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 casebook.org, 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 BRUTAL ASSAULTA Ruffian’s Attack on a Lady here Tuesday NightGrasped 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
BRUTAL ASSAULTGirl is Roughly HandledWAS ALMOST CHOKEDWhen She Screamed for Help The Fiend Kicked HerFifteen 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, 1897JACK THE CHOKER.The Mysterious Assailant of Women at Work Again.TRIED TO ASSAULT TWO GIRLS.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
JACK THE CHOKER.LADIES NEED NO LONGER FEAR THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER.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, 1897SKIPPED.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
JACK THE SPITTERARRESTED BY FRED GULDIN WEDNESDAY MORNINGThe 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
A MAN IN BLACKAnd a Young Woman Who Was Badly FrightenedFollowed 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
IMAGINED SHE SAW JACK THE CHOKER
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
“JACK THE STRANGLER”.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
JACK THE CHOKER.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
“JACK THE CHOKER”.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
WAS HE THE CHOKER?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
GIVEN A BAD SCARE“JACK THE CHOKER” SPRINGS FROM SHADOW OF CHURCH UPON TWO WOMENTheir 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