James Wyatt Oates purchased his first car in 1908, which gives us a likely date for the most infamous story told about him. The complete tale is reprinted below, but here’s a summary, for the purpose of discussion:
|Late one evening, a man came to the home of Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley to warn him about death threats made by Oates. “If I were you, I would get out of town for a few days. Take a trip to San Francisco until Oates cools off. He says he is going to cut your heart out.” Finley cooly replied, “[G]o back and tell Oates, tell him for me that I said he will never cut anybody up, because he hasn’t got the guts. Tell him I said he had been talking around here for thirty years about killing people, but in that time the only man he ever tackled was a cripple, and then if the crowd had not been prevented, the cripple would have beaten him to death with his crutch.”|
It’s a spiteful little story intended to make Oates look a fool, but the joke was on Finley – he didn’t know Oates actually had killed a man. From a biography of Oates’ brother, we learn that he shot someone dead in a fit of anger when he was sixteen, and was acquitted only after his brother paid a “considerable sum of money” to the prosecutor – who happened to be the father of the victim. Apparently no one in the West knew of his crime; in her oral history, Helen Comstock said the story was told that Oates had shot a man, but not fatally.
Finley’s tale appeared in “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” a compilation of profiles he penned for the newspaper which were gathered together into a book after he died in 1942. Oates was the only “pioneer” he disparaged, and the essay rankled Hilliard Comstock, who told his family he thought it was mean-spirited of Finley to insult the memory of an honorable man.
While there’s no doubt that Oates was a hothead of legendary proportions, Finley certainly confused facts, and might have confabulated parts of the story. Finley’s late night visit could not have happened before Oates bought his first car in August, 1908 – yet the event that supposedly sent Oates into a rage was Finley’s criticism of “his” city charter, which had been adopted back in 1904 (the PD editorial mentioned by Finley appeared on Sept. 14 of that year). Also, he claimed this all happened when Oates was city attorney, which was in 1912. And lastly, Finley misidentified his brother as a senator instead of a congressman.
Finley’s lack of factchecking aside, I’m unable to find evidence the other two anecdotes he mentioned even happened. Finley wrote that Oates once led the local delegation to the Democratic party state convention, but stormed out when “he could not have his way.” Oates was a delegate for many years, but only was Sonoma County chairman in 1892. No mention of an incident like that can be found in local or state papers.
I also can’t find any account of Oates being beaten by a “cripple,” although that story is harder to sleuth because no year is mentioned. John M. Carter was a Santa Rosa councilman from 1896 to 1904, but Finley wrote vaguely that the incident happened when he was “a member or perhaps a former member of the city council.” While it wouldn’t be surprising to learn there was a scrap (see above, re: Oates, hothead), I doubt it was nearly as dramatic as Finley claimed. Like Sherlock’s “dog that didn’t bark in the night,” the lack of evidence is evidence itself. Newspapers of the day loved this kind of juicy story, often giving it front-page coverage. (In fact, I stumbled across just such an item while researching 1892 politics: Following election primaries in Los Angeles, a man named Ignacio Bilderrain cracked a political foe’s head open with his cane.) If a man as prominent as Oates really had been badly beaten with a crutch, it undoubtedly would have been reported far and wide.
Why Ernest L. Finley felt the need to posthumously whack James W. Oates is a mystery. They didn’t appear to be bitter personal enemies; Finley attended a 1906 card party at (what would become known as) Comstock House. Won first prize, even.
My guess is that clues can be found in Finley’s opening sentence: “Oates came here as a young lawyer from Alabama, expecting to control Democratic policies in Sonoma County.” Yes, Oates wanted to launch himself into politics, but Sonoma County’s political world was controlled by a “good ol’ boy” clique. Oates lacked the temperament to be a cog in anyone else’s political machine, and famously always said he had no interest in dealing with people who he felt weren’t “square” with him. Oates also didn’t have the Missouri pedigree that greased entry into the clique. In all ways, he was the unwelcome black sheep.
By contrast, Finley was always the defender of the good ol’ boys, and his Press Democrat was their official organ. His editorials viciously attacked anyone who challenged the status quo, much as he savaged Oates in this profile. Perhaps here Finley was settling (very) old scores related to Oates’ threat to their power. Or perhaps Finley simply didn’t like black sheep who didn’t get along with his pals.
Colonel Oates is one of the latest devotees of the automobile and he has purchased a fine machine. For a long time the Colonel has had the “auto fever” and finally the impulse to own a car became irresistible.– Society Gossip column, Press Democrat, August 30, 1908
James Wyatt Oates came here as a young lawyer from Alabama, expecting to control Democratic policies in Sonoma County. A man of many fine qualities, he possessed none of the attributes of political leadership and died a disappointed man. He could not brook opposition in any form, and when opposed either developed a violent fit of temper or gave up the fight.
He once went to a state convention in Sacramento as the head of a delegation from this county, and he could not have his way jumped on the train and came home, leaving the delegates to work out their salvation alone.
Oates came out of a prominent Alabama family, a brother being governor of that state and afterwards United States senator. He talked a great deal about the South, and frequently boasted about being a great fighter, but he usually managed to keep the peace.
One night about 11:30 o’clock, a then well-known automobile salesman here drove up to my house, rang the doorbell and said he wanted to talk to me. I had not yet retired and we went for a drive. It appeared that he had sold Oates an automobile and delivery had been taken that day in San Francisco. When he and the salesmen were driving home together, Oates, then city attorney, had begun talking about the new city charter at that time up for adoption. We did not consider it much of an improvement over the old one and had said so editorially. Oates considered himself responsible for the charter, having prepared a good part of it, and he had argued himself into the belief that the paper’s opposition was prompted by personal feeling. This was not true, but as he talked he grew extremely angry and became greatly excited.
“If I were you, I would get out of town for a few days,” said the automobile man. “Take a trip to San Francisco until Oates cools off. He says he is going to cut your heart out.”
“Do you want to do something for me?” I inquired with grade apparent solicitude.
“I certainly do,” replied my friend.
“Then go back and tell Oates, tell him for me that I said he will never cut anybody up, because he hasn’t got the guts. Tell him I said he had been talking around here for thirty years about killing people, but in that time the only man he ever tackled was a cripple, and then if the crowd had not been prevented, the cripple would have beaten him to death with his crutch.”
Not too long before Oates had passed John M. Carter, a member or perhaps a former member of the city council, while the latter was seated in his buggy. Some altercation arose and Oates attempted to strike Carter. The latter, a one-legged man, jumped clear out over the buggy wheel and onto the sidewalk, brandishing and striking out with his single crutch in a deadly fashion. He was an angry man, but bystanders prevented serious casualties.
No man could have been more courteous and charming in his own home than James W Oates. He entertained extensively, and had many warm friends. He could be a delightful companion wanted he chose, but he possessed an unfortunate disposition that in time caused him disappointment and sorrow, and brought pain and anguish to some who were extremely near and dear to him. Oates enjoyed a good law practice here for many years, confining himself largely to probate practice. He would have gone further and gotten much more pleasure out of life if his had been a less tempestuous nature.– “Santa Rosans I Have Known” by Ernest L. Finley, pg. 29-30