1912 was a pretty good year for the Santa Rosa newspapers, particularly for readers fond of mysteries concerning violent killings.
Shocking murders were usually big-city crimes in the early 20th century, but starting in 1910 Sonoma County had more than its share of sordid headlines. Reporters from as far away as Los Angeles camped out here that year to cover the arrest and trial of Dr. Willard Burke, a respected and wealthy physician accused of trying to kill his mistress and their child with a stick of dynamite. Also in 1910 was the gruesome slaughter of the Kendall family near Cazadero, where the killer was never caught or positively identified. The following year saw a scandalous double suicide in Santa Rosa caused, in part, by vigilante behavior of a popular woman’s club in town – a story the local papers tried to suppress, but still made Bay Area front pages.
Then in early 1912, this headline appeared in the Press Democrat: “KILLS CHICKEN AND THEN BLOWS OFF HIS OWN HEAD”. Well, that’s something you don’t read about every day.
The short article stated a farmer near Two Rock “killed a chicken and carried its bleeding carcass into his room in the ranch house, and then sat on the edge of the bed and blew off the top of his head,” reported the PD, adding unnecessarily, “death was instantaneous.”
But as it turned out, the paper got nearly everything wrong.
The farmer’s body was found in the kitchen, not the bedroom, he had been shot in the chest and not the head, and he did not die immediately. The farmhand who said he found his boss on the floor with the gun between his legs lived long enough to say, “I’m dying.”
Coroner Frank L. Blackburn and other officials met at the scene the next day where they tried to interpret the evidence. John Albertoni had been killed by a direct blast from the shotgun found on the floor. Still presuming suicide, they couldn’t figure out how he might have done it, try as they might. “The man has unusually short arms, and it is said he could not have reached the trigger,” the Press Democrat reported. “He had his boots on and could not have the shot with his toes. There was no stick, no string and nothing with which he could have discharged the gun.” They even considered whether the chicken might have flailed about and fired the shot. Attention turned to the man who found the body, farmhand Rocco Zanetti. He was arrested and taken to the jail in Petaluma.
Zanetti – who spoke no English, an important detail not mentioned by the local newspapers – was questioned through an interpreter at the coroner’s jury. It was announced suicide had been completely ruled out. Hearing that from the interpreter, Zanetti asked the interpreter for advice on whether he should “tell the whole truth,” apparently believing any fellow Italian who knew English would provide sound legal advice. After being told he should ‘fess up, Zanetti talked to the prosecutor.
According to the San Francisco Call, he confessed through the interpreter: “It was an accident. Albertoni had killed a rooster with the gun, which was a new one. We were joking about the bad job he had done and Albertoni handed me the gun and said: ‘See if you can do better.’ Albertoni told me that it held but one shell but did not tell me that it was cocked. It being a new gun, and I being unfamiliar with it, pulled the trigger by accident and the shot struck Albertoni in the breast.”
It sounded fairly plausible, including the part of the confession where Zanetti admitted he was frightened to admit his role, although the jury also heard testimony that the two men had recently quarreled over something. The verdict was that Zanetti had indeed shot his employer, but the jury made no recommendation on how to charge him.
But the prosecutor was unable to prove maliciousness and couldn’t gain traction on the curious detail of the double-barreled shotgun containing only one spent shell. Rocco Zanetti was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years at Folsom State Prison. He was released in 1918 and died in 1954 at San Diego.
“Adam Clark is a boy who apparently never had a chance,” the Press Democrat explained to readers in its unusual coverage of court proceedings later that year. “He started and looked inquiringly at the Court when he was told something about a mother’s love. He did not know what was meant.”
The reporting was unusual because “sob sister” journalism rarely, if ever, appeared in the PD during that era. It was also unusual because the youth being described so sympathetically had just committed the premeditated murder of his mother.
Fifteen year-old Adam Clark was not on trial in the Santa Rosa courtroom that morning; the hearing was a Superior Court investigation to determine what should become of him, as per the landmark Juvenile Court laws passed in 1909 and discussed in the previous item. Instead of prison or county jail for anyone under 21 who committed a serious crime, the emphasis was now on rehabilitation.
The crime was front page headline news in the Santa Rosa papers, and because of its sensational nature the story was spotlighted in Bay Area newspapers as well. Details vary; it’s not clear whether some reporters were able to question the boy or were just making stuff up or repeating hearsay. The version of his confession that appeared in the San Francisco Call is comically absurd, making him sound like a two-bit gangster, sneering and defiant even as he spills his guts to the coppers.
From the various accounts it seems certain Adam was developmentally disabled. The Press Democrat stated he was “fifteen as years are counted, but possibly about seven or eight when reckoned by the degree of mentality he possesses.” He seemed to feel little or no remorse or grasp the severity of his crime other than understanding he would be punished for it, in some way. It’s not even certain he intended to kill his mother or if he just wanted to make her sick as payback because “[she] always gave me the dickens.” As a result of these ambiguities, papers such as the Call looked at him and saw a scheming murderer while the PD painted him as an abused child.
All that can be said with certainty about the backstory is that Augusta Clark and her teenage son were not getting along that summer. The youngest of five children and apparently the only one still living at their place west of Windsor, Adam was working on a traveling crew of hay balers and coming home only on Sundays for a change of clothes. Recently she had demanded his boss fire him and threatened to send Adam to a reformatory. We don’t know, however, if she objected to that job in particular or instead wanted him to work somewhere else, such as on their family farm. We also don’t know if he was still attending school, but in that era a great many kids his age were employed somewhere full time. At the same age of 15 his sister, Ethel, was working as a servant, according to the 1910 census.
What we do know as absolute fact is Adam returned home on Sunday, July 28 and found his mother was out. He grabbed a handful of ‘Rough on Rats’ and dumped it into the coffee canister and sugar bowl. That particular rat poison contained forty percent arsenic.
The next day, when Adam was back at the farmworker’s camp, his mother began feeling sick. Augusta had such a violent headache she asked for a neighbor’s help and a doctor was called. She stayed with her neighbor briefly and her condition improved. Once she returned home, however, she immediately became ill again. Her neighbor was leaving on vacation so she accepted her husband’s offer for him to stay around to look after her.
Augusta, it seems, couldn’t get along with her husband James, either, the couple having been separated four years. He was “addicted at times to the inordinate use of liquor,” according to the PD, “but otherwise was an industrious, well-meaning man.” He kept in touch with youngest son Adam and slipped him pocket change.
The 61 year-old James promptly began showing the same symptoms as his wife. A friend of his visiting from Merced nursed the pair of them and after a couple of days he was sick as well. Amazingly, the local doctor did not suspect something might be amiss with the situation.
James was taken to a neighboring house as the man from Merced left for home. It was a Saturday evening when the Windsor doctor finally asked a colleague for a consultation on Augusta’s case. She was rushed by auto to the hospital in Santa Rosa where she died even before she could provide a history of her illness. The cause of death was pneumonia, after having been continuously sick for almost two weeks. Although two other people were showing the same symptoms, apparently no one still suspected foul play.
The funeral was two days later. As mourners gathered at the family home, Adam reportedly told someone the strangest thing: “I would not touch that coffee or sugar, as there is poison in it.” Word of that reached Santa Rosa and the next day the sheriff and District Attorney visited the Clark ranch house and took samples to analyze. The arsenic was found and Adam was arrested. He quickly confessed, apparently after being told that his dad had been poisoned as well and would likely die. James Clark indeed died the following day, with the friend from Merced eventually recovering fully.
Adam’s warning about the poisoned sugar and coffee was tantamount to a confession of course, and lends much to the view his brains were seriously scrambled. He also told police he had used the poison on rats and found it failed to kill them immediately. That issue was another difference between the papers that portrayed him as either cunning or clueless – perhaps he planned the delay would provide him an alibi of not being around when his mom died, or perhaps he believed it demonstrated the poison was barely deadly to rats and thus probably wouldn’t be seriously harmful to humans.
The delinquency hearing – Press Democrat coverage transcribed and partly summarized below – did little to clarify Adam’s intentions. He told Judge Seawell that he had not intended to kill his mother, yet thought he was justified in poisoning her. It also came out in court that she had Toxophobia (the fear of being poisoned) which adds another note of horror to the tale.
It took a few weeks for authorities to decide what to do with him. “Are you going to hang me?” the PD reported he asked a member of the probation committee, “his face like marble and his frame all of a tremble.” Those were the last words of his recorded in any newspapers.
Clark was sentenced to six years to Preston School of Industry at Ione, which was a prison-like reformatory with armed guards. On release after he turned 21, he was to be on a thirty year probation, subject to be re-sentenced as an adult for the confessed murder of his mother – a judgement that was extreme and appears unprecedented.
After he was released in 1918 he lived with one of his older brothers in Montana, then returned to Sonoma County where he worked as a teamster in Petaluma. Given the heavy newspaper coverage of his crimes eight years earlier, it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t finger-pointing and whispering. Adam H. Clark died at age 24 in Los Angeles in 1922.
GOOD WOMAN PASSES TO HER REWARD
The death occurred on Sunday of Mrs. Augusta Clark, a well known and highly respected resident of Windsor. Her passing is deeply regretted by the members of her family and a large circle of friends.
The deceased lady was forty-five years of age [JE NOTE: she was 54], and was a native of Norway. She came to this state when a baby.
The deceased was the sister of Mrs. Latimer, wife of Justice of the Peace Hugh N. N. Latimer of Windsor, and the mother of Ben, Ernest, Adam and Ethel Clark.– Press Democrat, August 13, 1912ADAM CLARK TELLS STORY OF THE DUAL POISONINGNever Had Chance In Environment of Home Life
Stillness as of the tomb pervaded Judge Seawell’s department of the Superior Court on Wednesday afternoon. Judge, court officials and spectators bent forward eagerly. An unusual story was being told. It came from the lips of a fifteen-year-old boy, fifteen as years are counted, but possibly about seven or eight when reckoned by the degree of mentality he possesses.
It was Adam Clark’s narrative of the poisoning of his father and mother at Windsor that aroused everybody in that quiet courtroom. The confession had been told previously by him into the ears of officials of the court. This was the first time he had told it in public.
The story came from him in fits and starts. It was not a connected recital, except when it was linked by questions put by the Court. The boy said that his mother was always nagging him, as he put it, “giving him the dickens.” A short time prior to his awful deed he said she objected to his going to work on a hay press, and had threatened him repeatedly that she would send him to the reform school. Then he made up his mind that he would put up with it no longer, and when on one Sunday he visited his mother’s house and found no one at home he placed a handful of poison he had bought some time previously to kill rats that had molested his rabbits in the coffee canister. He killed his mother, willfully, as viewed by the eyes of the law. He killed his father, too, but he maintains that he did not mean to do so. The other details have already been published in these columns.
Adam Clark told Judge Seawell that he had never known a mother’s love. He started and looked inquiringly at the Court when he was told something about a mother’s love. He did not know what was meant. There was no mistaking from his words and demeanor that he felt his mother had not used him right, and that she had nagged him, as he expressed it. He said he liked his father better than his mother. He said, too, that he realized that he had done very wrong, but as far as taking the life of his mother was concerned he did not express the same degree of concern as he did at the killing of his father. The boy told Judge Seawell that he had not intended to kill even his mother.
Judge Seawell reminded him that the fact that his mother might have been overbearing in her treatment of him, he (the boy) could not tell what had prompted that action on his mother’s part. She might have thought sending him to the reform school was for his good. Anyway, the Court impressed upon the lad at his side, that it did not minimize his terrible deed. He told the boy that more than likely if it were possible for his mother to come back to life she would be in the courtroom pleading with him (the Court) to forgive his act.
When Adam Clark left the witness stand he also left an impression with all who listened to his story that he does not realize the enormity of his offense and that in his limited mentality, still thinks that he was justified in the taking of his mother’s life.“Boy Without a Chance”
Adam Clark is a boy who apparently never had a chance. His home life, according to the testimony any number of witnesses, was not conducive to point to the better things of life and did not embody in its rule principles of right living. It was a house divided against itself, and it fell and the climax of that fall was the toll of two human lives. Witnesses testified that Mrs. Clark was unfortunately the victim at times of an ungovernable temper, and that her language in the presence of her children was not what it should have been. It was also stated that she was as the boy claimed, constantly finding fault with or nagging him. Then it was shown that the father was addicted at times to the inordinate use of liquor but otherwise was an industrious, well-meaning man, although it is said, he lacked some of the requirements that should be embodied in the good father.
At the outset of the proceedings on Wednesday morning Judge Seawell stated that the inquiry was not in the nature of a court of law. It was an investigation as provided for under the Delinquency act. He also asked all the witnesses to speak out frankly and tell freely what they knew concerning the habits of Adam Clark, his life, and environment, as well as the family history as far as they knew. At the outset Justice of the Peace Hugh N. N. Latimer of Windsor was asked by Judge Seawell to represent the relatives of the deceased and the boy and interrogate any of the witnesses that might be called on any matters he desired. District Attorney Clarence F. Lea examined the witnesses.
Adam Barth testified that he had known the boy since birth and had been acquainted with his mother and father. He said he regarded the boy as one whose environments had not been good. He said if they had been better he believed that the influence would have been felt by the boy. He spoke of his acquaintance with the Clark family, and said at times he had not thought the boy was very bight. Mr. Barth testified further that he had heard Mrs. Clark use language that was not calculated to command respect.Afraid of Being Poisoned
Dr. J. W. Seamell testified that he knew both Mr. and Mrs. Clark, and the boy. In his opinion Adam was born under a stigma of degeneracy when the proclivities of the parents were considered. He said he considered Mrs. Clark paranoic [sic]. She was constantly afraid of being poisoned, and stated so frequently.
Justice H. N. N. Latimer testified that he had known the Clark family for many years. He said he was aware that Mrs. Clark was continually nagging Adam, and she thought more of the other children than she did of him. She had some sort of a feeling that no matter what Adam did it was wrong, and she told him so, the witness stated. He said the boy was of a listless disposition, did not want to go to school, wanted to be out in the open in freedom. Mr. Clark, he said, was good to the children; he said, was an industrious woman. She was a woman of a high temper and very unreasonable in her demands at times, it seemed to him, the Judge said. He added that he was always of the opinion that if the boy had been used to the right kind of influences he would have been a better youth.
…[seven witnesses, including the boy’s brother and teacher, testified he was friendly and showed no signs signs of cruelty but he skipped school and sometimes stole small things.]…
W. H. Hickman, owner of the hay baling outfit with which Adam Clark had worked, testified. Mrs. Clark had told him she did not want Adam to work on the baler, and he had told the boy so. He also had heard Mrs. Clark threaten that she would send Adam to a reform school. She was very angry.
Under Sheriff Walter C. Lindsay corroborated the testimony of other witnesses regarding the unhappiness in the Clark family, Mrs. Clark’s disposition, and as to other matters.
Joseph C. Pohley testified that Mr. Clark worked for him some time prior to his death. He knew the family intimately. He also agreed that Mrs. Clark was very unreasonable at times and did not speak well of people. It was Mr. Pohley who was told by Clark that he was taken ill each time he drank the coffee, which later turned out to have been poisoned by his son….
…Miss Ethel Clark, sister of the lad under investigation, was the next witness. When she learned of her mother’s illness, she went up to Windsor from Santa Rosa where she had been residing for some time and assisted in nursing her mother. The day after her mother’s death, or the day for the funeral, her brother called her attention to the coffee in the canister and said it “looked funny.” It had the appearance of being moldy, she said. No more coffee was used out of the can. At the time her father was also sick. After the funeral of her mother, Mrs. W. C. Chisholm kindly invited the girl to her home, and she went there. Miss Clark also detailed something of the unhappiness of the family life, particularly as regards Adam and his mother.
[..]– Press Democrat, August 29, 1912WAS IT MURDER? MAN JAILED ON SUSPICION IN PETALUMA
As a result of the investigation conducted by Assistant District Attorney George W. Hoyle Thursday into the tragic death on Wednesday of John C. Albertoni, a well known Two Rock Valley farmer, Rocco Zanetti, an employee on the Albertoni ranch, was arrested Thursday afternoon and detained in jail in Petaluma over night…
…John C. Albertoni, a well known young rancher, whose home is on the Freeman estate, four miles west of this city, where he leased a tract of 240 acres, and was engaged in dairy and poultry raising, was found dead in the kitchen of his home at 3:30 on Wednesday afternoon, and while it is presumably a case of suicide, the coroner is not satisfied, and on Thursday morning notified the county officials. Deputy Sheriff Don McIntosh, Assistant District Attorney George W. Hoyle and Court Stenographer Harry Scott arrived here on the morning train and with Coroner Frank L. Blackburn are busy investigating. They left in an auto for the scene on Thursday, and prior to departure spent several hours here. None of the officers will speak for publication, but it is learned that the nature of the wound and the implement which was used, to wit, a double barrel shotgun, has raised a doubt in the mind of the officers, whether or not the wound could have been self-inflicted. The body is at the Blackburn parlors and it is understood that a post mortem examination is being held. The inquest will probably be held this evening of Friday morning at the parlors. There are several strange phases to the case.
The man, who lives at the Freeman place with one hired man, named Rocca Zanetti [sic], purchased a new shotgun in this city a week ago. On Wednesday afternoon he went into the yard and shot a rooster with it, re-entered the kitchen. A short time later another shot was heard, and when the hired man entered the room he found Albertoni dead on the floor. The bird he had killed was on the table and Albertoni lay on the floor, with the gun between his legs. He was shot in the body at close range; the body being badly torn and a portion of the heart being shot away. The man has unusually short arms, and it is said he could not have reached the trigger. He had his boots on and could not have the shot with his toes. There was no stick, no string and nothing with which he could have discharged the gun, near the body when found. It may have been possible that the bird which he had shot might have discharged the trigger in its last convulsions, but this idea is scouted. The gun contained an empty barrel and one empty shell. It was a new weapon and in perfect condition.– Press Democrat, January 26, 1912CONFESSES THAT HE KILLED MANRocco Zanetti Admits Shooting, But Claims That it Was an Accident Done in Playful Mood
Rocco Zanetti was brought to the county jail in this city yesterday afternoon and is detained there pending the placing of a formal charge of murder against him. At the inquest held in Petaluma yesterday morning on the remains of J. C. Albertoni, a Two Rock farmer after much endeavor to avoid the finger of suspicion already resting upon him being made to press all the heavier, Assistant District Attorney George W. Hoyle, who had investigated the death of Albertoni on the previous day, and had satisfied himself that Zanetti had fired the fatal shot, wrung from him a confession of the deed. Zanetti stoutly maintaining, however, that the shooting had been accidental, and done in a playful mood.
Prosecutor Hoyle, in the light of the investigation he had made, and the knowledge gained that the men had quarreled during the time Zanetti had been employed on the Albertoni ranch, is not prepared to accept the claim on the part of the accused that the shooting was accidental, and he will delve thoroughly into the case.
The shooting occurred on the Albertoni ranch on Wednesday afternoon and Rocco claimed to have discovered his employer in a dying condition in a room in the ranch house. He went so far at first to say that when he came in and raised Albertoni’s head that the latter had remarked to him, “I’m dying.” Under the fire of examination at the inquest held by Coroner Frank Blackburn yesterday morning Rocco admitted that he had accidentally shot Albertoni with the gun which, he says, his employer had stated was unloaded. He picked up the weapon, he said, after this assurance and pulled the trigger and shot Albertoni. This information he vouchsafed, it is said, after he had listened to the evidence from the undertaker and physician, which put his previous statements at variance and showed that it was hardly likely that the man could possibly have shot himself.
The Coroner’s jury found that Albertoni met his death as the result of a gunshot wound inflicted by Rocco Zanetti, whether accidentally or maliciously the jury did not know.
Assistant District Attorney Hoyle further questioned Zanetti after he was brought to this city yesterday afternoon. The man maintained, however, that there was no maliciousness in his act, and that it had been entirely accidental and inflicted as he had deposed.– Press Democrat, January 27, 1912