Santa Rosa could not believe its great good luck in the mid-1870s: A money man of the San Francisco Stock Exchange had taken interest in our little farmtown, quickly launching public works projects and buying 130 acres for an addition to the city. Nearly every issue of the local newspapers had shoutouts to our benefactor or the mansions being built on the grand avenue bearing his name.

Now shift forward twenty years and he’s viewed as less the benevolent tycoon and more like a penny-ante robber baron. He seems bent on suing the city into bankruptcy and is using the courts to bully elected officials and anyone he views as rivals. He’s accused of bribery, coercion and conspiracy as well as being criminally negligent. Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Mark L. McDonald.

Mark L. McDonald c. 1879. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
Mark L. McDonald c. 1879. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

For someone with such a storied name, his life has remained remarkably unexamined. Today there’s a small Wikipedia page on the family and most writers lean heavily on the 1911 profile in the Tom Gregory county history, which is the sort of hagiography that results when the subject is paying for the pleasure.

His connection to Santa Rosa came via his wife Ralphine. They were married in early 1866, just a few months after her family arrived here in the wake of the Civil War. The ceremony was at the home of Thomas L. Thompson, the rabidly pro-Confederate editor of the Democrat. It was perhaps the town’s reputation as a Confederacy enclave that drew the North family here; they had a Mississippi plantation and father Ralph had been a Natchez judge. (Edited to correct: The family plantation story was probably a myth; see the following article.) The following year Ralphine was involved in the ball held on the Santa Rosa Plaza to raise money for the “Ladies’ Southern Relief Fund” which was all or in part organized by her dad.

Although Mark was likely there that evening dancing with his wife to aid the ex-slave states, we don’t know much about where he stood on almost anything. In 1877 he wanted to be appointed to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate and while much was written about his fine character, his views were never mentioned. We do know he was unwaveringly opposed to the Chinese in California; he was chair of an anti-Chinese committee that sent a lobbyist to Washington, refused to hire Chinese laborers and when he became a Santa Rosa City Councilman in 1883, the first resolution he introduced was to wipeout the tiny Chinatown on Hinton Ave.

Ralphine and Mark lived in San Francisco where he mostly made his fortune by savvy stock trading. No mention was made of him being in Santa Rosa until 1875 when he bought the water company, which had struggled to offer even minimal service for years.

During the years 1876 and 1877 he took the town by storm. He bought the big chunk of land and announced he was going to build a home there. Digging began on the pond to be used as a reservoir for his waterworks and would later become known as Lake Ralphine, but when he learned the contractor was using Chinese workers he demanded they be fired and replaced with white laborers, promising to make up the difference of their much higher wages. The next year he started laying rails for a horse-drawn streetcar system.

Those were the dawn of halcyon days. “We consider it fortunate that a gentleman of the wealth and energy of Mr. McDonald has become so largely interested in our midst,” gushed the Democrat newspaper. The water mains reached farther into the town and there was at least enough water pressure to ensure a hearty trickle up to the third story of a building. Santa Rosans so loved his streetcar that they took excursions out to the Rural Cemetery after Sunday dinners.

Besides those good works historians often credit him with establishing the town’s free public library with a donation of his private collection, along with leading efforts to have the city brighten the evening darkness with gaslights. He was a library trustee briefly but if he contributed books (or money!) it was never mentioned in the papers at the time – he was, however, open to putting up bookshelves at the City Hall to house magazine and book donations from the public. And when placement of streetlights was under discussion by the City Council in 1884 he discouraged lighting the downtown plaza but “wanted the lights scattered about where respectable people lived,” i.e. places like McDonald Avenue.

Come the 1890s, tho, the McDonalds – Mark, and to a lesser degree his brother James and son Mark Jr. – were being seen as rapacious, self-serving capitalists who were indifferent to Santa Rosa’s progress and even safety.

Mark’s street railway went from Railroad Square down Fourth street, turned on McDonald Ave. and terminated at Argyle Park (now the Presbyterian Church campus). Well and good for those who had a swank address on McDonald, but the town was mostly expanding on the north side, which we now call the Junior College neighborhood. When another streetcar company began serving that area, Mark McDonald sued them. Another company later tried offering service to Bennett Valley and he sued them too. More about those lawsuits will be discussed in a following chapter.

McDonald undoubtedly lost good will with his petty efforts to stay the streetcar czar, but far more serious were matters involving the waterworks.

Under state law, cities like Santa Rosa which relied upon a private water company had to set rates annually based on the company’s profits. Through most of the 1880s the City Council rubber-stamped McDonald’s proposed rates for the coming year after he submitted a brief summary of his financial statements, sometimes remarking on the record that his prices “were just and fair.” But come 1889, the Council rejected his summary; he resubmitted it and that too was found inadequate, but based on it the city set a lower rate for the coming year. A committee from the Council did get a look at his books, however, and discovered he was apparently trying to short-change investors – he claimed gross revenue was only $8k when it was really over $21,000.1

Two years later the town had soured on Mark McDonald, with rumors going around that he was pulling the strings at City Hall by dishing out bribes. This came up at a City Council meeting with one of the members protesting “He was tired of having it said that Colonel McDonald ran the Council: that the Council men had been wined and dined and driven about by the Colonel.” The others spoke up to declare themselves uncorrupted and incorruptible, although one admitted having “wined with Colonel McDonald, but paid for the wine.”

At that same July 22, 1891 council meeting the main topic was the quality of water McDonald was providing. The Democrat reported one Councilman said “he was heartily tired of hearing Colonel McDonald talk about his pure and limpid streams and exhaustless supplies.” McDonald was supplying customers with untreated pond water, Councilman Tupper said: “Go and look at what passes into your street sprinklers. There is enough crawling vermin in them to fill a bushel basket.”

Mark was present at the meeting and argued he had spent lots of money on the water system and it was against the interests of the city to say it was contaminated – but if they wanted to visit Lake Ralphine and look around they were welcome to do so. He must have thought they wouldn’t call his bluff, but the Council ordered the Board of Health to investigate. There was also talk of offering a bond to either buy him out or build a municipal waterworks from scratch. Spectators at the meeting loudly stamped their feet in approval.

Lake Ralphine c. 1905. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
Lake Ralphine c. 1905. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

The inspection was made by the Board of Health and a City Council committee. Always eager to spin the news for McDonald, the Democrat asked the most sympathetic Councilman what they saw. “We found many things that, it seemed to me, were not right. There were drainages leading into the lake that should not exist, and I am surprised that the management should have allowed such things to exist.”

That was a helluva understatement. The Board of Health report (transcribed below) thought McDonald’s waterworks were “criminally negligent and indifferent to our welfare as a city.” There was no effort to block runoff from surrounding farms (“on the contrary, we saw evidence which went to show that it was rather encouraged”). The Republican newspaper went further and explained “The sides of that pond are a pasture field extending almost to the water’s edge. Every rain carries manure from the stock pasturing on the hills surrounding this pond.”

The creeks feeding the reservoir were also being contaminated by farm runoff: “We do not hesitate to say that as things existed when we visited the creek the health of this community is greatly menaced.”

Besides creating embankments to keep manure from washing into the reservoir, the Board recommended McDonald tap two large springs known as the “Shaw Springs” which fed a creek that passed near the lake. Unfortunately, the report stated, “On its way it flows through a low, marshy piece of ground, on which hogs and other animals graze, and upon which marsh dead animals are often thrown.” The property owner had built a dam to block that creek from polluting the reservoir.

So what was Mark McDonald’s first response to the Board of Health report? He sued the Shaw Springs landowner to remove the dam so the fully contaminated water could enter the lake. Gentle Reader’s jaw should now be picked off the floor.

The Democrat printed the report, but commented “The least said about the indictment of the water probably the better it will be for the city.” Even that paper – which the Republican was calling the “organ of the Water Company” – grudgingly admitted something must be done, either condemning McDonald’s company so the city could buy it or building a municipal plant. Mark told a Councilman that he would be willing to sell out for $250,000.

By the end of the year, however, the Democrat was back to being McDonald’s propagandist, to wit: Mark is making improvements which will increase Lake Raphine’s capacity and laying new water mains, people should remember how bad the situation was before he took over, the quality “is as pure and limpid as the most delicious spring water,” no “disease or prevailing sickness [has] been traced to the unwholesomeness of the water,” yadda, yadda.

To prove how wonderful the water quality was, editor Thompson said he personally took a sample directly from a hydrant and sent it to UC/Berkeley. The analysis by the esteemed Prof. Hilgard of the Agricultural Department showed it was “abundantly good enough” though harder than some people might like.2

Thompson reprinted that analysis over the following year until the Republican pointed out his water sample had obviously come from someone’s well and not the waterworks – the only aspect of McDonald’s water everyone liked was its extraordinary softness. “Soften the water of Ralphine! Ye gods!” Republican editor Allan Lemmon jeered.

In January 1893 it was pretty clear which direction the town was heading. A consultant Santa Rosa hired several months earlier finished his plans for a municipal waterworks which was estimated to cost $165k. The mayor and city attorney also made a field trip to Santa Cruz and gave the City Council a glowing report that their city-operated system was the “pride of the people” and had the lowest water rates in the state.

At the following meeting the Council ordered a special election for approval of a bond to either build a new plant or buy out McDonald. Mark said he would sell it to the city at the slightly reduced price of $210,000. His offer was immediately rejected, as it would additionally cost half again as much to fix all the problems with his water system.

Thus in May 1893 the city enthusiastically voted for a bond to build a municipal waterworks. The 74 percent approval was surely a repudiation of Mark McDonald – in the weeks before the Democrat editorialized and ran letters lamenting all the “prejudice” against him. (The Democrat’s other position before the vote was the city had no guarantee the municipal system “scheme” would find an adequate water supply and anything pumped from underground “would be absolutely dangerous.”)

Now that Santa Rosa was firmly on course to build its own system, one might presume McDonald would stop fighting over the issue. He was a very, very rich man; profits from the waterworks would have been small change to the likes of him. As he still had the control of all the water mains via the old city franchise, wouldn’t it have behooved Mark to make a deal to help ease transition into the upcoming municipal system? After all, his family were residents of the town themselves (at least part time, anyway).

Not on your life. He was also a very, very petty man; witness the lawsuits he waged over streetcar lines that didn’t even compete with his own. Everything covered here was just the prelude to years of expensive, meaningless court fights that strived to beat down and economically cripple Santa Rosa along with personally crushing his town critics.

The takeaway was that no one – no one – could be allowed to brace the wind against the force that was Mark L. McDonald.


1 Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926 by John Cummings; fn. 3 and 4, pages 19-20
2 The water sample had about 84 mg/l calcium/magnesium carbonates and gypsum. The USGS classifies 61 to 120 mg/L as moderately hard, 121 to 180 mg/L as hard and over 180 mg/L as very hard.






The Water Company.

During the past week a controlling interest in the stock of the Santa Rosa Water Company was purchased by Mark McDonald, of San Francisco. We are informed that the supply of water will be increased and the reservoir improved. For the present there will be no increase of rates. Messrs. Hahman, Juilliard, Williams, Temple, Latapte, Clark, and others have sold their interests. We hope the gentlemen who have realized from the sale of their stock will now turn their attention to the development of some other enterprise for the benefit of Santa Rosa.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 24 1875



…Colonel McDonald asked the privilege of the chair to say a few words, and, his request granted, he went on to state that while there might be a difference of opinion as to the water system and the manner in which it is conducted, he thought it was prejudicial to the interests of the city to have the impression go abroad that the water is not pure and wholesome. The evening paper he continued, had printed an article attacking the water company, and misrepresenting the quality and quantity of water. The water company had tried to conform to the requirements of the laws made by the Council and desired to do anything and everything to improve the service furnished the citizens. He was anxious the Council should appoint a committee to visit the reservoir and investigate as to the cleanliness and purity of the water. The company had expended several thousand dollars in furnishing the citizens with an adequate supply of water, and many other improvements were in contemplation.

Mr. Tupper was opposed to having any newspaper dragged into the controversy, and he said he was heartily tired of hearing Colonel McDonald talk about his pure and limpid streams and exhaustless supplies. He knew, as all the citizens knew and as Colonel McDonald knows, that the water is impure. [“]Go and look at what passes into your street sprinklers. There is enough crawling vermin in them to fill a bushel basket. The reservoir has not been cleaned but once in ten years, and under a hot sun in an arid country like this the water in a little pond like the Colonel’s is bound to become foul and impure.[“]

Colonel McDonald said, in response to Mr. Tupper, that he had not intended to attack any paper; he was simply criticising what be deemed a misstatement. He was heartily desirous of having the Council investigate the purity of the water. He would guarantee that there was not purer water furnished in any other city of the State.

Mr. Doyle, who had seen what Mr. Tupper referred to when speaking of the crawling vermin from the sprinklers, asked Colonel McDonald if the water taken from the hydrants by the sprinklers was the same as that used by the citizens.

Colonel McDonald said it was, and explained how particles of dirt get into the pipes.

Mr. Berka moved that the Council have the water analysed as to its purity.

A suggestion was made about referring the matter to the Board of Health.

Mr. Berka’s motion was carried.

Mr. Overton thought it would be well for the Council to investigate and find out whether there were any corrals or stock kept along the creeks which supply water to the reservoir.

After some further discussion of a similar character to that quoted above, in which Colonel McDonald explained in what manner the improvements now being made would increase the supply, Mr. Tupper offered a resolution providing for the holding of an election on the question of issuing $80,000 bonds to construct a water works system and $15,000 bonds to construct a lighting plant.

Mr. Doyle did not believe in mortgaging the city or the tax payers to the tone of $95,000 for any purpose.

Mr. Overton said he would not be in favor of voting bonds if the present water company could provide adequate service. Water was needed for fire purposes and the city could not afford to wait until the citizens had been burned out before providing the necessary facilities.

Mr. Tupper went on to show that the citizens had paid the water company over $100,000, and that much of that money could be saved to them and pure and abundant water secured if the city owned its own plant.

The spectators present signified their approval of Mr. Tupper’s sentiments by loud stomping of feet.

Mr. Mailer thought the city should furnish the citizens with an abundance of pure, wholesome water.

Mr. Berka took occasion to say that nothing could be done without money, and that if the city was to improve its water and light facilities it must have money. He was tired of having it said that Colonel McDonald ran the Council: that the Council men had been wined and dined and driven about by the Colonel. But he wanted to say he had not been “it it.” He further stated that he had to pay for his water.

Mr. Doyle did not like the insinuations supposed to be lurking beneath Mr. Berka’s remarks. He wanted it definitely understood that he had to pay for his water and he supposed all the other Councilman did the same. He said he had never been wined or dined by Colonel McDonald.

The Mayor desired it to be distinctly understood that he had not been wined and dined by Colonel McDonald, and if he had he would not have considered himself contaminated. He had ridden with Colonel McDonald, however, and was not injured thereby. He was owned by no one and shaped his official career to conform with his own convictions.

Mr. Overton said he had wined with Colonel McDonald, but paid for the wine.

There was some further talk of this kind and the resolution submitting to the citizens the question of bonding the city for water and light plants was put to a vote and carried, the only negative vote being cast by Mr. Doyle.

– Daily Democrat, July 22 1891



…Mr. Doyle asked how Mr. Tupper expected the $80,000 or $200,000 bonds were going to be paid. He said the bonds could not be paid in thirty years; the first bond could not be paid off where there are two systems to compete in the price of water. The competition must reduce rates, and the income from the city’s works would not equal $5,000 a year. The system would not pay running expenses.

Mr. Tupper contended that the system would pay for itself.

Mr. Berka could not see why if other towns went into debt to carry on their improvements Santa Rosa could not do the same.

As a business proposition Mr. Doyle thought it would be better to condemn the present works and buy them.

Mr. Tupper said it would cost $200,000 to improve the McDonald works after the city purchased them; he would rather construct works on Mark West creek.

Mr. Mailer said he would prefer purchasing the McDonald works, if they could be bought at a reasonable figure.

Mr. Tupper said he had made Colonel McDonald a fair proposition to buy the works and that the latter had fixed his price at $250,000.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 1 1891


…Mr. Doyle is a member of the city council of Santa Rosa, and there has been much talk there of late of that city buying and owning the water works. In all his votes on that proposition as presented, and we have noticed by the Republican that Mr. Doyle was opposed to the proposition, not because he had any interest in the Santa Rosa works, but because he was a large owner in the Petaluma water works and that he was afraid that if the people of Santa Rosa should vote to buy and control its own water, that Petaluma might “follow suit.” And so we made bold to ask him about the matter, and from memory we quote his words. He said: “There has been and is a proposition for Santa Rosa to issue bonds and construct new water works. I have opposed it because I do not know where they are going to get the water. It is all very easy to issue your bonds and get your city in debt, lay miles of pipe, and all of that, but where do the people get off? Suppose they should do so, then they would come in direct competition with the old works whose franchise is still good. And then, where are they to get the water? I will say to you that a few days ago, in company with members of the Santa Rosa Council, we visited the lake where the city gets its water. We found many things that, it seemed to me, were not right. There were drainages leading into the lake that should not exist, and I am surprised that the management should have allowed such things to exist. No, I am not opposed to the city owning its water works. If the Santa Rosa works cannot or will not give the city pure water and an abundance of it, I believe that the city should buy the works, and in failure to do that, to condemn the works under the law…

– Sonoma Democrat, August 15 1891



Every resident of Santa Rosa should read the report of the Board of Health of this city in regard to the water supplied to the people who live here. It is a document that speaks for itself. Mayor Brooks, Dr. R. P. Smith, Councilman Mailer, Marshal Charles and Newton V. V. Smythe, Secretary, consisting all the members of the Board of Health, did not prepare and sign this unanimous report until fully satisfied of its correctness and the necessity for this action. It recites a condition of affairs that calls for prompt and decisive action by the people who live here.

When the REPUBLICAN led in the agitation of this water question some weeks ago it was with sufficient facts to warrant all that was said and more too. We then spoke as mildly as circumstances would permit. Putting the health and welfare of the community above the friendship and patronage of any man or set of men, we urged investigation by a committee of representative men. That investigation has been made and the report will be convincing to every man who reads it.

Now let us have a report from the other committee appointed some weeks ago to investigate water systems and recommend what should be done under existing circumstances. Has that committee employed experts and conducted an investigation that will be of value to the community? Money was appropriated for this purpose and it is of prime importance that the people of this city be informed without delay as to the action that should be taken on the water question.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 17 1891


Report of the Board of Health on the Condition of the Water Works.

To the honorable Mayor and City Council of Santa Rosa,
Gentlemen: At your request the undersigned Board of Health of Santa Rosa visited the water works which supply the city with water, for the purpose of investigating the purity of the same and to see if due precautions were taken by the Water Company to procure as healthful and pure a supply as the circumstances would permit.

We first visited the creek at the place where the Water Company has a dam for the purpose of utilizing the supply above. We then walked for over a half mile up the stream, noting the condition of the bed of the creek and the adjacent banks. We found that with a very little outlay of money intelligently expended, the supply here might be greatly increased – at least one-half more, and possibly as much more as now flows in the pipes. This would add in the summer-time very materially to the purity of our supply as well as to the quantity; also, that owing to farming settlements and other habitations on the banks, that a state of affairs existed that was by no means creditable to the management of the Water Company. A very little care and forethought with some expenditure of money, would entirely remove the causes for complaint on our part. We do not hesitate to say that as things existed when we visited the creek the health of this community is greatly menaced.

We then visited the reservoir. Here the same negligence and indifference to the public welfare was exhibited. No effort is, or has been made to prevent surface water from running into the reservoir; on the contrary, we saw evidence which went to show that it was rather encouraged.

We then inspected the open ditch which has been dug by the company from the extreme eastern end of the reservoir toward two large springs on the Hillman ranch, best known as the “Shaw Springs.” We believe that if this water could be got in its purity at the springs, and brought down unadulterated, that it would be a valuable acquisition to the water supply of our city, but as it is now it is an abominable nuisance. On its way it flows through a low, marshy piece of ground, on which hogs and other animals graze, and upon which marsh dead animals are often thrown, and we think it is a blessing that, for reasons best known to the owner of the land through which these waters flow, dams were placed by her to prevent the Water Company from appropriating the water.

In conclusion, we would earnestly urge your honorable body to take steps to ameliorate the conditions of affairs at the fountain heads of our water supply, for we believe the Water Company to have been criminally negligent and indifferent to our welfare as a city, and to their trust and own interests.

[Board of Health]

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 17 1891



Immediately following the report of the Board of Health telling of the filth that has been permitted to find its way into the water furnished the residents of Santa Rosa, the Water Works Company appears with a statement to the effect that the things complained of have been corrected. That corporation now declares “No stagnant or impure water finds its way into the city. The water comes from a living stream and is pure and healthful.”

The REPUBLICAN doubts the truth of the above statement. It is in line with the other falsehoods that have been going out from the Water Company from time to time. The person that looks through a glass of city water knows that it is impure. Whoever smells or tastes this water that many people here are almost compelled to use, knows that the Water Company is guilty of unblushing and impudent misrepresentation. The Board of Health of this city has declared the belief of its members that the Water Company has been CRIMINALLY NEGLIGENT in permitting the befouling of the water furnished our people, and the City Council, by unanimous vote, has endorsed this sentiment.

But says the Water Company “The water comes from a living stream and is pure and healthful.” Instead, the water comes from an artificial pond into which filth has long been running. The sides of that pond are a pasture field extending almost to the water’s edge. Every rain carries manure from the stock pasturing on the hills surrounding this pond into the receptacle for the water furnished by the Water Company. Then there is the filth that has been coming from the hog pens, the water from too close proximity to dead animals, and other things that caused the Board of Health to declare that the “health of this community is greatly menaced.” All these things have long been dumped into that pond from which the supply of water from this city must come and yet this mendacious company declares the water “pure and healthful.”

How long will the people of Santa Rosa submit to this outrage? How long will they consent to this villainous condition of affairs? Will they wait until a pestilence touches hundreds of homes? Shall we consent to see our town ruined by an avaricious, grasping, soulless corporation that knows no principle but greed and that is so silly as to be continually sending out statements that many know to be false? Shall we continue the quarrel with this unenterprising and unreliable combination of capital or, as a town put in our own water system? The future of the city will largely depend on the action the people here will soon take in this matter.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 18 1891


The report of the Board of Health supplemented by the report of a sub-committee of the Council, together with the endorsement of each of these reports by the unanimous vote of the Council, settles the issue between the Water Company and the city authorities. The water, the company, and the business methods of the latter, have been condemned in language that cannot be misunderstood. It is not necessary for us to recapitulate what has been said in the reports. The least said about the indictment of the water probably the better it will be for the city. It now remains for the Council to proceed at once within the scope of its lawful authority to provide an abundant supply of pure water. This may be done either by forcing the existing company to increase its supply and the care of the water, by condemnation and purchase of the works, or by building new works and bringing in a supply from other sources. The Board of Health say that the main stream now running into the reservoir “with a very little outlay of money intelligently expended might be greatly increased — at least one-half more, and possibly as much more as now flows in the pipes.” We have no doubt that an ample supply of pure water may be obtained from the Santa Rosa, Alamos and other streams flowing from the Guilicos range of mountains, but we would not set our opinion up against the estimate of a water engineer such as should be consulted by the Council at once. We would prefer to see the people own the works, believing that by proper management they could be made to return to the city a handsome revenue besides affording the best care of the water. The Council has adopted a resolution to submit a proposition to bond the city for $80000. This sum will no doubt have to be increased and ought to be if the city is to build new works, because they should be of the most substantial character in every respect. It would be economy to make them so rather than such as the official reports show we now have. The Council have acted wisely in taking time for mature consideration of the subject. Now that it has arrived at a definite conclusion the sooner it consults a competent expert and engineer as to plans the better.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 22 1891


Water Rights.

The Santa Rosa Water Works Company has brought suit against Mrs. James Hillman and J. Hillman for damages in the sum of $2,500 and for an order of court to compel the defendants to remove certain dams from a channel dug by the plaintiff from the springs on defendant’s property known as the Shaw springs. In the complaint the plaintiff alleges that the springs have been used by him for the last 14 years and that by the obstruction of said channel the plaintiff has been damaged in the sum of $2,500.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 26 1891


The Republican refers to this paper as the “organ of the Water Company.” We are not the organ of the Water Company, nor of any other special interest. Our mission is to build up the business interests of this community. The Democrat is a newspaper. It gives the current local news impartially, promptly and more in detail than any other paper. No one knows this fact better than our neighbor, but he could hardly be expected to proclaim it.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 3 1891


Their Magnitude and Importance to the Improvement of the City.

Residents of some time back are in a better position to realize the important part the water works have played in the development of the city and in increasing its residential attractions than those who have never known Santa Rosa except in its present state. It may be said without fear of contradiction from those who have the fairness to institute comparisons with other towns in the State that our water system both in supply and quality of water is one of the best in the State. All public institutions naturally come in for their share of criticism, much of it that is captious and less that is warantable, but when it is considered what money and labor have been and are being expended to make the works as perfect as possible, credit cannot be denied the company and its projector. Our older residents will remember what the works were in 1877 when Col. M. L. McDonald, president of the present company, purchased them from Messrs. Juilliard, Temple, Farmer and Davis. The present reservoir, which is even now undergoing extensive improvement, had not been constructed and the supply was drawn from the old reservoir farther up the canyon. The system was entirely inadequate to the needs of the city, even at that time and its rapid development made it necessary to expend a great deal of money in the improvement of the works. Soon after the purchase was consummated work began on the new reservoir, which cost over $15,000. Its capacity is 100,000,000 gallons. New pipes were laid and everything was done to render the service satisfactory to the patrons. Accordingly for years the supply was adequate and the consumers were supplied with an abundance of fresh, sweet and pure water for domestic and irrigation purposes. But with institutions of this kind the stage is never readied when it can be said the work is finished. Pipes wear out and new ones must be laid; miles of streets are opened through the city and it becomes necessary to extend the mains to meet the increasing demand, and as the town grows in size and population expenses for the company for improvement are piled up in a corresponding ratio.

The new main down Sonoma avenue extension entailed the expenditure of several thousand dollars and similar improvements go to swell the aggregate amount necessary to be expended in keeping up a plant of the kind. Not including the cost of the work now underway, the amount spent for improvements and developments by the present company since 1877 is $153,000. The work of raising the dam will cost between $10,000 and $15,000, and from 100,000,000 gallons the storage capacity will be increased to 230,000,000 gallons, a supply adequate, with the streams which are running into the reservoir all seasons of the year for the needs of a city of 50,000 inhabitants. Estimating the cost of these improvements it makes the valuation of $250,000 set upon the plant appear small. The site of the reservoir if fashioned by the hand of man could not be bettor adapted to the purpose, both as to elevation and distance from the city; and the topography of the land is such that in years hence, should it become necessary to increase the storage capacity, another reservoir could be constructed farther up the canyon. The main supply is derived from Santa Rosa and Los Alamos creeks, a dam being constructed at their junction, two miles above the main reservoir. The water as it flows over the pebbly beds of those creeks down from their fountain head in the mountains is as pure and limpid as the most delicious spring water. From the dam it is conveyed to the reservoir in closed pipes with screens at intervals to prevent impurities and foreign substances from contaminating its purity. At the reservoir the same care is taken to preserve the purity of the water, and with what success is shown by the fact that never in the history of the works has any disease or prevailing sickness been traced to the unwholesomeness of the water. And in this connection it is proper to state that the editor of the Democrat, in order to satisfy himself as to the chemical purity of the water, when the matter was under discussion several months ago, forwarded samples of it, taken by himself from a hydrant directly off one of the largest mains, to the State University for analyzation. In reply the following was received:

Berkeley, Oct. 9, 1891.
Thomas L. Thompson,
Dear Sir: —Inclosed find analysis of your well water, which proves it to be as good as any water need be for general use, and rather remarkable for the small portion of soluble salts it contains. This also shows it to be free from sewage contamination. If harder than you wish, boiling or mixing with about one-twentieth of its bulk of clean lime water will correct that; after mixing let stand a few hours, when a white sediment containing both the lime originally in the water, and that of the lime water will be at the bottom of the tank. For most uses, however, the water is abundantly good enough just as it is.

Very truly yours,
E. W. Hilgard.

Following is the analysis…

…The city owes much to Colonel McDonald, the president of the company, not only for his efficient management of the extensive works, but for the public spirit he has displayed in many other respects. The beautiful avenue bearing his name, lined on both sides with umbrogean trees and handsome residences was a grain field without a house or shrub upon it when he came to this city fourteen years ago. He bought the plot of 153 acres comprising McDonald’s addition and opened the avenue, planted the trees along its wide promenades, and soon afterwards constructed the street railway connecting the depot with the cemetery. Nothing can he fairer than judging a man by his works, and, taken on this evidence in the light of his liberality and enterprise in forwarding the interests of the city, his station is certainly among our most valuable and substantial citizens. He has ever taken a prominent part in forwarding schemes looking to the further development of the city, and many of the important measures which have been carried out during the last ten years bear the stamp of his pressing energy and rare good judgment.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 2 1892



The Democrat ends a long tirade of insinuations against the common council of the city of Santa Rosa with what it would have the people of this city believe is an analysis by Prof. Hilgard of the water of the reservoir from which this town is supplied.

But the first statement in Prof. Hilgard’s letter gives the lie to the entire proceeding. He says: “Inclosed find analysis of your WELL WATER,” etc.

Now Prof. Hilgard knows the difference between well water and that which runs or stand upon the surface of the ground. He is an exact scientist and would not call the few feet of material that stood at the bottom of Lake Ralphine in the autumn of 1891, when our people were denied the privilege of sprinkling their door yards and lawns because of the scarcity of water, we say he could have known that stuff was not WELL water and would not have applied that term to it.

Again, Prof. Hilgard referred to the hardness of the water sent to him and told how to soften it. Soften the water of Ralphine! Ye gods! We have been told time out of mind that its waters are soft and yet the corporation organ would like to have its readers believe that the only criticism Prof. Hilgard had to pass on those waters was in regard to their hardness.

Now there can be nothing clearer to anybody who knows the conditions of things here in the autumn of 1891, and who knows about Prof. Hilgard and his standing as a scientist, than that attempt was made to do a fraud.

Who furnished the Hon. Thomas L. Thompson with the water he sent to Prof. Hilgard? Out of whose WELL did it come? Let the facts come out. If Mr. Thompson was imposed on he owes it to the community to expose the imposter. It is evident that Prof. Hilgard detected the attempted imposition at once and hence his analysis of well water.

Again, if the Hon. Thos. L. Thompson was not altogether certain a fraud had been practiced on him or by him in this water, why did he not publish the analysis at the time it was made? Then the people were carrying water from wells blocks distant from their homes because they were afraid to drink the material that came from the water mains. Then an analysis of that material which would have shown that it was not charged with disease and death would have been a boon in the homes of hundreds of users. Why, we repeat, was the analysis not given to the people then?

Did Mr. Thompson discover the fraud? Has somebody dug up the report in his absence and published it without detecting the fraud on its face? Who furnished the water that was analyzed? Who paid for the analysis? There are a number of interesting questions to be answered in regard to this transaction that the Democrat will have to answer of stand before this community in most deplorable light.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 11 1893


A communication was received from the Santa Rosa Water Works Company, offering to sell their works to the city for $210,000, and the following resolution by Councilman Berka was introduced and passed declining the offer:

Whereas, The Santa Rosa Water Works Company having been requested by the special water committee to submit a proposition to the Santa Rosa City Council for the purchase of said company’s water works, and

Whereas, Said company has submitted a proposition, naming therein the sum of $210,000 as the price of said works, be it

Resolved, That the thanks of this Council are due and hereby tendered to said water company for the submission of a proposition to purchase their works, but in the judgment of this Council $210,000, the amount named as the price of said works, is far above its true value. Competent experts estimate that it will require $125,000 for a system of new and durable piping to distribute the water, that all parts of the city may have a proper service, to elevate the reservoir and properly clean, enclose and roof the same, to protect the water from continual pollution by man and beast and the festering rays of the summer suns. Therefore, be it

Resolved, That this Council could not in justice to the people they represent ask you to vote bonds to the amount of $335,000, necessary to purchase and improve said water works, and the proposition as submitted by the Santa Rosa Water Works Company is herewith respectfully declined…

– Sonoma Democrat, April 8 1893

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“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.

livernashprofile(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 25 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 16 and sold it two years later to buy the paper in the town of Sonoma. On his 21st 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.

livernashethridge(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.


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

* He actually was a homicidal sleepwalker, which sometimes has been used successfully as a legal defense

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.

Dr. Gardner hypnotizing Edward J. Livernash in court. SF Examiner, Oct. 29 1892
Dr. Gardner hypnotizing Edward J. Livernash in court. SF Examiner, Oct. 29 1892

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.



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.
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. Menihan, 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. Menihan. It seems that Livernash arrived in Cloverdale on the evening train Wednesday and went directly to the United States Hotel. Mr. Menihan, 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. Menihan 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. Menihan, 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. Menihan 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. Menihan, 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 watched 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 course of his rambling story he took occasion 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


Another Order.

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


Justice’s Court, Cloverdale Township April 26, 1892.

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


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


The Remarkable Defense In the Case of E. J. Livernash.
It Is Claimed That the Assailant of Ethridge, the Cloverdale Capitalist, Was Mentally Irresponsible.


– The San Francisco Examiner, October 26 1892


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.


– The San Francisco Examiner, October 28 1892


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.

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


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.
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


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.
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


Napa Asylum.
18th Nov. ’92

Friend Geary:

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.

[page/pages missing]

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.

Sincerely yours,
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


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.


– The San Francisco Examiner, April 14 1893

Read More



“I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth,” wrote Luther Burbank in his first letter from Santa Rosa in 1875. But then he added a qualifier: “…as far as Nature is concerned.”

Something about Santa Rosa apparently didn’t sit well with old Luther, but we’ll never know what. The town was welcoming to “immigrants” such as himself, yet it was still rough around the edges – a Chinese man had just been shot in the back and no one seemed very interested in finding out who did it. It was also a saloon town, where men argued endlessly about race horses and politics, topics which didn’t hold any interest for Burbank. Or maybe he didn’t know what to make of a “humor” item which appeared in the local newspaper around the time he arrived. It went like this: An ex-slave encountered a friend of his former “Massa” and said all the changes since the Civil War had left him sad. While he managed to save enough before the war to buy his freedom, now he wished he kept the money instead. The punchline: As a slave he was worth $1,000 – now he wasn’t worth a damn.

The weekly Sonoma Democrat regularly offered racist items like that – so many that it would be easy to mistake it for a newspaper published in the Deep South. That vignette, in fact, was reprinted from a paper in Mississippi.

This article is a coda to the series “THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA,” which explored how the Democrat in the late 19th century ignored African-American townspeople, even when they were men and women of distinction. It disappeared them by rarely offering obituaries and not mentioning weddings, deaths, births, arrivals and departures. But that doesn’t mean the paper ignored African-Americans; it published something about them almost every week – albeit only things which ground them down by reinforcing the ugliest racist stereotypes.

Blacks in the late 19th century faced myriad problems nationwide, although today we focus mainly on the dramatic acts of violence and overt acts of discrimination – lynchings, the Klan, Jim Crow laws and the like. But reading the old Democrat it’s shocking to discover how normalized racism was in Santa Rosa. Those toxic little stinkbombs in the paper reminded African-Americans they were inferior and fair game to be pushed around, and they sent a clear message to whites that blacks deserved lowly status. And probably worst of all, it taught white children all this was just the way of the world. Coming soon: White Supremacy, The Next Generation.

Let Gentle Reader be forewarned that this is not the sort of historical amusement usually found here, and what follows will stray into uncomfortable territory – reading (or writing) about hateful speech is No. Fun. At. All. But we can’t discuss Santa Rosa’s history without being honest about how ugly some of it really was. We can debate how much this material shaped the town, but we can’t deny it existed. And we can’t pretend this problem stopped when the Sonoma Democrat folded in 1897; the Press Democrat continued dishing out offensive racial jokes and short fiction well into the 1930s, only not as vigorously.

We can also argue whether this article is guilty of presentism (judging the past by modern standards). Read through the sections below before taking a position on whether the material in the Democrat deserves “Huckleberry Finn” considerations. No, the Democrat certainly wasn’t alone in portraying African-Americans in a derisive way; after all, most of the insulting stuff they printed came from other newspapers and magazines, and not just those from Dixie land – sources below included leading Democratic party tub-thumpers such as the New York Sun and Washington Post, so it’s fair to say racist material was regularly found in print media that had a politically conservative bent. What still sets the Santa Rosa paper apart, however, is how much bilge our little 8-page weekly managed to serve up on a regular basis.

One way we can try to measure that is by using the search engine at the California Digital Newspaper Collection to find how often the “n word” appeared in the Democrat between 1860 and 1897. The answer is 369 times, but that’s certain to be a gross undercount; an entire year of the newspaper is missing and the collection’s mediocre OCR misses words when there imperfection on the scanned page. Also, the noun sometimes did not always refer to people; Brazil nuts were commonly called “n***** toes” (seriously!) and “n***** baby contest” was the general name for a ball-throwing game at carnivals, most commonly a dunk tank. Finally, some of the most offensive content did not contain the “n word” at all.

Nor is it practical to compare what appeared in the 1860s to items from later in the century. During the Civil War and the years immediate afterward, editor Thomas Thompson was absolutely vicious in his racist hatred – he spat out the “n word” often and his writings were laden with disgust for African-Americans, suggesting they were to blame for the South’s misery after the war and shouldn’t have been allowed to stick around. His brother Robert edited the paper during the final years and race stories published by him often displayed a smug air of superiority; his favorite meme seemed to be tales about bemused rich white men encountering destitute former slaves. Same white supremacist garbage as his brother produced, just with less frothing and flying spittle.

The selections below come just from the 1890s, and are a small sample of what was printed in the Democrat during those years. Although the race articles from that period could be considered “racism lite” compared to the 1860s, the Democrat consistently followed four boilerplates: Blacks were described as happy under slavery, ignorant, clownish or criminal.

Let me forewarn again: All of this material is offensive – but try not to look away, and don’t forget this trash (and more of its kind) was in our hometown weekly newspaper, likely read in every Santa Rosa household where it would have impacted white and black children alike.

(In the examples I’m only providing snippets because I’ve seen search engine results which imply bigots have visited, seeking racist material to fulfill their fantasies of the master race. Dates are provided so image scans of the original article can found.)

HAPPY SLAVES   The intro to the “Hidden Lives” series mentioned an 1889 item titled “Slavery’s Sunny Side,” and the article which appeared around the time of Burbank’s arrival are other examples of the “plantation porn” genre.

“Prince’s Well” (January 21, 1893) a longer fictional story from the New York Press about a white hunter encountering an elderly former slave who is hoping the man who once owned him will return as an angel to guide him to heaven.

As I approached the open door of the hut a feeble voice from within called: “Is dat you, Marse Steny?” and then halting steps sounded on the rude plank floor. “Master, is you come fer ole Prince at las’?” In the doorway stood the bent and decrepit form of an aged negro. His hair was white as snow, and his thin hands were extended before him in supplication. His eyes, now dim, seemed dazzled by the light, but tears of joy flowed down the furrows of his cheeks as be eagerly tottered forward. “I’ze watched for you. Marse Steny,” he said in broken accents. As he took my hand in his feeble fingers he bent to kiss it. I gently told him that I was not his master. For a moment he seemed stunned: then raising his eyes and peering closely into mine he dropped my hand, and turning away hobbled back to his hut.


“The Darky and His Three Wishes” (May 30, 1896) A reprint from the New York Sun.

The following anecdote well illustrates the spirit of contentment prevalent with the negro in the south before the war: Jack was once asked by his young master to make three wishes…‘Marse Joe, if I had a pa’r of boots and a plenty of fat meat, I doan’ want nothin mo’.” This happy negro I knew personally. He was born a slave and has always lived in Virginia.

IGNORANCE   The most common racist trope against African-Americans was a short “humor” item that portrayed someone as ignorant and/or lazy. Dialogue was always spoken in a nearly incomprehensible Stepin Fetchit dialect, which Democrat editor Robert Thompson used to create the “Uncle Potter” caricature of Edmund Potter.

“Knowing a Heap” (July 12, 1890) from the Washington Post.

“Hello, Uncle Mose,” said a colored boy on Pennsylvania avenue, “readin’ de papah?” “Yes, sah; dat’s what I is,” said the venerable negro, as he adjusted his spectacles and shook a fold out of the journal that he held. “Hez yoh notussed dat yoh hez it upside down?” “Hum—er—yassendeed; yer hez ter know er heap ’bout readin’ foh yo kin do dat.”


“His Quiet Mind” (April 11, 1891) from the New York Evening Sun.

De good Lo’d looks out fo’ me, honey. In de summer time he sends along de wotermillion ships wif de millons too ripe fo’ de w’ite man. An’ be gives ’em to me. Den he makes de docks so dat I sleep in ’em. Den de winter time comes along and de good Lo’d builds de po’ house, an’ dar’s whar I live in de winter time till de wotermillions come agin. Read yo’ Scripture, honey! Yo’ ig’rance s’prisin’.”


“The Negro’s Idea of God” (January 25, 1896) from the Charleston News.

His religion is almost entirely emotional. He believes that God is a prayer-answering God, and that the petition of the man with the strongest lungs will reach the throne of grace first. His conceptions of the Deity are frequently remarkable. There was one old negro named Stephen Donnald in the school who was in his place every Sunday and deeply attentive to all that the preacher and the teachers said. One Sunday, after the school had been in operation for about six months, my father thought that he would find out what progress this old man had made, and so he asked him: “‘Stephen, what is your idea of God?’” The answer came swift as a shot: “‘Well, Marse William, I think He’s kind of cross between a horse and a steam engine.”
CLOWNISH   Besides popularizing the notion that all African-Americans spoke like illiterate Alabama field hands, the best-selling “Lime-Kiln Club” books portrayed blacks in other “comic” ways. Stories presented absurd situations where the characters behaved ridiculously; a favorite plotline was having members of the club seeking (and failing) to mimic whites and white society. The Democrat printed some of the original tales in the 1880s as well as stories by later imitators.

“Saturday Night in Santa Rosa” (Sept. 15, 1894) Even without the racist segment, this article was so clueless I can’t imagine why Robert Thompson published it. A reporter ogled young women walking downtown and ranked their desirability, along with providing a general location of where each lived: “Santa Rosa is not old enough to have its exclusive set yet, and all types of humanity may be seen jostling each other on Fourth street Saturday night between 8 and 9 o’clock…The society reporter noted particularly a tall, stately blonde with a magnificent carriage and a superb figure. She was dressed in exquisite taste. It is said she lives on College avenue near Mendocino street…” Four “exquisitely posed heads” later, the article wrapped up with a scene describing an African-American couple using the thickest dialect (“I’ze jest dyin’ fur lub o’ yo’”) and ending with a sound effect of the sort heard in old cartoons.

…After her in the parade came a lady of color, who looked in the crowd of white faces and light dresses like a huckleberry in a bowl of milk. She was accompanied by a swain of ebony hue. He wore a gray suit that will fit him perfectly when he grows a few feet taller and a few yards broader; a large bouquet and sunflower decorated his coat lapel. His wool was clipped short and was highly scented with barber’s oil. When he smiled, his face was all mouth…Just then the loving pair turned down B street. He looked all around to see that no one was near, and as they got opposite Mr. Eardley’s office the reporter could hear a sound as distinct and loud as when a cow pulls her flat foot out of the mud. What’s in a kiss?


“Ben’s Wedding Shoes” (March 15, 1890) a short story reprinted from Youth’s Companion magazine, was about the struggle to convince the groom to wear shoes at his wedding.

…Ev’y knot er ha’r wuz kyarded out, en one er marster’s ole beaver hats wuz settin’ on top er his head. His sto’ cloze wuz bran, spankin’ new, en, mo’n dat, he had on er b’iled shirt en collar. “But, grashus, honey, down at de bottom dar sot his ole black feet spread out flatter’n er pancake on de do’steps. I des tuck’n retch under de bed en fetch put de shoes…“

CRIMINAL   Besides scouring out-of-town papers in search of insulting racist humor, the Democrat in the 1890s found and printed hundreds of news items about crimes allegedly committed by African-Americans nationwide. The paper’s bias was shown in favoring reports of black-on-white violence, particularly when it was a sexual assault and/or the black person was subsequently murdered by a mob.

Closer to home, we have two events from the 1890s which showed local police targeting black men for suspicion of crimes. The first event took place over two months in 1892, and is told below in three snippets. The other incident is the most unsettling item found here, as it describes an officer tracking an African-American man around Santa Rosa as if it was a hunt for an animal. The Democrat strained to portray this as a humor story – and failed.

A 17-year-old negro boy who killed a white boy. near Miller, Ga., was taken from the sheriff by a mob, tied to a tree and riddled with bullets. (Nov. 1, 1890)     Larned, Kansas—A negro by the name of James Thompson made a brutal attempt to outrage Miss Mabel Welch at her boarding house yesterday. She fought him for two hours, and he finally fled. Last evening he was arrested in a swamp. A few hours later he was taken from the jail by a mob, and hanged to a telegraph pole. He confessed his guilt and said that his soul would go to hell. (Sept. 17, 1892)


“Shrewd Detective Work” (April 16, 1892) Officer Hankel saw an African-American man who he thought matched the written description of someone wanted for a murder in Louisiana. Hankel took the surprised man to the station and ordered him to remove a shoe in order to see if he had a scar matching the suspect. On finding a scar, Hankel locked the man in jail and contacted authorities in Louisiana.

Some time ago the police department of this city received a description of a negro who had committed a murder in Louisiana. Among those who had been furnished with a copy of the description was Officer Hankel. Saturday, while the auctioneer was holding forth at Third and B streets, Hankel noticed a negro sitting up on a wagon, an interested spectator of the auction proceedings. The more the officer looked at the negro the more he became convinced that he was the man wanted, as he tallied perfectly with the description. Finally Hankel walked up to him, tapped him on the side, and told him he wanted him. The negro looked surprised, but accompanied the officer to the jail without any trouble. On reaching there Hankel asked him to take off his shoe. “Oh, yes,” said the negro, “you want to see that scar on my ankle.” “Yes, that’s just what I want to see, and I think you are the man I want,” said the officer. The scar was there, sure enough, and Officer Hankel feels sure he is the man wanted by the Louisiana authorities. He has telegraphed back there for instructions, which he will await with some anxiety. He says the prisoner answers the description in each and every particular, and if he should prove to be the man wanted, the officer deserves no small amount of commendation for his shrewd detective work. The prisoner gave the name of Johnson.


“The Alleged Murderer” (June 11, 1892) Almost two months later, an Arkansas sheriff arrived with extradition papers for an African-American who was accused of shooting and killing a white neighbor during an argument. A photo taken of the man in custody had been sent back to Arkansas, where several people identified him. The suspect being held here acted very nervous when asked to show his scar to the sheriff. Another witness who had accompanied the sheriff from Arkansas said the suspect looked like the man he had last seen about two years earlier, although “…he is a shade or two lighter. This discrepancy is accounted for on the supposition that the mulatto’s incarceration would cause him to ‘bleach out’ somewhat.”

Sheriff Sewell, of Columbia county, Arkansas, arrived in this city Sunday provided with the necessary papers for taking Johnson, the mulatto, who was three times arrested on suspicion of being a murderer, back with him to Arkansas. Sheriff Sewell was accompanied by J. B. Stevens, who identifies Johnson. The real name of the alleged fugitive from justice is George Frazier…When Sheriff Sewell went to see Johnson, alias Frazier, in the jail Sunday evening, the latter was very nervous. When asked to remove his shoe and stocking and show the scar on his foot, he started to remove the habiliments from the wrong foot, and when his attention was called to the mistake, in his excitement he bared both feet. Mr. Stevens, at whose house Frazier stopped a year ago last fall, was pointed out to the negro and the sheriff asked him if he had ever seen the gentleman before. Frazier replied that Mr. Stevens’ face was familiar to him, and that he thought he had seen him in the jail a few days ago. Mr. Stevens says Johnson, or Frazier, is exactly like the man he knew back in Arkansas, except that he is a shade or two lighter. This discrepancy is accounted for on the supposition that the mulatto’s incarceration would cause him to “bleach out” somewhat. Johnson, or Frazier, persists that he can prove an alibi.


“Johnson Liberated” (June 18, 1892) When a habeas corpus hearing was finally held, the defendant had no problem at all in proving he was not the man being sought. George Johnson had lived in Sonoma and counties for four years, including several periods in Santa Rosa. Six local witnesses testified to having known him over the years, as did the Calistoga town marshal. Had anyone from the Santa Rosa police made a phone call or sent a telegram to the marshal in Calistoga or interviewed the many people who could corroborate his identity, George Johnson would not have needed to spend over two months behind bars waiting for that hearing.

The muchly arrested man, Johnson, alleged to be Frazier, the Arkansas murderer, was discharged Saturday on conclusion of the testimony offered on the writ of habeas corpus…E. S. Mitchell said he had known the defendant as George Johnson in Sonoma county since 1888. Peter Wiley knew defendant in Santa Rosa for three years as George Johnson. Marion Sullivan testified to knowing defendant as George Johnson for over a year. Mollie Helton had also known defendant as Mr. Johnson for three years. The defendant was next called to the stand. He gave his name as George Walker December Johnson…He lived in Calistoga during 1883 and 1889, cutting wood for E. S. Mitchell in 1888, and afterwards rented a ranch near Calistoga. He came to Santa Rosa in the spring of ’9O, and again in April 1891. In January ’9l he was in Modesto. Came back to Santa Rosa again in 1892. He said he never was in Arkansas or Louisiana. On cross examination he testified that when the murder was committed in April 1891, he was working in Stanislaus county. C. H. Nash, the marshal of Calistoga, testified that he hnd known the defendant as George Johnson since 1889. Charles Wilson testified to rooming with Johnson in Santa Rosa iu 1890. A. M. Butler said he know defendant in this city in April 1891, when the murder was committed. The case was submitted without argument, and the court discharged the prisoner.


“A Long Chase” (Dec. 23, 1893) To 1893 readers of the Democrat there was no subtlety in this writeup about chasing a “coon,” as the paper often mentioned wild animal hunting or trapping (including at least four items earlier that year about raccoons). This item alone destroys any illusion that Robert Thompson was less of a racist than his brother Thomas.

“There is a new coon in town,” and Officer Kennedy made a strenuous effort to see the color of his eyes, Wednesday morning. This particular coon is said to be a bad coon, who was compelled to leave Oakland for conduct which rendered him amenable to the laws of the State and municipality. Officer Kennedy was told of his presence here in town and Wednesday morning he started out to find him. He obtained first trace of him at the Occidental Hotel, where his coonship succeeded in getting his breakfast free of expense. Subsequent investigation by Mr. Kennedy led to the discovery of the colored gentleman in the rear of Mrs. Kidd’s house on Seventh street. Officer Kennedy also found the doors of the empty house all open, and he suspected the Oakland coon had gone through the place. The coon evidently divined the official suspicions which were entertained against him, and when Officer Kennedy looked up he saw the former legging it down the street. It was a stern chase and a long one, and led the officer all over the western and northern part of the city. They went from the slaughter house on the northwest to Pacific Methodist College on the north. From the latter piece the chase took in the Southern Pacific station, and from thence led south again to the Fourth street schoolhouse. The coon went in one door and Officer Kennedy in the other. When Officer Kennedy came out the coon was nowhere in sight. Several of the teachers and school children who were watching the chase had not seen the coon leave the building, though it was evident he must have done so…Officer Kennedy describes the man as being a three-quarter negro, with a slight mustache. He wore dark clothes and a black stiff hat. The two men who saw him leap the school fence say he was laughing to himself…

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