Anyone with the slightest interest in local history knows the story: About 100 years ago, a San Francisco gang sexually assaulted some women. Police tracked gang members to Santa Rosa where a shootout killed the Sonoma County sheriff along with two policemen. The gangsters were captured and taken to the county jail. A mob stormed the building and took the men to the Rural Cemetery, where they were lynched from a tree.

But that's not the whole story - far from it. Parts haven't been reexamined since events happened in 1920, and many details have never been revealed. And like the twice told tales about the 1906 earthquake in Santa Rosa, some of what has been written about it over the years is distorted or flat wrong.

It's also a surprisingly difficult story to tell because it is Rashomon-like, with three quite different ways to frame it. All versions interconnect as their storylines converge around the men who were about to be lynched - but each has people and places which are important to that viewpoint alone.

There's the San Francisco version, which is mainly about tracking down the Howard Street Gang and prosecuting them. Besides the assorted gangsters the main players are the District Attorney, police and politicians. This story winds up in 1928 with the capture of the last fugitive gang member. To learn more, you can't do better than "The Fall of San Francisco's Notorious Howard Street Gang," which can be downloaded as an e-book for three or four bucks.

The Healdsburg version has a narrow focus on seeking vengeance for the murder of Sheriff James Petray, who was from there and very well liked. Those who raided the jail and hanged the gangsters were not a typical liquored-up lynch mob - they acted with deliberation and precision, leaving many to presume they must have been San Francisco lawmen. Not until 2008 when the last member of the vigilantes died (at age 108!) was it confirmed they were all from Healdsburg and had conducted military-style drills prior to the operation.

And then there's the Santa Rosa version, which you're about to read. This story ends abruptly about one o'clock in the rainy morning of Friday, December 10, 1920 when the last of the gangsters twitches and dies in the beams of auto headlights. The main takeaway for this version is that the gangsters haddn't picked Santa Rosa as their hideout by throwing a dart at a map. One of them - the very worst of the lot - was a hometown boy, who by a quirk of fate just happened to have access to a big empty house here.

Ladies and gentlemen, get ready to meet Terry Fitts.

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

This would be a nice weekend to put some flowers on the grave of your Great-Great Aunt Virginia, who passed away during the Spanish Flu pandemic - so grab some posies and trek over to where she was buried in 1918. Is she still there? Why, yes. A cemetery is a place with people who generally don't move around much. This is widely considered to be a good thing.

Should you find yourself lost in the cemetery, there's usually an office (or at least a telephone number) where someone in charge can direct you to Aunt Ginny's most permanent address. That helpful person would have had little trouble finding her because the major cemeteries in central Sonoma county have a map and a master index of names. Sometimes very old records might not be perfect, but overall the picture of who's located where would be still mostly complete (see sidebar). The sad exception was always Santa Rosa's Rural Cemetery.

At some point in the early 20th century the burial listing book for Rural was lost. Or maybe it never existed - there's no proof it did, although it's difficult to imagine how the historic cemetery could have functioned otherwise. If Virginia was supposed to be buried in the family plot, it would be a really good idea for the mortician to know exactly where to dig.

So the ultimate mystery of Santa Rosa's Rural Cemetery centers on discovering how all its records were destroyed, and when - but until that can be answered (if ever) the adventure lies in trying to recreate the burial listing book.

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 is where you might dream when you dream of Elysium. A gently sloping hill, dappled sun through the wild oaks, trails likely following the paths of cows that wandered there before the Civil War, greenery trimmed (but certainly not manicured) bestowing the peace of woods in its scent and hush.

Today this is the state of Santa Rosa's Rural Cemetery but until the late 1990s it was decidedly unlovely, choked with weeds, sapling trees, vetch and poison oak. Stories about the cemetery's abysmal condition are legion. It was said to be so overgrown at times that a hearse could not reach gravesites and caskets had to be carried in. A worker clearing brush came across someone's home - a vagrant had burrowed deep into a bramble patch and set up camp.

The cemetery has seen its moments of drama and chaos; there's the mass grave of 1906 earthquake victims and just steps away is the scene of the 1920 lynchings. But mostly it has been an uneventful place - although it also has mirrored the city's maddening pattern of chronic mismanagement. As often documented elsewhere here: A problem develops into a crisis and a quick fix is applied, only to find the same problem return (sometimes in a slightly different guise) and often worse.

This chapter about the Rural Cemetery tells the story of its changing conditions; the following article covers the extraordinary efforts made over a century by volunteers to document who lies there, and where.

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

Without doubt, it is the most important book on Santa Rosa history ever written.

The new edition of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery book is out and it's unlike anything that came before. Normally such a listing of burials is a dry reference work only used by genealogists or someone seeking where great uncle Fletcher is buried on the hill. This is more like an encyclopedic collection of grand short stories, more than five thousand tales long.

Volunteers Sandy Frary and Ray Owen dedicated nearly fourteen years assembling the material via primary source research, scouring all manner of databases and conducting interviews with descendants. The result is both highly accurate and readable; although he may not be your great uncle Fletcher, you'll enjoy meeting him.

The co-authors were well-suited for this kind of project. Sandy worked at the County Sheriff’s Office for a quarter century and since then has spent years as a volunteer at the Coroner’s Office researching old records. Ray had 33 years of experience in security background investigations with the Army and U.S. Civil Service Commission (now the Office of Personnel Management).

The book will be available June 1 and cost around $40. To order, phone the Santa Rosa Recreation & Parks Dept. (The exact price and contact number will be updated on SantaRosaHistory.com when determined.)


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

Divorces are too easy to get and sought on a whim. A divorce harms the community more than the divorcing couple, so only an elected official can decide whether a bad marriage should be dissolved. The public has a right to know any and all accusations and embarrassing details about a couple seeking divorce. A wife or husband might lie about what happened during their marriage unless they face cross-examination in open court.

That snide little handbasket of equivocation, intimidation and false assumptions didn't come from clergy nor sanctity-of-marriage moralists; these were arguments made by top California judges in the mid-1910s, who viewed an option to bypass their judgeships as a threat to their authority.

What angered them was that married couples were using a new state law which made divorce less costly - not to mention being faster than waiting months for their date to come up on a Superior Court docket, usually jammed up with criminal and civil proceedings.

This alternative way of obtaining a divorce was decades ahead of its time - the concept of family court simply didn't exist during the early part of the century (California didn't get around to serious marriage reforms until the Family Law Act of 1969). And besides deserving a place in our history books for that reason it should be mentioned as part of the struggle for women's rights, as the conflict starkly pitted the powerful all-male judiciary vs. a class of (almost entirely) female plaintiffs.

By now Gentle Reader has probably guessed that this divorce option wasn't available for very long, and the whole episode was quickly forgotten - this is the first time it has been discussed since then, as far as I can tell. One reason it vanished from memory was probably because almost all of the events played out in Sonoma County, then still politically a rural backwater.

Forgotten, too, is this Believe-it-or-Not! nugget: In 1915, a Santa Rosa woman served as a Superior Court judge. It was the first time that had ever happened in the history of the United States.

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

Note to Santa Rosa: When things are so bad that you're on the side opposite the Women's Auxiliary, you might want to rethink your position.

It was 1923 and the smell of tort was in the air - among other things. Pressure was coming from neighborhood groups, which were either threatening suits against the city or demanding Santa Rosa sue its worst polluter. The state Board of Health was sending threatening letters to city hall because nothing was being done to fix serious violations of public health laws. And then there was the lawsuit filed early that year by a man who charged the city was responsible for his young daughters being sickened with typhoid and diphtheria.

What all of these complaints had in common was that they involved Santa Rosa Creek in some way - either something bad was being intentionally dumped into it or the city's inadequate sewer farm was overflowing and flooding the adjacent creek with raw waste.

None of these were new problems. Complaints to the City Council about the abuse of Santa Rosa Creek dated back over thirty years, to 1891. Ordinances against pollution were passed but not enforced and court orders were ignored - as for the sewer farm contaminating the creek, the city was violating a perpetual restraining order going back to 1896.

Last month (Feb. 2021) I was part of a Historical Society of Santa Rosa webinar about Santa Rosa Creek. My portion, "The Stink of Santa Rosa Creek" covers much of the history of pollution in the decades around the turn of the century, but I did not have time to discuss the pivotal year of 1923, when prospects greatly improved. This article is a companion to that presentation and wraps up the story.

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

"Honest & Fearless," someone scrawled under a snapshot of him in the California archives, but many more were inclined to denounce him as a disgrace to the State Senate in which he served. He claimed to be speaking on behalf of the natural order intended by "God Almighty," but critics argued he was the mouthpiece for the liquor industry. He insisted he was just defending the traditional domestic roles of women; a great many saw him as a bully demanding continued discrimination against them.

State Senator J. B. Sanford (D-Ukiah) was the de facto leader of those in California opposed to women's suffrage during the years before the October, 1911 vote in the state. Every voter was mailed a pamphlet with excerpts of his "grandmother speech" which mocked suffragists and their demands for equality.

His hateful and misogynistic opinions may seem ridiculous today but in viewing history, context is everything. The passage of suffrage in California is all the more remarkable once you realized how extreme Sanford's views were, and that so many male voters agreed with him. San Francisco, Alameda, and Marin Counties all opposed giving women the right to vote, and suffrage was likewise defeated in Petaluma, Sonoma, Windsor and Healdsburg. It won in Santa Rosa by 14 points, which gave it the boost to pass in Sonoma county overall by four percent. See "THE SUMMER WHEN WOMEN WON THE VOTE" for more background.

As part of the Petaluma Library & Museum suffrage centennial exhibit, we put together a "pseudo-radio play" that imagines a 1911 interview with Sanford. In it he reads a portion of that infamous speech and has a short debate with Frances McG. Martin, the eloquent President of the Santa Rosa Political Equality Club who frequently jousted with Sanford on the editorial pages of the Santa Rosa Republican. In the production almost all of Sanford's remarks and most of Martin's are drawn directly from original sources.

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 happened without any warning: "Santa Rosa's Public Library will close at 6PM today and suspend services until another building can be found," the Press Democrat article announced on November 17, 1960.

What town closes down its library? And can they even do that? Oh, sure, the old building had its faults, everybody knew. The building could be overcrowded after school or on weekends and the shelves were so full that books were also piled on the floor, which had something of a slant.

Behind those ivy-covered walls the place was thick with sentiment. Three generations of Santa Rosans had warm memories starting with children's story hours, of later reference desk help with homework, of taking home lightweight books to pass the time or stronger reading to sharpen one's wits. Out-of-town newspapers had classified ads to help find a new job or place to live that wasn't here; magazines presented stories and pictures of places to dream they could someday see.

And not to overlook that the building was a landmark - the library had been a centerpiece in two major motion pictures, with the Chamber of Commerce touting it as a tourist attraction.

Whatever was wrong with the old place, couldn't the damage be fixed?

No, authorities said. Or maybe yes - with the caveat that everyone would hate how it looked afterwards. But it wasn't really that simple a question because the real, unspoken answer was this: "Don't ask the question because we've already made a decision." And what the city and Library Board of Trustees had decided to do was tear the building completely down and replace it with something they had already committed to build. Landmark, public will, and everything else be damned.

The given reason for padlocking the doors was that the building wasn't up to fire codes and was structurally unsound. A letter to the Trustees from City Manager Sam Hood told them to immediately "move out of the building or close it" (i.e. shut down all town library services).



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 high school auditorium was packed that Sunday morning in 1937 with people from all over Sonoma county. Uniformed boy scouts ushered the last of the audience to their seats as an announcer hushed the audience. Promptly at 10:30, the speakers crackled to life with a recording of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Waiting at the microphone for the music to finish was a 67 year-old man. "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. With the playing of the national anthem, station KSRO, voice of the Redwood Empire, takes the air for the first time." He continued with the required sign on announcement before ending: "This is Ernest Finley speaking and I now turn this fine new radio station over to the people of the Redwood Empire for their use and enjoyment."

Finley wasn't really handing over KSRO to the public, of course - he was the sole owner of the station as well as the two newspapers in town, the Santa Rosa Republican and the Press Democrat, where he was also editor and publisher. The papers would promote the station which would promote the papers. So cozy was this little media empire that the broadcasting studios were in the PD building on Mendocino Ave.

After an invocation by the rector of the Church of the Incarnation and playing a recording of religious music, the live program continued with 15-minute salutes to Marin county and seven communities in Sonoma. Usually the mayor said a few words which were followed by music from someone in that town - there had been talent contests over the previous weeks to choose the artists. Santa Rosa was represented by a singer and Walter Trembley, harmonica virtuoso; Cloverdale sent Glen Bonham, imitator.

There were other live performances that day woven between recorded music before the big dedicatory program at 3:00, where the mayor of San Francisco spoke and the KSRO orchestra performed, along with others. The hour long program closed with an audience singalong.

And that was pretty much the end of the first broadcast day, September 19, 1937. The station signed off at 6PM, having only a permit to operate from dawn to dusk. This was typical of little commercial stations all over the country; night hours were only for the high power clear channel stations that could sometimes be heard for a thousand miles. With its 250 watt (!) transmitter, KSRO reached from San Rafael to Ukiah - but came in as far away as Eureka and San Jose when conditions were ideal.

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

"I am the king of Siam," the young man told the Marshal.

The officer and the hotelkeeper knew very well that he was not the king of Siam, who was not likely to be staying at the United States Hotel in Cloverdale. His name was Ed and he was well known, having lived in the town as recently as five years ago and had come back several times since.

"I am the king of Siam," Ed repeated, adding that he had just killed several men, primary among them a judge whom he had shot 43 times. On a table behind him could be seen two revolvers, one covered in blood.

This scene took place at 2:30 in the morning on October 29, 1891, not long after he had drawn those guns on one elderly man, firing seven times. Four of the bullets hit the victim in the face but incredibly did no serious damage - his forehead was grazed along with the bridge of his nose, an eye tooth was knocked out and a bullet passed through his neck wattle.1 The shaken old fellow walked unaided to a nearby doctor's house where his wounds were dressed.

The next day Ed was taken to Santa Rosa, where a sanity hearing was immediately held in the judge’s chambers. Questioned about the shooting, he "told a story which revealed the workings of a mind that is in the habit of making excursions on its own account," according to the Democrat newspaper, insisting that he had used eight guns to shoot the old man (whom he believed was actually someone else in disguise) 48 times. At the end of the hearing he was committed to the Napa asylum, "there to he held in custody until his sanity or insanity has been demonstrated."

Normally this would have been the end of our story, and Ed would have been salted away at the asylum at Napa or elsewhere for the rest of his life. Yet five months later he was free awaiting trial and walking around Santa Rosa greeting friends. How could this be? That's because he was not your average homicidal lunatic - he was Edward J. Livernash.

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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