It was racism so barbarous that it's difficult to believe: An adopted child was taken from her mother and loving family because authorities deemed the child didn't belong with a "lesser race."
Such was the tragic story of Mah Lo, a nine year-old girl who was living in San Francisco's Chinatown with her mother in 1909. Her Chinese parents had the paperwork to show they had legally adopted the child in 1904, but that didn't matter once it was discovered that Mah Lo was really partly Italian (or maybe Syrian) and not Chinese at all. Probably.
(This is the first of two essays on 1909 media racism.)
The news surfaced during the sleepy dog days of midsummer when desperate editors seek any scrap of news, and this story had a sensational angle sure to sell plenty of papers. The San Francisco Call's headline, "WHITE CHILD IN AN OPIUM DEN" began:
|"Mah Ho, 9 years old, with great brown eyes round as the walnut rather than like the almond, and distinctly European features, was taken yesterday morning from a basement opium and gambling den at 54 Spofford alley, Chinatown, and is now in the juvenile detention home...the fact that she was facing the shame and degradation of oriental woman slavery aroused the police and mission authorities."|
Readers of The Call were also told the girl was "kept in close confinement in her prison basement, her only playmate being a puppy, and scarcely it seems, did she ever see the sunlight." The Call's version, however, was the very model of restraint compared to what appeared in the San Francisco Daily News: Their version claimed the child was "Secluded for years in a basement where no sunlight can enter, when removed to the street the child covered her eyes with her hands and cried out in pain." Leaving no lurid description unmilked, her dog was also a "half-starved" mongrel and a "flickering gas light threw fantastic shadows on the blackened walls" as her rescuers descended into the "ill-smelling basement." As the San Francisco outlet for the UP newswire, the Daily News' version went out to newspapers nationwide, some using an obviously retouched photograph supposedly showing Mah Ho with eyes large enough and round enough to outbulge some of the goggle-eyed waifs painted by Keane in the 1960s.
In following days reporters continued trying to write about a child abuse/crime story (the girl was described as living in a "hop joint," a "Chinese brothel" or "discovered during a raid on an opium den"), but the details couldn't be twisted to fit the usual yellow journalism narratives. For starters, Mah Ho and her adopted mother, Tun See, deeply loved each other; the headline in the next day's Call was "Little White Girl Longs to Return to Her Chinese 'Mother.'" Mah Ho could speak only Chinese and was completely accepted as a family member; through an interpreter she told authorities she had "a Chinese papa and mama" and "before the fire [1906 earthquake] we lived in a basement with my papa and mamma and uncles and aunts and cousins." Even the captivity angle fizzled out; the woman who took Mah Ho from her family admitted she knew about Mah Ho because "she had seen the child in the street."
From court testimony reported in the papers and an article that appeared only in the Santa Rosa Republican, we can puzzle out some of Mah Ho's backstory. She was apparently born in Geyserville in 1900 and named Alice. The correspondent to the Republican wrote that the mother's name was Mabel Bell, and the census that year indeed shows a 16 year-old with that name living in the Russian River area. When her birth mother married a man named William Minto three years later, the toddler was then called Alice Minto. The marriage failed quickly and the mother disappeared. Little Alice was put up for adoption, and later told the court that she had no memories of her birth mother or pre-Chinese life.
Meanwhile, her soon-to-adopt father (called both Mah Juy Lin and Mah Lin Kee in the newspapers) began seeking a child to adopt. His wife Tun See was apparently unable to bear children; he later told the court that she had previously lost two children and was "delicate."
The adoption process was far more lax than today - see an earlier writeup about the Salvation Army giving away a baby as an attraction for their religious service in Santa Rosa. Thus in early 1904 when two anonymous women showed up at the Children's Home Finding Society in Berkeley with little Alice in tow, superintendent Rev. Henry Brayton knew he could place her in a good Chinese home.
Brayton later told the Call that he absolutely believed she was Chinese "on account of her dark skin and oriental features. In this belief I placed her with a Chinese family in San Francisco. I would not think of placing a white girl among Chinese." Others weren't so sure they could ethnically pigeonhole the girl. Even the woman who took custody of her wasn't sure she was a "white child," telling the Call, "I have seen many half whites, but never one that looked as she does. I would say that the child is an Italian Jew." The Salvation Army captain who delivered her to Tun See thought she was Middle Eastern, probably Syrian.
The girl's unusual looks led her adoptive parents to fear that Mah Ho/Alice Minto would draw attention from intrusive whites, as happened in an incident described by father Mah Juy Lin. A worker on Central Valley farms, he told the Call they were apparently detained and questioned about the girl, which led them to keep the child away from prying eyes as much as possible: "Once the child and my wife went to the country to see me and the child was arrested, and after that I never sent the child out very much." In one of the newspaper's more sympathetic followups, the Call reported "Tun See always said that if they saw her they would carry her away."
And, of course, that's what happened on July 28, 1909 in San Francisco's Chinatown. A police officer, accompanied by an interpreter and Donaldina (!) Cameron of the Presbyterian Mission House along with a reporter or three, seized 9 year-old Mah Ho and took her away. Tun See showed them the adoption papers to no avail; she was told to bring the documents to the court hearing the following week.
One wonders what Miss Cameron thought when she and the other "rescuers" pushed through the door. The Mission had received letters (anonymously written, of course) claiming that Mah Ho was being "whipped, triced up by the thumbs and made to work at late hours of the night" - in short, it was expected to be the situation that Cameron often encountered. Now 40, Donaldina had dedicated her life to rescuing Chinese girls and young women from prostitution and slavery, personally leading the sometimes-dangerous raids. (Good profile here.) But instead of finding a victim needing to be saved, there was a frightened little girl with a puppy hiding behind her mother's skirt.
Mah Juy Lin, then working on a potato farm near Stockton, returned home immediately and contacted the Six Companies (the umbrella Chinese benevolent society) for legal aid. Before the first court hearing, it was mentioned that he would be petitioning for guardianship of his adopted daughter.
But what of their adoption papers? Weren't they legal?
Cameron told the Call that she saw a document from the Children's Home Finding Society. "It purported that the society had investigated and found to the satisfaction of the officers that a certain Lin Juy was a fit person to have the custody of the child." A Salvation Army worker confirmed "Brayton had investigated the Mah home and himself decided it to be a proper place for the child," according to the Daily News.
Yet there was a problem with the document, Cameron said: "The name Lin Juy was written over another name, which had been erased, but which was, I believe, a Chinese name." What this meant is anyone's guess. Not Cameron, nor anyone else, alleged fraud - that in 1904 the girl was really entrusted to someone else. After all, Rev. Brayton had documented his home visit, and the Salvation Army captain delivered the child to Tun See. More likely the clerk screwed up the pinyin for Mah Juy Lin's name and corrected it. What impact this had on the outcome of the case is unknown.
Before the next court date, another party announced they wanted guardianship. The new claimant was a Mrs. Ritchie of Healdsburg, who said she was the long-lost Mrs. Minto. Only now she said she wasn't the mother of little Alice, but actually her first foster mother; she had adopted the child from the Home Finding Society, then forced to return her when the Mintos divorced. She was planning a third marriage to Louis Witschey of San Francisco, whose mother appeared in court on behalf of her future daughter-in-law. "Only God knows how much I love the child" she sobbed over the girl she had never met. According to the Republican correspondent, they were all liars. Minto-Ritchie was indeed the mom, and this woman claiming to be Mrs. Witschey was actually the true maternal grandmother - and by the way, Mrs. Ritchie was a San Francisco dance hall floozy until recently. (Six gold stars if you followed half of that.)
The last hearing came exactly two weeks after Mah Ho had been taken from her parents. No Witscheys or Mintos were present. After a long conversation with Miss Cameron, Mah Juy Lin and Tun See agreed to drop their application for guardianship.
The only noteworthy events at the hearing was an outburst by one Mrs. Claudia Schad, who told the court she was a missionary among the Chinese. Schad demanded the girl be immediately be taken away from Cameron's Mission House as no white child should be associating with other Chinese children living at the Mission. Cameron told the court it would be an "unkindness to the child to place her in a white family just now," as she knew few words of English and was accustomed to only Chinese food. The judge said he would make a decision in two weeks.
The Call reporter at the hearing wrote, "The most pathetic feature of the case is the deep grief of the Chinese pair. When the child was brought to them she clung to the Chinese woman with every demonstration of affection."
The curtain fell on the tragedy at the end of August. A wire service filler item circulated: "Judge Murasky orders that little Alice Minto, who was taken away from Chinese foster-parents in Chinatown underground den, be placed permanently in care of a white family."
NOTES ON SOURCES: Articles from the Santa Rosa newspapers and other local journals are transcribed here when they are not available via the Internet. All six of the San Francisco Call articles can be read via the California Digital Newspaper Collection, and the San Francisco Daily News/United Press wire service stories can be found via the Library of Congress.
MAH HO BORN IN COUNTYWhite Girl Has Lived With Chinese Family
Little Mah Ho, the Italian child who for six years was kept in a dark room in the home of her adopted father, a Chinaman in San Francisco, has been found to have been born at Geyserville in 1900. William Baker, a teamster residing on Cypress Alley, in the metropolis, has made a statement of what he knows about the child's early life, and his knowledge of the child's mother.
Baker declares that little Alice Minto is the daughter of Mrs. Mabel Minto who Tuesday secured a marriage license to wed Louis Witschey, of San Francisco and who was until 3 months ago employed as a dancer in the O. K. dance hall on Pacific street.
Since that time she has been living as Mrs. Mabel Ritchie in Healdsburg.
According to Baker's story Alice Minto was born in Geyserville in 1900, and the woman who called upon Miss Cameron of the Presbyterian Mission and represented herself to be the first foster mother of the child, is really its own mother, and the woman who wrote to Judge Van Nostrand is the real grandmother.
"Alice Minto was named for her aunt, who was a girl of thirteen years of age when the child was born," declared Baker.
"I have heard that the child was sold for $15. Mrs. Minto's maiden name was Mabel Bell and in 1903 she was married to William Minto, an employee of the Chutes, and took the child to live with its grandmother at San Jose. She later disappeared and the person who probably knows most about what became of her is Mrs. Laura Thomas, afterward of the Salvation Army. Mrs. Thomas was engaged to be married to a cousin of Alice Minto's mother and the mother asked her to dispose of the child. I do not believe the adoption story and know that at the time the child is claimed to have been adopted. Mabel and Alice Minto and their mother were destitute and in no position to care for another."
H. W. Brayton of the Home Finding Society, admits that he knew the child was placed in a Chinese family and that it was done at the request of Captain Williams. He says that until the time of the fire he kept track of the child, and believed she was in good hands, but since then he had no knowledge of her whereabouts.
- Santa Rosa Republican, August 5, 1909
The problem wasn't just that more inexperienced drivers were on the roads; there were also more drivers on the sidewalks.
Santa Rosa in 1909 was more car-centric than ever before. Streets connecting to the downtown core were the latest to be paved, and the Sonoma County Automobile Association, with James Wyatt Oates behind the wheel as president, was pushing for more and better roads. The town hosted the first California Grand Prize Race which was won by local boy Ben Noonan, driving a car from the local Houts dealership. Ads for the latest models began appearing regularly in the papers, and the Press Democrat began publishing a regular auto feature, which was really a gossip column strictly about cars and drivers.
While the main automotive issue of 1908 was enforcing the 10MPH speed limit, the challenge of the following year was avoiding reckless drivers. A head-on crash with a horse and buggy was narrowly avoided at a blind corner; not so lucky was bicyclist George Luce, who was struck by an auto making a U-turn. He was bruised and cut up, but his injuries were not as serious as first thought.
(RIGHT: This odd advertisement in the August 8, 1909 Press Democrat appeared a few weeks before a rash of reckless driving incidents)
But the worst was the month of September, when it was apparently open season on pedestrians. One driver was arrested for using the sidewalk between Fourth and Fifth streets as his own private traffic lane, and another kept jumping the curb on Fourth street until his axle was bent. Asked why he repeatedly lost control of his car, the driver replied, "I don't know the first blamed thing about a machine."
Also: Should motorcycles be required to have headlights? Santa Rosa's District Attorney wasn't sure, although he thought they technically were "motor vehicles."
DRIVES AUTOMOBILE ON WALK AND IS ARRESTED
From the looks of the police docket Friday morning, the impression might be got that the streets of this city are falling into desuetude and that the sidewalks are bearing the brunt of the traffic. It is not merely the fact that a man had been booked by the redoubtable Samuels for cycling on the pavement. It was that an automobilist had been arrested for running his machine thereon. While plowing up the cement walk between Fourth and Fifth streets, he was arrested by Officer Lindley.
- Santa Rosa Republican, September 2, 1909
WOULD HAVE LIGHTS PLACED ON MOTOR CYCLES
Many people of this city are of the opinion that motor cycles should be compelled to carry lights when being run after dark on the streets of this city. While the vehicles make considerable noise and warn pedestrians of their approach in this manner, it is argued that the light would prove to be an additional safeguard for the people. District Attorney Lea is of the opinion, without looking into the matter, that motor cycles are within the meaning of the law which provides that "motor vehicles" shall be equipped with lights after nightfall. It is probable that the city council will take the matter up and settle the mooted point.
- Santa Rosa Republican, September 4, 1909
AUTO CAUSES FUN ON FOURTH STREETMachine Twice Runs on Sidewalk and Two Store Fronts Have Narrow Escape from Destruction
Some diversion was caused yesterday afternoon on Fourth street when an automobile suddenly swerved from the middle of the street and dashed up on the sidewalk in an apparent endeavor to go into Bower & Mercier's cigar store. The driver, a stranger, backed off the sidewalk and got his auto on the broader path, and the next instant it was headed at full speed for the sidewalk again and the doorway of Charles Jacobs' ice cream parlor. The machine seemed bound to take in a store or two. The last run against the sidewalk bent the front axle and the machine had to be taken to a garage.
When questioned as to whether the steering gear had gone wrong, the driver shook his head and replied: "I'm the man that got stuck. I don't know the first blamed thing about a machine."
He had better learn a few things or he may have to pay for a few plate glass show windows. Fortunately no glass was broken yesterday.
- Press Democrat, September 19, 1909
DRIVE TOO FAST AROUND CORNERSComplaint Being Lodged Against Auto Drivers--Some are Exceeding Speed Limit
Considerable complaint is being made regarding the carelessness of automobile drivers in failing to give warnings as the approach corners and to turning a corner where it is impossible to see anyone approaching from the opposite direction. In many cases also the speed limit is violated at such times, making it extremely dangerous for people, vehicles, and horses.
There was a narrow escape from a bad accident at College and Mendocino avenues about 6:30 Sunday night when an automobile driver tore up Mendocino avenue and swung onto College without slowing down or giving any warning with his horn. by his quick action as well as that of the driver of a horse and buggy both were brought to an abrupt stop just before they crashed together head on. The autoist had no tail light, another violation of the law.
- Press Democrat, October 19, 1909
AN AUTO ACCIDENT ON FOURTH STREETGeorge Luce Has a Very Fortunate Escape from Serious Injury Under Wheels of Automobile
What was at first feared to have been a very serious accident occurred on Fourth street at Mendocino avenue last night when Mervin Forsyth in an automobile ran down George Luce who was riding along the street on his bicycle about 8 o'clock.
According to the details learned of the accident Mr. Forsyth was coming on Mendocino avenue and started to turn down Fourth street towards the depot, but after getting partially out on Fourth street, changed his mind and swung around up the street. There was a wagon on the crossing and Mr. Luce, who was coming from the postoffice, seeing the machine turning west, swung around on the outside of the wagon, just in time to be struck by the auto. He was thrown to the ground and his wheel badly damaged, while he received numerous lacerations and bruises. At first it was feared he had suffered serious internal injuries, but he was picked up and appeared not to be seriously hurt. He was taken home and Dr. Jesse was summoned. Mr. Luce had a remarkable escape.
- Press Democrat, October 27, 1909
Readers of 1909 Santa Rosa newspapers had cause to lament: The funniest man in town finally landed a real job.
For about a decade, Tom Gregory had contributed humor columns and wry news items to both the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican. The editors here recognized him for the treasure he was - a fabulist in the style of Ambrose Bierce, a story-teller like Mark Twain, a satirical political commentator like Finley Peter Dunne - and allowed him a byline, which was a sure sign of his readership popularity. (A bio and full appreciation of Gregory appeared in an earlier essay.) Alas, newspapering pays beans even for the most talented writers, so at age 56, Tom Gregory accepted a position as editor and author of North Bay county history books. Rarely did his name appear in the local papers after that.
A couple of his 1909 articles have appeared here earlier: A colorful news item about a visiting circus and a (mostly) straight-forward account of a visit by state legislators to Armstrong Grove. A pair of other offerings are transcribed below, and are Gregory classics. One is the sort of tall tale sometimes called a "quaint" in old-time newspaper lingo, and tells about a boy who secretly makes a batch of taffy in defiance of his "health faddist" parents. The lad tries to hide the evidence of his crime and soon Dostoevskian complications ensue.
The other piece is clever political satire, but parts make no sense today without background. That week Santa Rosa was in the middle of its latest skirmish of the water wars, and as discussed here before, the town had an unfair and ridiculous rate schedule that charged not just on how much water was used, but on how it was used. It cost far more to turn your hose on a vegetable garden than a flower bed; a home turned into a boarding house paid $10 a month, while a water-guzzling factory like the tannery only paid twice that. In his column, Gregory pokes fun at this hair-splitting via a (somewhat labored) analogy to Ancient Rome: "When Rome was preparing to teach her language to a conquered world she didn't say what class of building was meant. Upstairs, downstairs, hut or palace, all the same."
There's also a bit about the purchase price of a pig bought from H. M. LeBaron. Also at the time a deal with the state to buy Armstrong Grove from banker Harrison LeBaron suddenly became mired in controversy. A San Francisco newspaper published a story claiming that the old-growth woods were worth only a fraction of the price LeBaron was asking, and that led to several heated letter-to-the-editor exchanges between LeBaron and his old rival lumbermen. In one of these letters, LeBaron answered Gregory that he had sold the pig below market price because "it was a China hog and I don't like China pig-tails." Sad to say, that little racist yuk likely went far to improve LeBaron's image among the section of the populace unsympathetic to bankers.
THOUGHT IT WAS METEORSomething for Pure Food Commission to Decide
"Well," said the traveling man, "I don't know as I've got anything in my head this morning that will do for a newspaper story. Yes, there's one, only its being true might more or less disqualify it. The story was suggested to me by an account in a 'Frisco paper telling about a comet or a meteor, or a bunch of stars falling around in Santa Rosa the other day.
"It happened to me when I was a kid in a small town near Chico. From my childhood up I had always had a great propensity for eating candy. Now both my parents were pronounced health faddists and confectionery was of all dietary things what they most abhorred. Hence, about the only candy I ever managed to have access to was what I could steal out of the barrel containing that article in the village store.
"One day when the folks were gone to attend a vegetarian district convention in a neighboring town, I conceived the desperate notion to make some taffy. Having as accessories a cook book, a hot fire, a frying pan and the necessary ingredients, I did it. If I had murdered my little brother--I didn't have any, by the way--I could not have been more careful in hiding the evidence of my act than I was in the circumstance in question. I cleaned the frying pan and wiped the mouth of the molasses jug--and in fact I had everything as it was save for the presence of the incriminating taffy. I didn't have time to eat it. Therefore I determined to hide the same. To make the process easier, I rolled the sweetness into a lump about the size of an ordinary cantaloupe. To reduce its volume I rolled and hammered and compressed the thing until for heaviness, hardness and impenetrability, a chunk of reinforced concrete were veritably ooze in comparison.
"Then I interred it in the back yard, which however, I soon saw wasn't going to do at all. For the neighbor's dog--a measly cur--promptly dug it up. A brilliant idea next struck me. There was a crevice in our chimney where a couple of bricks were lacking. Here I placed the treasure, though not without considerable risk to my neck and some damage to my trousers. And here the taffy ball remained for many hours, screened from the sight of all save that of the all seeing sun.
"Now, the chunk of candy hadn't got any softer from its brief stay in the earth, and the smile of the head of the solar system was bringing it around to a state of petrefaction [i.e. turning into stone - J.E.] pretty fast. For in summer time around Chico it's so hot that a whole barrelful of water has been known to evaporate in a single day, and the barrel itself fall to pieces after the liquid is out from exceeding heat and dryness.
"Somehow or other the taffy roll didn't nestle very securely in its repository and a sudden gust of wind coming up and shaking the chimney, the thing was dislodged, slid down the roof and hit the street. Now the street ran down hill for about a hundred yards and the taffy too, gaining momentum all the time. It finally stopped in a pile of sand, half burying itself therein.
"It happened that there was a bunch of old timers standing near the place where the projectile had spent itself. An acrimonious controversy in regard to infant damnation was abruptly terminated by the arrival of the strange object. To all of them it seemed that it had dropped out of the blue sky above them. One thought that it was some anarchist bomb or infernal machine that had been shot up in the air from a distance to fall upon and destroy the city hall, which was near by. There were no airships in those days and nobody took the object for a chunk of aeroplane machinery. Sentiment was about unanimous that it was a meteor or a piece of a comet or a falling star. They examined the ball gingerly and declared that the substance was not of this world. One old miner said that he had dabbled with every metaliferous material that the earth's bosom afforded, and he was prepared to state unqualifiedly that this was something he had never encountered. Another observed that the thing looked just like a meteor that he had seen fall in Arkansas twenty year before. An assault was made upon the mysterious business with a hammer and chisel, and even with a pickaxe, but it couldn't be so much as dented. It was finally voted to send it to the Smithsonian Institute. This was strenuously objected to by one of the party on the ground that it was his, as he had seen the same first. And he took it and has got it to this day on his parlor table beside the family Bible. He would no more dispose of it than he would the holy sepulchre if he owned the latter."
- Santa Rosa Republican, September 16, 1909
ON THE WATER WAGON BUT IS NOT SATISFIED
"I'm afraid I'll have to load up my old wagon and move on," said the Up Town Citizen, as he came into the REPUBLICAN office to advertise the sale of a dog. "This part of the earth is getting fierce. I settled here fresh from Chillicothy, Mo., a-flying from a violent youth, as it were, 'long in the fall of '49. A friend got me to come. Said this was sort of an annex to 'Old Missoury,' where a quiet, peace-loving, highly-moral, church-going person could find an ideal life. My friend could sling slithers of poetry words those days, yes. But now, I donno. Of course, I havn't [sic] any family, and am not in the age when the wild mustard and johnny-jump-ups are bloomin' all around a fellow, but I'm not receiving bids for bunches of worry, and I've got a few more years to use up before I die and pass back over the bridge at Kansas City. Guess I'll have to wander to some other fireside, where taxes stop on the ground-floor and city parks grow without irrigation."
After a "sumptuous feast," to use a copyrighted term of the rural writer, of his mind on the real estate ads in the Los Angeles exchanges on the editorial desk, he put a new record in his talkophone. "It set me to thinking mighty hard," said he, "when the Appellate Court remarked by wireless that our moral consciences were asleep, and other things too fierce to mention. That message when it sizzled through the air must have scorched the edges of the clouds. (I hope the Chamber of Commerce won't put that in its next booklet.) I never expected to hear such a hand-down in California. It makes me once more long to hear the happy hogs grunting among the autumn acorns in the Livingston county river bottoms."
After the U. T. Cit. had gone over the legislative proceedings in the morning papers, he again turned on the current of his observations: "And now, here following the great work of the last city election voter, following the narrow escape of the hop-yards and vineyards from ruin, following the Sbarbaro recommendation of low-proof claret in place of tea, the town has gone dry. Free water for domestic use limited, haunts the water-tax consumed by day, and is the dream mare that gallops over him at night. The word domestic is the storm center of the commotion. The only authoritative decision on the matter has come from Webster, (Noah) L. L. D., who found it among the literature of the Latins in the 'domus' house. When Rome was preparing to teach her language to a conquered world she didn't say what class of building was meant. Upstairs, downstairs, hut or palace, all the same. It didn't make any difference whether the Roman citizen had an office on the Forum or inhabited a fisherman's shack down along the Tiber. Caesar's domus was his house, and whether he lived there, wrote his commentaries there or planned the subjection of empires there, his tongue -- the mother of all tongues, saith not. The law interpreters of Santa Rosa say 'domus' is a place where folks feed.
"I'm afraid the higher tribunal will again balk if called upon to scrutinize the 'special legislation' features of our water dispute. There doesn't seem to be enough constitutionality in free water for one water-tax paying family which inhabits a certain kind of domus... [missing microfilm]
"Mercy!" said he, after a long breath-catching pause, "what a scolding poor H. M. LeBaron is having handed out to him! First, he was scolded for trying to sell the people of the state of California some nice trees. He was scolded till the scolders learned that they are really nice trees and are truly worth every cent he wanted for them. Then they began to scold because they had not been told how much money the Armstrongs are to get out of the tree-sale. Then they scolded until it dawned on them that it is none of their business. Finally, they began to scold because they did not know whether LeBaron got control of the trees by cash, by note or by option. Wot!
About twenty-five years ago while living near H. M. LeBaron's ranch, Valley Ford, I bought a hog from him paying him $3.50 for the porker. It was worth $4, and for a quarter of a century I have joyed in the thought that I out-financed the Dairyman's banker four bits, and might have increased my profit by reselling the shoat instead of eating him. It would have shown practical commercial foresight on my part if I had made LeBaron tell me what he paid, if anything, for the pig. It would have shed more public light on the transaction. I would then have known whether he got it by cash, by note or by option. It may now be too late for an investigation, but I would like to known. LeBaron, how much did you pay for that hog?
- Santa Rosa Republican, March 3, 1909
THE SMOKE WAS EXPENSIVEA Single Cigar Costs Tom Gregory Five Dollars
Tom Gregory, the well known newspaper writer and man about town, is fond of luxurious living. Yesterday he smoked a $5 cigar and says the smoke was worth it. It happened in this wise:
At the beginning of the new year Tom, like a good many of his acquaintances, turned over a number of new leaves, among which were the promises that he would refrain from taking his daily toddy (or toddies) and that he would henceforth eschew the seductive weed. With great chunks of virtue sticking out all over his intellectual countenance. Tom dropped into the REPUBLICAN office and, while rummaging through the exchanges, told Perry Allison, the foreman, that he had sworn off smoking and would forfeit a bright five dollar gold piece if he was caught breaking this resolve.
Now, January had thirty-one long, wet, dismal days, and as the month drew to a close it was noticed by Tom's many friends that he had become somewhat crusty of late, and that a few more wrinkles adorned his high forehead, and a few more crows' feet had gathered around his eyes. Still, the odor of tobacco was noticeably absent from his breath.
Wednesday the tumble came. Tom had wandered into one of his favorite haunts, a local cigar store, mechanically his hand went into his pocket, and mechanically his fingles closed over a ten cent piece lying there. Mechanically the hand placed the ten cent piece on the counter, and also mechanically the clerk placed before Tom his favorite brand of cigar. He took one, carefully removed the end and applied the match. Puff (oh, what bliss), puff, puff, puff--suddenly Tom remembered--but it was too late. There stood Perry Allison beside him with a grin on his face a mile long. Tom didn't try to explain. He just smoked. He hasn't paid that five dollars yet, but says he will gladly, as the smoke was worth it.
- Santa Rosa Republican, February 4, 1909
PUBLISH A HISTORY OF SONOMA COUNTY
H. A. Preston of the Historic Record Company of Los Angeles, was in this city Monday. This publishing company is engaged in getting out the histories of the counties of the state, and Mr. Preston is in the county looking over the field in preparation to start his corps of assistants gathering data for the Sonoma county history about the first of next month. The work will be illustrated, beautifully printed and bound and will be an interesting and accurate record of imperial Sonoma from the stirring pioneer period to the present. Among those who will assist in the work will be Tom Gregory, the well known local newspaper writer, who will edit the historical portion of the volume.
- Press Democrat, November 11, 1909
Santa Rosa was beautiful and smelled nice, a visitor from Kansas wrote; too bad the people were so awfully boring.
That pretty much sums up a travel piece written by someone named E. W. Ellis that appeared in a 1909 Kansas paper. A reader clipped the article and sent it to a local relative, who passed it on to the Santa Rosa Republican for reprint. Essays like this are rare finds and absolute treasures. What did you see while wandering around town? What scents were in the air, what sounds did you hear?
Most of all, Mr. Ellis waxed lyric about the front yard gardens: "...Every yard and garden fence is covered with a mass of creeping vines that are pink, white, yellow and red with blossoms from the size of a clover bloom to a cabbage. Many of the houses, too, are hidden behind artistically trained bowers...lofty palms, calla lilies, ferns, Shasta daisies, sweet peas, magnolias, etc., the town is filled with them." From those yards came "the sensuous perfume of the thousands of fragrant tropical roses, honeysuckle, carnations and other blooming plants which the fresh green smell of the pine and fir prevent from becoming sickening..."
Ellis was also impressed by the number of bicycles seen around town: "Men, women and children ride wheels at all times and seasons, and they are experts, too." Likewise remarkable to him was that Santa Rosa appeared to have no racial strife. "here are less than a dozen negroes in the town and they are members of the local churches and worship in common with the white people, being admirable citizens." That's a particularly important observation because the newspapers of the time rarely even mentioned African-Americans in town. (Ellis wasn't so respectful to the Chinese community, however, writing that the flowers in their neighborhood were "to offset the odor of the garlick and other vile dishes.")
Some of what he wrote showed that he saw Santa Rosa as an exotic place: He was surprised to find no birds around, until he was told that the surrounding fruit orchards were in season. He found it unusual that "All the restaurant dishes are without seasoning, and the signs on the wall read: 'Patrons please pay on delivery.'" He found it odd that women did not carry parasols, supposedly because it was thought that the westerly breezes prevented freckles.
But overall, it seems that Mr. Ellis found the place a real snoozer. "Nothing apparently had ever happened in this town prior to the earthquake," he wrote, and the people here are "living their lives away with little thought of the cares of today and none of the morrow...[as] the winds sing a drowsy requiem day after day, there is every excuse for a Rip Van Winkle existence."
Ellis wrapped up his tour with the usual homage to Luther Burbank and the wonderful disclaimer, "all of the above statements may not be absolutely correct, but in the main they are."
BONUS SOCIAL HISTORY NOTE: Another unmentioned fact of life in 1909 Santa Rosa was apparently the large number of stray dogs. In a letter to the Republican, a subscriber complains, "In Santa Rosa there are hundreds of tagless, worthless and often half-starved dogs, and the nuisance is growing. They prowl nightly through back yards for food..."
A KANSAS MAN WRITES AN ARTICLE ON SANTA ROSATells of the Peculiarties [sic] and Objects of Interest
[The following article was clipped from a Kansas paper by a relative of a Santa Rosa resident, and sent to her with the request to know if all the claims by the article were true. It gives a good idea of what eastern visitors think of our beautiful city, and with the exception of a few statements, viz., that Santa Rosans are sleepy and do not appreciate their blessings, we heartily agree with all the writer has said.--Ed.]
Much has appeared in the Kansas papers of the merits and demerits of California, and our people as a whole are fairly well acquainted with the climatic conditions and health-giving qualities of the state from San Francisco to the Mexico border, including of course, Los Angeles and the Santa Catalina Islands. But so far as the writer has observed the territory north of Oakland, Sacramento, and all along the western slopes of the grand old Sierra Nevadas has been touched upon but lightly and is a sealed book to the major portion of the easterners.
Of the counties visited "above the bay" none pleased the writer so well as Santa Rosa, a dreamy, hazy, habitation of 10,000 people who are living their lives away with little thought of the cares of today and none of the morrow.
But with such beautiful surroundings of the low foothills thick with vineyards and blossoming orchards and beyond and higher up purplish hills covered with oak, through which the winds sing a drowsy requiem day after day, there is every excuse for a Rip Van Winkle existence.
No rain has fallen in this portion of the country since early March, but the foliage, the vegetables and fruits seem as prosperous as if April and May showers had been frequent. This is due to the heavy fogs that come from the ocean once or twice a week, at night. The days are bright and warm while a fire in the evenings and mornings is really needed with comforters and blankets for the bed.
April is the season of the year for "Easterners," as they call Kansans here, to come to this country. Then the land is at its best and one can also witness the "Rose Carnival," which is a feature of Santa Rosa yearly and is well worth seeing.
BEAUTIFUL SANTA ROSA
As the name would indicate it is a city of roses, every yard and garden fence is covered with a mass of creeping vines that are pink, white, yellow and red with blossoms from the size of a clover bloom to a cabbage. Many of the houses, too, are hidden behind artistically trained bowers, so closely interwoven that a bird can scarcely find a nesting place. This makes such homes a dream of beauty, then again it saves paint, and oh, the sensuous perfume of the thousands of fragrant tropical roses, honeysuckle, carnations and other blooming plants which the fresh green smell of the pine and fir prevent from becoming sickening. To one direct from the prairies and just winding up a transcontinental trip, over which sage brush and alkali abounded, the country seemed a very paradise. The yards and lawns are the most beautiful imaginable. But why shouldn't they be. With a productive soil, an abundance of water, a climate that is model and every person trying to outdo their neighbor there is little to prevent them from being perfect. In one yard I noticed a Cedar of Lebanon, imported from the Holy Land years ago and perhaps the only one in the state. As for broad spreading, lofty palms, calla lilies, ferns, Shasta daisies, sweet peas, magnolias, etc., the town is filled with them.
One peculiar tree is the monkey tree. A sharp, thickly woven bark of thorns covers it, and it is said that it is the only tree a monkey will not climb. The citizens here do not seem to know, or appreciate, what a pretty town they have and that everything is out of the ordinary. To an "Easterner," who is admiring the sights they only laugh and exclaim, "Oh, that's nothing," toss him an armful of roses and pass on.
To me one of the prettiest flowers is the yellow poppy. It is California's native flower, even as the sunflower is of Kansas. It is known as the cup of gold and is the state's emblem.
A half dozen little peculiarities are quickly noticeable to the visitor. First there are less than a dozen negroes in the town and they are members of the local churches and worship in common with the white people, being admirable citizens. Secondly, there are no birds. This seems strange with such a tropical vegetation, but it is explained that they have flown farther up the valley to the fruit lands where cherries are ripe. Thirdly, the ladies passing along the street carry no parasol. The soft sea breeze from the ocean, 20 miles away, they claim prevents freckles, and again, its too much trouble. Fourthly, motorneers on the electric lines are allowed to sit down at their work during the day. The service seems satisfactory. Fifthly, nonwithstanding this old Spanish town where hot tamales and chili would be expected to prevail, all the restaurant dishes are without seasoning, and the signs on the wall read: "Patrons please pay on delivery." Sixth, nothing apparently had ever happened in this town prior to the earthquake of three years ago, although the town is a half hundred years old. The calamity was a severe one, whole blocks tumbling over and many being killed so "this and that” is always pointed out to the stranger as happening since the upheaval.
This is a great bicycle town. Men, women and children ride wheels at all times and seasons, and they are experts, too.
Santa Rosa has its Chinatown as well as San Francisco. A block of the city is devoted to the Celestials, and with a few roses and carnations within their walks to offset the odor of the garlick and other vile dishes, other portions of the city are preferable.
The older Chinese are, as usual, dull appearing, stupid and unobserving, shuffling along about thir business in their native garb. The youngsters are a bright little lot, however, flitting along the sidewalk like the English sparrows. Being "native sons" they adopt the American clothes and costumes. They attend the city schools and prove themselves apt pupils.
SANTA ROSA AS A CITY
Santa Rosa has two water plants. One is a municipal affair, solely for the sprinkling of lawns and parking. Each family is allowed 10,000 gallons of water monthly, after that a charge is made. For drinking purposes and household use a private corporation with a reservoir far up in the foothills furnishes clear, sparkling water at a dollar a month.
The Kansas writer is wrong in this. Three-fourths of the residents use municipal water for all purposes and it is pure and wholesome.--Ed.
The town is substantially built and prosperous. That is, the new buildings that are going up since the earthquake are and most of them are new buildings. Two of the most noticeable ones are the post office and court house, the latter costing $500,000 and a splendid affair with pillars like the Kansas state house and marble floors and ceilings. The four banks are as sold as the "Rock of Gibralta." [sic]
The schools too, are on firm basis, the high school drawing many pupils from the surrounding towns and valleys.
HOME OF LUTHER BURBANK
But the pride of not only Santa Rosa but all California is Luther Burbank, the great scientist, who from childhood chose the plants for pets rather than animals. He came to this valley in 1875 and began his work of improving the old plants and creating new ones. Hundreds of new trees, flowers, fruits and grasses have sprung into being owing to his indomitable efforts. His greatest work is in providing a thornless cactus. This can be planted on the Arizona and New Mexico deserts, reclaiming the waste places and at the same time allowing man and beast to wander through without injury, the Burbank potato and green rose are other vegetable and plant creations. Jealous meddlers declare his paints for the roses and hired help to extract the thorns from the cactus have cost him a fortune. But as Carnegie donates him $10,000 a year, what's the odds? He is also the creator of a seedless blackberry and is working on an odorless onion. His experimental grounds near the city is the yearly mecca of scientists from all over the country and indeed is a great curiosity shop.
An eastern friend who had visited this country told me I would be eaten up by fleas. But the statement seems to have been of a maligning nature, as I went to church twice Sunday and had no occasion to "scratch" during either sermon.
One thing they do have in plenty here, however, is chickens. Ranches surrounding the city nearly all have great flocks of them, while it is down at Petaluma the place is known as "Chickentown." And almost in entirety the flocks are white leghorns, Plymouth Rocks and Buff Coachins being almost unknown.
Two town curios I almost overlooked. One is a rose bush with 10,000 blooms from a vine with a 65 foot stump. Of course no one has counted the blossoms, but experts say that is a low estimate. It is owned by a modest resident and the bush is almost as large as the house.
The other is the Baptist church which has the distinction of being the only church in the world built entirely from one tree. The tree came from the Sonoma county forests, and when sawed, yielded 78,000 feet of lumber. In addition there were three hundred shingles left over.
The altitude of Santa Rosa is about 150 feet about the sea level and the surrounding hills protect it from the frosts, but still few oranges are raised. However, at Cloverdale 30 miles north, splendid oranges are grown and great crops of them.
Having no guide book, all of the above statements may not be absolutely correct, but in the main they are. E. W. ELLIS
- Santa Rosa Republican, November 17, 1909
TOWN FULL OF DOGS
Several days ago in San Francisco a worthless cur dog rushed into a schoolhouse and severely bit three little pupils before the frantic animal was checked, taken to the city pound and killed. Cannot we accept that instance as a lesson? In Santa Rosa there are hundreds of tagless, worthless and often half-starved dogs, and the nuisance is growing. They prowl nightly through back yards for food and round in school yards may be seen daily these hungry animals, eagerly seeking the scraps of lunch thrown away by the pupils. There is a city ordinance requiring that a license be paid on dogs, but only the owners of the few valuable dogs here pay the license, or pay any attention to it. That seems like an inducement to own a worthless dog. A raid should be made on every tagless cur until the streets are clear. Of course, a dog pound cannot be made self-supporting, for only a few people sufficiently value their unlicensed dogs to pay for their redemption, consequently the pound man would be left with a pen of curs on his hands. Would it not be well for the city council to take notice? SUBSCRIBER.
- Santa Rosa Republican, February 9, 1909
What's worse than watching your dream house burn down? Jack London could answer that: Having leprosy or some disease unknown.
By April 1909, it had been two years since Sonoma County had heard much about its most famous adopted son. New novels still appeared every year, but they weren't being written around here; Jack and his wife, Charmian, were on a round-the-world "honeymoon" cruise on his 42-foot ketch-rigged sailboat, the Snark.
London had commissioned his custom-designed sailing ship not long after they were married in 1905 and happily settled in Glen Ellen. Construction took over a year, and their launch was further delayed for a few days when the Snark was impounded until an invoice for about $250 was settled. It was a trivial matter but it drew the attention of the Press Democrat, which penned an April 23, 1907 editorial implying London was trying to ship out without paying his bills: "Jack London failed to get away on his much advertised voyage Sunday as per printed schedule, a number of rude and unappreciative tradesmen having libelled [sic] his little vessel at the last moment for goods and supplies furnished. London appears to have the true literary disregard for things commercial...." Why the PD chose to give London such a nasty and unnecessary send-off is anyone's guess.
Much has been told about the voyage of the Snark; both Charmian and Jack later wrote more than one book about the adventure. Little appeared in the news for the next two years except small items that the ship was overdue in Hawaii, and a few months later feared lost because it was more than a month late arriving in the Marquesas Islands. These false alarms aside, there were serious problems on the Snark that went unreported. It ended up as a hospital ship, with Jack London as its extremely enthusiastic and extremely unknowledgeable doctor in residence.
This chapter of London's book "The Cruise of the Snark" is gruesome reading. While they were in waters around the Solomon Islands, everyone including London became seriously ill with something or other. A few had malaria, one of the crew with the deadly form known as blackwater fever; festering lesions and yaws were common, which London treated by wrapping wounds in a painfully-burning poultice made with mercuric chloride. When that ran out, he experimented treating injuries with boric acid and Lysol, but kept no record of what and how much of the toxic chemicals were used to treat anyone, including himself. Many believe this exposure contributed to his early death.
The deciding factor to end the voyage was when his arms and hands turned silver colored and the skin roughened and began peeling off. Fearing he had contracted an usual form of leprosy, they headed to Sydney, Australia for medical care, where London spent the first months of 1909. Doctors there reportedly said nothing in the literature described his condition, which included bizarre symptoms; he wrote later, "There were times when my toe-nails, in twenty-four hours, grew as thick as they were long." Later, doctors presumed that his condition had been a combination of psoriasis, pellagra and malaria, but more recently it has been noted that his many symptoms fit a diagnosis of lupus.
Hoping that a return to California sunshine would provide a cure, he and Charmian departed on a tramp steamer after selling the Snark. News that London had abandoned his quest in less than two years brought cheer to the Press Democrat, which sneered in an I-told-you-so editorial: "The undertaking had an unpromising look from the start...It may have been, and probably was, the discomfort of his quarters that affected the stories he wrote while on his unfinished cruise; for they were certainly far below his previous standard."
But while the ship with Jack and Charmian aboard was approaching the U.S., London discovered he was being accused of plagiarism. The trouble arose over his latest novel, "The Iron Heel," about a dystopic future ruled by a super-wealthy oligarchy called, um, the "Oligarchy," that believed in the "Divine right of Capitalists" (London larded it on thick at times). In chapter seven, the character Bishop Morehouse makes a speech denouncing the hypocrisy of the church for neglecting the poor while spending lavishly on itself. After the novel appeared, Irish journalist Frank Harris wrote in the London weekly "Vanity Fair" that the Bishop's speech was almost a word-for-word copy of a piece he had written in 1901 for a humor magazine. Harris demanded a portion of London's profits from the book.
London's defense was, yeah, he had plagiarized, but he didn't know anything about this Harris guy - he believed he was exposing an actual confession of pious guilt by the real Bishop of London. He stated the essay was found in an American newspaper where it was published as fact. "I was what we call a sucker," London responded in a letter to the weekly. "But Mr. Harris, instead of gaily crying, 'Sucker!' gravely cried, 'Thief!'...The laugh is on me. I confess to having been fooled by Mr. Harris's canard."
Many papers nationwide published something on the controversy, as London was such a popular figure. Almost all garbled the story badly, often in ways to incriminate London for his socialist leanings: He supposedly called himself a sucker for being caught in the act; that he believed he had the right to rip off the work of others; that he actually had plagiarized a speech made by the real Bishop of London. The local Santa Rosa Republican offered an oddly clueless defense that every writer plagiarizes, by accident or no. (In this era the Press Democrat - and especially the Republican - were shamelessly cribbing stories from each other.)
The controversy was forgotten by midsummer, but from posthumously published correspondence we learn that the matter wasn't over. Harris called him a liar and demanded an apology for the plagiarism, while London demanded an apology for being called a liar. The feud didn't even end when London died seven years later, as the bounder Harris wrote widow Charmian to claim the last word. Nice fellow.
Sick as he still was, Jack London was never a man lacking optimism, and now his focus was upon building a grand lodge. While on the steamer back to America, he wrote a friend in Glen Ellen, and the PD summarized the letter: "Upon his return he expects to carry out some notable improvements on the place, among them being the erection of a fine home for himself and wife..." What would be called "Wolf House," of course, burned down as soon as it was completed, destroying that dream as well.
A chapter ends, a new chapter begins. The Press Democrat's attitude towards London would soften after 1909, as he began establishing himself as a respectable local farmer and rancher. London wrote more about the Valley of the Moon and dipped into his Sonoma County life. Take this snippet of casual dialogue from "Burning Daylight," the novel he wrote after returning from the voyage: "Say, it's only twelve miles to Santa Rosa, and the horses are fresh...We'll cut across by Bennett Valley...it's nearer that way." It's a throwaway line that would be cut by most editors, although for those of us familiar with that landscape it evokes strong images of place. But even if the reader doesn't know Sonoma from Sonora, Mexico, it works because the words are real, and something you can imagine he said a thousand times. More than anything else, what Jack London wrote was authentic.
(Obl. Comstock House connection: London and Wilson Finley, father of Helen Comstock, were drinking buddies, according to family legend.)
Jack London has just been charged with misappropriation of literary goods. Some such accusation has been made against London before, and it maybe that he is not over-squeamish as to where he gets the material out of which he weaves his tales. Yet this indiscriminate browsing about occasionally in other people's fields is an imperfection from which few who write for fame or bread are free. All that there is to write about has been worked over and over again by generations of writings until there is nothing left that is not old and hackneyed. In fact there are no new ways of even treating old subjects any more. What a gullible public takes to be originality is only a clever and not very close imitation of that quality. In short, originality consists in being able to conceal the fact of your not having any. And this practice of rehashing goes back a good long distance, if we are to believe Kipling's jingle verse, which tells how
"Homer smote his blooming lyre and sang from sea to sea.
And the stuff he used he went and took the same as you and me."
This, of course, is done unconsciously, or rather subconsciously. Many a man exultantly proclaims to the world what he thinks is a new as slang, but which was in fact discovered for the thousandth time by some person whose carcass the very worms have had for years and years and years.
But this phase of plagiarism, if plagiarism it be, is universally indulged in, and hence a legitimate thing. The plagiarism, however, that is plagiarism, is the theft of another's style or to put it more euphoniously, the copying of somebody else's words verbatim without the acknowledgment of them by quotation marks. This is the one unpardonable offense that a writer can commit.
- Santa Rosa Republican editorial, April 17, 1909
Jack London has abandoned his cruise of the southern seas, which had been planned to fill seven years. The undertaking had an unpromising look from the start. A twenty-five foot vessel is a small craft for any ocean voyage that is to last more than a day or two. London is an experienced sailor, and ought to have known better than to imagine he could live seven years in such a space with several other companions, and preserve enough of comfort and peace to make literary work possible, It may have been, and probably was, the discomfort of his quarters that affected the stories he wrote while on his unfinished cruise; for they were certainly far below his previous standard.
- Press Democrat editorial, April 29, 1909
JACK LONDON WILL BUILD FINE HOMEWill Make a Number of Improvements on His Place Near Glen Ellen--Johnson Gets Letter.
Thomas Johnson, the well known resident of Glen Ellen, has received a letter from his old-time friend, Jack London, the novelist. During Mr. London's long absence abroad he had sent Mr. Johnson frequent communications telling of the progress of his travels abroad.
The latest news Mr. Johnson has received comes from Panama, where London has been visiting for sometime on his homeward trip to this country. He expects to return home about July 1.
As is well known, London owns some land near Glen Ellen, which he purchased from Robert Potter Hill. Upon his return he expects to carry out some notable improvements on the place, among them being the erection of a fine home for himself and wife and several cottages for friends. He will also build a $5000 reservoir and pumping plant on the farm. London is very much infatuated with the beautiful Sonoma Valley. Near Glen Ellen is "Wake Robin Lodge," the country home of Mrs. London's aunt, Mrs. Ninetta Eames, herself a writer of some note. Upon their return to this state Mr. and Mrs. London will spend a considerable portion of their time on their place near Glen Ellen.
- Press Democrat, June 3, 1909