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LESSONS ON WHO IS SO MUCH LESSER THAN YOU

“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.)

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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.

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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.”
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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…“

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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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THE STARTLING LIFE THAT ONCE HE LIVED (Hidden Lives III)

It came to this: He was afraid to step outside at night because they might be waiting for him in the dark.

His attackers during 1886 were a troupe of Santa Rosa boys who thought it was great fun to pelt Henry’s little house with stones and other objects, with Henry sometimes being struck himself. The boys made a project of it, curating rotten chicken eggs and spoiled fruit along with heavy-but-throwable rocks, hauling this ammunition stockpile down to the poorest part of town on First Street. His door was their target, but sometimes the missiles went through windows.

The harassment had gone on for a while – weeks, maybe months – while his pleas for help were ignored by the authorities. “The Marshal told him that the boys would not do it if they did not think it annoyed him, and they do it to hear the old gentleman complain”, reported the Democrat newspaper in January. Another item about the ongoing attacks appeared nine months later, with the comment it was too bad that it was happening because Henry and his wife were such good Christians.

The boys likely picked on the Davisons because they were African-Americans. Santa Rosa in the 19th century never had much tolerance for its non-white residents, and 1886 was particularly bad – on a downtown street that summer, a youth repeatedly beat a Chinese man in the head with an iron bar; no arrests were made and the newspaper waved it off with the same “boys will be boys” attitude.

Henry was also an easy target because he was elderly (67) and had the humblest job in town, shining shoes at Gus Koch’s barber shop on the corner of Mendocino and Fourth Street. His nickname was even “Shiner” – and let’s not overlook that was also racist slang for anyone with a black complexion.

Another reason they may have gone after him was because he had to be a liar or a fabulist. There were stories told about him which couldn’t possibly be true – such a frail, old shoeshine man in a farmtown like Santa Rosa couldn’t have known famous people, taken part in historic events or done any other remarkable things. It all had to be made up. Right?

This is the third and final installment in the series “THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA.” Each of the other profiles had lost or fragmentary chapters where we don’t know much about the early parts of their story. For Henry Davison, the pages in the whole middle section of his book are ripped out.

Henry William Davison was born in Savannah on August 12, 1819. Lloyd Belton, who researched Davison’s genealogy as part of his PhD work on black abolitionists, believes his mother was a Jamaican house slave and his father was her white English slaveowner. Both Henry and his brother George were likely slaves at birth.

We first meet Henry as a teenager in New York City. How he got there is unknown; he and George might have escaped or been released from slavery. What we do know is that he was smart, articulate and a radical abolitionist – which meant he believed all slavery in the U.S. should be abolished immediately, some arguing it should be done by any means necessary including violence (John Brown being that most famous adherent).

Despite his youth, Henry was a firebrand within the early American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), the first national group fighting to end slavery. This was cutting-edge activism in the 1830s, years before the more famous figures we celebrate today such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman.

There was a schism within AASS from the beginning; on one side were the radical abolitionists led by William Lloyd Garrison, a white printer who was also an early advocate of women’s rights. Opposing them were those who believed in the older colonization movement, which thought white Americans would never welcome freed slaves as equals and thought it was best for them to emigrate to Liberia in Africa or maybe Central America.1 That faction also opposed allowing women to vote or even join in anti-slavery societies.

Henry Davison was firmly tethered to the Garrison camp, and while still eighteen founded the black-only “Garrison Anti-Slavery Society” in New York City, the use of the name to probably signal there was no question about which side of the fence they stood. A few months later a letter from Henry was published in The Liberator (the weekly abolitionist newspaper published by Garrison in Boston). There Davison denounced colonizationists as “apologists,” a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and called their associated church a “nest of unclean birds” (nice phrase, that). This drew sharp responses from leaders of that movement.

Despite his youth Henry was a rising star in AASS, being part of the New York state delegation at their 1839 convention when the organization had over a quarter-million members nationwide. There he must have rubbed shoulders with the men and women who were founding the Underground Railroad.

His life as a radical abolitionist shifted in his twenties as he became an AASS organizer in Jamaica, working under the umbrella of Oberlin College. This was right after full emancipation was granted in the British West Indies, and the Herculean task was helping the former slaves build an autonomous society while staving off efforts by the planters to dominate. He went to work for the London Missionary Society, which was more experienced in culture building (culture imposing might be a better way to say it) and was affiliated with another British charity focused just on public education. (The pay was likely better than AASS, too.)

Now we’ve come to the part of his lifestory where the middle chapters are missing. In 1849 he married Jane Rachael Malliet, the daughter of a Jamaican planter and who is buried next to him at Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery. But little is known from 1850 until he arrives in Sonoma county in 1870 aside from a few lines in his obituary, which seem to be badly garbled. Our loss is that the writer drops the intriguing tease that Henry “had some startling experiences.”

Some of it involves the Panama Railroad. Before the transcontinental train, people were desperate for a faster route between the East Coast and San Francisco – the best anyone could do in the mid-19th century was building a railroad across Panama, which shaved months off the trip of sailing around South America. Construction began in 1850 and would take five years to complete; it was brutal work and involved many Jamaican laborers, which might have been Henry’s connection to the initial project. The obit stated he was “appointed head steward by the chief engineer.” Years later, after the trains began running he was supposedly involved with the railroad again; during that time there was at least one incident where abolitionists used the trip to assist slaves escaping their slaveholders.2

Davison’s “startling experiences” supposedly happened in 1856, when he “accompanied General Walker to Nicaragua.” This is not the place to dig into the complicated (and very weird) story of William Walker; all Gentle Reader needs to know is he was an American freebooter who invaded Nicaragua that year, had himself named president and re-legalized slavery, all part of a plan to annex the country to the U.S. as a new slave-holding state. For more there’s Wikipedia, an entertaining animated short video that rushes through most of his story and a first-rate thesis which should be turned into a book (PDF).

No matter how hard one tries, there’s no way to square the circle on this story – an African-American abolitionist like Davison would have no truck with a rabid white supremacist such as Walker, who not only wanted to bring slaves from southern states but reboot the African slave trade. While I’ll easily believe Henry could have been in Nicaragua at the time and had come away with some ripping yarns about the chaos there, methinks the obituary writer must have gotten the details upside down.

Whatever startling experiences he had there, that marks the beginning of his untraceable years. What happened to their children? We don’t know (their youngest, Henry Jr. was born in Jamaica the year after he was in Nicaragua). Why did they come to Sonoma county – did they have friends here? We don’t know. Once they arrived in Santa Rosa, why did he (apparently) have no connection with the network of Bay Area civil rights activists, even though some of the East Coast abolitionists from his past were in San Francisco? We don’t know.

Intersection of Mendocino and Fourth streets in Santa Rosa c. 1870, when Henry Davison arrived. The courthouse and jail are seen at left; on the opposite corner is the Roney Building, which was where Davison shined shoes in Gus Koch’s barber shop. This is likely another drawing by African-American artist Grafton Tyler Brown (see intro). Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
Intersection of Mendocino and Fourth streets in Santa Rosa c. 1870, when Henry Davison arrived. The courthouse and jail are seen at left; on the opposite corner is the Roney Building, which was where Davison shined shoes in Gus Koch’s barber shop. This is likely another drawing by African-American artist Grafton Tyler Brown (see intro). Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

He was 50/51 in 1870 when he and Jane landed in Santa Rosa and until he died almost thirty years later, he led a nondescript life.

He made 25¢ for four shoeshines – to just earn as much as a California farm laborer, he needed to shine a minimum of 46 shoes every day. It was barely enough to live on; his obituary stated he “subsisted almost entirely upon the charity of the friends he made in better days.” Still, he needed to beg for public charity. The year before the boys began pelting the Davison’s home with rocks and rotten eggs, the Board of Supervisors authorized the treasurer to make his rent payment (such grants to the destitute were not unusual).

Besides having his house stoned – and the police refusing to do anything to stop it – Davison endured other indignities in Santa Rosa.

Right after he arrived in 1871, Henry registered to vote. The Registrar of Voters began requiring a physical description in the 1890s; while the data for 1892 appear correct, in 1896 Henry was identified as a blue-eyed blonde in the Great Register. It probably was just a racist prank, but we can’t rule out it might have been a ruse to block him from casting his ballot.

Then there was the fundraiser for the San Francisco Midwinter Fair. The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago had been such a hit that it was decided to have a big exposition in Golden Gate Park to boost California, including an exhibit of Sonoma County products (Healdsburg’s contribution was a prune bridge). This project consumed the county and particularly Santa Rosa; hundreds of articles appeared in the Democrat about meetings to plan planning meetings and committees formed to form subcommittees. It kept much of the town busy for months.

To help pay the necessary expenses, there were three nights of entertainments by local people presented at the big Athenaeum theater at the corner of Fourth and D. The first half of each show was like an amateur vaudeville bill, with a string of singers, piano players and fiddlers (I confess surprise at finding one act was a “trapeze performance by the Cole family”). The second part of the program was a rehearsed production, of sorts. One evening it was the portrayal of a schoolday with the “Mud-Alley Kindergarten” which was apparently as adorable as it sounded, and another night it was “Ye Old Folk’s Concert.” But the evening that was most popular, according to the Democrat, had a revue done in blackface:

The second night of the Midwinter Fair entertainment in the Athenaeum was in every way worthy to follow its predecessor. There was not the burlesque which characterized the first evening’s performance, though the audience found much to laugh at in the admirable and varied makeups of the ladies and gentlemen who took their daintiest steps for the cake. To say that the aggregation of counterfeit Africans was elite would be bare of hyperbole. There was nothing shabby or rowdyish in the character representation. The elegance of the costumes and toilets added a zest to the fun of guessing the identities which were concealed beneath the curled hair and prepared cork. The march which preceded the walk for the cake abounded in graceful evolutions, all ot which were paired off in a manner appropriate to the occasion…C. B. Kirkpatrick, as “Shiner,” was a feature of the cake walk. Campbell should take out patent papers on his admirable impersonation of the character.

henrydavisonMaybe that was not the lowest depth to which our 19th century Santa Rosa ancestors ever sunk, but mocking an impoverished 74 year-old man has to rank near the bottom. The worst part is that I doubt any of them even considered the cruelty of having a good laugh at his expense.

Henry W. Davison died in 1899, nine years after Jane (she had no obituary, nor even a single-line death notice in the paper). As an indigent, he was about to be buried in the Potter’s Field when the Press Democrat stepped in and paid to have him laid to rest next to his wife in the regular part of the cemetery. I don’t believe the newspaper ever did anything like that again, and it’s unknown why they offered this act of charity – although the paper slipped some PR into his obituary by pointing out “…the additional expense of the interment consequent to his being placed where he wished being borne by the Press Democrat.” This doesn’t completely explain why, but keep in mind the journal was no longer the old Democrat edited by the racist Thompson brothers, but now helmed by a new generation of young men who grew up in Santa Rosa. I have a theory which needs more background to explain than is appropriate here, which is explored in the story about the origins of the PD.

Of all the mysteries whispered in the old Rural Cemetery, the story of Henry Davison stands among the most haunting. He should not have ended up here as he did; he should not have ended up here at all. Henry Davison should have ended up as one of the storied men in the quest for slavery’s end and then the long struggle for equal rights. But something happened and we’ll probably never know what caused his retreat. When Act II of his life took place in the Caribbean, Henry Davison was an educated man who likely had considerable leadership abilities and political skills. When the curtain rose for Act III in Santa Rosa, we saw on stage a man with his back bent low over the feet of less notable men, working at an unskilled job usually held by boys, or men with damaged wits. There must be a story there that none know.

 


1 Abraham Lincoln was a colonizationist before the Emancipation Proclamation, and in 1862 pushed forward a plan to resettle District of Columbia’s freed slaves at the Chiriquí province of Panama, which the Republican Press suggested should be called “The Colony of Linconia.”

2 In “The Negro Trail Blazers of California,” researcher Delilah Beasley tells the story about abolitionists in 1856 intercepting a family of slaves who were being taken by a Virginia slaveholder to work on a ranch near Petaluma (!) but en route plans were made for the family to escape once the journey ended in San Francisco. The crews on the steamers were supposedly entirely black, and the train porters were probably black as well.

 

sources
Court-house.- From and after this day the undersigned will give the best polish with first-class blacking – no acid — at 4 shines for 25c. His old friends and customers are requested to call and patronize the pioneer old man, H. W. Davidson.

– Daily Democrat, November 10 1877

 

On motion of Supervisor Coulter the Board ordered that a warrant be drawn on the County Treasurer in favor of Proctor, Reynolds & Co., for payment of house rent occupied by Henry W. Davidson, (colored) alias “Shiner.”

– Sonoma Democrat, December 12 1885

 

Malicious Mischief.

Henry Davis, better known as “Shiner,” has made a complaint to the city authorities against a gang of hoodlums of tender years, who take delight in bothering the old couple. They throw large stones and missiles of every description against the old gentleman’s cottage door, and he further states that he is afraid to stir outside of his house after dark, as he has frequently been struck with stones, decayed vegetables, and antiquated hen fruit at different times. The Marshal told him that the boys would not do it if they did not think it annoyed him, and they do it to hear the old gentleman complain. It is carrying the joke a little too far, aud some of them may get hurt when the old gentleman gets up his ire.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 23 1886

 

Not Pleasant.

Old Uncle Davidson (colored) alias “Shiner,” complains that his aged wife and himself are very much annoyed by a few young hoodlums who make a practice of throwing rocks and other missiles against their door, and on one or two occasions through the windows, while they are engaged in their religious devotions. The old couple, although a littie off color, possess as white hearts as the average of mankind, and are very strict in what they term their religious duties. The old gentleman says there is not a day passes that they do not read their Bible and say their Litany; and it is not hard to agree with him that it is not pleasant to have rocks, decayed fruit, etc., hurled through the door, when it is open, and against it, when it is shut, while the inmates are thus engaged.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 4 1886

 

The second night of the Midwinter Fair entertainment in the Athenaeum was in every way worthy to follow its predecessor. There was not the burlesque which characterized the first evening’s performance, though the audience found much to laugh at in the admirable and varied makeups of the ladies and gentlemen who took their daintiest steps for the cake. To say that the aggregation of counterfeit Africans was elite would be bare of hyperbole. There was nothing shabby or rowdyish in the character representation. The elegance of the costumes and toilets added a zest to the fun of guessing the identities which were concealed beneath the curled hair and prepared cork. The march which preceded the walk for the cake abounded in graceful evolutions, all ot which were paired off in a manner appropriate to the occasion…C. B. Kirkpatrick, as “Shiner,” was a feature of the cake walk. Campbell should take out patent papers on his admirable impersonation of the character.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 23 1893

 

SHINER GONE HOME
Found Dead in His Room Here Thursday Horning
The Little Old Man Laid to Rest at Eventide Beside His Wife in the Cemetery

Henry W. Davison, known, however, to every man, woman and child in Santa Rosa at the present time and for many years past as “Shiner” Davis, the little, old, tottering colored man, is no more.

Thursday morning shortly before 11 o’clock, Bert Gardner, in a room of whose house on First street old “Shiner” resided, discovered the old man lying on the floor beside his bed quite dead, and he had been so apparently for several hours.

Everything was very still in the old man’s room on Thursday morning. A little before 11 o’clock Mrs. Gardner went to the door to see if he wanted something to eat.

She called to him, but received no reply. Becoming alarmed she called her husband, who was outside, who, in company with a neighbor Mr. Thompson, went to the room and found Mr. Davison had passed away. He was partially undressed.

Undertaker Pedersen was notified, and so was Coroner Pierce, who held an inquest later in the day, the verdict being in accordance with the testimony. A Press Democrat representative ascertained from Mr. Gardner that the old man had frequently expressed a wish to be buried in Rural cemetery by his wife, who died here in 1890. Mr. Pedersen, who has the contract for burying the county indigents, was consulted. It was found there would be extra expense beyond that allowed by the county if the old man’s wish was complied with, and his remains buried in his lot at the cemetery beside those of his wife, instead of in the potter’s field.

Late in the afternoon the old man’s body was laid to rest. The funeral was a quiet affair but the old man was not buried in the lonely potter’s field. Old “Shiner’s” last wish was gratified, the additional expense of the interment consequent to his being placed where he wished being borne by the Press Democrat.

Henry W. Davison was born in Savannah, Georgia, on August 12, 1819. His father was an Englishman and his mother was a native of the island of Jamaica. At 13 years of age he left Georgia and went to New York, where shortly after becoming of age he secured a position with the missionaries sent out by Oberlin university to Jamaica. He taught the Jamaicans under the direction of the society for some time, and later became associated with the London missionary society. Returning to New York he joined the Congregational church, and in 1848 started for Aspinwall, having been appointed head steward by the chief engineer of the Panama railroad. The following year he returned to Jamaica for his health, and the same year, 1849, was married there to a daughter of Jean Marjeatte, a planter.

In 1B56 he accompanied General Walker to Nicaragua, and had some startling experiences while with him. Later he returned to New York, went thence to Aspinwall again, and in 1870 came to Petaluma, moving to Santa Rosa the same year, where he resided until the day of his death. For many years he ran a bootblack stand in Koch’s barber shop. His wife died in this city on April 4, 1890. “Shiner” was a kind hearted old man, and for several years had subsisted almost entirely upon the charity of the friends he made in better days.

– Press Democrat, February 18 1899

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mywifeslovers

THE MAKING OF A CRAZY CAT LADY

Here is another of those important life rules not taught in schools: Should you acquire an extraordinary fondness for cats, once you die you will be remembered forever as a crazy cat person, and only as that.

First corollary: This rule applies only to women.

“Cat lady” has been a cultural touchstone since the Victorian era, even though the most cat-obsessive famous Americans were men. Doubt it? President Lincoln couldn’t keep his hands off any kitty within his reach, enjoyed getting down on the floor to play with them and fed a favorite at the table during a formal state dinner. In 1924 the Washington, D.C. police issued an APB when one of President Coolidge’s four cats went missing while a Secret Service agent broadcast a description over the area’s top radio station. (Imagine the Fox News fury if a President Hillary had done such things.) Sam Clemens could not bear to be without a cat on his Mark Twain lecture tours and took to renting local felines when away from home. Yet curiously, such details of men’s lives are rarely mentioned. Honestly, did you know any of these facts before reading about them here?

Kate Johnson, who died 125 years ago at her mansion near Sonoma, wasn’t known as a cat lady until the end of her lifetime. She was EXTREMELY wealthy (worth the equivalent $70 million today) and spent much of that fortune on philanthropy – most famously, founding what’s now the Seton Medical Center. She was an amateur painter but a professional art collector; for quite a while she owned one of the most celebrated paintings by an American artist, and the collection was so substantial that the auction for the non-museum quality holdings took three days. And on the grounds of the historic Buena Vista winery she and husband Robert built “The Castle,” likely the largest home ever constructed in Sonoma county, centered on a six-story tower with a breathtaking view of the Sonoma valley.

Back to Kate’s cat story in a moment, but there is a book yet to be written about the Valley of the Moon during the Gilded Age, when “San Francisco’s right-fork-conscious new high society” (as Stephen Birmingham called them in “California Rich”) descended upon the valley to build great country estates, where they lived the imagined lives of landed gentry during late 19th century summers. There were stables filled with racing thoroughbreds, private game reserves for hunting and artificial lakes stocked with trout. Grounds were always perfectly tended in competition with Golden Gate Park, which was then being landscaped.

The end of the affluent era was probably marked by the 1904 fire that destroyed Rudolph Spreckels’ mansion at Sobre Vista (although it was rebuilt and in the 1920s-30s mid-1930s his sister-in-law, Alma, again spent lavishly on the estate in a campaign to brand it as the “San Simeon of the North”). But the Gilded Age surely began here in 1880, when Kate and Robert Johnson purchased the 6,000 acre Buena Vista ranch and vineyards at an auction on the courthouse steps in Santa Rosa.

The Johnsons were not interested in wine production, as the sad history of Agoston Haraszthy’s vineyard only demonstrated how risky it was after the grapes on the property were nearly wiped out by Phylloxera. Instead they turned the wine cellars into carriage houses and looked upon the beautiful setting as if it were a fresh canvas. After Kate died, a San Francisco paper described what they had done with the 27 landscaped acres around the house: “…[it] is laid out in the same elaborate style as Golden Gate Park, though on a smaller scale…the fountains plentiful and the flora is the most variegated [sic] in the valley. Babbling brooks run through the grounds. The little watercourses are spanned by rustic bridges of unique pattern…rustic seats ornament the sward at the sides of the walks and drives.”

Postcard of the Johnson mansion at Buena Vista, c. 1900. A later view can be found in the following article

 

 

Then there was the mansion which was completed around 1885 and said to cost $80,000, which would be over $2.5 million today. Alas, there’s little information about it aside from a couple of exterior views. It supposedly had 40 rooms and was “finished in rare and expensive woods.” There is a good chance the state had a set of photographs of how it looked c. 1919, but I am not holding my breath they will ever surface.

Again, this was just their county place; their main residence was in the city at the corner of O’Farrell/Leavenworth streets with 22 rooms – but not that they were there all that much, either. Kate and Robert were often somewhere else buying wonderful things: Art, antiques, and yes…exotic cats.

Kate’s fortune began with her father-in-law, George C. Johnson, a diplomat and industrialist in Gold Rush-era San Francisco. He was the Norwegian-Swedish Consul General until his death in 1872 (one description called him an “unusually pro-Swedish Norwegian,” but I’m unclear if that was a compliment or insult) and among the investors in the Buena Vista winery, being president of the corporation’s board for a year. That was the start of ties between the Johnson and Haraszthy families; before buying the whole ranch, Robert purchased about 100 acres of land in Napa from Agoston’s son, Attila.

Before any of that, George was a sea captain with a bark (a sailing ship with three masts) hauling cargo for the United States government. His last voyage took him far inland to drop off supplies for “Camp Far West,” a small military post on the Bear River near modern-day Wheatland. He ended up berthing his ship permanently at Nicolaus, which was then the Sutter county seat and an important way station for the 49ers. There he became a property developer and agent for the express company shuttling gold dust down to San Francisco. Fifty years later in 1902, a San Francisco gossip newspaper named “Town Talk” printed a tale about how George got his start in Nicolaus; it’s most likely a complete pack of lies, but still a helluva good story:

George C. Johnson came to this city in the early fifties, as captain of a bark loaded with United States commissary stores. He sailed up the Sacramento river as far as Nicolaus, tied her up to the bank, spread out awnings and settled down to take his case. With a whole cargo of stores under deck, and his salary accumulating, he didn’t worry much about the future. There he waited orders for two hole years when inquiry came from Washington as to his whereabouts. Captain Richard L. Ogden was detailed to look him up and the latter found the bark at Nicolaus. The vessel was enclosed with awnings, and going aboard Ogden found Captain Johnson swinging in a hammock, and his wife sitting in a rocking chair. They presented a picture of solid comfort. On inspection the cargo was pronounced worthless for issue. Ogden sold it at public auction. It consisted principally of pork. Captain Johnson bought it in for a dollar a barrel, and after cleaning off the rust and repacking it, he sold it in Marysville for sixteen dollars a barrel. On the capital thus obtained he went into partnership in this city with George W. Gibbs in the hardware business. He became Swedish Consul, was knighted and died worth three million dollars. The wife who in early days had kept a boarding house in Baltimore became one of San Francisco’s Four Hundred. Her only son, Robert C. Johnson, became one of our later day capitalists. His wife, Mrs. Kate Johnson, inherited the estate which had its origin in rusty pork. She was a well known patron of art.

George left an estate worth a million bucks and his son Robert followed the same path, investing in Bay Area real estate and leaving Kate $2 million when he died in Paris in 1889.

Kate’s taste in art seems to have been Roman and Greek antiquities, some Japanese objects and lots of oil paintings, particularly by the romantic ultra-realists who pattered themselves after the Pre-Raphaelites. She did not throw money around like William Randolph Hearst but when she saw something she liked, was known for paying the asking price without dickering. She was said to have paid $50,000 for her most celebrated acquisition: The painting Elaine, which she purchased in 1875 and loaned to a San Francisco gallery, where it was promptly stolen by being cut from the frame. The theft was front page news in newspapers all over the state; when detectives recovered it three days later, crowds mobbed the police station in city hall, leading officers to spread the canvas on a table in front of a window so the throngs could see it. For years afterwards she was referred to in the press as “Mrs. Johnson, of Elaine fame” or similar, and when King Kalakaua of Hawai’i visited San Francisco in 1881 he specifically wanted to visit the Johnson’s home to see the painting.

With such a solid reputation as a patron of the arts, there was probably no surprise in the tightly-knit art world when it became known in 1891 she had given Austrian painter Carl Kahler a generous commission for an oil painting.

The painting was to be a group portrait of her cats.

“My Wife’s Lovers” by Carl Kahler, 1893

 

 

“My Wife’s Lovers” is 8½ by 6 feet and took over two years to complete, as Kahler had to first sketch each of the 42 cats. Also: He had to learn how to sketch cats, having never drawn one before. He was known for portrayals of race horses.

It’s doubtful the painting ever hung on a wall in any of her mansions; the same year it was finished in 1893 it was sent to Chicago to be part of the California building’s “Woman’s Department” at the World’s Fair, which ended just about a month before Kate died of pneumonia at the Buena Vista estate.

The painting must have drawn considerable interest because not long after the Fair opened, an article about painter Kahler and Kate appeared in the Chicago Inter Ocean, which then was one of the most widely read weekly newspapers in the Midwest and West. Here the Crazy Cat Lady myth was born, with its demonstration of the second corollary: Once the C. C. L. premise takes hold, there’s no limit to the exaggerations and outright fibs that can be larded on to prove the craaazzzy.

Written by Hartley Davis – a freelancer who specialized in lightweight articles about vaudeville, the circus and other entertainments – “Kahler, the Cat Painter” was an interview with the artist and included a subhed, “the history of the California cat ranch.” Note the author was so ill-informed as to call the town “Samona”:

The Angoras live in royal splendor at Buena Vista, Mrs. Johnson’s summer residence near Samona [sic]. She has more than three hundred cats with long tails and pedigrees, and there is a retinue of Japanese servants whose sole business is to look after them. To be sure there are several other pets on the big ranch, but they are merely a back ground to the cats. For instance, there is a fine collection of parrots and cockatoos. Their business is to help make life interesting for the cats…Mrs. Johnson has devoted herself to cat raising for a great many years. She has imported cats from Persia, she has bought them whenever they pleased her, and never bothered about the price. Twenty-five of the cats make up her personal court. They are always in attendance upon their mistress…

Shortly after that appeared the San Francisco Call offered its own article on Kahler, headlined “His Queer Ways” and calling him “a very erratic genius.” Included there were anecdotes about Kahler demanding a San Francisco restaurant set up a table for him in the middle of Market street and how he would toss empty wine glasses over his shoulder, building up a pile of broken glassware behind him. The other article described how obsessed he became about painting cats and even took to adding them to his previously finished works. There’s an article about him as a cat painter with other examples showing up from an image search for “kahler cat“.

Kahler may have been eccentric or maybe even outright nuts, but my guess is he was actually trying to project an “artistic personality” for the sake of publicity. And as the sole source for the Inter Ocean’s information on Kate’s cats, it would also been to his benefit to portray the situation at Buena Vista as memorably odd as possible – hey, while you’re at the World’s Fair, be sure to stop by and see my picture of the freakishly pampered pets.

Cat painting is an unusual niche – as well as quite profitable, I’ll wager –  and the Chicago paper described, “now his whole artistic soul is wrapped up in cats.” Kahler died in the 1906 earthquake, but I’ll also bet he never again had to worry about where his next commission would come from. Sad that his good fortune came at the expense of Kate’s reputation.

After she died in 1893 at age 60, the San Francisco Call ran a story on what would become of her “feline family.” According to the reporter – who had no first-hand knowledge of the scene – “the number of these furry beauties exceeds 200” and they “lived placid lives of mouseless but otherwise highly satisfactory luxury and indolence, their every want supplied by attentive servants in delightful apartments of their own under the wide-spreading roof of Buena Vista, her country seat.”

Kate made no accommodation in her will for care of the cats (supposedly she was told pet cats couldn’t legally be considered personal property) but the SF Call mentioned “a certain bequest made in her will is understood by those fitted to ‘read between the lines’ to cover that ground.” The deal was that Helen Shellard, an in-law of her late husband, was to use the $20,000 left to her for care of the menagerie in her San Francisco home.

A profile of Shellard in the Chronicle a few months later found the kitties settled in with her on Telegraph Hill. But there were not 300 of them. There were not 200. There were 32 – still a lot of cats, but nowhere near the epic hoard everyone expected.

In the years that followed, Kate Johnson’s unfair reputation as the Crazy Cat Lady was cast rock solid. The mansion picked up the nickname of “The Castle,” then sometimes the “Cat Castle.” It became widely claimed she had devoted an entire floor of the mansion to her cats. According to a letter that appeared in a 2013 issue of the Bohemian, local tour guides were saying Kate’s prized cats were abandoned and devolved into a feral colony lurking in the corners at Buena Vista.

It’s bad enough that the sketchy 125 year-old cat tales (with new twists added, apparently) are still being told to tourists and written up on the internet, but the real shame is that it has completely overshadowed her real legacy as a pioneer in public health care.

“Kate Johnson, through her own personal experiences, had a keen sense of the suffering of women and children,” says historian and Kate Johnson biographer Barbara Skryja. Through “Mary’s Help Hospital” (which became Seaton) she “specifically directed that all patients were to be treated no matter their religion, race, creed, or nationality” and were to receive the best care available anywhere – free. The hospital had state-of-the-art equipment and she even made sure the architectural layout reflected the most modern thinking. “She researched the latest medical procedures and hospital designs,” Skryja explains.

Unfortunately, what keeps the cat angle in the forefront is that damned painting, which is revered among cat aficionados as if it were something like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Try a Google search for “meowsterpiece painting” and guess what pops up again and again and again.

One reason  “My Wife’s Lovers” is so well known today is because it has been often in the news since the turn of the millenium. (The provocative name might have been another publicity effort by Carl Kahler to sensationalize Kate – although that name appeared in the official World’s Fair report, another 1893 description called it simply, “Cats.”) It was offered for sale in 2002, sold privately later, then bought for $826,000 in 2015. The following year it was exhibited at the Portland Art Museum.

But the painting’s popularity has never wained. After Kate Johnson’s death it was among the finer works sold to the “Palace of Art,” a cafe on Post street which was a must-visit spot for upscale tourists. During the 1906 earthquake it was among the handful of paintings the owner managed to save – although one of the artworks fell on him, causing severe nerve damage to his arm (weighing in at 227 pounds, the cat painting was probably to blame).

In 1917, 20,000 people in San Francisco paid 25¢ to look at it as part of a charity drive for the “Belgian Babies Relief Fund.” In the 1940s it toured the country and remained continuously on display somewhere except for a few years. Along the way umpteen thousands of reproductions have been sold to cat lovers worldwide.

Kate’s mansion near Sonoma sat empty for years, the great white elephant of Buena Vista. It was reported North Bay railroad baron A. W. Foster, president of the California Northwestern, was in talks to buy it for a resort destination but nothing came of it. For a few years after the turn of the century it did become a resort called the “Buena Vista Castle” (rates $10-15/week), then was sold to a man named Henry Cailleaud, who told himself he was a winemaker but wasn’t. The Seventh Day Adventists also toyed with the idea of buying it for a colony.

Then in 1920, when the great mansion was not even forty years old, it found a new use even more controversial than the castle of cats. The state of California bought it for “an institution for the confinement, care and reformation of delinquent women” – which meant housing women convicted of prostitution or related offenses, usually with incurable cases of venereal disease. The town of Sonoma yowled in outrage.

A cablegram states that Robert C. Johnson. of Buena Vista Farm, located in the suburbs of Sonoma, died in Paris on the 6th inst. Last October deceased while traveling abroad, was taken sick in Paris. He immediately cablegramed Mrs. Johnson of his illness, and hastily leaving her affairs in the hands of an agent, she left Sonoma for the bedside of her sick husband. She arrived in Paris the latter part of October and was a constant attendant at his bedside up to the hour of his death. Deceased was a gentleman of large fortune and the owner of one of the finest country estates in Sonoma Valley, upon which he had expended many thousands of dollars for improvements the past few years.

– Santa Rosa Democrat, March 17 1889

 

A NOTABLE WILL.
Generosity of Mrs. Kate Johnson.
MANY LIBERAL BEQUESTS.
One-Third of the Estate To Found a Hospital.
LEGACIES TO HER FRIENDS.
Disposal of an Estate Valued at $2,000,000, In Which Many Claims Are Remembered.

The will of Mrs. R. C. Johnson of this city and Buena Vista, Sonoma County, was filed for probate yesterday. The instrument, which was executed on January 10, 1892, and was witnessed by T. B. Barry, a real-estate man, of San Rafael, and M. Taylor, son of Attorney J. M. Taylor of Oakland, and disposes of an estate valued at $2,000,000, and consisting of real estate yielding a monthly rental of $4500: stocks, bonds and notes valued at $60,000, yielding an annual revenue of $4000; furniture, jewelry, works of art and livestock valued at $40,000, and $2970 in bank. This disposition of this immense property marks both the broad-minded and minute generosity of the late Mrs. Johnson. She was noted for her charities in life, but by the law was enjoined from bequeathing more than one-third of the estate to charity.

The chief munificent bequest consists of the decedent’s city real estate aud art treasures, together with money, making up in all one-third of the estate, to Archbishop Riordan in trust for the foundation and endowment of a free hospital to be located in this city. Thereafter follow handsome legacies to relatives and a long list of friends, the residue of the estate devised to the living sisters and brother of the testatrix and to the heirs of her deceased sister and brothers.

In the list of kindly bequests a number of dependents are handsomely remembered. Among these are servants or former servants, including Annie Goold, Mary and Annie Gill, John Burke, two Japanese domestics, John Goltenburg, John and Maggie Kusel. Helen Shallard, a maiden schoolteacher, comes in for a substantial sum. Joseph Schoer is given a legacy contingent on his adherence to a certain agreement, understood to be a temperance pledge. Each of the servants in the employ of the decedent at the time of her death, twelve in number, is given $100. Father John J Prendergast, James M. Taylor and Benjamin Bangs are nominated executors, with complete authority to realize on the property, and a request that they close the estate within five years after the death of the testatrix. Father Prendergast and Attorney J. M.Taylor have declined to serve, and Mr. Bangs has petitioned the Probate Court to be appointed executor without bonds. Following is the full text of the will: I, Kate Johnson, of the city and county of San Francisco, State of California, do now make, publish and declare this my last will and testament. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Thanking God for bis undeserved mercies and acknowledging my grateful affection for my friend and father-in-law, the late George C. Johnson, through whom I am enabled to make the following gifts I ask all who may receive them to pray for the repose of his soul. I give, devise and bequeath to Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan of San Francisco, Cal., all my pictures and valuable bibelots; also all that certain real property situate in the city and county of Sao Francisco, State of California, and described as follows, to wit: Horner’s Addition blocks numbered 173 and 174, bounded on the north by Twenty-ninth street, on the east by Castro street, on the south by Thirtieth Street and on the west by Diamond street; also my new warehouse, known and deslgnated as the Gibraltar Waiehouse, and the lot on which the same is situated at the southeast corner of Sansome and Gilbert streets; also such a sum of money as will, with the real and personal properly aforesaid, comprise onethird of my entire estate, all ot the same to be held in trust by him to and for the uses. intents and purposes following, that is to say: It being my desire to found and endow a free hospital to be located in said city and county of San Francisco, all said money and property is to be by said trustee paid, conveyed and delivered over to a corporation to be hereafter formed by a society to be composed or the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco and R. C. Tobln, Dr. C. F. Buckley, Dr. W. S. Thorn and Dr. Luke Robinson, or the survivors of them, and such other persons as they or their survivors and successors in their discretion shall elect io fill vacancies la said society; said corporation to be formed under the laws of the State of California; the name of such corporation to be Mary’s Help Hospital; the purposes for which such corporation shall be formed to be to receive endowments and acquire property for and establish, erect, maintain and conduct a free Hospital for all sick women and children of the poor, without regaid to religion, nationality or color, excepting such as the officers of the hospital consider dangerous to other inmates, such hospital to be conducted by the Roman Catholic Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, commonly called tbe Sisters of Charity, under the direction of the board of dlrectors ot said corporation. The place where the principal buslness of said corporation shall be transacted shall be the city and county of San Francisco, state of California, and the number of its directors shall be five and I direct the said trustee, Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan, to pay, convey and deliver over to such corporation when so formed all of the money, property and estate aforesaid.

It Is my wish that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco be a member of said society and ex-offlcio one of the board of directors of said corporation, and that the others of such directors shall at all times consist of one business man and three physicians, and that the medical stiff of the hospital shall have the right to give clinical instruction in the hospital to sludents and graduates of medicine. I give and bequeath my dear sisters, Sarah J. Dlllaye, Elizabeth Henry, Rispah B. Kellogg, and my brother, Herny Birdsall. and to Jane Birdsall. widow of my brother Maurice, the sum of $25,000 each; deducting, however, from portion of Elizabeth Henry the sum of $8000, being the value of a house and for heretofore presented to her. I give and bequeath to Henry Fenton and Brush Fenton, the sons of my deceased sister Adelaide, $7000 each; to Adelaide Birdsall and Ben Birdsall the children of my deceased brother Ben, $12,500 each; to my nieces and nephews, Florence Vann and Florence Vann, her daughter, and Dlllaye Vann. her son; Fenton K. McCreary, Lizzie Welty, Rlspah Phillips, Sarah Feindel, Adelaide Kendal, Elizabeth Bangs, Suzette Birdsall, Kate Birdsall, Grace Birdsall and Bailey Birdsall. $5000 each; to my nieces Adelaide and Katharine McCreary, $10,000 each; to Benjamin Bangs. $5000; to Ida Johnson, the young girl now living with me, $6000, to be invested by my executors and held for her until she shall arrive at the age of 21 years except that they shall give to her from time to time, such sums thereof, as she shall actually require for expenses. I request that Sister Rosalia, the present superioress of the Technical School in San Francisco, be appointed her guardlan, and I give and bequeath to said Sister Rosalia the sum of $5000 to cover all expenses of her living and instruction; I give and bequeath to my frlends. Mr. and Mrs. H. Humphrey Moore, $25,000 if both shall survive me. If only one of them survives me the survivor shall receive one-half ot that sum; I give and bequeath io William Newton of Flint, Michigan, $10,000; io Julia Shaffer Hamilton $8000; to Mrs. Fied Deakin, $5000; to Bertha Kellogg, May Kellogg. Lillian Marsh, Katharine Marsh and Mrs. Grace Gass, $5000 each; to tbe two daughters, if living, of A. H. Ward, deceased, formerly bookkeeper with George C. Johnson & Co., $2500 each; to Julia Steere, if llving, $2000; to Mary and Agnes Cook, daughters of Harriet Cook, $2000 each; to my dear old friend, Annie Goold, $4000; to Mary Gill faithful and true. $5000; to Annie Gill, $3000; to Mrs. Maria Cahlll, $2000; to John Burk of Sonoma, $1000; to lso and Yone Akiyama $3000, io be equally divided between them; to John and Maggie Kusel, $3000 to be equally divided between them; to George, a Japanese boy now in my employ, $200; to Willie, now my gardener, $500; to Lizzie Cunningham, formerly in the service of George C. Johnson, $2000; to Ernest and George Claxton. $1000 each; to Miss Helen Shallard, $20,000; to John Gottenberg, $1000; to all persons who shall be in my service at the time of my death, $100 each; to Father Brennan, now parish priest of Sonoma, $3000; to Father Sasla, $5000; to the Presentation Convent in Sonoma, $5000; I direct my executors to pay to Joseph Schorr $5000 accordlng to the terms of an agreement signed by me March 9, 1802, of which he has a copy. I give, devise and bequeath to my sisters, Sarah J. Dillaye, Elizabeth Henry, Rispah Kellogg, and to my brother, Henry Birdsall, and the heirs of my deceased sister and brothers, Adelaide Fenton, Benjamin Birdsall and Maurice Birdsall, all the rest and residue of my esstate, the said Sarah J. Dillaye, Elizabeth Henry, Klspah Kellogg and Henry Birdsall each to take one-seventh thereof, and the heirs of Adelaide Fenton one-seventh thereof, the heirs of Benjamin Birdsall one-seveuth thereof, and the heirs of Maurice Bhdsail one-seveuth thereof by right of representation. I nominate and appoint Father John J. Prendergast, James M. Taylor and Benjamin Bangs to be the executors of this will, and no bond shall be required ot them or either of them as such executors; and in case Father Prendergast declines to serve as such executor he is hereby authorized and empowerd to appoint some person as executor in his place. I authorize my executors to sell any or all my property, real and personal, which is not hereinbefore specially devised, or bequeathed, either at public or privaie sale, with or without notice, and without any order, supervision or control of any court. 1 request my executors to settle and close my estate within five years after my death. I hereby revoke and annul all other and former wills by me made. In witness whereof, I, the said Kate Johnson, do to this, my last will, sign my name and affix my seal, in the ciiy and county of San Francisco, state of California, this 19th day of July, A. D. 1892. [seal.] Kate Johnson. On this 19th day of July. 1892. the foregoing will was signed, sealed, published and declared by the testatrix therein named, Kate Johnson, as and for her last will. In presence of us and each of us, who, at her request and in her presence and in the presence of each other, do now subscribe our names as witnesses to the same. T. B. Berry, San Rafael. Cal. Montell Taylor, Oakland, Cal.

– San Francisco Call, December 10 1893

 

A FELINE FAMILY.
Fate of Mrs. Johnson’s Many Cats.
WITHOUT LEGAL STANDING.
The Executors of Her Will in a Mild Quandary.
HELEN SHELLARD’S LEGACY
Understood to Cover the Care of the Angora and Other Cat Beauties.

When Mrs. Robert Johnson died, a few weeks ago. she left many behind to mourn her loss. She was a good woman in the truest and broadest sense of the word — good to her family and friends, good to her servants and good to all who, being unfortunate in a worldly sense, appeared to her for assistance.

All these she remembered by generous bequests in her will; large sums of money were left to her relatives; her friends were most substantially remembered; her servants each received a material expression of her good will and appreciation of their faithful services, and as for the poor the fact that she left nearly one-third of her large property to Archbishop Riordan, in trust to build for them a free hospital in our city, shows that they were not forgotten or overlooked.

One thing, however, surprised the community in general when this will, full as it was of loving thoughtfulness for the welfare of others and kindly recognitlon of pleasant relations with her friends, and the humbler members of her household, was made public and that was this: Careful as Mrs. Johnson had been to make provision for so many whom she beloved and valued she had utterly forgotten or neglected to take any legal steps to insure tne future comfort and well being of a large number of dumb friends who had occupied an enviable place in her immediate world during her life.

Not one word was said in the whole carefully considered document regarding the disposal or care of the beautiful Electioneer horses, the valuable Holstein and Jersey cattle, the prize-winning dog, the cockatoos, paroquets and canaries tbat the loving-hearted woman of wealth had gathered around her in her lovely home in Sonoma County. More than this, not one word was said about the little animals which were Mrs. Johnson’s especial pets, the graceful and beautiful cats which lived placid lives of mouseless but otherwise highly satisfactory luxury and indolence, their every want supplied by attentive servants in delightful apartments of their own under the wide-spreading roof of Buena Vista, her country seat.

Of these wonderful cats many tales have been told, but they nave been mostly apochryphal since no Turkish harem is never more jealously guarded from the intruslon of strangers than have always been the rooms devoted to the occupancy of these fortunate feline pets. It has been stated that the number of these furry beauties exceeds 200, and that they are the gentlest, the best trained, the most affectionate and the most altogether lovely of any 200 cats that ever existed, as such they may be since they are the millionaires their kind, and have had every advantage that money could give them since their first advent into this world of cats. Nearly all or them are Angoras — the favorite pet cat of civilization —  but rumor has declared that among them are members not only of the tortoise shell or Spanish family, but of the bluish-gray Chartreuse, the Chinese, with pendulous ears, the tricolored Tobolsk and the twisted-tailed Madagascar breed.

However true this may be, certain is that Mrs. Johnson was very fond of every member of her numerous feline family, and that while she lived they suffered for nothing for which the heart of the most pampered cat could wish. Now, however, that the kind mistress to whom they were each and all so dear is no longer here many have wondered how it will fare with the pets that she can no longer care for. Dogs, horses, cows and birds have a special value both in the eye of the law and in public estimation, but cats are in a way outcasts. They are not legally property and although one can give them away they are notoriously averse to such a procedure themselves, and do not easily transfer their affections to strange people, while strange houses are an abomination in their eyes to be deserted at the earliest opportunity. So it is that cats in wholesale quantities are hard to dispose of satisfactorily, and so it is that the executors ol Mrs. Johnson will find themselves, as one of them expressed it yesterday, “with a lot of white elephants on their hands.”

Although Mrs. Johnson made no written statement in regard to her wishes concerning her cats, a certain bequest made in her will is understood by those fitted to “read between the lines” to cover that ground. Miss Helen Shellard, a connection through marriage of Mrs. Johnson’s family, is a beneficiary to the amount of $20,000, and it is stated that a portion of the income of this sum is to be used by her in caring for the cats and kittens of Buena Vista.

“We are in a rather peculiar position as regards these especial animals,” said one of the executors when inquiry was made concerning them, “Miss Shellard will probably take charge of them eventually, but as it is no small task and expensive to look after and feed so many in the way to which they have been accustomed, it will not be possible for her to do so until she comes into her legacy, which may not be for some months yet, as legal processes are slow. We wish to get an order from the court allowing us a certain sum for their maintenance until the property is settled, as is done in the case of livestock in general, but cats do not come under this head, there are no property rights in such animals, legally they do not exist, therefore it is very doubtful if any such provision can be made for them. Certain its, however, that they will not suffer, as Mrs. Johnson’s relatives would alter nothing of that kind, although as far as the estate is concerned they have legally no right to any share in it.”

– San Francisco Call, December 31 1893
A COLONY OF CATS.
Miss Shellard’s Family of Angoras.
Bequeathed to Her by Mrs. Johnson.
Thirty-two Felines Find Shelter and a Happy Home.

In one of those old residences on Telegraph hill, facing Montgomery street, between Union and Green streets, lives a refined woman, Miss Helen Shellard. Miss Shellard has unwittingly become the subject for gossip in the neighborhood, not because of any special act of her own, but because of the presence in her house of a colony of Angora cats, a sight of which would make a fancier turn blue with envy. There are cats in the parlor, cats up stairs, cats down stairs, cats outside, cats everywhere, presenting in their entirety a collection of felines never before seen in a private residence anywhere.

“Everybody who passes the house,” said Miss Shellard to a CHRONICLE representative yesterday, “stops and tries to get a peep at my pets. When I go to the door the boys yell, ‘There goes the woman with 200 cats and twenty thousand a day!’ The impression has gone abroad that I have 200 cats in my house, but the number is actually thirty-two.”

Miss Shellard explained that the cats had belonged to Mrs. Johnson, the millionaire, who dies some months ago. Long before her death Mrs. Johnson had intended to make some provision for her feline pets in her will, but she was advised that this could not be done, inasmuch as cats were not recognized in law as personal property. This grieved Mrs. Johnson sorely, and she often spoke of her pets to Miss Shellard, a distant relative of the deceased. She expressed the hope that Miss Shellard would take care of the cats after her death. Miss Shellard promised to do so, and in conse- [text missing] she showered with impartial freedom upon them.

“As a luxury,” said Miss Shellard, “these cats are expensive and troublesome. I have been in possession of them only since February 1st, but I have become so attached to them that I would dislike to part with them. People visit me every day with offers to purchase some of them, but I have so far declined all offers. They were a legacy to me, and as such I hold them to be sacred.”

Owing to a report that Miss Shellard had 200 cats on the premises the neighbors were beginning to protest with vigor, but when it became known that the number was actually thirty-two their visions of sleepless nights were soon dispelled, and tranquility was restored.

– San Francisco Chronicle, March 13, 1894
PATRONS OF ART.
Another Feast of Rare Chances.
A Sacrifice of Miscellaneous Art Works Will Follow the Gems in Oil.

The auction sale of Mrs. Kate Johnson’s art collection was resumed yesterday at Golden Gate Hall, with no visible decrease in the two former days’ attendance. If anything there were more ladies present than usual, the sale of rugs, works of art and miscellaneous articles other than oil paintings, being sufficient to draw them thither in large numbers. Most of the paintings disposed of on the day previous had been removed from the hall during the forenoon, and in consequence the exhibition feature of the sale was in a large measure destroyed.

There was no improvement whatever noticeable in the bids offered and accepted. The new-comers were determined to enjoy as big a “snap” as those who had been in attendance from the start, and the latter showed no indication of bidding any higher than usual, even tor the sake of downcast art. One of the paintings passed on thhe previous day was the first to be sold. It was Hugho Fisher’s “Returning to the Fold,” and was purchased by Christian Weiss for the sum of $175. Keith’s productions brought extremely low prices and Tom Hill fared no better. His large canvas, “The Saco River, Maine.” which was valued at $5000. was purchased by Edward Bosqui for $800, and one of Keith’s twilight landscapes became the property of E. E. Potter for $100. Schmitzberger’s painting, “Dogs and Cats,” was one of the gems ot the collection and was purchased by Frank J. Sullivan for $100.

The collection of paintings was disposed of during the afternoon, and the evening was devoted to sacrificing the plaques, Japanese screens and the magnificent Persian and Turkish rugs.

Following are the purchasers of the more valuable oil paintings and water colors: Water color, Summer landscape, by R. M. de Longpre, Mrs. John Wise, for $110. Oil painting, landscape, by Keith, C. W. Tuttle, for $60. Oil paintging, Rustic Bridge, by Wores Mrs. I. W. Hellman, for $28. Oil Painting, A Narrow Escape, by Schmitzberger, F. J. Sullivan, for $190. A. Keith, landscape, H. F. Fortman, for $190.

The following also secured valuable paintings at a sacrifice…

– San Francisco Call,  November 11 1894

 

ART WENT BEGGING.
Bidding Was Not Brisk at the Johnson Sale.

Rare old Roman marbles, quaintly carved Venetian statues, beautiful bronzes, swords of the days when there were Daimos in Japan and each wore two, and rare old clocks— all, all went under tbe hammer at Golden Gate Hall yesterday at figures that must have made the angels weep. An heroic “Mercury” in bronze was ruthlessly knocked down by the auctioneer for a few paltry hundreds, while any number of exquisite cameos went at prices which were cut as artistically as the articles themselves.

Another fashionable crowd attended the sale of Mrs. Kate Johnson’s wonderful collection of the masterpieces of art, and, while the bidding was lively, competition was not nearly as  keen as it might have been. An immense number of smaller articles sold rapidly, and many mansions in San Francisco and adjoining cities will be adorned by bits here and there of this really magnificent collection.

One of the most notable saies of the day was of the two Venetian carved pieces, “Children at Play,” which were sold to Dr. Bingham for $270.

C. de Lange bid in another fine Venetian piece. “The Maskers,” for $230.

Two beautiful Roman lamps were knocked down for $75 apiece to John Hinkel and E. J. Page. Even the beautiful life-size statue by F. Simmons, the “Promised Laud,” only brought the sum of $450.

– San Francisco Call,  November 14 1894

 

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