Mazama

I’LL BE RICH, I TELL YOU, RICH

 When the big book of Sonoma county history is writ, there should be a special chapter on some of the remarkably dumb business ventures that were tried here and flopped spectacularly.

 Near the top of the list would be Jack London’s eucalyptus obsession, which caused him to squander a fortune. London wasn’t alone in the mistaken belief that blue gum trees would be a valuable cash crop but he was probably the largest investor, planting about 100,000 seedlings. The trees proved worthless (plus a fire hazard, to boot) and just made London’s Beauty Ranch stink like cheap menthol cough drops.

London only wasted money with his dream of a eucalyptus plantation, but in the 1870s a Glen Ellen farmer inadvertently launched an environmental disaster. In 1871 Julius A. Poppe set up a fish farm but he didn’t stock it with Steelhead or Rainbow Trout or another native fish; instead, he imported common carp all the way from Germany.

Often called a “trash fish,” common carp could be the eucalyptus of the piscatorial world. They grow big very fast, spawn prolifically and crowd out any other species in its vicinity. And like blue gum trees, they are mostly worthless – very difficult to clean as well as eat because of their tiny bones, not to mention being also an acquired taste. Yet it was a traditional food for German/Central European immigrants and carp ponds became a local fad, with Poppe selling breeding fish to more than a dozen farmers.

Big winter storms caused some of the ponds to overflow and by the middle of the decade carp were found in creeks, rivers and the Laguna. That was the death knell for commercial carp farming in Sonoma county, although Poppe also sold stock to farmers in Southern California, Hawai’i, and even Central America.

But there seemed to be an upside to the release of the fish into the wild; carp fishing in the Laguna became a popular sport and a tourist draw. In 1879 the State Board of Fish Commissioners even supported carp by introducing catfish, which would eat the “water dogs” – newts of the now endangered tiger salamander – which preyed upon juvenile carp.

Shift forward fifteen years and attitudes are flipped. Sportsmen realized the carp were forcing out trout and other types of fish which people actually liked to eat, while carp were also reducing the food supply of migratory ducks. Thus in 1896 the state introduced largemouth bass into the Laguna to eat the carp (“all the carp which are now in the stream will eventually be destroyed, as black bass are death on carp” – Sonoma Democrat, 4/24/1897). Two years later the bass itself had become such a nuisance that someone began trying to wipe them out with dynamite: “Every few days a stick of powder is touched off under the water and as a result dead bass in great quantities can be seen floating on the surface,” reported the Sebastopol Times in 1898.

What a fine example this was of the Unintended Consequences Law; in less than a quarter century, a modest side business of a few farmers ended up wrecking an entire ecosystem. Even today, catfish and bass appear to be in all our local waterways, while Mr. Poppe’s carp can still be found in Green Valley Creek, Estero Americano, the Petaluma River and elsewhere.

Although the carp and eucalyptus projects didn’t make any money (or at least not much), at least they moved the ball forward; Poppe successfully imported fish from Germany and sold some. London indeed planted a carpload of trees which no one wanted. But John M. King badly fumbled between the dreaming and the doing. John M. King wanted to become the first steamboat captain on the Russian River.

A 1908 steamer with the same dimensions as King’s Enterprise

 
 

Nothing is known about King – whether he had any experience aboard ships or even how old he was. “John King” and even “John M. King” was a surprisingly common name at that time. From descriptions in the weekly Russian River Flag newspaper we know he indeed built a very small stern-wheel steamboat in 1869. There are no photos but it must have resembled the Mazama steamer shown above. Named the Enterprise, King’s little ship was only fifty feet long and sat high in the water, with a draft of only a foot and the paddles dipping in merely ten inches. Although it was so tiny that it probably looked like somebody’s hobby boat, the specs were a good match for the shallow Russian River except for one issue – the very first article about him mentioned “…in the season of high water the Captain expects to run to Healdsburg.”

Paddling around the lower Russian River and piloting a boat through the bendy twists of the river around Healdsburg are two very different goals. Yes, his dinky steamer was more maneuverable than a larger craft, but that’s not gonna help if that part of the river dried up completely (or nearly so), as it did every autumn back then. The river was only legally declared navigable in 1976 by a court revising the meaning of “navigable” as not necessarily allowing passage year-round. And closer to King’s day back in 1886, the state Supreme Court had declared specifically that “the [Russian] river is not navigable for boats larger than canoes, skiffs, etc., and is not in fact navigable for commercial purposes.”*

Captain King built the Enterprise just downstream from Heald and Guerne’s lumber mill, which is to say a mile west of today’s Safeway store in Guerneville. He also built two barges to tow with his steamer; he had a contract with the mill to carry shingles and lumber to the mouth of the river, where presumably an ocean-going ship would connect to take the barges down to San Francisco. But before he began barging or making his quixotic run to Healdsburg, King wanted to show off a bit.

King took out an ad in the Flag announcing an “excursion” from Guerneville to Duncan’s Mills. “…The trip will afford one continuous panorama of the most beautiful and romantic scenery,” he burbled, as well as the chance to see lumbermen’s camps – which seems to me a bit like the SMART train trying to draw riders by promising scenic views into junky backyards and homeless encampments.

Alas, a cancellation notice quickly followed. “The excursion trip is postponed for a few days, owing to an unavoidable accident which will be soon remedied, when all will be right again.” As the summer and autumn of 1869 passed, King continued to tinker with his boat and just before Christmas the Flag reported that he was actually towing cargo. The excursion to Duncan’s Mill and back (with dancing on the barges in tow) supposedly happened Dec. 23-24, but nothing further appeared in the paper.

He failed to meet his goal of reaching Healdsburg before Christmas, but told the Flag he “intends next Summer to make regular trips – three times a week — from the month of the river to Healdsburg.” Besides working on his boat, “the Capt. has constructed a dam and lock, which gives the river a three foot rise above the dam,” reported the Flag. “He will open the lock and let the boat ride through to the sea on the accumulated waters.”

Then sometime after the New Year with the river around its winter peak, he made a run for Healdsburg. He sank two miles past Guerneville.

“The indomitable Captain has got her afloat again,” reported the Flag a few weeks later. King was aided by someone from the Mare Island Navy Yard as well as fifteen men clearing obstructions in the water. “Capt. King’s steamer, ‘Enterprise,’ will probably reach Healdsburg today. as she is now but a short distance below town,” the paper reported on March 24.

He didn’t. The ship ran aground again and this time could not be budged. It stayed wherever it was for months, maybe years.

In November of 1871 a visitor was told “…she twisted off her shaft and went to the bottom; and how the hulk now lies half-buried in the sand — a warning to any man so presumptuous as to attempt steamboat navigation on a river along which there is not yet enough traffic to have made even a decent bridle-path…”

Hannah Clayborn, who writes some about the steamboat in the “Roads, Ferries, and Bridges” chapter of her Healdsburg history page, suggests it got no farther than the Windsor area, but Dr. Shipley’s “Tales of Sonoma County” says King almost made it to the summer dam:

She struck hard aground and fast, the water went down and left the tug high and dry on the bar and it had to be abandoned until the next high water when the fall rains set in, at which time she was repaired, re-caulked, and with the crew who brought her up the river the spring before, they sailed, or rather steamed, down the muddy water back to the sea…

Why he risked – and ultimately, lost – his river hauling business at Guerneville is a mystery. What was so important about reaching Healdsburg by water? His steamer was so small he could not have carried much cargo aboard, and he certainly could not have gotten his barges through the channel. And even in the middle of the rainy season, Healdsburg was not cut off by road, or at least no more than other towns. A January, 1870 letter from a Healdsburger who went to Vallejo remarked, “the road to Santa Rosa was so so – very fair for our county; from thence to Petaluma it was too abominable to talk about to strangers.”

My guess is that King’s venture was bankrolled by Thomas W. Hudson, who owned considerable property on the southern end of Healdsburg. A one-term member of the state Assembly 1869-1871, the only bill he tried to get passed was to declare the Russian River navigable so state money could be spent on improvement. “This is intended to encourage and protect the indomitable enterprise of Capt. John M. King,” the Flag noted. Hannah Clayborn wrote, “…declaring the river navigable would have served Hudson’s interests, as he owned the west bank of the river and half of a ferry system throughout the 1860’s, a natural location for a proposed Healdsburg Wharf.”

There’s an odd little Believe-it-or-Not! twist to the sad tale of steamboat captain John M. King, and I’m not sure what to make of it. About two months after the (final) sinking, he wrote a letter to the Flag informing them he was now running a sawmill near Cloverdale, and would return to the Russian River soon and build a new ship which he would name the “Perseverance.” Alas, he wrote, Heald and Guerne were trying to break him and had attached the Enterprise for money owed. They had even attached his dog, Gipsey, “which I valued more than money.” The pooch was supposedly sold for $200. “This seems like a large sum. but I would not have taken twice that amount for it.”

The next week Tom Heald wrote the paper. “Heald and Guerne have not attached the boat as represented by King, and, as to his dog ‘Gipsie,’ I never as much as knew he had such a dog. Heald and Guerne do not wish to ‘break’ J. M. King, nor to ‘keep him broke,’ but suppose we will have the pleasure of seeing the ‘Perseverence’ when she comes along.”


* The 1976 case was Hitchings v. Del Rio Woods Recreation & Park District. One of the lawyers in the 1886 Wright v. Seymour suit was this journal’s favorite antihero, James Wyatt Oates.


The Steamboat “Enterprise.” — This boat now being built at Heald’s Mill by Capt. John M. King, will be launched next Saturday the 15th. The machinery is all aboard now and the boat will be completed within two or three weeks, when she will make an excursion to Duncan’s Mill on the Coast, going down one day and returning the next. As many of our citizens will want to join the excursion the Flag will give timely notice of the day set for it to come off. The livery stables will run stages down to the landing twelve miles from Healdsburg. Capt. King has been running a barge on the river, drawing from fourteen to twenty-six inches, according to the load. He has made six round trips from Heald’s Mill, carrying, in the aggregate, 200,000 shingles and 20,000 feet of lumber, besides considerable farm and dairy produce. He has built another barge drawing only twelve inches when loaded. He is now building the “Enterprise” to tow these barges. The boat is 50 feet long; 10 foot beam on the bottom and 14½ on deck; Engine 15 horsepower; draught 12 inches; depth of hull 44 inches; dip of paddles (stern wheel) 10 inches. She is built in a superior manner and fitted up with a cabin and all necessary conveniences for carrying passengers. Capt. King having a contract for carrying the lumber from Heald & Guern’s Mill the regular trips of the boat will be between that point and the Coast. In the season of high water the Captain expects to run to Healdsburg. This would give us cheap freight between Healdsburg and San Francisco while the mud road to Petaluma was at its worst. We hope Capt. King’s enterprise in building the “Enterprise” will be richly rewarded.

– Russian River Flag, May 13 1869

Particular attention is likewise invited to the advertisement of Capt. John King, of the new steamboat “Enterprise.” He proposes an excursion which will give every one an opportunity to enjoy the delightful scenery along the navigable portion of Russian River, and also to visit the coast on the first steamboat ever built or run on this river. We hope the Captain may have an encouraging benefit on this occasion. His pioneering energy should be well rewarded. It is twelve miles we believe to the Mill from which the excursion starts.

– Russian River Flag, May 20 1869

Read Capt. King’s advertisement carefully once more and decide whether you can afford to lose the trip. — We learn from Capt. King, and you will learn from our correspondent “Visitor,” that the excursion is postponed for a few days. Be ready for another announcement.

– Russian River Flag, June 3 1869

Letter from “Big Bottom.” Big Bottom, May 29th, 1869.

Mr. Editor: The most important event of th« day to the people of Lower Russian River, is the successful launching of the steamboat “Enterprise” built at Heald’s Mill by Capt. J. M. King. The scene was witnessed by many of the citizens — ladies and gentlemen — who met there on the occasion. The little boat sat on the water beautifully, and promises all that her sanguine friends could have anticipated of her. The excursion trip is postponed for a few days, owing to an unavoidable accident which will be soon remedied, when all will be right again. When ready, due notice will be given to all. – Visitor

– Russian River Flag, June 10 1869

The steamer Enterprise, Capt. John King, has steam up again and is running. It will make a trial trip to the mouth of the river this week. The Capt. has constructed a dam and lock, which gives the river a three foot rise above the dam. He will open the lock and let the boat ride through to the sea on the accumulated waters. — Capt. King says that three locks would be sufficient to make the Russian River navigable to Healdsburg the whole year; also that we may expect to see his boat up here the first Fall rains.

– Russian River Flag, August 12 1869

We visited the steamer Enterprise, lying one mile below the mill. Capt. King is quite confident that he will visit Healdsburg by steam before Christmas. Says he intends next Summer to make regular trips – three times a week — from the month of the river to Healdsburg. Next Saturday he intends making his first trip to the mouth of the river.

– Russian River Flag, August 26 1869

Capt. King of the steamer Enterprise was in town last week having some repairing done to the machinery of his boat, which will soon be skimming over the waters of Russian River.

– Russian River Flag, September 2 1869

A Success. – The new steamer Enterprise recently constructed by Captain King for navigating the Russian River, made her trial trip on the 23d ult., and we are glad to learn, proved a success. Her speed was some ten miles an hour.

– Petaluma Argus, October 7 1869

The Steamer Enterprise. — We are pleased to learn from Mr. J. W. Bagley that Capt. King’s boat, the Enterprise, is now successfully running on Russian River. She left Heald & Guern’s Mill on the 16th with several passengers for Duncan’s Mill, with barges in tow loaded with charcoal. On her next trip she will carry hoop poles and several thousand Christmas trees for San Francisco. At last, after several unsuccessful attempts, Russian River is navigated by a live steamboat, and we hope, when the river rises, to see the little vessel throw out her bow lines and stern lines and spring lines to the Healdsburg wharf! Captain King is entitled to great praise for his indomitable pluck and perseverance under difficulties and we hope his “Enterprise” may prove a great success. Since the above was in type we are informed that the boat will leave Heald & Guern’s Mill today at 12 o’clock on a pleasure excursion to Duncan’s Mill and return at noon tomorrow. Fare down and back, $2.50. Two barges fitted up for dancing will be in tow.

– Russian River Flag, December 23 1869

Mr. Hudson’s bill declaring Russian River navigable and providing for its improvement, has passed the Assembly. This is intended to encourage and protect the indomitable enterprise of Capt. John M. King, who has built a steamboat to navigate Russian River, and it will no doubt become a law. It will be of great benefit to our county.

– Russian River Flag, February 17 1870

The Enterprise. – Some weeks since Capt. King attempted to make a passage to Healdsburg with the “Enterprise,” but a little above Heald and Guern’s mill the pilot backed the boat upon a snag and sank her. This occasioned delay and considerable expense, but the indomitable Captain has got her afloat again and with the experienced help of his friend Capt. Parker, of the Mare Island Navy Yard, he will make the first voyage to Healdsburg as soon as some obstructions can be removed from the river, which he is now engaged in doing, with a force of fifteen men. The boat is now above the mouth of Mark West creek about ten miles below Healdsburg. The captain has bought new sixty horse power engines for her and he will keep her here when she comes up until they are put in.

– Russian River Flag, March 10 1870

Capt. King’s steamer, “Enterprise,” will probably reach Healdsburg today. as she is now but a short distance below town.

– Russian River Flag, March 24 1870

The Russian River Boat.

We have learned with considerable regret that Capt. King’s boat the “Enterprise.” is, for the present, a failure. The Captain has met with many serious difficulties in his undertaking, the chief of which lately, seem to have been the summary manner in which some of his creditors have secured their claims, whether rightfully or not we have no knowledge, and of course have nothing to say upon that head, though we had hoped that the Captain’s energy and perseverance would be rewarded. At his request we publish the following letter:

Eds. Flag: — I take this opportunity of thanking you for the many favors you have done me during the time I have been endeavoring to prove that Russian River is navigable. Although I differ very widely from you in politics, yet as long as I can use a hammer and cold chisel you may consider me one of your subscribers. Messrs. Heald & Guern have attached my boat, but that will not prevent me from making a living, as some friends have engaged me to run the Perseverance Saw mill, which is located thirteen miles above Cloverdale. They also attached my dog, “Gipsey,” which I valued more than money. They sold the dog for $200. This seems like a large sum. but I would not have taken twice that amount for it. They may break me, but they cannot keep me broke. The first of August, I will commence building another steamboat, at the mouth of Russian River, to be called the “Perseverance.” Again thanking you for past favors I ask that you do me one more by publishing this letter. Respectfully, yours,

John M. King.

– Russian River Flag, May 5 1870   

A Card From Mr. Heald.

Eds Flag: — If I may be permitted the space in your paper to correct some errors in the card of John M. King, in your issue of May 5th, I will be thankful for the favor, as it seems to throw the blame of the failure of his boat where it does not belong. I think, however, the fact of his trying some four weeks to get the boat to Healdsburg over the shoals, with the river falling every day, without any probability of a rise till next December, and only making twelve miles, should convince any one that the “Enterprise for the present is a failure,” and Heald and Guerne not wholly answerable tor it, if they had lately attached the boat; but the facts are, that Heald and Guerne have not attached the boat as represented by King, and, as to his dog “Gipsie,” I never as much as knew he had such a dog. Heald and Guerne do not wish to “break” J. M. King, nor to “keep him broke,” but suppose we will have the pleasure of seeing the “Perseverence” when she comes along.

Thos. T. Heald. May 8th. 1870.

– Russian River Flag, May 12 1870 

IN THE REDWOODS.
Life among the Lumbermen – How the Redwoods are Cut and Hauled, etc.
[Correspondence to the Bulletin.]
Stumptown, Sonoma Co., Nov. 20th

…Two or three hours I listened to these heavy stories, and to my hosts narrative of his financial shipwreck through a rash steamboat venture up Russian river with one King; how she twisted off her shaft and went to the bottom; and how the hulk now lies half-buried in the sand — a warning to any man so presumptuous as to attempt steamboat navigation on a river along which there is not yet enough traffic to have made even a decent bridle-path…

– Russian River Flag, November 30 1871

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opensafe

STOLEN: THE SONOMA COUNTY TREASURY

The safe was open and Sonoma county’s treasury was gone, every last cent. As a key was needed to unlock the safe and the end-of-year tax money was going to Sacramento the following day, it was presumed the robbery was an inside job. It was: the county treasurer stole all of it. Maybe.

In January 1857 one William A. Buster was the county treasurer and kept the county’s safe at his house. That was not as dumb as it may seem; at the time Santa Rosa was still a village at a muddy crossroads – later that year, the newspaper editor boasted there were “probably upward of a hundred” buildings. There was no bank and although it was also the county seat, the only public buildings were the courthouse and jail, both criticized for being dinky and rickety.

Initial details in the newspapers were scant, but add in later remarks and it seems Buster was playing cards at the saloon on Saturday, the 17th and went home around midnight accompanied by two friends. They found the front door partly ajar and the safe open with all the money gone: $14,439.13 – equivalent to over a half million dollars today.

Buster offered a $500 reward and left for Sacramento, where it was presumed he intended to lobby members of the legislature to not hold him personally responsible for the theft. While he was there he also picked up $2,795.10 from the State School Fund intended to support county schools. Also while he was there he hooked up with Joe Nevill.

“I told Nevill what I wanted to get,” Buster later told the court, meaning indemnity from the stolen tax money. “[Nevill] went with me and seemed to know most all the members. Harrison and Taliaferro talked favorable; Edwards I did not see. Nevill seemed to be very kind, and done all he could for me, and we drank considerable with members of the Legislature.”

His pal Nevill was still around the next morning as he prepared to leave. “He said he was out of money, and so was I, and if we would take some of the money and go to a faro bank we could win expenses.”

“I took out one hundred dollars – it was lost; we drank some brandy – it was good brandy.” Lest we get distracted by his tasting notes, keep in mind that Buster is talking about dipping into the school fund money.

“[Nevill] insisted the stake was so small he could do nothing, and wanted me to increase it and he would certainly win. I did so until we had lost a thousand dollars. He swore by his right arm and the blood of his heart, that if he lost he knew where he could get the money and would pay me back.”

The two men took a boat to San Francisco with Buster growing anxious over having gambled away so much money. Nevill proposed a poker game “and make a sure thing for me to win.” A third man joined the hand with Nevill as the dealer. “I watched him deal; he took my cards from the bottom and the other man’s from the top – the other man bet along moderately for some time and then raised to four hundred and fifty dollars.”

Buster continued: “…And then I found that Joe was not acting fair with me, and I was then all out except what I had in my pocket, one hundred and forty dollars and a bit. I talked with him, told him I was broke and ruined; he said he would make it all right in the morning.” He wandered down to the wharf where he found a Faro table and lost the $140.

He returned to Santa Rosa with only a bit (12½ cents) in his pocket and immediately confessed having gambled away the school money. Buster was jailed until the next session of the court in April. There were four indictments against him. Apparently there was also talk of people storming the jail and lynching him.

When all this occurred, Buster was already in trouble for playing fast and loose with the county’s treasury. A year before he had “borrowed” $2,000 from the safe and loaned it to a man in San Francisco. When this was discovered he was indicted by the Grand Jury and due to appear in court in January, 1857 – which is why he hadn’t gone to Sacramento on New Year’s Day to make the big end-of-year deposit, as was customary for county treasurers. That indictment was quashed when it came before the court, and at the sentencing he went on at length about this 1856 crime and seemed miffed at having been arrested for embezzling that $2k; after all, by the time his case came to trial he intended to have paid it back with interest.

William Anderson Buster had no prior government experience; he was elected treasurer in 1855 as part of the “Settler’s Ticket” that swept the local elections that year. (His opponent was one of the town founders, Barney Hoen.) Aside from having a gambling addiction and/or being remarkably stupid, all we know about him is that he was 37 at the dawn of 1857 and with Margaret had four children: Harriet, John, Missouri (female) and Eliza. Years later he would say he was just a farmer, but I cannot find anything about what he was doing in Santa Rosa at the time. The only clue comes from his courtroom soliloquy where he volunteered, “Gentlemen, I have borrowed money of many of you, not by dollars but by hundreds and thousands, in my business, and paid you back honestly.”

The Buster trial lasted all of April, 1857. He was found guilty of embezzling state money (2½ years), county money (2½ years), and county school funds (8 years). He also paid a $300 fine for gambling.

His odd speech at his sentencing hearing (transcribed below) is worth reading in full, although much has been already excerpted here. Even skipping the part about how easily he was conned by Joe Nevill, Buster comes across as a rube.

He pled guilty to gambling, but insisted he did not steal the treasury money in the safe. Yes, he admitted, “I was in debt in my business, and wanted to borrow a thousand dollars,” but the money stolen included the $2000 and $88 interest from his “borrowing” crime the year before. The proof of his innocence, he argued, was he had bothered to repay that earlier theft when he was caught: “If I had been disposed to rob myself, I might have taken much more; and you all know I am in the habit of doing things by the wholesale.” In other words, I didn’t do it in 1857 – because I could have done it in 1856.

Gentle Reader may now pick up his/her jaw from the floor.

According to the Petaluma Journal, “The prisoner shed tears quite copiously during his remarks.” The court apparently ruled his terms were to run concurrently, so he was sentenced to eight years.

Unfortunately, nothing further appeared in the newspapers about the case against him. Yes, he confessed to “borrowing” money the year before and gambling away the school funds, but it wasn’t explained why he was convicted of embezzling the $14,439.13. Did the prosecutor show he lost it at card tables or tapped it for loans to himself and others, despite having been caught the previous year? One might expect juicy details of proven guilt would have appeared in the press, even though papers were few and far between in 1857 California.

The ease of the robbery – knowing where the key to the safe was and when the home would be empty – gives me reasonable doubt that he was guilty. Then a few months later, the Santa Rosa paper printed this:

It is well known that some eight or ten thousand dollars of the missing public moneys [sic] for the loss of which Wm. A. Buster is now serving a term of years in the State Prison, was abstracted from the county safe without any agency of his. Since that time, it has been a matter of wonder how certain men not more than sixteen miles from Santa Rosa, having no lucrative business, could become “men of leisure” and always have plenty of money.

The “men of leisure” remark was likely just a swipe at Petaluma, as this was the beginning of the feud between Petaluma and Santa Rosa newspapers – but what was this about “it is well known” that Buster didn’t steal the money?

In 1860 and under a different editor, the Santa Rosa Democrat urged the governor to pardon Buster. “…There is no doubt but his temporary departure from the paths of rectitude is thoroughly cured, and we dare say, that a large majority of his old acquaintances, even here where his misdeeds were committed, would trust him to-day, as readily as they would men whose integrity has never been impeached.”

The warden at San Quentin gave him a week furlough (!) to visit his family in Santa Rosa, and later in 1860 he was pardoned. The family continued to live here for a few years – apparently next door to the notorious Otho Hinton – then moved to Anderson Valley. They ended up in the Los Angeles County town of Wilmington, where William Buster died in 1890.

The obl. Believe-it-or-not! epilogue to this story is that in 1859 the Petaluma Journal mentioned that treasurers in nine other counties had vanished with public funds. And at the exact same time in 1857 while Buster was awaiting his trial(s), the state treasurer Henry Bates was arrested for losing about $300,000. In Bates’ first trial there was a hung jury, followed by a second mistrial. As far as I’m able to tell, the only person in California who went to prison for stealing public money in those days was William A. Buster – who possibly did not steal it. Well, not all of it, anyway.

 

Robbery of the County Treasury.

W. A. Buster, Treasurer of Sonoma County, reports that the safe in which was deposited the public funds, was robbed some time during last Sunday Evening. Of the particulars of this affair, we are unadvised, other than by rumor. As near as we can get at the matter, it would appear that at the time of the robbery there was, or should have been. In the safe, from $13,000 to $14,000, all of which belonged to the State, excepting about $1,200. – That the robbery was discovered about 1 o’clock, A. M., Sunday morning, by two acquaintances of Mr. Buster’s whom he was lighting to their rooms, and that his attention was called to it by one of them remarking that the safe door was open. We further learn that the safe exhibited no evidence of force having been used upon it, but on the contrary went to show that it had been opened by a key.

Whoever committed the robbery was evidently perfectly familiar with the premises and state of finances. One day later, and they would have had dry picking, as Mr. Buster was to leave for Sacramento early on Monday morning to pay into the State Treasury the money belonging to the State.

Mr. Buster had offered a reward of five hundred dollars, for the apprehension of the robber and recovery of the money.

– Sonoma County Journal, January 23 1857

 

THE MISSING FUNDS — We cannot learn that any additional light has been thrown upon either the whereabouts of the funds missing from the County Treasury, or of the perpetrators of the robbery. Mr. Buster, we believe, has gone to Sacramento, probably with the view of getting the Legislature to release himself and bondsmen from the payment of the sum due the State. The Board of Supervisors meet on Monday next, when it is probable an additional reward will be offered for the detection of the robbers. We are also informed, that the County Attorney has given an instruction to the Sheriff, to retain in his hands, until further ordered, all moneys which may be paid in, belonging to the County.

– Sonoma County Journal, January 30 1857

 

The Late County Treasurer.

By reference to the Report of the Board of Supervisors, it will be seen that W. A. Buster, late Treasurer of Sonoma County, is a defaulter to the State to the amount of $17,263.98. Of this sum, $14,439.13 was money collected in this County, for State purposes, and paid over to him, to be paid by him into the State Treasurer’s hands. The remainder, with the exception of $29.75, is money drawn from the State School Fund, $2,795.10 being the proportionate amount due this County for school purposes. This money he drew from the State Treasury since the reported robbery of the County Treasury, but when called upon by the Board of Supervisors to make an exhibit of the same, he was unable to comply. How this money has been disposed of, remains to be proven.

The evidence that Mr. Buster was unlawfully appropriating the public moneys to private purposes, has been so strong from the time of his entering upon his official duties, that legal proceedings were instituted against him as early as October, 1856, at which time the Grand Jury found an indictment against him for the improper use of public funds. In the following December he was arrested on a bench warrant and held to bail in the sum of $3,000 to appear at the January term of County Court. From some informality, the indictment was quashed at the January term, but the case submitted to the Grand Jury which will be summoned previous to the setting of the April terms of the Court, and bail fixed in same amount. On the 5th last, his sureties surrendered him to the Sheriff, and he is now in prison awaiting his trial at the April term of Court.

Of the guilt or innocence of Mr. Buster we wish not to speak at this time. The feeling already existing against him, is strong. We would not add to this feeling by giving publicity to the thousand and one stories in circulation, lest the public mind might become prejudiced to such an extent as to render it difficult to obtain an impartial and unprejudiced jury to try him. He is now in the hands of the law, and no doubt justice will be meted out to him according to his deserts. If proven guilty of the offence charged, his punishment, according to the statutes of 1855, will be imprisonment in the State Penitentiary from one to five years, or a fine, discretionary with the Court.

Since his imprisonment Mr. Buster has sent in his resignation, and the Board of Supervisors have appointed Dr. J. HENDLEY of Santa Rosa, who is now acting as County Treasurer.

– Sonoma County Journal, February 13 1857

 

THE ROBBERY OF THE SONOMA TREASURY. — Some time since it was stated that Mr. Buster, the Treasurer of Sonoma county had been robbed of $13,000 of State and county funds. — The people in that section now generally believe that Mr. Buster robbed himself, as appears by the following from the Napa Reporter:

MR. BUSTER. — This County Treasury “busting” official, it in currently reported, went to the Capital to have his bonds cancelled, which he didn’t do, as far as we can learn. Report also says that he was paid the apportionment of the School Fund due Sonoma county, which he “bucked off” before reaching the locality of the county safe. He is now in the Santa Rosa jail, we understand. He’ll do to play second fiddle to the State Treasurer.

– Daily Alta California, February 16 1857

 

Wm. A. Buster, Late County Treasurer, was arraingned [sic] on Tuesday, and entered the plea of “not guilty” to two indictments, one for using and loaning County funds, and one for using and loaning State funds. His counsel, C. P. Wilkins, gave notice of a motion for a change of venue on the ground that the prisoner could not obtain a fair and impartial trial in Sonoma county.

Oliver Baileau, arraigned for branding cattle with intent to stal the same, was discharged – the jury rendering a verdict of “not guilty.”

An unsual number of persons have been in attendance. There is no apparent indication in regard to time of adjournment. Should Busters’ application for a change of venue be denied and his case tried at this term, the court will probably be in session during next week.

– Sonoma County Journal, April 10 1857

 

COURT OF SESSIONS — The case of the People vs. W. A. Buster charged with using and loaning State funds, is drawing its weary length to a close. On Saturday last the Court appointed Thomas Hood, elisor, to bring into Court, on Tuesday, 48 jurors. This duty Mr. H. performed. Out of the number the Court succeeded in getting a panel. The prosecution was commenced on behalf of the State, on Tuesday evening, and closed on Wednesday morning. The defence offered no testimony, but asked time to prepare instructions, which request was granted. The case was submitted to the jury on Wednesday evening, who, after a half hour’s absence, returned a verdict of “guilty.” – Sentence not passed at out latest date. On the charge of gambling, to which it will be recollected, Mr. Buster had plead guilty, the Court has fined the prisoner $300. On the charge for using and loaning County funds, he is yet to be tried. As order for the jury has been issued.

– Sonoma County Journal, April 24 1857

BUSTER SENTENCED. — Last Wednesday morning the Court passed sentence on W. A. Buster, found guilty of using and loaning State Funds. His sentence is thirty months imprisonment in the State Penitentiary. The venire issued last week for a Jury to try the prisoner of the charge of using and loaning County Funds, was returned into court on Wednesday. A panel has probably been selected [be]fore this. We learn that there is still another indictment against him – that of embezzling the School Money, upon which he is yet to be tried.

– Sonoma County Journal, May 1 1857

 

Defaulter Convicted. — W. A. Buster, the late defaulting Treasurer of Sonoma county, has been found guilty of trafficking in State funds; and has also been fined the sum of $300 for gambling part of the money away. He will shortly be tried for squandering the moneys of the county in the same way.

– Sacramento Daily Union, May 4 1857

 

COMMITTED. — Last Wednesday. Deputy Sheriff Greene passed through Petaluma, on his way to San Quentin, accompanied by the late treasurer of that county, W. A. Buster, who is about entering upon new duties in that institution for the next eight years.

– California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences, May 8 1857

 

The People vs. Wm. A. Buster

This trial which has occupied the Court of Sessions for the last four weeks, terminated last Saturday. There were four indictments against the Defendant – the first for permitting gaming, upon which he plead guilty, and was $300. The second, for using and loaning State Moneys, which came to his hands as Treasurer of Sonoma County, on a plea of not guilty and a verdict of guilty, he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years’ imprisonment. On the third, for using the moneys belonging to the County, he was found guilty and sentenced to 2 1/2 years’ imprisonment. – On the fourth, for embezzlement of School Moneys belonging to the County of Sonoma, he plead guilty, and was sentenced to 8 years’ imprisonment. On being called upon, before sentence in the last two cases, if he had any cause to show why judgment should not be pronounced against him, he said: –

“I wish to state to the people here how all this came about, and if I say anything incorrect, I want to be corrected. I don’t know that Mr. Wickersham, the District Attorney, has had any cause to do so, but I think he has not only prosecuted but persecuted me. In his argument to the Jury, he said that my attorneys had not even proven that I had previously sustained a good character. I was born in Tennessee, and have taught school about ten years of my life; and I defy any man to bring anything against my character up to the time these indictments were prosecuted; and I don’t want any disgrace cast upon my family.

In the early part of my official duties, I did not know that there was any exceptions taken. After I borrowed the $2000, testified by the high Sheriff, I started to Sacramento, on the 4th of January, 1856. I deposited the money at Sacramento, and went up into the mines on other business, and remained until the 16th, when I returned to Sacramento, and settled with the State Treasurer, and came down to San Francisco and loaned to Menefee $2000. When I came home I was surprised to hear that it was reported I had run away, and some of my securities had withdrawn – that it was known how much money there should be in the Treasury, and all the Scrip had been bought up a few to make a run on the Treasury – and I was to be raised right out of my boots! I met all the warrants presented, and was then easy until July ’56.

Gentlemen, I have borrowed money of many of you, not by dollars but by hundreds and thousands, in my business, and paid you back honestly. Now, as to the August report: I did make a previous report which the Board of Supervisors accepted, but did not publish, and I was censured, and also charged with not having made a report; and I had to make this report, going back and including my previous one, and am charged of using $2000 of the public money, which I had to raise to make up the amount of the August exhibit, which I shall neither admit or deny; but I think the District Attorney took a very ungentlemanly course to make it appear that I was delaying the Board of Supervisors and trying to borrow money to make my exhibit. It is not true; and they did not wait one day on me, but remained in session three days after on other business. The District Attorney did not read all the report.

Above what I exhibited with my report, there was sixteen or seventeen hundred dollars at that time paid into me by the Sheriff and that was all that could have been lost to the people if I had eat it up.

I had bought some county warrants; as I have been charged with one crime I might as well admit that. The new Board met to organize and I wanted them to do business; the old Board had ordered me to give a new bond in the sum of $40,000, which, under the excitement against me, was out of the question. I expected them to require me to make a full exhibit, and I was ready to do so. I was indicted in January, and had to be here, and could not go to Sacramento on the 1st of January, ’57; it was usual for other Treasurers to settle with the State any time during the month, and I did not think it was material. Some one reported that I was not going to Sacramento; God forgive him, for if I knew who it was I could not.

I was in debt in my business, and wanted to borrow a thousand dollars. I concluded on Saturday the 17th of Jan. to go to Sacramento on the following Monday. I was at the saloon on the evening of the 17th (Saturday) at 10 or 11 o’clock, playing cards for one thing or another. Treadwell (Jo.) and Russell went home with me to go to bed; they found the front door partly open and the safe partly open. I had gone round the back part of the house, and they called to me. I went round and all the money was taken out of the safe – God knows by whom, but I didn’t. That is the only thing for which I can make no showing excepting my acts.

If I had been disposed to rob myself, I might have taken much more; and you, all know I am in the habit of doing things by the wholesale. From the time I should have started to Sacramento up to the time the safe was robbed, I paid two thousand and eighty-eight dollars, and offered to pay more. Now, you will all agree with me, that any man who would have done this, (if he intended to steal) would have been a fool; but I could only deny the charge and give the above reason; and my best friends passed me by without speaking and thought me guilty, and I was almost driven to despair.

Sometimes I thought I would not go to Sacramento – Dr. Williams told me he heard I was afraid to go; I told him that I had rather die than be thought afraid to go; I don’t know what fear is. I went to Sacramento, and fell in with Jo. Nevill; some of you know who he is; and now I will relate the only thing I regret in this whole matter. I told Nevill what I wanted to get; (a relief bill passed) he went with me and seemed to know most all the members. Harrison and Taliaferro talked favorable; Edwards I did not see. Nevill seemed to be very kind, and done all he could for me, and we drank considerable with members of the Legislature.

Next morning I went to draw the School Money, and he helped me pack it up; and after I had deposited it, he said he was out of money and so was I and if we would take some of the money and go to a faro bank we could win expenses. I took out one hundred dollars – it was lost; we drank some brandy – it was good brandy; he insisted the stake was so small he could do nothing, and wanted me to increase it and he would certainly win. I did so until we had lost a thousand dollars. He swore by his right arm and the blood of his heart, that if he lost he knew where he could get the money and would pay me back.

We got aboard a boat and started for San Francisco. I felt so bad I could not sleep; he said he could not and would get up a game of poker, and make a sure thing for me to win. I gave him a twenty; he was to put up the cards so as to deal me a full; I suppose you know what a full is. I watched him deal; he took my cards from the bottom and the other man’s from the top – the other man bet along moderately for some time and then raised to four hundred and fifty dollars. I supposed he meant to bluff me, and proposed to let Jo. hold my hand until I went for the money, but he would not consent. I then sent Jo. for the money; when the money was up, I said I had three fives and two sixes – I will always recollect the hand; he showed four kings, and took the money – and then I found that Jo. was not acting fair with me, and I was then all out except what I had in my pocket, one hundred and forty dollars and a bit. I talked with him, told him I was broke and ruined; he said he would make it all right in the morning.

I felt as though I was gone in, and the next morning I went down on the wharf and had a great mind to throw the hundred and forty dollars in the Bay, for I knew that amount was no use to me; I went and bucked off the hundred and forty dollars and kept the bit. I had lost all confidence in Jo., and told him that he had ruined me; he told me not to go home; I told him by the Gods I would and let the people all know what I had done; he said he could not find the man he was to get the money from, but would get me the money and bring it up.

I came home and was loathe to tell it. Dr. Williams asked me if I had brought the School Money, and I said yes. Ogan wanted me to pay a school warrant, and I told him just how it was; and I was then charged all over town of stealing the School Money; and I suppose it was no better. I was then delivered over by my securities to the Sheriff, and had to go to jail, where I have been ever since.

Many reports were circulated against me, and I understand they threatened to take me out of the jail and hang me; all I could hear was through my family; no man could come, he was denied admission either by the Sheriff or Jailor. I don’t know which, nor do I care.

I was told I would be punished to the extent of the law, and I don’t believe there could have been a Jury in the county but what would commit me. I was without money and without counsel; I told C. P. Wilkins my situation, and he offered to do all he could for me; he was in bad health, and I asked Temple to assist; he said he could do me no good before this community, but he would assist all he could. I made an application for a change of venue, but was denied, and was advised to run away; I could have done so and been gone long ago, but I would rather hang than to acknowledge the crime by running away and thereby saddle it on my family.

I expect if I live, to serve out my term and come back here – for if I cannot live here. I cannot anywhere. I don’t make these remarks with the hope of influencing the Court; I want them to do their duty – appoint the time which they see cause to allot me, and I will go and try it. I have nothing more to say.”

The prisoner shed tears quite copiously during his remarks, and when he took his seat he covered his face with his hands and wept. The Court House was crowded to excess, but the strictest order prevailed.

– Sonoma County Journal, May 8 1857

 

PARDON ASKED FOR.

Margaret F. Buster, wife to Wm. A. Buster, given notice that she will apply to the Governor for the pardon of her husband, now an inmate of the State Prison, for the crime of embezzlement of the county and school funds of Sonoma county, and for using and loaning the funds of the State; also for using and loaning the funds of this county. The aggregate term of imprisonment imposed by the Court for these offences, is eight years. We learn that petitions to this effect are now in circulation for signatures.

However deeply we may, and do sympathize with the afflicted wife and children of the prisoner, we cannot so far forget our duty to society, as to thus early lend our aid in favor of the object prayed for. The character of the crime for which Mr. Buster is now incarcerated within the prison walls, has been, and still is, one of too frequent occurrence in California to permit this course on our part. Few indeed have been the cases of either County or State officials retiring from posts of trust, with an untarnished name. Many have been the evidences of peculaton or defalcation, on the part of men placed in positions of honor and trust; but few the convictions. Indeed, until within a few months past Justice has apparently withheld her hand, and the criminal has escaped merited punishment.

Though others equally guilty, and may be much more culpable, have been allowed to escape through the meshes of the law, and Mr. Buster alone occupies the prisoner’s cell, we cannot see that he should be thus early liberated. Scarce eight months of the eight years have yet expired. For the Governor to pardon the prisoner, under the circumstances, at this early day of his confinement, would, to say the least, be setting a bad example. There can be little or no doubt that a too free exercise of executive clemency, is pernicious in the extreme to the well being of society. If to the difficulty of conviction is to be added a ready pardon, we need not be surprised should crimes of every kind become of even more frequent occurrence. It is not the severity of law, but the certainty of its enforcement, that deters men from crime. While, therefore, humanity pleads for the liberation of a devoted husband and a kind parent, justice and the public good requires that the laws of our land be faithfully and impartially administered. But while we thus stand for the supremacy of law, let me not forget the demands of humanity, and if need be, let us all show our sympathy for the bereaved family, by more convincing proofs than mere words, or scrawls of pen and pencil.

– Sonoma County Journal, November 13 1857

 

Wm. A. Buster.

We last week called attention to the fact that Wm. A. Buster, formerly Treasurer of this county, and who is now in the State’s Prison, where he was sent for embezzling the public funds while in that office, was here on a visit to his family. He returned on Saturday last.

We have before had occasion to speak of the propriety of enforcing the remainder of Mr. Buster’s sentence — and as we are informed a Legislative committee will visit the State Prison soon, and that the case of Mr. Buster will be laid before that committee, with a view to his release prior to the expiration of his sentence, we deem it appropriate that we repeat those views. Our opinion, as heretofore expressed, is: that the Governor would be fully justifiable in interposing the pardoning power in his behalf; and we will endeavor to express as plainly as we can our reasons for that opinion.

While it is not contended even by his most interested friends that he was not guilty of the offense charged, those who know him best, even among those who are not his personal or political friends, do not pretend to ascribe to Mr. Buster a really depraved heart. We believe it is admitted by nearly all these, that he was led away by the circumstances that surrounded him, having lived the early part of his life in an humble, unpretending sphere, away from the follies and dissipations incident to life in towns, and particularly in that society composed of county officials, who are very liable to be flattered by the vicious, and tempted to dissipation by his most intimate associates. In fact he was a novice, wholly ignorant of the vices to which he was exposed, on entering upon his official career. He engaged in those vices and follies which we all see almost every day of our lives, not realizing that any harm was likely to grow out of his indulgences. He held the key of the county safe, and at the same time was allured with the prospects of wealth to be derived from speculations and gaming. he embarked in both; but it does not require a great stretch of the mind to divine how and wherein he must fail to cope with the more experienced and shrewder portion of mankind, whom he in this sphere had to contend with. He became, as he supposed, temporarily embarrassed, and used the public moneys in his keeping. We will not say he fully intended, and thought he would be able to replace this from his own funds; for these thoughts can bedemonstrated only by himself and his God, But so far as we have heard the expression of those who were acquainted with the circumstances, we believe all are impressed with this belief. This, we admit, is not a legal excuse for his conduct — neither should it prevent his punishment; but wo do think it should materially mitigate that punishment.

All know the theory upon which penalties for crimes is based. It is, first, to imprison the criminal, that the power to do harm may be placed out of his reach. Second, that the fear of punishment again shall in future deter him from crime, and thus reform the abandoned; and thirdly, an example to the depraved part of the world that if they are detected in similar crimes they will be punished in like manner.

In Mr. Buster’s case, the two first of these reasons are out of the question, so far as future punishment goes. There is no doubt but his temporary departure from the paths of rectitude is thoroughly cured, and we dare say, that a large majority of his old acquaintances, even here where his misdeeds were committed, would trust him to-day, as readily as they would men whose integrity has never been impeached. Even more, that the lesson he has already had, would have the effect to make him even scrupulous in his efforts to do right. Everything indicates this: He has a family — an interesting, and we may say a respectable family, with whom he wishes to reside. Were he a depraved, irredeemable outlaw, who cared not what part of the world he might be compelled to flee to, nor how soon he had to go, it would be different; he is trusted by the keepers of the Prison to visit his family, fifty miles off, without guard or bond — with no more than his own word and his attachment to that family — rather than leave which, he will return to the degrading bondage with which he suffers.

The man who will thus suffer affliction, with the hope of once more being called an honest man by those who have best know his short-cormings — who would prefer incarceration in the State Prison to abandonment of his family — is not at heart a bad man; and after the serious evidence ho has already had of the danger of crime — would be the last man in world again to violate the law.

We have but one more reason to give why he should be released. Other men, both before and since the development of his case, have proven in like manner, and even to greater extent, delinquent, but have uniformly escaped punishment. So generally has this been the case, that persistance in the continuation of his punishment has no terror to others. Men of more craft, but less real merit than he possesses, escape with impunity — laugh at the law, and call him stupid for allowing himself to be proven guilty. They attribute his conviction, and his punishment rather to his verdance, than to the excess of his crime.

Then every argument for the punishment of criminals, so far as he is concerned, fails. Holding these views of the matter, which we certainly do, we hope Governor Downey will take the very first opportunity to give Mr. Buster an entire legal pardon for his offense, and in doing so, we have good reason to believe he will receive the approbation of nine-tenths of this community.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 26 1860

 

PARDON BUSTER. — We are pleased to see so much interest taken in the pardon of this unfortunate man, as has of late been manifested by our citizens. We learn from good authority, that a petition has been forwarded to Governor Downey, signed by the proper officials of this County, asking his release, and hope soon to hear that it has been granted. There is no doubt but that the news of his pardon would be welcomed with gladness by a greater portion of our people.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 28 1860

 

We are pleased to announce that Gov. Downey has at last complied with the prayer of many citizens of Sonoma County, and pardoned Wm. A. Buster. It is our candid opinion, that the action of the Governor in pardoning Buster, will meet with the approval of two-thirds of the people of the County. Mr. Buster arrived home on Friday last.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 18 1860

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