The air was heavy with mist that December morning, peaceful and timeless, each home in Santa Rosa seemingly alone in the world except for neighboring houses not cloaked by fog. You picked up the Press Democrat on the doorstep planning to scan the ads for Christmas presents, but the astonishing headline dampened any enthusiasm for shopping. Nevertheless, you still put on a hat and went downtown – to gawk at the corpses lying on marble slabs in the morgue.

About 3,000 people (including children) queued outside the Welti mortuary on the corner of Fourth and E to see the bodies of the three gangsters lying in the cold room. When the undertakers closed for noon lunch the crowd patiently waited for them to reopen at 2 o’clock. Nobody wanted to lose their place in line, so stores were empty despite Christmas being only two weeks away.


This is the eighth and final chapter in the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID,” which is not a simple story to wrap up. After the three gangsters were hung there were still loose threads to address and knots to untangle.

Most significantly were two conspiracies of silence, both of which remain (mostly) secret still today. There was the conspiracy by the Healdsburg vigilantes to snatch the gangsters and lynch them, which they carried out with military precision – and perhaps most remarkably, maintained the discipline to keep completely quiet about it afterwards. Then there was the plan by Santa Rosa authorities to conceal what happened to the bodies out of concern for grave robbers. Finally, there were related things that happened in the days (and years) that followed and must be mentioned to complete the history of these events.

Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa


Those conspiracies of silence are more like appendices to the lynching story, so I’m breaking them out into parts of their own – otherwise this chapter would be uncomfortably long, and the transcripts of sources would be a jumble of mixed articles spanning from 1919 to 1922. So let’s proceed here with the telling of what happened right after the Dec. 10 lynching before jumping ahead to discover what became of the hanging tree.

Besides standing in line for a gruesome eyeful of the bodies, there were large clusters of people downtown in front of the county jail and outside the Press Democrat and Republican on Fifth street. The PD also had a window display of the bandanas and flour-sack masks discarded by the vigilantes along the road to Healdsburg.

Rumors flew. The vigilantes supposedly were all San Francisco policemen – a belief pushed as all-but-certain by most SF papers. Two oldtimers who had trekked through the morgue thought they recognized gangster George Boyd as a teenager named Riley who lived on Second Street at the turn of the century. (The 1900 census shows a Mary Riley living at 856 Second St. with her son Victor, who was the same age as Boyd.)

There’s no question nearly everyone in town was pleased with the lynching. The Chronicle reported, “On all sides were heard the remarks, ‘They got what was coming to them,’ and ‘Good riddance and a saving of money for their trial.’ All seemed to join in unanimous approval of the ghastly procedure. Ranchers thronged through the streets as if the event were one of carnival nature.”

Had the gangsters not been murdered their arraignments would have been held that morning (although none of them could find a defense lawyer) but charges were dropped because of their deaths. The courtroom appearance of the men – including Boyd on a stretcher – likely would have been a circus, similar to the scene in San Francisco where crowds fought to watch the arraignments of other Howard street gangsters. That it didn’t happen is history’s loss; the District Attorney said the day before that he would be revealing new bombshell charges at the arraignments. It was believed Boyd confessed they plotted to ambush the San Francisco detectives who were pursuing them.

Instead, that morning they used the Supervisor’s chambers at the courthouse to hold the coroner’s inquest.1 But that didn’t just focus on the lynching; testimony also covered the vigilante raid on the jail, details of the murder of the lawmen five days earlier and prior doings of the gangsters around Santa Rosa. That would be a large field to plow even at a capital murder trial, but the coroner crammed it all into a single session and called just five witnesses.

Racing through the narrative of MULTIPLE crimes meant serious questions would not be asked or just given perfunctory attention; inconsistencies with testimony before the Grand Jury were left unclarified. Because this was not an actual trial there was no cross-examination, so Sheriff Boyes wasn’t asked why he didn’t call the Santa Rosa police chief after he knew the vigilantes were coming, or why he left the front door to the jail unlocked.

But no matter; the jury stuck to its simple mission of determining the causes of death for the officers and the lynched men. For the three gangsters, each verdict was exactly the same:

(Name) died from being hanged from the neck by a lynching mob of unknown persons, who stormed the county jail, overpowering the peace officers and forcibly removing him for that purpose. We exonerate the sheriff and his deputies from any blame therewith.

District Attorney Hoyle – who had been informed of the lynching by the Press Democrat and not by the sheriff – vowed to conduct a thorough investigation into who did it, but apparently gave up after only two days because he couldn’t find anyone willing to snitch on the vigilantes. Asked if he planned to impanel a grand jury, he replied: “I can’t call a session until I have evidence to put before them.”

After the inquest, charges were also dropped against poor Dorothy Quinlan, although she was never accused of anything more serious than having bad taste in men. (She supposedly slept through all the yelling and other commotion at the jail while they were being hauled away by the vigilantes.)

Only a single person was ever prosecuted in connection with the gangster’s ill-fated Santa Rosa sojurn: Domenico Casassa – the 71 year-old wine maker who foolishly believed he saw a trace of goodness behind the cold, dead eyes of Terry Fitts. When he was arrested for running a speakeasy that day he was told it was specifically because he had welcomed Fitts and the others at his place on Guerneville Road. Casassa died in 1923 before his case went to trial, but at the time of his arrest the Press Democrat commented,

Cassassa [sic] is a pioneer grape-grower and winemaker of Sonoma county and is well to do. He has a large family, including grandchildren, and it is said his conduct in connection with the San Francisco gangsters has not met with the approval of his family, who it is declared have strenuously protested but to no avail…

The other big development that day was the struggle to keep up with the latest news – details of the jailhouse siege and the lynching trickled out until bedtime. Both Santa Rosa newspapers published four “extras” on Dec. 10 with the PD claiming 11,000 papers were sold and the Republican saying their total was exactly 23,416. While copies were delivered to all the major towns in the county, it’s worth noting the official census count for Santa Rosa that year was 8,758.

(The impact of the Press Democrat’s coverage is exaggerated today because only the first edition of the Dec. 10 Republican survives, while all editions of the Press Democrat are available. The evolution of the story as told in the additions and changes to the PD extras was summarized and partially transcribed in the previous chapter.)

The PD boasted of their extraordinary middle-of-the-night drive to San Francisco so the Call could make a halftone printing plate of the lynched men, but the Republican had its own photo and a similar deal with the Sacramento Bee. An airplane was commissioned in Sacramento to fly here in poor visibility conditions to fetch their image. The PD printed an item on this pilot’s derring-do flight but editor Ernest Finley, ever the churl, did not mention this was for his rival newspaper. The Republican’s photo is shown below. (Warning: Some might find the image disturbing.)

Meanwhile, souvenir hunters continued to assail the hanging tree at the Rural Cemetery collecting and treasuring mementos of the murders. Even before dawn, people in town were stripping it of bark, snapping off limbs and even pulling up the grass. A fund was started to preserve the tree and install a plaque “so that it will be a perpetual reminder to desperadoes, gangsters and gunmen that death is a certain penalty for such murderous attacks.”

The lynching was done on Friday but vandalism on the tree continued unabated through the weekend – and to such an extent that an expert was asked if it would survive. A 24-hour guard was placed on it Saturday, and there were so many sightseers on Sunday that Santa Rosa policemen were stationed at both ends of Franklin ave. to direct traffic.

Unknown man posing in front of the black locust "hangman's tree" in Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery. Photo: Hamilton H. Dobbin collection, California State Library
Unknown man posing in front of the black locust “hangman’s tree” in Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery. Photo: Hamilton H. Dobbin collection, California State Library

But the locust tree survived and flowered in the spring, casting its shade over the G.A.R. veteran’s monument. In the months that followed it became a popular tourist attraction and probably the top one in Santa Rosa.

And then it was chopped down.

Mrs. Frank C. Newman, who had been elected president of Rural Cemetery Association in April, 1922, ordered the sexton of the cemetery to take it down a month later. She made the decision on her own without consulting other directors of the cemetery’s board, and all of the other members said they would not have approved of the action. Association Secretary Frank Welti resigned on the spot.2

Newman asserted she had a letter from the G.A.R. asking for its removal (she never produced the letter) and that she had the approval of all the women’s clubs in Santa Rosa; the tree was “a reminder of an episode which it were best for our community that we and the world quickly forget,” the federation of the clubs wrote.

Hundreds swooped down on the fallen tree to snag wood chips and other lynching keepsakes, while editor Finley used the occasion to wax nostalgic about the events of December 1920. “There was almost a romantic air about this tree, because the retribution was carried out by an orderly mob…retributive justice, carried out more quickly than the ponderous law could have acted.”

But winds of opinion were shifting. While the lynching was a point of great civic pride right after the event – there was even a lifesize blowup of the PD’s iconic photo kept backstage at the Cline Theater, for purpose unknown – it wasn’t the sort of bucolic, small town “Shadow of a Doubt” image that the Chamber of Commerce and boosters like Finley wanted to promote. They wanted Santa Rosa known (per the future 1946 slogan) as “The City Designed for Living,” not “The City Bent on Hanging Scallywags.”

In short, the movers and shakers came to realize the women’s club federation was right – it was in the town’s best interest not to brag about what happened here. The Press Democrat, which regularly ran “glance at the past” type nostalgia columns, never mentioned the lynching in years to come. For the rest of Ernest Finley’s life, not a word about it would reappear in his newspaper.

Almost thirty years passed until July 1949, when staff writer Frank Herbert (he of sci-fi novel DUNE fame) penned a two-part feature on the murders and lynchings that somehow managed to get almost every single fact wrong. The famous photo – over whose exclusive rights Finley had made such a fuss – would not be printed again until 1968.

So there was actually a third conspiracy of silence at work, this one to not only downplay the lynching itself but to particularly forget Santa Rosa’s complicity and ghoulish misbehavior. Nice communities don’t try to batter down the jailhouse door or parade by the thousands through a morgue. By not mentioning those sticky points the town was shorn of any need to express shame or regret.

For a century the complex story of what happened here in December 1920 has been pared down to its bones. When told nowadays it is a simple tale that begins with how a good man was murdered and ends when the bad men were punished, as the Press Democrat put it at the time, “swinging from the rope’s ends, swaying in the wind and washed by the rain.” Santa Rosa played no part in it whatsoever; why, we can’t even be sure if anyone was here at all that week.



1 Portions of the coroner’s inquest are transcribed in the previous chapter and appeared complete in the Dec. 11 Press Democrat.
2 Mrs. Frank C. Newman – who is buried in the Rural Cemetery as Minnie Newman Carline – remained president of the Rural Cemetery Association for many years, and made another unilateral decision in 1932 that caused the cemetery to fall into decades of neglect. After a public works project did a major cleanup that year, she decreed there would be no further maintenance of gravesites by volunteers unless the owners/descendants of the individual plots paid for a caretaker to be hired. See “A CEMETERY SO LONG UNCARED FOR“.




“The lawlessness of the thing is what appalls me,” was District Attorney George W. Hoyle’s statement early this morning when informed of the lynching. “It now becomes my duty as district attorney to conduct an investigation to determine, if possible, who are responsible for this lawless act.”

“My God, no!” said Hoyle when he was first informed of the lynching from The Press Democrat office at 2:30 this morning. The district attorney had not then heard of the occurrence and was so stunned at the news that he was unable to comment further at that moment.

– Press Democrat, December 10 1920



The body of Terence Fitts, black sheep, lynched at Santa Rosa, was saved from the eyes of morbid crowds by the petition of his sister, Mrs. Henry Pyburn, 537 Fifth avenue, San Francisco.

In the petition another sister, Mrs. Cecil Riley of Santa Rosa, joined, and Fitts’ face was covered while a crowd of 3000, including women with babies in arms, viewed his body and those of George Boyd and Charles Valento.

Fitts will be buried by the family, but not in the family plot. Exactly a month before the day of Fitts’ death his father was buried in the cemetery a few feet from the tree on which the son was hanged. Fitts as a boy had played about the tree before he became the despair of a respectable family.

Valento’s body was shipped to his mother, who lives in Howard street.

It was expected that Boyd’s body would be claimed by relatives from Sacramento. If not, he will be buried In the Santa Rosa potter’s field.

– San Francisco Call, December 11 1920



Throughout the day crowds congregated in front of the County Jail and in the downtown streets to talk over the dramatic events of the night before. On all sides were heard the remarks, “They got what was coming to them,” and “Good riddance and a saving of money for their trial.” All seemed to join in unanimous approval of the ghastly procedure. Ranchers thronged through the streets as if the event were one of carnival nature. Shops were deserted and business was virtually suspended.

Long lines of curious citizens passed through the morgue, where the three dead men lay on plain marble slabs. The body of Terence Fitts was covered in deference to a request of his relatives here…The bodies of the trio continued to be the chief attraction during the morning. At noon the morgue was closed until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. A long line waited patiently for the reopening…

– San Francisco Chronicle, December 11 1920


City is Quiet Today After Hanging; No Clue to Avengers


That Boyd might be an alias of the slayer developed yesterday when the crowd were passing through the morgue.

Two elderly men who have lived in Santa Rosa for years both are said to have exclaimed on looking at Boyd, “That is the Riley boy. He lived here 20 years ago.”

They based their belief on resemblance Boyd had for a family by the name of Riley who lived here a score of years past and who conducted a restaurant. Boyd admitted to the officers that he had a sister living in this city many years ago by the name of Riley and that he had visited her several times.

From these two angles it appears today that Boyd also might have been a former Santa Rosa boy. The Riley family lived on Second street…



District Attorney Hoyle spend the day in gathering statements relative to the summary executions of the three gangsters.

Practically the entire day was spent in this manner and Hoyle said it was the first step he would make in carrying out his official duties in connection with the case.

Asked if he would call a grand jury session to consider the hanging, Hoyle replied: “I can’t call a session until I have evidence to put before them. I am just beginning my investigations today and until I have taken several statements I can’t tell whether or not the grand jury will be called.”

Apparently the mystery which involved the identify of the avenging throng was still buried from officials and as no trace or inkling of the men who participated in the hanging has leaked out doubt exists in the many minds if an official investigation will yield results…


– Santa Rosa Republican December 11 1920


No Grand Jury Probe Expected At Santa Rosa

There is little likelihood of a Grand Jury investigation into yesterday’s triple lynching, District Attorney George W. Hoyle said today as he began his formal inquiry into the mob action. He began his hearing with a program calling for the testimony of county jail officials and any witnesses who might be found, to tell of the actual lynching of George Boyd, Terence Fitts and Charles Valento. There seemed little likelihood of any evidence being secured to identify members of the mob, and without such Identification grand jury action would be improbable. “There will be no grand jury investigation,” said Hoyle, “unless I get evidence enough to warrant it.”

– San Francisco Call, December 11 1920




There was a crowd at the undertaking parlors where the bodies of the lynched men had been removed and thousands asked to view them during Friday. Conspicuous among the crowds were many women and children…

– Press Democrat, December 11 1920



D. Cassassa, widely known wineman who resides on the Guerneville road west of town, was arrested Saturday night on a charge of selling liquor illegally…

…The arrest comes as a direct result of the harboring of Terry Fitts, Charles Valento and Geo. Boyd recently, and providing the liquor for the men on their various visits, it is declared by the arresting officers. He has been in trouble before, and it is said there is a case pending against him in the Justice Court for selling liquor to Indians which has never been brought to trial.

Cassassa is a pioneer grape-grower and winemaker of Sonoma county and is well to do. He has a large family, including grandchildren, and it is said his conduct in connection with the San Francisco gangsters has not met with the approval of his family, who it is declared have strenuously protested but to no avail. He will now have to answer before the federal grand jury, and if indicted, as no doubt he will be, will have to stand trial before the United states circuit court at Sacramento.

– Press Democrat, December 12 1920




Both Mayor Rutherford and Chief of Police George W. Mathews announced yesterday that outlawry and flouting of the law must come to an end in Santa Rosa. Those who have long been suspected of breaking the law in various ways will he rounded up without delay, so that there can not be any possibility in future of the town, or anyone in it, harboring such desperate criminals as the three now in jail…

– Press Democrat, December 7 1920


We Have Had Our Lesson; Shall We Profit by It?

The sympathy of the entire community will be extended to the relatives and friends of the three brave officers who were murdered here Sunday. It was a shocking affair, and created more feeling than has previously been manifested in Sonoma county for a long time. That three such men should have been laid low by a worthless human rat is worse than shocking; it is horrible, appalling.

And now that the community has had its lesson, shall we profit by it, or merely go along in the same old way? This community has been infested far too long by the presence of such men as those responsible for the tragedy of Sunday afternoon. This is not the place for such cattle to congregate. They should be given to understand that their presence here is not wanted. Santa Rosa cannot afford to be known as a hang-out for criminals and moral degenerates. Whenever they appear, they must be told to move on, and without a moment’s delay. The places that harbor such criminals must be closed up, and kept closed. When criminals and cut-throats find things too hot for them in San Francisco and have to clear out, they must understand that we don’t want them up this way, even temporarily. Their presence is a menace, their very proximity a blight.

Officers, do your duty!

– Press Democrat, December 7 1920



That Santa Rosa and Sonoma county be immediately cleaned of all undesirable characters was the edict issued by the sheriff’s office and the chief ot police yesterday.

Orders to officers have already been issued to arrest every person in the city or vicinity of questionable occupation or who is found loitering around any of the saloons or wineries of the city or county.

Not only will a determined effort be made to rid the county of any persons of criminal inclination or intent, but determined action will also be begun to suppress and eradicate places in the county or city where such people rendezvous.

Sheriff John M. Boyes stated Tuesday that the first work which he would undertake would be to ask the co-operation of every peace officer north of San Francisco to join in making this territory too hot for criminals or their associates.

City Recorder C. N. Collins has already started action so far as his court is concerned by inflicting jail sentences for drunkenness. Following the sentence ot five to jail Monday not a drunk could be found in Santa Rosa Monday evening, and underground channels sent the information that several suspected bootleggers had quit their trade in the city. George Matthews, chief of police, is on the warpath and indicates that the bootleggers will not merely go into cover for a few days and then open up again. They are going to be stopped, he declares, once and for all time.

Hoboes, yeggs, idlers and hangers-on about the city are to be arrested and given the stiffest sentence that the law will allow, said Chief Matthews Tuesday. Santa Rosa is going to be known as an unsafe place for criminals.

– Press Democrat, December 8 1920



Soon after the news was telephoned to San Francisco, of the lynching in Santa Rosa, machines carrying San Francisco newspaper men, were soon on their way to the scene. Ralph Cromwell, special writer for the Chronicle, who had covered the shooting of the peace officers Sunday, also covered the lynching story for the big daily.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, December 11, 1920



The first word of the summary action taken by the men who hanged Fitts, Boyd and Valento yesterday was sent out by the Santa Rosa Republican which tipped off the majority of the San Francisco papers and which kept them supplied with the news of developments.

In addition to wiring and telephoning in the news the Santa Rosa Republican rushed 100 copies of the extra editions to the United News Agents, San Francisco. So great was the demand for the Santa Rosa paper that an hour after the first ones were received the Republican was sent a telegram asking for more…

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 11 1920



The Press Democrat scored a tremendous success yesterday in its handling of the big news growing out of the lynching of Boyd, Fitts and Valento, the San Francisco gangsters. By all odds the most sensational event that ever took place in the history of the county, it was treated by this newspaper accordingly. More than 11,000 copies of The Press Democrat were printed and sold during the day, and the paper was in circulation in all parts of Sonoma county long before daylight. Four separate editions were issued, each replete with sensational details valuable to our readers.

The first edition was in the form of a comprehensive extra, giving a complete a complete account of the lynching. This was on the streets more than two hours before any other newspaper appeared, with only an abridged story and many of the details incorrect. The Press Democrat’s big extra was rushed by automobile to all the important towns in the county, as well as to many of the smaller places, and was followed an hour or more later by a complete morning edition containing two whole pages of news describing the lynching and other features associated with it. This edition was rushed to every town in the county, and in each and every instance all the papers sent out by our distributors were sold, and there was demand for more. Five separate shipments were made to Sebastopol, three to Healdsburg, two to Sonoma and Petaluma, and all day long scores of newsboys were busy on the streets disposing of Press Democrats, for which there appeared be a constant and ever-increasing demand.

Within half an hour after the lynching occurred, The Press Democrat had two photographers on the scene, and shortly afterwards Ernest Ridley with a finished photograph of the three men was making fast time in a high-powered car to Sausalito, where a powerful launch was waiting to convey him across the bay to Meiggs wharf, the nearest point. Here a taxicab was in waiting and Ridley with his photograph was rushed to the Call office, arriving there at 6:15 a. m. He waited there while two halftones were manufactured, one for the Call and the other for The Press Democrat. In less than two hours he was on his way home, bearing the finished cut, and the first and only picture of the lynching to be printed here in any newspaper came out in the noon edition of The Press Democrat, making a big sensation.

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 in the morning.

A crowd was assembled in front of The Press Democrat office all day long, reading the bulletins and extras posted on the plate glass windows and examining the mementos of the occasion that had been placed on display, while two people were kept busy at the telephone almost the entire day answering inquiries and giving out information relative to the sensational event with which the day had been ushered in.

– Press Democrat, December 11 1920


Lynching Photo Fraud

A copy of the photograph of the lynching taken at the direction of The Press Democrat early Friday morning was made into post cards by an enterprising man in San Francisco under an alleged copyright, and thousands disposed of before the police ordered the sale stopped. It is said that the man cleared up $500 in the transaction.

– Press Democrat, December 12 1920


Mather Field Ship Brings Picture of Lynching

Through the co-operation of Captain T. S. Voss, acting for Major B. M. Atkinson, Commanding Officer at Mather Field, the Bee is enabled to publish to-day the photograph of the three gangsters hanged by the mob at Santa Rosa early this morning as they appeared swinging from the limb of an oak tree in the cemetery there.

Upon receipt of word at noom to-day that a flashlight photograph had been taken by one of those present at the lynching, The Bee arranged through Captain Voss for the dispatch of a De Haviland 450-horsepower Liberty Motor airplane, capable of making 100 miles an hour, to Santa Rosa in order to obtain one of the pictures.


Lieutenant W. A. Maxwell and Cadet L. H. Scott were assigned to the trip.

The two hopped off on Mather Field at 1:22 p. m. and arrived at Santa Rosa at 2:30 p. m. after encountering a heavy fog at intervals.

At Santa Rosa the pictures were already at Noonan Field there, through advance arrangement. At 2:45 p. m. they were in the hands of the birdmen and on their way to Sacramento. The landing was made at Mather Field at 3:40 p. m. From there the photographs were rushed to the engravers by Howard Meiss on a motorcycle.

– Sacramento Bee, December 10, 1920


Sacramento Paper Sends Airplane to Get Lynch Picture

The Sacramento Bee sent an airplane from Sacramento to Santa Rosa yesterday to secure a photograph of the lynching scene. The machine lighted in the Noonan field, where it was met by a representative with the picture. The plane was not here more than quarter of an hour and made the round trip in record time.

– Press Democrat, December 11 1920



That a public subscription be taken up for the preservation and labeling of the locust tree on which Boyd, Fitts and Valento were hung, so that it will be a perpetual reminder to desperadoes, gangsters and gunmen that death is a certain penalty for such murderous attacks as that of Sunday, is the suggestion made from several quarters here this morning.

One of the first to suggest such a subscription. and the securing of an engraved plate, giving the date and details of the lynching, and the cause for the action, was R. D. Robinson, who contributed fifty cents as a starter for such a fund, and asked that the newspapers of Santa Rosa accommodate people of like opinion by receiving their contributions.

Robinson declares as his belief that the tree should he preserved as an everlasting reminder that murders of police of officers like that in which Sheriff Petray and Detectives Jackson and Dorman did not go unpunished, even if such punishment be by mob action.

– Press Democrat, December 10 1920



After a day and night in which the lynching tree in Rural cemetery was unguarded, and curiosity seekers removed most of the bark and many of the smaller limbs, the caretaker of the cemetery stationed a guard over it, and has stopped further abuse of the tree at the hands of souvenir seekers.

Tree experts have stated their opinion that not enough bark has been removed to seriously harm the tree, and believe that it will stand and continue to live as a reminder of the lynching and the events which preceded it.

– Press Democrat, December 12 1920



All day long Sunday there was a stream of automobiles passing along the cemetery road, the curious occupants seeking a view of the tree on which the gangsters were lynched Friday morning.

The traffic became so heavy, with machines passing alone the road from both directions, that it was necessary to call on the traffic police for regulation, with the result that an officer was stationed at each end of the road to maintain order.

The automobiles were from all parts of Sonoma county, and the fine weather of the day attracted many people from San Francisco and other bay cities and from other counties in this vicinity.

– Press Democrat, December 14 1920



Sight-seeing Pythians, Wednesday, to the number of 200 or more, stormed the Sonoma county Jail, overwhelmed Douglas M. Bills, undersheriff, and almost broke into the barred section at the rear, so enamored were they with the beauty of the building. As a part of the attraction, Santa Rosa is showing the visiting delegates to the grand lodge encampment, Knights of Pythias, the county Jail received more than its share of praise and interest from the visitors.

The gruesome collection reminiscent of the late triple lynching here, drew the greatest attention from the visitors. This collection, which is on display in the sheriff’s office, includes a large photograph of the three hanging to the tree; the gun which fired the fatal shots, empty cartridges, the hangmen’s knots cut from the ropes, and other articles.

The late Sheriff Petray, killed by the San Francisco gangsters was a well-beloved Knight and extended the invitation to the grand lodge to hold their encampment in Santa Rosa at the 1920 meeting. For this reason, his many brother Knights and friends from other sections of the state, were especially interested in the collection.

– Press Democrat, May 19 1921


Grim “Hangman’s Tree,” Reminder Of Lynching In 1920, Is Laid Low By Ax


The grim reminder of Sonoma county retributive justice — the cemetery locust tree to which on December 10, 1920 a mob hanged the three slayers of Sheriff James A. Petray and two San Francisco detectives — has passed into history.

Yesterday morning, acting on the orders of a woman, Mrs. Frank C. Newman, president of the board of directors of the Rural Cemetery Association, the ax was laid to the roots of the tree.

Today it lies in lengths on the ground, while chips from the trunk and pieces of limb are being carried into hundreds of homes in Santa Rosa, and taken far away by interested people as souvenirs.


The “lynching tree,” as it became known all over the nation after the news of the hanging was broadcasted from Santa Rosa, was always a first attraction to visitors in Santa Rosa. There was almost a romantic air about this tree, because the retribution was carried out by an orderly mob five days after the murder of the there [sic] peace officers. This was no bitter, hotblooded revenge. It was retributive justice, carried out more quickly than the ponderous law could have acted.

The tree, itself as if to give justification to the deed, burst through the shackles of the tradition which had decreed that a “hangman’s tree” must die, and broke into new foliage early in the spring which followed the lynching. And, as if still proud, again this year it threw out new green leaves, and was in the full flower of spring bloom when laid low by the ax.

When the news spread that the tree had been cut down crowds of people again visited the old cemetery and carried away fragments as souvenirs. Then a general inquiry was started as to why the tree had been cut down and the splendid shade it had afforded destroyed forever.


Sexton Mets said the tree had been hewn down under an order issued by Mrs. Frank C. Newman, president of the board of directors of the Rural Cemetery association. When Mrs. Newman was interviewed she stated that she had exercised her authority as president of the board in ordering the tree cut down. She said members of the Grand Army had requested its removal and had urged this in a letter she had received.

Other members of the board, however, were greatly surprised and stated that had they been approached they would not have consented to the destruction of the tree. One director stated that the site for the Grand Army plot given that organization was selected on account of the presence of the shade the big locust tree would afford at similar exercises to those held on Decoration Day. But the tree with its associations and history is gone, and cannot be replaced.

– Press Democrat, May 31 1922



Discussion has raged pro and con around town on the merits of the destruction of the “hangman’s tree” in Rural cemetery, and the action has been followed by endorsement from the Sonoma County Federation of Women’s clubs on the one hand, and an adverse criticism by the majority of the cemetery board of directors on the other.

Secretary Frank Welti tendered his resignation as secretary of the Rural cemetery association at a meeting held Wednesday evening. Mrs. Emma Kopf was elected to fill the vacancy. It is asserted that all of the directors in attendance at the meeting expressed themselves us protesting against the action of Mrs. Frank C. Newman president of the Board, in ordering the tree cut down early Tuesday morning before Memorial Day exercises started.

Mrs. Newman was not present at the meeting. She was prevented by illness from attending the session according to a report received by the other directors.


On the other hand, Mrs. Newman’s action received endorsement of the women’s clubs when the federation meeting Wednesday afternoon adopted a resolution, which reads as follows:

“Whereas, the so-called ‘hangman’s tree’ has vanished from the place where it stood, a reminder of an episode which it were best for our community that we and the world quickly forget, “Be it, Resolved, that the Sonoma County Federation of Women’s Clubs in convention assembled at Santa Rosa, May 31, 1922, commend the removal of such tree.”

Signed by the following members of the Saturday Afternoon club: …

The tree in question, a towering locust, was planted many years ago. Because of its shade its site was picked for the G. A. R. monument to “unknown dead,” where exercises are annually held on Memorial Day.

The tree burst into national notice December 10, 1920, when an organized mob took George Boyd, Terry Fitts and Charlie Valento, slayers of Sheriff James A. Petray and two San Francisco detectives five days previously, from the county jail early in the morning, and hanged them to a horizontal limb of the tree.

Since then it has been visited by thousands of tourists who had heard of the revenge meted out to the three men, said to have been connected with the outrages ol the Howard street gang in San Francisco.

Mrs. Newman declared her action in ordering the tree cut down had been taken in response to many pleas from G. A. R. veterans and others, who declared it inappropriate that a “hangman’s tree” should grow in the G. A. R. plot.

– Press Democrat, June 1 1922


Santa Rosa Republican as reprinted in the Sacramento Bee, December 10, 1920
Santa Rosa Republican as reprinted in the Sacramento Bee, December 10, 1920

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