Here’s a recipe for trouble: Take a farmer in a slow vehicle on a narrow country road and add an impatient driver trying to pass. Mix in lots of horn honking and simmer until tempers are hot. What do you get? A large serving of road rage, and an incident all the more remarkable because we apparently* have a first-hand account of the events by 9 year-old Helen Finley, who would marry Hilliard Comstock almost exactly a decade later.

Reports of horses spooked by inconsiderate auto drivers were not uncommon in that era, but this incident seemed to be outright malicious. Combining the newspaper version with details provided by Mrs. Comstock, what happened was something like this:

The Finley family was traveling by horse-drawn wagon to Calistoga for a week’s visit with in-laws. As they climbed the grade on Mark West Springs road, an auto approached from behind, the driver honking for the wagon to pull over. The Finleys yielded at the first safe turnout, and the car passed.

Then without warning, the auto slowed and began moving backwards. It crashed into the wagon.

The horses panicked, and the Finley men struggled to calm them as their wives clutched the sides of the wagon in fear. The children jumped to the ground. The car driver shouted that the Finleys should cut the horses loose, apparently because the rig might tip over the embankment.

The crisis was averted, but Harrison Finley, Mrs. Comstock’s grandfather, was so angered that he immediately swore out a complaint against the driver, a San Francisco lawyer named Jacobs, charging that he “deliberately backed down” the grade to crash into them. Jacobs’ defense was that his “automobile became uncontrollable” after he passed the wagon. The judge accepted his version of the accident’s cause.

Gentle Reader might now be thinking, “hey, that’s not right; cars don’t roll backwards unless they’re in neutral or reverse gear – and besides, Jacobs could have used his brake.” So I also believed – until reading about another runaway reverse incident that happened just two weeks later. The engine of that car stalled when the driver shifted into low gear to climb a hill, and the vehicle likewise rolled backwards, unable to be stopped by the brake. Jacobs may have had the same problem, or simply lacked the horsepower to reach the top of the hill. Still, it certainly should have been possible for him to steer his car away from the wagon and not endanger others. Not owning an auto, Harrison Finley may not have understood the foibles of the machines, but he was justified in his anger towards the driver, who acted in all ways irresponsibly.

* It should be noted that it’s possible that Helen Finley Comstock was describing another incident in her oral history account. She says her father was driving the buggy, not her grandfather, and the newspaper accounts do not mention the presence of a family in the wagon. Still, the basic details, including the time of year, make it highly likely that this is the same event. As Mrs. Comstock does not mention her grandfather at all in the story, one possibility is that he did not complete the family trip to Calistoga, instead riding one of the horses back to Santa Rosa so he could quickly file a complaint against Jacobs.

Constable J. H. Boswell arrested Attorney H. A. Jacobs of San Francisco at Burke on Sunday morning on a complaint sworn out by Harrison Finley, charging him with disturbing the peace. Mr. Finley alleges that the San Francisco lawyer backed his auto down a steep hill on the Mark West Springs road and crashed into his buggy and nearly threw him, the horse, and the rig down the embankment. Just before this incident Jacobs drove his machine up behind the Finley buggy and sounded his horn a number of times to get Mr. Finley out of the way. The latter says he allowed the autoist to pass just as soon as he could. The lawyer’s temper is said to have been a bit ruffled. He put up twenty-five dollars in cash and a hearing will be given him on Friday before Judge A. J. Atchinson.

– Press Democrat, June 30, 1908
Backed His Auto Into Buggy Near Burke’s

Henry A. Jacobs, an attorney from San Francisco, was arrested at Burke’s sanitarium Sunday morning by Constable James H. Boswell. The attorney was charged with disturbing the peace and put up twenty-five dollars cash bail to insure his appearance before Judge A. J. Atchinson when wanted on the charge. His examination will take place the latter part of the week.

The arrest of Jacobs was made on complaint of Harrison Finley, the hop grower, who resides on the road to Burke’s. Mr. Finley was driving along the road toward his home, when he alleges that Jacobs came up behind him in an auto. Jacobs blew several blasts from his horn, and Finley found a convenient place to turn aside and let the auto pass. He charges that after Jacobs had gotten past his vehicle the autoist deliberately backed down a hill and crashed into his buggy, almost upsetting the vehicle on the grade.

After consultation with officials here regarding the matter, Mr. Jacobs [sic] decided to bring Jacobs into court and prosecute him and may bring a civil action against the attorney for damages.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 29, 1908


Henry Jacobs, the attorney who was arrested on complaint of Harrison Finley for backing his automobile into the latter’s buggy and damaging it, was not held to answer for the offense when he came up before Justice Atchinson on Friday. Mr. Jacobs showed that he did not have any intention of backing against the buggy of Mr. Finley, but that his automobile became uncontrollable and in trying to get up the hill the machine ran back down the hill and into the buggy. He offered to pay for any damage and the judge felt that he was not to blame for the accident, so dismissed the case.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 6, 1908

While driving her automobile on the grade near Alder Glen Springs last Wednesday, Mrs. E. Irving Kincaid, of Cloverdale, had a very narrow escape from being seriously hurt. The Revellie gives the following particulars of the occurrence, and Mrs. Kincaid’s many Santa Rosa friends are very glad the accident was no worse than it was:

“While ascending the hill in her automobile at the entrance to Alder Glen Springs Wednesday, Mrs. E. I. Kincaid had a narrow escape from death. She had changed the speed from high to low, killing the engine, and it seems [the auto] was unable to hold the brake and the auto backed down the steep road into the county road at a rapid rate. She was unable to steer the machine and it turned completely over at the bottom of the hill, throwing Mrs. Kincaid out, but fortunately not injuring her and doing but little injury to the car. Prior to the time the machine commenced to back, the other occupants had gotten out. Mrs. Kendall and three children, friends of Mrs. Kincaid, were in the car before the accident occurred. One of the little girls walked to “The Old Homestead” and phoned Mr. Kincaid, who went to the Glen and soon had the machine righted and drove it into town. Fortunately the top was not up or else Mrs. Kincaid surely would have been severely injured, if not killed.”

– Press Democrat, July 12, 1908

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Your business was lost in the 1906 earthquake, the insurance company won’t pay, yet everyone yuks it up in court recounting the funny things they did “getting clear of debris or in steadying their nerves after the fright.” They sound like the very sort of witnesses you want for reliable testimony: People who were scared senseless or immediately got drunk.

The court appearances in early 1908 were the the start of a long legal battle for R. C. Moodey, whose shoe store on Fourth street was destroyed by the fire that followed the quake. It was important for Moodey to prove that his merchandise was burned before the building finally collapsed; his insurance policy had a “fallen-building” clause that did not cover damage caused by earthquakes. Unique among all insurers, the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company refused to pay any Santa Rosa losses, and were sued in 1908 by five policy holders, including Moodey. The company lost each case, but their appeals slithered through the courts for years; the California Supreme Court in Sept. 1911 finally decided conclusively in Moodey’s favor, over five years after the disaster.

Much of the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company’s defense rested on proving that a “material portion” of a building had collapsed before the fire. A glimpse of how finely those legal hairs were split can be found in the questions put to the jury in another case a few weeks later.

Moodey’s shoe store was at 539 Fourth street, currently the location of a hair salon. Between there and the building next door (now the address of Caffe Portofino) was the stairway to the Princess lodging house, where bones and ashes were found four days after the quake. It was first reported to be the remains of a man, woman, and child, yet the coroner issued a death certificate for a single unknown person. This discrepancy is one of several mysteries about the true earthquake body count.

(RIGHT: 1908 ad for R. C. Moodey’s post-quake store)

Trial of the Moodey–Connecticut Suit is Resumed Before Judge Denny and Jury Wednesday

The tale of that eventful morning, April 18, 1906, was again rehearsed, at least portions of it were, in Judge Denny’s Department of the Superior Court on Wednesday at the trial of the suit brought by R. C. Moodey against the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company to recover $500, the insurance he carried in the Company and which account the Company refused to settle.

Time has worn on but the reminiscences related on the witness stand on Wednesday served in a measure to recall some of the scenes on the morning when man’s thought and vision ran wild. There was so much to see and hear then. The proceedings in court often during the day lent a touch of the humorous in the testimony of some of the witness while describing some little personal stunt executed to getting clear of debris or in steadying their nerves after the fright…among the witnesses were Fire Chief Frank Muther, Ed M. Faught, the Rev. A. B. Patten, John Halson, John Brobeck, J. A. White, W. J. Doggett, M. G. Hall, Ed Rohrer, W. H. Bailey, H. F. Wilson and J. H. Fowler. After hearing these men a brief recess was taken, the courtroom being stuffy, and the questioning arduous work. The witnesses in the main were those who could describe the appearance of the Moodey building and other buildings in the vicinity after the quake…

– Press Democrat, February 27, 1908

Jury Gives Major Fountain Verdict Last Night

The Connecticut Fire Insurance Company lost again in the Superior Court of this county last night. The jury in the suit of O. Fountain against the Company found for the plaintiff for the full amount claimed $1,116.66. A few weeks ago R. C. Moodey who sued the company got a verdict in full for the amount of his policy. There are still three suits against the concern.

The verdict was returned into court at nine o’clock last night after the jury had been out deliberating since before three in the afternoon. It seems that the delay in the jury room was not over the finding of the verdict but in the answering of a number of interrogatories which are mentioned below.


Question: Did the building described in the policy herein sued on and mentioned by the witness fall as a whole prior to its destruction by fire from a cause other than fire?

Answer: No.

Question: Did a part or parts of the building described in the policy hereing sued on and mentioned by the witness fall prior to the destruction of said building by fire from a cause other than fire?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Did a material part or parts of the building described in the policy herein sued on and mentioned by the witness fall prior to the destruction of said building by fire from a cause other than fire?

Answer: No.

Question: Did a substantial part or parts of the building described in the policy herein sued on and mentioned by the witnesses fail prior to the destruction of said building by fire from a cause other than fire?

Answer: No.

Question: Did a trivial or inconsiderable part or parts of the building described in the policy herein sued on and mentioned by the witnesses fail prior to the destruction of said building by fire from a cause other than fire?

Answer: Yes.

Question: If you find if a part or parts of said building described in the policy herein sued on and mentioned by the witnesses fell prior to the destruction of said building or from a cause other than fire, was the usefulness of said building for the purpose for which it was constructed impaired by reason of the said falling?

Answer: Don’t Know.

Question: If you find if a part or parts of said building described in the policy herein sued on and mentioned by the witnesses fell prior to the burning of said building and from a cause other than fire, state whether or not the falling of such part or parts exposed the interior of said building or its contents to the inclemency of the weather?

Answer: Don’t Know.

Question: Did a substantial or material part of said building described in the policy sued on and mentioned by the witnesses fail from a cause other than fire prior to the burning of the stock of goods of plaintiffs contained in said building and insured under said policy?

Answer: No.

Question: If you find that any part or parts of said building described in the policy sued on and mentioned by the witnesses fell prior to the burning and from a cause other than fire, state whether such falling occurred before the said goods insured were attacked by fire.

Answer: Don’t Know.

After Clerk Jack Ford had read the verdict and the queries and answers Attorney Plaw [for the insurance company] … asked the court to order the jury to give a definite answer to those queries to which they had relied “don’t know.” Judge Seawell declined to do so and Plaw took an exception to the Court’s ruling…

– Press Democrat, April 11, 1908

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As thankless jobs went, writing for the Santa Rosa newspapers must have ranked high. Reporters and columnists rarely had bylines in the early 20th century; only the names of the editor/publisher (Ernest L. Finley at the Press Democrat, and Allen B. Lemmon at the Santa Rosa Republican) appeared on editorial mastheads, along with their city editors (Herb Slater and J. Elmer Mobley, respectively). Those who harbored ambitions of being the next Mark Twain or Finley Peter Dunne or Upton Sinclair had the bitter solace of a small paycheck and the satisfaction of reading their precious prose in print, albeit after it was thoroughly mangled by that semi-literate oaf of a copy editor.

Aside from editorial cartoonists, only gossip columnists had some measure of recognition and freedom. Long a staple in the big city papers, the Republican introduced a gossip column in 1905 and was ridiculed by the Press Democrat for what it called, “Sussiety news,” although the PD followed suit a year later with its own “Society Gossip” column. Written under the pseudonym of “Dorothy Anne” (real name now lost, but her identity surely was well known at the time), she was an insufferable snoot who fawned over Luther Burbank and wrote catty remarks about those in her own social circle. If Dorothy Anne were alive today, she would be blasting out snarky tweets complaining that the other residents of the nursing home just bored her to tears.

By 1908 the “women’s section” in both papers settled down to mundane reviews of mundane lodge dances, weddings, and card parties. At the Republican, however, the column still flashed occasional sparks. Now dubbed “Pencil Gatherings Among the Social And Other People” (it would later be called the even more irreverent “Unclassified News of the Social and Other Things”), the author(s) sometimes took a good-natured swipe at the rival PD, Santa Rosa’s morning newspaper:

A lady correspondent asks: “A morning paper, speaking of a dancing party, mentions ‘the lady patronesses.’ Why the modifying adjective to the noun?”

I don’t know.

In “Pencil Gatherings” that year appeared the funniest item (well, intentionally funny) I’ve yet found in these papers: An account of an “up-town citizen” dropping by the newsroom for a “nice, long, social visit” with a harried editor. Likely it was a composite portrait of many such annoying visitors, and I couldn’t read this without thinking of Major Hoople, a pompous blowhard who was the central character in the popular “Our Boarding House” newspaper comic after WWI. Hoople was a bit like the characters played by W. C. Fields, minus the likability. He was always boasting of some great achievement in his past or a get-rich-quick scheme underway, and rarely without a lit cigar in his hand; the Major’s trademark was distressing throat-clearing sounds (probably caused by his cheap stogies) such as “faugh”, “awp”, and “fuf-f-ff-f-s-s-sputt-t”. I can easily imagine Hoople perched there on the end of a desk fully believing that he’s holding court, while heads were bent low over the typewriters and fingers furiously banged on the keys, hoping against hope that he’d take the hint and walk across the street to bother the guys at the Press Democrat instead.

(RIGHT: A 1927 panel from “Our Boarding House” reprinted in a fine paperback edition from Algrove Publishing.)

“Mr. Society Man,” said an up-town citizen the other day, as he settled himself on the edge of my desk for a nice, long, social visit. “I hear they are a-goin’ to have a bench show.” I continued writing and he continued talking.

“Now, I like a good dog,” said he, “though I never had one; and would like to see a string of fine bow-wows line up for prizes. If I had a decent dog I’d put him in and win all the blue ribbons, by jimminy, I would. Say, if any of the ladies who are gittin’ up this fair want any help. I’ll be on hand. Awful fine dog up our way, on King street. Great Dane–bigger’n a mule, and he has a chum, a stubby little English pug–nose smashed all over his face–thoroughbred–his father was kenneled at Windsor Castle–Queen Victoria brought him up by hand. Haven’t got a cigar about you, have you?”

I hadn’t, and kept on writing and he went on talking.

“Them two dogs is a team. One big, ‘tother little. Society would just go wild over them. ‘Nother feller up on College avenue has a Spitz–long white whiskers all over him; famous breed, too. His sire help haul a sled clear through the northwest passage from Baffins Bay to Bering Sea. I, I’m some on dogs. Got a match?”

I had no match and went on with my work without a break, and he did the same with his statements.

“I would like to take the contract to round up the stray ki-yis for the pound man,” said he, putting the unlighted cigar stub in his pocket. “Up our way I have registered about 4000 cur dogs running untagged and untaxed. If a man in this town has a good dog, he is taxed for the privilege of keeping the canine. If the dog is worthless, it doesn’t cost him a bean. So you see, it pays to have a durned mangy cur slinking around nightly, raiding the neighbor’s slop cans. A feller over other side of the College park has three half-starved dogs and I have been keepin them alive for months. By jinks, they just live in my back yard. This ain’t a nature fake story. I’m going up to the council some night and set in banc with the city attorney, and we’ll get out the doggondest dog ordinance–one that no superior judge’ll knock out, durned if we don’t. We’ll just load the treasury with dog tax money. We’ll patch the holes in all the streets, have a public park for every ward and provide Frank Muther with plate glass fire boxes so the lightning won’t get in ’em stormy nights and blow the corks–I mean plugs out. Got a Kansas City paper ‘mong that pile of exchanges over there?”

Nobody went to see, and the citizen resumed: “By George, I’m awful glad to see they’re goin’ to have a bench show and encourage good dogs in the town and pay license on them. A place that can get up such thoroughbreds as Anteeo, Lou Dillon and Sonoma Girl should raise better bow-wows. Say give me a paper. I don’t know whether I got mine last night or not.”

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 18, 1908

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