Crime stories were the meat ‘n’ potatoes of old journalism, but newspapers in small quiet towns like Santa Rosa usually could only dish up leftovers reported on the wires from elsewhere. Thus it’s no surprise that the 1905 Press Democrat gave lots of ink and a hefty two-column headline to this ripping yarn of a local crime. Well, attempted crime.
As reported below, two strangers made a call on a Mrs. Dahlmier. While she was out of the room, the ladies snatched her jewelry (conveniently left in plain view). Discovering that her visitors were really thieves, the lady of the house brandished the family gun and demanded the crooks surrender the goods. A manhunt for the brigands followed, but was fruitless.
The crime described here was a bit unusual, but other forms of bunco — most often, fast-change trickery — were probably the second most common crimes of the day, just behind burglary. But mystery-story fans might be forgiven in thinking that many details in this story don’t ring true:
The callers arrive and leave in a rubber-tired cart with a particularly docile horse. It’s interesting that super-observant Mrs. Dahlmier noticed so many details about their ride, considering she was confronted on opening the door by two aggressive strangers speaking “in unison” while attempting to push their way inside. And about that getaway vehicle: The rubber tires are significant, given the poor state of both the 1905 roads and primitive tire technology; if the pair left town, they would have needed to stay on the main roads to Sebastopol, Healdsburg, or Sonoma, where police were undoubtedly on the lookout. Although the pair could have arrived in town on the train and rented the buggy locally, surely that stable owner would have provided more details about the mysterious women.
“Mrs. Mitchell” and “Mrs. Oliver” said they were from Hazel street, two short blocks away. Would real bunco artists have risked claiming that they lived so closely nearby? The maps of the day show that part of Santa Rosa was sparsely populated, with only about 25 houses in that immediate neighborhood (and curiously, only a single house with an address on Hazel street proper). It was great good luck for the con-artists to have targeted a woman who knew so little about her neighbors.
The Press Democrat described the Dahlmier home as a “cottage,” and the insurance maps show it was about 900 square feet. Even if it was decorated “too cute for any use,” as the visitors purred, it was still the modest home of a laborer and his wife, and thieves should have had low expectations of finding any valuable loot at all, much less a diamond ring lying in the open. The small scale of the place also meant that Mrs. Dahlmier was never more than a couple of steps away. Again, it was a lucky, lucky day for the robbers to find themselves alone in a room with expensive jewelry.
There are other nagging questions about Mrs. Dahlmier’s tale, including why she doffed her valuables in the first place. A piano player may take off loose-fitting bracelets or such, but rings don’t interfere with tickling the ivories, unless the jewelry is the size of a knuckle-busting Superbowl souvenir. It was also curious that the telephone operator failed to answer at that critical moment; how long did Dahlmier try to connect? Surely “Central” was taking a bathroom break or was otherwise briefly indisposed, and it would have been better to keep trying the phone than to dress and hike seven blocks to the place where her husband worked. This is not the same cool player who had gotten the drop on grifters a few moments before.
A few days later, a small item appeared in the Press Democrat reporting that there was nothing to report — no trace of the criminal pair was found. But even lacking a conclusion, there was an adventure (real or imagined) on that late summer’s day on the corner of Orange street and Sebastopol avenue. And the next day, Mrs. I-Have-No-First-Name Dahlmier got part of her name in the press, editor Finley filled a quarter-page of his newspaper with an original yarn, and readers were entertained with a tale of derring-do that sounded as if it was lifted from a dime novel, and probably was.
WOMAN HOLDS UP WOMEN AT THE POINT OF A PISTOL
PLUCKILY THWARTS AN ATTEMPTED ROBBERY
TWO STYLISHLY DRESSED FEMALES, IN GUISE OF NEIGHBORS, PAY A SUPPOSEDLY FRIENDLY CALL AT A SANTA ROSA RESIDENCE
During Temporary Absence of Hostess They Steal Her Jewelry, But Are Made to Return Booty When She Holds Them Up Before They Leave the Parlor
After the experience she had on Thursday afternoon no one can charge Mrs. G. A. Dahlmier, wife of an electrician employed by the Santa Rosa Lighting Company, with being lacking in pluck and the possession of steady nerves when the demand is made.
At the Dahlmier residence, a pretty cottage at the corner of Orange street and Sebastopol avenue, on Thursday afternoon two women set the pace for a decided novelty in the etiquette of afternoon calls. In fact their exhibition of nerve was second only to that displayed by the lady who was their hostess for a few brief minutes. Here is the story in all its daring from the facts related by her:
About two o’clock in the afternoon Mrs. Dahlmier went to the front door in response to a ring of the bell. On opening the door she was confronted by two stylishly dressed, comely women, who had driven up to the house in a rubber-tired cart. They introduced themselves with the utmost affability, inquiring the name of the lady of the house, and in the same breath telling her that they were neighbors of hers, and that their names were “Mrs. Mitchell” and “Mrs. Oliver,” respectively.
“You know,” they said in unison, “we have been thinking of calling upon you for several days. We live on Hazel street, nearby, and as we are new arrivals here, we thought that we would get acquainted with our neighbors.”
Mrs. Dahlmier was pleased with the cordiality shown by her newly found neighbors, and hospitable woman that she is, she immediately invited her callers to come in. The invitation was accepted with apparent pleasure, and as the horse in the car was perfectly docile they did not tie him up.
The callers were shown into the best parlor and “Mrs. Mitchell” and “Mrs. Oliver” were soon complimenting the pretty furnishings of the room and the general appearance of the house. They thought everything was “too cute for any use.” Mrs. Dahlmier, who had been resting on the lounge before the ringing of the bell in another room, bethought herself that she should spruce up a bit, and excused herself for a few moments. Earlier in the day she had been playing the piano and had removed two valuable rings, one set in diamonds and the other an opal, and had laid them on a lace handkerchief on top of the instrument.
Before she retired to adjust her toilet she noticed that the rings and handkerchief were still where she had placed them. While in another room she heard one of the women walk over to the piano and run her hand idly up and down the keys. At the time she thought that evidently her guests were of the Bohemian cult and believed in making themselves perfectly at home even on the shortest of acquaintance. When she re-entered the parlor a glance at the piano showed her that rings and handkerchief were missing. Then the truth flashed upon her. Possibly she was entertaining not angels, but thieves, unawares.
“Why,” said she, with apparent concern, “I thought that I had left my rings and handkerchief on the piano. I must have been mistaken. Oh, yes, I know, I left them on a shelf in the china closet. Pray excuse me ladies just a moment.”
Mrs. Dahlmier says that her mission to the china closet was not with the idea of looking for her jewelry. It was to get the big pistol. It was unloaded ’tis true, but she thought that it would accomplish what she desired. It will be seen that it did.
Returning to the parlor she did not address her newly-made friends with the same gentleness of bearing and voice. She just said this:
“One of you women has taken my rings and handkerchief, and you have got to give them up before you leave here.” At the same moment she leveled the dangerous looking revolver at her guests.
“Mrs. Mitchell” and “Mrs. Oliver” at once rose to the occasion and essayed to back away from the range of this pistol.
“Don’t move a step. If you do, I will kill you. I mean it,” said the plucky little woman. “You just give me back my rings and handkerchief.”
At this she toyed with the trigger as if she meant business. Without further parleying one of the women, cute “Mrs. Oliver” slipped her hand into her shirtwaist and produced the rings and handkerchief. Mrs. Dahlmier grabbed her property and the women dashed out of the house and jumped nimbly into the cart and drove away.
For some moments Mrs. Dahlmier says that she was so scared she did not know what to do. When she recovered her composure she ran to the telephone to call the police, but for some reason could not get an answer from “central” at the time. She dressed herself and came up town to tell her husband and her mother. When the officers were informed no trace of the well-dressed strangers could be found. All night a close watch was kept for women answering the description of Mrs. Dahlmier’s callers. She says the women were elegantly dressed. One wore a blue silk dress and the other a plaid silk. Both wore big, black hats and veils.
Whether these woman thieves made other calls Thursday afternoon was not ascertained. During their conversation with Mrs. Dahlmier they asked her the names of other “neighbors” and evinced a desire to avail themselves of the pleasure of making themselves known to them also. The plan of campaign they adopt in the role of the light-fingered is certainly a neat one. But they had better cut their calling list short in the City of Roses now. They won’t be admitted into other houses on any such pretenses as the one that gained for them a short welcome at the corner of Orange street and Sebastopol avenue. Future callers, in the guise of “neighbors” will be more closely scrutinized by Mrs. Dahlmier than were Madames Mitchell and Oliver on Thursday afternoon.– Press Democrat, September 22, 1905