If you polled average Americans on what they knew about Santa Rosa a century ago, some might mention Luther Burbank or recall this as the other place hit hard by the big earthquake. But it's a safe bet that far more knew about the "hoodoo" car.
Jake Luppold, a gregarious saloon owner who dubbed himself the "mayor of Main street," loved elections and particularly election nights, when his joint was always packed with with political die-hards, celebrating victories or drowning the sorrows of defeat. "The Senate," at the corner of 2nd and Main streets (currently the south end of the Bank of America building), had a reputation as being the political bar in town, as well as offering the best free lunch to down with your nickel beer.
In 1908 California only men could drink in a saloon, and likewise voting was only a man's prerogative, so local political events dripped with testosterone. Before any sort of vote, there were downtown street rallies marked by noise-making and fire-burning. The noise came from brass bands, shooting guns into the air, or a phalanx of manly men pounding anvils. (The anvil chorus was a more civilized alternative to the dangerous 19th century practice of "firing the anvils," which involved packing the cup-like indentation on the anvil surface with gunpowder and placing another anvil upside down on top. When the gunpowder was ignited, the top anvil was flew into the air - hopefully straight up, and not angled into the crowd - making a loud boom remarkably similar to a cannon's roar.) The fiery activities included torchlight marches to party headquarters or the home of a victor, plus a bonfire or two in the middle of a street.
As much as The Senate saloon was the boozy center of Santa Rosa's political world, chatter in any bar anywhere easily turns to gossip, and a perennial favorite subject was the mystery of Lute Veirs.
L. L. Veirs had a Third street butcher shop and was a city councilman as well as acting mayor when he mysteriously disappeared on November 13, 1903, abandoning his wife Annie. It turned out that Veirs (not "Viers," as misspelled in some histories) had embezzled money from the town and forged the signatures of relatives as co-signers on loans from Exchange Bank. He had also borrowed money from individuals around town, again forging signatures on promissory notes. When he vanished, one of the people left holding Lute's worthless paper was Jake Luppold. It must have rankled deeply; behind the bar he kept a photo of Veirs along with one of the notes, which undoubtedly served to spark more gossipy speculation about where he might be hiding. The case rattled through the courts until 1907, and for compensation Luppold settled on ownership of an automobile.
The car wasn't worth as much as the loan, but its age and make were never mentioned in the papers. Some modern sources say it was a red Dodge touring car, but the first Dodge wasn't made until 1914. There were likely only a handful of (expensive!) autos in Santa Rosa when Veirs vanished in 1903, so it probably wasn't a rusty bag o' bolts that he personally owned. Whatever its provenance, all that's really important to our story is that Luppold now had the thing, and it was a bitter reminder how he had been screwed over by someone he trusted.
Sometime in mid-October, 1908, about two weeks before the Taft vs. Bryan presidential election, Jake or one of his barflies thought of an inspired mash-up: They could have their election night fun and get rid of the damn car at the same time if they burned it in a street bonfire. Luppold received permission from the City Council and the Press Democrat wrote an article that was picked up by the Associated Press. No one could have predicted what followed.
In the next few days, scores of letters poured in; the wire service story had been reprinted nearly everywhere. Because the very idea of owning an automobile was still novel and its cost expensive, people couldn't grasp the idea that someone would willing destroy such a valuable and useful vehicle. Common themes that ran through the letters were that Luppold had to be ignorant of the car's value, a wealthy fool, or a superstitious idiot. Some begged Luppold to give it to them or donate it to a good cause; some offered to trade him for a buggy or less valuable car; some offered to buy it on the cheap. Jake's friend Wallace Ware later wrote that Luppold also received letters from widows, "who were primarily pitching for Luppold's heart and hand." Even local attorney Rollo Leppo, who had nothing at all to do with the deal except having a last name that might sound similar if it were slurred by someone very drunk, received letters asking him to spare the car.
Key to the appeal of the story was Luppold's insistence that this car had a "hoodoo," meaning that it brought bad luck (one letter writer suggested that Luppold was actually the victim of a curse, which Gentle Correspondent could remove for a fee). A hops broker joined the act, noting that prices for this important local crop had been depressed for a couple of years. Thus it was decided that a bale of "hoodoo" hops would burn inside the "hoodoo" car to make everything right.
As hoodoo hysteria swept the nation, Santa Rosans were tickled to read there was a little auto fire at Bacon's Garage, not far from Luppold's bar on Main street. The blaze was quickly extinguished with bottles of seltzer water, but Jake used it as an excuse to humorously charge it was an attempt by Bacon's "...to get ahead of him in this line of entertainment and burn their automobile first." Bacon's Garage, BTW, was where Santa Rosa's Squeedunks had organized their Fourth of July parade of mockery earlier that year.
Come election night, Santa Rosa was ready for some fun. The PD reported that Main street was jammed with people for two blocks on either side of The Senate saloon, which itself was packed. "Standing room in The Senate was at a premium," Wallace Ware recalled in his memoir, The Unforgettables, and "a drink procured became a prized possession."
The hoodoo car had been hoisted to the top of an immense pyre directly in front of The Senate, and the headlights of the auto glowed defiantly. Ware described what happened next:
Jake was, or course, the star of the show...at the peak of all this excitement a shrill voice screamed through a megaphone, four feet long, "Taft's victory has been conceded!" This was the climax. Jake was awaiting, for he instantly shouted the command, "Let her burn!"
The Press Democrat finished the story: "The crowds cheered themselves hoarse as the flames danced here and there amid the wood which had been saturated with oil to ensure its burning good." (Hopefully that bale of hops helped cut the acrid stink of the enormous kerosene-fueled fire.)
After the ashes cooled the next day, the blackened and twisted metal remains of the auto were removed from Main street and carried inside the saloon, and there hung from the ceiling. Jake Luppold could glance towards the back of his place and recall with satisfaction the night he settled his score with Lute Veirs while selling a record-setting quantity of booze. And until the day he died in 1922, he could show newcomers the hoodoo car, sell them a drink, and tell them all about how he became the most famous man in America for a time (UPDATE HERE).
Jake Luppold outside The Senate, c. 1918. L to R: Henry Carlton, Mr. Harris, Jake Luppold, unknown, and Tom Campion. In 1908, Luppold drew national attention when he had a "hoodoo" automobile burned in front of his saloon. This photo was also taken about the time that Luppold entered Comstock family lore when he told Helen Finley's father that her marriage to Hilliard wouldn't work out because "his family's too damn aristocratic." (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum)
"AUTO A HOODOO" SAYS "MAYOR" LUPPOLD
J. J. Luppold, the well-known "mayor of Main street," came into possession of an automobile some months ago. He had to take it to get some payment of a promissory note. He says the auto is a "hoodoo," and he has determined to consign it to the flames. He will not sell it to anyone and on election night, in front of the "Senate" on Main street, the torch will be applied and the machine will go up in smoke and flame. He invites all his friends to come and witness the blaze, and says it "will come off, sure." The "mayor" always sticks to his word and so a fire it will be.
- Press Democrat, October 18, 1908
COUNCIL SAYS LUPPOLD MAY BURN HIS AUTO
The City Council last night granted J. J. Luppold permission to build a bonfire on Main street on election night for the purpose of burning his "hoodoo" automobile. Mention of Mr. Luppold's intention was made in the Press Democrat a few days ago.
- Press Democrat, October 21, 1908
AUTOMOBILE TAKES FIRE
Put Out by Siphons of Seltzer Water
There was an exciting time at the Sonoma garage of Bacon Brothers On Main street Friday afternoon, when in auto belonging to the garage caught fire. A spark caught some surplus oil in the machinery on fire, and the blaze leaped high in the air. Those near the horseless vehicle were fearful lest the machine should blow up and they hurried hurriedly wheeled the vehicle into the street.
While the fire department was responding to a still alarm, Jack Roberts took a couple of siphons of seltzer water from his establishment and distinguished the blades. The department was not required after Roberts got into action. The damage the auto was nominal, only the varnish on the front seat of the vehicle and some of the leather upholstering being burned.
Jay Luppold, the mayor of Main street, is just a little perturbed over the incident. He has automobiles to burn, and believed he was the only individual with such inclinations until the fire of Friday afternoon. Luppold announced the public cremation of his benzine cart to celebrate Taft's election and to remove a hoodoo which has been pursuing him, and he professes to believe that the Bacon's desire to get ahead of him in this line of entertainment and burn their automobile first, The Bacons deny this imputation.
- Santa Rosa Republican, October 24, 1908
"SAVE THE HOODOO AUTO" THEIR CRY
Luppold Gets Letters Galore Wanting Machine as Gift or Would Pay Coin for it
The publicity given the fact that J. J. Luppold, "the mayor of Main street," is to burn his "hoodoo" automobile on election night, has resulted in his receiving a batch of letters from all over the state from persons, some remonstrating with him for his wastefulness in burning the machine, and others offering to purchase the machine, "hoodoo" and all. "Jake" says others offering to purchase the machine as he has taken a solemn oath that it must perish in the flames.
The Rev. G. R. Bryant, pastor of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church, Los Angeles, a colored brother, asks Luppold to give him the machine to enable him to "further the Lord's work." Bryant is also president of the colored Y. M. C. A. of Los Angeles. "Don't destroy the auto," writes the pastor. "It is just what I want to use in visiting the five hundred members of my flock. Mr. Luppold, the very machine you would destroy is just the thing we for our automobile class demonstrations. Now, Mr. Luppold, remember, I do not ask for the automobile for sporting purposes, but because I thing that you will be glad to know in after years that you have helped your fellow man. Amen."
Harvey S. Harriman, of Los Angeles, sends a long epistle remonstrating against the burning of the "hoodoo" automobile. He wants the automobile, and "hoodoo" thrown in." He is a cripple and has to ride in a wheel chair, but he believes that he "can coax the auto into being good for him."
"Jim the Penman" write Luppold from Los Angeles (his penmanship belies his title to being a good penman). He states his willingness to give advice on the assurance that it is kept "secret," as to the best way to remove the "hoodoo" from the machine, and suggests by way of introduction that a curse may have been put on the "mayor of Main street" which can be removed with little expense.
C. Parker of Oakland writes that he is willing to pay $200 for the auto, if it is a standard make, and closes his bid by saying that the coin is better than "a total loss by fire."
H. Bryant of Berkeley writes: "Dear Mr. Luppold--Isn't it a shame to burn up an auto when there are plenty of poor men who would be willing to trade a cord of wood for your bonfire and save the machine."
And there are others, demonstrating again that it pays to advertise.
- Press Democrat, October 25, 1908
AMUSING MISTAKE AS TO AUTO OWNER
The story concerning J. Luppold's burning of his "hoodoo" auto on election night has gone far and wide. But imagine Rollo Leppo's surprise when he received letters on Monday evening remonstrating with him for his determination to burn his fine touring car. At long distance friends had evidently mistaken the name. There's "nothing doing" when it comes to burning the popular lawyer's auto.
- Press Democrat, October 27, 1908
HOODOO AUTO IS INTERESTING
Jake Luppold has been receiving some more letters from the four quarters of the globe regarding his hoodoo auto, which it is proposed to burn on election night in this city. Some of the letters have been the source of much amusement. For instance, on Thursday Luppold received a letter from a woman in San Francisco in which she says: "My advice to you is to go and have your head examined, as I think there is something the matter with it."
One San Francisco woman says, "To show you I am a good fellow, I would pay the freight on the machine to San Francisco, or else trade you a nice horse and buggy which has no hoodoo. Is it a trade?"
Teddy Lohse, who used to be here before the earthquake, and is well known by many, sends a post card which says, "Send me the auto, for I've been hoodooed since the fire. Someone told me you were dead."
One young man in Portland urges Luppold to let him sell the machine for a fancy sum and invest the money in some enterprise in the northern city, agreeing to give Luppold half the stock in the company."
A man named L. V. Walters of San Francisco writes, "If you are determined to burn your auto, why not first make a trade with me. I have an old Pope-Toledo which will run just about as far as from your place of business to the bonfire you contemplate. Put enough gasoline in it and it will make as large a fire as your car, and if it starts to burn quick enough--and I think that could be arranged--then very few people would be able to tell whether it was your car or someone elses. He is a good fellow and let's swap."
- Santa Rosa Republican, October 30, 1908
ANOTHER HOODOO TO GO WITH AUTO
"Hoodoo" to Be Driven From Hope--Mr. Luppold Invites Hop Growers to Attend the Cremation
With Jake Luppold's "hoodoo" automobile on election night will be destroyed another "hoodoo," at least it is hoped so. Milton Wasserman, the well known manager of the William Uhlmann Company, hop merchants, has accepted an invitation to apply the torch to the bonfire at ten o'clock on election night which will consume the auto. Two cords of wood will compose the bonfire, and it will be well saturated with oil.
Now as to the other "hoodoo." Listen! all ye hop men who are watching and praying that the price of hops will advance. It was in 1907 that a "hoodoo" descended on the price. Consequently in the hopes that the "hoodoo" will be driven away by a baptism of fire, Wasserman has donated a big bale of "hoodoo" hops--the "1907s." The bale of hops will be placed in the seat of the automobile and will be burned. If that hop "hoodoo" does git, won't there be rejoicing among the growers, though? Don't all speak at once.
- Press Democrat, October 31, 1908
THE HOODOO FOLLOWS STILL
Jake Luppold has Experience at Polls Tuesday
J. Luppold, the Main street saloon-keeper, which has been trying to escape from a hoodoo for some time and who has announced that he will burn an automobile tonight in front of his place of business to vanquish, if possible, the ill luck that has been following him, met with the worst omen of all Tuesday morning when he went to the polls to cast his ballot. The following data secured at the voting place in precinct No, 7, will be enough to convince the most skeptical that he has a real "hoodoo:"
His number of the index of registration was 113, and he was the 13th voter to cast his ballot at the polling place, his number was "13" on the poll list, his ballot was number 18013, he was the thirteenth man to enter the booth and he voted sharply at 8:13 a. m. according to the watches of the officers of election.
- Santa Rosa Republican, November 3, 1908
THE HOODOO AUTO GOES UP IN SMOKE
Vast Crowd Witnesses the Cremation of Machine and "Hoodoo" Bale of Hops Last Night
In the presence of a tremendous crowd of spectators Luppold's "hoodoo" automobile was consumed by baptism of fire at ten o'clock last night. The auto and a big bale of "hoodoo" hops was placed on a pile of specially selected oak and pine cord wood.
At a given signal a skyrocket was sent up and then Milton Wasserman applied the torch. The crowds cheered themselves hoarse as the flames danced here and there amid the wood which had been saturated with oil to insure its burning good.
Luppold was the hero of the occasion. He had said the auto should burn and it did. He kept his part of the agreement and the people were satisfied. The old auto was soon reduced to a small pile of ashes and fragments of iron and as the embers died out above the din there arose an exultant voice. It was Luppold saying "I guess the 'hoodoo' is gone sure now."
Among those gathered in the vast crowd that blocked every foot of Main street for a couple of blocks on either side of "The Senate," Luppold's place of business in front of which the bonfire was kindled, were a number of hopgrowers. They came from many parts of the county to see the "hoodoo" bale of hops consumed. The hops were "1907's," the hoodoo price year. The hopgrowers hope that their "hoodoo" disappeared when Luppold's did. The auto burning was certainly a novelty unheard of in the history of automobiles in the manner in which one was burned here last night and for the reason. Luppold and his "hoodoo" auto have become known from ocean to ocean, and newspapers everywhere have published accounts of the affair and in addition Luppold received scores of letters, a number of which have been published in these columns.
In the burning of the automobile last night Luppold also celebrated the election of Taft. He said he would do so when he first announced that the "hoodoo" machine would go up in smoke.
- Press Democrat, November 4, 1908