By New Year 1911, Santa Rosa was itching for an excuse to throw a great party for Fred J. Wiseman.

During the first decade of the 20th century, Wiseman was Santa Rosa’s favorite son and hometown celebrity, second in esteem only to that guy named Burbank. Over forty items about him appeared in the Santa Rosa papers during 1910 alone, as discussed in a few of the articles about him listed at right.


Fred J. Wiseman loved all manner of racing machines. Born on a Rincon Valley farm in 1875 (sometimes he made himself younger by claiming 1877 or 1880) he grew up just as bicycling was becoming a national craze. He opened a small bicycle shop downtown and by 1905 his Santa Rosa Cyclery was also renting small cars as well as offering Wiseman as a driver for hire.

After the cyclery business was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, Wiseman took a job with a San Francisco auto dealership. Within two years he was their competition driver and “head automobile man,” showing off their make of auto at races around California and Nevada, which he frequently won. His name and victories appeared in ads for tires and other auto parts.

His interest in auto racing faded after he attended the first West Coast aviation meet in 1910. With an investment from his old Santa Rosa friend, Ben Noonan, his team began cobbling together an aircraft under a large tent in a Windsor pasture. The first official flight of his aircraft happened that July in Petaluma and over the next few months Wiseman and the others remained in Petaluma redesigning the aircraft and learning to fly it.

Wiseman called it quits in 1912 and sold his biplane, reportedly telling relatives he saw “no future in it” because so many of his colleagues were being killed. He took a job as a garage foreman and mechanic with Standard Oil where he worked until he retired around 1940. He died in 1961 in Berkeley.

Here are some of the previous articles about Fred J. Wiseman’s adventures:


Wiseman’s great popularity that year was all the more remarkable because he had little public presence. In his earlier days as a race car driver someone could go see him at a competition or at least read about his latest trophies on the sports page; most of what he was doing in 1910 could only be witnessed by chance. Nevertheless, anything Wiseman-related was newsworthy because he and his pals were building an airplane and the country was then whipped up to dithers about the exciting new world of aviation.

Much of that newspaper coverage was about things that were supposed to happen, but didn’t. An exhibition flight for the Rose Carnival was called off because of winds, so the crowds only saw Wiseman give a little talk in front of his plane. A flight was planned at the Fourth of July fair in Petaluma, but called off after Wiseman crashed the plane twice in a month. When the biplane finally made its official public flight in Petaluma Wiseman wasn’t the pilot, but instead his long-time racing partner and mechanic, Jean Peters. Wiseman was next behind the controls for an air show in Reno and you guessed it – he crashed. Yet despite his knack for plummeting to earth instead of staying aloft, the Petaluma and Santa Rosa newspapers remained his indefatigable cheerleaders. “Fred Wiseman has the airship spirit,” the Press Democrat chirped after the Reno smashup. “He wants to fly. He says he has a machine now that will fly like a bird. There is no longer any question about it…”

But come January 1911, Fred Wiseman’s bad luck gloriously changed. He entered as an amateur at the Selfridge Field air meet in San Francisco (really the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno). This was no county fair-type event – it was the first big aviation show held in Northern California. Prize money was huge, which attracted top aviators worldwide. One of them thrilled the city by flying over downtown San Francisco and becoming the first pilot to cross through the Golden Gate. Another made the first landing on the deck of a battleship. Another buzzed an Oakland-to-SF ferry and scared the bejeezus out of passengers. It was Fred J. Wiseman, however, who won the public’s heart.

“CHEERS SPEED WISEMAN ON IN FLIGHT IN HOME MADE MACHINE,” read a headline in the San Francisco Call. “When Wiseman wheeled his biplane in front of the grandstand and the announcer informed the crowd that he was a Californian and would ‘attempt’ to fly a California built machine he was accorded a great reception,” the Call reported, after telling readers about past failures when “the best he could do was to make a few short hops off the ground.”

Wiseman executed a perfect takeoff – and then the goddesses smiled upon him. A gust of wind blew him off the course, sending him soaring over the infield and presenting the audience a longer majestic display. He circled back with ease and “made a beautiful landing in front of the grandstand,” the Call said. Later in the day he made the longest amateur flight of the show and ended up winning six prizes with a total purse of $1,283.33, just a hair behind the first place winner in the amateur class (who was a semi-pro flyer in a professional aircraft, which stirred bad feelings).

The Press Democrat told readers Wiseman was “given a hearty reception by the grandstand crowd each time he appeared on the grounds,” and the PD’s staff writer was so excited by Wiseman’s trophies and his Santa Rosa-ness that he could not bother to proofread:

Mr. Wiseman and his associates are all Santa Rosans and they are proud to have the fact known on every possible occasion. The announcer always speaks of Wiseman from Santa Rosa and no opportunity is lost to give Santa Rosa the benefit of the publicity due her for having young men who manufactured their own aeroplane from a combination of the principles from the best to be found in the other makes and unsuccessful fly the makes and successfully fly the machine 

[Yes, that was the actual end of the article -Ed.]

Wiseman found himself the man of the hour. He signed endorsement deals, such as the ad seen below. Famed British aviator James Radley told reporters that Wiseman was “the most promising amateur he ever saw” and invited Fred to join him at an upcoming flight exhibition in San Jose (Wiseman appeared but Radley cancelled at the last minute). And in an odd story, the Santa Rosa Republican falsely claimed “Lieutenant” Wiseman was about to be called up for military service by the United States Aeronautical Reserve to conduct aerial patrols along the Mexican border.*

When Wiseman and his team returned to Santa Rosa a week after the San Francisco air show, he received the sort of welcome reserved for national dignitaries:

…Parks’ Santa Rosa band was on hand at the depot to render martial music and to add to the welcome of Wiseman. Red fire was burned at the depot and along the line of march, and giant crackers were exploded as a noisy welcome. This was continued along the line of march up Fourth street. When the train arrived the passengers became considerably excited, and hastily threw open the windows to learn the occasion of the band’s presence and the firing of the giant crackers and the burning of the red fire.

(Fred J. Wiseman placing a device on his biplane to record elevation at the San Francisco air show. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

After speeches on the courthouse steps by Mayor Edwards and Wiseman, everyone marched over to the Bismarck restaurant for a banquet in Fred’s honor. There, a possible Petaluma-to-Santa Rosa flight was the hot topic.

The notion of a flight between the towns first came up a couple of months earlier, after Wiseman wrecked the plane at Reno. While the smashed aircraft was being rebuilt back in Petaluma, papers in both towns ran stories that he was planning a low-key flight up to Santa Rosa – with his track record at the time, it would be understandable if his confidence was shaken and didn’t want to risk a humiliating crash in front of his family and friends.

“There will be no flourish of trumpets prior to what Fred Wiseman hopes will be his next accomplishment–a flight from Petaluma to Santa Rosa,” the PD wrote around Thanksgiving, 1910. A few weeks later, the Petaluma Courier reported, “The aviator will take the county seaters by surprise and he intends to land there early in the morning in time for breakfast.”

At the banquet talk of such a trip became serious, perhaps lubricated by what the Santa Rosa Republican called the “flow of soul.” Members of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce were rousing interest to collect enough pledges to pay Wiseman up to $3,000 for making the trip. He certainly needed the money; as the Republican mentioned, “Friends of Wiseman yesterday stated that the Santa Rosa birdling wrecked 12 machines before perfecting the one in which he now rides, and that he has exhausted his funds in the work…”

The flight was on. A few days later Wiseman told the Press Democrat, “I shall never bring that aeroplane to Santa Rosa by any other route than the air route, and if I can’t fly it here from Petaluma it will never come.”

A couple of weeks later, Fred Wiseman was probably eyeing the grey skies and regretting that promise. It had been an exceptionally dry winter up to then, but in early February of 1911 the rain came down in buckets. His aircraft was at Kenilworth Park in Petaluma and that fairground was like a lake. All he could do was hope the ground dried up enough before February 22, when he had a commitment to fly at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair.

(RIGHT: Fred Wiseman endorsement advertisement. Aircraft magazine, April 1911)

On Feb. 16 Wiseman and crew tested the engine in the morning and word spread through town he was about to make his Santa Rosa trip, drawing a big crowd. After most of them gave up and went home for supper he decided the winds were quiet enough to make a short test flight. “The hundreds of factory hands returning from work at that time had a fine view of the aeroplane and he made by far the finest flight yet made here by him,” the Petaluma Argus told readers. He flew about two miles north before returning, breaking a landing skid on touchdown.

The next morning everyone seemed confident he would be making the flight – everyone. that is, except for Wiseman and his crew. Before he took the train to Petaluma he told people in Santa Rosa he didn’t expect to attempt it until the following day. Whatever the cause for his hesitation faded by noon, however.

This time the airplane was on the fairground racetrack and not the grassy field. The Petaluma Courier offered the best narrative of what happened next:

Aviator Fred Wiseman, exactly at 12:30 this noon with a broad smile and determination covering his face and amid an eager crowd of two hundred people jumped into the seat of his biplane, gave orders to crank the engine and in three seconds was speeding his way for twenty feet up the slippery and muddy track, when suddenly to the surprise of those who had never before seen a flight, rose gently into the air over the heads of the cheering crowd. The women especially waved their handkerchiefs while the men threw their hats in applause of the daring of the little aviator.

Others held their breath and turned away in anxiety for fear that he would drop to the ground and be injured.

The engine worked in fine condition and like a swallow swerved over the Kenilworth Park trees while the big crowd scrambled to get onto the street. Every eye was bent on Wiseman, gently floating through the air, and all eyes were strained until the last [moment] when Wiseman disappeared into the distance…

Even before he started his engine, autos were racing towards Santa Rosa in hopes of pacing his flight, including old friend and investor Ben Noonan who hoped to reach Santa Rosa before Wiseman.

“In an almost incredibly short time however,” the Argus reported it received a telephone call “stating that Wiseman had met with some mishap and had landed in a plowed field about half a mile north of Corona road.” Wiseman brought it down because his engine began sounding rough – the carburetor had flooded. He had flown only a little over three miles (approximate location).

Autos carrying Wiseman’s team and aviation fans arrived almost immediately. The plane was not seriously damaged but a runner was broken, which they fixed using a shovel handle (!) but there was no chance it could take off again from the muddy field. The delicate aircraft with its 33 foot wingspan would have to be carried and dragged out by hand.

“Everybody took hold and helped,” the Press Democrat reported, but the wheels were “sunk into the sticky adobe almost to the hubs. The wheels gathered and held the mud and after a few moments resembled huge mudballs.” The farmer who owned the land told them to tear down part of a fence and put the boards under the runners. It took hours to move the thing to solid ground just 200 feet away.

There was talk of flying back to Kenilworth Park where proper repairs could be made and Wiseman could attempt to set a cross-country speed record, but Fred still wanted to finish the voyage. By the time they were ready, however, a strong wind was blowing from the west. At sunset it was decided to wait until the next morning and everyone went back to Petaluma, with a watchman returning for the night. Fred Wiseman’s airplane was left near the side of the road, facing in the direction of Santa Rosa.


* In reality, the Reserve was a national aviation club with thousands of members who were mostly aviation entusiasts, including President Taft. While there was much hype at the time about using aircraft to look for Mexican Civil War Insurrectos sneaking across the border, the air patrol ended up being a single volunteer pilot who worked for the Wright Brothers – and who ditched the aircraft belly-up in the Rio Grande on his second flight, ending the whole plan.

Wiseman did serve in the Army during the Spanish-American War, when Santa Rosa’s National Guard Company E was called up 1898-1900 to serve as replacement troops stateside. In 1924 he applied for a military pension as an invalid and was approved.


Band Will Meet Aviator At Train and Escort Him On March

Fred J. Wiseman, the Santa Rosa boy who has made a splendid record at the aviation meet in San Francisco, will be honored on his return to his home city Tuesday evening. He and his crew of mechanicians will be met at the depot here on the arrival of the afternoon train at 5:45 and will be accompanied in the front of the court house by many of the representative citizens of Santa Rosa.

Parks’ Santa Rosa band has been engaged for the occasion, and the home-coming of Wiseman after having established some new amateur records at the aviation field, will be made memorable in many ways. Louis Gnesa, the well known business man of this city, has provided the band as a mark of recognition of Wiseman’s feats in the air, and the fact that Wiseman has made known the name of Santa Rosa in exceptionally splendid manner.

Gnesa is one of the enthusiasts over the success of the Santa Rosan, and has secured the services of a band to demonstrate his appreciation.

A line of march will be formed at the depot and the march will be undertaken to the front steps of the court house on Fourth street. Here Mayor James R. Edwards will make an address to Wiseman, and a brief reply will be made by the aviator. Mayor Edwards will felicitate the young man on his splendid achievements in the air.

Fred J. Bertolani of the Bismarck restaurant will entertain Wiseman and his mechanicians at a sumptuous repast later at his place of business. It will be a gala spread with good fellowship prevailing, and there will be a feast of reason and a flow of soul following the serving of the viands.

Accompanying Wiseman will be Ben Noonan, Don C. Prentiss, Bob Schieffer, Archie Prentiss and Alvin Cooper. Ralph A. Belden of this city is also a member of the official staff.


Friends of Wiseman yesterday stated that the Santa Rosa birdling wrecked 12 machines before perfecting the one in which he now rides, and that he has exhausted his funds in the work and given all his time to it for a year. They are indignant that an employee of a professional camp, driving a professional machine had entered in contest with the lead inventor and the matter will probably be taken up by the aviation committee and the judges of the meet.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 24, 1911
Santa Rosans Honor A Favored Son on Tuesday Evening

Fred J. Wiseman and his crew of mechanicians were given an enthusiastic welcome to the City of Roses on Tuesday evening…

…Parks’ Santa Rosa band was on hand at the depot to render martial music and to add to the welcome of Wiseman. Red fire was burned at the depot and along the line of march, and giant crackers were exploded as a noisy welcome. This was continued along the line of march up Fourth street. When the train arrived the passengers became considerably excited, and hastily threw open the windows to learn the occasion of the band’s presence and the firing of the giant crackers and the burning of the red fire.

When Mr. and Mrs. Wiseman alighted they were surrounded by a large number of friends and residents of Santa Rosa. Every one in the vast thong desired to shake Wiseman’s hand and express appreciation of his efforts, and to say words of appreciation of his efforts, and to say words of appreciation to Mrs. Wiseman. It was with some difficulty that the young aviator could be gotten through the crowd…

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 25, 1911
By George L. Smith

All join to welcome our hero, returning,
Cheer follows cheer from the multitude there.
Loud plays the band, while the red fire is burning;
Tri-colored streamers float out on the air.

Yes, we are proud of the boy who is flying,
Proud that he hails from our city so fair.
Loudly today his praise we are crying
This self-proven amateur king of the air.

Here’s to Fred Wiseman an excellent example
Of what man can do when he so sets his will.
Yes, Fred, indeed you’re a living example
That confidence into all hearts should instill.

So here’s to the boy whom today we’re all praising
Who soon will be showing the whole world his might,
And was first in the state to succeed in the raising
Of a California built airship in actual flight.

– Press Democrat, January 25, 1911

The many friends of Fed J. Wiseman will be interested in the result of the prize awards for the recent aviation meet…

…[F]riends in this city were preparing to go to the aid of the young birdman before the aviation committee here and protest that the honors gained in the novice class by Wiseman should not be shared by H. A. Robinson and Lincoln Beachey, the two Curtiss men also entered as novices. Beachey and Robinson have both made flights in standard Curtiss machines set up by Curtiss mechanicians. They are both carried in the Curtiss camp. Wiseman is a Santa Rosa youth who has put his own time and money and ideas into his aircraft…

…The citizens of Santa Rosa, under the leadership of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, are collecting a purse which will be offered to Wiseman for a flight from Petaluma to Santa Rosa, sixteen miles. Petaluma citizens are anxious to contribute also, it is said, and the total sum offered may approach  $3,000…

– Press Democrat, January 26, 1911
Santa Rosa Aviator Says if He Can’t Make the Trip that Way He’ll Stay Where He is the Rest of His Life

Fred J. Wiseman and his associates have established temporary quarters in this city, where they will carry on the construction of a large lot of aeroplane parts. They are having quite a bit of their woodwork turned out at the Simpson & Roberts mill under charge of Lee Patton of that establishment. Mr. Patton was with Wiseman’s mechanical force some time at Petaluma.

Wiseman has the distinction of being the first and only amateur aviator in America to build and successfully fly a heavier than air machine of his own original design. Yet his flying at the San Francisco international meet placed him and his machine about on par with professionals. While his machine was first being assembled at the Tanforan meet the question: “Will you try today?” was often asked. After his first exhibition of flying there the question was altered to “Will you fly today?”

Being asked when he would bring his air craft to this city, the local birdman replied, “I shall never bring that aeroplane to Santa Rosa by any other route than the air route, and if I can’t fly it here from Petaluma it will never come. But I don’t believe there are many people who now doubt we can perform that feat and more, too.”

At San Francisco Wiseman established an official duration record of 49 minutes, double the time required for his promised Petaluma to Santa Rosa flight, which he has decided to make some time within the next few days.

[? illegible microfilm] recognized by all the eastern magazines and aero publications and excellent pictures appeared in most of them.

– Press Democrat, February 8, 1911
Had Planned to Fly to County Seat from Petaluma Monday, But Rain Makes it Impossible to Do So

Fred J. Wiseman had proposed to fly from Petaluma to Santa Rosa Monday, it being a holiday, but owing to the continued storm this will be impossible. As soon as the weather clears up and the ground dries sufficiently to give him firm ground on which to make the start, he will make the flight.

Wiseman returned Saturday night from Petaluma, where he had been during the afternoon with Ben Noonan and Don Prentiss to look over the conditions there regarding the prospects of getting a flight Monday. They were greatly disappointed to find the ground under water and the indications that it would be several days after the rainstorm broke before any attempt at a flight would be possible.

The machine is now ready, the attendants are on hand and the very first opportunity the attempt is to be made, declared Wiseman during the evening. The machine will not be dismounted to take to Cloverdale until the last minute in hopes that a flight can be made from Petaluma to Santa Rosa prior to going to Cloverdale for the Citrus Fair when Wiseman is contracted to make flights on Wednesday and Saturday, February 22 and 25.

– Press Democrat, February 11, 1911

After the big crowd of spectators had left Kenilworth Park on Thursday evening, following the announcement that Wiseman would not make his attempt to fly to Santa Rosa on that day he made a splendid tryout flight which the spectators missed but which was seen by many people at a distance. The hundreds of factory hands returning from work at that time had a fine view of the aeroplane and he made by far the finest flight yet made here by him.

It was just 5:05 when everything was working nicely and Wiseman from his seat on the machine shouted, “let her go.” The machine rose majestically and took to the air, rising to the height of about 75 feet and set out on a course which took him directly over the slaughter houses north of this city, and thence out as far as the point where the electric railway tracks leave those of the steam road. He made a wide turn to the left and came back to the park, having gone a distance of about four miles. He was in the air for about fifteen minutes.

On landing, he forgot a trough which stood in the path of the machine and after he had shut off the power he was compelled to rise slightly to avoid the trough so made an uneven landing and smashed one skid of the machine. The work of making repairs was at once taken up and the machinists worked until far into the night to make repairs, and they were finished by morning.

The test on Thursday morning was very satisfactory and there was over 400 pounds thrust before the machine left the ground. The additional power was added at Tanforan park in San Francisco. Wiseman had the machine under perfect control at all times and if he could have made such a flight as that on the Fourth of July the people would have gone wild with excitement. Yet Wiseman has been so successful he thought little of the flight Thursday, except to express his satisfaction.

At 12:28 Friday afternoon Fred Wiseman, the local aviator, started from  Kenilworth park for his long-discussed air trip from this city to Santa Rosa. Wiseman and his assistants spent the morning working like beavers getting the big air craft is shape for the perilous journey. Meantime the news of the attempted flight spread throughout the city and a crowd of several hundred people were at the park all morning waiting patiently and with great good humor for the mechanicians to finish their work.

Soon after 12 o’clock the work was completed and the big air craft was moved down the track from near the pavilion to a point near the club house. Then Wiseman took his seat and the engine was started. The aeroplane moved rapidly along the track for some distance after which Wiseman lifted the plane and the air craft rose into the air as gracefully as a bird.

Wiseman rose to a height of about one hundred feet, executed a graceful curve and headed for Santa Rosa, passing over the trees that line Washington street at a point a short distance west of the residence of J. D. Ellis. At this juncture the engine seemed to be working perfectly and Wiseman was traveling at a high rate of speed. The local people watched Wiseman until he passed out of sight beyond Corona, and all returned home to their delayed luncheons jubilant in the belief that Wiseman would reach his destination in safety.

In an almost incredibly short time however, word was received over the telephone at the Argus office stating that Wiseman had met with some mishap and had landed in a plowed field about half a mile north of Corona road about one hundred yards west of the Northwestern Pacific Railway tracks. Investigation revealed the fact that Wiseman was compelled to descend for the reason that, in some manner, lubricating oil had flooded the carburetor of his engine causing it to stop.

Wiseman made the landing in good shape and without damage to the aeroplane. Assistance was promptly on the scene and the work of moving the airship to solid ground preparatory to fresh start was soon under way. It was difficult work moving the airship across the plowed adobe to the county road near Denman station and this task had not been accomplished when the Argus went to press. Wiseman was not discouraged and declared his intention to complete the journey to Santa Rosa tonight if it was possible to do so.

The airship had not been five minutes on the way when Mrs. H. C. Bartlett phoned the Argus word that it had alighted. Mr. Bartlett ran to the spot, about a mile away from their home, to see if he could be of assistance.

Steiger’s auto, with Wiseman’s assistants on board, was soon at the scene and the slight repairs necessary were quickly made. They consisted of a broken runner, which was repaired by using a shovel handle.

J. M. Johnson of Corona was less than a mile away when the machine approached and he saw that it was tilting considerably and was flying at an angle. The engine was missing and he could tell from the sound that it was not working properly. He could see that Wiseman was endeavoring to right the machine and that it gradually settled closer to the earth. Mr. Johnson saw that Wiseman was uninjured and then come on to town, and soon had told the Argus the first true particulars of the landing of the birdman.

Wiseman carried letters from Geo. P. McNear to Mayor Edwards and J. P. Overton, a letter from Postmaster Olmstead to Postmaster Tripp and a package from Hickey & Vonsen to Kopf & Donovan.

– Petaluma Argus, February 17, 1911

Aviator Fred Wiseman, exactly at 12:30 this noon with a broad smile and determination covering his face and amid an eager crowd of two hundred people jumped into the seat of his biplane, gave orders to crank the engine and in three seconds was speeding his way for twenty feet up the slippery and muddy track, when suddenly to the surprise of those who had never before seen a flight, rose gently into the air over the heads of the cheering crowd. The women especially waved their handkerchiefs while the men threw their hats in applause of the daring of the little aviator.

Others held their breath and turned away in anxiety for fear that he would drop to the ground and be injured.

The engine worked in fine condition and like a swallow swerved over the Kenilworth Park trees while the big crowd scrambled to get onto the street. Every eye was bent on Wiseman, gently floating through the air, and all eyes were strained until the last [moment] when Wiseman disappeared into the distance, being now at Corona.

Automobiles in large numbers left for the county road to get sight of the aviator’s movements and previous to the flight, Ben Noonan left in his auto for Santa Rosa to be with Wiseman when he arrived. Disappointment was expressed on all sides when a telephone message was received from Corona that Wiseman had alighted in Denman’s field and that there was little or no probability of his continuing the flight.

The exact state of the injuries done to the machine could not be learned at the time of this writing although the fact was made known immediately that Wiseman was not injured.

Six newspapers of Santa Rosa were tied to the seat of the machine which Wiseman had intended leaving at the homes of ranchers along the line of flight. Hickey & Vonsen sent a package along to be delivered in Santa Rosa and Geo. P. McNear sent a letter to be delivered to the Mayor of Santa Rosa, inviting the citizens of Santa Rosa to attend the Industrial and Pure Food Exposition in Petaluma in March.

Wiseman was wished success by all around him and and before taking the flight partook of a light meal. It is to be regretted that he could not have continued the journey to Santa Rosa.

Wiseman’s trial trip to Corona on Thursday evening was identically the same as taken this morning. The test Thursday was satisfactory in every way. In alighting one of the beams was broken which had to be repaired today. The machine will be brought back to Petaluma and another trial made. The machine is being housed in the pavilion at Kenilworth owing to the unsettled weather.

Our esteemed contemporaries at the county seat have christened Wiseman the Santa Rosa aviator. Petaluma also has a claim on him on account of his machine being built here and holds that he should be christened the “Petaluma and Santa Rosa aviator.”


Aviator Wiseman is still at the Denman field at Ely where he alighted while enroute to Santa Rosa. He is three and one-half miles on the other side of Corona station. Mr. Wiseman was compelled to alight in the field on account of the fact that the oil flooded the carburetor and the engine lost its power. Mr. Wiseman observed the trouble and alighted to save disaster. He landed on the field in fine style, making an easy stop. Unfortunately the field has recently been plowed and the soil is adobe and consequently the machine stuck. Wiseman and his assistants moved the machine 200 feet out of the field and hope to leave tonight for Santa Rosa. He has the machine headed for Rainsville.

– Petaluma Courier, February 17, 1911

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It began as the most ordinary of days. She saw her husband off to work and was expected to later stop by his downtown office. From her parlor window that morning she caught the eye of a neighbor walking past and they waved at each other. Not long afterwards she dragged the heavy hallway sofa into her kitchen. She made herself comfortable and resumed reading her novel after opening wide all four burners on her gas stove. Soon she was unconscious and soon after that, dead.

This is the story of terrible things that happened in Santa Rosa over the course of five autumn weeks in 1911. You may not want to read this story; I didn’t particularly want to write it because it involves suicide, and I made an early vow to avoid that topic in this journal – no one casually Googling for their Great-Great-Grandma should stumble upon a description of her sad and lonely death. This story will be my only exception to the rule, and that’s because there’s far more to this tale than personal tragedy. It reveals unquieting things about the fundamental character of Santa Rosa and likely many small towns in America at that time. But that’s getting ahead.

The deceased woman was Mrs. Minerva Leppo who went by her middle name, Belle. She was 34 years old and lived with her husband Frank at the big house on the corner of College and MacDonald Avenues.

Her suicide stunned Santa Rosa. She was from a prominent family; her grandfather was Tom Hopper, once the richest man around – he was past president of the Santa Rosa Bank and shareholder in other area banks, despite being completely illiterate (he was very adept at numbers, however). Now 91 years old, he spent his afternoons parked in front of the courthouse in his phaeton carriage greeting old friends. “Fearing that the shock might be too much for the old gentleman to bear John L. Walker got into the buggy with him and suggested that as it was getting cold he would ride home with him,” the PD noted. Mrs. Leppo was also a leader of the Irene Club. This group distinguished itself from the dozens of other women’s social clubs in Santa Rosa by its membership composed of the town’s society matrons.


Make no mistake, Black Hand letters were a real concern in the early 20th century. Italian-American immigrants were the first and most famous targets, preyed upon by criminals in their own community including the nascent Mafia. The letters – usually demands for a large sum of money to be left at a drop-off point – often included threatening doodles such as a skull or knife dripping in blood. It was the frequent silhouette of an upraised hand that led a New York paper to dub these anonymous threats “Black Hand Letters.”

Newspaper editors loved these tales because they provided opportunities to write lurid melodramatic stories. During the peak from 1908-1911, every year hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles thrilled and terrified readers with dark deeds of the Black Hand; four people were supposedly murdered every day in New York City alone, the shadowy assassins battled fearlessly by the NYPD “Italian Secret Police” and the Pinkerton “Italian Squad” (great example here). And not least of it being that the Black Hand genre fed racist bias of the time, smearing Italians and Sicilian immigrants as riffraff who were inclined to crime, despite Black Hand extortion also being found in the Greek, German and Polish immigrant communities, and probably others.

In our coarsened Age of Internet communications, unpleasant anonymous messages might not seem such a big deal. Web page comment sections and discussion forums abound with vicious attacks from people who conceal their names, and it’s a rare mailbox that hasn’t received ugly e-mail from a sender using a phony or temporary address. But more than a century ago such a thing had greater weight, both because it was uncommon and because it required a lot more work to be anonymous; there would have been few typewriters in private homes, and access to business typewriters probably was strictly controlled by the company typist (or typewritist – the job title was still in flux). Handwriting was usually the only option and that can be easier to identify, even when printed in block letters.

If you still think our ancestors were overreacting, consider this: Try to name a single recent movie in which an anonymous e-mail, text or tweet inspired terror; by contrast, at the time there were countless short stories, plays and silent films where the plot was driven by the fear triggered by receiving anonymous letters.

“Died from the effects of inhaling gas with suicidal intent” was the verdict of the Coroner’s jury. Death was certain because Santa Rosa provided coal gas (more commonly known in that era as “town gas”) which was primarily hydrogen and methane with about 15 percent carbon monoxide. It was nasty stuff which killed quickly; reports of accidental deaths and suicides were regular items in the San Francisco Bay Area papers.

Mrs. Leppo had been depressed for months, the Coroner’s jury was told, but she grew more despondent in her last month or so, losing 30-35 pounds. The main causes of her despair were the letters – dozens, maybe as many as a hundred letters that kept arriving and arriving. She wouldn’t let her husband or anyone else see them and destroyed them after reading. All she revealed was she did not know who was sending them.

During the inquest the Coroner’s jury veered away from Mrs. Leppo to discuss the matter of the letters, and revealed the astonishing fact that other people around Santa Rosa were also receiving disturbing anonymous notes. The Press Democrat reported:

…There was a little side discussion as to a number of anonymous letters that have been sent to other people in this city from time to time and an opinion was ventured by jurymen and others that something should be done to ascertain the identity of the writers if possible…Dr. Bogle said he wished the jury or some authority would take up the matter of attempting to discover the author of the anonymous letters sent to Mrs. Leppo and to other people in the community.

Some of them were probably thinking of a story in the PD a few days earlier concerning a young man who was slashed with a razor in Santa Rosa by mysterious attackers. Questioned by police and reporters, he said he had recently received a “Black Hand Letter” warning him to get out of town.

It was never suggested that actual criminals were behind the attack on the young man – rather, the Press Democrat hinted broadly it came from somebody who didn’t like him dating a particular girl. “Black Hand letter” was just shorthand at the time for any anonymous threatening message. And sad to say, around that time it became something of an ugly fad in American culture to send such letters with the intent of causing fear or distress. Another example was made public a year before, when witnesses who testified against Dr. Burke in the attempted murder trial received envelopes with just a sulphur match inside, which was understood to be a death threat.

One might presume the suicide of Mrs. Leppo ended – or at least, slowed – the flow of anonymous letters passing through the Santa Rosa Post Office. But if anything, the volume of hateful, unsigned mail increased. The target this time was the co-owner of Santa Rosa’s high-end drygoods store, and this time not all of the attackers were anonymous. The Irene Club wanted an employee named Doris Lincoln fired because they believed she played a role in Mrs. Leppo’s suicide.

“Mrs. Lincoln is charged by the members of the Irene club with having been on too intimate terms with Frank Leppo, the husband of Mrs. Leppo,” the newspaper reported. “The relations existing between Mrs. Lincoln and Leppo, these women say, were of such a nature as to cause Mrs. Leppo long suffering and eventually to lead her to end her life…members of the club have taken it upon themselves to avenge her death by making life in Santa Rosa impossible for the woman whom they charge with the indirect responsibility for the tragedy.”

Under pressure from the club, the Rohrer & Einhorn clothing store fired Lincoln without cause. “[M]embers of the firm have admitted that the discharge was due solely to the demands of the members of the Irene club, from whom the firm draws much of its patronage,” the article continued. “Charles Rohrer and Joseph Einhorn, the members of the firm, were told that a boycott would be placed on their store if Mrs. Lincoln were allowed to remain, while several of their customers went so far as to ask to have their accounts closed…Numerous anonymous letters were added to the demands made upon Rohrer & Einhorn for Mrs. Lincoln’s discharge.”

Gentle Reader may have noticed that these last paragraphs do not identify whether the quotes came from the Press Democrat or Santa Rosa Republican. The answer is – neither. The story of the Irene club’s vendetta against Doris Lincoln appeared in the San Francisco Call, Chronicle, and likely other city papers as well. In the Call it was the featured front page story in the Dec. 5, 1911 Sunday edition, complete with the large portrait of Mrs. Lincoln shown at right.

The only mention of this mean-spirited business to appear in either Santa Rosa newspaper were portions of three oblique sentences in a Press Democrat article several days later (more about this below). There was never a mention of the Irene’s role in the “gossip” that dominated events in Santa Rosa during the weeks following Mrs. Leppo’s suicide. Anyone who only read the Santa Rosa papers wouldn’t have known what was going on it town. Of course, you can bet everybody knew about the alleged affair between Frank Leppo and Mrs. Lincoln (she was a widow with two children) and the campaign to drive her out of Santa Rosa.

For both hometown newspapers to completely ignore this story represents an extraordinary example of press censorship. Why did they blackout the news? It wasn’t fear of offending sensitive readers; both newspapers in that era routinely reported personal tragedy – including specifics of Mrs. Leppo’s death – in lurid detail. In the same weeks as these events, PD headlines announced a Napa minister had his head “crushed to a pulp” when his auto rolled over him, and a young man was “whirled to death” in a machinery accident.

No, the only possible reason for both papers to self-censor the story would have been to mollify the Irenes. It’s very likely the wives of both paper’s editor were members – or if not, they certainly ran in the same social circles.

Whether or not Frank Leppo was having a fling with Doris Lincoln is really the least part of our story – although it would be interesting to hear the Irenes explain why they weren’t dogging him with the zeal they pursued his supposed mistress. But at least the San Francisco paper gave him a chance to tell his side: He claimed he had danced with Lincoln twice, at an event three years before where he was floor manager. “Since that time I have had no peace,” he told the Call. Leppo, who was a partner in Leppo Realty with father, was introduced here earlier in a piece about Monte Cristo, the Russian River resort that he opened in 1910 and was an immediate hit because it offered live music for dancing.

The local papers also would have not liked to print what Mrs. Lincoln had to say about the matter. The SF Call gave her another front page story the following day where she delivered a blistering 900-word defense from her mother’s home in Berkeley. She insisted she was the “victim of a small town persecution” and “wagging tongues in idle hours caused the trouble.” She told the Call, “I tried to defend myself. I called personally on members of the Irene club to learn what they knew. In every case, when I pinned a woman down to the direct question of what she knew the reply was that she knew nothing as a matter of fact, but only what she had heard.” She told the Call she was soon returning to Santa Rosa to aggressively confront her accusers and clear her name.

The Leppo saga has a third act, but before continuing remember all these events were happening at the exact same time as the crazy drama described in the previous post, where a physician turned arsonist tried to burn down houses in Santa Rosa’s tenderloin district. Those were a wild and unsettling five weeks in the City of Roses.

Despite having achieved the firing and expulsion of Doris Lincoln, the chorus of whispering still did not quiet.

The new target was W. Thomas Hopper, assistant cashier (essentially, a bank’s day-to-day accountant) at the Santa Rosa Bank and the 29 year-old cousin of the late Mrs. Leppo. It was being said he wrote some of the anonymous letters she had received and also a letter sent to the Rohrer & Einhorn store urging the firing of Lincoln.

On learning he was the latest subject of gossip, the PD reported, he “appeared considerably annoyed that he should have been charged with something of which he declared himself innocent.” A meeting was called at the bank with bank officials, Frank Leppo’s attorney brother, and Mr. Einhorn. Hopper was surprised the only topic to be discussed was the anonymous letter sent to the store. Unlike the letters to Mrs. Leppo, it had not been destroyed. It also appeared to have been typed on the same stationery paper used by the bank.

The SF Call had earlier published the contents of the note: “For God’s sake, Joe, get next. Let that woman go or you will lose all your best trade.” Hopper was asked to use the bank’s typewriter to peck out the same message as it was being read to him. He misspelled “lose” as “loose” – the same mistake made by the writer of the anonymous note. The San Francisco newspaper had used the correct spelling in its article.

“When he went home to his lunch he told his wife of the meeting that morning and that he had been accused of writing the anonymous letter,” the Press Democrat reported. “He denied emphatically that he had done so. He was much exercised, and his wife sought to quiet him by telling him not to mind what was said, as it would prove that he had nothing to do with it.” Hopper returned to work but went home again in mid-afternoon and shot himself in the head.

His suicide was all the more poignant for his body being discovered by his nine year-old daughter and the mysterious note he left, now admitting he had written the letter to the store “but none other:”

Dearest Wife: Good-bye. I am no more. They have driven me to the last ditch. I wrote the Einhorn note but none other. I could vindicate myself for writing it if I could tell what I knew, but I can not tell for the sake of others who would suffer. I had to do it. Good-bye again.

The Press Democrat, which rarely covered local news on the front page, gave his death a banner headline. That was followed by a longer story the next day about the suicide note along with a defense of his honor written by his best friend, District Attorney Clarence Lea.

To explain all this the PD finally had to name Doris Lincoln and write about the smear campaign against her – even while being as vague as possible about why she was under attack (nor mentioning the Irenes as being the main grenade throwers). The San Francisco Call’s reporter asked a more interesting question: Now that Lincoln was back in Santa Rosa and determined to clear her name, did she have a run-in with Hopper? “Speculation is rife as to the probable connection between Mrs. Lincoln’s investigation and the bank employee’s tragic and sudden death.”

Defending Hopper, his friend explained he felt cornered: “Certain parties, including Frank Leppo, were accusing him of writing an anonymous letter to Mr. Einhorn and that if they could fix responsibility for that letter on him they would accuse him of writing the anonymous letter alleged to have been written Mrs. Belle Leppo.” District Attorney Lea emphasized several times “it is no crime to write an anonymous letter,” deftly ignoring the possibility both Doris Lincoln and Frank Leppo might have had solid grounds for a libel suit.

Hopper was, of course, another grandchild of 91 year-old Tom Hopper. Young Hopper went by his grandpa’s name, “Tom,” and worked at the bank his grandfather founded. It fell to Doctor Jesse this time to break the news to the old man that he had lost his favored grandson. “He told Dr. Jesse that ‘Tommy’ had not been well for over a week, and that he had driven him to his home at noon for several days just because he knew of his feeling badly,” the Press Democrat stated. Perhaps old Tom should be counted as another casualty of the gossip mill; when spring came around his phaeton was no longer seen at its usual spot by the courthouse. Maybe he was tired of the condolences, or maybe people avoided him, not knowing what to say to an old man who had lost two grandchildren to suicide within a month. He died in June, 1912 and more will be written about him later.

Here the story ends; nothing more about the tragedies appeared in any paper. No speculation about what Hopper could not “tell for the sake of others who would suffer.” No hint as to whether he was simply helping out the Irenes by using the bank’s typewriter to send an anonymous note or whether he was responsible for the lot of them. The sort of relationship he had with his cousin, Mrs. Leppo, was never discussed. There was also this question: How could the Irenes have been certain the anonymous letters were “warning her against Mrs. Lincoln” if Mrs. Leppo destroyed them and never discussed their contents?

But life went on. Rohrer & Einhorn kept its doors open, having weathered the boycott by offering weeks of custom fittings for expensive corsets (which were shown by “an expert demonstrator”). Frank Leppo married a woman named Nina a few years later. Doris Lincoln – who was actually a German immigrant, despite her patriotic name – remained unmarried. Hopper’s widow eventually wed a man named Klink who worked in railroad dining cars. The daughter who found her father’s body had a brief marriage to a man named John Wesley Seuis and waited tables in restaurants. None of them have any surviving direct descendants.

And the Irene Club continued its weekly meetings (they pronounced the name E-Re-Nay, for some reason). What they did, exactly, was never mentioned in the papers; the organization was founded in New York City during the 1880s as the “Working Girls’ Society” for the betterment of poor and uneducated women, but if the local chapter did any good works they were darn quiet about them. It was presumably just another of the dozens of women’s social clubs in Santa Rosa whose appeal was allowing a certain clique an excuse to get together and play cards and gossip. A few years earlier the Press Democrat’s society columnist wrote a pair of light-hearted essays about the Santa Rosa women’s clubs which read today as a far more amusing takedown of the scene than was probably originally intended.

It all started with such good intentions and all went so wrong so fast. The friend whom the Irenes were trying to support was dead by suicide, as was a young man with a princely future. Along the way they had been exposed by a San Francisco newspaper as a cabal of vigilantes, using threats to demand the firing of a single mother from a job which was her family’s sole support. Events provided the town’s progressive element with indisputable proof that Santa Rosa’s newspaper editors were quite willing to censor news that might embarrass their well-connected friends. It was an enigma; in Santa Rosa, whispers could not be silenced. Newspapers, however, were an easier task.

Says He Was Cut by Two Unknown Assailants

Hints of a “Black Hand” are mingled in a mysterious attack made upon Grover Heintz, a young man who recently came here from Washington state, on lower Fourth street shortly before ten o’clock on Wednesday night.

Heintz claims that two men, each wearing overalls and jumpers and each with a cap pulled far down over his face, suddenly jumped out upon him as he was walking past the electrical depot and before he could defend himself, he was slashed across the left side of the stomach with a razor. He threw up his hand, he says, and grasped the blade and was severely cut across the fingers and wrist. Then his assailants ran off and he hurried to the Mary Jesse Hospital where Dr. J. W. Jesse dressed his wounds. The gash across his stomach fortunately was not serious but had it been deeper it would have probably cost the young man his life. After the wound was dressed he left the hospital and went down to his apartment house room.

Got Warning Letter

Heintz said he received a “Black Hand Letter” (he calls it this) which was written by an unknown hand. It warned him to leave town and gave him two weeks in which to do so. The time limit expired last Friday he says but he is still here. Be believes that the writer of the letter, with probably an assistant, attacked him Wednesday night. He could only give the police a very meager description of his assailants.

“They wore overalls and jumpers and had caps pulled well down over their eyes. I have only been here a few weeks. My aunt lives her. I have no enemies as far as I know. I did not get out when the letter ordered me to. Why should I?” said he.

He recounted the details of the attack he says was made upon him near the electric depot to Officer Andrew Miller and the latter at once began an investigation.

There is something about the case that sayors [sic] of jealousy on the part of some one. It is said that Heintz has been paying attention to a young woman and she is said to have other friends who are enamored of her, too. He is loath to believe at present that there is anything like a girl in the case. The police believe that he has not told all he knows, but the investigation will proceed. It’s “dollars to doughnuts” that there is something back of the attack last night. The officers believe so.

About two weeks ago Officer Miller met a young woman walking along the street and weeping. He asked her if she was in trouble and she replied that a young man friend of hers had receive a “Black Hand letter” ordering him to leave town, and that was the cause of her grief. The plot thickens.

Young Heintz can thank his lucky stars that if the wounds were inflicted in the manner he says they were, that they were not more serious. Dr. Jesse says they might have been worse.

– Press Democrat, October 11, 1911
Chief of Police Boyes Satisfied Heintz Could Tell More About That Hold Up Array

After investigating the alleged affray on lower Fourth street in which Grover Heintz claimed to have been attacked and cut with a razor by two unknown men. Chief of Police John M. Boyes announced Saturday that he was quite satisfied Heintz had not thrown all the light he could on the matter. In other words, the Chief thinks that Heintz “knows more about it than he has let on.”

The Chief’s opinion is shared by other members of the department and is strengthened by side remarks that have been overheard coming from other directions. There is reason to believe, they say, that Heintz knows more about why he received those wounds on his stomach and hand than anyone else save the razor wielders; and the latter is saying nothing.

Police Officer Andrew Miller spent a considerable portion of Saturday working upon the case. He shares the opinion of his Chief that Heintz has not told it all.

– Press Democrat, October 15, 1911
Found Asphyxiated at Home Saturday Afternoon
Santa Rosa Profoundly Shocked at the News–Lies Down on Sofa With Book in Hand After Turning on the Gas

Santa Rosa was profoundly shocked on Saturday afternoon by the tragic death of Mrs. Minerva Belle Leppo, wife of O. Frank Leppo, a well known real estate broker. Mrs. Leppo committed suicide at the family residence at Fourth street and McDonald avenue by inhaling gas. Her lifeless body was found on a lounge in the kitchen, the head resting in close proximity to the gas cooking range from the four open burners of which the deadly fumes were still pouring.

She met death alone. After pushing the lounge into the kitchen from [?its usual] place in the hall Mrs. Leppo closed the doors and windows, turned on the gas and then laid down with a book in her hand to await the end. On the shelf of the store, indicating that when unconciousness came on, it had dropped from her grasp, the book–“The Winning of Barbara Worth”– was found open at page 236. She had been loaned the volume by her friend, Mrs. C. A. Wright on Thursday afternoon.

Medical aid was immediately summoned, all the human agencies known to medical science were used but to no avail. There was no response to the infusion of oxygen in the hope it might recussitate [sic] the heart action.

Discovery of Death

Frank Leppo left his home for his office shortly before eight o’clock Saturday morning. That was the last time he saw his wife alive. It seems that Mrs. Leppo was to come to her husband’s office during the day to acknowledge the assignment of a mortgage for $900 to be used in payment on a piece of property in Alaska from Sarah H. Perkins. As Mr. Leppo telephoned to the residence of his brother, Dr. Harry Leppo, and asked Mrs. Leppo to send Harrison Leppo to his home and to tell his wife to come down for the purpose stated there being no phone in the Frank Leppo residence. The boy went to the house, but failed to get any response to his alarm at the door, and so went home and told his mother. This was a few minutes after two o’clock Saturday afternoon, and then Mrs. Harry Leppo went herself. She found the front door locked and when she reached the back porch the strong odor of escaping gas alarmed her. She returned immediately to her residence, only a short block away, and summoned Frank Leppo over the telephone, also calling her brother-in-law, Attorney J. Rollo Leppo.

Death Chamber Entered

In a few moments Frank Leppo had arrived in his automobile and opened the front door with his pass key. He immediately detected the strong order of escaping gas. Mrs. T. R. Woodard and Mrs. W. E. Potter, on their way to attend a club meeting, were standing on the corner, waiting for the car, and Mr. Leppo appealed to them to enter the house with him as he feared something was wrong. They complied and together they all entered the house.

The kitchen door was closed tight, and when Mr. Leppo opened it the body of his wife was found as already described.

Dr. S. S. Bogle rushed to the Leppo residence in his automobile. Charles A. Wright, who was passing in his automobile, was hailed by a lady friend of the Leppo’s and turned and hurried to the Catherine Sanitarium further down the avenue and returned back with a trained nurse from that institution.

Dr. Bogle adopted heroic measures to restore animation and pumped oxygen into the lungs. The body was also talken into the open air on the porch. But it was too late. In the opinion of the physician Mrs. Leppo had been dead for some time before he arrived.

Mrs. E. F. Woodward, Mrs. W. A. Finley, Mrs. Harry Leppo, Mrs. J. H. Einhorn and other woman friends of the deceased soon arrived and later the news spread there were many other callers with proffers of any assistance. The fumes of gas in the room were so suffocating that it took some time to get the atmposphere clear, even after the windows had been thrown up.

Mrs. Leppo Despondent

Domestic unhappiness and accompanying ill health attendant thereon are said to have been the cause of the rash act. Many women friends of the deceased, in whom she confided, had known of her unhappiness for some time. From several of them it was ascertained Saturday afternoon that she had threatened to end her life in the manner in which she did.

She said upon a recent occasion to a woman friend: “If I were to commit suicide I would go into the bathroom and turn on the gas,” or words to that effect.

Other friends Saturday vouchsafed the information that the tragedy of the afternoon was but the realization of fears they had entertained for some time. To them Mrs. Leppo had on several occasions told of her unhappiness.

She said she supposed she was foolish to worry as she did, but she could not help it.

Death a Sad Shock

The news of Mrs. Leppo’s death sped quickly through the city and county, and on all hands were heard expressions of sincere regret. She was a kind, big-hearted woman, generous to a fault, who made firm friends and remained true to them in adversity. She was always willing to contribute to charitable affairs. The members of the Irene Club testify tenderly to the generous assistance she gave their enterprises in behalf of sweet charity. She belong to the Irene Club for many years, as well as to other club organizations in this city. As late as Friday afternoon Mrs. Leppo was down town. She spent that afternoon at the home of a lady friend. She appeared cheery. When Paul T. Hahman passed the Leppo residence shortly before eight o’clock on Saturday morning he noticed Mrs. Leppo at the parlor window and she waved “good morning” at him.

Coroner’s Jury Views Remains

…The jurors viewed the remains and inspect the kitchen and had the position in which the body was found explained to them. The inquest then adjourned until ten o’clock on Monday morning at H. H. Moke’s undertaking apartments on Fourth street. The Acting Coroner gave permission for the funeral arrangements to proceed, but definite plans were not made Saturday night.

A Favorite Granddaughter

Mrs. Leppo was a little over thirty years of age and was married to Frank Leppo in this city a number of years ago. Her father resides in Potter Valley, Mendocino county. Thomas H. Spottswood is her brother and the family connection is a very large one in this county and section of the state. Mrs. Leppo was the favorite granddaughter of Thomas Hopper, the well known pioneer and former President of the Santa Rosa Bank. She was fond of him, too, and on many occasions Mr. Hopper has been heard to speak very affectionately of her and of the attention she showed him from time to time. He gave her considerable property years ago, and at different times as a token of his regard. Mr. Hopper was sitting in his buggy down town at the time the shocking news of his granddaughter’s death was first told. Fearing that the shock might be too much for the old gentleman to bear John L. Walker got into the buggy with him and suggested that as it was getting cold he would ride home with him. Mr. Hopper feels the death very acutely. Another regrettable incident in connection with Mrs. Leppo’s death at this time is the fact that Mr. Leppo’s father is seriously ill at his home on Third street.

– Press Democrat, October 22, 1911
Inquest on Remains of Mrs. O. Frank Leppo Monday Morning

Anonymous letters played an important part in the death of Mrs. O. Frank Leppo, according to testimony given at the inquest held by Acting Coroner A. J. Atchinson on Monday morning.

Mr. Leppo stated that recently his wife had been decidedly despondent because of the receipt  of these communications which had been coming to her for six months or more, and that his wife stated to him that she had received something like a hundred of these communications.

Dr. S. S. Bogle, testifying before the jury, stated that he knew of the receipt of these letters from being told of them by friends of the deceased and gave his opinion that they undoubtedly caused her despondency and had been almost directly responsible for her death. Without them, the physician stated, Mrs. Leppo would have nerver reached the stage of despondency where she would have become desperate.

O. Frank Leppo, husband of the deceased, was the first witness, and he testified to his departure from home Saturday morning, with his wife in a despondent mood, but he had never dreamed that she contemplated any rash act. He narrated having endeavored to reach her through the telephone at Dr. Harry Leppo’s residence, to have her sign some papers to which her signature was necessary, and how he had learned of the odor of gas and gone home to investigate. He described the conditions which prevailed when he entered the gas filled apartment where his wife’s remains were found and the efforts to resuscitate her.

Continuing his testimony the husband stated that frequently his wife had said when despondent: “I wish I was dead,” but he had never heard her make any threats of taking her life. During the last month Mrs. Leppo had been ill and lost considerable weight and had become acutely nervous.

Mr. Leppo stated that he had never seen any of the anonymous letters his wife had received, as she always destroyed the letters immediately after receiving them. They greatly disturbed her peace of mind at all times. Mrs. Leppo said that she had no use for any one who would stoop so low as to write an anonymous letter, and had no confidence in any statements contained in such epistles, but she seemed unable to throw off the despondency which their receipt occasioned.

Mrs. W. R. Potter and Miss Bertha Yost, who were at the Leppo residence just after O. Frank Leppo entered the place, testified to what they had done to bring back the vital spark.

Dr. Bogle told the jury that Mrs. Leppo had been dead at least two hours when found, according to scientific deductions. He gave the jury an account of how he had endeavored to restore life through artificial respiration and with the use of oxygen. Dr. Bogle stated that death would come to a person in the small kitchen where Mrs. Leppo’s body was found with the gas turned on, in ten minutes’ time, and that there would be no struggle.


The verdict returned was that the deceased came to her death from inhalation of illuminating gas with suicidal intent.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 23, 1911
Verdict Is Given in Accordance with the Testimony

“Died from the effects of inhaling gas with suicidal intent.”

Such was the verdict of the Coroner’s jury at the inquest held touching the sad death of Mrs. Minerva Belle Leppo, wife of Frank Leppo…

…O. Frank Leppo was the first witness…he left the house shortly before 8 o’clock on Saturday morning, going down a little earlier than usual, having a business engagement with a Sonoma man. It had been understood, he said, that his wife would come down to the office of the Leppo Realty Company some time during the day to sign a document dealing with some property on Davis street belonging to Mrs. Perkins.

About 12:30 or 1 o’clock, he count not be positive as to the exact time, he said he telephoned the residence of his brother, Dr. Harry Leppo, and asked Mrs. Leppo to send Harrison Leppo to his home to tell his wife to come down to the office and sign the paper referred to…

…Mr. Leppo testified that he had never heard his wife threaten to commit suicide, and he never dreamed that she would do so, he said.

“At different times for years I heard my wife say “I wish I was dead” but she said it in a general way…I paid little attention to them.”

The witness was asked whether he knew any reason for the despondency from which his wife suffered. In reply he stated that she had received a number of anonymous letters that seemed to make her very unhappy. She would not tell him what the letters were about, he said. During the past month or two, the witness related, Mrs. Leppo had been taking treatments from Dr. A. Meg. Stuart. She had become very nervous and during the last month or so of her life she had lost between thirty and thirty-five pounds of flesh. There was no mistaking the fact, Mr. Leppo said, that Mrs. Leppo was very nervous.

Justice Atchinson, the acting coroner, asked Mr. Leppo as to the nature of the anonymous letters sent his wife. He replied that he did not know anything about them as far as seeing them was concerned, as his wife told him she always destroyed them and had no confidence in them.

“She said she did not place any confidence in the letters and have no use for anyone who writes anonymous letters. She did not tell me how many letters she received, but she might have received a hundred or fifty letters….

…There was a little side discussion as to a number of anonymous letters that have been sent to other people in this city from time to time and an opinion was ventured by jurymen and others that something should be done to ascertain the identity of the writers if possible…

…Dr. Bogle said he wished the jury or some authority would take up the matter of attempting to discover the author of the anonymous letters sent to Mrs. Leppo and to other people in the community. He said there was no doubt in his mind, from what he had been informed by friends of the dead woman, that the anonymous letters were the main cause of Mrs. Leppo’s despondency and the worry attendant upon ill health…

–  Press Democrat, October 24, 1911

Owing to the death of Mrs. Frank O. Leppo, the Irene Club,of which she was a prominent member, will not meet this week. Strange to say, Mrs. Leppo had planned to have the meeting scheduled for Wednesday next, saying to the President, Mrs. Charles D. Barnett, “I will [? illegible microfilm] if I am here.” The club members attended the funeral of Mrs. Leppo Monday and complied with a request she made some time ago when she said: “When I die, girls, I want flowers–just loads. Cover me up with them.” So when all that was mortal of her had been lowered into the grave, one by one the Irene Club members gently threw in to the coffin wreaths of La France roses and [?]. In truth, they covered her with the flowers she loved.

– “Society Gossip,” Press Democrat, October 29, 1911
Clubwomen Blame Intrigue for Suicide
Frank Leppo of Santa Rosa Declares Rumors and Attacks Unfounded
Discharge of Employee Due to Anonymous Letters and Requests

SANTA ROSA, Nov. 4.–Charged with being one of the principals in an intrigue that resulted indirectly in the suicide of Mrs. Frank Leppo, a well known society woman of this city, on the morning of Saturday, October 21. Mrs. Doris Lincoln, a beautiful widow of about 35 years, possessing the utmost grace and personal charm, has been discharged from a position which she held here for three years, has been ostracized and socially and practically driven out of Santa Rosa.

Mrs. Lincoln’s accusers, who also constitute themselves her judges, are the women of the Irene club, the most exclusive woman’s organization in Santa Rosa. It was directly due to their threat of boycotting Mrs. Lincoln’s employers that the latter was discharged from her position, and behind their action in demanding her dismissal are whispered accusations that have stirred Santa Rosa society to its depths.

Leppo’s Denials Indignant

Mrs. Lincoln is charged by the members of the Irene club with having been on too intimate terms with Frank Leppo, the husband of Mrs. Doris Leppo [sic]. The relations existing between Mrs. Lincoln and Leppo, these women say, were of such a nature as to cause Mrs. Leppo long suffering and eventually to lead her to end her life. Mrs. Leppo was a prominent leader in Santa Rosa social life and an active member of the Irene club. The other members of the club have taken it upon themselves to avenge her death by making life in Santa Rosa impossible for the woman whom they charge with the indirect responsibility for the tragedy.

Leppo has made indignant and repeated denial of the whisperings which have linked his name with that of Mrs. Lincoln, and declares that the assertions which have been made against them both are without foundation. Yet Leppo’s denials have not deterred the members of the Irene club from carrying out their purpose and Mrs. Lincoln has left the town.

Discharge Due to Women

For three years Mrs. Lincoln has been employed as a saleswoman by the drygoods firm of Rohrer & Einhorn, but within the last few days has lost her position, and the members of the firm have admitted that he discharge was due solely to the demands of the members of the Irene club, from whom the firm draws much of its patronage. Charles Rohrer and Joseph Einhorn, the members of the firm, were told that a boycott would be placed on their store if Mrs. Lincoln were allowed to remain, while several of their customers went so far as to ask to have their accounts closed.

Not only did the members of the Irene club approach Mrs. Lincoln’s employers, but some of the most intimate friends and relatives of Mrs. Leppo advised Mrs. Lincoln personally that it would be best for every body concerned if she were to leave Santa Rosa permanently.

Numerous anonymous letters were added to the demands made upon Rohrer & Einhorn for Mrs. Lincoln’s discharge. Most of these predicted business ruin for Mrs. Lincoln’s employers unless she were forced to leave. One of the notes, typewritten and addressed to Joseph Einhorn, read:

“For God’s sake, Joe, get next! Let that woman go, or you will lose all your best trade.”

Mrs. Leppo was a charter member of the Irene club, and although the organization has taken no official action in the matter, which has stirred all of Santa Rosa, the protest of individual members has been general. At its last meeting, however, the club adjourned out of respect to Mrs. Leppo’s memory and for the purpose of permitting its members to visit Mrs. Leppo’s grave at Petaluma and cover it with flowers.

Husband Alleges Jealousy

Leppo’s version of his wife’s death is different from that given by the members of the Irene club. He declares that his wife was insanely jealous of him and suspected things that were without foundation. He says that he first met Mrs. Lincoln about three years ago at a dance, where he was floor manager, danced with her once early in the evening and again, later, when a “grab” dance was called for and he happened to be standing near her.

Their friendship, he says, never went beyond this nor at any time overstepped the bounds of propriety, yet he asserts that from the time of that dance. Mrs. Leppo became suspicious of all his actions and made false accusations against him.

Mrs. Leppo’s friends, on the contrary, declare that Leppo’s actions with Mrs. Lincoln have been notorious and say that Mrs. Lincoln made many of her women friends her confidants long before her death and many times told them she would end her life because of the affair.


Mrs. Leppo told Mrs. Newton Cook, her cousin by marriage, that she knew of the relations between her husband and Mrs. Lincoln and that she had followed them and secured positive proof to substantiate her assertions. She also told some of her friends that Mrs. Lincoln was in a San Francisco hospital last May and that Leppo went to San Francisco and called upon her repeatedly while she was ill.

Leppo denies all these charges, together with the general accusations made against him. One of the things upon which Mrs. Lincoln’s accusers have relied to strengthen their suspicions is the fact that Mrs. Lincoln had a lot in the Monte Cristo tract on the Russian river, which is a part of a resort owned by Leppo. They refer to her many visits to Monte Cristo, but Leppo says that she secured the lot by purchase from his father and paid for it in installments. Mrs. Lincoln has two children living at Fulton in the direction of Monte Cristo, and many of her visits, Leppo says, have been to see them.


Members of the Irene club say that Mrs. Leppo received 30 or more anonymous letters during the last year, warning her against Mrs. Lincoln. They also say that, while she had large property holdings at the time of her marriage to Leppo, these were dissipated by the latter. Leppo denies this, saying that her estate was larger at the time of her death than when they were married. Since her death he has filed a will which she drew at the time of her marriage, leaving her entire estate to him.

The Leppos were married in 1900. Prior to that time Mrs. Leppo [was] Miss Belle Spottswood. She was a granddaughter of Thomas Hopper, one of the wealthiest men in northern California. Leppo is well known as a real estate man. He is a brother of J. Rollo Leppo, an attorney, and Dr. Henry Leppo, who married Miss Clara McNear, daughter of George P. McNear of Petaluma.


Since her discharge from the store where she was employed Mrs. Lincoln has been in Santa Rosa until today, but she left this afternoon for Berkeley, where she is staying with relatives. She is said to have told her acquaintances here that she would return Monday and that she expected to make her future home here.


Referring to the charges that have been made, Leppo said today:

“Mrs. Lincoln is innocent of any wrong. I have known her for three years, but have never met her but a few times. We were introduced at a dance. I was floor manager and danced with her twice. One of the dances was a ‘grab dance.’ Since that time I have had no peace.”

– San Francisco Call, November 5, 1911
Mrs. Doris Lincoln Says She Will Return to Santa Rosa and Live There
“Small Town Gossip” Caused Tragedy and Her Discharge, Charges Widow
Lawyer Consulted and Action Against Club Members Is Discussed

Berkeley, Nov. 5–Mrs. Doris Lincoln…is a widow with two children to support. Her husband died eight years ago, and four years ago she went to Santa Rosa, getting employment with Rohrer & Einhorn. She lived there until the storm broke and she was dismissed from the store on the demand of the members of the Irene club, to which Mrs. Leppo had belonged.

Deprived of her means of livelihood by what she calls persecution, Mrs. Lincoln’s attitude is one of indignant defiance.

“I will not run away from them, for I am guilty of nothing and have no consequences to fear,” she declared today at her mother’s home. “I expect to return to Santa Rosa and to live down the accusations made against me.”

Her Version Told

“My husband died eight years ago, and I went to Santa Rosa four years ago to get work, that I might support my two children. I am dependent on what I earn.

“In Santa Rosa I became acquainted with all the principals in this affair. It is one of those occurrences that can happen only in a small town, where gossip, however idle, is easily carried on. I met Mr. Leppo only in a social way a few times. I was introduced to him at dances and parties, and our acquaintance was only casual. Charges or suggestions of more intimacy than that are false and malicious.

“About two weeks ago I learned for the first time that I was being the victim of gossip and of anonymous letters to Mrs. Leppo and to my employers, which linked my name with Mr. Leppo’s  and demanded my dismissal from the place where I was earning my living.

“I tried to defend myself. I called personally on members of the Irene club to learn what they knew. In every case, when I pinned a woman down to the direct question of what she knew the reply was that she knew nothing as a matter of fact, but only what she had heard. And I believe it was on such hearsay proof that I was made the victim of a small town persecution and was discharged from the employment on which my bread and that of my children depended.

Unsigned Letters Sent

“M. Einhorn was receiving anonymous letters for some time before I knew a thing about it. Trying to defend my reputation, I asked him what made me personally objectionable, and he answered, ‘nothing.’

“‘I could not say anything against you if I wanted to,’ he said.

“I blame him for the extend to which the affair has gone. I know he was protecting his business, but I think he should have paid some regard to principle. If he were as good a friend of Mrs. Leppo and of the others as it seemed, why did he not tell me something about the anonymous letters when he first got them? Why did not he or somebody let me know in time, if it were true, that Mrs. Leppo thought her husband was infatuated with me?

“If she had asked, I would willingly have left town rather than be suspected of improper relations with her husband. But I knew nothing of such rumors until she had ended her life and the attacks were being made on me by gossiping tongues and anonymous letters.

“Now it is too late. The woman is dead and those who by saying a word might have prevented such a thing are injuring my character by these charges. I feel helpless, but I will not be driven out. Though I would have left Santa Rosa months ago rather than be subject to suspicion, I will not leave now and give an impression of truth to the charges. My reputation demands that I fact the future right in Santa Rosa and live down the charges.

Search Is Vain

“But the fight is only made the harder by the difficulty of finding the base for the rumors and the slanders. Nobody whom I interviewed could give  me proof of my guilt, or even good grounds for suspecting me, and with rumors so baseless floating one does not know how to defend one’s self.

“What was the motive for such stories, if they are untrue? The only one I can give is small town jealousy. I went to Santa Rosa to work, but I was received in the best homes. I have been a guest at many affairs and entertained at times by the best people. The result was a kind of jealousy. People talked and wagging tongues in idle hours caused the trouble.

“Some of the charges are absurd. All are untrue. It is said that Mr. Leppo had flowers sent to me when I was in a hospital–that he had a standing order at a certain store. I do not know if that be true or not. I can say merely  that I think it foolish. Mr. Leppo never made me a present of any kind, for we were never even close friends. Another charge is that he gave me property at Monte Cristo. That is absurd. I bought some property from Mr. Leppo’s parents through one of my friends. I have the receipts and can produce them. Mr. Leppo had nothing to do with the transaction and I knew his parents much better than I knew him.

Action is Problematical

“I am here now to confer with my mother and seek legal advice. I do not know if I will go into court; I cannot now see the good of it. My mother advised me to do just what I intended, which is to remain in Santa Rosa until my reputation has been vindicated. For I believe those who have been most bitter will at last come to see the absurdity and the cruelty of their charges. They did not stop to think that they were injuring somebody’s reputation, perhaps forever.

“Of course Mr. Leppo denied the charges. He could do nothing else. A man can’t admit what isn’t true. I believe that the lies which lost me my position and may turn away my friends caused Mrs. Leppo’s death. I believe what doctors in Santa Rosa have told me–that anonymous letters murdered her–made her take her own life. Her health was poor and the letters drove her to her act.”

– San Francisco Call, November 6, 1911

Sting of Accusations That He Might Be Anonymous Letter Writer Said to Have Been Reason for Self-Destruction
Well Known Young Bank Cashier Sends Bullet Into His Brain in the Yard of His Home–Writes Farewell note to Wife–Little Daughter Finds Body

Santa Rosa was [?profoundly] stirred yesterday afternoon when the news spread that William Thomas Hopper, the well-known assistant cashier of the Santa Rosa Bank and a son of Wesley T. Hopper, had committed suicide by shooting himself through the head. The suicide occurred in the back yard of the Hopper residence on Olive street in Ludwig’s additions, death being almost instantaneous.

The unexpected tragedy became all the more startling when it flashed upon the public mind that Mr. Hopper was an own cousin [sic] of the late Mrs. Frank Leppo, who committed suicide three weeks ago at her home in this city by turning on the gas, and that she and young Hopper were favorite grandchildren of Thomas Hopper, the well-known pioneer and former president of the Santa Rosa Bank.

Another startling link connecting the two tragedies developed as a result of investigation later in the evening, when the fact was brought out that young “Tom” Hopper, as he was familiarly known, went to his death as the result of the suspicion and charge.–unfounded, as he claimed–that he had written certain of the alleged anonymous letter mentioned prior to and after the death of Mrs. Leppo.

Unable to bear the sting of the implied accusation charging him with having written one of these letters, which charge he had earlier in the day vehemently resented, young Hopper sought the seclusion of his home, and there put a bullet through his brain, leaving a note to say that he could not stand up under such an unholy suspicion.

Child Finds Body

Smiling and apparently as blithe as ever, the young man left the bank at the close of business hours yesterday afternoon shortly after three o’clock. There is no reading what is wrapt up [sic] in the human heart, and his companions in the counting house little dreamed what he had in contemplation as he walked briskly out of the institution with which he had been connected for some ten years.

On his way to his home on Olive street he transacted some business. Upon arrival at his home he greeted his little nine-year-old daughter Portia with a kiss and then asked her to take a note to Mrs. Hopper at the home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lynchberg Adams, where she usually spent some time each day. The child ran off merrily to do her father’s bidding. Mrs. Hopper chanced to be out walking with her sister at the time, and so Mrs. Adams, thinking that possibly something [?important] she opened the note. When she read the opening words, “Dear wife, ‘goodbye.'”—- she at once surmised something was wrong and without reading further she at once started for the Hopper residence. Her little granddaughter Portia, in childish glee outran her grandmother and arrived first at the cosy little home. The child ran into the yard and there saw her father lying in a pool of blood. Her cries startled the girl’s grandmother as she hurried faster to the scene.

Mrs. Adams at once summoned aid. Mrs. Samuel J. Gilliam, who chanced to be riding by and at Mrs. Adams’ request he summoned medical assistance. A man coming along was asked to call Lynchberg Adams and did so. Dr. James W. Clark and Dr. Jackson Temple quickly responded to the call sent them, and Dr. J. W. Jesse came shortly afterward. The physicians could do nothing. Death had arrived before them, coming instantly with the crashing of the bullet through the head. In order to make the aim more certain the young man had hung up a small mirror at the rear of the house and took aim with its assistance.

Describes the Scene

Mrs. Lynchberg Adams, in speaking of the tragedy last night, said:

“It was shortly before 4 o’clock when my granddaughter, Portia, came over and calling me said, ‘Here grandma, is a note papa wrote to mamma.’

“I was at the next door neighbor’s and came over home to get the note. Portia started running home on handing the note to me and I opened it. The first words startled me as they read:

“Dear wife; goodbye.”

“I did not read further, but instinctively knew that something was wrong. Realizing that Portia was returning home alone, I ran after her. As I entered the back yard I heard Portia crying with each breath:

“Oh, Papa! Papa! Papa!

“Rushing to the back of the house I saw Tom lying on his face with blood about his head. I screamed for help and tried to do something for the boy. Mrs. Gilliam was passing through the alley on horseback, and hearing me, asked what was wrong. I told her to called a physician, as Tom had killed himself.

“I turned Tom over and saw the revolver lying on the ground and the bullet holes in his temple. I wiped the blood off his face and tried to give hims some water as he appeared to be breathing slightly. I then ran out and asked some one who was passing to let Berg, my husband, know Tom had shot himself, and called to a neighbor to telephone for physicians.

“Mrs. Hopper and her sister with the baby and Mrs. Warboys were just entering our house when the man I had sent for Berg arrived there. Mrs. Hopper was going to stop for a little while before going home but the man told her to go home as Tom was hurt. She and her sister ran over immediately, and were just coming into the yar when Dr. Clark and Dr. Temple arrived. They took Mary into the house, while Mattie came and took me in. The physician then went to Tom but he was dead. Dr. and Mrs. Jesse arrived about this time and every one seemed to come at once.”

The Inquest Held

Deputy Sheriff Don McIntosh, who resides on Davis street almost in the rear of the Hopper home, was informed by his wife, and took charge of the place pending the arrival of Coroner Blackburn was summoned from Petaluma. He also summoned half a dozen men to serve as a Coroner’s jury and when Mr. Blackburn arrived on the six o’clock train the inquest was held at once, with the following as jurors…The facts were related concerning the discovery of the body and the jury of which Mr. Rushmore was foreman, returned a verdict that the deceased came to his death as the result of a self-inflicted revolver wound.

As intimated the young bank cashier went to his death under the sting of suspicion which he maintained was misplaced, implied accusations that he had written certain of the anonymous letters to the later Mrs. Leppo, which letters had connected her husband’s name with that of another woman and further that he had written a particular letter to the firm where the woman was employed, suggesting that her employers “get onto themselves for God’s sake and let her go” or else they might “lose their trade.”

As is well known, since the death of Mrs. Leppo considerable publicity has been given the alleged anonymous letter-writing referred to and the woman whose name had been prominently mentioned in connectioned with the same, and others representing Mr. Leppo have been conducting an investigation.

It seems that several days ago the deceased heard whispered gossip that he had been mentioned as one who might have written some of the letters to Mrs. Leppo. He kept his counsel until Monday, when he told one of his associates in the bank that he was not only suspected of having written some of the letters to Mrs. Leppo, but also of being the person suggesting to Joseph H. Einhorn that Mrs. Doris Lincoln should be dismissed from his firm’s employment. He announced then his determination of going to see Attorney J. Rollo Leppo, brother of Frank Leppo, at once and appeared considerably annoyed that he should have been charged with something of which he declared himself innocent.

It is said that the anonymous letter sent to Mr. Einhorn was written on a piece of paper something like that used in the bank with a typewriter similar to the one in the banking institution.

Conference Held Yesterday

Young Hopper was considerably worried yesterday morning, and after he had talked with bank officials it was decided that the matter should be cleared up one way or another, inasmuch as Mr. Hopper had expressed himself as desiring an interview with Attorney Leppo as the representative of his brother, Frank Leppo.

At the conference there were present President W. D. Reynolds and Cashier Frank M. Burris of the Santa Rosa Bank, Cashier Jesse Burris of the Sonoma Valley Bank, Attorney Rollo Leppo, Mr. Hopper and Joseph H. Einhorn. The matter discussed was the letter already mentioned received by Mr. Einhorn. While Attorney Leppo did not, according to statements made last night by some of those present at the conference in the bank, make a direct accusation that Hopper wrote the letter in question, sufficient was said to make it plain to Hopper that he was strongly suspected. For when he went home to his lunch he told his wife of the meeting that morning and that he had been accused of writing the anonymous letter. He denied emphatically that he had done so. He was much exercised, and his wife sought to quiet him by telling him not to mind what was said, as it would prove that he had nothing to do with it. After lunch he returned to work at the bank as usual.

A Competent Man

The deceased had been an employee at the bank for many years, and was held in the highest regard by the officials and his fellow employees. He was an expert accountant and was industrious at all times and always did his work well. He married Miss Marie Adams about ten years ago in this city. She and her little daughter are prostrated with grief. Mrs. Hopper’s condition last night was considered very serious, and Dr. Clark was constantly in attendance. The shock was a terrible one for her. She could not be questioned concerning the exact contents of her husband’s farewell missive but it is understood to have stated that he could not bear the sting of the accusation that he had written the anonymous letters to the firm, or any others, and asked his wife’s forgiveness for his acts of self-destruction.

Mr. Hopper had not been in the best of health of late, and several days ago was quite seriously indisposed. Only Monday he wrote to a relative, George Ott, of Petaluma, and told him that he was not feeling well, but never mentioned anything about the suspicion that had been directed towards him. He was of a nervous temperament and friends stated last night that even a suspicion of wrong-doing, if misplaced, would have worried him greatly.

The deceased’s father and other relatives were greatly shocked at the sudden end of one whom they thought much. With Mrs. Hopper and her little daughter and the other members of the family everybody joins in sincerest sympathy. Among the close friends of Mr. and Mrs. Hopper, who were early callers at the scene of death were District Attorney and Mrs. Clarence F. Lea. Mr. and Mrs. Lea and Mr. and Mrs. Hopper motored through the Yosemite together and made other trips during the summer.

The funeral arrangements were not made last night, but will probably be made today.

Bank Officials Meet

The shocking death of Mr. Hopper was a stumping blow for his bank associates. President W. D. Reynolds was much affected and stated last night that he and other officials and attaches of the bank felt the death of Mr. Hopper very keenly. His accounts were kept strictly up to date, and everything was straight as a string as far as his business relations with the bank were concerned. Mr. Hopper carried an insurance for $6,000 in the Banker’s Life Insurance Company in favor of his wife. He was also under bonds to the bank, a well-know surety company being his sponsor.

– Press Democrat, November 15, 1911
Reason for His Rash Act Disclosed by Letter

“Dearest Wife: Good-bye. I am no more. They have driven me to the last ditch. I wrote the Einhorn note but none other. I could vindicate myself for writing it if I could tell what I knew, but I can not tell for the sake of others who would suffer. I had to do it. Good-bye again.”

This was William Thomas Hopper’s farewell to his wife mentioned in the Press Democrat Wednesday morning as having been carried by little Portia Hopper at her father’s request to the home of her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Lynchberg Adams. Just before he fired the fatal shot that send his soul into the presence of its Maker.

Here is a copy of the anonymous letter that Hopper’s last note states he wrote Joseph H. Einhorn, of the firm of Rohrer, Einhorn & Co., advising the dismissal of Mrs. Doris Lincoln from the firm’s employ. No names are mentioned, but gossip following the death of Mrs. Frank Leppo had [? connected the name?] of Mrs. Lincoln with that of Frank Leppo, and it is generally understood that Mrs. Lincoln was the woman that the writer had in mind.

“For God’s sake, Joe, get next. Let that woman go or you will loose [sic] all your best trade.

“A true friend to you and your business.”

It will be seen from the last words written by Tom Hopper that he denied having written any of the anonymous letters claimed to have been received by Mrs. Leppo. At the conference at the Santa Rosa bank on Tuesday morning referred to at length in Wednesday morning’s paper, the Einhorn letter only was discussed. Prior to the conference Mr. Hopper had stated that he had been accused of having written certain other letters to Mrs. Leppo and it seemed to be his impression at the outset of the conference that the investigation included letters addressed to her.

In view of its trivial character, much speculation has been occasioned by the fact that young Hopper appears to have taken his life as a result of being suspected of writing the so-called “Einhorn letter.” It consisted of two or three lines written on a typewriter, no names were mentioned, and the communication is anything but criminal in its nature. Nobody could be prosecuted under the law for having written such a communication.

Vindication Only Wanted

Speaking of the conference held in the bank Tuesday morning Attorney J. R. Leppo stated Wednesday that he was asked to attend it, and when he learned that Tom Hopper wanted to see him, he went. Prior to this meeting the investigation previously made had led to the suspicion that the young assistant cashier had written the note to Mr. Einhorn. Mr. Leppo stated that he had a distinct understanding that if it developed that Tom Hopper had written the letter, all that was wanted was a vindication and there would be no further action on account of his (attorney Leppo’s) friendship for young Hopper’s father Wesley T. Hopper. Mr. Leppo says he stated at the conference that there was no intention of pressing any criminal prosecution if any could have been maintained against the young man. But Hopper denied having written the letter. At the conclusion of the meeting Tuesday morning, Tom Hopper told Mr. Leppo in the presence of others that he did not blame him for the part he had taken in the endeavor to ascertain the authorship of the anonymous letter.

Tuesday morning at the request of Attorney Leppo, Hopper wrote from dictation on the typewriter he had been accused [? of using to write the ?] letter sent Mr. Einhorn. In the original the word “lose” had been spelt [sic] “loose.” In the letter he wrote from dictation Hopper spelt the word “loose.”

Widespread Sympathy

The sad and unexpected death of young Hopper has created widespread sympathy in this community and elsewhere for the young wife and child who are left behind. He was a young man who was well thought of and many of his friends were offering their sincere condolences and any assistance they could rendered to those bereaved. It was a terrible shock to everybody.

News Broken to Grandfather

To Dr. J. W. Jesse was given the task on Wednesday morning of breaking the news of the terrible happening to the deceased’s grandfather, the venerable pioneer. Thomas Hopper. The doctor broke the news as gently as possible and the result was most pathetic. The old gentleman was deeply interested at all things in the welfare of this particular grandson. He told Dr. Jesse that “Tommy” had not been well for over a week, and that he had driven him to his home at noon for several days just because he knew of his feeling badly. Tuesday noon he was not able to do so and now he regrets he did not see “Tommy” then. “If I had,” he said, “he would never have done what he did.”

Revolver Purchased Tuesday

It was ascertained Wednesday that the young man bought the revolver with which he ended his life at Dan Behmer’s gunstore. He went in the direction of home immediately after the purchase. It is also known that he came back up town again, but his object in so doing is only a matter of conjecture. He evidently had the revolver with him at the time.


– Press Democrat, November 16, 1911

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Doctors often made house calls a century ago, but usually didn’t carry a gas can and a box of matches.

It all started on a Monday afternoon in mid-October, 1911, when the Santa Rosa Fire Department responded to alarms for two fires on First street. By the time they arrived flames had badly damaged a cottage on the corner of D street along with a fine adjacent old oak tree, sending up clouds of  smoke so black that some in town apparently thought the power plant was on fire. On the other end of the block near E street a new two-story house was simultaneously burning. Both fires were extinguished but it took some time, according to the papers.

Then on Thursday, again in the afternoon, the SRFD was called back to the second house; this time firemen put out a bonfire someone had ignited in the back hall using roofing shakes and papers. The Press Democrat reported what happened next:

Chief of Police Boyes was hurrying to the scene of the fire realizing than an immediate investigation was necessary. As he ran along Second street he noticed a man come out of the small alley that runs through from Second to First streets. He called to him to stop and as he did not do so, he grabbed him. The man appeared to be greatly agitated when told he must accompany the Chief to the police station. He was locked up in a cell. At the time he gave the name of C. A. Jackson, but was recognized as Dr. Lawton of Sebastopol, and a few minutes later admitted his identity, and begged to be let out of jail, saying that he would die if left there.

The suspect was Dr. C. W. Lawton, a 31 year-old physician and surgeon who had opened a practice in Sebastopol about three months earlier. “I don’t know what has happened. If I have done anything I don’t know what it is,” he told officers and the assistant District Attorney. “Dr. Lawton had been drinking,” the PD added. “He said so himself and explained that he had imbibed because he was despondent.”

The notion that a well-respected doctor was secretly a drunken arsonist set everyone back on their heels. People came over from Sebastopol to see if it could possibly be true; he was admired there and not known to have an addiction problem with alcohol or drugs. A Santa Rosa physician who consulted with him called Lawton “a brilliant man professionally and a skilled surgeon.” There were, or course, also know-it-alls who “suspected something was wrong with him” and told the papers improbable tales of small fires discovered in his Sebastopol office building, including “a trail of powder on the stairs leading to the door of one of the rooms.” I think not.

But the evidence against him seemed daunting. Several witnesses identified him being on the scene before the Thursday fire, after which he was captured by the police chief himself. As for the Monday fires, a shack behind yet another house on First street was found to be doused with coal oil and inside was found a greasy glove. A witness said “a man who answers Dr. Lawton’s description came and claimed it later, stating that he was a fireman.” Another witness corroborated his retrieval of that automobilist’s glove.

No doubt about it: Dr. Charles Lawton was in a pickle. Formal charges were filed – but for reasons unexplained, he was only accused of arson involving the two-story house he allegedly tried to burn twice. Bail was set at $1,000. His cousin from Los Angeles arrived and the pair left for the Southland immediately after paying his bond.

It would be three weeks before the Grand Jury would mull over his possible guilt. Over that time one might presume there would have been plenty of tongue wagging around Santa Rosa about the fiery Dr. Lawton and possible motivations, but that probably didn’t happen. During those weeks the town was shattered by a scandal so terrible as to make his crimes pale; likely when his name reappeared with the Grand Jury’s decision some people had almost forgotten. (Those tragic events are covered in the following post.)

The Grand Jury investigation lasted an entire day. The decision: No indictment. Since no one witnessed Lawton setting any of the fires the evidence was only circumstantial. And even if he was an arsonist, he was innocent on grounds of insanity, Jurors said: “The Grand Jury believed that at the time of the alleged commission of the arson Lawton was mentally irresponsible,” reported the Press Democrat.

That was the odd part of the story. In those days if someone exhibited any signs of madness – a suicide attempt, unsociable behavior or even simply being roarin’ drunk – it was enough for the county to convene a three member “lunacy commission” to determine if the person deserved being shipped off to the Napa State Asylum. Here a Grand Jury believed testimony he was “subject to spells during which he became mentally irresponsible,” yet he was not held over for a routine sanity hearing. Why? Maybe because he vowed never again to drink in the future and said he would leave the state. Maybe the three lawyers he hired after posting bail had something to do with his gentle treatment as well.

So was “Charlie” (the name he called himself) just a slightly-addled boozer who liked to play with matches? Maybe, but drunk-driving over from Sebastopol to set fire to the same house twice seems rather premeditated – more like an act of vengeance, perhaps. Was there anything linking together the houses he targeted? A possible clue may be found in the Santa Rosa Republican’s article about the Grand Jury, where Lawton was described as “the alleged incendiary [arsonist] of the tenderloin district.”

That throwaway bit about “the tenderloin district” is key historical information. Santa Rosa’s red light district around the intersection of First and D streets was officially shut down in 1909 by court order. (See TENDERLOIN CRACKDOWN for more background.) Although there was evidence suggesting little had really changed aside from the scene becoming less boisterous, there was never anything in the papers mentioning the tenderloin still existed in 1911 – until here.

Thus it may be noteworthy that the houses Charlie Lawton torched were both owned by men well known for renting to prostitutes. Savings Bank of Santa Rosa director Cornelius “Con” Shea was the landlord for a nearby bordello caught operating after the 1909 ban, although his son-in-law claimed there was a verbal agreement with the tenant not to allow prostitution. The other property owner was Dan Behmer, who had built a custom-designed bordello a few doors further down on First street. (Miss Lou Farmer, who lived nearby, had successfully sued Behmer over that building in 1907, setting in motion the eventual closing of the red light district.) The new Behmer house that Dr. Lawton tried to burn twice was right next door to Miss Farmer’s home, but it was never described how Behmer used the building.

When arrested the PD reported he was despondent, so maybe Charlie had fallen for a “soiled dove” who worked the tenderloin. Or maybe he had a grudge against the upstanding businessmen who profited from the trade, or maybe he intended to burn down all of Santa Rosa in numerical order, starting with First street. Maybe he burned down houses in other places, too. We’ll never know; Charles W. Lawton didn’t leave much of a trail. He was unmarried and had no children. Except for his short Sebastopol sojourn, he apparently spent all his life knocking around Southern California – before coming here he was in Soledad and before that, Long Beach. He died in Bakersfield in 1914, where he’s buried in an unmarked grave. But we have one last glimpse of Charlie when his name was in the papers for suing a man named Walter E. Scott.

That story began back in 1906, when Lawton was still a resident at California Hospital in Los Angeles. Scott sought medical care for his brother, Warner, who had a bullet wound in his groin that had been untreated for over 24 hours. Scott promised to pay Dr. Lawton $1,000 if he saved his brother’s life. Lawton agreed, apparently unaware the man making the thousand-dollar pledge was the notorious “Death Valley Scotty.”

The picture we have today of Death Valley Scotty has been cultivated by generations of newspaper feature and magazine writers who portrayed him as a lovable scamp (and whom the National Park System has since reinvented as a mascot for a lucrative tourist attraction). But in truth he was a career criminal who conned people into believing he owned a secret gold mine or knew where there was one and anyway, he would have his hands on a bonanza any day now – want to invest? His brother’s wound was the result of one of these schemes. A mining engineer who insisted on actually seeing the mine before recommending investment was undeterred when Scotty warned they would be passing through outlaw country, so Scotty arranged for a few buddies to hide behind rocks and pretend to ambush them. The theatrics took a serious turn when brother Warner actually was shot. (If the engineer had any question as to whether the ambush was legit or not, it was probably answered when Scotty then galloped toward the ersatz bandits while yelling for them to cease fire.)

When Warner was healed Dr. Lawton presented his bill – sorry, said Scotty, my pockets are empty. Lawton took him to court in 1908 and won a judgement of $1,001.25, which Scotty predictably didn’t pay.

In 1912 their paths crossed again. Scotty seemed to have a chronic condition of not being able to keep his mouth shut (call it “Yapper’s Disease”) and instead of telling reporters his mine would someday make him fabulously wealthy, now he boasted he had just sold it for $12 million, flashing a wad of bills that supposedly was the $25,000 down payment. Lawton read this news in his Los Angeles office; after the Sonoma County District Attorney dropped charges he hadn’t left the state after all, but began practicing medicine just a couple of blocks from his alma mater, USC. Lawton brought suit against him again, this time for $1,247.

In his court appearance Scott claimed he hadn’t sold his mine but had been paid $25,000 to reveal his “secrets.” Asked to produce the $25k, he claimed he didn’t keep books, and he might have thrown it away. After several days of such bullshit the judge jailed Scotty for contempt. To be released, Scotty had to confess all: “My hole in Death Valley is all a myth,” he told the court. He owned no mine nor ever had. He wasn’t a miner. He promoted himself with lies. The most money he ever had in his life was $3,000, which he carried in a roll “upholstered with $1 bills.” It must have been humiliating, more so for becoming national news.

Dr. Lawton never recovered a cent from Scotty (as far as I can tell) which probably was aggravating. Hopefully he also didn’t become as despondent as he had the year before; the Los Angeles tenderloin district was only about ten blocks away, much closer than the distance from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa, and he did seem a man prone to impulse.

Fire on Cherry Street–Department is Called Out Twice in Santa Rosa Monday

Fire partially destroyed the little one story cottage of Con Shea at 713 First street and damaged the two story house adjoined belonging to Dan Behmer at 739 First street, Monday afternoon about 4:15 o’clock.

A fine large oak tree along side the little cottage caught fire from the flames and sent up a cloud of black smoke which made those at a distance believe that an oil tank had caught fire. When the fire department arrived two streams were quickly playing on the buildings and soon the flames were checked but it took some time to get them entire extinguished. The loss will probably reach $2,500 and is covered by insurance.

The fire department was called out at 12:35 for a blaze in the cottage on Orchard street between Johnson and Cherry streets adjoining the new Seventh Day Adventist Church. A match carelessly thrown into a bucket sitting under a window set fire to its contents and the blaze communicated to the lace curtain. The window casing and paper were slightly burned, but the fire was put out before the department arrived.

– Press Democrat, October 17, 1911

Fire on First Street Leads to Arrest of Physician
Was Either Under Influence of Liquor or Drug at Time of Arrest by Chief of Police Boyes–Many Suspicious Circumstances

Sensation followed sensation in quick succession Thursday afternoon after the sounding of the fire alarm which took the department to First street. The first surprise came with the discovery that an incendiary had again attempted to burn the Dan Behmer house adjoining the one burned last Monday afternoon. The second and more surprising incident of the hour was the arrest of Dr. C. W. Lawton, a Sebastopol physician, by Chief of Police John M. Boyes and his detention in jail on suspicion of having started the fire. The torch had been applied to a pile of shakes and paper in the rear hall of the house. The flames were soon extinguished by the use of a chemical.

Chief of Police Boyes was hurrying to the scene of the fire realizing than an immediate investigation was necessary. As he ran along Second street he noticed a man come out of the small alley that runs through from Second to First streets. He called to him to stop and as he did not do so, he grabbed him. The man appeared to be greatly agitated when told he must accompany the Chief to the police station. He was locked up in a cell. At the time he gave the name of C. A. Jackson, but was recognized as Dr. Lawton of Sebastopol, and a few minutes later admitted his identity, and begged to be let out of jail, saying that he would die if left there.

Seen Hanging Around

On the way to the station Dr. Lawton is believed to have dropped a bunch of matches. Some matches were picked up and found to correspond with some he had in his pockets. Several women and Japanese living in the immediate vicinity of the house stated positively that they had seen a man answering the description of Dr. Lawton about the premises just prior to the fire. In his endeavor to get through the alleyway to Second street he ran into a Chinaman’s place and was then shown the way out. On the way he went onto the porch of the little Japanese house [? illegible microfilm] after the fire on Monday afternoon. George Ohara, a Japanese saw him there. A glove, such as is worn by automobile drivers was found on a bed in this house Monday afternoon and a Japanese woman says that a man who answers Dr. Lawton’s description came and claimed it later, stating that he was a fireman.

Left Auto on Street

A short time before the fire was discovered a man who looked like Dr. Lawton to a nicety, drove up alongside the saw mill at First and E streets in an automobile. The man left the machine and walked past the man towards the rear of the Behmer house. Several men in the mill saw him. In a few minutes her returned and went to his machine, cranked it, and had barely started away when the fire was noticed and the alarm was telephoned to the fire station by Bruce Batley, clerk in the lumber company’s office.

After he had admitted that his name was Dr. Lawton and that he had offices in the Kingsburg building at Sebastopol, he told Officer Andrew Miller that he had driven to town in his automobile and had left it on some street but he did not know where. The machine was later found at Main and First streets. A woman saw him leave it there and walk down First street. This was after the fire alarm.

Positive statements made by Miss Wilson and some Japanese say that the man was seen in the vicinity of the house prior to the fire and that they saw him prior to the previous fires, and the other circumstances pointed the finger of suspicion strongly at the doctor.

Arrest Causes Surprise

A short time after his arrest and after he had recovered somewhat from the stupor he appeared to be in, Dr. Lawton was taken over to the District Attorney’s office and Assistant District Attorney Hoyle questioned him. Dr. Lawton burst into tears and reiterated what he had previously told Chief Boyes that he knew nothing of what had transpired, and had nothing to do with the fire. “Whatever I have done I know nothing about it,” he said.

He was taken back to the county jail and locked up over night, the prosecutor realizing that it was a case for further investigation. Dr. Lawton had been drinking. He said so himself and explained that he had imbibed because he was despondent. He denied that he had been addicted to the use of a drug, that impression having been gained by some people who know him.

A puzzler for the officers is the motive that would prompt the man to set fire to the house considering the fact that he could not be personally benefited. Suggestions embodied the belief that he was mentally unbalanced and did not know, as he said, what he had done, supposing it was he who really started the fire. Up to Thursday night no one had been found who had seen him in the house or who had seen him apply the torch.

The news of the arrest created a big surprise in Sebastopol where Dr. Lawton has resided and practiced his profession for over three months past. People were found who stated that he had acted strangely at times.

When he came to Sebastopol Dr. Lawton stated that he had recently been in Los Angeles, following a length stay abroad. That he is skilled in his profession as a physician and surgeon is testified to by a local physician, who had been called into consultation with him at Sebastopol. The Santa Rosa medico states that Lawton is a brilliant man professionally and a skilled surgeon. So much so that he  [? illegible microfilm] should decide to locate in a town of the size of Sebastopol. Since locating in the Gold Ridge town, the Press Democrat was informed Thursday night Dr. Lawton has built up an extensive practice, considering the short time he has been there. He has visited Santa Rosa on a number of occasions.

A Suspicious Circumstance

One night some time since a man who some one recognized at the time as the Sebastopol physician was seen going up the stairways of several buildings on Fourth street by several citizens. The next morning it was learned that some one during the night had set fire to some toilet paper in one of the lavatories and that an occupant of one of the offices in the building scenting smoke had investigated and extinguished the burning paper. At this stage of the investigation this circumstance is regarded as suspicious by Chief of Police Boyes who was informed of the occurrence.

Only a few days ago Dr. Lawton was examined here for a life insurance policy and had it made out with a cousin as the beneficiary. [? illegible microfilm] As stated friends of the physician at Sebastopol are loath to believe him guilty of starting the fire and say that if he did it he did not know what he was doing at the time. When he was arrested he was either under the influence of liquor or a drug or else is a good actor.

Further Investigation Today

Assistant District Attorney Hoyle and Chief of Police Boyes and the other officers will continue their investigation of the case today. Inquiries were made at Sebastopol Thursday night. In view of all the circumstances connected with the case unearthed up to Thursday night things look rather complicated for Dr. Lawton. He made a significant remark to Officer Miller half an hour after his arrest. Through the barred opening in the little cell at the police station he said to the officer.

“For God’s sake let me out of here. If you keep me here I shall die. I may as well commit suicide if you keep me here. What shall I do?” He added again the statement already quoted: “I don’t know what has happened. If I have done anything I don’t know what it is.”

From Sebastopol came a report on Thursday night that there had been two or three incipient fires there recently that had been discovered in the nick of time and extinguished before they had gained any headway. Further than this there was no hint.

– Press Democrat, October 20, 1911

Is Identified by Many Persons at Scene of the Fire
Formal Charge Will Be Placed Against Physician Held as Incendiary Suspect Today, Prosecutor Intimates

A formal complaint will be sworn out today against Dr. C. W. Lawton, the Sebastopol physician arrested on Thursday and detained on suspicion of having set fire to Dan Behmer’s house on First street. Just what the complaint will charge Assistant District Attorney George W. Hoyle was not willing to state last night. He did admit, however, that the prosecution had been able to connect the physician with the crime right up to the striking of the match, indicating that the circumstantial evidence was very strong. It is known that Hoyle secured some very important detail which he was not willing to divulge for the present. The doctor is in a serious predicament.

Lawton was restless under the restraint the jail imposed on him yesterday and to use the saying of the street he was “all shot to pieces.” He appeared to be bordering on a mental breakdown or else, as intimated in this paper yesterday morning, he is a clever impersonator. A number of people from Sebastopol came over to town yesterday, anxious to learn the details of the case and the doctor’s connection with it. Some of them scorned the idea that Dr. Lawton could possibly be connected with a crime of which he is suspected here. Others had incidents to relate of how they had suspected something was wrong with him. He saw and conversed with Attorney Charles R. Perrier of the law firm of Libby & Perrier. After the conference Attorney Perrier said he would not discuss the case for the present. A relative of the man is expected to arrive here today from the south.

Positive Identification

Under orders from Chief of Police John M. Boyes, who arrested Dr. Lawton as he was hurring from the scene of the fire on Thursday afternoon, and with the sanction of Assistant District Attorney Hoyle, Dr. Lawton was taken from his cell in the county jail yesterday afternoon and was taken to First street and vicinity for the purpose of having people identify him positively as the man they had seen Thursday about the premise just prior to the discovery of the fire, and on the other days when fires had occurred. All the people seen identified Dr. Lawton without any hesitation…

Japanese Identify Lawton

George Ohara and wife, keepers of a Japanese lodging house on First street in the rear of which is the little house formerly occupied by Japanese, which was found saturated with coal oil last Monday afternoon after the fire in the house adjoining Behmer’s, furnished further identification of the physician. Mrs. Ohara stated unhesitatingly that he was the man who came to the house and said the automobile driver’s glove found on the bed saturated with coal oil was his. He told her he was a fireman…He was then returned to his cell in the county jail.

May Have Fire Mania

The suggestion has been offered that possibly if Dr. Lawton is the guilty hard to conceive how a man in his be suffering from a fire mania. [sic] It is is said that on more that one occasion a position would attempt the acts complained of unless he was temporarily unbalanced, particularly in broad daylight, with so many people around. This is what is puzzling Assistant District Attorney Hoyle, Chief Boyes and the other officers. There is something very strange about the man. But as stated yesterday, he denies that he has ever used drugs. He did this to a physician who visited him at the county jail on Thursday night.

Mysterious Sebastopol Fires

It was learned yesterday from Sebastopol citizens that on one occasion in the building in which Dr. Lawton’s offices are located at Sebastopol someone laid a trail of powder on the stairs leading to the door of one of the rooms where it ended at a pile of paper. A match was applied and the smoke that ensued attracted attention and the fire was extinguished without any damage resulting. At the time it was supposed to have been the prank of boys and nothing more was thought of it. Since the arrest of Dr. Lawton on suspicion of being the Santa Rosa incendiary, some Sebastopol people think that possibly it might have been Dr. Lawton who started the fire in his office building in the Kingsbury block at Sebastopol. It is said there have been other incipient fires that have been discovered in Sebastopol that were fortunately discovered and checked with no damage ensuing. It is said that on more than one occasion a pile of toilet paper has been found smoldering in the lavatory in the building where the physician was located. Of course these are all treated as suspicious circumstances.

People from Sebastopol interviewed here yesterday expressed surprise that Dr. Lawton had imbibed quite freely on his visits to this city, stating that he had not been known as a drinking man, or to have taken a drink in their town. He is said to have traveled the [? illegible microfilm] don’t know what to think of the case,” said a well-known Sebastopol banker last night. “I am very much saddened and disappointed in the man inf the allegations of suspicions directed against him are true.”

Lawton is a graduate of the University of Southern California of the class of 1905. The arrival of his cousin from the south may develop something of his characteristics and past life which may offer some solution of the predicament in which he has placed himself. His medical services bestowed on those desiring them during his residence in Sebastopol are said to have been entirely satisfactory and there is no question but what he is a talented man professionally.

Visited House Together

After the fire on Monday afternoon J. C. Donovan, the well known blacksmith, who was among those who rann to the scene, visited the Japanese house which had been saturated with coal oil. He stepped into the house at the same time as Dr. Lawton did. Donovan reminded the doctor of this fact yesterday afternoon, and the latter admitted that Donovan knew what he was talking about. At the time Lawton’s glove was on the bed and later he went back and claimed it.

– Press Democrat, October 21, 1911
Los Angeles Cousin Puts Up Money and He Leaves

Dr. C. W. Lawton walked out of his cell in the county jail on Saturday afternoon, his cousin Stanley Rutledge of Los Angeles, laving paid his ransom in a thousand dollars cash bail bond, demanded by Justice A. J. Atchinson. He left this city later in the afternoon and it is understood accompanied his relative to Los Angeles. He will later appear for preliminary examination on the charges of arson.

Former Charges Made

Saturday morning Chief of Police John M. Boyes swore to a complaint in the Justice Court charging Lawton with the crime of arson in setting fire to the Dan Behmer house on First street on Wednesday afternoon. Saturday afternoon after Constable John F. Pemberton had served the warrant and his cousin had arrived from the southland, Lawton was arraigned and was then formally admitted to bail in the sum named. He appeared very much relieved to gain his liberty.

No Trouble Before

According to Mr. Rutledge, this is the first serious trouble Dr. Lawton has been in before. Nothing like this would have been dreamed of, he said. He said further it seemed almost impossible that such a thing as Dr. Lawton committing arson could be true. He was acquainted with the nature of the evidence in the possession of the officers. Rutledge resides in Los Angeles county and appears to be a man of standing and wealth. It is understood that Lawton has other relatives residing in Los Angeles county. Attorney William F. Cowan, George W. Libby and C. R. Perrier have been retained as his counsel. There was no mistaking the fact that Lawton was glad to obtain his release from jail.

– Press Democrat, October 22, 1911
Believe that the Man Was Mentally Unbalanced

The Grand Jury of Sonoma county had under investigation yesterday the crime of arson against Dr. C. W. Lawton, the Sebastopol physician who was arrested here some weeks ago on suspicion of having set fire to Dan Behmer’s house on First street and with having saturated with oil a Japanese house in the vicinity.

After listening to the testimony of Dr. Lawton and that given by a number of witnesses and thorough investigation of the case which took up the entire day, the Grand Jury refused to file an indictment against the physician. They said that an entire absence of a motive and a belief that at the time he set fire to the premises, if he did, and while there was strong [? evidence of a circumstantial nature?] no one saw him actually apply the torch, the man was not mentally responsible for some cause led the Grand Jury to refuse indictment.

At the time of Lawton’s arrest it will be remembered he stated that if he had done anything wrong he did not know anything about it. He had the [? illegible microfilm] mentally deranged or else under the influence of an opiate.

Dr. Lawton expects to leave California at once for another state, and leaves for the [?] today. His case here was looked after by Attorneys William F. Cowan and George W. Libby.

From Los Angeles where Dr. Lawton is said to be prominently connected, and has relatives and friends, word has been received to the effect that at times Dr. Lawton has been subject to spells during which he became mentally irresponsible.

The failure of the Grand Jury to indict will end the case, and the complaint in the Justice Court will be dismissed. District Attorney Lea presented all the evidence at his command to the Grand Jury yesterday. As stated the Grand Jury believed that at the time of the alleged commission of the arson Lawton was mentally irresponsible.

– Press Democrat, November 15, 1911

Grand Jury Believes Him Mentally irresponsible

After an exhaustive investigation, which consumed the entire day Tuesday, the grand jury refused to indict Dr. C. W. Lawton, the alleged incendiary of the tenderloin district.

The man is out on bail of one thousand dollars, his arrest having been made on complaint of Chief of Police John M. Boyes on a charge of arson. The fact that none had seen the man apply the torch and that he was believed to be irresponsible mentally actuated the grand jurymen in their decision.

Dr. Lawton will depart for another state, and left Santa Rosa on Wednesday for his destination. He will again take up the practice of his profession, and has determined to eliminate all drinking in future. It is reported from Los Angeles that Lawton has been subject to spells which render him irresponsible mentally at times. District Attorney Clarence F. Lea will have the complaint against Lawton dismissed in the justice court.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 15, 1911

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