Pity our children’s children’s children; if our 22nd century descendants want to do a little genealogy project they will probably find only our archived Facebook or mySpace pages, and there they will learn of great-grandma Tiffani’s dismay that someone named Sanjay didn’t win an American “Idol,” or find only a missing-file icon for a youTube video of grandpa Trig’s cat slurping spaghetti that was viewed 8,362 times. “Oh,” our future kin will lament, “if only they still had real newspaper obituaries in that era, so that we could discover more about our ancestors!”

Don’t count on it; newspaper obits always have been hit-or-miss. In recent decades, obituaries have become a major revenue source for newspapers, no different from any other kind of advertisement. Now a typical 50-line death notice in a major U.S. paper can easily cost over $500 (and that’s usually just for the first weekday, not counting Sundays and not counting photos) unless the deceased is considered “newsworthy.” But if your family can’t afford it and no one on the classifieds staff recognizes the dearly departed’s name, rei memoriam sempiterna oblivione delere.

In Santa Rosa a century ago, the dead were newsworthy or nothing — there were no newspaper columns stacked up with short, paid obits, as found today. The deceased generally had to be white, well-known about town, revered as a “pioneer,” or have suffered a ghastly, violent death. But Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley clearly loved to tell stories, and exceptions were sometimes made for those with unusually colorful pasts. Which makes it odd that Finley twice flubbed an opportunity to tell the story of Haln Killigrew Dunbar. It wouldn’t have been a hard obituary to research; all Finley needed to do was drop by the nearby library.

Santa Rosa’s new library almost certainly had a copy of the 12-year-old book, Hard Life in the Colonies, and Other Experiences by Sea and Land, by local author Catherine Carolyn Jenkins (spelled as, “Jenkyns” in the book, for whatever reason). Cobbled together from letters written by two of her brothers and friend Dunbar, the book covers their adventures from 1873 to about 1878. And adventures they had, indeed. Brother Arthur was conned into shipping out as a merchant seaman at age 16, and sailed around the horn; brother Gilbert saw Asia and India as a sailor, meeting Dunbar while serving as a mercenary hired to fight the Maori in New Zealand.

It is a ripping yarn, filled with events that might have appeared in 19th century novels by Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, or even Dickens. The narratives span the high drama of a moonlit battle against pirates in Hong Kong harbor to the down-and-out life on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, where Gilbert washed restaurant dishes alongside a French count while poor Dunbar cleaned the degutting chutes at a pork slaughterhouse. Gilbert was stabbed in the same spot on his head twice by bayonets, first by Calcutta police when he was among a group of rioting sailors, then years later by a drunken soldier he was attempting to disarm.

The supporting cast of characters is no less amazing, from cowardly ship captains to “Mercury Jack” Mitchell, whom Gilbert and Dunbar met in the Napa quicksilver mines, to poor Amos, who “drew but blanks in the lottery of life.” But no further spoilers here; download the book for a good read, as long as you’re comfortable with a slower, rambling 19th century style.

Gilbert and Dunbar bought a small, rundown homestead along Mark West Creek after the San Francisco chapter of their adventures, and their chronicle ended until this Press Democrat item appeared, 27 years later. The belated obit (misspelling Dunbar’s first name as “Haley”) stated Gilbert intended to move his old friend’s body from the local potter’s field to his own plot at the Rural Cemetery, but historian Jeremy Nichols, who is preparing a book on the burials at the Chanate site, says that Haln Dunbar is still there in the graveyard, his exact whereabouts now unknown. But presumably his long-time companion Gilbert sometimes visited and remembered happier times: Of the Englishman and Irishman friends tromping around New Zealand singing songs from the American Civil War, or memories of their little ranch, where Dunbar built an Aeolian harp in their shack window, “letting the winds tell their secrets in sweet sounds.”

County Physician Receives Interesting Letter Giving History of H.K. Dunbar Who Died Recently

Haley K. Dunbar, an old man who died at the county hospital on November 2, and whose remains occupy a grave in the county’s cemetery on the hill near the poor farm, was in his day a man of note. This fact is brought out in a letter which was received on Wednesday by County physician J. W. Jesse from Gilbert C. Jenkins, an old friend of the deceased, who resides in the Freestone country. By accident Mr. Jenkins heard that the man had passed away and wrote to the doctor for particulars of his death. It seems that some time before Dr. Jesse became county physician Mr. Jenkins, so he says, made a request that in the event of Mr. Dunbar’s death, he should be informed, so that the remains, instead of being buried [illegible microfilm] should be interred in his (Jenkin’s) plot in the cemetery.

Mr. Jenkins says that the deceased was a graduate of the famous Trinity College, Dublin, and took his degree of Bachelor of Arts from that university. He was also proficient in Greek and Hebrew and other tongues. He was once prominent in fraternal life, and was a member of an old and distinguished family in the old country. He was an artist in modeling pottery, and some of his art work, Mr. Jenkins says, found its way and was considered almost priceless in the palaces of the late Queen Victoria. The late pioneer James Marshall of this city on the occasion of a visit [illegible microfilm] purchased some of the pottery modelled by the late Mr. Dunbar from the famous Belleck Pottery. Mr. Jenkins, who did what he could for his old friend after reverses overtook him, will now endeavor to have his remains moved and interred in the Jenkins plot in the cemetery.

– Press Democrat, November 17, 1904

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Another chapter from that book of a million tales, “How The Devil Did Any Of The Children Survive.” Honestly, an 8 year-old riding a galloping horse bareback?

Milton Preston Is Thrown From a Horse by a Clothes Line

Milton Preston, the eight year-old son of Mr. And Mrs. W. H. Preston, was badly hurt Sunday by an accident that might have been much worse had the rope he struck been an inch lower. He was riding a horse without saddle or bridle at his home, guiding the animal by only a rope. The horse ran away with him, and dashed at full gallop under a clothes-line, which caught the boy across the mouth, knocking two of his teeth loose, cutting his lips and cheeks, and tossing him into the air and on to the ground. His father, who saw the accident, at first thought the boy was killed. He picked him up and carried him into the house, and telephoned for Dr. Crumb. The physician said the lad had a narrow escape from instant death. As it was, he was pretty badly bruised, and suffered a severe nervous shock as well, besides which he may lose the two teeth that were struck by the rope.

– Press Democrat, January 30, 1906

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According to the official statistics for 1905 (PDF), there were 101 deaths in the city of Santa Rosa — exactly one percent of the population — and the single leading cause was TB, killing 9. Santa Rosa was lucky; that was half the national rate for tuberculosis. A comparison of suicide rates, however, would probably not have shown Sonoma County so fortunate.

Why was suicide such a common occurrence in bucolic 1905 Sonoma County? Turning the microfilmed pages of the old Press Democrat, grandpa (rarely grandma) was killing himself with shocking regularity; sometimes every week another is found swinging in their barn, prone on the floor from swallowing carbolic acid, or his brains splashed six-ways-from-Sunday by the old family shotgun.

March of 1905 was a particularly grueling month, with Coroner Frank Blackburn holding four suicide inquests. A woman in Guerneville took poison; an 18 year-old boy fired a bullet into his forehead with his revolver at a Sonoma party, allegedly because his girlfriend was dancing with other guys; a lumberjack and father of five in Occidental chopped his head open with an axe then disemboweled himself (yet still lived for two days); and finally, at the aforementioned fellow’s wake, another lumberjack and despondent “close companion” tucked a shotgun under his chin and blew his head completely off. If all of these incidents appeared in a Steven King novel, critics would accuse the author of overreaching for the sake of gratuitous shock value.

Today suicides are hushed-up and rarely mentioned by the media, even in obituaries, out of an evolved journalistic sensitivity for the family and community at large. But the sensationalist turn-of-the-century press loved these tragedies even more than gruesome accidents and usually reported about them at length, and with melodramatic flair. Read enough of them and a editorial formula even becomes apparent, with most articles beginning with the soon-to-be departed announcing intent: “I’ve only five minutes to live,” the Sonoma boy told others at the party; “Just say good-bye to Mother,” a man asked a bartender before downing strychnine. Usually the death is next described in gory detail, followed by the horrified reaction of witnesses and their frantic efforts to bring a doctor to the scene.

There are no scholarly writings specifically on reasons for suicide in that period (at least, no analysis that I can find), but as today, depression was probably a significant factor, its debilitating effects magnified by the sense of isolation in rural Sonoma County’s horse-and-buggy days. Chronic pain was a cause often hinted at by the coroner, and also understandable given the primitive and often dangerous state of medical treatment at the time. Alcoholism, drug abuse… the list of usual suspects goes on. I believe it’s likely that there was also an ongoing “Werther Effect” caused by the frequent and prominent reporting of suicides in the newspapers. Modern studies show that a suicide often inspires a rash of copycat suicides; if media reports on suicide appear regularly, it would make some sense that the act of killing oneself would appear to be part of normal societal behavior.

An article in a 1908 issue of McClure’s Magazine, “The Problems of Suicide,” debunked the popular assumptions about suicide that are still widespread today. More people actually killed themselves in spring and summer than in colder months, and usually in the day, and not after dark; suicides went down during disasters and wars — San Francisco suicides following the 1906 earthquake fell from 12 a week to 3 in two months (at least, that’s what was reported). Another study described in a medical journal the following year also noted suicides were steadily increasing and the greatest per capita increase centered in the Western U.S. with nearby Oakland being ground zero, reporting a one-third jump. (Note to other researchers: for buckets of data on early 20th century suicides, search for the name of Dr. Frederick L. Hoffman, statistician for the Prudential Life Insurance Company.)

W. I. Martin Drinks Poison While Riding With Officer, Smokes and Dies

“Say, you had better drive fast. I have only about nine or ten minutes to live. I have drank some strychnine.”

William Martin was the speaker, Sunday afternoon, and the man he addressed was Constable O’Brien of Occidental. O’Brien had arrested Martin on a charge of having defrauded Mrs. M. Nerton, an apartment house keeper, out of a board bill, and was bringing the man to Santa Rosa to turn him over to Constable Gillam, at whose request the arrest had been made. As he spoke, Martin threw a bottle to the roadside.

The man drank the poison near the cannery building on West Third street. Constable O’Brien drove rapidly to McGregor & Hockin’s stables on Third street, where the rig in which they were driving had been hired on the previous night by Martin, who gave an assumed name and told another story as to why he wanted the horse and vehicle.

When the stable was reached Martin jumped lightly from the buggy and walked into the office. There he greeted Constable Sam Gilliam, Constable Boswell and Deputy Constable Frank Day and commenced to talk to them. Hardly before Constable O’Brien had the opportunity to state why he had driven so rapidly the last three quarters of a mile — because Martin had told him he had taken poison — Martin asked Constable Sam Gilliam to roll him a cigarette. The Constable did as he was asked and Martin lit it and commenced to smoke. Directly O’Brien mentioned that Martin had told him that he had taken poison, and despite the fact that the man’s actions did not seem to bear out his assertion, the telephone was kept hot trying to get a physician. At least half a dozen doctors offices and homes were rung up but the physicians were away from home. Finally Dr. J.W. Jesse was intercepted as he was speeding along in his automobile and he came at once to the stables.

In the meantime Martin had stated that he would have to get the money to pay for the hire of the horse and buggy from a house on Second street and had also given the officers some other information they desired. Dr. Jesse did what he could to save the man but before he arrived Martin was past all human aid.

The tragic circumstances of the suicide spread through the city and soon a morbid crowd of spectators had crowded outside the stables on Main street and came again Sunday night to the H. H. Moke Undertaking Parlor where the inquest was held by Coroner Frank Blackburn.

From the evidence adduced at the inquest and from other sources it was probably not the fact that he was arrested that led to Martin to drink the poison. It may have been the “last straw” as the old saying has it. Putting aside, for some three or four months the deceased, who had been employed in the tanneries here, and his wife had separated and since then he had attempted to get his little son. It was within a mile of where the mother and child are living at Camp Meeker that Martin was arrested on Sunday morning by Constable O’Brien. It was stated here on Sunday night that Martin had been heard to say that his wife would either come back to live with him or else he would kill her and himself. Possibly the arrest on Sunday night was the intercepting of what might have been a double tragedy.

The deceased has a sister, Mrs. Weber, residing at Sebastopol, and there the deceased called on his way to Occidental on Saturday night. He told her that he was hungry and she fed him. Then he continued his journey to Occidental. His wife has several brothers and a mother residing in this city. In a note read at the inquest on Sunday night, where the deceased had written on last Friday, and had headed it, “On the Steamer Gold” (the vessel that plies between Petaluma and San Francisco), he stated briefly to all whom it might concern, that his wife had driven him away and that she would not let him have his little son and that she was abetted in the stand she had taken by her mother. He also mentioned that his wife was acting as housekeeper in another household. This letter indicates that he had contemplated suicide, possibly from the deck of the steamer Gold with the sea for his tomb.

Martin was twenty-eight years of age. It is understood that the officers wanted him for other reasons besides defrauding of the boarding house keeper. But let the veil fall over any other reference to this. From all accounts the man was not all that he should have been.

The jury at the inquest Sunday night was composed of […]

– Press Democrat, January 30, 1906

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