The weather was dismal and the same could be said of the mood in town. There was little light in the daylight hours; clouds hung heavy like dirty wool and the nights differed only by being too dark to see their grayness. There was drizzling rain which sometimes rallied into something heavier. It was like a single miserable day that refused to end.
THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID
Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa
During those four days between the Sunday night riot and the midnight lynchings, our Santa Rosa ancestors found their situation unsettling and had little hope of their prospects improving anytime soon.
There still was seething anger over the murder of their sheriff and the other officers. They did not have the will to riot again themselves, but every single day there was talk that vigilantes from Healdsburg or San Francisco might descend upon the town for another battle with the sheriff.
The town was finally receiving the attention from the Bay Area it had long craved – although it was exactly the wrong sort. Instead of being celebrated as the lovely little city of roses and picket fences, Santa Rosa was now closely linked to gangsters and a heinous crime. Nor would that soon be forgotten; the upcoming murder trials followed by inevitable executions at San Quentin would keep alive the memory of all that happened here.
This is the sixth chapter in the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID,” and describes what was revealed that week both to the Grand Jury and in jailhouse interviews, plus the media feeding frenzy to scoop other newspapers on those details. Questions are also raised about the credibility of key testimony given by a lawman.
Between the furor over the deadly shooting and the subsequent riot, it was all but forgotten that the original goal for that day was to see if San Francisco rape victims could ID the gangsters.
For Pearl Hanley and Edna Fulmer, victims of the Nov. 10 assaults, the drive to Santa Rosa was a welcome outing. They had agreed to come forward as witnesses on Friday and were promptly locked in the San Francisco county jail women’s dormitory under protective custody – a matter of bitterness, as the victims of the Thanksgiving attacks were staying at the home of police matron Kate O’Conner or in a hotel with police guards.
The victims and O’Conner were left waiting at the sheriff’s office while Petray and the officers went hunting for the gangsters.1 They were still there that evening during the ensuing chaos of the riot and watching from the windows, which led to a Believe-it-or-Not! moment.
Prominent among the rioters who were repeatedly attacking the door to the sheriff’s office with wooden and steel battering rams, Jessie Montgomery spotted her estranged husband Arthur Matthias, who was co-owner of a Petaluma garage (see chapter two). “I was amazed when I saw him,” she told the SF Call the next day. “He was about the last person in the world I expected to see in that crowd.”
They remained in the office through the evening although O’Conner left to comfort dying Detective Dorman at the hospital. At some point late that night all of the women were taken to a hotel. The next morning they were back to the jail to make identifications, accompanied by a troupe of reporters. The first they were taken to see was George Boyd, the confessed shooter who was mortally wounded himself. Pearl Hanley was the first victim brought to his bedside, and she had earlier told officers that one of her assailants was missing his right index finger.
The Press Democrat reported, “as she was ushered into the cell Boyd lifted his hand beneath the blankets covering him and it was shown to be without the index finger. The girl looked at him, and then with a scream went into hysterics.” She fled into the corridor and was taken into a room, where O’Conner and another woman “restored her to comparative calmness” (SF Call) for her to face him again.
“Oh, God. that’s the beast. That’s the lumber jack. Oh, take me away, please please? I can feel his fingers on my throat now. He’s choking me now.” (The Examiner felt compelled to add those remarks were “a literal trans-script by an unexcited auditor”.)
Boyd was identified by all three victims, both via his appearance and recalling others called him “lumberjack” – a nickname from having worked as a logger and having sought a logging job in Chico the month before the Howard street assaults. The women said he one of their most violent assailants.
One of the women also said Valento participated in the Nov. 10 rapes, but none recognized Fitts, which disappointed Jessie Montgomery and Edna Fulmer because they were just sure he had to be part of the “Howard Street Gang.” (Fitts’ link to Boyd, Valento and Louis Lazarus was from meeting them separately during his various stints at San Quentin and Folsom State Prisons.)
Before the women were brought to his cell, Boyd had denied having any involvement with the gang rapes in San Francisco, but he had plenty to say about the murders.
First he claimed he did not shoot anyone – that Louie Lazarus was hiding in a closet before popping out and starting to blast away at the cops (the Guidottis said Lazarus was never in their home and there was no closet in that room).
In his next confession, made to the sheriff, a couple of deputies and the Examiner reporter, Boyd admitted shooting all three lawmen. Not long after he told the District Attorney he had only shot Detective Jackson. A third (fourth?) “complete” confession followed which D.A. Hoyle would not reveal, saying he was saving it for the arraignment hearing on Friday. It was widely reported that conspiracy charges were to be brought against all three gangsters – that they plotted to kill the San Francisco detectives who were pursuing them and other suspects in the Howard Street rapes. It was Sheriff Petray’s bad luck to get in the way.2
Reporters were given access to Boyd and found him talkative as a scrum of them crowded into his cell. Except for denying any role in the gang rapes, what he said was uneventful: I didn’t get no education, fell in with the wrong crowd, became a gambler and a drunk. He said he deserved to be executed and ended with a plea “to keep little boys off the streets at night and tell them to leave booze alone.” It was the standard “momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be hoodlums” self-pitying jailhouse lament. Several papers including the Santa Rosa Republican printed the whole speech and the PD ran a few quotes before griping such “sob stuff” shouldn’t be published.
The Republican arranged for its society columnist Lillian Burger to interview Dorothy Quinlan in jail which was quite a scoop, as the rumor mills were then grinding away on the notion she was secretly a key member of the so-called Howard Street Gang.
Unfortunately, Lillian only got a few words out of her and nothing remotely interesting – only that she had been a waitress for two years and came here to hook up with Valento. Five sentences. Mainly the columnist described her discomforts about being in the jail, portraying it like a dismal Victorian-era hellhole: “It was dark, and if there is anything that I am afraid of it is the dark, mice and toads, and here I was to enter the door of the jail that harbored these desperate men…” (In truth, the Classical style building was less than five years old and designed by J. W. Dolliver, who was also architect of the beautiful courthouse.)
More newsworthy were her thumbnail observations of the gangsters as she passed by their cells. Aside from the jailers, she would be the last person to see any of them alive before the lynching party arrived. Fitts “seemed bright and willing enought to talk;” Valento sat “on the edge of his cot, his black, heavy-brooded face in his hands;” and Boyd – who had been so eager to yak with reporters that morning – was lying quietly: “Without moving or making any sign, he looked at me – then closed his eyes.”
Boyd was, in fact, dying. Shortly before she saw him, Detective Jackson’s bullet had been removed from his abdomen by two local doctors who turned his jail cell into an impromptu surgical room. Because of the unsanitary conditions and/or the bullet perforating his bowels he was developing septic peritonitis and likely would have died by the weekend, had not the hangmen taken care of him first.
GET THE SCOOP AT ANY COST
On Monday morning the San Francisco Call hired a pilot to fly copies of its bulldog edition to Santa Rosa and return with the undeveloped photo plates taken by their photographer. The San Francisco Bulletin had the same idea, but when it landed at Noonan field (current location of Coddingtown) it broke an axle from skidding on the wet grass. The Call plane was also hobbled due to its wheels sinking into the mud at the fairgrounds racetrack. After much pushing by newspapermen that plane made it to solid ground so it could take off again.
Meanwhile, the Bulletin hired Ernest Ridley (who the PD called “one of the ‘wildest’ automobile drivers in the county”) to race their photos to a launch waiting at Sausalito. Ridley made the run in fifty minutes – a remarkable speed considering there was no highway and the road passed through Petaluma, San Rafael and other towns – with his racer hitting 75MPH on the straightaways. Despite Ridley’s considerable headstart, the Call’s plane still reached the city first and gave the paper its scoop for the afternoon editions.
On the day after the Santa Rosa murders every San Francisco paper published multiple “extra” editions, even though the latest might contain little new info from the extra printed a few hours before. The Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican each put out at least three extras.
Did the papers lose money doing all of this? Even if they sold 2x the usual number of their nickel newspapers the numbers might not pencil out. Newsgathering and editorial were just the tip of the production iceberg; to put out that many editions the newspaper printing plants would need to run almost nonstop, and both Santa Rosa papers had small crews of unionized press operators geared to turn out a single edition at a particular time of day. Then there was distributing an “extra” as fast as possible – can’t wait for the next train, so deliverymen would be rushing in all directions nearly constantly.
But the Santa Rosa events happened about two weeks before Christmas, which was always the start of the holiday shopping season – as well as the peak time of the year for advertising. Whatever the newspapers lost due to the additional expense of those “extras” was surely more than made up by impressing advertisers with their eye-popping circulation numbers.
Daily updates on Boyd’s condition appeared in every major Bay Area paper – he was expected to recover, odds were 50-50, the prognosis was poor, he may not die or he probably would. The D.A. vowed to carry him into the courtroom on a stretcher for the Friday arraignments. Or not.
Those items were among the flood of articles and illustrations with a Santa Rosa dateline which were appearing in every edition that week. The Sunday murders were rehashed after reporters were allowed in the Guidotti home; the Examiner ran a silly photo of four men sitting around the table at the crime scene, apparently to help readers imagine what four men sitting at a table might possibly look like. The Chronicle offered an exploded diagram of the house which forgot to include the front door. Then Tuesday brought the Grand Jury indictments and Jim Petray’s funeral, and the next day word of Boyd’s big confession that the D.A. was keeping secret and more rumors about Dorothy Quinlan. On and on and on.
To be sure, there was enormous interest in the story – how could there not be? Before the Santa Rosa doings reached the front pages, everything concerning the “Howard Street Gang” was already the biggest crime story to hit the Bay Area in years. Outrage was high and kept alive as new details emerged about the brutal assaults, while the thrilling pursuit of the gangsters (a chase across rooftops!) fed the public’s hunger for vengeance. San Francisco even turned a cold eye to its barely-underground vice scene; the city caused surprise by entirely shutting down pro/amateur boxing matches because two prominent boxers were among the rapists.
Covering all of this put tremendous pressure on newsrooms and they went to great lengths to beat the other guys to scoops (see sidebar). The PD bragged: “Just as rapidly as the press could send off the copies of the extra edition, and the regular edition which followed, bundles were piled into waiting automobiles, and distribution made to all the towns and communities of the county. Thousands of extra copies were sold as rapidly as they could be supplied.”
And so we come to the close of Thursday, just minutes before the lynch party would arrive at the jail.
It had been the quietest part of the week in Santa Rosa. Several from Sonoma County went to San Francisco for the funeral for Detectives Dorman and Jackson. Poor Dorothy Quinlan – who had been held in jail without cause since Sunday – was arrested for vagrancy. “The complaint charges that she roamed from place to place without lawful occupation and that she was in the company of known thieves” (PD). There was still speculation whether or not Boyd would be well enough to be carried into his arraignment on Friday morning. There would, of course, be no arraignments the next day; there was to be a Coroner’s inquest because the gangsters were now dead. But before opening the chapter on the lynchings, there’s someone we need to discuss: Chief Deputy Sheriff Marvin “Butch” Robinson.
(RIGHT: Sonoma County Chief Deputy Sheriff Marvin “Butch” Robinson c. 1920)
Robinson was a key player in what happened the night of the lynchings, even more important than Sheriff Boyes. It was Butch who had the most contact with the mysterious vigilantes, being forced to open jail cell doors for them. He testified at the inquest as the sole witness about that. But he also told the Coroner’s jurors about other events from earlier in the week and some of his accounts simply weren’t true. He either confused facts easily or was a fabulist – which in this context meant he was a perjurer.
His inquest testimony wasn’t extremely long, but there were three statements that need examination:
A SIMPLE MISTAKE? “The shells [bullets in the murder weapon] were bought by Valento, so the lady down here at Dan Behmer’s place told me. Identified Valento as the man she sold the shells to.”
At the Grand Jury hearing on Dec. 7, Minnie A. Hutchinson, a clerk at the Merrithew & Miller gun store, testified she sold Valento the box of bullets. That store, however, was at the same location as Behmer’s gun store (410 Fourth st.) so even though the business changed hands more than a year earlier, Robinson might have still thought of the well-known previous owner. He was under oath, but this can be easily forgiven as a slip of the tongue.
BENEFIT OF DOUBT? “I got back to the fence and I noticed a blonde woman through the window in this house. I went along and come back then and told these here boys that I thought the people we were looking for were in Pete Guidotti’s house…”
Here Robinson was taking sole credit for leading officers to the gangsters, claiming he spotted Dorothy Quinlan in the Guidotti home while standing in the side yard of the Toscano Hotel next door. Initial reports about events immediately prior to the murders said officers were searching the hotel and “…while there a bystander asked the officer if they were looking for a ‘little black fellow’ who had just entered the house next to the hotel” (PD). That was a fair description of Valento, who was short and had a dark complexion. After Robinson’s testimony the tip from the bystander was forgotten and his version has since been the only version repeated by historians. Some may want give him the benefit of doubt that he might have told the others about seeing her just before/after they were given the tip.
A COMPLETE FABRICATION “He [Jackson] related the fact of Fittey [sic] getting him six years ago. He arrested him with Forty-year Smith and Fittey had shot him through the shoulder. I told him ‘Be careful Miles, when you get in there, don’t let them fellows get you again; he has got that gun, he is likely to shoot.’ He said, ‘He got me once but he will never get me again.'”
This was supposedly a snippet of conversation with Detective Sergeant Miles Jackson, and referred to a September 2, 1914 incident where Terrence Fitts was arrested as part of a gang plotting to rob a San Francisco jewelry store. Jackson was shot and wounded by another gang member and Fitts was not even present at the scene – it’s unbelievable that Jackson would have confused these details. Robinson was repeating an error he (or someone else) had read in the Dec. 6 Chronicle.
What to make of this? Were the first two items honest mistakes with only the last being an outright fib – or was Butch Robinson one of those people simply incapable of telling the truth? Gentle Reader might be inclined to put the deputy on the couch and ponder if he had issues that drove him to aggrandize his own role in these newsworthy events. Or maybe he was pumping up his reputation as a seasoned and eagle-eyed lawman to seek a position as a detective somewhere. We can’t know.
With those questions in mind, our 96 hour journey is now over. It is right about midnight and Butch is on duty at the Sheriff’s Office. The phone rings. A woman tells him she believes there is some trouble brewing at the cemetery because there are several cars there. A crowd is starting to gather. It was as if they are expecting something to happen.
|1The sidebar in the previous chapter, “DECIPHERING BROKEN BREAKING NEWS” discusses issues with press coverage of the Dec. 5 riot and what might have caused reporters to file slightly differing accounts. Some of what the San Francisco Chronicle published, however, was plainly fiction. Although no reporter saw the prisoners during the riot, the paper stated they were “bordering on panic…their limbs trembling and teeth chattering” as guards “gazed on them in silent contempt.” In the Dec. 7 edition Edna Fullmer was quoted as saying, “…[we were taken] over to the house where we understood that Valento was spending the day. On the way Mr. Jackson heard that Terrence Fitts who had shot him ten years before was there too and he told Mrs. O’Conner to take us for a walk around the block.” None of that was true and as noted above, the Chronicle had falsely claimed the day before that Fitts had once wounded the detective.
|2 Circumstantial evidence does suggest the gangsters had agreed on a plan to use the gun as a murder weapon. Although Fitts (accompanied by Boyd) purchased it from a Santa Rosa man he had only waved it around empty. Valento bought bullets for it two days before the killings, and when they came to the Guidotti home the loaded revolver was taken out of someone’s coat pocket and stashed under a sofa cushion within quick reach of Boyd. “The authorities believe that Boyd, because of his reputation of a crack shot was picked by the others to do the shooting” (Call, Dec. 8).
Dorothy Quinlan, Murder Gangster’s Paramour, Tells Of Death Visit to S. R.
By Lillian Burger
When I was told that I must gain an entrance to the county jail, through the seething, restless mob that had massed itself about the guarded and locked doors of the building that held the three desperate murders, my heart sank. How was I to do it? Here I was in a nice warm office, resting after nearly a 24-hour duty, tired and hungry. It was dark, and if there is anything that I am afraid of it is the dark, mice and toads, and here I was to enter the door of the jail that harbored these desperate men…
[Quinlan only says she worked at the department store and came here to meet up with Valento]
…Now came the minutes that my courage left me. I will admit that it took an effort to keep my heart in its proper place when I entered the jail and started to the woman’s ward, but now I was to see the gangsters – the only woman from the outside world who has been inside the locked doors.
Down long dark corridors, through locked doors and passages, miles, it seemed to me, I followed the jailer until I reached the compartments where the three desperate men were locked.
The first man I saw was Terry Fitts, who came to the door of his cell to give the jailer his cup. He wore his hat and was in his shirtsleeves, and seemed bright and willing enough to talk, and exchanged a few words with the jailer, returning to his cell in quest of his plate.
In a cell in an adjoining corridor sat Charles Valento on the edge of his cot, his black, heavy-brooded face in his hands. He neither moved nor spoke; he took no notice of our passing by.
More clanging of doors, unlocking of the mighty gates that kept the maddened throng from lynching these men, down long flights of stairs and we were in the padded cell where lay the sullen, thickset body of George Boyd.
BOYD DOESN’T TALK
Without moving or making any sign, he looked at me – then closed his eyes. “I’ll bring you some soup, later, George,” said Jailer Jewett, but there was no response.
More unlocking of doors, more clanging of the great iron gates – down more flights of stairs, and through the dimly-lit corridors – and I was again breathing the fresh air – who cared if it was raining. I was out in the big wide world. I could move without fear.
– Santa Rosa Republican, December 7 1920
Girl Gang Victims Returned to S. F.
After the Identification of Chas. Valenti and George Boyd in the county Jail here Monday by Misses Jessie Montgomery, Edna Fulmer and Pearl Hanley they were returned to San Francisco and the two latter girls from a photograph have since identified another member of the Howard street gang. The man sought is Daniel Logue.
The Fulmer and Stanley girls were attacked In the same manner as the Montgomery and Stanley girls and in addition to Logue the police are seeking Louis Lazarus in connection with that affair. Lazarus was known to have been here Saturday and Sunday but made his escape before the murders in the Guidotti house Sunday afternoon. All efforts to locate him since have failed.
– Press Democrat, December 8 1920
Poisonous “Sob Stuff”
IT MIGHT BE EXPECTED that, following such a tragedy as was enacted in Santa Rosa last Sunday, there sooner or later would come a reaction on the part of those chicken-hearted, supine people who, once the shock of such an occurrence is gone, begin to think of the poor dears who are languishing in jail for the crime.
It is true that there are such people. And, mortifying as it is to admit it, these people sometimes include one or two who are in a position to get poisonous propaganda into the newspapers.
In nearly all large cities there is usually at least one newspaper which fawns upon the criminal class, disseminates cancerous ideas about the poor “under dog” and in very device known to unscrupulous journalism, tries to lead the gullible public to believe that criminals really are not to blame for their actions but are victims of unfortunate circumstances.
When such an unmoral, corrupting force enters into our own life and attempts to undermine justice, we are inclined to believe that some offenses not now on the statute books ought to be placed there. To print “sob stuff” apparently designed to prove extenuating circumstance; for a hardened gunman, and before that gunman’s victims are even laid to rest – ugh! Words are inadequate to express the.repugnance which such work engenders.
George Boyd murdered three good men in cold blood. Boyd has been a gangster ever since he reached an age to become a gangster; he has wielded a gun before, has feloniously attacked and abused young girls and has served two terms in the penitentiary for serious crimes. He can offer no extenuating circumstances, and his spectacular warning to young boys to “keep on the straight and narrow” will deceive no one, regardless of what sympathetic treatment and prominent display it may be given by misguided sympathizers.
– Press Democrat, December 9 1920
NEWS FIRST IN EXTRA EDITION OF DEMOCRAT
Two hours before any other Santa Rosa paper was able to put out an abbreviated story of the lynching, The Press Democrat had issued a complete account of the circumstances in a comprehensive extra.
Before 5 o’clock the big Press Democrat press was turning out another edition, containing two pages of news about the second tragedy which has rocked the community in less than a week.
About an hour later a second extra was issued by another Santa Rosa paper, still incomplete, and containing less news than the first Press Democrat extra, issued three hours earlier.
At the same time as the Press Democrat was assembling the data of the lynching messages were flashed to the outside world. By Press Democrat service the Associated Press was enabled to put out 2500 words on the telegraph wire before 2 o’clock this morning.
Just as rapidly as the press could send off the copies of the extra edition, and the regular edition which followed, bundles were piled into waiting automobiles, and distribution made to all the towns and communities of the county. Thousands of extra copies were sold as rapidly as they could be supplied.
– Press Democrat, December 10 1920
THE MURDER THEORY
The theory underlying the Santa Rosa tradegy [sic] Is undoubtedly the following: The San Francisco gangsters were friends and pals of Fitts, and when matters became too hot for them in San Francisco they fled to Santa Rosa, to receive aid and comfort from Fitts in their attempt to elude the officers of the law. Under these circumstances Fitts was of course, fully aware of the guilt of the villains and became a party to the conspiracy to shoot down the officers in case the gang was apprehended. When the sheriff and the San Francisco detectives approached the Guidotti house the revolver, which Is known to be the property of Fitts, was, without doubt, in his possession, and equally without doubt was by him hidden under the sofa pillow, ready to be used by ANY MEMBER OF THE GANG and placed there for that purpose, in case the officers decided to make arrests. The opportunity to use the gun came to Boyd but any member of the outfit who could have secured the weapon without first drawing fire from the officers would have done the shooting, as the circumstances clearly indicate conspiracy had been entered into to do away with the arresting officers. Under these circumstances no doubt exists that each and every member of the gang, Fitts included is guilty of deliberate, premeditated murder.
– Sebastopol Times, December 10, 1920