It was 1:15 in the morning when Dr. Phillips' phone rang at his home in Petaluma. As he was Sonoma County Coroner, this was not terribly unusual; people inconveniently die at all hours. It's the coroner's job to investigate when there are unusual circumstances and the good doctor was certainly kept busy in late 1920 looking into odd deaths - in the previous few weeks four people were killed when their car or truck was hit by a train and a seven year-old boy was decapitated in an accident at the fairgrounds. But Phillips had never received a call like this one: He was told there were three men hanging from a tree in the old Santa Rosa cemetery and nobody knew who killed them.

This is a postscript to the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID” and covers one of the conspiracies of silence following the murder of the gangsters: The mystery of what happened to their bodies.

As he drove to Santa Rosa he passed around a dozen cars on the highway headed south, which seemed unusual for that time of night. He unfortunately mentioned this to a Press Democrat reporter when he arrived at the county jail; the newspaper took it as evidence that the lynching party came from San Francisco and most papers in the city chased that angle for days, although it was already pretty clear the vigilantes came from Healdsburg or points north.

Before he left Petaluma, Coroner Phillips phoned Frank Welti, the Deputy Coroner for Santa Rosa and ordered an ambulance to be waiting at the cemetery to transport the bodies. After the dead gangsters were cut down they would be taken to the Welti mortuary, which doubled as the town morgue.

Phillips spent nearly an hour at the jail with the sheriff (probably joined by Welti) prior to heading for the cemetery. This was likely when they all had a very earnest discussion about what might happen next - their jobs were not over just because the gangsters were now dead. "He is in a measure responsible for the safe keeping of the bodies until such time as they are interred," the San Francisco Call reported after speaking with Phillips. And until the remains were shipped out of the county or securely buried, there was a clear and apparent risk that someone might try to get access to the corpses or even steal them.

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

The air was heavy with mist that December morning, peaceful and timeless, each home in Santa Rosa seemingly alone in the world except for neighboring houses not cloaked by fog. You picked up the Press Democrat on the doorstep planning to scan the ads for Christmas presents, but the astonishing headline dampened any enthusiasm for shopping. Nevertheless, you still put on a hat and went downtown - to gawk at the corpses lying on marble slabs in the morgue.

About 3,000 people (including children) queued outside the Welti mortuary on the corner of Fourth and E to see the bodies of the three gangsters lying in the cold room. When the undertakers closed for noon lunch the crowd patiently waited for them to reopen at 2 o'clock. Nobody wanted to lose their place in line, so stores were empty despite Christmas being only two weeks away.

This is the eighth and final chapter in the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID,” which is not a simple story to wrap up. After the three gangsters were finished off there were still loose threads to address and knots to untangle.

Most significantly were two conspiracies of silence, both of which remain (mostly) secret still today. There was the conspiracy by the Healdsburg vigilantes to snatch the gangsters and lynch them, which they carried out with military precision - and perhaps most remarkably, maintained the discipline to keep completely quiet about it afterwards. Then there was the plan by Santa Rosa authorities to conceal what happened to the bodies out of concern for grave robbers. Finally, there were related things that happened in the days (and years) that followed and must be mentioned to wrap up the story.

Those conspiracies of silence are more like appendices to the lynching story, so I'm breaking them out into parts of their own - otherwise this wrapup chapter would be uncomfortably long, and the transcripts of sources would be a jumble of mixed articles spanning from 1919 to 1922. So let's proceed here with the telling of what happened right after the Dec. 10 lynching before jumping ahead to discover what became of the hanging tree. 

 

 

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

It's the most infamous event in Santa Rosa history, but there's really not much to say about it - as long as you stick to the facts, that is.

There are just four first-hand accounts of what happened at the jailhouse late on the night of November 9, 1920 and the lynching that followed at the Rural Cemetery. The most important came from Clarence H. "Barney" Barnard, who was the only member of the lynching party to talk about it. Almost 65 years after the events, Barnard walked into the Press Democrat office and asked to speak to Gaye LeBaron. His recollections - which appeared in her December 8, 1985 column - rewrote several key parts of the story. She also recorded an interview with him in 1989 which is available on the SSU website (it adds little to what she originally wrote, and Barnard was so confused at that point he was unsure if he had been born in 1889 or 1899).

Setting the record straight is important, but the core of the story remained unchanged: An unidentified group of men seized three gangsters being held at the Sonoma County jail and hung them from a tree. It was not unexpected; after Sheriff Jim Petray's murder and the subsequent riot at the jail, the county was awash with rumors that a lynching was in the works.

This is the seventh chapter in the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID,” and covers just the events of that night, including how Barney's testimony has changed the record. The next (and final) part describes the aftermath and offers thoughts on who led the lynching party and how it was organized.

It was presumed that the attack was being organized in San Francisco or Healdsburg and would most likely come on Tuesday, the day of Petray's funeral. "Frankly, I fear for what may happen after the funeral tonight," an anonymous county official said in a widely reprinted United Press wire story. Sheriff Boyes doubled the guard at the jail and stationed deputies outside.

But Tuesday night passed without incident except to note it kept raining - although it was still early December, they were soon to pass total rainfall from the entire previous year. Wednesday night was calm (but wet) as well. As the arraignments were coming up Friday morning, it looked like there would be no trouble after all. Sheriff Boyes and the others went home Thursday night to a well-deserved rest, leaving Chief Deputy Sheriff Marvin “Butch” Robinson alone on the night desk. 

 

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

The weather was dismal and the same could be said of the mood in town. There was little light in the daylight hours; clouds hung heavy like dirty wool and the night differed only by being too dark to see their grayness. There was drizzling rain which sometimes rallied into something heavier. It was like a single miserable day that refused to end.

During those four days between the Sunday night riot and the midnight lynchings, our Santa Rosa ancestors found their situation unsettling and had little hope of their prospects improving anytime soon.

There still was seething anger over the murder of their sheriff and the other officers. They did not have the will to riot again themselves, but every single day there was talk that vigilantes from Healdsburg or San Francisco might descend upon the town for another battle with the sheriff.

Santa Rosa was finally receiving the attention from the Bay Area it had long craved - although it was exactly the wrong sort. Instead of being celebrated as the lovely little city of roses and picket fences, it was now linked to gangsters and the worst crime in memory. Nor would that soon be forgotten; the upcoming murder trials followed by inevitable executions at San Quentin would keep alive the memory of all that happened here.

This is the sixth chapter in the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID,” and describes what was revealed that week both to the Grand Jury and in jailhouse interviews, plus the media feeding frenzy to scoop other newspapers on those details. Questions are also raised about the credibility of key testimony given by a lawman. 

 

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

They knew nightfall would bring trouble and it was already starting to get dark - but inside the sheriff's office there was no plan on what to do or even agreement on who was in charge. The telephones kept ringing. A crowd was forming in the street outside that had the makings of a lynch mob.

This is the fifth chapter in the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, "THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID," and describes events which happened later in the day of December 5. Just an hour earlier Sonoma County Sheriff James A. Petray and two San Francisco detectives had been gunned down as they were arresting a gangster in Santa Rosa.

Petray was highly popular, demonstrated both by how word of his murder spread with racing speed and the degree of anger it stirred. Normally some sort of public event would be promptly arranged - a ceremony on the steps of the courthouse perhaps, a church service, or better yet, a memorial gathering in his hometown of Healdsburg, far from the jail where his killer was in custody.

But if there was any hope of defusing the situation any such plan would have needed to made and announced immediately. Further complicating matters was that it was a Sunday afternoon; city and county authorities who could make decisions weren't in their offices or were even reachable - the District Attorney was enjoying a drive in the country.

Nor did it help when Coroner Phillips showed up at the jail to announce he was assuming temporary charge of the sheriff’s office, based on his other official title being the Public Administrator for the county. As he was a physician with no experience at all in law enforcement it was an audacious claim, particularly as he had to push his way through an angry crowd to reach the door. What progress had been made on mobilizing officers came to a halt as they waited for Superior Judge Seawell to come down and make a ruling. It was now past sunset.

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

Once that door is opened, events will be set in motion that are impossible to stop. Three men will be dead or dying within minutes, another three hanging by their necks by the end of the week. The town's cultivated image as the lovely City of the Roses will soon be shattered as the savagery of its citizens is revealed. It is about three o'clock in the afternoon of Sunday, December 5, 1920 in Santa Rosa as Sheriff Jim Petray raises his arm to knock on that door.

This is the fourth chapter in the series "THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID" about the 1920 lynching in Santa Rosa. As this part of the story began, the front pages of Bay Area newspapers had been filled for days about the police dragnet to track down members of the San Francisco "Howard Street Gang," who had gang raped a woman on Thanksgiving and two other women a few weeks prior. Five suspects had been caught and arraigned with another twenty believed at large.

San Francisco Detective Lester Dorman and Detective Sergeant Miles Jackson were working fulltime on the pursuit of the gangsters, and the day before these events Sheriff Petray notified them that some of the wanted men were reportedly in Santa Rosa. It was agreed the officers would drive up with three of the victims expected to ID them.

The man they expected to find was Charles Valento, who they mistakenly believed was in charge of the Howard street speakeasy. They also believed they would nab Louis Lazarus, who had been in Santa Rosa for part of the week and may have left as recently as that Sunday morning. It was reported in the Examiner that one of the rape victims had recognized him via his mug photo. (It's unclear whether he was identified before the Santa Rosa visit or if he was wanted only because he was known to be associated with the speakeasy.)

There were two others in our cast of characters you need to know: George Boyd (see previous chapter) and Dorothy Quinlan. Although it turned out she was innocent of any wrongdoing, she was first suspected of being a gang member herself. Had the mob succeeded in breaking into the jail Sunday night it's not inconceivable she might have been lynched along with the men.

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

Alfred Hitchcock made the wrong movie in Santa Rosa. Yes, Shadow of a Doubt is a great film, one of the greatest ever made, critics believe. But while he was here filming it in 1942, it's likely he heard about what had happened a couple of decades earlier - or at least, the condensed version still retold today. That gangsters gunned down some lawmen in cold blood, that vigilantes stormed the jail, that the bad men were lynched in an old cemetery.

But there was far more to the story; it had all the elements that Hitchock loved to work into the plots of his thrillers. Once the wheels of the story were set in motion, there was no stopping events. Guilt and innocence were sometimes ambiguous and people uninvolved with the crimes found themselves suddenly caught in situations where their lives were in peril. There was even a MacGuffin - a psychopath who was waving around a handgun so large he could barely hold it.

This is the third chapter of the series, "THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID" about the 1920 Santa Rosa lynchings. And like Shadow of a Doubt, this part began as a smoke-puffing train pulled into the depot at Railroad Square.

It was soon after Thanksgiving when three men stepped off the train. They were all ex-cons - one of them had been out of prison only a few weeks - and they had come to Santa Rosa to hide from the San Francisco police. The city had erupted in outrage that holiday weekend when it was revealed two women had been brutally assaulted and one of them gang raped by what the press called the "Howard Street Gang." There was a police dragnet for anyone believed associated with the group and a list of suspects went out to authorities statewide shortly thereafter. All of these developments were explored in the previous chapter.

They were led here by Terrance Fitts. Santa Rosa was his hometown and he visited here regularly - when he wasn't behind bars. Just two weeks earlier he had returned home to learn his father had unexpectedly died, leaving him nothing in the will. The family home on College Ave. would be vacant until the end of the year, however, and had more than enough room for the three of them (see chapter one).

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

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