Whatever else is in your family history, you can count on this: Your great -great (-great?) -grandpa probably was a wild little terrorist.

Several articles have appeared here earlier describing the bedlam of Hallowe’en in the years around 1900-1910, as boys prowled the streets in search of opportunities to inflict damage. Most common was removing front yard gates (sawing them off, if necessary) and hiding them some distance away. Other popular vandalisms included throwing paint on buildings, trampling gardens and dismantling a wagon or buggy. One year the Santa Rosa Republican suggested “parental floggings” and Petaluma had “special officers in plain clothes and bicycle police” on patrol. Still, it was worse in other places and some newspapers took to printing tallies of Hallowe’en deaths, which were usually caused by pranksters being shot as prowlers.

Hallowe’en tricks like gate stealing began appearing in the papers in the mid 1890s, but before that Hallowe’en hooliganism was rare; Oct. 31 was all about parties, costumed or not, and there was often dancing as most of these soirées were for young adults. Kids apparently kept to themselves after dark, whispering frightful stories about haunted places and divining their futures with Hallowe’en charms. (“…if you swallow a thimbleful of salt repeat a verse of poetry and go backward into bed, you will see your fate.” – Petaluma Courier, Oct. 29, 1884.)

But these kids in late Victorian America weren’t any better behaved than the ones who followed – they were probably worse. The only difference was that they conducted their mayhem on April Fool’s Day instead.

San Francisco Call, April 2, 1900



The worst was probably on April 1 in 1897, when about twenty boys ransacked Santa Rosa High School, trashing furniture and lab equipment. They were caught only because they were stupid enough to ring the school bell, drawing the attention of police.

The Petaluma Argus wrote in 1884 that “a mob of young hoodlums” with boys as young as eight were roaming the streets, ripping off front gates, trampling flowers and terrifying residents with tic-tac noisemakers (a homemade gizmo described in depth in one of the earlier Hallowe’en items). The town was being held under siege by its own children: “…A house cannot be left vacant for a short time without having number of windows broken out by boys, and during the fruit season trees are broken and fruit destroyed through pure deviltry.”

In the same issue Carrie Carlton, the Sonoma Democrat’s correspondent in Petaluma, wrote that April 2 was “the day that the Petaluma small boy feels the bad effects of late hours, having sat up until midnight or thereabouts trying to accomplish the big job of unhinging all the gates in town and piling them up promiscuously where least likely to be found; the day that lone women may be seen walking forlornly through the streets looking for that which is lost and cannot be found…”

Most of the April Fool jokes popular back then are still familiar. The victim is tricked into eating soap/something else that tastes foul (or inhaling something that causes a sneeze). A prank letter lures victims into an embarrassing comedy of errors. Coins are glued to sidewalks, or a dollar bill is tied to a string. A load of manure is ordered to be delivered to the victim’s home. A pat on the back means the victim now wears a sign reading, “kick me” (or worse). There is a frightening surprise – an exploding cigar, a mouse in the sugar bowl.

Some of the old tricks are long out of fashion. A passerby is asked to help by picking up a package, unaware that the box is attached to a fire hydrant or other immoveable object. As it was apparently the habit back then to kick hats lying on the sidewalk, jokesters put bricks underneath. And in the horse and buggy days it was considered funny to con a victim into running a time-wasting errand. The latter probably faded in popularity after it was widely reported in 1886 that a guy named Tom Rogers sent a message to the doctor in Kaufman, Texas concerning a woman gravely ill three miles out in the country. The doctor made the trip and discovered he hadn’t been called. Boiling with rage over the stupid prank, he returned to town and viciously stabbed Rogers to death.

April Fool’s Day wasn’t limited to kids, although the age cutoff for gate theft and noisemaking seemed to be about 18. Most famous among the local grownup pranksters was “Doc” Cozad, who once phoned lots of men and told them to don their best suit and rush to the Press Democrat office because the paper wanted photos of prominent citizens. (For April Fool’s Day in 1907 the tables were turned when some of Santa Rosa’s movers-and-shakers surprised him with a perfectly choreographed prank).

What’s surprising is how often adults seemed to attempt actual crimes only to claim, “April Fool!” when caught, like the fellow in Philadelphia who was interrupted during an armed robbery and claimed he was just kidding. On April 1, 1876, a man went to the Santa Rosa Bank to deposit a roll of $20 silver coins in a wrapper from the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa. When the roll was weighed it was found to be slightly lighter than expected, so it was unwrapped and revealed to be simply an iron bar. “Serious results might have followed this very trick,” commented the Sonoma Democrat. In 1910 two autos in Santa Rosa were stolen and driven away for joy rides. Although the cars weren’t returned until one of them got stuck on a country road and had to be towed back to town, “a visit to the police station was threatened, but nothing came of it,” according to the Press Democrat. Try any of those stunts today and see if the “hey, it was just April Fool!” excuse still works.

Hallowe’en and April Fool’s Day switched places as the most riotous children’s holidays near the turn of the century, and April 1 mostly settled down to being more of an excuse for a party or dance – although I’ll bet guests sometimes eyed the refreshments suspiciously, wondering if the eclairs might actually be filled with soap. Aside from ads for such get-togethers, the newspapers most often declared the day passed without incident except for “usual” April Fool pranks.

Likely the last truly original trick happened in 1932 when an Argus-Courier staff writer received an important call. He dutifully took notes and at the appointed time, used a handkerchief to cover his desk telephone and sat back, patiently waiting for the phone company to blow all the dust out of the line.

San Francisco Call, April 2, 1901


April Fool. —Everybody was on the look-out on Saturday last, April fool’s day, to victimize any person or persons that came within their jurisdiction. Several very good jokes were perpetrated, the best one of which was the sending of a number of parties to the stable of James P. Clark to see a certain blooded animal which bad been lately imported here. Jim showed the “thoroughbred” to all who applied, and the joke was fully appreciated.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 8 1871
 An April Fool Joke.

All Fools’ Day came as usual and was numbered in the past. Many pranks were played on unsuspecting individuals and which were innocent in their character, but one person whose name has not yet been called to mind, thought to take advantage of an innocent custom and turn an honest penny at the time of creating merriment by the joke. So the said unknown individual procured a bar of iron of the dimensions of a twenty-dollar silver roll and wrapped the same carefully and neatly up in a paper having the card of the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa upon it, and passed it in to the cashier of that institution, who in turn passed it to Mr. Prindle and he to Mr. Gray, and he to Mr. Hopper. Mr. Hopper took it to the Santa Rosa Bank to deposit it when it was placed upon the scales and found to be some two or three dollars light. Then Mr. Hopper unrolled the paper and the bar of iron was exposed to open day, and Hopper was hopping mad. Mr. Gray returned it to the Savings Bank, and there the joke ended. This is carrying a joke rather beyond the limits, and serious results might have followed this very trick.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 8 1876

About one o’clock Sunday morning the fire bell commenced ringing, causing the few people who were awake at that hour to hurry out in the streets in order to ascertain where the fire was. The bell had only rung a few times, however, when it suddenly ceased, and a conviction slowly dawned upon the minds of the alarmed ones that they had been sold. “April fool!”

– Sonoma Democrat, April 7 1883
Carrie Carlton’s Letter. Petaluma, April 1st.

The day that the Petaluma small boy feels the bad effects of late hours, having sat up until midnight or thereabouts trying to accomplish the big job of unhinging all the gates in town and piling them up promiscuously where least likely to be found; the day that lone women may be seen walking forlornly through the streets looking for that which is lost and cannot be found; the day that the principal of our public schools generally gets the biggest dose of April Fool! And just here we are reminded by the presentation of another of those ominous little notes that have been fluttering down upon us all the morning, that it is the day in which you are immensely fooled as to the amount of money you owe people…

– Sonoma Democrat, April 5 1884
Malicious Mischief.

It has been the habit for several years past, in this city, on the eve of April 1st for a mob of young hoodlums to parade through the principal residence streets and commit misdemeanors that should not be allowed to go unpunished. On Monday evening last a large number of boys, ranging from eight years up to eighteen, were out until a late hour taking gates from their hinges and carrying them several blocks from where they belonged. They also rang door bells, played tic-tac and similar tricks. There is nothing funny or smart in any of these April fool jokes and this sort of nonsense has been allowed to go unpunished so long that the boys pay no regard to personal rights or property of others. No one objects to boys having all the fun they want so long as they confine themselves to harmless sports, but when a band of young hoodlums go around unhinging gates, tramping through flower gardens and indulging in like malicious mischief it is time that they be stopped. There is certainly a law against this sort of mischief and it should be enforced. It would be a very salutary lesson if a few of the boys engaged in this business were arrested and fined. If parents will allow their children to run around at night and indulge in all sorts of mischief unrebuked, it would be fitting for the City Marshal to attend to that branch of precocious youths’ educations. A house cannot be left vacant for a short time without having number of windows broken out by boys, and during the fruit season trees are broken and fruit destroyed through pure deviltry. It is a poor protection to persons trying to beautify their premises to allow every small boy in town to steal gates and carry them away and tramp among the flowers like a wild animal. There was once an ordinance in this city compelling boys under eighteen years of age to keep off of the street after eight o’clock, evening, but it must have been repealed as the boys are out in full force every night long after that hour.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, April 5, 1884

“April fool’s” day was an inglorious one for many. It was from morning till night that people could be seen doing decoy errands or carrying attractive placards on their backs. These idiotic jokes might have provoked a little fun in the days of the royal jester, but in this age of civilization it is amazing how many unhung sots there are who made themselves conspicuous figures on the first of the month by their silly, chestnutty and daft perpetrations.

– Healdsburg Tribune, April 4 1895
Many Citizens Saw to it That Their Front Gates Were Moved to a Place of Safety

On Thursday evening many citizens mindful of the coming of the April fool joker removed the front gates leading into their yards to a place of safety until the time when the old time declaration, “April Fool’s Day is past,” etc., should arrive and the danger of molestation should have passed. Others forgot the advent of the joker and in consequence they may find their gate in somebody elses back yard.

Early Thursday evening some jokers must have been at work in the vicinity of the High School building, judging from the appearance of a buggy on the porch over the basement entrance to the building. No one seemed to know how it got there.

A well known citizen on Humboldt street chancing to go into his yard for a moonlight stroll discovered that had unawares become a florist. On the front lawn a sign had been reared bearing the legend, “Pansies for Sale.”

At Fifth and Humboldt streets some one found a chair suspended from a pole.

On Humboldt one of the street cars left outside the barn was propelled by hand power at a quicker clip down the track that the equine strength usually forming the motive power could have done.

A great many people and the officers on the outside beats kept on the lookout for the enacting of jokes which partook of too serious an aspect. It is reasonable to suggest that after the first few moments after the discovery of a missing gate or what not, the discomfiture of feelings will give way to the realization that “boys will be boys.”

– Press Democrat, April 1 1904

The usual trick April fool packages decorated the sidewalks in the business streets on Thursday and quite a number of local people “bit.” The brick in the hat was also very much in evidence.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, April 1, 1909

A well known local man ate some soap on Monday under the impression it was candy. Another man tried in vain to talk through the telephone which had been doctored up so that he could not get central. Numerous other pranks were played.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, April 1, 1909

Some time last night two automobiles were found to be missing by their respective owners. A hunt was made for the machines. It transpired that after all the supposed theft was an April fool joke. Two jubilant youths took the cars for the joke of the thing, invited friends to accompany them and drive out into the country. The joke was turned on one of them, at least. His machine “got stuck” out on the Sonoma road, and a telephone message had to be sent to town for some one to come out and haul the car in. At first a visit to the police station was threatened, but nothing came of it.

– Press Democrat, April 2 1910

Chief of Police Boyes has issued orders to his officers to see that the law is strictly obeyed in regards to the interference of private property particularly on April Fool’s eve. The practice of past years in removing gates, etc., will not be tolerated and the police department wish the public to take heed to this warning as it will he strictly enforced. A great many complaints have been received regarding this practice and the officers are going to put a stop to it.

– Press Democrat, March 30 1917



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In the autumn of 1897, Santa Rosa women were threatened by a mysterious man who choked two and apparently chased several others. The memory of those events remained strong enough for Jack the Choker to eventually become Jack the Meme.

Before diving into the descriptions of what happened that year, some background is essential to view events through the eyes of women living here. Their fears that a manic killer might be in town were absolutely genuine.

Our story began nine years earlier with the Jack the Ripper murders in London. Probably you already know all that’s needed –  during the autumn of 1888 a serial killer murdered several prostitutes in gruesome ways. The person responsible was never caught or identified, leading armchair detectives to spin theories which supposedly solved the case. That fascination with the Ripper continues to this day; visit casebook.org, where at any time of day or night you can find freshly posted essays by real adult human beings arguing feverishly the maniac who went on a killing spree over 125 years ago was positively so-and-so and everyone who disagrees is an ignorant yutz. Personally I don’t really care whodunnit, but find the socioeconomic context of the times pretty fascinating.*

Far removed from the gory coverage by London’s sensationalist tabloids, the U.S. press gave the story a paragraph or two at most, and then only after the catchy “Jack the Ripper” name caught on. West Coast papers hardly mentioned it at all. But as years passed, the number of mentions grew in the American newspapers as it evolved into the preeminent gothic murder mystery. The story was being continually refreshed as someone would confess/be arrested as a suspect or there was another possible Ripper murder.

Newspapers in both England and America also began labeling any gruesome murder as a Jack-the-Ripper killing. The Brits implied as often as possible that the deed might have been done by the original Jack, but here in the U.S. we had a Mexican Jack the Ripper in New Orleans and a Chinese Jack the Ripper in Montana. These were single crimes of passion or mania, however, and not the work of a serial killer.

Not until 1894 and the appearance of “Jack the Strangler.”

That year three Denver prostitutes were strangled to death within a couple of months. A fourth woman being strangled managed to break free and scream. Police arrived as he was trying to cut her throat and although the women of the Red Light District insisted he was the killer, police charged the man with only assault, waving him off as “nothing more than an ill-tempered Italian.”

Skip forward about a year and a prostitute was found strangled in San Francisco. Within a few weeks two others were similarly killed, others nearly so. After that third death, in March, 1896, the Chief of Police said he believed “the Denver strangler has come to San Francisco.” Two other attempted stranglings were reported, one woman describing the attacker as an Englishman about forty years old. Hmmm…

At the end of March police in Los Angeles caught a man actually strangling a woman. He told the police he had come to L.A. from San Francisco. “The officers believe it was his purpose to kill the woman, but on the police register he is simply charged with battery,” reported the San Francisco Call.

Sightings continued: Another man who moved from San Francisco tried to strangle a prostitute and two nuns in Oregon and Washington; he was caught and sent to an asylum. There were a handful of other possible Jack attacks in San Francisco in the spring of 1896, then nothing until the next year – and it was in Santa Rosa.

One evening in October, 1897, Sarah Pomeroy, a 64 year-old nurse returning home from visiting a patient was attacked near the corner of Fourth and E streets. Suddenly a pair of hands were gripping her throat. She was able to loosen his fingers enough to scream. The man slugged her in the face hard enough to knock her down (“the blow must have been a very hard one,” the Republican commented, “for the lady is quite fleshy”). When she spoke to reporters the next day her left eye was almost swollen shut and her cheek was bruised.

Then two nights later, 15 year-old May Kearns was assaulted near the corner of College and Fourth. She was dragged by her neck into the adjacent vacant lot and thrown to the ground. He put his knee on her chest and squeezed her throat. After a few moments he released her and she screamed. He kicked her twice, hard.

Two nights after that, a man jumped a fence and approached two little girls playing in their yard after dark. He ran when their father came out in response to their screams. It reporting on that event when the Daily Republican dubbed him “Jack the Choker.”

That made three attacks within a week, all between 6:30 and 7PM, shortly after sunset – but there the pattern ends. The nurse was old enough to be the grandmother of the girls; the teenager’s account sounds like a sexual assault but Mrs. Pomeroy’s seems more like an attempted robbery. And none of them were prostitutes, of course, the victim of choice of “Jack the Strangler.” Had he sought out those women, just two block away Santa Rosa offered the largest Tenderloin District between San Francisco and Reno (see the “Wide-Open Town” series).

The Republican followed with one of the most unusual articles I have ever seen in the old papers (and that really says something). Headlined “Jack the Choker” – by then the paper was headlining all related stories that way, even as the Press Democrat studiously avoided the nickname – a second headline announced, “Ladies need no longer fear the mysterious stranger.” Citing an interview with the City Marshal, the paper reported police had their “Official Eye” on two men who were the attackers. The short item also stated three times the police did not have evidence to arrest either man.

You don’t have to squint too hard reading between the lines to see the article was meant to quell panic. It’s impossible to believe women in Santa Rosa were not drawing comparisons to the earlier “Jack the Strangler” attacks in the City and were justifiably scared.

About a week later, both papers reported one of the suspects had left town. “The finger of suspicion pointed so strongly toward him as the individual who had been doing the ‘choking’ act here that he concluded to leave town rather hurriedly,” the Republican remarked. The attacks stopped, or at least none included assault. A month later a young woman was reportedly chased near downtown by a man wearing black. Shortly before the string of attacks, the PD had offered a little item about a stranger in black “acting suspiciously” by loitering at night, but neither paper made a connection between him and the choker.

Two years passed before there was a reprise of the attacks in Petaluma. There were a couple of reports of a stranger pursuing young women on D street, then Clara Ivancovich, the 48 year-old wife of a prominent doctor, was stalked on Sixth street before the man clutched her throat. She managed to scream and push him away. “A fellow has operated in Santa Rosa and got a reputation as a woman choker,” reported the Argus Courier next day. “We hope he has not come here.”

This time police nabbed and named a suspect: Bert Richardson (or Richards), a young barber who had arrived in town just a week before. He was seen loitering in the area at the time, drunk and supposedly “acted queerly.” A hat found near the attack fit him but he produced a similar hat of his own and had an alibi. Mrs. Ivancovich could not identify him positively. He was not arrested but lost his job at the barber shop.

Santa Rosa Jack of 1897 and Petaluma Jack of 1899 were undoubtedly different people, but it showed the monicker “Jack the Choker” had become firmly part of Sonoma County lore. After the Petaluma incidents the Press Democrat began having fun with it, telling readers there was a “Jack the Hugger” at Stony Point because a fellow was “very near getting into serious trouble by attempting to hug the fair daughter of one of our oldest settlers.” On Christmas Eve before the turn of the century, the paper joked, “First we had Jack the Ripper, then came Jack the Choker, and now we are confronted with Hobson the Kisser. And the question before the house is whether the world is progressing or retrograding.”

In the spring of 1900 a two-line ad appeared in the PD with the headline, “Jack the Choker In Town”. The advertisement continued, “He is looking for a location to get into business but is unable to do so without calling at 304 Mendocino St. and purchasing one of Ciaypool’s nobby suits.” The gag may have brought a chuckle when some first read it, but the store ran the stupid thing for nine months. Hopefully Ciaypool’s knew more about “nobby” looks than they did about humor.

The last historical appearance came in 1902, a full five years after the attacks. Two women walking home were confronted by a man who sprang from the shadows and growled, “How would you like to be choked by ‘Jack the Choker?'” The women screamed and ran. The man, presumably just some local jerk, was not caught.

There’s an ugly devolution here. A name which was an object of terror for women and children became something of a punchline that men considered funny. Even originally calling him “Jack the Choker” had a bit of a wink to it, sounding much less menacing than something like “the Santa Rosa Strangler.” The Republican further watered down the name’s association to violence against women with a story headlined, “Jack the Spitter,” describing a guy who hocked up tobacco juice on downtown store windows.

But it’s the menswear ad that rankles most. Lots of people make money off the name of Jack the Ripper; in London there are competing tours and a museum and many books to buy – but no store goes so far as claiming the well-dressed man wears their serial killer suede or shaves with their Ripper razors, much less expecting customers to have a laugh about their nod to monstrous deeds.

* The Jack the Ripper murders came at a time of great unrest in England. A replay of the French revolution seemed possible, with each year even more terrible and violent than the last. There were London riots and terrorist acts including the bombing of the House of Commons and London Bridge. History books now tell us the reasons for this violent dissent included high poverty, chronic unemployment, racism against immigrants and agitation by the Ireland independence movement, but to the average Londoner (and Queen Victoria), the big problem was that the police couldn’t control the streets. That the police were unable to catch the Ripper only confirmed their incompetence in the public’s eye, while boosting fears that the have-nots were dangerous and possibly insane.


A Ruffian’s Attack on a Lady here Tuesday Night
Grasped Her Around the Throat and When She Screamed tor Assistance Hit Her

A most brutal attack was made Tuesday evening about 8 o’clock on a widow lady named Mrs. Pomeroy, who resides in the neighborhood of Washington street.

Mrs. Pomeroy was returning home after visiting her sick friend Mrs. Stearns on Fourth street. When ahe was walking between the residence of Dr. Savage and the home of Dr. Clark a man stepped up behind her and put his arms around her and told her not to scream.

The frightened woman called for assistance. The ruffian who held her told her stop. She called again and then the man dealt her a violent blow in the face and left eye. The blow almost stunned her. The man then made off. Undoubtedly the man’s motive was robbery. Mrs. Pomeroy can give only a very slight description of the man as it was quite dark.

– Press Democrat, October 27, 1897


Girl is Roughly Handled
When She Screamed for Help The Fiend Kicked Her
Fifteen Year Old May Kearns the Victim of an Outrageous Hold Up

Great excitement prevailed here on Thursday evening over a murderous attack made upon Miss May Kearns, the fifteen-year-old daughter of James J. Kearns, the butcher, by a brutal fiend about half-past six o’clock that evening.

The girl was handled in a fiendish manner by the monster, and narrowly escaped being choked to death by him. Shortly after the occurrence a PRESS DEMOCRAT representative called at the Kearns residence on Stanford street, and heard the girl’s story. She was then in a state ot exhaustion over the rough treatment she had been subjected to. Her eyes were bulging out ot their sockets as a result of the choking, and her throat and neck bore the marks of the fiend’s grasp. Miss Kearn’s story is as follows:

“About half-past six o’clock this evening I was returning from town, having been making some purchases for mamma. I was walking along on the sidewalk on Fourth street. When opposite Mr. Doyle’s house I heard a man’s footsteps coming behind me. The man commenced to spit and blow with his mouth. I thought of running away, but then concluded I wouldn’t as I thought the person might be somebody I knew and was playing a joke on me. Before I had time to think further-—I was then by the vacant lot at the corner where College avenue runs into Fourth street–I was seized from behind by the man, who clasped both his hands so tightly around my neck and throat that I was almost choked to death. So nearly was I choked that I went on my knees. The man dragged me inside the lot and threw me down, keeping his grasp on my throat all this time, and knelt on my chest. He held me there for several moments. His hands would release their grasp for an instant and then they would tighten again. The man muttered something, I couldn’t understand what he said. I managed to gasp out that I would go with him if he would let me alone. I thought this was the only thing to do to save my life. He let me get up and I walked a few steps toward the edge of the sidewalk. He told me not to look around at him. I told him to pick up my hat and packages, which had fallen in the lot. I made a few steps forward and screamed. The man rushed toward me muttering something, and gave me two violent kicks. He then ran through the lot and down College avenue. 1 ran over to Mr. Doyle’s and screamed for help. Mr. Doyle came to the door and I told him what had happened, and he at once telephoned for the police. Mr. Doyle went over to the lot and brought me my hat and packages, and I was taken home.”

Description of the Man

The description of the fiend given by Miss Kearns is as follows: “As far as I could see, I just managed to turn my head a little when he grabbed me, the man was a little taller than I am, (probably about five feet four inches tall). He had on a light hat, the front of his shirt was of a light color. I could not see whether it was a white shirt. He wore a white collar and had on a black tie. His coat and vest were of a dark color and he wore light pants.”

Further Details

Upon receipt ol Mr. Doyle’e telephone message Officer Yoho was quickly on the scene and took the girl home. Officers Yoho, Hankel, Boyes and Shepard then scoured the neighborhood for tha man. The search was kept up all the evening.

When Miss Kearns arrived home her family was thrown into a state of great excitement. Mrs. Kearns was sitting in the parlor awaiting her daughter’s return. When she came in her appearance was such a shock to Mrs. Kearns that she swooned away. From the girl’s mother and grandmother it was learned that she looked terrible. Her eyes bulged out and she was trembling with terror aod excitement.

The assault is believed to have been the work of a crank who has a mania for choking women. Some people incline to the belief that he meant to abduct the girl. One thing is certain, had he been captured he would have been roughly handled last night.

It was thought that the ruffian was the same man who assaulted Mrs. Pomeroy outside the Savage residence on Fourth street about the same time on Tuesday evening. When Mrs. Pomeroy screamed he did not kick her, but dealt her a heavy blow in the face. The police, however, think differently. Mrs. Pomeroy’s vague description of her assailant was that he waa tall and slender. Miss Kearns is confident that she would recognize the voice and person if she should happen to run across him.

– Press Democrat, October 30, 1897
The Mysterious Assailant of Women at Work Again.
Discovered in the Nick of Time by an Angry Father–Took to His Heels and Run Away as Usual.

At 7 o’clock Saturday evening Lita and Charlotte Martin, aged 9 and 7 respectively, daughters of J. C. Martin, a carpenter residing on Riley street, were playing in the yard surrounding their home.

The parents of the children were eating their evening meal at the same hour, when they heard one of the little girls scream as though very much frightened. Rushing to the door Mr. Martin saw a man approaching the girls. He called to the fellow and asked what he was doing, but without replying the man leaped over the fence and ran down Riley street towards Fifth as fast as his legs could carry him.

Mr. and Mrs. Riley took the children into the house and quieted their fears as best they could. Lita, the eldest girl, said she saw the man come up to the fence and stop to look at them. He then leaped over the fence and started toward them, when both girls screamed. Then her father came to the door and the man ran away.

Mr. Martin could not see the man very plainly on account of the darkness but he thinks the fellow was either a negro or had a mask on his face. He thinks the man wore a brown suit of clothes.

Mrs. Martin and the children were so frightened that Mr. Martin could not leave them; consequently the news of the incident did not reach the officers until Sunday morning.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 1, 1897


The Police Say They Have Their “Official Eye” on the Two Men Who Did the Deeds.

City Marshal Steadman stated to a REPUBLICAN reporter Tuesday that there was no longer any secret in police circles as to the identity of the parties who have been harrassing [sic] the ladies of this city.

The police have had information for some time, they say, as to the identity of the man who assaulted Mrs. Pomeroy, the aged widow lady, and while the evidence of guilt is not absolutely conclusive, they state that they have every reason to believe that the man they suspect is the guilty party.

The police also believe that they could in an hour’s time lay their hands on the person who assaulted Miss Kearns. As in the case of Mrs. Pomeroy, the evidence is not absolutely conclusive, but is sufficiently definite to warrant a well-founded belief.

No arrests have been made, partly because of insufficient evidence and partly because prosecuting witnesses have not been forthcoming. The police state, however, that the ladies of Santa Rosa have now no cause for alarm. No further assaults need to be feared from the two suspects and it is not likely that “Jack the Choker” will make any more trouble in this city.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 9, 1897
A “Jack the Choker” Suspect Leaves Town Hurriedly

A figure that has been familiar on our streets for sometime has disappeared. The finger of suspicion pointed so strongly toward him as the individual who had been doing the “chocking” [sic] act here that he concluded to leave town rather hurriedly. Such characters can be spared.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 19, 1897



It is reported that the suspected choker of young women here, left Santa Rosa early Friday morning.

 – Press Democrat, November 20, 1897


 The Man Who Expectorates on Show Windows in the Dead of Night

Fred Guldin, the south B street tailor, has been driven nearly to distraction by the stains of tobacco and saliva that appeared every morning on his nice clean shop window.

Tuesday evening he vowed in his inmost soul that he would catch the miscreant. In company with Bruno Meyer he passed the midnight hours waiting for the man who had injected the misery into his erstwhile peaceful life.

At 5:40 they heard a footfall on the sidewalk. A moment later the window received a nicotine charged bath.

Guldin and his lieutenant sallied forth and captured the enemy in the act. He was marched to the county bastile and stowed away in a cell to mediated on his sinful act.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 8, 1897


And a Young Woman Who Was Badly Frightened
Followed By a Strange Man on Mendocino Street Late Sunday Evening

On Mendocino street, about a quarter to 10 o’clock Sunday night, a young woman employed at a residence on College avenue, was nearly frightened to death.

She was going down Mendocino street and when opposite Mrs. Tate’s tamale parlors she noticed a tall young man wearing a long black coat and with a slouch hat on his head. The man started to follow her. At Ross street she crossed the street to the other side. The stranger crossed also. When she reached the sidewalk the girl started to run. The man ran also. The girl never lost her presence of mind, but ran as fast as she could and outdistanced her pursuer. They raced to the corner of College avenue and when the girl entered the gate leading to her employer’s home the man fell behind. Officer Hankel was notified and the police kept a sharp lookout for the man in black. If he is caught a warm reception will be given him. The young woman was nearly frightened to death.

– Press Democrat, December 22, 1897


Santa Rosa Has a Man in Black

For several evenings an unknown man, dressed in black clothes, has been terrifying women in remote parts of town. On Sunday evening he chased a well-known young woman almost frightening her out of her wits. The officers have not yet found him but he is believed to be either a crank, a lunatic or the counterpart of “Jack the Choker” who was ordered to leave town a few weeks ago.

– San Francisco Chronicle, December 22, 1897



A young woman who resides in the western portion of the city came down Fourth street rather hurriedly Thursday night and told some of her friends that she had intended going up the street to make a call but that on the way she saw a man who she believed was “Jack, the Choker,” When she saw the man she said she turned aronnd and went back so as not to allow him to follow her.

– Press Democrat, March 26, 1898



Santa Rosa is worked up over the antics of a strange man, who is given the name of “Jack the Choker.” He stops unescorted women on the street at night, chokes them for a minute, and then disappears. —Marysville Appeal

– Press Democrat, April 2, 1898


Makes a Cowardly Assault Upon a Lady on the Street.
A Man of Similar Description has Frightened Ladies in Other Portions of the City.

The cowardly acts of “Jack the Strangler” are being enacted in this city.

Last evening, while returning from choral practice at Guild hall, Mrs. Dr. Ivancovich was assaulted on the street by a fellow and subjected to rough treatment, as marks on her neck plainly show.

Mrs. Ivancovich had left the hall alone, as she had a cold and wished to reach home as soon as possible. This was about 10 o’clock and the streets were deserted. She walked briskly up Sixth street, and when in front of the Lovejoy residence near A street she saw a man emerge from the opposite side and follow her. She walked straight ahead, the fellow following only a few feet behind, until in front of George Spottswood’s on Liberty, where the sidewalk was wide, she stepped aside to let him pass, but instead of passing he grasped her by the throat with a firm grip. She screamed and the fellow let go. Mrs. Ivancovich thought he had mistaken her for someone else and she upbraided him for the assault, wherewith he clutched her throat again and pressed harder than before. The lady had on a high fur collar that protected her neck and she was able to scream. This she did so loudly that the fellow, thinking someone would hear the cries and come to the rescue, gave his victim a push and ran in the middle of the roadway down Sixth street.

George Spottswood was aroused and came to the lady’s aid but the fellow had gotten away.

Mrs. Ivancovich was seen this morning at her home on Walnut street, and had not even then recovered from the shock of her adventure with the maniac or cowardly assaulter. She said the fellow was a young man, with a newly-grown dark mustache…and gave the general appearance of a gentleman, not a tramp.

During the scuffle he did not say a word and only seemed determined to choke his victim into insensibility…A fellow has operated in Santa Rosa and got a reputation as a woman choker. We hope he has not come here.

Sunday night a man answering a like description followed two East Petaluma girls across the D street bridge and up D street, keeping about three feet behind them all the time, not saying a word but crossing the street when they did and determined not to lose them. Women are becoming afraid to be on the streets at night.

Last evening about 11 o’clock Daniel Brown saw a stranger like the above, and some young ladies on D street were chased by a man and ran into Wickersham’s place.

– Argus Courier, November 7, 1899


Petaluma Excited Over the Actions of a Mysterious Stranger. 

PETALUMA, Nov. 7.— Considerable excitement is aroused in this city by a mysterious stranger who has been assaulting ladies on the streets after dark, rushing up behind them and attempting to choke them. The choker has been given chase by citizens, but succeeds in making his escape. The entire police force is out on his trail.

– San Francisco Call,  November 8 1899


A Young Man Arrested on Suspicion of Playing That Role

Bert Richardson, a young barber working in a Western avenue shop, was this morning detained on suspicion of implication in Monday night’s choking affray. The actions of Richards [sic] on Monday evening were very strange. He was intoxicated and seen in the neighborhood of B and Sixth street by several passers. He acted queerly and kept constantly in the vicinity of the corner. His description talies [sic] very well with that published. The police found a hat at the scene of the choking affair and the hat fitted his head perfectly. He told certain parties that he had lost his hat but to the police he denied this. The victim of the fiend’s work could not positively identify him and he was released. He was “fired” from his job. The man may be innocent but the circumstantial evidence seems strong against him. The young man’s folks reside in the lower end of town. They came here from San Francisco a week ago.

– Argus Courier, November 9, 1899


Arrest of a Young Man at Petaluma Upon Suspicion

According to the Petaluma Courier, the police of that city are of the opinion that they have the man who so roughly handled a number of ladles on the streets of that city Monday night. The young man in question is known to have been intoxicated on Monday evening and was seen in the neighborhood of the scene where Mrs. Ivancovlch was attacked, both before and after the occurrence.

Thursday morning Marshal Collins took him to his office in the city hall where Dr. and Mrs. Ivancovich were in waiting and he was confronted by Mrs. Ivancovich. She stated that the man tallies with the description of the fellow who attacked her but she did not care to swear positively that he is the man, so he was released.

A hat found near the scene fitted the young man, but he produced another hat exactly like it and stated that the hat in the possession of the police is not his at all. He told the police where he was on Monday night, but they found that he had told them his whereabouts on Sunday night.

– Press Democrat, November 11, 1899


“Jack the Hugger” at Stony Point

A correspondent from the Stony Point district writes as follows: “We have a ‘Jack the Hugger’ in our district. The latest report is that he came very near getting into serious trouble by attempting to hug the fair daughter of one of our oldest settlers. Not long ago Petaluma had “Jack the Choker” and before that Santa Rosa had a similar visitor.

– Press Democrat, November 25, 1899

First we had Jack the Ripper, then came Jack the Choker, and now we are confronted with Hobson the Kisser. And the question before the house is whether the world is progressing or retrograding.

– Press Democrat, December 24, 1899


Jack the Choker In Town

He is looking for a location to get into business but is unable to do so without calling at 304 Mendocino St. and purchasing one of Ciaypool’s nobby suits.

– Press Democrat, April 11, 1900


Their Lusty Cries for Help Caused Him to Disappear and Officers Seek In Vain for the Miscreant

“How would you like to be choked by ‘Jack the Choker?'”

With these startling words uttered in a rough tone a man suddenly sprang out from the shadow of the Methodist Church on Fourth street about 9:30 o’clock last night and addressed Mrs. D. R. Seawell and her daughter, who were on their way home. He made a lunge toward them as if he did not care to wait for an answer to his query. The ladies screamed lustily for help and started to run. The man disappeared rapidly. Officers Hankel and Llndley were quickly on the scene and made a search of the vicinity, but this fellow had made good his escape.

– Press Democrat, December 20, 1902

Read More



Had Martin Tarwater behaved himself, he would have died peacefully at home near Mark West Creek and been quickly forgotten. Instead, he did something so crazy that he was immortalized in one of the best stories written by Jack London.

London spent a few weeks with Tarwater during the 1897 Yukon Gold Rush. Martin was 66 years old at the time and had no experience with prospecting or, for that matter, surviving in extreme weather conditions, having lived his entire adult life in the placid clime that is Sonoma county. He lacked backcountry gear and didn’t arrive in Alaska with much money, in stark contrast to the others who were pouring off the boats equipped with a ton of outfitting and grubstakes to pay for whatever else they would need. What Martin Tarwater had instead was a boundless cheery attitude and indefatigable certainty that in spite of everything he would triumph in the end. And because of that, Jack London made him a hero.

On a genealogy web page one contributor sniped, “It is hoped no one will find that story (included in one of his books, the title I have forgotten at the moment), because everything written about Martin Tarwater is complete fiction.” The story is “Like Argus of the Ancient Times” and is so named for Martin’s love of singing even if he didn’t always remember the correct words to the song. That title was part of his scrambled substitution lyrics for the Unitarian version of the Doxology hymn (“From all that dwell below the skies…”).

As for everything London wrote about him being “complete fiction,” I don’t think that’s at all true, although the Tarwater character in the story is instead named John and came from Michigan, not Missouri. But mostly everything in the story up to the ending tracks very well with what appeared about Martin in local newspapers and in writings of his Klondike compatriots. No spoilers here, but you’ll enjoy the rest of this article more if you take a moment and let Jack London introduce him to you.

“Mart” Tarwater – as apparently everyone called him – came here in 1853, which is to say he was here before Santa Rosa was here. He and wife Sarah had several hundred acres near the headwaters of Mark West Creek and like most of his neighbors, proceeded from logging redwoods to ranching to grapes. He had the largest sheep ranch in the area and nine children, not all of whom lived to adulthood. His eldest son died in his arms after a farming accident. There is still a Tarwater Road off St. Helena Road and there was a Tarwater school district with a one-room schoolhouse which served for dances and other get-togethers. Oddly, they named their micro-community “America.”

In a Believe-it-or-Not! twist, Charmian London met the unforgettable Mr. Tarwater first, while her future husband was still playing oyster pirate. In volume two of her biography of Jack she wrote of accompanying her aunt, Ninetta Eames, as she trekked about the North Bay researching an article. Charmian wrote she “made a pilgrimage to his mountain cabin and sketched that abode and himself for an illustration,” but that’s not entirely true; while the article had drawings (by Grace Hudson, no less) it was a photograph that appeared in the August, 1892 Overland Monthly captioned, “A Shepherd’s Arcady.” Thus if she’s right about meeting Martin, that’s him in this picture:1

Jack’s story begins in the summer of 1897, as does the provable history. “Grandfather Tarwater, after remaining properly subdued and crushed for a quiet decade, had broken out again. This time it was the Klondike fever,” wrote London. “The multitudinous family had sat upon him, but had had a hard time doing it. When all else had failed to shake his resolution, they had applied lawyers to him, with the threat of getting out guardianship papers and of confining him in the state asylum for the insane.”

The fictional Tarwater sneaks out of the house the next morning and took the horses and wagon to Santa Rosa, where he sold them and other items, raising $42.50 before taking the train to San Francisco. “A dozen days later, carrying a half-empty canvas sack of blankets and old clothes, he landed on the beach of Dyea in the thick of the great Klondike Rush. The beach was screaming bedlam.”

In truth, we know nothing about Martin’s departure – which suggests Jack London had it mostly right. When local residents left for Alaska (or were even rumored to be possibly thinking about going, maybe) there was an item about it in one of the Santa Rosa newspapers. For Martin there was not even the customary single-line mention of his going to San Francisco, which strongly implies the family kept it quiet.

Among Mart’s fellow travelers over the next week would be Fred Thompson of Santa Rosa. Fred is worth special mention because he left a diary (which scholars often cite) and wrote several letters to the Republican newspaper (which most scholars don’t seem to know about). Fred was a court reporter and brother of Rolfe L. Thompson, well-known to readers of this journal for being the lawyer who led attempts at reform efforts in the years after the Great Earthquake.

Through Thompson’s first letter, dated August 1, we meet the other four members of his party: Someone else from Santa Rosa and a carpenter with some experience building boats, plus “J. H. Shepard, 1068 East 16th street Oakland, Cal., who is an attorney and quite a well to do man and an old prospector and miner–a personal friend of Judge Crawford who can tell you all about him; Jack London of same address as Mr. Shepard and a brother-in-law. Mr. Shepard is backing Mr. London, who is a sailor and marine engineer.” It’s amusing that 21 year-old Jack London was trying to pass himself off as a “marine engineer,” but even more howling was James Shepard claiming to be a sourdough miner and “well to do.” Shepard, the subject of the previous item, was a ne’er-do-well military pension lawyer whose wife mortgaged the home in her name to fund his misadventure.

The first glimpse of Mart on his odyssey comes from Santa Rosa blacksmith John Poat, who wrote on Aug. 12 that he and another Santa Rosa fellow, Clarence Temple, were on the same boat bound for Alaska as “Old Man” Tarwater. As it turned out, our local blacksmith found it too much to endure and was back in town by the end of the month. He gave an interview to the Republican and told them, “I left Tarwater and Temple in Juneau. The former, when saying good-by to me the day I left, said he was going to do his best to get in with a party and work his way over one of the passes.”

The narrative resumed with an Aug. 24 letter from Clarence Temple. He wrote to the Republican that Mart had fallen in with a party and gone to Skagway, expecting to go over the pass at once. The “old man” was in luck for he was not well equipped with cash and could not have gone over the pass alone, the paper summarized.

All of the Santa Rosa adventurers told the paper of the daunting conditions. “At Juneau it is believed that hundreds will perish on the way to Dawson,” wrote Poat. “Those who have taken tents will find them useless when winter sets in. They say at Juneau that the only way one can pass an Alaskan winter is to build log huts, make them almost air tight, and then keep a roaring fire going all the time.” Another correspondent told the paper he had just left Dawson City – the destination camp everyone looked to as a refuge – on Aug. 26 because stores and restaurants were already closed for the winter because there was no food to sell.

The surprise correspondent was James Shepard, whose letter appeared in the Republican Sept. 27. By then he was sleeping in his own bed back in Oakland, having given up five days into the trek (he lied and claimed he made it all the way to eleven). Shepard – who supposedly had a mild heart attack even before leaving the Bay Area – wrote that he was only doing cooking chores while the other four members of the party were lugging their collective 6,000 pounds of supplies up the mountain, from 4 in the morning until around 9 at night.

Before continuing our story, it may be helpful to review Klondike 101: Tarwater, London, and the rest of our pals were on the Chilkoot Trail, later dubbed “the meanest 32 miles in history” and remembered for those photographs of the ant-like procession of men crawling up the mountainside. As the goldfields were actually in Canada, “stampeders” had to pay custom duties on their supplies at a Mountie station located at the summit. The Canadian government also required each man entering the Territory to bring along enough food for an entire year, which alone weighed half a ton. Add in camping and mining supplies and the need to combine resources with others was essential to keep the weight down.

Climbing the Chilkoot was easiest in winter when the trail was packed snow, as supplies could be pulled by sled; Jack London and the others were on it at the peak of Indian Summer when temperatures were close to 100 degrees, which meant backpacking up a craggy slope in multiple trips. Shepard wrote that when he left, their company was making 1¼ miles a day – and that was before the trail got really steep. As they were about to start the climb, London wrote to a friend how this relay would work:2

I expect to carry 100 lbs. to the load on good trail & on the worst, 75 lbs. That is, for every mile to the Lakes, I will have to travel from 20-30 miles. I have 1000 lbs. in my outfit. I have to divide it into from 10 to fifteen loads according to the trail. I take a load a mile & come back empty that makes two miles. 10 loads means 19 miles, for I do not have to come back after the 11th. load for there is none. If I have 15 loads it means 29 miles.

The day after James Shepard turned back, Thompson entered this in his diary: “August 15. Very warm today—-did not do much. Met Tarwater of Santa Rosa–took him as a passenger, exchanging board and passage for his work.” Five or six days later, photographer Frank La Roche took the picture below, which is the only known image of Jack London in the Yukon.

Left to Right: Jim Goodman, Jack London, Martin Tarwater (partially obscured by pipe), unknown man with pipe and Fred Thompson3


For all his faults, Shepard had contributed money and a full outfit to their party; Mart Tarwater looked like nothing but burden. He had little but the clothes on his back and was a dozen years older than the old man he was to replace. As London wrote in his short story, it wasn’t easy to convince the others to take him on. But once he was accepted in their ranks, London wrote, “Old John Tarwater became a striking figure on a trail unusually replete with striking figures. With thousands of men, each back-tripping half a ton of outfit, retracing every mile of the trail twenty times, all came to know him and to hail him as ‘Father Christmas’…On a trail where hard-working men learned for the first time what work was, no man worked harder in proportion to his strength than Old Tarwater.”

Aside from bearing his share of the burdens, London tells us Mart kept everyone’s spirits up with his enthusiastic singing: “…as he worked, ever he raised his chant with his age-falsetto voice…Weary back-trippers would rest their packs on a log or rock alongside of where he rested his, and would say: ‘Sing us that song of yourn, dad, about Forty-Nine.’ And, when he had wheezingly complied, they would arise under their loads, remark that it was real heartening, and hit the forward trail again.”

Another returnee from the Yukon told the Press Democrat of running into Mart unexpectedly:

“Suddenly while we walked along the wooded trail, a voice broke the stillness of the night. The sound of that voice seemed familiar to me. Who can it be I asked myself? As we came nearer the spot I was more convinced than ever last I knew the singer. In that strange land it was so good. Presently we came opposite the place from whence the singing came. I stood rivetted to the spot. The singer was warbling the old song “How the Miners Made Pancakes in ’49.” Leaning against a tree, his face muffled almost to hide his features, back of him the smouldering embers of his little camp fire, was a man whom I afterwards learned was none other than mv old friend. Mart Tarwater, of Mark West, the old mail carrier. Away up on the Skaguay apparently all alone old Mart was just as merry as he was when driving along the Healdsburg road in his little old mail wagon. There was no mistaking that noise. I would have known it anywhere in the world.”

It was now September and the freezeup was a few weeks away; plans to survive the coming arctic weather had to be made before winter slammed in and made them for you. It was decided they would join with another party and construct a pair of boats to speed their journey. It was grueling work; in his story, Jack wrote, “They worked night and day. Thrice, on the night-shift, underneath in the saw-pit, Old Tarwater fainted.”

Near the end of that month, a Santa Rosa man wrote the Press Democrat: “Yesterday a party from Santa Rosa, consisting of J. E. Goodman, Fred H. Thompson, Mart Tarwater, and seven others launched a 32-foot boat in the lake and sailed gaily out of sight. They were a gay and happy looking crowd.” Over the next few days they pushed on through strong freezing winds, snowstorms and ice, not to mention shooting the boats down rapids which few attempted even in best conditions. This is the stuff of high adventure and is retold in several Jack London stories and novels.

While they were still days away from Dawson City they came across abandoned log cabins built by an old trading company. London and the Santa Rosa boys saw this as great good luck, particularly since their guide book said gold had been found in the area. The party in the other boat would continue on, with Martin Tarwater aboard. It was the last time Jack would see his elderly friend.

Mart and the others had made a terrible choice. They were unaware that Canadian authorities had just posted a notice that there were not adequate food supplies at Dawson, even with the cargo of a recent supply steamship which would be the last to make it in before spring. Any prospectors without enough personal food for themselves would have to evacuate immediately to Fort Yukon. Tarwater was among them.

A few updates appeared in the Press Democrat over the winter, among them a letter from Fred Thompson saying their group was doing well. There was also word that Mart was writing for a local paper (!) and had filed a mining claim where he was picking up $10 in gold every day off the ground. “This news is good. No one deserves to get rich any more than does Mart.” Of course, both were completely untrue.

Then came the news: Martin Tarwater had died on May 20, 1898 at Fort Yukon.

The family received a letter from a man named Orion T. Thomas, who had linked up with Mart after the Dawson evacuation. They built a cabin together but “as Mr. Tarwater had very little money,” wrote Thomas, and without the protectorship of his Santa Rosa friends, he was compelled to work, cutting wood for $5 per cord in weather 40 degrees below zero. He quickly became seriously ill. In Jack London’s story “his creaking and crackling and the nasty hacking cough” was often mentioned and Thomas wrote, “the doctor says the cause of his death was acute asthma.”

The next year Orion Thomas popped up in Santa Rosa and stopped by the Press Democrat, giving the newspaper an opportunity to write a second obituary for a favorite son.

Before he was taken sick, Mr. Thomas says Old Mart was the life of the camp. His Sonoma county friends will always remember his ready wit and his ability to launch out in verse to suit a popular air. He was the same in the frozen north, and could always be relied upon to have a stock of verse on hand concerning the Klondike, to keep all those around him in good humor.

Thomas, who was a bugler for the Union during the Civil war, “carried a cornet with him all through his travels,” the PD reported. “He says it was very amusing to see the interest taken in his music by the Indians, who had never seen such an instrument before. Whenever he played in his cabin he could always have a large audience of Indians, male and female.”

How fitting that the last word on Martin Tarwater is from someone who shared his enthusiasm for making music. And you can bet as Orion tootled his cornet on those winter days, old Mart was howling along with the tune, even if he didn’t properly recall the right words. It was surely that odd duet which drew the Gwich’in native people over to their cabin in -40° temperatures – after all, you don’t hear unearthly sounds like that every day. No sir, you don’t.


1 Robert Tarwater had a large spread in Anderson Valley and a little item in the 1875 Sonoma Democrat mentioned Martin driving a herd of a thousand sheep up there. Robert moved there from Santa Rosa in 1857 and was likely a brother or cousin of Martin’s. I don’t particularly enjoy genealogy research, so if anyone wants to shake the Tarwater family tree, here’s Robert’s obituary.

2 Letter to Mabel Applegarth; The Letters of Jack London: 1913-1916. Volume three

3 The identification of the men was made by author Dick North in 1981 and discussed at length in his book, “Sailor on Snowshoes.” North speculated the unknown man could be Dan Goodman’s brother James or famed author and John Muir companion Samuel Hall Young, but it seems to me that it is more likely boat carpenter Merritt Sloper, who remained a member of the London party through the next year. Credit: Frank La Roche Photograph Collection, University of Washington


Moore, Thompson, Goodman and Tarwater Are all There
In a Letter Virgil Moore Says He Saw the Party Lauch a Boat and Sail Away

For many weeks past the families of Fred Thompson and J. E. Goodman of this city, and Mart Tarwater, the veteran mail carrier of the Mark West Springs district, have been looking for letters from them.

In a letter received last night from Virgil Moore, the Bulletin correspondent in Alaska, dated Lake Linderman. Sept. 29, he speaks encouragingly of the trio mentioned above. The news will be received by their friends here with pleasure.

The writer says: “Yesterday a party from Santa Rosa, consisting of J. E. Goodman, Fred H. Thompson, Mart Tarwater, and seven others launched a 32-foot boat in the lake and sailed gaily out of sight. They were a gay and happy looking crowd and had only been on the road sixty-three days.”

From this piece of news it would appear that the Santa Rosans are doing first-rate. All of the boys have good, genuine grit, and if any one can succeed they will. Their friends here will always be glad to note their success.

– Press Democrat, October 20, 1897
Away Up on Skaguay Trail
Mart Tarwater Sings
Neal Brieson of Mark West Returns From Alaska and Greets His Santa Rosa Friends

“I and my partner were walking slowly along the Skaguay trail one evening many weeks ago. The shades of night were falling fast. Pretty soon it got almost dark. We were making for a certain point that night. We were feeling pretty tired. My partner urged me to hurry along before the darkness got too dense.

“Suddenly while we walked along the wooded trail, a voice broke the stillness of the night. The sound of that voice seemed familiar to me. Who can it be I asked myself? As we came nearer the spot I was more convinced than ever last I knew the singer. In that strange land it was so good. Presently we came opposite the place from whence the singing came. I stood rivetted to the spot. The singer was warbling the old song “How the Miners Made Pancakes in ’49.” Leaning against a tree, his face muffled almost to hide his features, back of him the smouldering embers of his little camp fire, was a man whom I afterwards learned was none other than mv old friend. Mart Tarwater, of Mark West, the old mail carrier. Away up on the Skaguay apparently all alone old Mart was just as merry as he was when driving along the Healdsburg road in hie little old mail wagon. There was no mistaking that noise. I would have known it anywhere in the world.”

This interesting incident was told to a Press Democrat reporter on B street Friday morning by Neal Brieson, the former superintendent of the R. L Crooks ranch at Mark West, who left San Francisco on July 31, on the same ship carrying Hy Groshong, for Alaska, and who returned from there last week. Mr. Brieson went to Alaska to obtain ail the information he could relative to the resources of the country. He returns impressed with the idea that the country is very rich and one capable of marvelous developments. He went to Dyea and along the Skaguay [sic] trail. Friday morning he pulled from his pocket a bottle filled with rich golden nuggets from Dawson City. From what he learned while in Alaska, Mr. Brieson says, the horrors of the Chilkoot Pass have never been adequately described in the newspaper accounts. In fact he thinks it would fail the human tongue to describe them. He heard of Clarence Temple, Fred Thompson and Jim Goodman but did not see them. Mr. Brieson came back from Dyea with three men who were from Dawson City. These men had been on the Yukon for three years and were going home for winter as they said thev would not stay on their claims for $l0,000 during the winter for they feared a scarcity of food. Brieson says many of those now in Alaska are wishing that they had waited until spring before going. They complain very bitterly of the fairylike visions of gold told by those who came out from the Yukon when the excitement first commenced. Mr. Brieson had an exceeding interesting time in Alaska and gained lots of information. His many friends here are glad to see him again.

– Press Democrat, November 20, 1897
About Mart Tarwater

Everybody remembers the veteran mail carrier Mart Tarwater, the former driver of the mail cart from here to Mark West Springs, and who in conjunction with a few others got the gold craze last fall and went to Klondyke.

For several months nothing has been heard of Mart in any way and lots of the veteran miner’s friends have wondered what had become of him.

Thursday it was learned that Mr. Tarwater’a family had heard indirectly from him through a Calistoga man who returned from the Stewart river district a few days ago.

The returned miner brought the news that he had seen old Mart on Stewart river just before he left; that he was well and that he was making things “stick.” The man said that Mr. Tarwater had a claim on Stewart river and in taking out ten dollars’ worth of tbe shining metal per diem “right off the surface.”

This news is good. No one deserves to get rich any more than does Mart.

– Press Democrat, February 5, 1898



After a long silence a letter was received here Tuesday by Deputy County Clerk R. L. Thompson from his brother Fred, who in company with Jim Goodman of this city and others left last fall for Dawson City.

The letter bears date: “Stewart City, on Henderson creek, N. W. T., October 10.” [EDITORIAL NOTE: This date is clearly wrong, as Jack London and others had formed the camp. This letter was most likely written in December or January. According to Charmian’s biography, they were in Dawson from about Oct. 20 to Dec. 3. -je] The writer says that his party are well and are pleased with the country. They had a terrible time crossing the Chilkoot Pass.

The Thompson party claim the distinction of having come across a spot on Henderson creek on which was an old unoccupied cabin and having named the place Stewart City.

Four days after their arrival at Stewart City they prospected on Henderson creek, and finding good color, located claims. Fred Thompson went on to Dawson City and filed on claims for each member of the party. He remained in the vicinity of Dawson City tor seven weeks and located other claims, one being on Sulphur creek. While there he says he was offered $4,000 for one of his claims on the Henderson creek, but refused to sell. At Dawson City he met the former poet-journalist of Santa Rosa, Virgil Moore, and had a very pleasant talk with him.

Fourteen claims are owned by Thompson’s party. They are now working the claims on Henderson creek. The writer’s description of the way in which they made their boats at Lake Linderman and shot the White Horse rapids is very graphic.

The boys seem confident of success and all their Santa Rosa friends sincerely trust that their hopes will be realized to tbs fullest extent. The receiving of the the letter here wae a great pleasure to the relatives of both Messrs. Thompson and Goodman.

– Press Democrat, February 16, 1898


Editor Mart Tarwater

News received from Yukon state that Mart Tarwater, tbe former mail carrier from Santa Rose to Mark West Springs, and who went in the rush to the golden north early last fall, ia now writing for newspapers started in that region.

– Press Democrat, July 6, 1898


Reported Death of Mart Tarwater.

News has been received of the death of M. Tarwater in Alaska, sent, it is stated, by the minister who read the burial service at his funeral, says the Press-Democrat. When last heard from Mr. Tarwater was sick in the hospital near Dawson City. Mr. Tarwater, it will be remembered, was the veteran mail carrier to Mark West Springs and Altruria, and for events which have transpired in California and Sonoma county in early days, he was an encyclopedia. Few men were better known, and at every fireside in Sonoma county, he was a welcome guest.

– Healdsburg Tribune, July 28, 1898

 Martin W. Tarwater Laid to Rest at Fort Yukon
 Pathetic Letter From His Companion Confirms the News of His Death

Last Saturday morning the Press Democrat published a report of the death, in Alaska, of Martin W. Tarwater, a pioneer of Sonoma county and formerly mail carrier between this city and America postoffice. No confirmation of the report could be secured by this paper at that time.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Tarwater then had in her possession a letter received last Thursday from Orion T. Thomas, formerly of Los Angeles, containing news of the death of Mr. Tarwater on May 20. Mr. Thomas was a constant attendant of the deceased during the last days of his life. Mrs. Tarwater, who resides at America still has hopes that her husband is alive, despite the conclusiveness of Thomas’ pathetic letter, which is herewith printed:

“Fort Yukon, Alaska, May 22, ’98.

“Mrs. M. W. Tarwater— Dear Madam; It is my sad duty to inform you of the death of your husband, which occurred Friday morning, May 20, 1898, at 3 o’clock. Mr. Tarwater had been sick nearly two months, and the doctor says the cause of his death was acute asthma, although he also suffered from liver trouble.

“The burial took place Friday evening from the Episcopal mission, Rev. J. W. Hawksley officiating. The remains were interred in the Fort Yukon graveyard. I had a headboard painted with his name, age, time of death and native state (Missouri) placed at the head of his grave.

“I first met Mr. Tarwater last November on my arrival here from Dawson City; we worked together on a large cabin, and on its completion we bunked together, but as Mr. Tarwater wrote you a long letter, sometime in December, I think he undoubtedly told you of the hard trip into this country, and working in the woods with the thermometer forty degrees and more below zero.

“Early in March, Mr. Tarwater and I bought a stone, axes, etc., and went to an island about three miles from here, to cut wood for the North American Trading and Transportation Company, for which we were to get $5 per cord. We had to wade in snow about three feet deep and cut brush to fall the trees on, to keep them from being buried in the snow, and cutting, splitting and piling wood under such circumstances was hard and necessarily slow work, especially for a man as old as Mr. Tarwater—-fifteen years older than myself. We had been working about three weeks when your husband took sick aud we had to leave the island and come back to the cabin at the Fort, I pulling him part the distance on a sled.

“When Mr. Tarwater took sick he gave me your address and requested me ‘if anything should happen to write to you and take charge of his effects.’

“Mr. Tarwater seemed to improve after he got back here and we thought he would he able to start for home on the first boat down the river; I went to Lieutenant Richardson and he promised me he would provide him transportation home, as Mr. Tarwater had very little money; both of us together only cut twenty-six cords of wood.

“We all had hopes, and Mr. Tarwater was confident that he would be well enough to start home on the first boat, but he suddenly grew worse and be passed away peacefully–regretting that be could not be at home where loving hands could help and soothe him in his last hours.

“I did what I could for Mr. Tarwater–cooking, washing and care–and I must say I never saw a man with more patience–I never knew him to become angry with anyone, no matter what the provocation.

“There was not much expense. I paid the doctor, gave the two men tbat made the coffin each an ax and gave the cooking utensils, etc., to the men who were in the cabin and assisted in getting ready for burial. There is a little money left, and although the men here say I more than earned it in taking care of him, I will if I ever get out of here alive and with any money, send it to you-—not charging anything for my services.

“Inclosed is a certificate from Minister Hawksley, which I asked him to give me.

“I left my home in Los Angeles the 26th day of last July, and like Mr. Tarwater and hundreds of others, found myself down here in November, where we were compelled to come in order to get provisions. I expect to leave here in a day or so for Dawson City. I will mail this letter at Circle City on the way up.

“Please accept my sympathy in this bereavement. Sincerely yours,
“Orion T. Thomas.”

Following is the certificate of burial by the Episcopal clergyman, which was enclosed in Mr. Thomas’ letter…

– Press Democrat, July 30, 1898


Fred Thompson Writes

Yesterday a letter was received from Fred Thompson, who is at Dawson City, which contained much of interest to his family. With Mr. Thompson at Dawson City when the letter left there, were James and Dan Goodman, also of Santa Rosa. The trio were engaged in shipping logs from Stewart river with which to build a cabin for the winter. All the Santa Rosa boys, the letter stated, are well.

– Press Democrat, November 12, 1898



O. T. Thomas, who was with Mart Tarwater, the former veteran mail carrier of Mark West springs, when he closed his eyes in death in far-off Alaska, called at the Press Democrat office last night, and from him was learned much to interest the old pioneer’s friends all over the county.

Mr. Thomas and Mr. Tarwater shared a cabin together while both were chopping wood. The old man seemed to suddenly break down, Mr. Thomas said last night, and finally grew so weak that he had to give in. Very tenderly Mr. Thomas watched over him until the summons came, which ended his long and eventful career.

Before he was taken sick, Mr. Thomas says Old Mart was the life of the camp. His Sonoma county friends will always remember his ready wit and his ability to launch out in verse to suit a popular air. He was the same in the frozen north, and could always be relied upon to have a stock of verse on hand concerning the Klondike, to keep all those around him in good humor. Mr. Thomas took quite a liking to Old Mart. He bore his last illness bravely and without a murmur.

Mr. Thomas talks very interestingly of the time he spent in the north. He carried a cornet with him all through his travels. He says it was very amusng to see the interest taken in his music by the Indians, who bad never seen such an instrument before. Whenever he played in his cabin he could always have a large audience of Indians, male and female.

– Press Democrat, March 29, 1899


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