courtroom

OUR VERY OWN PERRY MASON

There’s a tale Bill Soberanes loved to tell in his Argus-Courier columns that went something like this:

During Prohibition a lawyer was defending a man accused of bootlegging. When the prosecutor introduced a bottle of the moonshine as evidence the lawyer picked it up, put it to his lips and drank it dry. “That wasn’t whiskey,” he told the court. Case dismissed for lack of evidence.

Odds of that story being true are probably nil (or at least, I can’t find anything close to it in the newspapers of the day) but it’s the kind of thing people liked to say about Gil P. Hall. Most often he was called some riff on being “a colorful character” and people meant that in a nice way. During the 1910s and 1920s he was the top defense attorney in Sonoma county and rarely lost in court, particularly if it involved a jury trial. He was such a legal hotshot that courtrooms were packed when he defended a high-profile case. “There was only one Gil Hall, and I don’t think there will ever be another like him,” said the last surviving pre-Prohibition Petaluma bar owner in 1967. “Some of his cases would make Perry Mason look very tame.”

In the 1920s Hall defended so many liquor scofflaws that he had a reputation as being the bootlegger’s lawyer, but that’s not really fair – it seems he took on any and all. While he’s best known for high-profile cases his bread and butter was mundane legal work – representing people seeking a divorce, handling probate paperwork, and arguing a farmer had a right to dig a culvert under a county road.

He won an acquittal for Fannie Brown, who was charged with running a “house of ill-fame” at First and C streets in Petaluma. In the murder trial of two doctors charged with the death of a woman from an abortion (“the illegal operation”) the courtroom spectators burst into prolonged applause when the jury found them innocent. Even when he lost he usually managed to salvage some kind of victory. The owner of Speedway Hotel in Cotati was caught red-handed selling 72 proof jackass brandy (“with a trace of fuel oil”) and had to pay a fine, but Hall blocked the government from shutting down his business – which continued to be busted for selling hootch year after year.

A man who knew him, Petaluma Justice of the Peace Rolland Webb, said “he won most of his cases by outsmarting the young lawyers who came up against him,” so it’s a pity the newspapers didn’t write up some of his Perry Mason-y courtroom arguments. The one sample we have comes from an unusual case – the county election of 1926.

gumpA recount was ordered because the votes for sheriff were almost tied. Hall and lawyers for the other candidate went over the ballots carefully, agreeing to toss three for being “scurrilous” – the voters had added an obscenity next to a candidate’s name. Then they found someone had written in the name of Andy Gump for Justice of the Peace. Andy Gump was an ultra-popular comic strip character who was a lovable idiot; in the 1920s the storyline had him running silly campaigns for the senate and the presidency. But the name was written on a ballot for Hall’s candidate, so he made a fine speech why it should be accepted:


…Andy Gump is one of the best loved characters in the United States. His name is a household word, and of loved memory. All of his actions have been those of a gentleman… Therefore, I cannot conclude with counsel that the writing of Andrew Gump created an atmosphere of scurrility about this ballot. Whether there is an Andrew Gump in Sonoma county I do not know. If there were more Andrew Gumps, in character and thought, Sonoma county would probably be a better county than it is…

His candidate lost the election by 16 votes, but the Andy Gump ballot was counted.

Gil Hall was in his heyday during the Roaring Twenties although he was past 60 years old (b. 1859 in Missouri). He was president of the County Bar Association 1924-5 and threw lavish, four-hour dinner parties for judges and fellow attorneys on his large houseboat named “Ark of Peace” (!) which was moored on the Petaluma River and was connected to permanent buildings on the wharf. When he would rehearse his courtroom arguments on the boat he was loud enough to frighten passing boaters, so reread the Andy Gump speech and imagine lots of shouting.

In his younger days it was expected he would someday be a Congressman; he was well-connected vis his father-in-law (Petaluma banker Dan Brown) and said to be politically ambitious, being appointed as Petaluma’s postmaster at age 27. But Gilbert P. Hall had a closet with skeletons ready to spill out during any campaign for public office; he was wise not to crack that door open.

The San Francisco Examiner, January 18 1897
The San Francisco Examiner, January 18 1897

This is the obl. Believe-it-or-Not! portion of the article, and not just because of some deed by Gil Hall; it’s also because this chapter of his life was so quickly and utterly forgotten and forgiven. Nothing about it was mentioned in any obituary or by 20th century Hall aficionados like Bill Soberanes – in fact, I don’t think this story’s ever been fully told before; I only stumbled across it while researching the previous article about the county treasurer who may have faked a robbery.

In 1890 Gil P. Hall was elected County Recorder/Auditor. The job was a perfect way for a novice politician to take off his training wheels – all it required was staying out of the way of the desk clerk and accepting payment of the recording fees. He was reelected in 1892 but lost the election of November, 1894. Take note that starting in January 1895 someone else would be running the office.

Every two years the county had used an outside auditor named Baldwin to examine the books of all offices, but in 1895 they hired someone else and he found something strange – there was a huge gap in Hall’s accounts. Except for a few entries made after he first took office, there were no fee payments listed until he lost reelection. Specifically, an entire ledger was missing: “Fee Book 13”.

The Grand Jury heard testimony that sometimes months went by without Hall making a deposit to the county treasury. Also, Baldwin looked at the books only during evenings when Hall was also there. Meanwhile, accounting experts were combing through all transactions during Hall’s four year tenure. Their audit showed that for his second term alone, $10,199.50 had been received but only $5,651.75 was deposited. That meant there was a missing $4613.38 (about $140k today).

County officers were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office, and Hall had Petaluma businessmen who backed him with bonds for significant losses. The county sued them for about $1,200, which represented only the last few months of Hall’s first term – it was now March, 1896, and the clock was ticking down on the four-year statute of limitations for this type of suit.

A few months later the county filed a second lawsuit to recover the $4613.38. That was followed by a third lawsuit for $4.5k to pay for the cost of reconstructing Fee Book 13.

Gil P. Hall was now indicted on two counts of felony embezzlement and free on $1,500 bail bonds.

The story grabbed the laser-like focus of San Francisco’s yellow press, and the Examiner did a full page story on him with the subhed, “Rise and Fall of an Able Man.” According to their story, the formerly mild-mannered Hall had become “a high-riding swashbuckler, who cavaliered it through Petaluma to the astonishment of the wondering townspeople” and was known for throwing dinner parties that “endeared himself to a certain class.”

I will spare Gentle Reader details of the grinding legal gears during 1897-1899, which consumed a week of my precious life as I labored over a spreadsheet in a futile attempt to track all the doings. The Grand Jury found him guilty of embezzlement; the location of his trial was moved to Ukiah and there was a hung jury and a retrial; Hall insisted he didn’t remember anything (including the names of his clerks); his lead defense attorney, ex-Congressman Thomas J. Geary, embraced a strategy of continually barking “objection!” like a yappy dog. The big surprise came in November 1897, when Fee Book 13 was discovered and reportedly was in the Auditor’s office the whole time. This was, of course, conveniently after the facsimile had been reconstructed.

By the turn of the century there was remorse in some corners that the county had pursued restitution instead of just sending him to prison. It was now approaching the statute of limitations from the time of the indictments. Appeals were made to the state Supreme Court to extend the deadlines which the court first denied – then a few weeks later reversed itself and said the county could indeed reopen the case. Oh, law.

Over objections from the District Attorney, the Board of Supervisors finally threw in the towel in 1901, proclaiming there would be no more litigation because it was costing the county too much. That was followed by another Supreme Court ruling that the statute of limitations had indeed run out, and Hall and his bondsmen were not legally bound to pay back any money he allegedly stole.

As was permissible under the law. Hall then presented the county with a bill for his lawyer’s fees and court expenses. The Board agreed to pay him $850, which was the legal max.

Thus: Gil P. Hall not only got away with allegedly filching a small fortune from the public, but the county paid him for the pleasure of having done so. Believe it or Not!

An older – and presumably wiser – Gil Hall was behind the defense table again in 1927, this time accused of bribing witnesses.

The charge this time was that he had paid two 16 year-old boys $30 each to deny they had bought homemade wine from a Petaluma farmer. The Grand Jury handed down two indictments against him, although one was thrown out on a technicality.

On the witness stand the boys contradicted their earlier statements and each other. Hall had/had not given them money; Hall had promised one of the boys he “would take care of him” if he lost his job, or he hadn’t promised anything at all. And then, in true Perry Mason fashion, there was a shocking courtroom confession: One of the boys had a vendetta against Gil Hall because he had defended an auto driver accused of causing the death of his baby brother. “His admission that he had for years had a bitter feeling against the accused Petaluma attorney caused a profound stir,” reported the Argus-Courier.

The Grand Jury retired to the jury room and returned to court six minutes later with a verdict of innocent. It was the shortest jury deliberation anyone could recall.

Although Gil Hall’s professional life centered around the county courthouse in Santa Rosa, he grew up and lived most of his life in Petaluma. Besides Soberanes, fellow A-C columnist Ed Mannion sometimes tipped his hat to Gil for being among the most colorful residents in the city’s history. Mannion wrote, “he once entered the door of a Main Street pharmacy and was met by a fusillade of shots from the druggist’s’ pistol.”

Mannion told a couple of other stories that can be dated to 1913. The Maze Department Store on the corner of Washington and Main had an art department and was selling prints of “September Morn,” a wildly-popular painting of a nude woman standing in a lake – the sort of artwork someone buys while thinking, “this will really class up the joint.”

augustmornThe store had a copy in their window display until “the good ladies trying to protect the town’s morals” (Mannion’s words) protested. Their taking offense apparently offended Hall, who talked the store into placing the picture with its back to the window – but in front of a mirror, so the image was plainly in view from the street. Selling at $1.75 each, the store had trouble keeping up with demand.

(RIGHT: Dressed statue of the goddess Hebe. Courtesy Sonoma County Library)

But Gil was not done with tweaking Petaluma’s blue noses. Outside the department store on the Washington street side was the WCTU water fountain, which had at its top a 5-foot bronze statue of the nude Greek goddess Hebe. With two co-conspirators Gil placed a Mother Hubbard dress over the statue. Wags promptly dubbed the censored statue “August Morn.”

That pre-Prohibition barkeep also said, “if I were a writer, I’d do Gil Hall’s life, and I’d have a best seller on my hands.” Well, get in line, bub – Soberanes and Mannion both wanted to write The Legend of the Fabulous Gil Hall and asked readers to send in Hall stories (apparently no one did). Justice of the Peace Webb had a number of stories so if any member of the Webb family recall an old manuscript up in the attic, contact me.

Gilbert Pine Hall (1859-1932) in 1924. Courtesy Sonoma County Library
Gilbert Pine Hall (1859-1932) in 1924. Courtesy Sonoma County Library

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