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Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa
Anyone with the slightest interest in local history knows the story: About 100 years ago, a San Francisco gang sexually assaulted some women. Police tracked gang members to Santa Rosa where a shootout killed the Sonoma County sheriff along with two policemen. The gangsters were captured and taken to the county jail. A mob stormed the building and took the men to the Rural Cemetery, where they were lynched from a tree.
But that’s not the whole story – far from it. Parts haven’t been reexamined since events happened in 1920, and many details have never been revealed. And like the twice told tales about the 1906 earthquake in Santa Rosa, too much of what has been written about it over the years is distorted or flat wrong.
It’s also a surprisingly difficult story to tell because it is Rashomon-like, with three quite different ways to frame it. All versions interconnect as their storylines converge around the men who were about to be lynched – but each has people and places which are important to that viewpoint alone.
There’s the San Francisco version, which is mainly about tracking down the Howard Street Gang and prosecuting them. Besides the assorted gangsters the main players are the District Attorney, police and politicians. This story winds up in 1928 with the capture of the last fugitive gang member. To learn more, you can’t do better than “The Fall of San Francisco’s Notorious Howard Street Gang,” which can be downloaded as an e-book for three or four bucks. (The section about Sonoma County has many errors, however.)
The Healdsburg version has a narrow focus on seeking vengeance for the murder of Sheriff James Petray, who was from there and very well liked. Those who raided the jail and hanged the gangsters were not a typical liquored-up lynch mob – they acted with deliberation and precision, leaving many to presume they must have been San Francisco lawmen. Not until 1985 did one of the last surviving vigilantes confirm they were all from Healdsburg and had conducted military-style drills prior to the operation.
And then there’s the Santa Rosa version, which you’re about to read. This story ends abruptly about one o’clock in the rainy morning of Friday, December 10, 1920 when the last of the gangsters twitches and dies in the beams of auto headlights and their bodies are anonymously buried the next day. The main takeaway for this version is that the gangsters hadn’t picked Santa Rosa as their hideout by throwing a dart at a map. One of them – the very worst of the lot – was a hometown boy, who by a quirk of fate just happened to have access to a big empty house here.
Ladies and gentlemen, get ready to meet Terry Fitts.
Had someone written profiles of the three lynched gangsters and asked which of them would most likely become a cop-killer, there’s little doubt that Fitts would be the prime suspect. If he was not a psychopath he certainly did a darn fine job of imitating one.
When Terry was growing up in Santa Rosa he seemed destined to have a comfortable path through life. Born in 1877, he was the only son of Jonathan Perry Fitts who owned the major lumber yard in town, taking up the whole block at the intersection of North and College (where the YMCA complex is now). His dad was also a partner of T. J. Ludwig, the main building contractor in late 19th century Santa Rosa. Terry worked at the yard while growing up and it’s likely the family expected him to inherit the business.
The Fitts were Catholic so he attended the Ursuline “Convent school,” and the first mention of Terry in local newspapers was him being whipped in 1888 by the principal of the Davis street public school for “having an encounter with one of his pupils.” What exactly 11 year-old Terry did was not explained, although the matter came up before the Board of Education and “the various members were of the belief that they would have acted in a similar manner.”
(At that same meeting the Board heard several other charges against that educator, including objections he was teaching pupils Lincoln’s assassination was justified.1 He was also asked to reply to complaints from two parents for whipping their boys as well – although in one case, a 13 year-old “turned the tables on the Professor and whipped him.” Most relevant to our story is the identify of that teacher who whipped Terry Fitts as a child: He was Henry Calvin Petray – the older brother of murdered sheriff James Petray. That has to be the wildest Believe-it-or-Not! coincidence ever to appear in this journal.)
By his early twenties Terry Fitts was regularly getting into trouble. He was mustered out of the National Guard when his regiment’s service in the Spanish–American War ended in 1899, and within days of being back in Santa Rosa he was in front of justice of the peace Judge Brown pleading guilty to…something. We don’t know what he did because the Press Democrat didn’t print the charge against him or the judge’s ruling.
That wasn’t unusual – his crimes were never mentioned in the paper. And he got special treatment by the courts, too; it finally came out in 1906 that he had been arrested 23 times in Santa Rosa and charged with a felony, only to have each crime knocked down to a misdemeanor.
Here were textbook examples of the power of privilege. The Fitts’ were a socially prominent family in town; a search of the PD and its predecessor finds hundreds of items about Terry’s parents and sisters hobnobbing with other names familiar in Santa Rosa’s small town bluebook.
The news blackout ended when Oakland muckrakers took over the Santa Rosa Republican. They published two stories in early 1905 about Fitts trying to break out of the county jail and going on trial for maliciously breaking a restaurant window. Having been in town only a couple of months, the new editors didn’t know they were supposed to tiptoe around the town’s 27 year-old homegrown monster:
|Fitts is the son of highly respectable and prominent parents of this city and his frequent appearances in the police court have been causes of great regret to these parents. Every opportunity has been afforded the youth to make something of himself and he has been given opportunities to start life anew many times. Each time he has fallen into dissolute habits and the temination has been in the police or justice court. His parents have thrown about the wayward son every safeguard which could be for his benefit and these have been ruthlessly thrust aside by him and ignored.|
(RIGHT: Terrence Fitts, 1906 San Quentin mug shot)
Then later in 1905 Terry and another thug got in serious trouble by trying to rob the operator of a railroad drawbridge in Marin. When they found the elderly man had no money on him “the toughs contented themselves with beating him into insensibility and then leaving.” Later the same paper (Sausalito News) reported “one of the men is Terry Fitts, a well known crook of Santa Rosa.”
The attack on the popular old man – dubbed the “Mayor of Greenbrae” – brought him before a judge outside of Sonoma County for the first time. He was sentenced to 14 years in San Quentin.
That conviction led the Press Democrat to finally break their omertà and remark that Fitts was “leader of the Gilhooly gang of thugs and hold-up men which operates in San Francisco and surrounding towns” (nothing more can be found about them, so it’s likely they were just a bunch of street punks).
From that point on he was mostly a fulltime jailbird, sometimes free for only a few weeks before breaking parole or committing new crimes. Out on parole in 1912, then back to jail for burglary in 1914. (
In a lesser Believe-it-or-Not! item, he shot a policeman in the shoulder during that arrest – it was Miles Jackson, one of the two San Francisco detectives later gunned down in Santa Rosa. EDIT: This was a mistake that first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner’s 1920 coverage and has been repeated in years since. Fitts was part of a five member gang planning to rob a jewelry store. Fitts and two others were taken into custody without incident, but the leader of the gang and another man were arrested at another location, where “Forty-Year Smith” pulled a gun and wounded Jackson.)
After being paroled and again caught for a San Francisco burglary in 1917, the San Quentin board of governors declared Fitts was incorrigible, sending him to Folsom where he was placed in solitary. Paroled again (he registered for the WWI draft in 1918 stating he was a plumber) he violated parole once more and was back in Folsom until he was discharged in November 1919. The toll all this took on him can be seen in the photo – he appears to be much older than his 42 years.
(RIGHT: Terrence Fitts in 1906 and 1919)
What Terry was doing in his last year of freedom is unknown, except he was in Santa Rosa at least some of the time. He obviously still consorted with criminals in San Francisco, as three of them followed him back to Santa Rosa when the manhunt was underway.2
Which brings us to the reason why Terry Fitts – a lowlife who rarely had more than two stolen nickels to rub together – found himself with the keys to a nice house large enough to hide a bunch of his criminal chums.
In late September, 1920, his father sold the famous lumber yard. The new owners would also get Terry’s childhood home at the corner of Stewart and College (now gone, part of the YMCA complex) but the deal allowed the 71 year-old man to continue to live there until the end of the year. Where he intended to go after that is unknown, but there was a married daughter in Bennett Valley with the other in Marin’s Mill Valley.
But his future address became a moot point when he died five weeks after the sale. Until January 1 1921, the sprawling Victorian would be unoccupied.
Terry knew none of this at the time. While he had been around earlier that week, his father’s death was unexpected and the family didn’t know how to contact him – career criminals tend not to leave forwarding addresses.
It was several days after the funeral before Terry again swaggered into Santa Rosa and learned of dad’s death. Terry learned something else surprising: His father had written him out of the will. An earlier version divided the estate (worth about $400k today) evenly between him and his two sisters but it was changed in March, 1920 to leave everything to the daughters while not even mentioning Terry.
The Press Democrat expected Terry to challenge the will in court and he probably would have – except things were about to start moving very quickly. A week later the women would be sexually assaulted by the Howard Street Gang. A week after that Terry would be back in Santa Rosa with his friends who were hiding from the police. And a week after that Terry would be swinging from a rope in the old cemetery.
As events in this tragedy played out over those three weeks, Terrance Joseph Fitts would be a key player in every scene except one – he was never actually associated with the so-called Howard Street Gang.
1 A popular conspiracy theory among Confederacy apologists was that Booth’s reason for killing Lincoln had nothing to do with the Civil War – that it was a personal vendetta because Lincoln reneged on a promise to spare his friend from execution by granting a pardon. No part of that story was true (MORE).
2 Besides the two gangsters who were lynched with Fitts, Louis Lazarus was with the group but returned to the city just the day before the sheriff and San Francisco officers were slain. Lazarus was also the Howard Street Gang member who was not captured until 1928.
CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION.
The Investigation of the Charges Against Prof. Petray.
…The writer also accused him of having punished a lad named Fitts, who attended the Convent, for having an encounter with one of his pupils. In endeavoring to administer a whipping to a 13-year-old lad named McGregor, the communication specified, the lad turned the tables on the Professor and whipped him. This part of the communication was very wordy and pictured the scene graphically, if not a little vulgarly. It was further specified that during the last term Professor Petray had delivered a lecture to his class, taking for his thesis the assassination of President Lincoln, justifying the act of Booth by stating that Lincoln had promised to pardon a friend of Booth’s who was to be executed for attempting to wreck a railroad train. The promise was not fulfilled, hence assassination….
…As the matter stood, it was the word of Professor Petray against that of one of his pupils. There was no difference of opinion concerning Professor Petray’s act in whipping the Fitts boy. The various members were of the belief that they would have acted in a similar manner.
– Daily Democrat 10 January 1888
Terry Fitts, who was a member of the San Rafael company of the Eighth regiment stationed at Vancouver barracks, arrived home last night. When the boys left Vancouver, he says, there was plenty of snow there, and the climate was nothing like as nice as it is here.
– Press Democrat, February 8 1899
Terry Fitts Pleads Guilty
Terry Fitts in Judge Brown’s court Tuesday pleaded guilty to the charge made against him. His honor will pass sentence this morning at 10 o’clock.
– Press Democrat, February 15 1899
Attempts to Escape
Terry Fitts a prisoner in the county jail made an attempt to escape from that institution last night by prying open the bars at the top of the window of the second story cell in which he was confined. The prisoner who is only a youth was arrested Saturday evening by Officer John M. Boyes and while being placed in a cell at the city prison attacked the officer viciously. The latter responded by striking the prisoner a gentle tap on the cranium with his revolver and the one blow sufficed to take the desire to fight out of the prisoner. The youth’s head was cut by contact with the revolver and blood spurted from it freely.
The prisoner was quite unruly when placed in the big cell with other prisoners and his propensity for making trouble began to assert itself. In order to give him a cell in seclusion he was transferred to one of the front rooms on the second floor. In order to effect his escape the prisoner used a portion of an iron bedstead as a pry with which to bend down the iron bars at the window and was provided with some pieces of rope and his blankets with which to lower himself to the ground. The plan was frustrated by Jailor Serafino Piezzi who chanced to learn what was being done by the prisoner and removed him to a cell in solitary confinement on the lower floor.
– Santa Rosa Republican, January 2 1905
TERRY FITTS IS FOUND GUILTY
Justice Atchinson Will Impose Sentence Tomorrow on Youth of Respectable Parents
Terry Fitts was found guilty of a charge of malicious mischief this morning by a jury in Justice Atchinson’s court. He demanded a jury trial which was given him. The alleged malicious mlchief was in having broken a window in a restaurant to which Fitts entered a plea that a mythical stranger who was with him on the occasion had broken the pane of glass. Fitts made a poor witness for himself and was unable to give an description of the alleged stranger whom he alleged had broken the glass. The jury consumed a couple of minutes in reaching a verdict.
At the instance of District Attorney Charles H. Pond sentence was postponed until tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock. The maximum punishment for the offence of which he has been convicted is six months and owing to his previous record it is believed Justice Atchinson will give him the limit.
Fitts is the son of highly respectable and prominent parents of this city and his frequent appearances in the police court have been causes of great regret to these parents. Every opportunity has been afforded the youth to make something of himself and he has been given opportunities to start life anew many times. Each time he has fallen into dissolute habits and the temination has been in the police or justice court. His parents have thrown about the wayward son every safeguard which could be for his benefit and these have been ruthlessly thrust aside by him and ignored.
When his term of imprisonment is up there are two other warrants waiting for him. One of these is for resisting an officer and the other for threatening the officer’s life. These will be pressed at the proper time.
– Santa Rosa Republican, February 2 1905
In the tanks of the County Jail at San Rafael Sheriff Taylor has two tough characters who are supposed to be the thugs who robbed and brutally beat aged Felix Sands, keeper of the Greenbrae drawbridge, two weeks ago. Sands has identified the men as his assailants, and they will be immediately prosecuted for a felony. One of the men is Terry Fitts, a well known crook of Santa Rosa, and the other gives his name as Woods.
– Sausalito News, December 16 1905
Grand Jury Will Investigate
Attorney Ross Campbell, who has been retained to defend Tom Fitts, who, with Jack Woods, is being held at San Rafael on a charge of assault with intent to kill as the result of an attack on Felix Sands, “Mayor of Greenbrae,” has received a letter saying that the case had not been acted upon before the Grand Jury, but will come up December 27.
– Press Democrat, December 21 1905
Fourteen Years in San Quentin
San Rafael, Feb. 23. Terence Fitts, leader of the Gilhooly gang of thugs and hold-up men which operates in San Francisco and surrounding towns, was sentenced today by Judge Lennon to fourteen years imprisonment in San Quentin. The crime for which Fitts was found guilty was assault to commit robbery against Philip Sand of Greenbrae. John Woods, a companion of Fitts, is undergoing trial for the same offense. Fitts formerly resided in Santa Rosa and is an old offender, having been arrested twenty-three times in his native town, charged with a felony, and escaping on each occasion through a reduction of the charge to a misdemeanor.
– Press Democrat, February 24 1906
Fitts Lumber Yard Sold to Newcomers
The sale of the J. P. Fitts lumber yard in College avenue, adjoining the Southern Pacific track, has been completed, and the new owners, George B. Fuller and John E. Columbo, took possession Thursday. The Fitts home goes in the deal, but Mr. Fitts will retain possession until Jan 1.
– Press Democrat, October 1 1920
CONTEST LOOMS IN FITTS WILL
Mrs. H. W. Pyburn Jr. Files Document for Probate Which Cuts Off the Son, Terrance
Mrs. Hattie Pyburn, wife of Harry W. Pyburn Jr„ filed the will of her father, the late J. Perry Fitts, for probate Saturday in the superior court. The will in hologaphlc, dated March 20, 1920 [ed. note: it was dated Mar. 7], and leaves the estate to the two daughters, Mrs. Pyburn and Mrs. Cecil Riley. It is stated that the estate, consisting of personal property, including money in bank, bonds, promissory notes, etc., is valued at about $30,000.
It is understood that there is another will which makes a number of small bequests to friends and leaves the bulk of the estate to the two daughters and son, share and share alike. The son, Terrannce [sic] Fitts, has not been located since the death of his father, and when he learns of his father’s death he may return to secure his share of the property and fight any will which leaves him without anything.
– Press Democrat, November 16 1920
Terrence Fitts Returns
Terrence Fitts, son of the late J. Perry Fitts, has returned home, not having learned of his father’s death until after the funeral. The young man had left here on Saturday prior to the death of his father on Tuesday night, and not having left any address could not be notified.
– Press Democrat, November 16 1920
6 thoughts on “BAD TO THE BONE”
So well researched Jeff!
Riveting Portrayal of the facts !
Very interesting portrayal of one of the main characters in the events concerned. I have heard of the lynching since I was a small child. My grandfather was, reputedly, one of the protagonists. My mother, who grew up in Santa Rosa, told me about the section of rope used for the hanging that he had in a drawer. She and her siblings often had a sneaky glance of the rope, which suitably terrified them. Is there an account of the lynching itself?
Accounts of the lynching will be covered in chapter seven.
i so appreciate the time it must have taken to put all this together thank you
This is a very interesting article. My grandparents lived around the corner from the Fitts property close to the railroad tracks. They moved there in 1930 or so. I’m glad Terry wasn’t their neighbor!
I found the Fitts biography to be fascinating and revealing. I grew up hearing the story over and over from my grandfather, Ransom Petray, who was sixteen when his father, Sheriff James Petray, was gunned down. I knew very little about the men involved and appreciate your research and Fitts’ back story.