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.
In the beginning there was Ernest L. Finley. He bought the old Sonoma Democrat in 1897, merged it with his own newspaper, the Evening Press, becoming the owner, editor and publisher of the new Press Democrat.
That’s the version of the paper’s beginnings as told on the PD’s “about” page, on Wikipedia, by the Northern California Media Museum and in various columns and feature items published in the paper over the last 75-odd years.
Trouble is, that’s not true. The new paper was a partnership, and Finley wasn’t even the key player – he was one of two business managers. The founding editor and the person greatly responsible for the Press Democrat’s initial success was Grant O. Richards, although it’s rare to find mentions of him over the last hundred years. And even before he was erased from the picture, items about the paper’s earliest days just mentioned Richards “left the firm” or “sold his interest” to Finley. Neither of those claims were true either, as he killed himself while still editor (although I guess that would qualify as leaving the firm).
The PD – and the city of Santa Rosa itself – has polished Finley’s reputation to a gleam ever since his death in 1942, inflating his role in positive events such as founding the paper. But it’s particularly unfair to build up Finley at the expense of Richards because it steals away his only entry in the history books, which was greatly deserved. Not to mention that townsfolk of his day would have been gobsmacked to learn such a man would become so completely forgotten; hell, everybody in 1890s Santa Rosa probably wished they were Grant O. Richards.
Should you be very lucky, you might meet someone who has that one in a million billion quality which makes everyone (s)he meets fall at their feet. Call it ultra charisma, magnetic charm or even stardust, you are absolutely devoted to that person from the first meeting. Grant Oswald Richards had that magical ability; people not only really, really liked him, but they couldn’t help themselves from jabbering about how much they loved the guy – scroll down through some of the excerpts in the sources below. Such people can become very powerful (and dangerous) when drawn to politics or religion; we should probably be thankful Richards wanted only to be a very good newspaper editor in small towns.
His résumé was thin. He was born in 1862 Wisconsin and stayed there for about 25 years, becoming a lawyer (another dangerous profession for his talents) although he apparently never hung out a shingle. He next became city editor of the Daily Republican in Newton, Kansas, a railroad town of about 5,000 people. There he met Dollie Scribner and after their marriage in 1890 the couple moved to Santa Rosa, which likewise had about 5,000 residents. He had accepted the job of city editor for the Santa Rosa Republican, where he remained for nearly six years except for a brief stint at the Seattle Times, which he had to cut short because the weather aggravated his chronic asthma.
When Richards took the editorial job here in 1890, Ernest Finley was getting started as a professional printer. As a schoolboy the 19 year-old had used a hand press to turn out cards and announcements for his neighbors in the McDonald district, then was hired by the downtown Athenaeum theater to print handbills for visiting minstrel shows, lecturers, and other attractions. With his childhood friend Rufus Hawley he opened a print shop above a cigar store on Fourth street with a steam powered press, and from the start they had steady business from the city and county printing official documents. A few years later they were joined by Charles O. Dunbar, who had been printing foreman at the Santa Rosa Republican.
The Evening Press debuted on Jan. 2, 1896 as a daily and weekly newspaper. In the days prior several local and Bay Area papers announced it was launching, and even the shortest items took care to name Grant Richards as its editor. There was no question that the new journal was going to be Richards’ baby – the rare times anyone mentioned Finley it was because the publishing company was Finley, Dunbar & Richards.
The new paper’s top rival would be the Daily/Sonoma Democrat, of course, and an item about its new competition muttered “…it seems to us the field here is hardly large enough for a new venture.” Still, like everyone else the Democrat editor couldn’t resist a nod to how much everyone loved Richards: “…He had and displayed the admirable quality of being fair and square to all alike with the result that he has made many friends for himself in Santa Rosa. We wish him success in his new undertaking.” After the Evening Press had a couple of issues to its credit, the Democrat offered a little good natured ribbing: “…All the world’s a stage and all the men are gamblers; life itself is a game of chance. Marriage is a lottery and so is farming. Starting a new paper is also a gamble. Ain’t it, Mr. Richards?”
Newspaper editors were usually divisive figures in the 19th century, with readers always at the ready to take umbrage – but if anything, membership in the Grant O. Richards Fan Club grew in 1896 both locally and San Francisco. He was a popular speaker and his remarks often included a poem written for the occasion, which the Democrat joked he would “inflict” on the group or “badger” them. Someone introduced him as the poet laureate of Sonoma county, or “at least in this section of the county.” Doctor Finlaw once prescribed total rest – although he could continue to write his poetry, because that wouldn’t involve “brain work.”
There are many more items like those where this charming, self-effacing guy welcomed a laugh at his expense, but there’s more to his story than that so we need to move on. Okay – one more, because I’ve never come across anything like it in the old papers.
On his 34th birthday the Democrat ran a story about his surprise party, where a group of men descended upon his office to give him a spanking (a play-acting “caning,” actually). Among his assailants were newspapermen from all the other local papers – including one from Humboldt county who happened to be in town – and political allies in the debate over creating a gold/silver currency. Included in the group were E.C. Voorhies and Herbert Slater, making him undoubtedly the only man ever paddled by both a current state senator and a future one. It’s a cute story, but also revealing; keep in mind this was during 1896, and even as a goof it wasn’t the sort of thing that lined up with the Victorian ideal of propriety and manliness – yet they knew Richards would be a good sport about it.
The Democrat was edited at the time by Robert Thompson, brother to founder and owner Thomas, who was still in Brazil as the U.S. ambassador. Under both of them the Democrat was fiercely partisan (and unabashedly racist) but it was really the only game in town – the weekly-only Santa Rosa Republican was mainly aimed at farmers. The Democrat was also the official county paper which guaranteed a steady income in publishing legal notices, plus it had contracted with a New York City agency to feed it a steady stream of national ads for widely-sold food items, patent medicines and the like. Toss in local shopper ads and the Thompsons had a neat little media monopoly on Santa Rosa newspaper readers. Then along came the Evening Press.
There was no apparent impact on the Democrat during the first year of competition in 1896. But as 1897 progressed, there was a steady decline in ads from stores promoting special sales. Local news became thin – aside from a court reporter, it seemed most of the stories came in over the transom from city/county offices, clubs and lodges and whoever dropped by to yak about an encounter with a rattlesnake. Editorials all but disappeared.
The Democrat became increasingly clogged up with WTF filler items from East Coast and British papers, such as, “M. Eugene Thiebaut, the first secretary of the French Embassy, who is at present in Paris, has cabled his felicitations to the French Embassador [sic] in Washington, M. Patenoire, on the latter’s transfer to the Embassy at Madrid, which is in the nature of promotion.” It was as if your once loud and feisty uncle now spent all the days in his bedroom, never changing out his ratty bathrobe while living on buttermilk and soda crackers.
Thomas L. Thompson returned from his four-year appointment to Brazil that September and two weeks later he sold the Democrat. Strike that – he surrendered the Democrat to Finley, Dunbar & Richards after almost exactly forty years of ownership. We can never know the impact this milestone took upon him personally, but the last known place he visited before committing suicide five months later was his old office, which was now the home of the Press Democrat.
There are no surviving copies of the Evening Press, but it’s probably safe to assume it looked just like the early issues of the Press Democrat – Grant Richards was still editor, after all.
The front pages shown above are the next-to-last Sonoma Democrat and the second issue of the Press Democrat. The first thing to notice is the number of local ads in the PD; there can be no doubt what happened to all the local advertisers missing from the old Democrat – they were happily now over on Richards’ pages, and likely had been camping there for months.
Ads aside, the layout of the two papers could not be more different. The Sonoma Democrat was a grey slab of inky paper with little to break up the long columns of text. The new Press Democrat was far easier to read; each story had a headline with a long dek – which added lots of eye-friendly white space – and had a grabber tease: “DEATH AND HUNGER,” “NEAR THE END” and “GREAT EXCITEMENT”.
Richards’ innovated use of mixed font typography put his design on par or even ahead of other Bay Area and even national papers. In a piece from the same issue, he put a 40 (?) pt. “DARING BURGLARY” banner above the story of District Attorney Seawell having a shootout in his house. Yes, headline details were sensationalized (he wasn’t “grazed by a bullet”) and the whole story leaned yellow press-y, but it actually was an adventurous story, and you can bet everyone in town was talking about it that morning. As William Randolph Hearst’s biographer put it, “any issue that did not cause its reader to rise out of his chair and cry, ‘Great God’ was counted as a failure.”
One last bit of media criticism before continuing with the history: Not only was Richards years ahead in visual design, but his skills as an editor were nonpareil. His writing was sharp and compelling – once you began reading an article there was no sneaking out before the end. A presentation made to local farmers about growing sugar beets was written like part of a novel, including dialogue between farmers and the expert. I found myself immersed in the story and developing warm and fuzzy feelings for sugar beets. That example underscores the key difference between the Sonoma Democrat and Richards’ Press Democrat, or any comparison of weak journalism vs. the exceptional – one just cataloged events of the day, while the other engaged the reader to care about them.
We don’t know what they paid Thomas Thompson for his newspaper and printing plant, but the new Press Democrat Publishing Company was capitalized at $30,000 (about $940k today).1
The Press Democrat moved into the Sonoma Democrat offices in the ground floor of the Odd Fellows’ Building, but only after a local contractor had “a force of men” working to fix it up. The place must have looked like a museum exhibit; it seems that the Thompson brothers did little to keep the operation modern. Before jumping ship and joining the Evening Press gang, Herb Slater was a cub reporter there in the mid-1890s and recalled the office as a “dingy place” that didn’t have a linotype, a telephone or a single typewriter.2
The Press Democrat was an immediate success and within a few weeks of operation claimed a circulation of 13,000, which was right about twice the town’s population. In the initial issue he promised “politically the Press-Democrat will be Democratic of broad and liberal tendencies,” but like the Evening Press it was bipartisan as Richards was a Republican, albeit one who crossed sides to endorse the gold/silver issue. After forty years of the Thompson’s angry Democratic partisanship it had to be a welcome change.
It’s not surprising to learn Richards was also an enthusiastic community volunteer, and in the early months of 1898 he threw himself into preparations for the Rose Carnival. Ever since its origin in 1894 each year was a bigger event than the previous, and it was drawing considerable attention from Bay Area newspapers – it looked like Santa Rosa was finally getting noticed and maybe even gaining entry to the cool kids club.
At the time the Spanish-American War was ramping up; the battleship Maine was sunk in February and the public outrage – fanned by Hearst’s Examiner and other papers in the yellow press – inspired patriotic rallies and parades with nautical themes. The Rose Carnival Association budgeted over $600 (about $19k today) to build floats of a battleship Oregon and two monitors. The huge battleship float would carry the Carnival Queen and members of her court; it would be motorized (a big deal in 1898) with 20-foot high smokestacks puffing smoke. According to the preview blurb in the San Francisco Examiner, it was to have gun turrets which would fire bouquets of roses into the crowd. Accounts of the actual parade don’t mention the smoke or blasting bystanders with flora, but it still must have been awfully impressive.
Richards was in charge of building the ambitious floats, although he apparently had no experience on any construction project whatsoever. Then a little over a month before the Carnival, a little item appeared in the PD: “Editor Grant O. Richards is confined to his room suffering from nervous prostration. It is thought that a day or two’s rest will put him back at his desk.” Thus it was the third week of April, 1898, when Ernest Finley first slipped into the role as editor of a newspaper.
The Rose Carnival was on May 20 and it was the tremendous success everyone expected; the battleship was the highlight of the parade. But the Press Democrat’s coverage included this note: “It was a matter of sincere regret that Mr. Richards’ serious illness at this time prevented him witnessing the magnificent result of his favorite scheme…”
It was a sad day for Grant Richards indeed, but not just for missing the parade; on that very day, he was being committed to an asylum.
What was wrong with him? From his admission record to the Mendocino State Hospital it’s easiest to say what was not the matter. He didn’t have an alcohol or drug problem. He wasn’t suicidal or homicidal (but he was “destructive”). His diagnosis was “Mental worry.” The notes stated that he “talks incoherently and irrationally. Has delusions – Excited and profane.”
It would be irresponsible to put him on the couch with so little data, but there are a couple of points for Gentle Reader to consider: Excessive cussing was grounds for asylum commitment – as happened to a pair of women four years earlier – so lots of “profane” language might fall into the same category. Also, he listed Santa Rosa policeman Sam Yoho as his contact person instead of his wife Dollie, so there might have been serious marital problems.
Grant was discharged 90 days later in September, but did not return to his desk. Around mid-October he went (without his wife) to the Skaggs’ Springs resort, which was owned and operated by his old friend, John Mulgrew. On October 22, the telephone rang at the Press Democrat office: Grant O. Richards had shot himself in the head. He was still alive, but only expected to live a few hours.
Finley, Dunbar and Dollie Richards obtained a team of fast horses and a surrey and hurried as fast as possible to the scene, the trip taking somewhere around six hours. By the time they arrived he was unconscious.
He had blown off the left side of his face with a shotgun. Earlier he had told Mulgrew and the doctor it was an accident, but couldn’t explain how it happened. He was fully conscious when the doctor arrived from Healdsburg, and asked that he not be given too much morphine because he did not know how it would affect him. He also asked the doctor if he would have a bad scar. He died before midnight.
On the morning of the incident he borrowed one of Mulgrew’s shotguns and said he might try a little hunting. He wandered around the cottage area and chatted with other guests. A woman testified she saw him sitting on a cottage porch with the shotgun’s stock on the ground with the barrel resting on his left arm. A few moments later a shot was heard, followed by Richards shouting for help.
The Coroner held an inquest the next day, and the jury declared his cause of death was the accidental discharge of a shotgun while out hunting.
Hundreds attended his funeral (open casket!) and burial at the Rural Cemetery.3 Local papers – including the Press Democrat, of course – wrote long and heartfelt tributes to him, attributing his mental collapse to stress and too many hours of selfless volunteering. From the Petaluma Courier:
…Richards came to California in 1890, and worked constantly in the newspaper field, in which he was fast taking his place as a power, because of his clear, pungent and forceful style. He was a victim of overwork, and his health could not stand the tasks he set for his powers. He was of indomitable will, and worked when other men would have been in bed, never flinching when he saw a duty to perform, a friend he could help, or a benefit he could forward for the public. He was a martyr to the spirit Drive, and his beneficial work will be felt long after him. A man whom all loved to know, and knew but to love, may his ashes rest in peace.
Life in Santa Rosa moved on, but there was one good deed which I suspect was done in his memory. About three months after Richards’ funeral, Henry W. Davison, an African-American who had endured indignities from Santa Rosa’s community leaders and the police, died indigent. He was about to be buried in the Potter’s Field when the PD stepped in and paid to have him laid to rest next to his wife in the regular part of the cemetery. It was a surprising act of charity, and I don’t believe the newspaper ever did anything like it again.
On Oct. 29, 1898 – one week after Grant Richards died – Ernest Finley’s name appeared as editor of the Press Democrat for the first time.
(RIGHT: Ernest L. Finley portrait, Sacramento Evening Bee, June 30 1902)
The paper now looked different than it had a year earlier; the same font and point size was used on almost all headlines and there was much less white space – the design (or lack thereof) was drifting back to the slab-of-ink look, which suggests that layout decisions were being made by the typesetters, as was typical in the bad old days. And to be fair, this trend began before Finley took over; it seems to have started in February, which was when Richards took on the carnival float project.
But in every way, Finley was taking the Press Democrat in the opposite direction from where Richards was once headed:
The politically independent editorial page was now hyper-partisan, particularly aligned with the odious Southern Democrats and their racism. The PD didn’t just oppose Teddy Roosevelt in 1904, but expressed shock over an African-American child appearing onstage at the Republican Convention, warning it was a portent of dreaded racial equality. And yes, the “n-word” made a comeback, as did stories and anecdotes told using plantation dialect.
While Richards probably did not have a single enemy on the planet, Finley was the most divisive person in town, using the Press Democrat as a cudgel to bash anyone who thought differently from him. Finley – who had the gall to claim the PD “never intentionally misrepresents things” – usually resorted to ad hominem attacks against whomever fell into his sights. Newspaper editors in that era were often forceable in their opinions, but particularly during the years between 1904 – 1909 he came across as a mean-spirited bully.
Finley fought reform efforts in the 1900s intended to clean up the town’s unbridled gambling and prostitution scene. Comparing the reformers to vigilantes and hate groups, he charged they wanted to damage Santa Rosa’s “good name abroad” by exposing the corruption that must have provided the town with a sizable underground economy. Unmentioned was that should a reform movement gain traction, they could follow contemporary San Francisco in calling for Grand Jury hearings, which in Santa Rosa might risk indictments of the downtown property owners and businessmen who profited from the town being the Sin City of the North Bay.
Where Richards was always described as having a sunny and genial character, Finley was aloof and dour – there are many photos of him but none with a smile. His black-and-white views extended beyond hating reformers and his many other antagonists; you had to be pro-growth yet oppose any change in the status quo, leaving the Good Old Boy clique and Chamber of Commerce to run the town as they saw fit. Putting the success of the town above all else led him to take some cruel and heartless positions that would have stunned Richards, such as when Finley argued after the 1906 earthquake that those injured or families of those killed didn’t deserve money donated to the relief fund, and it should go into Santa Rosa’s building fund instead.
Then in the 1930s, for reasons unknown, Finley set out to wipe Grant O. Richards from the history books.
The salvo began in 1932, when the PD published a “75th anniversary” edition. Never mind that the Press Democrat was actually 35 years old; Finley was counting from the launch of the loathsome Sonoma Democrat, which wiser heads might have chosen to keep at a distance – “yes, we used to endorse slavery” is not a good look.
For that issue Finley wrote a number of short profiles which were collected ten years later in a book titled, “Santa Rosans I Have Known.” The anecdotes are mostly shallow and not of particular interest, and at least one time he used an entry to settle old scores. His entry on Richards is perplexing:
… He constructed a number of miniature battleships as features, but he overworked himself and suffered a nervous breakdown. We induced him to go to Skaggs Springs for a rest. One day John F. Mulgrew, who after serving as county clerk had purchased Skaggs Springs and was conducting it at the time, telephoned down that Grant had been shot. I hired a team and rushed to Skaggs Springs. It was at night, and raining hard…We never knew whether his death was accidental or otherwise. He had taken a shotgun and walked out through the grounds saying he intended to shoot some birds. A maid passing by shortly after saw him sitting on the steps of one of the cottages, the butt of the gun resting between his feet. It is possible that the gun may have slipped and on striking the next step below, been accidentally discharged. That was the theory we adopted, at any rate.
First, it aggrandizes Finley’s own role in the story. We know that Dunbar and Mrs. Richards were with him in the buggy, and they arrived shortly past sunset. Nor was it “raining hard” – all weather reports agreed there were scattered showers that day.
And, of course, we do know that his death was accidental, because that was the ruling of the Coroner’s jury – they’re allowed to say the cause was inconclusive if that’s how they viewed the evidence. From what we know about Richards, it’s doubtful he had much/any experience handling guns, and the eyewitness described extremely reckless behavior. Further, if this was a botched suicide he surely would have tucked the barrel under his chin, but Richards seemed to have no trouble talking to the doctor and others after the accident. Yet by writing “we never knew whether his death was accidental” and “that was the theory we adopted, at any rate” Finley winks to the reader that it was widely presumed he really meant to kill himself.
Finley’s other attack on Richards is found in the 1937 Sonoma County history edited by him. Now Grant Richards had no connection with the Press Democrat whatsoever. In the history portion of the book he name-checks Richards as having “helped establish” The Evening Press. “…Richards sold his interest to his partners a few years later…Thomas L. Thompson sold the Democrat to Finley & Dunbar.” (For the record, Dollie Richards was left Grant’s one-third share in The Press Democrat Publishing Company, and she sold them to Finley and Dunbar in 1902, when probate finally closed.) In the side of the book with local biographies Finley has an entry for himself but this time doesn’t mention Richards at all, naming his only partners as Dunbar and Hawley.
Finley’s shadow over Santa Rosa is as long as Grant Richards’ is short. As I wrote earlier, in the first part of the Twentieth Century no man or woman had a greater impact on Santa Rosa than Ernest Latimer Finley; favorite son Luther Burbank might have been the town celebrity, but Finley was the kingmaker, the media baron of print (and later, airwaves), the superarbiter of almost everything that happened north of the Golden Gate.
Why someone with such dominance felt a need to not only harm but destroy the historical legacy of a man nearly four decades after his death is a mystery best left to psychologists. Lacking Richards’ personality and his widespread admiration, had Finley been nursing envy and resentment for most of his life?
The historical record has been twisted to portray Finley as one of the most monumental figures in Santa Rosa’s past. And yes, he was a tireless champion of anything he thought might bring prosperity to Sonoma County. But at worst, he was a relentless bully who blocked reforms and held on to the 19th century attitudes which kept Santa Rosa from becoming the major Bay Area community he always desired – quite a Shakespearian twist, that.
For the most part we’re still trapped in Ernest Finley’s world; the city is still pushing growth for its own sake and there’s still a cabal of money men erratically steering the ship. How much better it might have been to live in the world of Grant Richards, where nothing is more important than community and when changes are made, the goal is to make real improvements to the city, not just making some guy rich(er). The Press Democrat will have no ties to special interests and holds city/county officials accountable for what they (don’t) do. And in that alternate universe, sometimes the paper will make you fly out of a chair and cry, “Great God!” because the reporting and writing is really that good.
1 The Press Democrat Publishing Company had 300 shares total, with Finley, Dunbar and Richards having 98 per. Three shares each were held by bankers W. D. Reynolds and J. P. Overton, who likely provided this initial funding.
2 Herbert Slater’s look back at the Sonoma Democrat appeared in the Oct. 23, 1932 PD. He described Robert A. Thompson’s management as lackadasical and as a result the reporters sought out the easiest stories to write, which explains the generally poor quality journalism in the paper and heavy reliance on doings at the courthouse across the street from their office. They also frequently traded newspaper coverage for food: “…We used to pick up a good many extra feeds in the old days. The reporters were never forgotten by the lodges, for it was then almost considered necessary to feed us in order to get a write up. How well I remember sitting in the old Democrat office one night wishing that some raven from Heaven, or somebody, would bring me in a square meal, when the front door suddenly opened and in walked Billy Lee and he brought cold chicken, tongue and ham, bread, cakes and coffee. And we did have some feast, and, thanked God reverently that both He and the Odd Fellows hall were above the Democrat office…”
3 The location of Grant O. Richards grave is unknown and he may have been disinterred, as there is a marker for him near his parents at the McNett East Cemetery in Elk Grove Wisconsin. When his sister-in-law, Effie Scribner, died in 1913 she was buried here at the Rural Cemetery in what was described as the family plot.
Our friend Grant Richards, the genial and able local editor of the Republican, leaves this city to-day for Seattle, Wash., to take a position on the Evening News. Mr Richards has many friends in this city, who, while sincerely regretting his departure, hope that success will attend him in his new field.
– Sonoma Democrat, August 9 1890
Grant Richards will return from Seattle and resume his former position on the Republican. The climate of Washington was too much for him, but he cannot be better pleased to return than his friends are to welcome him.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 8 1890
It may be of interest to many in this locality, to know that our old friend and chum, Grant O. Richards, has resigned his place as court reporter on the Seattle (Wash.) Times, and accepted a lucrative position on the Santa Rosa (Cal.) Republican. Grant will succeed and all his friends in this neck ‘o’ th’ world’ will be glad to hear of his success.
– Galena Daily Gazette, December 3 1890
An omission. The Republican in its issue of Tuesday in a notice of the credits due to the active members of the Relief Committee, has one notable omission, not from carelessness, but from the modesty of the gentleman who wrote the notice. We are determined that he shall not hide his light under a bushel, and while all those he mentions are justly entitled to the credit he bestows on them, there is no one more deserving of praise in the matter than Mr. Grant O. Richards, the local editor of the Republican. He was an active promoter of the charity from start to finish.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1892
Grant Richards of the Republican is confined to his house with an attack of his old enemy, asthma. More power to you, Grant, to overcome all enemies.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 3 1894
New Paper for Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa will have a new paper, commencing with the new year. It will be the Evening Press, daily and weekly. It will be independent in politics, and favor gold and silver coinage at a rate of 16 to 1. It will be edited by Grant Richards, for the past five years reporter on the Daily Republican. The new paper will be a six-column folio.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, December 23 1895
Grant O. Richards Resigns.
Grant O. Richards has severed his connection with the Republican after holding down the city editor’s chair for nearly six years past. He proposes along with Messrs. Finley and Dunbar to start an evening paper to be called the Evening Press. While on the Republican Grant was a faithful reporter of men and events. He had and displayed the admirable quality of being fair and square to all alike with the result that be has made many friends for himself in Santa Rosa. We wish him success in his new undertaking although it seems to us the field here is hardly large enough for a new venture.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 28 1895
The fact that truth is stranger than fiction is demonstrated by the resignation of Rev. J. T. Shurtleff and Editor Grant Richards. Both men were admirably fitted for their places, and most people thought they were fixtures…All the world’s a stage and all the men are gamblers; life itself is a game of chance. Marriage is a lottery and so is farming. Starting a new paper is also a gamble. Ain’t it, Mr. Richards?
– Sonoma Democrat, January 4 1896
GRANT RICHARDS CANED. Double Attack on the Editor of the Evening Press.
Editor Grant O. Richards was surprised in his office Friday afternoon by Gee Whack Mills, who had long had a grudge against him. Mr. Richards sat in his office meditating a new poem on silver and little dreaming of the attack that was to be made upon him by Mills and several confederates.
The assault was well planned and no doubt his assailants had been planning a coup de etat for several days past. They went about the surprise very cautiously and when Mills started in to cane Mr. Richards with a cane with a silver tip on it, the latter did not know what to say or do in defense. The silver tip bore a suitable inscription.
After Mills had got through with the editor, another attack was made on him by Messrs. Mobley, Slater, Duncan, Voorhies, Speegle, Hutchinson and others, who presented him with a wallet capable of holding 16 silver dollars to 1 of gold.
Grant is a good friend, but a bad enemy, and no doubt he will soon get even “wid de gang.”
The occasion of this double attack on the genial Grant was on account of his birthday. Friday, thirty-four years ago, was a busy day with Richards. He was born on the same day as his college chum Tom Watson of Georgia, and like Tom he had no silver spoon in his mouth. One thing we can say about Richards. We have never seen him waltzing around town in his shirt sleeves with a cigar between his teeth. We have never seen him go fishing with a bottle in his pocket, or yank off his coat and swear he could lick any man in town. He ain’t built that way. Here’s hopin’ he may live to be 134.
– Sonoma Democrat, September 12 1896
The Santa Rosa Democrat, for thirty years the property of Thos. L. Thompson, ex-United States Minister to Brazil, was sold last Saturday to E. L. Finiey, C. O. Dunbar and Grant O. Richards, proprietors of the Evening Press of the same city. The two papers will be merged into a morning daily to be known as the Press-Democrat Publishing Company. A corporation has been organized with a capital of $30,000. The directors of the company are E. L. Finley, C. O. Dunbar, Grant O. Richards, W. D. Reynolds and J. P. Overton. The management of the new paper will be the same as that of the Press. E. L. Finley and C. O. Dunbar will be business managers, while Grant O. Richards will the editor.
– Napa Journal, September 28 1897
Today the first issue of the Press-Democrat made its appearance. The Press issued its last number Tuesday. The young men who have driven it forward to success have now absorbed the Democrat, and with their rejuvenation and the removal of deathly competition some great improvement ought to come to the printing business in Santa Rosa. The first issue is not a criterion to judge by, and the Courier will not compliment todays issue; but when the newness wears away and the Democrat gets up to the business ability of its new promoters it shall be remembered by a generous use of our scissors.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, October 7 1897
The first issue of the Press-Democrat, of Santa Rosa, is at hand. We are partial to hyphenated names for papers but if the new management that it is necessary to preserve the names of both the old journals we respectfully suggest that a more appropriate and euphonious title would Democrat-Press. The new paper start out well and publishes an unusual amount of local news.
– Woodland Daily Democrat, October 8 1897
In beginning the publication of the Press-Democrat the proprietors wish to thank the citizens of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county for the generous patronage extended them while conducting the Press. They also desire to express their appreciation of the consideration shown them in the last issue of the Democrat by the Hon. T. L. Thompson and the Hon. R. A. Thompson, who by the newspaper change retire from the journalistic field here. The proprietors of the new paper clearly recognize and thoroughly appreciate the ability and worth of these gentlemen who have been so prominently and honorably identified with Santa Rosa and Sonoma county. They realize the very important part they have taken in the progress and development of, not only our city and county, but of the entire state. It is with feelings of regret that the Press-Democrat contemplates their departure from the newspaper field and it certainly hopes that their lines may be cast in pleasant and profitable places. In regard to the new paper, the Press-Democrat, it is only necessary to say that with it, as it has been with the Press, it will be the constant endeavor of the publishers to make it a wide-awake, energetic, progressive and reliable newspaper; one that will speak for itself better than can be expressed in any salutatory. Politically the Press-Democrat will be Democratic of broad and liberal tendencies. With implicit confidence in the citizens of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county, and with an abiding faith in the future of this unsurpassed part of California, the greatest commonwealth under the stars and stripes, the Press-Democrat this morning for the first time greets the public.
– Press Democrat, October 9 1897
Editor Richards Ill
Editor Grant O. Richards is confined to his room suffering from nervous prostration. It ia thought that a day or two’a rest will put him back at his desk.
– Press Democrat, April 23 1898
The fleet of warships representing the Pacific Coast Squadron will undoubtedly be the most attractive display in the grand parade. In view of the present war with Spain the committee decided upon the float representing the fleet as being most appropriate. In the fleet will be immense models of the battleship Oregon and the monitor Monadnock and Monterey which have cost the Carnival Association over $600 to build. For this occasion the Oregon has been named the Queen of the Carnival, and this will be Queen Grace’s royal float. Upon a daintily arranged throne Queen Grace will sit on the fore deck surrounded by her retinue of maids and pages. Along the line of parade from the guns arranged on the deck bouquets of roses will be fired at the big crowds of spectators. The battleship will be run by an engine, and from the big smoke stacks twenty feet high will issue clouds of smoke. The monitors will be run alongside the battleship Queen of the Carnival, which will be preceded by a splendid representation of the ill-fated battleship Maine, which will be drawn on a wagon by a crowd of small children…
– The San Francisco Examiner, May 19 1898
…The fleet of vessels was the popular feature. it should be mentioned here that the beautiful battleship “Carnival Queen” and the monitors which attracted the attention of everybody were designed and their construction was carried out under the personal supervision of Editor Grant O. Richards of the Press Democrat. It was a matter of sincere regret that Mr. Richards’ serious illness at this time prevented him witnessing the magnificent result of his favorite scheme…
– Press Democrat, May 21 1898
Information received Monday from the sick room of Grant O. Richards was to the effect that his condition is not improved. This will be sad news to Mr. Richards’ many friends in this city and county. He is to be taken away this evening for treatment by specialists. – Republican.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, May 25 1898
SANTA ROSA EDITOR KILLED BY ACCIDENT Grant O. Richards Found Mortally- Wounded Back of the Skaggs Springs Hotel.
SANTA ROSA. Oct. 22. -Great regret was felt here to-day in all circles when it was learned that Grant O. Richards, editor of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, and one of the most popular and progressive citizens of this place, had shot himself at Skaggs Springs. About 11 o’clock this morning Mr. Richards, who had been at the Springs several days was found on the porch of a house just back of the hotel bleeding from a terrible wound in his face. It was found that a portion of his face had been torn away by the discharge of a shotgun. He died shortly after 11 o’clock to-night. He regained consciousness during the day and stated that the weapon had been discharged by accident.
– San Francisco Call, October 23 1898
GRANT O. RICHARDS
it is with a heart full of sadness that the writer of these short lines takes up the pen to begin his task, if he should succeed in some small way in expressing the heartfelt sorrow that has been caused by the sudden and tragic death of the editor of this paper among those who worked with him so long, among those who knew him best, then is the mission done. Yet should the effort fail, it would make small difference after all, for everybody knew Grant Richards and everybody was his friend.
The removal of a good man is always a loss to any city. But the death of a man like this might almost be referred to as a calamity. Generally at the head and front of any movement likely to be of benefit to the community, his influence has been strongly felt in many of the undertakings that have resulted in the city’s good. Yet such was the character of the man that few suspected whose ideas were being carried out or from whence the inspiration came. The gain was seldom his. Such is the one real test of all true greatness.
A man of strong character, gentle and loving as a child, trusting as a woman in many things, he was yet a keen observer, and possessed a shrewd insight into human character. Backed up by these characteristics and preceded by the knowledge that his was the very soul of honor, it is not strange that he often accomplished what others could not do. But it is not necessary to enter upon an extended review of his career, or to parade before the world a record of his virtues. It would not please him if he knew, and his life is like an open book.
Grant O. Richards, recognized as one of the brightest newspaper men in the state of California, has left us and forever. The manner of his death is recorded, and yet the details will never be known until the judgment day. But the fact that he is absent from the spots and haunts that once knew him so well, and the record of his sunny, genial and most honorable life, will never be forgotten till those with whom he lived and moved shall themselves start upon that long, long journey which they pray may end on that beauteous shore where his has just now begun.
Owing to his extended illness, more than six long months have passed since Mr. Richards has been actively engaged in the duties of his profession, and while up to the day of his death he retained the position of editor of this paper, yet during all that time his work has been in another’s hands. It is in this keeping that it will remain.
Grant O. Richards, business man, gentleman, friend and scholar, is now no more, but the example of his beautiful life will remain with us, we trust, until our dying day. And when our end shall come, as come it surely must some time, we ask no more of those who stay behind than that they think of us but half as kindly as they do of him. We wish no more than that the dwellers in that wondrous city may be like him as we knew him, and like him as he is.
– Press Democrat, October 26 1898
HIS TRAGIC DEATH How Grant Richards Met His End THE FULL DETAILS Most Suddenly the Summons Came and Rudely He Passed Away With His Wife and Friends Gathered Around His Couch
On Saturday evening the news became general in this city that Grant O. Richards, the well known editor of the Press Democrat, had, while enjoying an outing at Skaggs’ Springs, met with a terrible accident.
When Sunday morning’s edition of this paper appeared containing the information that he was dead, and giving the details of the tragic affair, the entire community was shocked in a manner that almost defies expression.
It was about a week ago that Mr. Richards left his home in this city for a brief visit with his old friend, John F. Mulgrew, at Skaggs’ Springs. Arriving there he proceeded at once to make himself at home, and from the very time of his arrival seemed to be enjoying himself and was apparently being much benefited by the change of air and scene.
On Saturday morning about the time Mr. Richards came out from the dining room after having eaten his breakfast, two gentlemen boarding at the hotel returned from an early morning hunt. As they seated themselves upon the edge of the porch and proceeded to clean their weapons, Mr. Richards, who was acquainted with both of them, after inquiring as to their success, declared his intention of seeing what he could do some morning in that line.
Having finished their task, the two hunters set their guns, one of which belonged to Mr. Mulgrew, behind the door and went in to breakfast. About an hour later Mr. Richards picked up Mr. Mulgrew’s gun, stuck a few cartridges into his pocket, and stepped out into the front yard, apparently looking for something upon which he could try his aim.
For some little time he sauntered idly around the place, looking now and then into the tree-tops. Finally he wandered in the direction of the cottages, the furtherest one of which is probably not more than a hundred yards from the hotel. He stopped and chatted with several of the guests who passed, and finally seated himself upon one of the cottage porches. A young lady in passing saw him thus seated, the shot gun resting on the ground, and the barrel lying upon his left arm. She nodded at him and passed on.
A few moments later some gentlemen who were playing croquet directly behind the cottage heard a loud report, followed immediately by a cry for help. Rushing around to the front of the cottage they found Mr. Richards seated upon the steps and endeavoring with his handkerchief to stop the flow of blood coming from a frightful wound upon the left side of the head and face.
Mr. Mulgrew and several people from the hotel arrived about the same time, and all proceeded without delay to render what assistance lay in their power. The unfortunate man was carried into the cottage and laid upon a couch, and Dr. Swisher was immediately summoned by telephone from Healdsburg. His friends in this city were also notified by the same means. During this time Mr. Richards was perfectly conscious, and stated to Mr. Mulgrew that the shooting was accidental, but he was so weak that he could not explain exactly how it all happened.
A second dispatch was received at this office from Mr. Mulgrew shortly after noon, stating that the physician had arrived, and after an examination had expressed the fear that Mr. Richards would only live a few hours. Immediately upon the receipt of this intelligence Mrs. Richards, E. L. Finley and C. O. Dunbar in a surrey and behind a fast team started on a hurried drive to Skaggs’.
While the doctor was conducting the examination Mr. Richards stated to him that the gun had been accidentally discharged. He asked whether or not he would be able to save his life, and whether or not he would be able to repair the damage without leaving much of a scar. He cautioned the physician most particularly about being very careful as to the amount of morphine he was to give him, stating that he knew nothing of its effect upon his heart, and desired to take no chances.
The morphine was administered, and the wound carefully dressed. C. W. Capell, a medical student of Healdsburg, and Ole Witbro, a professional nurse from Geyserville, both of whom had in the meantime been summoned, were left in charge, and the physician having done all then in his power returned to his home.
The loving wife and friends arrived upon the scene shortly after dark. At that time Mr. Richards was unconscious, and shortly after half-past 10 he passed peacefully away. Gathered around the bedside in the little cottage at the springs were his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Mulgrew, C. W. Capell, Ole Witbro, William Litton, Charles O. Dunbar and Ernest L. Finley.
By special arrangement made previously in the evening, the telephone agent at Geyserville returned to his office at 12 o’clock that night and connected Skaggs’ Springs with this city by wire. The news of the distressing affair was transmitted to the Press Democrat, the undertaker was notified, and word was sent to Coroner Young at Healdsburg.
Early Sunday morning Mr. Stanley started for Skaggs’ and later in the day secured the body, arriving in this city with the remains about 8 o’clock that evening. Coroner Young arrived at the springs about noon, and shortly afterwards secured a jury and began the inquest.
During the progress of the investigation the most searching inquiry into the cause of the accident was had. The body was carefully examined, and both Mr. Mulgrew and Dr. Swisher testified at length regarding their knowledge of the matter. As a result the jury returned a unanimous verdict to the effect that the deceased met his death as the result of the accidental discharge of a shot gun while out hunting.
Henry G. Hahman and William F. Wines, both warm personal friends of the deceased, took the train for Skaggs’ Springs on Sunday morning, arriving there about 1 o’clock in the afternoon. They did everything possible and returned home on the evening train. Mrs. Richards, Mr. Dunbar and Mr. Finley returned home as they had gone, by carriage.
The utmost regret is expressed upon every hand over the most sad and unfortunate occurrence. All Saturday night this office was besieged by callers anxious to render any assistance that lay in their power. At the springs the host and hostess, the guests and the employees were profuse in their many acts of kindness and thoughtfulness, to all of whom the bereaved wife and business associates desire to express their most heartfelt thanks.
Mr. Richards was a native of Wisconsin and was thirty-six years of age last September. He first came to Santa Rosa in June, 1890, from Newton, Kansas, just after his marriage, and entered upon the duties of city editor of the Republican. Several mouths later he left here for Seattle, believing the climate would suit his health better at the time. A few months later he returned to Santa Rosa and resumed his work on the Republican, and continued on that paper until the close of the year 1895, when the Evening Press was so successfully launched, in January, 1896. At the time of his death Mr. Richards was editor of this paper, a position he had filled both with credit to himself and with benefit to the entire community.
THE FUNERAL OBSEQUIES
The last tribute of love has been paid, and to the grave has been consigned all that was mortal of one who in life gained the respect of everybody. The earthly tenement of Editor Grant O. Richards now rests in the quiet of Santa Rosa cemetery until the Resurrection morn. It rests there in sure and certain hope of the coming to eternal life.
Nothing was wanting in the last tribute to add to the honor bestowed. It was honor done gratefully to the memory of a true friend of the community, beautifully expressive was the burial service.
At the First Presbyterian church a large congregation awaited the arrival of the funeral cortege. Just at 2 o’clock the organist, Mrs. J. S. Sweet, commenced Chopin’s Funeral March as the casket covered with beautiful creations in flowers was borne slowly to the front of the altar by eight intimate friends of the deceased, James W. Oates, John P. Overton, Henry G. Hahman, George W. Lewis, W. F. Wines, Herbert Slater, Peter Towey and Mayor James S. Sweet.
A few minutes later Santa Rosa lodge, Knights of Pythias, marshalled by Robert Ross, filed into the church and occupied seats immediately behind the mourners in the middle of the church. Then Carita temple, of the Rathbone Sisters, passed into the seats reserved for them on the right hand side of the auditorium. Seats were reserved on the left side of the church for members of the Santa Rosa Typographical Union and members of the Press Democrat force. Mark L, McDonald Jr. was the usher.
…the first part of the service was brought to a close.
Then the hundreds of the deceased’s friends present passed around the bier on which the casket rested in front of the altar, and took a last glance at the placid face. With hearts filled with emotion this was done.
The casket was then carried to the hearse and the procession formed for the journey to the cemetery. The line of carriages was very long. At the head of the procession walked the members of Santa Rosa lodge, Knights of Pythias, in files of two. There was a large attendance of the Knights to show a last token of esteem for their brother.
Just at the entrance to the cemetery gates the Knights formed in double line and stood with uncovered beads while the cortege passed…
…The grave was a mass of beautiful white flowers mingled with sprays of greenery, the work of the Ladies Dorcas society of the Presbyterian church.
While the earth was being thrown into the grave the Presbyterian church choir sang a number of hymns. It was an affecting scene. The autumn leaves falling from the shade trees heralding the approach of winter and the passing of another year, contrasted with the radiance of the autumn sun shining in all its brilliance, symbolic doubtless in many hearts of the land that is fairer than day, where death is unknown.
Untold love and affection was manifest in the great number of exquisite floral gifts sent. The flowers were magnificent. To attempt to enumerate them would be useless, as many of the creations bore no name. There were many wreaths, an anchor, crosses, pillows, and branches of flowers. Handsome pieces were sent by the Knights of Pythias, the Rathbone Sisters, the Press Democrat, the Santa Rosa Typographical Union and many others.
The offering from the Santa Rosa Typographical Union was a superb creation in which white and blue flowers predominated. In the center of a lovely white back ground was the sign “30.” The symbol “30” is used in newspaper offices, though it had its origin in telegraphy. When the last piece of copy is given out before the composition on the paper ceases for the day’s issue, on it appears “30”, signifying “the end,” and by this the compositor knows there is nothing more coming, and that the last news is in.
The grave presented a lovely sight when Mr. Stanley had completed the arrangement of the flowers, and after the parting benediction by the Rev. Mr. Hudson and a verse of “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” the service at the grave was over.
– Press Democrat, October 26 1898
Grant O. Richards, editor of the Press Democrat, died at Skaggs Springs on Saturday from the accidental discharge of a shotgun. Richards came to California in 1890, and worked constantly in the newspaper field, in which he was fast taking his place as a power, because of his clear, pungent and forceful style. He was a victim of overwork, and his health could not stand the tasks he set for his powers. He was of indomitable will, and worked when other men would have been in bed, never flinching when he saw a duty to perform, a friend he could help, or a benefit he could forward for the public. He was a martyr to the spirit Drive, and his beneficial work will be felt long after him. A man whom all loved to know, and knew but to love, may his ashes rest in peace.—Petaluma Courier
– Press Democrat, October 29 1898
Grant O. Richards, the editor of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, committed suicide at Skaggs Springs last Saturday by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun.
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.