1937nelliecornelia

NELLIE COMSTOCK OF SANTA ROSA

It was rare to find an obituary on the front page of the Press Democrat, but hers was stranger still – she was hardly mentioned in it.

“Nellie H. Comstock Claimed by Death,” read the 1940 headline, followed by “Friend of Elbert Hubbard, Burbank.” A good chunk of the obit was about her father and it twice mentioned Burbank (supposedly) wrote a letter inviting her to move to Santa Rosa. Other than that, the article mostly describes the accomplishments of her children – which she would have liked. “A Distinguished Mother,” read the PD kicker above the headline.

By then, most in town probably knew her only as the grandmother of Helen and Hilliard Comstock’s five Santa Rosa-born kids, or that she had lived for almost a quarter century as a recluse in the big brown house just down from the the high school. A few might have known she was probably the wealthiest person in town, controlling a trust for her children worth the equivalent of $27 million today. She was never a member of any of the town’s many women’s clubs, never active in any civic affairs. She can be found mentioned in the PD only a handful of times in the last ten years of her life, always because some of her illustrious children who lived farther away were here to visit.

(Undated portrait of Nellie Comstock.  Courtesy Carmel Library Historical Archive)

But “Nellie” Comstock was a remarkable person whose intelligence and character were reflected in the accomplishments of her seven children, all educated at home by her. And what we saw here was only the least interesting fragment of her life; if time permits to do the research, there justly should be entries for “Nellie Comstock of Carmel-by-the-Sea” and “Nellie Comstock of Evanston,” because those were the places where her star most brightly gleamed.

Thanks to a 1910 letter donated by grandson Harrison Comstock to the Carmel Library Historical Archive, for the first time we have a deeply personal letter with insight into what she thought of Santa Rosa and its residents shortly after moving here. She also wrote, “I have a lot to tell you about Burbank which will be strictly private. I will put it in a separate sheet.” Hey, can you guess which page of the letter is missing?

After she died, Hilliard donated materials to the Burbank archives including a couple of letters written to her by Oscar Binner, a promoter who around 1910 was sort of a Colonel Parker to Burbank’s Elvis. An accompanying note from Hilliard pointed out Binner had sometimes stayed with their family in Santa Rosa, and Nellie would step in to resolve his disputes with Burbank because she was “an intimate friend of both.” As Binner’s letters  defensively trumpet his opinions of Burbank’s greatness, it’s safe to assume Nellie stood with skeptics who didn’t think Burbank’s work had any scientific merit. Thus the “strictly private” details were probably nothing personal, but rather her views that Burbank didn’t deserve to be held in such high esteem. (More on Binner’s wrestling with Burbank: “SELLING LUTHER BURBANK.”)

The Burbank nod in her Press Democrat obituary was also misleading, claiming she moved her family here because of a “letter from Burbank, a warm personal friend of Mrs. Comstock’s inducing her to come to Santa Rosa was received while the family was visiting in California.” As debunked here previously, her oldest son, John, an authority on butterflies (his 1927 survey, “Butterflies of California,” remains the definitive reference) spent over a week comparing notes with Burbank in 1907. The following year Nellie bought a ten-acre ranch on the edge of town and moved here with five of her children, three of them still in their teens. John was married and had his own house on the corner of Sonoma and Brookwood avenues, the current location of the Santa Rosa police HQ.

Besides being a leading lepidopterist, John and two of his sisters were early members of the American Arts & Crafts movement, having trained at Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft Colony in New York state. The Comstock’s particular artisan skill was leatherworking, and at the time leather-making was the predominant industry in Santa Rosa. Moving here in 1908 brought them to the source of their raw materials but also made them pioneers in the West Coast version of the movement which was just taking off. From 1910-1912 they also had an art store on Fourth street selling fine objects produced by themselves and other award-winning artisans, along with items created by the women-only “Arts and Crafts Guild” they founded in Santa Rosa. So while Burbank may or may not have sent Nellie one of his “chosen spot of all this earth” PR notes, it was incidental to the family choosing to settle here.

Nellie’s 1910 letter to her friend was written about eighteen months after they moved to Santa Rosa. (Hilliard and others would later say it was on Hoen avenue, but at the time it was simply Rural Route 5 and adjacent to Matanzas Creek, somewhere around the modern Farmer’s Lane intersection.) We don’t know who the recipient was, although it was a woman in the Midwest she had met at a “sanitarium” – what we’d call a spa resort today.

“The satisfaction of my present life is that numerous strides are being taken by my children,” she wrote. “Opportunity is here – not because the here is California – but because change is here and just the material to correspond with that change was stored up in my children. Already all that immense newness has paid for itself.”

She admitted being sometimes homesick for Evanston and her late father’s mansion where she raised and educated her family, but the children would have none of it: They were already born-again Californians. “If I speak of liking the East better than the West they are amazed. They no not know that I like it from the place I see it. It is their place to see something to their special advantage in a new country – and in a new place, i. e. new to them.”

One of the things that bothered her about this area was seeing so many families trapped in a modern-day kind of serfdom, operating small chicken farms and unable to escape a hard-scrabble life. “I do not see how anyone can feel it wise to locate here for a lifetime without a substantial income to depend on…[L]iving in the midst of so much struggle for subsistence is somewhat depressing to me. I see so few people able to make a living on their small farms. It is growing as it did in the far East some time back – when the small farming died out, and homes everywhere ran down and dwindled into decay. Only large ranches make a living…”

Nor did she care much about the way our ancestors were being raised:

Generally the young people of Calif. are very rampant for pleasure and for dissipations of all sorts – bad and worse than bad. I never saw the young so generally disposed to dress, and idleness, and pleasure-seeking. It was well to have had my sons and daughters as far along as they are. They will not as easily be led. The young men are scuff. Only one or two to be found in among a large group, whom one would care to encourage as company. That is a problem for our young. And the grown men are not much better. I do declare.

Amazingly, she even complained about Santa Rosa’s temperate weather: “The extreme dry season and the extreme wet one, is against any place. It is not moderate. Nor do I think it can possible be advantageous to life in general either from a standpoint of health, or from one of prosperity.”

If all this makes Nellie sound snippy, peevish or downright ugly, join the club. “My mother-in-law was a brilliant woman, but she was tyrannical – in a very sweet way,” Helen Comstock said in her oral history. Little that Helen did while she and Hilliard lived with Nellie was to her satisfaction; she was told that she picked the wrong flowers, didn’t sweep the floor correctly, and even stirred the gravy the wrong way.

“I do not attempt any social life here,” Nellie also wrote in the 1910 letter. “What I do is toward my children’s welfare and happiness.” So if she disliked the situation in Santa Rosa so much, why the hell did she stay the thirty years until her death? Four of the children came to live in Carmel and she spent summers there; in Carmel she did have friends and a social life. Then why keep coming back to oh-so sucky Sonoma county?

One reason could be the house. When James Wyatt Oates died on December 9, 1915, his law partner Hilliard Comstock was staying with him. Less than a month later Nellie and some of the other children joined in occupying the home on Mendocino avenue. “In this way it will be given proper care and protection,” the Press Democrat said. Her winning bid of $10,000 later bought it from the Oates’ estate and established it as (what would become known as) Comstock House.

With her two daughters and eldest son immersed in the Arts & Crafts movement since at least 1903, surely she shared their appreciation for the unique home which Brainerd Jones had designed for Oates. Though she still hung on to the Victorian mansion in Evanston, she was now living in a bonafide work of art – and there she would stay.

Maybe she also found the early Carmel arts scene a bit too frenetic and exhausting to live there fulltime. Most of the later stories about Nellie mention her frailty, a tiny woman always dressed in white. As a 1934 Christmas gift to Hilliard, his sister-in-law – Hurd’s wife Dora Hagemeyer, who wrote several books of hackneyed poetry before WWII – sent a prose-poem (transcribed in full below) describing the pacific life Nellie led in Santa Rosa. One stanza:

You may see her on a day in Spring sitting under her haw-thorn tree…the beautiful wide-spreading branches bending to the ground with their trailing sprays of blossom. She sits in her chair under this pink and white bower, glad of the earth, the air, the birds that come to drink at her fountain. She loves all natural things.

“Nellie” Cornelia Hurd Comstock died quietly at her home May 31, 1940. She lived through the entire American version of the Victorian era, being four years old when the Civil War began – but was never one to look nostalgically back; she peered forward always. Like Teddy Roosevelt, she believed in an “American race” not defined by ethnicity or color but by a common willingness to work hard, fight for principles and for parents to instill those values in their children. ” Am I turning sour?” She asked her correspondent, after complaining about how “scuff” she found Santa Rosa youth. “Oh, I get an inside view. I have boys who see things. It is an open chapter that I read with horror and a dark forecast for the race – our beautiful Americans.” [emphasis hers]

“…The true family spirit seems to be dying out in America, as it died in other countries as wealth increased,” she wrote. “Money spurs the way to vast exploitation. Few are able to withstand the temptations which the removal of restrictions bring. Our real prison is the human mind and heart. Democracy seems too, as great a likeliness of failure as Christianity…the Truth is neither honored nor worshipped nor crucial as it rightly is. We need a new birth and a new death.”

For 1910 those were pretty radical views – and still are today, I’ll wager.

As dedicated as she was to her children so they remained to her, with all returning for her 80th birthday on March 8, 1937, when they were captured in the famous family photo.

 

1) Cornelia Matthew   2) Hurd Comstock   3) Catherine Seidneck   4) Dr. John Comstock   5) Judge Hilliard Comstock   6) Nellie Comstock   7) George Franklin Comstock   8) Hugh Comstock

 

Cornelia Matthew and Nellie Comstock, probably photographed during the same 1937 visit shown above. Image courtesy Martha Comstock Keegan

 

 

 MRS. NELLIE COMSTOCK OCCUPIES OATES HOME

Mrs. Nellie H. Comstock and family are moving into the Oates home on Mendocino avenue. Under the terms of the will of the late James W. Oates. His law partner, Hilliard Comstock, son of Mrs. Comstock, was given the use of the house until it was disposed of by the executors.

The family will make their home in the handsome residence pending its disposal, which may be some time. In this way it will be given proper care and protection.

– Press Democrat, January 7 1916

Route 5.
Santa Rosa, Cal.
Jan 23 – 10

My little woman – way off in the cold city of the Middle West –

I employ part of this rainy rainy rain-y day writing to you trying to satisfy your curiosity and friendship. Sunday – all Sundays – remind me of Sanitariums. The advent of our acquaintance. We met in one. I hope we won’t again. I hope both you and I will be sensible enough never to come to that pass of meeting in such a place again.

Let us think that such places are for the people who have not reached a place in life which learning, experience, and something vastly above either, will forever work imminently from.

Now I will look over your list of questions – for it is one of my failings,

I have a lot to tell you about Burbank which will be strictly private. I will put it in a separate sheet and let it follow. No Earthquake shock yet to my knowledge. Have not even thought of Earthquakes.

Now I believe this answers all your questions except the two-two’s.

Maybe you don’t think I get homesick once in a while – and wish I could still [be] in my family house. But I can never think of such a step as going back until the thing I came for is fully accomplished. Then I may be prepared to go back and remain to the end of my days. Coming here was an act inspired. I could never have done what is being done in any other place in time or manner what I have done by just this move I made and just how I made it. Surely such wisdom was not thought out – by my little brain alone. Something greater was back of it, something far seeing.

Now I am not going into all sorts of particulars at the present. I may say that if I sought out my own comfort alone I would not be doing just as I am, but the satisfaction of my present life is that numerous strides are being taken by my children. Opportunity is here – not because the here is California – but because change is here and just the material to correspond with that change was stored up in my children. Already all that immense newness has paid for itself. Already I can see why it must inevitably have been like destiny. That is a great thing to be certain of. If I were not certain of it I would be plunged into grief and remorse over my act and would set about it to return and nurture myself and belongings to their former place. There stands the old house ready at my beck and call. It is now mine by the act of division of property, and there stands my ???? at home – that too at my will. I am getting $100.00 per anno, not from that. My place here is paid for (10 acres and nice little cottage all put in the best of order since we came.) My mortgage on Wesley av house [in Evanston] is part paid – I have $2000.00 in pure cash and up in the bank – and am not living up more than 2/3 my income. I have $2000.00 in the business here. So you see I am able to say things have progressed with me, ???? I was deeply in debt about two years ago. That place I have bought here will increase in value from now on. It has already done so. What I paid $150 per acre is now on the market at $400.00 per acre – and the house has nearly doubled in value. My Wesley av property has doubled in value since I took it up – and the entire locality is now under a change for improvement still further. Thus you can see I am getting my worldly affairs in good order – and now at a time when I am desiring to extend opportunity to all my children at an age when they see values, my means are sufficient to that end.

This is my condition from a financial standpoint.

No child will ever be able to see how life looks from the standpoint of the parent. If I speak of liking the East better than the West they are amazed. They no not know that I like it from the place I see it. It is their place to see something to their special advantage in a new country – and in a new place, i. e. new to them. The extreme dry season and the extreme wet one, is against any place. It is not moderate. Nor do I think it can possible be advantageous to life in general either from a standpoint of health, or from one of prosperity. It takes a long time to train a country. Its very climate needs modifying, and what cannot be definitively changed must be offset by conditions – artificially constructed. I do not see how anyone can feel it wise to locate here for a lifetime without a substantial income to depend on in some foreign properties. I should never have dared do it. I can see things opening up in localities for the future – especially for the energetic youths.

I do not attempt any social life here. What I do is toward my children’s welfare and happiness. They get study and work and play into their daily living in very good proportions. Mainly I keep the house. I do almost all the work – cooking, scrubbing, sweeping, sewing – sometimes washing – and general ???? . I stay right at the helm. I read some and follow Hugh in his studies. We find such pleasure in the surrounding scenery and in the out-of-doors life during the pleasant weather. The fruits and flowers help to make life more attractive. But living in the midst of so much struggle for subsistence is somewhat depressing to me. I see so few people able to make a living on their small farms. It is growing as it did in the far East some time back – when the small farming died out, and homes everywhere ran down and dwindled into decay. Only large ranches make a living and even those are run at less risk having become largely speculation. This locality is full of chicken farms – small ones. That too is a struggle and tis nasty work. Many women work among the chickens. Husband and wife must both work, the children should work, but do not. The schools do not induce work in the mind and heart of the child. Generally the young people of Calif. are very rampant for pleasure and for dissipations of all sorts – bad and worse than bad. I never saw the young so generally disposed to dress, and idleness, and pleasure-seeking. It was well to have had my sons and daughters as far along as they are. They will not as easily be led. The young men are scuff. Only one or two to be found in among a large group, whom one would care to encourage as company. That is a problem for our young. And the grown men are not much better. I do declare. I do not see men nowadays I can call men. Am I turning sour? Or what is the matter and how is it from your standpoint? Oh, I get an inside view. I have boys who see things. It is an open chapter that I read with horror and a dark forecast for the race – our beautiful Americans.

I would like to talk with you – yes – a lot of things. Am glad to learn about your sister’s family. She has had many burdens. How some of those are lifted and she can begin to enjoy her growing family and their families. Marriage is such a critical act in our present age with conditions as they exist. The true family spirit seems to be dying out in America, as it died in other countries as wealth increased and brought its trials of manly struggle. As a man acquires liberty how is he to use it? That is the question. Money spurs the way to vast exploitation. Few are able to withstand the temptations which the removal of restrictions bring. Our real prison is the human mind and heart. Democracy seems too, as great a likeliness of failure as Christianity. Do I maintain that Christianity is a failure? I maintain that in this age we have not enough of it to save us. After all these centuries and all these churches and all these testimonies – the Truth is neither honored nor worshipped nor crucial as it rightly is. We need a new birth and a new death.

I am glad you tell me of Dr. C. and how noble his constancy in friendship. But I tell you he is sure to appreciate the sterling quality which abides in your soul – for he is one to know Woman and be a judge. I wish I could see him, really. He is quite an unusual man – taking him all in all – worldly enough, tis true, but very human and often tender as a woman. Skillful too in his profession. Nay – he is good enough to be remembered always by one who knew him.

As I say I will tell you more of us before long – and believe me I wrote you more than you say. I have not been so delinquent.

Do not allow yourself to get old and crabbed. Keep your nerves ??? together with a calm mind. Nerves are closely allied to character and what we term the heart.

As ever – your friend – N. Comstock

 

Portrait of your Mother

She is a little lady, frail and with the exquisite delicacy of a flower. She is always dressed in white; clean, cool, fragrant. Her hair is like snow found lying lightly where the fingers of the wind do not disturb it.

You may see her on a day in Spring sitting under her haw-thorn tree…the beautiful wide-spreading branches bending to the ground with their trailing sprays of blossom. She sits in her chair under this pink and white bower, glad of the earth, the air, the birds that come to drink at her fountain. She loves all natural things.

When you are ill or troubled, her fingers touch your brow…with a feather-weight like a bird’s wing; but through that light caress there comes a power from the spirit of her. For with all her fairy-frailty she has a source of strength that never fails. There is no one who does not feel this; even the news-boy, the gardener, the tramp who comes to her door.

What is her secret? How has she kept so close to the eternal fountain of life, and at the same time clothed herself in the lightest of earthly garments? How can she be so delicate and at the same time so strong? Her tall son and daughters stand around her. They protect her tenderly…yet they must turn to her for strength and counsel.

What is her magic? Is it the quiet poise of a flower, that gives without conscious effort to all who come within its radius of peace and beauty? Or is it the full-fathomed depth of the sea?…the salty humour of the light spray?…the power of the wind?…the healing of the sun?

Dora.
Christmas 1934.

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clementgraves

YOU DON’T KNOW ME

“Fake news” is bad stuff, but at least it’s usually exposed as phony and no longer taken seriously. Fake history, however, can stagger on for decades – and often does.

Researcher and fellow history spelunker Ray Owen has a saying: “Once a mistake gets into print, it takes on a life of its own.” He’s absolutely right; a favorite example of his concerns a fellow who was supposedly an Indian fighter and so adept at dodging arrows that a tribe agreed to sign a treaty with him. True? Not a word; the story apparently first popped up in a 1920s magazine and since then it has been repeated as gospel in books, articles and on Wikipedia.

In this item I’m not writing much about Santa Rosa or Sonoma county, so if that’s your only interest take a look at some of the other 600+ items in the archives. You’ll find many examples of local fake history debunked or the record clarified, including an unwrapping of the layers of myth surrounding the deaths of Bear Flaggers Cowie and Fowler, how the most prominent African-American ever to live in Sonoma county, Mammy Pleasant, had her legacy smeared by a madwoman and a racist author, and especially how popular beliefs about the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake greatly exaggerate the damage and loss of life.

But if you like a good mystery, I think you’ll find this story jaw-dropping, with a Believe-it-or-not! twist at the end. I have never encountered anything quite like it; just as a cheap sweater can unravel with a tiny tug on a thread, this tale fell to pieces once I went back and read the original sources. Yet bits of the flubbed version firmly have taken hold and can be found in books written in several languages, magazine articles going back 90 years and items scattered all over the internet.

I caught wind of this story a few weeks ago, while researching the previous item on the dismal vaudeville acts which appeared in Santa Rosa during the years around 1914. One performer, “Musette the Dancing Violinist,” particularly drew my attention because the local newspapers had a news item about her. It seemed a stage door-Johnny tried to hook up with her after the show, only to find himself arrested by two cops she had summoned (he claimed to have mistaken her for someone else, apologized, and charges were dropped). “Musette” – real name, Theresa Flower – was also of interest because she had a professional career, unlike the other wanna-be and has-been entertainers who drifted through Santa Rosa on their road to nowhere. She had studied with one of the most renowned teachers of her era and did several European tours in a career that continued at least until 1923. Then five years later, this item appeared on the Hearst newswire:

SEEK INVENTOR SUSPECTED AS ‘TORCH SLAYER’

New York, March 3-The ‘torch murder’ Saturday became a scientific crime puzzle of the sort usually assumed to be born only in the mind of a master of fiction.

The long arm of circumstance Saturday had drawn into the range of police curiosity a man of three names.

With smashing suddenness, then, one of these mystery personalities was revealed as the inventor of a “self-igniting fluid.”

The plot, so delineated, takes on the consistency of something fresh from the pen of Sax Rohmer.

“Dr. Louis Clements” is the inventor the police seek for questioning.

Miss Margaret Brown, 40 year-old spinster and Park avenue governess, was found along a lonely stretch of New Jersey road, a human torch, and died without speaking.

Clements’ solution, if poured over a substance, will ignite it by contact with the air…

…Theresa Flower Van Norden, known on the vaudeville stage as “Musette,” admitted Saturday that she married Doctor Clements a year ago. They separated after a brief interlude of wedded life.

“When I married him,” said Mrs. Van Norden, “he represented himself as Louis Clement Van Norden. If he really did commit such a horrible crime, I want to see him get his just deserts…”

That was the first time Theresa’s name appeared in the story, although Hearst’s news service had been churning out articles about the “torch murder” for a couple of days prior. To the sensationalist press of 1928, it was the crime of their dreams: A mysterious mad scientist was suspected of burning to death a well-heeled Park avenue woman with his own devious “liquid fire” invention. And that was before it was revealed the man was actually a notorious international spy.

“…[He] is in reality Armgaard Karl Graves, former self-styled German spy, whose checkered career has taken him thru varied adventures in many lands,” revealed another Hearst story. “…just before this country went to war, he was arrested in Washington charged with blackmailing the wife of Count Von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States…According to the man’s own story he acted for a time as an informer for Kaiser Wilhelm. In this connection, Levine said Clement told him that he had once piloted a Zeppelin on a cruise which the former kaiser made incognito.”

(RIGHT: The undated photo distributed by the Hearst syndicate in 1928 of the man wanted for questioning. Although it was supposed to be a portrait of Louis Clement, it is possibly Armgaard Karl Graves, who was at least ten years older)

The “Levine” in that item was Charles A. Levine, who at that time was the most famous aviator in the world after Charles Lindbergh. Levine said a man he identified as Clement/Clements had approached him about creating a $4 million airline between the U.S. and South America, signing a contract with the name Armgaard Karl Graves. “The last that Levine heard from the man was on Sunday, February 19, the day before the flaming, gasoline-soaked body of Miss Brown was found,” Hearst reported ominously.

The story probably made the front page of a daily newspaper in every town across America during the first week of March, 1928 because the Hearst syndicate kept dishing up new details: Ten years prior, Clement had been indicted for grand larceny over his claim of having invented a water-based substitute for gasoline. Police received an anonymous letter where someone confessed to killing the woman after robbing her of $2,500 in securities –  which were enclosed in the letter.

After days of whipping up a national frenzy with a “where is the madman Clement/Graves” manhunt, Clement quietly appeared at the police HQ for questioning. He provided a solid alibi for that night and the friend of Margaret Brown who said she once saw Brown’s fiancée named “Dr. Clement” or “Clemens” couldn’t identify him. After a few hours of questioning he was dropped as a suspect. (The case was never solved, but there were two similar “torch murders” on New Jersey highways over the following year.)

The Hearst story absolving him of suspicion ran six paragraphs and did not receive anywhere near the heavy coverage of the sensationalist earlier items. Hearst never cleared up there was no connection between Clement and Graves – or that several days earlier, the rival Associated Press had revealed police no longer assumed they were the same guy, or that Levine admitted he contacted police because he thought a newspaper photo of Clement sorta resembled the stranger with the big talk about starting an airline. All portly, balding, middle-aged men look alike, apparently.

But like a bug caught in ambergris, the stories of Clement and Graves are still suspended together in those moments of Hearst hysteria. Easily found today are confused claims that Graves was “often seen with vaudeville starlets” such as Musette and “Dr. Clement” was his Jekyll and Hyde alter ego who liked to screw around with chemistry when he wasn’t being Mr. Secret Agent Man. Once you separate them, however, their individual stories emerge – and as Ray Owen also says, “the truth is always more interesting.”

Doctor Armgaard Karl Graves was a major celebrity a century ago – a real-life James Bond super spy who was supposedly a high-ranking officer in the pre-WWI German secret service spying on the British, then switched sides to be a double agent for England.

Graves’ best-selling (ghostwritten) memoir about espionage was released just as the war began, followed in 1915 with another book supposedly revealing secrets of the German government. His memoir was serialized by newspapers (“Revelations of the Kaiser’s Personal Spy”) and there was a book series of adventurous yarns aimed at kids (“Dr. Armgaard Karl Graves, Secret Service Agent”). He wrote many articles predicting what was about to happen in the war based on his supposed insider knowledge: Germany and Czarist Russia were going to jointly invade England, London was about to be destroyed in three weeks after it was attacked by an armada of hi-tech zeppelins and a fleet of thousands of submarines, plus Germany had a “vapor ray” which instantly blinded anyone who saw it. A modern book, “Spies of the Kaiser,” seems to do a good job of sorting his biographical fact from (mostly) fantasy, so read that section on Graves if you really are curious about that part of his life (the last paragraph, however, describes him being “accused of burning a woman alive”).

His stardom began to fizzle after he was arrested for the blackmail attempt in 1916 (see the book cited above). Later that year the New York Times published details from an exposé by the Frankfort Gazette, where it was revealed he was actually a dental school dropout name Max Meincke. When confronted about his claims to having been adopted in Australia by a “Major Graves” and earning an M.D. at the University of Adelaide, he “admitted that he had been exaggerating.”

Having escaped prosecution for blackmail, “Graves” was arrested in 1917 for being in an area off-limits to alien nationals (he tried to talk his way out by telling police he was secretly working for the State Department). He was shipped off to Leavenworth prison, then later Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia for the duration of the war.

Most of the rest of Graves’ sordid story did not make national news, but was great fun to dig up via regional newspapers. In 1921 he was arrested for scamming another former Fort Oglethorpe detainee out of $430, but that was amateur league stuff – afterwards it would be the Great Buried Treasure con game.

Using the alias Dr. Paul W. Graumann, he was busted in Panama in 1924 for telling suckers he had smuggled a million dollars worth of gold, $700,000 and the Saxony crown jewels out of Germany after the armistice, hiding the loot in a Haitian swamp then later reburying it on a Panamanian beach. In 1929 he was arrested in Los Angeles under the alias Paul Gunther using the same basic story to con a man out of $3,500 to fund an expedition to dig it up. In between those years he supposedly received a large sum of money from German royalist sympathizers seeking to restore the monarchy.

His undoing came in 1934 when he tried the treasure scam on Clarence Saunders, founder of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain. Now Graves was saying he needed $1,500 backing to recover $3 million buried in Haiti – that he had been in the German Secret Service during WWI and ordered to hide the trove in advance of American troops arriving. When Graves disappeared with his money, Saunders hired an investigator and discovered still more victims of the Haiti con game; Graves was tracked down and brought back to face prosecution. (For more, read, “Clarence Saunders and the German Spy,” although the first part of the article badly scrambles the Graves and Clement stories together.)

Graves was sentenced to 2-5 years. When he came up for parole in 1937 the government wanted to deport him back to Germany immediately upon his release from prison. The federal agents booked him under the name Paul Peter Gunther Von Kanitz, but Graves said that was not his real name. “Only three people know it,” he said.

Although he insisted he would be shot by a firing squad within 24 hours of arriving in Germany. He was briefly detained on Ellis Island and finally deported on May 5, 1937.

He was not heard from again.

As it turns out the real mystery man of our story is not Armgaard Karl Graves – it’s Louis Clement.

Clement shows up in the press for the first time in the summer of 1917 shortly before Graves went to Leavenworth, which proves conclusively they weren’t the same guy. These early articles mention he was a Danish chemist and a graduate of the Copenhagen Institute. The same year he filled out his WWI draft registration card which declared he was a Danish subject born in Copenhagen. A later census states he came to the U.S. in 1915, so we have a pretty clear picture of his bonafides.

He was in the news for claiming to have invented a gasoline substitute he called “Nuoline.” There were different descriptions of what was in it (mostly the result of bad reporting) but it was variously said to be somewhere between 10-50 percent plain water, with other ingredients being kerosene, wood alcohol, naphta, benzine plus a bunch of secret juju. Whatever the formula, the promise was that it would cost a small fraction of the price of gasoline.

Money began rolling in at an average of about $10,000 per month (almost $200k today) – not bad for a maverick inventor working out of his bedroom. But after a few months went by with nothing to show except for a few demos where observers were kept at least twenty feet away from the Nuoline-powered auto, some investors began suspecting the secret sauce in the formula was really flim-flam. One of them had a chat with the New York City District Attorney’s office and police were dispatched to pick up Clement.

They returned with Louis and a package. According to the New York Herald, it was “securely wrapped and sealed; twelve large blotches of red wax decorated it.” On it was written, “This book contains a secret formula for turning water into gasoline. Whoever tampers with this book will meet with instant DEATH.”

“When the wrapping was removed, carefully removed, there was on the prosecutor’s desk a book. Its title was: “Elements of Urinalysis.”

The assistant D.A. examined this standard college textbook with care to see if it contained a hidden slip of paper with the formula. One can only imagine the extraordinary care he must have given the search, given the warning the book did contain, you know, death.

Finding nothing more than that package with the sort of stupid threat a 10 year-old might post on his bedroom door, Clement was indicted for grand larceny. The following month, March 1918, the grand jury and six chemists selected by the District Attorney assembled to see a Nuoline demonstration. Over three hours Clement mixed a batch from scratch (the secret ingredients included talcum powder, cedar oil and saccharine!) which was pumped into the tank of a two-ton truck. The engine would not start. Next was tried a Ford, which puttered around the block without problem, as did another auto. Louis Clement said he was vindicated, but the prosecutor was not so sure; instead of costing a tenth as much as gasoline, the chemists determined his concoction would cost about ten times more.

Since the formula worked – albeit at a much higher than advertised price – it was unclear whether Clement could be prosecuted for fraud. He continued to promote Nuoline for at least another year and was sued by other investors. Towards the end of WWI he gave a demo to the Army’s Quartermasters Department which came to the same conclusion: It did work, but was too expensive.

About ten years passed and nothing was heard from Louis D. Clement. Then Margaret Brown was murdered and we suddenly heard a very great deal.

Besides the mistaken ID by aviator Levine and Margaret’s friend saying she was dating someone with a similar name, the third clue used to stir up suspicions about Clement was that he had a company called, “Good Oxide Laboratories.” Nothing can be currently found about what he was doing, but the papers at the time reported he had invented an insecticide specifically for Japanese beetles which could be self-igniting. (Many chemicals can spontaneously burst into flame, as might oily rags, piles of hay, etc.) The Hearst papers, of course, sensationalized the angle: “This substance, poured over a person’s clothing, would ignite by contact with the air after several minutes of evaporation. Any one using it for incendiary purposes could begin his escape long before the blaze was discovered, according to chemists.”

When Clement surrendered, his perfect alibi revealed a perfectly dismal life. The night of murder he was the dishwasher at a cafeteria, living in a 35¢ night flophouse in Brooklyn. A man who knew Clement from the Nuoline days told the Philadelphia Inquirer he had bumped into the chemist recently and he was living on the edge, sleeping in a railroad station and parks.

But Clement’s problems were far from over; when police were finished questioning him, he was held on grand larceny for the theft of Musette’s $600 diamond pendant, confessing he had pawned it for a hundred bucks. Theresa met him at the police station with her attorney, where he was served with papers for annulment of their marriage. She dropped the theft charge after a few days (continuing with the annulment) and visited him in jail, dropping off a check for $15, a heavy overcoat, a hat and dozen neckties. He was immediately rearrested on forgery charges from his former Good Oxide partners for cashing $2,230 in company checks.

And then there was the business of the aliases. Besides marrying “Musette” as Louis Clement Van Norden, he was booked as Louis Clement Schwartz, followed by the arraignment under the name Louis Clement Schmidt. During the search of his room ten years earlier when police turned up the “death” package they found a passport with the name Clemente. There is no reason to believe any of these were his true name. On the business card he used at the time he called himself, “Dr. L. Clements, M.C., D. Sc. Ph. D., F. R. D. G. S.” On the back of the card was, oddly, a purple illustration of a snapping turtle. No reporter who saw it knew what the hell it meant, but were compelled to mention it and its odd purpleness.

At this point, Gentle Reader probably thinks our story of Mr. Louis Clement Van Norden Schwartz Schmidt is over. He was caught committing grand theft and fraud – and did I forget to mention Theresa had already repaid Good Oxide $1,000 because he was cooking the books?  He was living in the gutter during one of the great economic booms in our history with little hope his miserable life could even marginally improve, given that the Great Depression was right around the corner.

Yet a handful of years later, as everyone else’s fan had been thoroughly hit by crap, he was the cornerstone of building an enormously successful business. There were probably other companies born during the darkest days of the Depression that went on to greater heights, but I don’t know about them. (See, I promised you this was a Believe-it-or-not! story.)

The business was Sanitized, Inc. which still exists as a Swiss-based company – their Sanitized® trademark dates back to 1934, the year after the corporation was formed. In earlier decades the company promoted Clement’s role in its origins, telling the story of how he created the first products while working with the Army Quartermaster Corps during WWI, where he noticed an experimental gas not only sterilized soil but kept it resistant to bacteria for a long time.

(RIGHT: A portion of a 1936 ad which appeared in newspapers nationwide)

The Quartermaster connection aligns with his 1918 Nuoline demo – note it wasn’t claimed he was necessarily working for the Army at the time; he could have picked up the tip during his visit. And anything powerful enough to sterilize soil would probably wipe out Japanese beetles in their grub stage when they are just beneath the surface eating the roots of your lovely lawn.

If Louis Clement made Sanitized, Inc., then Sanitized, Inc. surely remade Louis Clement. Never again would his fake gasoline be mentioned; the 1928 murder suspect debacle, thievery, and days on Skid Row were forgotten. Although he was never a naturalized citizen he was mentioned in the papers for his good works around the start of WWII as chairman of the “Chinese Women’s Relief Association” and a sponsor of the “Free Denmark Committee.” He married a much younger woman from Tennessee and they lived in cozy little house in New Jersey (currently for sale!) which happened to be just about five minutes from the Margret Brown murder site, but let’s not muse about that.

And here’s the final twist: There’s no proof “Louis D. Clement” really existed. Not a single related patent between 1917 and 1936 can be found granted under Clement, any of the variant spellings, or any of his known aliases. There is no matching Clement-like person found on ship passenger lists arriving in the U.S. around 1915. There is no newspaper obituary or the tiniest social item that can be found for him or his wife under Clement, all during an era when newspapers believed the way to sell newspapers was to mention every local person’s name as often as possible.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that everything he had to do lawfully which involved presenting an ID – enter the country, apply for a patent, die – were done under his true and legal name. Which was not Clement.

We can probably assume the twenty-something immigrant had a secret he wanted to hide when he came to this country (that is, if he even was an immigrant) but that’s about all. He was a man of science with a streak of dishonesty; witness the Good Oxide fraud and that he kept pushing Nuoline on investors even after it was proven to be impractical, which makes him appear to be a con man just like Armgaard Karl Graves – except Clement was more successful at getting money out of suckers.

The fascinating aspect of the Louis Clement story is that it can be told two different ways. There’s the inspirational version where the plucky scientist who makes some mistakes, then turns his life around and becomes a founder of a great company. A motivational speaker such as Norman Vincent Peale would have loved telling that.

Then there’s Clement’s cascading nightmare which was March 1928. Penniless and wanted by the police for jewelry theft and forgery, he wakes up one morning to find an old photo of himself on the front page along with news he is a suspect in a shocking murder. And if that isn’t bad enough, the man with many secrets is next confused with a notorious former spy who’s simultaneously trying to pull a scam on a celebrity aviator. Know who would have loved that version? Alfred Hitchcock.

LEFT: Louis Clement, 1928           RIGHT: Armgaard Karl Graves, 1929

 

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aliceberry-f

LET’S GO DOWNTOWN AND SEE SOMETHING WEIRD

On any given Saturday around 1914, chances were you could pay a dime and watch performers do things on stage which demonstrated more self-delusion than discernible talent. To locals, Santa Rosa was a quiet little farmtown; to some vaudeville players it was another step towards a fantasy of theatrical glory.

That was the peak year for vaudeville in Santa Rosa with two stages downtown: The 700-seat Columbia at Third and B streets and the much smaller Rose Theater. With their big electrical marquees (lightbulbs, not neon) they were the brightest spots downtown after dark and the Rose drew particular attention with its animated lights, something never seen in town before.

Both presented shows with three or four vaudeville acts capped off with about a half hour of movies, such as a Bronco Billy western or a chapter from that wildly-popular new series with cliffhanger endings, “The Perils of Pauline.” Their playbills were also generally the same; someone sang popular songs, an acrobat or animal act performed stunts and a comedian barked out corny (and not infrequently, racist or ethnic) jokes. But there the similarity ended.

Whenever possible, the Columbia’s newspaper ad touted a performer’s popularity or that (s)he had just appeared at a San Francisco theater. All well and good until one looked closely; the acts who headlined here were usually near the bottom of a long bill when they played in the City, and “popular” was a tipoff that the act might be a Golden Oldie such as Harry Green, “the old man singer with the boy’s voice,” who had been trodding the boards for about forty years.

When they had no particular act to promote the Columbia ad would sometimes sniff, “No Amateurs Every Artist a Professional” which was a not-so-subtle dig at the Rose Theater, where nearly every evening was like an episode from The Gong Show. Mostly these were likely young people who were big hits at hometown parties where their friends told them, “oh, you should be on stage.” Well, sir, this was their shot at stardom.

One such act is seen at right: Alice Berry and Harry Wilhelm, “the doll comedienne and the Protean artist.” What the act consisted of is unclear; Alice was either a child or a little person, standing four feet tall. She sang while the tailcoatted Harry did…something. Every Friday the Press Democrat offered a little blurb about similar performers appearing at the theaters that week, and one can imagine the poor staff writer straining a muscle trying to say something nice about acts such as these:

*
Gilbert Girard, “The World’s Greatest Animal and Instrumental Mimic”, will be heard in fifteen minutes of barnyard humor.
*
The “Three Cycling Newmans”, featuring a boxing match on unicycles, will head the show.
*
Biele & Girad, “The Englishman and the Swede,” have a great comedy act. There is nothing more comical than an ignorant Swede, and when they are ignorant, like the one in this case, it causes many comical situations, making the most solemn laugh.
*
Madelyn Faye, violiniste, charmed everyone with her playing, which was much better than ordinary.
*
This afternoon at one o’clock Dixon & Elliott’s hardware store on Fourth street will become the center of attraction when a subject will be hypnotized and started out riding a bicycle. He will continue riding until eight o’clock this evening, at which time he will be removed to the stage of the Columbia Theater, after having pedaled over five hundred miles.
*
The Zimmerman Brothers, novelty whistlers, have an act that gives good variety to the bill and one that pleases the most critical.

The list of peculiarities goes on: Birdcallers, “rubber girl” contortionists, midget boxers and blackface “shouters,” plus a couple of acts which were apparently just young women doing calisthenics. A female comedy/musical sketch act called “the Seven Whitesides” made the front page of the Press Democrat not for its quality of entertainment but for the women soundly beating up their manager. Some performers had actual talent but were too unconventional for mainstream vaudeville; John C. Payne, “the double voiced man” was an African-American performing in an evening gown (“Mr. Payne’s natural voice is baritone, but he sings a beautiful soprano also and is considered a wonderful singer”).

Mainstays at the Rose were the animal acts. The theater hosted Miss Livingstone’s skating bear, Captain Webb’s seals, a steady procession of dog and bird acts plus two “goat circuses” – Ogle’s Goat Circus in January, 1913 and Sander’s Goat Circus at the end of the same year. Now, Gentle Reader is probably pondering deep questions such as, “how many damn goat circuses were there?” And, “who would pay to see a goat circus?” And, “what did the little theater smell like afterward?” Notable in the publicity photo for Ogle’s is that the name “Prof. Kershner” was inartfully scratched out – thus Ogle bought a used goat act (and of course, that’s probably not Mr. Ogle in the picture). My guess is that Sanders in turn purchased the act after Ogle had enough of traveling with a herd of stinky goats. As for why audiences would attend, the PD noted, “Before the matinee this afternoon, it is announced, Mr. Sanders will throw away ten dollars to the children in front of the theatre.” Sad!

And then there was Roy Crone and his grizzly bear. Roy is high on the list of people from those days I would have liked to meet (he was introduced here earlier) because he went to Hollywood and eventually worked with Fred Astaire and Orson Welles on their most classic films. Back in 1913, however, he was manager of the Columbia Theater and taking a few weeks off to roam the low-rent vaudeville circuit with his 780-pound pet. Trouble was, he and his bear kept getting arrested.

Crone drove between gigs with the uncaged bear sitting in the backseat of his (presumably, large and sturdy) car. At least twice he was pulled over by cops for speeding and totally not because he was driving around with a seven-foot bear. Stopped outside of Merced, Deputy Sheriff Nicewonger was walking around to the passenger side of the car to write the ticket when the bear reached out and whacked him with a paw, knocking the officer down. “Rising to his feet. Nicewonger was about to commit bloody murder when Crone quieted the angry beast and pulled the deputy out of the danger zone,” reported The Stockton Mall. “The bear actually stood on his hind feet a few moments later and roared at the deputy sheriff.” A few weeks later the pair were in trouble again, this time in Chico both for speeding and “occupying an automobile in a street exhibition,” which probably meant the sight of a bear sitting in a car was stopping traffic.

The vaudeville scene in Santa Rosa slowly faded away after 1914. The Columbia mostly dropped it the following year and by 1916 the Rose was offering vaudeville only every other week. What happened to the performers?

A search of the old newspapers finds that most of the amateur wanna-be’s who played the Rose only lasted that season. Some of the has-been professionals who were at the Columbia continued drifting around small Bay Area theaters for awhile and a few can be spotted trying to reinvent themselves far away in the frontiers of Australia or British Columbia. Otherwise, if you weren’t good enough to be booked on a traveling circuit, what probably awaited you beyond Santa Rosa was Old West music halls in backwater towns, mining and logging camps without electricity and saloons with a small raised stage. Resorts like Fetter’s Hot Springs sometimes advertised they had vaudeville without naming any acts.

What killed vaudeville was the explosive growth of celebrity motion pictures. Now all that was needed to pack a theater was showing the latest movie by Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Ethel Barrymore and other stars; miss seeing the picture and miss out on part of the shared social experience – and not only with family and friends here, but with people you knew in distant towns.

As awful as it sometimes was, vaudeville was still live theater and it’s a shame it’s completely gone; lost was the tolerance for everyday people to entertain each other for an evening without expecting perfection. After all, if the novelty whistlers weren’t to your taste all you had to do and wait a few minutes until their act was over, and then out would come the violinist whose playing was much better than ordinary. Maybe you’d like that better.

Ogle’s Goat Circus

The Seven Whitesides present an office scene play, which leads into some good singing and dancing. All of the 875 people who attended last night’s entertainment were well pleased with the high class show.

– Press Democrat, November 22 1912
CHORUS GIRLS DO UP THE MANAGER
Lively Fracas When Soubrettes Think Their Cash is Likely to Go Aglooming

The fair members of a theatrical troupe, appearing In “vodvlll” in a local theatre Saturday night, were fearful, so they said, that their manager, a man, was not going to make a cash settlement with them and suspicious that possibly he might take an earlier train from town than they, made up their minds that they would have nothing of it. In consequence they demanded their pay. When their requests were met with refusal they started to take the law into their own hands, and goodness knows what they would have done to that manager had not the commotion in a down town apartment house, and a hasty call for a policeman, sent Police Officer I. N. Lindley hurrying to the scene. And “Ike” made some dash, too. At the time the officer came upon the scene, one of the girls was making a punching bag out of the manager, where another girl had left off. The girls of the troupe took all the money he had, fourteen dollars. He should have had much more, as the girls say they had a salary roll of eighteen dollars apiece coming to them. The manager was allowed to retire to his room for the night, and at an early hour Sunday morning the chorus girls were wondering how to divide up the fourteen dollars.

– Press Democrat, November 24 1912

 

SKATING BEAR IN ROSE VAUDEVILLE TONIGHT

Miss Livingstone and her trained bear will appear in tonight’s vaudeville at the Rose. This animal act, as previous ones, will win the favor of the Santa Rosa public. This performing bear waltzed, when seen by the management, which brought many rounds of applause.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 3, 1913

 

STRONG VAUDEVILLE BILL AT THE ROSE THEATER TONIGHT

A strong vaudeville bill of high class acts will be presented to the public at the Rose theater tonight, headed by Ogle’s Goat Circus. These goats are very highly valued, partly because there are very few performing goats in the state and through the long time patient training which has made them the greatest of all goat acts. The management announces this one of the highest salaried acts that they have ever secured. The children will be invited on the stage after the matinee tomorrow, to learn something of the training of goats and have a chance to pet their favorites.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 24, 1913
SANTA ROSAN IS ON VAUDEVILLE
Ray Crone Making Tour of Circuit With Tame Bear Act Which Has Taken Well

Ray Crone, the well known manager of the Columbia Amusement Co.’s local interests, is taking a few weeks off duty and touring the vaudeville circuit with an animal act of his own. Reports from points he has visited speak of the success of his work.

Mr. Crone is one of the best known young men of Santa Rosa owing to his work in connection with the Nickelodeon moving picture show house first, and afterwards with the Columbia theater and Theaterette, which were added one after the other to the activities of the firm, of which he is a part.

The success of the young man will be pleasing to his many friends here and in the bay cities. He has a trained bear, known as “John L. Sullivan,” which does a number of remarkable feature tricks which Mr. Crone has trained him to do. Animal feature in vaudeville always proves attractive to young and old and are in great demand by the booking agents. Frank Weston is here from San Francisco looking after the Amusement Company’s interest in the absence of Mr. Crone.

– Press Democrat, April 27 1913
CRONE AND BEAR CAUSE TROUBLE
Well Known Santa Rosan and His Trained Animal Arouse Much Interest at Stockton

Roy Crone, the well known Santa Rosan who Is making a tour of the vaudeville circuit with a large trained bear, is receiving some very flattering press notices. The Stockton Mail In speaking of his first performance In that city, says:

Bear Is Almost Human

Five bright new acts greeted the large Sunday crowds at the Garrick yesterday, and the show from start to finish was excellent in every respect. A remarkable exhibition of animal intelligence was displayed by John L. Sullivan, the world-famous educated bear. This is the largest bear ever seen on the stage and one of the largest in captivity. It stands over seven feet tall and weighs 780 pounds. The bear is well trained, and his trainer has complete control over him at all times. He performs a number of clever and amusing antics, the climax coming when some small boys attempt to ride him. One little chap succeeded in riding him, but the others were politely unseated by Mr. Bruin.

In an issue several days before he opened in Stockton the papers published a good story relative to Crone and his bear. The story in the Mall was as follows:

Bear Defends Master

To be knocked down by a blow from the paw of a big black bear which was sitting in the rear seat of an automobile, is the curious accident which happened to Deputy Sheriff Nicewonger yesterday afternoon. And, as a result of the collision with the hoof of Bruin, Deputy Nicewonger narrowly escaped serious injury. The blow, which was a glancing one, caught him on the right side of the neck, and was delivered with so much force that it unceremoniously floored the county official.

J. R. Crone, who is the owner of the bear, was en route from Merced with his hairy passenger in an automobile. Crone left Merced yesterday morning. As he was speeding along the highway between Rippon and Calla, Deputy Nicewonger happened to discover that Crone was exceeding the speed limit. He immediately hailed the man and his curious cargo. Crone stopped at once. Deputy Nicewonger read the ruling of the county ordinance and informed Crone that he was under arrest. Crone was about to give his name and address when Nicewonger, in order to secure the data, chased around to the right side of the machine. Just as the county highway guard was passing the rear seat the bear, with one vicious swoop, let fly with his paw. Deputy Nicewonger heeled over instantly. Rising to his feet. Nicewonger was about to commit bloody murder when Crone quieted the angry beast and pulled the deputy out of the danger zone. The bear actually stood on his hind feet a few moments later and roared at the deputy sheriff. This morning the deputy appeared before Justice Parker and secured a warrant for the arrest of Crone for encroaching upon the speed ordinance of the county. The bear, says Crone, is tame.

– Press Democrat, May 16 1913

 

CRONE AND HIS BEAR ARRESTED ONCE MORE

Friends of Ray Crone, former manager of the Columbia Theater will read the following with much amusement. Although the dispatch does not give Crone’s name he is known to be on the circuit through Chico and his bear was dubbed “John L.” The dispatch follows:

CHICO, July 13.–John L. Sullivan, a big grizzly bear used in a local theatre, was arrested last night by Policeman Field and booked with its owner on a charge of violating the city’s traffic ordinance. In police court the owner put up $20 bail to appear with the bear tomorrow. They were occupying an automobile in a street exhibition and the machine went too fast to suit the police. When the arrest was made the grizzly tried to escape, but was induced by the owner to go along to the police judge’s court.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 15, 1913

 

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