burbank1913

THE UNDOING OF LUTHER BURBANK, PART I

If only we could send messages to the past: Skip the play, Mr. Lincoln; double-check your navigation, Amelia Earhart; Elvis, dump the pills; Luther Burbank, beware the men running operations in your name because they are about to destroy your reputation.

Burbank drifted through the years 1913-1915 unaware, for the most part, the people he trusted were undoing everything he had struggled to build for over thirty years. The root of the problem was the same weakness Burbank had shown before; he wasn’t paying attention because he just wanted to work with his plants (his similar tribulations with the Carnegie Institution and the years 1905-1910 are covered in the four part “BURBANK FOLLIES” series). “I have no time to make money,” he told the Press Democrat in 1912. “I’ve more important work to do.” Add in his complete lack of any executive management skills and it’s no great surprise that things went so wrong.

(RIGHT: Color photograph of Luther Burbank, 1913. Frontpiece for volume 1, “Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries”)

This article covers just 1913, the year Burbank turned 64, and the issues with the Luther Burbank Society and Burbank Press. The problems of the Burbank Company – which sold seeds and live plants – first became apparent in 1914 and will be covered in a following essay. The 1915-1916 crash of the entire empire will be the final part of this series.

First, a note on sources: The most common reference about Burbank is Peter Dreyer’s 1985 biography, “A Gardener Touched With Genius” (sold at the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens). Dreyer drew upon unpublished correspondence, the manuscript of a critical biography which never made it to print and Walter L. Howard’s book-length 1945 monograph, “Luther Burbank A Victim of Hero Worship.” A professor of botany at UC/Davis, Dr. Howard knew Burbank (who respected him as a colleague) and also interviewed many in Burbank’s sphere. After reading “Victim” front-to-back this week, I came to realize Howard’s research – and often his exact words – can probably be found on every page of Dreyer’s book.

I am not starting a bonfire and calling out Dreyer for plagiarism, but he should have identified Howard as a primary source in the text and footnotes to a far greater degree. This is not simply a matter of academic etiquette; Dreyer’s work also mirrors those parts of Howard’s book which were weak. For example, both authors dismissively called Oscar Binner a “professional promoter,” unaware he had a storied career as a top Madison Avenue ad man. It was Binner who transformed “Luther Burbank” into a nationally-known brand name, an important part of the Burbank story glossed over in Howard’s work and an omission inherited by Dreyer. (For more on Binner and Burbank, read “SELLING LUTHER BURBANK.”)

Binner and Burbank had a fractious relationship stretching back to 1908. Burbank loathed the grubby chore of making money; a profile in “The County Gentleman” magazine said his friends agreed he was “simple as a child” when it came to business affairs and was resigned to depending on others to market his name and works for him.1 Binner believed Burbank was a genius in need of the kind of handling he could uniquely provide. In a private letter to Nellie Comstock, he wrote: “I do not misunderstand L. B. not a bit of it. L. B. misunderstands himself. When he finds himself, then he will see what is best for him and best for all time and all the world.”2

Binner abruptly disappeared from the picture in the spring of 1912. An item in the Republican newspaper reported he became an invalid because of an enlarged heart; he returned East and a couple of years later resumed his ad agency on Madison Avenue, dying in 1917. But before leaving Santa Rosa he undoubtedly played a role in setting up the Burbank Society, which was formed the month after he left, and the Burbank Press which was created shortly thereafter. The money to buy him out and fund the new startups came from an investment group formed by William M. Abbott, a Solano county land developer and litigation attorney for a San Francisco railway. (Among the more interesting investors were C.W. Post of breakfast cereal fame and beer baron Gustave Pabst.)

“From the beginning everything was planned on a grand scale,” Walter Howard wrote. “The essential advertising of Burbank had already been done, for he had been publicized as few men have been during their lifetime. He had a legion of followers whose admiration was based on sentiment, and his name already was becoming a legend. The time seemed to be ripe for cashing-in on his popularity.”3

The Burbank Society was the non-profit parent of Burbank Press, both aimed at promoting the encyclopedic work about his plant-breeding methods. Of course, that multi-volume set did not yet exist in 1912, despite five years of writing by a string of editors hired by Binner and an earlier publisher. Even though there was no foreseeable completion date, they began selling subscriptions for the books immediately.

“Advertise before you start to manufacture your article,” Robert John, one of the three directors of the Society told the San Francisco Advertising Association that August. “I am of the opinion that goods may be sold much easier before manufacture than after.”

In a few short months, the Society/Press ramped up a massive direct mail marketing campaign sending out 170,000 advertisements, making it the largest operation of its kind on the West Coast. Taking over the old Odd Fellows’ building on Courthouse Square, they had 75 employees, mainly young women, typing and filing and mailing correspondence and the Santa Rosa post office had to be upgraded to handle the volume. For more, see the Press Democrat articles transcribed below and read “LET’S ALL WORK FOR LUTHER BURBANK.”

While the PD was thrilled about all those envelopes being mailed, some recipients were less than happy about the junk mail. A magazine for southwestern ranchers commented, “The Luther Burbank Society has been conducting a campaign for funds and membership throughout the United States for a number of months in a manner which has placed Mr. Burbank in a very equivocal position and has as a matter of act made his name largely a joke throughout the country.”4

(RIGHT: “One End of the Correspondence Room” Press Democrat, November 2, 1913)

One pitch was an invitation to be a charter member of the Luther Burbank Society which supposedly would be limited to a roster of 500. Members would receive proofs of book chapters as they became available and invited to help edit and comment (none of that would happen). In gratitude this elite corps would be allowed to purchase the books as they became available for the low, low price of $15 per volume. Walter Howard told the story that he was a junior instructor in the botany department in the University of Missouri at the time. “My own invitation stressed the importance of quick acceptance as it was pointed out that only a few of the most important people of the United States were being invited and that I had the honor of being one of the number. To empahasize this point the invitations bore serial numbers. Mine was somewhere in the seventies,” he wrote. Howard threw it out, believing it had been sent to him by mistake. Then a few weeks later the same offer appeared again, and with an even lower serial number. So this was what kept their large office pool so busy.

There was still the matter of finishing and publishing the Burbank books – which were, of course, supposedly the main reason for the Society/Press to exist. When Binner abruptly exited, Prof. Edward Wickson, the esteemed head of the U/C Agricultural College was plowing away on the task; one of the few in the scientific community who had always championed Burbank, he was at least the fifth editor to work on the project.

The Burbank Press dismissed him, refusing to pay or even acknowledge his contributions – while still using his name in advertising literature. Wickson begged Burbank for help in resolve these affronts but Burbank demurred, telling his old friend he didn’t want to get involved. This incident did much to sour Burbank’s relationship with any remaining sympathetic academics. When Howard stopped by to Santa Rosa in 1915, Burbank seemed puzzled by his isolation. “Why is it you people don’t vist me oftener? Professor Wickson used to come to see me and now even he doesn’t come any more. What have I done[?]”5

In Prof. Wickson’s place they hired Dr. Henry Smith Williams, a prolific author of popular science magazine articles and books. His most prominent work to that date was a five-volume series, “A History of Science” which reviewers found heavy on imaginative writing concerning the discovery of fire and smelting but quickly skating past events like Lavoisier’s development of modern chemistry.

On the Burbank project Williams continued to embellish and play fast and loose with facts. “Even though Burbank furnished him with tens of thousands of words – in answer to questions – the insatiable editor did not find this enough for his purposes. In discussing the scientific aspects of plant breeding he interpolated paragraphs and sometimes whole pages of his own ideas, palpably not Burbank’s,” Howard remarked, adding Williams would also fluff up descriptions so “the most commonplace incidents in a gardener’s life, such as budding and grafting, were made to appear marvelous.” And here’s the worst of it: Since the entire set was supposedly written by Luther Burbank in first person, the result was that Burbank came off as an idiot to educated readers. But hey, at least Dr. Williams worked fast and the first volume was ready for the printers before the end of 1913.

Until those books started selling – and in great quantity – Burbank Press needed income; its payroll was $6,000 per month (about $150k today) and Luther had been promised an advance of $30,000 plus royalties on every book.

To raise money, Burbank Press announced an unusual $300,000 bond issue in late 1912, only a few months after the company was formed. Full page ads appeared in both Santa Rosa newspapers that November offering a five year $500 coupon note, with $125 of Burbank Press stock thrown in to sweeten the deal. The bond promised a seven percent return at a time when blue chip bonds had returns in the 3-5 percent range. It was, in short, a high-risk junk bond.

The bond advertisement mentioned Burbank as often as possible, trying to make appealing the sizzle of his name instead of the financially risky steak. To Burbank followers this pitch was familiar; almost exactly a year before, the Oscar E. Binner Co. had tried to sell stock in exactly the same way, right down to the 7% return. (Copies of both ads are shown below.) Binner’s stock offer has a strong whiff of fraud; we now know even the writing was far from finished at the time, but his ad promised the books would be available for sale by May 1912. There’s even correspondence between himself and editor Wickson from that January showing the work was mired in delays because Burbank was “in conflict with himself.”6

It would take a Wall street historian to say whether all of this was legal at the time (today there are consumer protection laws to prevent the sort of bond-stock deal offered by Burbank Press from being sold directly to the general public). But another player in our story had already made a fortune through promoting junk stock: John Whitson, the vice-president of Burbank Press. He was also a fugitive, but nobody in Santa Rosa apparently knew that.

The Luther Burbank biographers are almost completely silent on the managers of the Burbank Press. President Robert John – the sell’em before you make’em speech guy – was mentioned elsewhere as a former New York reporter. He was working with Binner in 1912 and was apparently the creator of the impressive color photographs which appeared in the complete “Methods & Discoveries” set (an article about that work is still being researched). After Burbank Press crashed he became involved with motion pictures.

It’s very doubtful anyone involved with Burbank – with the possible exception of Oscar Binner or Robert John – knew much of John Whitson’s past. He was a Russian originally named Mark David Kopeliovich who went by the aliases of Whitson and Edmund Kopple. Starting in 1905, ads began appearing in New York City newspapers advertising shares in the “Whitson Autopress Company,” which supposedly had developed a revolutionary new kind of printing press capable of printing up to 5,000 sheets an hour with no human operator. It looked like a Sure Thing and stock was being sold direct to the public with a promised return of – wait for it – seven percent.

From sources currently available online we only know that in 1906 investors lost their money and Kopeliovich-Whitson walked away with an estimated $200,000. The company may have failed because he couldn’t deliver real, working machines – or maybe it fell apart because he went on the lam with his girlfriend, having abandoned his wife and two children.

In January 1906, Dr. Dicran Dadirrian, an Armenian-born pharmacist, sued John Whitson AKA “Edward R. Copple” for alienation of his wife’s affections, asking the court for $50,000 in damages. The chemist said that a “stout dark man” started popping up every time he and his wife were in public. Sometimes she and the man would steal away for hours in his automobile. Meanwhile, Mrs. Copple finds a note in her husband’s pocket from Mrs. Dadirrian and discovers the pair were about to flee to Europe.

A few weeks later, a Reno, NV paper reported Mr. Kopeliovich showed up and asked to change his name to John G. Whitson. He told the court he had been using that name since 1900 and had also used “Kopple” as a shortened form of his Russian original. But now he had decided Kopeliovich was just too lengthy and there was “a notorious or reputed crook” using the name “E. A. Kopple” (without mentioning it was himself). The name change to Whitson was granted because, you know, Reno.

After the pair spent most of the rest of 1906 in California, Whitson returned to Reno just before Christmas to seek a divorce from the wife he abandoned. He claimed she had deserted him and her whereabouts were unknown; their children were not mentioned. A notice of divorce was published in a Nevada weekly paper. Whitson and his fiancee – who may or may not still have been married to Dr. Dadirrian – were off to London for their nuptials. Not to get too far ahead of the story, but it turned out the Reno divorce wasn’t valid and Whitson was finally arrested shortly after Burbank Press collapsed.

And so Burbank’s year of 1913 ended with the celebrated horticulturist unaware the VP of Burbank Press was a bigamist who had no apparent background in publishing but experience selling chancy stock. The books he hoped would establish his legacy as a great scientist were being ghost-written by a hack. And on the edge of Courthouse Square, a platoon of young women were churning out an ocean of envelopes sent on his behalf, almost all destined to be soon crumpled in the wastebaskets of distant gardeners.

November 9, 1911 Chicago Tribune –  November 2, 1912 Santa Rosa Republican

 

 

 

1 “Luther Burbank–Limited” by Barton Currie in “The County Gentleman”, reprinted in the Press Democrat, July 26, 1913

2 Oscar Binner letter to Nellie Comstock, February 25, 1910; Luther Burbank Home and Gardens archives

3pg 388, “Luther Burbank A Victim of Hero Worship” by Walter L. Howard, Chronica Botanica ,1945-6

4pg 390, ibid

5pg 316, ibid

6pg 185, “A Gardener Touched With Genius” by Peter Dreyer, 1985

 

 

 

300,000 LETTERS BURBANK PRESS
First Consignment of 20,000 Mailed at Santa Rosa Postoffice on Wednesday Night

The Luther Burbank Press delivered the first 20,000 letters to the Santa Rosa Postoffice on Wednesday Night of a 300,000 consignment which will go through the mails within the next fifteen days.

This means that 20,000 letters per day for fifteen days will have to be handled by the postoffice employees. A force of seven men was put at work at 7 o’clock Wednesday night and with the assistance of Postmaster H. L. Tripp and Assistant John Pursell, themselves, the entire batch will be worked up and sent off in the Thursday morning main at 5:50 over the Southern Pacific.

This consignment of mail alone means $6,000 receipts for two-cent stamps sold by the Santa Rosa office. The letters are all being routed by States and tied up in packages for each town by the clerks before they are placed in the mail sacks and will not be touched again until they reach the State to which they are directed.

In addition to this batch of 300,000 letters the Luther Burbank Press has notified the office that it wants 25,000 ten-cent stamps of the Panama-Pacific Exposition issue for immediate use as well as about the same quantity of postcards in sheets of forty eight cards each. These cards will be printed and enclosed with other matter in envelopes which will require between 10 and 12 cents postage each. All this is to be furnished the office within a very short time, a portion of it while the present big order is running.

– Press Democrat, September 11, 1913

 

DR. H.S. WILLIAMS IS CHIEF EDITOR OF BURBANK PRESS

In line with its policy of building a large and permanent organization in Santa Rosa, the Luther Burbank Press now announces the arrival of Dr. Henry Smith Williams of New York, who is to assume the position of Chief of Editorial Staff.

Dr. Williams, perhaps better than any other living author, is known as foremost in the field of popular science writing. Almost every issue of such magazines as Cosmopolitan, Everybody’s and the other standard high class periodicals contains something from his pen, as well as the scientific journals which are eager for his lucid and interesting presentations of scientific and technical subjects.

Dr. Williams enjoys the distinction of having first placed himself at the head of his particular division in the medical profession, after which, at an age at which most men are content with their laurels, he entered a new field and became the greatest living popularizer of natural science and history in America.

In addition to his voluminous current writing, he numbers among his books such works as “The Historian’s History of the World”, in 25 volumes, of which he was the author, “The Story of the Nineteenth Century Science”, “The History of the Art of Writing”, “The Effects of Alcohol”, “A History of Science”, “The Science of Happiness”, “Race Conquest”, “Every Day Science”, and many other single volumes and sets of which he has been the author, which give him unmistakable range among the great educators of the generation.

The Luther Burbank Press, in its quest for a head for its Editorial Department, found that eleven out of twelve of the foremost editors consulted referred instantly to Dr. Williams as the best obtainable man for the place, and the twelfth editor said afterward that he had suggested another only because he believed Dr. Williams could not be persuaded to give up his work in New York.

Dr. Williams brings to his present task in Santa Rosa the fullest equipment as scientist, as historical investigator and as a popular writer. He has the rare faculty of being able to write entertainingly on scientific subjects, and has done more, perhaps, than any other living writer to popularize the many branches of science.

Mr. Burbank after more than ten years of labor is now finishing his manuscript, and Dr. Williams first work will be to assist Mr. Burbank in the final arrangement of these writings. Dr. Williams will live at the Overton Hotel for the present.

– Press Democrat, October 16, 1913
A MODEL BUSINESS ORGANIZATION—THE LUTHER BURBANK PRESS
Glimpses of Santa Rosa Institution Where Newest Ideas in Scientific Management Find Application, and Where New Standards of Business Efficiency Have Been Set.
VIEW OF THEIR BUSY WORK ROOMS, SHOWING MODERN CONVENIENCES

“Here,” said the General Manager of the Luther Burbank Press, to a Press Democrat writer, as he picked up a letter which had just been opened, “is an order for a set of the Burbank Books in the $81.00 edition.

“It comes, as you see, from a small town in Iowa, and is but one of something over one hundred orders in this day’s mail, the average volume of the present business being about $5,000 per day.

“This order, like the others, was received in response to the advertising sent out by the company, and I should like to show you how quickly we can find for you its whole history.

“In the next room,” he continued, handing the order to a young woman, “we have more than a million separate cards, filed alphabetically by state, each card bearing the name, address and correspondence record of some inquirer after the Burbank Books–more than a million names of interested prospective purchasers who have been attracted by the advertising which the Burbank Press has sent out from Santa Rosa.”

Almost as the manager had finished speaking, the young woman returned with the original inquiry card of the purchaser, together with all of the correspondence in the case–giving not only the full name and address, but the occupation of the inquirer and the source through which the inquiry was received, and a complete record of all letters and printed matter which had been sent.

[…description of the bookkeeping and inventory systems…]

By a simple method the work of each employee is tabulated in such a way that, whether the duty be typewriting, hand addressing, carding, listing, checking, filing, or what not, the whole record of the employee, day by day, is evident at a glance.

While no piece-work is done, yet the salaries paid are based upon these actual day-by-day counts of the quantity and correctness of the work done.

Quantity, in fact, is secondary to correctness in advancement, a complete system of demerits, penalizing each mistake having been adopted. The employees thus vie with each other not only in seeing who can accomplish the most work, but also in seeing who can make the fewest mistakes. Both the quantity of work done and the mistakes charged against each operator are charted on blackboards prominently displayed in the large work room, and the daily task is thus given the added zest of competition.

In order that no overstrain may result from this competition, the working day is broken up into four periods instead of two, the first period being from eight until ten minutes of ten, the second from ten until noon, the third from one till twenty minutes of three, and the fourth from three to five. During the recesses, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, the employees are urged to dismiss work from their minds, and, in fair weather, to leave the building…

– Press Democrat, November 2, 1913

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muttandjeffcast

MUTT AND THE JEFF IN OCCIDENTAL

Everyone in Santa Rosa was expecting a good time that Sunday in 1913: Mutt and Jeff were coming to town.

The Press Democrat could barely contain its excitement over the musical comedy. “The mere announcement of this sterling piece of laughter and mirth should occasion considerable pleasure,” gushed the PD, “for it is a rarity nowadays to witness a play that can really tickle one’s risibilties.” After readers paused to consult a dictionary and check if risibilties were something you would want strangers messing with, the article continued by promising the audience “infinite joy…’Mutt and Jeff’ were created to make this gloomy mundane sphere of ours happy and contented.”

Well, golly. Although this was the most expensive theatrical event in Santa Rosa for the year – with best seats going for the equivalent of forty bucks now – it was still a bargain price for the promise of infinite joy.

The show had been a broadway hit a couple of years earlier, but it wasn’t that reputation which drew the Sonoma county crowd: It was the excitement of seeing Mutt and Jeff – or at least a couple of guys who looked and acted like the pair.

For around a quarter century (roughly 1910-1935) Mutt and Jeff enjoyed an unprecedented popularity we probably can’t imagine today. Besides the daily comic strip and Sunday funnies, their animated cartoons were big hits at the movies. They were the first characters to have a line of spinoff merchandise – toys, games, dolls, figurines, playing cards, cigars, golf balls, and lord help them, Mutt brand oranges.

If the names are unfamiliar, Mutt was pencil-thin with a long nose, bristly moustache and devoid of chin; Jeff was a little person, balding with ear-to-ear whiskers and usually dressed like the Monopoly game tycoon for no apparent reason. Both were always drawn wearing white gloves, even to bed. In later years the comic books and strips were churned out in cartoon artist sweatshops and became merely gags and jokes; the old stuff was zany and sometimes more bizarre than funny. There was also frequent political satire: A series of 1908 dailies had Mutt running for president for the “Bughouse” party.

Both Santa Rosa newspapers ran publicity photos for the show and ads promised a cast of fifty with enough scenery to fill two train cars. We know from reviews the production had a chorus, pretty showgirls, lots of singing and dancing numbers and a slapstick bit with collapsible stairs. There was a series of souvenir postcards (seen here) portraying various scenes and the cast in full makeup, including Mutt with an absurdly long putty nose.

The Santa Rosa performance bombed. “All who attended the performance of ‘Mutt and Jeff’ at the Columbia theater Sunday evening and paid a dollar and a half for a seat, or even a dollar, to use a slang phase, not elegant, but expressive, were ‘stung,'” The Santa Rosa Republican complained the next day. Never before in the old papers have I seen a negative review like that.

“[A]ll the members of the company evidently thought they were performing in a fifty acre field and were required to yell as loud as they could in order to be heard,” the Republican continued, and “all of them talked so fast that nobody could understand what they said.” The review also said the curtain didn’t go up until 9:45 and by then the audience’s patience was worn out. “There were some good musical numbers, and if everybody had not been tired out, they probably would have been enjoyed.” Had the theater manager been smart, he could have killed time during the long wait by calling Jacques Fehr to the stage. He must have been in the audience that evening, and it was common knowledge around Sonoma county (although possibly not as early as 1913) that the Jeff character was based on him.

Jacques, or Jacob, or “Jakie” Fehr ran a bodega in Occidental with his wife, Tillie. They sold the whatnot such stores always sold – things like soda pop, candy, tobacco, magazines and newspapers. Jakie picked up the San Francisco papers when they arrived on the train that came up the valley from the Sausalito ferry. As the often-told story goes, one morning in 1908 a passenger en route to Bohemian Grove stepped off the train to stretch his legs when the train stopped in the village. San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Bud Fisher watched as Jakie bantered or argued with the railroad’s “candy butcher” (the person who walked the aisles selling snacks and smokes) and was amused by the contrast between the tall and lanky salesman and the four-foot-nine storekeeper. Thus sprang in his mind the inspiration for Mutt and Jeff.

(RIGHT: Tille and “Jakie” Fehr in front of their store, c. 1914. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Harry Lapham grew up in Occidental in the 1930s and memorialized Jakie in a 1991 profile for The Sonoma Historian. By trade Fehr was a Swiss-born watchmaker and still did repairs; half the front window displayed watches and clocks for sale. He was actually four-foot-eight according to Lapham, and a hunchback – apparently the kids in town had “animated conversations” worrying whether his condition might be contagious, as he always licked the ice cream scoop before putting it back in the water.

It’s not known when or how Fehr learned he was the model for the cartoon character, but Lapham quotes an Occidental old-timer as recalling Jakie say, “I think I will sue this man Fisher. He has put me in his comic strip as this man, Jeff.” When Fehr died in 1938, the Press Democrat headline was, “‘Jeff’ of Famous Comic Strip Dies In S. R. Hospital” and the obituary rehashes the origin story. “From that scene,” the PD wrote, “Fisher is quoted as having said the idea of creating the strip that brought him fame and wealth was born.”

There’s only one problem with the story: I can find no proof it’s true – but lots of evidence that it isn’t. And I’m very sorry to write that; originally this article was going to be another celebration of the little storekeep with the big claim to fame.

The first problem is that the bones of the story don’t fit. Jeff first appeared in March-April 1908 comic strips (more about that in a minute) so the encounter had to happen sometime before that. As the Bohemian Club hosts its annual camp in mid-July of each year, either Fisher was passing through Occidental for a reason other than going to Bohemian Grove in early 1908 or it all happened some time before. Regardless, this wrong timeline is only a quibbling detail.

More significant is that Bud Fisher repeatedly insisted both Jeff and Mutt were invented out of whole cloth. Interviewed by a Duluth paper in 1912 and asked if they were based on two characters he knew in San Francisco, he replied: “Nothing to that. Mutt and Jeff are no one in particular except themselves. They were merely created for amusement purposes and in time came to be fixtures. They ‘growed’ in other words.” Asked a similar question in 1915 by the Washington DC Star he said of Jeff: “It is always a small ‘nut’ who believes he can whip any one in the world. The little filbert is constantly getting into musses [sic] and receiving the worst of it. To make him look more foolish I put whiskers on him.”

But that’s not quite true either – although he deserves full credit for developing two of the most memorable characters in comic history, he sure as hell didn’t invent them.

Before Jeff appeared, Fisher had a very popular strip in the San Francisco Chronicle called “A. Mutt” which appeared on the sports page. The comic had a gimmick: Every strip ended showing Mutt placing a bet on a real horse running that same day at a Bay Area racetrack. The concept wasn’t original; even back then people noticed this was exactly the same gimmick from an earlier comic strip, “A. Piker Clerk,” which had appeared in a paper in Chicago, Fisher’s hometown. The Clerk character could have been Mutt’s older brother – he likewise had a long nose, bushy moustache, no chin, and was string bean skinny.

A. Mutt was an instant hit and three weeks later Hearst hired him away to continue the comic for the San Francisco Examiner. Here the comic began turning political and moved away from being just a rip-off of the older cartoon. A story arc in early 1908 has Mutt sent to an asylum (“bughouse,” in slang) where he meets delusional patients who believe they are Napoleon, Shakespeare (etc.) and one says he is boxer Jim Jeffries. This was soon shortened to just “Jeff” and once Mutt is released, Jeff joined the strip’s cast of characters.

(LEFT: The “Jeffries” character drawn by Bud Fisher in March, 1908. RIGHT: Mr. Proones drawn by George Herriman in December, 1907. Other views of Mr. Proones can be seen here and here)

The original gag was that the guy who thought he was heavyweight champ Jeffries wore glasses and was probably an academic. In no way did he resemble the later Jeff character – he was slightly built but not extremely short. He did not have the top hat or formal suitcoat and shirt collar. All those elements, however, exactly match a character that appeared in Hearst’s Los Angeles paper at the exact same time Fisher began working for Hearst. The cartoon was “Mr. Proones the Plunger” drawn by George Herriman, who later created the acclaimed “Krazy Kat” comic stip. Like Mutt, Proones was also a racetrack gambler (“plunger” was slang for someone who lost on big wagers).

Today this would be called plagiarism – the equivalent of drawing Superman but replacing the “S” on his chest with a “Z” and writing he came from the planet “Clypton.” But in the day, comic artists did not own their own work, with the notable exception of Bud Fisher. Publisher Hearst owned A. Piker Clerk and Mr. Proones and was not about to sue his star cartoonist over a little matter of intellectual property theft. Still, Herriman and others knew what Fisher had done, as reported in a 1919 item in the Los Angeles Graphic, reprinted elsewhere as “The Inside on Mutt and Jeff:”


Discussion is renewed as to who was the creator of these supposedly humorous characters. Newspaper men from Chicago have told local newspaper artists that A. Mutt was a direct adaptation from A. Piker, one of the creations of Claire Briggs, once of Chicago, but now with the New York Tribune. Briggs is said to have run A. Piker for several months, twelve or thirteen years ago. In the same circles the original of Little Jeff is credited to George Herriman of Los Angeles, now on the Hearst Syndicate payroll as the parent of the entire Dingbat family. Herriman, I am told, ran a Little Jeff series which he later abandoned and Fisher adopted the character as a companion to Mutt. Herriman has never taken credit for Jeff, telling his friends ‘Bud got away with Jeff and I didn’t, so he deserves all the credit he can get out of it.’ I understand Herriman declined the drawing of a substitute Mutt and Jeff series for Hearst.

We’ve now probably wandered farther into the weeds of golden age comics than interests most Sonoma county history fans, but it’s all to make a point. Yes, Jakie Fehr looked just like comic strip Jeff. Most likely everyone passing through the village in those years commented on that. And the notion that Bud Fisher was only inspired by the confrontation between the shopkeeper and the trainman is a good GREAT story, which is why it’s repeated endlessly in writings about Occidental’s past as well as a multitude of comic history resources on the internet. But it’s going to take damn compelling evidence to show that all this “growed” out of a scene on a train platform in Occidental.

Promotional photo for “Mutt and Jeff.” February 15, 1913 Santa Rosa Republican

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1906earthquakesmoke

CAUSE OF DEATH: EARTHQUAKE MADNESS

More deaths from the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake have been found, although these victims died far away at an asylum.

Before getting into that, some bookkeeping is in order. The unofficial death toll for that disaster now stands at 82, with 85 being a reasonable bet. Although the full count can never be known, it’s still likely to fall in the 100-120 range.

This new total of 82 represents two asylum discoveries and an upgrade of three victims to “certain” status. A full list is available as a PDF or a spreadsheet, and a single-page 1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake fact sheet can also be downloaded.

Briefly: The upgrades are thanks to clearing up confusion dating back to the time of the disaster. There were four death certificates for “unknown” persons and the monument over the earthquake victim’s mass grave specifies “FOUR PERSONS UNKNOWN.” Rural Cemetery Archivist Sandy Frary uncovered the original death certificate for unknown #1 and found it was for three unknown persons, not a single individual. The monument also lists the unknown as “NOS. 1-4-6-7” which implied seven burials, so this now synchs up with a newspaper story at the time describing a coroner’s inquest of seven unknowns. All this is hashed out in greater detail in a previous article, “WHO LIES BENEATH?” which has been slightly updated to include the new confirmations.

Sandy Frary also came across an obituary I had overlooked. From the Press Democrat, August 13, 1907:


Mrs. L. W. Stebbins, who died in Ukiah, was buried here Monday from the Christian Church, the Rev. Peter Colvin conducting the services. Mrs. Stebbins’ death was directly due to the great disaster of last year. Her awful experiences in those April days racked and wrecked her mind and body. Her reason failed, and she was taken to the state hospital for treatment, but steadily declined in health…

(RIGHT: Smoke and downed lines on Fourth street in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, one of only two photographs believed to have been taken that day. Courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Emma Stebbins, a 40 year-old housewife who lived on Ripley street, had died at the Mendocino State Hospital at Talmage, near Ukiah. She had been there almost exactly a year, her mind gone because of “earthquake of [April] 18th and death of father,” according to her commitment record. She spent her days staring into space and answering questions incoherently. Then she stopped eating and died.

The Mendocino hospital was the only place in the North Bay for regular people who lost their wits; the asylum in Napa was then used for the criminally insane, and Eldridge (Glen Ellen) was mostly for those deemed “feeble-minded” – for more background on these mental hospitals, read “THE ASYLUMS NEXT DOOR“. Those admitted to Mendocino were usually alcoholics/drug addicts who cleaned up and went home or those with senile dementia who died there. In the wake of the great 1906 earthquake, there was a surge of people whose cause of mental illness was deemed to be the disaster.

Between the April 18 quake and the end of 1906, fifteen people from Sonoma county were sent to that hospital, almost half of them for reasons apparently linked to the quake. Of those six whose sanity was shaken by the shaking earth, three died. Besides Emma Stebbins, Jacob H. Schlotterback of Santa Rosa was sent there (cause: “earthquake of April 18, 1906”) and was dead in less than a month. Like Emma, he refused to eat. Emma and Jacob count as Santa Rosa earthquake victims #81 and 82. Here we’re only collecting names of people whose deaths were attributed to being caught in Santa Rosa’s disaster, but another local who later died at the asylum was William Newcom/Newcome of Healdsburg, committed because of the “shock of earthquake.” Should it be determined he was in Santa Rosa that morning he’ll be added to the list.

Not everyone with earthquake madness went to the asylum. America Thomas died at home about ten weeks later from “general disability following general neurosis caused by shock” according to her death certificate, and Elwin Hutchinson, a 15 year-old schoolboy who died at the end of 1906, suffered from “partial paralysis and nervous prostration” (Hutchinson’s death certificate did not specify the earthquake, so he is among the three unconfirmed disaster victims). Nor did everyone with serious mental problems die; Hattie Runyon’s family kept her breakdown secret for two years.

But there was a Santa Rosan who died during the quake at an asylum: 26 year-old Annie Leete, who was working as a waitress at Agnews State Hospital in Santa Clara. Agnews was the other general population asylum in the area – the South Bay equivalent of the Mendocino hospital.

The tragedy of what happened there is probably the last great untold story of the 1906 earthquake; the destruction at Agnews was worse than either San Francisco or Santa Rosa by comparison, with over ten percent of staff and patients killed (11 employees plus 107 of 1,075 inmates).


Los Angeles Herald, April 19, 1906. Note the misinformation about Santa Rosa

Helen Warwick, a writer for the Oakland Tribune who was in quake-ravaged San Francisco just a few days before, wrote “never, in all my life, had I dreamed or imagine anything so totally and absolutely demolished as the Agnew Asylum.” The roof of the administration building pancaked, all five stories of it. Some brick walls fell exposing the infirmaries and some floors collapsed.

It’s impossible to imagine the terror the mental patients must have experienced being captives in their locked rooms as the world seemed to collapse around them. They were lucky no fire broke out and immensely fortunate that hospital superintendent Dr. Leonard Stocking kept a level head. After digging himself out of the debris he freed the inmates without hesitation, mobilizing about forty men into a search-and-rescue operation. Given that the hospital would have been short-handed to supervise over a thousand unconfined patients even in the best of conditions, it was a courageous action.

Dr. Stocking later wrote a report where he claimed “very few wandered away,” but that was putting the best face on it. The Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote, “Scores of the demented escaped from the boundaries of the institution and are wandering, many half clad, about the surrounding country.” The San Francisco Chronicle reported “200 inmates of the asylum escaped and are roaming over the countryside,” although most newspapers were printing 40-50 had escaped.

Rumors of all sorts flourished in the following days. Governor Pardee had a staff to refute wild stories appearing in East Coast press that San Francisco had been hit by a massive tsunami and that thousands were dying of plague. Also circulating was the claim that the superintendent of State hospitals had ordered the shooting of a hundred patients at Agnews to prevent them from escaping.

(RIGHT: Agnews State Hospital in Santa Clara before the 1906 earthquake)

For months, papers were describing deranged people arrested around the state as being allegedly Agnews escapees. A man in Los Angeles who attacked a woman at the train station and tried to drag her away; a guy “in a demented condition” found near Fremont; someone in San Francisco who threatened his mother and others with a pistol.

Fortunately, few from the “ward of the desperately insane” seemed to have escaped. Their housing was on the top floor of one of the buildings most damaged, and seven died. Deputies from the Santa Clara Sheriff were quickly on the scene and followed by other officers – by remarkable good luck there was a state sheriff convention underway in San Jose. The most violent 99 patients were sent to the Central Valley asylum in Stockton by train, according to a wire service story, “crowded into two [rail] cars and were raving and yelling. Many of them attempted to jump from the cars and the attendants had great difficulty in restraining them.”

Volunteer doctors and nurses also poured into the grounds of the wrecked hospital, where medical care was provided under the trees to the approx. 180 patients injured. By nightfall a tent city had arisen. Dr. Stocking’s report described it in glowing terms: “..so comfortable and contented are they that many, both employees and patients, ask to be allowed to camp all summer.” But reporter Helen Warwick painted a different picture: “Some were chatting rationally enough, wandering about from one place to another, others stood and gazed, wild-eyed and dumb–an awful rigidity in face and figure arguing desperate insanity. Some were strapped to benches; some threw their hands in the air and grappled with some imaginary foe, while one woman shrieked and screamed, that the walls were falling, falling, and cowered to the ground begging the others to keep them off.”

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