BURBANK FOLLIES, PART IV

Over his sixty years, Luther Burbank likely never suffered a month as dreadful as those days spanning New Year 1910.


THE BURBANK FOLLIES SERIES

These articles cover Luther Burbank’s association with the Carnegie Institution, which awarded him a subsidy of $10,000 a year “for so long a time as may be mutually agreeable.” The grant began in 1905 and continued through 1909.

Part one explains the significance of the grant and why Burbank was such a controversial figure at the time. Also introduced here is Dr. George Shull, a noted botanist sent by the Institution to study and document Burbank’s methods.

Part two explores Dr. Shull’s relationship with Burbank, whom he found mostly uncooperative. Shull discovered his work was scientifically worthless as Burbank kept few notes – a failure that led to Burbank’s reputation being tarnished in the embarrassing “Wonderberry” dispute.

Part three describes Dr. Shull’s dismay in 1907 to find competition for Burbank’s attention with researchers from the Cree Publishing Company, which had contracted with Burbank to create a ten volume encyclopedia about his work. This section also covers the short-lived plans by Petaluma’s George P. McNear and others to create a Burbank Institute.

Part four finds Burbank embittered in early 1910 after the Carnegie grant is cancelled and he finds himself defending his work in the national press.

Events in 1909 that probably contributed to the termination of his grant are discussed in “Selling Luther Burbank“, including the appearance of Oscar Binner as his new publisher and publicist, plus the short-lived deal for distribution of Burbank products with the controversial brothers Herbert and Dr. Hartland Law.

The dark times began in mid-December of 1909 when his mother died. It was not unexpected – she was 96 and in failing health – but her passing was still a heavy blow; “she had been her son’s constant companion and throughout the years the devotion of one to the other was marked,” the Press Democrat noted in her obituary. She had lived with him or in a house next door his entire life, except for a brief period when he first moved to California. It must have been a lonely Christmas without her in his big house on Tupper street.

Barely a week after her funeral, Burbank found reporters on his doorstep. A San Francisco newspaper had published a rumor that Burbank had lost his $10,000 annuity from the Carnegie Institution. We don’t know which paper published the original story, but in wire service summaries it was stated that the Institution allegedly disliked his “commercialism,” and specifically didn’t approve of the deal he had made with the Law brothers to form a distribution company. The Santa Rosa Republican asked Burbank if any of this was true; “he replied that he had not heard of anything of the kind and felt certain there was nothing in the story published.”

Then on January 16, 1910 – a month and a day after the death of his beloved mother – the New York Times printed the most damning story on Burbank that had ever appeared in a major American newspaper. Headlined “Doubts Cast on Burbank Wizardry,” the article began,

Scientists and Government officials are beginning to examine with a good deal of attention the schemes to which the name of Luther Burbank, the so-called “plant wizard,” has been lent.

Mr. Burbank’s varieties of vegetable, plants and flowers have been exploited for years in the press as standing marvels. He has not hesitated to call them his creations and he has received scientific recognition of the highest character by an annual grant of $10,000 for ten years from the Carnegie Institution to enable him to continue his experiments.

But lately his claims have met with a good deal of criticism…

“Burbank, to my mind, is just a sharp Yankee seedsman,” the Times quoted Dr. B. T. Galloway, Chief of the Washington Bureau of Plant Industry. “Too many of the men who really made great discoveries in the horticultural world died in the poorhouse, for me to be willing to see a man get such renown with so little solid basis for it.”

The paper rehashed at some length a controversy from the previous summer when an English gardening magazine and The Rural New Yorker (“an agricultural publication of high standing”) declared Burbank’s “Wonderberry” was a variety of nightshade that most gardeners considered a weed. The NY Times also brought up Burbank’s non-creation of the thornless “Burbank Cactus” and cast doubt that it was the world-changing discovery Burbank claimed.

“But putting aside the question of the merit of Mr. Burbank’s plants,” the article continued, “scientists feel that of late he has permitted himself to be exploited commercially in a way contrary to scientific ethics.” The article denounced the “lurid advertising” of the New South Farm and Home Company, which was selling farmland in central Florida that Burbank had supposedly attested was perfect for growing his cactus at great profit. Burbank apparently had no connection at all with those land promoters, although their ads quoted letters he had written about general Florida agricultural conditions out of context and used his signature in the ad to make it appear he had endorsed this specific project. The Times apparently did not seek comment from Burbank, making their criticism about any ethical failures on his part less stabbing.

Burbank telegraphed his response to the Times the following day. “I am exploited, whether willing or not, and very much against my own wishes,” he wrote, curiously not denying an endorsement of New South Farm and Home. “Does it pay to exploit commercially a proposition which does not stand on a sound basis of character and value?” He also copied a description of the cactus from his catalog, pointing out that while non-prickly cacti existed in nature, his invention was “absolutely thornless.”

Burbank’s letter to the New York Times continued:

It was mutually agreed upon and fully understood, both by the Carnegie Institution and myself, that I should have the privilege of supplementing their inadequate annual aid towards the continuance of my experiments by the sale of my productions as before.

I am now past sixty years of age, have done good work, and no one is dependent upon my efforts. The grant brought with it more care, responsibility, correspondence, and visitors and a full crop of envy and jealousy, and but for the advice of friends I should have dissolved my connection with the institution last year.

Those comments were remarkable because here was Burbank apparently confirming important news – that the rumors were true and he had lost the prestigious grant that served as the bedrock of his scientific legitimacy. The Times’ editor didn’t seem to know what to do with this admission; Burbank’s letter was published as a stand-alone article with the preface that “it was also noted that Mr. Burbank is in the receipt of an annual grant of $10,000 for ten years from the Carnegie Institution that he may pursue his scientific studies unhampered by lack of funds.”

In fact, Institution president Robert S. Woodward had sent Burbank a letter more than three weeks earlier, notifying him that the Board of Trustees had voted to “discontinue subsidies in aid of your horticultural work. It is unnecessary here to set forth the reasons which have led to this action…The probability of such action was also indicated to you in the summer of 1908 on the occasion of my last visit to you. While personally regretting the necessity for this termination of our relations, there appears to be no other course open to the Institution.”1

Thus Burbank’s endowment had ended exactly when the San Francisco paper had published its story about the rumored cancellation. Burbank had lied to the Republican reporter when he said it wasn’t true. Or maybe not; what he actually told the Santa Rosa paper was “he had not heard of anything of the kind.” The official letter from Washington D.C. could not have reached him by that time, and while presumably president Woodward would have telegraphed Burbank promptly after the decision had been made, we don’t know that. It’s certainly possible someone among the anti-Burbank faction on the Carnegie board rushed to leak the embarrassing news to the press before he actually received notice.

The day after Burbank’s letter to the New York Times was published, newspapers everywhere reported that his deal with the Carnegie Institution was terminated – again, this was over three weeks after the Board voted. Like other papers, the Press Democrat excerpted sections of his letter-to-the-editor as if it were Burbank’s press release (and he might well have distributed it as such). To its discredit, the San Francisco Call cut-and-pasted the letter to make it appear to be an interview under the headline “Burbank Discusses Institute’s Action.” Worse, the Call paired the “I am exploited” sentence with a reference to his deal with the Law brothers, removing it completely from the original NY Times context about land scammers in Florida. Not the golden age of journalism that was.

The churlishness apparent in Burbank’s comments must have shocked all but his most devoted admirers. What he dismissed as “their inadequate annual aid” works out to over a quarter million dollars in today’s money – hardly a trivial sum. For those in the public who revered him as a “wizard” here was another all-too-human Burbank, with self-pity and bitterness seeping from his words.

Burbank’s comments left the impression the grant requirements were a burden and great imposition, but we now know that he did little and was uncooperative, even sometimes hostile to researcher Shull (see parts 2 and 3 of this series). In the termination letter Woodward also wrote he expected Shull be able to wind up his report, and Burbank responded, “I shall try to aid Dr. Shull in recorrecting the dictation which I have been giving him the last five years.”2 When Shull returned to Santa Rosa, however, he found Burbank even more intractable‎ and insisting he was too busy. Shull wrote to Woodward, “He says he has no income now, and that his time is worth $500-$600 an hour.”3 In the end, Dr. Shull was able to complete only one small paper which described Burbank’s experiments with rhubarb.

It’s telling that Burbank called the Carnegie grant his lost “income.” He evidently misunderstood it to be an entitlement – a public benefactor’s thanks for years of good works and encouragement for him to continue doing what he was doing. It also seems he failed to understand the advancement-of-science mission of the Carnegie Institution. Asked to provide a summary of his work in 1908 for the Institution’s yearbook, Burbank submitted four pages of hyperbole and descriptions that were more appropriate for advertisement copy.4  His thornless cactus was really popular and yields were amazing; he gushed,  “it means more than the discovery of a New Continent!!” His work was “a heavy burden personally, but to the great world it means a revolution, a new birth in agriculture, horticulture and biological research.” Needless to say, none of that ballyhoo made its way into the dry two paragraphs that appeared in the yearbook.

In Burbank’s defense, it has to be said that there was also a great deal of miscommunication between him and the Institution’s president Woodward. In the summer of 1908 – about a year and a half before the grant would be terminated – Woodward wrote to him in alarm:5

…I deem it imperative to state that a halt must be called upon all these operations if your connection with the institution is to continue.

I wrote you in December, 1904, and it is still my desire, to give you a free hand in your horticultural work and in the expenditure of the subsidies grated you, but it was assumed, of course, that in so doing the good name of the institution would be in no sense jeopardized. Now, however, that the institution is put on the defensive with regard to your connection with it, it is essential for me to point out that your entrance into other fields than those of horticulture, however much this may be desired by the irresponsible public, raises serious doubts as to whether your connection with the institution should continue…

Woodward was particularly concerned because he had received “a large mass of correspondence with regard to the projected institute to be founded in your honor.” Burbank promptly replied that his information was far out of date; he had nothing to do with the proposed local “Burbank College” and anyway, the idea never went very far and had been abandoned months ago.

The Institution was also greatly concerned about the ongoing work for a series of Burbank books supposedly being produced by Cree Publishing, then later Cree-Binner. Burbank repeatedly assured him it was apples and oranges; the other books were intended to be lightweight reading for the general public. When Burbank griped, “I have long been pained, surprised and disappointed that the Carnegie Institution has made no move” to present his work to “the clamoring public,” Woodward replied they had always planned to publish the “popular aspects of your work,” but were scared off when the guys from Cree showed up.6 This was news to Burbank; demerits to the Carnegie Institution for not making that clear way back in 1904, when the terms of the grant was negotiated.

Once the money was cancelled, Burbank did not comment upon it directly, aside from his disjointed letter to the New York Times with its odd swipe that the undoing was to be blamed on the “full crop of envy and jealousy” against him. But he was not quite ready to let the matter go.

Edward F. Bigelow, editor of “The Guide to Nature,” a monthly magazine published by a naturalist society based in Connecticut, inserted himself in the summer of 1910 between Burbank, “the grand, kindly-hearted man, beloved by all who knew him and especially by the school children of Santa Rosa” and “iron-hearted” Woodward (not that Bigelow had any bias). The published article offers snippets from letters written to him by both. Burbank seemed to be on a rampage to find out who was responsible for pulling the plug:

I would ask you plainly why do the Carnegie people refuse to give the full facts, I DEMAND them… I have never desired any publicity, and would always have greatly preferred private life except that it was necessary to mention my new creations in order to sell them to keep the work going; but I now desire publicity and lots of it. the more the better. I wish this thing dug to the very earth and the guilty parties exhibited to the light.

Woodward’s response was measured and polite (at least, until Bigelow apparently became strident). “You are certainly unaware of the thousand pages or more of history bearing on this subject filed in our office,” he replied, but declined to explain the reasons for the termination, “out of consideration for [Burbank] especially. [T]he history of our attempt to cooperate with him in his work should not be given to the public until after his death.” Nothing about it was further said, however, when Burbank died sixteen years later.

But the basis can be found in the minutes of the December, 1908 Board of Trustees meeting, when Burbank’s final year of financial support was approved. Andrew Carnegie spoke in support of Burbank, saying he wanted to “sustain Mr. Burbank in his work” for the benefit of mankind, not the advancement of science, and would even approve in an increase in the amount. Woodward agreed, but pointed out he was often asked “why we, as an institution, are subsidizing a faker.”  The Board resolved “it was desirous of seeing the work brought to an end.”7

While unlikely, it’s possible that Burbank could have stayed on the grant payroll for another few years, given his personal backing from Mr. Carnegie. But it is probably revealing the first reports of the cancellation mentioned Burbank’s association with the Law brothers; given Woodward was already concerned Burbank might be harming the “good name of the institution,” there was no way he could remain part of the Carnegie family if he had been associated with the scabrous Laws. In the end, Luther Burbank lost his lucrative deal with the Carnegie Institution not because of a cabal of enemies, but because of bad decisions by the guy he saw every morning in the mirror.

NOTES:

1Unpublished correspondence December 27, 1909; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA
2Unpublished correspondence January 12, 1910; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA
3Peter Dreyer, A Gardener Touched With Genius (Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA), 1985, pg. 180
4Unpublished correspondence September 29, 1909; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA
5Unpublished correspondence August 4, 1908; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA
6Unpublished correspondence August 15 and September 22, 1908; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA
7Dreyer, pg. 173

LUTHER BURBANK’S MOTHER DIES HERE LAST NIGHT
The woman who gave Luther Burbank to the world is dead.

Deeply loved and revered by the immediate members of her family and highly esteemed by a large circle of friends, Mrs. Olive Ross Burbank entered into rest at a quarter past five o’clock Wednesday evening at her son’s residence on Santa Rosa avenue. Her life span lacked but three years and four months of being one hundred years.

The end came so peacefully that it was just a lengthening of the unconsciousness into which she had fallen some days previously and an awakening again in a land where time is not measured by years and where people never grow old or infirm.

Almost up to a week ago Mrs. Burbank was able to take some walking exercise in the garden about the house. She had commenced to show signs of failing, some eight or ten years ago, however. At the close of life came the final breakdown of the system and accompanying pain and suffering, which was relieved by the coming of the silent messenger and the touch that brought peace, winging the spirit of the loved mother and friend to the realms above.

Born in Massachusetts

Mrs. Olive Ross Burbank was born in Sterling, Mass., on April 7, 1813. She came of rugged scotch ancestry. In 1845 she was married to Samuel Walter Burbank and they lived at Lancaster, Mass. Her husband died in 1868. Of the union five children were born, three of whom survive. The latter are Luther Burbank of this city, Alfred Burbank of Riverside county, and Mrs. Emma Burbank Beeson, recently of this city, and Healdsburg, and now of Point Richmond. A stepson is Daniel Burbank of Petaluma.

Makes Home With Son

It was in 1877 that Mrs. Burbank came to Santa Rosa, two years after her son, Luther Burbank, had made his home here. Since that time she had been her son’s constant companion and throughout the years the devotion of one to the other was marked. She was deeply interested in his work in the creation of new fruits and flowers and each of his successes meant just so much joy for her. She used to smile as she related how when he was a mere baby Luther had a love for flowers, even to the extent that his tears would turn to laughter if a flower was pressed into his baby hands.

Mrs. Burbank was a remarkably active woman. She has friends here who remember when she first moved to Santa Rosa. Then despite the fact that she was seventy-five years of age, by her looks and actions she could easily have passed for fifty. She was always kind and solicitous for others. “Mother’s Birthday” will no longer be celebrated as it has been for many years at the Burbank home on each recurring April 7. They were red letter days in the Burbank household. Her room in the Burbank household was where the summer’s sun lingered longest, and where through the open window the sweet perfume of the Santa Rosa rose and the other of her son’s flower creations could come.

Some Reminiscences

In the little school Mrs. Burbank attended in Massachusetts she had as a classmate the little girl who was the “Mary” giving the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It was to that school that the lamb followed Mary.

Mrs. Burbank was over six years old and attending school when the late Queen Victoria was born.

Interment at Sebastopol

The funeral will most likely take place on Friday afternoon at one o’clock from the residence and the interment will be in the family plot in Sebastopol cemetery. The funeral will be strictly private.

– Press Democrat, December 16, 1909

NOTHING TO WIERD STORY
Frisco Paper Says Support is Withdrawn

A San Francisco paper of Wednesday has a long rambling story purporting to give the action of the trustees of the Carnegie Institute, in which it is declared the institute has decided to withdraw the financial support guaranteed to Luther Burbank of this city.

Mr. Burbank has never heard of such a matter, and it is hardly probably that there is anything to such a wierd [sic] story. When asked by a REPUBLICAN representative concerning the matter Wednesday afternoon, he replied that he had not heard of anything of the kind and felt certain there was nothing in the story published.

The work which Mr. Burbank  is doing is far too important to humanity for the Carnegie Institute to withdraw its support, especially as it was pledged for a specific number of years. This institute does not do things in that manner, and it is an improbable story given to the public.

The cause assigned for the withdrawal of the support of the institute was the commercialism of the work carried on by Mr. Burbank. It is a well known fact that the amount of financial aid which the institute has given him annually is more than expended in carrying on the thousands of experiments which he has underway. For this reason Mr. Burbank sells the rights to new species which he creates. It is declared in the article published that the company formed by the Law Brothers for the exploitation of Mr. Burbank’s works is responsible for the alleged withdrawal.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 29, 1909

CARNEGIE AID HAS BEEN WITHDRAWN
Luther Burbank Confirms the Report–Idea of “Commercialism” Old Not Exist in Understanding

Some time ago the report was mentioned that the Carnegie Institution has withdrawn its financial aid towards the development of Luther Burbank’s experiments. The appropriation was $10,000 a year. Mr. Burbank has confirmed the withdrawal of the support and in an interview wired to the New York Times on Monday had this to say of the matter, regarding the announcement that the withdrawal had been because of “commercialism” in the disposal of products:

“It was mutually agreed upon and fully understood, both by the Carnegie Institution and myself, that I should have the privilege of supplementing their inadequate annual aid towards the continuance of my experiments by the sale of my productions as before.

“Am now past sixty years of age, have done good work, and no one is dependent upon my efforts.

“The grant brought with it more care, responsibility, correspondence, and visitors and a full crop of envy and jealousy, and but for the advice of friends I should have dissolved my connection with the institution last year.

“Personally, I have no desire for wealth or fame, a thirst for these is the root of may evils. My ambition has been to leave the world better for having passed this way. To be misjudged is a passing trifle, to have lost a life of honest, earnest labor is a tragedy.”

– Press Democrat, January 19, 1910

CARNEGIE SURPRISED AT WITHDRAWAL OF AID

The newspaper interviews at Del Monte on Thursday Andrew Carnegie stated that he was surprised at the announcement some time since that the Carnegie Institution had withdrawn its financial aid to the research work done by Luther Burbank. He said that while he did not usually interfere in the conduct of the business of the Institution he would inquire into the Burbank matter.

– Press Democrat, March 12, 1910

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RIPLEY BIO: BELIEVE IT NOT (REVIEW)

Robert L. Ripley was the most famous man born in Santa Rosa, and the town really should apologize for that.

The first-ever biography of Mr. Believe It Or Not! is out (A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley by Neal Thompson, Crown Archetype 2013) and our hometown boy is revealed to be quite a piece of work. He was a roly-poly (yet athletic) bundle of wild contradictions; he repeatedly said he abhorred “freaks” yet made his fortune exploiting what he called “oddities,” such as the baby with a cyclops eye and the man who smoked cigarettes through a hole in his back. He was probably the most well-traveled man of his day to exotic lands, yet refused to utter a single word in a local language, presuming that everyone could understand English if he only spoke loud enough. For a man in his racket, he was curiously incurious; he didn’t seem to care what caused a weird medical peculiarity or why someone would inflict tortuous pain or mutilation upon themselves (“their folly is my fortune,” he said, “I’ll get rich off the ridiculous yet”). He was a real-life Charles Foster Kane mixed with eccentric Howard Hughes, employing a team to search out priceless objects for his mansion as he obsessively kept redecorating it, spending part of each day personally moving furniture, objets d’art, deformed skeletons and whatnot from room to room in the quest for the perfect spot.

With such rich material available, you’d think this bio would be impossible to put down. You would be wrong. Much of this book is a slog and sometimes hagiography. (“Ripley was becoming the country’s know-it-all professor of history, geography, science and anthropology. His offbeat lessons gave people hope.”)

(RIGHT: Image courtesy, A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley)

Leroy Robert Ripley was born in 1890 on Glenn street, the family moving three years later into a house on Orchard street (no longer existing) built by his father. The characteristic that defined him was his appearance – his upper teeth flipped outward in a disturbing manner; biographer Thompson references him looking like “Dracula,” but it was more like a kid wearing a pair of absurdly comic wax teeth. His buck teeth were so bad that you can enter variations of “worst example overbite” into a Google images search and not see anything nearly so extreme, even in Photoshopped pictures that are supposed to be horrible. As a result of his disability he was unable to form certain sounds. Being insecure because of that and stuttering made his childhood even more miserable. He escaped his problems by drawing.

In high school he gained a measure of popularity through his caricatures and skill at baseball, even playing for the local semi-pro team and dreaming of a career with the New York Giants. His education lagged because he was a poor writer and turned into a stammering train wreck when required to speak before the class. His salvation was English teacher “Fanny” O’Meara, who allowed him to turn in drawings for homework instead of written reports, even posting his sketches in the classroom and using them as teaching aids. Still, he dropped out of school in the middle of his senior year. Later he floated the excuse that he had to go to work to support his family, but it appears he mainly played ball. (Much more below about this book’s problems concerning his Santa Rosa years.)

Five days after the rest of his class of 1908 graduated, his first cartoon was published, LIFE magazine paying him eight dollars, which was nearly a week’s pay for most Santa Rosans. Also that summer, in a true believe-it-or-not coincidence, the Ripley family rented a room to a journalist writing a feature on Luther Burbank. Impressed with the drawings of her landlady’s son, she took his portfolio back to San Francisco and by early 1909 he was hired by the San Francisco Bulletin as a cartoonist for the sporting page. He was fired after four months but quickly found a new position at the Chronicle (see item below) while taking art classes for the first time in his life.

Ripley’s talent blossomed at the Chronicle, and a year later he was given the coveted assignment to cover the Jim Jeffries-Jack Johnson “fight of the century,” where he rubbed elbows with Jack London and top newspaper writers and cartoonists from New York. Emboldened to ask for a raise, he was fired instead.

(RIGHT: Ripley illustration from “Joe Taylor, Barnstormer”)

Hoping to parlay his connections into a position with one of the big New York papers, “Rip” prepared to leave the West Coast for the first time. His last work here was a freelance assignment illustrating an autobiography, “Joe Taylor, Barnstormer.” Ripley’s biographer passes over that event quickly dismissing it as a job to earn a much-needed $100 for the cross-country trip, which makes it doubtful he ever saw the book. As an artist, the Robert L. Ripley we knew from the Believe It Or Not! columns was a very skilled draughtsman, but nothing more; as illustrator of that book, Ripley demonstrated his originality and depth of talent for caricature. The drawings remind of the brilliant Edward W. Kemble illustrations for the first edition of Huckleberry Finn (which received mixed critical reviews for the story, but universal praise for the art). A better biographer – one less determined to shoehorn Ripley’s life into a simple rags-to-riches story – would have recognized this work as Ripley’s moment at the crossroads. He was 21 years old, unmarried with no obligations and about to depart for the publishing capitol of the world. Had he considered a career in book and magazine illustration, we might well be speaking today of Ripley as a memorable artist of the early 20th century. Or, he could have arrived in New York City and sought another gig drawing fearsome boxers and baseball sluggers. Guess which path he chose.

At the prestigious New York Globe, Ripley’s star was ascendant. His cartoons were featured several times a month and his paychecks grew fatter as the paper began promoting his name. His was the life of a minor celebrity; evenings spent salooning with pals, dinner dates at nightclubs. He lived at the New York Athletic Club in a closet-sized room large enough for him to change his clothes and sleep, at least when he had no better offers for the night.

He married a chorus girl in 1919 but the relationship quickly fell apart. Ripley refused to move out of his lodgings at the Club, the couple spending increasingly fewer evenings together at nice midtown hotels. Ripley was always off on assignment somewhere, chasing baseball teams or boxers in training camps. He went to Europe without her to cover the 1920 Olympics. He was also producing the very first cartoons with the Believe It or Not! title, most of them about sports history, with a particular interest into the quirky and odd events. By their first wedding anniversary they had been apart more often than not. She filed for divorce about a year later citing cruelty, excessive drinking, and “fondness for other young women.” Ripley did not contest the charges – she had caught him in a hotel room with a woman.

From the 1920s onward, Ripley’s name and fame became legend. The Globe made him a globetrotter with the popular syndicated series, “Ripley’s Ramble ‘Round the World.” William Randolph Hearst made him one of the highest paid journalists in the world when he lured Ripley to his newspapers for $100,000 a year. Book collections of his Believe It Or Not! columns made him richer still. Newsreel and radio appearances further established the Ripley brand. He became a millionaire many times over. He bought an island north of New York City with a 28-room mansion.

The wildly successful years from 1929 to his death in 1949 are densely covered in the book, thanks in part to that era of his life being so thoroughly documented as one of the most well-known men in the world. What emerges from those years is a private portrait of a man that is less one of Horatio Alger’s plucky heroes and closer to a villain in a Dickens novel, such as Mr. Quilp of The Old Curiosity Shop – a creepy, manipulative jerk that seemed to fundamentally dislike people, probably himself most of all.

Hearst-like, he was unable to control his passion for collecting. “Friends assumed there was something chemical at work,” biographer Thompson writes. “Ripley was neurotic and compulsive, perpetually sophomoric and impetuous, that he simply couldn’t help himself or control his urges. Empty floor or wall space? It seemed to make him uncomfortable and needed to be filled with a stature or a weapon or a chair or a painting.”

(RIGHT: Ripley and Frances O’Meara during his 1936 visit to Santa Rosa. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library)

More disturbing was that he also collected women. In the island mansion were always found a few models, starlets, and other pretty young things who were titularly his “secretary” or “research assistant,” signing a waiver acknowledging they were staying there voluntarily. “One writer speculated that Ripley stocked his life with women so he wouldn’t have to choose just one,” writes his biographer. A member of his inner circle commented the mansion “looked just like a harem,” and later said Ripley “lived in open concubinage.”

Ripley himself told interviewers, “women are wonderful, simply wonderful–in their place” and “the only time women are happy is when they are completely under the domination of men.” Yet at the same time Ripley had women buddies, apparently fell deeply in love at least three times, and was utterly devoted to his high school teacher, Frances O’Meara, whom he called “mother.”

Which brings us back to the deeper problems with “A Curious Man” – its portrayal of Ripley’s years in Santa Rosa.

“A few years past its cowboy-and-Indian days, Santa Rosa and nearby Sonoma and Napa could be dangerous and deadly,” the book exclaims, quoting an incident reported in the Sonoma Democrat about drunk Indians on a “wild debauch.” Huh? When was Santa Rosa ever mistaken for a Wild West cowtown like Dodge City? What does the Indian story – which the author concedes dated back to “when Ripley was a toddler” – have anything to do with him? The misportrayal continues:


Also full of debauch were the newspapers. LeRoy learned to read in a lively two-paper town whose editors practiced what would soon be called yellow journalism. The Democrat and its rival, the Santa Rosa Republican, cackled with stories of murderous deeds and accidental deaths, divorces, suicides, and all variety of lunacy, a daily ‘news of the weird.’ People plunged off railroad trestles, lost limbs beneath train wheels, became mangled by farm machines. They shot each other over card games, stole horses, robbed banks. The Democrat was especially poetic in its depictions of death, offering vivid descriptions of ‘putrescent’ bodies ‘lying in pools of blood.’

Boy, I’d like to go back and read them excitin’ papers! Wait a sec – I have read every single page of those newspapers on microfilm starting from 1904, when Leroy was fourteen, and I can assure you that the debauch was far and few. Yes, odd and horrible things sometimes happened, but it’s a gross fabrication to call the Santa Rosa papers “a daily ‘news of the weird,'” or even “yellow journalism,” for that matter. The author is confusing the Press Democrat and Republican with the more lurid big city papers such as the San Francisco Examiner and Oakland Tribune (although it’s quite possible Leroy did see those sensationalist newspapers, which were always for sale at the newsstand in town).

Ripley had a lifelong fascination with all things Chinese, which author Thompson traces back to his childhood explorations of Santa Rosa’s Chinatown, “where he’d peek into the laundries, restaurants, and shops.” Well, when Ripley was growing up, the maps show the town’s Chinese district on Second street was a half block long, with two laundries, a single restaurant and a building used as a temple. Unless he was barging into their residences (and presumably speaking loudly so they would understand his English), there wasn’t much at which to peek, but if Ripley claimed otherwise, it would be interesting to know what he really experienced.

But next to the Chinatown that Ripley supposedly prowled was another neighborhood that the book doesn’t mention at all: The red light district. When Ripley was growing up, there were eleven bordellos in Santa Rosa and when he was seventeen, the town legalized Nevada-style prostitution. If you’re writing about a guy whose personality is greatly defined by seriously conflicted views about women, it seems important to ponder what influence the proximity of dozens of local prostitutes might have had on the teenage boy.

But my teeth-grinding gripe with this author is that there are no notes, so Gentle Reader has no idea where he’s pulling some of this stuff from. Yes, there are endnotes, but they are generalized by chapter and not connected to specific assertions on specific pages. The promise that “more information on sources” is available at the author’s web site yields only reviews (the favorable ones) of his book and a short Ripley bio with pictures.

The endnotes do show, however, that too much of the book is drawn from newspapers and magazines, and much of the details specific to his early years comes from secondary sources published decades later. This is particularly maddening because the author had unrestricted access to Ripley’s extensive archive with his journals and diaries, as well the papers of his long-time agent and others confidantes.

As a result of these failings, the book tells us much about where Ripley went and what he did, with precious little insight into why he was how he was. It would have been better if author Neal Thompson had stuck to writing about NASCAR and high school football and spared us this poorly researched, sketchy biography.

 

Ripley With the Chronicle

Leroy Ripley of this city, who has been doing some creditable work as cartoonist for the Bulletin, has severed his connection with that paper to secure a much better one with the Chronicle. He has been here this week visiting his mother and enjoying his home.

– Press Democrat, June 25, 1909

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THE ASYLUMS NEXT DOOR

The North Bay’s economic foundation was remarkably solid a century ago, but not thanks to grapes, hops, prunes or other agriculture; it was because we had the most asylums. In Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties the largest employers were the huge state hospitals used to warehouse the mentally ill. And while a crop might fail or market prices fall, the asylum business was always growing – California has never suffered a shortage of crazy people.

Insanity stories appeared regularly in the old Santa Rosa papers but they’ve been ignored here because there’s rarely anything interesting reported – typically a drunk/drug addict goes bezerk or a despondent person attempts suicide. A three member “lunacy commission” is convened. The drunk vows to sober up and maybe does a little jail time; the suicidal person’s fate usually isn’t mentioned, but he or she is likely sent away to live with relatives.

Then there were the tales of “wild men.” Newspaper editors around the turn of the century loved these stories, and would reprint accounts about some poor demented soul living in the woods even though it happened hundreds of miles away. Locally we had the “Wild Man of Mendocino” who was captured in 1909 near Cloverdale (apparently the “Wild Man of Cloverdale” didn’t have the snap) just a few weeks after an escaped asylum patient was found in the same hills. A Press Democrat article about the Wild Man mentioned a woman had written to the Cloverdale police asking if he could be her long-lost son; when the PD item was picked up by a paper in Arizona, her son saw it and wrote an “I’m alright, ma” letter to her from Yuma. Let that be a lesson into the power of the press, at least when it comes to Wild Man stories.

Certifiably Insane

Being hunted down as a Wild Man pretty much assured a one-way ticket to the asylum, but otherwise being declared certifiably insane required some doing, such as Ed Bosco repeatedly shooting at police officers. Herman Welti asked the sheriff to do something about the men controlling his mind “by use of a wireless instrument.” And then there was William Franklin Monahan, who went mad trying to count the stars.

When these men arrived at their particular asylum, each would have found the place bursting with erstwhile lunatics. In that era California was clocking an “insane ratio” sometimes above the state’s annual growth percentage – in 1903, one out of every 260 state residents was adjudged crazy. Many asylum wards were 300 percent over capacity with patients sleeping in hallways and basements. To make room, the institutions kept expanding and the state began looking closely at the immigration status of its asylum population; under 1907 federal law, any immigrant found to be insane within the first three years of residence could be deported to their native country. Superintendents also began an early release program, which certainly wasn’t good for anyone.1

Today California may have one of the largest prison populations but for fifty years starting in 1870, we were tops in the nation per capita for locking up people in asylums. And before wisecracking about California being the national nuthouse, consider that medical authorities were seriously raising that question 140 years ago. Speculation as to why relatively more Californians were committed to asylums included the nice weather, dashed hopes of striking it rich in the Gold Rush, the distance from family and friends on the East Coast and “fast living.” These explanations ignored that most of those deemed insane were simple laborers and housewives, not down-on-their-luck 49ers or burned-out Barbary Coast gamblers.2

In 1875 the superintendent of the state’s first asylum warned that the cities were using the place as a dumping ground for the senile or indigent elderly, incurable drunks and anyone “simply troublesome.” But whatever their problems, 19th century California sought to accommodate them by building five public asylums plus the California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children. (There were also three private asylums, but these never housed more than a tiny percentage.) More about the institutions in a moment.

Even as the state asylums were grappling with overcrowding, the legislature required by law that medical examiners adopt a new form to determine if a patient was certifiably insane.3 While the document sensibly begins by collecting vital statistics including nationality and length of U.S. residence, it goes off the rails quickly by asking questions that seem irrelevant to mental health. A sample:

* Have any relatives been eccentric or peculiar in any way in their habits or pursuits? If so, how? Have any relatives, direct or collateral, suffered, or are suffering, from any form of chronic disease, such as consumption or tuberculosis, syphilis, rheumatism, neuralgia, hysteria, or nervousness, or had epilepsy or falling sickness?

* Which parent does alleged insane person resemble mentally? Physically? Habits (cleanly or uncleanly)?

* Has alleged insane person ever been addicted to masturbation or sexual excesses? If so, for how long?

* Age when menses appeared: Amount and character before insanity appeared: Since insanity appeared:

* Has the change of life taken place? Was it gradual or sudden? How changed from normal?

* What is the supposed cause of insanity? Predisposing or exciting?

The final example reflects the 19th century notion (or maybe older) that a mentally ill person was either “predisposed” to insanity because of heredity or “excited” into madness by drugs, events or ideas. But many of the other odd questions have more to do with interest in the new pseudoscience of eugenics.

The history of the eugenics craze is discussed in the earlier article, “Sonoma County and Eugenics,” but let’s summarize that it was a set of crank theories that proposed some individuals – even entire races – were genetically inferior and prone to insanity, epilepsy, “moral degeneracy” and criminal behavior. Many educated and otherwise sensible people in the first half of the 20th century bought into this nonsense to varying degrees (including Luther Burbank) but no body of government was as eager to actually pass eugenic laws as California. At the same time as the new certification form was legalized, the state authorized forced sterilization of anyone deemed incurably mentally ill. These laws were extended in 1913 and 1917, and by the time ten years had passed, California had performed 2,558 sterilizations, about 4 in 5 of all such operations in the United States in the 1910s.4

Most superintendents of the asylums and the Sonoma State Home embraced the new asexualization law with gusto. Soon after it became law the Press Democrat ran an item that the director of Napa State Hospital “thought there were a number of patients in the Napa Hospital upon whom the operation should be performed” and it wasn’t long before they were doing an average of a procedure a week. The asylums at Stockton and Los Angeles were sterilizing every person being released of child-bearing age.

Since each asylum had its own policy on sterilization, it mattered a great deal where a patient was committed, but it appears it was fairly random and probably based simply on which hospital had an available bed. Someone found insane in San Francisco could end up in Stockton where a vasectomy was guaranteed. (A few early newspaper accounts mention castration although it is likely reporters didn’t understand the difference, and the law did not specify what “asexualization” technically meant.)  At Mendocino, the patient would probably escape the operation; that asylum and the one in San Jose were singled out in the 1918 state review for their “poor record” of sterilizing less than five percent of their inmates. But odds were always that anyone committed in the northern part of California would end up in the North Bay simply because we had the majority of asylums, plus the home for “feeble-minded children” in Glen Ellen.

The Napa State Asylum for the Insane was built to handle the overflow from the state’s premiere asylum in Stockton. Admitting its first patients in 1875, it started as a 500-bed institution and was the first building in the West following guidelines of the Kirkbride Plan, an early Victorian design for massive hospitals. Its architecture was viewed at the time as a form of treatment itself, offering patients humane lodging along with an infrastructure to support thousands of people – there was even a railway in the basement for transporting food, bedlinen, and whatnot. They were also gothic monstrosities that looked like the setting for a Stephen King horror novel, and the open floor plan made it easy for one screaming patient to upset hundreds of others. And then there was the problem of them falling down; the unreinforced Kirkbride-design asylum in San Jose collapsed in the 1906 earthquake killing 100, including a Santa Rosa woman. Napa’s “castle” was demolished in 1949, but the grounds still serve as a psychiatric hospital. Your obl. believe-it-or-not factoid: under 1874 state law, no alcohol could be sold within one mile of the hospital’s location – maybe the Napa tourist board should check to see if that’s still on the books.

The Sonoma State Home was discussed in the longer article about eugenics. It may have been called the hospital for “feeble-minded children” when its doors opened in 1891, but about one in five was epileptic. Its mission shifted after Dr. Fred O. Butler became superintendent in 1918 and it became an outright factory for asexualization surgery in California. By the mid-1920s, half of the women patients there were classified as “sexually delinquent,” and male patients were often “masturbators” or “passive sodomists.” Recall that “masturbation or sexual excesses” was a prominent question on the state form, and masturbation was the third most commonly reported behavior “indicating insanity.”5

Opened around the same time in 1893 was the Mendocino State Asylum for the Insane at Talmage, near Ukiah. The facility was intended to be the new overflow mental hospital for the state system, but records from the early 1900s show the great majority of patients came directly from San Francisco, for reasons not clear. Like the other hospitals it ballooned as its inmate population and staff grew to the size of a small town over the first half of the 20th century. But the story of the Mendocino Home takes several odd twists that Ripley might not have believed; for 25 years starting in 1929 it housed the criminally insane (a must-read story can be found here), then became an alcohol and drug rehab center during the 1950s and 1960s. In this era there were psychiatric residency and research programs that experimented with giving alcoholics massive doses of LSD. As the hospital was shutting down in 1972 because of a directive by Governor Reagan, cult leader Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple reaped a financial bonanza by setting up nursing homes to care for the former inmates. (It is also alleged that cult members who worked at the hospital before closing had stolen a stash of psychotherapeutic drugs like Thorazine and Lithium that would later be used to control dissenters at Jonestown.) Today the site is a Buddhist monastery that’s supposedly the largest Buddhist temple in North America.

NOTES:


1So Far Disordered in Mind: Insanity in California, 1870-1930, Volume 1, Richard Wightman Fox
2 ibid pg. 123
3 Certificate of Medical Examiners, Feb. 26, 1909
4 op. cit. pg. 27
5 ibid pg. 141

 

NEW LAW INVOKED
State Authorities Will Try Vasectomy on Insane Patients

Napa, March 22–A number of patients in the Napa State Hospital for the Insane will shortly undergo the operation of vasectomy for the purpose of their sterilization, as provided in the new asexualization law, applicable to certain patients and certain inmates of State Prisons.

A few days ago Dr. F. W. Hatch, Superintendent of State Hospitals, came here from Sacramento, and held a conference with Dr. Elmer Stone regarding the new law, the constitutionality of which has not been doubted by the Attorney General. Superintendent Stone of the hospital told Dr. Hatch he thought there were a number of patients in the Napa Hospital upon whom the operation should be performed. Dr. Hatch directed Dr. Stone to segregate these patients and get them ready for examination. When these arrangements have been made the patients will be examined by Dr. Hatch and Dr. W. E. Snow of the State Board of Health, and if the operation is deemed necessary will be ordered performed.

– Press Democrat, March 23, 1910
STAR GAZER FOUND INSANE

William Franklin Monahan was brought down from Fulton Friday afternoon by Sheriff Smith and County Physician S. S. Bogle and examined before an insanity inquisition. The man has become a star gazer and has attempted the impossible task of counting the stars in the heavens. Each evening he goes out and steadfastly gazes into the heavens. He was tried before Judge Thomas C. Denny and Dr. S. S. Bogle and Dr. P. A. Meneray and ordered committed to Mendocino hospital. He will be taken to that place on the evening train Friday.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 9, 1909

SMITH SAYS HE GUESSES HE HAD ‘EM SURE

William Smith, an aged man who was arrested several days ago near Penngrove, at an early morning hour by Deputy Sheriff Rasmussen of Petaluma, and was to have been taken before a lunacy commission on Thursday to have the state of his mind inquired into, was put over for a day or two longer. Smith, who says he is a carpenter by trade, is apparently sans now. He blames his condition the other morning, when he was armed with an axe with which he had prepared for battle with an imaginary foe, to the mixing of beer and wine, and the imbibing of too copious doses. He told the Sheriff and Rasmussen Thursday morning that he honestly believes that he was suffering from the “d. t’s” at the time. He must have been, he said, for he firmly believed then that he was being pursued. The feeling then was a terrible one, but now it has disappeared. Sheriff Smith will have County Physician S. S. Bogle take a look at the man and if he passes inspection then he will be turned loose with his kit of carpenter tools. He says he can get a job.

In the corridor of the court house, in the presence of the officers and a newspaper representative, the man raised his right hand and swore that he had taken his last drink. “I will never touch a drink of wine, beer, or whiskey,” he said, “as long as I live.”

– Press Democrat, June 18, 1909

AN INSANE MAN IS FOUND IN THE HILLS
Escaped Inmate of Stockton Asylum

William J. Wash, an escaped inmate of the Stockton Insane asylum, was found on Monday night wandering in the hills, near Cloverdale. He was brought to Cloverdale, and detained there over night and Constable W. J. Orr took charge of him and accompanied him to the county jail here yesterday morning. Stockton asylum was communicated with and an officer was set to take Wash back there.

Wash is said to have escaped from Stockton about three weeks ago. He was wearing some of the clothes provided by the institution when Orr took him in charge. It is probable that he had been wandering in the hills ever since he made his getaway.

– Press Democrat, November 10, 1909
CAUGHT HIM IN THE HILLS UP NORTH
Cloverdale Constable Captures “Wild Man” After Search Lasting for Several Miles

Constable William J. Orr of Cloverdale headed a posse on Thursday who captured Amelio Regoni, who for some time past has been described as the “wild man of Mendocino county.”

Since last May there has been a lookout for the man who was run to earth seven miles from Cloverdale on Thanksgiving day. Numerous robberies of cabins and farm houses in the wooded hills of Mendocino county have been charged up to the “wild man.” He has been near capture on a number of occasions, but always managed to get out of the way and into hiding before his pursuers came up with him.

Constable Orr got word that a man had been seen dodging in and out among the hills near Cloverdale. He got a posse together and they tracked the man and he was captured in the fissure of a large rock. He was taken by surprise and covered with guns before he had time to reach for his rifle even if he had determined to resist capture. Thursday night Constable Orr landed his man in the Mendocino county jail at Ukiah. He is wanted in that county, as stated.

– Press Democrat, November 27, 1909
PRESS DEMOCRAT FINDS WANDERER
Victor Green Reads Story in This Paper and Writes to His Mother in Her Far Away Home

Two or three weeks ago when the Press Democrat mentioned the letter Constable Orr of Cloverdale had received from Mrs. Green of Pennsylvania, anxiously inquiring if her son, Victor Green, who had left home several years [ago] to come west, was the “wild man” Orr had captured in Mendocino county, a strong appeal was made if the item met the eyes of the boy that he at once write to his mother, and let her know of his whereabouts. The Press Democrat asked other papers to copy the story it published.

A Santa Rosan received a copy of the Press Democrat in Arizona and passed it along to a newspaper there. The story was published and it was read by the missing son, who at once wrote home from Yuma, telling his mother of his whereabouts. In turn Constable Orr and the Press Democrat have received the cordial thanks of Mrs. Green.

– Press Democrat, February 2, 1910

INSANE MAN SAYS HE IS HYPNOTIZED
Herman Wells Placed Under Arrest–Has Threatened Residents of the Bloomfield Section

Deputy Sheriff William Coret of San Rafael has arrested Herman Welti at Tomales, charged with insanity. Welti is a frog catcher by trade and for many years has made his home in and around Bloomfield, but a short time ago removed to the Tomales section. He has been in the habit of spending his money mostly for liquor and at times would stay intoxicated for weeks at a time. It is thought that this is the cause of his present demented condition.

A few weeks ago he made threats to injure Wm. Minck the post master at Bloomfield, who is also a general merchant. Mr. Minck had had some trouble at times with Welti, owing to the fact of his coming into the Post Office intoxicated and using improper language before patrons and children, but Mr. Minck, having been previously warned through the mails to look out Welti, had managed to avoid any trouble. About the 2nd of December Welti wrote a long letter from Fallon’s to Sheriff Smith of this county and sent it by registered mail, wherein Dr. Cockrill and others were charged with holding a hypnotic spell over him, by use of a wireless instrument and claiming that they had followed him through ten or twelve counties of this state, trying to unbalance his mind. Sheriff Smith immediately remailed this letter from Dr. Cockrill at Bloomfield. The doctor was inclined  to treat the matter as a josh, but his son, W. A. Cockrill, reflecting what serious consequences might result from such persons being allowed their liberty, forwarded and the letter to Sheriff Taylor of San Rafael and requested him to get Welti and have him examined as to his sanity. Deputy Sheriff Coret made the arrest as stated before, but on arriving in the jail at San Rafael, Welti drew a pocket knife and attempted to stab Coret, and only for the deputy’s presence of mind probably would have succeeded.

Coret while parleying with the prisoner, made an offer to trade knives and in that way get possession of the knife which Welti had, after which he succeeded in locking him up without any further trouble. Welti will undoubtedly be adjudged insane and committed to an asylum when he comes up for examination.

– Press Democrat, December 15, 1909

INSANE MAN IS ARRESTED
Wandering About Barefooted and Without Hat

Ernest Bassanessi, formerly an employee of the Santa Rosa tannery, was arrested near Melitta Tuesday by Deputy Sheriff C. A. Reynolds and brought to the county jail. During the latter part of the morning of that day word was received over the telephone from Melitta that a man, supposed to be crazy, was in the neighborhood. The message stated further that the man was bareheaded and barefooted and that he carried a revolver. When the deputy sheriff took him into custody Bassanessi had no revolver, but was carrying a rock with which to protect himself from imaginary enemies which he believed were trying to kill him. An insanity commission will likely look into his case Wednesday.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 24, 1910
JOKING PRAYED ON MIND AND DROVE MAN INSANE

Ernest Bassanessi, the man who was found wandering around Melitta on Tuesday, is a man of good family and was born in Venice, where he taught school for some time. His wife was a native of Rome, and also a school teacher before her marriage. Mr. Bassanessi is a sensitive man and took the joking of his fellow workmen as an insult and their talk bothered him and preyed on his mind.

When he and his wife landed in this country from Italy, they had a sum of money with them, which they had saved, and immediately they were robbed. This was the first of their misfortunes and this and other things worried the man and he finally went insane.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 25, 1910
BOSCO COMMITTED TO INSANE ASYLUM
Former Resident of the Vicinity of Healdsburg Adjudged Insane and Not Sent to Penitentiary

Ed Bosco, an aged man charged with an assault with intent to commit murder, was examined on a charge of insanity in the Superior Court in Napa yesterday afternoon. He was declared insane by Judge Gesford and was ordered committed to the Napa State Hospital.

Bosco attempted to shoot Officer Ed Powers at Calistoga when Powers arrested him on a minor charge. Bosco, who formerly resided in Sonoma county, imagines that people have taken his land away from him. The officers in Healdsburg and in this city have had experiences with Bosco.

– Press Democrat, January 22, 1910

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