A judge in 1911 sentenced a juvenile delinquent to live and study with Luther Burbank. Amazing? Yes. True? No, but it was such a cracking good yarn that newspapers nationwide published the story (often on the front page) even after it was revealed to be untrue.
The item first appeared on March 22 in the Press Democrat and San Francisco Call (it was probably also in many others around the state, but only a very small percentage of historical newspapers are available online). Datelined the day before from Los Angeles, it reported that Burbank had invited Donald Miller, a 15-year-old in trouble for “truancy,” to live with him indefinitely and study botany. Judge Wilbur of the Los Angeles juvenile court was quoted as saying it was the best possible sentence that could be imposed on the boy.
The next day the PD asked Burbank if the story was true and if the young man would be the “subject of a series of experiments at Burbank’s hands, in order to cure him of his tendency to run away from school.” Burbank replied, “I am not conducting a conservatory for bad boys…I have not undertaken and will not undertake any experiments upon him or upon any other boy. I am engaged in rearing plants, not children.”
“The whole story is just somebody’s yarn,” said Burbank, explaining that he knew the boy’s grandfather many years ago. “So when I was asked if I would either give him employment or find him work with some one else, I said I would do it.”
Thus within 24 hours, the tale was firmly debunked; Burbank had simply written that he was willing to help find work for a relative of old family friends, and either Judge Curtis D. Wilbur or other officers of the Los Angeles juvenile court misunderstood Burbank’s letter. And the idea wasn’t completely far fetched; while Burbank would never have offered to take the boy under his wing as an apprentice, he certainly did employ teenagers. In a 1967 TV documentary, Hilliard Comstock described working for Burbank shortly after his family arrived in Santa Rosa (skip forward to 13:35).
The same day Burbank’s denial was in the Press Democrat, an enhanced version of the original story began appearing in papers around the country. Donald Miller was no longer to be simply living and studying with Burbank; now the boy was being granted “a golden opportunity to become famous by becoming a specimen for Luther Burbank,” as if he were about to step into the magical world of Willy Wonka:
|…After a mass of evidence had shown the boy to be confirmed as a truant, a letter from Mr. Burbank was read. The plant wizard, according to the letter, believes that he can cure the boy of truancy….Mr. Burbank did not detail the method of treatment that he will use, but it is understood that the boy will be given sunshine, a reasonable amount of work, several hours play a day, a course in botany–and at least an hour’s walk through the wonderful garden of Santa Rosa.|
Those additional made-up details were mostly drawn from Burbank’s popular 1906 essay, “The Training of the Human Plant,” which offered a variety of sensible child-rearing tips (as well as squirm-worthy sections about “mingling of the races” and “marriage of the physically unfit” which made it popular with the eugenics crowd). It was a safe bet to speculate Burbank would follow his own advice, of course, so aside from adding the detail about Burbank supposedly writing he could “cure” the boy, this version doesn’t really stray very far from the original goofed-up report.
Both versions came from a wire service such as Associated Press or United Press but we don’t know which ones – news syndicates were never identified in those days. The March 22 story could even have been a rewrite of the March 21 item after a syndicate editor decided the original needed to be fluffed up a bit. But a third version that started appearing on March 23 came from a completely different source. And sadly, it was the most untruthful version yet and also the one that seems to have appeared in the most newspapers, including the prestigious New York World and Washington Post.
Version three is easy to spot because it misspells the boy’s name as “Millar.” Some newspapers compressed it down to the essential (mis)information: “Luther Burbank, the plant wizard, had undertaken to transform Donald Millar, an irresponsible, incorrigible, truant boy, into a normal person.” The full length article, however, pretended a reporter had interviewed Burbank and found him downright chatty:
|Luther Burbank the plant wizard, gave some hints today as to the course to be followed in the transformation of young Donald Millar…
“…I believe most children go to school too early, and are kept there too steadily. I shall give the boy a home a minimum of care, and plenty of life in the open. He will be called on to work a little more and study a little less than the usual run of boys. I knew Donald Millar’s grandfather in Massachusetts many years ago and I am glad to help the boy.”
When it was suggested to Mr. Burbank that he might be deluged with requests to train other boys, he said, “I am not conducting a conservatory for bad boys. I am engaged in cultivating plants. Donald Millar is the only boy I shall try to train.”
Note the “conservatory for bad boys” quip, which also appeared in Burbank’s denial. This shows the wire service reporter knew the story wasn’t true at all – yet wrote it up anyway, complete with phony Luther Burbank quotes.
Thus over the course of a few days in mid-March 1911, most of the nation probably came to believe that young Donald Miller/Millar was the kid who lucked out to become Robin to Burbank’s plant-breeding Batman. And here’s the believe-it-or-not twist: Of the multitude of newspapers that printed any of the three versions of the story, it appears not one ever printed a correction or retraction. Did Burbank receive penpal requests from boys and girls addressed to Donald, wanting to how how his enchanted life was going? I’ll bet he did.
So kudos to the 1911 Press Democrat, for apparently being the only newspaper in the United States to tell the true story. Alas, the PD coverage also causes the plant wizard to lose a little of his wizardly status today; while debunking the story Burbank told the paper that all sorts of crazy things were attributed to him, such as developing a seedless watermelon – and that could never exist, of course.
BOY MUST STUDY UNDER BURBANKJudge Wilbur of Los Angeles Juvenile Sends Donald Miller of Pasadena to Santa Rosa for Indefinite Period
Los Angeles, March 21–Judge Wilbur has imposed upon Donald Miller, the 15-year-old son of Mrs. H. G. Miller of Pasadena, a sentence to study botany, flowers, trees, and plants for an indefinite period in Santa Rosa under Luther Burbank.
The boy has been wayward and became acquainted with Judge Wilbur of the Juvenile Court. When Judge Wilbur learned that Burbank was a friend of the Miller family, and had written to Donald inviting him to come and live with him and study botany, he said it was the best possible sentence that could be imposed.
– Press Democrat, March 22, 1911
“BAD BOY” STORY IS JUST A YARNBurbank Denounces the Faker Who Sent a Dispatch Crediting Him With Undertaking Experiments
“I am not conducting a conservatory for bad boys,” said Luther Burbank yesterday when asked if it were true that Donald Miller of Pasadena is to be sent to Santa Rosa to become the subject of a series of experiments at Burbank’s hands, in order to cure him of his tendency to run away from school.
“All there is to the matter is this: I knew Donald Miller’s grandfather in Massachusetts many years ago. So when I was asked if I would either give him employment or find him work with some one else, I said I would do it. I have not undertaken and will not undertake any experiments upon him or upon any other boy. I am engaged in rearing plants, not children.”
The whole story is just somebody’s yarn,” declared the breeder of plants. Burbank has had many occasions to be displeased with the frequent yarns that are printed concerning him. He is widely quoted as saying things he never said, concerning things that he has never even though of, and these false quotations are read by people who believe them genuine and who criticise [sic] Burbank for having expressed views that he never held, and as having claimed achievements that he never thought of attempting. One of them two years ago said he had invented or developed a “seedless watermelon”…[illegible microfilm]…Of course, a “seedless watermelon” is as impossible as “seedless wheat” would be.
– Press Democrat, March 23, 1911