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THE 1906 EARTHQUAKE IN 3D

Imagine finding a treasure trove which you didn’t even know existed – yet there they were stacked on the library table, a dozen high quality images of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake, all photographed in 3D.

Those who follow me on Facebook @OldSantaRosa know I’ve been recently upgrading images related to the disaster. Sometimes I take my portable scanner to the Sonoma County Library History & Genealogy Centre and rescan some of the collection’s glossy 8×10 prints at a high resolution, followed by using a Photoshop-like application to slightly enhance brightness/contrast levels as necessary. But some photos are still too dark, too low-res, or have other problems that make it hard to coax out a workable image; that was the case of a few photographs which were the only known pictures taken on the actual day of the earthquake. All of them shared an unusual feature – an arched top, which is sometimes found on stereograph cards. Did this mean there was a photographer in Santa Rosa taking 3D pictures while the crisis was underway?

stereoscopes(RIGHT: Stereoscope ad from 1902 Sears catalog)

In the decades around the turn of the last century, probably every middle class home had a stereoscope with an assortment of cards; passing the viewer around was a popular divertissement to while away the hours and to entertain guests in the parlor. The number of stereo views available was seemingly endless – Civil War battlegrounds, world fairs, picturesque scenery, historic events (including the aftermath of natural disasters), exotic places and whatnot. There were also racist views glorifying Antebellum slavery and porn.

Rarely, however, are 3D family snapshots found – the stereoscopes and cards might have been ubiquitous, but stereo cameras were not. They could cost 10x more than a very good quality regular camera (the equivalent to about $1,500 today), used twice as much film, were bulky and each shot needed to be composed with care. While Kodak made low-end stereo cameras for amateur use they were limited to fixed focus and shutter speeds and did not sell very well.

When I asked Sonoma County Archivist Katherine Rinehart if the library had any information about those arched top images, she said they were copied from stereoscopic cards – which were in the library’s collection. Would I like to see the originals?

Be still me quaking jibbers, I could not believe what I found. Not only are the cards in near-mint condition after 110+ years, but the images have none of the problems found in the copies which required enhancement. The photos are bright, in focus and could have been taken yesterday. And because we can now see both parts of the stereo pairs, new details appear – including additional people – at the far sides of the images.

That there are even twelve stereograph cards of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake is nothing short of remarkable, as there are not very many 3D quake-related pictures available from 1906 San Francisco; there are over 3,000 regular photographs but the only stereographs I can find are the 163 colorized views at Bancroft Library and 97 at the Library of Congress. (I suspect there are duplicates between the collections, but have not compared them.)

robertselfieSo who was it that captured Santa Rosa’s worst day in 3D? Written on the back of the cards is “Roberts Sebastopol,” except for one that has “HRoberts.” That would be Henry Edmund Roberts, who had a photography studio on Sebastopol’s Main street for only a few years, probably 1905-1909. He didn’t leave much of an impression around here; as far as I can tell he never advertised. By 1914 he was the resident photographer at General Grant National Park (now Kings Canyon National Park) selling views of the great sequoias to tourists. In 2002 the Visalia Times-Delta published an appreciation written by a famed naturalist about the historic importance of his work, and there’s now a Henry E. Roberts Collection at the park museum in Three Rivers with hundreds of his photographs. And yes, he continued to create stereographs, including one which is presumably (judging by its caption) a self portrait of Henry and his son Edmund peering into the vales of the High Sierra.

There are three ways to view these images.

The easiest is to use 3D glasses with red/blue lenses (actually, red/cyan) to look at the anaglyphs below. You could have a pair of these cardboard and cellophane glasses lying around at home or work even if you don’t know it; they’re provided with some video games, DVDs, comic books as well as sometimes in science textbooks and journals. If you still come up empty ask the (grand)kids or buy them online – I can find no store in Santa Rosa that carries them, sorry. (Tip: Don’t believe websites claiming you can MacGyver these glasses by using red and blue colored plastic film from an art supply store. The plastic isn’t clear enough and to get any effect at all and the film must be doubled over, which makes the red side too dark. Instant headache.)

Converting the originals to anaglyphs had mixed results, despite eye-crossing hours spent wrangling the overall effect to be as good as possible. All images have some color fringing – usual on all anaglyphs – but this set has unusually difficult problems because some images have objects both very close to the viewer as well as in the middle and far distance. The anaglyph technique does not work well with such a wide depth of field, so I was required to composite several of these from up to six separations. I could spend another week tweaking them further…but sorry, no. This will have to do, particularly since there are other ways to view the photos in 3D without these drawbacks.

The second method is my preferred technique and uses no special equipment at all – just our naked eyes. Nearly everyone can form a 3D image via our natural ability of stereopsis. I say that with confidence because I can do it even though I’m extremely nearsighted, with one eye needing a corrective lens twice as strong as the other. My wife, Candice, coached me on how to do it and after a few minutes of practice, my first stereograph popped into 3D. I was so amazed I began to giggle – and trust me, the sound of an old man giggling is a yet untapped sound effect that will someday instill a sense of unspeakable dread in horror movie fans.

The trick is to let your eyes completely relax, as if you were looking in the distance. Your nose must be aligned with the separation line between the two images, so each pupil is looking directly at the image on that side.

Smaller images are better, particularly while training your eyes for the first time and trying to find the distance that works best with your vision. All of the stereographs shown below render in 3D for me when viewed on a tablet or cellphone, as long as the stereograph card is displayed no wider than about four inches. I hold the tablet/phone up to ensure it’s straight ahead and about six inches from my face. (Your optimal distance will probably be closer to a foot, and those who are farsighted might need to use reading glasses.)

Before looking at a stereograph, I always find it helpful to get the display into position and begin by gazing at something at the far side of the room, then keeping my eyes fixed, turning my head towards the image. Try to imagine looking through the display. If you don’t get the 3D effect immediately don’t try to force it into focus – repeat this exercise until it works. After you’ve experienced the technique a few times it gets easier.

Practice using the stereograph card below. This is one of the best examples I’ve found – there are at least ten distinct depth planes. The beauty of this technique is that once your eyes are “locked in,” you can study every aspect the photograph in great detail.

1906SFfire“On duty ‘amid the encircling gloom’ of a city’s certain destruction. Magnificent fire scene near Union Ferry Bldg. San Francisco.” Courtesy Library of Congress

Method #3 is to build yourself a stereoscope and print out the cards. A stereoscope makes the stereopsis technique easier by placing a separator between the images so you can’t look at the image for the opposite eye; the device also helps by using lenses with a focal length of 200-300mm, which is the distance between the eyepiece and the card. Several plans are available by searching “how to make a stereoscope” with levels of difficulty ranging from incorporating the prismatic lenses used in the original devices (which force you to be slightly wall-eyed) to taping cheap reading glass lenses on the end of a cardboard shoebox. The plans at “Fun Science Gallery” seem the most practical to me, but I have not tried building any of them.

The site above also includes directions for making a mirror stereoscope, which can display large, very high resolution stereo pairs. These are typically scientific devices used by geologists and cartographers but a tabletop model also could be made with four mirrors. If you build one of these, let me know!

(All of the Santa Rosa stereographs are courtesy of the Sonoma County Library and are resized to a 9cm width with enhanced contrast and brightness for better stereopsis. Click or tap on any of those images to view the untouched original card at full resolution.)

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“Burning of the Tupper House”. (This caption may be incorrect, as there was no Tupper family listed in the city directories for either 1905 or 1908. This photo was taken from the marble and granite works on the corner of Fourth and Davis, looking west.)

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“4th St. Santa Rosa – St. Rose Hotel. 8 A.M. Apr. 18 1906.”

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“Looking east to Court House. South side of 4th St.” (This is the rubble from the massive explosion of the Haven Hardware store, which entirely demolished the south side of 4th between A and B streets. A panoramic view of the scene is available here.)

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“S.R. Loan & Trust Co’s Building. 4th St. Court House in distance.”

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“N.E. from Court House”

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“Mendocino St.”

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“Carnegie Library”

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“4th St. looking west from Court House”

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“‘B’ St. Santa Rosa – Looking for the dead 7:30 A.M.”

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“Scene on 4th St. morning of the fire.”

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“Purrington’s residence” (Joseph Purrington’s address was 620 Mendocino street)

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“Flour Mill – Santa Rosa”

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Soprano Frieda Hempel in a 1919 tone test with "Edison's musical experts." Note that the blindfolds also cover their ears

WHY, THAT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE

The Press Democrat just helped solve a century-old mystery, and it’s all thanks to the paper’s laziness back in 1919.

This adventure begins just before Hallowe’en when a large ad began appearing in the PD promoting an appearance by a concert singer. “The music lovers of Santa Rosa will rejoice in the news that Miss Ida Gardner, the well known contralto, will sing in this city Thursday night November 6, at the Cline theater,” announced a related news item. The Cline was the most famous of early Santa Rosa movie palaces (it became the Roxy in 1935) and was a big, cavernous hall that also hosted vaudeville acts and traveling stage shows. What made this performance unique, however, was that tickets were free but could only be obtained from the Santa Rosa Furniture Company. Also, the ad noted cryptically, “Mr. Thomas A. Edison’s Three Million Dollar Phonograph will assist.”

A review appeared about a week after the concert: “Probably a number of people who attended the recital given Thursday night by Miss Ida Gardner and Mr. Lyman at the Cline Theater, were at first puzzled and disappointed when they discovered a phonograph cabinet occupying the center of the stage. They felt that they had been beguiled into going to hear a charming singer and a clever flutist and naturally thought they had been imposed upon.”

Flutist/Edison Company pitchman Harold Lyman came onstage and told the audience that he and Miss Gardner were going to demonstrate why Edison’s new record player was so terrific. “It finally became apparent that the phonograph was at least to receive assistance from the singer, but even then the mental outlook was not exactly bright.”

A record was placed on the turntable and Ida began to sing along. “She paused from time to time, apparently at random and permitted her re-created voice to be heard alone. This gave an opportunity to compare one with the other, and it is no more than just to state that there was no discernible difference in tone quality.”

idagardnerThe PD reported, “It was only by watching the singer’s lips that one could be sure when she sang and when she did not…This proof was very convincing. If it were not, another proof was offered. After Miss Gardner commenced to sing the lights were turned out – ostensibly so that the audience could not watch the singer’s lips.

“It did not seem difficult to determine in the dark when the singer sang and when she did not. The writer was pretty sure about it himself, [until the] lights were turned on again and it was discovered that Miss Gardner was not on the stage at all and that the new Edison alone had been heard.”

(RIGHT: Ida Gardner, c.1919)

Now, I’ll concede an Edison phonograph playing Edison records were considered state-of-the-art in the late 1910s, and the company’s sales brochure convincingly explained why it was technically superior to anything else on the market. Still, it had no electrical amplification nor speaker (aside from the wooden baffles in the cabinet); here’s a video of that exact model playing a record from that time and the only thing heard that sounds as if it could be realistic is the harmonica. We can also listen to an Ida Gardner recording made around that time played on modern equipment and even hearing past the scratches and surface noise – much of it probably due to the record being 100+ years old – it sounds as if she’s singing inside your coat closet. With the door closed. Behind the coats.

For the Press Democrat music critic to claim such a wind-up acoustic phonograph could sound exactly like a live performer is a pretty amazing testimonial. But (s)he was not alone; the Edison Company did about 4,000 of these “Tone Test” exhibitions in theaters and music stores around the country between 1915-1925 but I can’t find a single negative review in a newspaper or magazine. And before Edison, the Victor company was boasting as early as 1908 that it was impossible to tell the difference with their gear.

So what was going on? Was everybody lying, delusional, or was there some kind of trickery? To no surprise, academic types have been pondering this for decades.

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I’m reminded one of my best college professors emphasized the need to completely sensitize yourself to any particular historical era before judging how people reacted to anything in the arts. During the 5th century BC two artists had a painting contest where one displayed painted grapes which looked so realistic that birds supposedly pecked at them. He challenged his rival to draw back the curtains and display his work, not realizing that curtain itself was a masterful painting. While ancient Greek murals and panels are astonishing works of art, our eyes today would never confuse their grapes and curtain paintings for real physical objects. In the world of music, people in the mid-18th century reacted strongly to hearing the unique Mannheim effects, such as instead of just playing loud, soft, or in between, an entire orchestra would slowly build a crescendo towards a loud and exciting climax. Audiences didn’t know what to make of those unfamiliar sounds and became agitated; women fainted and men jumped to their feet, shouting as they might have cheered on a horse race. Yet to our modern ears it’s…meh. The background classical music at your dentist’s office.

While it may seem absurd to consider today, it’s possible there were those who actually did believe these primitive phonographs sounded “real.” Americans were hearing less and less live music with every passing year; theaters like the Cline were booking fewer vaudeville acts as the public preferred to watch silent movies when going out for entertainment, and home musicians were finding the new jazzy pop music harder to plunk out on the piano in the parlor. Listening to recorded music was the new norm.1 If you’ve become acclimated to hearing music on a tabletop Victrola with its big metallic horn, that Edison floor model must have truly sounded phenomenal, particularly with the theater’s acoustics boosting its limited dynamic range.

Edison also gamed the Tone Tests in a couple of outrageous ways. Although the Press Democrat review claims the audience was very skeptical, the main job of Edison’s pitchman was to put the audience in a highly receptive mood, coaching them on what they should be listening for (and implicitly, the shortcomings they should be ignoring).2

We don’t know what was exactly said in these theater presentations, but Edison gave a strict set of instructions (“The Tone Test and Its Stage Setting”) to the dealerships on how to manage a showroom demo. There should be comfortable furniture (“mahogany, upholstered”), potted plants and “the best framed picture of Mr. Edison you can produce.” When the record begins playing, the listener is to stay “in the moment” for 45 seconds with eyes open. Then eyes should be closed for about a minute, then opened for 15 seconds (“but do not gaze at your surroundings”) then closed again until the record is over. The purpose of those eye exercises was supposedly to “shake off the influence of your surroundings,” although it sounds to me more like the mumbo-jumbo associated with another invention Edison was working on at the same time – a device which would communicate with the dead.

Soprano Frieda Hempel in a 1919 tone test with "Edison's musical experts." Note that the blindfolds also cover their ears
Soprano Frieda Hempel in a 1919 tone test with “Edison’s musical experts.” Note that the blindfolds also cover their ears

 

Edison also boasted that a roster of famous musicians were performing his Tone Tests but in practice, newspaper searches reveal his company mostly relied upon a handful of female singers of little renown. The woman who performed in Santa Rosa, Ida Gardner (real name: Ida Greson) apparently had no professional background at all aside from sometimes being a soloist in New York City churches. Their talent lay in another direction, however: A kind of reverse mimesis, where they could imitate the sound of their own unnatural voice bleating from a mechanical record player. One of the singers confessed in an interview fifty years later:3


I remember I stood right beside the machine. The audience was there, and there was nobody on stage with me. The machine played and I sang with it. Of course, if I had sung loud, it would have been louder than the machine, but I gave my voice the same quality as the machine so they couldn’t tell. And sometimes I would stop singing and let the machine play, and I’d come in again. Well, it seemed to make a tremendous success.

So add all this up – the singers imitating the tinny sound of their own recordings, the audiences being trained to ignore their lyin’ ears (and maybe flap their eyelids on command), the fading memory of what live musical instruments and singers really sounded like on stage – and it explains why Edison’s Tone Tests always received nothing but rave reviews. After all, the only other explanation is that everyone was lying.

Believe it or not: Everyone was lying.

The review that appeared in the Press Democrat also can be found, word for word – except for the name of the theater – in other historic newspapers online. Even more papers share a paragraph or three with the PD’s review and still others beyond that are littered with the same keywords and phrases (“clever flutist,” “the audience confessed,” repeated use of “Miss Gardner’s lips” for ex) which betray they all drew waters from the same well. Clearly, the Edison company was providing advertising copy which the local newspaper editors could reprint in toto or use to cobble together a rewrite, depending on how industrious the copy editor felt. The fingerprints of still other boilerplates can also be found; when Harold Lyman was touring 1915-6 with a different singer, he was then mentioned in Tone Test reviews as a “clever young flutist.”

This simple explanation has eluded scholars because not many are familiar with newspapering practices at that time. The first clue of something funky was that concert reviews even existed; it was very rare then for papers to recap a one-night-only musical or theater performance. That the PD review didn’t appear until almost a week later added a further red flag.

Yes, other types of ads disguised as news articles sometimes can be found but it wasn’t common, and that Edison’s appeared in many newspapers nationwide over many years makes me think that the placement of these “newsverts” was actually the key objective of Edison’s promotional campaign – a kind of early influencer marketing. (That the fake reviews were unsigned only made them appear more legit, as news articles rarely had bylines.)

The scheme also relied upon the Edison dealers having a good relationship with the local papers. Here the Santa Rosa Furniture Company was a regular advertiser in the Press Democrat anyway; buying an additional two weeks of big, expensive ads promoting this phonograph and the Tone Test only gave the editors more incentive to go along with the request to also print all/part of the glowing “review” as a favor for this important ad client.

(As a side note, newspapers also conversely did favors for their advertisers by not printing news; in 1911 a local scandal involving double suicides was suppressed by both Santa Rosa papers as long as possible, even while the San Francisco dailies were covering it on the front page. At risk was the reputation of a downtown store that was a major PD advertiser, and probably fears that drawing attention to the story could launch boycotts against both the store and the newspaper itself.)

Surely there were some publishers (hopefully, many) who balked at printing such “fake news,” but even if the phony reviews appeared in a fraction of the places where there were Tone Test demonstrations, this was still likely the most brazen example of covert advertising in early 20th century America (I’ve certainly never encountered anything like it).

And more than his hundred competitors, Edison needed to generate lots of good publicity; his music system wasn’t going to sell itself. His phonograph players were ridiculously expensive – up to two-thirds the cost of a new Ford car – and the only records you could play on them were the ones Edison made. Worse, he always selected the recording artists himself and besides being a half-deaf old man, his taste in music was mostly abysmal.

The Edison catalog leaned toward military marches, religious and sentimental pap, hillbilly and comic songs (including many in racist dialect), operatic warhorses, classical chestnuts and dance tunes for dance steps nobody did anymore. He liked recording novelty ensembles (the Waikiki Hawaiian Orchestra, the Alessios Mandolin Quartet) and novelty songs (“Farmyard medley“). Edison disliked most trained singers (“many of the most famous of opera singers sing badly,” he said) but praised Donald Chalmers, an amateur who sang without any emotion but hit every note as perfectly as a machine.4

In the end, Edison’s work on the phonograph during those years yielded only small improvements in the evolution of sound recording – but along the way it appears he invented a marketing scheme which was quite good at hoodwinking our ancestors. You might even say he was a kind of wizard at doing that.


1 Emily Thompson: Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877–1925; The Musical Quarterly Spring 1995, pg. 159
2 Alexandra Hui; The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies; Ethnomusicology Review, February 2016
3 Jan McKee; Is It Live or Is It Edison? Library of Congress Now See Hear blog, May 2015
4 David W. Samuels; Edison’s Ghost; Music & Politics, Summer 2016 2015
Press Democrat ad, October 30, 1919
Press Democrat ad, October 30, 1919

 

Press Democrat ad, November 13, 1919
Press Democrat ad, November 13, 1919

 

 

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Miss Ida Gardner to Give Concert Thursday

The music lovers of Santa Rosa will rejoice in the news that Miss Ida Gardner, the well known contralto, will sing in this city Thursday night November 6, at the Cline theater.

Miss Gardner comes to Santa Rosa from a long and most successful concert tour. Her voice is said to be more charming than ever, and she has increased her repertoire to include some delightful new songs.

Miss Gardner says she hasn’t any specialties in songs, as some artists have. She sings a wide range of things and is not at all averse to giving one or two numbers by request.

During the war, Miss Gardner devoted practically all her time to entertaining soldiers in camps. She was very popular among the boys, and among the officers as one colonel can testify.

– Press Democrat, November 2 1919

 

 

MANY AMAZED BY GARDNER CONCERT

Probably a number of people who attended the recital given Thursday night by Miss Ida Gardner and Mr. Lyman at the Cline Theater, were at first puzzled and disappointed when they discovered a phonograph cabinet occupying the center of the stage. They felt that they had been beguiled into going to hear a charming singer and a clever flutist and naturally thought they had been imposed upon.

They hardly were reassured when Mr. Lyman appeared on the stage and commenced to talk about “reproduction,” “re-creation,” and other like matter. It finally became apparent that the phonograph was at least to receive assistance from the singer, but even then the mental outlook was not exactly bright.

Mr. Lyman explained that the purpose of the recital was to show that Thomas A. Edison, after years of work, had achieved his ideal to perfect a musical instrument which actually re-creates music so perfectly that the re-creation would be indistinguishable from the original.

This was a broad claim but it was established before the evening was over for Miss Gardner actually stood beside the new Edison Phonograph and sang in unison with Mr. Edison’s re-creation – so called – of her own voice. This would have proved little as her voice might easily have overbalance the tone of the instrument — swallowed it up – so to speak; but Miss Gardner did more, or to accurate, less. She paused from time to time, apparently at random and permitted her re-created voice to be heard alone. This gave an opportunity to compare one with the other, and it is no more than just to state that there was no discernable difference in tone quality.

There must have been a slight difference in volume when Miss Gardner stopped singing, but it was not noticeable, for the voice which came from the cabinet was round and luscious with all the vibrant, pulsating quality of that which came directly from Miss Gardner’s throat. It was only by watching the singer’s lips that one could be sure when she sang and when she did not.

Mr. Lyman offered similar comparisons with his instrument playing in direct comparison with the re-creation of his own performance. This proof was very convincing. If it were not, another proof was offered. After Miss Gardner commenced to sing the lights were turned out – ostensibly so that the audience could not watch the singer’s lips.

It did not seem difficult to determine in the dark when the singer sang and when she did not. The writer was pretty sure about it himself, [until the] lights were turned on again and it was discovered that Miss Gardner was not on the stage at all and that the new Edison alone had been heard.

– Press Democrat, November 12 1919

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GODDESS OF THE BROKEN COURTHOUSE

Uh, that story about finding a dead girl was a joke, the editor of the Santa Rosa newspaper revealed, a week after his hoax upset people all over the state.

The corpus delicti described in the 1882 article was actually the old statue of Lady Justice which was once mounted atop the first Sonoma County courthouse – but the story was written as if it described a real murder victim, with only the faintest hints it was a hoax.

The whole item is transcribed below, but it had Julio Carrillo – then the janitor of the county buildings on Fourth street – discovering “a young lady who has spent her whole life in Santa Rosa, and whom he had known from her birth…”


…Propped up in a partially reclining posture in the corner formed by the wall of the shed and Major Louck’s fence, was the lifeless and partially nude figure of a beautiful girl…that there had been the foulest of foul play was but too evident at the first glance. Around the unfortunate young lady’s eyes what appeared to be a white handkerchief had been tightly drawn, evidently to prevent her recognizing her assassins. That she had struggled most desperately for life was proved by her rent and disarranged clothing, but chiefly – horrible and almost incredible to relate – by the fact that her left arm had been absolutely torn from the socket, and lay beside the body, completely detached, and more than that, broken in two! The atrocious brutality and inhuman ferocity of this monstrous deed may well excite both the amazement and execration of mankind, and that its fiendish perpetrators may speedily be apprehended and dealt with as the horrible nature of their crime demands, should certainly be the desire of all. We rejoice to state that the officers have a clue to the assassins, but we are not at present permitted to state what it is…

Aside from the blindfold, the only nod to it being a prank was found in the last line: “Meanwhile let the friends of the late Miss Justice endeavor to be patient and wait.”

Thomas L. Thompson, editor of the Sonoma Democrat and a pompous numbskull with an unwavering certainty in his own perfection, offered the weakest apology: “…it seems there were many subscribers not familiar with the attending circumstance [and] received it in sober earnestness, to whom we will now say that it was a hoax which we supposed all would fathom and appreciate at once, thoughtlessly not considering their unfamiliarity with the surroundings.”

We know the story was picked up by at least three other newspapers in the West, but given the tiny fraction of historic papers which are currently available online it’s safe to bet that dozens of others published this lurid tale of murder. Nor did Thompson regret deceiving all those people who lived far away from Santa Rosa: “…though it bore upon its face plainly the impress of a hoax [it] seems to have created a sensation with some careless readers…” Seriously: What a jerk.

What happened to the statue after that is unknown, but the decline and dismemberment of Lady Justice fills in the backstory of that early county courthouse. The basic details have been told here before; it was built in 1855 and less than three years later the county Grand Jury declared the it unsafe, dangerous and a “public nuisance,” with the roof leaking and walls cracked. Expensive repairs were made, other Grand Juries complained, more repairs, more complaints, until it was decided in 1883 to tear the thing down and build a new courthouse in the Plaza (this courthouse was at the current location of Exchange Bank, on Fourth street).

There are no known closeups of the statue, but it can be faintly seen in this enhanced 1875 photo (original images courtesy Sonoma County Library)
There are no known closeups of the statue, but it can be faintly seen in this enhanced 1875 photo (original images courtesy Sonoma County Library)

 

The one positive development from Thompson’s hoax is that it drew a letter from the editor of the Sutter County Farmer (a newspaper which only survives as a few scattered issues on microfilm) whose editor once lived in Santa Rosa and colorfully described the situation – for extra fun, imagine this being read by Grandpa Simpson:


Santa Rosa is graced by the most rickety and ram shackley old shebang in Christendom, and calls it a court house. This building is so ancient that when an excited lawyer addresses a jury with any degree of vehemence, he is at once toned down by the Court, who reminds him that the safety of the Court and all the audience depends upon his restraining his emotions, as he is liable to shake the edifice down.

He doesn’t say when the statue was created, but that it was carved out of redwood by “a local artist, who had spent the best years of his life in carving figure heads for ships.”

In 1866 Lady Justice was considered damaged and supposed to be replaced as part of (yet another) round of repairs. From the Sonoma Democrat: “…a gilt ball [is] to take the place of the figure now surmounting the dome. We are glad the goddess of justice is to be removed, as she has occasioned much remark by strangers who have visited the town. The scales upon which she used to mete out justice to all, have long since been knocked into ‘pi,’ and the sooner she is removed from her elevated position the better.” (Does anyone understand this “pi” reference?)

That apparently didn’t happen, as in 1873 the town’s water department was demonstrating how much pressure the system had by attaching a hose to a hydrant and “water was thrown from the middle of the street to the statue of Justice on top of the Court House.”

She apparently stood atop her perch until 1880, when even more major repairs were underway. “As we write men are at work removing the cupola and goddess with equally poised scales, which have heretofore graced the top of the building, in order to relieve it of surplus weight.”

That edition of the Democrat also included a detailed report on the building’s condition, written by a respected San Francisco architect: “…The outer walls are bulged and leaning toward the east side. The floors are out of level. The interior walls are not plumb and are badly cracked. The building is NOT SAFE AS IT NOW STANDS” [emphasis theirs].

Jump forward a couple of years and in responding to Thompson’s stupid hoax, the Petaluma Courier commented about conditions of the “old rookery:”


It has become from old age a rickety and unsightly man-trap, and the county officers and courts when in session, live in constant fear of an earthquake. It would take but a slight shock to level its rotten and unsightly walls to the ground…No wonder the Goddess of Justice in her humiliation dismembered and mutilated herself and then fell prone to the ground.

The small Believe-it-or-not! epilogue to this story is that Thompson’s name was never linked to the prank, which was good news for him – a few weeks later he was nominated as the Democratic Party nominee for Secretary of State. (Thompson won the election and turned his paper over to a real journalist, thus sparing Santa Rosa of his bigotry for the next four years.) Imagine the furor today if a candidate for high office was exposed for inventing sensationalist “fake news.” Oh, wait.

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Repairs to the Court House.— Four bids were presented to the Board of Supervisors for the contract of repairing the Court House, as follows; H. T. Hewitt, $2,500 ; Mr. Bumpus, $2,350 ; A. P. Petit, $2,290, Mr. Morrow bid for the tinning of the roof alone at $900. The contract was awarded to the lowest bidder, A. P. Petit, who gives bonds to perform the whole work in accordance with plans and specifications on file. The cornice now on the building is to be removed, and a new one put in its place, to be supported by moulded brackets. The cupola is to be raised 13 feet, the dome to be retained, and a gilt ball to take the place of the figure now surmounting the dome. We are glad the goddess of justice is to be removed, as she has occasioned much remark by strangers who have visited the town. The scales upon which she used to mete out justice to all, have long since been knocked into “pi,” and the sooner she is removed from her elevated position the better. The building is to be enclosed with a high roof, covered with the best quality of leaded tin, standing groove, and neatly painted on both sides. The Court-room is to be replastered and painted throughout. Mr. Petit is an excellent workman and experienced architect, and we have no doubt will finish the work up in fine style. He receives for the entire job $1,980, and all the old material now on the roof.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 12 1866

 

A NEW COURT HOUSE.

Nearly everybody who is informed as to the condition of the building now in use recognizes the necessity of a new Court House for this county. The present building was erected in 1857, twenty-three years ago, when the county did not compare with what it is now, in population, wealth, or any other particular, and the result of the effort, then, to combine court house, hospital and jail, was by no means what the necessities of the county, even at that time, required. The old Court House has been crumbling to pieces for years. It has required bracing and stays on every side to keep it from falling, and is now a constant drain upon the treasury. As we write men are at work removing the cupola and goddess with equally poised scales, which have heretofore graced the top of the building, in order to relieve it of surplus weight. Besides, the building is not adequate to the purposes for which it is intended. An additional courtroom and several offices on the outside are necessary to transact the business of the county, for which extra rent is being paid. Several Grand Juries have directed the attention of the Supervisors to its present dilapidated condition, generally believed to be unsafe for occupancy, and at the instance of Judge Temple, as will be seen by the proceedings of the Board, an examination has been made by competent architects, who pronounced it unsafe and insecure. All seem to agree that a new building must be erected at an early day, and it appears to us folly to expend any more money in patchwork on the old one. If a change of building necessitates a change of location, we think the people of Santa Rosa should and will provide a suitable lot for the buildings, free of cost to the county. Such a lot might be obtained for a very reasonable price, and we understand several enterprising citizens have already expressed a willingness to subscribe to a fund for that purpose. Then, the old Court House and the Hall of Records, with the ground upon which they stand, might be sold for a good price, and the proceeds of the sale put into the new building, leaving but a small sum to be raised by taxation to give Sonoma county public buildings in keeping with her rank as one of the leading counties of the State.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 7 1880

 

BOARD OF SUPERVISORS.

Tbs following communications relative to the insecure condition of the Court House and Jail were received from Judge Temple, and read. As the matter is one at general interest, we publish the communications In full:

Santa Rosa City,
Sonoma Co. Cal.

To the Hon. Jackson Temple, Judge of the Superior Court Department No. 1.

By your request, we have carefully examined the present County Court House building located In Santa Rosa city, Sonoma Co. Cal., now used for county and city purposes. We consider said building dangerous and unsafe for large crowds in the Court Room, and liable at anytime by extra weight to give way, thereby causing loss of life and limb. We find the foundations insufficient to carry the building. The bricks in the walls soft and badly laid, the lime and cement in construction of very inferior quality. The outer walls are bulged and leaning toward the east side. The floors are out of level. The interior walls are not plumb and are badly cracked. The building is NOT SAFE AS IT NOW STANDS.

The Jail building we find in a better condition, but the walls in places are broken and defective, the rear wall particularly so. We would condemn it as unsafe for the security of County Prisoners.
Very respectfully,
L. R. Townsend Architect,
San Francisco

Supplement.—We would suggest to relieve the roof of the Court House of a ton and a half of dead weight, now over the Court Room, to remove and take down the present cupola and tin over the space. Also bridge in between the floor beams in the center of the jury room and the Judge’s chambers, which will cost in all $150.
L. R. Townsend, Architect.

To the Honorable Jackson Temple:—By your request, In connection with Mr. Townsend, I have examined the County Court House and Jail. As I cannot agree with Mr. Townsend on some points, I submit the following report:

I consider the Court House in its present condition unsafe, and dangerous for large assemblages, owing to many defects in the walls and the poor quality of the mortar used. By the removal of the cupola to take the weight off the center of the building the danger would be materially lessened. The floors in the Jury-room and Judges chambers require more and larger joists. To bridge the present floor would not add to the strength of the floor. The iron columns in the Court Room have not sufficient foundation to support the weight placed upon them.

The walls of the Jail at the rear of the building are defective, but in no way affect the security of the prisoners; their security depends entirely on the lining and works on the inside of the walls.
Very respectfully,
C. W. White.

[..]

– Sonoma Democrat, February 7 1880

 

A Horrible Discovery

Early Wednesday morning, our well known citizen, Julio Carrillo, chanced to walk around the west end of the woodshed in the Court House yard, when his eyes fell upon a most horrible sight. Propped up in a partially reclining posture in the corner formed by the wall of the shed and Major Louck’s fence, was the lifeless and partially nude figure of a beautiful girl, in whom, as soon as he recovered from the first shock of the sight, Mr. Carrillo was horrified to recognize a young lady who has spent her whole life in Santa Rosa, and whom he had known from her birth. The body was stiff and rigid, and life had evidently been extinct for some time. That there had been the foulest of foul play was but too evident at the first glance. Around the unfortunate young lady’s eyes what appeared to be a white handkerchief had been tightly drawn, evidently to prevent her recognizing her assassins. That she had struggled most desperately for life was proved by her rent and disarranged clothing, but chiefly – horrible and almost incredible to relate – by the fact that her left arm had been absolutely torn from the socket, and lay beside the body, completely detached, and more than that, broken in two! The atrocious brutality and inhuman ferocity of this monstrous deed may well excite both the amazement and execration of mankind, and that its fiendish perpetrators may speedily be apprehended and dealt with as the horrible nature of their crime demands, should certainly be the desire of all. We rejoice to state that the officers have a clue to the assassins, but we are not at present permitted to state what it is. Meanwhile let the friends of the late Miss Justice endeavor to be patient and wait.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 3 1882

 

Last week an article entitled “Horrible Discovery” was written up for these columns, in which the old Goddess of Justice that once adorned the dome of the Court House was made the victim of a foul murder, and the finding of the mangled plaster of Paris remains was graphically pictured. Our towns people were familiar with the white figure that has been knocked around the Court yard the last several years and of course appreciated the hoax. But it seems there were many subscribers not familiar with the attending circumstance, that received it in sober earnestness, to whom we will now say that it was a hoax which we supposed all would fathom and appreciate at once, thoughtlessly not considering their unfamiliarity with the surroundings. Hence this explanation.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 10 1882

 

“A Disgrace to the County.”

That’s what the Petaluma Courier says, and then continues; “The last Grand Jury that met at Santa Rosa, like many of its predecessors, condemned the old pile of ruins, commonly known as the County Court House. It has become from old age a rickety and unsightly man-trap, and the county officers and courts when in session, live in constant fear of an earthquake. It would take but a slight shock to level its rotten and unsightly walls to the ground. Sonoma is one of the largest and best agricultural counties in the State. It has greater resources than any of its neighbors, and its public buildings should be commensurate with its growth and prosperity. While Marin, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties all have court-houses that would be creditable to any county, old Sonoma has an ugly mass of brick and mortar that would not make a decent barn for a well regulated farm. No wonder the Goddess of Justice in her humiliation dismembered and mutilated herself and then fell prone to the ground. Our citizens from all parts of the county feel ashamed of the old rookery, and look forward with real pleasure to the day when a building worthy of the good county of Sonoma shall occupy its place. The sooner the good work commences the better.” Just what we think about it, neighbor, and as you say, so we reiterate: “The sooner the good work commences the better.”

– Sonoma Democrat, June 17 1882

 

That Horrible Discovery.

Referring to a local recently published in this paper, which though it bore upon its face plainly the impress of a hoax seems to have created a sensation with some careless readers, the editor of the Sutter Farmer, who was formerly a resident of this county says:

Santa Rosa is graced by the most rickety and ram shackley old shebang in Christendom, and calls it a court house. This building is so ancient that when an excited lawyer addresses a jury with any degree of vehemence, he is at once toned down by the Court, who reminds him that the safety of the Court and all the audience depends upon his restraining his emotions, as he is liable to shake the edifice down. But to our explanation. In the dim twilight of California history, about the time of the renaissance, some genius advanced the idea that it would be a credit to Sonoma county to adorn the cupola of the court house with a statue of the goddess Justice. Accordingly a huge block of native redwood was quarried from the primeval forest, and under the manipulations of a local artist, who had spent the best years of his life in carving figure heads for ships, the form divine was modeled, and soon graced the dome of the temple of Justice. It was a remarkable figure. The Chinese emigrants always bowed before it, thinking it to be the god of thunder and lightning, and doubtless often wondered how a gleam of oriental art ever penetrated that benighted region. Time rolled away, and cautious architects fearing that the weight of this image would cause the court house to collapse, it was indicted by an intelligent grand jury and ordered banished to the woodshed, where it was finally discovered by a Democrat reporter, who told the story as detailed above.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 29 1882

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