The little item in a 1912 Press Democrat was a puzzler. A man in upstate New York had written about seeing a poster that read:
|Coming to Plattsburg–An Official Exhibit from Napa, Lake, Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, just north of San Francisco Bay, in California, with a monster elephant Shark 36 feet long, weight 10,383 pounds, 460 years old. Also an octopus or devil fish; a California ostrich, and one thousand curiosities from Land and Sea.|
It was no hoax; that was part of an ad for an official exhibit traveling the Midwest and East Coast between 1909 and 1915, supposedly introducing hundreds of thousands to the agricultural wonders of Sonoma and other North Bay counties. It never toured in the West and was rarely mentioned in any of the local newspapers; probably only a small number of people here knew about it at all, unless Aunt Myrtle from Altoona visited her Santa Rosa relatives and begged to see an ostrich ranch. And although it was a pricey operation to maintain, probably none of the groups writing checks to support the promotion thousands of miles away realized how damned strange it really was.
Our story began in San Francisco during the 1880s, where “Mon” Leak was president of the very successful Leak Glove Manufacturing Co. Before joking that “Leak Glove” seems like a really poor choice for a company name, understand he came from a family with a history of really poor names choices; not only was Mon’s full monicker “Mondula” but his father was Crapo Leak, having changed his surname as a young man from “Lake.” Perhaps he was unclear which part brought such mirth to sniggering children.
Mon exploited the odd family name in his other business, the Leak Advertising Company. Curious why horse water troughs all over Los Angeles had “Leaks” painted on the side, a reporter tracked down Mon for an 1890 interview and learned he had crews running about painting every available fence, wall or water trough with his name or an ad for one of his six clients. He was something of a advertising genius, insofar as recognizing he could blanket a city with a platoon of low-paid sign painters cranking out the same few ads in a kind of mass production.
It’s likely Mon got the idea for both businesses from his father. The 1860 census lists Crapo as a painter in Johnstown, NY which is next door to Gloversville, where almost everyone in town had some job in the glove-making trade during the 19th century. Crapo was also awarded an 1890 patent for an improved sewing machine part that would make it easier to stitch things like gloves and a couple of years later Mon followed his poppa’s lead again, this time getting his own patent on a railway car outfitted to haul around a crew of painters, with hinged bedding platforms that folded up during the day allowing it to be used to demonstrate advertiser’s products and hand out samples. Best of all it had its own generator, allowing the train car to be brightly lit both inside and out by dozens of light bulbs. It must have caused quite a sensation in the 1890s when the shebang pulled into a rural community where electricity was still something of a novelty. Again, he was kind of a genius.
Here I must interrupt Mondula’s tale to fill in some of the research backstory. When I first read that Press Democrat item I presumed it was a gag – either someone was spoofing the PD or editor Ernest Finley was presenting a “quaint” to give readers a laugh (for more, read “That Can’t be True“). But when I Googled on that odd detail of precisely “10,383 pounds,” I was gobsmacked to find ads that almost exactly matched the item, and through Ben Truwe’s rich archive “Southern Oregon History, Revised” I was introduced to the crafty Mr. Leak. His essay, “Mondula Leak and the Sign on the Wall” provides details which are just sketched here, particularly concerning the years before and after Mon was promoting the North Bay. There are photos of Mon, diagrams of the railcars, the legend of the lucky beans and much more. It’s a good read.
Sources found by Ben Truwe state the luxe railcar cost $30,000 (about $750 thousand today) but it wouldn’t be built until 1891, when Mon landed a sustaining backer: The county of Placer. For five hundred bucks a month, Mon painted “Placer County on Wheels” on the side. Locals visiting the train were shown a gold-flecked rock, Placer County fruit and told what a swell place it was. That, however, was in addition to his regular promotions. An Oregon paper described what awaited those lured in by free hot popcorn and peanuts: “People were admitted to the car and served hot chocolate as an advertisement for the house that manufactures the cocoa, and then after examining the display they were ushered out the other end of the car carrying armloads of samples of baking powder, newspapers, cocoa, germea, axle grease, etc.”
Mon and his wife, Hannah, had a private room at one end but the rest of the train car must have been crowded at nights, with about two dozen men sleeping on their retractable bunks. Besides all the painters there was a bookkeeper, stenographer, electrician and cook. (Did I mention the car also had a coal oil stove which was used in cooking demos? And after a few years of living on the rails he was granted a couple of more patents dealing with food storage on a train.)
There were no further mentions of the painters after 1892, so presumably Mon shut down that side of his operations. No one could blame him; it must have been quite a headache. Besides being in close quarters with so many men for so long there was the logistical problems of running that kind of business from a train in an era when telephones were rare. Mon had no locomotive, so there were ongoing scheduling needs to arrange for the Leak patented car and their baggage car to be hooked up to trains on different railroads. Seeking permissions to paint a fence or side of a barn probably required a savvy advance man, and there had to be a local manager to arrange transit for the painters and handle other services. And while playing California Ambassador would be fun, playing nursemaid to twenty guys with the flu in a rail car without a toilet, would not.
The three-year deal with Placer County ended in 1894 and the train became “Santa Clara County on Wheels” in short order, which it would remain for more than a decade. The major change was that besides county ag products, Mon was only pushing “Schilling’s Pure California Wines” (a San Francisco dealer who relabeled a wide variety of wines produced all over California). Gone were the days when visitors lumbered away with armloads of baking powder, axle grease, etc.
Then in 1897, a single sentence was added to the end of his usual newspaper blurb: “Another car, to which a small admission fee is charged, contains a whale.”
Um, a whale from land-locked Santa Clara County? Well, sure, why not; the premise for the exhibit was that visitors wouldn’t know squat about California. Later ads mentioned it was caught in Monterey Bay, but who is Oshkosh knew Monterey Bay wasn’t in Santa Clara (or Placer, for that matter). And besides, Mon wasn’t claiming it was from the sponsoring county, so it wasn’t his fault if people jumped to the wrong assumption. Right?
Truwe’s history web site offers transcriptions of many ads and articles over the following years showing how things devolved. The whale was rechristened a “monster elephant shark” (it was actually a basking shark) and it began eating up more of the attention; San Jose peaches and prunes were no match to gazing down the yawning maw of a shark that seemingly could swallow you up in a gulp.
Soon ads referred to the second car as the “California Marine Museum” and besides the shark weighing precisely 10,383 pounds (“large enough to feed a multitude of people”) papers said there were “many other rare specimens of marine monsters, such as a man-eating shark, weighing 460 pounds, sea angel or flying shark, sea sturgeon, baboon fish.” Another write-up promised “a monkey-faced owl, an alligator and several monkeys, alive.” For a while there was an X-ray machine, where “one can see the bones in his hands and arms.” It must have been quite the letdown to move to the next train car and find yourself facing a pile of big sugar beets that are supposed to be impressive because.
It was free to see the fruit, but if you wanted to enter the other car with the zoo/freak show “a small admission fee of 10 cents is charged to keep out objectionable characters.” Later it would bump up to 25¢ which was worth about six bucks today, but that’s not a fair comparison; a quarter was the price of premium entertainment – a ticket to the circus or a decent seat at a very good vaudeville theater.
Starting in 1905 the sponsor changed to Stanislaus County, but by then mention of the county was cursory in newspaper ads. The shark was always the headliner, with side attractions including a live alligator (!) a California ostrich (presumably stuffed) and “Peruvian Cavies” (guinea pigs) which he called, “the cutest little animals known of.” Every visitor was given a souvenir, such as a sea shell or lucky bean. And about that: Before the train arrived the local papers often ran a paid story placement about the time his “old sailor friend Seth” was spared by savage South Sea cannibals once they saw he had a rare and sacred sea bean. With that tall tale, it can be said Mondula Leak had fully embraced his inner P. T. Barnum.
From the 1909 Ukiah papers we find word that Mon had signed a contract with the North Bay Counties Association, a kind of super Chamber of Commerce across five counties (in 1925 it morphed into the Redwood Empire Association, growing to nine counties including Josephine in Oregon). To the exhibit was now added “the creations of Luther Burbank” – apparently just spineless cactus – and redwood bark. The souvenir was usually a “novelty made of the California Big Trees”, a pampas plume (then grown commercially around Santa Barbara) or a lucky bean, “People of North of Bay Counties Hope to Please You,” chirped a frequent tagline in the ads.
The contributions from all our local Chambers and trade groups added up to $400-600 per month, but that money was just cake icing; with an admission of 25¢ (15¢ for kids) and several hundred visitors a day, their take must have been around $5,000/mo. Presume the Leaks lived well.
What they needed from the counties, however, was the cloak of legitimacy. With miscellaneous ag products displayed under county and state banners, it could be claimed the exhibit was “educational;” otherwise, it was just oddities better belonging in a carnival sideshow. Some communities even might have banned them.
But here’s the interesting question: Did anyone in the North Bay – or before then, anyone in Stanislaus or Santa Clara counties – know the main attraction was not their lovely produce, but instead a stuffed shark?
Three articles in San Rafael and Ukiah papers from 1909 and 1910 offered lengthy reviews of the exhibit culled from midwestern newspapers, undoubtedly provided by Mon Leak. Not one of them mentioned the shark or any other of the curiosities, although every other review found in online historical papers prominently mentions the animal displays, often describing them in detail. One can only assume Mon edited the reviews or wrote them himself to keep his patrons in the dark.
The North Bay promotion ended in 1915, and next up was “Georgia on Wheels.” (Yes, there was still “a monstrous shark,” but its California origin was apparently dropped.) This tour was short lived. The national railway system was near standstill with its heaviest traffic in history because of the run-up to WWI. Also, Mon was now 65.
In 1917 he reinvented himself again, this time turning his advertising model upside down. If he could no longer bounce from town to town, he would stay in one place and expect the towns to come to him via the “Southeastern Exhibit Association,” with its year-round display of Georgia products (no mention of any sharks, though). Announcing their four-story exhibit hall in downtown Atlanta, Mon boasted to a reporter his field organization built a network of enthusiastic supporters eager to promote the state. Unfortunately, when he retired two years later, leadership passed to Edward Young Clarke, the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Clarke is credited with reshaping the Klan via a greatly expanded, dues-paying membership – in other words, he followed Mon Leak’s Association model, using a field organization to build a network of enthusiastic supporters eager to promote hate.
Mon and Hannah retired to West Palm Beach, Florida, where he died in 1924. That’s the end of the story, except for several Believe-it-or-Not angles.
His mother, Caroline, was actually the most famous member of the family, being the key witness in the sensational murder trial of Theodore Durrant, an 1895 San Francisco serial killer dubbed “The Demon of the Belfry.” His poppa, Crapo, returned to his old stomping grounds around Gloversville, New York, where he was arrested in 1896 for “enticing young girls into his place for immoral purposes.” Crapo was running a “disorderly house,” according to the local papers, which was usually a polite way of saying it was a brothel. When he was sentenced to five years in prison for abduction all the newspapers in the area called him a “notorious divekeeper.”
And then there was our famous shark; to my astonishment, I was able to discover its origins. Before Mon whipped up that stupid lucky bean story, he used to pay newspapers to print his item about how the shark was caught:
|Yesterday as Captain Emanuel Feress of the fishing smack Garibaldi was about to tack and sail for port he had an adventure with a monster shark that the crew will long remember. They had turned toward shore when a commotion commenced in the water, and instantly the ropes holding the net tightened and the smack started off at a rapid gait, the waves washing over the deck. The crew were thoroughly frightened and wanted to cut loose, but Captain Feress kept cool and ordered them to stand ready for whatever it was that had hold of them, and for half an hour no one knew what was going to happen. They could see nothing, but they were going away, and some invisible power had hold of the boat. Then a big black object came suddenly to the top, jumping clear out of the water, trying to loosen himself, then started for the shore, and soon had run into the bar and the tide left him high and dry, and they could then see what it was that had nearly scared the life out of them, a monster shark measuring 36 feet, the largest anyone on this coast had ever seen.|
That story supposedly first appeared in the Monterey Herald on April 20, but the year kept slipping forward; in his earliest account it happened in 1887, then 1895, then 1905. But while every single detail was a lie, he did tell the truth about the date at the beginning: It was caught in April of 1887. That was ten years before Mon Leak began hauling it around the country, and when he stopped showing it off the shark had been dead for thirty years.
I could not find out what happened to the shark – likely it went off to a Georgia carnival, saloon or a collector with lots of space over his mantle – but I’m sure Mondula hated to sell. It had inspired nightmares for countless kids, but once upon a time it had inspired a glove maker to become a kind of showman.
Very Like a Whale.
A very large shark was towed into port yesterday by the San Vicente. It was caught in Monterey Bay by the fishing steamer U. S. Grant. It is about thirty-five feet long, measures twenty feet in circumference and weighs nearly five tons. When the huge carcass was brought alongside the wharf it was with considerable difficulty hoisted on a large dray drawn by six horses and taken to Central Park, where it is now on exhibition.– Daily Alta California, April 29, 1887AN ORDOROUS SHARKRenders the Existence of Policeman Fitzhenry Unhappy
Policeman Fitzhenry filed a complaint yesterday with the Board of Health against the proprietors of the shark that was captured near Monterey last week, and whose cadaver is now on exhibition in a tent at Central Park. As the monster weighs more than five tons and is fully thirty feet long, such a mass of putrescent blubber is offensive to the nose of Policeman Fitzhenry. A posse of reporters inspected the remains yesterday afternoon, and instead of being nauseated by the decomposition of cold shark meat were fumigated with carbolic acid as thoroughly as to pass muster even with the new Board of Health.– Daily Alta California, May 3, 1887GEE! BUT THIS IS SOME BOOSTEastern Relative Sends Santa Rosans Copy of Startling Announcement in New York
A card from Jos. Kellogg, brother of F. H. and Chas. Kellogg of Santa Rosa, instructor in agriculture at Cornell University, and who is now putting in his vacation in a walking tour through the New England States, reports that in Plattsburg, New York, he found the inhabitants considerably stirred by posters all over the town bearing the following legend:
“Coming to Plattsburg–An Official Exhibit from Napa, Lake, Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, just north of San Francisco Bay, in California, with a monster elephant Shark 36 feet long, weight 10,383 pounds, 460 years old. Also an octopus or devil fish; a California ostrich, and one thousand curiosities from Land and Sea.”– Press Democrat, August 11, 1912