Here's an interesting little case study in journalism ethics: What does an editor and publisher do when an advertiser is exposed as a fraud? It's a delicate problem -- unless, of course, the advertisements appeared in a rival paper.

Even before America was a nation, its newspapers had an oily history with advertisers. Readers of the November 16, 1775 New York Gazette couldn't miss that splashy ad on page one, column one, for "Maredant's Drops," a snake-oil that promised to prevent scurvy and cure leprosy (scrofula, pimples and ulcers, too!) -- but more diligent readers might have noticed that other little item on the same page that didn't even have its own headline: King George had ordered the property of all colonial rebels to be confiscated by the crown.

Besides crowding out important news, there's always been the problem of truthfulness in advertising. Did Maredant's Drops work as promised? Probably not, and were even likely to kill you -- a key ingredient was the ultra-toxic mercuric chloride. (And by the way, that big advertisement may even have been selling fake deadly snake-oil; Maredant's Drops were frequently counterfeited.) More than a century later, a steady stream of pharmaceutical display ads appearing in the early 20th Century Press Democrat showed that the hucksters was still as bad, or even worse: A particular cod liver oil formula promised to cure tuberculosis; horehound syrup would stop you from coughing to death.

But let's give our dear old editors and publishers the benefit of doubt, and presume they didn't know that the nostrums they helped sell were often useless and sometimes potentially lethal. Likely those same quack cures could be found in their home medicine cabinets as well; anyone who thinks newspapermen were smarter and more well-informed than the general population should spend more time reading editorial pages.

We also should cut the 1905 newspapers some slack for running ads from fortune-tellers, mediums, and other spiritualist hokum. It would still be almost two decades before Houdini* and Harry Price brought media attention to exposing these con-artists. And again, maybe those in charge of the newspapers really believed in occult powers; as debunked in the earlier "City of Roses and Rubes" item, "The Great McEwen" passed through Santa Rosa with his skillful telepathy act in 1904, with the Press Democrat acting as his enthusiastic cheerleader.

Both the Republican and Press Democrat ran classified ads for spiritualists in 1905. Some examples:

MRS. CLARA MALLORY - Clairoyant, clanandant spirit card reader, born medium, honest, confidential readings, helpful advice, when others fail consult me, price 50c, Piedmont Hotel, room 6

CLAIRVOYANT - Consult Madame Florence, Clairvoyant, Card Reader and Palmism, on all matters pertaining to business, courtship and marriage. Spirit Pictures of future husband or wife, 10c. 533 Fourth St., room 8

SCIENTIFIC ASTROLOGY - SEND BIRTHDATE and 20c for characteristics and years prospects. Edith Lloyd, box 103 Santa Rosa, Calif.

But it was a 1906 dust-up over phony names that made offers of supernatural services newsworthy. The simple story is this: A woman in Santa Rosa sent a letter with questions to "Ismar" in San Francisco, enclosing a dollar (remember that her buck was the equivalent of $100+ today). While waiting for an answer, she learned that "Ismar, the Great Egyptian Spiritualist and Trance Medium" supposedly was now in Santa Rosa. The letter-writer -- exercising some long-overdue skepticism -- discovered that the fortune-teller in town was an impostor of the San Francisco seer. No arrests were made for false identity, by the way.

(At left: the "real" Ismar, from an ad in the 1905 San Francisco Call.)

The Press Democrat was running competing classified ads for "Madame Florence" at the time, and the bogus "Ismar" was advertising exclusively in the Republican (see ad below), which by itself gave PD editor Ernest L. Finley incentive for snark. As no display ad or classified appeared in the Press Democrat, Finley was also presumably miffed that she used another printer for flyers that must have been posted around town spelling her name as "Ismer." (The Press Democrat also claims that the letter-writer learned about the fake Ismar's arrival from a notice in the PD, although I couldn't find it on microfilm.)

To discredit the bogus psychic who advertised elsewhere, the PD tossed up her name as often as possible in the article. But even more astonishing is the equivalent Santa Rosa Republican story, where the reporter never mentioned the fortune-teller's name -- some acrobatic writing, that. Yet the Republican still continued to run the Ismar ad for the full week. Look, it's not our fault if you're defrauded by an impostor of a fake spiritualist that we sort-of warned you about.

*Until the recent biography, "The Secret Life of Houdini," it was little mentioned that he began his stage career as a fake medium. He had found the out-of-print 1891 book, "Revelations of a Spirit Medium," and although the anonymous author wrote it intending to expose chicanery, the teenage Houdini studied it to learn how to pose as a psychic as well as picking up several magic tricks used in his early stage career. When Harry Price and others reprinted the book in 1922, Houdini wrote a praiseworthy review in the New York Times crediting its influence on him and other magicians. Two years later, Houdini followed Price and other spiritualist debunkers with his autobiographical A Magician Among the Spirits.

Two Fortune Tellers Who Look Alike But Yet Are Different

Who is "Ismar, the Great Egyptian Spiritualist and Trance Medium"? Is she the woman who is now in this city advertising her powers in the local papers, or is she the woman who is advertising in the San Francisco newspapers and still doing business at the original stand? That is what a good many people are asking themselves these days.

A few days ago a clairvoyant arrived here and began advertising herself as "A. Ismer, the Great Egyptian Spiritualist and Trance Medium, who created a profound sensation in San Francisco." She knows her business, according to the advertisement, for it goes on to say: "The sick and broken-hearted went away happy in mind and body. Lovers were united, and those who consulted her were not divorced."

When questioned last night as to her identity, the seeress now doing business here denied that she was or that she claimed to be "Ismar, the Great," and through her manager called attention to the difference in the way the two names were spelled. She also said that she had been "fighting" the San Francisco notability for some eight years, and that she had plenty of documents with which to prove her claims to occult power.

A few days ago a lady residing in this city wrote to "Ismar" asking some professional questions. No reply was received, and on picking up the Press Democrat one morning the seeker after information noticed that "Ismer" was here. On phoning to the latter at her Santa Rosa address and asking if the inquiry had been received, the seeress now here replied in the negative and explained that her mail had not been forwarded regularly. The next day the answer was received in due form from the San Francisco office. When questioned again by phone "Ismer" explained that when she left her San Francisco office she put a competent woman in her place. A message received from the San Francisco office last night claim [sic] that the local seeress is an impostor. She spells her name differently, however, and except in the general tenor of the advertisement and the similarity of the two names, both of which might be mere coincidences, there is no real proof of any intention to deceive.

- Press Democrat, January 25, 1906


A San Francisco seeress of repute had sent a telegram to persons in this city that a woman doing business under her name is an imposter. The woman who is here under the name of the San Francisco seeress is alleged to use the same address as that given by the woman in the metropolis who claims to be the original of that name. The discovery was made by a Santa Rosan sending a dollar to the San Francisco woman asking answers to three questions, and after a long delay and no answer arriving, she telephoned to the woman at the address in this city. The latter declared that the letter had not been received, but that possibly her "secretary" had the missive. Finally the answer came from the San Francisco woman, and then the Santa Rosan called up the local seeress and asked if the letter had been received. The reply in the negative showed that something might be wrong and a hurried letter to the metropolis brought forth the response that was expected. It was as follows:

"Have not left San Francisco. Woman using my name is an imposter."

- Santa Rosa Republican, January 25, 1906

There were 21 automobiles in 1905 Santa Rosa, and assuming you owned a gasoline model (instead of the steam variety), how and where did you get fuel to make the machine go? Most drivers probably had a 50-gallon barrel of gasoline tucked in the back of their carriage house garage where they dipped in a bucket and poured the smelly, dangerous gas into the car's tank via a funnel. By contrast, imagine the luxury of pulling your Oldsmobile up to a "pump" and having an attendant fill 'er up -- ah, sweet progress! I tell you, if they could somehow put one of these filling stations on every major street corner, that electric trolley would be doomed.

This item is rich in the sort of details that are loved by tech-y historians. It reveals much that Santa Rosa's auto shop had a pit allowing mechanics to repair the underside without the car needing to be hoisted into the air on a crane (!) and that the gas station was using the new-fangled "Bowser Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump" (misspelled here as "Bouser"), which had been introduced just months before. Other factoids here raise intriguing questions, such as the mention of the "rubberoid" floor. This was the name of a roofing material that became an issue in a trademark suit that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1911, which ruled that products with similar names such as "Ribbero" were not in violation (none of the products actually contained rubber, by the way). Also interesting is the prominent mention of separate waiting rooms for men and women, with "wash stand, toilet, and all conveniences." So you were supposed to hang out in the bathroom while they replaced your spark plugs and changed the oil?

Of particular local history note is that this gas station/garage/auto dealership/cyclery was owned by the remarkable Fred J. Wiseman, who would make the world's first airmail flight six years later (see background in this blog's first post on Wiseman, or review all tags that mention him).

Fred Wiseman Will Soon Have Best Equipped Place in This Part of the State

The new automobile garage which is being fitted up by Fred Wiseman of the Santa Rosa Cyclery, is to be one of the finest affairs of the kind to be found north of San Francisco. The garage is to be located in the new Overton building on Fifth street, and when completed will be made very convenient in every particular. It is to be both a bicycle shop and auto garage, the bicycle department being arranged on the east side of the building. At present the whole building is fitted with cement floor, but in the bicycle store, where there will also be a large stock of sporting goods, the floor will be covered with rubberoid, and the fixtures here will be the latest and most attractive obtainable.

In front and between the two departments is located the business office, and just to the rear of this there are both ladies' and gents' waiting rooms which are equipped with wash stand, toilet, and all conveniences.

Instead of equipping two machine shops, Mr. Wiseman has arranged so that he will unite both departments and one set of tools will do for both lines. It is the purpose of the proprietor to keep a place to store automobiles by the month, and also have on hand a number of new machines for sale. They have the agency of the Oldsmobile, the Winton, and the Reo, made by the Olds Company. There are now some nine or ten autos in the building.

At the present time everything is at a standstill on the building because of the strike which was declared Friday, and it was the intention to have the place ready for occupancy in a few days but it will now probably be the first of December before everything is ready for moving in.

The machine shop is especially well equipped, there being a good cement pit, so arranged that the machinist may get under the automobile to make repairs, without having to swing it in the air on a crane. There is also a wash rack constructed in the rear of the room where the machines may be cleaned easily, and the garage will be fitted with a Bouser gasoline pump for the filling of the gasoline tanks. This is the only gasoline pump which is recognized by the insurance companies as being absolutely safe. It is so constructed that when you want a certain amount of gasoline, the machine is set and the pump will only raise that much.

After everything is completed and the cyclery has been moved to the new quarters, Mr. Wiseman says he will keep open day and night, always having a man there to look after the wants of those who call. This is certainly a very interesting place and will be a great advance in the automobile and bicycle line in this county.

- Santa Rosa Republican, November 5, 1905

An important lesson to remember when reading the old newspapers: all of your presumptions are probably wrong. Even the simplest news items may have a complex backstory mostly forgotten today, as is the case here. I had noticed that it was sometimes reported that boys were arrested for shooting robins, but hadn't thought the stories noteworthy -- surely the editor was filling column space on a slow day, or maybe throwing out a little civics lesson, like the Press Democrat's stern warnings over the downtown orange peel menace. I was wrong; there was far more to the story than Peck's Bad Boy plonking away at birds with his Daisy air rifle for the fun of it. Little Sammy Shooter might have been working for a smuggling ring in violation of federal law -- or might have been seeking to feed his family.

In the 19th century, America was of three minds about robins. Farmers, particularly in the south where the birds winter, considered them a pest bird like the crow, with flocks of hundreds swooping down to strip fruit trees bare. Northeners also lost berries and fruit (cherries in particular), but were more sentimental about robins, waxing about their cheery songs and that their appearances heralded the coming of spring. Both Yanks and Johnny Reb, however, agreed that the birds were delicious.

An 1883 ag report told farmers, "the robin is eminently a game bird, and makes the most delicate and delicious eating known, almost. If, therefore, you beg the question, kill a mess for a savory pot-pie at such time as when they are in the height of their plunder, you can accomplish your purpose, and can say conscientiously that you have not violated any law for the good of the community." And even Audubon (one of his American Robin watercolors seen at right) wrote in 1841 about the joys of cooking robins:

"In all the southern states...their presence is productive of a sort of jubilee among the gunners, and the havoc made among them with bows and arrows, blowpipes, guns, and traps of different sorts, is wonderful. Every gunner brings them home by bagsful, and the markets are supplied with them at a very cheap rate. Several persons may at this season stand round the foot of a tree loaded with berries, and shoot the greater part of the day, so fast do the flocks of Robins succeed each other. They are then fat and juicy, and afford excellent eating."

Under pressure from the new conservation movement, turn of the century attitudes and laws began to change. The small fruit and berry crops aside, it was recognized that robins were pretty useful birds; the rest of the year they mostly ate weed seeds and harmful insects, particularly the dreaded army worm. The 1900 Lacey Act was a landmark federal law to beef up protection of wild birds, and nearly two decades later, the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act finally put strict limits on killing birds like the robin.

Shamefully, some conservationists played race, regional, and class cards to drum up support for protection. A 1902 League of American Sportsmen author wrote, "no Northern man thinks of shooting a robin at any time. Yet in the South, white man and negro alike slaughter these innocent and beautiful birds at every opportunity." And although robin pot pie was a favorite dish throughout the south, the 1912 National Conservation Congress sensationalized it as ethnic threat:

How many people in the North know that the negroes and poor whites of the South annually slaughter millions of valuable insect-eating birds for food? Around Avery Island, Louisiana, during the robin season (in January when the berries are ripe), Mr. B. A. Mcllhenny says that during ten days or two weeks, at least 10,000 robins are each day slaughtered for the pot. "Every negro man and boy who can raise a gun is after them!"

But even though California had officially removed robins as a game bird in 1897, that didn't stop hunters with a taste for robin pie. A letter from an ornithological club in Santa Cruz complained bitterly that the law was useless as long as those hicks around San Jose couldn't control their appetites: "we cannot protect birds in this county when they can shoot across the line from the other county into ours...[as long as] that last relic of barbarism, robin pot-pie, is still existent in some households where they choose to believe that no protective ordinance was ever passed."

Robin hunting continued to be an issue for years, with seven states -- Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Maryland -- keeping the robin legally as a game bird. Pennsylvania continued to allow robins to be killed between May and July into the 1920s "to protect cherries and other small fruits," although the permit allowed for the birds to be used for "food purposes."

Amazingly, no specific recipe for robin pot pie currently could be found on the Internet (yes, I also searched for variant spellings of "robin pot-pie", "robin potpie", and "robin pie"). Hints were found that it could have been similar to this 1897 blackbird pie, this 1886 pigeon pie, or this 1906 "pie of small birds." Those recipes are essentially all meat baked in a crust; if this really was a food for the poorest people, it's likely other ingredients were added to stretch out the meat, and was probably more similar to this 1874 cottage pie recipe, heavy with mashed potatoes and onions. But it's also noteworthy that many sources mention robin pie as a favorite dish of young people; I wonder if shooting robins became a means of introducing children to the culture of hunting for food, with mommy serving their kill in a meat-heavy dish as a reward.

Finally: note below the inspector who seized the smuggled birds was named Vogelsang ("bird song").

(Story update available here)

Shipped Birds to San Francisco Under Brand of Dried Apples

A box of robins which had been shipped from Sebastopol to San Francisco by D. Cassassa, was seized by Chief Deputy Charles A. Vogelsang in San Francisco Saturday morning. The shipping tag declared the contents of the box to have been dried apples, and as such the railroad had given a special fruit rate to the shipper. The tag contained the name of D. Cassassa as the shipper.

There were about half a hundred robins in the box, and they were consigned to Lemoine & Co. They arrived in the metropolis about 11 o'clock Saturday morning, and within an hour they had been confiscated.

Deputy State Fish and Game Commissioner Ernest Schaeffle of San Francisco was sent to this city to arrest the offender, and to prosecute the case before the court. The deputy spent Sunday in Sebastopol and Forestville, but was unable to locate Cassassa, who is believed to be in San Francisco.

It is not believed that Cassassa shipped the robins to the city for sale, but that he intended to follow them and have a feast in one of the French restaurants of that city. The robins are considered the finest of the small game birds by the French people, and it is probable that Cassassa had planned a treat for his friends, which has been spoiled by the vigilance of the officers. The law expressly forbids the shipment of robins, and from the fact that the box was labeled as dried apples, it is apparent that the shipper was aware that the law was being violated.

A young son of Mr. Cassassa appeared before the court this afternoon, but nothing was done ending his appearance late this afternoon. The youth promised to return after schol this afternoon.

- Santa Rosa Republican, January 15, 1906

Sand Bar at Mouth of River Blown Open to Permit Entry -- Best Run in Many Years

The salmon are running in Russian River at the present time in vast schools, and the residents of the vicinity touching that stream are having great feasts of the delicious fish daily. It is no task at all to catch more salmon than one can carry, and small boys are catching them on pitchforks, instead of the usual gaffs required.

The run of salmon is reported to be the largest in more than eleven years, and the fish are said to be above the usual standard from a toothsome point. The sand bar at the mouth of the river was unusually heavy this year, and prevented the fish getting across. The fish were seen in swarms just outside the bar by many residents, who determined that they should be assisted in getting into the fresh water stream.

Accordingly, when the tide was low, a quantity of dynamite was placed in the sand and a hold of considerable length and depth was made. Then a number of men and youths took shovels and dug away the sand to give an unobstructed entrance to the swarms of fish. This having been done at low tide, permitted the water in the river back of the bar to run out into the ocean.

With the rising tide came the swarms of fish into the river, many of which have fallen victims to gaff and pitchfork, and are furnishing the piece de resistance for many substantial meals.

The sport of catching these big fish is among the best afforded, and those piscatorally inclined are reveling in the fun.

- Santa Rosa Republican, December 28, 1905

National news stories are off-topic here, but that 1905 Press Democrat headline, "Dr. Brown Would Drown the Idiots", is irresistible, and also lends the opportunity to briefly discuss Sonoma County's shameful role in the 20th century eugenics movement.

Like many other states, California had an institution for children that were diagnosed as "feeble-minded" (more about that offensive term below). Founded in 1883 by a pair of civic-minded women, the facility shuffled between four South Bay and East Bay towns until the state agreed to buy a ranch near Glen Ellen. With a band playing a cheery tune at the train stop, the first 148 children arrived in 1891 at what was then called The California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children. By 1904, the Home had 541 "inmates" and a staff of 70, making it the largest employer in the county. The state was also pouring money into the institution to expand it rapidly. (More on the history of the institution proper can be found in a November 19, 2000 Gaye LeBaron column available by searching the Press Democrat web site archives. The Home is still often referred to interchangeably as "Eldridge," which was the name given to the train stop.)

"It was with the idea of providing a home for the purely custodial cases as well as undertaking the training and development of the epileptic feeble-minded that the management in the past ventured its memorable struggle...from its former inadequate quarters to the present unrivaled location," the PD noted in a 1904 promotional insert that contained a full page on the Home, partially seen at right. But wait -- read that section again: why the mention of the epileptic feeble-minded?" That's because, according to a 1904 Census Bureau report, (PDF) about 18 percent of those institutionalized as feeble-minded were actually epileptic -- by far the largest category of those considered "physically defective."

Jack London visited the Home (which was adjacent to his ranch) in the summer of 1905, later writing a short story, "Told In the Drooling Ward." Written from the viewpoint of a "high-grade feeb" (who sounds more like a cousin to Huck Finn), the story follows the attempted escape from the institution by two boys with epilepsy. London's character described the world of the "epilecs" at the Home:

"You see that house up there through the trees. The high-grade epilecs all live in it by themselves. They're stuck up because they ain't just ordinary feebs. They call it the club house, and they say they're just as good as anybody outside, only they're sick. I don't like them much. They laugh at me, when they ain't busy throwing fits. But I don't care. I never have to be scared about falling down and busting my head. Sometimes they run around in circles trying to find a place to sit down quick, only they don't. Low-grade epilecs are disgusting, and high-grade epilecs put on airs. I'm glad I ain't an epilec. There ain't anything to them. They just talk big, that's all."

"Club house" or no, these children with epilepsy were still captives, warehoused until age 18 as "feeble-minded" alongside others with severe cognitive disabilities, such as microcephaly. What "training" they were given at the Glen Ellen facility is not apparent; photos from a few years later show inmates tending crops in fields surrounding the grounds. Contemporary pictures of East Coast institutions show girls sewing or doing needlepoint, and boys working in tailoring or leatherwork.

The children also may have faced a greater risk of harm from the institution itself than their disability. The late Victorian era believed that there was a dangerous form of epilepsy -- search Google books for "epileptic insanity" and you'll find it discussed in hundreds of articles and book chapters in medical literature between the 1880s and the 1920s. Although there was no scientific proof that epileptic insanity was an actual physiological disorder, some authors at the time confidently reported that it accounted for 10-30 percent of all epilepsy cases. Some also claimed that everyone with epilepsy was, by definition, mentally unstable; a 1883 text on insanity stated, "There are those who, as soon as they find the slightest indications of epilepsy in the person under investigation, instantly jump at the conclusion that, ergo, that subject cannot be of sound mind."

The rest of this article can be read at the 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

- Jeff Elliott

Newer Posts Older Posts Home