There’s a tale Bill Soberanes loved to tell in his Argus-Courier columns that went something like this:
During Prohibition a lawyer was defending a man accused of bootlegging. When the prosecutor introduced a bottle of the moonshine as evidence the lawyer picked it up, put it to his lips and drank it dry. “That wasn’t whiskey,” he told the court. Case dismissed for lack of evidence.
Odds of that story being true are probably nil (or at least, I can’t find anything close to it in the newspapers of the day) but it’s the kind of thing people liked to say about Gil P. Hall. Most often he was called some riff on being “a colorful character” and people meant that in a nice way. During the 1910s and 1920s he was the top defense attorney in Sonoma county and rarely lost in court, particularly if it involved a jury trial. He was such a legal hotshot that courtrooms were packed when he defended a high-profile case. “There was only one Gil Hall, and I don’t think there will ever be another like him,” said the last surviving pre-Prohibition Petaluma bar owner in 1967. “Some of his cases would make Perry Mason look very tame.”
In the 1920s Hall defended so many liquor scofflaws that he had a reputation as being the bootlegger’s lawyer, but that’s not really fair – it seems he took on any and all. While he’s best known for high-profile cases his bread and butter was mundane legal work – representing people seeking a divorce, handling probate paperwork, and arguing a farmer had a right to dig a culvert under a county road.
He won an acquittal for Fannie Brown, who was charged with running a “house of ill-fame” at First and C streets in Petaluma. In the murder trial of two doctors charged with the death of a woman from an abortion (“the illegal operation”) the courtroom spectators burst into prolonged applause when the jury found them innocent. Even when he lost he usually managed to salvage some kind of victory. The owner of Speedway Hotel in Cotati was caught red-handed selling 72 proof jackass brandy (“with a trace of fuel oil”) and had to pay a fine, but Hall blocked the government from shutting down his business – which continued to be busted for selling hootch year after year.
A man who knew him, Petaluma Justice of the Peace Rolland Webb, said “he won most of his cases by outsmarting the young lawyers who came up against him,” so it’s a pity the newspapers didn’t write up some of his Perry Mason-y courtroom arguments. The one sample we have comes from an unusual case – the county election of 1926.
A recount was ordered because the votes for sheriff were almost tied. Hall and lawyers for the other candidate went over the ballots carefully, agreeing to toss three for being “scurrilous” – the voters had added an obscenity next to a candidate’s name. Then they found someone had written in the name of Andy Gump for Justice of the Peace. Andy Gump was an ultra-popular comic strip character who was a lovable idiot; in the 1920s the storyline had him running silly campaigns for the senate and the presidency. But the name was written on a ballot for Hall’s candidate, so he made a fine speech why it should be accepted:
…Andy Gump is one of the best loved characters in the United States. His name is a household word, and of loved memory. All of his actions have been those of a gentleman… Therefore, I cannot conclude with counsel that the writing of Andrew Gump created an atmosphere of scurrility about this ballot. Whether there is an Andrew Gump in Sonoma county I do not know. If there were more Andrew Gumps, in character and thought, Sonoma county would probably be a better county than it is…
His candidate lost the election by 16 votes, but the Andy Gump ballot was counted.
Gil Hall was in his heyday during the Roaring Twenties although he was past 60 years old (b. 1859 in Missouri). He was president of the County Bar Association 1924-5 and threw lavish, four-hour dinner parties for judges and fellow attorneys on his large houseboat named “Ark of Peace” (!) which was moored on the Petaluma River and was connected to permanent buildings on the wharf. When he would rehearse his courtroom arguments on the boat he was loud enough to frighten passing boaters, so reread the Andy Gump speech and imagine lots of shouting.
In his younger days it was expected he would someday be a Congressman; he was well-connected vis his father-in-law (Petaluma banker Dan Brown) and said to be politically ambitious, being appointed as Petaluma’s postmaster at age 27. But Gilbert P. Hall had a closet with skeletons ready to spill out during any campaign for public office; he was wise not to crack that door open.
This is the obl. Believe-it-or-Not! portion of the article, and not just because of some deed by Gil Hall; it’s also because this chapter of his life was so quickly and utterly forgotten and forgiven. Nothing about it was mentioned in any obituary or by 20th century Hall aficionados like Bill Soberanes – in fact, I don’t think this story’s ever been fully told before; I only stumbled across it while researching the previous article about the county treasurer who may have faked a robbery.
In 1890 Gil P. Hall was elected County Recorder/Auditor. The job was a perfect way for a novice politician to take off his training wheels – all it required was staying out of the way of the desk clerk and accepting payment of the recording fees. He was reelected in 1892 but lost the election of November, 1894. Take note that starting in January 1895 someone else would be running the office.
Every two years the county had used an outside auditor named Baldwin to examine the books of all offices, but in 1895 they hired someone else and he found something strange – there was a huge gap in Hall’s accounts. Except for a few entries made after he first took office, there were no fee payments listed until he lost reelection. Specifically, an entire ledger was missing: “Fee Book 13”.
The Grand Jury heard testimony that sometimes months went by without Hall making a deposit to the county treasury. Also, Baldwin looked at the books only during evenings when Hall was also there. Meanwhile, accounting experts were combing through all transactions during Hall’s four year tenure. Their audit showed that for his second term alone, $10,199.50 had been received but only $5,651.75 was deposited. That meant there was a missing $4613.38 (about $140k today).
County officers were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office, and Hall had Petaluma businessmen who backed him with bonds for significant losses. The county sued them for about $1,200, which represented only the last few months of Hall’s first term – it was now March, 1896, and the clock was ticking down on the four-year statute of limitations for this type of suit.
A few months later the county filed a second lawsuit to recover the $4613.38. That was followed by a third lawsuit for $4.5k to pay for the cost of reconstructing Fee Book 13.
Gil P. Hall was now indicted on two counts of felony embezzlement and free on $1,500 bail bonds.
The story grabbed the laser-like focus of San Francisco’s yellow press, and the Examiner did a full page story on him with the subhed, “Rise and Fall of an Able Man.” According to their story, the formerly mild-mannered Hall had become “a high-riding swashbuckler, who cavaliered it through Petaluma to the astonishment of the wondering townspeople” and was known for throwing dinner parties that “endeared himself to a certain class.”
I will spare Gentle Reader details of the grinding legal gears during 1897-1899, which consumed a week of my precious life as I labored over a spreadsheet in a futile attempt to track all the doings. The Grand Jury found him guilty of embezzlement; the location of his trial was moved to Ukiah and there was a hung jury and a retrial; Hall insisted he didn’t remember anything (including the names of his clerks); his lead defense attorney, ex-Congressman Thomas J. Geary, embraced a strategy of continually barking “objection!” like a yappy dog. The big surprise came in November 1897, when Fee Book 13 was discovered and reportedly was in the Auditor’s office the whole time. This was, of course, conveniently after the facsimile had been reconstructed.
By the turn of the century there was remorse in some corners that the county had pursued restitution instead of just sending him to prison. It was now approaching the statute of limitations from the time of the indictments. Appeals were made to the state Supreme Court to extend the deadlines which the court first denied – then a few weeks later reversed itself and said the county could indeed reopen the case. Oh, law.
Over objections from the District Attorney, the Board of Supervisors finally threw in the towel in 1901, proclaiming there would be no more litigation because it was costing the county too much. That was followed by another Supreme Court ruling that the statute of limitations had indeed run out, and Hall and his bondsmen were not legally bound to pay back any money he allegedly stole.
As was permissible under the law. Hall then presented the county with a bill for his lawyer’s fees and court expenses. The Board agreed to pay him $850, which was the legal max.
Thus: Gil P. Hall not only got away with allegedly filching a small fortune from the public, but the county paid him for the pleasure of having done so. Believe it or Not!
An older – and presumably wiser – Gil Hall was behind the defense table again in 1927, this time accused of bribing witnesses.
The charge this time was that he had paid two 16 year-old boys $30 each to deny they had bought homemade wine from a Petaluma farmer. The Grand Jury handed down two indictments against him, although one was thrown out on a technicality.
On the witness stand the boys contradicted their earlier statements and each other. Hall had/had not given them money; Hall had promised one of the boys he “would take care of him” if he lost his job, or he hadn’t promised anything at all. And then, in true Perry Mason fashion, there was a shocking courtroom confession: One of the boys had a vendetta against Gil Hall because he had defended an auto driver accused of causing the death of his baby brother. “His admission that he had for years had a bitter feeling against the accused Petaluma attorney caused a profound stir,” reported the Argus-Courier.
The Grand Jury retired to the jury room and returned to court six minutes later with a verdict of innocent. It was the shortest jury deliberation anyone could recall.
Although Gil Hall’s professional life centered around the county courthouse in Santa Rosa, he grew up and lived most of his life in Petaluma. Besides Soberanes, fellow A-C columnist Ed Mannion sometimes tipped his hat to Gil for being among the most colorful residents in the city’s history. Mannion wrote, “he once entered the door of a Main Street pharmacy and was met by a fusillade of shots from the druggist’s’ pistol.”
Mannion told a couple of other stories that can be dated to 1913. The Maze Department Store on the corner of Washington and Main had an art department and was selling prints of “September Morn,” a wildly-popular painting of a nude woman standing in a lake – the sort of artwork someone buys while thinking, “this will really class up the joint.”
The store had a copy in their window display until “the good ladies trying to protect the town’s morals” (Mannion’s words) protested. Their taking offense apparently offended Hall, who talked the store into placing the picture with its back to the window – but in front of a mirror, so the image was plainly in view from the street. Selling at $1.75 each, the store had trouble keeping up with demand.
(RIGHT: Dressed statue of the goddess Hebe. Courtesy Sonoma County Library)
But Gil was not done with tweaking Petaluma’s blue noses. Outside the department store on the Washington street side was the WCTU water fountain, which had at its top a 5-foot bronze statue of the nude Greek goddess Hebe. With two co-conspirators Gil placed a Mother Hubbard dress over the statue. Wags promptly dubbed the censored statue “August Morn.”
That pre-Prohibition barkeep also said, “if I were a writer, I’d do Gil Hall’s life, and I’d have a best seller on my hands.” Well, get in line, bub – Soberanes and Mannion both wanted to write The Legend of the Fabulous Gil Hall and asked readers to send in Hall stories (apparently no one did). Justice of the Peace Webb had a number of stories so if any member of the Webb family recall an old manuscript up in the attic, contact me.
Santa Rosa made national news in the days after Christmas, 1894. Hundreds of newspapers nationwide, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to the Wah-shah-she News in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, ran a wire story that began this way:
Santa Rosa, Cal., Dec. 28.—Santa Rosa had the biggest sensation in its history today. The county treasury was robbed of nearly $8000 and County Treasurer Stofen was left insensible in the vault to suffocate by the robbers, who locked the door of the vault on him. The robbery occurred about 9 o’clock this morning, but was not discovered until about 5 o’clock this afternoon. All this time Treasurer Stofen lay on the floor of the vault gasping for breath, fearing every moment during conscious intervals would be his last.
Stofen told reporters the next day that he had opened his office at the county courthouse as usual on Dec. 28 and was bringing coin trays out of the vault (it was 1894, remember, and “money” meant gold and silver coins, not greenback dollars). Suddenly there was a man in front of him holding a large dagger. “Drop that money,” he ordered. The 58 year-old Stofen put the tray down and either was struck on the head or fainted. The next thing he knew was waking up to discover he was locked in the vault.
“I pounded on the door, but of course no one could hear me,” he told reporters. He knew there was a faint draught at the bottom of the door and lay with his face near it. He passed out again.
Meanwhile, his two kids stopped by at noon to drop off his lunch. Not finding dad in the office and the door locked, they hung around waiting for him. A man from San Francisco wanted to make a payment and was annoyed to find the office closed, as he did not want to make another trip to Santa Rosa. The sheriff – whose office was next door – suggested he give the money to Stofen’s 18 year-old daughter which he did, since it’s 1894 and you can trust a teenager you don’t know with making cash deposits and there’s another reason I wish we were all living back then.
In the middle of the afternoon Mrs. Stofen drops by the office after a day trip to Cloverdale. Finding his lunch outside the door, she goes home, fearing he might be ill. Not finding him there either, she rushes back to the courthouse and learns no one had seen him since morning. She has the janitor open the door and finds the office in disarray. “Then I screamed and immediately heard knocks coming from the vault,” she told the SF Examiner.
She tries the combination of the vault, since it’s 1894, of course the wife of the country treasurer knows the combination to the county vault and is the only other person who does. It doesn’t work. She tries again, and this time the door opens. “When we got Mr. Stofen out,” the janitor told the Sonoma Democrat, “he looked pale and much prostrated. The meeting between Mr. and Mrs. Stofen was one of the most painful things I ever saw in all my life.”
It was decided that the robber got away with $8400.79 total – over a quarter-million dollars today. Of that $7,815.79 belonged to the treasury; also taken was $585 of Stofen’s own money and non-treasury accounts, such as unclaimed funds collected on behalf of estates.
Stofen and the sheriff formed a theory that the robber had been in the courthouse for hours, maybe overnight. Between the treasurer’s office and the sheriff’s there was a closet-sized gap, as each office had its own lockable door. The space was used only for light storage. There was also the question of the three push-button alarms in the treasurer’s office; it was discovered a corner of the carpet was ripped up near that little passageway and the wires connecting it to the sheriff had been cut.
Stofen was all but useless in providing a description of the robber. In the few seconds before he was clubbed or fainted, he fixated on the knife blade with its sharp edge. “The closest description I can give of him is that he was a large man, had chin whiskers and had no shoes on his feet.”
Assorted suspicious characters were recalled. Assistant DA Leppo saw “a German looking man” walking up steps inside the courthouse turn around when he seemed to notice he was being observed. Two men were reported driving away quickly in a buggy. Another German-ish stranger matching the vague description was supposedly hanging out around the train station before dawn. Given that seven hours had passed since Stofen was locked in the vault the sheriff assumed the robber(s) were far away, and sent out telegrams to be on the lookout.
The robbery also caused legal problems for Stofen. County officers were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office; Stofen and other candidates had to show they were bonded for significant losses. As a member of Santa Rosa’s monied elite, his bondsmen were five of the top bankers and investors in town.1
A petition began circulating which asked the legislature to make up for the loss but nothing came of it. In mid-March – ten weeks after the robbery – the Board of Supervisors filed a lawsuit against Stofen and the bondsmen for the recovery of $7,815.79.
At the first hearing for that case it was revealed the defense would argue Stofen and the bondsmen were not liable because it had been a robbery. California law was unclear if that was a valid defense – in fact, a similar case was then waiting to be heard by the state Supreme Court which involved the robbery of the Healdsburg treasurer a year earlier. (In that theft everything was stolen except for some petty cash, leaving the town so flat broke it had to release prisoners because the jailer could no longer afford to feed them.)2
It took the Supreme Court months to decide, but in the summer of 1896 they ruled that yes, robbery is a valid defense – but it must be proven that a robbery indeed took place.
By that time there was growing suspicion that Stofen was either an accomplice to the theft or had made up the robbery story to cover up embezzlement.
The Daily/Sonoma Democrat was firmly in Stofen’s corner from the beginning. A few days after he was found in the vault the paper offered a long item praising his good character: “The boon of a good name was never more fully shown than in the case of County Treasurer Stofen. No man in this city who knows the treasurer, for a moment doubts his thorough honesty…” The Democrat went so far as to downplay or ignore new details that contradicted his story; fortunately all of the major San Francisco papers were interested in the case and had stringers reporting from here.
Light-fingered treasurers were surprisingly common; in 1857 the Sonoma County Treasurer was convicted of stealing state money, county money, and county school funds, a perfect trifecta of embezzlement. Crooked treasurers also had a habit of making up dime novel-type stories about stickups to hide their crime. The San Francisco Chronicle remarked, “in nearly every instance investigation of detectives has shown that the robbery was mythical.”
Several aspects of Stofen’s story didn’t jibe. He kept adding more details; although he first said he only noticed the robber’s whiskers and lack of shoes, a year later he described him as about six feet, stout and wearing a pistol on his hip. Except for a “slight swelling” on his head he was uninjured, casting doubt on whether he had been knocked out. And then there was the matter of trying to get help.
He said initially he had “pounded on the door,” but experiments were made with someone locked in the vault and hitting the door; the noise could be easily heard on that floor of the courthouse. Attorney Frances McG. Martin was in her nearby office that day and heard nothing, nor did the deputy sheriff on duty next door.
The Grand Jury looked at the noise question and passed an inconclusive resolution that it could have been either a “real or pretended robbery.” When the lawsuit hearings resumed, most of the testimony centered on whether door pounding could be heard in the corridor just a few feet away.
In Dec. 1896 – almost two years after the incident – Judge Dougherty ruled in favor of the county. Stofen had not proven that a robbery had taken place, as the only evidence that it really happened was his word.
Stofen and the bond boys requested a jury trial, citing the usual sorts of legal hairsplitting. While that was being considered, there was a sensational twist: A witness came forward to say he saw the likely robber leaving the treasurer’s office.
George Peery, who was taking his brother’s place as courthouse engineer that day, claimed a stranger with a big satchel came out of the treasurer’s office. (If the stolen money was mainly $20 gold pieces, the haul would have weighed around 30 pounds.) In his statement he described the man as rather small and wearing a light overcoat. Peery claimed he asked if the treasurer was in his office and the stranger said he was.
Asked why he had waited over two years before coming forward, Peery said he did not want to get involved, but claimed at the time he had spoken about it to his late wife and a friend in Santa Cruz. Peery’s affidavit was added to the bundle of documents filed with the court asking for a new trial. It’s unknown whether anyone realized at the time that Peery was a crazy drunk who made up stuff. He would spend much of the next five years in an asylum.3
In August 1897 Judge Dougherty denied the motion for a new trial, saying nothing had changed since his original decision. “No person but Stofen knows what the truth about the matter is. No other person can say that he was robbed or was not robbed. If he was robbed it is his misfortune.” An appeal was made to the state Supreme Court, and in 1899 they affirmed Dougherty’s decision.
With about $12k now due thanks to four and a half years’ interest, the bondsmen made a deal to settle with the county for $8,089.24. Under the civil code they could sue Stofen for repayment, and one of them did. He signed over the deed to his house on Third street, although the family had been living in San Francisco for at least three years.
The Stofen robbery – um, the alleged Stofen robbery – is an intriguing little whodunnit.
(RIGHT: Peter N. Stofen, detail from photo of 1900 family picnic. Image: Sonoma County Library)
At the time of the robbery Peter Stofen had been the county treasurer for six years, but it probably wasn’t because he needed the paycheck. He was called “Captain Stofen” because he and his brother famously owned steamers and schooners running to San Francisco from Petaluma and Sonoma; there is spot on Sonoma Creek still called Stofen’s Landing. He had owned houses on Second and Third street, a ranch around Schellville (where he died), and spent his last years in San Francisco while traveling frequently. In short: He didn’t appear to need the missing money, and even losing the Third street house – which likely had a value around $1,200-$1,500 – would not have caused serious financial harm.
There’s no question his story was shaky and the court and Grand Jury were right to focus on proving he had not “pounded” on the vault door to draw attention. And even if they thought in 1897 that Peery was a credible witness, his account of the mysterious stranger with the satchel wasn’t proof of anything.
But as a graduate of ACU/Wingback (Agatha Christie University, Armchair campus), I find two other details stand out as suspicious – yet were not mentioned in any coverage of the case.
The incident occurred when there were just four business days remaining in his term in office. If Stofen knew there was a shortage – intentional or no – it would soon be discovered by the incoming treasurer. If he had embezzled the money, the imminent handover would have been a motive to fake the robbery.
There was also the curious bit about $585 of his own money being stolen as well. Why did he keep so much personal cash around the office? That was the equivalent to a full year’s pay for most skilled workers at the time.
One possibility is that the $585 wasn’t there at all – it was a fib to make the robbery look more real by giving him the chance to say, “hey, I lost money as well” (h/t to Ray Owen for suggesting this).
Another theory is that Stofen had some private business on the side that required ready access to cash. Two that come to mind are loansharking or gambling – the latter either by placing large bets himself or acting as the bank for bookies. This was turn-of-the-century Santa Rosa, remember, and the town had a sizable underground economy centered around gambling and prostitution, as has been hashed over here many times. And 1894 was a major year for sporting events; besides lots of horse racing, the craze for competition bicycle racing was catching fire. So in this scenario perhaps there really was a robbery by one of his clients, but Stofen couldn’t reveal who did it without risk of exposing his own crime.
Peter N. Stofen died in 1910 and is buried at the Mountain Cemetery in Sonoma. None of the money was ever recovered and no one was ever identified as a suspect. None of his obituaries mentioned the robbery, only that he was a well-respected member in the community.
1 Peter Stofen’s bondsmen were Matt Doyle, A. P. Overton, Con Shea, J. H. Brush and Hollis Hitchcock.
2 In October 1893, the Healdsburg city marshal discovered the iron doors of the city treasury open but Treasurer George V. Mulligan could not be found. Much of the town joined the search party that found him handcuffed to a manzanita tree in the park next to the cemetery, but otherwise uninjured. Mulligan said he had been jumped by two men with pistols who forced him to open the safe. According to the San Francisco newspapers the town was divided between those who thought he was scrupulously honest and those who believed he was an accomplice. Strong circumstantial evidence suggested one of the two men who found him shackled to the tree was involved in the robbery. Mulligan died five months later with stomach cancer and the missing $3,560 was never recovered. After his death the Superior Court ruled his estate and the bondsmen were liable for the loss, as the robbery could not be proven. A lawsuit followed where a jury ruled for the city. The bondsmen settled in 1897 and agreed to pay $4.6k.
3 George E. Peery – a sometimes insurance agent, schoolteacher and reporter – was first committed to the Mendocino State Hospital in Ukiah by Judge Dougherty in 1898. He was diagnosed as having “alcoholic insanity” and addiction to narcotics. During his hospital stays of 1898-1899 and 1901-1902 notes on his records state he had delusions of grandiosity, spoke with imaginary persons, and was called in 1902 a “mental wreck.”
THE COIN ROBBERY. Treasurer Stofen Interviewed at His Home. He Offers a Reward for the Arrest and Conviction ot the Robber. Attorney Leppo Saw a Suspicious Stranger in the Courthouse — Janitor Hassett’s Story.
Captain Stofen was seen by a Democrat representative on Saturday morning at 11:30 a. m., and lying in his bed told again the now oft-told story of his terrible experience, which was in substance as already stated.
As to the looks of the villain, the Captain has not the slightest recollection. His attention was directed to the knife, which he says was a double-edged dirk with a blade probably six or seven inches in length, held in the man’s right hand with the blade downward, ready to do its deadly work at the slightest movement of non-compliance. The captain does not remember putting the money on the floor, but says the glance he caught of the man’s clothes was that they were dark and that he was in his stocking feet. Then everything became blank. The Captain does not know whether he received a blow or fainted from the effects of the shock. His head had received a bump, but that might have been caused by his being pushed into the vault. He has no idea when he awoke, as he seems to have been only partially conscious for some time; but an intense coldness of his feet made him try to pull off his boots, which were wet with perspiration, as was also his whole body, and rub them as hard as he could; he seemed unable to get his blood to circulate. Then came the sound of voices and making as much noise as possible to attract their attention, he heard the combination click and recognized his wife’s voice, and when it missed and did not open he sank back utterly exhausted, but another try, which was more successful, brought the sunlight with wife and friends.
Treasurer Stofen is resting quietly and it is expected he will he able to go to his office in a few days.
In discussing the robbery with a number of citizens the general opinion is that the robbers had got such a good start after the deed was done that it would be a difficult matter to overtake them.
Sheriff Allen has telegraphed to all the chief points where the robbers might be headed off.
The following notice has been sent out offering a reward:
ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS REWARD.
The above sum will be paid for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who assaulted County Treasurer P. N. Stofen and robbed the Treasurer’s office of Sonoma County, California, on Friday, December 28, 1894. Signed,
P. N. Stofen.
Dated Santa Rosa, Cal., Dec. 29, 1894.
While Mrs. Stofen was visiting at Cloverdale a friend invited her to go to Ukiah to spend Friday and at one time she had almost decided to go. Had she accepted the invitation her husband would have died, as no one else would have discovered the robbery and no one else knew the combination of the vault.
No clue has yet been found. There was a report on the street Saturday night that a man had been arrested on suspicion in Vallejo who had considerable coin on his person, but no confirmation of the report could be obtained from the officers here.
Assistant District Attorney Leppo told a Democrat reporter Saturday that he noticed a German looking man on the landing of the stair leading to his office, as he started to come down stairs. The man changed his mind, apparently, when he saw Mr. Leppo, for instead of continuing his ascent he turned and went down stairs again. His notions struck Mr. Leppo at the time as being rather peculiar, and he recalled the man and his actions as soon as he heard of the robbery later in the day.
Mr. Stofen had a number of friends to call upon him Saturday, but he is not in any condition to see many people.
Janitor Hassett says the night before the treasury robbery he left the building at 7 p. m. He returned at 2 o’clock the next morning to begin his work. He went in by the lower Fourth street entrance, going first into the sheriff’s office; cleaned it up, and was in there an hour. Leaving there he went to the surveyor’s and then to the district attorney’s office, then went into the third story; came down after 5 o’clock, and during this time he did not hear a sound or see anything out of the usual run. He remained in the building until 8 o’clock, then went to the hall of records, and returned to the courthouse at 7:30 o’clock. The janitor only cleans the treasurer’s office on Sunday, and so did not go into that office. Mr. Hassett thinks the robber got into the private office with a skeleton key. Mr. Hassett saw Captain Stofen’s mail and lunch at the door during the day but gave it no thought, as Mr. Stofen was in the habit of going away without saying anything about it. He did not know, nor did others, when the treasurer went to Sacramento and returned. The janitor opened the door and went in with Mrs. Stofen. “When we got Mr. Stofen out,” says Mr. Hassett, “he looked pale and much prostrated. The meeting between Mr. and Mrs. Stofen was one of the most painful things I ever saw in all my life.”
Treasurer Stofen was able to be at his office Monday. It is now known that the robber or robbers got away with $7,200 on Friday last. No definite clue has yet been found of the perpetrators. It is the opinion of some that the robbers are not fifty miles away from Santa Rosa. It is hoped they will be caught when perhaps some of the coin will be recovered.
– Sonoma Democrat, January 5 1895
A GOOD NAME.
The boon of a good name was never more fully shown than in the case of County Treasurer Stofen. No man in this city who knows the treasurer, for a moment doubts his thorough honesty. He is exact, punctual, economical and careful in his methods to an unusual degree. The misfortune which came upon him is in no way his fault. So fully is this recognised that at least three of his five bondsmen, Matt Doyle, Mr. Hitchcock and Con Shea have been heard to say since the robbery that sooner than see Mr. Stofen give up his home they would willingly draw their checks for $1,530 each, their share of the loss. No doubt his other bondsmen feel the same way. They all, so far as they have spoken, have the utmost confidence in Mr. Stofen. At the time this unfortunate occurrence took place the treasurer had nearly $200,000 in the banks at his command. The actual amount of cash in the safe in the office was, fortunately, on that day much below the average usually kept there. The expressions of confidence in the treasurer by Messrs. Doyle, Hitchcock and Shea must be extremely gratifying to Mr Stofen in this time of his great misfortune. It is only at such times that true friendship and good will can be shown. Of those who know Captain Stofen not one will pass him by on the other side. His friends here and in Sonoma, and everywhere he is known, have the most unlimited confidence in his integrity and the deepest sympathy for his misfortune.
– Sonoma Democrat, January 12 1895
…[Sheriff Sam Allen] wore a puzzled look yesterday when he was asked if there were yet any clews to the big robbery of the County Treasurer’s office, which occurred about a year ago.
“It is a mystery yet,” he said, “and as much a mystery as It was on December 28, 1894, when it was committed. I have employed different detectives and have followed all the clews, but all the work counts for nothing.
“It is as strange still as when the safe was unlocked and Captain Stofen, the County Treasurer, was taken out of the vault.
“I have gone over the entire field. It has cost considerable to investigate the matter, but that wouldn’t count for anything if we had caught the guilty persons. I am at a loss today to tell about it.
“The robbers got $8000. We followed a good many different clews, but we always came up against a stone wall.
“We didn’t discover anybody who was spending any unusual amount of money, and if the offenders are yet in the county they have always been too smart to spend the money. They are either staying there and laying low, or else have goi out of the county entirely. I do not know which.
– The San Francisco Call, December 28, 1895
…There have been doubts openly expressed whether there really was a robbery or not.
Of these doubts the Jury seem to have taken cognizance of for they made some experiments In regard to the doors locks ventilation and acoustic qualities of the vault, intended to test the probability of the account of his robbery which Mr Stofen gave. Just what conclusion if any the Jurors came to as the result of these experiments they failed to make known in their report. It would seem however that their belief in the reality of the robbery was not made complete by their use of the expression “alleged robbery.” Suit has beep begun for the shortage and the question of whether there really was a robbery or not may be made an issue in the trial.
– San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 1896
…One of the Grand Jurymen was locked in the vault and his hammering on the walls could be heard on the second floor of the Courthouse. Stofen claimed that he was unable to make noise enough to attract the attention of passers-by in the passage within a few feet of him.
At our last session we passed the following resolutions: That having spent much time in the examination of witnesses in connection with the alleged robbery of the county treasury, and having heard the supplementary report of the expert on the accounts of ex-Treasurer Stofen, this Grand Jury hereby records its opinion that the accounts of ex-Treasurer Stofen are correct up to 1894, and we could find no explanation of the reported deficiency of nearly $8000, except a real or pretended robbery.
– Sonoma Democrat, February 22 1896
THE TREASURY CASE. Sonoma County vs P. N. Stofen and Bondsmen. Numerous Witnesses Called and the Case Submitted Without Argument.
The case of Sonoma County vs P. N. Stofen and bondsmen came up regularly in Department Two of the Superior Court Thursday.
The Supreme Court decided in the Mulligan case that robbery could be plead as a defense, and the Stofen case being a parallel one, that part of the case was eliminated from the present trial and the only point left to decide was whether it was robbery or not.
Captain Stofen was the first witness called and testified to the main facts of the robbery, also as to how his books were kept and the amount of money he had on hand on December 28, 1894, the day of the robbery.
Mrs. F. McG. Martin testified that she was in her office during the day of the robbery, but heard no unusual noises in the treasurer’s office.
Deputy Sheriff Brophy also testified to this.
Messrs. B. M. Spencer, W. T. Mears, Ben S. Wood Jr., James Hassett, L. E. Ricksecker, E. F. Woodward and W. V, Griffith were called as witnesses. They had all been present when experiments had been made with the vault in the treasurer’s office to test how far the sounds of pounding in the vault could be heard in different parts of the court house.
After the testimony was all in the case was submitted without argument.
Quiz: Name the woman in 1870s Santa Rosa who was a successful real estate investor. Answer: It’s a trick question (sorry!) because we don’t know her real name. Oh, and by the way: She was a former slave.
On her tombstone at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery she is Elizabeth Potter. Legally she was C. E. Hudson, which was the only name on her will and how she bought and sold land – except for once when she identified herself as Charlotte E. Hudson. The 1860 census named her as Elizabeth Hudson, and her death notice in the local newspaper stated she was known as Lizzie Hudson. Whatever her name, Elizabeth/Charlotte Potter/Hudson was a remarkable woman. The reason you’ve never heard of her before is certainly because she was African-American and Santa Rosa’s 19th century Democrat paper had a single-minded determination to erase the presence of its black citizens, only mentioning them when there was a shot at grinding them down with ridicule.
Most of what we know about her comes from her tombstone and mentions in her brother’s obituary (there was no obituary for her – she received only that two-line “Lizzie” death notice, which appeared for a single day). From real estate transactions we can guess her net worth was about $7,000 before she died in 1876; at that time in Sonoma County, $10k was the threshold for being considered wealthy.
Her birth name was almost certainly Elizabeth Potter and she was born a slave in Maryland, 1826. Bondage ended when she escaped a slaveholder in Virginia and somehow made her way to Santa Rosa, California. Speculate if you want that “Hudson” was related to a deceased husband, but note she never once used “Mrs.” with any form of her name, as was the custom at the time for widows.
We first meet her locally as Elizabeth Hudson in the 1860 census, where she is part of the household of civil rights activist John Richards, counted as a servant. (A servant was defined as a paid domestic worker.) She was listed as 37 years old and from Maryland. But a few days later, she was listed a second time as a servant for John H. Holman – but this time from Virginia. A double-count mistake like that is unusual, but not all that rare; the respondent for the household was almost certainly one of the Holmans and not Elizabeth herself.
RIGHT: The Potter family plot at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery
After the Civil War she managed to reach her older brother who had remained in captivity until emancipation, having been sold four or five times in his fifty-odd years. At her urging, Edmund joined his sister here in 1872 and two years later, they became co-owners of 50+ acres north of town next to the county poor farm. Presumably all or most of the $1,200 price was contributed by Elizabeth (this land deal was the only time she used “Charlotte”).
There Edmund and his wife, Martha, made a small farm. Elizabeth may have lived with them as well; it was where she died in 1876.
Elizabeth knew she was dying and a few months prior sold one of her investment properties for the first time, getting $1,700 for a downtown parcel. She also tried to lure more of her family to Santa Rosa; in a poignant bequest in her will, she offered 1⁄3 of an even more valuable lot to “any cousin of mine who may come out from the East and attend me in my last sickness and may be here before my burial.” No one came. When she passed away just before Thanksgiving, her 59 year-old brother Edmund – who could read but not write – inherited everything.
Edmund and Martha’s sunset years looked secure. The parcel he inherited was at the foot of Fifth street (where the Post Office would be built decades later) and sold in 1879 for $3,100, which should have been enough for them to comfortably live on for the rest of their lives. The next year the Potter farm was valuated at $1,600, although they had made no improvements – it was still all meadowland. They had a pig and a couple of dozen chickens.
Tragedy struck as Martha died in a 1880 fire (she fell asleep while smoking) and the Democrat newspaper described her agonizing death in lurid detail. This was not at all unusual – the paper routinely spared no ink in describing how African-Americans died; in the following profile it was even reported the old man was found “partially undressed.” It was another routine exercise in racism, as deaths of white members of the community were almost never treated in such a demeaning manner. And it wasn’t limited to the 19th c. Democrat; the same treatment can be found in the Press Democrat as late as 1911.
RIGHT: Illustration from “City Cries: Or, a Peep at Scenes in Town” Philadelphia, 1850
What happened during the next few years is a mystery, but apparently he lost his farm and everything else. No legal notice of the property being sold can be found in any newspaper, nor was there any clue as to what happened to his sizable nest egg. He was next spotted in 1884, when the city paid a bill he submitted for $4.02. That likely meant he was now the whitewash man.
Whitewashing was among the lowest menial jobs traditionally held by 19th century African-Americans. It was messy work particularly as ceilings were often whitewashed but it was not dangerous – ignore internet claims that old-time whitewash contained lead – though there were several variations in the formulas (PDF).
He was now living in town at 528 First street and married again in 1890 to Louisa Hilton, a woman 25 years younger who had four daughters. The minister in the ceremony was Jacob Overton (see intro), one of the Bay Area civil rights activists who had earlier kept John Richards and others here in touch with the movement’s progress. There’s no evidence that Potter or his sister (under any of her names) were actively involved in the fight for equality, but it’s still noteworthy he had some sort of connection with a man as hooked-up as Overton.
Living in Santa Rosa proper exposed the Potters to the unquenched racial hatred that still burned here thirty years after the Civil War. In his collection of character sketches “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley recalled being sent on an errand to ask Potter’s daughter for help with housework at his parent’s house. Finley didn’t know the neighborhood and asked Judge Pressley for directions. (Pressley was the Superior Court judge at the time and an outspoken racist, having infamously once said he came to Santa Rosa “to get away from the carpet-baggers, scalawags and ni***rs of South Carolina.”) Naturally, the judge used the boy’s simple question as an opportunity to throw in a racial slur:
One time while a small boy I was sent down to Uncle Potter’s house to notify the aforesaid daughter that her services would be required at our house the following morning. I had difficulty in finding the place, and as Judge Pressley lived in that neighborhood I rang his doorbell and when he appeared, made inquiry. I must have been somewhat embarrassed or confused, for I said, “Judge Pressley, is there a negro lady who lives somewhere near in this vicinity?” Judge Pressley, a southerner of the old school, replied somewhat testily, “There are no negro ladies living around here, but Uncle Potter’s house is just around the corner and I think you will find Mandy or her mother at home.”
His “Uncle Potter” nickname probably emerged soon after he moved to Santa Rosa, and make no mistake, this was not a term of endearment or respect as “Tío” is used in Spanish-speaking cultures. In Jim Crow America, addressing an older African-American man as “uncle” was just the flip side of calling a younger adult “boy.”
As noted in the intro, racism in Santa Rosa’s Democrat newspaper during the later 19th century was usually passive – ignoring the existence of people like Elizabeth Potter and less often flinging around “n word” type slurs. Not so with Edmund Potter; the paper portrayed the 80 year-old man as the town’s laughable resident character.
“Uncle Potter” first appeared in the Democrat on April 13, 1895: “De trouble wid de ladders ob success in use now-er-days,” said Uncle Potter at his home on First street, “am dat they ain’ strong enough in de j’ints. When yoh gets pooty clos ter de top, dey’s liable ter break and drap yer.” Over the following 2½ years there would be dozens more of these aphorisms, metaphors and snarky quips about politicians, all written in pseudo-plantation patois – Gentle Reader may be justly skeptical that a literate man born in Maryland would speak like a Mississippi field hand. More examples:
“De man dat calls hisself a fool will nebbah forgive another for agree!n’ wid him.” “When yoo poke a toad philosophically you can’t tell which way he will jump nor how far, an’ its about the same way wid de avrage jury.” “Politicians am like corkscrews, de mo’ crooked dey am, de stronger their pull.” “De man ain’t been born dat kin live an’ love on bad cookin’. Good cookin’ keeps lub in de house much longer’n good looks.” “Political economy seems to me it’s a sickness kinder like the grip. It comes on with a weakness fer office, and you can’t get shet of it, no way. Bime by it brings on a third-term fit — that’s skeery, I tell you, and there ain’t no economy in that fer po’ folks who do the votin’, and there ain’t no economy for the other fellow, for he ginrally gets beat any way.”
The blame for this shameful “humor” falls entirely on Robert A. Thompson, brother of the paper’s founder and Confederate flag-waver, Thomas L. Thompson. Robert was editor and publisher of the Democrat in those final years before it was sold to Ernest Finley & Co. in 1897. He’s since been portrayed as a serious scholar for having written two important early histories of the county and town.*
What Robert was doing in the mid-1890s was just an updated version of what his brother did with racially-charged language a generation before – titillating the white supremacists in the paper’s audience. Readers would have recognized the “Uncle Potter” dialect and backwoods insights as being in step with the popular “Lime-Kiln Club” stories of the 1880s, several of which appeared in the Democrat and were collected in a 1882 top-selling book, “Brother Gardner’s Lime-kiln Club”. With foolish characters such as Pickles Smith, Boneless Parsons and Elder Dodo, the stories portray African-Americans as dimwitted and/or childlike, seeking (and failing) to mimic whites and white society. And, of course, watermelons were stolen. When teaching about the history of Jim Crow, the destructive impact of this white superiority crap in popular culture merits far more attention than it gets, in my opinion.
RIGHT: Drawing of Edmund Potter from the Sonoma Democrat, July 25 1896
While the Lime-Kiln Club was fictional, “Uncle Potter” was not. Edmund Pendleton Potter was a very real, very elderly man trying to make a subsistence living to support himself and his stepdaughters – his second wife had died in 1895, just a week after the first “Uncle Potter” item appeared. Everybody in this small town would have known the whitewash man by sight, and it seems likely the clever sayings attributed to him would have made him target for cruel boys and mean drunks seeking to bully someone for sadistic kicks. Any torment could only have gotten worse after the Democrat printed a drawing of him the following year along with a description that “…He has a keen wit which he punctuates with the apt originality pertaining to his race… He is quite a character and an entertaining talker. Like all his race he has a lively imagination and a highly developed emotional nature…” It was an invitation for people to expect him to perform on request.
Edmund Potter lived to be 91, dying in 1908 and continued whitewashing up to his final day. Obituaries appeared in both the Republican and Press Democrat, although neither paper could be bothered to get his first name right. He is buried in the Rural Cemetery, Main Circle 1, next to Elizabeth and his two wives, although he has no grave marker. His funeral service was conducted by Jacob Overton, the rights activist who had a recurring role in his life which was never explained.
* Robert A. Thompson, brother of Thomas L. Thompson, was County Clerk 1877-1884, then appointed U.S. Merchandise Appraiser in San Francisco 1885-1892. He ran for Secretary of State in 1898 and lost by 0.7% of the vote; he said he would call for a recount but nothing became of it, perhaps due to the expense or because Democratic party officials wanted no part in would have been the first contested office in state history. He first edited the Democrat in 1871 and apparently continued to be involved sporadically until it was sold in 1897. Robert authored two well-regarded local histories and an essay on the Bear Flag Revolt, all of which are available online. At his death he was working on a history of California. Thompson had a renowned library which supposedly contained many unique diaries and other primary sources, but what happened to it is unknown (my personal belief is the family donated it to the California Historical Society in San Francisco and it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake). He died Aug. 3 1903 and is buried in the Rural Cemetery Main Circle 184.
HUDSON-Near Santa Rosa, Nov. 21, 1876, Lizzie Hudson (colored), aged about 50 years. Funeral from her late residence tomorrow (Tuesday) at 2 o’clock. Friends are requested to attend.
– Daily Democrat, November 20 1876
BURNED TO DEATH.—On Sunday afternoon, May 23rd, Mrs. Martha Potter, wife of Edward Potter, a colored man who lives on a ranch near the Poor Farm, fell asleep with a pipe in her mouth, from which her clothes caught fire, burning her so severely that she died from the effects on Saturday evening. Her husband, who was asleep in an adjoining room, heard her struggling with the flames and going to her assistance, tore the clothes from her person, but she was so severely burned about the abdomen that death resulted as above stated. She was sixty-nine years of age,
– Sonoma Democrat, June 5 1880
Mrs. Potter’s Birthday Party.
Mrs. E. Potter celebrated her fifty-second birthday, at her home on First street, Wednesday night. About twenty of her friends and neighbors were present and sat down to a fine supper. Mrs. Potter’s health was toasted and every one wished her many happy returns of the day. Afterwards music and songs were rendered. All those who were fortunate enough to be present at this birthday party will long remember the happy occasion.
– Sonoma Democrat, April 6 1895
The above is a picture of Edmund Potter, better known as “Uncle Potter”, a highly respected citizen of Santa Roaa, from an excellent pen sketch made by our artist. Uncle Potter is 76 years old and black as coal but his mind is bright and his heart is as kind as any white man. He has a keen wit which he punctuates with the apt originality pertaining to his race. Uncle Potter was born in Maryland and came to California soon after the war set him free. He has lived in and around Santa Rosa for a number of years. Many of his bright sayings have appeared at various times in the “Gossip” column of the Democrat. He is quite a character and an entertaining talker. Like all his race he has a lively imagination and a highly developed emotional nature, if he had his way he would colonize all the colored race in Africa where they could work out their own destiny by themselves. Uncle Potter is wonderfully well up in the Scriptures and is a strict constructionist of the word. He has built his house of faith upon the rock and not upon the shifting sands of doubt.
– Sonoma Democrat, July 25 1896
Edmund Potter, the gentleman of color, better known as Uncle Potter, wants to go to Liberia in Africa, where many men and women of his own race and color are located, who speak the English language. Potter thinks he can do them good and he is circulating a petition to raise money enough for transportation. On his arrival in the dark continent he will devote himself to missionary work.
– Sonoma Democrat, March 13 1897
UNCLE POTTER DIES SUDDENLY Well Known Negro Lived to be 91 Years Old
Edwin Pendleton Potter familiarly known about this city as “Uncle Potter,” the well known negro, passed away suddenly at his home on First street Thursday morning. He was in his usual good health early in the morning and had arisen and was about the house when he was taken with a pain in his back just over the heart. He lay down for a time and seemed to be getting better when he was taken with an attack of coughing and attempted to rise up, but sank back, and his step daughter ran to his side, but it was seen that the end was near. He died in a few minutes and before Dr. G. W. Mallory, who was hurriedly sent for, could arrive.
Deceased was born in Caroline county near Denton, Maryland, and was 91 years of age. He came to California and settled in Santa Rosa in 1872 and has resided here ever since. At the time of the war he had a sister who had been a slave in Virginia, but had run away, and after everything became righted he got into communication with her from this city and it was on her account that he was brought here. He was a slave himself and was sold some four or five times. He was twice married and both his wives were buried in the local cemetery and it was the old man’s wish that he be laid away by their side.
At one time “Uncle Potter” was one of Santa Rosa’s wealthy men and formerly owned the site where the new postoffice is soon to be built. He was also owner at one time of the ranch which is now the county farm and hospital. he was a very active man and right up to the time of his death was engaged in business. He was planning for another job of whitewashing on Wednesday and would have made some of the arrangements about his spray machine today.
“Uncle Potter” was of the Baptist faith but had joined the Holiness band here and was one of Elder Arnold’s great admirers. Hie was a great hand to attend church and took a great interest In religious affairs.
The arrangements for the funeral have not yet been made but will be announced in a day or two.
– Santa Rosa Republican, June 4, 1908
‘UNCLE’ POTTER HAS GONE TO HIS REST Aged Colored Man Who Was for Many Years a Resident of Santa Rosa Dies Thursday Morning
“Uncle” Edward Pendelton Potter will no longer be seen trundling his little cart and its whitewash outfit along the streets of Santa Rosa on week days. Neither will he be noticed, dressed in his best black suit and wearing his silk hat, tottering along towards the little Holiness Chapel on Humboldt street where for years he was one of the most regular of Pastor Arnold’s flock on Sunday.
The old colored man, for so many years a noted character about town, is dead. His life of ninety-one years ended suddenly at his humble cottage on First street Thursday morning where a step daughter has kept house for him. A sudden fit of coughing came on, Dr. Mallory was sent for, but before he could reach the house, “Uncle” Potter was no more.
The deceased had lived In Santa Rosa for almost thirty-seven years. Years ago he owned considerable property, but it all slipped through his hands. He was a good old man. and no one could be found about town on Thursday. but what spoke of him kindly, and with words of esteem. He was a Christian and in his humble way he lived his religion. He was a native of Maryland and in the days of slavery he knew what it meant to be sold as a slave four or five times. He was twice married and in the local cemetery he has a family plot where on Sunday afternoon he will he burled. The funeral will take place from Moke’s Chapel at two in the afternoon.
“Uncle” Potter was a very poor man when this world’s gifts are considered. Dr. J. J. Summerfield. as the representative of many of the old man’s friends, who are anxious that he shall be given a decent burial in his own plot, last night started out with a subscription list to collect enough money to have everything neat at the funeral. The people Dr. Summerfield approached last night were only too glad to give a donation towards the burial expenses.
– Press Democrat, June 5 1908
“UNCLE” POTTER SLEEPS IN SILENT TOMB
In the family plot in the old cemetery on Sunday afternoon they laid “Uncle” Potter to rest. Many old-time friends of the venerable and respected man gathered at the graveside to witness the last rites. The casket was covered with flowers and these in turn were laid on the newly made grave. The funeral took place from Moke’s chapel and the services were conducted by Elder J. M. Overton.
When the band accompanying the Woodmen’s parade met the funeral procession a halt was called, and while it passed by the band played “Nearer My God to Thee.” The sentiment of the hymn was particularly appropriate in view of the Christian character of the deceased and also because it was one of his favorite hymns.
– Press Democrat, June 9 1908
The colored citizens of Santa Rosa offer their heartfelt thanks to Dr. Summerfield and the friends of our departed and much respected fellowman “Uncle Potter,” who so kindly respected his memory with flowers, subscriptions and by giving him a good Christian burial.
The tribute paid by the Santa Rosa band and the W. O. W. touched our hearts. Trying to emulate the life of that grand old Christian, we are, very gratefully.
The Colored Citizens, by
Willis Claybrooks, John W. Dawler, Committee.
– Press Democrat, June 9 1908
At the Holiness Chapel at 11 o’clock this morning there will be a memorial service for the late “Uncle” Potter.