Petaluma was soooo lucky. Mark Twain, that funny guy everyone was buzzing about, made only a few appearances before he left for the East Coast and Europe, probably never to return out west. Reviewers had been giddy with delight over his recent appearance in San Francisco: “From the beginning to the end, the interest was never allowed to flag,” gushed the Chronicle. “Taking it altogether, ‘Mark Twain’s lecture may be pronounced one of the greatest successes of the season.” Other SF newspapers sang with similar praise. Thus on November 26, 1866, you can bet Hinshaw’s Hall was crowded with Petalumans expecting to spend a jolly evening. Spoiler alert: They hated him.

The next edition of the Petaluma Journal and Argus offered a review of his lecture with the headline, “REPREHENSIBLE.” That fellow who called himself Mark Twain was a complete flop (“…as a lecturer he falls below mediocrity”) and the San Francisco papers should be condemned for misleading the public by giving good reviews to such bad entertainers.

Now, wait a minute; today, everyone knows Sam Clemens/Mark Twain was the most celebrated speaker of his time, if not all of American history. Surely that Petaluma critic was as much an idiot as the Hollywood producer who supposedly dissed Fred Astaire’s screen test, “can’t sing, can’t act, balding, can dance a little.”

As it turns out, the Petaluma review was truthful, albeit inartfully written (the full review is transcribed below, apparently for the first time since 1866). Evidence found in contemporary papers show Twain’s appearances in those weeks were often stinkers – and it seems he was aware of that but did not know how to improve. Following one lecture he told a friend he felt like he was a fraud who was taking people in.

But that’s not the story he tells in his memoir and first popular book, Roughing It, or when reminiscing as he did in his remarks about stage fright made after his daughter’s musical recital. In his version, he was nervous about his debut performance in San Francisco, fearful that no tickets would sell and no one would laugh at his jokes. He papered the house to pack it with friends including three “giants in stature, cordial by nature, and stormy-voiced” who were expected to howl with glee and beat their shillelagh on the floor whenever Twain made a funny. Still, he was terrified of failure. From Roughing It:

…before I well knew what I was about, I was in the middle of the stage, staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away. The house was full, aisles and all! The tumult in my heart and brain and legs continued a full minute before I could gain any command over myself. Then I recognized the charity and the friendliness in the faces before me, and little by little my fright melted away, and I began to talk. Within three or four minutes I was comfortable, and even content. My three chief allies, with three auxiliaries, were on hand, in the parquette, all sitting together, all armed with bludgeons, and all ready to make an onslaught upon the feeblest joke that might show its head. And whenever a joke did fall, their bludgeons came down and their faces seemed to split from ear to ear…

“All the papers were kind in the morning,” Twain finished up, referring to those reviews the Petaluma paper later called “reprehensible.” As he didn’t write about his subsequent appearances, Gentle Reader was left with the impression all went smoothly after his debut butterflies. And as far as I can tell Twain biographers all take him at his word, speeding past events of that autumn to arrive without delay at his rise to international fame.

It’s a great shame more attention hasn’t been given to this period, as this was a turning point in his life. “Without means and without employment,” as he wrote in Roughing It, he convinced himself public speaking was his “saving scheme,” despite having absolutely no experience or training at it. And although the reviews after his debut were often poor, his convictions seemingly never faltered that he would now do this for a living. If nothing else, it’s an inspiring story of determination; constructing a Mark Twain from scratch was not easy work.

The topic of Twain’s lectures were the “Sandwich Islands,” AKA the Kingdom of Hawaii, where he had just spent five months as a special correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union. The Kingdom was a pretty exotic place to Americans in 1866 and the couple of dozen articles he wrote were well received, but travelogue lectures are not where you usually expect an evening of knee-slappin’ humor. Twain destroyed his copy of the speech years later so we don’t know exactly what he said, but from snippets and summaries we know the lecture was mainly a travel description of people, places and things along with his wry observations. Or as the Sacramento Union critic wrote, he “seasoned a large dish of genuine information with spicy anecdote.”

The advertisements he placed in the papers became celebrated in their own right. Shown here is his first from the Sept. 30 Daily Alta California (CLICK or TAP to enlarge) with its funny blurbs. “A SPLENDID ORCHESTRA Is in town but has not been engaged“, read one of them. At other lectures he came up with different items, such as “THE WONDERFUL COW WITH SIX LEGS! Is not attached to this Menagerie“. Most famous was the tag at the end: “Doors open at 7 o’clock. The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock.” He varied this line, too; another example was, “Doors open at 7; the inspiration will begin to gush at 8.”

Once back in his old Gold Country stomping grounds, he also ran this in the Nevada Transcript and Grass Valley Union:

After the lecture is over, the lecturer will perform the following wonderful feats of SLIGHT OF HAND, if desired to do so: At a given signal. he will go out with any gentleman and take a drink. If desired, he will repeat this unique and interesting feat – repeat it until the audience are satisfied that there is no deception about it. At a moment’s warning he will depart out of town and leave his hotel bill unsettled. He has performed this ludicrous trick many hundreds of times in San Francisco and elsewhere, and it has always elicited the most enthusiastic comments.
At any hour of the night, after ten, the lecturer will go through any house in the city, no matter how dark it may be, and take an inventory of its contents, and not miss as many of the articles as the owner will in the morning. The lecturer declines to specify any more of his miraculous feats at present, for fear of getting the police too much interested in his circus.

The Mark Twain who appeared on stages in those weeks was more or less an imitation of his contemporary and friend who went by the name of Artemus Ward. One of the most popular humorists during the Civil War – Lincoln opened the cabinet meeting about the Emancipation Proclamation by reading aloud a little humor sketch – Ward’s stage persona was a backcountry hick who drawled through rambling stories, clueless there was anything remotely funny about his remarks. Audiences ate it up. It was Ward’s great success that undoubtedly inspired Twain to try his hand at it.

Those early lectures by Twain included a great deal of clowning. He would open by pretending he did not know there was an audience; if there was a piano available the curtain sometimes went up with him yowling and banging away at an old saloon tune, “I Had an Old Horse Whose Name Was Methusalem.” From a good profile of Twain’s years in the West, “Lighting Out for the Territory:”

As can best be reconstructed, he simply sauntered onto the stage from the wings, his hands stuffed into his pockets and a sheaf of papers clutched under his arm. He wandered vaguely around the lectern for a bit, looking for the most comfortable place to stand, and then appeared to notice the audience for the first time, the expression on his face registering an equal mixture of surprise, perplexity, and fear. For a long moment he looked silently at the audience while it looked back at him, waiting.

Once he introduced himself the comic shtick continued as he pretended to be shocked and mystified whenever there was laughter or applause. Describing his debut performance, a journalist in the audience recalled “…the apparently painful effort with which he framed his sentences, and above all, the surprise that spread over his face when the audience roared with delight or rapturously applauded…”

His Petaluma review was certainly the worst. but other reactions were decidedly mixed. Even as the Chronicle called his debut “one of the greatest successes of the season,” the back page of the same edition had a little item about running into Twain on Montgomery street and telling him “the envious and jealous” were saying it wasn’t worth the price of admission. When he appeared in San Jose the Mercury said “the lecture was entirely successful” while the Santa Clara Argus wrote “the lecture disappointed.” For his second San Francisco lecture the Chronicle called his performance unpolished and raw: “Some of ‘Mark’s'” jokes were very much strained, and others were so nearly improper–not to say coarse–that they could not be heartily laughed at by ladies.”

This was not harsh criticism, but that any were negative has to be weighed with understanding he had a “favorite son multiplier.” Samuel Clemens was a fellow newspaperman and drinking buddy of everyone in the City and in the Sierras who reviewed his appearances. They all wanted him to succeed, if for no other reason that he used his box office receipts to buy rounds of drinks after the show.

So great was his popularity that the harsh Petaluma review received its own smackdown from the Grass Valley Union:

Unfortunate Clemens! Why did you blight your lecturing prospects by attempting to pass the ordeal of the corn and spud-producers of the Russian river country? You may do in San Francisco and ‘sich like places,’ but you ought to have known better than to brave the Petaluma lions in their den…what business had you, Mark Twain, up in that part of the country? Telegraph to the St. Louis and Cincinnati Boards of Commerce that you cannot accept their invitations to lecture – that your lecturing star went down in Petaluma.

We have that sublime gob of sneer thanks to Santa Rosa’s newspaper, the Sonoma Democrat, where editor Thomas L. Thompson was still locked in battle with the Petaluma Argus over the Civil War, by then over a year and a half. (In an adjacent article, the Confederacy-mourning Thompson ranted at length about “the Radical tools and dupes of Abolition despotism.”) Thompson was clearly delighted that another editor handed him a cudgel to bash Petaluma and he did so with relish, taunting their critic as not “able to appreciate the entertainment” and comparing him to a dimwitted character in a Shakespearean play.

By the end of 1866 Mark Twain was on a ship headed to the East Coast. Over the next seven years he would deliver the Hawaii lecture some 150 times, by his count, almost always to acclaim. How did he completely turn it around?

For starters, he must have sharpened his focus once he was facing audiences of strangers and not his personal acquaintances, as was the case in California and Nevada. In the second Chronicle review they noted his weeks performing in front of his old pals in the Gold Country had changed his performance and not for the better: “…He was a little too familiar with his audiences. What will be thought very funny by the inhabitants of the desolated wastes on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, won’t do at all in great metropolis like San Francisco.”

He also likely improved the writing; the Hawaii lecture he gave in 1873 probably was very much evolved from the original of 1866. His early reviews remarked at how much information he packed in about the climate, volcanoes, weird food, “board surfing” and the native people who were primitive because they did not act or dress like Victorian-era Americans. That didn’t leave much time for humor beyond making witty asides; were people filling his theater seats for a geography lesson or to have some laughs?

An incident during the Nevada leg of his tour should have given him cause to reflect: While walking the short distance back to Virginia City after an appearance at a mining town, Twain was held up by masked robbers who took his money and expensive gold watch. It soon came out the highwaymen were really his friends playing a prank and everything was returned to him, but Twain was livid and unforgiving. Why did they do it? Some forty years later, one of would-be brigands revealed they hoped it would cause him to stick around Virginia City and give another talk. And hopefully for that lecture, the robbery – which they had made as scary as possible – would be his topic instead of rehashing those damned factoids about Sandwich Islands.

But it appears his biggest improvement was dropping the stage business – the silly gimcrackery of pretending he had no idea what he was doing in front of an audience. He became less targeted on checking off the list of Hawaii’s wonders than sitting back and telling us a story about the place. Here was the emergence of the beloved Mark Twain we all know (well, the Hal Holbrook we all know), the man in the white suit, relaxed in the comfy chair and flicking ashes off his cigar while keeping us spellbound with whatever fool thing that happened to pop to mind. Volcanoes? Jumping frogs? Steamboats and your Missouri childhood? Whatever, Mark, just keep talking. We’ll listen to anything you have to say. You never needed the theatrics.

Unknown illustration, probably from early edition of Roughing It


“Mark Twain’s” Consolation

Meeting “Mark” this morning on Montgomery street, the following dialogue ensued:

“Mark” — Well, what do they say about my lecture?

We–Why, the envious and jealous say it was “a bilk” and a “sell.”

“Mark” — All right. It’s a free country. Everybody has a right to his opinion, if he is an ass. Upon the whole, it’s a pretty even thing. They have the consolation of abusing me, and I have the consolation of slapping my pocket hearing their money jingle. They have their opinions, and I have their dollars. I’m satisfied.

– San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, October 3, 1866

SECOND LECTURE BY “MARK TWAIN”-Platt’s Hall has been engaged for to-morrow by “Mark Twain,” tor the delivery of his second lecture on the Sandwich Islands, and in addition he promises “the only true and reliable history of the late revolting highway robbery, perpetrated on the lecturer at the dead of night between the cities of Gold Hill and Virginia.” The tickets for the lecture are for sale at the book stores, “The wisdom will begin to flow at 8.” “Mark” will depart on the steamer of Monday, for a visit to the Atlantic States.

– Daily Alta California, November 15, 1866

…”Mark” was not as happy in this new lecture as he was in his old one. He was not in very good condition, having of course got alkalied while in the savage wilds of Washoe, and at the same time we fear that he had become a little demoralized. He was a little too familiar with his audiences. What will be thought very funny by the inhabitants of the desolated wastes on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, won’t do at all in great metropolis like San Francisco. Some of “Mark’s” jokes were very much strained, and others were so nearly improper–not to say coarse–that they could not be heartily laughed at by ladies. However, “Mark,” of course, sent the audience into fits of laughing again and again; and as a whole, his lecture was thoroughly enjoyed by those present. “Mark’s” travels to the interior, where he has so many friends, have not improved his style. The lecture which he delivered last night might have been polished considerably without wearing down any of the sharp points with which it was ornamented.

– San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, November 17, 1866

“Mark Twain,” the Missionary. styled the “Inimitable.” by the Mercury, favored a large and appreciative audience at San Jose, on Thursday, with an amusing account of what he heard, saw, and “part of which he was,” in the Sandwich lslands. One attraction, he announced, was necessarily omitted. In illustration of Cannibalism, as practiced anciently, he proposed to devour, in presence of the audience, any young and tender cherub if its maternal parent would stand such sacrifice for public edification, but there being no spare infants at hand the illustration was not given. With this exception, the Mercury says the lecture was entirely successful. They want him to do it again.

– Daily Alta California, November 24, 1866

The Argus, concerning ” Mark Twain’s” lecture, says: We have long been an admirer of the infutitable humor of the lecturer, as shown in his numerous letters and sketches that have been so widely published but confess that the lecture disappointed us. We expected to hear the Kanakas “joked blind,” but had no idea of being treated to such an intellectual feast as he served up to his audience. We never heard or read anything half so beautiful as his descriptions when he laid aside the role of the humorist and gave rein to his fancy. To use the expressions of a wrapt listener to the lecture, “he’s lightnin’.”

– Daily Alta California, November 25, 1866

MARK TWAIN.– The Alta of Sunday last says that Mark Twain is to deliver a lecture in this city Friday evening. We hope this is not a mistake.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus, November 22, 1866

REPREHENSIBLE.– The gentleman who enjoys a wide celebrity on this Coast as a spicy writer, over the non de plume of “Mark Twain,” delivered his lecture on the Sandwich Islands, in this city, on Monday evening last. While we accord to him the merit of being a spicy writer, candor compels us to say that as a lecturer he is not a success. We say this through no desire to be captious, but simply because it is literally true. As a newspaper correspondent Mark Twain is a racy and humorous writer, but as a lecturer he falls below mediocrity. In this connection we think it not inappropriate to address ourself to the editorial fraternity on this Coast, and to our San Francisco contemporaries in particular, in relation to the reprehensible practice of disguising the truth in reference to the qualifications and ability of persons who sell their talents for a valuable consideration, and too frequently “sell” those who go to hear them, innocently expecting to be instructed or amused. To remedy these evils we must begin at the fountain head. San Francisco occupies that proud eminence, and what she has of intelligence and real worth we delight to honor. She possesses an array of talent and varied accomplishments of which she may justly be proud; but her journals have apparently yet to learn to discriminate between stars of the first and ninth magnitude. They seem to lack the power of discrimination, and bespatter with printer’s ink all aspirants for public fame, without any seeming regard to their fitness or ability to meet the requirements of the public. Through their fulsome praise the public expectation, in the interior, is worked up to the highest pitch of expectation, and as a consequence nine times out of ten is doomed to disappointment. These frequent dampers upon public expectation has rendered the people so suspicious that lecturers of real merit are frequently mortified by finding themselves facing an audience that would be a discredit to the attractions of a hand organ.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus, November 29, 1866

POKING FUN AT PETALUMA.— The ridiculous comments of the Journal and Argus upon “Mark Twain’s” lecture in Petaluma, which we noticed at the time, have called forth some pretty sharp remarks from various quarters. The Grass Valley Union lets off steam in this manner: “Unfortunate Clemens! Why did you blight your lecturing prospects by attempting to pass the ordeal of the corn and spud-producers of the Russian river country? You may do in San Francisco and “sich like places,” but you ought to have known better than to brave the Petaluma lions in their den. What Mud Springs was to the Californian who crushed a certain young lady’s musical aspirations with a few well directed word-shots, silencing the match-making parent forever, Petaluma is in a lecturing way. Have not the Petalumans had Lisle Lester and other lecturing and reading stars up their way, and what business had you, Mark Twain, up in that part of the country? Telegraph to the St. Louis and Cincinnati Boards of Commerce that you cannot accept their invitations to lecture—-that your lecturing star went down in Petaluma.” There is a mistake here, through which injustice has been done to the people of our neighboring town. They had no fault to find with “Mark Twain.” On the contrary, his humorous and instructive lecture was highly appreciated by them. The editor of the Journal and Argus is the dissatisfied individual on whom Clemens wasted his wit. Not being able to appreciate the entertainment, he at once pronounced “Mark Twain” a failure. Evidently, when doing so, in the opinion of the press of the State, he followed the example of Dogberry of old, and displayed his ears rather prominently.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 22, 1866


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In the autumn of 1897, Santa Rosa women were threatened by a mysterious man who choked two and apparently chased several others. The memory of those events remained strong enough for Jack the Choker to eventually become Jack the Meme.

Before diving into the descriptions of what happened that year, some background is essential to view events through the eyes of women living here. Their fears that a manic killer might be in town were absolutely genuine.

Our story began nine years earlier with the Jack the Ripper murders in London. Probably you already know all that’s needed –  during the autumn of 1888 a serial killer murdered several prostitutes in gruesome ways. The person responsible was never caught or identified, leading armchair detectives to spin theories which supposedly solved the case. That fascination with the Ripper continues to this day; visit, where at any time of day or night you can find freshly posted essays by real adult human beings arguing feverishly the maniac who went on a killing spree over 125 years ago was positively so-and-so and everyone who disagrees is an ignorant yutz. Personally I don’t really care whodunnit, but find the socioeconomic context of the times pretty fascinating.*

Far removed from the gory coverage by London’s sensationalist tabloids, the U.S. press gave the story a paragraph or two at most, and then only after the catchy “Jack the Ripper” name caught on. West Coast papers hardly mentioned it at all. But as years passed, the number of mentions grew in the American newspapers as it evolved into the preeminent gothic murder mystery. The story was being continually refreshed as someone would confess/be arrested as a suspect or there was another possible Ripper murder.

Newspapers in both England and America also began labeling any gruesome murder as a Jack-the-Ripper killing. The Brits implied as often as possible that the deed might have been done by the original Jack, but here in the U.S. we had a Mexican Jack the Ripper in New Orleans and a Chinese Jack the Ripper in Montana. These were single crimes of passion or mania, however, and not the work of a serial killer.

Not until 1894 and the appearance of “Jack the Strangler.”

That year three Denver prostitutes were strangled to death within a couple of months. A fourth woman being strangled managed to break free and scream. Police arrived as he was trying to cut her throat and although the women of the Red Light District insisted he was the killer, police charged the man with only assault, waving him off as “nothing more than an ill-tempered Italian.”

Skip forward about a year and a prostitute was found strangled in San Francisco. Within a few weeks two others were similarly killed, others nearly so. After that third death, in March, 1896, the Chief of Police said he believed “the Denver strangler has come to San Francisco.” Two other attempted stranglings were reported, one woman describing the attacker as an Englishman about forty years old. Hmmm…

At the end of March police in Los Angeles caught a man actually strangling a woman. He told the police he had come to L.A. from San Francisco. “The officers believe it was his purpose to kill the woman, but on the police register he is simply charged with battery,” reported the San Francisco Call.

Sightings continued: Another man who moved from San Francisco tried to strangle a prostitute and two nuns in Oregon and Washington; he was caught and sent to an asylum. There were a handful of other possible Jack attacks in San Francisco in the spring of 1896, then nothing until the next year – and it was in Santa Rosa.

One evening in October, 1897, Sarah Pomeroy, a 64 year-old nurse returning home from visiting a patient was attacked near the corner of Fourth and E streets. Suddenly a pair of hands were gripping her throat. She was able to loosen his fingers enough to scream. The man slugged her in the face hard enough to knock her down (“the blow must have been a very hard one,” the Republican commented, “for the lady is quite fleshy”). When she spoke to reporters the next day her left eye was almost swollen shut and her cheek was bruised.

Then two nights later, 15 year-old May Kearns was assaulted near the corner of College and Fourth. She was dragged by her neck into the adjacent vacant lot and thrown to the ground. He put his knee on her chest and squeezed her throat. After a few moments he released her and she screamed. He kicked her twice, hard.

Two nights after that, a man jumped a fence and approached two little girls playing in their yard after dark. He ran when their father came out in response to their screams. It reporting on that event when the Daily Republican dubbed him “Jack the Choker.”

That made three attacks within a week, all between 6:30 and 7PM, shortly after sunset – but there the pattern ends. The nurse was old enough to be the grandmother of the girls; the teenager’s account sounds like a sexual assault but Mrs. Pomeroy’s seems more like an attempted robbery. And none of them were prostitutes, of course, the victim of choice of “Jack the Strangler.” Had he sought out those women, just two block away Santa Rosa offered the largest Tenderloin District between San Francisco and Reno (see the “Wide-Open Town” series).

The Republican followed with one of the most unusual articles I have ever seen in the old papers (and that really says something). Headlined “Jack the Choker” – by then the paper was headlining all related stories that way, even as the Press Democrat studiously avoided the nickname – a second headline announced, “Ladies need no longer fear the mysterious stranger.” Citing an interview with the City Marshal, the paper reported police had their “Official Eye” on two men who were the attackers. The short item also stated three times the police did not have evidence to arrest either man.

You don’t have to squint too hard reading between the lines to see the article was meant to quell panic. It’s impossible to believe women in Santa Rosa were not drawing comparisons to the earlier “Jack the Strangler” attacks in the City and were justifiably scared.

About a week later, both papers reported one of the suspects had left town. “The finger of suspicion pointed so strongly toward him as the individual who had been doing the ‘choking’ act here that he concluded to leave town rather hurriedly,” the Republican remarked. The attacks stopped, or at least none included assault. A month later a young woman was reportedly chased near downtown by a man wearing black. Shortly before the string of attacks, the PD had offered a little item about a stranger in black “acting suspiciously” by loitering at night, but neither paper made a connection between him and the choker.

Two years passed before there was a reprise of the attacks in Petaluma. There were a couple of reports of a stranger pursuing young women on D street, then Clara Ivancovich, the 48 year-old wife of a prominent doctor, was stalked on Sixth street before the man clutched her throat. She managed to scream and push him away. “A fellow has operated in Santa Rosa and got a reputation as a woman choker,” reported the Argus Courier next day. “We hope he has not come here.”

This time police nabbed and named a suspect: Bert Richardson (or Richards), a young barber who had arrived in town just a week before. He was seen loitering in the area at the time, drunk and supposedly “acted queerly.” A hat found near the attack fit him but he produced a similar hat of his own and had an alibi. Mrs. Ivancovich could not identify him positively. He was not arrested but lost his job at the barber shop.

Santa Rosa Jack of 1897 and Petaluma Jack of 1899 were undoubtedly different people, but it showed the monicker “Jack the Choker” had become firmly part of Sonoma County lore. After the Petaluma incidents the Press Democrat began having fun with it, telling readers there was a “Jack the Hugger” at Stony Point because a fellow was “very near getting into serious trouble by attempting to hug the fair daughter of one of our oldest settlers.” On Christmas Eve before the turn of the century, the paper joked, “First we had Jack the Ripper, then came Jack the Choker, and now we are confronted with Hobson the Kisser. And the question before the house is whether the world is progressing or retrograding.”

In the spring of 1900 a two-line ad appeared in the PD with the headline, “Jack the Choker In Town”. The advertisement continued, “He is looking for a location to get into business but is unable to do so without calling at 304 Mendocino St. and purchasing one of Ciaypool’s nobby suits.” The gag may have brought a chuckle when some first read it, but the store ran the stupid thing for nine months. Hopefully Ciaypool’s knew more about “nobby” looks than they did about humor.

The last historical appearance came in 1902, a full five years after the attacks. Two women walking home were confronted by a man who sprang from the shadows and growled, “How would you like to be choked by ‘Jack the Choker?'” The women screamed and ran. The man, presumably just some local jerk, was not caught.

There’s an ugly devolution here. A name which was an object of terror for women and children became something of a punchline that men considered funny. Even originally calling him “Jack the Choker” had a bit of a wink to it, sounding much less menacing than something like “the Santa Rosa Strangler.” The Republican further watered down the name’s association to violence against women with a story headlined, “Jack the Spitter,” describing a guy who hocked up tobacco juice on downtown store windows.

But it’s the menswear ad that rankles most. Lots of people make money off the name of Jack the Ripper; in London there are competing tours and a museum and many books to buy – but no store goes so far as claiming the well-dressed man wears their serial killer suede or shaves with their Ripper razors, much less expecting customers to have a laugh about their nod to monstrous deeds.

* The Jack the Ripper murders came at a time of great unrest in England. A replay of the French revolution seemed possible, with each year even more terrible and violent than the last. There were London riots and terrorist acts including the bombing of the House of Commons and London Bridge. History books now tell us the reasons for this violent dissent included high poverty, chronic unemployment, racism against immigrants and agitation by the Ireland independence movement, but to the average Londoner (and Queen Victoria), the big problem was that the police couldn’t control the streets. That the police were unable to catch the Ripper only confirmed their incompetence in the public’s eye, while boosting fears that the have-nots were dangerous and possibly insane.


A Ruffian’s Attack on a Lady here Tuesday Night
Grasped Her Around the Throat and When She Screamed tor Assistance Hit Her

A most brutal attack was made Tuesday evening about 8 o’clock on a widow lady named Mrs. Pomeroy, who resides in the neighborhood of Washington street.

Mrs. Pomeroy was returning home after visiting her sick friend Mrs. Stearns on Fourth street. When ahe was walking between the residence of Dr. Savage and the home of Dr. Clark a man stepped up behind her and put his arms around her and told her not to scream.

The frightened woman called for assistance. The ruffian who held her told her stop. She called again and then the man dealt her a violent blow in the face and left eye. The blow almost stunned her. The man then made off. Undoubtedly the man’s motive was robbery. Mrs. Pomeroy can give only a very slight description of the man as it was quite dark.

– Press Democrat, October 27, 1897


Girl is Roughly Handled
When She Screamed for Help The Fiend Kicked Her
Fifteen Year Old May Kearns the Victim of an Outrageous Hold Up

Great excitement prevailed here on Thursday evening over a murderous attack made upon Miss May Kearns, the fifteen-year-old daughter of James J. Kearns, the butcher, by a brutal fiend about half-past six o’clock that evening.

The girl was handled in a fiendish manner by the monster, and narrowly escaped being choked to death by him. Shortly after the occurrence a PRESS DEMOCRAT representative called at the Kearns residence on Stanford street, and heard the girl’s story. She was then in a state ot exhaustion over the rough treatment she had been subjected to. Her eyes were bulging out ot their sockets as a result of the choking, and her throat and neck bore the marks of the fiend’s grasp. Miss Kearn’s story is as follows:

“About half-past six o’clock this evening I was returning from town, having been making some purchases for mamma. I was walking along on the sidewalk on Fourth street. When opposite Mr. Doyle’s house I heard a man’s footsteps coming behind me. The man commenced to spit and blow with his mouth. I thought of running away, but then concluded I wouldn’t as I thought the person might be somebody I knew and was playing a joke on me. Before I had time to think further-—I was then by the vacant lot at the corner where College avenue runs into Fourth street–I was seized from behind by the man, who clasped both his hands so tightly around my neck and throat that I was almost choked to death. So nearly was I choked that I went on my knees. The man dragged me inside the lot and threw me down, keeping his grasp on my throat all this time, and knelt on my chest. He held me there for several moments. His hands would release their grasp for an instant and then they would tighten again. The man muttered something, I couldn’t understand what he said. I managed to gasp out that I would go with him if he would let me alone. I thought this was the only thing to do to save my life. He let me get up and I walked a few steps toward the edge of the sidewalk. He told me not to look around at him. I told him to pick up my hat and packages, which had fallen in the lot. I made a few steps forward and screamed. The man rushed toward me muttering something, and gave me two violent kicks. He then ran through the lot and down College avenue. 1 ran over to Mr. Doyle’s and screamed for help. Mr. Doyle came to the door and I told him what had happened, and he at once telephoned for the police. Mr. Doyle went over to the lot and brought me my hat and packages, and I was taken home.”

Description of the Man

The description of the fiend given by Miss Kearns is as follows: “As far as I could see, I just managed to turn my head a little when he grabbed me, the man was a little taller than I am, (probably about five feet four inches tall). He had on a light hat, the front of his shirt was of a light color. I could not see whether it was a white shirt. He wore a white collar and had on a black tie. His coat and vest were of a dark color and he wore light pants.”

Further Details

Upon receipt ol Mr. Doyle’e telephone message Officer Yoho was quickly on the scene and took the girl home. Officers Yoho, Hankel, Boyes and Shepard then scoured the neighborhood for tha man. The search was kept up all the evening.

When Miss Kearns arrived home her family was thrown into a state of great excitement. Mrs. Kearns was sitting in the parlor awaiting her daughter’s return. When she came in her appearance was such a shock to Mrs. Kearns that she swooned away. From the girl’s mother and grandmother it was learned that she looked terrible. Her eyes bulged out and she was trembling with terror aod excitement.

The assault is believed to have been the work of a crank who has a mania for choking women. Some people incline to the belief that he meant to abduct the girl. One thing is certain, had he been captured he would have been roughly handled last night.

It was thought that the ruffian was the same man who assaulted Mrs. Pomeroy outside the Savage residence on Fourth street about the same time on Tuesday evening. When Mrs. Pomeroy screamed he did not kick her, but dealt her a heavy blow in the face. The police, however, think differently. Mrs. Pomeroy’s vague description of her assailant was that he waa tall and slender. Miss Kearns is confident that she would recognize the voice and person if she should happen to run across him.

– Press Democrat, October 30, 1897
The Mysterious Assailant of Women at Work Again.
Discovered in the Nick of Time by an Angry Father–Took to His Heels and Run Away as Usual.

At 7 o’clock Saturday evening Lita and Charlotte Martin, aged 9 and 7 respectively, daughters of J. C. Martin, a carpenter residing on Riley street, were playing in the yard surrounding their home.

The parents of the children were eating their evening meal at the same hour, when they heard one of the little girls scream as though very much frightened. Rushing to the door Mr. Martin saw a man approaching the girls. He called to the fellow and asked what he was doing, but without replying the man leaped over the fence and ran down Riley street towards Fifth as fast as his legs could carry him.

Mr. and Mrs. Riley took the children into the house and quieted their fears as best they could. Lita, the eldest girl, said she saw the man come up to the fence and stop to look at them. He then leaped over the fence and started toward them, when both girls screamed. Then her father came to the door and the man ran away.

Mr. Martin could not see the man very plainly on account of the darkness but he thinks the fellow was either a negro or had a mask on his face. He thinks the man wore a brown suit of clothes.

Mrs. Martin and the children were so frightened that Mr. Martin could not leave them; consequently the news of the incident did not reach the officers until Sunday morning.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 1, 1897


The Police Say They Have Their “Official Eye” on the Two Men Who Did the Deeds.

City Marshal Steadman stated to a REPUBLICAN reporter Tuesday that there was no longer any secret in police circles as to the identity of the parties who have been harrassing [sic] the ladies of this city.

The police have had information for some time, they say, as to the identity of the man who assaulted Mrs. Pomeroy, the aged widow lady, and while the evidence of guilt is not absolutely conclusive, they state that they have every reason to believe that the man they suspect is the guilty party.

The police also believe that they could in an hour’s time lay their hands on the person who assaulted Miss Kearns. As in the case of Mrs. Pomeroy, the evidence is not absolutely conclusive, but is sufficiently definite to warrant a well-founded belief.

No arrests have been made, partly because of insufficient evidence and partly because prosecuting witnesses have not been forthcoming. The police state, however, that the ladies of Santa Rosa have now no cause for alarm. No further assaults need to be feared from the two suspects and it is not likely that “Jack the Choker” will make any more trouble in this city.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 9, 1897
A “Jack the Choker” Suspect Leaves Town Hurriedly

A figure that has been familiar on our streets for sometime has disappeared. The finger of suspicion pointed so strongly toward him as the individual who had been doing the “chocking” [sic] act here that he concluded to leave town rather hurriedly. Such characters can be spared.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 19, 1897



It is reported that the suspected choker of young women here, left Santa Rosa early Friday morning.

 – Press Democrat, November 20, 1897


 The Man Who Expectorates on Show Windows in the Dead of Night

Fred Guldin, the south B street tailor, has been driven nearly to distraction by the stains of tobacco and saliva that appeared every morning on his nice clean shop window.

Tuesday evening he vowed in his inmost soul that he would catch the miscreant. In company with Bruno Meyer he passed the midnight hours waiting for the man who had injected the misery into his erstwhile peaceful life.

At 5:40 they heard a footfall on the sidewalk. A moment later the window received a nicotine charged bath.

Guldin and his lieutenant sallied forth and captured the enemy in the act. He was marched to the county bastile and stowed away in a cell to mediated on his sinful act.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 8, 1897


And a Young Woman Who Was Badly Frightened
Followed By a Strange Man on Mendocino Street Late Sunday Evening

On Mendocino street, about a quarter to 10 o’clock Sunday night, a young woman employed at a residence on College avenue, was nearly frightened to death.

She was going down Mendocino street and when opposite Mrs. Tate’s tamale parlors she noticed a tall young man wearing a long black coat and with a slouch hat on his head. The man started to follow her. At Ross street she crossed the street to the other side. The stranger crossed also. When she reached the sidewalk the girl started to run. The man ran also. The girl never lost her presence of mind, but ran as fast as she could and outdistanced her pursuer. They raced to the corner of College avenue and when the girl entered the gate leading to her employer’s home the man fell behind. Officer Hankel was notified and the police kept a sharp lookout for the man in black. If he is caught a warm reception will be given him. The young woman was nearly frightened to death.

– Press Democrat, December 22, 1897


Santa Rosa Has a Man in Black

For several evenings an unknown man, dressed in black clothes, has been terrifying women in remote parts of town. On Sunday evening he chased a well-known young woman almost frightening her out of her wits. The officers have not yet found him but he is believed to be either a crank, a lunatic or the counterpart of “Jack the Choker” who was ordered to leave town a few weeks ago.

– San Francisco Chronicle, December 22, 1897



A young woman who resides in the western portion of the city came down Fourth street rather hurriedly Thursday night and told some of her friends that she had intended going up the street to make a call but that on the way she saw a man who she believed was “Jack, the Choker,” When she saw the man she said she turned aronnd and went back so as not to allow him to follow her.

– Press Democrat, March 26, 1898



Santa Rosa is worked up over the antics of a strange man, who is given the name of “Jack the Choker.” He stops unescorted women on the street at night, chokes them for a minute, and then disappears. —Marysville Appeal

– Press Democrat, April 2, 1898


Makes a Cowardly Assault Upon a Lady on the Street.
A Man of Similar Description has Frightened Ladies in Other Portions of the City.

The cowardly acts of “Jack the Strangler” are being enacted in this city.

Last evening, while returning from choral practice at Guild hall, Mrs. Dr. Ivancovich was assaulted on the street by a fellow and subjected to rough treatment, as marks on her neck plainly show.

Mrs. Ivancovich had left the hall alone, as she had a cold and wished to reach home as soon as possible. This was about 10 o’clock and the streets were deserted. She walked briskly up Sixth street, and when in front of the Lovejoy residence near A street she saw a man emerge from the opposite side and follow her. She walked straight ahead, the fellow following only a few feet behind, until in front of George Spottswood’s on Liberty, where the sidewalk was wide, she stepped aside to let him pass, but instead of passing he grasped her by the throat with a firm grip. She screamed and the fellow let go. Mrs. Ivancovich thought he had mistaken her for someone else and she upbraided him for the assault, wherewith he clutched her throat again and pressed harder than before. The lady had on a high fur collar that protected her neck and she was able to scream. This she did so loudly that the fellow, thinking someone would hear the cries and come to the rescue, gave his victim a push and ran in the middle of the roadway down Sixth street.

George Spottswood was aroused and came to the lady’s aid but the fellow had gotten away.

Mrs. Ivancovich was seen this morning at her home on Walnut street, and had not even then recovered from the shock of her adventure with the maniac or cowardly assaulter. She said the fellow was a young man, with a newly-grown dark mustache…and gave the general appearance of a gentleman, not a tramp.

During the scuffle he did not say a word and only seemed determined to choke his victim into insensibility…A fellow has operated in Santa Rosa and got a reputation as a woman choker. We hope he has not come here.

Sunday night a man answering a like description followed two East Petaluma girls across the D street bridge and up D street, keeping about three feet behind them all the time, not saying a word but crossing the street when they did and determined not to lose them. Women are becoming afraid to be on the streets at night.

Last evening about 11 o’clock Daniel Brown saw a stranger like the above, and some young ladies on D street were chased by a man and ran into Wickersham’s place.

– Argus Courier, November 7, 1899


Petaluma Excited Over the Actions of a Mysterious Stranger. 

PETALUMA, Nov. 7.— Considerable excitement is aroused in this city by a mysterious stranger who has been assaulting ladies on the streets after dark, rushing up behind them and attempting to choke them. The choker has been given chase by citizens, but succeeds in making his escape. The entire police force is out on his trail.

– San Francisco Call,  November 8 1899


A Young Man Arrested on Suspicion of Playing That Role

Bert Richardson, a young barber working in a Western avenue shop, was this morning detained on suspicion of implication in Monday night’s choking affray. The actions of Richards [sic] on Monday evening were very strange. He was intoxicated and seen in the neighborhood of B and Sixth street by several passers. He acted queerly and kept constantly in the vicinity of the corner. His description talies [sic] very well with that published. The police found a hat at the scene of the choking affair and the hat fitted his head perfectly. He told certain parties that he had lost his hat but to the police he denied this. The victim of the fiend’s work could not positively identify him and he was released. He was “fired” from his job. The man may be innocent but the circumstantial evidence seems strong against him. The young man’s folks reside in the lower end of town. They came here from San Francisco a week ago.

– Argus Courier, November 9, 1899


Arrest of a Young Man at Petaluma Upon Suspicion

According to the Petaluma Courier, the police of that city are of the opinion that they have the man who so roughly handled a number of ladles on the streets of that city Monday night. The young man in question is known to have been intoxicated on Monday evening and was seen in the neighborhood of the scene where Mrs. Ivancovlch was attacked, both before and after the occurrence.

Thursday morning Marshal Collins took him to his office in the city hall where Dr. and Mrs. Ivancovich were in waiting and he was confronted by Mrs. Ivancovich. She stated that the man tallies with the description of the fellow who attacked her but she did not care to swear positively that he is the man, so he was released.

A hat found near the scene fitted the young man, but he produced another hat exactly like it and stated that the hat in the possession of the police is not his at all. He told the police where he was on Monday night, but they found that he had told them his whereabouts on Sunday night.

– Press Democrat, November 11, 1899


“Jack the Hugger” at Stony Point

A correspondent from the Stony Point district writes as follows: “We have a ‘Jack the Hugger’ in our district. The latest report is that he came very near getting into serious trouble by attempting to hug the fair daughter of one of our oldest settlers. Not long ago Petaluma had “Jack the Choker” and before that Santa Rosa had a similar visitor.

– Press Democrat, November 25, 1899

First we had Jack the Ripper, then came Jack the Choker, and now we are confronted with Hobson the Kisser. And the question before the house is whether the world is progressing or retrograding.

– Press Democrat, December 24, 1899


Jack the Choker In Town

He is looking for a location to get into business but is unable to do so without calling at 304 Mendocino St. and purchasing one of Ciaypool’s nobby suits.

– Press Democrat, April 11, 1900


Their Lusty Cries for Help Caused Him to Disappear and Officers Seek In Vain for the Miscreant

“How would you like to be choked by ‘Jack the Choker?'”

With these startling words uttered in a rough tone a man suddenly sprang out from the shadow of the Methodist Church on Fourth street about 9:30 o’clock last night and addressed Mrs. D. R. Seawell and her daughter, who were on their way home. He made a lunge toward them as if he did not care to wait for an answer to his query. The ladies screamed lustily for help and started to run. The man disappeared rapidly. Officers Hankel and Llndley were quickly on the scene and made a search of the vicinity, but this fellow had made good his escape.

– Press Democrat, December 20, 1902

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Think those grizzly old Klondike prospectors had it tough? Try panning for gold in -30° temperatures while wearing a dress.

In February 1898, Minnie Stansbury and husband Warren left Santa Rosa bound for the goldfields of the Yukon. Both town papers offered little items about local men when they were leaving for Alaska but as the first woman, Minnie was a novelty and the Daily Republican sent a reporter to interview her. Unfortunately, the result was a fashion piece about what the well-dressed woman was wearing in subzero temperatures. “A figure in fur” was the headline, “gowns of blanket cloth and robes of fur.”

Minnie modeled her arctic attire, complete with her “blanket cloth dress with bloomers of the same material.” Her fur coat fell only to the bottom of her skirt. That was not unusual; while looking for images of women there I was surprised not to find a single photo of a woman in trousers – it was always a heavy skirt and usually a coat with a cinched waist. Given the dangerously low temperatures, freezing winds and their required constant physical labor it seems completely impractical.

It was even more of a surprise for me to discover women prospectors and entrepreneurs had a significant presence in the Klondike Gold Rush. For more information the National Park Service has a good overview with profiles of some of the more famous women, but my highest recommendation is a thesis by Alaska historian Sara Bornstein, which is captivating reading and offers a bibliography for those seeking a deeper dive.

While Minnie was the first, she wasn’t the only woman from Santa Rosa for very long; six months later, Virgil Moore returned to the Klondike with his wife, Ada, along with their two young daughters. Moore – called “Santa Rosa’s poet-journalist” by the Press Democrat – will have his own profile here someday, and here’s a spoiler alert: Some twenty years in the future he would become the manager of a plantation while his wife (real given name, “Allibelle”) would claim to be a professional astrologer.

Minnie wrote to her parents, but either they didn’t share the complete letters with the newspapers or the editors considered them only worth thumbnails. “Mr, and Mrs. J. D. Cooper received a very interesting letter Monday from their daughter Mrs. Warren Stansbury from Skagway. She writes that they are both well and gives an account of their experience while sleighing over the snow.” Another time: “Mrs. Stansbury writes that there is a great deal of sickness at Skagway, and that a number of people are dying.” That seems pretty newsworthy to me.

One letter which was summarized at length described her making a pet out a month-old bear cub after a hunt which killed three bears. She further described “Swiftwater Bill” passing by with forty dogs pulling sleds carrying 25 “girls.” She later heard that farther down the trail “they all went under the ice and had to be fished out.”

Minnie (her birth name was actually Myrtle) and Warren stayed in Alaska nearly 2½ years and returned to Santa Rosa in July, 1900, sans pet bear. Warren worked at his father-in-law’s grocery store at the corner of B and Third streets for a couple of years before growing restless. He ran an advert seeking partnership for Kern county oil speculation, then both of them were off to Idaho and Goldfield, Nevada to continue mining. They settled down, finally, in the Los Angeles area around 1917, where they rented out rooms in their house. Minnie died in 1934 a day short of her 65th birthday. They had no children.

She obviously didn’t leave much of a fingerprint on the pages of Santa Rosa’s history, but she deserves a nod for having done this mad thing of tackling the arctic in winter with her blanket bloomers. She was 28 years old and like other local prospective prospectors, all she or Warren knew about mining for gold near the Arctic Circle was what they had read in newspapers and magazines, most of which was colorful fiction. Those articles either tilted towards describing it as a get-rich-quick opportunity while having a ripping good adventure — or a fool’s quest which would probably end in starvation and/or frozen death. “I know I will have to endure great hardships but I guess I am equal to the occasion,” she told the Republican with a laugh.

Hers is also a story of lost opportunity. While most correspondence from miners were little more than, “hi, mom, I’m fine” postcards, Minnie apparently wrote full letters, and of course, from a woman’s unique perspective. There was probably a great deal more interesting written about incidents like the sleighing and dying and sleds filled with girls falling through the ice – hopefully someone in the Cooper family has them and will donate them to the library.


Everything Ready For the Trip to the Gold Fields–Gowns of Blanket Cloth and Robes of Fur.

On Wednesday a REPUBLICAN reporter called at the home of Mr. and Mrs. W. N. Stansbury who expect to leave here February 2d for the gold fields of Stewart river, Alaska. For weeks past Mrs. Stansbury has been busy with needle and thread making garments that will keep out the cold when the frigid arctic region is reached, but the task is completed at last and all is ready for the start.

Mrs. Stansbury’s clothing will consist of blanket cloth dress with bloomers of the same material. The skirts are short so as not to interfere with walking. An immense fur cloak reaching to the bottom of the skirt and with a very high collar looks warm enough to keep out Jack Frost with the thermometer at 100 below.

A blanket cloth cap which can be drawn down over the face, completely covering the head with the exception of the eyes and mouth, is another important article. Over this goes a heavy fur hood which can be drawn closely about the neck and face, so that, with snow glasses over the eyes, the only portion of the face exposed is the mouth. Felt-lined snow boots, fur mitts and heavy fur leggings complete Mrs. Stansbury’s costume.

In order that the reporter might see what an Alaskan woman looked like en costume and in real life, Mrs. Stansbury donned these various garments. The effect was startling. As the garments were donned one by one the woman disappeared and in her place there stood a “figure in fur.” Mrs. Stansbury’s costume is certainly an admirable one. Mr. Stansbury’s outfit is not yet complete though Mrs. Stansbury has made him a great fur coat, cap and hood somewhat similar to her own.

When asked if she entertained any fears concerning her approaching trip over the snow covered hills of Alaska, Mrs. Stansbury laughed and replied that she did not. “I know I will have to endure great hardships but I guess I am equal to the occasion,” she said.

Mr. and Mrs. Stansbury, accompanied by Stanley Myers, expect to leave Skaguay for Stuart river via the White pass some time in February. They will take along supplies sufficient to last one year and Mr. Stansbury stated that he thought his expenses would be about $1,000.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 26, 1898




Big Bear Hunt

A letter bristling with interesting details and humorous incidents was received here on Wednesday by Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Cooper from their daughter, Mrs. W. M. Stansbury, from Lake Tagish, Alaska.

Mrs. Stansbury tells of a trip her husband and herself and Stanley Myers made on one of the lakes. She says it was very enjoyable, and was just like riding on an electric car.

The letter states that the ice was beginning to thaw on May 16, the day on which the letter was written, but it would be about the latter end of the month before it hreaks much.

The Stansbury’s were near Carriboo island in May and all around them was a city of tents.

The writer speaks of a bear hunt they had in which three bears were killed. Mrs. Stansbury has a pet in the shape of a one month old bear cub which she proposes to bring up, and in the event of her husband and herself coming back to Santa Rosa next spring, she proposes that the cub shall accompany them.

During May Mrs. Stansbury says the thermometer was at summer heat and everything was quite pleasant. She says she only walked ten miles out of the ninety traversed by the party on the trail.

The day before the letter was posted, Mrs. Stansbury says, the somewhat renowned “Swiftwater Bill” passed by their tents with numerous sledges and forty dogs, In his retinue of followers were twenty-five girls. She says they were informed soon after the passing of the party that they all went under the ice and had to be fished out. The many friends of Mr. and Mrs. Stansbury here will be pleased to know that they are so well.

– Press Democrat, June 4, 1898
They Are in Great Luck

Two long letters were received Thursday by Mrs. J. D. Cooper from her daughter, Mrs. W. M. Stansbury.

Mr. and Mrs. Stansbury are located about forty miles above Dawson City. The letters are bright and cheery and state that they are well pleased with the country.

The writer says they have made up their minds to stay another year in the Klondike regions. She says they have cleaned up the gold they washed out last year with satisfactory results, having made a nice little stake. ..

– Press Democrat, July 5, 1899
Mr. and Mrs, Stansbury Arrive

On Saturday morning Mr. and Mrs. Warren Stansbury arrived at home in the City of Roses after an absence of two years and a half in Dawson City and vicinity where they have been busily engaged in mining. Their friends are very glad to see them. They are at the residence of Mrs. Stansbury’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Cooper on King street. They left Dawson on June 7.

They have brought home with them in addition to some dust and nuggets a collection of valuable curios. On the whole they enjoyed life in the Klondike despite the cold weather and other experiences.

Dawson City now has a population of about five thousand people and while many have gone to Nome there are others who are taking their place. A short time before they left Dawson City Mr. and Mrs. Stansbury saw John Brophy and Roscoe Donahue of this city, both of whom are working on one of the El Dorado claims. Mr. Brophy’s smile is just as broad as ever.

Mr. Stansbury’s health has much improved and both he and his wife are looking very well. They intend to settle down in California again.

– Press Democrat, July 4, 1900


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