The 1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake brought out the best in our own townspeople, but it also attracted some nasty scoundrels.
A common theme in the first-hand accounts of the quake was the unflinching heroism of Santa Rosans as they struggled to rescue victims while simultaneously preventing the town from burning away. Press Democrat city editor Herbert Slater summarized that day well: “No one hesitated. With senses beclouded with the horror of the situation, men realized there was no time for delay. Delay meant death; death from the smothering dust; death from the cruel weight of beams, planks and stone; and worse than all, death from the cruel flames which were already bursting forth from piles of debris from fallen and partially fallen buildings.”
Less mentioned were the crime incidents. In the days following, when many families were camping on their lawns in fear of aftershocks, some helpful strangers volunteered to lend a hand in rescuing precious items from their homes; the valuables were saved from imminent danger, although never seen again. There was a clerk who cashed in his employer’s insurance policy and disappeared with the money. And who can forget the charming “Dr. C. C. Crandall,” who posed as a doctor at the hospital in order to swipe stuff from the nurses and injured.
Not a criminal that day, but the creme de la cad had to be James Byrd, a pressman for the Press Democrat. The day before the earthquake, he asked his colleague Milo Fish to take his shift so that he could go to Oakland. When the disaster struck, Fish was running through the outside door just as the brick wall collapsed. He was pulled from the rubble alive but soon died at home, surrounded by his wife and six children. (To its credit, the PD trained his widow to be a linotype operator and she supported her family in the following years by working part time for the newspaper.)
Even though another man died in Byrd’s place and he was uninjured, he had the remarkable gall to demand a share of the Typographical Union’s disaster relief fund. The Press Democrat informed the union that his claim was bogus. “This was refused him and he created some disturbance,” the San Francisco Call reported, going on to remark that “His behavior during his residence here was generally considered bad.” The PD also told the union that he had worked at the newspaper under the assumed name of Boyd. He gave no reason for using an alias, although it came out later that apparently he had abandoned a wife and two children in another state.
Denied his wrongful share of the earthquake money (and probably booted from the union), Byrd took a job as a clerk in a Memphis shoe store. There he killed a co-worker in 1907 after an argument about a ball game wager. He later claimed he only conked the man with a shoe stretcher after he was attacked with a knife.
Now calling himself James W. Robinson, he drifted around the country for a couple of years before settling in Colorado, where he married again (his second wife, Mrs. “Boyd,” died in Santa Rosa before the earthquake). While honeymooning in Denver, he had the bad luck of being recognized by someone from Memphis. He was arrested and confessed his crime, and over the next few days the tale of his sordid odyssey spilled out in newspapers across the country.
Thus ends the narrative of James Byrd/Boyd/Robinson, murderer and scoundrel supreme. Thus start the unanswerable questions.
All we know is what emerged from a widely reprinted wire service story that was cobbled together from various sources the day after his confession. A Denver paper reported the arrest; the Press Democrat contributed the bad-character anecdote; Memphis newspapers filled in the backstory of the murder and alleged bigamy.
But there the story hits a brick wall. We don’t know what happened when he was brought before a court of law, whether he was sentenced to many years in jail or a very few. Tennessee prison records have not been computerized, and apparently not even microfilmed. All that we can say for certain is that he wasn’t executed for the crime (at least, not under any of the names mentioned). He might have even been acquitted by a jury on a self-defense plea. Those answers, however, are buried in century-old court records, probably never to see the light of a digitizing scanner.
That’s the moral of this fable; it demonstrates that the oceans of information available via the Internet are vast but not deep. There are now somewhere around eight million newspaper pages scanned and available from either the Library of Congress or commercial services – but there is not a single digitized newspaper which tells us the outcome of Mr. Byrd’s fate. The Tennessee State Library has large holdings of newspapers on microfilm but does not loan material out of state, and its own digitization project has focused narrowly on the Civil War era. Chances are slim to none that the outcome of this story will be told unless someone wants to waltz down to Tennessee.
This is also a cautionary warning for those who subscribe to Internet database services with grand hopes of sherlocking ancestral trails. Mr. Byrd/Boyd/Robinson (and possibly Anderson, as he was named in the 1909 PD article) can’t be found in any U.S. census. Or at least, not pinned with any confidence; James Byrd – if that’s who he actually was – was a rather common name for a boy born presumably in the 1880s.
And was James Question-Mark a single person – or two, or three? All we’re left with is what we see by the papers, however (in)accurate that may be. Certainly any reasonably competent defense lawyer could have easily picked apart the other damning evidence that was presented to the public. The wire service story reported only that “it is not improbable” that the man being held for killing a shoe clerk was the same J. L. Byrd who ran out on his wife years earlier. The Press Democrat cautiously stated that “it is believed” that the man known here as Boyd was the same guy. It’s quite possible that the man being held for that shoe clerk’s death had nothing to do with the greedy chowderhead who tried to rip off the union in Santa Rosa, or the long-missing wayward husband and father.
Whether or not the Santa Rosa version of J. L. Byrd was the same person, seeking undeserved relief money in that manner makes him one of the 1906 earthquake’s few true villains. One wonders why the story didn’t come out until three years later, and what else was kept quiet at the time.
(UPDATE: In a surprising twist, Boyd paid a friendly visit to the Press Democrat offices in 1911, which implies he had no connection to the Memphis crime and his use of a false name was probably more innocent than the PD implied. Read update here.)
IS FORMER SANTA ROSAN A MURDERER?Arrest of J. L. Byrd at Denver Who Confesses to Crime, Recalls How a Man With the Same Name Escaped Death Here in Great Disaster
Denver, July 23.–James Anderson, who was arrested here yesterday on the suspicion of being J. L. Byrd, wanted in Memphis, Tenn., for the murder of Joseph Black, a shoe dealer of that city, for whom Byrd formerly worked, this morning confessed to the police that he was the murderer. Byrd was married two weeks ago at Colorado Springs, and with his bride was spending his honeymoon in Denver. Anderson formerly worked in San Francisco.
(It is believed Byrd was an employee of the Press Democrat as night pressman up to the time of the fire, under the name of Boyd. The night of the disaster he had secured Milo S. Fish to work for him in running off the paper so he could take his little son to Oakland and send him to his grandparents in Texas, his wife having died a few weeks previously in this city. Mr. Fish was crushed to death under the falling walls of the building, while Byrd was safe in Oakland. Later Byrd returned here, secured his Typographical Union travelling card and went elsewhere. When he heard that funds had been sent here for the members of the union, he wrote back and demanded his share, but was refused any part in the fund, as he was not a sufferer by the disaster, had gone elsewhere and was working at regular wages. Byrd never gave any reason why he went under an assumed name here to those who knew the fact, but requested that it not be made known, and it never was until after he left town, when the fact was given to the union officers.–Ed.)– Press Democrat, July 24, 1909
SLAYER CONFESSES AT BRIDE’S BEHESTFormer Indiana Girl Makes Husband Admit Murder.HE CLAIMS SELF-DEFENSEJ. L. Byrd, Arrested in Denver Soon After Wedding, Tells of Killing Fellow Clerk in Memphis Store.
Denver, Col., July 24.–James W. Robinson, who was arrested here Thursday on suspicion of being J. L. Byrd, wanted in Memphis, Tenn., for the murder of Joseph Black, a shoe dealer of that city, yesterday confessed that he was the murderer.
Byrd was married two weeks ago at Colorado Springs and with his bride was enjoying his honeymoon at Denver. The prisoner’s wife, Elsie Syms Robinson, came to Denver with her parents from Terre Haute, Ind.Bride Tells Him to Speak
Robinson’s confession followed a talk with Chief of Police Armstrong in the latter’s office. Robinson’s bride of two weeks, who was present, finally interrupted.
“Jimmie, if you are the man, tell them,” she said. “It will make no difference to me, because I will stick by you no matter what the circumstances.”
There was silence for a moment. Then Robinson, white and shaking, owned up.
“Chief,” he said, “I am the man you want. I killed Black because I thought my life was in danger. We engaged in an argument over a baseball bet and he started toward me with an open knife in his hand.
“I seized the only weapon at hand, a shoe stretcher, and struck him over the head with it. I did not mean to kill him. I didn’t tell you before on account of my wife.”
Byrd added that Black previously had insulted him several times.Wishes He Hadn’t Fled.
“For two years I have been wishing that I’d never left home,” he said, “and now that I’ve been caught and told my story, I am happy and will go back there and clear up everything and commence to live right.”
Robinson said that in a panic of fear after his fatal encounter with Black he went to Texas, stayed there a few days, then came to Colorado later going to San Francisco and Seattle and returning to Colorado where he secured employment.Charge Against Prisoner.
Memphis, Tenn., July 24.–J. L. Byrd, who is under arrest at Denver, Col., is wanted here for the murder of Joseph Black, who was killed July 8, 1907, at No. 4 North Main street, where both Black and Byrd were employed as shoe clerks. It is alleged that Byrd struck Black in the head with a blunt instrument following an altercation over a trivial matter. He escaped immediately after the fight and successfully evaded police until recognized in Denver by E. A. Collins of this city.
Should a dispatch from Covington, Tenn., prove correct, it is not improbable that Byrd is answerable the charge of bigamy. According to the Covington dispatch the man’s wife and two children reside with her father near Covington, and so far as can be ascertained, neither party has obtained a divorce.– Logansport [Indiana] Semi-Weekly Reporter, July 27, 1909