hobojungle

THE CAPITAL OF HOBOHEMIA

Interpreting history is sometimes like assembling IKEA furniture. After an unexpected amount of sweat and cussing you’ve finally got the thing put together and it looks okay – but then you discover an overlooked part which seems as if it must be important. So back you go, pouring over the documents to figure out where the hell it fits in. And that, Gentle Reader, is how we have arrived at the puzzle of Santa Rosa and its hoboes. They had a significant presence here (albeit usually an unwanted one) for decades; where do they fit into the Santa Rosa story? What drew them here and why did they settle in to stay?

Before diving into that history, however, comments on Facebook and other social media about my previous article, “THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HOBOES,” suggest many are comparing those 1931 hoboes and their hobo jungle with today’s homeless and their encampments on the Joe Rodota trail and elsewhere. The situations could hardly be more different.

First, the hoboes never considered themselves homeless. Living a rootless life under the sky was theirs by choice; this point came across strongly in the profile of the Santa Rosa hoboes as it does in other primary writings, such as the (highly recommended!) Tales of the Iron Road. They chafed when forced to stay under a roof because of weather or infirmity, itching to get back to the camp fire world they loved.

Despite the hardships, their attraction to hobo life was being part of an extended community where acceptance was unconditional as long as you honored their rules and customs. Since it appears most were cast away at a young age or suffered some form of parental abuse or abandonment, becoming a hobo was like joining the Brotherhood of Lost Boys. The far-reaching hobo network became a new family, and many of those men spent most (or all) of their adulthood in the comfort of belonging among them.

Our modern homeless do share one thing with the hoboes of yore – Santa Rosa’s cluster of “skid row” services on Morgan and Wilson streets.

Hoboing was at its heyday c. 1910 when an evangelical group started a rescue mission on Washington street, near the current location of the Catholic Charities homeless services center on Morgan. That was followed by a shelter for “down and outs” at 117 Eighth street, between Davis and Wilson. In the mid 1960s – even as the hobo life was on the wane – the Redwood Gospel Mission and House of Refuge opened in the same area, with the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen and Catholic Charities following later. It made sense at the time for all those Good Samaritans to operate their charities there because the locations were only steps away from Santa Rosa’s railroad yard, which was where all hoboes came and went.

Indulge me a moment to editorialize about how this is still causing problems today: It’s now been a long time since trains were the hobo express, and continuing to offer those services in that neighborhood only tethers the homeless to the downtown area. Today everyone concerned would be better off if the charities there moved to a designated area where the homeless living in vehicles could park, others could camp and where meaningful humanitarian aid could be coordinated.

Theirs was a distinct American subculture that lasted roughly one hundred years, from the end of the Civil War to circa 1970. At its 1910 peak the hobo population was estimated at 700,000, large enough to make them the fourth largest city in the United States, should they all get an unlikely itch to settle down in a mondo hobo jungle.

In the early years tramps, vagabonds or “vags” were apparently rare in Sonoma county, although they were frequently the subject of little filler items in the local newspapers, usually jokey vignettes reprinted from East Coast journals. The gags were usually that a tramp is ignorant (trying to eat ice cream with a fork), rude (correcting his host’s grammar after receiving a free meal) or deceitful (a haven’t-eaten-for-days tramp begs for a penny and is told the person only has a silver dollar; no problem, says the vagrant, he can make change).

The first mention of drifters in the area came from the Santa Rosa paper in the summer of 1876, when a tramp attempted to sexually assault a 7 year-old girl south of Hopland (he wasn’t turned over to the sheriff, but members of the family beat the man severely). A number of unemployed men arrived the following year when the Long Depression hit California and caused massive unemployment, and the Democrat made the point that these fellows were different that the usual vagabonds found around here: “Many of them are now in this section of the State seeking work, and they are generally designated ‘tramps.’ From the fact that there are every year some persons strolling about the country pretending to be hunting work but really trying to make a living without having to work for it, the name of tramp has become one of opprobrium…” (Transcriptions of this and assorted other articles follow at the end.)

After that the Santa Rosa newspaper was mostly silent about tramps for nearly a decade – but come 1886, there was plenty to report. “The question, ‘What shall be done with the tramps,’ has been frequently asked,” began one story in the Democrat. A reporter counted fifty living in the seasonally-dry bed of Santa Rosa Creek.

“During the afternoon of Wednesday and the forenoon of Thursday, the side streets were almost thronged with these creatures, going from house to house, begging what they could and stealing where the chance offered. And yet this annoyance has no antidote; the County Jail would be inadequate to the demands made upon it were they all arrested,” the article continued. Several more pieces followed, including interviews with some of the tramps.

The influx of tramps traces back to the developments of 1883-1886, discussed here earlier in depth. Those were Santa Rosa’s boomtown years, which began when the courthouse was the scene of a high-profile, two year trial that brought wads of money into town. Then “Kroncke’s Park” opened in 1886, with ultra-cheap subsidized ferry and train tickets from San Francisco. That lured up to 1,500 to Santa Rosa each Sunday, among them pickpockets and “roughs.” A few weeks after it opened, a Democrat article began thus: “The excursion to this city and Kroncke’s Park Sunday, was made up chiefly of hoodlums…” Problems persisted for years, which the city ignored because the park brought in the tourist trade. A surge of articles about aggressive and criminal tramps appeared in tandem (“the tramp nuisance seems to be daily on the increase”), including an item about a policeman shooting a guy in the arm while he was trying to escape arrest for stealing a load of booze.

But a far larger wave of itinerants began arriving in 1888, once the Santa Rosa and Carquinez (AKA Southern Pacific) Railroad was completed. Santa Rosa was now connected to the national rail network. From the North street depot we could ship Annadel basalt, Sonoma county wine and fruit anywhere in the country cheaply; in return we brought in cattle and kerosene and circuses – along with a new style of tramp adept at riding freight cars that came to be called “hoboes.”*

That freight line connected through Napa Junction (now part of American Canyon) and came up through the Valley of the Moon. There soon was an uptick in hobo-related crime along the train route in Napa, which put 43 tramps in jail, and Glen Ellen, where the town constable was robbed. Santa Rosa had a string of burglaries because there was a “centralization of that element of society at the county-seat,” according to the Board of Supervisors, who passed a motion that “all tramps and vagrants confined in the County Jail be fed only good wholesome bread and water.”

Napa valley hobo c. 1920, photographer unknown
Napa valley hobo c. 1920, photographer unknown

Anyone crystal ball-gazing in 1889 might have predicted the hoboes would become a permanent criminal underclass, lurking at the edge of town while plotting to steal your grandma’s candlesticks. But by the early 1890s there were no crimes reported locally aside from the occasional fellow caught sleeping in a barn, with few mentions of hoboes being sentenced to a tour of duty on Santa Rosa’s chain gang. (There were no chains and the work was apparently just sweeping downtown sidewalks and picking up cigar butts.) What changed? I suspect hoboes coming from the East brought with them the new concept of the hobo jungle, with its code of strict intolerance for robbers and other trouble-makers.

And the hoboes certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be banned from Santa Rosa. There were no Railroad Bulls eager to crack hobo heads stationed at our little depot on North street, and the county jail was supposedly quite tolerable, although there were sometimes “tough on crime” spells where prisoners were given only bread and water, or even water alone. Plus it was a short walk across town to the NWP railyard at Railroad Square; from there a hobo could spend his life riding steam trains up and down Luther Burbank’s “chosen spot of all this earth,” never venturing again out of the pleasant valleys of Northern California – and from the 1931 Press Democrat series, we know some indeed did so. But if you still wanted to visit Los Angeles or Seattle or Chicago, the Southern Pacific line was right on the other side of town. It was like Santa Rosa was Grand Central Station for the mythical paradise of Hobohemia.

Once the robberies stopped, the town was also starting to adjust to having a vagrant population. The first sign came in 1892, when a group of boys were fined $5 each (the equivalent of $180 today) for throwing rocks at a hobo – a crime the cops surely would have been ignored a few years earlier, just as kids were never punished for harassing Chinese residents.

By 1894 the Democrat even began publishing stories that poked gentle fun at the hoboes, as if they were merely eccentrics. In January the paper had a fictionalized account of six men who very much wanted the police court to sentence them to jail because of the cold weather. Hoboes always were known by their “road names,” which were monickers like “Fry Pan Jack” or “Cotton Henry.” In the Democrat’s version the men had goofy names such as “Chauncy Hoofsome,” “Insomuch Pillroller” and “Douglas Ticklemush,” which sound more like the cuddly pals of Beatrix Potter than leather-skinned dudes who risked death or dismemberment by jumping aboard moving freight trains.

Later that year the paper attempted to use them as a political allegory (and I do emphasize the word, “attempted”) where the hoboes who hung around Santa Rosa were Republican freeloaders called “Doodoos” (the whole idiotic thing is too long to transcribe; anyone interested can read it here). Still, it shows the hoboes here already shared the comradeship of the later hobo jungles:


…Deputy Sheriff Dougherty, who has made a psychological, phrenological and astrological study of the American tramp, says there are two great divisions of this grand army. One division is called the Doodoos, the other the Blanket-stiffs…The Doodoos are devoted to each other. Dougherty states that when one of them is let out of jail he always returns with tobacco or a Daily Democrat to light up the gloom for his brothers in the cage. He further alleges that they have secret signs by which they recognize each other anywhere…At the present time there are twenty-eight tramps in the county jail, all members of the order of Doodoos. They have a leader, or “judge,” with them, whose nickname is “Aunt Sally.” It appears he made such a success of doing nothing and was such a good judge of whisky that the California branch of the Doodoos promoted him from the bar to the bench…

As years passed both Santa Rosa’s Republican and Democrat newspapers offered stories about the audacious hoboes who passed through the area (see “THE HOBOES COMETH“). A favorite character was “Tennessee Bill,” who set fire to the Petaluma city jail during 1904. Arrested for his usual drunkenness, Bill was foolishly left alone in his cell and soon tore off all his clothes and set fire to them. Asked why, “he answered that it needed fumigation and took it upon himself to accomplish the deed,” according to the Republican. The fire department was called and the cell, along with Bill, were thoroughly hosed down. “A number of ladies were attracted by the excitement and went to the jail door but did not stay long. Tennessee’s vocabulary is not all parlor tongue,” commented the Argus.

Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley was particularly fond of writing about hobo life; under his tenure the PD printed that remarkable 11-part series in 1931, which should be recognized as some of the paper’s most noteworthy journalism. Reading the teasers and blurbs about the series and it seems clear that Finley dearly wished he was thirty years younger and could have written it himself.

Santa Rosa’s hobo jungle began fading away shortly after that. A 1951 Press Democrat article mentioned there were still three near Santa Rosa; it’s not clear if any remained by the time the Wilson street charities opened their doors in 1963.

In 1975 the Press Democrat revisited its legacy of hobo reporting by offering a two-part series by Ukiah bureau writer Vicki Allen on “Hood River Blackie,” the hobo historian. During his 33 years on the Iron Road, Blackie (real name Ralph Gooding) collected details about hoboing going back to the Civil War. “Some people exist and no one pays any attention to them until they are gone,” Blackie told the PD. “I call them the lost generation. It makes me feel so bad that the people of my world are gone. Now, it is like chasing dead men.”

He had retired in 1972 because “nearly all the men I knew and traveled with were gone.” Blackie always planned to write a multi-volume history of their underground subculture spanning a century, complete with 611 biographies of men who spent their lives on the rails. The book wasn’t written, but there are hours of oral history tapes at Columbia and New York University and he can be heard at the vagabond exhibit at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento (don’t know if the exhibit’s still there). A memorable story and song by U. Utah Phillips is all about him.

When Blackie died in Twentynine Palms during 1984 he was 57 and buried in the Joshua Tree Cemetery. Later “True West” magazine did an article about his life and there was a mention in the social column of the Marion Ohio newspaper, Blackie having been born in that town. But apparently only a single paper in the nation printed an actual obituary for him.

It was the Press Democrat.


* Some claim there was a difference between “tramps” and “hoboes,” but I don’t see any distinction in reading the original sources. According to the Oxford Etymologist blog, the origin and meaning of “hobo” is unknown but it first appeared around 1890 in the American West. Locally it can be spotted in a 1893 Petaluma Morning Courier item that also used “tramp” in the same paragraph. A filler the following year in the Sonoma Democrat stated “hobo” originated with French Canadians living in the upper Midwest, an explanation which now seems to have been forgotten. My interpretation is that the names reflect how itinerants supplanted walking (the verb “tramp”) with riding the rails in the 1890s as the main means of travel. Consistently, however, “bum” was used as a derogatory name for drunks and drug addicts.

ABOVE: Chicago hobo jungle, 1931, photographer unknown. Photo Calumet412.com

 

sources
Give Them a Meal. — Owing to a failure of crops in most of the counties south of San Francisco, very many persons are thrown out of employment. Many of them are now in this section of the State seeking work, and they are generally designated “tramps.” From the fact that there are every year some persons strolling about the country pretending to be hunting work but really trying to make a living without having to work for it, the name of tramp has become one of opprobrium, and should not be applied to very many now in this and counties adjoining. Many of these are honest, respectable men, who, by the misfortunes that have befallen them, are compelled to ask for any work that will afford them a living; and whilst it behooves our people to exercise some discrimination as to whom they employ, they will do great injustice by treating all as common tramps and refusing to give them work. And we do hope that whenever application is made for enough work at least to pay for a meal of victuals that the meal at least may not be denied even though there be no work needed. Those who are unworthy may under such pretext obtain their meals, but it is better to give ten meals to the unworthy than to deny one to an honest man who really needs it and is willing to work for it.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 16 1877

 

Blair Hart, who is working with a hay press on the farm of Sam. Agnew, in Sonoma, had his valise stolen from his camp last Tuesday evening by a tramp. The valise contained an Odd Fellows gold pin, some clothing, and two certificates of deposit issued by the Bank of Sonoma valley, one for $120 and the other for $145.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 23 1877

 

Affray at Sonoma.

Last Sunday afternoon about four o’clock, in Sonoma city, Herman Loux, proprietor of the Rail Road Saloon, shot Wm. Moore, a vagabond who had been lying about town for some time. It appears that Moore, being intoxicated, entered the saloon and immediately commenced a series of aggressive insults upon the barkeeper and the inmates. After knocking down an Indian the drunken man seized Mr. Loux by the throat and was doing his utmost to choke him. The proprietor after retreating as far as possible, reached behind the counter and grasping a pistol shot his assailant in the pit of the stomach. It is thought that the wound will prove fatal. Loux was arrested and a preliminary examination took place last Tuesday, in which he was held to answer with bail fixed in the sum of $5.000. He furnished sureties for his appearance on May 3d, when the examination will take place.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 23 1881

 

A Dangerous Vagabond.

Monday afternoon a badly intoxicated young man made himself very conspicuous in the neighborhood of the depot, rushing about with an open razor in his hand with which he said he intended to cut the tail off of every dog in Santa Rosa. He did not confine his blood thirsty attentions to the canine race either, but chased a number of small boys and girls who came in his neighborhood, threatening to cut them all to pieces and badly frightening several. Constable J. J. Lowery finally appeared on the scene and found the drunken fool chasing a cow all around a vacant lot. with the laudable intention of treating her in the same manner as he purposed serving the dogs. When he discovered the officer approaching, he turned upon him savagely, rushing toward him with the razor open in his hand and apparently meaning business. Our friend Jake, however, had no intention of allowing himself to be slashed up to gratify anybody, and when the desperado came within reach he treated him to a blow over the head with his club which laid him out and for the time being rendered him harmless. He was conveyed to the lock-up and left there to get sober. No one appears to know the fellow’s name, but he is said to have “beaten” his way out here all the way from Chicago, and in that case is no doubt a character of the worst type. At the commencement of his spree he had a couple of companions, who also imbibed sufficient “firewater” to render them excessively jolly, though they did not apparently share in his tail-cutting propensities. One of them was subsequently found in the bed of the creek, soundly slumbering in a drunken snooze, and was forthwith carried to the same mansion of rest in which his companion was reposing.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 3 1883

 

TRAMPS.

We are told that there are twenty-five thousand idle white men in California, fifteen thousand of whom are in the city of San Francisco, and ten thousand scattered through the State. These men, with few exceptions are in destitute circumstances and are compelled to move from place to place in search of employment, and those who do not find it are indiscriminately classed as tramps, and set down as a worthless set of vagabonds and treated as such. They are looked upon as little better than thieves, and are driven from the doors of houses where they apply for food to keep them from starving, as if they were dogs. There is something in this that is revolting to our mind—this lumping of the good and bad together and making the innocent suffer for the sins of the guilty. There are many bad men among them no doubt, but when their number is considered, the amount of crime committed by them is very small indeed. No one wishes to be unjust, but the great difficulty is in discriminating. It is often impossible to tell who is worthy and who is not, and the result is that all are treated alike. The effect of this is the manufacture of criminals out of men whose natural impulses are good. Driven from people’s doors, treated as vagabonds and thieves, rudely snatched up by officers and thrown into prison as vagrants,naked and starving, is it strange if they learn to hate their fellow men and become the enemies of society? There is one remedy for this cruel state of affairs and only one. The Chinese must go.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 28 1885

 

About Tramps

The question, “What shall be done with the tramps,” has been frequently asked within the past week and a half, and Thursday morning our reporter heard the City Marshal remark something to the same effect. “Arrest them, and lock them up for a few months,” some one said. “We can’t do it, there are too many of them,” replied the Marshal, and he went on to state that there were fifty tramps encamped on the creek bottom Wednesday night. The creek was dotted with camp fires from the E-street bridge to the cannery, with here three and there five in a group, watching intently the contents of a mysterious iron pot which swung over the flames. The correct analysis of many a serious doubt might have been found in the bottom of their iron kettles. During the afternoon of Wednesday and the forenoon of Thursday, the side streets were almost thronged with these creatures, going from house to house, begging what they could and stealing where the chance offered. And yet this annoyance has no antidote; the County Jail would be inadequate to the demands made upon it were they all arrested, and in many cases nothing could be proven against them, and ladies do not wish to come into a police court and swear that such and such a man came a begging at their doors, and without some such positive proof they cannot be convicted of being tramps or vags.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 4 1886

 

An Officer Visits the Tramps.

Officer Charles made a tour of investigation through the willows along the creek in search of the festive tramp Thursday afternoon and evening, but only succeeded in finding nine, two of whom seemed to bo honest working men, the balance however, were as tough looking characters as one can well imagine. The two referred to were busy cooking dinner when visited by the officer, while the seven were scattered around their camp fire in sundry attitudes or laziness and. comfort. All nodded pleasantly at the approach of the officer, questioned him regarding the winter accommodations of the County Jail, number of meals served a day, associations, society, etc. All seemed disappointed on learning there was no library for the use of winter guests, and thought they would prefer the Stockton Jail, where they had been told the prisoners were allowed to attend church once on Sunday, and ail holidays were observed with an extra bill of fare. The officer was invited to join them at their camp fire and give them some idea of the class of citizens populating Santa Rosa. He declined the invitation, but complied with the request in a manner that would somewhat surprise some of our peace-loving citizens. He portrayed them as fire eaters of the most ferocious character that would not hesitate a moment in taking a shot at a midnight visitor to their hen roost or summer kitchen. His account of our people was delivered in such an unassuming, matter-of-fact way that the creatures around the fire were almost ready to believe it, and when be concluded by saying that there was some talk of organizing a vigilance committee, they were about ready to evacuate this neighborhood, and were profuse in their protestations of their peaceable intentions. After a few remarks of kindred nature he strolled on, and came upon another group of four, distributed in picturesque attitudes around the smouldering embers of what had once been a campfire, surrounded by suspicious looking carcasses, which he was afterwards informed were the frames of rabbits. This party was more reticent and less inclined to be jocose with the arm of the law. A little further on he came upon another party of three, all of whom were young men, none of them being over thirty years of age, and large, able-bodied fellows. They told him they had been unable to get work and were just starting out for Oregon, where they intended to take up land and become ranchers on a large scale. The spokesman of the party said that his father and family were in England and well to do, and were distantly connected with the Royal family; he had come to this country on a walking tour, and meeting his companions at the Bella Union, San Francisco, had accepted their invitation to do this county; he had been much impressed with the country they had passed over so far and on returning to his native land would publish a book descriptive of Sonoma county, it resources, wealth and industry, and above all things the romantic scenery along the meandering course of Santa Rosa creek. Another one of the party said that he was at one time a Bank Commissioner, that being unable to support his family on the small salary, had retired and was en route for the Geysers, where he was summering his family. Number three of the party stated that he was an artist and was sketching the scenery along the trip for his friend, the Englishman’s book, and would like to sketch the officer’s profile for a frontispiece. He stated that before the last Presidential election be had been employed on the Judge, but being unable to caricature President Cleveland was bounced for his inability. Altogether the officer was royally entertained at this bivouac, and wishing the merry party a good day he repaired to his regular beat within the borders of civilization.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 18 1886

 

Tramps Again.

The tramp nuisance seems to be daily on the increase. On Monday evening one called at the side door of the residence of a prominent citizen on Fourth street, and in a very impudent manner demanded his supper. The lady of the house did not feel like complying with his demand, when he began using threatening language and acted as though he intended coming into the house. The husband, hearing what was going on, came to the door and asked the tramp what he wanted, when he replied that he wanted his supper, in a tone which showed that if it was refused him he would come in and help himself. The master of the house, not caring to dally with the fellow any longer, picked a hatchet up and told him to get away just as quick as —- would let him. He went. This tramp seems to be one of the most cheeky of those who have been foraging in this town for the last two weeks. He has achieved a kind of reputation around in the localities where he has begged for food. He always claims to be in a state of starvation, not having eaten anything for three days. One family, who gave him a good supper, took sufficient interest in his exploits to put a detective on his track in the shape of their little son. The boy heard him tell the same yarn at several other places. When a good warm supper was temptingly set before him, he always did justice to it, generally managing to stow away something behind his blouse for his brave comrades. When he was simply given a cold lunch, however, he preserved the whole, and added it to the collection under his coat, which he in time deposited with his friends who were camped out by the creek, anxiously and tenderly awaiting his arrival.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 18 1886

 

An Uninvited Guest.

When policeman Mead went off watch at 5 o’clock Saturday morning and arrived at his room in the Santa Rosa House, he found a strange man in his bed. The man proved to be a tramp who had sneaked in and up to the first vacant room. The sight of the officer paralyzed Mr. Tramp and he evacuated without taking his spare garments.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 13 1886

 

Officer Gardner Shoots a Tramp.

Policemen Gardner and Mead had a very lively and interesting time in arresting four tramps, and landing them in the City Prison Saturday night. There were five in the party when first discovered in the lumber yard, where they were engaged in drinking beer and carousing generally. Policeman Gardner apprehended trouble and at half past eight they sallied forth, and solicited his brother officer’s assistance, On arriving at Tom Duffey’s saloon they found the tramps had moved further up town and were then busily engaged taking Mr. Duffey’s saloon by storm. They had succeeded in driving him to the sidewalk, where the officers found him standing, after having broken a dollar’s worth of glasses in trying to maintain his ground behind the bar. It was what would be termed in common parlance a tough crowd, and the officers knew what to expect and were not disappointed. They succeeded in conducting their prisoners as far as the corner of Fourth and A streets when one of the number broke away from Gardner and started down the street at as high a rate of speed as his cargo of liquor would allow. Turning over the balance of the prisoners to Mead and his assistant Gardner started in pursuit, and after calling to his man to stop several time, fired three shots, the last taking effect in the right arm of the fleeing tramp. This checked his speed somewhat and he was captured, when it was found that the arm was in a shattered condition. The four prisoners were lodged in the City Prison and their wounded comrade was taken to the County Hospital where his wounds received the proper attention.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 15 1887

 

TRAMPS OF HIGH AND LOW DEGREE.– There are quite a number of tramps in Petaluma just now. Some of them are high toned fellows, others are low bred. One of the latter rang the door-bell of the writer the other evening, just at dusk and when the door was opened made the demand. “Give me something to eat!” He was given leave to “take a walk.” Another of the Argus proprietors had a call from one of the tony class whose neat apparel and suavity of manners was such as to secure him his dinner, without any hint, either expressed or implied, that he could take a little manual exercise in the wood house in liquidation for the same. Moral – It even pays tramps to be polite.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, January 29 1887

 

How they get Drunk.

The question is often asked how the tramps, who never do anything in the way of remunerative labor, manage to get enough to purchase liquor with which to get drunk. As they are never found in such a condition alone, but in bands of six and a dozen, it would certainly take $4 or $5 to fill them up. The secret is simple, if one may judge from the frequency of their sprees. One of the police force who has had much experience with this class says, that 25 cents serves to intoxicate ten of the hardest drinkers of their fraternity. The two-bit piece is expended for alcohol, from which they can manufacture a gallon of powerful spirits with the aid of tobacco and a root which grows wild on the commons. Hence it is that the professional tramp seldom asks tor more than 25 cents.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 5 1887

 

H. H. Atwater is ordinarily good natured and willing to furnish his share of provisions to tramps, provided they ask him to hand it out and be the judge of what they shall have. On Tuesday morning he was somewhat “riled” to find his cellar cleared of almost everything in the eating line. They had sat down and eaten a hearty meal from cooked provisions and strawberries – washing it down with some fine old sherry – and then filling a market basket with what best suited them. Mr. Atwater is like the preacher who was glad to get his hat back from an unappreciative congregation – he don’t want anything back but the basket.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, May 14 1887

 

The tramps who have been stopping at the railroad bridge for the past few months, living high on fish and potatoes, have gently folded their tents and crawled into Jim Matthew’s barn to wait till the rain is over.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, November 17 1888

 

We have entirely too many vagabonds in this city and vicinity. The good hearted people will have to quit feeding them or be overrun. It is mistaken charity to give alms to big, strong fellows who are too lazy to work.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, December 1 1888

 

FOOTPADS AND BURGLARS.

[..]

The efforts of the officers to bring the perpetrators of the numerous robberies of recent occurrence to justice, are deserving of commendation. Thursday afternoon Marshal Lowrey and Policeman Jones arrested a man found camping in a sheltered and partially-concealed hollow under the lea of the creek bank, about a half mile beyond Appleby’s saloon on the Sonoma road. The camp presented a neat and tidy appearance somewhat foreign to the bivouac of the average tramp, and was well stocked with provisions. Its presence was detected by a thin wreath of smoke seen curling skyward above the tops of the fringing willows and which proved to have its origin in a fire burning at the door of a small tent. The man was somewhat startled on seeing the officers, but soon regained his composure and assumed to take their visit as a matter of course. After making a few inquiries and a hasty examination of the camp, the officers invited the man to take a seat in the buggy with them and visit the Sheriff’s office. He demurred a little, but attempted no resistance. On arriving at the Sheriff’s office a search was made of his garments and a small bag which had been picked up on leaving the camp was examined. On his person were found a good silver watch, a jack knife, a looking-glass in a Russian leather case, some cosmetics and a few other trinkets valuable only to the owner. The bag was found to contain a complete change of woolen underwear of good texture, several towels and napkins and two or three of those pieces of linen so essential to an infant’s wardrobe. While his effects were being inspected the man exhibited no signs of alarm or nervousness, and merely requested, as he was being taken into the jail, that good care be taken of his watch. He will be held for a few days to await the result of a further investigation of the camp and its surroundings.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 2 1889

 

Windsor Burglaries.

From the latest Windsor occurrence, it seems that Santa Rosa is not monopolizing the attention of the tramp thieves which are apparently infesting this part of the county. On Friday night the store of J. J. Lindsay was broken into and a valuable lot of merchandise stolen. Fortunately the thieves, in their haste or inexperience, overlooked the money drawer which contained quite an amount of coin. On the same night, King’s saloon was robbed. The loss, in this instance amounted to only $5 in money and a few quarts of liquor. The Windsor people are considerably alarmed and willing to endorse the opinion generally entertained, that a band of organized footpads has located in this part of the county. A reward of $130 has been offered for the capture of the thieves.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 9 1889

 

Tramps are becoming quite numerous around town. Extra care should be taken of valuables, as they are a light fingered set of gentry.

– Santa Rosa Democrat, August 9 1889

 

Killed by the Cars.

A tramp, supposed to be Fred Schmidt who recently served a short sentence for vagrancy in the County Jail, was killed by the cars near Glen Ellen Thursday evening. As the evening train was nearing Glen Ellen, Engineer Brown saw the man on the track a short distance ahead of the locomotive and just about to cross a trestle. The man had apparently heard the approaching train and was hurrying to get across the trestle. Several shrill blasts were blown on the whistle, but they had no other effect than to make the man increase his speed. When near the middle of the trestle he slipped between the ties and being unable to regain his feet or make his escape by jumping, the cow-catcher of the swiftly-moving locomotive caught him and rolled his crushed and mangled body along the track for a distance of eighty feet before the train could be stopped. The top of the skull was torn off and the face was a mass of splintered bone and mangled flesh. The clothing was torn to shreds and the body was crushed in a frightful manner. A jury was impaneled by Coroner Tivnen Friday morning and the inquest was held in Glen Ellen. The investigation resulted in a complete exoneration of Engineer Brown who had been arrested on charge of manslaughter and a verdict was rendered in accordance with the facts as above stated.

Sonoma Democrat, August 17 1889

 

Wednesday, Sept. 4, 1889. Mr. Davis introduced a preamble and resolution, setting forth the growing intolerance of the tramp nuisance in the State and the expense entailed on the county by the centralization of that element of society at the county-seat, and resolving that after the passage of the motion all tramps and vagrants confined in the County Jail be fed only good wholesome bread and water during the period of their incarceration. The motion was carried by a four to one vote, the negative vote being cast by Mr. Smith.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 7 1889

 

The tramp nuisance in this part of the State is becoming more and more serious in its import. The little jail in Napa contains forty-three of the gentry.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 14 1889

 

Casey, the vagabond who attempted to steal Will Polson’s horse one day last week, was liberated by the authorities soon after his arrest. No charge had been preferred against him, and he could not he held without an accusation.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 28 1889

 

Officer Yoho has a veritable tramp trap in the box cars at the Southern Pacific station. He has secured no less than four from that quarter during this month.

– Santa Rosa Democrat, December 31 1890

 

C. Crowfoot, the constable of Glen Ellen, was robbed of $97, Tuesday night, by a tramp who had begged a night’s lodging.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 1 1890

 

A Tramp Printer.

Harry Watson, a tramp printer, who subbed a few nights on the Democrat and subsequently held the position of pressman on the Petaluma Courier, is wanted by the officers of the law on charge of defrauding the Union Pacific Railway Company out of a ticket. Watson has quite a remarkable history. It is alleged, so the Petaluma Imprint says, that in Butte City he was arrested for arson, for setting fire to a printing office. About eight years ago he deserted his wife and family in Monterey. He had once lived in Monterey and run a paper there known us the News…

– Sonoma Democrat, August 23 1890

 

Struck by a Locomotive.

A tramp was brought to the county hospital, the other day, suffering from a fracture of the right thigh, sustained by coming in violent contact with a locomotive near Fulton. He is supposed to have been asleep on the track at the time he was struck, and his escape from instant death was almost miraculous. His body was thrown several feet into the air, and landed on an embankment quite a distance from the track. Though badly battered up, Dr. Shearer thinks he will recover.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 31 1891

 

There is no doubt that tramp life prevails more extensively in California than in any other State in the union, but the reasons are not confined exclusively to the glorious climate as so many suppose. While it is true that the climate of this State offers some inducements tor this kind of vagabondism, there is another reason why so many respectable farm laborers are naturally led to follow a rambling nomadic existence. It is an undoubted fact that on some of the large ranches in the interior of the State, the farm hands do not receive the attention that the farmers in other States give to their stock. The houses provided for their accommodation are little better than sheds in many cases and the men are crowded into them like sheep in a freight pen, and are compelled to sleep in bunks filled with musty straw or take their blankets and go outside. The itinerant farm hand in California is forced to carry his own blankets or put up with all manner of inconveniences, and it is but a step to professional vagabondism. It may be that the owners of the large farms are unable to look more after the accommodations of their men, when during the busy season it is necessary to employ so many, but it seems that an effort could be made to separate the respectable, hard-working farmer lads from the Chinamen, and professional tramps. Many young men go from the coast counties to the interior to work during the harvest, and none know better than they how vile the accommodations are in most cases.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 25 1891

 

A lady remonstrated with a tramp who called three times in one day at her house. He explained matters by saying he was accustomed to three meals a day.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 12 1892

 

The south-bound freight Wednesday evening ran into a tramp lying in a drunken sleep on the trestle of the upper bridge, north of Petaluma. The sleeping beauty was lying lengthwise with the track, and was thrown over the rail by the cow-catcher. The train was stopped and an examination disclosed the fact that the victim of the catastrophe had received no injury of a serious nature. The sleeper made an indignant protest at the rude manner in which his slumber had been disturbed, and was left to finish his nap.— Courier.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 9 1892

 

The five boys arrested for stoning a tramp, Wednesday afternoon, were fined $5 each by Justice Seawell Thursday. Three vags arrested in Yandle’s barn Monday night wore sentenced to five days in jail by Justice Brown Tuesday. Two Italians were fined $4.80 each by Justice Seawell Thursday morning for having slept in a box car the night before.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 17 1892

 

The board of supervisors of this county have made an offset to the offense they committed in reducing the salary of the horticultural commissioner so that work to him was, unprofitable, by reducing the diet of the tramp to bread and water. The tramps formerly flocked to our county and were happy inside the jail. In fact, one loafer threw a stone through a bank window and found access to jail in that manner. Now, however, the number of free boarders is gratifyingly small and the hobos make a big circuit when Sonoma befronts them in their wanderings.

– Petaluma Morning Courier, February 21 1893

 

A Remedy for Tramps.

The Board of Supervisors of Sonoma county are bricks. They have solved the tramp nuisance problem. At their meeting this month they passed an order directing the sheriff to hereafter feed all tramps confined in the county jail on bread and water only. Necessity brought about the order, flavored as it is with a taint of the dark ages. Sonoma county got a reputation abroad for the splendid manner in which it fed its prisoners. The consequence was that tramps flocked to that county from far and wide. It did not take them long to find their way into the county hotel, and the longer they were booked for the broader were their smiles as they walked into the sheriff’s kitchen. Every tramp in the State will know within a week of the change in the bill of fare in the hobo department of the Sonoma county jail, and it is safe to say they will make a circuit around that county in their pilgrimages to the northern part of the State and return. The action of those supervisors will probably prove as effective as it is novel. —Tulare Times.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 25 1893

 

Walter C. Taylor, of Portsmouth, 0., writes “The Record” that he read in a recent issue of this paper an explanation offered by one of the Coxey tramps as to the origin of the word “hobo,” and believes it to have been incorrect. Mr. Taylor says that the word “hobo” has long been in use in the West among the floating crowds of roughs. The term “hobos” had its origin among the French Canadians of Western Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas, and has for many years been a current slang expression there to designate rough characters or tramps, Next!

– Sonoma Democrat May 19 1894

 

Floating Population.

The town has been full of hobos this week, fresh from the hop fields and orchards where they have earned a few dollars which they are not anxious to spend for necessities. There is nothing the genuine hobo likes better than to get drunk and be idle. Several have been arrested by the peace officers, and some are now under orders to leave the city at once. One big stalwart “dago” looking fellow who has been peddling little trinkets without a license has been known to beg his meals and have money in his pockets at the same time. In a few weeks more they will leave Sonoma county on their annual pilgrimage to the southern part of the state where amid the orange groves and lemon orchards they will wander until locked up in some jail for the winter.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier September 26 1894

 

The Tramps.

Santa Rosa had her full share of tramps and vagrants this week. For some time these vagabonds have been holding camp along the Santa Rosa creek, but the floods have driven them out and they are flocking into town.

Last night the officers arrested thirteen. These were marched to the limits of the town today and ordered to leave and never return.

The officers decided that they will not feed any more tramps. As soon as arrested they will be imprisoned, but no meals will be given.

There have been a number of very hard characters arrested lately. the officers had a big battle with three, and were required to use a heavy club and do some shooting to intimidate them.

The authorities are determined that the town shall not be overrun by vagrants, and very vigorous measures are being taken against them. A number of buildings have been broken into recently and the people are considerably alarmed.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, January 11 1895

 

Petaluma Infested.

The tramp army has made a recent march on Petaluma, and at present show no signs of evacuating. The hordes of unemployed that were unloaded on this place from Sacramento have begun to scatter, and neighboring towns are now overrun with the tramp element.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 19 1895

 

A Daring Act.

As a Democrat reporter stood at the Donahue depot Saturday he saw a dilapidated looking man of the genus tramp perform a clever feat, which was also dangerous in the extreme. The train was leaving the depot when the tramp ran along the off-side and swung out over the brakebeam of the smoker and got on the trucks. He forgot to waive a last adieu to the reporter, who was so lost in wonder that his eyes fairly bulged out.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 19 1895

 

A MULTITUDE AT SEBASTOPOL
People Honor the Cause of Bryan and Silver.
It is Estimated Five Thousand Crowd the Gold Ridge City.

[..]

HOBOS HAVE A TIME.

As soon as the people had commenced leaving their positions at the boards which served the double purpose of a fence to keep the crowd beck from where the carvers were at work and a table over which they received the meat handed oat by the waiters — this sort of a corral was invaded by an army of hobos, some with sacks, others with pockets long, lean and lank, and all with an unsatisfied hunger which Weary Waggles and Dusty Rhodes have a faculty of carrying about with them. This army invaded the corral, and when they left an army of locusts could not have made a cleaner sweep. It is said that at least two hundred of them had encamped on the laguna within the last few days in anticipation of a feast.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 10 1896

 

ONLY A TRAMP.

“Hobos arrested” This is the title of a news article in a late Grass Valley paper. There is no day that the story it chronicles is not told in other papers in every county in the state.

A “hobo” is a tramp.

A tramp is a man without home, or money, or employment, or friends that are able to give him food and shelter.

Sometimes the tramp is a woman; but generally women who otherwise would be tramps escape the hardships, the perils, the contumely, the hopeless hoping against hope, the endless despair of a tramp’s life by some forbidden route out of the world, or accept in lieu of them a crueler and deadlier destiny.

The tramp is a vagabond on the face of the earth. Every man’s hand is against him — not every woman’s, thank God! The laws proscribe him. The officers of the law hunt him down — for the fees that are in him! Footsore, weary, hungry, sick at heart, with a pauper’s rags concealing his nakedness, turning always from a hopeless past to a more hopeless future! Only a tramp! Drive him from the door! Send for the constable! In prison he will have time to think of the mother at whose knee he lisped infantile prayers ever so long ago, of the bride of his early manhood, of the little children who dwindled away and died because he was denied the opportunity to earn food for them!

Only a tramp! But he is somebody’s son. He was born to something better. His axe was once heard in the forest. His cheerful voice once urged his team afield. His hammer once made merry music on the anvil. Singing like the lark he once rose with the lark and went amain to earn his bread in the sweat of his brow at whatever came to willing hands. What a distance between those happy days agone and this day of shame and suffering and sorrow setting in the darkness of endless night!

Is it the tramp’s fault that he is a tramp? Let those who have made the laws which make the tramp answer on their conscience as they will have to answer at God’s great day of judgment. Is it the tramp’s fault that the government has taken a large percentage of his earnings to support contractors, office-holders, and bond-holders? Is it the tramp’s fault that protective legislation has enabled privileged manufacturers to increase their swollen profits by the appropriation of a considerable part of his earnings to their own uses? Is it the tramp’s fault that the producers of all the necessaries of life have been permitted to unite in great trusts and thus enabled to exact from his earnings the excessive gains which have made them millionaires? Is it the tramp’s fault that the finances of the country have been so managed by foreign and domestic money lenders as to paralyze industrial enterprise and shut altogether from employment two millions of men who are willing to work and want to work and are driven to the highway by tens of thousands because they are denied the right to work?

The tramp is sometimes a woman. Three days ago, two respectable women in Oakland, unable to find any kind of employment, after pawning their last articles of value for $3, “took the county road as common tramps.” “They have agreed not to beg, borrow, or steal,” the story goes, but will exchange work for food and shelter. “Of course if we can get steady work we will stay with it as long as it lasts,” said one of them. Brave women! Too brave to go to the Bay, Too brave to go to the brothel. Brave enough to take the road! Brave enough to be tramps! But when disappointments come — when they can’t exchange work for food and lodging — when the justice and the constable mark them for fees — when the jail opens to them as tramps — then what? God help the tramps!

– Sonoma Democrat, April 3 1897

 

Judicial Leniency.

Michael Henry appeared before Justice Brown Wednesday to show cause, if any he had, why he should not be summarily dealt with, under a charge of vagrancy. After he had told his little tale of woe and plead for mercy, his honor very considerately sentenced him to ten days’ imprisonment in the county jail. Working the prisoners in the chain gang is giving the tourist hobo a wholesome dread of Sonoma county.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 26 1897

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JOHN WILKES BOOTH OF FORESTVILLE

John Wilkes Booth escaped after assassinating Lincoln and spent his last 25 years living comfortably in Forestville. Believe it or …no, don’t believe it. Not a chance it’s true. But many locals were convinced he really was hiding there and were eager to shield him.

The tale of Thomas Jerome, the man supposed to be Booth, has more angles than a funhouse mirror. A superficial writer could look at the funny side of it all, as if today the denizens of a trailer park convinced themselves an elderly newcomer was actually Elvis. Or it could be viewed as an interesting 150 year-old conspiracy theory which won’t go away – the History Channel and other cable shows have produced sensationalized “Booth Escaped” programs in recent years. But peer deeper at the story and it reveals how strongly our ancestors clung to every awfulness the Confederacy represented, even decades after the Civil War. And that side of the story is a revealing insight which doesn’t appear in our Sonoma county history books.

In the decades after the assassination there was no shortage of men who were whispered to be Booth. The most famous one died in 1903; a friend not only wrote a book about his supposed confession, but afterwards had the presumed J.W.B. mummified – remains which were later dragged around Midwestern carnival sideshows for decades. Other Booth sightings had him in England, Brazil, Italy, Mexico and every other continent except Antartica. He supposedly turned up in China where he fought for the emperor; he became a famous Episcopalian minster preaching all over the South under a different name. A guy in Missouri contacted the predecessor to the FBI in 1922 because he was certain his 80-something neighbor either was Booth or knew where the hideout was.1

In 1937 Izola Forrester, a prolific newspaper and magazine journalist as well as a pioneer screenwriter, wrote “This One Mad Act: The Unknown Story of John Wilkes Booth and His Family” where she claimed Booth escaped, hiding in Southern California before heading to Asia and dying in India. What makes her book particularly interesting is that she claimed to be Booth’s granddaughter. Spoiler alert: That’s very unlikely.2

Historians point out that Forrester’s book is filled with errors and misconceptions regarding the assassination and the Booth family, but what interests us in Sonoma county is her section about a Booth look-alike who had lived in Forestville. This part of her book is mostly oral history, as she is not straining to prove Thomas Jerome fits into her elaborate conspiracy theory. The majority of mistakes there are probably due to the faulty memories of her interviewees who were recalling a man who had died some forty years earlier.

Here she mainly interviewed Elisha Shortridge who was close to 90 at the time, living in a log cabin somewhere deep in the redwoods outside Forestville. He was a fascinating character; he had a Zelig-like quality to pop up at some of the most interesting local events in the 1880s and 1890s. I’ll certainly be writing about him again, and soon; watch for the story of the Wirt Travis murder.

“Pioneer” Shortridge (as he seemed to be universally called) didn’t need much encouragement to talk about Thomas Jerome. “Yes, I knew him,” he told Forrester. “He came into the valley in 1870. You mean the feller they say shot Lincoln, don’t you?”

“…From the first time he showed up, we all noticed his resemblance to the man who had shot Lincoln, and it was whispered about he was actually Booth himself. I’ve seen him often. Talked to him over and over again, and I can remember just how he looked. He was very handsome, and sort of stately, and he wore good clothes. Always looked dressed up, and he had big black eyes, and wavy black hair off a high forehead. When he did drink, he drank hard. He’d seem to stand up just so long, then he’d have to get away from up here. He liked to ride horseback, and he’d go away down to San Francisco by himself, and stay by himself for a few days, but he always came back. He could talk to you on anything you wanted to know. Didn’t mind saying he’d been an actor once. He was a fine man, and everyone liked and respected him, but we all thought he was Booth just the same…

When she showed him a photograph of Booth, Shortridge replied, “if I was shown those pictures off-hand, and asked who that man was, I’d say I used to know him up here, and his name was Tom Jerome. Looks just like he did when he first came up. Wore his hair and moustache the same way, same eyes, same air about him. Same man, I’d say, only younger.”

Forrester also interviewed the son of William Clarke, the man who undoubtedly knew Jerome better than anyone else. He recalled hearing Jerome read or recite Shakespeare and poetry. Shown photographs of Booth, the younger Clarke said “Mr. Jerome might have sat for any of them.”

“…I’ve heard the talk about him, and he did look exactly like Booth, but he never claimed to be him. There was a mystery around him that no one, not even my father, could solve. He had plenty of money, and was always well dressed, and he looked distinguished… My father was the only person he talked much with, and he died in our home.”

Clarke (or someone) showed Forrester a picture of Thomas Jerome taken in the early 1880s. She agreed he was a dead ringer, if you account for a few extra pounds added over the 15+ years that had passed since Booth’s last portraits. “[It] might well have been his likeness, far more so in resemblance than any other persons who have claimed to have been Booth…when I left Forestville I almost believed they belonged to the same person.”

As mentioned earlier, the flaw in Izola Forrester’s book was that her historical research skills were weak. Had she done a little digging, there was more to learn about Tom Jerome.

He was supposedly about the same age as Booth, although we can’t be sure – I can find nothing about him before he appeared in California in 1868, working as a photographer in Eureka. He claimed variously to be from Alabama or Virginia.

He was still a photographer when he appeared in Sonoma county in 1870 living near the Russian River, but by the next year he stated he was an artist. This is how he identified himself in the voter rolls for the next 17 years, changing his occupation more specifically to painter in 1888. He was described as being 5′ 9″ tall, dark complexion with dark eyes and “arms both crooked”, whatever that meant.

In a nutshell then, here is the recipe for a John Wilkes Booth: Take one (1) Southerner with dark hair born in the mid-1830s, stir in enough education to be well-spoken and enough vanity to be well dressed, add a dollop of mystery (dark past preferred) and mix well. Serve in any community still hot over the Confederate cause and where people thought it was cool to harbor the man who might have killed Lincoln.

And in 1870 California, Santa Rosa and its surrounding region was just such a place. “There wasn’t anyone who’d ever have given him away up here,” Elisha Shortridge said.

When Thomas Jerome came to Sonoma county he stayed with the Myers, according to Shortridge, and a few years later Jerome married one of their seven girls. Dillon Preston Myers was likely happy to approve of his daughter’s wedding to an ersatz Booth and “unreconstructed rebel” – according to Shortridge, Myers was a well-known “Secesh.”3

Shortridge continued:

California was full of them in those days,” he stated reflectively. “They all stuck together, had their own meeting and drinking places and their own ways. Feelings ran mighty high up here in war time, and long afterwards. Folks were divided in sentiment even when Jerome came up and he belonged to the ‘Secesh’ sympathizers…in those days and in my time up here, there was something bigger and mightier in this land that the law or government; something that bound men together in a tie of secret brotherhood stronger than family or country, even to the death. It stretched everywhere. You couldn’t get away from it even if you wanted to. I ain’t saying anything, mind, against it. It was all around this part of the country, and it was ‘Secesh…'”

Forrester asked if he was referring to the Knights of the Golden Circle, the most prominent of the Confederate secret societies which were the direct ancestors of the Ku Klux Klan. In California during the Civil War the group encouraged sedition, including training militia groups that went to fight for the South in the Civil War. The KGC’s propaganda efforts undermined Union support in the West (Santa Rosa’s weekly Sonoma Democrat was long rumored to be financed by KGC backers) and was involved in an attempt to split off Southern California into a separate, slave-holding state. Immediately after Lincoln’s assassination it was presumed the KGC was behind it, and that John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators were part of it.

Shortridge confirmed the KGC was active in Sonoma county during the war and remained a presence afterwards:

“That’s what they called themselves, but there was more to it than the name. You never knew who belonged to it, and who didn’t, but it held the Southerners together. There were plenty of them up here. Even by the time Jerome came to live up here, the sentiment still burned low and deep like that fire there. Southerners and Northeners hated each other for years and years after Lincoln was shot. All you had to do was start an argument on slavery or States’ rights, and the war was on again.”

Even those who didn’t believe Tom Jerome was secretly Booth assumed he had some sort of high-status position during the war. Shortridge said, “It was generally believed that he had been in the Confederate Army, as a spy. But nobody asked him questions. You couldn’t take liberties with him. He was friendly enough, but stand-offish, very dignified and usually alone.”

Clarke’s son told Forrester almost the same thing: “No one ever took any liberties with him, or called him anything but ‘Mr. Jerome.’ He made no explanations about himself, but people believed he had been in the Secret Service of the South, and was an unreconstructed rebel who wouldn’t take the oath of allegiance to the North.”

The Jeromes had two children; the older daughter apparently didn’t want to talk about her father but her younger sister remembered him as austere and mysterious. She said he had been an actor, knew Booth when both were young and had “doubled” for him, but would not say exactly what that meant. She also mentioned the Confederate Secret Service, which suggests some (or all) of what she knew spilled out from the echo chamber.

However swashbuckling his past, his life in Sonoma county came to center upon relationships with the Myers family in Windsor and the Clarkes of Forestville.

He married Ida Myers in 1874, and a year later daughter Frances was born. The second girl, Edith, came along in 1880, the same year Ida died of TB. After that the Myers raised their grandchild Frances and Edith was sent to live with the Clarke family.

Art dealers tell me there are no records of Thomas Jerome paintings, so it’s doubtful he was good enough to make his living by the paintbrush. According to local newspapers he was a partner in a Windsor grocery store in the early 1870s and converted a Forestville saloon into a store in 1880. His friend William Clarke was Forestville’s Postmaster for most of the 1880s-90s and Jerome became his deputy PM in 1890. After that he no longer identified himself as an artist but a “clerk.”

Thomas Jerome’s death is as vague as his origin. Although he supposedly died at the Clarke home there is no Sonoma county death certificate for him, nor any newspaper obituary that can be found. The cemetery records list only that he died sometime in November 1894.

Izola Forrester believed she solved the puzzle after daughter Frances gave her the address of cousins in Philadelphia. Forrester contacted them and was told that yes, their uncle Thomas McGittigan was a Confederate sympathizer and believed to have gone to California, where he disappeared. But either the Philly cousins were out of touch with their own family or Forrester misunderstood what she was told. There was indeed a McGittigan generally matching the profile but he was an Irish immigrant who became a Union soldier, then spent the rest of his life around Philadelphia. A photo of McGittigan as a youth convinced Forrester he was neither Booth nor Jerome. As the Myers family came from Pennsylvania, perhaps Izola was confused by something Frances said concerning the other side of her family tree.

Frances Jerome’s family remained here and flourished; there are now great-great-great and 4-g grandchildren in West county, but the family only knows about the Booth story through Forrester’s retelling. That probably isn’t surprising, as Frances said “it would kill me” if it were proven she was the child of John Wilkes Booth, so it wasn’t a story she herself would have passed down. To some people, treason and murder are not points of pride. Imagine that.

Photo of Thomas Jerome grave marker: FindAGrave.com

 


1 The Booth-escaped conspiracy theories were collected in The Great American Myth by George S. Bryan, 1940. A Rolling Stone overview of the conspiracy stories commented, “author George S. Bryan made it clear that Booth was a favorite of the nut theorists.”

2 Following the assassination, women came forward claiming they were John Wilkes Booth’s wife and/or mother of his children. The Booth family dismissed these women as pretenders, and brother Edwin later said there were “twenty [widows] that wrote to me just after John’s death.” One of them, however, Izola Mills, had two children that she convinced a grown daughter of brother Junius were fathered by John Wilkes. Rose Booth generously supported Mills and her children whom she treated as if they were her own. It has since come out that Izola Mills was simultaneously drawing a U.S. Navy pension for the children claiming their father was her deceased husband. And as John Wilkes was performing hundreds of miles away when Izola Forrester’s mother was conceived, it is very unlikely he was the father. The only link between Forrester and the Booth family was Rose Booth’s willingness to accept her grandmother’s doubtful claims. Source: The Forgotten Daughter – Rosalie Ann Booth

3 Forrester refers to him as “Dr. Myers” which is clearly an error, as he was a farmer and contractor of some sort. My bet is she wrote “DP Myers” in her notes and when writing it up later, misread the “P” for an “R.” On the rare occasions when he was mentioned in the newspapers during his lifetime he was always called, “D. P. Myers.”

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THE WARS OF THE PAXTONS

Imagine asking someone in the Bay Area anytime around the turn of the last century to “Name someone who lives in Santa Rosa.” There’s little doubt that first pick would be that guy named Burbank. But depending upon the year, a surprising number of people might have thought of Blitz W. Paxton. Unlike Burbank, he wasn’t famous because of personal achievements; he was well known because he was often mentioned in the newspapers on account of being sued – and he was sued a lot.

The saga of Blitz (and yes, that was his real name) is a pretty good story in its own right, but it’s really all background to the article which will follow, describing the magnificent house Blitz and his family built in Santa Rosa. Whether that second chapter in his life redeems him or not is up to Dear Reader to decide – or maybe you’ll read this and come away feeling he did nothing amiss and was treated unfairly. Either way you’re likely to have strong feelings about him, just as your Bay Area great-grandparents probably had.

When Blitz was born in 1858 his father was already on his way to a fortune; by the time he reached adulthood, theirs had to be the richest family in the north end of Sonoma county. John A. Paxton was a banker and investor who was among the founders of the Santa Rosa Bank and president of the town’s gas company, among other investments. He built the family a 17 room manse in 1880-1881 west of Healdsburg in the fashionable Second Empire style which is still around; you probably know it as the elegant Madrona Manor B&B.

In those years John spent the workweek at his San Francisco bank office, returning on the Friday train where he was met by a servant. “If the weather was a bit nasty, the coach and footman arrived in a closed carriage – some class!” Wrote Dr. William C. Shipley, the Boswell of old Healdsburg. Shipley described the Paxtons living like gentry. “There was a footman, groom and several maids. They had quite an entourage in keeping with their position and wealth, yet with it all they were perfectly likable human people…the whole town gloried in their dignity, majesty and power, but none were envious.” It was a grand life.

According to the biographical sketch of Blitz in the 1911 county history (always self-serving because the sketchee paid to be included) young Blitz had a series of office jobs for a silver mine, a bank owned by his father and a dried fuit distributor. But unspecified “failure of his eyesight” caused him to stop working,

Blitz married Elizabeth “Bessie” Emerson in Healdsburg in 1882. She was from Rochester, New York and they likely met because her sister, Luta, had married into a prominent Healdsburg family and was living there. Bessie was the seventh of eleven children (no twins, either) all of whom lived to adulthood. Her father was an entrepreneur who ran many businesses; her mother was likely exhausted from running after so many children before dying at age 42.

The marriage of Bessie and Blitz quickly soured. A son, John, was born after their first anniversary but while the boy was still an infant, he and his mother were living back in Rochester with her father. It’s unknown whether Bessie or Blitz knew she was again pregnant at the time they separated.

Soon after they split in mid-1884, Blitz left the country for 6+ years traveling in Latin America, then Europe. What he did in those years is a mystery; the hagiography in the county history notes only that “a number of years were pleasantly and profitably passed.” (The history does not mention Bessie and their kids, by the way.)

While he was abroad, his father John disinherited Blitz not once, but twice; the first codicil in 1885 dropped his quarter-share in the $750,000 estate, and the next change took away his one-eighth interest in the farm. Just a few months later, John died in 1888 aboard a ship en route to London, where he was expected to meet – and presumably, reconcile – with Blitz.

Three months after John died, his mother, Blitz was joined in London by his mother, Hannah, and her niece. The three of them toured Europe together, so presumably the only one in the family that had a beef with Blitz was his dad.

Blitz returned to California in late 1890, moving into the grand house at Madrona Knoll Ranch with his mother and aunt. The year before he died John built a two-story winery with an impressive 200,000 gallon capacity; Blitz assumed control of this and other family business. Little happened for the next few years – until Hurricane Bessie landed in 1894.

Overnight the Paxtons found themselves cast as villains in a titillating scandal covered by the yellow press on both coasts.

Bessie and Blitz Paxton illustration from San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 1894

Bessie sued for divorce, charging Blitz had deserted her ten years earlier and had refused to provide child support – and for good measure Bessie also sued his mom for $100,000, claiming she caused “alienation of her husband’s affections.” The divorce was granted but Bessie and Blitz would battle over support for the next eighteen years, making it surely the longest dustup in the history of Sonoma county courts.

Over the years, charges flew. In a later suit she claimed that she went to live with her father because “drugs he compelled her to take wrecked her health and caused her great suffering.” She said he had provided almost no child support, but when they corresponded a year after the separation, Blitz allegedly offered half his fortune ($25,000) – although according to Blitz, she instead unsuccessfully tried to shake down his father for twice as much. (Blitz later said his first disinheritance was because his father didn’t want her to benefit in any way from his estate.)

The core of Bessie’s demand for money was always her children being helpless dependents. Son John had been completely blinded a few years before the divorce in some sort of accident, and his sister, Roma – born after her parent’s separation – was portrayed as an invalid, although nothing specific was ever claimed except that she was “delicate” for once having hit her head. (Roma married in 1908, had four kids and lived to the great old age of 85.)

As the years passed and new lawsuits were filed, Bessie’s pleas became more strident and dramatic. She sobbed in court testimony, claimed that her children were about to go hungry as she was months overdue on all bills. She blasted her wealthy ex-husband as every kind of monster – although in a 1906 appearance she turned her ire towards Blitz’ attorney (and seemingly his best friend) James Wyatt Oates: “I know that if he were left alone Mr. Paxton would provide for me and my blind son, John, and my invalid daughter, Roma,” she complained in 1906, “but Attorney J. W. Oates of Sonoma, who represents Mr. Paxton, will not let him settle the case, because the longer it goes on the larger will be his fee. This is common talk at our old home and is a fact.”

Even as Bessie kept escalating her claims of pauperism, Blitz likewise kept deflating the size of his bankbook. He claimed at various times he was “practically bankrupt,” his investments had flopped, he was “in such bad shape that I cannot tell at this time what I will be able to do,” had no income because he could not work due to gout and heart disease (yet somehow managed a week-long fishing trip with Oates), had “no coin, and no property on which he can raise any” or was nearly penniless from paying lawyers to fight Bessie. In 1905 he filed an affidavit claiming he was flat broke – yet three months later, hosted a party for 300 at his grand Santa Rosa home.

From the beginning of their courtroom conflicts, the San Francisco press framed the story as the cold-hearted millionaire fighting the impoverished mother of his children and his pitiful children. During the 1894 divorce case the Chronicle was unusually honest in suggesting this spin was selling lots of papers: “The article published in the Chronicle lately concerning the suit…caused a sensation here and in Sonoma county, where the wealthy Paxton family is well known. The narrative of Mr. Paxton’s treatment of his young wife and their two children was interesting reading in the clubs and swell places which he frequents.”

Flash forward a few years later and the San Francisco Call offered a headline, “PAXTON HUNTS DUCKS AND CHILDREN STARVE.” Scattered among the selection of articles transcribed below are a few other examples of the anti-Blitz spin (and there are certainly more) but this snark from the 1906 Call is my favorite:

Every parent in the animal kingdom, by studied proximity and conscious sacrifice, feeds and shelters its offspring. Then why does Blitz W. Paxton stand alone? There are some animals that devour their young. Then there is the canis tribe – a class by themselves of carnivorous mammals, such as the dog, the fox, the wolf and the jackal, but these all outclass Blitz W. Paxton in the support and shelter they universally supply to their offspring.

Was Blitz really that rich and was Bessie really that poor? More on Blitz is below and in the following article, but he was never close to being the Daddy Warbucks who Bessie portrayed. And it’s very doubtful she or the children ever faced real financial hardship.

Bessie apparently returned to California in 1892, not long after Blitz came back from Europe. She and the children settled in San Francisco where her brother-in-law (General Richard H. Warfield, the husband of her sister Lute) leased and ran the California Hotel in the city’s fashionable French Quarter centered around the intersection of Bush and Kearny. She remained a “permanent guest” there at least through 1899 – as a side lawsuit in the divorce proceedings, Warfield demanded Blitz pay $315 for two years of food, clothing and boarding.

While the press was telling readers that poor Bessie was counting nickels, she was actually hobnobbing with elites on Nob Hill, particularly multimillionaire James Graham Fair (he’s the “Fair” in the name of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel). A notorious philanderer whose wife had divorced him for “”habitual adultery,” Fair died the year after the Paxton divorce. Women came forward claiming he had promised to leave them a generous bequest and rumors were that Bessie had a final will which named her a major beneficiary; it wasn’t true, but it suggests the newspapers presumed she and Fair had a very close relationship.

The Paxton divorce was settled in the autumn of 1894: Bessie would get $7,500 in cash and $100 a month until the children were of age. Blitz also took out a life insurance policy naming her and the kids as beneficiaries. It wasn’t a grand sum, but $100/mo in 1894 works out to about $40,000 a year in today’s money – and remember, she was apparently paying little for living expenses at her family’s nice hotel.

Following the divorce settlement and the flurry of excitement over the Fair affair, all was quiet concerning the former Mr. and Mrs. Paxton until the turn of the century. Then: Vaudeville!

(RIGHT: Bessie Blitz Paxton vaudeville publicity photo)

Bessie had long fancied herself a singer, and as far back as the original divorce suit she claimed of being “forced to sing in church choirs” to support herself and the children. It comes as news to me that was ever considered a well-paying gig, but she later expanded her claim to “singing in oratorio” and opera, although never were any specifics provided. (Full disclosure: I myself was in two productions of the New York Metropolitan Opera and can likewise say I have made operatic appearances. In one I marched onstage with other spear carriers and in another I waved a flagon in a tavern scene.)

In 1900 she made her first appearances in San Francisco and Los Angeles to polite reviews. Her voice was low but carried well and said to be “velvety in quality.” Her stage name was “Mrs. Bessie Blitz Paxton” to milk the divorce infamy and per usual, she worked in a dig at Blitz when interviewed: “[T]here are bills to be paid,” she told the San Francisco Call, “doctor’s bills the result of my little daughter’s recent illness. Her father won’t pay them so I must, and I am going on the stage to earn the money.” Ever sympathetic, the Call’s headline was, “SINGS IN PUBLIC FOR HER CHILDREN.”

The following year she did an East Coast tour which did not go so well. She began with a troupe playing Midwestern cities. (Lincoln, Nebraska review: a “California society woman with charming vocal powers and a most peculiar manner.”) Bessie was fired a few weeks later for punching the leader of the company after he chided her for a lack of professionalism. According to the Los Angeles Herald, “She wheeled him around and out into the [train] aisle and planted a No. 5 [boxing lingo for an uppercut punch] where it was the most forceful.” She ended 1901 on stage alongside bottom-of-the-barrel acts such as the Carmen Sisters (“banjoists”) and “Fritz the monkey, who turns wonderful somersaults.” For a few weeks she apparently tried to relaunch herself as a novelty act: “Alice Blitz Paxton, The Female Baritone.”

Back home the legal battle with Blitz resumed, this time over a $918 medical bill for daughter Roma. Blitz argued he should not have to pay for it as he did not authorize the treatment and the state Supreme Court agreed. It was another example where he easily could be viewed as heartless – but that was a hefty bill (about $29,000 today) and we have no information about Roma’s ailment or medical treatment. All we have to judge its merits is that the physician was Dr. Grant Selfridge, a homeopath who specialized in hay fever and allergies.

This brings us to 1902, probably the most eventful year of Blitz’ life. He was now president of the Santa Rosa Bank, of which his father was a founder; he had a new wife and a new son and the family had moved into their fine new house in Santa Rosa. That year his mother also died, which seemed to make him the rich man Bessie had always falsely presumed him to be. Soon she was back demanding he double the alimony payments. This round of their epic fight would continue from 1903 to 1908.

Rehashed once again were the accusations from their old separation, with some new details added: Bessie now accused him of stashing away their $500 wedding silverware. It was probably Bessie’s stage experience which brought tearful and wrathful drama to her court appearances, including a moment where she attacked Blitz in the courtroom like a bulldog prosecutor:

Springing to her feet, bitterness marking every gesture, Mrs. Paxton walked toward the man whose abandonment of her has cost her years of suffering, and said:

“And who, if it please you, took care of your children when you took $40,000 from the bank and went to Europe for a good time? You say, you should support these children. You had an opportunity before any suit was filed, but you turned your blind son away from your home when he went to ask for aid.”

Paxton winced and reddened, but tried to smile unconcernedly.

“Oh, you may well laugh,” said Mrs. Paxton, “when you are living in luxury and we are starving.”

At first Bessie’s new legal campaign against Blitz might seem like the action of someone foolish or desperate. He was no longer required to pay child support as John and Roma were no longer minors, being 22 and 20 (respectively) in 1905, the key year for their court decisions. But requesting more alimony was merely a clever gambit by her lawyers; under California’s Civil Code §206 there was an obligation for parents to support children who could not provide for themselves because of infirmities – regardless of age. Now his children were individually suing him as well.

Blitz was ordered to pay Roma and John $50 a month each. He refused and his children’s lawyer asked for him to be imprisoned on contempt. As reported in the Call, their attorney told the court that Blitz was such a monster that he even refused to see his kids after they trekked all the way to Santa Rosa on their own:

Last week, alleges Attorney Hanlon, John, the blind son, and Roma, the invalid daughter, went to Santa Rosa to ask their father for aid, as the court had decided that not only morally but legally he was bound to support them. Leading her sightless brother by the hand, says Hanlon, Roma trudged from the station along the country road to the splendid home of their father. Up the drive they had once hoped would lead them to their own doorway they walked, two children intent upon executing their own judgment, but they were to be disappointed…when these children turned into the driveway leading to their father’s home he was sitting at his ease at that home. But as the children approached the blinds were drawn and a servant was dispatched to meet John and Roma. ‘Your father is not at home,’ said the servant. ‘He has gone to San Francisco. I do not know when he will return.’ Thus repulsed, these children turned back to the station, penniless.”

I tell you, the reporting on the Paxton court hearings was the best entertainment available during the autumn of 1905. Forget sports, forget politics; you can bet everyone in Northern California was eagerly flipping through their morning papers to see if there was a fresh salvo from Bessie and the kids or whether Blitz had finally sprouted horns and a tail.

While Blitz was being threatened with the court seizing his share of Madrona Knoll and/or throwing him in the clink for contempt, Bessie’s society friends organized a gala concert on her behalf at the Tivoli Opera House. “When the total receipts were figured up if was found that a fund of fully $2000 was ready to relieve the temporary embarrassment of the brave Mrs. Paxton and her family,” the Call reported.

Years were passing and like a soap opera storyline, details changed while the plot remained fundamentally the same. Court decisions kept falling in favor of the children, with one point being appealed to the state Supreme Court. John bitterly demanded judges to punish his father. Blitz said he had no property to sell, which was true – he had transfered the Santa Rosa house to wife Jane on New Year’s Eve 1904. The only thing he truly owned was roughly one-third of the Healdsburg property which he had inherited from his mother. Bessie’s lawyers had estimated his share at over $100,000, but much of its value was in the productive winery. That building collapsed in the 1906 earthquake and was not rebuilt, so when Madrona Knoll was sold at the end of the same year Blitz cleared only about seventeen thousand.

And lo, it finally came to pass, eighteen years and four U.S. presidents later: In 1912 there was a settlement for all claims. Blitz paid $5,000 to each of his kids.

Blitz always claimed (at least, when he could find a reporter willing to listen to his side) that he didn’t object to supporting his children, but rather objected to any money reaching the ex-wife he and his family loathed. From a 1905 affidavit:

The affiant admits that he deserted and abandoned his former wife, Mrs. Bessie E. Paxton, but asserts that he was compelled to do so, owing to her meanness of temper and bitterness of tongue; which made the life of this affiant unbearable. Mrs. Paxton further alienated the affection of the parents of this affiant for him and when this affiant returned from his trip abroad, it was only to learn that his father, John A. Paxton, had absolutely disinherited him, as he did not wish Mrs. Paxton to benefit in any way from his estate, owing to the meanness of her conduct.

This contempt for Bessie was also seen in his mother’s will, where Hannah Paxton only left a token $10 each to her grandchildren Roma and John Jr. And it is true that any contribution to John would have been a benefit to Bessie; he apparently lived with his mother until she died in 1937. (He passed away two years later.)

And even before the settlement, Blitz did aid his son. In 1907 he paid for the 24 year-old John to run a cigar stand on Sutter street, but his blindness left him open to theft. Blitz started another at California and Divisadero streets but again was robbed of everything. While today it might seem a setup for failure – or even cruel – to encourage a sightless person to operate a street business like that, magazine and tobacco stands were a common business for the blind in that era, and John did it for the rest of his life.

Personally, I feel Blitz and Bessie were equally despicable for turning John and Roma into pawns. It might look like a zero-sum game but wasn’t; both parents considered they won a moral victory every time he ignored a court order to pay up. Money was only a phony excuse to go to war over their mutual hatred. I very much doubt either of the children ever suffered cold or hunger, but am certain both must have been scarred emotionally by being pushed to the battlefield frontlines in the roles of the pathetic invalid girl and blind boy.

Finally, if l’affaires Blitz haven’t left you totally exhausted, you can open the Paxton matryoshka doll and find another collection of sensationalistic lawsuits, and still more court battles nested inside that one.

Blitz had a younger brother Charles, who was not mentioned here before because he has no real Sonoma county connection. He was a San Francisco stock broker and after their mother died in 1902 the brothers were named co-executors of the estate. Within the year Charles was accusing Blitz of embezzlement while Blitz was trying to force Charles out, charging he threatened “to destroy his reputation and to drive him out of Sonoma county.” Meanwhile, the Santa Rosa Bank – where Blitz was still president – sued the pair of them as executors for not paying back the loans mom took out for Blitz’ allowance in the 1890s. Then when Charles died and Blitz was executor of his estate there were still more lawsuits. At one point I think I read Blitz was suing himself, but am probably wrong about that. Still, as crazy as that seems, you couldn’t blame the poor fellow for getting mixed up over such a little detail.

Roma and John A. Paxton illustration from San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 1894
MRS. B. W. PAXTON SUES FOR DIVORCE
She Says Her Millionaire Husband Treated Her Cruelly and Deserted Her.

SAN FRANCISCO, March 10.–A complaint was filed to-day in a suit for divorce by Mrs. Bessie E. Paxton against Blitz W. Paxton, who is reported to be worth two millions of dollars. Paxton comes from a rich family in Santa Rosa, Sonoma county, and his fortune is largely in land and mining property.

The plaintiff, who is a young and handsome woman, says they were married in 1882 and lived happily until 1884. She had one son and was expecting another child when Paxton deserted her. She gave birth to a daughter, Roma, on Jan. 3, 1885, and her health was seriously affected by her husband’s cruelty.

His action she ascribes to his parents, who desired him to separate from her. He induced her to return to her father and mother in Rochester, N.Y., promising to meet her there after paying a business visit to Texas. She fulfilled her part of the compact, but her husband returned here, and then went to Guatemala. She learned nothing of his whereabouts until the following year, when he wrote that he should never come back to her.

For eight years, the plaintiff declares, she has supported herself and her two children aided by her parents, receiving no more than $125 last year from Paxton. He refused any further aid, although his little son is totally blind and requires the mother’s constant care. Mrs. Paxton alleges that her husband is living in luxury and that he spends large amounts at costly restaurants on periodical visits to San Francisco, while she is forced to sing in church choirs and give music lessons to get the simplest necessaries for herself and children.

The plaintiff has also secured an injunction restraining her husband from disposing of any of his property, and she demands money for support and counsel fees during this action. The complaint, when it is published tomorrow, will create a social sensation, as Paxton is a well-known club man and a member of San Francisco’s four hundred.

– New York Sun, March 11 1894
Paxton Repudiates Doctor’s Bill.

The action instituted by Dr. Grant Selfridge against Blitz W. Paxton and his former
wife, Bessie E. Paxton, who recently abandoned the society drawing-room for the vaudeville stage, to recover $918 for treating the son of the defendants, was tried and submitted for decision by Judge Seawell yesterday. Dr. Selfridge and Dr. J. S. Brooks testified as to the reasonableness of the plaintiff’s claim. Mr. Paxton was placed on the stand in his own defense and repudiated the claim saying that he did not authorize the treatment of his son by Dr. Selfrldge. The case was then argued and submitted.

– San Francisco Call, March 20, 1901

 

MISHAP TO HARRY CORSON CLARKE
Bessie Blitz Paxton Chastises tha Actor

DENVER, Col., April 25.–Harry Corson Clarke undertook to reprimand Bessie Blitz Paxton, the plump land who sang “Twickenham Ferry” with the Clarke company, with results disastrous to himself.

While the company was en route to Cheyenne, Mr. Clarke undertook to tell Mrs. Paxton how little she knew about the show business, and how much she could learn from hum. He also referred to her failure to attend rehearsals, and ended by an expression which aroused the actress to more real anger, she says, than she has felt since he was married.

Bessie Blitz Paxton thereupon arose in her wrath and her car seat and swatted Mr. Clarke on the ear. She reached over with the other hand and jolted the comedian under the chin. Then she took a firm hold at the nape of his neck, and another and firmer hold farther down, and threw him up against the window sash. She seemed to be trying to let go of him, but could not. She wheeled him around and out into the aisle and planted a No. 5 where it was the most forceful, and Mr. Clarke dived into the stove box.

The rest of the company interfered and held Mrs. Paxton until Cheyenne was reached. Here Mr. Clarke paid her two weeks’ salary, and the actress returned to Denver, arriving this morning.

– Los Angeles Herald, April 26, 1901

 

FILED FOR PROBATE
THE LATE MRS. H. H. PAXTON LEFT PROPERTY VALUED AT OVER $200,000
Will and Codicil Dispose of the Estate the Bulk of Which is Bequeathed to the Deceased Lady’s Two Sons

Blitz W. Paxton has petitioned the Superior Court for probate of the will of the late Mrs. Hannah H. Paxton of Madrone Knoll, Healdsburg,

Among other things the deceased’s property consists of an undivided five-eighths interest in 208 acres of land known as the “Madrone Knoll” place, the interest being valued at $62,500; furniture, furnishings, etc., valued at $5,000; jewelry, etc., $1,000; 200 shares of stock of Santa Rosa Bank valued at $28,125; cash in bank, $889; 60 first mortgage bonds valued at about $60,000; shares of Puget Sound Iron Co., worth about $28,000; an undivided interest in personal property worth about $2,500; Interest in wine 1 bond worth $2,600. T

The value of the property is about $200,000. Mrs. Paxton left a will bearing date October 11, 1894. with a codicil thereto dated January 24,1899, in the possession of Colonel James W. Oates, who is the attorney for the estate. Blitz W. Paxton. Charles E. Paxton and Mary M. McClellan are named in the will as executors.

In the will the deceased’s bequests Include $5.000 to her sister, Miss Mary McClellan; her sister, Ruth McClellan, $6.000; John A, Paxton and Roma W. Paxton, her grandchildren. $10 each.

To her son, Blitz W. Paxton, Mrs. Paxton leaves a legacy of $40,000.

All the residue and remainder of the estate is left to Blitz W. Paxton and his brother, Charles E. Paxton, in equal proportion, share and share alike. The reason for the additional legacy to the former son is explained by the testator for the reason that he did not share his father’s property at the time his brother did, the latter being left about $40,000.

In the codicil to the will, made January 24, 1899, Mrs. Paxton absolutely Revokes the bequest of $5,000 to her sister, Miss Ruth McClellan. The executors will serve as such without bonds and they are given power to buy. sell, convey, compromise, manage and control the estate.

– Press Democrat, September 9 1902

 

She Wants More Money

Mrs. Bessie Paxton has petitioned the Superior Court of San Francisco for an order to compel her former husband, Blitz W. Paxton, to allow her $200 a month. At present she receives an allowance of $100, but she declares that this is insufficient for the support of herself and her two minor children.

Mrs. Paxton obtained a divorce in 1894, and at that time was awarded the custody of her two children, John A. Paxton,now aged 20, and Roma Warren Paxton, now 18. When the divorce was granted Mr. Paxton offered his wife half of $25,000, his fortune at that time. She refused this and went to his father for $50,000. He would not listen to her, and finally when the divorce was granted, she accepted $7,500 in cash and $100 a month to be paid until the children were of age.

Mr. Paxton believes that the children will soon be legally out of her custody, and according to the stipulation she will no longer get the $100 a month. “That is not in any sense alimony,” said Mr. Paxton. “The $7,500 was in lieu of that. I carry a $10,000 insurance policy made out for her benefit and that of the children. 1 will make different arrangements for them when they are out of the legal custody of their mother.” Mrs. Paxton’s petition will be heard on August 21.

– Press Democrat, July 9 1903
LAW IS WITH BLITZ PAXTON.
Banker Defeats His Former Wife in Her Efforts to Get Increase in Alimony.

A petition to modify a decree of divorce, the means taken by Bessie E. Paxton, the singer, the former wife of Blitz w. Paxton, the Sonoma County banker and capitalist, to secure more alimony, is not the proper proceeding, hence Judge Murasky found against her yesterday, and ordered the entry of an order denying her petition. She must file a suit in equity to set aside the agreement she made at the time she secured her divorce, in which she waived all claims against Paxton for the sum of $13,200 to be paid in monthly installments of $100, which agreement, she claims, was obtained from her by misrepresentation.

The matrimonial history of the Paxtons is a stormy one. They were married in 1882, and have two children, a boy and a girl. The boy, who is now almost 19 years of age, is blind. The troubles of the Paxtons commenced a short time after their marriage. In 1894 she sued him for divorce and obtained a decree on the ground of cruelty. She agreed that she would waive all claims upon Paxton provided that for a period of 132 months he would. pay her $100 a month. When the children grew up and the boy lost his sight and the girl became sickly, Mrs. Paxton found it hard to make both ends meet on $100 a month, and she went upon the stage. For a period of two weeks she sang at the Orpheum. Then Paxton fell heir to a fortune estimated to be worth $500,000, and Mrs. Paxton thought it about time that he should do a little more for her than give her $100 a month. She accordingly filed the suit to amend her decree of divorce, basing her claim on the ground that Paxton, to obtain her signature to the agreement concerning alimony, had willfully and fraudulently concealed the true state of his finances.

– San Francisco Call, March 26, 1904
 
 
DEMANDS AID FROM FATHER
Daughter of Blitz Paxton, Banker, Files Suit to Compel Him to Support Her
GIRL PLEADS POVERTY
Says She Is an Invalid and in Need of Necessaries. Marriage Bonds Severed

The litigation growing out of the matrimonial infelicities of Blitz W. Paxton, the Santa Rosa banker, and Bessie Paxton the singer, which began in 1893, when Mrs. Paxton sued for maintenance, and which was further complicated in 1894, when she dismissed the maintenance proceedings and instituted a suit for divorce, became still more involved yesterday, when Roma Paxton, the 19-year-old daughter of the couple, filed a suit against her father to compel him to support her. She says she is an invalid, unable to work to provide either the necessaries of life or medical attention for herself, and she asks the court to order her father to provide for her out of the fortune of more than $100,000 she says he possesses. She asks for $100 a month.

– San Francisco Call, May 27, 1904

 

Sues for Maintenance.

John A. Paxton, the blind son of Blitz W. Paxton, the wine grower and backer,
brought suit yesterday to compel his father to provide for his support. The young man’s parents were divorced in 1894 and since that time the son has been living with his mother. He came of age on August 10 and It is now alleged that owing to his infirmity and need of constant medical attendance his mother is unable to provide for him.

– San Francisco Call, September 11, 1904

 

The Paxton Case.
Divorced wife tells her story in San Francisco Court.
Divorced in 1894.

“Since my husband, without cause or explanation to me, his bride of two years, abandoned me at the behest of his family twenty-one years ago (1884), I have struggled alone, while he has disported himself in luxury,” said Mrs. Blitz Paxton (Bessie Emerson Paxton), wife of the Sonoma Banker, when the suit of her two children against their father for maintenance came up before Judge Graham Friday in San Francisco.

“I simply worshipped my husband; when the blow fell on me I was nursing my little baby boy (John Alexander); my little girl (Roma) was born afterwards. Then misfortune seemed to pursue us; accidents happened to both children, a hard fall in each case rendered them helpless for life, my son having been blind from babyhood. An operation, the doctors said, would save his eyes, but my appeal to his father was in vain. Then it became too late to do anything for his sight. My daughter is delicate from a fall which caused concussion of the brain.

“I tried for awhile to turn my musical training to account, and the songs of happier days, when I entertained guests at my luxurious home, were heard on the Orpheum Circuit. But the children needed my care, and the work was too hard. This suit seems our last hope for relief.

The case was argued and taken under advisement by the court.

– Healdsburg Tribune, June 1, 1905

 

PAXTON WINCES UNDER CHARGES.
Former Wife Verbally Flays Santa Rosa Banker for His Acts Toward Children.
COURT SCENE DRAMATIC.
Mother of Plaintiff Rises and Replies to Defendant’s Statements on the Stand

Blitz W. Paxton, Santa Rosa banker and capitalist, winced under the verbal lash, wielded by Bessie W. Paxton, who was once his wife, in Judge Graham’s department of the Superior Court yesterday. He was in court to fight against the petitions of his blind son and invalid daughter for maintenance. Well-groomed and showing in his dress every evidence of the possession of the wealth the mother of his children says he enjoys to their exclusion, he glanced at the sightless eyes of his son and at the frail form of his daughter without the faintest display of emotion.

With the eyes of the spectators upon him and the accusation of his former wife ringing in his ears he was less at ease, however.

Paxton first presented an answer to his children’s petition in which he denies that he is possessed of the hundreds of thousands of dollars with which they credit him and says that he is worth no more than $30,000. He also presented an affidavit signed by his physicians in which it is stated that rheumatic gout and heart disease compelled him to relinquish his position with the Santa Rosa Bank, which left him without salary or income other than that derived from his small estate, which, he says, he needs for the support of his present wife arid child.

PAXTON MAKES ADMISSION.

Upon taking the stand the capitalist admitted, in answer to questions put by Judge Graham, that he believed he should support his children, but, he said, “I will contribute nothing to them that might be used by their mother for her support.”

Springing to her feet, bitterness marking every gesture, Mrs. Paxton walked toward the man whose abandonment of her has cost her years of suffering, and said:

“And who, if it please you, took care of your children when you took $40,000 from the bank and went to Europe for a good time? You say, you should support these children. You had an opportunity before any suit was filed, but you turned your blind son away from your home when he went to ask for aid.”

Paxton winced and reddened, but tried to smile unconcernedly.

“Oh, you may well laugh,” said Mrs. Paxton, “when you are living in luxury and we are starving.”

Paxton was silent under the stinging accusation.

In an affidavit Mrs. Paxton said that since the expiration in August of an agreement entered into between herself and Paxton at the time she divorced him in 1894, under which he paid $100 a month for the support of his children, Paxton has only sent them $40, and that was to his blind son John. To his daughter Roma he sent nothing.

NO FOOD IN HOME.

“Why, even now,” said Attorney. Hanlon, interpolating, “there is no food in the home of these people that are in sore need.”

Again Paxton smiled; he found grim humor in the lawyer’s statement.

Continuing in her affidavit Mrs. Paxton recited the facts of the abandonment of herself
and her children by her husband, who had become angered, she said under oath, at her through her refusal to submit to criminal means to stay the advent of her baby girl into the world. She said he sent medicines and got a doctor. In his effort to compel her to submit to his demand, but she refused, and although her daughter had been sorely tried through illness her gentleness of spirit has brought much comfort into a stricken home.
At the conclusion of the reading of Mrs. Paxton’s affidavit, in concluding which she reiterates her statement that her former husband is a wealthy man and that his statement to the contrary is made solely to defeat the effort of her children to secure a judgment for maintenance, the case was continued until next Friday to enable Paxton to file counter statements, signed under oath.

– San Francisco Call, October 14, 1905

 

Pretty Hard Up.

An affidavit by Blitz W. Paxton, of Santa Rosa, as to his lack of money was filed in Judge Graham’s court Friday in response to the application of John A. Paxton and Miss Roma Paxton, his two children by his first wife, for an order to compel him to pay their counsel fees and costs in their suits against him for maintenance. Paxton declares on oath that he has no coin, and no property on which he can raise any. His stock in the Sonoma Consolidated Quicksilver company has no market value, he says, and his stock in the Santa Rosa bank and the Puget Sound Iron company is pledged to the Wickersham Banking company for more than it is worth.

– Healdsburg Tribune, February 15 1906

 

BESSIE PAXTON PLEADS FOR AID
Asks Judge Graham to Intercede for Her With Former Husband, Who Is Rich.
SAYS RENT IS UNPAID.
Explains That Her Credit With Tradesmen Is Exhausted and Hunger Nears

“For God’s sake, Judge Graham,” said Mrs. Bessie Paxton on the stand yesterday, “Intercede for me and my children with Mr. Paxton! You have stilled resentment in many hearts and have brought contentment to many unhappy mothers, and why cannot you do this for me?” Here the unfortunate woman, once the wife of Blitz W. Paxton, capitalist of Sonoma, broke down and sobbed bitterly. For several minutes there was silence in the court until Mrs. Paxton partly composed herself. Then she continued:

“I do not know what we will do, Judge. My rent has not been paid for three months; my credit at the butcher’s, the baker’s and the grocer’s, is exhausted and my gas bill is overdue two months. We have nothing but a gas stove in the house, and if the gas is shut off we will have no way to cook our daily meal. We have now but one meal a day, and as the weeks pass we find that we must further economize, even in the amount of food that we can have at this one meal. It is dreadful, and I fear that my mind is breaking under the terrible strain.”

“I know that if he were left alone Mr. Paxton would provide for me and my blind son, John, and my invalid daughter, Roma, but Attorney J. W. Oates of Sonoma, who represents Mr. Paxton, will not let him settle the case, because the longer it goes on the larger will be his fee. This is common talk at our old home and is a fact. Cannot you intercede for me?”

“Well,” said Judge Graham, visibly affected by the, unhappy woman’s appeal, “l have done and am doing all I can for you. The last time Mr. Paxton appeared in court I asked him why he did not conduct himself like a man and see that you and your children were kept from want, but my criticism had no effect upon him.”

Still in tears, Mrs. Paxton left the stand to listen to the argument of counsel on the motion of her children for an allowance pending the hearing of their father’s appeal from Judge Graham’s order directing him to pay them $50 a month each for their permanent maintenance. At the conclusion of the argument Judge Graham allowed the two children $350, but when they can collect that, sum is a matter for conjecture.

The case thus decided, Attorney John M. Burnett, who represents Paxton in this city, requested Attorney Charles F. Hanlon, who represents the children, to consent to the printing of the transcript on appeal in but one of the two cases involved. “This will save us great expense,” said Burnett.

“If you will agree to give these children 75 per cent of the cost of the second I will release you,” answered Hanlon.

Burnett would not consent to such a proposition, Attorney Hanlon settled the dialogue by saying:

“Mr. Burnett, you have chosen to live by the sword, and you can die by it. Prepare both transcripts and turn into useless print the gold that would buy these children food. You have given none, and hence you can expect no quarter, from us.”

– San Francisco Call, February 22, 1906

 

PAXTON BENEFIT A BIG SUCCESS

Success, artistic at every point, and in a financial way far beyond expectation, marked the testimonial concert given to Mrs. Bessie Paxton, former wife of Blitz W. Paxton, and her two children, at the Tivoli In 19 House, in San Francisco, last Tuesday afternoon. Members of society flocked to hear the delightful program that had been prepared for them by Mrs. Camille d’Arviile Crellln, to whom most of the credit for the tremendous success of the affair must be given. When the total receipts were figured up it was found that a fund of fully $2,000 had been realized to relieve the temporary embarrassment of Mrs, Paxton and her children.

– Healdsburg Enterprise, March 17 1906
 
“MADRONA KNOLL” GOES TO HIGHEST BIDDER

About one mile west of this city is located beautiful “Madrona Knoll.” It is one of the most picturesque and artistic homes of this county. Many years ago John A. Paxton, a wealthy mining man purchased the site, cleared it of an undergrowth of brush and built on the knoll a mansion for his home and that of his family. It is an ideal spot from which one may overlook the Dry Creek and Russian River valleys.

After the death of Mr. Paxton and his wife, several years ago, the home was occupied by Blitz W. Paxton, a son. Later he removed to Santa Rosa and engaged in the banking business. The famous madrone home then stood in the name of the heirs as an estate. In the last few year it was decided to dispose of five eights of the estate. Accordingly it was advertised for sale at auction to the highest bidder, Including the entire tract of land, the home and all personal property.

On Tuesday last the sale took place as advertised under the auctioneer’s hammer. Five eights of the estate and all the belongings went to the highest bidder, the Santa Rosa Bank. The five eights of the reality was sold for $25,000.

The five eights of the personal property was knocked down to the bank for $6000. The furniture in the home which belonged to Mrs. Paxton went to the same purchaser for $3800.

The other three eights of the property is owned by Chas E. Paxton of San Francisco.

The auctioneer was John Hansen of Sebastopol. Attorney J. Rollo Loppo of Santa Rosa represented the bank. Colonel Oates looked after the Blitz Paxton interests and Attorney W. H. Rex of San Francisco appeared for Chas E. Paxton. There was a fairly good attendance at the sale.

– Healdsburg Enterprise, December 22 1906

 

THE PAXTON CASE
Offer Made By Father to Contribute to Support of Blind Son

The long standing dispute as to whether Blitz W. Paxton should be compelled to support his two minor children John A. and Roma W. Paxton came to an end Thursday in Judge Graham’s court, San Frandisco, when the judge accepted Paxton’s offer that his interest in his mother’s estate should be turned over to the Judge as an individual to be used for the benefit of his blind son. The estate of Hannah Paxton was left to her two sons and is said to have been worth $100,000. John A. Paxton, who has been running a cigar stand on lower Sacramento street, is anxious to open a new stand up town, and his attorney. Charles F. Hanlon, said that $200 cash was necessary for immediate use. Judge Graham will use his good offices with Judge Seawell, in whose court the estate of Hannah Paxton now is. to obtain the cash, says a San Francisco paper. The order to show cause against Blitz Paxton was dismissed without prejudice pending the court’s investigation of his offer.

– Healdsburg Tribune, July 2 1908
PAXTON PAYS CHILDREN

By the payment of $5OOO to his two children by his first marriage in settlement of all claims, Blitz W. Paxton of Santa Rosa Friday brought to a close the litigation the children have waged against him for the last six years. The chief beneficiary is John Paxton, the blind son. He has been assisted by his sister, Roma, in the legal battle. Mr. Paxton, it is stated, has never been averse to paying for the support of his children, but made the long contest in an effort to prevent any of his money going to the support of his former wife.

– Healdsburg Tribune, September 26 1912

 

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