Should anyone write a book on the bootlegging era in Sonoma there should be a fat chapter on El Verano – while there are plenty of other stories to tell about those days, there are probably none better. Federal District Judge William C. Van Fleet said in 1923 that Sonoma County was “the worst county in the state, population considered, for persistent violations of this law [Prohibition]” and made that comment when passing sentence on the owners of an El Verano resort found to have a stash of over 800 gallons of wine.
That resort wasn’t a big-time speakeasy; it was just another of the little mom ‘n’ pop places that dotted the Valley of the Moon around “the Springs,” offering a few cabins for rent and a restaurant serving Italian dinners. Other bootlegging arrests in the area were for making hooch, often in very creative ways – in 1921, El Verano firemen were called to put out a burning outhouse which the owner was using to distill “jackass brandy” from fermenting raisins. But one factor that set El Verano apart was Louie Parente’s joint; by 1923, he had been raided by prohibition officers ten times, each arrest typically punished by thirty days or a $300 fine.
Parente was the big fish in El Verano’s little pond. He was from San Francisco, where he continued to run a dive saloon in the district infamous for prostitution. In his early years he was in the newspapers after being convicted for petty crimes of gambling and receiving stolen goods. From 1912 onwards, however, he was reborn as a respectable man; he bought ten acres just west of El Verano which he first setup as a training camp for boxers. As that era was cuckoo for fisticuffs, his name would appear regularly in the sporting pages for the next 25 years as the trainer or manager for myriad young contenders, as a fight promoter and general boxing know-it-all.
In 1994 a little book came out: “Secrets of El Verano in the Valley of the Moon” by Sue Baker and Audrey B. Forrest. Readily confessing their work is “anecdotal and folkloric” and never identifying sources, it’s a fun read even if some of it is provably hogwash. But we know for a fact Parente built a large hotel in 1922, and SoEV quotes an eyewitness saying there was a “brothel secreted behind trick walls, next to Parente’s downstairs casino.” Their book also says “Parente’s Villa had a reputation as a hangout for undesirables long before Prohibition” and to ensure no eavesdropping, hired as waiters only young men from Italy who spoke no English.
There’s no doubt Parente’s really was a favorite hangout for underworld characters; co-owner of the place was his cousin Joe Parente, the Bay Area’s top bootlegger who was once called the “king of the Pacific Coast rumrunners.” It was a remarkably humdrum rum and whiskey import business (except for being completely illegal) with partners in Vancouver to supply the product and a fleet of boats to deliver the goods to market. Sonoma County beaches were favorite transfer points, particularly Salt Point and Pebble Beach at Sea Ranch.
So smooth running was the operation that police interceptions were few (although there was a shootout at Salt Point in October, 1932 that led to four arrests, including a 75 year-old shepherd from a nearby ranch). The greatest risk was from other crooks trying to hijack the trucks en route to San Francisco, so there were a few cars full of gunmen following every convoy as it bumped along Sonoma and Marin backroads in the dead of night. From various trials over the years we know a little about those thugs, who usually claimed to be boxing promoters with Runyonesque nicknames such as “Fatso,” “Soapy,” “Doc Bones,” and my personal favorite, “Scabootch.” A new guy working for Joe Parente in 1932 went by the name “Jimmie Johnson”, although he was better known by another alias: Baby Face Nelson.
Unlike the other goombahs, Nelson – real name, Lester Gillis – wasn’t a posturing tough guy; he was a true psychopath who didn’t hesitate to shoot innocents in the course of a bank holdup or home burglary. Convicted of jewel robberies in 1932, he was on a train to Illinois state prison when he used a smuggled gun to force his guard to release him. He and his wife fled to California where he worked security for Parente’s bootlegging operation while living a quiet middle class family life in Sausalito. He was out here for at least six months, then his mugshot appeared in “True Detective Line-Up” magazine and alerted Sausalito police. A biography of him by Steven Nickel and William J. Helmer, by the way, provides an almost day-to-day account of his whereabouts and there are gangsterphile blogs and web sites which further detail his movements with maps and travel guides (obsessions I find difficult to fathom, but whatever).
He returned to the Midwest where there were more bank robberies, cold-blooded murders and a partnership with John Dillinger’s gang. When Dillinger was killed by FBI agents on July 22, 1934, Nelson headed west with his mother, wife, son, a sidekick and a small arsenal of guns. A few days later he was at Lou Parente’s place in El Verano where Nelson and his family stuck around for three weeks.
We have a good idea of what happened there because twelve accomplices were later indicted for conspiring to hide Nelson in El Verano and the Reno area. (Louis Parente was subpoenaed to testify, but not indicted.) At Parente’s “windows had been fitted with machine gun saddles enabling ‘trigger men’ to cover all approaches to the place,” according to the wire service account. Nelson also hung out at Parente’s San Francisco saloon, still at its old location.
|Three automobile loads of Federal men, and the four officers went to El Verano one night on a tip that Nelson would appear. He didn’t show up. They were armed with machine guns and sawed off shotguns, prepared to “shoot it out” for Nelson had boasted that he would never be taken alive.|
One of the most popular myths is that Nelson was surrounded at “Spanish Kitty’s” brothel on the outskirts of the village and this incident has to be the genesis of that story; the appearance of cars packed with heavily armed G-Men is just the sort of story folks love to pass on. And as her brothel is the only El Verano den of vice much mentioned since WWII, it makes sense storytellers would set the stage there and not at Parente’s long forgotten joint.
As a Baby Face Nelson footnote, it was unlikely he ever visited Kitty’s girls; he might be unique among the big name gangsters in not associating with prostitutes. His powers of disassociation were remarkable. He could spray a crowd with bullets to create a diversion for a getaway yet was a doting father and husband, turning his escapes from the law into family vacations. A practicing Catholic, he regularly attended Mass with his wife when he was living in Sausalito and working as a bodyguard for Joe Parente. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in those Confessionals.
Better known today as the stoplight on highway 12 just before Sonoma city limits, at the turn of the century, El Verano was really no more than a whistle stop in the unincorporated county. Louis Parente came there around 1909, the same year a pair of “brothel agents” were arrested, apparently planning to setup a bordello. It’s tempting to presume all that criminal activity was trailing behind him but it’s probably not so simple. Also that year Santa Rosa finally cracked down on its downtown red light district (somewhat) and not long afterwards a roadhouse scene exploded along the whole stretch of the Sonoma Valley road – see ALL ROADS ALWAYS LEAD TO THE ROADHOUSE for more on all that.
It’s a pretty safe bet, however, that he brought Spanish Kitty to El Verano. They certainly must have known each other well; their San Francisco places on Kearny street were only a few doors apart, his saloon at the corner of Pacific avenue and her Strassburg Music Hall at the other end of the block by Jackson street. Together, they were at the very center of the criminal ghetto known as the Barbary Coast.
San Francisco’s Barbary Coast was nowhere near the waterfront; it was roughly three square blocks near the intersection of Kearny with Pacific and Columbus Ave. It was called that because the Barbary Coast in Africa, famous for pirates and slave trading, was the roughest and most lawless place on Earth known during the Gold Rush days. It was shoulder-to-shoulder saloons, dance halls and brothels (with no curtains on the windows, all the better to advertise), a place where a miner or sailor might pay for his good times by being robbed, murdered or shanghaied (that term was invented there, as was the word “hoodlum”). In 1933 Herbert Asbury wrote a history of it that has never been out of print – read an excerpt here. Asbury wrote this of Spanish Kitty:
…The Strassburg was operated for some twenty years before the fire of 1906 by Spanish Kitty, a tall, dark, strikingly handsome woman who was also known as Kate Lombard and Kate Edington. Although her place provided liquor, dancing, and bawdy shows, much of its fame was founded on the proficiency of Spanish Kitty at fifteen-ball pool, at which she was the recognized champion of the Barbary Coast. After the great conflagration, in which the Strassburg Music Hall was destroyed, Spanish Kitty retired with a fortune. She resumed her real name, which was neither Lombard nor Edington, and built an imposing home in an exclusive residential section. Her old haunts knew her no more.
Asbury’s book is a good read, but it’s almost entirely a rehash of what appeared in the newspapers at the time, so he didn’t know about El Verano. But thanks to all that’s now available on the internet combined with unusually thorough details found on her death certificate, we can puzzle together much of the story of Spanish Kitty.
She was born on Christmas Day, 1863 and was named Soledad Martinez Smith. Her father was from Indiana and apparently she got her “Spanish” looks from her mother who came from the mountains of northern Chile. They were a farming family outside of Laytonville in Mendocino county who were neither very successful nor happy. When dad died in 1902, three of the seven children inherited only one dollar each, and Soledad – who was entirely left out of the original will – was bequeathed five dollars. What drama that must lurk behind such stinginess.
In the 1880 census “Solez” was still at home, but the rest of that decade is a mystery. When she was 25 her son Claude Lombard was born, but nothing can be found about the father. (Claude’s obituary mentions a brother or half-brother Joseph J. Lombard who is also an unknown.)
The next year, 1889, she makes her first appearance in the newspapers as “Katie Eddington, otherwise known as ‘Spanish Kitty,’ who is well known on the Barbary Coast,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. She was accused of threatening a bartender and breaking glassware. “A number of police officers were sworn and testified to the good character of Walker [the bartender] and the bad character of Kitty. She has been in trouble for other assaults and has an unenviable reputation.”
From then until the great 1906 earthquake, a handful of mentions can be found in the papers. She was arrested as a “dive waitress,” which is to say a common prostitute; she was quoted at length as the proprietress of the Straasburg who witnessed events leading to a murder. Another time she stopped a man from committing suicide when she saw him pour a vial of strychnine into his beer and knocked it out of his hand. We see her through a glass darkly, unsure of her status in that underworld and mostly notable for being noticed at all.
In the wake of the earthquake, however, she was singled out as one of the most scandalous characters of the Barbary Coast. When San Francisco allowed applications for liquor licenses after the quake, 200 places filed requests and the Call newspaper story led with news about her: “Kate Edington, known as ‘Spanish Kitty,’ who conducted a notorious dance hall on Barbary Coast before the fire, applied for permission to open at Kearny and California streets. Upon her promise that she would conduct a straight saloon the application was granted.” The Chronicle complained, “The entire Barbary Coast is being rebuilt and such characters as Lew Pursell [owner of an African-American saloon], Spanish Kitty and others are having no trouble to obtain dance halls or saloons.”
When she simply tried to rent an apartment in the upscale Pacific Heights neighborhood that year, the Call ran a major story headlined, “Barbary Coast Harpies Seek to Settle Among Homes of Pacific Heights:”
The news that ‘Spanish Kitty,’ who for twenty years conducted the dive and dance hall at the corner of Kearny and Jackson streets, had rented a flat over 2206 Fillmore street, has been the signal for a general uprising of the residents of that section…”Spanish Kitty,” one of the most persistent violators of the moral code, will be given a battle in the courts before she is allowed to gain a foothold in the section she has selected. The woman came to San Francisco many years ago from Healdsburg. She has been married several times and is known to the police under the names of Kate Lombard and Kate Edington. The Straasburg music hail on the old Barbary Coast was owned by her until the fire. By a thriftiness unusual In her class she has succeeded in accumulating a considerable fortune, a part of which she is now using to re-establish herself in her nefarious calling.
The storm quickly passed. Kitty/Kate got her license and ran the saloon at California and Kearny streets, which apparently was merely a place that sold booze. The only time she was in the news was when “Spanish Kate, a stalwart brunette” beat up a janitor who came at her with butcher knife. She lived nearby with son Claude, who was a bartender as well as a scab during a 1907 transit worker strike – he went to jail for ninety days after he stopped the cable car he was operating in order to club a guy who yelled at him. What a family.
Although the post-quake Barbary Coast was a shadow of its former bawdy self, there were reformers who wanted it closed altogether. There was a Catholic priest (of course) who railed that it was a “menace to society” and soon Hearst’s Examiner – always on the side of decency (of course) – was also calling for it to be wiped out. Among those speaking in its defense was Louis Parente, saying the scene was no worse now than 25 years ago and that it was a “necessity,” apparently clueless he was giving the crusaders more ammo.
Kate apparently lost her saloon; by 1912 she was “conducting a house” on Jackson street, which is where the janitor attacked her. The next year Kate Eddington was convicted of selling liquor there without a license. But it was just a short time after that she could not have gotten a license if she tried – the crusaders won passage of a new law in San Francisco barring women from entering saloons even if they owned the place. Sometime after that she moved to El Verano.
Her place was at 400 Solano Avenue and “Secrets of El Verano” says there were five cottages constructed in the back along with “a disguised gambling den,” which might be the pump house/granny unit that still exists. She kept the operation low key; the book stated she was a pleasant, frumpy lady who swapped her garden vegetables for pound cakes with a neighbor over the fence.
There are still mysteries about her late years. She married and divorced a man named George Thomas, who is also an unknown. She officially used the name Mrs. Kate Lombard Thomas from at least 1928 on. And she never really separated herself from San Francisco; she was listed for years as the proprietor of the Mendocino Hotel on Kearny street and was arrested in 1929 for conducting a “gambling resort” at 1436 Post. Still, she might have been all but forgotten had it not been for the scandal of 1940.
That January 28, the Press Democrat ran a screamer headline: “FIVE TRAPPED IN NARCOTIC SMUGGLING!” Among those arrested was the “79-year-old brothel keeper once known as ‘Spanish Kate, Queen of the Barbary Coast.'” The PD continued, “Miss Lombard, once the toast of San Francisco’s underworld, was charged with vagrancy and suspicion of transporting narcotics.”
The story – which made the Bay Area newspapers – came out that a woman in San Francisco was sending Kate a daily shipment of morphine via the Greyhound bus. The drugs were for one of the prostitutes working at “Lombard’s Ranch” resort. Also arrested was another woman working there, the woman who sent the package (one of Kate’s former workers) and a Sonoma garage owner who did errands for Kate.
Kate pled guilty to operating a house of prostitution and received a suspended six-month sentence, conditional upon her giving up “the illicit traffic in which she had admittedly been engaged most of her life,” according to the PD.
When she died in 1946 at age 82, she was the last living link to El Verano’s wilder days, but she was still remembered, according to SoEV, by the Sonoma County Bar Association, who initiated new members by requiring them to “masquerade as Spanish Kitty.” Louie Parente’s place went through a string of owners and would be torn down but Kate’s old bordello is still there, now used as a B&B called Sonoma Rose Villa. As of this writing it’s even for sale, for anyone who wants an authentic piece of Sonoma County history. Oh, if those walls could talk, moan and holler.