They knew nightfall would bring trouble and it was already starting to get dark – but inside the sheriff’s office there was no plan on what to do or even agreement on who was in charge. The telephones kept ringing. A crowd was forming in the street outside that had the makings of a lynch mob.
THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID
Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa
This is the fifth chapter in the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID,” and describes events which happened later in the day of December 5. Just an hour earlier Sonoma County Sheriff James A. Petray and two San Francisco detectives had been gunned down while trying to arrest a gangster in Santa Rosa.
Petray was highly popular, demonstrated both by how word of his murder spread with racing speed and the degree of anger it stirred. Normally some sort of public event would be promptly arranged – a ceremony on the steps of the courthouse perhaps, a church service, or better yet, a memorial gathering in his hometown of Healdsburg, far from the jail where his lynchable killer was in custody.
But if there was hope of defusing the situation any such plan would have needed to be made and announced immediately. Further complicating matters was that it was a Sunday afternoon; city and county authorities who could make decisions weren’t in their offices or were even reachable – the District Attorney was enjoying a drive in the country.
Nor did it help when Coroner Phillips showed up at the jail to announce he was assuming temporary charge of the sheriff’s office, based on his other official title being the Public Administrator for the county. As he was a physician with no experience at all in law enforcement it was an audacious claim, particularly as he had to push his way through a surly crowd to reach the door. What progress had been made on mobilizing officers came to a halt as they waited for Superior Judge Seawell to come down and make a ruling. It was now past sunset.
Phillips only had power to serve official papers, the judge ruled, then huddled with the Santa Rosa Police Chief on who to appoint in charge until the Supervisors could meet the next morning in an emergency session. That man was John M. Boyes, who had been on the Santa Rosa police force for 23 years, nine of them as chief. Once Petray was elected in 1918 he retired immediately and became a deputy sheriff. As he was the only man well qualified to take leadership, the call could have been made an hour earlier.
The judge also ordered all deputies be sworn in as Santa Rosa deputy constables to create a united, lawful police force. Boyes deputized 25-30 men. Another 20 additional special police officers were sworn in by the mayor. A San Francisco Police Captain was coming up on the late train with ten detectives from the city.
Deputies were placed outside the building to guard the door and keep the sidewalks clear, but that soon proved as impossible as sweeping back the ocean. “From Petaluma, from Healdsburg and from towns in the outlying section automobiles, crowded to their capacity swelled the mob in front of the jail,” said the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Several hundred people from Healdsburg, the home of Sheriff Petray, were early on the scene,” the Healdsburg Tribune reported, “and many took prominent parts in the agitation for a necklace party.”
Among them were Edward and Frank Petray, brothers of the murdered sheriff. San Francisco Examiner: “Sheriff Petray’s brother, heavily armed, managed to gain entrance to the outer offices of the jail. Swearing summary vengeance on his brother’s murderer if he could gain access to the cell rooms, he paced to and fro.”
“We brought guns,” said “Big Ed” quietly. “Jack, if you were to bring those three men out here now I’d kill them. Jim wouldn’t want me to. But I couldn’t help it.” At that moment, three feet away and at the other side of a flimsy glass door, the front ranks of the “mob” were howling for blood. Had “Big Ed” or Frank Petray taken one step to the door, turned the key that was in the lock, and said, “Come in, boys,” the magazine would have exploded.
As people continued pouring in, the crowd filled the street between the jail and east side of the courthouse. Cars blocked sidewalks. Between the din of car horns and shouted threats of lynching, few could hear the authorities who urged them to disperse or at least tried to lower the temperature. Here are some things which were reportedly said, according to newspapers the following day:
Judge Sewell: “Don’t do anything that you and Sonoma County will have cause to regret.” Someone answered, “We won’t regret it, judge,” as the crowd roared.
“Let the law take its course, men,” District Attorney Hoyle urged. “We have the murderers, and they will be brought speedily to justice. Give the law a chance!” He couldn’t finish speaking because they began shouting back, “They didn’t give Jimmy Petray a chance!”
Boyes dangled the possibility one of the gangsters had gotten away: “You’re not giving us a chance to do our duty, you fellows. By keeping us here you are preventing us from making further arrests which we want to do in order to clinch the case against the prisoners.” As gangster Boyd was slowly dying of his wound, the Acting Sheriff added morbidly, “If you want to hang someone you’ll probably be able to hang a dead man by morning.”
By early evening there were an estimated 2,000 itching to lynch the prisoners. It was now a mob, and the siege of the jailhouse was about to begin.
DECIPHERING BROKEN BREAKING NEWS
The Dec. 5 1920 riot was the most well-covered event in Santa Rosa history, with reporters from eight newsrooms on the scene. But why are there so many differences in what appeared in papers the next day? Which sources can we trust the most/least? It’s always a complex question, but this story lends itself to being a good exercise for how to weigh accuracy.
Primary sources used in this chapter included the December 6 editions of the Press Democrat, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Call (the San Francisco Bulletin was also on the scene, but that newspaper is not online). Sometimes details which appeared in only one paper were also generally described by another reporter, suggesting that bit of info was (likely) accurate. But researcher beware when there’s no sign of confirmation elsewhere, and each version has one or more problems like this.
There’s also certain to be distortion because of the enormous and noisy crowd, making it impossible to hear and see very well. How much guesswork and hearsay crept into the reporting? Sources agree authorities pleaded with the mob to disperse, but there was no consensus of what was actually spoken, or when in the evening they said it.
As these highly newsworthy events were happening under pressure to make deadlines for the morning editions, were details garbled? Was the wooden battering ram a telephone pole? Did that attack happen closer to 10 or 11 o’clock? Was a single sailor involved or “a party of sailors”? And how much does the accuracy of those details matter, really?
Making the exercise more interesting are the different vantage points. The Examiner reporter was clearly in the jail with the police while the other newspapers were outside with the mob. Readers of the Examiner were told there was gunfire from the crowd; the Chronicle reported a tire exploded “like a pistol shot.” The Call mentioned a brother of Sheriff Petray was inside the jail, while the Examiner told readers he was armed and trying to kill the prisoners.
Other journalists present that night were from the Healdsburg Tribune, Santa Rosa Republican and Associated Press. Although their offerings did not add substantial information, these sources were used to confirm the likelihood of some details. More on the entire press coverage of the week of Dec. 5-10 continues in the following chapter.
The crowd continued to swell as hours passed. Two of the San Francisco papers noted it was not all men, with many well-known women of Santa Rosa scouted among their number.
The air crackled with tension and the disorganized mob kept waiting for something to happen. The PD reported, “Feeling ran high, and if there had appeared anyone with a strong personality to become a leader, there is little doubt that an attack in force would have been made.”
When an auto tire blew out it was mistaken for gunfire and the crowd went into a frenzy. Acting Sheriff Boyes posted additional officers outside the door and took all keys to the jail’s cellblock and sent them away to a secret location.
It was near 10 o’clock and there was an impossibly large number of people shoved together on the east side of the courthouse. The Press Democrat estimated over 3,000. The Chronicle thought there were over 4,000.
And then it began. A group of men raided a construction site a couple of blocks away and stole a long 2×4 (it was probably really a 4×6 meant for a roof beam) for a battering ram.
Dick Campbell, who owned a candy store in Monte Rio, took position at the front. “Let’s go!” he shouted.
The mob parted and the men charged towards the officers and the door.
“But the enthusiasm of those behind evaporated and by the time Campbell reached the jail door he was almost alone,” the PD said. “City Police Officer Herman Hankel collared him and thrust him through the door into the jail, where he was booked on a charge of inciting a riot.”
“Undaunted by one ineffectual attempt to reach the murderers, the mob retired a short distance for consultation,” according to the Chronicle. They returned with a far formidable siege weapon – a steel girder so heavy it needed over fifty men to lift.
Led this time by a sailor in uniform they rushed the jail, the mob at their backs ready to storm the building once they were through the door.
|Deputy sheriffs and San Francisco detectives armed to the teeth ran out from the jail and leveled revolvers at the crowd. “Stand back or we’ll have to shoot!” they cried at the onrushing mob. (Chronicle)|
Likely intimidated by the guns, enough of the rioters stepped away from the girder to make the attack unworkable. They backed off to regroup. The standoff resumed:
|The authorities were determined to hold their prisoners at all cost and the mob seemed equally determined that the murderers should be tried and sentenced in the court of Judge Lynch. The mob, sullen and vengeful, was watching closely for any relaxation of watchfulness on the part of men guarding the jail. The slightest incident would have resulted in a concerted rush upon the jail. (Chronicle)|
As 11 o’clock approached, the mayor ordered the fire engine into position. The hose was attached to the hydrant at the corner of Fourth street as the firemen awaited possible orders to drench the mob.
More deputies were sent outside to reinforce the line as the mob prepared another attack with the steel girder – apparently the sailor and others convinced themselves they would not be fired upon.
The 60 to 75 men with the heavy battering ram charged again towards the sheriff’s door. This time the officers were more than ready. Instead of threatening a massacre, the game plan was to leverage the girder’s weight against the attackers in a clever bit of jiu-jitsu.
At the very last moment before the end of the unwieldy ram was about to reach them, the officers deftly put their hands on it and shoved sideways so it smashed into the wall. As the mob dropped their metal weapon, “It struck the concrete walk with a loud clang and clatter,” said the PD.
“The mob made no move to disperse and at midnight excitement still was high. Threats of lynching had by no means abated,” the Chronicle noted, in what was surely the reporter’s final wrap-up phoned in to the night editor.
But it really was over, although fragments of the mob lingered as late as 3AM. There was talk of another assault on the jail that upcoming night, but authorities told the papers that state troops would be summoned if rioting continued.
When the sun rose farmers began drifting into town for Monday morning shopping and learned details of the long and horrible day that came before, from the murder of the sheriff to the reckless mob that might have ended in a massacre.
Only the reporter for the Call was up early enough to sum up the aftermath:
|By 12 o’clock [noon] about 200 men had gathered about the county jail, and the doors of the jail were locked and deputies and police stationed on guard within and without the structure, ready for any emergency. The crowd was quiet, and officers believed it to be made up largely of “curiosity seekers.” During the morning little knots of men gathered at street corners and discussed the tragedy.|
It had been Santa Rosa’s worst night since the 1906 earthquake – but by the end of the week there would be a night more terrible yet.
Crowd of 4000 Men Cry for Vengeance And Slayers’ Blood
2000 or more Santa Rosans, cursing the murderers and muttering threats against them, gathered in front of the jail, just across the street from the Courthouse.
The news of the murder spread like wildfire throughout the territory surrounding Santa Rosa. Grim visaged citizens parked their automobiles in front of the jail and rent the air with the din of their horns. Each horn held a menace for the murderers.
From Petaluma, from Healdsburg and from towns in the outlying section automobiles, crowded to their capacity swelled the mob in front of the jail. Within several hours following the capture of the gangsters the crowd had swelled to more than four thousand.
Sailors Arrive and Take Active Part
Up to this time there had been no actual violence, the mob confining itself to threats and curses hurled against the ruffians. Then a party of sailors arriving on the scene took the situation in hand. Immediately the mob grew more restive and the storming of the jail was imminent.
Deputy sheriffs of Sonoma county, reinforced by ten SF detectives under the leadership of Captain Duncan Matheson, at times using tactical persuasion, at times resorting to force to keep back members of the mob, who advanced menacingly, battled desperately to prevent a wholesale lynching.
“Let the law take its course, men,” the officers urged.
“We have the murderers, and they will be brought speedily to justice. Give the law a chance!”
“They didn’t give Jimmy Petray a chance for his white alley!” [sic] shouted a voice from the crowd.
“Think, think, men! You can’t do this thing,” one of the officers said. “Think what it will mean!”
“We know what it will mean!” bellowed another voice in the mob. “We’ll give the murderers whats comin’ to them. Let’s string ’em up!
“Here’s a telegraph pole!” roared still another voice.
“That’ll smash in the door! Let’s go!”
Fifty or sixty of the men with the pole held as a ram advanced toward the jail door. Deputy sheriffs and San Francisco detectives armed to the teeth ran out from the jail and leveled revolvers at the crowd.
“Stand back or well have to shoot!” they cried at the onrushing mob.
Men With Ram Are Hurled Back
The men with the ram reached the door of the jail and battered against it, but were hurled back by the officers before they effected an entrance.
While the mob stormed the jail, the prisoners trembling with fear cringed in their cells while deputy Sheriffs and detectives, companions of the men they had so ruthlessly murdered, stood guard at the doors of their cells to protect them from mob violence.
Undaunted by one ineffectual attempt to reach the murderers the mob retired a short distance for consultation then started another advance on the jaiL.
Again the authorities won and saved their prisoners from the noose. The fire department was called out and, with hose attached to the hydrants, the firemen stood ready to sweep back the crowds with streams of water.
Continue in Efforts To Enter Prison
At intervals throughout the evening the mob made ineffectual attempts to enter the jail and seize the prisoners. The mob made no move to disperse and at midnight excitement still was high. Threats of lynching had by no means abated.
The authorities were determined to hold their prisoners at all cost and the mob seemed equally determined that the murderers should be tried and sentenced in the court of Judge Lynch. The mob, sullen and vengeful, was watching closely for any relaxation of watchfulness on the part of men guarding the jaiL. The slightest incident would have resulted in a concerted rush upon the jail.
Exploding Tire Stirs Surging Crowd
A report like a pistol shot caused the mob to prepare for action and the din that arose from four thousand voices brought a condition to the prisoners bordering on panic.
“For God’s sake don’t let them get us! They pleaded to the officers, their limbs trembling and teeth chattering.
Their protecters gazed on them in silent contempt. They were risking their lives to protect cringing cowards who had not scrupled to outrage helpless womanhood and to shoot down in cold blood men with whom they had been associated for years – their pals.
The report that had almost precipitated another rush on the jail was from the bursting of an automobile tire.
Should further violence threaten the gangsters it may be necessary to reinforce the guard at the jaiL. State troops will be called for only as a last resort it was stated last night.
– San Francisco Chronicle, December 6, 1920
NEW LYNCH MOB! BOYD CONFESSES! SWOONING S.F. GIRL IDENTIFIES GUNMAN HELD AT SANTA ROSA
Shortly before noon the crowd, which had been dispersed at 3 a. m. after a night of terror, began to re-form.
By 12 o’clock about 200 men had gathered about the county jail, and the doors of the jail were locked and deputies and police stationed on guard within and without the structure, ready for any emergency.
The crowd was quiet, and officers believed it to be made up largely of “curiosity seekers.”
During the morning little knots of men gathered at street corners and discussed the tragedy.
The farming communities the surrounding towns were all represented in the crowds that walked the streets, and various rumors of violence being planned were afloat.
One rumor that gained circulation was that a second attempt to get at the prisoners and lynch them would be made tonight.
A crowd, which at its apex totaled probably 3000 persons, had disappeared from in front of the county jail early today after making strenuous attempts to break in the jail doors.
“Lynch them, Lynch them!“ cried the mob, individual members of which demanded that the prisoners be delivered to them.
Armed officers held the mob at bay, and attempts to batter down the jail doors with a steel girder and a heavy wooden beam were frustrated. Members of the mob armed with knives stood ready to slash fire hoses should the fire department resort to water pressure to disperse the crowd. But the three fire engines drawn up around the corner from the jail were not called into action.
FARMERS FILL TOWN
The county was still at fever heat today. Farmers were reported to be laying down their tools and scores of them came into town during the day by automobile, train and horse drawn vehicles…
ARMED MEN GATHER
Reports of small bodies of armed men meeting in various pans of the county came to officers during the day.
The residents of the city and of the entire county are plainly in an ugly mood. Extra deputies are being sworn in to meet any contingency.
The crowd that stormed the county jail last night was in a murderous mood. Although none of the men displayed weapons, it was known that some of them were armed and that others carried ropes. The would-be lynchers had practically all gone, ostensibly to their homes, by 3 o’clock this morning.
Mayor W. E. Rutherford had sworn in twenty additional special police officers today to guard against possible outbreak by mobs. Twenty-five or thirty deputies had been named by Acting Sheriff Boyes.
Superior Judge Emmett Sewell, mounting the steps, tried in vain to quiet the mob.
He told the crowd that the officials were just as anxious as they were to secure justice, but desired to uphold the law.
Acting Sheriff Boyes also addressed the mob.
“You’re not giving us a chance to do our duty, you fellows.” he said, “By keeping us here you are preventing us from making further arrests which we want to do in order to clinch the case against the prisoners. If you want to hang someone you’ll probably be able to hang a dead man by morning.” He referred to Boyd, who at that at time was reported to be dying.
Officials were worn out as a result of their battle with the mobs which stormed the jail last night.
BATTER AT JAIL DOOR
At one stage of the siege a group of men secured a steel girder from a building in course of construction two blocks from the jail.
With this hundreds of men tried to batter down the jail doors.
The deputy sheriffs and police succeeded in diverting the girder so that it crashed into the wall. The hand of one officers was badly smashed in the struggle with the crowd for possession of the girder.
Then the crowd secured a heavy wooden beam and once more began to batter at the door.
R. H. Campbell, who served in the world war and who is the proprietor of a confectionery store at Monte Rio, responded to the crowd’s cry for a leader.
He led the way to the jail door, but was arrested by Deputy Sheriff Herman Hinkel and taken inside the jail, but was later released.
Early this morning two score hastily sworn deputy sheriffs and special police were inside the jail and at that time newspaper men who wished to interview the prisoners were told that the keys to the jail had been sent away from the jail. The reason for this apparently was to guard against their possible seizure by confederates of the mob.
A sailor in uniform was prominent in the activities of the mob during the night. He led the attempts that were made to batter down the jail doors with a steel girder.
Sheriff Petray’s brothers were also active in the mob and once one of them gained entrance to the outer offices of the jail. He swore vengeance on the slayer of his brother.
Many prominent Santa Rosa women were noted in the crowd which jammed the street in front of the jail.
The crowd broke into angry roars from time to time and paid no attention to the pleas of those who addressed them. District Attorney Charles Hoyle urged the crowd to return to their homes, but it was not until four hours later that the crowd began to break up.
– San Francisco Call, December 6, 1920
Jail Surrounded By 3000 Persons; Leader Arrested
Up to 12:30 o’clock Monday morning several attempts to storm the county jail by the disorganized mob which swarmed about the building all night had proven abortive. Estimates placed the size of the mob at more than 3,000 persons during part of the evening.
Feeling ran high, and if there had appeared anyone with a strong personality to become a leader, there is little doubt that an attack in force would have been made.
About 11 o’clock, when the situation appeared particularly threatening, District Attorney George W. Hoyle attempted to speak to the crowd from a position on the jail steps, but was not allowed to finish his remarks. The mob was in no temper for pacific words, and howled him down. Hoyle attempted to point out facts which are obviously true: that the judges here are manifestly fair, that the officers are efficient and will uncover all evidence, and that full justice will be meted out.
ONE ARREST IS MADE
One of the first real, concerted efforts to storm the jail occurred shortly before 11 o’clock. Several men secured a large piece of timber and shouted for a leader.
“Let’s go!” shouted R. H. Campbell of Monte Rio, and grabbed the front of the timber and started up the steps of the jail with a rush.
But the enthusiasm of those behind evaporated and by the time Campbell reached the jail door he was almost alone.
City Police Officer Herman Hankel collared him and thrust him through the door into the jail, where he was booked on a charge of “inciting a riot.”
Campbell, who is a veteran of the world war, at present in the confectionary business in Monte Rio, expressed great disgust at the lack of spirit shown by those who failed to support his efforts to storm the door.
About 10 o’clock a mob of 60 to 75 men, led by a sailor in uniform, came running toward the jail entrance bearing a heavy steel girder which had been brought from a building several blocks away. Amid the cheers of the crowd the mob prepared to storm the jail door, but the foremost members of the crowd dropped away one after another as the door was approached until it became too heavy for those who still remained so they were compelled to drop it before reaching the officers, who presented a solid front across the entrance way.
Shortly before 11 o’clock another attempt was made to storm the jail door and the huge steel battering ram was rushed almost to the entrance of the building, but the men were compelled to drop it again, and it struck the concrete walk with a loud clang and clatter.
Mayor W. E. Rutherford at 11 o’clock ordered the new fire auto engine to be stationed at Hinton avenue and Fourth street for use in case it should be necessary to quell the mob with a stream of water.
At 11:20 several of the deputy sheriffs who had been on duty inside the building were ordered to re-enforce the officers on guard at the jail entrance outside.
Valento was identified by Katherine O’Connor, the policewoman, and not by the girls as was at first reported. She says he is a member of the Howard street gang.
John Hayes and John Parks came up by auto Sunday afternoon for the Associated Press after the detailed story had been sent the San Francisco office by the Press Democrat, the authorized representative of the organization.
– Press Democrat, December 6, 1920
Good Police Work
Now that the nervous tension of the people at the time of the triple shooting Sunday is relaxing, they are remembering incidents which were important the night of the killing of the sheriff and his fellow officers.
Much favorable comment has been heard from Santa Rosa people and others of the manner in which the Santa Rosa police force handled the situation in front of the county jail when hundreds of angry men threatened to storm the door in an attempt to lynch the three gangsters within.
Of the Santa Rosa officers, Police Officer Herman Hankel’s method of dealing with the mob struck the right note.
Hankel joshed with the crowd at times and by his kindly sympathy, timely advice, and evident determination to do his duty, he commanded respect for the enforcement of the law which he represented.
At least twice Hankel persuaded the mob to desist from its plans to batter in the door. However, he demonstrated his ability to act with quickness and twice rushed into the mob with drawn club and forced them to drop their battering ram.
Officer Feliz also is receiving much favorable comment from the citizens of this city for his able attention to duty and his manner in addressing the crowds. In fact every man on the force performed his duty faithfully and the Santa Rosa officers have attracted attention in all parts of the state for the efficiency and earnestness.
– Santa Rosa Republican, December 9, 1920