Reading century-old newspapers is nothing like the experience of reading a newspaper today. There was more of it, for starters; today's Press Democrat looks positively anemic compared to editions from great-grandpa's day, when reading the paper cover-to-cover would take the better part of an evening - even though there were no comics or sports or business or lifestyle sections. What was there instead was local news and lots of it. Subscribers knew who was in town for a visit and who was away for a bit, who recently moved into a new home and who hosted a nice card party. There might be a dozen articles just about the preparations for an upcoming rose carnival or parade (more, if the Squeedunks were involved). It probably sounds as if it would be terribly boring to read 100+ years later, and yeah, it often is - but finding the occasional gem is what keeps me turning the microfilmed pages.
Take the five items from 1909 transcribed below. None are particularly funny, tragic, or noteworthy - yet they're all so damned peculiar that you can't easily forget them. There's the "Mystery of the Severed Thumbs," which was exactly what it sounded like; a kid in Bennett Valley found a pickle jar containing a pair of thumbs preserved in alcohol. As the only thing more unusual than losing thumbs is finding a bottle filled with them, there was some talk around town.
Also intriguing was the announcement of Professor Mitchell's "walking class," which was open to "any who wish to learn the correct method of walking and breathing while walking." Given the restrictive clothing of the day (this corset illustration appeared in an ad from Santa Rosa's White House Department Store that same year), the breathing lessons alone might have been worth enrollment. A few months later, Mitchell, who called himself a "medical gymnast," said he intended to open a "Home of Physical Culture" at 925 McDonald, but it appears nothing came of it.
Then there was the situation-comedy misadventure of Percy Hoegeboom, who discovered on the train back to Santa Rosa that a newspaper had declared him dead from suicide. (Longtime readers might recall a similar 1904 mixup where bereaved parents bought a coffin and published an obituary for their daughter after a woman of the same name died in San Francisco.) There was also in 1909 the comic tragedy of Louie Consoli, who found quite a mess when he returned home after several months in the county lockup. It seems that a great many rats settled into his home during his absence and neighbors did their best to help by laying out poison. The result, reported the Santa Rosa Republican, was "thousands of dead and decomposed rats littering the floor, packing the shelves and filling his very bed itself. Moreover, there was an odor emanating from the premises that the owner and erstwhile occupant intimated words, English or otherwise, were powerless to describe."
The last item has an appeal I simply can't explain. A duck hunter had twenty wooden duck decoys in the Laguna carefully painted to look as realistic as possible. Although each was weighted down with rocks, apparently high storm waters unmoored them and "when last seen they were swimming in fleet formation down the Russian river past Ponte Rio," according to the Press Democrat, "led by the big drake of the flock."
Now whenever I think of 1909 I imagine two images, unrelated yet inextricably linked. A resident of the Russian River peers out her kitchen window as a procession of curiously wooden-looking ducks bob past; a shopper downtown on an early March evening watches a group of people gliding slowly down Fourth street, all walking and breathing with the most deliberate care. Even then, these were peculiar things to happen.
WALKING CLASS WILL BEGIN STUNTS MONDAY
Professor Mitchell's walking class will begin its pedestrian stunts on Monday next, and any who wish to learn the correct method of walking and breathing while walking are invited to join the class.
There is absolutely no charge for joining the class and it has nothing in the way of an obligation attached to it in any manner. The class is strictly for the benefit of giving proper exercise to the body, and all who will are invited to join.
George Pool, the boy who was walking on crutches only a few weeks ago and whom Professor Mitchell has caused to walk without the aid of the crutches, will be a member of the walking class. The pace will be slow, so as not to tire anyone, and the distance will not be great. The start will be from the library at Fourth and E streets at 7 o'clock sharp.
- Santa Rosa Republican, March 2, 1909
JAY BOWER'S DUCKS ADRIFTLast Seen in Fleet Formation Bound to Sea
Jay Bowers, the well known cigarist, has lost twenty fine, full grown ducks. He says he left them safe in the laguna against the rainless day when he would be over there with his gun, and now they are gone for good--no, gone for bad. When last seen they were swimming in fleet formation down the Russian river past Ponte Rio, led by the big drake of the flock.
Last week he went over to the laguna with three pots of paint and gave them a most artistic triple coat of colors. He worked after hours and when he had finished they looked so much like real ducks that he fancied he could hear them "quack." When he put them in the water to test their buoyancy they tried to paddle away. Then he anchored them securely, each with a bit of rock, intending to return this week and try them out as decoys. The high water broke them from their moorings or some rival hunter cut them adrift, or the thunderstorm scared them away, and they are probably swimming a life on the ocean wave. Now he sadly sings, "Where, oh, where are my wooden ducks gone."
- Press Democrat, February 8, 1909
PERCY HOGEBOOM AND HIS CARBOLIC ACID
Mrs. R. Hogeboom returned Thursday morning from a trip to Oakland, where she was summoned the previous afternoon by a report published that morning in one of the San Francisco papers to the effect that her son, Percy Hoegeboom, the blacksmith, had attempted suicide by taking carbolic acid.
The report turned out to be erroneous, and started in a somewhat amusing way. It seems that Mr. Hogeboom's little child was taken sick, and his wife asked him to bring her a bottle of oil from the kitchen as she wished to give the youngster a dose. Hogeboom got what he supposed was the oil bottle, and took the cork out with his teeth. In doing this he burned his lips. The pain was quite severe, and he cried to his wife to get him something to ease it. The landlady's little boy heard Hogeboom tell his wife "It is carbolic acid," and ran and told his mother, who immediately summoned a physician. Then somebody told the policeman, and the policeman told the reporter, and or course it was printed in the paper as a case of attempted suicide.
"The first thing Percy heard of his having attempted suicide was while he as on his way back home from work," said Mrs. Hogeboom yesterday, "when he happened to pick up a paper containing the item. He had just gotten home and was telling his wife about it, when I walked in the door. I went down to bury him, but instead he took us all to the theatre."
- Press Democrat, April 23, 1909
DEAD RODENTS LITTER HOME"Gabidaliztic" Rats Make a Sad Home-coming
Louie Consoli, who had been spending several months in the county jail because of inability to furnish a five hundred dollar bond to keep the peace, on account of threats he had made against the person of William Fraser of Duncan's Mills, got into the world again, and according to his view he found it the same old, ornery place as ever. He found that his house at Occidental had been occupied by rats in his absence and that they had eaten most of what provisions he had left there at the time of his arrest and commitment last spring. And he found worse things yet, for some of his neighbors, charitably inclined, had thought to rid the place of the rodents by means of poison. Now, upon Mr. Consoli's return thither, there were to take his numerical statement, various thousands of dead and decomposed rats littering the floor, packing the shelves and filling his very bed itself. Moreover, there was an odor emanating from the premises that the owner and erstwhile occupant intimated words, English or otherwise, were powerless to describe. The consumption of his substance by rats and the unpleasant presence of the latter in a very diseased state, Mr. Consoli seemed to somehow or other attribute to the "gabidaliztic" system of society under which he and others live.
- Santa Rosa Republican, August 16, 1909
MYSTERY OF THE SEVERED THUMBSAsa Brackett Finds a Pickle Bottle the Contents of Which Are Not Classed With the 57 Varieties
Asa Brackett didn't know just what to do with the thing he found Sunday. He was hunting rabbits, but it wasn't rabbits he found. It was a little bottle such as generally holds ten cents worth of olives. But its contents were nothing else than two human thumbs pickled in alcohol. He picked the thing up on the Heisel place, adjoining Calvary cemetery, on the Bennett Valley road, about two miles from town. Asa brought the bottle to town and gave it to Sheriff Jack Smith--although he was troubled by doubts as to whether Coroner Frank Blackburn might not have a claim upon it too.
The strange find opens a wild field for investigation and conjecture. Every town has its amateur detectives, and those of Santa Rosa have here a chance at a sensational task that may unfold a situation like unto one of those in "A Study in Scarlet," "The Sign of the Four," or the mystery of "The Five Orange Pips."
Jave kidnappers chopped off some hapless victim's thumbs in default of ransom? Nobody has been reported missing from this region. Has some wood-chopper met with accident? Such might be the case if only one thumb was present, but two thumbs makes that supposition improbable. Perhaps some wood-chopper has taken too literally the words of the Holy Writ, "If thy hand offend thee, cut it off." But the hired man who cuts the kindling on the Heisel place exhibits both thumbs entire, and says, "Not guilty."
So the mystery is in the hands of the Sheriff, the Coroner and the amateur detectives. "The Mystery of the Severed Thumbs" may yet become a classic to rank with Sherlock Holmes' best.
It is suggested that the local Sherlocks ascertain if there is a medical student who lives in Bennett Valley.
- Press Democrat, December 29, 1909