The high school auditorium was packed that Sunday morning in 1937 with people from all over Sonoma county. Uniformed boy scouts ushered the last of the audience to their seats as an announcer hushed the audience. Promptly at 10:30, the speakers crackled to life with a recording of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Waiting at the microphone for the music to finish was a slight 67 year-old man in his customary three-piece suit. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. With the playing of the national anthem, station KSRO, voice of the Redwood Empire, takes the air for the first time.” He continued with the required sign on announcement before ending: “This is Ernest Finley speaking and I now turn this fine new radio station over to the people of the Redwood Empire for their use and enjoyment.”
Finley wasn’t really handing over KSRO to the public, of course – he was the sole owner of the station as well as the two newspapers in town, the Santa Rosa Republican and the Press Democrat, where he was also editor and publisher. The papers would promote the station which would promote the papers. So cozy was this little media empire that the broadcasting studios were in the PD building on Mendocino Ave.
After an invocation by the rector of the Church of the Incarnation and playing a recording of religious music, the live program continued with 15-minute salutes to Marin county and seven communities in Sonoma. Usually the mayor said a few words which were followed by music from someone in that town – there had been talent contests over the previous weeks to choose the artists. Santa Rosa was represented by a singer and Walter Trembley, harmonica virtuoso; Cloverdale sent Glen Bonham, imitator.
There were other live performances that day woven between recorded music before the big dedicatory program at 3:00, where the mayor of San Francisco spoke and the KSRO orchestra performed, along with others. The hour long program closed with an audience singalong.
And that was pretty much the end of the first broadcast day, September 19, 1937. The station signed off at 6PM, having only a permit to operate from dawn to dusk. This was typical of little commercial stations all over the country; night hours were only for the high power clear channel stations that could sometimes be heard for a thousand miles. With its 250 watt (!) transmitter, KSRO reached from San Rafael to Ukiah – but came in as far away as Eureka and San Jose when conditions were ideal.
By 1937 the radio market was well-established in the Bay Area. Probably any radio in Sonoma County could pick up the big stations in San Francisco such as KGO, KSFO and KPO (which became KNBR), which were network affiliates broadcasting all the popular programs we associate with the golden age of radio. During the day there were the soaps, including Vic and Sade, Our Gal Sunday and Ma Perkins; in the evening were the top shows such as Burns and Allen, One Man’s Family, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Gangbusters, Jack Benny.
(RIGHT: KSRO schedule for September 24, 1937; local programming highlighted)
Pipsqueak independent stations like KSRO instead relied on a mix of local programming and a transcription service (the one first used by KSRO was NBC’s Thesaurus, upgraded soon to World). A subscribing station would get 16-inch records that played at 331⁄3RPM, which would provide fifteen minutes of content per side. Thus a station operating on the cheap could fill much (even all!) of its schedule using just an engineer and an announcer – who could also be the engineer – to read commercials and announce time/call letters. And as you see by this schedule taken from its first week of broadcasting, that’s pretty much what KSRO did at the beginning.
The problem with transcription services was that their offerings often… sucked. In its earliest weeks KSRO mostly played transcriptions of D-list musicians such as the Mountaineers hillbilly band (who apparently never made a record) and Robin Hood Bowers (somewhat known for a 1919 ditty, “The Moon Shines on the Moonshine”). The station also broadcast generic canned programs with titles like “Melody Time” and “Rhythm Makers.” It was music to do chores by.
Those transcription shows were mostly sustained (unsponsored, except promos for other shows or perhaps Finley’s newspapers) because KSRO didn’t have many advertisers at its outset. The first sponsor was mentioned only a few days before the premiere broadcast – the White House Department Store would advertise on the noon newscast.
Among other early live studio programs were 15 minute weekly shows by The Rincon Valley Ramblers, a quartet which entertained sometimes at lodge or club meetings, and “Songs of the Island,” with Hawaiian melodies sung by the Carroll Boys from Napa: Slip, Arky, Gat and Alky. There was the 30-minute “Mickey Mouse Club” on Fridays at 4, which resurrected the riotous live show that once commandeered the California Theater on Saturday afternoons (see “LET’S ALL YELL AT THE MICKEY MOUSE MATINEE“).
On weekdays the anchoring live show was the mid-afternoon “Time for Tea,” which was completely free form. There were usually announcements from women’s clubs, churches and the like, but you might also hear some kid scraping his bow across a violin string or squeezing an accordion. They sometimes did a “Name That Tune” type game show or brought in an elementary school class to do a spelling bee.
The popular morning “Breakfast Club” opened the broadcast day at 7 (sadistically, by beating a gong that nearly blew out your speaker) and received lots of mail because the host encouraged listeners to send in their birthdates to be announced on air. A farmer from the Sonoma Valley who wanted to sell his ranch wrote that he would come on the show and do his (presumably terrific) imitation of a calf and a squeaky clothesline in trade for commercials.
Gradually over the first couple of months their live programming pushed out more of the transcribed shows. KSRO was becoming a radio station that locals wanted to actively listen to instead of just being a source of ignorable background music.
Remotes were a large reason for the station’s success. They kept their portable transmitter busy; Evelyn Billing’s organ concerts on the grand instrument at the California Theater were always popular, although sometimes she played at the Chapel of the Chimes, which wasn’t exactly a venue where one expected to hear peppy dance tunes.
They broadcast SRHS and Petaluma High football games live from the 50 yard line; Sunday morning church services; KSRO was there for the opening of Rosenberg’s Department Store (now Barnes & Noble). They took the equipment to Healdsburg to cover their Veterans Day celebration: “If the weather is nice you will get a word by word picture of the parade, bands and all. If it rains you will probably get a drop by drop sound of a rainstorm in the Redwood Empire.”
Most of all, they broadcast live every weekday at 12:45 from the Exchange Bank corner downtown. The “Man on the Street” show was easily KSRO’s most popular program of 1937. The very first question asked: “Do you think Santa Rosa should have stop lights at downtown intersections?”
KSRO wasn’t the first radio station in Santa Rosa, however. Years before – as the radio era was just beginning – there was KFNV, broadcasting with a mighty five watts from March 1924 to October 1925, off on Sundays.
Lennard Drake – yes, that’s the spelling – and his wife Aimee, who ran the Drake Battery and Radio Shop downtown, convinced the publisher of the Republican (not yet owned by Finley) to provide space for an equipment room at the newspaper’s office on Fifth street. They put it together with the aid of local radio entusiasts and using gear unapproved by the government.
Programming at KFNV was mainly phonograph records, a player piano and anyone who drifted in to talk. Their only regularly scheduled program was the “Sunset Matinee,” a 6:30PM children’s program of bedtime stories by “dear oid Uncle Silas.” The Republican radio columnist noted Silas was the father of two and “I know for I have had the pleasure of seeing them” – which is such an odd thing to write that it makes one wonder if there were whispers about the doings over at La Casa Silas.
In 1937 Lennard was interviewed by the PD and said the station folded because of lack of sponsorship. “Radio was [considered] just a child’s toy, a fancy of the moment.” Aimee added, “no one, of course, in those days foresaw commercial sponsors.” Apparently the only advertisers were the Drake radio store and the Republican. (By 1937 the Drakes had dropped the radio business and were now selling electrical supplies, including fixtures and wiring for KSRO.)
A dozen years passed between the end of KFNV and birth of KSRO and in that time radio had become an essential part of daily life. By 1937 there were 28,000 households from San Rafael to Ukiah where the radio was on 3-4 hours during the day – all listening to commercials for stores in San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento.
Not having a local station was also a big reminder that the North Bay wasn’t a full-fledged member of the Bay Area. Promoters and developers in Marin and Sonoma counties had pushed through construction of the Golden Gate Bridge primarily to draw tourists and increase property values; when it opened just a few months before KSRO went on the air, Finley spoke of the “untold advantages and development for Santa Rosa” the bridge would bring.
Likewise KSRO wouldn’t be intended only for locals seeking department store sales on tea towels. For those tuning in from the fringes of its reception area, it also would serve as an advertisement for Sonoma county itself – that this was a great place if you were thinking of buying a little chicken farm or looking to escape the city. The homey vibe of shows like “Time for Tea” were a panacea to the slick productions cranked out by the networks and big urban stations.
But Finley et. al. weren’t alone in viewing the region as an untapped market; when the Press Democrat Publishing Company filed for a broadcasting permit from the Federal Communications Commission in early 1935, there was already someone ahead of them in line.
Two men from Berkeley, Arthur Westland and Jules Cohn, had applied for a 100 watt station to cover Santa Rosa alone. They were pioneers in the radio biz and operated KRE in Berkeley, a station which dated back to 1922.
In February of 1935 the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce – always in lockstep with Finley and the PD – sent the FCC a telegram asking them to deny the Berkeley application because Westland had falsely told the Commission “there was no opposition to the proposal.” Two months later an FCC examiner recommended denying Westland and Cohn. The reasons, according to the PD, were that it was “not shown there was a substantial need for additional broadcast service in that area” and that any station was unlikely to be a viable business because there just wasn’t enough interest.
Yet that same April there was a formal hearing on Finley’s application. Presumably he and others attended that meeting in Washington, but it wasn’t mentioned in either newspaper at the time. Final arguments for the permit were made in October 1936, and a month later the FCC denied the Berkeley-ites and granted the license to Finley.
Both of Finley’s newspapers covered the 1937 build-out of KSRO obsessively. Readers saw photos of the antenna going up in the Laguna – it was at the corner of modern-day Finley and Leddy avenues – and the transmission “shack” built at its base (it remained there even after the antenna was moved close to Stony Point Road, but burned up in a 1968 fire caused by homeless squatters).
The papers also admiringly described the remodeling done to turn the second floor of the Press Democrat office into broadcast studios (alas, no photos). Since the rooms had to be soundproof there were no windows; there was a gee-whiz astonishment that they were to be air conditioned full time.
They hoped to be running by August 15 so they could broadcast remote from the county fair, but obstacles arose which were not explained. But a month later there was that ceremony where 750 people packed into the high school auditorium.
KSRO was now on the air.
The station may have continued down its uneventful path for years, slowly building an audience as it kept improving local programming. But before it was even three months old its coming of age moment arrived: People’s lives became dependent upon listening to KSRO.
In December 10-11, all of Northern California was saturated by ultra-massive rains. The PD called it “worst storm in all history” and “the greatest havoc ever wreaked in Sonoma County.” Unfortunately, we can’t compare it to other disasters because Russian River flood records are inexact before 1940 – but old-timers insisted it was the worst in 60-70 years. It was the damage caused by this flood that would eventually lead to the construction of the Warm Springs Dam.
Parts of Healdsburg were under ten feet of water and the deck of its railroad (Memorial) bridge was covered. Goats and calves were herded into a church near the town – and then had to be moved again a couple of hours later when the water reached the church. A two story house from Rio Nido was hurled against the Guerneville Bridge. Before the water reached the switchboard, operators at the Monte Rio telephone exchange were wearing hip boots and standing in 40 inches of water.
The Russian River kept rising, first three inches an hour, then four. Five. Electricity was out everywhere and phone service was spotty. Hundreds of families, hungry and cold, were huddled in upstairs bedrooms, in attics, on their roof and nobody knew how bad it would get or what to do – unless you had a battery-powered radio tuned to KSRO.
News bulletins from the station warned listeners to conserve drinking water because well pumps wouldn’t be working for days. There were phone interviews with mayors or other officials in many of the hard-hit towns, updating citizens on the latest conditions. There were road reports from AAA. In Geyserville, the director of relief work announced on KSRO that anyone needing help should fly a white flag from the top of their house. Soon a dozen or more flags were spotted by volunteers with binoculars watching from high ground and they directed rescue boats where to go.
Amazingly, no one died locally during the disaster – and KSRO surely must deserve some measure of credit for that.
(RIGHT: KSRO schedule for August 6, 1938; local programming highlighted. Capitalized shows were sponsored)
In the months that followed the local radio columnists mentioned the growing amount of fan mail being received by “KSRO personalities.” Live programming was now about half the schedule. Added to the schedule were popular new shows such as “KSROlling Along,” the “Italian Program With Guiseppe Comelli,” and the “X-Bar-B Cowhands.” The country-western band was a bit of a coup for the station as they already had a following, having been heard on a San Francisco station for six years before the group moved to the Russian River area.
Finally KSRO gained permission for evening broadcasts and as of August 1, 1938 it was now on the air up to 11 o’clock, midnight on weekends. As before, there was a dedication ceremony (this one featuring 21 year-old Miss Ruth Finley, “concert pianist”) and a short speech by Ernest Finley. He said, in part:
In inaugurating Station KSRO, we were pleased to call it the ‘Voice of the Redwood Empire.’ We feel that it has been just that. Every effort has been made to bring the various communities of the Redwood Empire closer together. Our survey shows that Station KSRO has a listening audience of 150,000 persons. This does not take into account Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, San Francisco or any of the cities about the bay, in many of which reception is fully as good as it is here.
In some ways that moment was as significant as the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge for Sonoma county. KSRO had brought all of us closer together via its news coverage during the flood. And although Finley was thinking of the promotional value of the station luring Bay Area residents, it also meant we could take part of our community with us when we went away.
As your car crossed the beautiful bridge and the northern counties slipped from sight behind the city hills, the signal might become crackly and drift in and out – but it would always be a steady beacon which would later guide you home.
“I am the king of Siam,” the young man told the Marshal.
The officer and the hotelkeeper knew very well that he was not the king of Siam, who was not likely to be staying at the United States Hotel in Cloverdale. His name was Ed and he was well known, having lived in the town as recently as five years earlier.
“I am the king of Siam,” Ed repeated, adding that he had just killed several men, primary among them a judge whom he had shot 43 times. On a table behind him could be seen two revolvers, one covered in blood.
This scene took place at 2:30 in the morning on October 29, 1891, not long after he had drawn those guns on an elderly man, firing seven times. Four of the bullets hit the victim in the face but incredibly did no serious damage – his forehead was grazed along with the bridge of his nose, an eye tooth was knocked out and a bullet passed through his neck wattle.1 The shaken old fellow walked unaided to a nearby doctor’s house where his wounds were dressed.
(RIGHT: Edward J. Livernash, SF Examiner, Oct. 29 1892)
The next day Ed was taken to Santa Rosa, where a sanity hearing was immediately held in the judge’s chambers. Questioned about the shooting, he “told a story which revealed the workings of a mind that is in the habit of making excursions on its own account,” according to the Democrat newspaper, insisting that he had used eight guns to shoot the old man (whom he believed was actually someone else in disguise) 48 times. At the end of the hearing he was committed to the Napa asylum, “there to he held in custody until his sanity or insanity has been demonstrated.”
Normally this would have been the end of our story, and Ed would have been salted away at the asylum at Napa or elsewhere for the rest of his life. Yet five months later he was free awaiting trial and walking around Santa Rosa greeting friends. How could this be? That’s because he was not your average homicidal lunatic – he was Edward J. Livernash.
At the time of the assault Livernash was 23 years old and that was not the first time he had done something considered insane. An episode from just a month earlier will be told in a following part of this series; his peculiar life which followed the trial will be explored in part three.
Sanity questions aside, everyone recognized Livernash was absolutely brilliant. He had founded a newspaper (the Pacific Sentinel in Cloverdale) at age 14 and sold it two years later to buy the paper in the town of Sonoma. Before his 18th birthday Ed had passed the bar exam and was an attorney.
His smarts were well known in Sonoma County which often led people to give him plenty of slack – and nor did it hurt that he was married to the daughter of Judge Overton, one of the most influential men in this neck of the woods. His privilege can be seen in the gentle handling of his case in Santa Rosa’s Democrat newspaper. For trial coverage locals had to turn to the big San Francisco papers, particularly the Examiner. The Democrat didn’t even print the findings of the preliminary hearing held in Cloverdale, which included details that made the shooting appear less like the impetuous action of a madman and more like an attempt at premeditated murder.2
Livernash knew the 71 year-old man, Darius Ethridge, well from his time in Cloverdale; Ethridge was a wealthy bachelor and supposedly had no relatives. Days prior to the shooting, Livernash sent him a letter asking Ethridge to stay up late on a certain night because he would be passing through and wanted to conduct a business deal. Livernash signed the letter as A. P. Overton, his father-in-law.
When Livernash arrived in Cloverdale, he met Ethridge and said Judge Overton and others were coming later that evening to buy his livery stable. He gave Ethridge a gift bottle of what he said was fine wine. Authorities later determined the wine was poisoned with prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide).
Livernash returned to his hotel room intending to rest but could not sleep. Around 2AM he climbed down from his second floor balcony with his revolvers and headed for Ethridge’s house.3
Rousing Ethridge from bed, they made smalltalk while supposedly waiting for the others. Livernash remarked on two portraits on the wall and was told those were his niece and nephew. “I thought you had no relatives,” Livernash said.
(RIGHT: Darius Ethridge, SF Examiner, Oct. 29 1892)
Livernash became restless and began pacing. He put $150 on the table as good faith money towards buying the stable and asked Ethridge to write a receipt, but then stopped the old man from taking the money.
Suddenly Livernash pulled out his guns and pointed them at Ethridge’s face. “Make out your will in my favor or I will kill you, God damn you!”
“You would not kill me would you?” asked the startled man. Livernash began firing the guns. Ethridge ran out the door and made his way to the doctor. When he returned home after Livernash was in custody, he found the $150 and the receipt gone, along with the letter forged with Judge Overton’s name.
News of the incident reached Santa Rosa the next morning, where it immediately became the talk of the town. From the Daily Democrat:
The town is divided in opinion on the case. Some say he is crazy, while others say it was a premeditated attempt at murder, as Mr. Ethridge is an old bachelor with no known relatives and quite wealthy, and if Livernash could have scared him into making his will he would have forced him to drink the poison or shot him and people would thought he committed suicide. The will would probably have stood, as there were no relatives to contest it and no one who would ever have suspected anything wrong, as Mr. Ethridge used to be a great friend to the Livernash’s when they lived in Cloverdale.
What did seem suspicious was that Livernash seemed to be able to turn the crazy talk off in a snap. After his arrest he was allowed to remain in his hotel room overnight under guard of the town constable, it appears all the king of Siam jabber ended. He sent a telegram to the most prominent lawyer in Santa Rosa, asking him to stand in his defense. He tried to bribe the constable to let him sneak back into the scene of the crime. He asked for the return of his blood-stained shirt cuffs, commenting that he knew as a lawyer that they could be used as evidence against him.
At the preliminary hearing following his release from Napa the court also was told by Dr. Gardner, Superintendent of the asylum, that Livernash was a somnambulist and at the time of the shooting was unaware of what he was doing.
The judge would have none of that. While acknowledging that Livernash’s mind may have unhinged after the shooting, everything he had done up to that point showed he was sane. Edward J. Livernash was ordered to be tried in Santa Rosa for attempted murder.
WHAT WAS WRONG WITH LIVERNASH?
Was he actually mentally impaired in some way, or faking it to avoid punishment? Here are some possibilities, which might have also existed in combination:
* He suffered hallucinations because of temporary psychosis caused by acute sleep depravation (he had chronic insomnia and regularly used chloroform or a “sleeping powder”)
* He sometimes lost touch with reality because of a neurological disorder such as schizophrenia
* He had a chronic inflammation of the brain such as encephalitis (his cause of death at age 70 was post-encephalitic syndrome)
* He had a rare form of temporal lobe epilepsy where seizures were followed by spontaneous acts of violence and amnesia (“petit mal intellectuel” or postictal agression) which his brother reportedly sometimes exhibited
* He had bouts of delirium which caused personality changes
* He had delusional thinking which led him to take daring risks and believe he could get away with crimes
* He was an addict recklessly cycling between drugs to put him to sleep and keep him alert
The trial opened exactly a year after the shooting. Little new evidence was introduced – the whole case rested on whether or not Livernash was in a “somnambulistic state” while he was blasting away.
One new detail solved a lingering mystery: Why didn’t Ethridge drink any of the poisoned wine? He might have, until Livernash said it came from the hotel where he was staying. It turned out Ethridge believed there was a conspiracy against him by others in Cloverdale, and the owner of the U.S. Hotel had been paid $500 to poison him. As the reporter for the Examiner quipped, “a little insanity has before been proven a very good thing.”
The centerpiece of the defense’s case was to be Dr. Gardner placing Livernash into a hypnotic trance on the witness stand, where he would be able to recall in exquisite detail all the events of that night. Before Gentle Reader snorts at this premise, recall all this is taking place in the early 1890s. In the sources transcribed below is the description of a popular lecture given in Santa Rosa shortly after the trial, where our ancestors were told that hypnotism exercised a spiritual “sixth sense” and that the hypnotist’s power over the subject “was far greater than it is possible for any man to exercise over his own mind or body.” Good grief.
That was also an era when we believed the mentally deranged could toggle between good/evil personalities. The gruesome Jack the Ripper murders happened just four years prior and were still talked about (the same issue of the Democrat that reported Livernash’s assault also had an item about a Ripper-like killing in Germany) and it was assumed that Jack lived an otherwise respectable and nondescript life. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was both a best-seller and a popular stage play in the year before Livernash’s trial, while the San Francisco Examiner introduced its trial coverage with a headline calling him “an involuntary Jekyll and Hyde.”
The courtroom exhibition began with Dr. Gardner holding a small mirror in front of Livernash. Soon his eyes were unfocused and half closed. Dr. Wachendorf, the expert for the prosecution, approached Livernash and pulled a punch aimed at his eyes. He did not flinch. Dr. Gardner stuck pins in his cheek, ear and hands. He did not react. Then he was asked to tell his story.
The first part was dreamlike nonsense with a crying baby, seeking a man named Smith and wandering the streets. He told of sending the letter asking Ethridge to stay up and signing Judge Overton’s name to it.
“I went to Cloverdale to work out a scheme I had,” he said. “There was a general conspiracy among those men against me.”
“Those men” were led by San Francisco Judge Joachimsen, who had fined Livernash $100 in the incident discussed in the next part of this series. There were fifteen in all, including his brother, father-in-law, most lawyers in Santa Rosa and the reincarnated presidents George Washington, Benjamin Harrison and James Garfield.
“I wanted to make sure whether Ethridge was a man who ought to be on the list,” he said, and asked the hotel owner about him. Livernash said he was told that Ethridge was an “obstacle to progress” and “it would be a godsend if he were taken out of the way.” (Maybe the old man had good reason to be paranoid about his neighbors!) Livernash met Ethridge and they looked at the stable, with an understanding that Livernash would return with Overton and make the deal.
Back in his hotel room, he began to worry The Fifteen might show up early. “If they got to drinking they might not drink my stuff,” he said. So he took his poisoned bottle over to Ethridge (climbing down from the room’s balcony) and declared it was choice wine for Judge Overton. He went back to his room (“it was hard to climb up, but easy to go down”) and tried to sleep, but couldn’t find his sleeping powder.
Late that night was the confrontation. As soon as he saw Ethridge, he knew he was really Joachimsen in disguise. “I found confirmation of all my fears and all my suspicions…they wouldn’t fool me any longer.” Livernash pulled out his guns and ordered him (Ethridge? Joachimsen?) to make out his will:
He wrote a couple of words and turned round as quick as a flash and grasped one of my revolvers. Then there was no foolishness. If he got that revolver I was a goner. I felt as weak as I could. He struck out and hit me, but do you suppose be could hurt me? Not the least particle. I was invulnerable. He fought like a tiger, but it had no effect. I kept shooting at him, I judge forty-three times.
Asked by the prosecutor if he thought he had a right to shoot him, Livernash replied “Think? I know it! He was transgressing one of the fundamental and ultimate principles of fate – of nature.”
Livernash described his arrest, being the king of Siam and such, although his version had, as the Examiner put it, “his eerie, insane philosophies permeating it all.” Dr. Gardner told him to wake up from his trance. He seemed flustered and noticed a needle was still in the back of his hand and he pulled it out, wincing.
The next day Livernash testified without hypnosis. “His story was plausible, logical, and though simply told, forceful and dramatic. Surely there is much beside insanity in that long head with the shock of tumbled hair,” reported the Examiner. “He could have more than held his own with any man in the courtroom, or with all.”
The big news in court that day was that Livernash couldn’t buy a small dose of prussic acid from a druggist, so he went to a wholesaler where he purchased two pounds worth. “Answering a quirk of his crazy brain, he might have wiped out a city,” gasped the Examiner reporter.
Dr. Wachendorf testily told the court that Livernash was faking and not acting like someone actually under hypnosis. In later cross-exam, it was revealed that Wachendorf was no expert on hypnotism and barely a doctor. He had obtained a degree in homeopathy just a few months before and learned about hypnotism via “instruction from different experimenters.” He expounded at some length on his theory that the phase of the moon affects “natural somnambulists,” which amused the Napa doctors greatly.
Dr. Gardner also told the court that he had proved Livernash could not be faking. The night before at the asylum he was placed in a trance and a bottle of concentrated ammonia was placed under his nose for a minute, without him having the slightest reaction. The powerful-smelling bottle was passed around members of the jury, but for reasons not explained, the prosecutor took Gardner’s word that he had been unresponsive so the test was not performed in court, much to the disappointment of spectators.
The case went to the jury, who were out for 30 hours. They came back undecided, with eight voting for conviction and four against. Livernash was held over to await retrial.
Back at the Napa asylum, Livernash wrote to Congressman Thomas J. Geary. “Friend Geary: Will you come to the rescue and get me out of the unfortunate muddle in which I am involved?”
Geary was the attorney who Livernash telegraphed the night of his arrest and had represented him at the arraignment in Santa Rosa. As he was in the area while campaigning for reelection he also testified at the trial as a character witness – never mind that Livernash had named Geary among The Fifteen men he wanted to kill.
In his letter Livernash seemed awfully sane, complaining his defense attorneys made mistakes which almost led to his conviction because they were not “pushing forward the theory of hypnotism with overwhelming evidence of insanity” that should have put acquittal within “easy reach.”
He had three lawyers at his first trial, but at the next one he would be representing himself alone. That risky decision could have been driven by the manic side of his personality or by necessity. Everyone assumed his wife’s father had paid for his defense, but now that it was revealed Overton was among The Fifteen – not to mention that Livernash had exploited his name to trick Ethridge – it would be understandable for Pops-in-law to not feel so generous anymore. Livernash further told Geary that he wanted to hire the lawyer/congressman although he was “not in a position to pay a cash fee” at the present time.
The second trial began about five months after the first. It was less about evidence than flair.
Jury selection took two days because Livernash examined each “very particularly as to the jurors’ association with various prominent citizens and as to their ideas of hypnotism and insanity” (Sonoma Democrat). This time there would be no courtroom hypnosis; what he was seeking was to discover if they believed in what was then often called “auto-hypnosis” – that the meek-looking overachiever could suddenly be triggered to turn into a monster.
His defense was simply that he sometimes went crazy – as did others in his family – and at those times was unable to distinguish between right and wrong. He introduced this argument in what was called a “brilliant opening statement” (SF Chronicle):
The theory of hypnotism, so strongly dwelt upon at the first trial, was not adhered to. Livernash claimed that he would be able to prove that be inherited from his parents an impaired nervous system, and that in his constitution there had always been lurking a tendency which, if unchecked, might develop into insanity.
In his defense he called several witnesses (including Geary again) who testified that, yeah, he went nuts sometimes. The Napa doctors came back and said again that he really had blackouts and wasn’t faking. The prosecutor brought out those various prominent citizens (including Exchange Bank founder Matt Doyle) who said Livernash was completely untrustworthy. The biggest excitement came when the county assessor was called and said, “I won’t go on the stand until that man is searched. He is a dangerous man and may have weapons and might hurt somebody.”
The retrial wrapped up with another show of his eloquence. As the Healdsburg Tribune put it, “His plea to the jury was one of the most remarkable ever heard in Santa Rosa. It abounded in brilliant metaphor and biting sarcasm.” He spoke for five hours.
The case went to the jury and they were out but seven minutes. Verdict: Not guilty. Ed Livernash walked out of the courthouse a free man.
COMMENTARY: As of this writing (2021), I’ve pondered over the Livernash case for eight years. In that time more newspapers have come online that added new details (particularly coverage of the first trial), although they haven’t significantly changed the story. There are also now many more medical resources available on the internet which discuss the various psychological or physical conditions he might have suffered, as are listed above. (An interesting paper: “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: a case of epilepsy in the late nineteenth century“.)
My conclusion is that there is no simple binary explanation. At some points of his life he did abnormal things – but mostly he was completely rational and a man of extraordinary accomplishments. There are three episodes to the story for Gentle Armchair Detective to consider separately:
PLOTTING THE CRIME There is little doubt he schemed over several days (weeks?) to make himself the beneficiary in Ethridge’s will before murdering him with the poison. He bought the revolvers, bought the the poison, wrote the fake Overton letter and traveled to Cloverdale, all acts which seem to show he acted with deliberation and premeditation – but whether he could have executed such a detailed plan while in his “Mr. Hyde” persona must also be weighed. Note he also had motive, as up that point in his life he was perpetually broke.
BEHAVIOR DURING THE ASSAULT Livernash either intended to force Ethridge to drink the poison after writing his will or hoped he would already be dead after having sampling the wine when alone – in that case, he presumably planned to forge the will. The plan fell apart when he saw the portraits on the wall and realized the old man did have heirs (after Ethridge died in 1894, the Cloverdale City Marshal had little trouble finding his niece in San Jose). That led him to draw his guns and begin firing wildly, which can only be considered a moment of raw madness.
BEHAVIOR AT THE FIRST TRIAL It’s my firm belief that his trance testimony was completely faked. The king of Siam business was laughable, like a child’s idea of what a crazy person might say. The tale he told the court in his “trance,” in contrast, was a complex narrative involving a conspiracy of reincarnated presidents (among others) and the man he hated having taken possession of Ethridge’s body.
From their testimony, Gardner and the other asylum doctors showed they were entranced (sorry) by Livernash, who was not the run-of-the-mill lunatic they normally treated. He was very, very smart and exhibited no evidence of mental impairment aside from a dependency on sleeping aids. Dr. Gardner spoke excitedly of having “discovered his real condition” – that his patient had an exceedingly rare condition “that made him capable of leading a dual life.” But as Livernash wrote to Geary, his own objective wasn’t to be cured of a mental illness – he was just trying to be acquitted due to “overwhelming evidence of insanity.”
Over the course of his months at the Napa asylum, it appears the doctor and the patient developed a codependent relationship. The doctor was given an exciting case study in the burgeoning field of psychology – and in turn, he inadvertently coached Livernash in developing a story about somnambulism which would hold water with other doctors. Together they needed to sell that yarn to the public to advance the doctor’s reputation and obtain the patient’s freedom. And together, they did just that, convincing a jury he used to be a murderous Mr. Hyde but now he’s back to Dr. Jekyll, completely cured and perfectly harmless. As it turned out, this wasn’t a milestone in the progress of medical science or legal precedent; it was, however, one helluva show, and something that Santa Rosa still talked about years later.
COMING NEXT: SUCH A VERY STRANGE MAN
1 Although it was agreed that he was struck four times, newspaper descriptions of his injuries were inconsistent over the following two years. It was variously reported he was shot twice in a shoulder, that a bullet passed through his mouth and through both cheeks, that each cheek was grazed and the tip of his nose was now missing.
2 The court report on the preliminary examination appeared in the Cloverdale Reveille, April 30 1892. Several details vary from later testimony as reported in the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle.
3 From Livernash trial testimony in the San Francisco Examiner, October 29 1892.
Old Man Ethridge Shot by E. J. Livernash. Strange Story Concerning the Conduct of the Attempted Slayer. THE CLOVERDALE TRAGEDY Ed. J. Livernash the Author of the Shooting, Pronounced Insane.
A report from Cloverdale that E. J. Livernash, formerly editor of the Healdsburg Enterprise, and more recently of the Livermore Herald, had shot and killed a man by the name of Darius Ethridge caused a great sensation, and was the principal topic of discussion on the streets for the rest of the day. The reports were very conflicting and unsatisfactory. It was first stated that the shooting was the outgrowth of a quarrel over a poker game, and later it became noised about that Livernash had borrowed money from Ethridge for a legitimate business enterprise, and that they quarreled over a settlement. No one could judge between the accuracy and truth of these and many other rumors, and people waited anxiously for the arrival of the afternoon train from Cloverdale, in the expectation that Livernash would be brought to the county jail.
The supposition proved correct, and with the arrival of the 3:30 train came Livernash in the charge of a Deputy Sheriff from Healdsburg, and accompanied by his attorney T. J. Geary, his brother, John Livernash. Dr. Weaver and M. Minehan, of Cloverdale. He was taken at once to Judge Dougherty’s chambers in the oourt-house, and no time was lost in summoning another physician to participate in the examination of his mental condition.
The story of the shooting was related to Judge Dougherty and the physicians by T. J. Geary and Mr. Minehan. It seems that Livernash arrived in Cloverdale on the evening train Wednesday and went directly to the United States Hotel. Mr. Minehan, the proprietor, noticed that he was feeling badly and did not eat. He sat in the hotel office reading a paper for some time, and at the suggestion of Mr. Minehan went to bed. He arose and dressed himself between 1 and 2 o’clock and went across the street to a small house occupied by Ethridge. As soon as he entered the room he told Ethridge that Judge Overton and Mr. McElarney were coming up on the morning train from Santa Rosa to buy his (Ethridge’s) livery stable. Ethridge said he had no desire to sell his property, but Livernash urged that it was a fine bargain and threw $150 on the table in front of him as earnest money and asked for a receipt. While in the midst of their discussion about the proposed sale Livernash suddenly changed the subject by demanding that Ethridge should draw up his will and make Livernash his heir. Mr. Ethridge very naturally declined to do so, whereupon Livernash drew two revolvers and began shooting. He stood very close to Ethridge, and the bullets flew around the latter’s head like pellets of ice in a hailstorm, and four took effect. One passed through the fleshy part of the throat under the chin, another grazed the bridge of the nose, and the other two abraised the skin on either cheek. None of the wounds were serious.
Livernash thought he had killed the man and returned to his room in the hotel. When the constable and marshal, with Mr. Minehan, knocked at his door, he opened it immediately. He was dressed and the two revolvers laid on a table farther in the room. He told the officers that be had killed several men and informed them where the bodies were to be found. He was particularly certain that Ethridge was Judge Joachimsen, of San Francisco, who he said had closed out his business in San Francisco and opened chambers in Cloverdale. At the intercession of Mr. Minehan he was allowed to remain in his room the rest of the night in charge of the constable.
When a Democrat reporter entered Judge Dougherty’s chambers Livernash was weeping and his brother, John, was trying to comfort him. He did not recognize the Democrat representative at first, but a few words recalled his memory and he shook hands in a passive way. Before Dr. Smith arrived Livernash approached the reporter and expressed the hope as best he could in a choked voice that the Democrat would not make sport of his misfortune. The request was a natural one and his manner failed to reveal any taint of insanity.
When questioned as to his conduct at Cloverdale he told a story which revealed the workings of a mind that is in the habit of making excursions on its own account, unaccompanied by its guardian’s reason and will power. He said he had gone to bed at the suggestion of Mr. Minehan, but finding he could not sleep, had gotten up and dressed and started out for a long walk. He wanted to go to his father’s old place of business, about which clustered a thousand tender memories. If he could stand in front of the old place once more he thought he might give vent to the feelings within him. At this point he broke down and sobs choked his voice. He soon regained his composure and told about drawing up ten wills for people living in Cloverdale, and then he went off into a rambling account of his grievances against Judge Joachimsen, of San Francisco, before whom he was taken after his masquerading escapade. He knew the Judge had gone to Cloverdale. In fact he had seen him, and knew he was in the house where he found Ethridge. When he entered the house Ethridge told him that be was not Judge Joachimsen, and in order to humor the man he pretended to believe that he was talking to Ethridge and not Judge Joachimsen. He said he knew all the time, though, that the Judge was deceiving him, and he watohed tor a chance and began firing at him. He thought he had put forty-eight bullets into the Judge’s body. The next he remembered was running down the street and into the arms of a man. The man grabbed him so that he could not shoot and then robbed him of $600 in gold which he had in his right-hand trousers pocket. A hundred and fifty dollars in his other pocket was not touched. He tried to shoot the man but could not. During the oourse of his rambling story he took ocoasion to explain the two kinds of sleep to which he is accustomed. One, he said, was a semi-consciousness where the mind was free to act, but without the aid of the will power. The other was darkness, a total blankness which he characterized as a natural slumber.
John Livernash testified that he had noticed a change in his brother ten months ago. He, Ed, had not been able to sleep, and when he did doze off his slumber was accompanied by constant talking and muttering. He knew that he had been in the habit of taking narcotics for some time.
Without many minutes lost in deliberation the physicians pronounced Livernash insane and his commitment to the Napa Asylum was made out and signed. He will be taken to the asylum to-day.
We later learn that Judge Dougherty has ordered the Sheriff to hold Livernash until further order is made, as the fact of his arrest upon a complaint filed in the Justice Court of Cloverdale township was not made known at the examination.
Another Account. Special to the Democrat.
Cloverdale, Oct. 29.—Ed. J. Livernash, the young man who created a sensation by appearing on the streets of San Francisco in the disguise of a negro woman, added another link to his unenviable reputation in this town this morning by shooting and dangerously wounding D. Ethridge, at his home in this place. Mr. Ethridge, who is an old bachelor, was awakened this morning about 2 o’clock by a rap on his door. He got up and found it was Ed. Livernash, who told him he had a purchaser for his livery stable, and wanted to pay him some money on it so as to bind the contract, as he wanted to leave on the early train. Mr. Ethridge, suspecting nothing, invited him in, when Livernash counted out $150 and laid it on the table, setting a bottle on the table at the same time. He then pulled out a contract and asked Mr. Ethridge to sign it, which he did. When Mr. Ethridge had signed the contract he looked up and found Livernash pointing two revolvers in his face. At the same time Livernash demanded that he make a will, leaving all his property to him (Livernash). Instead of complying with his demand Mr. Ethridge grabbed him, when Livernash fired at him three times in rapid succession, one shot just touching the nose, knocking the skin off, another just grazing the mouth, knocking out a tooth, and one hitting him in the neck, passing through the flesh, making a very serious wound. Livernash then grabbed the money he had counted out on the table and the contract Ethridge had signed, jumped out the door and disappeared. Mr. Ethridge then walked over to Dr. Mason’s residence and had his wounds dressed. In the mean time the City Marshal, J. S. Conner, was notified and went to hunt Livernash and arrest him. He found him at 2:30 a. m., one-half hour after the shooting, locked in a room at the U. S. Hotel, where the Marshal placed him under arrest. He had in his possession when arrested two revolvers, one of which was cocked and had blood all over it, showing how close he was to his intended victim when he did the shooting.
The City Marshal then went around to the residence of Mr. Ethridge and secured the bottle Livernash left setting on the table and failed to take when be grabbed the money and contract, and found it contained a deadly poison. When arrested Livernash said he was the king of Siam and that he had shot Judge Joachimsen, or some such name. He said he did not take his sleep powder last night and felt bad.
The town is divided in opinion on the case. Some say he is crazy, while others say it was a premeditated attempt at murder, as Mr. Ethridge is an old bachelor with no known relatives and quite wealthy, and if Livernash could have scared him into making his will he would have forced him to drink the poison or shot him and people would thought he committed suicide. The will would probably have stood, as there were no relatives to contest it and no one who would ever have suspected anything wrong, as Mr. Ethridge used to be a great friend to the Livernash’s when they lived in Cloverdale. Livernash was taken before Justice Abraham this afternoon, who ordered him to be sent to Santa Rosa for trial.
– Daily Democrat, October 30 1891
Judge Dougherty made another order Friday night committing Livernash to the asylum at Napa, there to he held in custody until his sanity or insanity has been demonstrated. If he proves to be sane he will be brought back for his preliminary examination on charge of assault to murder, but in the event that his mental irregularities are genuine and not purposely induced he will remain in the asylum.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 7 1891
Wants a Jury Vindication.
Santa Rosa, March 15. It has been learned that Ed J. Livernash, the Livermore newspaperman, who was arrested for masquerading in female attire in San Francisco last Fall, and who afterward attempted to kill Davis Ethridge at Cloverdale, will be brought here for trial on the latter charge next month. After Livernash’s attempt to shoot Ethridge he was examined on a charge of insanity and committed to the Napa Asylum, where he has been ever since. He is in a fair way to recovery, and as soon as discharged from that institution he will be brought here for trial. His relatives will insist that he be tried, as many have charged that he was not crazy when he made the attack on Ethridge, and they desire to see him vindicated by a jury.
– The Napa Register, March 18 1892
Ed. Livernash called on us Monday. He is looking quite well.
– Sonoma Democrat, April 16 1892
EVIDENCE AND DECISION IN THE LIVERNASH CASE. Justice’s Court, Cloverdale Township April 26, 1892. THE PEOPLE VS. ED. J. LIVERNASH.
Preliminary examination of defendant on the charge of felonious assault with deadly weapon upon one Darius Ethndge, held April 6, 1892. The prosecution proved, among other things the following:
The defense then established the following:
That the defendant was of a very nervous temperament and that the least trouble or excitement would cause him great mental distress which would be followed by his being low spirited, melancholy and moody lasting for period of days. That while in this condition he was always quiet and orderly with one or two exceptions.
The evidence of Dr. Gardner, Superintendent of the Napa Insane Asylum, was to the effect that the defendant was a somnambulist; that his condition was such that he was living a dual life; that is he was subject to frequent moments of unconsciousness and at the same time acting and doing things of which he knew nothing when he would return to his lucid moments. That at the time of the committal of the deed, by the defendant, he was in this somnambulistic state, and that it was some time after the defendant was placed under his care at the Napa Insane Asylum before he was able to restore him to his normal condition. The Doctor further stated in his testimony that after studying the case of the defendant he discovered his real condition and became able himself to put the defendant asleep when desired, and could have perfect control over him, having the defendant do whatsoever he commanded.
The defendant was proven to be a person having a highly disordered, nervous organization and that great excitement would throw him in a state of somnambulism. It is perfectly consistent with the theory of sanity that he was conscious of the act and for weeks prior thereto and having worked himself up to a state of great excitement consequent upon the shooting he shortly afterward lapsed into the somnambulistic state. Believing then that the defendant was sane at the time of the shooting it is ordered that defendant be held to appear before the Superior Court with bail fixed at $3000.
– Cloverdale Reveille, April 30 1892
SLEEP PROMPTS MURDER. Remarkable Somnambulistic Affection of E. J. Livernash. He Is Held on a Charge of Attempting te Kill a Cloverdale Citizen for Refusing te Make a Will in His Favor.
[Special to the Examiner.] Santa Rosa, April 26.- Ed. J. Livernash, the young man who created a sensation in San Francisco last October by appearing on the streets disguised as a negro woman, and who, the morning of October 29th, created great excitement in Cloverdale by attempting to kill D. Ethridge of that place, has been held to appear before the Superior Court for trial. Livernash’s preliminary hearing was held before Justice Abraham of Cloverdale two weeks ago, but decision was not rendered until this afternoon.
The trial promises to be one of the most interesting ever known in California. Livernash claims to have been in a somnambulistic condition when he made his attempt to kill Ethridge, and that he knows nothing about the affair.
The morning of the assault he went to Ethridge’s house and ordered him to make a will in his favor, leaving him all his property. Ethridge demurred, and then Livernash fired four shots at him, two of which took effect, but only slight wounds were inflicted. Livernash was arrested, and told such wild stories about having put forty bullets into Judge Joachimsen of San Francisco who, he said, had assumed the person of Ethridge, that he was examined for insanity and committed to Napa Asylum. A few weeks ago he was discharged from that institution and pronounced cured. He was then brought back here to answer to the criminal charge preferred against him.
At the preliminary examination at Cloverdale Drs. Gardner and Robertson of Napa testified that Livernash was subject to a somnambulistic influence that made him capable of leading a dual life, and that when in his somnambulistic state ha was not accountable for what he did. In their opinion he was in that condition when he made the attack on Ethridge. Opinion is divided upon the matter among the Sonoma county people, and the case will be stubbornly contested on both sides.
– The San Francisco Examiner, April 27 1892
An information has been filed against Ed. Livernash, charging him with an assault with intent to commit murder. His arraignment has been set for next Monday,
– Sonoma Democrat, May 14 1892
HE HYPNOTIZED HIMSELF. The Remarkable Defense In the Case of E. J. Livernash. AN INVOLUNTARY JEKYLL AND HYOE. It Is Claimed That the Assailant of Ethridge, the Cloverdale Capitalist, Was Mentally Irresponsible.
– The San Francisco Examiner, October 26 1892
MENTAL FREAKS AND FANCIES. An Extraordinary Trial Now in Progress in the Superior Court of Sonoma County. The Wonderfully Endowed Mind of E. J. Livernash “Jangled Out of Tune” Whether He Sleeps or Wakes. IS HE SOMNAMBULIST OR LUNATIC?
– The San Francisco Examiner, October 28 1892
HIS MIND ON COURT PARADE. Livernash, the Duplex Mental Wonder of Sonoma, Appears Before the Bar in a Trance. An Exhibition of Dual Intellect practically Seen for the First Time in Any American Court. TELLS HIS CRIME UNDER A SPELL.
The trial of Edward J. Livernash at Santa Rosa yesterday developed something startlingly unique in California courts – probably in all the courts of America and possibly in the courts of the world…
…The skies were “ashen and sober” on the morning of this “lonesome October” day, entirely befitting the story of a clouded mind and of a man in a trance, conscienceless, purposeless and uncontrollable, ready to commit murder at any suggestion of his crooked brain – a roaming, scheming monster, like that of Frankenstein.
– The San Francisco Examiner, October 29 1892
…Ethridge testified to-day aa follows: “I received a letter from the defendant from San Francisco stating that he had a purchaser for my stable and arranging for a meeting at my place on the evening of October 28th. Livernash came to my house in the evening and said the purchaser would arrive that night and asked me to remain up. At 11 o’clock he came over with a bottle containing a liquid, saying that it was a choice wine. He returned to his room at the hotel and at 1 o’clock knocked at my door saying the parties were in town and would be over presently. He paid down $150 to bind the bargain and when I attempted to take the money told me to leave it alone.
“He then drew two revolvers and pointing them at my head commanded me to make my will, leaving everything to him. I told him that I could not write and he replied, ‘Write quick or I’11 kill you!’ I said, ‘You would not kill me would you?’ Immediately he fired seven times, six shot taking effect but not seriously. I ran for a doctor and on my return found the light out and the money and receipt gone.”
– The San Francisco Chronicle, October 29 1892
LIVERNASH HIMSELF AGAIN. With Mind in Fine Poise He Patches With Sanity the Breaks in the Story of insanity. But With All His Weird Actions and Unnatural Impulses Dr. Wachendorf Persists He Was Shamming. HIS BROTHER’S MENTAL MALADY. Enough Poison in the Hands of an Uncontrolled Madman to Have Wiped Out a City – The Man of Two Lives shows Himself at his Best, Fencing the Attorneys With Rare Skill and Enthralling His Hearers With the Dramatic Vividness of His Recital.
Santa Rosa, October 29.-Yesterday developed Edward J. Livernash in a hypnotic trance, peering with glum eyes into the beyond, and living over again the days of a year ago, when, moved by grisly fancies, be walked tba earth to murder men and ghosts. To-day found him at himself – out of the spell, acute, argumentative, dramatic – justifying Dr. Gardner’s estimate of him: “One of tba brightest men in tbe State of California.”
– The San Francisco Examiner, October 30 1892
PUT TO THE AMMONIA TEST. Experts Subject Livernash to the Influence of the Pungent Drug. They Declare That the Result of the Experiment Proved Him to Be a True Hypnotic. NO SIMULATION BY THE ACCUSED. The Representations of Doctor Gardner and Robertson Disputed by Dr. Wachendorf, Who Discourses Elaborately on Moon and Magnetic Theories and the Differences Between Artificial and Natural Somnambulism – The Five Hundred Dollar Mystery Unsolved.
– The San Francisco Examiner, November 2 1892
18th Nov. ’92
Will you come to the rescue and get me out of the unfortunate muddle in which I am involved? Of course I refer to the charge of assault to murder pending against me.
Your absence in Washington and your subsequent duties on the street naturally forbids any request of the nature heretofore; but now that you are somewhat less engaged I hasten to ask your aid, feeling that if anybody in the state can clear me fully your are the man.
Confidentially, my case most damnably mismanaged at the trial recently concluded. The surprising thing to me was that a conviction did not result. Pushing forward the theory of hypnotism with overwhelming evidence of insanity [illegible] our easy reach was an almost fatal error and it was supplemented by a score of omissions and weaknesses that could readily have been avoided. And while I am not unmindful of the kindly intention of my attorneys, I have the greatest indisposition to have them appear for me at the second hearing.
You know my situation well enough to guess that I am not in a position to pay a cash fee; but you may also guess that I know the value of the service I solicit and would compensate you at the earliest opportunity. Once I get upon my feet again I think I can reach out for opportunities as well as though the calamity had not befallen me.
ting together whatever is likely to be useful in the direct examination of our experts and in the cross examination of experts called by the People.
Now, my dear Geary, this request is put forth in the utmost earnestness. If you can at all imagine to appear for me you will have my gratitude through life. I am nearly worn out by Burnett’s vindictive persecution and I feel that you can clear the trouble away in a manner that will silence opposition and leave my future unclouded by suspicion.
I shall be here for a fortnight to come, and a letter addressed to me at the asylum will be promptly delivered.
E. J. Livernash
Dr. Truesdell’s Lecture.
In Dr. Truesdell’s opening lecture on Hypnotism at Armory Hall Friday evening the lecturer presented the expert testimony of the doctors as given in the Livernash trial, and then proceeded to show that tbe spiritual power of the hypnotizer over the subject was far greater than it is possible for any man to exercise over his own mind or body, and hence a power for good or evil of fearful magnitude, and one that could be controlled for good only by knowledge and law, and not by ignorance or prejudice.
He claimed that the sixth sense was a spiritual, and not a physical sense, as seeing, hearing, etc., and could only be understood through the facts of hypnotism, somnambulism, trance, clairvoyance, etc., and could only be relied upon when truth appealed through it.
He also showed how the well [sic] were paralyzed by hypnotism or the paralyzed restored by the same power. At the close of the lecture questions were asked in relation to important points of distinction between hypnotism, somnambulism and mental and spiritual influences, in which a prominent minister of this city proved himself most thoroughly informed on the whole question.
The doctor will continue his series of instructions on the same subject next Wednesday evening, at the same place.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 19 1892
HYPNOTISM HIS DEFENSE. Livernash on Trial Again at Santa Rosa. The Man Who Was Placed Under Mesmeric Influence to Testify In His Own Behalf-A Case Without Precedent.
Dear Luther Burbank: Will you please allow us to honor you by putting your name on our new elementary school? Sincerely, The Board of Education.
That was the gist of their February 1906 request, according to the Press Democrat, and a few days later an article followed about Burbank granting permission, “…but not without many misgivings as to my ability to hold up the reputation of such a fine institution. My deep interest in all children, as well as Santa Rosa in general, will be my apology for accepting this honor.”
Sure, old Luther poured on the faux humility a bit too thick, but he really did have a genuine affection for children, although he was never a parent. He wrote and spoke often about education and the importance of nurturing children (including some quirky ideas, such as they shouldn’t begin schooling until age ten). Burbank was famously impatient with adults who dropped by his Santa Rosa garden seeking an audience, but he always gave children his full attention, hoping to spark a lifelong love of nature. And for some reason he oddly felt compelled to entertain them by performing headstands and somersaults.
Why they wanted to name school after Burbank was obvious: In the same Press Democrat article he was called a “great scientist” and “Santa Rosa’s eminent citizen.” The year before, Burbank had been awarded an annual grant of $10,000 by the Carnegie Institution. As the prestigious Institution was known for funding only the pursuit of pure scientific research, Burbank suddenly was cast as a celebrity and a genius of world-class importance instead of merely a nursery man who produced novelty flower and vegetable seeds. (The deal ended bitterly for Burbank in 1909 amid a growing number of scientists calling him a charlatan – see the four part “BURBANK FOLLIES” series for more.)
But naming a school to tribute a person was a new thing around Santa Rosa. Previously schools were called after the school district – the Lewis district school, Llano district school, Monroe district school, and so on. In town grammar schools were named for the location: Davis street, South Park, Third street. A PD article in 1905 (transcribed below) pointed out that cities were now naming schools after presidents and other prominent men, so besides naming the new school after Burbank, the Fourth street school was renamed Fremont school at about the same time.
Burbank name aside, the school ran into a number of serious problems before its doors opened.
Santa Rosa schools were in poor condition and badly overcrowded; a 1904 muckraking series in the Republican newspaper reported that the 62 sixth graders at the Fourth street school were wedged into a classroom with a capacity for 46. Desks were so tightly packed that kids brushed against the arms of classmates when walking between the aisles of desks, and some didn’t have desks at all, but sat on stools. There was no electricity so the only light came from westside windows; heating was a coal stove in the middle of the room. Not a thing had been upgraded since the school was built in the 1870s.
It was generally recognized that any new school should be south of Santa Rosa Creek, as that area was being developed and growing quickly. A special election for a school bond failed just before Christmas 1904 – likely because the Press Democrat called the reports of overcrowding “gross exaggeration” – but passed the following March.
Nearly a year went by before the Burbank naming and construction started on the eight room schoolhouse. (All grammar schools covered grades 1-8. and this would also have an assembly hall, library, teacher’s lounge and separate boy/girl playrooms in the basement.) But work had barely begun before the project halted amid controversy and threats of violence.
Santa Rosa’s Labor Council called for a general strike in January 1906 and as the school was to be a stone and brick building, union bricklayers walked off the job. The local contractor then brought in scab workers from Los Angeles – without telling them they were coming here to break a strike. Complicating matters greatly was that the non-union, out-of-town bricklayers were African-American.
Instead of directing their anger towards the contractor, white union workers targeted Black men and one of them picked a fight with an African-American named Paul Anderson, unaware that he wasn’t part of the group from LA and actually lived here. According to the Republican paper, a white mob stalked him along Fourth street with Anderson carrying a length of pipe for self-defense in case they attacked. In spite of Anderson filing an assault charge against one of the men, the PD story on the incident cast Anderson as someone who was “looking for trouble” and who “ran amuck.” (The man he accused of assault, BTW, was a popular union leader and elected to City Council two years later.)
With much of downtown flattened, everyone in town had more pressing concerns than what to do with a barely-started schoolhouse. When the school board finally met with the contractor months later, the building was completely redesigned – it would now be wood frame and only one story, with the top floor to be determined. Apparently the only serious damage to what already had been built was part of the basement wall collapsing.
Plans changed again and the upper story was back; work was supposed to completed by October, then by Christmas, then by February. The doors finally opened on March 7, 1907 – Luther Burbank’s birthday. He gave an earnest address on kindness and happiness.
Years passed and two generations of Santa Rosa’s children were schooled there. All manner of poignant stories about the place can be found in the old newspapers. In 1928, 12 year-old Alta Waters wrote to the Press Democrat about Penny, a collie who lived at the school after being hit by a car; on Saturdays the kids took the dog to the movies with them. At the end of summer vacation “Penny would almost die of joy to see us all again.” There were shows performed for parents nearly every year, and the children ran a “student city” complete with a chamber of commerce, post office, clothing store, bank – and likely because this was Burbank school, there was also a garden club. In the 1930s they had Mrs. Gregg, a beloved principal who taught them puppetry while they made up plays together. I could go on for pages more about all that happened during those wonderful days.
Then in September 1938, a Republican headline read: “Fire Menace at Burbank Emphasized.” The problems were real but not particularly dire – the stairways were somewhat narrow and the fire escapes were rickety. The real incentive to rebuild the school, however, was that a federal grant would pay for 45 percent of new construction. The Republican article continued:
Burbank school erected in 1906, damaged by the earthquake and rebuilt on a substitute plan, is in bad state of repair requiring almost constant remodeling and costly replacement to keep it in usable condition, school officials said yesterday. Eventually because of fire hazard the 32-year-old structure must be torn down and replaced. Sponsors of the bond issue believe that the cheapest and best way to solve the problem is to take advantage of the federal funds now offered as an outright gift…
(RIGHT: The 1938 design for Luther Burbank School, William Herbert architect)
The school bond passed easily (six to one). Before the vote both city newspapers featured the preliminary drawing seen here. The designer for that and the school which was built was William Herbert, a local architect who was never accused of originality. Almost everything he produced was in this Spanish Colonial style; the final design was in the Streamline/PWA Moderne style introduced in Santa Rosa years before by Herbert’s former partner, Cal Caulkins.
The original schoolhouse was demolished in June, 1940. On that occasion the Republican offered something of an obituary: “Walls that for more than 33 years have echoed the laughter of happy children, the sing-song chant of students reading aloud their daily lessons, the quick steps of young Americans as they marched to and from their classes, started crumbling away yesterday…”
The article written by V. C. Silvershield ended: “Luther Burbank has passed on but his works will never die. Today Luther Burbank grammar school also will die — but the wreckers’ hammers cannot kill the spirit of Burbank — and like the Phoenix a new Luther Burbank grammar school will spring forth to carry on the traditions of “south of the creek.”
It will soon be in order for Santa Rosa to follow the lead of Oakland and build some schoolhouses worthy of the city. A school building should be erected south of Santa Rosa creek the coming summer.
– Santa Rosa Republican, April 27 1904
SCHOOL CHILDREN MUST HAVE ROOM Trustees Unanimous For a Bond Issue and Want a Durable Building
The members of the Board of Education of Court House School District will hold a special meeting tomorrow evening at the office of Secretary Fred G. Nagle to discuss the matter of providing Santa Rosa with adequate school facilities. At the present time there are practically three hundred children attending the schools for whom there is no provision for seats and desks. It is up to the Board of Education to provide additional room. This can only be done through a bond issue as the revenue of the schools at present is only adequate for the ordinary needs of the district.
At the present time there are one hundred more pupils in the Fourth street grammar school than ever before, and two hundred more than any previous record for this month. January and February are recognized as the heaviest school months and when this influx of pupils arrives the principal and teachers of the schools will be completely swamped…
…[Board Trustee] Albert O. Erwin— “We have pupils enough at the present time to fill five additional rooms and there is a great overflow of pupils from the Fourth-street and Davis-street schools. I believe there should be some arrangement for handling the pupils on the south side of Santa Rosa creek. There is a large and growing population in the south and southwest sections of the city which needs our attention. I should like to see a brick or stone building constructed of about eight rooms…
– Santa Rosa Republican, November 15, 1904
Resolved, That in the event of the voting and sale of the proposed bonds, it is hereby declared to be the intention of this board to build two new school buildings of brick or stone, and that it is their intention to locate one of them south of Santa Rosa creek upon such a convenient and central lot as it is possible to secure at a reasonable price…
– Board of Trustees of Court House School District, December 6, 1904
NAMES FOR SCHOOLS Suggestion Made Which Will Receive Consideration
Several times of late reference has been made at the meetings of the Board of Education to the inconvenience of the present method of designating the various schools in the district and suggestions have been made that the schools should each be given a distinctive name as in other cities. With the building of the new school south of the creek has come the suggestion that it shall be known as the “Burbank” school. As to the other schools it has been suggested that names of prominent men might be assigned. Oakland has its Lincoln, McKinley, Garfield and Swett schools, while all other cities have similar names for the schools.
– Press Democrat, November 3 1905
NEW SCHOOL HOUSE TO BE NAMED FOR LUTHER BURBANK Meeting of Board of Education
The Board of Education of Court House School District, at an adjourned meeting last night, decided to honor Santa Rosa’s eminent citizen, Luther Burbank, by naming her best and latest school building in his honor, providing he would consent to the action. The Board decided that the new ten-room stone and brick building at the corner of A and Ellis street, south of the creek should be called the “Luther Burbank School” in honor of the great scientist, and the secretary was directed to write and request Mr. Burbank to allow the use of his name by the school department in this manner.
– Press Democrat, February 14 1906
BURBANK WILL ACCEPT HONOR His Love for Children and Interest in Santa Rosa Excuse for So Doing
The request of the Board of Education for permission to use the name of Santa Rosa’s eminent scientist for its new eight room brick and stone school building being erected near his home, on A street at the corner of Ellis, has been accepted with the following characteristic reply from Mr. Burbank:
“Mr. Hugh C. Coltrln, Secretary Board of Education, Santa Rosa, California.
“My Dear Sir: I cannot be otherwise than highly pleased with the proposition of the Board of Education to name the beautiful new school building, at the corner of A and Ellis streets, the Luther Burbank school.
“I can only say that I feel wholly unworthy of such a compliment, but if this action is pleasing to the Board I shall accept the compliment, but not without many misgivings as to my ability to hold up the reputation of such a fine institution.
“My deep interest in all children, as well as Santa Rosa in general, will be my apology for accepting this honor.
“Heartily yours. Luther Burbank.”
– Press Democrat, February 21 1906
SCHOOL BOARD IN SESSION
…A considerable portion of the evening was spent in a discussion of the Burbank school reconstruction. Contractor Kuykendall and Sub-Contractor Nagle were present to confer with the board. At a late hour an adjournment was taken to Friday night…
– Press Democrat, June 27 1906
BOARD OF EDUCATION ADJUSTS THE LOSS
The Board of Education of Court House School District met Friday evening and adjusted the loss on the Burbank school building. The gross loss is estimated at $10,000 which will be reduced to one-half that amount by the salvage allowance of Contractor J. O. Kuykendall. On April 18 when the building was damaged there was due and had been paid the contractor the sum of $10,876.45 out of a contract price of $27,496.
The board decided to change the material of the building and instead of brick it will be constructed of wood. It will be a frame building from the basement up and the basement which was damaged will be rebuilt in the weak portions. At the present time only the lower floor will be completed and the building of the second story will be held in abeyance.
– Santa Rosa Republican, June 30, 1906
WORK IS PROGRESSING ON BURBANK SCHOOL
When driving go by the Burbank school building and note the progress now in evidence there. The frame for both stories is up and the diagonal sheeting is being put on. Contractor Kuykendall is pushing the work as rapidly as possible and he will endeavor to have the structure completed in October.
The frame of the building stands on the inner half of the foundation. This will admit of a curve at the base extending to the outside of the foundation wall and will give the structure pleasing effect.
As soon as the building is completed Colonel Juilliard will extend A street through to Lemmon & Barnett’s addition and the entire street will then be improved and will become a popular drive. This will make that section even more desirable for homes.
The Burbank will be the best ward school building in the city. It will be of handsome design and properly lighted, heated and ventilated. The south side of the town has made splendid progress the past two years and even better things are expected in the future.
– Santa Rosa Republican, August 8, 1906
SCHOOLS OPEN SEPTEMBER 4
…It is expected that the new Burbank school house will also be open by October if nothing to hinder the progress of the work occurs…
– Press Democrat, August 11 1906
TO COMPLETE SCHOOLHOUSE Upper Story of the New Burbank School Will Be Fitted Up — Meeting of School Board
At the meeting of the Board of Education last night it was decided to finish the upper story of the new Burbank school house on Ellis street. This will provide four extra rooms.
The decision was reached after an extended conference between the members of the board and Contractor Kuykendall. The rooms will be furnished as soon as completed.
– Press Democrat, September 12 1906
THE SCHOOLS TO REOPEN MONDAY
…The new Burbank school house will be ready for occupancy, it is hoped, not later than the first of February…
– Press Democrat, January 6 1907
THE NEW LUTHER BURBANK SCHOOL IS DEDICATED Address Is Delivered By Distinguished Scientist Petite Ruby Randall Raises Flag for the First Time on School Grounds on Thursday Afternoon
If the weather had been made to order for the celebration of the birthday of Santa Rosa’s distinguished citizen, Mr. Luther Burbank, or for the dedication of Santa Rosa’s handsome new schoolhouse named for him — the Burbank school — it could not have been more delightful.
The day broke with radiant sunshine end all Nature looked its best on this occasion. The buds on trees and shrubs burst forth into life and the blossoms unfolded their rich tints on the day marking the birth of the man whose care and genius has done so much to improve plant and flowers, making them give of their best for the use and pleasure of mankind.
For the first time in Thursday afternoon’s sunshine “Old Glory,” the emblem of patriotism, was flung to the breeze from the mast in the schoolhouse grounds, and from it lessons will be drawn by the instructors who labor and will labor in the school in pointing the young idea to the paths that will lead to the after good citizenship of their lives if they heed the lessons given them.
Another special feature of Thursday, aside from the dedication of the schoolhouse occurring on the birthday of the man for whom it was named, was his presence at the dedication and his delivery of an address in which the kindliest of thoughts had place.
Another inspiring thing about those dedication exercises was the blending of child voices In song and chorus. Then is something uplifting in the melody of the child voice when raised on such songs as formed a feature of the dedication. The songs indicated clever rehearsal and response to instruction.
All in all the program was a pleasing one and there was no need for excuse because it was a simple one, robbed of some more pretentious numbers on account of necessary postponements on account of previous bad weather.
At the dedication of the schoolhouse there were some four hundred school children and as many more grown people. They were grouped about the main entrance above which is the gold lettering “Luther Burbank School.” At the outset of the program Principal Leander Good spoke brief words of welcome and spoke of the significance of the occasion. Then a score of school girls, led by Miss Hattie Johnson, sang, “California.” In a few well chosen words Principal Good introduced Mr. Burbank, who spoke as follows:
“My dear young friends — little neighbors — boys and girls:
“I am glad to meet you in this beautiful new house which has been built by your parents and neighbors for you. Do you know why they build school houses for you? My little neighbors did you know that your precious lives hold wonders of wealth, beauty strength, usefulness, your own happiness and the happiness of every one you meet, or sorrow, pain and misery for yourselves and all your friends? This is so.
“This building, these kind teachers and your parents and friends are all to help you to successful and happy lives but you all know that there are two kinds of boys and girls, those who build and those who destroy. Who do you love among your schoolmates? — not those who throw stones at innocent, helpless animals, not those who break and destroy fences, trees and windows, not those who wish to quarrel and fight; but you do all love and respect those who are kind, gentle, unselfish, the peacemakers. Weakling cowards boast, swagger and brag; the brave ones, the good ones, are gentle and kind.
“Now I wish to tell you a secret. I think every one of you, my young friends and neighbors of Santa Rosa, wish to make the best of your precious lives, to have plenty of friends, to be happy and to win success. I will tell you how, just how. Cultivate kind gentle loving thoughts toward every person, animal and even the plants, stars, oceans, rivers and hills. You will find yourself growing more happy each day and with happiness comes health and everything you want.
“I came to speak these words to you because I wish to help you and to prove this I will say that when these grounds about the building are ready, call on Luther Burbank and he will give you all the beautiful young trees and plants you need for ornament and shade.”
At the conclusion of Mr. Burbank’s words he heartily applauded. There was another song and then City Superintendent E. Morris Cox addressed the audience. Mr, Cox dwelt upon the significance of the occasion and paid a glowing tribute to Mr. Burbank and his interest in education. He then explained something about the construction and symmetry of the structure and invited all present to inspect the new schoolhouse named by the Board of Education to perpetuate the name snd work of Santa Rosa’s very distinguished man.
While two or three score of children sang an ode to the Star and Stripes little Miss Ruby Randall commenced to pull the rope and in a short time the flag was floating from the top of the pole and the crowd below shouted their applause and clapped their hands…Several hundred people inspected the building and were well pleased.