generalhospital

GOODBYE, GENERAL

Another landmark of old Santa Rosa is slated for demolition, so anyone wanting to say farewell shouldn’t dawdle. Newcomers to town during, say, the last forty years, probably don’t know about it; native Santa Rosans who are Baby Boomers (or older) were probably born in it. That place is the old General Hospital at the corner of A and 7th streets, and it still looks almost exactly as it did about a century ago, when it was built in 1922.

It was just the sort of hospital you’d expect to find here during the town’s Shadow of a Doubt years, before and after WWII. The general practitioner doctors patched up farmers gored by bulls and reckless drivers who wrecked their autos on the Redwood Highway. They removed oodles of appendixes and tons of tonsils. So many casts were made for broken arms and legs they probably used enough plaster of paris to plaster every ceiling in Paris.

The tale of Santa Rosa General Hospital neatly breaks down into three acts but before raising that curtain, a few words about why it’s being demolished: That entire block – Morgan to A street, 6th to 7th street – is to be torn down in stages in order to build the Caritas Village Project. The hospital is scheduled to be razed in early 2022 and replaced by one of two large affordable housing apartment buildings and a third large building on the block will be a family and homeless support center. The three buildings have a unified design and are quite attractive; they will surely be an asset to Santa Rosa for decades to come. But there are two really important reasons why the city should not allow them to be built at that location.

Thirty years ago in 1990, Santa Rosa (finally) recognized that much of its unique character had been heedlessly demolished. To save what little was left of its heritage, a few of the old neighborhoods were designated as Preservation Districts, with “St. Rose” being one of the first. New construction has to conform to stylistic guidelines in order to fit in with the overall look. To now exempt an entire block from both letter and spirit of the law is a dangerous precedent which could be used by developers to build anything, anywhere. And since the Caritas Village plans were developed long after this Preservation District was formed, the project backers began with the assumption that they could get away with violating city law.

The other worrisome aspect is the three-story, 42k square-foot building intended to provide one-stop services to the county’s homeless. It’s a noble idea except the location is three blocks from Courthouse Square, which only ensures that our grown grandchildren will still be avoiding downtown because of its vagrant problems. Look, Santa Rosa has a history of making foolish and short-sighted planning decisions – I’m in the middle of writing a ten-part series just about the 1960s screwups leading up to the mega-mistake of approving the shopping mall – but surely city planners recognize it’s not wise to build a magnet for the homeless so close to the city core. Final approval decisions on Caritas Village will be made in coming months (planning reviews start February 27, 2020) so let the City Council know what you think about the project.

In the spotlight for General Hospital’s Act I was Henry S. Gutermute (1865-1958), a man who had his fingers in many pies. We first met him in 1905 when he had the Maze Department Store in Petaluma, on the corner where the Bank of America now stands. Fast forward to 1915 and he’s now president of the Burke Corporation, the new owner of the Burke Sanitarium, which five years earlier had been the scene of Sonoma County’s crime of the century. To scrape away the scandal and relaunch the sanitarium they threw a luxe dinner and dance for 400 movers and shakers. What the store and the sanitarium have in common is that Gutermute liked to heavily advertise – a practice he would continue with General Hospital, although it was unusual to find newspaper ads for actual hospitals.

generaldevoto(RIGHT: The Devoto home at 804 Fourth st. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Meanwhile, in 1914 a large family home at 804 Fourth street, then two doors east of the county library, had been converted into a new hospital. (Compare that lost majestic home to the squat little bank bunker there now and reflect upon why it was necessary to establish the Preservation Districts.) Called the Lindsay-Thompson Hospital/Sanitarium it was similar to the Mary Jesse/Eliza Tanner Hospital, another residence turned small hospital that was a block away. Both included an operating room.

That incarnation lasted just a year before it was taken over by the Burke Corporation, meaning Gutermute and his partners. They incorporated the General Hospital Association and renamed the place “General Hospital.” Presumably their business plan was to offer a package deal with surgery in Santa Rosa and recuperation at their health resort, as many newspaper items reported patients shuffling back and forth.

For the next four years little General Hospital hummed along, with nearly daily ads in the newspapers offering “MEDICAL SURGICAL OBSTETRICAL” services. (Fun fact: In 1916, the McDonald’s and other local nabobs marched their kids over there to have their tonsils removed en masse as a preventative measure before the start of the school year.) Then came the eviction notice – the Devoto family wanted their home back in thirty days. Santa Rosa had a 1919 housing crunch because of all the soldiers returning from WWI.

Instead of renting another large house, Gutermute scrambled to construct a temporary hospital from scratch. A special session of the City Council was called to grant him permissions to build something on the corner of Seventh and A streets – and just six weeks later (!!) the new General Hospital was open for business in January, 1920.

The new hospital was composed of six “bungalow cottages.” Cecil Etheredge, the Press Democrat’s City Editor was an early patient and described the setting. (Etheredge was being hospitalized for serious injuries in the county’s first passenger airplane crash.) “The General Hospital, seen outwardly, is built of bungalows and courts, in units, connected by runways. Every part of the hospital can be connected with any other, or be entirely segregated,” he wrote. Elsewhere the “runways” were described as “covered hallways.”

Because of this design, he noted that a ward for influenza patients could be isolated from the rest of the hospital – the Spanish Flu was still on everyone’s mind, having run its course only a year earlier after killing 67 in Santa Rosa alone. “H. S. Gutermute, when he planned his new hospital, figured the only way was to build it big or capable of being made big enough for emergencies,” Etheredge wrote.

The buildings were designed by William Herbert, a Santa Rosa architect mentioned here several times earlier. (There’s no truth in the story that these were “WWI barracks” moved from somewhere else.) Four of the six cottages were patient wards; there was a separate cottage for surgery and another for the administrators and the kitchen.

Gutermute pulled out all stops for advertising his new hospital in early 1920, with a series of numbered ads in both Santa Rosa papers. The large display ads promised to give invalids better care than could be offered at home and invited the public to come down for an inspection of their new 40 bed hospital with “Automobile Ambulance at your Service.” Each ad ended with the new motto: “The hospital of the open court and spreading oaks.”

1937 ad for Santa Rosa General Hospital
1937 ad for Santa Rosa General Hospital

Work on the buildings continued for the next two years. The covered walkways between buildings were enclosed to become real hallways and make the separate cottages into a unified structure; a new wing was added which included a maternity ward and the exterior was given the stucco walls that are still seen today. It’s unknown if Bill Herbert was involved in these modifications and additions, but I doubt it – when Gutermute hired him in 1919 he was just starting his career and probably worked on the cheap. By 1922 he was a well-established architect in Santa Rosa; I suspect the design was done by C. A. McClure, who was (literally) the new kid on the block. More about him below.

While Gutermute continued to own the hospital until 1945, he was rarely mentioned in association with it anymore. In 1923 he opened Central Garage on Fifth street, which was a used car dealership as well as the main general auto repair shop downtown. He apparently retired after he sold the garage in 1931, listing himself in the 1940 census as “owner General Hospital.”

Also in 1923 the first baby was born in the new maternity ward; a new era began.

Act II showcases the days of Gladys Kay, the long-time manager of General Hospital. What set her apart was being one of the nicest people you could hope to meet – and that the General Hospital staff shared that spirit. Gaye LeBaron once quoted Dr. Frank Norman, who was sort of Santa Rosa’s medical historian: “Tender, loving care. That was General’s secret.”

All together now: So how nice was Gladys Kay? Before she left on a month-long vacation, the nurses threw a we’ll-miss-you party. Whenever the PD ran a letter from someone thanking General Hospital for caregiving of a loved one, Gladys Kay was singled out for kindness – today who can even imagine knowing an administrator, much less expressing personal gratitude to same?

She was promoted to the job in late 1945. Earlier that year Gutermute had sold the hospital for about $50k to MacMillan Properties, a Los Angeles corporation held by five brothers – four of them physicians and surgeons. Shortly after taking ownership they installed a new manager; the nurse who had steered the hospital since 1920, Bertha Levy, said she was tired and wanted to retire (she did, and died just a year later). They replaced her with Maxine Smith, an experienced hospital administrator who had managed two Los Angeles hospitals. She quit six months later and sued the owners, claiming they had broken their promise to give her 2½ of the gross receipts in addition to her salary, room and board.

Gladys was an unlikely pick to follow a woman with such a professional résumé. She had no management training but once was apparently a nurse, although it seems she never worked as one in Santa Rosa. Her experience here seemed limited to running a downtown children’s clothing store and teaching kids to ice skate (after her death, husband Harry said she was a “Pacific Coast figure skating champ in the old days”).

generalswitchboard(RIGHT: Telephone switchboard at General Hospital in 1962. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

When the MacMillans took over she was already working at the hospital, but we don’t know when she began; the first mention in the paper comes from 1944, when she was the night telephone operator. That job was quite a big responsibility – their switchboard was the county Doctor’s Exchange answering service, which was the equivalent of 911 medical emergency today.

Her watchful eyes behind those wingtip glasses saw General Hospital expand to 75 rooms, with two operating and two delivery rooms. The latter was particularly important because the Baby Boomer era was booming; in August, 1948, General set a monthly record of 67 deliveries, the most to date in Santa Rosa history.

Gladys had a knack for promotion. Movie theaters sometimes ran contests or giveaways tied to what was playing, and in 1949 Santa Rosa’s Tower Theater had an unusual stunt for “Welcome Stranger” (according to reviews, a particularly hackneyed Bing Crosby RomCom). Although the plot had nothing to do with childbirth or babies, the theater got local merchants to donate a free set of baby clothes, shoes, portrait, etc. to the first child born on the day the movie began playing here. General Hospital not only made the biggest splash, but it tied in Gladys herself: “IF the first baby born Sunday arrives at the GENERAL Hospital, Mother and Baby will receive FREE “ROOM and BOARD” during their stay at the GENERAL through the courtesy of Mrs Gladys Kay manager of the hospital.” (Alas, baby Gail Elaine Franks was born at the County Hospital instead.)

Her greatest challenge was also PR related: How could General coexist with Memorial Hospital once the 800 lb. gorilla entered the playing field? Memorial was to open on New Year’s Day 1950, and a year before that she began running large newspaper ads (with her name and phone number at the bottom, natch) promoting General as additionally being a long-term care facility for the chronically ill and elderly. Then she announced their eight bed maternity ward would soon be closing because they expected most women would give birth at Memorial once it opened, and sent a letter to all 78 local practicing physicians asking if they had “further need” of General. Intended or not, this was a master stroke. From the Press Democrat:


Earlier reports to the contrary, the surgical and maternity services will be continued “if business continues on like this,” Mrs. Gladys Kay, hospital manager, said. She said the public “phoned and phoned” in answer to a disclosure by her earlier this month that insufficient hospital business in these two services might lead to their discontinuance. She said local doctors also have responded to the dilemma and that things are “picking up.”

Gladys had won the battle; not only did the MacMillans keep it open but added a new surgery and an additional 25 bed, $150k wing designed by Santa Rosa’s leading architect, Cal Caulkins.

Alas, the momentum only lasted so long; the trend in modern medicine was swinging away from General’s casual, homey approach to Memorial’s network of efficient clinicians and specialists (County Hospital, too, had become a major competitor). General Hospital really did close its maternity ward in 1957 when they were down to 20 births a month. Although Gladys didn’t retire until 1963, the hospital’s best days were in the rearview mirror.

General Hospital’s final act began about forty years ago and is still not quite over.

In 1966 the MacMillans sunk $50,000 expanding the hospital staff and adding new equipment; in 1969 the plan was to promote the place as cardiac specialists, with state-of-the-art gear such as an “external pace-maker” and a “mobile coronary rescue ambulance.” (Later they would boast of a “computerized E.C.G. machine, from which heart tracings are transferred by telephone and readings teletyped back within two minutes.”) Come 1971 and the big deal was their new 24-hour emergency room, complete with an emergency phone number (still no 911 services). Finally the MacMillans gave up and sold the whole works to Memorial Hospital in 1979.

generalor(RIGHT: General Hospital operating rooms in 1962. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Gone were the big ads with photos of smiling doctors, laughing nurses and even their orderlies and “Green Lady” volunteers; there were no more promises that the hospital was “purposely overstaffed” (“it is the hospital’s aim to make its patients feel at home during their stay”). All that the new administrator, who was brought in from Memorial, advertised was their new St. Rose Alcoholism Recovery Center with its 3-week program and AA meetings, foreshadowing what was to come.

The staff expected Memorial would eventually close the place; they watched as all their expensive medical equipment was wending its way across town, even if Memorial Hospital didn’t need it – Gaye LeBaron had an item about a resuscitator device for newborns being turned into a tropical fish tank. But it still came as a shock to the 134 employees to discover on May 31, 1984, that Santa Rosa General would be closing in 60 days – and they learned about it from reading the newspaper.

“Honk If You Will Miss Us,” read a heartbreaking banner outside the entrance as the last days ticked by and staff members struggled to find new jobs, a problem made worse because Memorial also canned 40 of its own employees at about the same time. Memorial claimed the closure and layoffs were due to anticipated lower Medicare reimbursements, but Memorial Hospital was also in negotiations with the nurse’s union over hours and an increase in pay, with the administrators being quite clear there would be major cutbacks before they made any bargaining concessions.

For about a year the St. Rose Recovery Center was the only occupant of the old hospital, but even that program was moved in April, 1985 to another building nearby which was also owned by Memorial: 600 Morgan street. For the first time in its 65 year history, General Hospital was now empty and quiet. Memorial considered putting it up for sale with an asking price of $2M; the city floated the idea of leveling the buildings for a 300-space parking lot. Can’t have enough parking meters!

The modern homeless-centric era began in 1987, when the Salvation Army wanted to use the hospital building as an emergency 250-bed winter shelter. When the charity, neighbors and members from the Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless toured the facility, they found squatters living there. One of them, Jerry Rioux, a former carny, gave them an impromptu tour. “I am here to set your mind at ease. This is a great place.” Rioux even offered his services to repair the damage he had caused while breaking in to the building.

Although the Board of Supervisors called the county’s homeless problem “staggering,” they balked at the $20,000 startup cost at first, which caused the shelter to delay opening until February, 1988. Even with that money, the Salvation Army lost $30,000 running the shelter for four months and couldn’t afford to offer it again next winter.

And so we arrive at Santa Rosa General Hospital’s last occupant: Catholic Charities. On Christmas, 1989 they opened their year-round shelter, the Family Support Center, which is still there as of this writing.

In the thirty years since, both the city and Catholic Charities have become more invested in concentrating the homeless in that particular block. In 1992, Santa Rosa used $102k in redevelopment funds to remodel 600 Morgan street as Catholic Charities’ homeless service center. That former home and the hospital were still owned by Memorial and used by Catholic Charities rent-free until they were finally sold to CC in 2015. After the last family moved away last year, Catholic Charities now owns the whole block.

According to current plans the first notable building to be torn down will be “Casa del Sol,” the four-unit apartment building at 608 Morgan Street. Although it was built in 1922, the same year General Hospital was finished, it was never associated with the hospital, as the classified sections in the old newspapers frequently advertise the apartments for rent. The architect was C. A. McClure, who was selling blueprints of this same design to others around Santa Rosa. Also in 1922 a developer used the plans to build the two apartment buildings at 422-426 Humboldt street which are still there – in the center of that courtyard the owner had a canary aviary, since the entire nation was inexplicably going canary crazy at the time.

Should the schedule hold, General Hospital will be demolished on February 1, 2022 because as Catholic Charities’ consultant wrote in the DEIR, the place has absolutely no importance: “[It] is not associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of local, regional, or national history…[it] does not meet the criteria for individual significance and is therefore recommended not eligible for listing on national, state, or local historic registers nor as a contributor to the historic district.”

To that consultant all I can say is this: Do better research. Reading the old newspapers I am stunned at the affection our community expressed for that hospital over its 60+ years. If that engagement with the hospital doesn’t show “a significant contribution” to local history, I think you’ve got your criterion screwed on backwards.

But come 2022 and we find bulldozers awaiting, let’s form a caravan of vehicles down A street that morning and give that old dear a last resounding honk. Yes, General Hospital, we will miss you, deeply. Or should.

1941 view of Santa Rosa General Hospital. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
1941 view of Santa Rosa General Hospital. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

 

2020 view of former Santa Rosa General Hospital
2020 view of former Santa Rosa General Hospital

 

sources
DEVOTO HOME BEING MADE INTO HOSPITAL

The remodeling of the former David Devoto home on Fourth street, to be used as a sanitarium, is in progress. The work is to he completed about the first of October, when Mrs. Margaret Lindsey Thompson, formerly associated with a prominent San Francisco hospital, will conduct a modern sanitarium. The Devotos are at present residing on McDonald avenue.

– Press Democrat, September 15 1914

 

NEW HOSPITAL IS NOW OPEN
The Lindsay-Thompson Sanitarium, Located on Fourth Street, Admirably Arranged

The Lindsay-Thompson hospital, which occupied the former Devoto residence near the corner of E street on Fourth, has been opened, with Mrs. Margaret Lindsay-Thompson as manager. The big place has been ideally fitted up for a hospital and the large, dry and well ventilated rooms have been comfortably furnished according o the most approved methods for hospitals.

The hospital has all the latest appointments required by medical science and this is particularly noticeable in the operating room, which is equipped with automatic sterilizer and everything calculated to be of service and benefit to the sick and injured…

– Press Democrat, September 29 1914

 

ARTICLES OF GENERAL HOSPITAL ASSOCIATION FILED HERE ON MONDAY

In the office of County Clerk W. W. Felt on Monday articles of incorporation of the General Hospital Association were filed. The incorporators are H. S. Gutermute, A. G. Burns and J. C. Hardin. The two former, Messrs. Gutermute and Burns, are at the head of Burke’s Sanitarium here, Mr. Burns being the manager.

As the name of the concern indicates it is for the management of hospitals, etc. Recently it was mentioned that the Lindsay-Thompson Hospital, in this city, had been taken over by the Burke Sanitarium and in this connection the articles of incorporation were probably filed on Monday. The capital stock of the association is $25,000.

– Press Democrat, October 19 1915

 

BUNGALOWS FOR NEW HOSPITAL
Construction Work on Cottages for the General Hospital Will Be Commenced Today on Minnehan Property.

The General Hospital, conducted for several years past by H. S. Gutermute in the Devoto Home on Fourth street, will be quartered in cottages to be erected on the Minnehan tract within another month, if the plans now under way are successfully carried out.

Mr. Devoto, having decided to take possession of his property, has served Mr. Gutermute with notice to vacate within thirty days, hence the hurried decision to prepare a new home.

William Herbert, the architect, has prepared plans for a series of five bungalow cottages, and W. L. Proctor has been given the contract to erect them on the property at the southwest corner of Seventh and A streets.

The plans were approved Monday afternoon by the city council at a special session, and work on construction will be commenced at once. It is expected lumber will begin to arrive on the lots this morning and a large force of men will be put to work, so construction may be rushed to an early completion.

The plans provide for a series of six bungalow cottages of frame type. There will be an administration building in the center facing Seventh street, with a large court in front. This will give office quarters, matron’s room, reception hall and room with dining-room and kitchen.

Leading from this will be covered hallways connecting four other bungalows which will be used as hospital wards, and one which will be devoted to operation and anesthetic rooms, drug quarters and store-rooms. These will be on either side of the administration quarters and constructed in this manner all will get the sun all day and be extremely well lighted.

– Press Democrat, October 28 1919

 

General Hospital Moves To New Location in A St

The work of moving the General Hospital from its location in Fourth street to the new headquarters in A street started Thursday. It will be the middle of next week before the institution is installed in the new cottages, that have been built at A and Seventh streets.

The Devoto home, where the hospital has been established, will be remodeled and the family will occupy it after the first of the year.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 12 1919

 

WHERE THE SICK ARE CARED FOR
By C. W. ETHEREDGE

Some weeks ago Ad-Man Banker strolled over to my desk, struggled simultaneously with his moustache and tongue, and finally asked me if ever I did any special stuff, which may mean anything in a newspaper office.

When he said he wanted me to go down and look at the General Hospital and tell Press Democrat readers what I found there. I assured him he was fishing in the wrong creek, but I’d lend him The Walrus to look things over.

In the course of some days she produced (The Walrus is a she) an article and story which was as good as anyone could do on that kind of an inspection – but now I have been here two weeks in person, and I’m glad to tell Santa Rosa people some of the nice healthy and handy things they have lying around loose, unknown or unappreciated except by those who have been in hospital.

H. S. Gutermute, when he planned his new hospital, figured the only way was to build it big or capable of being made big enough for emergencies. That day has nearly arrived, and a chain of sickness and accidents resulted in nearly every room and ward filled. One thing was certain, there were no spare nurses anywhere, and I felt pretty lucky with my chances in getting a private nurse for a couple of weeks.

The General Hospital, seen outwardly, is built of bungalows and courts, in units, connected by runways. Every part of the hospital can be connected with any other, or be entirely segregated. A “flu” ward can be (doesn’t happen to be, though) located across a court and yardway, and I wouldn’t have as much chance of getting the flu as if I were running around loose.

It is this convenience of operation. connection or segregation, which today makes life cast in happier lines, provided you have to be sick, than before Mr. Gutermute carried his plans to completion.

– Press Democrat, February 22 1920

 

MODERN APARTMENT HOUSE COMPLETED

Santa Rosa’s newest apartment house built by C. A. McClure at 608 Washington street, is completed. and waa thrown open to inspection for the first time Sunday.

The building follows the mission style of architecture, with stucco finish, and is one of the most pleasing in the city. Each apartment has four rooms, and is equipped with all modem conveniences. Hot water is furnished day and night from an electrically heated boiler, which serves all apartments.

– Press Democrat, July 25 1922

 

Building Moved Next To General Hospital

H. S. Gutermute, who recently purchased the one-story building opposite the Press Democrat office, has moved the building to his property next to the General Hospital on A street, and will transform it into a stuccoed – finish store building for rental purposes, he said Tuesday.

The fact that an attractive store building next to the hospital will hide from the view of hospital patients the sheet metal warehouses on A street caused him to place tiie building in its present location, Gutermute said. Land between the store and the hospital will lie planted with greenery.

Gutermute purchased the building from Thomas Sullivan, mover. He intends to place a new wall on the north side of the building and to renovate and plaster the interior.

– Press Democrat, November 22 1922

 

General Hospital Is Improved To Meet Increasing Demands

Santa Rosa now has a bungalow type hospital with more than 17,000 square feet of floor space, with 75 rooms and 50 beds for patients, which has been thoroughly equipped with all modern facilities and conveniences. With its medical, surgical and obstetrical wards it can care for all cases from the city and surrounding country for some time to come.

The hospital is owned and operated by H. S. Gutermute, who built up the Burke Sanitarium into a strong establishment in five years and then came into Santa Rosa, where he established the General Hospital in the old Devoto home in Fourth street. Two years later he was forced out when the war-time demand for houses made it necessary for Mr. Devoto to return to the house to reside.

At that time Mr. Gutermute erected the first unit of the bungalow type of hospital to house the General Hospital. This he has improved and added a second unit and completed the exterior with a stucco finish. The new unit in the form of a wing gives 25 additional rooms and has been set apart to include the maternity ward.

FORM OF CAPITAL LETTER

The hospital, which is in the form of a large letter “E” facing the East, is located on the old Menihan property at the southwest corner of A and Seventh streets. The lot is 300 by 125 feet, and the building is 220 feet long, with the three wings 104 feet each. The lot is large enough to allow a fourth wing to be added at any time in the future there is a demand for additional rooms. The building is nestled beneath the large live oak trees, giving it a very pleasant and inviting appearance.

The main entrance, lobby, reception room and office is between the north and middle wings. In addition there are four surgical, three X-ray, two delivery, three utility and seven staff rooms, besides the dining room, kitchen and store rooms. There are two large utility and numerous private bath rooms throughout the building.

The floors of the maternity wing are double and covered with brown battleship linoleum, while the corridor floors are carpeted with sound-proof rubber. The corridors are heated with gas radiators, and there ate electric heaters in each room. All rooms have running hot and cold water.

The furnishings are all of the best quality. The beds are of the latest adjustable type such as are used in some of the largest and most important eastern hospitals, including that provided by Henry Ford for his hospital at his factory.

The maternity wing has been added at the special solicitation of many physicians, who saw the needs of the city in that direction and the requirements of the future. It is expected the ward will be used more and more now that it is available at really less expense than cases ran be cared for at home.

Mr. Gutermute, in speaking of the hospital and its recent enlargement, said he hoped no one would misunderstand and think he was making a mint of money from the Institution, as, in fact, he said, he had been compelled frequently to take money from other enterprises he is engaged in, to meet hospital bills, as the expenses of upkeep and maintenance steadily grow regardless of the amount of business handled. With the enlarged capacity and facilities it is expected the income will increase accordingly as it becomes more widely used.

The Institution is open to all physicians, and already more than a dozen in this city, Sebastopol and other nearby points are using it in serious cases. The management assures all of the best possible care and treatment.

The new hospital will be thrown open for public inspection Thursday afternoon and evening, when all physicians and the public generally are cordially invited to call and inspect the place.

Mr. Gutermute has gathered a very efficient staff of trained workers about him for handling the work of the hospital. Several have been in his employ for five years or more, while all are loyal, experienced workers.

Miss Bertha Levy, the matron in charge, is a graduate of Lane hospital, San Francisco, and has had years of practical experience in such work. She was one of the first nurses Mr. Gutermute secured and she is considered the best in her work to be found. She is always pleasant and agreeable to all with whom she comes in contact and has proved herself an admirable executive.

Miss Elizabeth Tanner is in charge of the maternity ward. She too is a graduate of Lane’s and has proved her worth by faithful continued service in the institution.

Miss Myrna Ewing, who is head of the surgical yvard, is a graduate of the Mt. Zion hospital, San Francisco, and is faithful and efficient in her work.

Miss Mario Behrns, a graduate of the Alameda county hospital, and Miss Marie Darcy, graduate of the Idaho state hospital, have been with the hospital for several years. Mrs. Swisier is the night nurse while the Misses Naoma Pitkins and May Mendoca are two undergraduate nurses doing faithful work under instruction.

In addition the staff has a cook who has been there for several years, a maid, porter and yard man to keep the place up in proper condition.

It has been well said that a building does not make a hospital any more than a house makes a home. It is the care and treatment afforded by the staff, the kindly and courteous little attentions given patients which goes to make up the hospital as it does the home. All of these are afforded nf the General Hospital.

– Press Democrat, December 10 1922

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THE ANTI-VAXXERS OF 1920

The past is just a story we keep telling ourselves.

That’s a throwaway line from a recent film, “Her” (good movie) and not entirely original; “[something is] a story we tell ourselves” first appeared around 1960 and has become exponentially more popular since then, as shown by Google’s Ngram Viewer. What makes this version memorable, however, is that it’s uniquely wrong.

History (for the most part) is a story we DON’T keep telling ourselves. We only talk about an event when it’s big and momentous or directly related to our lives in the here and now. A more accurate version of the quote would be, “The past is just a story we keep forgetting to tell ourselves” and as a result, we don’t learn from the past and find ourselves repeating it. History is not a guide to understand our march toward the future; history is a treadmill.

This article is part of a series on the 1920s culture wars, an era with numerous parallels to America today – and no issue has found itself resonating again as much as the anti-vaccination movement. I’ve written twice before about the “antis” of a century ago (here’s part one and part two) but to recap and expand:

The only vaccine that existed in the early 20th century was against smallpox (MMR, HepB, DTaP, RV or any of the other modern vaccines were decades away). Since 1889 California had required all children to present a smallpox vaccination certificate when they registered for school. Opponents lobbied Sacramento to pass a couple of bills repealing the law but governors vetoed the legislation both times. The state Supreme Court upheld the requirement in 1904 and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the same way the following year. Yet the anti-vaccinationists never gave up; they kept forming grassroots anti chapters, signing repeal petitions and writing letters. At the start of every school year some parents would keep their kids at home or protest to the school board – some apparently not over vaccine anxiety but because they couldn’t afford to consult a doctor. More on this in a moment.

At the same time a new anti-vaccine ally popped up in California: The chiropractors.

Over a century ago there were some three dozen types of physicians; some were licensed in some states, with many like Mrs. Preston of Cloverdale, operating in a gray area by claiming they were not really practicing medicine. Among the fields of quackery were eclecticism (adjusting the 12 “tissue salts” in the body), electropathy, homeopathy, hydropathy, vitaopathy, psychiropathy (apparently a combo of hypnotism with massage) and naturopathy.

Chiropracty stood out for several reasons, particularly because a treatment could result in immediate pain relief in some cases. They also had more training than other alternative physicians, spending a year at the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Iowa. But as noted in a 1921 exposé written by a member of the California state medical board, no applicants at the time were turned away and not even required to have a grammar school education. There was an emphasis on teaching salesmanship and how to use publicity, with the school running a large printing office to create newspaper advertising and pamphlets. The message they were selling was that chiropracty could cure any disease and conventional medicine was useless.1

The first chiropractor appeared in the Bay Area in 1904 and one set up office in Santa Rosa five years later. By 1922 there were seven in the City of Roses, most of them clustered in the new Rosenberg building at the corner of Fourth and Mendocino. They distinguished themselves from quack healers using gimmicks and sold themselves as pioneers of a new wave of medicine embracing up-to-date technology – note the ad below for the “X-ray chiropractor.” They were men of science whose livelihood depended upon peddling notions that germs didn’t cause disease and vaccines were a hoax.

George Von Ofen was not Santa Rosa's first chiropractor but he was the most prominent by 1922, running these large display ads in the Press Democrat
George Von Ofen was not Santa Rosa’s first chiropractor but he was the most prominent by 1922, running these large display ads in the Press Democrat

 

Their basic text, the 1906 “Science of Chiropractic,” denounced vaccinations as dangerous and often lethal. (Don’t miss the long section on sales and marketing where students were promised they would make lots of money.) Written by chiropractics founder Daniel David Palmer – who had earlier claimed he possessed magnetic hands – the book was filled with dangerous misinformation. Smallpox was not contagious (he said it’s spread by bedbugs) and spinal adjustments could cure polio, asthma and cancers (which were caused by “too much heat produced by calorific nerves”). It spread fear about vaccines with its heart-wrenching photos of deceased children along with anecdotes from their bereaved parents and by making outrageous statements which were not remotely true, such as “[vaccination] has now been made a crime in England”.

It’s surely no coincidence the antis’ literature soon began to mimic his style. There was more hyperbole (a 1907 letter in the Santa Rosa Republican claimed “vaccination is responsible for more or less of leprosy”) and conspiracy-think: Doctors were trying to bamboozle people by using “cooked-up statistics,” all in order to perform a large scale experiment on the public and/or make themselves rich on fees from giving injections. To support their case, the antis followed Palmer’s example by leaning hard on unverifiable anecdotes and outright lying about events – see sidebar.


MR. TAYLOR’S DECEITS

The antis loved quoting experts, as long as they knew nothing about public health medicine or were comfortably deceased. The PD printed a letter in 1913 from Samuel Taylor of the California Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League which claimed to quote “noted physicians” such as Dr. A. Vogt of Berne University, who supposedly examined the records of 400,000 vaccinations and lost all confidence that smallpox vaccination worked. “Vaccination is a curse,” another doc supposedly said. Taylor never revealed he apparently rustled his info from pamphlets of earlier anti-vaccinationists and the supposed quotes related back as far as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. This little assortment of dismal tidbits can be found reprinted in American newspapers through the early 1950s.

The Press Democrat letter was also notable because it closed with an anecdote which had nothing to do vaccination, but revealed a sophisticated understanding of how propaganda works:

Just a hint to parents. In Winnetka, Illinois, girls in the new Trier High School were compelled to submit to complete physical examination. They were taken to the gymnasium and stripped of all their clothing. In the presence of other girls they were examined. A request from their parents to excuse them, and a physician’s certificate were ignored. The Inspector and the school authorities held themselves superior to both parents and family physician. The girls were led to the gymnasium and compelled to submit. When a protest was filed on the ground that the Schools were free and no physical examination could be required as a qualification of admission, the newspapers published the story. The board of education met, and decided that the physical examination was not required for admission to the high school, which was public and free.

In truth, there was a complaint from one 16 year-old girl who signed up for a physical education class; she and about ten other girls were brought to the female instructor’s office and told to change into robes, as they needed to be checked for skin diseases before being allowed to use the swimming pool. The facts were altered to evoke a reader’s feelings of disgust and anger – emotions which are well-known for their success at leading to people develop strong negative opinions about something.2 Taylor’s goal was to polarize the public’s views against schoolkids being “compelled to submit” to authorities for medical reasons.

While they always played the underdog, the antis rarely lost. In 1910 they won a surprise victory when a Superior Court judge ruled the vaccination law only applied to students in public schools; the decision caused excitement statewide with the Press Democrat printing the story at the top of the front page. (The judge also said there was no need for enforcement as there was no epidemic at the time, revealing his bias in favor of the anti-vaccinationists.)

Less than a year later they won a bigger prize. The state made vaccination optional, and any family with “conscientious scruples against vaccination” could opt-out as long as they submitted a no-consent form at the start of the school year. The new law declared any students not vaccinated would be blocked from attending only in the case of an epidemic.

Smallpox cases quickly began to increase. Over the next eighteen months there were 279 reported cases in the state with at least ten deaths (that was up to March, 1913; final statistics for that year alone show 800 cases and 15 dead). In Berkeley, five of the eight people who contracted smallpox died. Unbelievably, propagandist Samuel Taylor put a positive spin on this news: “The percentage was very small, about one case to every eight thousand inhabitants.” Not reassured, over a thousand UC/Berkeley students rushed to get revaccinated or receive their first vaccine.

Taylor, always a publicity hound, also pushed his way into the newspapers during a dramatic 1914 incident in Oakland. It was discovered that a conductor on the train coming from Oregon was infected and the cars were sidetracked before reaching the station. Oakland health officer Dr. Allen Gillihan, with assistants and police, boarded the train and forcibly vaccinated the 56 passengers. (Two mothers with small children refused and were not vaccinated.) Taylor made the papers by telling the press an assemblyman was going to introduce an emergency bill to have manslaughter brought against Dr. Gillihan should any of the passengers die because of the vaccine – although odds of which were nil.

For the rest of the 1910s all was (mostly) quiet on the anti front – nothing more can even be found from the very vocal Mr. Taylor. “The number of parents who are conscientiously opposed to vaccination has dwindled from an alarmingly large number to practically none at all,” remarked the Press Democrat in 1919. That year over 500 children received vaccinations paid for by the Santa Rosa school district, so the expense of a doctor’s visit must have played a significant part in earlier protests. Dr. Gillihan – who became Santa Rosa’s health officer not long after the train vaccination – was now an inspector for the State Board of Health, and similarly vaccinated 1,800 in Chico in one week. There he was charged with battery over not having a parent’s vaccination consent, which shows there were still diehards.

And that brings us to the watershed year of 1920. The California ballot that year must have puzzled voters. Amid the usual assortment of items regarding taxes and bonds were two propositions which we would today consider feel-good questions. One seemed to oppose the torture of animals; the other stopped schools and the state government from discriminating against sick kids. Who could oppose things like that?

Although the items seemed harmless enough, on closer look a more distressing agenda appeared. Prop. 6 would have made vaccination entirely voluntary, turning it into a “don’t ask, don’t tell” issue for schools. Prop. 7 would block all medical research using animals as well as prohibiting smallpox vaccines because it required extracting serum from living cows.

We can’t be sure who paid to organize the signature campaigns to get these on the ballot, but from newspaper ads before the election there was backing from the usual American Medical Association foes, including Los Angeles chiropractors, the Anti-Vivisection Society and proto-libertarian national groups such as the American Medical Liberty League, which wanted absolutely no government involvement with medicine. And because this was during the hyper-patriotic culture war, ads and endorsements were wrapped in the flag and touted the issues as about “medical freedom.”3

amendment6(RIGHT: A deceptive ad from the antis intended to confuse voters. If it had passed, the new law would have blocked all means to stop an epidemic except via aggressive quarantines. Petaluma Argus, Nov. 1, 1920)

There were two other related propositions: Number 5 would create a state board of chiropractors to license themselves (something sought for years via the legislature or voters) and number 8, which regulated opiates and cocaine – curiously, it allowed doctors to prescribe the drugs to addicts, but any medicinal use required filing a report to the state pharmacy board.

A speaker from a public health group came to Santa Rosa and spoke on these four proposals, which he dubbed the “Quack Quartette.” His comments (transcribed below) explain the awfulness in all but the drug item. To that I’ll add only the perspective that the chiropractors had been pushing hard for their own licensing board since 1914, and it’s easy to see why; a report from the State Board of Medical Examiners found 2 out of 3 couldn’t pass an examination on basic anatomy.

The good news was that the anti-vaccination proposition lost by 56 percent (the chiropractor and vivisection amendments also failed to pass). The bad news is that the legislators still gave the antis their victory.

Changes to the state vaccination law in 1921 no longer required teachers to collect vaccination certificates or non-consent slips. If a child in the school district caught smallpox only those who were unvaccinated and exposed to the sick kid would be sent home for quarantine. As it was now impossible for the school to know who was vaccinated and who was not, what did they do? “Students, little Tommy has smallpox and everyone who hasn’t been vaccinated gets to stay home for two weeks. Can I see a show of hands?” That worked out swell, I bet.

There were now regularly thousands of cases every year in the state.4 California was fortunate that only the milder form of smallpox was found spreading. Sonoma county was extraordinarily lucky; the only child who became ill here in the early 1920s was a boy in Penngrove. “This is the first case of smallpox in this vicinity for some years and it is causing a scare because smallpox is rapidly gaining in the state owing to carelessness in vaccination and it is serious in several parts of California,” the Petaluma Argus remarked. “There is more smallpox now than for many years and it is increasing at an alarming rate while the illness is more severe than it has been for years and there have been numerous deaths.” That year 56 people died in the state, the highest since before the turn of the century.

There were no more anti-vaccination protests, of course; they had been given everything they ever wanted.

For those who embrace science and believe it’s not a good idea for people to unnecessarily get sick and die, this has been a depressing story – and it gets worse. Remember Dr. A. Vogt and the other vaccine skeptics from the 1870s who were quoted by Taylor in his letter to the PD? Today you can find many of those exact same quotes rehashed in brand new anti-vaxx books and recent websites – although now scrubbed of dates and any other historical context. Apparently Dr. Vogt is still gnashing his teeth over vaccines some 150 years after his heyday.

Maybe there are lessons to glean from the anti-vaccination squabbles of that era, but caution is needed; as a starting point, all of us should have some empathy for the antis prior to 1914 (well, all except for Mr. Taylor). Had I lived back then I might have felt leery about smallpox vaccination, but not because I believed vaccines were phony. There was a certain amount of risk in any doctor visit because medicine was then still in a generally barbaric state – no antibiotics, poor understanding of infection prevention and primitive test equipment for diagnostics.

Then there was often a question of whether any particular vaccination worked; that article about the 279 smallpox cases revealed about eight percent had been vaccinated, but not successfully. The failures could have been because the culture was dead, was low potency or the patient’s immune response was too strong. But it took a day or three and an expert eye to tell if a proper pustule had developed, which might mean another visit by the doctor. Also, an additional eight percent of the cases had been vaccinated in childhood but immunity in those vaccines lasted less than a dozen years.

And let’s concede some people really did die because of being vaccinated, although even the diehard antis never claimed there were very many (in New York state the ratio was reportedly five in a million in the late 1910s). They didn’t know how to sterilize the live animal serum extracted from cow/calf lymph glands until 1914 and the other vaccine source was using a fresh scab from someone with the disease – certainly a chance of infection either way.

Despite all those little risks, the odds of dying from the more aggressive form of smallpox was about one in four, so vaccination was always the wisest course for anyone thinking straight. But none of that mattered because the antis had a simple and effective counterargument – it just didn’t make sense to expose healthy people to a disease in order to prevent them from later getting sick. That’s the most common message repeated in their letters and pamphlets, often with the vaccine being scorned as “filthy,” “disgusting,” “rotten” and see above re: disgust being a most effective way to shape a negative opinion.

The anti groups and the chiropractors effectively won the fight through manipulating fears, but the irony was that the champions of vaccines had a much more powerful weapon of this type which wasn’t used – horrific photos of children infected with smallpox. Had these been as well circulated as the antis’ pamphlets, the public would have begged for mass vaccinations. Here’s an example, and I’m linking to a Snopes.com fact-check page to assure Gentle Reader this is not a pre-Photoshop fake image. On that page click through their link to the “Atlas of Clinical Medicine, Surgery, and Pathology” to see more, if you have the stomach.

vaccinationcartoonSometimes efforts were made to get these images into view, only to find them thwarted by antis. In June 1913 the Berkeley Board of Health wanted to post photos of smallpox victims at city hall but an anti councilman blocked the effort, saying it was “evident intention of frightening people into an adoption of the unprovable theory that vaccination prevents smallpox.”

All of this resonates with the anti-vaxx dilemma today. Scientists are continually publishing studies showing modern vaccines cause no harm (PARTICULARLY NO INCREASE IN AUTISM) but that information is ignored by those endlessly tormented by the fear in the air. I visited scores of anti-vaxx websites this week (there are reportedly about 500). Want to know what I found? Not reasoned arguments refuting the science studies – but stock photos of babies crying and cringing from a doctor while receiving a shot. Hello, emotional triggers.

And just as the Press Democrat innocently became an accomplice by printing the antis’ propaganda in 1913, today Facebook and other social media are complicit in spreading misinformation. As of this writing (2019) anti-vaxxers have gamed Amazon to push anti-vaccine books by swarming the site with bad reviews for pro-vaccine books.

Thus far the year 2019 is looking a lot like 1912 in the last century’s culture wars, when parents were increasingly opting-out of smallpox vaccinations – which led to the 1,100 percent rise in smallpox cases over the following decade. And now there’s a skyrocketing resurgence of measles because there are regional pockets where parents are likewise choosing to opt-out by claiming religious or moral exemptions. Will the unease of a few again outweigh the needs of the many?

If history is indeed a treadmill, brace for a near future where old childhood diseases come roaring back and common ones increase by over a thousand percent. To pretend that can’t happen is folly.


1 The Chiropractic Problem; Dr. Charles B. Pinkham, Secretary-Treasurer, Board of medical examiners, state of California; American Medical Association Bulletin; January 1921

2 How Emotional Frames Moralize and Polarize Political Attitudes; Scott Clifford; Political Psychology; 2018

3 Medical Liberty: Drugless Healers Confront Allopathic Doctors, 1910–1931; Stephen Petrina; Journal of Medical Humanities; 2008 (Nothing specific to California, but good background on the American Medical Liberty League and National League for Medical Freedom)

4 Smallpox Deaths/Cases per year, 1918-1925: 3/1016, 5/2002, 7/4492, 21/5579, 20/2129, 1/2026, 56/9445, 58/4921. California. Dept. of Public Health Biennial Report, Volumes 26-30

(ABOVE: Rally of the Anti-Vaccination League of Canada in Toronto, November 13, 1919. The “German born” sign refers to Germany making smallpox vaccinations compulsory in 1874. As this rally was held just a year after the end of WWI, the message is clearly intended to associate the public’s lingering hatred of Germany with vaccinations)

Undated cartoon, source unknown
Undated cartoon, source unknown

FIGHTING VACCINATION.

It is passing strange that Berkeley, a community of more than average intelligence, lying as it does in the very shadow of the university, is the center and hotbed of the anti-vaccination movement. There are, it is true, some other advocates of the spread of smallpox in other parts of the state. Santa Cruz has a small colony, and Los Angeles, which is the home of isms and schisms, only second to San Diego, has also a few friends of the dread disease; but Berkeley has the doubtful honor of being the center of the movement to prevent the stamping out of smallpox; and already, the primaries being over, has started once more to carry out its ideas at the expense of the health of the people of the state. Once more the fight for safety must be begun also.

The sole argument the antis have to offer is that some children have died from the use of bad vaccine, and that others have contracted serious diseases from the use of impure scabs. No one will deny either contention, and if it were simply a question of insisting that the best of vaccine should always be used and that the physician should be held responsible for the condition of the matter and of the instruments he uses, there would be no dispute over the subject anywhere in the state. But with the logic of fanaticism, the Berkeleyites insist that no one shall be vaccinated because some have died and others have been made ill as a result of carelessness. They insist that smallpox shall not be stopped: that all the children !n the state shall be exposed to danger and disfigurement because some few persons do not want their children protected. The vast majority of the people of the country, of the civilized world, believe in vaccination, and yet the infinitesimal minority, against all experience, against the well established facts in the matter, against every teaching of modern medicine, insist that the vast majority must suffer because of their disapproval and absurd theories.

Any student of history knows what a dread disease smallpox was for centuries. Any reader knows that it is a minor disease since the utility of vaccination was discovered. Here in California we have only one case of smallpox in five thousand cases of disease, and only one death in one hundred eases of smallpox. In a word, thanks to the thorough vaccination of the children and adults of California, the disease has practically been stamped out here, and yet a few fanatics insist that such desirable and wonderful results shall be destroyed, because once or twice impure vaccine was used.

It is time that the people of the state aroused themselves and let their views on this subject be known to their representatives in the legislature, or it is possible that again, as has occurred severnl times before, the legislature will pass a law repealing the one on the statute books, and an epidemic of smallpox will result. Only the veto of the Governor saved this state the last time the experiment was tried, and as neither of the candidates for the governorship have announced their views on the subject, it is safest to kill the propaganda when it first appears in the introduction of repeal bills in either house. This is not a trifling matter. It is a very serious one. and one that should be watched carefully and fought energetically.

– Sacramento Union, September 24 1910

 

VACCINATION TO BE PARENTS’ OPTION
Senate Bill Passed in Assembly Which Removes Obligations Placed on School Children

Vaccination furnished the topic of the nearest approach to a fight in the Assembly Wednesday in the course of the passage of the few bills whose authors had energy enough to call them up for consideration when they were reached on the file. But even this near approach to a clash between the members of the lower House failed to furnish more that a slight diversion from the routine of the day. with but eight dissenting voices, Senator Hurd’s bill (Senate bill No. 655) was passed by the Assembly and sent to the Governor for his approval of its provisions removing the requirement of vaccination as a condition of admission to the public schools of the State. The bill makes vaccination of children optional with parents.

… Assemblymen Schmitt and Chandler were the only open opponents of the bill in the discussion prior to its passage. Chandler declared that “there are a few old women down in my district who are against vaccination, but I am in favor of it and will vote against this bill.” Schmitt declared that he would vote against the bill in question because of his fear that its passage would lead to the ultimate repeal of all legislation pertaining to vaccination.

But Joel lost his motion to continue consideration the bill, and it came the final vote of 58 to 8…

– Press Democrat, February 24 1911

 

VACCINATION MEETING IS RIOT
Aged Stepfather of Health Officer Benton Hissed for Defense of Physician
Police Chief Restores Order When Session of ‘Antis’ Grows Too Stormy

[California Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League meeting in Berkeley
story ends by noting five out of nine smallpox cases in Berkeley were fatal]

– Oakland Tribune, January 31, 1913

 

CALIFORNIA ANTI-COMPULSORY VACCINATION LEAGUE STATE HEADQUARTERS
Berkeley, California, Jan. 20, 1913

The citizens of Berkeley have been thrown into a deplorable condition by an over zealous Health Board, after the discovery of eight cases of smallpox. The percentage was very small, about one case to every eight thousand inhabitants. So insistent were these officials for WHOLESALE VACCINATION, they threw the people into a panic, thereby causing a withdrawal of several hundred pupils from certain schools. Thereupon the School Board deemed it wise to close ALL schools. However, that did not prevent them from insisting upon a wholesale vaccination of school children and teachers. Articles that they caused to be printed so excited the parents that even people who had an aversion to vaccination were terrified into having their children vaccinated.

They have boasted that they would destroy our League in Berkeley, the city of its birth. THE IRON HEEL OF THE MEDICAL PROFESSION in the part two weeks has ground harder and deeper than in the past nine years of the League’s existence. Our Treasury is depleted. Briefs carrying our case against the University of California to the Appellate Court amounts to $104.90. Three lawyers’ fees, $150. Besides paid advertisements in local papers, literature, stamps, etc. There is no officer connected with our League receiving any salary. The life of our League is at stake. Can you assist us financially? If so do so at once. Interest your friends in our League, your city may be the next to be visited by an epidemic.
Very earnestly yours,
SAMUEL TAYLOR

 

CASES OF SMALLPOX GROWING RAPIDLY
Twenty-Seven in Sacrarnento Since January – Other Cities Suffer Same.
TWENTY-SEVEN THIS YEAR
Secretary of the Health Board Charges Increase to Anti-Vaccination Idea,

During the year 1911, when the effect of the compulsory vaccination law could still be felt, the number of smallpox cases in Sacramento was limited to three.

In 1912, following the repeal of the compulsory feature of the law and the substitution of one requiring the exclusion of unvaccinated children from the public school only when smallpox existed in the particular school or district to which they belonged, the numbers of cases mounted to twenty-nine.

For the two and a half months of the year 1913 there have already been twenty-seven cases reported in this city. If this ratio is maintained the total for the year will reach 130, or more than forty-three times as much as in 1911.

Smallpox is not exactly epidemic, but there is an alarming increase in the number of cases, and according to the reports of the state board of health the experience of other cities in state is not unlike that of Sacramento.

HIGH DEATH RATE.

The recent outbreak in Berkeley had fatal consequences for five out of ten persons who contracted the disease within one circle of focus, originating from one person, and there were thirteen cases altogether. In Imperial Valley, four out of eighteen persons died, when the disease was introduced in one of the valley towns.

In almost all of the cases the patients had either not been vaccinated or not successfully vaccinated. Of 279 cases of smallpox reported in the last year and a half there were 228 where the patient had not been vaccinated, 22 not successfully, 22 successfully in childhood, from twelve to fifteen years previous, 2 where the victim had previously had smallpox and 5 where there had been successful vaccination.

These figures are presented by Dr. W. F. Snow, secretary of the state board of health, who was asked yesterday to back with data the statement that there is an increased and increasing prevalence of smallpox in California and to account for the phenomena.

“They are no doubt directly traceable,” said Dr. Snow, “to the modification of the compulsory vaccination law and the agitation that has been going on insistently against vaccination. During 1907 and 1909 a very active campaign was conducted against compulsory vaccination and it finally resulted, in 1911, in the repeal of the law and the substitution of the present one.

INCREASE OF EXPOSURES.

“Letting down the bars has of course produced an increasing population of unvaccinated, and the more unvacclnated there are the greater the opportunity for contamination and contagion. This danger is increased by the fact that the population of the state is increasing all the time, which, with the new ramifications of commerce, results in a larger proportion of exposures.

“When a disease has once been well under control it takes time for it to become re-established, and that is what is occurring with smallpox. There seems to be no apparent reason why, now that the gate is open, smallpox cases will not go on increasing in numbers. It is not putting it too strongly to say that if we had compulsory vaccination we wouldn’t have smallpox.” Dr. Snow says also that an alarming incident in connection with the disease is that the confluent type, the most violent and loathsome of all, is becoming more prevalent. In recent years this form of the disease was almost unknown.

– Sacramento Union, March 15 1913

 

MUST PRODUCE CERTIFICATES
Requirements of Students Attending School Here Next Monday Morning

Health Officer Jackson Temple stated yesterday that in order to prevent disappointment when the schools assemble after summer vacation next Monday, the pupils will be required to show vaccination certificates, or else certificates showing that their parents have conscientious scruples against vaccination, or else they will not be allowed to attend school.

The law requires that the Board of Education furnish the certificates setting forth conscientious scruples against vaccination which will be handed to their children to be taken home for signature, by their parents. In the case of any infectious disease breaking out in a community the children who have been vaccinated will be allowed to attend school and those who have not will have to remain home.

Dr. Temple further stated that Santa Rosa had been freer from cases of smallpox than possibly any other city of its size in the State and at the present time there is no case in the city limits.

– Press Democrat, August 20 1913

 

MEDICAL FREEDOM AND VACCINATION

Wednesday morning the Press Democrat published the announcement that Health Officer Jackson Temple, M. D., would demand either a vaccination certificate or one setting forth the fact that a child’s parents had conscientious scruples against vaccination when the schools reassemble again next week.

Wednesday morning the following communication from the Santa Rosa Branch of the American League of Medical Freedom was handed in at the Press Democrat office with a request for its publication:

“Compulsory vaccination has been abolished by the California Legislature, and those who do not wish to have their children vaccinated have only to fill out a blank similar to the following, and the child is then not required to submit to vaccination.

“In case of a smallpox epidemic the school board have the power to exclude from school all un-vaccinated children coming from the district only in which the cases are found.

“Sample of Exemption Certificate…

“…I hereby declare that I am conscientiously opposed to the practice of vaccination and will not consent to the vaccination of ___________
Signed Parent or Guardian _____________.

“The following citations are from noted physicians and from records taken from the past experience where vaccination has not proven a preventive. These are only just a few of conclusions cited from a large number of physicians…

“…Sorry, but space will not permit, we could keep you reading all day on just such data that is against vaccination. A similar theory to that of vaccination is medical inspection of school children. Compulsory treatment will be next wanted by a great many of the M. D.’s.

“Just a hint to parents. In Winnetka, Illinois, girls in the new Trier High School were compelled to submit to complete physical examination. They were taken to the gymnasium and stripped of all their clothing. In the presence of other girls they were examined. A request from their parents to excuse them, and a physician’s certificate were ignored. The Inspector and the school authorities held themselves superior to both parents and family physician. The girls were led to the gymnasium and compelled to submit. When a protest was filed on the ground that the Schools were free and no physical examination could be required as a qualification of admission, the newspapers published the story. The board of education met, and decided that the physical examination was not required for admission to the high school, which was public and free.”

– Press Democrat, August 21 1913

 

VACCINATION MADE SAFE BY SCIENCE The anti-vaccinationists are about to lose their strongest argument. Their most telling objection against vaccination has long been that it was impossible to get absolutely pure vaccine matter; notwithstanding the greatest precautions, like the use of calves kept under specially sanitary conditions, the lymph obtained would not infrequently contain deleterious germs. According to the German Medical Weekly, however, a way has at last been found for sterilizing lymph so thoroughly that its purity can always be relied upon. This has been accomplished by Prof. E. Friedberger and Dr. B. Mlronescu, who have availed themselves of the well-known principle that the ultra-violet rays of light are destructive of bacterial life. The virus is put into small tubes of quartz-glass, which are then exposed to the ultra-violet rays from an electric lamp. In 20 or 30 minutes there is not a live germ left in them.

– Sacramento Union, July 19 1914

 

VACCINATION ORDER IS BEING RIGIDLY ENFORCED

The desks of the principals were piled high with vaccination certificates at the high school Monday after a campaign among the students, in which a certificate dated not earlier than 1907 was compulsory with the alternative of a note from the parent or guardian to the effect that they were opposed to the treatment. Dr. Jackson Temple, the health officer, was a busy man and in spite of the bruised arm which he sustained in Sunday’s accident and wore in a sling moved among the mass of students with a pleasant smile.

– Press Democrat, September 15 1914

 

Dr. Gillihan Defendant in Battery Charges

Dr. Allen F. Gillihan. an inspector for the State Board of Health, who was formerly stationed in Santa Rosa, is facing battery charges in Chico as the result of his activity in enforcing vaccination among school children during a smallpox epidemic in that vicinity. He denies having forced vaccination where there was objections, however.

– Press Democrat, March 1 1919

 

PARENTS CONVERTED TO SCIENCE Over 500 children have been vaccinated by Dr. Juell, the school doctor, so far this year. It has been discovered since the vaccinating is done in the school and without charge that the number of parents who are conscientiously opposed to vaccination has dwindled from an alarmingly large number to practically none at all.

– Press Democrat, October 19 1919

 

THREE AMENDMENTS GIVEN OPPOSITION, ONE FAVORED
Sonoma County Public Health Association Talks of New Laws at Meeting Here Yesterday in the City Hall.

“Don’t close the door of hope for cancer victims, now or in the future. Don’t undo all that has been done for the restriction of tuberculosis. Don’t deprive the choking child of the diphtheria serum, without which his gasping must be futile, without which be must be snatched by death. Don’t, please don’t tie the hands of the physicians. Don’t make futile all of their efforts for the alleviation of human misery. Don’t throttle education in the State of California. And above ail else, don’t make suffering little children the victims of a misplaced sympathy for mice, rabbits, guinea pigs and the like.”

This was the appeal of Celeste J. Sullivan, secretary of the California League for the Conservation of Public Health, to the audience assembled in the council chamber of the city hall Tuesday afternoon; an audience, by ths way, that entirely filled audience section of the room and overflowed into the section reserved for the council members. The meeting where Mr. Sullivan spoke was the annual assemblage of the Sonoma County Public Health Association, and it attracted representatives from various portions of the county…

“…That No. 5 promises the appointment of a special board of examiners for chiropractic physicians and thereby opens the way for the appointment of at least twenty-seven other special boards of examiners for the various other similar cults in the state, is the special argument advanced against it.

“No. 6 is a blow not at vaccination, which in this state is not compulsory, but it aims a death blow as well at inoculation and medication of every kind and would irrevocably tie the hands of the state board of health, making that board absolutely powerless. Further arguments advanced against it by Mr. Sullivan are that if passed it would jeopardize the lives and health of our children by permitting absolutely no disbarment from school or any other public place of persons afflicted with communicable disease, thereby giving no leverage in arresting any epidemic.

“No. 7 aims to make illegal all experiments on live animals. It would absolutely check ail advance in surgical and biological experimentation, stop laboratory work in our universities and colleges, our medical schools and even our high schools, do away with the possiblity of manufacturing not alone preventative serums of all character, but as well strike a death blow to anesthesia and through this to human surgery. Not alone that, but it would put an absolute stop to all experimentation made in the interest of our farm animals, hogs, chickens and cattle.”

“Does California want that?” asks Mr. Sullivan. If we overlook entirely the human element and put the lives of guinea pigs before those of little children, are we willing to go back to the loss of millions of hogs annually? And in reference to the charges of cruelty, the speaker made it plain that the laws of this state are in absolute accord with the requirements of the humane societies, which demand the administration of an anaesthetic in every instance before experimentation. Furthermore, all experimentation laboratories within the state are at all times open to the public.

In connection with this amendment. Mr. Sulivan drew attention to the fact that it will prohibit the killing of tubercular infected cattle, except in the course of a regulation meat supply. ”Do we want this in California?” he further asked of his audience.

No. 8 deals with the curbing of of the drug menace. The last legislature passed the measure and the governor placed his signature to it, showing how our lawmakers feel in the matter. On this measure a “yes” is urged….

– Press Democrat, October 13 1920

 

VACCINATION BILL VETOED BY SENATE

Despite opposition and the absence of ten members, the Senate late today passed. 23 to 7, Senator Crowley’s bill to repeal the compulsory vaccination act and to place control of small pox in the hands of the state board of health. Nelson and others objected to the section of the bill stating that “the control of small pox shall be under the direction of the state board of health, and no rule or regulation on the subject of vaccination shall be adopted by school or local health authorities.”

– Press Democrat, April 6 1921

 

Dr. H. F. True Tells of New State Vaccination Law

Dr. Herbert F. True. Director of the Los Angeles School Health Department, in explaining the new state vaccination law which went into effect in California on July 23. makes the following statement for the guidance of parents, teachers and school officers:

“In event that a case of smallpox develops in a school district, the only persons who will be excluded from school will be the patient and other residents in his home. Persons who have been exposed by these other residents who have not been vaccinated will not be excluded as heretofore. This will mean a great saving to the schools, in that the attendance will not be cut down every time a remote exposure occurs in a school.

“If, however, smallpox becomes very prevalent in the district, the Public Health Officer may order the entire closing of the school to all persons, no distinction being made between vaccinated and unvaccinated children.

“Teachers will not be under the necessity of filing vaccination cards with the schools, nor will they have to require vaccination or opposed-to-vaccination cards from the pupils.”

The law which Dr. True refers to, and which, as he says, removes the distinction formerly drawn between vaccinated and unvaccinated children, so that the unvaccinated now have the same freedom in attending school that the vaccinated enjoy, was enacted by the California legislature at its last session, and reads as follows:

“The control of smallpox shall be under the direction of the State Board of Health, and no rule or regulation on the subject of vaccination shall be adopted by school or local health authorities,”

– Press Democrat, August 18 1921

 

SMALLPOX CASE AT PENNGROVE

Norman Johnson, the seven year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Gus Johnson, is ill at his home at that place with a pronounced case of smallpox. The home has been quarantined by the county health authorities and the school was closed Thursday and will reopen on Monday morning.

The county health authorities announced formally today that the school children who are not vaccinated between now and Monday morning will not be allowed to attend school on that day or until they are vaccinated…It is thought that there will be more cases as many children have been exposed to the disease…

This is the first case of smallpox in this vicinity for some years and it is causing a scare because smallpox is rapidly gaining in the state owing to carelessness in vaccination and it is serious in several parts of California. There is more smallpox now than for many years and it is increasing at an alarming rate while the illnes is more severe than it has been for years and there have been numerous deaths.

– Petaluma Argus, June 12, 1924

 

VACCINATION BANNED AT BURNSIDE SCHOOL

Parents of the Burnside district have refused to allow their children to be vaccinated in the drive being made by Sonoma county health authorities. Not one student in the school was vaccinated, the parents having declined to have the children undergo the treatment. – Press Democrat

– Petaluma Argus, November 22, 1924

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THE DELINQUENT WOMEN OF SONOMA

Dear Valley of the Mooners: The state will soon build a lockup there for morons who are outcast women, which is to say they are really prostitutes. P.S. Most of them will probably have chronic cases of venereal disease. P.P.S. It will be your patriotic duty to cooperate fully to show your support for our troops.

This odd proposition came up during the winter of 1917-1918, as California fully ramped up home front efforts for fighting World War I. Under the so-called “American Plan,” it was decided our draftee soldiers in training camps needed to be protected against booze and sex workers, so the Navy established “dry zones” around Mare Island and other military bases. Liquor could not be sold within this five-mile radius and brothels were likewise closed under military order. President Wilson expanded this further by declaring areas around shipyards, munition factories, and schools with military prep programs to likewise be temptation-free.

As explained in part one, this led to tens of thousands of women accused of prostitution nationwide being swept up in vice raids and held under “quarantine” without due process. For such women of Northern California, the state was proposing to build a secured building at the Sonoma State Home at Eldridge big enough to imprison 300.

Why they pitched the “moron” angle is less clear. In the early 20th century “moron,” “imbecile” and “idiot” were accepted quasi-medical terms (although the methods used to classify people as such were complete and utter bullshit). As the institution near Glen Ellen was still widely known by its old name as the California Home for Feeble-Minded Children, maybe it was thought there would be fewer objections from locals if the women supposedly were of lower than average intelligence.1

There was plenty of local pushback against establishing such a “moron colony” at Eldridge even after the projected number of inmates was reduced by two-thirds. Nonetheless, by the summer of 1918, there were 110 “weak-minded girls and young women” from San Francisco quartered there.2

When the federal government abolished liquor in the Dry Zones, it helped pave the way for passage of Prohibition after the war ended. Similarly, the interest in keeping prostitutes locked up continued unabated – although the excuse was no longer protecting the troops from disease in order to keep men “fit to fight.” As also explained in part one, the new call was to abolish prostitution in California by reforming the women – even if it was against their will (and likely unconstitutional).

The loudest voices calling for enforced reform were the women’s clubs. In April, 1919, they succeeded in having the legislature pass an act establishing the “California Industrial Farm for Women” which was “to establish an institution for the confinement, care, and reformation of delinquent women.” Any court in the state could now commit a women there for six months to five years. But where would this “Industrial Farm” be located? The state only considered two locations – both in the Sonoma Valley.

One possibility was the big chicken ranch of J. K. Bigelow between Glen Ellen and Sonoma (today it’s the Sonoma Golf Club, and the sprawling clubhouse is the “cottage” the Bigelows built in 1910). The other option was the old Buena Vista winery, where Kate Johnson, a philanthropist and noted art collector, had built a 40-room mansion in the 1880s. The state chose Buena Vista and began bringing in women after winning a 1922 test court challenge over a single inmate.

A slightly different version of the colorized postcard shown in “THE MAKING OF A CRAZY CAT LADY.”
From the Bartholomew Park Winery

Battle lines formed. Women-based organizations – the clubs, League of Women Voters, the W. C. T. U. and other temperance groups – enthusiastically supported the “Industrial Farm” (it was also called the “Delinquent Women Home” and every variation in between; here I’ll simply refer to it as the “Home”). On the other side were politicians and bureaucrats (all male, of course) who thought the property could be put to better use, or just objected to the idea of spending taxpayer dollars trying to rehabilitate women of ill repute.

The attack on the Home locally was led by the Sonoma Index-Tribune, grasping at every opportunity to bash the place as a misguided experiment by do-gooders who foolishly believed they could domesticate feral humans. A scrapbook of clippings from the I-T during the 1920s can be found in the museum for the Bartholomew Park Winery (which traces its history back to Haraszthy’s original Buena Vista vineyards) and I am indebted to the winery – as well as the anonymous soul who originally assembled the scrapbook – for sharing that invaluable resource with me.3

The Index-Tribune’s bias was so unfettered we can never be certain how much of what they reported as fact was true – and alas, it was the only newspaper regularly covering doings at the Home. Sometimes the fake news is obvious; the I-T once claimed the monthly cost was $509.59 per inmate, but from later testimony and articles elsewhere we learn it was really in the $80-90 range, and was only that high because of building construction and other start-up costs.

A popular theme in the Sonoma paper was that the women were dangerous, depraved criminals. When the W. C. T. U. proposed incorporating some of the inmates from the women’s ward at San Quentin (almost all women at the prison were in for non-violent crimes, mainly check kiting and forgery), the Index-Tribune played up the “unthinkable” threat they would bring to the community:

…We have had ample opportunity to judge the farm already, and do not hesitate to say that as a penal institution it is a failure, because it is a menace to the community and a nuisance to local officers…to bring 50 San Quentin inmates here, unconfined, without guards and a prison wall, is unthinkable. Surely the people of the surrounding country are to be thought of, despite theorists of the W.C.T.U. Perhaps if these good women knew how the handful already at the farm have acted, they would hesitate to pass their sob-sister resolutions. Perhaps if they were informed that there has been leaks, escapades and communication with companions on the outside, they might understand something of the danger such an institution is in our midst…

That editorial appeared in September 1922, when the Home had been accepting women only about four months and had thirty inmates. The I-T rushed to declare it already a failure, although the only reported trouble had occurred the week before. The paper would still scream about that incident years later, and as with all other damning news from the Index-Tribune, their version should be presumed slanted.

Two women escaped, were caught and returned. They became belligerent and started a riot. The ringleader was arrested, handcuffed (a later rehash would say she was “hog tied”) and taken to the county jail in Santa Rosa. While enroute, “the prisoner, who is a drug fiend, hurled the vilest epithets at the officer.” Deputy Joe Ryan was immediately called back to the Home to arrest another riotous inmate, and the two women were sentenced to 40 days in the Sonoma county jail.

Six months later the Sonoma paper reprinted a Sacramento Bee report about another escape under the headline, “THREE WOMEN’S PRISON MILK MAIDS FLEE”:

…[the] aesthetic atmosphere, created to comfort the women jailed because of commission of the sin that has come down the ages, now includes “lowing herds winding slowly o’er the lea.” At least, a herd of milk cows recently was installed at the home, there to replace a herd of milk goats. Perhaps the break for liberty taken from them was actuated by resentment over the transfer of the lowly but picturesque milk goat for the more impressive bossy. Or mayhaps the duty of parking a cow on the farm and relieving her of her fluid treasure proved more arduous to the three “sisters of sin” than being maid to the goats. This is not officially explained. It is officially admitted, however, that the maids three have gone…Anyway, the first big break has been staged at the prison farm. As far as is known, this is the first break from jail in California by three women.

The Index-Tribune felt compelled to append an editor’s note: “The Bee was misinformed as to this being the first break. There is such a gap between the honor system and discipline at the prison farm that there is a jail break every week.”

As the I-T had not been reporting all those weekly “jail breaks,” the editor was either admitting such events weren’t newsworthy or didn’t happen. Either way, it opens the question: What was really going on at the Home?

Rarely mentioned was that a small hospital was built next door when the Home opened. The original 1919 Act specified that women only could be released “with reasonable safety and benefit to herself and the public at large,” which meant treating – and hopefully, curing – any venereal diseases. As discussed in part one, the best medical protocols in that era involved weeks of painful shots using solutions which had to be prepared under very precise conditions. Thus it’s safe to assume that the hospital’s (20? 30?) beds were filled at any given time.

The Act also called for the inmates to be given “industrial and other training and reformatory help,” but aside from milking those cows – and before that, goats – there was no mention of other work, aside from a later comment in the I-T about them “painting flower boxes and pots,” which could be just gratuitous snark from the editor. Nor was any formal education or training ever mentioned.

Before the place had a single inmate, Superintendent Blanche Morse was interviewed by the Press Democrat. “We are going to give the inmates work to do,” she said, “but we are not going to apply the institutional idea and make them do it to bells and march-time. Each woman will help around the house in some way.” To her and other women’s advocates at the time, the inmates would be transformed once they were lifted out of their abnormal environment. That meant placing these women – who came from San Francisco and other big cities –  in the countryside to learn farm chores along with traditional domestic skills like sewing, laundry and housecleaning in a communal women-only setting.

(RIGHT:) Blanche Morse portrait used in the San Francisco Call 1911-1912

Blanche Morse was the guiding force of the Home from the beginning. When the Home opened she was 52 years old, a former Berkeley librarian, middle school principal, and feminist with a decade of positions in several East Bay and state women’s groups. In 1911 she was a speaker and organizer on the historic suffrage campaign tour to gain the right to vote in California. Her complete lack of any background in penology or social work or administration might seem to make her unqualified to handle the unique problems of the women sentenced to the Home, but she still probably looked like the ideal person to many in 1920 – because of her activism with the Mobilized Women.

The “Mobilized Women’s Army” was a coalition of Bay Area women’s groups that organized in Berkeley just after the U.S. entered WWI in 1917. Its objective was to locally enforce “Americanization,” which was another creepy project of the Wilson Administration akin to the American Plan – but instead of unconstitutionally locking up women accused of moral crimes, Americanization sought to encourage citizens to spy on their foreign-born neighbors and intimidate them into behaving more like “real Americans.”

It was Blanche Morse who organized efforts to compile a list of every single immigrant in the Bay Area via a house-to-house survey – a list which would have been invaluable to the government and industrialists after the war during the “Red Scare” years, when both sought to crush Bolshevism and labor activism dominated by first-generation immigrants.

And just as the American Plan gained more steam once the war was over, the Mobilized Women’s mission became a well-funded program to push cultural assimilation. It was the Mobilized Women’s “American House” in Berkeley that clearly became the model for the learn-by-osmosis rehabilitation efforts at the Delinquent Woman Home at Buena Vista. There foreign-born women were shown American-style houswifery, which, as one scholar put it, meant “in order to be better citizens, immigrant women should learn to dress, shop, cook and clean in new, better, and more ‘American’ ways.”4

It’s unknown whether Morse’s delinquent women similarly adopted “American ways” and became prostitutes no more. That is, if they were prostitutes to begin with; according to the Sacramento Bee, of the 54 inmates there at the end of 1922, only 17 were prostitutes and the rest were addicts/alcoholics. The law gave courts broad leeway to sentence any woman to the Home for having any connection at all with prostitution or merely being considered a “common drunkard.” One woman was reportedly 67 years old, and all were charged with simply vagrancy.5

Much was later made by critics about the 67 year-old; “When do ‘wild women’ cease being wild?” taunted the Index-Tribune, although she could well have been a bordello’s madam – and the law specifically mentioned, “any women…keeping a house of ill fame.” Others would accuse Morse of padding the rolls. A member of the State Board of Control shared with the I-T a letter where he made the unlikely charge that federal prisons were in cahoots with Morse, and wardens were lending her convicts in order to polish up her budget:

…The institution never had many of the class of women for which it was intended, namely prostitutes or street walkers. When criticism arose because the institution was costing about $1100 per capital per year, the superintendent ‘borrowed’ a number of narcotic addicts who were under federal conviction, thinking that by increasing the inmates the per capita rate would be decreased…

Hammered by critics, by the end of 1922 – when the Home had been active only about seven months – a bitter fight was already underway to keep it open for even another year.

The Sacramento Bee came out strongly against it, as did bureaucrats and politicians with influence and oversight responsibilities. Themes emerged: The women should be treated in regular state hospitals or imprisoned; the property should be used for a more deserving cause; if the women’s clubs wanted the Home so badly they should pay for it and make it their charity. On the other side, the state League of Women Voters vowed to fight closure and many women’s clubs demanded the project even needed to be expanded. Some clubs pledged to raise money.

Governor Richardson’s recommendations for its 1923 budget was chopped down to about twenty percent of what he asked, which clearly wasn’t enough to continue operations. Morse went to Sacramento ready to surrender. Then this happened:

Just after Miss Blanche Morse, superintendent of the Sonoma prison farm for Delinquent Women, had finished telling the joint legislative committee holding hearing upon the Richardson budget that she was about to recommend temporary suspension of the institution, word was flashed over the wires telling of the total destruction of the home by fire.

“Sonoma Valley’s beautiful landmark, The Castle, for 40 years nestled against the Buena Vista hills, is today a blackened ruins, for the building, since 1921 used to house women delinquents of the state of California, suddenly broke into flames Monday night at 6:15 and burned to the ground…” read the lede in the Sonoma Index-Tribune on March 17, 1923.

The fire began while the 65 inmates were starting supper and was well underway before a member of the Sebastiani family saw it from their house and called the fire department.

All managers were away that evening with Blanche Morse and the Home’s business manager in Sacramento and the farm manager off duty, leaving only a groundskeeper and attendants to cope with a life-threatening emergency. Everyone sought shelter in the hospital; even though it was made of brick, there must have been fear and panic as the immense building next to them blazed away for three hours. All of their clothing and personal items in their top floor dormitory were lost.

The Sonoma and Boyes Springs fire departments responded. The Index-Tribune wrote, “…When the fire departments arrived they found the farm water supply of little value owing to repairs which were being made to the reservoir, so the Sonoma engine therefore pulled water from a nearby creek. Despite four streams playing on the building it burned like tinder.”

A later view of the mansion at Buena Vista, probably c. 1920. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

The I-T rushed to suggest inmates had set the fire. A few years later the paper fleshed out the rumor in more detail: “It was common talk in Sonoma that an inmate boasted she had set the fire — the last of three conflagrations in the building — had locked the door where the flames were started and thrown the key out of the window…” Today it seems commonly believed that it was indeed arson.

But less than three weeks earlier there had been a major fire because of a “defective flue” (no details were ever provided). So serious was the incident that the Sonoma firemen had to chop several holes in the roof to get it under control. Repairs were ordered and the very day of the big fire, a local contractor was working on the problem flue. It seems far more likely the building was destroyed because a workman accidentally did something (knocked loose creosote buildup?) which caused a chimney fire the next time the fireplace was used.

Although the old mansion was destroyed, the state still owned the land and its valuable hospital. Led by indomitable Mrs. Aaron Schloss – the feminist who almost singlehanded turned California clubwomen into a formidable political bloc – the women’s club organizations immediately began to lobby hard for a new building so the Home could resume its purpose.

The pushback was fierce, critical of not only rebuilding any facility for women at Buena Vista but continuing the project at all. Gilbert B. Daniels, State Board of Control chairman said, “If it is the last thing I do, I’ll oppose that farm. It is a fad.” The director of the State Department of Institutions called it a boondoggle and a failed experiment. And as always, from the Index-Tribune’s columns plentiful sexism oozed: The law only passed originally because legislators were “stampeded by the petticoat brigade” and the only people who wanted the Home to reopen were “women theorists and job chasers.”

But even though the governor wanted to give it funding for another year at least, the California Industrial Farm for Women ceased to exist on June 30, 1923.

Over the next two years many ideas of what to do with the hospital were floated. The Sonoma County Federation of Women’s Clubs wanted it to be a children’s TB sanitarium. A veteran’s home was suggested as well as an orphanage for children of WWI vets run by the American Legion, which was proposed by Jack London’s sister Mrs. Eliza Shepard, state president of the women’s auxiliary. In 1924 it unofficially became sort of an annex of the nearby Sonoma State Home at Eldridge, when they housed 35 epileptic boys at the hospital.

The women’s club movement was split; some moved on to lobby for new female quarters at San Quentin (it was built in 1927).6 But in 1925, there was a last push by some clubwomen to revive a woman-only institution at Buena Vista.

A bill was introduced to construct an actual prison building for a “California Women’s Reformatory.” Housed there would be women felons, drug addicts, and “women committed under the provision of the act establishing the California Industrial Farm for Women.” A group from Sonoma county went to the capitol to lobby against it; some, like Eliza Shepard, thought such a place was a good idea, but just didn’t want it in our county. The party rehashed all the old horror stories about inmates escaping and causing havoc – until a legislator produced a letter from Sonoma City Marshal Albertson “denying that wild women had ever given anyone trouble.”

A test vote easily passed in the Assembly and according to the I-T, “Senators had apparently pledged support to not antagonize ‘the army of women lobbying for this bill’ and hoped the governor would veto it.” He obliged, and that was that.

Whatever anyone’s opinion of the Home’s purpose, its ending was tragic, particularly the terrible loss of that building, which was the largest and most palatial home ever built in Sonoma county. It’s also a shame we don’t know what really went on there, except through the spittle-flecked pages of the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Blanche Morse was required to keep detailed reports on all the inmates, so there are probably reams of data in the state archives. Maybe there’s a grad student out there looking for an interesting thesis topic.

Morse certainly thought it was successful; during her testimony on the day of the fire she said, “so far 60 per cent of those who had been freed had made good in the occupations to which they were sent.”

“…I believe that if a 15 per cent average of those who make good can be maintained in the future we will be doing extremely well…I do not think it reasonable to expect a woman who has lived the life of the streets for twenty years to completely reform in one year.”

For the 65 women who were at the Home following the big fire, however, there would be only incarceration – and worse. Before winding up this dismal coda to our story, remember the women were sent there for up to five years only on the fuzzy charge of vagrancy after having been denied their basic constitutional rights. Nor had a county “lunacy commission” been convened to determine whether any of them were mentally unfit.

As they couldn’t remain confined in the small hospital for long, the plan was to gradually resettle them at Eldridge. Two days after the disaster, four of the inmates sent there escaped and had to be recaptured by long-suffering Deputy Ryan. The same day he was called to the hospital, where the women were said (by the Index-Tribune) to be rioting. Five of them were carted to the Napa State Hospital. A five year commitment to an asylum would be no fun, but it was the women taken to Eldridge who most deserve pity.

By 1923, the Sonoma State Home had become virtually a factory operation of forced sterilization under superintendent Dr. Fred O. Butler, a firm believer in eugenics (see, “SONOMA COUNTY AND EUGENICS“). Between 1919 and 1949 about 5,400 were sterilized there – “We are not sterilizing, in my opinion, fast enough,” Butler said. And in his early years there was also a marked shift in the types of patients arriving at Eldridge: Instead of the “feeble-minded children” of the old days, a large proportion of the inmates were now female “sexual delinquents.”7

Just as the legislature in 1919 gave the state broad powers over delinquent women, they also authorized forced sterilization of inmates, including any “recidivist has been twice convicted for sexual offenses, or three times for any other crime in any state or country” (emphasis mine). A later amendment extended it to include, “…those suffering from perversion or marked departures from normal mentality, or from diseases of a syphilitic nature.” In other words, there can be no doubt that all of the Buena Vista women were sterilized – the only question is whether Butler also performed some of the other horrific experimental genital surgeries which were described in part one.

There’s never been a book written about the Home, or even an article (well, until now). Was it was successful rehab program far ahead of its time or just a misguided social experiment by do-gooders? Or something in between?

What’s certain, however, is it ended up badly for almost all of the women. Picked off the streets on some misdemeanor – soliciting, drunkenness, homelessness – they expected a fine and a few days in county jail. Instead they were sent to state prison (albeit a beautiful prison) indefinitely. And then after a few weeks or months a few found themselves confined to the madhouse, while most of them discovered the punishment for their minor crimes would be going under Dr. Butler’s eager knives.

 

1 This era was the start of America’s faith that an “IQ test” objectively measured intelligence with scientific precision, although we now recognize the exam was filled with cultural and racial bias – see my discussion here. Using such quack methodology, a 1917 study by the San Francisco Dept. of Health claimed about 2 out of 3 prostitutes examined were “feeble-minded” or “borderline.”

2 Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom by Wendy Kline; University of California Press 2005, pg. 47. Although I could find no newspaper articles mentioning the 110 women arrived, Kline is the authority on Eldridge for that era and had access to the institution’s records.

3 Sonoma Index-Tribune clippings in the scrapbook sometimes were reprints of articles from the Sacramento Bee and Bay Area newspapers, but all clips are consistently negative about the Home. An op/ed in the January 13, 1923 I-T suggests the other regional newspaper, the Sonoma Valley Expositor, was in support of the Home, but nothing from that paper was included in the scrapbook. Scattered issues of the Expositor from the early 1920s only can be found at the state library in Sacramento.

4 Gender and the Business of Americanization: A Study of the Mobilized Women of Berkeley by Rana Razek; Ex Post Facto/SFSU; 2013 (PDF)

5 From the March 17, 1923 Sonoma Index-Tribune: “Senator Walter McDonald of San Francisco declared that he did not believe the women were being treated fairly in that they can be sentence to the home for a term not to exceed five years, while men charged with vagrancy, the charge under which all commitments have been made to the home, can receive only six months in the county jails of the state.”

6 A Germ of Goodness: The California State Prison System, 1851-1944 by Shelley Bookspan, University of Nebraska Press, 1991; pg. 81

7 op. cit. Building a Better Race, pg. 54

Collage of Sonoma Index-Tribune headlines, 1922-1925

 

 

MANAGERS ASKED TO COOPERATE
Would Establish an Institution for High Grade Morons at the Estate of the Sonoma State Home.

Representatives of the Probation Committee of San Francisco appeared before the board of managers of the Sonoma State Home at their meeting at Eldridge on Wednesday and asked the board for co-operation in the providing of cottages and a place for about three hundred delinquent women from the bay cities. They belong to a class designated as morons.

This step is said to be in the nature of an emergency measure on account of the unusual conditions that have arisen incident to the health protection of soldiers in camp in and around San Francisco. But long before the recent conditions that have arisen this matters was discussed at Eldridge.

The board of managers took no definite action in the premises other than promising whatever co-operation th«y could give. The delegation appearing before the board of managers wanted cottages built on the home grounds in some suitable location. There is no fund available for such buildings in the hands of the state at the present time and even though there was an available fund it is doubtful if the home estate is the proper place for an additional institution as that suggested.

– Press Democrat, November 16 1917

 

MUCH BUILDING AT STATE HOME
New Cottages for Female Delinquents to Be Rushed to Completion at an Early Date: New Laundry Building and Bakeshop Are Also to Be Built Right Away.

The Sonoma State Home at Eldridge will be the scene of much building for several months for there are a large cottage and the new laundry and the bake shop to he erected.

Work on the new cottage, which will house one hundred, has been commenced and it will be rushed to completion. As stated it will be used, for the present at any rate, as a moron colony, to which young women delinquents, will be committed from San Francisco and the other big centers. The matter was explained in these columns several days ago. From Manager Rolfe L. Thompson it was learned Wednesday that the work ot this building is to be rushed to completion right away.

The board of managers on Wednesday selected the sites for the laundry building and the bake shop. The two latter buildings will supply a long felt need at the home. They are very necessary buildings.

The State Board of Control has placed Business Manager William T Suttenfleld in charge of the construction work on the buildings. He is a splendidly capable man and is always so busy working for the interests of the institution and the state that one more little burden makes little difference to him. “Bill” has been at the Sonoma State Home for almost a score of years.

– Press Democrat, March 14 1918


OPPOSITION TO MORON COLONY
Many People in Sonoma Valley and the Town Object to Having the Colony Located With the Sonoma State Home for the Feeble Minded.

The people of the Sonoma valley and the old Mission Town of Sonoma are not taking very kindly to the idea of locating the “Moron Colony” at the Sonoma State Home for the Feeble Minded. Many protests are being heard and it is likely that a largely signed petition will be presented to the authorities, asking that the plan be not carried out.

In last Saturday’s Sonoma “Index-Tribune,” editorially, there was a strong protest against the additional institution being located in the Sonoma valley.

As stated in the Press Democrat some days ago the board of managers literally had the location of the colony at the home thrust upon them is an emergency measure, backed by the state and national administration, it was said.

There is considerable objection to having the moron colony established in connection with the feeble minded home, in addition to having it in the valley at all. The late medical superintendent. Dr. William J. G. Dawson, was bitterly opposed to having an institution for the care of socially outcast young women at Eldridge and shortly before his death again expressed his views.

There is said to be one ray of hope for the objectors and that is the one cottage that is to be built will only provide temporary relief for a very few of the young women who are to be removed from the big centres, particularly from the borders of army cantonments, as one building will afford only little room for conditions that are said to exist. It is knowm that the board of managers were reluctant to take in the new institution the grounds of the home, even as an emergency measure, but the showing made by the state authorities was so strong as a necessary war emergency measure that they withdrew their opposition.

– Press Democrat, March 19 1918

 

OBJECT TO LOCATION OF STATE HOME

The Sonoma Valley is still seething in protest against the establishment of the home for moron women and girls at Eldridge. Dr. A. M. Thompson, president of the commerce chamber, voices his protest in the following words:

“My protest not only goes against the location of the new institution in the Sonoma Valley, but particularly having it at the home for the feeble-minded. The late Dr. Dawson, the medical superintendent for many years, held the same views as I do–that the feeble-minded home had its problems to take care of without having any new ones.”

– Petaluma Courier, March 22, 1918

 

MAKES PLEA FOR FEEBLEMINDED
Senator Slater Leads Opposition to Proposed New Penal Institution or Farm For Delinquent Women and Urges More Room for Unfortunates

“Before we take on a horde of other dependents I believe the State should take care of those who are already dependent and must and should have attention first.” said Senator Slater before the Finance and Ways and Means Committee last night, when the proposed new penal institution or farm for delinquent women was discussed.

“At the Sonoma State Home for the Feeble Minded we have a waiting list of 447, and many of these cases are deserving in the fullest sense. In fact many of them heart-breaking in their need right now. Take the $250,000 you are asking for this women’s farm vision and build more cottages to house the dependents waiting, and who have been waiting for years to get the help and protection the State should offer.

“If the finances were available the new project, over which I have no quarrel as to its probable good, might be considered. But the State must stop somewhere when we are at our wits ends over taxes and finances, and particularly when we have hundreds of feeble-minded and other dependents who are crying for aid. Let’s care for these first. That is my idea, and I am sincere in my expression on this subject,” said Slater. Senators Ingram. Sharkey and others, and Assemblymen Salahnn. Stanley Brown, Stevens,. Madison and others agreed with Slater.

– Press Democrat, March 2 1919

 

Club Women From Various Parts Of County Assemble At Interesting Petaluma Session

The other speakers from abroad were Miss Blanche Morse of Berkeley, former corresponding secretary of the State Federation, and at present executive secretary of the State Industrial Farm Commission…Miss Morse, who will be the superintendent of the Industrial Farm which is to be situated in this county at “The Castle” the Kate Johnson estate near Sonoma, told of the needs for the home and the plans of the commission in reference to it. She met the objections raised in connection with the project and asked the cooperation or at least the interest of the Sonoma county women in the scheme when once it is under way.

– Press Democrat, October 3, 1920

 

S. F. POLICE HEAD AT NEW STATE HOME
Industrial Farm For Women, Near Sonoma, Not to Be Like a Prison; There Will Be No Bars.

The following article about the new industrial farm for women located near Sonoma appeared in Monday’s San Francisco Bulletin. It was written by Dolores Waldorf:

A prison that is not a prison, a jail without bars, an institution that spurns the stigma of the name, stands in the hills of Sonoma county today, waiting for its first inmate. It is to be known as the California industrial farm for women, a place where delinquent women over 18 years of age may make a fight to regain a normal view of life and where they may prepare themselves to face the world after their term ha* been served. The sentences will vary from six months to five years.

The house and surroundings were inspected Saturday hy Police Judges Sylvain Lazarus and Lile T. Jacks, Chief of Police Daniel O’Brlen and Captain of Detectives Duncan Matheson. They expressed their approval in emphatic terms and seemed to think that it offered the solution to one of the greatest problems before the criminal courts today.

In 1919 the legislature passed a bill providing for such a place and appropriated $150,000 to start work. Nothing could be done until the board was chosen, however. and in 1920 the governor appointed…

680 ACRES IN FARM

Since then men have been steady at work carrying out the plans. The Kate Johnson home, two miles east of Sonoma was purchased for $50,000. This included 680 acres of land mostly under cultivation. The house itself is a huge, rambling mansion with spacious rooms and great hallways. Though the whole place has been completely renovated new plumbing installed and modern conveniences added in the laundry, there is an air of ancient and settled serenity about it. The house will accommodate about seventy women.

Captain of Detectives Duncan Matheson, who attended to the purchasing and remodeling of the home, said of it during the inspection Saturday: “In choosing, a place, we had to think of two things Isolation and cheerfulness. Who couldn’t he cheerful with these hills around them?”

Miss Blanche Morse, recently ot Berkeley, and an active worker in all suffrage and reform movements, has been appointed superintendent of the farm.

SANS THE LOCKSTEP

“We are going to give the inmates work to do,” she said, “but we are not going to apply the institutional idea and make them do it to bells and march-time. Each woman will help around the house in some way.” Miss Jessie Wheelan of the Southern California hospital for the insane, is to have charge ot the indoor work.

– Press Democrat, December 20, 1921

 

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