Heaven knows that Santa Rosa loves to toot that it’s “business friendly,” and was ever thus. But in 1909 the town provoked a nasty little feud with downtown businesses that ended with a lawsuit and the Mayor trading accusations of lying with one of the top Fourth street merchants.

The cause of everyone’s discontent was the city water billing system. As described here earlier, Santa Rosa had a crazyquilt rate scheme that could only be described as insane. It was 25¢ a month to have a bathtub and 3¢ to water a square yard of “vegetables and strawberries,” but only .0025¢ if you aimed the garden hose at the same-sized patch of flowers or lawn. A liquor store owed $2 a month, but a dentist paid only a dollar above the base rate, and physicians paid nothing.

It also didn’t help that most businessmen flatly refused to pay their bills, viewing the rates as capricious or of the opinion that an unlimited supply of free water was a taxpayer’s due. When others heard that their neighboring businesses were getting away without paying, they began ignoring their bills as well. Thus on a fine spring morning in 1909, Street Commissioner W. A. Nichols marched up and down the downtown streets and shut off the scofflaw’s water. A standoff began, and soon the Press Democrat reported, “For the last few days block after block on Fourth street has been without water.”

(RIGHT: The 1909 rates for the hated Santa Rosa municipal water system. CLICK or TAP to enlarge)

To help break the impasse, the Chamber of Commerce held a public hearing that recommended the water be turned back on at once. But in a statement published on the front page of the Press Democrat, the mayor offered nothing in the way of compromise, appealing only for everyone to pay up. “You have invested a large amount of money in your water system,” Mayor Gray wrote. “The plant is a fine one. There is plenty of water, and it is served at high pressure, reaching the upper stories in summer as well as in winter. As a matter of public spirit, I appeal to all who have not done so to comply with the law…” The only alternatives discussed were unworkable: Dig up the streets and install individual connections, or deputize landlords to calculate bills for their tenants according to the nutsy type-of-business-plus usage formula.

After a week without toilets or tap water, about a dozen delinquent businesses paid their bills. At least one major property owner thumbed his nose at the city system and signed with the McDonald Water Company.* But Santa Rosa’s intractable policies placed still other companies in a Catch-22. Most buildings had only a single water hookup, yet there could be more than one business at that address. Under city rules, all water was shut off to the building if any of the businesses there were scofflaws. One company caught in the middle was the main downtown grocery store: Erwin Brothers, at 703-705 Fourth street (next to today’s Arrigoni’s Cafe).

Although the Erwins had stopped paying their water bills after learning that few downtown businesses were in compliance, no one could fault their earnest efforts to resolve the situation in the week of the water shutoff. They lobbied the mayor and city councilmen and walked Fourth street asking business owners to sign a petition requesting the city switch billing to their landlords. They went to city hall to pay every cent in arrears and make a deposit toward future payments. But the city refused to accept their money – there was another tenant in the building who still didn’t want to pay. After nine dry days, the Erwins illegally turned the water on themselves, and filed an injunction against the city to keep it on.

What happened next probably kept the town buzzing for weeks. According to comments from the Erwins published in the Republican, Mayor Gray personally asked them to drop the lawsuit, which would be expensive for the city to defend. He then reportedly said, “Why don’t you connect with the McDonald system and save all this trouble. You are trying to defeat the very plans you have suggested to the council and are working for.” Gray immediately responded via the Press Democrat that he wouldn’t have said such a thing and implying that he hadn’t spoken to the Erwins at all. The grocers countered with their own statement in the Republican, noting even the time the mayor dropped by and including the detail that Gray left his kid waiting in the buggy.

If Mayor Gray indeed told them to take their water business elsewhere, he foolishly placed Santa Rosa in legal peril, given that the Erwin Brothers were litigants against the city over this very issue (UPDATE HERE). Yet it’s likely that he said exactly what the Erwins claimed; Gray appears to have been exceptionally dim when it came to basic concepts of law and language. In a City Council meeting related to the water issue, he wasted time arguing that water service should be restored downtown immediately because “domestic use” meant bathrooms in businesses as well as residences. More time was lost in the following meeting as the City Attorney “cited definitions of the term ‘domestic’ from some of the best authorities.”

* As discussed here before, Santa Rosa had both public and private water systems available in most of the town. The three-decade old McDonald Water Company notoriously had low water pressure and sanitation problems (the water came from Lake Ralphine, which should explain enough). The city water came from deep wells, but was often said to taste and smell foul (MORE). While the city installed meters that billed for how much smelly water was used, the McDonald system offered all the sickening water you could dribble out of the spigot at a flat monthly price.

Street Commissioner Nichols Had a Busy Time With His Turnkey in Business Section

Street Commissioner W. A. Nichols was busy Monday turning off the water from all business houses on Fourth street where the water rates had not been paid according to the water ordinances.

While the step had been anticipated on account of the recent order of the City Council, some of those unprepared for the enforcement of the same were wrathy, but the only remedy was to pay the water bill and then the Street Commissioner had the water turned on again.

The turning off of the water is the outgrowth of the refusal of tenants to pay for water used for other than “domestic” purposes. All attempts to collect were met with either flat refusals or else with excuses to delay the day of settlement. A very few people in the district have paid regularly, but others had not, and the city was getting nothing for the water.

The shutting off of the water in some cases worked hardships on innocent parties, as for instance, where one tenant in a building had refused or failed to pay the water was shut off the same as where all had refused to settle. The advice of City Attorney A. B. Ware was to the effect that property owners who had constructed buildings with only one tapping were responsible for the tenants as they had been informed that separate connections should be put in for each separate tenant.

As it was the first general move to enforce the terms of the ordinance in the business section no charge was made for turning the water on again but in all cases a settlement was forced and repetition of the offense will cost the offender $5 to again secure water. In some cases the city water was given up and the pipes of the Santa Rosa Water Company were connected, but even then the property owners or tenants will be forced to pay the same rate the city asks, as well as pay their share of the taxes going to maintain the municipal system.

Some attorneys say that where a tenant has paid his water bill the city may be subject to a damage suit where the water is turned off to keep others from getting water. They hold that it is up to the city to provide separate means of cutting the water off without interfering with those patrons who do pay. City Attorney Ware declares it is a matter for the tenant and owner alone to settle.

– Press Democrat, March 2, 1909

Discussion and Suggestion at Last Night’s Meeting of the City Council

While the much discussed turning off of the water in a number of the buildings in the business section on Monday, was brought up at the Council meeting last night and discussed again, the matter was left where it is and was without changes.

Mayor Gray asked whether the Council could not construe the meaning of “domestic” in the light that business houses could be give water free for drinking and toilet purposes, and those who use it for commercial purposes, such as hotels, lodging houses, saloons, druggists, doctors and dentists, etc., pay for the same, thus stopping the tearing up of Fourth street and the losing of patrons to the other company. This was his solution of the problem.

Councilman Fred Steiner said he was inclined to construe the word “domestic” to mean the “home.”

City Attorney Allison B. Ware, who has previously upheld the water ordinance, did so again, and advised that any changes in the same should be taken up very carefully. He suggested that the main trouble in the present controversy was that its requirements had not been enforced from the first. It would have avoided considerable trouble and the piling up of a large bill. Several Councilmen concurred in this conclusion of the City Attorney.

In the matter of tearing up of the street it was replied that corporations should be compelled to put the streets back in the same condition in which they found them.

Mayor Gray advocated, in order to prevent the working of hardships on people, who had paid their water bills, in the same buildings with those who had not, with the result that the water was turned off, that separate stopcocks could be placed so as to reach the proper parties.

The Ordinance Committee may endeavor to reach a satisfactory adjustment of the vexed question.

– Press Democrat, March 3, 1909

Much Oratory Results in New Plan Being Proposed
Committee Appointed to Wait Upon Mayor and Common Council, and Also to Interview Fourth Street Property Owners

A mass meeting of citizens. business and property owners was held on Wednesday night at the Chamber of Commerce to consider the situation created by the action of the City Council in turning off the water along Fourth street where consumers had neglected or refused to pay their bills. The situation is a peculiar one by reason of the fact that in many instanced of turning off of the water has alike affected those who have paid and those who have not. As a rule, each building is connected with the city mains by a single tapping and no means has been provided for turning off the supply of any individual consumer. When the order went forth to cut off those who had failed to pay it affected both the just and unjust.” For the last few days block after block on Fourth street has been without water.

By request, President E. L. Finley of the Chamber of Commerce called the meeting to order. Organization by perfected by electing Charles O. Dunbar chairman and Edward H. Brown secretary.

In his opening remarks Chairman Dunbar spoke of the necessity of finding some solution for the problem with which the business portion of the city is at present confronted, and urged that all get together and work for the best interests of the community.

Dr. N. Juell outlined the existing situation at length, incidentally pointing out the fact that many were being solicited to become customers of the McDonald system, and that every customer lost meant a loss of revenue to the municipality. He said he thought many who have not paid would have done so had a collector been sent around, the failure to liquidate being in many instances merely the result of carelessness or oversight.

Fred J. Bertolani said that in many cases it was not the fault of the property owners that the buildings were not supplied with more than one tapping, citing instances where he had attempted to secure individual tappings for some of the Shea buildings without result. He did not regard the plan of trying to provide individual tappings at the present time as practical, as it would entail too much trouble and expense.

William R. Carithers thought that the thing to do was to get the water turned on, and said he had made a proposition to the city authorities to pay the water rent of all tenants in the Carithers building from the 1st of March provided the back bills would be wiped out. He said he did this for the protection of those tenants who had paid, and that in the event of his proposition being accepted, he of course expected to charge the amount so expended back to the renters.

Councilman Fred J. Forgett was called upon, but replied that he was present merely as an interested spectator anxious to see whether any feasible solution of the problem would be suggested.

S. P. Erwin said he had spoken to the Mayor and several of the Councilmen regarding the situation, and all seemed to be fair and have no other desire than to do their duty and protect the interests of the municipality. He believed public necessity demanded that some way be found to have the water turned on, and favored having the landlords pay the bills and charge the amount back to the tenants. He thought that perhaps the City might be willing to rebate the back bills in event of such a plan as that mentioned being adopted.

William Sukalle thought the entire idea of free water was wrong, because his experience had shown him that visitors looking for property investments do not regard it as “good business.” He recited an instance where a friend of his had come here with $12,000, but on account of the tax rate and the fact that some people were being compelled to pay in order that others might get something for nothing, went away and took his twelve thousand with him.

Wirt E. Rushing said that it was very apparent, judging from the remarks of the speakers who had preceded him, that the sentiment of the meeting was friendly to the City, and that while he had heard talk on the street about bringing suit, etc., such a course would only mean multiplying the troubles of the municipality. He also referred to the unnecessary tearing up of the streets that would result in case of any general move to change over to any other system, pointed out the fact that a loss of public revenue in one place would merely necessitate raising the amount somewhere else, and suggested that everybody pay up and start again fresh with a clean sheet.

Tom Gregory thought it would be childish to go to the authorities and promise to “be good” in future if past sins should be forgiven. Referring to the remarks made by a previous speaker, he ridiculed the idea that the non-paying consumers had failed to settle through mere oversight or carelessness. “They did not pay because they thought they would not have to pay,” he said. “We go to the Gas Company’s office and settle up every month without a whimper, having found out that is the only way to keep the light from being turned off.” He did not think the employment of a collector was necessary.

F. E. Barnett was of the opinion that a collector was the thing needed…

After a good deal more of this kind [illegible microfilm] …the meeting then adjourned, and the discussion resumed on the sidewalk outside.

– Press Democrat, March 4, 1909

Business Houses Are Taking Right Move and Nichols Turns on Water Again

The movement against paying for water for business purposes appears to have been at least partially checked. On Monday a number paid up and Street Commissioner W. A. Nichols had the pleasure of turning on the water for four buildings representing some eleven business houses, while four other persons requested him to call Tuesday morning at eight o’clock and receive his money and turn on the water for their properties.

The Con Shea buildings, including the Elks’ hall and business houses on B street, a Main street building, and a building on lower Fourth street, were among those who paid up and are again supplied with city water. It is believed that now that the ice is broken and the matter is better understood that the opposition will melt away.

The sums collected Monday represented bills ranging from $9 to $20 each.

– Press Democrat, March 9, 1909


To the Public:
In order that our position on the water question be not misunderstood, we want to make the following statement:

When the ordinance was first passed by the council making a charge of one dollar a month to business houses, we paid our dues and continued to do so until we found the majority of the consumers were not paying, then we quit, telling the street and water superintendent that as soon as the question was settled we would gladly act accordingly.

There the matter rested until last week, when the water was turned off. After waiting a day or two without water, our Mr. S. P. Erwin spent almost an entire day interviewing the council and the mayor to see if some arrangements could not be made whereby the water could be turned on to all consumers and the matter adjusted. Following that a meeting was called, to be held a the rooms of the Chamber of Commerce, and there a committee was appointed, of which our Mr. S. P. Erwin was a member to interview the property owners along Fourth street, asking them to sign a petition requesting the mayor and council to pass a resolution making the water charge against the property owners rather than the tenant. In that way it could be added to the rent and collected with it, thereby preventing one tenant by refusing to pay having the water shut off the entire building, as at present.

This petition was signed by every property owner but one that was approached–a few being out of the city or not in when called on–and was handed to the mayor, with the request that some immediate action be taken, as the business interests were greatly suffering, and got the council together, hoping something would be done, but nothing came of the efforts.

Finding ourselves still without water and our business interests suffering, Mr. S. P. Erwin went to the city clerk and tendered him all back dues, together with any costs for turning on and dues in advance, and who, on account of another tenant in the building still being in arrears, refused to take the money or allow us the use of the water. Thereupon he was informed that we would turn it on ouorselves, which we immediately did, and then enjoined the city from turning it off.

We have never resisted the water assessment, only holding in abeyance the payment until the matter was adjusted. We have suggested that the water be turned on to all and a civil suit begun against some party in arrears for the collection of dues, and if the ordinance was found valid, there is no question but all would pay at once and continue to pay. But instead the council have elected to make it the most exasperating possible and inconvenience all for the refusal of a few.

After offering to pay and being refused water, we turned it on and then got out papers enjoining the city from turning it off. And there we rest our case, claiming the use of the water, especially when we are now and have at all times been willing to pay for it.

We are not fighting the interests of the city. We want to use the city water and pay our dollar per month into the city treasury rather than follow the mayor’s advice.

Mayor Gray came to us and urged us to connect with the McDonald system and cancel proceedings. We told him that we were property owners and tax payers and did not want to pay $12.00 per year into the McDonald Water Company when it would do the city no good. As we had to pay our proportion of the city taxes, we wanted the money to go to the city. And, again, if his advice were given to all and they should elect to follow, what would be the condition of Fourth street after being cross sectioned every 20 to 40 feet. It is certainly bad advice for the mayor to give to the citizens, but presume he thinks it an easier solution of the question.

We are not fighting the interests of the city, but this seems to us the only way to get some kind of a discussion, so that all would understand and the question be permanently settled.


– Santa Rosa Republican, March 9, 1909

Denies Assertion Made by Erwin Brothers in a Communication They Had Published

Mayor James H. Gray last night issued an official statement denying the assertion made by Erwin Brothers in an afternoon paper to the affect that he (Mayor Gray) had come to them and urged that they connect with the McDonald system and cancel their proceedings against the city, etc. The Mayor emphatically says he did no such thing. His statement appears in another column.

The various members of the City Council, as well as City Attorney Ware and Street Commissioner Nichols, also stated last night that in all his conversations with them, both in private and at the Council meetings, Mayor Gray has taken a position exactly opposite to that charged by Erwin Bros. and has constantly urged that some speedy action be taken that would prevent the general tearing up of the streets and loss of consumers to the city. Mayor Gray is also on record regarding the matter, a public proclamation dealing with the subject having been issued last Saturday and published in both papers. In this proclamation he took the same position the members of the Council all say has been his position from the first.

The communication from Erwin Brothers follows their injunction suit against the City, the Mayor and Common Council, together with the other officials being named in the complaint as representatives of the municipality.

The law makes it incumbent upon the City authorities to turn off the water in all cases where consumers neglect or refuse to pay their water bills, and there is no alternative. It is against the law for any private party to turn on the water without written permissions, after it has been turned off by the Street Commissioner. Because some others had done so, Erwin Brothers allowed their water rent to get badly in arrears, and finally tendered the amount due with the request that the water be turned on at once. Other consumers also in arrears were being served through the same tapping, and consequently it was impossible to comply with the request, so the tendered payment was not accepted by the City. Thereupon S. P. Erwin personally turned on the water that the City authorities had ordered turned off, the firm’s attorneys at the same hour serving injunction papers, which had been previously prepared, asking that the municipality be permanently restrained from again disconnecting the tapping leading to the Savage building, in which the Erwins are tenants.

The sentiment was generally expressed upon the streets last night that, having precipitated the suit, the proper place for Erwin Brothers to define their position is in the courts. The probabilities are that the suit will be a long and expensive one for the municipality.

Mayor Gray and the members of the City Council had a conference on the water question last night…City Attorney Ware again defined and reiterated his position upholding the water ordinance. He also cited definitions of the term “domestic” from some of the best authorities.

– Press Democrat, March 10, 1909

The Council Chambers, Santa Rosa, Cal., March 9, 1909

The statement of Erwin Bros. in this evening’s Republican that I urged them to connect with the McDonald water system, is incorrect, and is exactly contrary to what I did urge them to do.

I have requested and urged to the utmost of my power, all consumers of water to use from the municipal water system.

I refer to the statement published over my signature, both in the Press Democrat and the Evening Republican, which expressed by [sic] views exactly at all times.

James H. Gray, Mayor,

Tell of Incidents Connected With Water Issue

Mayor Gray makes a statement in the Press Democrat denying that he asked us to connect with the McDonald water system.

We want to make a statement of the facts as nearly as possible, which are as follows:

Mayor Gray, accompanied by his son, drove up to our store between 3 and 4 o’clock. Mr. Gray came into the store, his son remaining in front in the buggy. Mr. S. P. Erwin met him in front of the store and they were in conversation ten or fifteen minutes.

Among other things, Mayor Gray said: “Why not turn the water off and wait a few days, when it would all probably be settled.” The reply was that we had already waited a few days, that we needed the water in our wash-basin and the toilet, and could not get along without it. He then said: “Why don’t you connect with the McDonald system and save all this trouble. You are trying to defeat the very plans you have suggested to the council and are working for.”

The reply was, as stated in our letter to the public: “We are property owners and tax payers, and want to pay our money into the city and not into the McDonald water system, as we have to help keep up the city government and want our money to go where it will do the most good.”

These may not be the exact words as passed between Mr. Gray and Mr. Erwin, but they are absolutely correct as to the meaning, and the “Why not connect with the McDonald water system and save trouble” is absolutely correct.

There were no witnesses to the conversation, except as to passing back and forth, but we are willing to leave it up to the people.

We have no fight against the city or any of its ordinances. This was started without malice or feeling, simply to force a settlement of the water question rather than to let it drag for weeks.

We went to the clerk again yesterday and asked to pay our water dues, but under the advice of the city attorney he refused to accept them. We are willing now, and always have been, to pay for the water used. We told Mr. Nichols when we quit paying that we did not want our water turned off, but did not feel like paying if the balance did not, and asked him to come to us and let us know before turning it off, which he said he would do, and we would pay it.

After it had been turned off we asked him why he had not come as agreed. He said we had been notified through the papers and he supposed we had seen it. We do not blame Mr. Nichols for this, as he was doing his duty as advised, but are merely stating our case.


– Santa Rosa Republican, March 10, 1909


John McCormack of San Francisco, owner of the McCormack building on the corner of Fifth and B streets, is in Santa Rosa today, arranging to disconnect his building with the city water system and to get it into communication with the McDonald Water Company. The seven firms doing business in his building had been urging him to do something to obviate the drouth prevailing there, and so he came up in person, and after investigating, decided to make the change of water systems.

Mr. McCormack has had few opportunities to visit his business interests here and he declares Santa Rosa looks like a place with a future. He left this afternoon for the metropolis.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 10, 1909

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This survey of the 1908 Santa Rosa newspapers concludes with 94 articles, a tie with the momentous year of 1906 when the town struggled back to its feet after the great earthquake and fire. That’s no surprise because In some ways, 1908 was a more notable year; the immolation of the “hoodoo” car received greater national media attention than the disaster had two years before, and judging by search engine hits today, more people are interested in the 1908 tomfoolery of the squeedunks than the scandal of Santa Rosa’s shenanigans with cash and food donations after the quake.

Most significantly, 1908 was the year that Santa Rosa’s future was cast. It was Teddy Roosevelt’s last year as president, and a wave of political activism swept over America with cities such as San Francisco seeking to root out corruption and improve conditions. Here the local municipal elections became a referendum on whether Santa Rosa would maintain its status quo – as a town awash in saloons with a thriving underground economy of gambling and prostitution – or whether it would aspire to evolve into a more cosmopolitan Bay Area community.

One side of the ballot represented the Old Guard – primarily bankers and the men who owned most of the prime downtown real estate – who were being challenged by a coalition of reformers: Prohibitionists, voters deeply upset that the City Council recently had legalized Nevada-style prostitution, and progressives seeking to rid the city of political “bosses.” The reformers lost, but only after the town’s Democratic and Republican parties united to create a keep-the-status-quo “fusion” ticket, and after the fusion’s mayoral candidate played a political dirty trick on the morning of the election, promising something he wouldn’t (and couldn’t) deliver. And it didn’t help that the reformers were hammered ceaselessly in the Press Democrat by PD editor and Chamber of Commerce president Ernest L. Finley.

As both sides had vowed, the new City Council struck down the ordinance that had legalized prostitution, but with enforcement under the Old Guard’s control, the repeal had little teeth; only two brothels closed in the red light district. The trade just resumed operating as it had for the forty years prior to its brief legalization, again outlawed but sanctioned and hidden in the open, just two blocks from the courthouse. And the city was again raking in fines from illegal sales of liquor in the houses, and presumably resuming the monthly de facto arrests of the women for vagrancy to collect a steady income in fines.

Second place for the story with the most coverage in the 1908 Santa Rosa newspapers was the squeedunks’ preparation for the Rose Carnival. It was reported as a series of running gags that had a new development almost every day, such as the competition over which of the guys would be crowned “queen.” But the top story of the year in both papers was the construction of the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse. It was newsworthy because it was so unusual in that era for a woman’s group anywhere to incorporate, purchase land and build a clubhouse, and important to local social scene because it provided the town with a meeting hall that could be rented by the public. Every detail of the planning and construction was reported in detail, and once it was finished, little items kept dribbling out that mentioned who had plastered the walls or wired the place for electricity.

For Mattie and James Wyatt Oates, 1908 was a year likely filled with melancholy and gratification. There was the wedding of Anna May Bell, the young woman whom the Oates’ clearly cherished as if she were their own daughter. In a string of blowout engagement parties in Santa Rosa, 200 guests crowded into (what would become known as) Comstock House, making it probably the largest party ever held here. That year Wyatt’s famed Civil War vet brother William C. Oates visited his baby brother for the last time. And Wyatt and Mattie together were instrumental in the building of the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse, he incorporating the group and she as chairman of the building committee. Wyatt, who had developed an obsession for automobiles, purchased his first car, and the garage at Comstock House was surely built soon after. Other than that, it was a quiet year; they were rarely mentioned in the newspapers. Mattie visited a couple of friends and held a card party for the Married Ladies’ Club at her home. A small item on the front page of the Santa Rosa Republican that July read, “Judge James W. Oates has a neat little sign on his door, which reads: ‘Gone fishing: back Tuesday.'”

And finally, this was the year the Comstock family arrived, which could make my 374 blog posts preceding that announcement one of the most long-winded intros to a story since Wagner’s operas.

It has taken me a calendar year to cover a historic year (once again), but I’m not as chagrined by this fact as before. My 1908 articles are generally longer and more deeply researched than previous years, thanks in part to the greater availability of online newspaper archives. I’ve also wandered farther afield to explore national issues that may not have much local significance for 1908, but will have growing importance in the times that followed, such as the xenophobic worry about Japanese spies preparing for a U.S. invasion and the beginnings of the “Red Scare” mania with false reports about terrorist attacks committed by anarchists and organized labor.

Having already read through the 1909 newspapers, I’ve encountered a couple of stories that present ethical challenges. It’s been my policy to not write about suicides; the papers at the time usually provided lurid details about that person’s death, and no one Googling Great-Grandma Gertie’s name should have to stumble upon an item describing her agonizing last minutes from having swallowed carbolic acid. But there are lots of other kinds of skeletons in closets hidden.

One concerns a local woman who died of an illegal abortion. This was more common in that era than you might think; when paging through the 1906 Register of Deaths looking for additional earthquake casualties, I came across another one in Santa Rosa. I feel it’s an important historical story to retell – particularly given the present debate over the issue – but would it would be appropriate to republish her name as it appeared in the papers, abbreviate it to her initials, or use a pseudonym? Complicating the issue further, her tombstone in the Rural Cemetery has an epitaph that takes on a new poignant meaning, knowing how she died.

The other case involves a revered family that has a direct ancestor convicted of murder. Apparently this deed was long ago scrubbed from family histories, and I believe the only way anyone could know about it is by stumbling across it as I did, reading scratched unindexed microfilm. There’s nothing newsworthy about the murder itself, aside from the genealogical significance of the murderer. Do I not write about it, deciding that the story falls under the “Googling Granny” rule? Or do I first ask the family for permission? The latter may seem like the high road, but it’s now a large clan, and I doubt there would be consensus. And that route crashes into establishing an absurd precedent of expecting to obtain a family or institutional O.K. before writing about any type of controversial historical material.

What would you do? Comments most welcome.

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No anarchists were in 1908 Santa Rosa, but it seemed like they were under rocks everywhere else in America that spring as new incidents of terrorism kept roiling through the headlines. If you read the Press Democrat along with one of the San Francisco newspapers, here’s what you knew:

The terror spree began late February in Denver, when an anarchist gunned down a Catholic priest during mass. A few days later, it was reported nationwide that “Denver police are working on theory of a plot,” in part because a witness saw “two foreigners, apparently Italians, at the church, one of whom pointed out the clergyman.” Police discovered that the Italian killer was part of a gang of forty anarchists who had recently come to America, and men in six other cities were part of the plot.

On the very same day as the priest’s funeral, a young man rang the doorbell of George Shippy, Chicago’s chief of police. Shippy was immediately suspicious; the mayor had just banned famed anarchist Emma Goldman from speaking in Chicago, and authorities expected retaliation. The police chief grabbed the visitor and ordered his wife to search for weapons. A scuffle resulted and the chief’s adult son and chauffeur raced into the room. Shots were fired, and the son and driver were wounded. The visitor was struck by six bullets and soon died. Police quickly linked him to an anarchist group and a plot to also assassinate the mayor and captain of the detective bureau.

Rumors flew that the attacks on the Denver priest and Chicago police chief were part of a single conspiracy. In the weeks that followed, police were posted at Catholic churches in Chicago and elsewhere, and police chiefs in several cities received death threats.

The Secretary of Commerce and Labor directed immigration inspectors to work with local police to round up and deport suspected anarchists, a move applauded by newspapers nationwide. The Washington Post went furthest and called for “the scum of foreign countries” to be executed. The government suppressed an anarchist newspaper and President Roosevelt personally ordered the postmaster general to ban another publication from the U.S. mails. Teddy denounced anarchists as “the enemies of mankind” and their philosophy “an offense far more infamous than that of ordinary murder.”

At the end of March came the worst violence yet, as a card-carrying anarchist tried to throw a bomb into a crowd of policemen who were maintaining order in New York’s Union Square following a “desperate socialistic riot.” The explosive went off in the bomb-maker’s hands instead, maiming him fatally and killing a bystander. Identified as a “Williamsburg Anarchist” (a section of Brooklyn said to be a hotbed for socialists and anarchists), the police searched his rooms and found letters from famed anarchists Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. To many, this was proof of a wide-reaching terror conspiracy against the United States.

Those were the facts as you believed them from reading the newspapers available in Santa Rosa, March, 1908. But here’s the believe-it-or-not twist: By the end of the month, every single actual link to the anarchist movement was proven false.

* The man who murdered the Denver priest said in a rambling first statement – translated from Italian, since he spoke no English – that he killed the Catholic priest because he really, really, hated Catholic priests: “I have grudge against all priests in general…my only regret is that I couldn’t have shot a whole bunch of priests in the church.” He told authorities that if he hadn’t been apprehended he was intending to visit four other churches and kill the priests there. Was he an anarchist? In another statement, he explained his political views were guided by the elderly shoemaker whom he had served as an apprentice in Sicily: “I had been inclined to anarchy, but I never understood its teachings thoroughly.” The reporter also noted “his talk is not coherent and he is evidently inventing stories as he goes along–stories that do not fit together.”

* In Chicago, the coroner found that police chief Shippy had killed his would-be assassin in self defense. The jury heard no testimony that the deceased was an anarchist, despite stories that had appeared in the press describing in great detail his role in a conspiracy (San Francisco Call headline: “CHICAGO REDS IN BIG MURDER PLOT”). Shippy said he had premonitions that someone would try to kill him, and testified that he was suspicious of the man because he thought he saw the bulge of a weapon under his coat, and “he looked to me like an anarchist…there was overspread his face the most vindictive look I ever saw upon a human countenance.” (According to the New York Times’ coverage, another reason for suspicion was because “[he] apparently had dressed himself for death. He wore black clothes and overcoat, a new hat, and clean linen, all of fairly good quality.”) No evidence was presented that the bullets that wounded Shippy’s son and driver were shot by the visitor and not Shippy himself, firing wildly. The reason for the visit remains a mystery today, but the best explanation was that Lazarus Averbuch, a Russian Jew, was planning to return to his homeland and wanted to ask the chief of police for a letter stating that he was not a criminal, as was the custom when leaving a European city. Chief Shippy did not return to his position and resigned two months later. He died in 1911 from syphilis, the final stage of which can result in hallucinations and paranoia.

* The Union Square bomber was not connected to the demonstration earlier that day, when mounted police had brutally suppressed a crowd of up to 25,000 who had gathered to protest the desperate unemployment situation. (Because of the 1907 bank panic, unemployment in New York state had reached 36 percent, with 200,000 estimated to be out of work in New York City alone.) The bomber instead was a 19 year-old Russian immigrant who had lived in the U.S. most of his life and who had a grudge against police because he had been recently clubbed by an officer. “The police are no good,” he said before he died of his wounds a month later. “I hate them. I am sorry that I did not make good…It was the police that I wanted.” The incriminating letters found in his apartment from anarchist leaders turned out to be mimeographed fund-raising appeals.

But not many knew that the anarchy conspiracy was bunk; few papers at the time ever published followup articles to correct errors, no matter how whopping. The public was left with the assumption that a dangerous cabal of murderous anarchists was plotting an ongoing campaign of terror. In truth, by 1908 the winds of anarchism had mostly blown through in America, with only six newsletters nationwide – and one of them lasting only a single issue. Of that dwindly group of true believers, only a tiny sliver still advocated violence as a means to an end. No one was deported under the Secretary of Commerce and Labor’s anarchy crackdown edict.

CLICK or TAP on any cartoon to enlarge. The label on the middle cartoon reads, “undesirable citizens”

In those days the Press Democrat didn’t offer much coverage of national news events except for a paragraph or so on the front page; for the attacks blamed on anarchists, the PD offered four short items, an op/ed reprinted from another paper and the three inflammatory editorial cartoons shown here. No updates corrected the wildly inaccurate earlier stories, but again, that was typical. Readers nationwide were left with the muddled impression that anarchists, certain immigrants, organized labor, and anti-clerical fanatics all fit under the same umbrella of “Reds.” Most dishonest of all was trying to also wedge in the large Socialist Party – the PD’s wire story about the Union Square unemployment protest called it a “desperate socialistic riot…of the anarchists,” for example. The main threat the Party posed was to the Democratic/Republican status quo, as over 420,000 ballots were cast later that year for the Socialist presidential candidate, about three percent of the popular vote.

If scholars wanted to pinpoint the beginning of the Red Scare that consumed the remainder of the American 20th century, March 1908 would be a good choice. (This was also the year that there were fears that Japan was planning to invade.) The country was so riven with fear of anarchist bogeymen that the Indiana town of Wawaka (pop. 800) received a letter demanding $750 or the whole town would be blown up. The letter was signed “Anarchists.” Unbelievably, this obvious prank was taken seriously.

Make no mistake: The phony anarchist scare was entirely the fault of yellow journalism and not an actual threat. Nor was it a scheme by the government, police, church, or politicians to demonize the “Reds,” although each of these groups made stuff up or repeated rumor as fact. But at the same time, those organizations benefited by channeling the public’s fear into more popular support for violent police suppression of protest and free speech by reformers. And that in turn generated more headlines about the lurking Red Menace. A classic analysis of this period, “The Search for Order,” sums up how the country became more divided as a result:

“Straws in the wind appeared everywhere around 1908. Critics who had only grumbled about national reform earlier now cried “socialism” and “communism.’ Organized labor received particularly heavy abuse, with each hint of violence reported as the first gun of civil war…the various organizations that brought unionists and businessmen together for conversation and adjustment were dying from disuse. In grays rather than purples, the atmosphere surrounding labor relations darkened a bit year by year.”


America, 1908 by Jim Rasenberger

The Anarchist Scare of 1908 by Robert J. Goldstein

The Search for Order, 1877-1920 by Robert H. Wiebe

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