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.