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.
HOUSES BURNED ON FIRST STREETFire 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
DR. C. W. LAWTON JAILED AS AN INCENDIARY SUSPECTFire on First Street Leads to Arrest of PhysicianWas 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
DAMAGING ACCUSATIONS ARE MADE AGAINST DR. LAWTONIs Identified by Many Persons at Scene of the FireFormal 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, 1911DR. LAWTON RELEASED ON $1,000 CASH BAIL SATURDAYLos 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, 1911THE GRAND JURY DOES NOT INDICT DR C. W. LAWTONBelieve 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
WON’T INDICT DR C. W. LAWTONGrand 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