Aside from earthquakes and airplanes and other headline moments in local history, a goodly chunk of this journal is devoted to the odd little stories that peppered the back pages of the Santa Rosa newspapers more than a hundred years ago. Most irresistible are the ones ending with a twist or some mystery.
For example, it wasn’t particularly interesting that Mrs. Patterson (“a prominent resident of Rincon Valley”) accidentally took a dose of mild poison instead of a laxative, but it made you wonder why anyone would have them in presumably identical, unmarked bottles in a medicine cabinet. It was nice to read there was a benefit to raise funds for one-legged Harold Casey to buy a prosthetic limb; what we really hoped to learn, however, was how he performed his job as the town’s messenger boy using just a crutch. And enquiring minds want to know why a couple in Cotati tied someone up with wire after he began acting crazy, yet didn’t take him to the police until the next day (they originally restrained him with rope, but he “gnawed the rope in two as a rat would have done,” according to the paper).
These peculiar items are fun to read (and write!) but also serve to illustrate how profoundly times have changed in just a century. The batch of crime-related stories from 1912 transcribed below each provides a different glimpse of that different world, starting with a crime wavelet in Santa Rosa where robbers were stealing stuff from cars while the drivers where attending Sunday evening church services. The thefts – which had been “going on for some time” according to the Press Democrat – involved overcoats, lap blankets, and probably umbrellas and other items one might have in a car during winter.
First, it’s interesting to learn Sunday night church was such a popular thing that parishioner’s cars became a dependable target for crooks (it was about another ten years before door locks became a standard item on cars). If it was happening so often, one wonders why the churches didn’t appoint a deacon or someone to hang around the vestibule and keep an eye on the doings outside. But the broader question is why people would be stealing used coats and blankets, which were not exactly high value items; perhaps the thefts were another artifact of Santa Rosa’s perpetually invisible homeless population which was then, as now, centered around the Wilson street soup kitchens operated by religious groups.
Also in 1912 the sheriff and deputies were dispatched to Kenwood where they looked for a man who had “offended women and children in that city by vulgar actions,” which presumably meant indecent exposure. That was certainly unusual (the last case mentioned in the papers was in 1906) but more remarkable here is police were shooting as they chased him.
Guns were also involved in the Dinucci fracas. According to the Santa Rosa Republican – which misspelled the name as “Denucci” – the trouble began when some brothers in the Healdsburg branch of the family were trying to move an old log on their property. “In the melee that followed, one of the brothers was cut in the eye, but he is unable to account for the exact manner in which he was injured, whether he was cut with an axe, struck with a club or fell down and collided with some object.” Irregardless of whether the eye injury was caused by chopping, clubbing or stumbling, one of the brothers next picked up the shotgun which the Dinucci boys apparently carried around whenever they were out and about lifting logs. He fired the gun at one of the others, missed, and ran for the hills. The sheriff came up from Santa Rosa and looked around for the shooter but he was not found, so everyone left and presumed he would show up at home, eventually. What a different outcome from trigger-happy Deputy Barney blasting away at the Kenwood flasher.
There were serious crimes in 1912 not discussed here, the most sensational being 15 year-old Adam Clark poisoning his parents. (The Windsor boy, who reportedly was abused and mentally handicapped, said he planned the murders because his mother was always nagging and “giving him the dickens.”) That story made the Bay Area newspapers, as did the supposed “sale” of Mrs. Seek.
Mrs. Lottie Seek and her husband were driving home to Santa Clara when they were stopped by two men. She recognized one of them immediately – it was her ex-husband, Francis Pettis.*
Heated words followed. Lottie said they were divorced two years earlier. Pettis, a horse trader who lived in Petaluma, insisted they were still married. Claiming his companion was a cop, Pettis demanded she be arrested for bigamy. After rejecting her pleadings and a further threat to have her husband, Louis, arrested for adultery as well, Pettis agreed to drop the matter if they would give him ten dollars (about an average week’s pay at the time).
All was well for the next three weeks. Then one evening, Louis could not find his wife. Lottie turned up the next morning and said “Pettis had compelled her to go to his apartments,” the San Francisco Call reported. Soon after, Pettis is at their doorstep; this time he wants another fifty bucks. Louis Seek went to the police. “He had not purchased her on the installment plan,” The Call wryly remarked. An arrest warrant for Pettis was ordered on cause of extortion.
Once before a judge, however, matters looked murkier. She was not divorced from Pettis after all; while living in Santa Rosa she had paid a Petaluma lawyer $20 for divorce papers, but did not understand – or was not told – a divorce required court hearings. Now facing possible arrest for bigamy, Lottie said she would go back to Pettis.
On hearing that, Louis Seek demanded she be arrested for bigamy.
While Lottie sat in jail, Louis took inventory. “He treated her like a brute,” he told the Call. “I treated her all right. Look at that suit on her. I paid $40 for that. Look at those shoes and that hat. All of them expensive.”
After she spent a weekend behind bars, however, Louis had second thoughts and refused to press charges. They went home together – only to find a subpoena from Sonoma County waiting. It seemed Pettis (still sought for extortion, remember) wanted her as a witness in a suit against a guy named Moretti, whom he claimed was responsible for breaking up his otherwise swell marriage. Alas, the newspapers never reported how the three (four?) cases were resolved, which usually meant charges were dropped.
And finally, someone wrote to the county asking for details about an assault that happened about forty years earlier. In the early 1870s a man was acquitted for stabbing someone in a bar fight; the writer helpfully adds this was the same brawl where the city marshall was shot. Yikes! I take back my scoffing about Santa Rosa ever having the character of a real “wild west” town. It certainly makes the odd little crimes of 1912 look positively modern.
* My best guess is Francis E. Pettis, born 1868 in Michigan, was her husband. The man was called both H. E. Pettis and F. E. Pettis by Bay Area newspapers, and although Francis was never identified elsewhere as a horse trader, he spent most of his life around San Jose, the scene of this story. Francis left a meager personal record; as an adult he appears in the census only twice – as a clerk in a poolroom in 1910 and an inmate of the Santa Clara County Almshouse in 1930, both of which seem like situations which could involve our guy.
PETTY THEFTS OF ROBES AND COATSArticles Removed From Automobiles and Other Vehicles Standing Outside Churches
Considerable petty thieving has been going on for some time from automobiles and other vehicles standing outside Santa Rosa churches on Sunday nights. Overcoats, rugs and other articles have been removed. So far the guilty parties have gone undetected but efforts are being made to apprehend them.
One clergyman has asked his parishioners, when they drive up to his church, to carry their coats and rugs into a room in the church for safety. Such thefts are mean and contemptible, to say the least.– Press Democrat, December 29, 1912
PETALUMA MAN IS ARRESTEDCharged With Selling Wife for Ten Dollars
F. E. Pettis of Petaluma has been arrested at San Jose on the charge of extortion, a warrant having been issued for his incarceration after Judge T. R. Dougherty has listened to one of the most remarkable stories ever told in the local police court.
In effect the charge is that Pettis sold his wife, Lottie Pettis, to Louis Seek of Santa Clara for $10. The price was satisfactory to all concerned, but there was a row when Pettis, having put the money into circulation, demanded more and threatened a disturbance when his demand was refused.
Three weeks ago Seek and the woman were driving on the Monterey road. They met Pettis and a scene ensued, during which the $10 changed hands. Mrs. Pettis told Judge Dougherty that she had believed herself divorced from Pettis, having given $20 to a Petaluma attorney, whose name the police are witholding, for divorce papers. The attorney told her that the payment of his fee was all that was necessary to get a divorce, and she believed him. She came here and went though a proper marriage ceremony with Seek.
That was eight months ago. Three weeks ago, when they met on the public road, Pettis threatened Mrs. Pettis with arrest for bigamy and said he would charge Seek with a statutory offense. Seek considered it a good bargain when they told him they would sell their charges for $10, and paid over the money. He objected, however, when Pettis wanted further installments, and threatened to shoot Pettis. The latter then became so annoying that they came to the police.– Santa Rosa Republican, March 4, 1912SHOOTING AT HEALDSBURGItalian Brothers Have Trouble Over Lifting Log
The brothers Denucci, who reside some miles west of Healdsburg in the Dry Creek section, got into an altercation on Sunday and Sheriff Jack Smith and some of his deputies were called to the scene from this city.
Trouble began over the simple matter of lifting an ancient log, which was on their place. In the melee that followed, one of the brothers was cut in the eye, but he is unable to account for the exact manner in which he was injured, whether he was cut with an axe, struck with a club or fell down and collided with some object.
Finally one of the brothers secured an old shotgun and discharged it at his kinsman, then he skipped out for the hills and has not been seen since.
Deputy Sheriff Ben Barnes went out to the scene of the trouble from Healdsburg immediately after being notified of the shooting, but he could find no trace of the man who wielded the shotgun. Later he notified Sheriff Jack Smith, and the latter took Deputy Sheriff Donald McIntosh and C. A. Reynolds in his auto and hastened to the scene. Barnes joined the party at Healdsburg and went with them to the place where the shooting occurred.
The officers remained in the vicinity until after dark, searching for the man who did the shooting, but were unable to locate him. It is believed he will return to his home Monday and be picked up by the officers.– Santa Rosa Republican, March 11, 1912
SOME ANCIENT HISTORY ASKEDCounty Official Receives a Peculiar Request
A prominent county official received a letter on Monday, asking for information which has not been located in the records of the county. It is possible that some of the pioneers of this section may know of the occurrence mentioned, and be able to supply the information desired. The letter follows:
“I would like to find out the time W. L. Rude was put in jail for stabbing Eph. Baldwin, and the date of his acquittal. This occurred some time in the early 70’s. E. Latipee was sheriff and Willis Mead was the city marshal at the time. This occurred in a fight in Adkins’ saloon. Jim March shot the city marshall, Willis Mead. Please let me know, if you can find out the dates, and oblige.
“P. S.–George Tupper, who used to run the Occidental Hotel, can tell you about it. So can Clem Kessing or Trib Fulkerson of your city.”– Santa Rosa Republican, May 28, 1912INDECENT ACTIONS OUTRAGED WOMEN
Sunday the members of the Sheriff’s office were busy, running down a man named Bauducka of Kenwood, who earlier in the day had offended women and children in that city by vulgar actions. He gave the officers a good chase before captured [sic]. Three shots were fired at him before he was arrested.– Santa Rosa Republican, December 9, 1912ROBBERS ROB FELLOW ROBBERHow So-Called Honor Among Thieves is Shown
The old saying is that it is no crime to steal from a thief, but how far this will hold in law is a problem, says the Ukiah Press. Sheriff Byrnes of Mendocino county has uncovered a case that would stagger the old soothsayer. It is in connection with the recent robbery of Shimonisky’s clothing store at Willits, for which Jack Kelly was arrested in Santa Rosa last week.
It develops that the robbery was committed by two men, Smith and Wilson, who cached the plunder. Smith, who was a friend of Kelly’s, went to him and told of the robbery and then suggested that they changed the plan and beat Wilson out of his portion. This was done and the plunder moved. Kelly then got to thinking over the matter and decided that it would be no more than right to rob Smith, so he accordingly swiped the goods from his friend and got away with it.
Wilson certainly deserves no sympathy for being robbed, as he was a thief. Smith should have been robbed for being a thief and also for putting up the job to rob his partner. As a retribution for Kelly’s part in the crime he was the first arrested and caught with the goods. Smith was arrested in Fairfield Monday and Wilson is located and will probably be captured soon.
The men were all clever thieves, but they figured without a knowledge of Sheriff Byrnes being the cleverest crook catcher in the county.– Santa Rosa Republican, December 21, 1912