Even if the newspaper ad wasn’t offering services from a petty criminal and drug addict, it still would’ve been unusual.
Taking up a full one-third page in the Press Democrat page on June 18, 1905, the advertisement was essentially a 20-word classified on steroids, with its few lines of type stretched, padded, and boxed to try to fill the empty space. Even larger than the usual weekly ads for children’s clothes and ladies’ dainties from The White House department store, this display promoted only product: The services of one Joseph N. Forgett, cement contractor.
It’s easy to imagine Forgett walking into the Press Democrat office to purchase that prominent advertisement and likely also ordering a large number of flyers as well, confident that a remarkable business opportunity was at hand. The Santa Rosa City Council was ordering property owners to lay concrete sidewalks next to their curbs — a decree not without controversy — and there were many absentee landlords, not to mention many locals who were probably clueless on mixing cement from scratch, as you had to do in 1905.
But the unusual ad from the man with the unusual name appeared only once, and less than three months later, Forgett was in the papers again, this time for being under arrest. He was charged with carrying a meat cleaver under his coat and stealing an opium pipe.
This was only the beginning of the Forgett’s public disgrace, which would climax two years later in 1907 as he led a sensational escape from the Sonoma County jail. In the accounts that appeared in the PD (transcribed below), Forgett and two other inmates overpowered the jailer and beat him severely before stealing his gun. A mob formed as word spread. Forgett and most of the other fugitives were quickly caught.
At his trial that October, Forgett offered a surprising defense: “I got out to save my wife,” he told the court, claiming that the jailor was making moves on Mrs. Forgett, also in jail as a vagrant. Another female prisoner supported the claim by testifying that the jailer “had hugged Mrs. Forgett so violently that her waist was almost black and blue.” The District Attorney countered that he had letters from Mrs. Forgett where she vowed to “stand pat” and that she and the other girls “would give old Fred [the jailer] merry hell.”
But defending his vagrant wife’s waist from “old Fred” wasn’t the main defense: He was insane because of opium withdrawal, the court was told. “When he could not get it, he said, he suffered considerably and at times did not know what he was doing,” the Press Democrat reported. His brother and mother testified tearfully that Joe was 15 years into his drug habit. The jury found him guilty, but asked the court for mercy.
The details of what happened to Forgett after that isn’t yet known to me (UPDATE HERE), but other records show that he lived a long life and stayed around Santa Rosa. The 1910 census finds him as an inmate in the county jail; a 1913 city directory lists him as a contractor, which could be a hopeful sign that he was on the straight-and-narrow. Voter registration records indicate he was a bricklayer in the late 1920s, and a few years later, a mason staying at the Belle Vista Hotel.
Despite his woes, Joseph N. Forgett left his mark on Santa Rosa; on at least one sidewalk (Beaver St. north of College Ave.) you can still see his name stamped into the pavement. A century-old advertisement set into stone. Perhaps Joe Forgett visited these tombstone-like slabs in his old age; maybe these were the links that kept him here past his years of wildness.
FORGETT PLACED UNDER HEAVY BAIL
LANGUISHES IN COUNTY JAIL IN DEFAULT OF NECESSAY BONDS
He Now Faces Charge of Petit Larceny With Prior Which May Mean Term in Prison
Justice Atchinson placed Joseph Forgett under $1,000 bonds Monday to keep the peace for six months. This was the result of the charge made last week by Harry Long that Forgett had made threat against his life and was carrying a concealed weapon. Justice Atchinson suspended sentence on Forgett’s promise of good behavior but as he was arrested again Saturday night with a cleaver under his coat the court decided to place him under bonds. Forgett is in the county jail in default of the necessary bond.
The charge of petit larceny for the stealing of the cleaver and opium pipe found on his person when arrested Saturday is being held in suspension as he has been convicted on a similar charge and this time a prior will make the offense a felony, and conviction a term in the penitentiary.– Press Democrat, September 12, 1905
Opium Pipe Stolen
Joseph Forgett was arrested yesterday afternoon by Constable James H. Boswell, charged with petty larceny. The warrant was sworn out a couple of weeks ago, but was withheld until yesterday. Forgett is charged by Ty San with having stolen an opium pipe and a cleaver while he was visiting at the place of the Chinese on Second street. Ty does not mind the loss of the cleaver, but when his pipe was missing and he was temporarily deprived of his poppy sleep he became wroth and affixed his signature to a complaint alleging its theft by Forgett. The man was released on his own recognizance by Justice Atchinson and his case set for trial next week.– Santa Rosa Republican, October 12, 1905
DESPERATE JAIL BREAK IN THIS CITY LAST NIGHT
JAILER OVERPOWERED AND TEN PRISONERS ESCAPE
Dragged Into a Cell and Keys and Gun Are Taken
Great Excitement Prevails and Scores of Citizens Surround Jail–Eight Prisoners Recaptured–Two Desperadoes at Large
A jail break, planned with all the cunning of the criminal heart that stops not at the sacrifice of human life if the taking of it is necessary to effect the desired purpose, took place at the Sonoma county jail on Third street about five minutes to six o’clock last night. Ten prisoners, including three women, escaped. Jailer Fred LaPoint was attacked and brutally beaten, dragged into a cell and locked up, and his keys and pistol taken.
These are some of the sensational features of last night’s occurrence at the jail. The city was thrown into a state of excitement as the news of the break spread and for hours the grim building was besieged with an eager throng. Up to midnight eight of the ten escapes [sic] had been returned to jail. Two, the most desperate of the gang, were still at large. They were John Anderson, who was yesterday morning convicted of grand larceny in the Superior Court and Tom Williams, awaiting trial on a charge of burglary.OVERPOWER JAILER
When locking up time came Jailer LaPoint went to the door of the small cage that leads into the main jail and unlocked the gate to let Trusty Ralph Rogers passed into lock up. Joe Forgett, who has been doing time for several weeks, made a dash at the gate, grasped the jailer around the throat. A moment later Jack Anderson and Tom Williams rushed to Forgett’s assistance and after a hard struggle they had the officer down and overpowered, stunned by blows in the face and head. They jumped on him and then dragged him inside and hurled him into a cell, turned the lock and then they and the others made a rush from the building. Trusties Rogers and Ed Clark say they did what they could to assist the jailer, but were driven back by the threats and a flourish of knives and a pistol. Rogers ran around to the police station and gave the alarm and Clark telephone[d] news of the affair to Sheriff Smith from the jail, making no attempt to escape.
J. Capell and W. Kraus, arrested last Sunday for carrying brass knuckles, and believed to be bad characters, were locked in their cells when the break occurred, having refused to go to work that morning. When they saw what was being done, they begged the escaping prisoners to unlock their cell doors and allow them to join them, but no attention was given their entreaties. The nine other prisoners, most of whom could have escaped if they desired, followed Clark’s example and made no attempt to leave. Most of these men were up on minor charges.START IN PURSUIT
Sheriff Jack Smith, who was at his home, and his deputies and the other officers were all quickly on the scene. At the jail a hasty tob [sic] was taken and it was found that the missing ones were Anderson, Williams, Forgett, McGriff, three boys named Foster, Karbaugh and Mazza, and three women, Mrs. Bane and Miss McNeill of Petaluma and Mrs. Joe Forgett. Then the Sheriff and many citizens in vehicles, autos, bicycles and afoot started in pursuit. Then also the crowd began to gather around the jail doors and the excitement grew amain. Dr. Jesse arrived and attended to Jailer LaPoint’s injuries, finding in addition to the cuts and bruises that his shoulder had been dislocated.
It was not long before a hack dashed up to the jail and Chief Deputy County Clerk G. W. Libby jumped out followed by Miss McNeill, one of the women who had escaped. Sometime afterwards W. A. Bolton’s auto pulled up with a rush at the jail. It contained Police Officer John Boyes and with him were Joe Forgett, Mrs. Forgett and Mrs. Bane. The quartet were found lying in an orchard near the race track by Officer Skaggs.
Later in the evening Chief of Police Rushmore and Police Officer Ed Skaggs came in with Mazza, Karbaugh and Foster. They were captured several miles from town on the Bennett Valley road. They had secured a ride on a wagon and had left it when it turned down a lane. Jeff Cook learned that three lads had passed along the road on a wagon and he and Chief of Police Rushmore drove hurriedly and overtook them. Rushmore and Skaggs took the trio back to jail. The boys had the jailer’s keys.CAPTURED AT MELITTA
It was about 11 o’clock when a telephone message was sent to town by former Deputy Sheriff J. L. Gist that Constable Sam Gilliam had captured McGiff at Melitta.
Mention has already been made of the part played by the two trusties, Clark and Rogers, in their effort to rescue the jailer. They told their stories to the newspapermen and officials. Jailer LaPoint declares that Forgett made the first attack on him. Anderson and Williams are said to have been prime movers with Forgett and they appear to have been the ones who evolved the attack and plan of escape, according to declarations made to District Attorney Lea last night.
Forgett was the first taken into the jail office after his return to make a statement to the District Attorney, which statement was taken down in shorthand by Court Reporter Scott. He stated that the break had been planned for two or three days. He said it was not the intention to hurt the jailer and he said he did not see blows struck when the attack was made. He made a rambling statement.
William Verley, one of the prisoners who did not go with the rest, told the District Attorney that he had refused to yield to the importunings of Forgett and the others to join in the break. He said Forgett and the others had talked up the plan for a couple of days. Forgett’s suggestion was that they should saw themselves out. Then the scheme followed out last night was finally determined upon. A weapon that would have come in very handy doubtless was secured in the form of the leg of an iron bedstead. Both Verley and the lad Mazza saw Forgett secrete this in the bosom of his shirt. Later, Mazza says, Forgett carried it into a closet and afterwards threw it down on the floor of the cook room. Verley says he did not see much of the struggle at the time of the attack upon LaPoint. He claims that he ran outside with the idea of summoning aid and says he did tell one man to go for an officer. He then returned to jail.MAZZA AFRAID
When Mazza told District Attorney Lea that he saw Forgett put the iron in his shirt, he (Mazza) stated and almost screamed “Don’t tell him that I told you. He will kill me if he knows it.”
After describing how Jailer La Point was handled by Forgett, Anderson and Williams the lad burst out, “I tell you I cried, for the man had been good to me. Yes, he had.”
At the time of the attack upon La Point, McGriff is said by one of the prisoner spectators to have been standing at the table where the meals are served and some of the prisoners interviewed say he had agreed beforehand to “stick with the boys” if they made the break. Verley’s reason for not going is characterized by one of the returned escapes as being an attack of “cold feet”
Jailer La Point’s pistol was taken from a drawer in a bureau in his bedroom. One of the prisoners says Anderson was the man who took it. At another time he is said to have been seen by both Verley and Mazza with part of a knife. The offense with which the jailbreakers will be charged is a most serious one. The three women appear to have simply run out with the rest. The Bane and McNeill women would have been liberated today, having served out their sentence.
At the time of the outbreak Under Sheriff Lindsay was at the hospital. When he returned to town he took command at the jail and notified the officers in the adjoining town to be on the lookout.
In addition to the officers named Deputy Sheriffs McIntosh and Reynolds, Police Officer Lindley, and Yeager, Constable Boswell and others assisted in the pursuit of the escapes.
Forgett told a frivolous story in excusing the part he took as leader of the plot.
Little Mildred Treanor, granddaughter of Mrs. H. A. Hahmann, who lives opposite the jail, and another little girl saw the crowd rush from the jail and she at once ran round to the police station to give an alarm. Several persons heard Jailer La Point’s lusty cries of “murder,” but for the time being took them to be shouts of possibly an insane patient confined in the jail.PLAN DEAD MARCH
Yesterday afternoon when Jailer La Point carried a cup of coffee to a man named Ed Miller, detained in the insane cell upstairs in the jail building, Miller said: “Look out! They have planned a dead march on you.” Here was a warning which the jailer did not heed. This was natural enough, as it came from a man supposedly mentally deranged and who had in his rambling frequently cursed him. Miller called the turn. They had planned a “dead march” on the old man, sure enough.– Press Democrat, June 8, 1907
TO BE TRIED ON ANOTHER CHARGE
Preliminary Examination of Joe Forgett on Two Complaints Takes Place of Saturday
The preliminary examination of Joe Forgett on two more charges, jail breaking and burglary, took place in Justice Atchinson’s court on Saturday morning. The charges are a sequel to the break last month from the county jail in this city. The alleged burglary consisted of the taking of Jailer La Point’s pistol from a bureau drawer in the latter’s bedroom. He was held for trial on the breaking jail charge and the burglary matter was taken under advisement. Forgett is already held for assault upon the jailer. At the proceedings on Saturday, District Attorney Lea prosecuted and Attorney William F. Cowan defended.– Press Democrat, July 7, 1907
SENSATIONAL DAY IN FORGETT TRIAL
Joseph Forgett Faces a Jury in Judge Seawell’s Department of Superior Court
“I got out to save my wife.” This is the excuse Joseph Forgett offered on the witness stand in Judge Seawell’s Department of the Superior Court on Wednesday in explaining his part in the memorable break from the county jail three months ago when some seventeen prisoners escaped.
Before making this statement Forgett had prefaced it with others in which he alleged he had been informed by notes and by two other young women occupying upstairs rooms in the jail that Jailer Fred La Point had been making love to his wife, Jessie Forgett. This information, combined with a sudden reduction of the amount of morphine to which he had been accustomed before his incarceration in the county jail, he alleged had worked him up to such a pitch that he had resolved to take the first chance to break jail. Consequently when on the night of the break Jailer La Point momentarily left both gates leading from the big cage open he jumped for liberty, but denied that he had seriously hurt the jailor. It was his intention, he said, to grab the jailor and lock him up in the cell he (Forgett) had been occupying and then to sit on the steps of the bastille and await the coming of Sheriff Smith, whom he proposed to tell what he had done with La Point.
Mrs. Jessie Forgett testified as to the alleged familiarity on the part of the jailor with herself. At the time she was in the jail on a vagrancy charge with two other young women, who were also witnesses, Mrs. Bains and Viola McNeill, the latter two from Petaluma. Mrs. Forgett stated that La Point had called her into the bathroom at a time when, she alleged, he was ready to take a bath. The other females testified as to other alleged improprieties. One of the wanted it understood that La Point had hugged Mrs. Forgett so violently that her waist was almost black and blue.
District Attorney Lea had some letters, however, in which Mrs. Forgett had written to her husband that she and the other girls would “stand pat” and that they “would give old Fred (Jailer La Point) merry hell.” District Attorney Lea contended that the women were making unjust charges against the jailor and intended falsifying their testimony. Another letter from Mrs. Forgett to her husband was referred to in which Mrs. Forgett mentioned the story that she and the girls would testify to when the trial came in which Forgett would be charged with assisting in the jail break. The jury, of course, is the judge of the credibility of the witnesses. Jailer La Point gives the allegations of the women the lie direct.
Witnesses were called Wednesday to show that Forgett had been addicted to the use of morphine for years. He admitted himself that he had used it for fifteen years, and had taken as much as fifteen or sixteen grains a day when he could get it. When he could not get it, he said, he suffered considerably and at times did not know what he was doing.
The witnesses examined during the day were […]– Press Democrat, October 10, 1907
JURY’S VERDICT JUSTICE–MERCY
After Brief Deliberation Joseph Forgett is Found Guilty of Assisting in Break at County Jail
After a very short deliberation the jury in the case of the state against Joseph Forgett brought in a verdict of guilty as charged in the information, namely, assisting prisoners to escape from the county jail in this city, and recommended him to the mercy of the Court. The Judge will take cognizance of the recommendation.
Thursday morning was devoted to the arguments by counsel for the state and defense. The District Attorney opened for the prosecution and W. F. Cowan responded. District Attorney Lea made the closing argument. The verdict did not occasion surprise as Forgett himself the night of the jail break, when he was returned to jail, told in a calm deliberate manner how he and other men in the prison had planned the escape. A strong plea was made, however, that at the time he was in a state of insanity by reason of his supply of morphine having been cut short.
Time was when Joe Forgett was a sober and industrious man. Then he began taking morphine and to this can be traced his downfall. His brother and mother did what they could to help him break away from the habit. When Fred Forgett broke down on the witness stand and wept on Wednesday while telling what he had done to aid his brother to reform he told the truth as many in the court room knew. The brother’s tears were genuine. They were not shed for effect. Neither was the mostening of that aged mother’s eye simply the effervescing of sentiment. She still loves her wayward boy despite he is come to forty years of age.– Press Democrat, October 11, 1907