THE BEST OF THE BLOG, CHAPTER 500

When worlds collide: There I was, writing about old newspapers when a contractor demolishing a kitchen cabinet found old newspapers.

In the gap between the subfloor and bottom of the cabinet were a few pages from both the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle dated Friday, February 17, 1905. At that time the home (that would become known as) Comstock House was nearly finished, with about seven more weeks of construction ahead. The entire project, from preparing the site to the Oates family taking up residence, took less than eight months. To accomplish so much in so short a time – without power tools, remember, and during an exceptionally rainy winter – the contractors must have recruited a small army of journeyman carpenters from San Francisco, which would explain why newspapers from the city were being read instead of either of the Santa Rosa dailies.

Those papers were from a pretty slow news day; the big headline in the Chronicle concerned Johann Hoch, a “fat little German” in Chicago who married dozens of women and usually killed them after emptying the bank accounts. These pages were so yellowed and brittle that it took awhile to assemble them as seen above, and image processing was required to make the fragments legible at all. Alas, none of the pages survived intact for very long after these photos were taken. (CLICK or TAP image to enlarge and focus)

Finding those old newspapers is an apt excuse to announce this is also entry #500 here at “I See by the Papers…”

This journal began in 2007 as the lesser of four blogs on comstockhouse.org to document bits of history about the house and Oates/Comstock families, usually foraged from newspapers items. A few entries a year, I figured. Maybe. Once it began, of course, I also had to include news reports about “the juice” being unreliable in those days since it explains why the combo gas-electric lighting fixtures in the house were necessary. And then there were items so funny and/or interesting that they begged to be shared. After reading a few months’ worth, I was hooked.

While I had some experience researching specific topics in old newspapers, it was quite a different experience to read each day’s paper front to back, as they were intended. As the pages slide through the microfilm reader you come to live a bit in the skin of the times, looking forward to finding out “what happens next” and forgetting it all actually happened more than a century ago. So immersive is the experience that I carefully proofread every posting for verb use – too often I catch myself using present tense and even slipping into a weird kind of “future pluperfect,” writing horrible ungrammatical convolutions such as, “will have been.”

But what a rewarding adventure it’s been to explore that era. In my starting year of 1904, autos were rarely seen on Santa Rosa’s unpaved streets and many homes didn’t have electricity because it cost around 25 times more than it does today, adjusted for inflation. Reading and playing cards were the most common forms of entertainment; there were about 100 social groups for women and more than three dozen downtown saloons for men, plus their fraternal lodges. Jump forward just five years and the culture was rapidly changing because of technology. Phonograph records were now popular home entertainment, there were three movie theaters downtown and buggy owners were complaining of so many cars around Courthouse Square they were left with nowhere to hitch their horses. And, of course, the downtown area looked completely different because it had been rebuilt in the modern style after the 1906 earthquake.

The earthquake typifies another reason for writing this journal; I originally planned to pass over the disaster quickly, presuming it had been thoroughly documented. Instead I found the the tale larded with myth and misinformation, mostly because writers haven’t gone back to the original sources. There are now over forty articles here related to the quake, the most important ones listed on an index page. There’s also an FAQ to clarify some of the most common misconceptions still being told today.

Readership has grown steadily and because of the nature of this being a history blog, the day’s most popular articles are rarely the newest ones posted. Here’s a quick tour of some interesting landmarks.

The three most viewed stories:

*   WHEN THE FAIRIES CAME FOR THOMAS LAKE HARRIS   This profile of the mystic of Fountaingrove holds the #1 position by a considerable margin. Who knew there was still so much interest in a 19th century “sex magic” commune?

*   DANDERINE, THE HEAVY PRICE OF LUSTROUS HAIR   Danderine was a hair conditioner that promised thick, luxurious tresses in the early 20th century, and was followed later by “Double Danderine” shampoo, which supposedly killed “dandruff germs.” Oddly, most hits on this article come from Russia or other countries in the former Soviet bloc.

*   1906 EARTHQUAKE: WHAT OTHERS SAID ABOUT SANTA ROSA   For reasons unexplained, Google chose to list this minor article about the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake on its first page of search results.

The most unforgettable people now forgotten – stories of a victim, a hero, a monster and a villain:

*   LOSING MAH HO   A heartbreaking tale of a child taken from her loving mother because authorities deemed she didn’t belong with a family of a “lesser race.”

*   THE FIRST AIRMAN OF THE REDWOOD EMPIRE   The first airplane flight north of the Golden Gate – possibly the first anywhere on the West Coast – was made by Blaine Selvage, who also built the aircraft by himself. Selvage spent most of his life in Santa Rosa and is buried in an unmarked grave at Santa Rosa’s Memorial Park.

*   ON TUESDAY THE MONSTER CAME TO TOWN   James Ferdon was a showman and a psychopath, conning sick people out of their savings with promises that his “bloodless surgery” could cure everything from blindness to cancer. Some newspapers refused to print his expensive ads and called him out as a fraud; the Santa Rosa papers went along with his scam, then failed the public’s trust a second time when they didn’t later report he was being sought by police in several states.

*   THE MAN WHO STOLE BODEGA BAY   The amazing story of Tyler Curtis, who lost Bodega and Bodega Bay while destroying the lives of everyone around him.

The three most historically significant stories:

*   THE 1907 BANK PANIC: LONG ROAD TO A FAST CRASH   This article receives steady national readership because there sadly isn’t another thorough discussion of this important banking crisis available on the Internet. Also: The mystery of who poisoned a U.S. Senator during a filibuster.

*   WHO HATED THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS?   Santa Rosa attorney James Wyatt Oates, among others, who thought the speech was inflammatory and hypocritical. For more than fifty years after the Civil War it was still banned in Southern textbooks and memorial ceremonies.

*   SONOMA COUNTY AND EUGENICS   Sonoma County’s shameful role in the 20th century eugenics movement, when “Eldridge” – currently the Sonoma Developmental Center – took the lead in forced sterilizations nationwide.

The three overlooked 1906 earthquake stories:

*   THE SPEECH NO ONE WANTED TO HEAR   Herb Slater’s speech is as close as we come to having a true history of what happened in Santa Rosa on April 18, 1906.

*   1906 EARTHQUAKE: WHO DESERVES RELIEF MONEY?   Donations poured into Santa Rosa after the disaster, but few knew at the time that Santa Rosa was liberally dipping into the fund for everything except humanitarian aid. At the end of the year the Press Democrat argued Scrooge-like that the victims didn’t deserve a damn cent more because no one was “suffering.”

*   THE 1906 EARTHQUAKE GRAVESTONE: WHO LIES BENEATH?   The only memorial of the earthquake is the mass grave at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, but the marker is deceiving; it lists one man who isn’t there at all, and there are remains of more people than are named.

The three oddest stories:

*   THE LAWSUIT THAT WOULDN’T DIE   The feud over which man owned Queen, “a valuable varmint dog,” dragged through the courts for years, even after the pooch was killed in the Great Earthquake.

*   THE ABDUCTIONS OF GENEVA EAGLESON   It’s an old, old story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl to another boy, boys bicker over whom girl truly loves, both boys separately abduct girl and end up in jail. It was like a demented episode of Archie Comics.

*   COP PUSHED INTO ARRESTING SELF   This is my all-time favorite story; young Fred J. Wiseman was given a speeding ticket, then a few days later forced the selfsame cop to arrest himself for spitting on the sidewalk. At night. And during a downpour.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *