It was 1:15 in the morning when Dr. Phillips’ phone rang at his home in Petaluma. As he was Sonoma County Coroner, this was not terribly unusual; people inconveniently die at all hours. It’s the coroner’s job to investigate when there are unusual circumstances and the good doctor was certainly kept busy in late 1920 looking into odd deaths – in the previous few weeks four people were killed when their car or truck was hit by a train and a seven year-old boy was decapitated in an accident at the fairgrounds. But Phillips had never received a call like this one: He was told there were three men hanging from a tree in the old Santa Rosa cemetery and nobody knew who killed them.
THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID
Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa
This is a postscript to the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID” and covers one of the conspiracies of silence following the murder of the gangsters: The mystery of what happened to their bodies.
As he drove to Santa Rosa he passed around a dozen cars on the highway headed south, which seemed unusual for that time of night. He unfortunately mentioned this to a Press Democrat reporter when he arrived at the county jail; the newspaper took it as evidence that the lynching party came from San Francisco and most papers in the city chased that angle for days, although it was already pretty clear the vigilantes came from Healdsburg or points north.
Before he left Petaluma, Coroner Phillips phoned Frank Welti, the Deputy Coroner for Santa Rosa and ordered an ambulance to be waiting at the cemetery to transport the bodies. After the dead gangsters were cut down they would be taken to the Welti mortuary at 795 Fourth street, which doubled as the town morgue.
Phillips spent nearly an hour at the jail with the sheriff (probably joined by Welti) prior to heading for the cemetery. This was likely when they all had a very earnest discussion about what might happen next – their jobs were not over just because the gangsters were now dead. “He is in a measure responsible for the safe keeping of the bodies until such time as they are interred,” the San Francisco Call reported after speaking with Phillips. And until the remains were shipped out of the county or securely buried, there was a clear and apparent risk that someone might try to get access to the corpses or even steal them.
Keep in mind this was 1920 and in that era Americans did not shy from all things morbid or gruesome, particularly when it came to dead outlaws. The public snatched up postcards of the lynched gangsters being sold in San Francisco and the fellow who bootleged the photo earned approx. $500 in a couple of days (the equivalent to two months’ wages). As noted earlier, souvenir hunters were cutting off bits of the lynching ropes and ripping bark off the hanging tree, but relics from their actual persons – locks of hair, bits of clothing, blood wiped off skin – would be far more valuable. Should Gentle Reader think our 20th century ancestors were above such barbarity, consider that when Bonnie and Clyde were killed in 1934 people rushed in to do exactly that, even trying to cut off Clyde’s trigger finger and, for some reason, his ear.1
There was also a chance that yahoos might decide a single lynching wasn’t good enough and seek to mutilate the bodies. As they were meeting right after the lynching, the Coroner and Sheriff Boyes might have heard some of the otherwise well-disciplined (and well-armed) vigilantes had to be talked out of shooting up the corpses as they swung at the end of ropes. Considering an angry mob nearly breached the fortress-like county jail a few days earlier, it’s hard to imagine much of a defense could be made if a vengeance-seeking crowd suddenly stormed the Welti funeral parlor.
Around 3AM Phillips and Welti lowered the bodies to the ground and loaded them into the ambulance wagon. It’s doubtful either man caught any further sleep that day; the Coroner’s Inquest was held later that morning and they still needed to suss out the dead gangster’s next-of-kin.
Charles Valento’s mother in San Francisco was quickly found, although the 70 year-old woman was reportedly unaware of her son’s recent infamy. She agreed to claim the body and it was driven to the city before nightfall. The whereabouts of his grave remains unknown.
Finding Terry Fitts’ relatives was likewise easy as he was from Santa Rosa and his two sisters were well known, one of them still living in the area. (When told their brother’s body was to be put on display along with the others they requested his face be covered with a cloth, which Welti did.) Not so simple, however, was settling on where to bury his remains.
Readers of this entire series will recall the Santa Rosa episode began when Fitts Sr. died, leaving the large family home on College Ave. unoccupied and conveniently just at a time when Terry and his criminal companions wanted a hideout from San Francisco police. Poppa – who passed away 31 days before his son was lynched – was buried in the family plot in the Odd Fellows’ cemetery just a short walk from the hangman’s tree.
The sisters wanted Terry interred there as well; no way, said the cemetery. From the Argus-Courier:
|It is understood that they sought to have the burial in the Fitts’ family plot in Odd Fellows’ cemetery here, but that the management of the cemetery refused to permit it, claiming that such action was justified by their rules and regulations.|
While the sisters were with Welti brainstorming about Plan B, obstacles also arose about what to do with George Boyd’s corpse. The Republican reported, “…it might be shipped to Seattle, where it is understood that Boyd’s mother lives, but word is awaited from that city before final disposition of the body by local authorities. If no claim is made on the body it will be buried in potter’s field [now the Chanate Historic Cemetery -je].”
When he was in the county jail and slowly dying from the gunshot wound, Boyd told reporters his mother lived in Seattle although the address he provided didn’t exist (that might have been a newspaper typo, however). Whether anyone was able to find her or not is unknown, but by the end of the day it was decided Boyd was to be buried here – somewhere.
The next day (Saturday, Dec. 11) there was a quiet funeral service at Welti’s for Terrance Fitts, with only a few attending. And with that, the mystery of what happened to their bodies begins.
The Petaluma Courier reported “the hour and the place of [Fitts’] burial was kept private.” Welti announced both men had been buried but would not say where. But the Press Democrat was told there were no interments in any of the local cemeteries, including potter’s field, and no coffins were shipped from Santa Rosa by train.
And in what seemed like a ruse by a newspaper to trick authorities into revealing what happened to the bodies, the warden of Folsom prison received a letter claiming to be from Boyd’s mother in Australia, inquiring where her son was. The warden wrote back only that he “died in Santa Rosa.”
Interviewed by the San Francisco Call, Phillips made the waters even murkier by saying neither Boyd nor Fitts had been buried to his knowledge. All he would admit was they were still somewhere in the county. The paper added there were rumors around town claiming both bodies were unburied but hidden.
We now know that Coroner Phillips had lied to the reporter. He and mortician Welti – and likely the sheriff and other members of law enforcement – had vowed to keep the locations a secret from the public. The death certificates signed by Phillips on December 13 show they were indeed buried on the 11th in part of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery. The date is confirmed by entries in the funeral home’s receipt book.
Ray Owen, co-author of the new edition of the cemetery’s burial reference book is confident he has found their burying place, or at least the grave of Fitts. There’s even a small discreet grave marker – it’s been hiding in plain sight for a century. (UPDATE: Ray has now published his findings and it can be revealed the gravesite is at Moke 234.)
Now they were buried, why continue the subterfuge? Keep in mind it was the day after the lynching and souvenir hunters were out in force, shredding the hanging tree of bark and stealing grass and pebbles from around its roots. Should it become known that the graves were just a two minute stroll away, you can bet those same people would be adding handfuls of grave dirt to their ghoulish collections.
Also, it would have been impossible to conceal newly-dug graves. In the previous twelve days Sonoma County had endured nearly constant rain, including a torrential downpour 48 hours earlier that left downtown streets impassable. No matter how careful the gravediggers were, they would have left a muddy mess.
Coroner Phillips also had another reason to keep the location secret: He told the Call he wanted to make sure they did not “fall into the hands of some medical college.” His concern wasn’t that the Fitts sisters and Boyd’s mom would sell their cadavers to Stanford Medical School – most likely it would be pseudoscience enthusiasts hiring bodysnatchers.
During that part of the century the dark nonsense of eugenics was given serious consideration by many institutions of higher education (and yes, including Stanford). Today we associate eugenics mostly with racism – Nazi-ish claims that whites (and usually some very specific European flavor) were by birthright the bestest people ever made and everyone else should just give up and admit they were inferior.
But eugenics also leaned heavily on the notion that some were biologically “defective” because of bad genes, neurological disorders (particularly epilepsy) or lower intelligence. Eugenicists believed such people tended to be insane or become criminals and usually needed to be locked up, forcibly sterilized and denied education. There’s more discussion of this (and how our county became a leader in espousing such bullshit) in “SONOMA COUNTY AND EUGENICS.”2
Given their presumption that criminals all had some sort of physical impairment that could be visually seen or measured, the brains (and skulls! don’t forget the skulls!) of hard-core sociopaths like Boyd and Fitts surely would offer “proof” of their crackpot theories.
But is there any evidence that universities and/or medical schools around 1920 were robbing graves in the name of science, pseudo or otherwise? Yes and no.
No, there aren’t any examples (that I can find) of bodysnatchers specifically targeting criminals, but medical schools in Tennessee, Iowa, Virginia, and probably other states were still dependent upon grave robbers to provide cadavers for student dissection. The bodies were usually those of impoverished Blacks.3
Yes, major educational institutions were acquiring bodies, including brains, well into the mid-20th century – a practice not considered illegal because it was Native Americans they were digging up. UC/Berkeley still has the largest collection with the remains of over 8,000 individuals, including entire skeletons. While not done under the banner of eugenics (usually), some of the anthropologists shared the same racist agendas, such as using head measurements to determine the exact degree of a living person’s “Indian-ness.”4
So Coroner Phillips’ worries that Boyd and Fitts might “fall into the hands of some medical college” were probably unfounded, but we can say that only by viewing history with our perfect 20/20 hindsight. How revealing, though, this was a top concern of his at the time.
Phillips said nothing further about the graves and was never confronted about why he kept it secret. He and Welti must have hoped reporters would tire of asking, which they did; by the end of the month the San Francisco newspapers rarely mentioned the lynching except to say it caused the police to beef up security when the other Howard street gangsters went on trial.
A few months later Phillips told the Press Democrat he was contacted by the supposed Australian mother of Boyd. This time she was asking how he had died and not his whereabouts, so perhaps she really was his mom and not a reporter trying to coax out burial details. The PD reported:
|Coroner F. H. Phillips has received a letter from Mrs. Elizabeth Barron of Waterloo, Australia, the mother of George Barron, alias Boyd, who was lynched at Santa Rosa in December together with Terry Fitts and Valento, asking whether her son had died from natural causes, violence or accident, and the coroner will reply to the mother that her son died a violent death and will not go into details. He does not relish the task and will make things as easy as possible for the poor mother.|
|1 Artifacts of famous criminals were usually put on display for an admission fee, and such exhibits sometimes included human bodies. Among the grisly attractions touring the country in the 1920s (and for decades afterward) was Elmer McCurdy, a bank robber whose mummified remains were shown as part of a carnival. A different sideshow had the supposed body of John Wilkes Booth, which was once even kidnapped for ransom.|
|2 The motherlode of material on eugenicist views on criminality can be found at the archive of the American Eugenics Movement.|
|3 David C. Humphrey, “Dissection and Discrimination: The Social Origins of Cadavers in America, 1760-1915,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 49 (September 1973). (PDF)|
|4 Robert E. Bieder, “A Brief Historical Survey of the Expropriation of American Indian Remains,” Native American Rights Fund (1990). (PDF)|
FIRST “TIP” SENT HERE
The first inkling of the lynching came to Santa Rosa by phone from Petaluma just before 11 o’clock. A phone message said it was reported there that the lynching was to take place at 11 o’clock, and asked for information, but at that hour all was quiet on the streets and about the jail. This would seem to reference the report that the party came from San Francisco and may have stopped in Petaluma for something to eat or for gasoline and oil for cars, giving rise to the report.
It is also definitely known by the Petaluma information sent here that there were Healdsburg people in the party.
Further strength is given to the theory that members of the mob were from San Francisco by the report from Coroner Frank H. Phillips, who reported that he met from 15 to 20 automobiles headed south on the highway while he was driving from Petaluma to Santa Rosa to take charge of the bodies of the three men lynched.
– Press Democrat, December 10 1920
(Complete article is transcribed in chapter seven)
15 MACHINES RUSH OFFICERS’ AVENGERS TO SANTA ROSA JAIL
SAN FRANCISCO POLICEMEN IN LYNCH PARTY, IS REPORT
Fifteen automobiles full of San Francisco lynchers went to Santa Rosa to help execute the three Howard street gangsters strung up there early today, according to information developed coincident with the preliminaries of a formal investigation.
The mob that took from the Sonoma County jail the trio of gangsters arrested Sunday after the murder of three peace officers was drawn from a wide area of the north of bay region, as well as San Francisco.
Reports circulated in Sonoma County today that among the members of the mob, all masked, were San Francisco policemen. It was expected that inquiry would be made in San Francisco to determine the basis of this report.
The rumors of San Francisco participation were widespread, and Coroner Frank Phillips of Sonoma County, while on his way from Petaluma to Santa Rosa before dawn, passed a cluster of fifteen cars on their way south.
– San Francisco Call, December 10 1920
City is Quiet Today After Hanging; No Clue to Avengers
The body of Terrence Fitts was to be buried today in the local cemetery, his sisters having claimed the body on receipt of news of his death. Relatives of the hanged man came to Santa Rosa yesterday and made arrangements for the burial shortly before noon yesterday the body of the Santa Rosa gangster was swathed in a sheet to keep it from the gaze of the thousands of morbid people who formed in long lines to wait their turn to look at the three dead men. This was done at the request of relatives.
BOYD’S BODY HERE
The body of George Boyd, confessed slayer of the three peace officers and accused of ravishing young girls in San Francisco, is being held at the undertaking parlor. It was said today that it might be shipped to Seattle, where it is understood that Boyd’s mother lives, but word is awaited from that city before final disposition of the body by local authorities. If no claim is made on the body it will be buried in potter’s field.
– Santa Rosa Republican, December 11 1920
VALENTO’S BODY PASSED THROUGH PETALUMA
The body of Charles Valento, one of the men who was lynched yesterday morning at Santa Rosa, passed through this city in an ambulance last night at 5 o’clock en route to San Francisco early in the afternoon. Many people saw the ambulance go quietly through here, but did not know it carried the body of one of the victims of the lynchers.
The body was sent to the mother of the criminal, who is said to be under a physician’s care. She is 70 years of age and is near collapse. She repeatedly calls for her son and moans, “My Boy, what have they done to you.” She had not known he had been in trouble until notified of the death. She then sent Coroner Phillips word that she would take care of the body.
– Petaluma Morning Courier, December 11 1920
BODIES OF THREE LYNCH VICTIMS TAKEN AWAY
The bodies of George Boyd and Terry Fitts were removed Saturday from the morgue where they had been since being brought in early Friday morning following the lynching, according to officials late Saturday night, who declined to give any further information relative to their disposal.
Inquiries at the local cemeteries brought the response that the bodies had not been interred in any of them, and it was also said that the bodies were not shipped from Santa Rosa by train on either railroad line here.
No interments took place in the potter’s field during the day, it was announced.
A report current in Santa Rosa during the day, and printed in newspapers published outside of this city, said that the body of Terry Fitts was interred privately, with only a few persons knowing where it was placed. The hour of the burial was kept quiet, and only those who had to be present were there. These people, it is said, intend to keep the details secret.
Announcement was previously made that Charles Valento’s body had been sent to San Francisco, it having been claimed by the dead man’s mother. It is also said that relatives of Fitts intended to claim his body and give it interment.
– Press Democrat, December 12, 1920
FITTS FUNERAL HELD PRIVATE
The funeral of the late Terry Fitts took place yesterday from Welti’s funeral parlors, Santa Rosa, and was attended by a few people. The hour and the place of the burial was kept private. Fitts’ two sisters requested Coroner Phillips to cover the face of their brother in the morgue from the view of the morbid crowd and their wish was heeded.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, December 12, 1920
Mystery Of The Burials
SANTA ROSA. Dec. 12. Deputy Coroner Frank Welti created a mild sensation here this morning when he announced that the bodies of Terrance Fitts and Geo. Boyd, who paid the penalty for murder by being hanged by local citizens, had been removed from the morgue and buried.
At the request of relatives and friends of Fitts and Boyd, Welti said, he refused to give out any information as to when the bodies were taken from the morgue or where they were buried.
Inquiry at all the local cemeteries brought the response that neither of the gangsters had been interred there, so the assumption is that burial was held in another city, possibly San Francisco. On Thursday [sic] relatives of Fitts notified the coroner that they would claim his body. It is understood that they sought to have the burial in the Fitts’ family plot in Odd Fellows’ cemetery here, but that the management of the cemetery refused to permit it, claiming that such action was justified by their rules and regulations.
The body of Valento at the request of his aged mother, was taken to San Francisco on Friday and quietly buried in that city.
– Petaluma Argus-Courier, December 13, 1920
[A version of this story appeared in the SF Chronicle Dec. 19 under the headline, “BODIES OF TWO THUGS TAKEN FROM MORGUE”]
BODIES HAVE NOT BEEN INTERRED
Coroner F. H. Phillips of Sonoma county when flatly cornered by a Call man over the telephone today, finally admitted that the bodies of Boyd and Fitts have not as yet been buried to his knowledge, but he refused to state where they were, further than to admit that they have not been removed from the county.
The coroner stated that he feels that he is in a measure responsible for the safe keeping of the bodies until such time as they are interred and he does not propose to have the bodies the object of morbid curiosity or perhaps fall into the hands of some medical college. Until such time as they are interred, he feels that it is his duty to give out no information on the subject what ever.
There have been various rumors relative to the final disposal of the bodies of the gangsters. That of Fitts it is said was turned over to the relatives but not buried. That of Boyd is still in the hands of the coroner and is safely hidden away somewhere in the county. He therefore refused to give the Call any information on the subject and does not see why it was sought at this time. Both bodies of course have been embalmed. Valento was buried at San Francisco Saturday, privately. — S. F. Call.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, December 17, 1920
Son “Died,” Grim Cable to Mother of Boyd, Lynched
Special Dispatch to The Call. SANTA ROSA, Dec. 21. — Mrs. Elizabeth Barron of Sydney. Australia, today was informed by cable from the Folsom authorities that her son, George Barron, alias Boyd, one of the three gangsters lynched here December 10 for the killing of Sheriff James A. Petray and Detectives Miles Jackson and Lester Dorman of San Francisco, had “died in Santa Rosa.”
Not a word of the lynching was sent to the aged woman, who had written to Warden J. J. Smith making inquiries as to the whereabouts of her son. Word to this effect was received by Coroner Frank Phillips.
The ex-convict’s body is still at the morgue here and will now probably be buried in the potter’s field.
– San Francisco Call, December 21 1920
BOYD’S MOTHER SEEKS INFORMATION REGARDING SON
Coroner Frank S. Phillips is in receipt of a letter from J. J. Smith, warden of Folsom penitentiary stating that Mrs. Elizabeth Barron, mother of George Boyd, alias Geo. Barron, is making inquiries for the whereabouts of her son. The letter states that the mother has not heard from the son for some time, and that she is anxious to get information regarding his whereabouts. The mother is residing in Australia.
Warden Smith wrote to the mother that he had authoritative information that her son had died at Santa Rosa on December 10, and he requested Coroner Phillips to break the news of her son’s demise as gently as he could to the mother.
– Sebastopol Times, December 24 1920
Mother of Man Lynched Asks How He Died
Coroner F. H. Phillips has received a letter from Mrs. Elizabeth Barron of Waterloo, Australia, the mother of George Barron, alias Boyd, who was lynched at Santa Rosa in December together with Terry Fitts and Valento, asking whether her son had died from natural causes, violence or accident, and the coroner will reply to the mother that her son died a violent death and will not go into details. He does not relish the task and will make things as easy as possible for the poor mother.
– Press Democrat, March 19, 1921