(UPDATE: After this item appeared, Santa Rosa announced it would not be restoring the Hinton ave. and Exchange ave. street names.)

When General Otho Hinton died in 1865, all of Santa Rosa mourned. Flags were lowered, courts adjourned and a “large concourse of people” attended his funeral, including the fire department in uniform. His obituary in the Sonoma Democrat cataloged the achievements of this civic leader:

…our citizens are alone indebted for all the public improvements about the place. For our beautiful plaza, the well arranged, beautiful, and tastefully laid out cemetery, and the engine house with the fire apparatus of the department, we are especially indebted, for through his indomitable energy and public spirit these all were attained…

Some years later a street was named after him – the only person so honored in the downtown core – and soon Hinton Avenue will spring back to life as part of the Courthouse Square reunification project.


Endnotes for entire series at bottom of this article

Earlier parts of this series traced Hinton’s life of infamy in the 1850s: Robbing the U.S. mail, bail jumping, living as a fugitive while becoming a bigamist. Not a word about any of that ever appeared in Santa Rosa’s weekly newspaper, The Sonoma Democrat – although when he ran for county judge in 1859, papers in San Francisco and Sacramento pointed out that his background as a well-known crook was no qualification to wear a judge’s robe. Losing that election was a rare setback for him; Hinton otherwise glided over every bump he encountered and not because of luck. Otho Hinton seemingly possessed both brains and a hypnotic charm, qualities which made for a perfect con artist – which indeed he was.

But Santa Rosa didn’t bestow a street name because the City Council decided it would be jolly to honor a celebrity criminal; it was presumably because of all the good deeds listed in the obituary – the cemetery, the plaza, the fire department. Yet in the newspapers of the time there is not a speck of evidence that Hinton had a significant role in any of those accomplishments. Never before being someone who hid his light under a bushel, he surely wasn’t stricken with modesty once he actually began doing selfless acts. No, more likely he was given undue credit because he did what he always did: He looked you in the eye, oozed with sincerity and graciously allowed you to think the better of him.

(RIGHT: Detail of 1876 Santa Rosa map, showing the Plaza bordered by two unnamed streets. Hinton’s office was on the northeast corner, shown here in a red star)

Evidence of Hinton’s great good deeds should be easiest to find in regards to Courthouse Square, but before getting in to that, a quick tour of Civil War-era Santa Rosa is needed.

It wasn’t called Courthouse Square at the time because the county courthouse was across the street at the corner of Fourth and Mendocino, where Exchange Bank is now. The Plaza was simply a small park criss-crossed by footpaths and surrounded by a fence. The landscaping was haphazard; descriptions mention heritage oaks and evergreens, pampas grass and century plants plus a hedge just inside the fencing. (The complaints today about all the trees lost for the Square reunification project are nothing compared to the howls of outrage when everything was clearcut in 1884 to make way for building the courthouse in the center. “A tree and a bit of grass is worth more than a Court-house,” wrote an out-of-town attorney, “I hope every ___ _____ who has a law suit in the new Court-house will lose it.”)

Sonoma Democrat editor Thomas L. Thompson was forever boasting it was the most beautiful plaza in the state – even while lamenting it was a godawful mess. The year 1881 was particularly fun; in January a stray pig was rooting up the grass and by summer Thompson was moaning the soil was so sun-baked that grass wouldn’t grow, suggesting it would be best to plow it over in hopes that the place wouldn’t look so terrible next year. In between those items he wrote about the “beautiful lawns of blue grass” and compared it to Golden Gate Park. Another time the paper cheered the nice new benches, along with commenting the City Council was now determined to keep the Plaza “free from all objectionable persons.”

(RIGHT: Detail of 1876 bird’s eye view of Santa Rosa looking north, showing the Plaza)

The modern-day Press Democrat gives Hinton credit for all work in beautifying the original Plaza, from planting trees to installing the fencing. But is any of that true? In March of 1859 there was a big public meeting to discuss landscaping, fences and how to pay for it all; Hinton was not on any of the committees formed that night, even though his law office was directly across from the Plaza. Later that year work commenced on the fencing. Was Hinton mentioned? Nope.

All Hinton actually did, according to the 1861 -1863 newspapers, was to pay some guys to do spring cleanups. If there was anything specifically done, editor Thompson – the #1 booster of the Plaza – somehow overlooked it.

A 1876 view of Fourth street looking west from the vacant lot which was the location of Otho Hinton’s office. The Plaza fence and shrubbery can be seen to the left and the cupola on the right was the top of the county courthouse, at the corner of Fourth and Mendocino. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

Hinton’s obituary also credits him for “the well arranged, beautiful, and tastefully laid out cemetery” which is surprising, as Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery did not really exist in 1865. It would be a couple of years before the Cemetery Association was organized to legally sell deeds to burial plots; when Hinton died it was presumably still just an ad hoc graveyard on a hill. (Since there were no deeds prior to the Association we can’t be completely sure he’s buried where his newly-added tombstone stands, although that’s the same place where a family friend and Otho’s wife were later buried.)

In Hinton’s lifetime the Sonoma Democrat reported there was interest in “buying a lot where the present burying ground is, and having it properly surveyed and laid off in lots, fenced, and otherwise improved” but apparently nothing was done for lack of leadership. In 1861 another small item appeared: “Efforts are making to purchase a tract of land near Santa Rosa, a part of which has been used as a burying-place by people of that town, to be set apart exclusively as a Cemetery. Those who favor this excellent project will please call at Gen. Hinton’s office.”

That terse “please call at Gen. Hinton’s office” is the only thread linking him to the cemetery at all. We don’t know what what he was doing: Forming a committee, signing up volunteer labor, or, lord help them, collecting donations – remember, there is no certainty that folks in Santa Rosa knew his history of stealing money.

There is a traditional story that Hinton did the road layout while August Kohle, a well digger, did the actual work of grading the paths. It’s possible; someone had to mark the trails out around that time, and hammering markers into the ground isn’t exactly heavy lifting. Peg this claim as a maybe.

Finally we come to the fire department, where there’s a chance that the old scoundrel actually did a little something to redeem himself. A side benefit of all this Otho Hinton research is that I’ve accumulated enough information on the origins of the Santa Rosa Fire Department to tell that story, which will appear in the following article. Covered here are only the details related to Hinton’s involvement.

Per usual, Hinton was given undue credit for good deeds. The obituary thanked him “…[for] the engine house with the fire apparatus of the department, we are especially indebted, for through his indomitable energy and public spirit these all were attained.” More recently it’s been written he bought the town’s first fire engine, which absolutely is not true.

The Fire Department dates back to 1861, three years after Hinton arrived in Santa Rosa. He was not a charter member of the Association and later that year a handful of leading citizens arranged to buy a used fire engine. Hinton was not among them. Shift forward two years and $600 is still owed for the engine; the volunteer firemen were paying interest on the debt out of pocket, as well as rent for the firehouse. There were plans to sell the engine and return to being a hook & ladder company only.

“But at least we see a glimmer of light,” the Sonoma Democrat gushed in 1863. “The ladies, (Heaven bless them!) are coming to the rescue…Gen. Hinton, we are pleased to see, has taken the matter in hand, and we hope soon to hear of a response on the part of our ‘substantial’ citizens to the proposition of the ladies.” Then on the Fourth of July, 1864, the paper announced:

Last Saturday afternoon the new Engine House, built by the ladies of Santa Rosa, was formally presented to the Fire Department…The house being well filled with the citizens of the town who have contributed so liberally to the enterprise. On behalf of the ladies, Gen. O Hinton in appropriate and pleasing remarks passed over the property to the Trustees of the Department…after which cheers were given by the firemen for the ladies, the General and the citizens…

Other accounts at the time and over the next few years tells the same story: It was “the ladies” who paid off the debt and financed the firehouse by hosting dances; the first county history in 1880 mentions also “a fair and a festival” and as above, it was broadly hinted they were strong-arming their loving husbands into making contributions. Meanwhile, General Hinton did…something. Everyone just plumb forgot to mention what.

“He took a lively interest in the matter,” it was claimed in an 1877 account of the Department’s beginnings. “On account of his efforts in their behalf his memory is today highly revered by all the old members of the company, and they still keep his portrait hanging in their hall as a mark of the esteem in which he was held.”

Along with Exchange Avenue, Hinton Avenue was born on July 3, 1872 by order of the City Council. Not that anyone noticed; for many years to come the street was unnamed on maps or sometimes called “9th Ave”, which makes no sense in the town’s street layout. Exchange and Hinton appeared in the newspapers very rarely – ads described businesses as being “east of the Plaza” or “in the Ridgway Block” or “across from the Courthouse,” or similar. It’s as if the town were populated by Missouri hayseeds who thought street names were uppity.

Santa Rosa made quite a show of his funeral in 1865 but aside from the street, Hinton’s memory faded quickly; he was not mentioned in any local history until Gaye LeBaron’s “Santa Rosa: a 19th century town.” When his widow, Rebecca, died here in 1882, the Sonoma Democrat didn’t report it and the Daily Republican ran only a one-liner when she was buried. His only lasting presence in Santa Rosa was his portrait, which was apparently destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

But now Exchange and Hinton Avenues are being resurrected – although for some reason, the one-way traffic directions around the Square have been flipped – as part of our new Old Courthouse Square. And soon people will be looking at that prominent street name and be asking: Who was Hinton? Anyone who’s read this series knows that will be an uncomfortable question to answer truthfully: “Well, he was an infamous criminal who apparently bamboozled the town’s founders.”

At the risk of being completely ahistorical, I’d like to make a modest proposal: Should we consider dropping the Hinton from Hinton Avenue?

Maybe we could name it Schulz Ave. or Doyle Avenue (although the other side is already named for his bank). The powers-that-be are itching to name something after recently deceased Santa Rosa nabob Henry Trione, so give him the honor. Or if they are willing to nod towards more appropriate history, call it Muther Avenue, after Santa Rosa Fire Chief Frank Muther who deserves it for saving the town from burning to the ground after the 1906 earthquake, yet currently lies in an unmarked grave. But for the gods’ sake, do we really need to still commemorate a con man who died more than 150 years ago?

1947 street view from the same location as the photograph above. Courtesy Sonoma County Library

THE PLAZA.–Gen. Hinton, as is his custom at this season of the year, has had a number of men at work of late, beautifying and improving our town plaza.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 22, 1862

CLEANING UP.– General O. Hinton, to whom our citizens are much indebted for the very pretty plaza of Santa Rosa, has had several workmen engaged repairing the railing of the sidewalk enclosure, and cleaning and otherwise improving the grounds on the inside. The plaza will be much improved this spring.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 17, 1863

SUDDEN DEATH OF GEN O. HINTON — General Otho Hinton departed this life at his residence, in Santa Rosa, last Sunday morning, about 10 o’clock. Our citizens were somewhat startled by the announcement of his sudden demise, as he had been seen upon the streets the day preceding. General Hinton was a native of Hagerstown, Maryland, and was 65 years of age. He had resided a long time at Santa Rosa, and to him it may be said, our citizens are alone indebted for all the public improvements about the place. For our beautiful plaza, the well arranged, beautiful, and tastefully laid out cemetery, and the engine house with the fire apparatus of the department, we are especially indebted, for through his indomitable energy and public spirit these all were attained. His death cast a deep gloom over the community, flags were lowered at half mast and the County Court on Monday adjourned in respect to his memory. His funeral took place on Monday, from the M. E. Church, Rev. T. Frazier officiating, and was attended by a large concourse of people. Santa Rosa Engine Company No. 1, whom the deceased had so often befriended, attended in uniform, and by them his remains were consigned to their last resting place.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 11, 1865

A GOOD PICTURE. — A life size Paintograph of Gen. O. Hinton, deceased, may be seen at the Engine House of Santa Rosa No. 1. It was drawn by Mr. W. H. Wilson, from a photograph likeness. The picture has been pronounced by all who have seen it an excellent likeness. Mr. Wilson has taken a number of pictures at this place which have given very general satisfaction. His art is a very simple one, being a drawing in indelible ink, the entire work being executed with a common pen and very small brush. He is now at Healdsburg.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 18, 1865


Santa Rosa has a beautiful graveyard, and it has been properly named “Rural Cemetery”…We took a walk through its avenues last Sunday. It was in the fall of the dying day, because of its symbolic character. We were alone. There was no one to cheer us “save the low hum of vegetation,” and the music of the wind as it played Aeolean cadences in the branches above and the rens beneath. We paused before a neglected grave. A familiar name was graven on an ordinary slab. It carried us back to the days when Santa Rosa was yet in her infancy. Moss had grown upon the stone, and the name had become dim. Brambles of every description covered the spot, in which lay the body whose name we were then contemplating, and–we felt sad. The name was that of Gen. Otho Hinton. It is as familiar to the old settlers of this valley “as household words.” His very countenance and benevolent expression is, at this writing, as plainly before us as if we had seen him but yesterday. But why is his grave thus neglected? Have the people forgotten the generous and noble hearted man, who in his life, took such an active interest in the welfare of “our future little city,” (as he was wont to call it,) and who sacrificed all health, money and time, during his declining years, for our benefit? His magnanimity and public spiritedness for the public good, should never be forgotten, and his grave should, at least, be kept green as an evidence that we appreciated his many kindness which he did for our future good…

– Santa Rosa Daily Republican, November 10, 1882


(available at non-mobile version of blog)

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General Otho Hinton wasted no time betraying the friends and family who posted his bail; within days of his release on January 25, 1851, he fled Ohio, never to see his home or his wife again. He was an unlikely candidate to start anew as a fugitive at age 49, being accustomed to a life of privilige; his previous escape from the law lasted only six days after the General – described in the wanted notice as “very fleshy” and “stout” – turned himself in, complaining he was hungry.

(This is the third in the series on Hinton’s life and crimes. See also part 1, “CALL ME THE GENERAL” and part 2, “ARREST, ESCAPE, REPEAT“. Notes on sources for the entire series can be found in the final installment.)

As Hinton’s trial date approached, his attorney brother-in-law Thomas Powell – who was among those who put up bail – presented an affidavit to the court stating Hinton sent him a farewell letter shortly after he fled, writing he was in New Orleans and was planning to bury himself and his troubles in the waters of the Mississippi. Since the fugitive General was now presumably deceased, attorney Powell argued, could we have our bail money back, please? The judge was not moved to agree.

Even though he was a wanted man, we can track Hinton’s whereabouts over the next several years fairly well through mentions in the press; in fact, federal authorities might have nabbed the guy by simply taking subscriptions to a handful of Ohio newspapers.

Let’s interrupt the story to explain almost everything previously published about Hinton’s past comes from a 150 year-old book, “Guarding the Mails” – see sidebar in part II – and most of what appears there is provably untrue or dubious. Today, however, there are thousands of searchable historic newspapers online so we have a pretty good sample of what was being written about Hinton at the time. And there is plenty to read; he may not have been America’s first criminal celebrity, but editors were eager to print every crumb of news or rumor they could about the notorious General. Readers all over the Midwest were kept abreast with little news summaries, sometimes only a few words long reprinted from another paper which might have picked it up from yet another paper. Most of the time the items didn’t bother explaining who Gen. O. Hinton was. Everybody knew.

By far, the most repeated story about Hinton during his years on the lam concerns a supposed spotting of the General in Cuba. In May 1851, about three months after he fled, newspapers widely reported someone had seen and spoken to Hinton on the island where he was then going by the name of Hanten. Most papers stated simply those details, but some mentioned this news came from Sandusky, Ohio. Fortunately, the original newspaper story can be found online; the article from the Sandusky Clarion said its source was “a gentleman recently returned from California.” That the witness wasn’t named, did not say how he knew it was really Hinton nor provided any other details about running into the infamous fugitive makes the claim sound specious. While it might be true, it has more of the whiff of an Elvis sighting.

By the end of the year the government believed he was somewhere out west. Ithiel Mills – a Deputy U.S. Marshal based in Akron – was among the few lawmen who knew Hinton by sight, having been one of the officers sent to bring him back to jail after his six-day escape. Mills was appointed a special agent assigned only to tracking down Hinton and spent two or three months in pursuit before giving up and sending Congress a bill for $2854.50 – about $120,000 today – “for services and expenses,” a remarkable amount for one guy on the road. Because his adventures involved the celebrity mail robber, an account of his chase appeared in many newspapers in the summer of 1852:

…[Mills] traversed California in various directions, crossed over the Sierra Nevada to Utah Territory and visited the most remote places in pursuit of the object of his search. It is fully ascertained that Gen. Hinton was in the state when Mr. Mills arrived, but this fact had found its way into the Atlantic papers, which probably reached there in time to put the General on his guard. The U.S. Marshal, however, has found several gentlemen who were formerly acquainted with Gen. H., who have been cognizant of some of his movements since his arrival in California, and who are fully aware that he some time since left for some other quarter of the world–probably for South America.

Marshal Mills should have stayed at home in Ohio and read the newspapers, which reported a few weeks later Hinton was in Oregon running a public house in Portland as “Samuel G. Gordon” – that being the maiden name of the wife he abandoned. And as they were apparently not divorced, Mr. Hinton-Gordon added bigamy to his crimes when he married 25 year-old Louisa Hopwood there in May, 1853.

(RIGHT: Engraving from “Guarding the Mails,” a mostly fictitious account of Hinton’s crimes and escapes)

The Ohio newspapers apparently didn’t know about this marriage when a slew of news items about him appeared later that summer. Someone in Oregon recognized Hinton and tried to blackmail him. He – and Louisa, presumably – went to Los Angeles where he was identified by a stage driver who supposedly also demanded money for silence. The driver turned him in and Otho Hinton found himself arrested for the third time.

At his court hearing Hinton admitted he was indeed the mail robber, but lied outrageously that the government had decided not to prosecute: “According to his statement he was once arrested in Ohio on this charge, held to bail in the sum of $10,000, and subsequently discharged under a nolle pros, entered by the U.S. District Attorney of Ohio,” read a widely-reprinted item. Perhaps it was while making that courtroom speech the thought first popped into his head, “yessir, I could pass as an actual lawyer!”

Hinton was taken up to the District Court in San Francisco, but discharged after a few days; the stage driver couldn’t be found to testify against him – perhaps he managed to scrape together the extortion money after all. So yet again the crafty General escaped justice, this time staying behind bars for only a month and a day.

A warrant eventually arrived from Ohio, exactly 3½ months after his arrest in Los Angeles. The U.S. Marshall wrote back, sorry: Hinton had been released and “a few days thereafter he [sailed] for the Sandwich Islands, where I believe he now resides.” His new whereabouts were no secret; Ohio newspapers were peppered with little items about his change of address.

The Sandwich Islands – AKA Hawai’i – was a sovereign nation at the time, and Hinton family genealogists have presumed he went there because there was no extradition treaty with the U.S. That’s not true; a treaty had been in place since 1849, but seems not to have been used in Hinton’s lifetime. The government might have exercised it if John Wilkes Booth was hiding in paradise but the ilk of Hinton was just not worth enormous bother.

About a year later, in January 1855, Rebecca’s brother-in-law directly petitioned Congress for the return of the bail bond. The plea claimed “Otho Hinton was indicted for purloining a letter containing a draft and a small sum of money” (an epic understatement) and now had “fled beyond the jurisdiction of the United States.” Worth noting is it confirmed Rebecca and Otho remained husband and wife and almost all of the $10,000 surety had been property owned by her and their two daughters. Congress granted relief quickly and papers all over Ohio ran items. At the same time, readers from Chicago to New York were treated to this:

A private letter received in Cincinnati from Honolulu, a few days since, contains the following item of intelligence respecting the great mail robber, Gen. O. Hinton: “Among the foreigners residing in this city is Gen. O. Hinton, well known to many of the older inhabitants of Chicago as a mail contractor, &c. When I arrived here he was attempting to practice law. Subsequently he kept a hotel, but with indifferent success. Latterly he is working as a journeyman house-carpenter, and, as I understand, makes a good living at it. He is sober, industrious and quiet, and seems disposed to acquire the reputation of a good citizen.”

Yes, our good Otho, his legal prowess unfettered by an actual legal education, was now advertising himself as “Attorney and Counselor at Law and Solicitor in Chancery” – while keeping his day job as a carpenter. During his Honolulu years he seems to have stopped posturing as a “General,” maybe so Hawaiians wouldn’t worry he was the advance man for a U.S. military invasion.

A very similar item appeared a few years later, this one in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Here was the first and only mention that can be found of Hinton having another wife:

Gen. O. Hinton, the noted mail-robber of Ohio, is a resident here. He came down from California four years ago with his wife and they kept a boarding house, but lost money at it, and the old man was finally reduced to working by the day at carpenter work. Finally, the rheumatism prevented him doing even this, and now he has turned lawyer, and manages, I presume, just to live and no more. I sincerely pity the old man, and I think that he is truly repentant.

Otho Hinton was down on his luck – or was he? Apparently his goal all along was just to bide his time in Hawai’i until charges were dropped, or so his son Edgar was telling folks back home. That happy day came in the summer of 1857; whatever the statute of limitations on his felonies – either 3, 6 or 7 years at the time (please consult an early 19th century legal scholar and get back to me) – the U.S. District Court at Cincinnati dismissed the case without comment. As you can imagine, papers nationwide could not resist printing that juicy nugget. He certainly was not acquitted and contrary to the most oft-told tale about the General, he did not escape prosecution by having himself declared dead in the Sandwich Islands.

Yet if he was free to return to the states, where should he go? Probably not back to Ohio, where his legal wife had already suggested she was itching to shoot him – and that was before he jumped bail and left her in penury, not to mention illegally marrying another woman.

General Otho Hinton sailed back to America sometime around August, 1858. We know he brought along his twelve miscellaneous Hawaiian Island law books, but we don’t know if he was accompanied by wife Louisa and their son, Otho Jr., who was born in Honolulu in 1856. (In 1860 Louisa would marry a workingman named Patterson in Oregon, and together they raised junior and a daughter of their own. No record can be found that she divorced Hinton or had their marriage declared invalid.)

From this point our portrait of Hinton has less clarity. The Ohio newspapers lost interest once he was no longer a wanted fugitive, and what little they did print about his doings out here was often wildly wrong. Not that there was much written about him out here, either; during his years in Santa Rosa the town had a small weekly newspaper with almost all local news on a single page, which was later squeezed further to make room for dispatches from the Civil War. Otherwise, you might expect there would be some mention about the arrival of this affable 56 year-old guy who called himself a General.

One reason he might have moved to Sonoma County was because he had relations here. In Healdsburg at the time lived his first cousin, Charlotte Hinton Miller. Shortly after Hinton arrived in the area her husband died, leaving Charlotte and their five children destitute. Within a few months she married a Santa Rosa relative of her late husband, Joel Miller, a neglected figure in early town history. He was a pillar of the community – one of the founders of the Christian Church, County Recorder from 1857-8 and court clerk before and after. Someone new to the area who wanted to be a lawyer could hardly hope for a better family connection.

Hinton filed an application to practice law in Sonoma County and was examined by a panel of local attorneys on October 21. His request was denied, but an interesting comment was made explaining why:

The undersigned members of the Bar beg leave respectfully to report that we have examined the applicant [illegible] and find him qualified to practice law as an attorney and counselor of this Court. But there being in his past history some charges touching his moral character which although probably acceptable of full explanation, yet not having the evidence before us to satisfy us in that respect we recommend a postponement of his application as a member of the Bar until further explanation can be made.

Unfortunately, they were not specific as to which “moral character” issue troubled them. The two felony charges for robbing the U.S. mails? Failing to abide by sworn promises to appear in court? Bail jumping and spending seven years evading arrest? Bigamy? We don’t know how much the locals knew about his past at the time – or in years to come, for that matter. The Santa Rosa newspaper never mentioned his history, although Bay Area and Sacramento papers revealed some of it later.

But as always, Hinton could con anyone into believing he smelled sweet as a rose no matter what was on his shoes. The county Bar Association must have accepted his explanation because he was admitted to the state Bar a few days later, then opened a law office with a partner a few days after that. All told, it was only three weeks between his denied petition and having his name on the door as Santa Rosa’s newest attorney at law.

Without deep plowing through court records we don’t know how successful (or not) he was in his legal career; papers at the time usually didn’t mention who was representing someone in court, although it is known he was the attorney for Judith Todd’s abusive husband in her divorce suit (see: “RIDGWAY’S CHILDREN“). Hinton mostly kept a low profile in his final years except for his attempt to become County Judge in 1859, about a year after he arrived in Santa Rosa.

Running for public office was a bad move and it’s difficult to see what he hoped to gain from it, aside from a regular paycheck. He had no chance of winning; the incumbent had been the judge for years and would remain so for more years to come. He ended up beating Hinton by almost four to one (cousin-in-law Joel Miller was the election auditor.) If he expected it to be a stepping stone to politics he miscalculated badly; he ran as an independent while most voters in the county, Petaluma excepted, were diehard Democrats – Sonoma was the only county in the state that never voted for Lincoln. And if he hoped it would raise his profile in Santa Rosa he was even further mistaken. The town was the most fiercely Democratic place of all; it was said in 1856 there were only two known Republicans living there. (One of those rare fellows, by the way, was William Wilks – Hinton’s law partner.)

Santa Rosa’s newspaper, The Sonoma Democrat, did not mention Hinton’s candidacy even once, pro or con. Perhaps he wished the rest of the press ignored him likewise. The San Francisco Bulletin revealed his infamous past and the story was reprinted by the Sacramento paper, ensuring that most of Northern California now was aware of his thievery and flight from the law. “If the candidate for County Judge in Sonoma county is the same Gen. O. Hinton who robbed the mail in Ohio,” the article ended, “it is to be hoped he will not be elected.” Further away from the state the details were wrong: An Ohio paper said he was running for judge in Sonora county and a Honolulu paper said it was Solano. A paper in Indiana told readers, “It turns out that the man nominated is W. O. Hinton, altogether a different man from the General,” before adding a cryptic and snarky comment, “[Hinton] is now doubtless, as he was in Ohio, violently opposed to the Democracy.”

Running for judge seems to have exhausted his ambitions. Between then and his death in 1865 he didn’t do much in public, although there generally was a passing mention of him somewhere in the Santa Rosa newspaper every year. He had been a die-hard Whig back in Ohio and Lincoln’s administration was dominated by former Whigs; thus on New Years’ Day, 1864, Hinton penned a nine page fan letter to Lincoln, which would probably have been a hanging offense in pro-Confederacy Santa Rosa, had anyone around here known about it. He signed the letter as just Otho Hinton, leaving out his claim to be a General which was probably wise.

His personal life was quiet as well. His daughter Mary Ellen apparently joined him here in 1863, son Oscar in 1864, and his long-suffering wife Rebecca moved here in 1865. Before she arrived, however, he unexpectedly died at home on March 5 of that year, having been seen around town the previous day appearing in fine mettle. There is a family joke that once he learned she was coming he died of fright.


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Why General Otho Hinton began robbing the mails in 1849 is a mystery. Perhaps he blamed the post office for his company’s failure after the great flood of a few years earlier. A newspaper later claimed he was a big gambler (doubtful) and another suggested he wanted the money to become a political kingmaker by backing the 1850 Whig candidate for Ohio governor, William “Booby” Johnston (yes, that really was a politician’s nickname – see Wikipedia).

Then on August 29, 1850, the Plain Dealer ran a story that began:

Yesterday our town was thrown into great commotion by the announcement that General O. Hinton, a gentleman who has represented himself in these parts as the Ohio Stage Company, but who, in fact, was merely a pensioned agent of said company, was arrested on a charge of robbing the mail of some seventeen thousand dollars.

Read that sentence again and break it down: This man known as General O. Hinton was arrested. He was charged with stealing a great deal of money. But even before those important newsy details, the paper wanted readers to know Hinton was just an employee of the Ohio Stage Company – apparently he had been posing as an owner or similar. And that was Otho Hinton’s story in a nutshell: He was a sometimes crook but a fulltime fraud. He was that way before his thievery and remained so afterwards, making it hard to believe he was a better man once he moved to Santa Rosa in his final years. (The first part of this series, “CALL ME THE GENERAL,” explores more about his background.)

Even while readers of the Cleveland Plain Dealer were reeling from discovering the guy they thought was a bigshot was actually a petty thief, the same article continued:

The following handbill in glaring capitals met our gaze this morning: Five Hundred Dollars Reward will he paid for the arrest and confinement, in any jail of the United States, of General O. Hinton…He is a man about fifty five or sixty years of age; weight one hundred and eighty or ninety pounds; has dark hair, almost black, very fleshy, stout built, florid complexion, and looks as though he was a hard drinker, but is strictly temperate.

Amazingly, the General escaped only a few hours after his arrest, despite being watched by two marshals. That’s a rather remarkable turn of events, but even more remarkable was that he was recaptured only to escape again. And then he was jailed a third time and slipped away once more. There was always a bit of luck in his getaways, but mostly he relied upon his guile and easy charm.

In 1850 America there were only a few railroads connecting a few places on the East Coast, so usually the only travel options were bumping along awful roads by stagecoach. The stage lines also carried mail which not infrequently included cash. To make the stage transport as secure as possible, a postmaster would put all mail for a route in a heavy leather bag fastened at the top by a brass padlock. Postmasters along the way had a special key to open the locks and fish out mail for their own post offices. The major drawback to the system was the inability to detect when and where a piece of mail went missing along the way. It also might take weeks for postal authorities to discover there was a problem – even urgent followup correspondence between the sender and receiver also went by mail because telegraph lines were also rare because they were usually installed along with the railroad tracks which didn’t yet exist because it was 1850 which was why the post office was using stagecoaches, see above.

Cleveland postmaster Daniel M. Haskell knew someone had been stealing parcels with cash and redeemable notes for some time, but there was no pattern he could see; it was vanishing on routes going all directions, which ruled out the possibility of theft at a particular post office or by any single stagecoach driver. He discussed the matter with Thomas McKinstry, the deputy U.S. marshal for the area and it was McKinstry who settled on Hinton as the only possible suspect. Haskell resisted the idea; he knew the General and the two were apparently friends. But Haskell came to agree. As general manager for the stage company, Hinton could be found on any route at any time and as he was usually on the road, probably no other person in the state of Ohio had a mail bag so often within easy reach.

Once Haskell learned Hinton was about to travel south he set up a trap. Knowing Hinton would visit the Commercial Bank before leaving, he asked the teller to have $1,000 stacked next to an envelope addressed to a fictitious person in the village of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, a way station on that route. Hinton indeed came to the teller while the bait was in full view. In their small talk, Hinton mentioned he was leaving later than he had planned – the following day, in fact. Of course, if the teller was making up a package of cash at that moment it would have been reasonable to expect it to go out on the next day’s stage. Later it came out in court that Hinton had booked four seats on the earlier stage where he had been expected to escort two ladies and a gentleman on their passage, so his change of plans were not made impulsively.

Postmaster Haskell sent a man named John A. Wheeler ahead so he could board the stagecoach several miles down the road and covertly watch Hinton. Around 3 o’clock in the morning, the stagecoach stopped to change horses about a dozen miles outside of Mt. Vernon. Hinton got out to help unhitch the horses. All passengers in the coach were asleep except Wheeler.

While the driver was away (presumably working with the horses in a stable) Wheeler felt the coach shake. He saw Hinton walking towards an outbuilding carrying a mailbag. Wheeler later testified he heard sounds of papers rustling coming from there. Hinton returned with the mailbag, got back in the coach, and in a few minutes they were again on their way. Hinton woke up another passenger who had been using his carpetbag for a pillow and said he needed to put some papers in it.

When the stage reached Mt. Vernon around dawn the mail was delivered , then the stage continued on with Hinton aboard. John Wheeler remained behind to see if the General took the bait. He had not.

Wheeler’s eyewitness testimony of Hinton walking off with a mailbag caused him to be charged with a separate felony for tampering with the mails, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time. Why he didn’t steal the fake package we can only guess, but the newspaper account of the court hearing states “no particular amount was put up” in the envelope, which suggests it contained just strips of paper. If so, perhaps Hinton was able to tell by weight or feel there was no real money inside. Or maybe he simply ran out of time before he could find it, as he was groping around inside a mailbag in the dark.

Now certain the General was the culprit, Haskell and McKinstry were alert for reports of any mail missing which had been on a stagecoach he was aboard. And just a few days later Otho Hinton left a trail of evidence so clumsy that he might have been caught anyway.

(RIGHT: Engraving from “Guarding the Mails,” a mostly fictitious account of Hinton’s crimes and escapes – see sidebar. The stagecoach driver in this incident was named Thomas Bryan, not “Jake”)

It was mid-August and Hinton was on a stage heading east, from Columbus to Wheeling, Virginia (West Virginia didn’t come into existence until 1861). As this was a major route, there were more mailbags than would fit in the stagecoach “boot” at the driver’s feet; the bags were stacked on the top of the coach and tied down with a canvas sheet.

This time Hinton was riding outside with the driver. Around 10:30 that night on a stretch of road where there were no stops he told the driver he was going to lie down and climbed on top. The driver later testified he couldn’t be sure if Hinton had crawled under the canvas or not, as his seat was about two feet lower. All he could see were the soles of Hinton’s boots.

Hinton’s stage arrived in Wheeling the next day and he took a hotel room. The manager there remembered him well because he asked for the fireplace to be lit despite the weather being “quite warm,” and the innkeeper observed Hinton was nevertheless sleeping with the windows open.

To the General’s misfortune, this theft was quickly discovered. Someone was able to visit the Wheeling hotel room before the fireplace was cleaned and there found ashes from other mail he had burned. Cleveland Postmaster Haskell tracked down where Hinton had exchanged “eastern money” for “Ohio money” on his return, and some of the stolen money was still in the office.* But worst for Hinton, one of the packages he snatched contained bills from a bank that recorded the “letter number and date” of all currency it sent through the mails. This would become the main evidence against him.

It was time to make an arrest. Hinton was staying at Weddell House, the best hotel in Cleveland. Haskell invited him to come by his home for cards and “dance a little with a few of his particular friends” (make of that what you will). While he was there, McKinstry searched his hotel room. The Deputy Marshal tried to pick the lock on Hinton’s trunk but was unsuccessful.

With a warrant issued by a United States Commissioner, McKinstry arrested Hinton two days later, on August 28. The General showed no signs of guilt and welcomed the deputy to search his person and luggage. Hinton seemed saddened they thought a warrant was necessary, when all they would have needed to do was ask. He was that kind of guy.

In his trunk were found “fifteen to thirty keys,” which presumably opened the brass locks on the mailbags. No mention was made whether it was legal or proper for a stagecoach company employee to have such keys. Hinton had several hundred dollars in his pockets and McKinstry determined six bills – five ones and a $5 – were from the bank that kept such careful records.

At that point, honest Otho asked for a lawyer.

He was brought before the same U.S. Commissioner for a preliminary hearing, where bail was set at $10,000. Apparently a crowd gathered as news spread General Otho Hinton was under arrest. The Plain Dealer reported the next day the town was “thrown into great commotion” and also that Hinton “applied to several of our citizens without effect.”

Until witnesses could be assembled in Cleveland for his hearing, Hinton was led off to jail – or not. McKinstry later testified Hinton made “many urgent appeals” that he should be allowed to stay at his hotel under guard. Haskell objected strongly; if McKinstry permitted that, the postmaster would take no responsibility for what might happen.

Amazingly, McKinstry went along with it. Hinton was taken back to his room at the Weddell House where he would be watched by the deputy marshal and another officer. (The other guard was not identified in any paper that can be found, but a later source said he was Cleveland city marshal Colonel Seth Abbey.) In truth, the two men were probably looking forward to their guard duty; the hotel was luxurious with fine food and the General was the nicest fellow to spend time with.

The first evening was passing uneventfully. The door to the room was cracked open, probably for ventilation; the weather had been sultry. Hinton stayed up late, pacing. McKinstry was on duty at 12:30 in the morning when Hinton suddenly moved to the door and made his escape. The deputy rushed to the closed door and found it locked – for whatever reason, the key had been left in the front of the door. Hinton’s guards were now Hinton’s prisoners and as they hammered on the door for someone to let them out, Otho Hinton walked away to his freedom.

As you can imagine, the newspapers had a field day with this misadventure. From the Plain Dealer:

It appears the General in “The wee’ sma’ hours of night” committed a ‘breach of generous confidence,’ as he had often done before. He took his guard, while off their guard, and vamosed [sic] through the door which was left ajar, quickly turning the key upon them, locking them in. Here was a pickle and such a rumpus followed as made night hideous. Stamping, hallooing, and kicking against the door, brought up the sleepers of the Weddell from pit to dome, and in dishabille, such as ghosts are said to wear.

The Cleveland Herald:

The General, being a gentleman instead of being sent to jail was indulged in his request to be under keepers at his own room at the Weddell House. About midnight he dodged out of the room, shut and locked the door after him; thus caging his three keepers and setting himself free… Had he been a common rogue, arrested for stealing a sheep, instead of fingering the mail bags, he would have been safely lodged inside the prison walls.

Otho Hinton was now a fugitive but odds were he would be soon captured. He was a well-known man in Ohio thanks to his endless self-promotion. His arrest and escape was VERY big news, as was the sizable bounty of $500. He was a stout man of 48 used to an easy life, not hiding in shadows. On the plus side, McKinstry had only confiscated $10 in stolen bills and let him keep the rest of his money, which was several hundred dollars. He still looked like a gentleman. And he was still the wily Otho Hinton.

Later, several Ohio papers described his route with local anecdotes. He spent his first night on the lam in bushes on the outskirts of Cleveland; near Bedford he stole a pan of milk and a dried fish from a farmer’s larder. When he reached Akron he bought a horse and saddle, having walked thirty miles in three days. He was recognized as he passed through the village of Mogadore where a lawyer made a citizen’s arrest – and then let Hinton go free after he sighed, “What will my poor daughters think of this?” The lawyer taking pity because he had once met the family. After six days on the run Hinton sent Haskell a telegram saying he wished to surrender and gave himself up in Wellsville, just seven miles from the Pennsylvania border. He was famished and a newspaper snarked, “The General complains of the poor accommodations the country affords to one who is in a hurry to ‘get along.'”

Hinton was hauled back to Cleveland, where a four day hearing was held. (Firsthand reporting of that hearing is the source of all information here about his crimes, except as indicated.) At the conclusion his bail was set at $15,000 – $5 thousand for mail tampering and $10 thousand for theft. He then asked to address the court, making a speech “ill-timed in spirit and manner, and regretted by his friends.”


The sneaky Otho Hinton might have continued his thieving if not for Post Office Special Agent Thomas P. Shallcross who first suspected his guilt by noticing him wince, chased him down after he escaped the Cleveland hotel, and eventually pursued the fugitive all the way to Cuba where they even met and had a conversation while Shallcross was in disguise. The story appears in several books and articles but was first told in a popular 1876 history of famous mail robberies, “Guarding the Mails.” You should read the chapter on Hinton; it’s a ripping yarn and a little of it is sort of true.
Shallcross was indeed a special agent during that time but absolutely no original sources can be found linking him to the Hinton case in any way. Mail robbery was always a newsworthy topic and this story was particularly big news because of its sensational nature; regional papers all over the Midwest were offering readers everything available about Hinton, including reprints of the complete coverage of his court hearing. Yet there was not a peep about Shallcross or there being a special agent on the case; the only sighting of him in a newspaper during those weeks placed him hundreds of miles away, arresting a man in North Carolina just as the sting operation was starting.
Some of the mistakes in the chapter are forgivable; dates and places don’t match, names are wrong and there is florid and melodramatic (and racist) dialogue which was clearly made up. More serious is the error that the General died in Australia, along with the lengthy account of Hinton’s flight and capture being entirely fictional.
While the book larded praise on Shallcross it was dismissive of the real hero of the day: Cleveland postmaster Daniel Haskell, portraying him as a bumbling wanna-be cop. Yes, the focus of the book was the derring-do of the post office special agents (author Patrick Henry Woodward was himself a special agent years after the Hinton affair) but promoting the service by brazenly stealing credit to this degree must have sparked outrage among those who participated in the events a quarter-century earlier.

At the final day of the hearing his lawyer wanted it noted that Hinton had telegramed Haskell, which he insisted showed he always meant to return, and only left custody to gather witnesses. A few days later when he was on his way to the jail in Columbus, a local history reported “he was permitted to harangue the crowd which gathered to see him, asserted his innocence, and declared that his reason for attempting to escape was the excessive bail exacted.”

He pled not guilty at his October arraignment and again asked to address the court. According to the Ohio Statesman, “for half an hour he spoke with the voice of a Stentor [loud, trumpet-like].” Either because of this eloquent speechifying or some pull with the judge, his bail was reduced to $10 thousand a few days later. This set off a new round of indignant commentary about Hinton getting special treatment. The Cleveland Herald wailed in outrage:

If a petty crime is committed by a friendless heaven-forsaken scamp, he is sure to expiate it in the jail or penitentiary; but if a great robbery takes place, and one who has previously occupied a good position in society, is implicated, through the meshes of reduced bail or some quibble, he slips through the legal net…This farce of reducing bail to suit the pockets and convenience of large depredators, has been so often played, that no man expects a criminal with wealthy friends, partners, or employers to become the tenant of a prison…Ohio is peculiarly the paradise of criminals in this respect.

Hinton was a prisoner for three months before his next court date in January 1851, where he made bail. (“The General looks nothing the worse of his long confinement,” quipped one newspaper.) The money came from an old friend in the stagecoach business, his brother-in-law and himself – which is to say it was secured by some of the property he owned with his wife, Rebecca.

The case was granted a continuance for another three months until April but by then he was far away. Sometime after his release he fled again, and this time not supposedly to find witnesses. Left behind in Delaware, Ohio, was Rebecca, who had to forfeit property pledged for his bail. The couple never saw each other again which was probably a good thing for the General – a few years earlier when he was attempting to divorce her, Rebecca filed an affidavit darkly hinting she might be inclined to shoot him over his adultery. One can only imagine her feelings towards him now that he had left her this mess.

* Key to Hinton’s scheme was the ease of laundering money in that day. That was the wild ‘n crazy “Free Banking” era when any bank chartered by a state could print its own currency. The dollar in your purse could have been issued by the state, county, city, or just the bank itself. It would not be out of order for someone like Hinton who regularly traveled long distances to be visiting banks and money changers to convert currencies, just as he dropped by a Cleveland insurance office shortly before his arrest to exchange “Chester county [Ohio] notes” for “Eastern” bills.

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