Never had Santa Rosa seen someone with money like this: Coming to live here was an incredibly rich German aristocrat. When asked about his fortune, the Baron would only offer a long whistle to indicate that it had no end. Trouble was, all that great wealth actually belonged to his wife, who was so frugal that he was forced to sometimes ask his new friends for loans to cover his living expenses.
"Baron Von Senden" was a con-man, of course, and the smooth-talking young fellow fooled Santa Rosa's real estate agents who hoped he'd buy a large ranch in the area, possibly even the sprawling McDonald property, which was about half the size of Santa Rosa at the time (it was a square-ish plot of land between Summerfield Road and the city reservoir, including all of Spring Lake Park and most of Howarth Park).
But it was the society swells in San Francisco who really got rooked by the "Baron." who treated him to fine dinners and nights at the theatre, all the while forcing upon him wads of their cash to ease his terribly embarrassing lack of pocket money. As a show of his gratitude, he gifted them with boxes of cherries, fresh butter, and suckling pigs, all from his huge dairy in Point Reyes and his grand orchard in Santa Rosa. In reality, the "Baron" was just buying these treats in the San Francisco markets.
When he finally fled the area with some $900 in his pockets, the San Francisco Call discovered that this charming young man was actually Edward Miller, who came to the United States from Germany around 1890. (Miller probably read the name "Baron Von Senden" in a newspaper; the real man with that title was then an admiral in the German Navy and diplomat. And, by the by, some fifteen years later, another Baron Von Senden, presumably his son, was involved in the Black Reichswehr, the banned pro-Nazi faction inside the German Army as Hitler was rising to power.)
Miller had worked on land owned by the governor of Tennessee, drifted to Michigan, and then the Bay Area in October. 1907. He arrived here just in time for the Bank Panic of 1907, which nearly derailed the entire U.S. economy. He was employed at an Oakland stable for a time, but circumstances apparently forced him to take one of the worst jobs imaginable: He became a San Francisco rat catcher.
(RIGHT: A crew of San Francisco rat catchers pictured in a 1908 magazine article about efforts to eradicate sources of plague. The men were paid per rat captured and killed, with the dead vermin sent at the end of the day to the "ratatorium" where the rats were skinned and examined for signs of infection. CLICK to enlarge)
A little over a year past the great 1906 earthquake, San Francisco was facing another outbreak of bubonic plague. During the first four years of the century, over 100 people had died in the city; now another epidemic loomed. The hero of the day was Dr. Rupert Blue, who mobilized the city's Bureau of Health into an efficient machine that searched for rats, checked them for disease, and promptly dispatched public health officers to wipe them out. The foot soldiers in this army were the motley crew of rat catchers, men either desperate to earn a dime per rat or just in it for the killing fun. It was a dangerous business that paid poorly, and Dr. Blue tried incentive schemes to motivate them, while his assistant wrote an instruction manual, "How to Catch Rats," that included the instruction that a chick or duckling should be placed near the trap to offer come-hither cheeps.
The intriguing aspect of this story comes down to the moment that Edward Miller, a rat catcher with the dimmest of futures, decided he would transform himself into the brightly gilded Baron Von Senden. How he gathered the nerve to make that metamorphosis must have required a good measure of desperation mixed with a criminal slant, and maybe a hearty dash of Don Quixote-like madness as well.
THE "BARON" WAS IN CITY OF ROSES
Bogus Titled Foreigner Negotiated for Ranch Property But Did Not Come Through With the Coin
A number of Santa Rosans, including the real estate men, read with interest of the disappearance of the bogus Baron Von Senden, alias E. Miller, from San Francisco, leaving a host of unpaid bills in his wake.
It was stated in the metropolitan newspaper that the "baron" had been to Santa Rosa and had negotiated for the purchase of a fine ranch. This statement is true. The baron was here on several occasions and was accompanied by an attractive woman, brunette, whom he introduced as his wife. They stopped at a local hotel and the supposedly titled foreigner gave people the impression that he was a man of considerable wealth.
It was ascertained here yesterday that all the "baron" did was to negotiate but did not invest any of the coin in land hereabouts. He did a whole lot of inspecting of places, particularly the big McDonald ranch, near the city pumping station.
- Press Democrat, October 25, 1908
POSES AS BARON; REAPS BIG CROP
Edward Miller Cuts Wide Swath and Disappears, Leaving His Creditors to Mourn
With no more capital than a bogus title, an easy manner and a colossal nerve, Edward Miller, a young German, who post as Baron von Senden, was able to win his way into the most exclusive clubs of San Francisco, to gain the friendship of men high in finance and society, and incidentally to extract from them sums of money reaching a total of $900. When he made his final cleanup the young "baron" made a hurried departure to fields unknown. Now the story is being told in the clubs and cafes and those who were in the confidences of the young foreigner are bending every effort to establish an alibi.
There was no limit to which the baron would not expand his riches if occasion demanded. He had been a rat catcher on Dr. Blue's staff, he had worked in an Oakland livery stable, but after he made his grand entry into society he became, according to his own tales, the owner of a vast dairy ranch in Marin County and a wonderful orchard near Santa Rosa. He sent rolls of butter to his friends from his "dairy"; he sent boxes of cherries tied with pink ribbons from his orchard, and to those for whom he had borrowed the largest sums he sent sucking pigs from his farm--all purchased in lower Washington street with the coin he had coaxed from his benefactors.
He was received at the Pacific Union club, he autoed with Manager Meyerfeld of the Louvre, he drank champagne with Antonio Blanco of restaurant fame, he inspected Marin county with President M. T. Freitas of the Portuguese-American bank, he dined sumptuously with Dr, von Horstman of the German hospital, he rode to the theater in Kelly's carriages at Kelly's expense, and he sipped tea with a young society matron from whom he accepted, with many protestations, a temporary loan of $50.
The baron was a devotee of the automobile, the wine supper and the night life of the ocean boulevard. HIs 250 pounds rocked with laughter at every jest, with an entertaining accent he told pleasing stories and the thought that the baron was not the Pierpont Morgan of the kaisers realm never entered the minds of those with whom he dined and motored.
The baron was an artist in his line. His wife, he said, was the wealthy member of the family. She had the money and the baron would give a long whistle to indicate that it had no end. But his wife was frugal and he was "compelled to borrow occasionally" from his friends. The early advances he repaid only to enlarge his credit. The end came when he made his great coup and departed with $900 tucked under his velvet vest.
Miller came to America 18 years ago with the letter of introduction to the governor of Tennessee. He became the manager of the governor's estate, and while in the South married a young woman of excellent family. She was with him in California, but was ill a great part of the time. From Tennessee Miller drifted to Milwaukee, and came to San Francisco in October of the last year.
At first he worked in an Oakland stable and then joined the rat catching regiment. It was while working in this capacity that be conceived the idea of capitalizing his nerve, with highly successful results.
Meyerfeld was good enough to advance him $250, Bianco thought he was to have a partner in his business and made general contributions to the visitor's cash account. Freitas also made generous donations. A number of cafe proprietors were on the list for large amounts. In fact, the list of contributors resembles the subscription list for the entertainment of the fleet.
The baron was not satisfied with the local field, but worked the suburbs as well. San Rafael remembered him, as does San Jose and even the pleasant little village of Point Reyes. It was at Point Reyes that the baron had his mythical dairy with 6,000 cows.
The baron was a gifted talker. He could discuss military affairs and politics, but he appears to have been at his best at finance.
- San Francisco Call, October 23, 1908