Could this fire happen again? That's the multi-billion dollar question hanging over everyone who lost homes in Fountaingrove and Coffey Park as they weigh the decision on whether or not to rebuild. There are no good answers; we can't even be sure our guesses are reasonably good. There's just too much we don't know about the world's changing climate to say this was a freak event or the harbinger of a new terrible normal.

To understand more, I urge everyone to read (or at least, skim) "The Real Story Behind the California Wildfires" by Seattle meteorologist Cliff Mass. He makes several important points I've not seen mentioned elsewhere, particularly that there were hurricane force winds (96 MPH!) at higher elevations before the fire began to spread. The speed of those winds are unprecedented in our neck of the woods and were a significant factor in creating what he calls a "unique mountain-wave windstorm." Again, it's a must-read.

Comparisons are being made to the September 1964 Hanly Fire (that's the correct spelling, not "Hanley") which burned over the same route - Calistoga to Franz Valley to Mark West Canyon and then driven down into Santa Rosa, likewise by the powerful, unrelenting "Diablo Winds" on a Sunday night. But it did not grow into the hellish firestorm that raged in 2017; it was stopped on Mendocino avenue just outside the now-lost Journey's End trailer park. In the Press Democrat, Guy Kovner presented a good summary of other historic major Sonoma county fires.

But forgotten by our fire historians are two other major fires specific to Fountaingrove and the Coffey Park areas. Each was the most serious fire of that year in Santa Rosa. It just may be a coincidence that these incidents were at the same locations, but at this point, any additional information about our fire history is good to have.



Major factory fires threatened Santa Rosa's industrial rim in 1909 and again in 1910, but of all the fires in Santa Rosa history, the Fountaingrove fire of 1908 was the one which might have burned down the town.

The fire was huge, easily visible from Healdsburg because it was nearly at the top of the hill. Burning was the landmark "Commandery," one of the main buildings from the heyday of the utopian colony founded by Thomas Lake Harris. That was the residence for the colony's men. The fire began when a kerosene lamp exploded, destroying the place so fast that nothing in the three-story mansion could be saved.

"Fortunately the north wind that had been blowing earlier in the day and evening died down, otherwise the flames would have spread," the Press Democrat reported at the time. From a high ridge like that, just a stiff breeze could have easily blown embers a mile and a half downwind to the county hospital on Chanate - which also came within 100 feet of burning in the 1964 Hanly Fire (and where a developer now has the go-ahead to build a dense subdivision of up to 800 units).

The fire burned itself out quickly; it's not clear if the Santa Rosa Fire Department did anything. A pasture also ignited and was easily handled. But had a northern wind still been gusting, firebrands from the Commandery might have blown as far as the core neighborhoods across from the modern-day high school, where almost all Victorian homes had shingle roofs.

While Santa Rosa got a lucky break in 1908, Fortuna did not smile as much on the town in 1939, when a wind-whipped fire swept across 500 acres in (what would become) the Coffey Park neighborhood.

That September 20 a fire started at the airport. Today probably only the oldest-timers and aviation buffs know that the town had an airport there; when it opened in 1929 it was first called the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport, then it became the Santa Rosa Airpark and finally the Coddingtown Airport, which finally closed in 1971 or 1972. The layout of the runways shifted over the years but the way it probably looked at the time of the fire can be seen in the graphic below. (For much more on all the historic airfields in the Santa Rosa area, see the "Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields" site. Don't miss the commemorative postmark of Luther Burbank looking like an angry muppet.)

Approximate location of the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport runways in 1939

The airport fire was completely avoidable, and if not for the serious danger it posed would serve as the script for a Keystone Kops slapstick comedy.

It was the hottest day of the year, with the thermometer reading 104 - hardly the conditions to do some weed burning, but that's what a crew of 10-12 men were doing that afternoon on the runways, dragging burning rags behind a truck.

They were working in the southwestern end of the field when the wind suddenly started blowing from the south, sending the fire towards the modern intersection of Coffey Lane and Hopper Ave. It was moving so fast they could not overtake it in the truck, according to the PD.

Naturally, they did not have enough water to handle such a runaway blaze so the fire department was called. A single truck with 150 gallons of water was dispatched and quickly emptied. The fire was now out of control.

A second fire truck arrived, as did a crew and truck from the state as the fire line headed towards several farms. Students from the Junior College joined the fight and were credited with saving at least one home.

"Farmers, passing motorists, airport attendants and others fought side by side, beating out the flames with wet sacks and using portable water pumps in the two-hour battle," the PD reported.

One farmer lost a small house and farm buildings, including a barn; another lost many outbuildings including chicken houses, where many animals died. Two orchards were burned over, power poles went up in flames and a large stack of baled hay continued to burn into the next day. Altogether 13 buildings were destroyed on five properties.

The idiocy of doing a controlled burn on an extremely dry and hot day aside, it's chilling that it spread to 500 acres before a city and state fire crew plus a platoon of volunteers could control it - all in an area that was then undeveloped and just a couple of miles from town. What would they have done if the wind changed again and started blowing towards Santa Rosa?

Again, I hasten to add it's probably just a Believe-It-Or-Not! coincidence that the big fires of 1908 and 1939 happened at the same places as 2017. Those fires don't even have anything in common with each other; the airport fire was caused by a sudden change of wind and the Commandery burned like a torch amid no winds at all. One fire was avoidable, one probably not. What they do have in common is that both could have been catastrophic had the winds shifted towards Santa Rosa; the town could not have coped with a serious fire on its border at either time.

After presenting lots'o graphs and colorful maps, meteorologist Cliff Mass concludes with an optimistic view that our computer models are probably good enough to predict when conditions are ripe for a replay of the Tubbs Fire. That's good news for sure, but the depressing message from history is that disasters aren't always so foreseeable in real life. Sometimes life-threatening events comes from a scientifically-predictable weather conditions, but sometimes the worst danger is just some fool dragging a burning rag behind a truck.

Painting of the Commandery by Fountain Grove colonist Alice Parting as it appeared in the Pacific Rural Press, May 18, 1889




BIG RESIDENCE GUTTED BY FIRE AT FOUNTAINGROVE
A Disastrous Blaze Near Town Wednesday Night

The explosion of the lamp resulted in a fire Wednesday night the destroyed the fine old residence at Fountaingrove, which for years occupied a commanding site on the hill overlooking the valley, greeting the eyes of every passerby along the Healdsburg Road. It was the biggest residence on the estate.

In a remarkedly short space of time, so fiercely did the fire fiend to do its work, the splendid building that rose four stories high, was reduced to smoldering embers. The residence was furnished and the contents cannot be saved. In addition a small creamery was also destroyed.

Shortly before 10 o'clock the fire started. The flames lit up the heavens for miles. People in Santa Rosa climbed into automobiles and carriages and left for the scene. At first many people thought the fire was at the old Pacific Methodist College building, and quite a number of them headed in that direction. Then it was said that it was Frank Steele's residents near town. All these conjectures proved wrong.

The lamp exploded without warning and Mr. Cowie, who resided in the big house, was slightly burned about the face. The fire spread rapidly. The residence, built entirely of wood, was an easy prey. At the first cry of fire the large force of employees on the Fountaingrove estate rallied and did what they could to prevent the spread of the flames to other buildings. Numerous small hose were attached to faucets. Fortunately the north wind that had been blowing earlier in the day and evening died down, otherwise the flames would have spread. Some flying embers started a fire in the pasture but it was checked.

The house was well built. It had stood for about a quarter century. It was a largest residence on the place. When seen by a Press Democrat representative at the scene of the fire, Kanai [sic] Nagasawa stated that it would be hard to estimate the damage. Probably $35,000 to $40,000 will cover it. It is understood that there was some insurance on the place. Years ago, when the late Thomas Lake Harris published his books, the printing presses and other paraphernalia had aplace in the building destroyed. Of later years it had been used as a residence and for sometime prior to their going away from Fountaingrove Dr. and Mrs. Webley, and the Clarks occupied apartments in it.

There must have been a couple of hundred people in the crowd who drove out from Santa Rosa to the fire. Mr. Nagasawa took in the situation most philosophically, saying while it was too bad it had happened yet he was very thankful no one was hurt, and that there was no wind to scatter the fire further.

The old house will be missed. While it was the largest house it was not considered as fine as that occupied by the late Mr. Harris, which contains some valuable paintings, plate and furnishings. There are many Santa Rosans who have visited the Webleys and the Clarks there, and they will be sorry to learn of the destruction wrought by the fire.

For an hour or more after the fire, and while it was still in progress the telephone line to the Press Democrat office was certainly "busy." The fire was seen for miles around and inquiries poured into the office.

Mr. and Mrs. Shirley Burris were leaving Healdsburg for Santa Rosa in their automobile at the time the fire started. Its reflection could plainly be seen there, and attracted considerable attention. All along the road people were out watching the flames.

While mention is made of those who went in automobiles and buggies to the fire those who rode horseback and on bikes must not be overlooked. There were many entries in these divisions. Several young ladies galloped on horseback to the scene of conflagration. For his speedy transit to Fountaingrove the Press Democrat representative was indebted to Frank Leppo, who drove his auto. When all the autos returned to town after the fire it made up quite a decent illuminated parade. An effort to reach Fountaingrove by telephone after the fire was met with the information the telephone had been destroyed with the building.

- Press Democrat, June 18 1908

History is mainly a series of unfortunate events, as the great philosopher Lemony Snicket tells us, and this week Santa Rosa has endured more than its share of history. Sometimes, though, there are events like this one, which begins with a truckload of awfulness but everything turns out okay in the end - and that's the sort of history story we might all welcome right now, lordy knows.

Once upon a time it was March, 1933.

The whole world was in a handbasket and going fast; Japan pulled out of the League of Nations, ultimately dooming the last hope of maintaining world peace. In Germany, each day found the Nazis grabbing more control, with U.S. newspapers printing photos of "Hitlerites" pasting boycott signs over the windows of Jewish-owned stores. As Franklin Roosevelt had just taken office none of the New Deal reforms were yet in place. It was the darkest time of the Great Depression and since Prohibition was still a thing, no one could even drown their misery in a damn beer.

In Graton a hundred farmers attended a meeting of the newly-formed Farmers' Protective League. The objective was to convince these apple, prune, cherry and berry growers they should organize and protest, but leave their pitchforks and guns at home.

All/most of them had mortgages which were underwater, and their common enemies were the banks. Land values had plummeted and farmers weren't getting much for their crops. Bankers were unsympathetic and foreclosed on farms which had been in families for years or decades or generations, selling the properties at auctions for rock-bottom prices or stashing them away for the institution's real estate portfolio. (Remember that the family in Grapes of Wrath weathered the dust storms but couldn't survive their bank eviction.) Nationally, around one in ten farms had been seized since the start of the Depression and meetings like the one in Graton were being held all over the country.

"When they attempt to foreclose we'll say 'no!' but not by rope or shotgun," said Rev. Charles Phillips, the priest at St. Sebastian's church in Sebastopol and the organizer of the League meeting that day at the Community Hall in Graton. "Our strength will be in numbers. It is a question of understanding and brotherly love, not of cold blooded murder."

The pastor was not being melodramatic; there was more than a whiff of violence in the air over this issue, and maybe even rebellion. Wilfred Howard, who was elected president of the League, said farmers would do something "even if it meant revolution."

"Iowa" was then a rallying cry much like "Lexington and Concord" had been in 1776. In that state a "farmer's mortgage holiday" movement began which quickly spread to at least ten states. The largest group there warned "open revolt" was possible and the same day of the meeting in Graton, 2,500 Iowa farmers marched on the state capitol building threatening they would "forcibly adjourn" the legislature unless something was done. "You can't make peasants out of us!" warned the president of the Iowa Farmer's Union.

Those activist farmers were remarkably successful in shutting down foreclosure sales. When an auction was scheduled, the farmer's neighbors would attend en masse and crowd out other bidders, buying livestock and farm equipment for a few pennies in order to give it back to the foreclosed farmer. Outsiders were also scared away by nooses hanging on barn doors and farm gates to show the locals "meant business." And in the most widely reported incident, on January 4, 1933 in Le Mars, Iowa, the "Council for Defense" beat up the sheriff, forced the judge to issue a statement calling for a mortgage holiday, and dragged the representative of the mortgage company down the courthouse stone steps while threatening to lynch him.

The focus of the Graton meeting was the pending foreclosure of James Case, who had a fifty acre farm on Mirabel Road outside of Forestville where he grew cherries and apples. A 70 year-old retired Methodist minister, Case had lived there for over two decades; his farm was called a "showplace" and he was respected for Burbanking a cross between Gravensteins and the sweeter Jonathans.

(RIGHT: James L. Case in a detail from a 1920 family photo)

Case had a $14,000 mortgage with the Analy Savings Bank in Sebastopol. In the autumn of 1932 he turned over to the bank his entire earnings from his crop of 7,000 boxes of apples, but still couldn't meet the full interest-only payments on the mortgage, much less pay for insurance and taxes. For reasons which seems legally fishy (at least today), the bank placed the farm in a sort of pre-foreclosure receivership, paying a man named Frank Close to become the farm manager. More about Mr. Close later.

The Press Democrat interviewed bank president Arthur Swain, and the article should have included a trigger warning: Mr. Swain came across as a more horrible person than even villainous banker Henry Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life."

In Swain's view, Case had no one to blame but himself because he was too stupid to not foresee that someday an unprecedented economic catastrophe might decimate crop prices. Rather than irresponsibly investing in the future of his farm, Case should have given every spare dime to the bank: "...instead of reducing the loan when good years came along Case has seen fit to use his money elsewhere," and even increased the loan by another $1,000.

"Case refused to do his part when the opportunity was given him," said Swain. "So it is in the hands of the law...unless the borrower is willing to do everything in his power and to act honestly and fairly, we are driven much against our will to resort to our legal rights."

So what was Case doing that was dishonest and unfair? Swain offered him a second mortgage which would be secured by his farm machinery, but Case didn't accept the deal. When Swain learned Case was giving some of the equipment he owned to his son, the bank moved swiftly to foreclose.

Then to demonstrate he was utterly tone deaf to the outside world, Swain concluded his interview by boasting about how well his bank was doing.

Swain's loathsome interview appeared just before the big July 9 gathering at the "doomed Case ranch," as the Farmers' Protective League was now calling it. Around a thousand were expected to attend the all-day picnic and rally, with signs advertising it on all roads leading to Forestville. This was now national news with at least one reporter from as far away as Kansas.

American flags hung from the Case farmhouse porch as the crowd gathered. A telegram from the governor was read in support.

The main speaker waved the edition of the Press Democrat with the Swain interview at the crowd. "His story makes a case for us instead of himself! Swain says the bank will be fortunate to sell the ranch now for $14,000, the amount of the mortgage!"

J. Stitt Wilson, the former Socialist mayor of Berkeley, urged the audience to rise up. "The sale must be stopped! They did it in Iowa and you can do it here!"

"Yes! Yes!" roared the crowd, according to the Press Democrat.

Wilson declared this was not going to be a radical action, but true "Americanism," not unlike the Revolutionary War. "Human rights and human laws transcend any law, and if necessary, we will break every law to reach our needs. But there is no law that can prevent hundreds of thousands of farmers from the San Francisco bay north into Mendocino county mobilizing and giving notice that no foreclosure will be permitted."

What would happen in the next few days would be a turning point in American history, Wilson proclaimed. "Your children may return here to place markers under these very oaks to commemorate you courage."

The rally was on a Sunday, and a full week stretched ahead before the foreclosure auction. Every day, tensions rose.

League president Wilfred Howard sent a telegram to the governor asking him to intervene, as anything might happen. "Our League can no longer be responsible for what will result. The aroused public sentiment is something that can no longer be held in check."

Banker Swain - who apparently found a great sale on shovels and decided to dig himself a deeper hole - agreed that the Case foreclosure was now a Big Deal, but any compromise by the bank would destroy the nation: "The whole capitalistic system is involved in this controversy...this agitation is beginning to destroy business confidence...should these agitators be successful in taking the law in their hands, the results would be disastrous. Are we to allow a few radical socialists to run our banks?"

Also: FDR asks Henry Morgenthau, head of the new Farm Credit Administration to look into the situation. Howard sends Morgenthau a telegram pleading for the government to intervene. Morgenthau calls Swain. And just three days before his farm was to be sold at auction, James Case hires an attorney.

As the clock ticks down, Case's new lawyer requests to postpone the auction for a week until he could appeal to the Superior Court. But there is a hitch - no Superior Court judge was available to approve or deny. Donald Geary was on vacation and Hilliard Comstock was presiding at the Superior Court in Ukiah.

It is Friday July 14, 1933, and there are THREE THOUSAND people jammed shoulder to shoulder in front of the courthouse in downtown Santa Rosa. The Press Democrat describes there is "grim determination and anxiousness" in the crowd, "somber, serious, not a smile on a single face."

From the top of the courthouse steps a lineup of speakers holds the rapt attention of the crowd. Ex-mayor Wilson declares the moment of crisis has arrived: "This is a historic meeting with national significance...we have fired the shot that will be heard around the world," he vows. "We must lift this crushing and horrible nightmare of law pressing down people...we aren't destroyers, but preservers, preservers of the liberty that flag represents" he declares as he dramatically points to the American flag above his head.

J. Stitt Wilson addresses the crowd from the Santa Rosa courthouse steps. Detail from Press Democrat photograph, July 15, 1933

As Wilson finishes, there is a "moment of intense silence" as everyone waits for the auction to begin. Then, according to the PD:

...A man pushed his way through the crowd and forced his way to Wilson's side, whispering in his ear. There was a hurried conversation and Wilson turned and faced the great crowd before him and cried: "I have an announcement to make. Judge Comstock has signed a restraining order. The sale has been postponed. There will be no foreclosure sale on the Case property today!" Someone called for three cheers, then Wilson shouted, "Let's do it again: Three cheers for Judge Comstock!"

With the tension broken, everyone joins in singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, because naturally.

Afterwards Judge Comstock explained to reporters that his ruling was based only on the merits of the case, and it could have been resolved earlier if James Case had not waited until the last moment to retain consul. It turned out that the bank had accepted a $771 payment from the farm's cherry crop after "notice of breach" was served, so there was no accounting as to what Case really owed.

Comstock insisted he wasn't intimidated: "I want it understood that I deplore such a demonstration as this -- a demonstration that makes Sonoma county farmers, who will soon be rich men again, the objects of pity or contempt in the eyes of the nation. Our hops and grapes alone will save us. But there are my own people. I know them and I know they would not have used violence."

But this is not yet the happy ending, and there were new depths to which Mr. Swain and his bank would sink.

The day after the foreclosure was halted, the Press Democrat published a document that Swain was prepared to give James Case once the bank had the deed to his farm. He would have a three-month option to repurchase his property for about $14,000 (after a few adjustments) - although if he had a spare $14 thousand laying around he would not have been in such a pickle in the first place.

But even if he did manage to scratch up all that money somehow (reminder: no money to borrow during the darkest time of the Depression) there was a catch-22 to the agreement - he would have to turn over "the full possession of the ranch and the right to the bank's representative to gather and market the crops." In other words, his place would be in permanent receivership with him paying someone (of the bank's choosing) to manage his orchards.

If that smells a little fishy, a great deal more stink was discovered at the Superior Court hearing a week later. Banker Swain was also president of Sebastopol National Securities company, which actually held the Case mortgage. Frank Close - the guy who the bank had earlier hired - sold the entire cherry crop from the Case farm to the Securities company (the price was never disclosed). That company in turn sold the crop for $771, which it placed in the bank as a partial interest payment.

Much of the court doings were tangled up with the confusion of Swain having two hats but one head. Although investor Swain insisted in court that Close was an agent for the Securities company, at the time banker Swain made it clear that he answered to the bank. The $771 was first deposited in Close's bank account, then one of the Swain personalities apparently thought that might look bad and transferred it to the Case mortgage account.

It also came out in court that Swain had a side deal with Close to sell him the entire farm for $15,000 after foreclosure.

After a full day of testimony, Judge Comstock ruled: The temporary injunction against the foreclosure was made permanent. You can't say someone is in breach of contract and then accept money from them as if it were business as usual.

Comstock also remarked that he thought Swain was duplicitous - that the repurchase offer he made to Case wasn't done in good faith, and he intended to sell the farm to Close all along.

Case and his supporters were jubilant, both for him personally and what it would mean for other farmers now that a Superior Court judge had set such a precedent. "This day has shown that the faith of the farmer in the courts of California is justified," a grower in similar trouble told the Argus-Courier.

The Petaluma newspaper also burbled over what had happened: "...Superior Judge Hilliard Comstock, young, progressive, alert and courageous, has ruled against one of the most powerful financial institutions in Sonoma county...he administers the law as he interprets it, regardless of the power of those disappointed by his rulings."

Despite losing the decision and being personally slapped down by a judge, Swain continued to explore new ways to act like a cartoon villain, swearing he would get his hands on the Case ranch yet. "Appeal? Of course we'll appeal! And we will be backed by financial, real estate, and business interests of the state in doing so." The next month the Analy Savings Bank did appeal the decision and filed another breach notice against Case, but before they came to court FDR's New Deal programs (such as the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act and Farm Credit Act) had programs in place to help poor farmers.

James LaDue Case continued to live on his farm until 1947, when he retired and moved to Sebastopol. He died there in 1951 at the age of 88, outliving his old nemesis Arthur Swain by a dozen years.

The en...oh, wait, there's more.

If you've lived in Sonoma country for a few many moons, you've probably heard about the Case foreclosure before, but told with a different slant. In that version, the hero of the day was Press Democrat editor and publisher Ernest Finley.

This alternative history seems to have originated in an August 3, 1975 feature in the PD about his family. "Ernest L. Finley--A Man of Vision," written by Sheri Graves Gayhart, spreads it on thick. "Sonoma County farmers had little hope of saving their lands without the personal interest and support of a man as strong and influential as Ernest L. Finley."

"Fighting for what he believed was right, he turned a grim situation into what was perhaps his finest hour," the writer exclaims, going on that Finley was working "...behind the scenes, quietly, with no fanfare and no publicity" to negotiate an ethical solution. In this telling, Judge Comstock was little more than a bureaucrat who "ultimately decided the issue on the basis of a legal loophole."

Versions of the story which have subsequently appeared in the Press Democrat have dialed it back somewhat but still followed her lead, downplaying Comstock and putting the spotlight on Finley.

Trouble is, author Gayhart didn't mention where she found her facts and the newspapers of the day do not support her interpretation.

As far as I can tell, Finley apparently mentioned the James Case situation directly only once in an editorial, while the PD ran a handful of generic editorials and cartoons on the hot topic of farm foreclosures during those months.

Finley's only direct involvement implied in the 1933 PD was a July 15 front page photo of Finley with Swain's hand on his shoulder as they pose looking over the bank's refinancing offer - the deal Comstock called dishonest. The photo caption states approvingly that Swain's proposition was "considered most liberal."

Unless new information surfaces about Ernest Finley's actual involvement, I'm calling this out as a kind of “stolen valor.” Hilliard Comstock faced the sort of decision that few of us will ever have to confront. Swain indeed represented powerful business interests which did not want this sort of precedent to stand, and given time, probably would have destroyed Hilliard's reputation to further that goal. The mob of 3,000 outside the courthouse were a more immediate threat and their actions could have gone in any of a number of directions - a riot, an attack on the courthouse, even sparking a national populist uprising which could have squelched the New Deal reforms before they took root.

The story of James Case's farm is probably the most significant event in our history from those days, but it's not important for anything he did, or any telephone calls Ernest Finley may or may not have made. It should be remembered for what Hilliard Comstock had the courage to do, standing up alone for the principle of the law, come what may.



John Wilkes Booth escaped after assassinating Lincoln and spent his last 25 years living comfortably in Forestville. Believe it or ...no, don't believe it. Not a chance it's true. But many locals were convinced he really was hiding there and were eager to shield him.

The tale of Thomas Jerome, the man supposed to be Booth, has more angles than a funhouse mirror. A superficial writer could look at the funny side of it all, as if today the denizens of a trailer park convinced themselves an elderly newcomer was actually Elvis. Or it could be viewed as an interesting 150 year-old conspiracy theory which won't go away - the History Channel and other cable shows have produced sensationalized "Booth Escaped" programs in recent years. But peer deeper at the story and it reveals how strongly our ancestors clung to every awfulness the Confederacy represented, even decades after the Civil War. And that side of the story is a revealing insight which doesn't appear in our Sonoma county history books.

In the decades after the assassination there was no shortage of men who were whispered to be Booth. The most famous one died in 1903; a friend not only wrote a book about his supposed confession, but afterwards had the presumed J.W.B. mummified - remains which were later dragged around Midwestern carnival sideshows for decades. Other Booth sightings had him in England, Brazil, Italy, Mexico and every other continent except Antartica. He supposedly turned up in China where he fought for the emperor; he became a famous Episcopalian minster preaching all over the South under a different name. A guy in Missouri contacted the predecessor to the FBI in 1922 because he was certain his 80-something neighbor either was Booth or knew where the hideout was.1

In 1937 Izola Forrester, a prolific newspaper and magazine journalist as well as a pioneer screenwriter, wrote "This One Mad Act: The Unknown Story of John Wilkes Booth and His Family" where she claimed Booth escaped, hiding in Southern California before heading to Asia and dying in India. What makes her book particularly interesting is that she claimed to be Booth's granddaughter. Spoiler alert: That's very unlikely.2

Historians point out that Forrester's book is filled with errors and misconceptions regarding the assassination and the Booth family, but what interests us in Sonoma county is her section about a Booth look-alike who had lived in Forestville. This part of her book is mostly oral history, as she is not straining to prove Thomas Jerome fits into her elaborate conspiracy theory. The majority of mistakes there are probably due to the faulty memories of her interviewees who were recalling a man who had died some forty years earlier.

Here she mainly interviewed Elisha Shortridge who was close to 90 at the time, living in a log cabin somewhere deep in the redwoods outside Forestville. He was a fascinating character; he had a Zelig-like quality to pop up at some of the most interesting local events in the 1880s and 1890s. I'll certainly be writing about him again, and soon; watch for the story of the Wirt Travis murder.

"Pioneer" Shortridge (as he seemed to be universally called) didn't need much encouragement to talk about Thomas Jerome. "Yes, I knew him," he told Forrester. "He came into the valley in 1870. You mean the feller they say shot Lincoln, don't you?"

"...From the first time he showed up, we all noticed his resemblance to the man who had shot Lincoln, and it was whispered about he was actually Booth himself. I've seen him often. Talked to him over and over again, and I can remember just how he looked. He was very handsome, and sort of stately, and he wore good clothes. Always looked dressed up, and he had big black eyes, and wavy black hair off a high forehead. When he did drink, he drank hard. He'd seem to stand up just so long, then he'd have to get away from up here. He liked to ride horseback, and he'd go away down to San Francisco by himself, and stay by himself for a few days, but he always came back. He could talk to you on anything you wanted to know. Didn't mind saying he'd been an actor once. He was a fine man, and everyone liked and respected him, but we all thought he was Booth just the same...

When she showed him a photograph of Booth, Shortridge replied, "if I was shown those pictures off-hand, and asked who that man was, I'd say I used to know him up here, and his name was Tom Jerome. Looks just like he did when he first came up. Wore his hair and moustache the same way, same eyes, same air about him. Same man, I'd say, only younger."

Forrester also interviewed the son of William Clarke, the man who undoubtedly knew Jerome better than anyone else. He recalled hearing Jerome read or recite Shakespeare and poetry. Shown photographs of Booth, the younger Clarke said "Mr. Jerome might have sat for any of them."

"...I've heard the talk about him, and he did look exactly like Booth, but he never claimed to be him. There was a mystery around him that no one, not even my father, could solve. He had plenty of money, and was always well dressed, and he looked distinguished... My father was the only person he talked much with, and he died in our home."

Clarke (or someone) showed Forrester a picture of Thomas Jerome taken in the early 1880s. She agreed he was a dead ringer, if you account for a few extra pounds added over the 15+ years that had passed since Booth's last portraits. "[It] might well have been his likeness, far more so in resemblance than any other persons who have claimed to have been Booth...when I left Forestville I almost believed they belonged to the same person."

As mentioned earlier, the flaw in Izola Forrester's book was that her historical research skills were weak. Had she done a little digging, there was more to learn about Tom Jerome.

He was supposedly about the same age as Booth, although we can't be sure - I can find nothing about him before he appeared in California in 1868, working as a photographer in Eureka. He claimed variously to be from Alabama or Virginia.

He was still a photographer when he appeared in Sonoma county in 1870 living near the Russian River, but by the next year he stated he was an artist. This is how he identified himself in the voter rolls for the next 17 years, changing his occupation more specifically to painter in 1888. He was described as being 5' 9" tall, dark complexion with dark eyes and "arms both crooked", whatever that meant.

In a nutshell then, here is the recipe for a John Wilkes Booth: Take one (1) Southerner with dark hair born in the mid-1830s, stir in enough education to be well-spoken and enough vanity to be well dressed, add a dollop of mystery (dark past preferred) and mix well. Serve in any community still hot over the Confederate cause and where people thought it was cool to harbor the man who might have killed Lincoln.

And in 1870 California, Santa Rosa and its surrounding region was just such a place. "There wasn't anyone who'd ever have given him away up here," Elisha Shortridge said.

When Thomas Jerome came to Sonoma county he stayed with the Myers, according to Shortridge, and a few years later Jerome married one of their seven girls. Dillon Preston Myers was likely happy to approve of his daughter's wedding to an ersatz Booth and "unreconstructed rebel" - according to Shortridge, Myers was a well-known "Secesh."3

Shortridge continued:

California was full of them in those days," he stated reflectively. "They all stuck together, had their own meeting and drinking places and their own ways. Feelings ran mighty high up here in war time, and long afterwards. Folks were divided in sentiment even when Jerome came up and he belonged to the 'Secesh' sympathizers...in those days and in my time up here, there was something bigger and mightier in this land that the law or government; something that bound men together in a tie of secret brotherhood stronger than family or country, even to the death. It stretched everywhere. You couldn't get away from it even if you wanted to. I ain't saying anything, mind, against it. It was all around this part of the country, and it was 'Secesh...'"

Forrester asked if he was referring to the Knights of the Golden Circle, the most prominent of the Confederate secret societies which were the direct ancestors of the Ku Klux Klan. In California during the Civil War the group encouraged sedition, including training militia groups that went to fight for the rebels in the Civil War. The KGC's propaganda efforts undermined Union support in the West (Santa Rosa's weekly Sonoma Democrat was long rumored to be financed by KGC backers) and was involved in an attempt to split off Southern California into a separate, slave-holding state. Immediately after Lincoln's assassination it was presumed the KGC was behind it, and that John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators were active members.

Shortridge confirmed the KGC was active in Sonoma county during the war and remained a presence afterwards:

"That's what they called themselves, but there was more to it than the name. You never knew who belonged to it, and who didn't, but it held the Southerners together. There were plenty of them up here. Even by the time Jerome came to live up here, the sentiment still burned low and deep like that fire there. Southerners and Northeners hated each other for years and years after Lincoln was shot. All you had to do was start an argument on slavery or States' rights, and the war was on again."

Even those who didn't believe Tom Jerome was secretly Booth assumed he had some sort of high-status position during the war. Shortridge said, "It was generally believed that he had been in the Confederate Army, as a spy. But nobody asked him questions. You couldn't take liberties with him. He was friendly enough, but stand-offish, very dignified and usually alone."

Clarke's son told Forrester almost the same thing: "No one ever took any liberties with him, or called him anything but 'Mr. Jerome.' He made no explanations about himself, but people believed he had been in the Secret Service of the South, and was an unreconstructed rebel who wouldn't take the oath of allegiance to the North."

The Jeromes had two children; the older daughter apparently didn't want to talk about her father but her younger sister remembered him as austere and mysterious. She said he had been an actor, knew Booth when both were young and had "doubled" for him, but would not say exactly what that meant. She also mentioned the Confederate Secret Service, which suggests some (or all) of what she knew spilled out from the echo chamber.

However swashbuckling his past, his life in Sonoma county came to center upon relationships with the Myers family in Windsor and the Clarkes of Forestville.

He married Ida Myers in 1874, and a year later daughter Frances was born. The second girl, Edith, came along in 1880, the same year Ida died of TB. After that the Myers raised their grandchild Frances and Edith was sent to live with the Clarke family.

Art dealers tell me there are no records of Thomas Jerome paintings, so it's doubtful he made his living by the paintbrush. According to local newspapers he was a partner in a Windsor grocery store in the early 1870s and converted a Forestville saloon into a store in 1880. His friend William Clarke was Forestville's Postmaster for most of the 1880s-90s and Jerome became his deputy PM in 1890. After that he no longer identified himself as an artist but a "clerk."

Thomas Jerome's death is as vague as his origin. Although he supposedly died at the Clarke home there is no Sonoma county death certificate for him, nor any newspaper obituary that can be found. The cemetery records list only that he died sometime in November 1894.

Izola Forrester believed she solved the puzzle after daughter Frances gave her the address of cousins in Philadelphia. Forrester contacted them and was told that yes, their uncle Thomas McGittigan was a Confederate sympathizer and believed to have gone to California, where he disappeared. But either the Philly cousins were out of touch with their own family or Forrester misunderstood what she was told. There was indeed a McGittigan generally matching the profile but he was an Irish immigrant who became a Union soldier, then spent the rest of his life around Philadelphia. A photo of McGittigan as a youth convinced Forrester he was neither Booth nor Jerome. As the Myers family came from Pennsylvania, perhaps Izola was confused by something Frances said concerning the other side of her family tree.

Frances Jerome's family remained here and flourished; there are now great-great-great and 4-g grandchildren in West county, but the family only knows about the Booth story through Forrester's retelling. That probably isn't surprising, as Frances said "it would kill me" if it were proven she was the child of John Wilkes Booth, so it wasn't a story she herself would have passed down. To some people, treason and murder are not points of pride. Imagine that.

Photo of Thomas Jerome grave marker: FindAGrave.com

1 The Booth-escaped conspiracy theories were collected in The Great American Myth by George S. Bryan, 1940. A Rolling Stone overview of the conspiracy stories commented, "author George S. Bryan made it clear that Booth was a favorite of the nut theorists."
2 Following the assassination, women came forward claiming they were John Wilkes Booth's wife and/or mother of his children. The Booth family dismissed these women as pretenders, and brother Edwin later said there were “twenty [widows] that wrote to me just after John’s death.” One of them, however, Izola Mills, had two children that she convinced a grown daughter of brother Junius were fathered by John Wilkes. Rose Booth generously supported Mills and her children whom she treated as if they were her own. It has since come out that Izola Mills was simultaneously drawing a U.S. Navy pension for the children claiming their father was her deceased husband. And as John Wilkes was performing hundreds of miles away when Izola Forrester's mother was conceived, it is very unlikely he was the father. The only link between Forrester and the Booth family was Rose Booth's willingness to accept her grandmother's doubtful claims. Source: The Forgotten Daughter – Rosalie Ann Booth
3 Forrester refers to him as "Dr. Myers" which is clearly an error, as he was a farmer and contractor of some sort. My bet is she wrote "DP Myers" in her notes and when writing it up later, misread the "P" for an "R." On the rare occasions when he was mentioned in the newspapers during his lifetime he was always called, "D. P. Myers."

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