There was no more colorful figure in 1904 Santa Rosa than “Tennessee Bill,” a well-known loquacious drunk who popped up in the spring and again in midsummer. The Press Democrat so loved reporting on Bill that they even lifted an entire story from the rival Petaluma Argus. Writing about the man seemed to bring out the poet in PD editor Finley: “Bill’s distances are uncertain” is a turn of phrase worthy of Yeats.
Asked why he started a fire in his cell, “he answered that it needed fumigation and took it upon himself to accomplish the deed,” according to the Santa Rosa Republican, July 29.
Believes it HimselfWilliam Charles Cornelius Tennessee Goforth, more briefly “Tennessee Bill,” was in town yesterday and left on the afternoon train for somewhere. Bill’s distances are uncertain, as he is arrested in almost every town he visits on a charge of vagrancy or of intoxication. In almost every city in the State that he visits he has his “old mother buried out in the cemetery.” Bill has told this story so many times that he believes it himself. He told the same story ever again here yesterday. Not long since an exchange told how he had “a mother buried” in a cemetery in southern California. He tells a similar yarn when he reaches Petaluma, Sonoma, or wherever he lands and can find an ear to pour in his troubles. His tale of woe usually terminates with “I was just about to ask you to give me a quarter. I have not had a bite to eat all day and — you know old Bill.” Yes everybody knows him.– Press Democrat, July 27, 1904
TENNESSEE BILL AGAINWhen Tennessee Bill left Santa Rosa on Wednesday afternoon he told people at the depot that he was going to San Francisco and the south. Instead he jumped off at Petaluma and next morning landed in jail as usual, having taken too much liquor aboard, a failing that Bill encourages. Shortly after he was incarcerated he started a fire in the jail and destroyed the meagre furnishings and his own clothes. The Argus describes the conflagration as follows:
Sets Fire to the City Jail in Petaluma and Burns His Clothing
“At noon on Thursday William Cornelius Goforth, Esq., more commonly called “Tennessee Bill,” was arrested by Constable Sullivan on a charge of being drunk and was locked up in the city prison to sober up. At 2:30 persons passing the city hall noticed heavy volumes of smoke issuing from the windows of the city prison in the basement of the city hall building. Assistant Fire Chief Myers was passing at the time and he notified Marshal Collins who was upstairs in his office. The jail door was hurridly [sic] opened and the entire jail was found filled with smoke while Tennessee without a stitch of clothing on, was dancing around a big fire in the west corridor. Every blanket in the jail, mattresses, brooms, etc., were consumed and all of Tennessee’s clothing, including his shoes. Hose Co. No. 3 is stationed in the building and two length of hose were quickly taken from the cart and attached to the hydrant in front of the building, and Messrs. Collins, Myers, L.L. Goss and Frost flooded the place and extinguished the fire. Tennessee persisted in getting in the way and was struck by the stream and spun around like a top. He touched the ceiling a couple of times, was buffetted around like a frog in a puddle and finally had to swim out. A number of ladies were attracted by the excitement and went to the jail door but did not stay long. Tennessee’s vocabulary is not all parlor tongue.”– Press Democrat, July 30, 1904