Criminals are clever folk (or believe themselves to be, at least) but 1909 Santa Rosa saw probably the dumbest clucks that had passed through the town in some time.

The crime wavelet happened over just a few weeks that autumn, starting with the disappearances of little things from wagons and buggies: A bundle of laundry, a box of candy, a pair of new shoes, a tobacco tin. There were also larger and more valuable things missing, particularly a box of phonograph records worth $60 and a typewriter. Word reached police that an old man was seen around the West End “Little Italy” neighborhood hawking ladies’ shoes and silks that he claimed were too small for his wife, “she being a woman of some pretensions to bulk,” as the Santa Rosa Republican artfully phrased it.

Collared by police officer Boyes, the crook’s name  was John Stetson – which the police first thought  was an alias, as he was wearing a new Stetson hat when arrested – but about that, he was truthful. He was actually a fairly honest fellow, except for the thieving; he readily admitted he hadn’t purchased any of those items, explaining simply that he had found everything in the street (that the stuff was lying inside a wagon was apparently a trifling detail to him). He led police to his trove of stolen goods hidden on the bank of Santa Rosa Creek, where more shoes, boxes of candy, a pair of scales and other goods were recovered. “Stetson declared that he did not remember stealing the scales, but remarked dryly that he must have done so, as they were with his loot.”

Even as police officers were examining Stetson’s inventory, another pair of light-fingered lawbreakers were at work. In town from San Francisco were Mr. and Mrs.  T. F. Barrett, who apparently also thought there was a bright future in stealing women’s shoes. They loitered near a home as a barefoot servant girl watered the lawn, then snatched her shoes off the porch when no one was looking. The Barretts were quickly nabbed, but not before they had sold the poor girl’s footwear for 50 cents. The Press Democrat noted that Mrs. Barrett was well known on the San Francisco waterfront for the old scam of selling day-old newspapers to commuters rushing off the ferries.

And then a few weeks later there was the genius who robbed the O. K. saloon early one morning. When the barkeep went in the back, the stranger stole four bags of cash hidden under the bar containing about $120 (worth over $3,000 today). If caught, the thief surely knew he faced serious jail time, and would be prudent to make a quick and anonymous escape – hopping an eastbound freight train, perhaps, or hiring a car and driver to rush him to the San Francisco ferry as fast as possible. Instead, he was caught hours later walking on the train tracks to Sonoma, a little south of Kenwood. That’s clue #1 that he was no card-carrying member of the Criminal Mastermind Club.

The man – who gave his name as John Nelson – was found to have almost all the money from the heist still on him. He had two coin purses stuffed with gold and silver and the coins that didn’t fit jangled loose in his pockets. He also carried  a tied  handkerchief filled with nickels. Now, $120 in coinage is bulky, and not exactly light; one of the most common coins of the day, the one dollar silver eagle, weighed about a pound per $17. Thus Nelson had to have at least six or seven pounds of coins on his person and oddly bulging pockets, and probably waddled more than walked. But what I can’t get over is that he also brought along the nickel-loaded hanky; was he expecting to find cigar stores along the tracks?

Once in police custody, he pretended that he didn’t speak a word of English (even though he had said, “please, don’t shoot” when captured). He later said his strategy was to convince the court that “he was a German lad who was not familiar with things in this country,” according to the Republican paper. For coming up with that defense argument, he takes the  prize for 1909 nitwittery. Maybe the all-time grand prize as well.

Buggy robber John Stetson was given three and a half years for burglary because the typewriter had been stolen from an office building (he apparently had a skeleton key that unlocked the door). It was revealed that he had served four previous prison terms for theft and his real name was John Stetson Wilson. Shoe thief Barrett was sentenced to 15 days in the county lockup. “John Nelson” was really an ex-con named Samuel Goldman, and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin. His conviction is notable because it was the first time that fingerprints (called “finger marks” in the paper) were used in a Sonoma County courtroom.

Picking Up Street Bundles Causes Man Trouble

The mystery that has surrounded the disappearance at different times during the past fortnight of various shopping, laundry and other bundles from people’s wagons and buggies in the streets is considerably unveiled, the police think, by the arrest of a personage giving his name as John Stetson, by Officer John M. Boyes Saturday night.

Thomas Hopper Saturday afternoon missed a couple of pairs of shoes out of his wagon. He notified the police and later it was learned that some one was endeavoring to retail shoes down in the neighborhood of Little Italy. Officer Boyes finally spotted a suspicious character walking down Davis street, who as soon as he espied the patrolman turned abruptly into the yard of a residence along there. He entered the same as if he were the owner of it and stopped to pat the dog, a harmless one by the way, that came out to meet him. The officer nabbed him with the telltale box of shoes in his hands. He made no resistance, but would say nothing. He was booked for petty larceny and put in jail.

Officer Lindley and Yeager also ran across some shoes that had been sold in this manner presumably by the same individual. He had been offering great reductions in the foot and shoe line, placing a $4.50 pair of ladies shoes upon the market for seventy-five cents, and making corresponding reductions in gents’ footwear. He also had a special price on a pair of ladies’ silk stockings and chemise. He stated that this was because the articles of rainment belonged to his wife and they were too small for her, she being a woman of some pretensions to bulk.

Upon being questioned Monday he asserted that he found everything he had with him in the street, which he evidently did–in somebody else’s wagon. He had a hat on nearly new and it was a John B. Stetson one. Hence his name, only he dropped the cumbersome middle initial. The shirt he wore was new, never having been through the wash. Where he got it leaked out when Sheridan, one of the men at work hanging doors in the new court house, identified the garment as one he had lost some days ago from his wagon in a bundle of laundry. Some collars of Sheridan missing in the same manner were found in Mr. Stetson’s alleged belongings. Various other articles of clothing ranging all the way from women’s handkerchiefs to table cloths and Turkish turbans he had. All of these he maintained he had found in the street.

Efforts were made to connect him with the disappearance of some phonographic records taken from the wagon on Pratt, the phonograph man, valued at about sixty dollars, but he announced that he hadn’t stolen everything that had been lost in town.

A warrant of arrest was subsequently sworn out by John Boyes against Stetson on the charge of petty larceny. He was arraigned before Justice Atchinson and entered a plea of guilty. He will be sentenced later. Before being remanded to the county jail he had his picture taken. The police believe that if they find his room a great deal more plunder may turn up. Stetson asserts that he was on his way to the hop fields with a partner whose whereabouts at present he professes not to know.

Chief of Police Rushmore announces that the department would consider it a favor if any one who has been approached by parties selling or offering to sell shoes, phonographic records or articles of clothing would inform the department of the same.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 12, 1909

Man and Woman Arrested Here Yesterday–Held for Further Examination

Mr. and Mrs. T. F. Barrett were arrested here yesterday afternoon by Officers J. M. Boyes and N. G. Yeager, and are both locked up in the county jail. They are charged with stealing a pair of shoes from the porch of the home of Attorney and Mrs. Ross Campbell and disposing of them for 50 cents. The shoes belonged to a girl working for Mrs. Campbell and been left there a few moments while she was sprinkling the yard, and were taken when she went on another side of the house.

The police were notified of the theft and the shoes were found to have been sold. Meanwhile the girl recognized a woman on the street she had seen with a man near the Campbell house a short time before the shoes were taken and pointed her out to Officer Boyes who took her into custody.

The woman’s description of her husband tallied with that given by the girl of the man she had seen loitering about the place. Officers Boyes and Yeager picked him up an hour later near the Northwestern Pacific depot. He was taken before Justice Atchinson where he entered a plea of guilty. Sentence was suspended awaiting developments.

Barrett is said to be a well known character in San Francisco, where he sold soap for many years. His wife is said to have sold papers on the water front for years. One of her tricks then was to gather up old issues of the dailies and securing a position near the ferries, sell them to the hurrying commuters, thus reaping a neat harvest.

– Press Democrat, September 15, 1909

Taken to Stetson’s Cache by the Prisoner

Officer John M. Boyes is having great success in securing additional confessions from John Stetson, whom he arrested recently for stealing articles from buggies and business houses in this city. The officer was taken to a cache on the creek bank Wednesday morning, and there recovered two boxes of French mixed candy and two pairs of ladies’ high top boots, stolen from Alfred Burke; some tobacco taken from Mr. Hopper’s buggy, a pair of scales and some other articles.

The officer had both arms full when he returned from the cache on the creek. Stetson declared that he did not remember stealing the scales, but remarked dryly that he must have done so, as they were with his loot. It is more than probable that the typewriter stolen from Ayers & Paul will be located in a couple of days, for Stetson is weakening and it is expected he will produce the machine shortly. Officer Boyes is the only person that can do anything with the man, and he refuses to even talk with others or in their presence. The smooth manner in which the officer goes after the prisoner has gained his confidence and the latter will eventually tell all he knows.

Stetson remarked to the officer that he guessed that everything that had been stolen about the city for many months would be laid at his door. Then he added, “I expect that I got most of the articles, too. Stetson has had remarkable success for a long time, but realizes he is at the end of his rope. He has told Officer Boyes where he disposed of many of the phonograph records which he stole.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September  15, 1909


The Yost typewriter stolen from the office of Ayers and Paul some days ago was recovered Thursday from the second hand store of J. M. Gutermute in Petaluma. It had been sold there by John Stetson, against whom various petty thefts have been brought home.

He had confessed to the stealing of the phonographic records that disappeared some days ago.

Officer John Boyes, who arrested Stetson, has secured all the admissions made by his of crime.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September  17, 1909


When John Stetson entered the portals of San Quentin prison yesterday morning in company with Police Officer John M. Boyes of this city, he glanced around and instantly took on a look of familiarity. Officer Boyes took Stetson to the penitentiary to serve the three years and a half sentence given him by Judge Seawell for burglary in the second degree. He entered a local real estate office and stole a typewriter.

On the way down to the prison, Louis Groff driving the officer and prisoner in his automobile, Stetson chanced to remark:

“Well, I guess this will be the last ride I shall have for three years and a half.”

“O, I don’t know,” said Boyes. “If you behave yourself you may stand a chance of getting out on parole earlier.”

“Not for mine, no parole for me,” smiled Stetson.

Then Officer Boyes  “got next.” Stetson had been there before, once maybe. He was rather surprised to learn after he had landed his man behind the gate that Stetson had been there three times before, and had served a term in Folsom, too, all five crimes being theft and burglary.

Yes, that nice appearing old man, as people classed him here, had served four prior terms in the penitentiary. They told Officer Boyes  that in San Quentin Stetson was always an exemplary prisoner, and was not considered overly bright mentally. His real name is John Stetson Wilson, but he explained that after his first conviction he dropped the Wilson and had gone as John Stetson. At least one of his prior sentences was ten years and one was for five years.

– Press Democrat, October 9, 1909


Two saloons were robbed in this city Saturday morning. The first was the Humboldt on B street…


The second robbery occurred about 8:30 o’clock. It occurred at the O. K. saloon at the corner of Davis and Fourth street, while Joseph Cavagna, one of the owners, was on duty. The man suspected came in a little while before and told two people who were drinking at the bar that he had no money, as a man during the night before took twenty-three dollars away from him. One of the men at the bar invited the new comer to have a drink. One drink led to another until three or four drinks had been consumed. The to men that had been doing the treating then left the saloon and the busted man took a seat at one of the tables. He was sitting there when Mr. Cavagna stepped to the back yard. He wasn’t gone over two minutes, but when he returned the stranger was gone.

Cavagna looked in the till under the bar and saw that four bags containing money was gone. He estimates that there was between one hundred and fifteen and one hundred and twenty dollars in the four bags.

Cavagna, thinking that the man would make an attempt to get away on the south bound train that was due at 8:45, in company with Constable S. J. Gilliam went down as far as Cotati to catch the robber, but he was not on the train. It was not until after their return that Sheriff Jack Smith was informed of the robbery. According to Mr. Cavagna’s description of the robber, he was a young man dressed in a dark suit, fairly good, wore a dark shirt and soft black hat. Mr. Cavagna states he spoke German well and likely was a German. A hack driver saw a man run round the corner at Davis street toward Fifth street about that time in the morning, but he states that the man he saw wore a derby hat.

The deputies of the sheriff’s office and Sheriff Jack Smith spent the day searching for the robber and have notified the deputies all over the county to keep a lookout for the man. Any time a phone message is likely to be received at the sheriffs’ office announcing his capture if he left town.

Sheriff Smith during the day kept his own counsel as to his suspicions as to the way the robber went when he made his getaway from town, but believed he took the railroad toward Sonoma. Working on this idea he dispatched Deputy Sheriff C. A. Reynolds to scour the country between here and there. This clew proved to be the correct one, for Reynolds overtook the man about three miles and a half south of Kenwood. He asked him if he didn’t want to ride. The fellow declined. Reynolds then asked him if he wasn’t going toward Sonoma. No response. Then Reynolds jumped from the buggy in which he was driving and drew his revolver, commanding the man to throw up his hands. The command was answered quickly and the fellow cried out, “Please, don’t shoot.”

Reynolds made the fellow climb the fence that ran along the railroad track and climb into the buggy. And he brought his man to town. Practically all the money stolen from  the O. K. saloon was on the man’s person. He had transferred the money from the sacks in which he had found it and the sack of nickels he placed in a blue handkerchief, while the gold was placed in one purse and the silver in another. Besides this he had slipped a gold piece is several of his pockets about his clothes.

When brought to this city several people, including Joseph Cavagna, recognized him as the fellow that hung around the O. K. saloon this morning. He gave his name as John Nelson.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October  16, 1909

Finger Print System Man Declares it Absolutely

Frank Depue, director of the Bureau for the identification of criminals, was here on Tuesday in the matter of the identification of John Nelson, who had confessed to having robbed the O. K. saloon recently.

Mr. Depue appeared before Judge Emmet Seawell, and after examining several hands, was permitted to view the hand of the suspect. He did not see the face of any man’s hand he examined, the member being thrust beneath the right arm for examination.

When the hand of Nelson was reached there was but a moment of examination, and Depue declared that he was the man. The court announced that he was the individual suspected, and then Depue accused Nelson of having been in the prison at San Quentin under the name of Goldman, for burglary in the second degree, and that he was sent from San Joaquin county on January 11, 1907. This was translated to Nelson by Attorney H. W. A. Weske, and the accused man denied that he was the guilty man.

Judge Seawell told Nelson that all the marks and scars which Goldman possessed were on his body in the identical places where Goldman possessed them, and that his identification by Mr. Depue was complete. The court had no doubt that he was the right man, and he sentenced him to spend ten years in San Quentin prison for his offense.

Depue offered to take the finger prints of the man for Judge Seawell and demonstrate that they were the same as those of Goldman, but the court declared he was satisfied without this being done.

Later Depue gave a demonstration of the method in the office of District Attorney Lea, and took an impression of the hand of Attorney H. W. A. Weske. He then examined many hands and picked Mr. Weske’s dainty digit from the number without hesitancy. Mr. Depue declares that this system is the most positive of any for the identification of criminals, and that there are no two fingers or hands alike in marking. It has been adopted in all the leading states and cities.

An effort is to be made to induce the Board of Supervisors and the council to provide this system for Sonoma county and Santa Rosa peace officers. It is claimed that with this system much more effective work could be done along criminal lines.

Following his test without seeing Nelson’s face, Mr. Depue declared he distinctly remembered seeing Nelson in prison under the name Goldman.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November  2, 1909

Admitted He is Samuel Goldman, Ex-Convict

After Frank Depue had so dramatically identified Nelson, the robber of the O. K. saloon, by means of his finger marks, as Samuel Goldman, a former convict of San Quentin, Mr. Depue had a conversation with him at the jail. The sentenced man admitted that he was no other than Goldman.

During the couple of weeks he has been in confinement in the city prison, he has not spoken a word of English. This he did to carry out the impression that he was a German lad who was not familiar with things in this country. He stated to those present at the after meeting in the jail that the story he told the court was only a bluff, and he carried it out as far as he was able. Nelson paid Depue a high compliment in saying, “If the authorities had told me last night that it was you they were sending for, I would have confessed then, because I knew you could identify me with that blamed ‘Puddenhead Wilson’ trick.”

Nelson speaks fair English now and admits that he is a Russian Jew.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November  3, 1909

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