatives have been unable to do anything with him.

He claims to have made a trip back east as far as Montana, though eight years of age; and considerable trouble has been experienced with him in the past by the officers. It is not yet known what will be done with him, but he will probably be sent to some house of correction. The case will come before the probation court.

- Santa Rosa Republican, May 18, 1908

Youthful thieves the Peculiar Stories of Escapades

Fred Janssen and Louie Volpi, two youths of this city, are in trouble over the theft of about thirteen pairs of scissors from the school building at South Park. They are both in custody, and will be given a hearing at once. Both lads put up several stories in response to questions by officer John M. Boyes that show them to be among the most accomplished liars that have ever been taken up by the police.

While walking out Main street Friday morning, officer Boyes noticed two small boys break and run as if their lives depended on it when he approached. He attached but small significance to the speedy retreat of the lads. Later in the afternoon he found one of them in Johnson's pawn shop, endeavoring to dispose of a dozen pairs of shears. This lad was Fred Jannsen. Instantly the officer recognized the lad by his cap and high lace shoes as one who made the speedy "get away" in the morning. He took the lad to the police station and questioned him, and the lies that Janssen told almost convinced the officer that the boy came by the scissors honestly. He first declared he had received them through purchase from Tulare, and referred the officer to the postoffice clerks as authority for the statement. The officer went to investigate and found that Janssen had lied. The boy next said he found them in a vacant lot at Sebastopol and Santa Rosa avenues, then changed the lot to Mill street and Santa Rosa avenue, then the scene changed to the South Park school yard, then to an ash barrel in the yard. Finally the lad admitted he had stolen the scissors from the school building.

Janssen located Louie Volpi as his companion in crime and for a time Volpi "stood pat" on the assertion that the scissors were found in the ash barrel. He finally admitted he had lied and that the boy first arrested had stolen them. He declared Janssen had told him to say the scissors had been found by the ash barrel and he did so.

The boys were playing ball in the school grounds and the ball was thrown through a window. In recovering the ball from the structure, Janssen had gone inside the building. He saw the scissors, the temptation to steal them overcame him, and according to Volpi, he came out with his pockets bulging. Volpi denies that he entered the building or had anything to do with stealing the scissors.

- Santa Rosa Republican, January 4, 1908


Fred Janssen and Louis Volpi have been placed on probation by City Recorder Bagley pending developments regarding their theft of thirteen pairs of scissors from the South Park school building Friday. The lads have proven to the officers that they have little regard for the truth, and if their behavior does not materially mend they will be sent to the reform school. The boys secured the scissors by entering through a window and then tried to dispose of them at a second hand store. When captured by Police Officer Boyes they told all kinds of lies in an effort to escape detection, but finally Volpi confessed.

- Press Democrat, January 5, 1908

Paroled Boy From Ione Again Committed Crime

Today a warrant was issued for the arrest of William Heliel, at present a resident with his parents at Bellevue, on the charge of grand larceny. This young fellow, who is 17 years old, is alleged to have carried on quite a business of stealing poultry and eggs, his last being 125 chickens and ten or twelve dozen eggs.

About three years ago the boy was arrested, charged with trying to wreck a train of cars at Bellevue, and was sent to the Ione reform school. A short time ago he was released on parole, but it appears that this was clemency thrown away, for he recommenced a career of crime immediately on release. His relations consider him incorrigible and wish to see him in confinement again.

- Santa Rosa Republican, May 20, 1908

Two Brothers Lodged in Jail Sunday Night on Charges

Sunday night the officers discovered a boy trying to cut his way into the rear of Fred Hesse's cyclery on B street, and in attempting to make his escape the boy dropped a large knife. He was soon arrested and proved to be James Bowman, and the knife was recognized as similar to one which had been reported as stolen from the hardware store of Potter & Son a few nights ago. Bowman was accused of having burglarized Potter's store and admitted the same, and when the officers went to the young man's home in the northern part of the city, they found that he had taken from the hardware store a lot of ammunition, fish hooks and lines, a reel, a razor, two dozen knives, a pair of pliers, and a fruit check punch. The latter evidently for the purpose of tampering with his fruit checks during the summer work.

At the time the officers were at the house getting the things which the boy had stolen, they met his brother, Tom Bowman, coming home with a load of wood on his back, and he was arrested and charged with petty larceny.

- Santa Rosa Republican, May 25, 1908

They Robbed Lowry Barber Shop and Denio Store

Officers Lindley and Yeager Monday learned who robbed Denio's store on lower Fourth street, Mrs. Lowry's barber shop and Smith's second hand store some time ago. The energetic burglars are the Bowman boys, living on North street, who were arrested Sunday, James charged with breaking into Hess' store and Potter & Cunningham's store, and Thomas Bowman for stealing wood. One of the boys had on a pair of trousers which he had taken from Denio's place and several other articles from that store were found in their possession. Ton Bowman admitted that he broke into the Lowry barber shop on D street and stole several razors several months ago. The boys also confessed that they stole lumber from the Fitts yard.

James Bowman made a complete confession, and it clears up several housebreaking affairs that have been bothering the police for some time. He was held by Justice Atchinson to appear for trial in the Superior Court on $500 bail.

- Santa Rosa Republican, May 26, 1908

Quiz time: What's more absurd than a lawsuit over the ownership of a dead dog?

You should read the earlier articles to relish the profound craziness of this feud over Queen, "a valuable varmint dog." The case began in 1905 (1904?) and rumbled through the courts even after the pooch was killed in the Great Earthquake. Judge Seawell finally ruled in 1907 on who owned Queen, ordering Mr. Peterson to pay Mr. Frese $25.00 (heaven knows what all the legal bills were by this time). But even though the question of ownership of a deceased dog was settled, the courtroom combat began again in 1908 over a new crucial legal issue: Who owned her puppies? "There is a whole lot of principle as well as dogs mixed up in this case," a wag remarked to the Press Democrat court reporter.

"The Dog Suit" Still on the Tapis and "The Pup Suit" Is Yet to Figure in Legal Annals

The end is not yet. The dead "Queen" is to be resurrected and her good points extolled once more in legal oratory in Judge Seawell's department on the Superior Court. Not only that but the recovery of her progeny is to figure in another battle in the hall of justice. The latter consists of two well developed pups.

"Queen," it will be remembered, has been dead nearly two years now. About the time of the earthquake this now celebrated canine expired from shock, leaving two little puppies to shift for themselves. "Queen" -- the dead one--was alive when the litigation started, in which J. H. Frese figures as plaintiff and U. G. Peterson is defendant.

It was for the recovery of the dog that the first suit was brought. It started in the Justice Court some three years ago and from there went on appeal to the Superior Court, where it has been on trial and in many other phases since. Last Monday the suit of Frese vs. Peterson came up on a motion for a change of judgment and was set down for hearing next Monday by Judge Seawell.

Attorney Thomas J. Butts, who is counsel for the plaintiff, stated yesterday that he is going to bring another suit against the defendant for the recovery of the offspring of the deceased "Queen." They are said to be very valuable dogs. "There is a whole lot of principle as well as dogs mixed up in this case," someone ventured yesterday. It might be added that it costs something, too.

- Press Democrat, February 8, 1908

Here was the justice system, Santa Rosa, 1908: A man's arrested for allegedly beating his wife and infant child. Yet when everyone appeared in court, the case was closed - because the husband told the judge he wouldn't allow his wife to testify against him. Um, was that even legal?

Probably so, amazingly. Like other states, California had inherited from common law the notion that a spouse couldn't testify for or against the other without permission. Many exceptions were added during the first decades of statehood, and it was clear by 1872 that it didn't apply when the testimony concerned a "crime committed by one against the other." (Legal scholars can find a history of the state's "for and against" laws here.)

But in this era, wife beating and child beating were considered morally reprehensible, yet not necessarily a crime. Partly this attitude was rooted in the common law principle of "chastisement" - that the master of a house actually had a right to physically "punish" members of the family as he saw fit (as long as there were no deaths or permanent injuries). Also, courts nationwide repeatedly ruled domestic violence was a private matter; in a 1874 decision by the North Carolina Supreme Court that was widely quoted by other jurists in following years, " is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze, and leave the parties to forget and forgive." it wasn't until 1945 (!) that California declared it was a felony to inflict "cruel and inhumane corporal punishments or injury" to a wife or child.

With his wife unable to tell the court why "both she and the child were terribly bruised about the body and face," the husband called witnesses that testified that their 9 month-old baby was clumsy and always falling against chairs or the stove. Mr. Joseph Vagas was acquitted.

Then to add insult to very real injury, a relative of the husband visited the Press Democrat to attack the mother for the baby's condition (and her own, presumably) and to suggest "she did not produce evidence was because she had none to produce."

This dismal story ends with a faint glimmer of hope for the abused Pearl Vagas: Two years later, she is listed in the census as unmarried, working as a housekeeper for the Frank Silva family in Petaluma. There was no mention of her child.


Mrs. Pearl Vagas, the pretty little wife of the of the brutal fellow who was arrested for beating his nine-months-old babe and also his wife, was taken by the chief of police to Rev. F. T. Hopper of the Peniel Mission Friday night and placed in his care. She and the child were taken to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Warren Brentner, where the Hoppers reside, and there given the best of attention. Both she and the child were terribly bruised about the body and face, and were in a half starved and poorly clad condition. She told the people who befriended her a pitiful tale, and of how they were married in Petaluma, and the manner in which her husband has treated, or rather mistreated her since. She will be given shelter temporarily at the Bentner home until such time as she may be able to secure permanent quarters. In speaking of the trouble Friday night Mrs. Vagas stated that she would be glad to get a position where she could work for a living if she could only take her little babe along. She is quite a handsome little lady, and seems to have been given a very poor chance while tied to her brutal husband.

- Santa Rosa Republican, January 18, 1908

Man Charged With Beating Child is Acquitted Because of Lack of Evidence

Joseph Vagas, charged with beating his infant child, escape conviction in Justice Atchinson's court Wednesday by invoking the rule of practice which prohibits a wife from testifying against her husband. There was no evidence to connect the child's injuries with his misconduct when the wife's testimony was barred, and he produced several witnesses who had known of the child being injured by falling against the stove and chairs in the house.

The prosecution was represented by...

A relative of the accused man called at the Press Democrat office and alleged that the child's mother had neglected it, and that she was to blame and not the father. He intimated that the reason why she did not produce evidence was because she had none to produce. The parties concerned are well known in Petaluma.

- Press Democrat, January 30, 1908

This survey of the 1907 Santa Rosa newspapers concludes with 75 posts. I'm dismayed that it's still taking about a calendar year to document 12 months in this history, particularly since 1907 was a year with few earth-shaking local events. My only excuse is that there were a few other distractions that competed for my writing and research time.

This was a year mostly remembered historically for the Bank Panic of 1907, which led some in Sonoma County to bury their cash in the backyard rather than trust it in banks. Locally, the big news of the year was that Santa Rosa legalized prostitution. As you might expect, the respectable citizens of the town went nuts; church meetings were held to express outrage, and at the end of the year Miss Lou Farmer won a lawsuit against a "female boarding house" in her neighborhood.

Luther Burbank's entanglements that year came to resemble a French bedroom farce, with no fewer than four suitors pursuing his attention. Besides the researcher from the Carnegie Institution, there was a biographer and a tag-team of writers from a Midwestern publisher who had a deal with Burbank for a 10-volume encyclopedia on his work. Where a Parisian comedy might have an unexpected act 3 plot twist, it was announced near the end of 1907 that plans were dropped for creation of a "Burbank Institute" in Sonoma County - although it's unclear if such an institution was actually in the works. What?

For the Oates family, this was probably their last golden year. There were at least four parties at Comstock House in 1907, and both Wyatt and Mattie were very active in their social circles.

As a final salute to 1907, shown below is the oddest newspaper advertisement of the year (CLICK to enlarge). Santa Rosa Republican editor Allan Lemmon seemed to panic when he had too little copy to fill his pages; layout might suddenly shift to double or triple spacing, and once a large display ad was presented in someone's handwritten scrawl.

Now on to 1908: The Comstocks arrive!

Newer Posts Older Posts Home