1937nelliecornelia

NELLIE COMSTOCK OF SANTA ROSA

It was rare to find an obituary on the front page of the Press Democrat, but hers was stranger still – she was hardly mentioned in it.

“Nellie H. Comstock Claimed by Death,” read the 1940 headline, followed by “Friend of Elbert Hubbard, Burbank.” A good chunk of the obit was about her father and it twice mentioned Burbank (supposedly) wrote a letter inviting her to move to Santa Rosa. Other than that, the article mostly describes the accomplishments of her children – which she would have liked. “A Distinguished Mother,” read the PD kicker above the headline.

By then, most in town probably knew her only as the grandmother of Helen and Hilliard Comstock’s five Santa Rosa-born kids, or that she had lived for almost a quarter century as a recluse in the big brown house just down from the the high school. A few might have known she was probably the wealthiest person in town, controlling a trust for her children worth the equivalent of $27 million today. She was never a member of any of the town’s many women’s clubs, never active in any civic affairs. She can be found mentioned in the PD only a handful of times in the last ten years of her life, always because some of her illustrious children who lived farther away were here to visit.

(Undated portrait of Nellie Comstock.  Courtesy Carmel Library Historical Archive)

But “Nellie” Comstock was a remarkable person whose intelligence and character were reflected in the accomplishments of her seven children, all educated at home by her. And what we saw here was only the least interesting fragment of her life; if time permits to do the research, there justly should be entries for “Nellie Comstock of Carmel-by-the-Sea” and “Nellie Comstock of Evanston,” because those were the places where her star most brightly gleamed.

Thanks to a 1910 letter donated by grandson Harrison Comstock to the Carmel Library Historical Archive, for the first time we have a deeply personal letter with insight into what she thought of Santa Rosa and its residents shortly after moving here. She also wrote, “I have a lot to tell you about Burbank which will be strictly private. I will put it in a separate sheet.” Hey, can you guess which page of the letter is missing?

After she died, Hilliard donated materials to the Burbank archives including a couple of letters written to her by Oscar Binner, a promoter who around 1910 was sort of a Colonel Parker to Burbank’s Elvis. An accompanying note from Hilliard pointed out Binner had sometimes stayed with their family in Santa Rosa, and Nellie would step in to resolve his disputes with Burbank because she was “an intimate friend of both.” As Binner’s letters  defensively trumpet his opinions of Burbank’s greatness, it’s safe to assume Nellie stood with skeptics who didn’t think Burbank’s work had any scientific merit. Thus the “strictly private” details were probably nothing personal, but rather her views that Burbank didn’t deserve to be held in such high esteem. (More on Binner’s wrestling with Burbank: “SELLING LUTHER BURBANK.”)

The Burbank nod in her Press Democrat obituary was also misleading, claiming she moved her family here because of a “letter from Burbank, a warm personal friend of Mrs. Comstock’s inducing her to come to Santa Rosa was received while the family was visiting in California.” As debunked here previously, her oldest son, John, an authority on butterflies (his 1927 survey, “Butterflies of California,” remains the definitive reference) spent over a week comparing notes with Burbank in 1907. The following year Nellie bought a ten-acre ranch on the edge of town and moved here with five of her children, three of them still in their teens. John was married and had his own house on the corner of Sonoma and Brookwood avenues, the current location of the Santa Rosa police HQ.

Besides being a leading lepidopterist, John and two of his sisters were early members of the American Arts & Crafts movement, having trained at Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft Colony in New York state. The Comstock’s particular artisan skill was leatherworking, and at the time leather-making was the predominant industry in Santa Rosa. Moving here in 1908 brought them to the source of their raw materials but also made them pioneers in the West Coast version of the movement which was just taking off. From 1910-1912 they also had an art store on Fourth street selling fine objects produced by themselves and other award-winning artisans, along with items created by the women-only “Arts and Crafts Guild” they founded in Santa Rosa. So while Burbank may or may not have sent Nellie one of his “chosen spot of all this earth” PR notes, it was incidental to the family choosing to settle here.

Nellie’s 1910 letter to her friend was written about eighteen months after they moved to Santa Rosa. (Hilliard and others would later say it was on Hoen avenue, but at the time it was simply Rural Route 5 and adjacent to Matanzas Creek, somewhere around the modern Farmer’s Lane intersection.) We don’t know who the recipient was, although it was a woman in the Midwest she had met at a “sanitarium” – what we’d call a spa resort today.

“The satisfaction of my present life is that numerous strides are being taken by my children,” she wrote. “Opportunity is here – not because the here is California – but because change is here and just the material to correspond with that change was stored up in my children. Already all that immense newness has paid for itself.”

She admitted being sometimes homesick for Evanston and her late father’s mansion where she raised and educated her family, but the children would have none of it: They were already born-again Californians. “If I speak of liking the East better than the West they are amazed. They no not know that I like it from the place I see it. It is their place to see something to their special advantage in a new country – and in a new place, i. e. new to them.”

One of the things that bothered her about this area was seeing so many families trapped in a modern-day kind of serfdom, operating small chicken farms and unable to escape a hard-scrabble life. “I do not see how anyone can feel it wise to locate here for a lifetime without a substantial income to depend on…[L]iving in the midst of so much struggle for subsistence is somewhat depressing to me. I see so few people able to make a living on their small farms. It is growing as it did in the far East some time back – when the small farming died out, and homes everywhere ran down and dwindled into decay. Only large ranches make a living…”

Nor did she care much about the way our ancestors were being raised:

Generally the young people of Calif. are very rampant for pleasure and for dissipations of all sorts – bad and worse than bad. I never saw the young so generally disposed to dress, and idleness, and pleasure-seeking. It was well to have had my sons and daughters as far along as they are. They will not as easily be led. The young men are scuff. Only one or two to be found in among a large group, whom one would care to encourage as company. That is a problem for our young. And the grown men are not much better. I do declare.

Amazingly, she even complained about Santa Rosa’s temperate weather: “The extreme dry season and the extreme wet one, is against any place. It is not moderate. Nor do I think it can possible be advantageous to life in general either from a standpoint of health, or from one of prosperity.”

If all this makes Nellie sound snippy, peevish or downright ugly, join the club. “My mother-in-law was a brilliant woman, but she was tyrannical – in a very sweet way,” Helen Comstock said in her oral history. Little that Helen did while she and Hilliard lived with Nellie was to her satisfaction; she was told that she picked the wrong flowers, didn’t sweep the floor correctly, and even stirred the gravy the wrong way.

“I do not attempt any social life here,” Nellie also wrote in the 1910 letter. “What I do is toward my children’s welfare and happiness.” So if she disliked the situation in Santa Rosa so much, why the hell did she stay the thirty years until her death? Four of the children came to live in Carmel and she spent summers there; in Carmel she did have friends and a social life. Then why keep coming back to oh-so sucky Sonoma county?

One reason could be the house. When James Wyatt Oates died on December 9, 1915, his law partner Hilliard Comstock was staying with him. Less than a month later Nellie and some of the other children joined in occupying the home on Mendocino avenue. “In this way it will be given proper care and protection,” the Press Democrat said. Her winning bid of $10,000 later bought it from the Oates’ estate and established it as (what would become known as) Comstock House.

With her two daughters and eldest son immersed in the Arts & Crafts movement since at least 1903, surely she shared their appreciation for the unique home which Brainerd Jones had designed for Oates. Though she still hung on to the Victorian mansion in Evanston, she was now living in a bonafide work of art – and there she would stay.

Maybe she also found the early Carmel arts scene a bit too frenetic and exhausting to live there fulltime. Most of the later stories about Nellie mention her frailty, a tiny woman always dressed in white. As a 1934 Christmas gift to Hilliard, his sister-in-law – Hurd’s wife Dora Hagemeyer, who wrote several books of hackneyed poetry before WWII – sent a prose-poem (transcribed in full below) describing the pacific life Nellie led in Santa Rosa. One stanza:

You may see her on a day in Spring sitting under her haw-thorn tree…the beautiful wide-spreading branches bending to the ground with their trailing sprays of blossom. She sits in her chair under this pink and white bower, glad of the earth, the air, the birds that come to drink at her fountain. She loves all natural things.

“Nellie” Cornelia Hurd Comstock died quietly at her home May 31, 1940. She lived through the entire American version of the Victorian era, being four years old when the Civil War began – but was never one to look nostalgically back; she peered forward always. Like Teddy Roosevelt, she believed in an “American race” not defined by ethnicity or color but by a common willingness to work hard, fight for principles and for parents to instill those values in their children. ” Am I turning sour?” She asked her correspondent, after complaining about how “scuff” she found Santa Rosa youth. “Oh, I get an inside view. I have boys who see things. It is an open chapter that I read with horror and a dark forecast for the race – our beautiful Americans.” [emphasis hers]

“…The true family spirit seems to be dying out in America, as it died in other countries as wealth increased,” she wrote. “Money spurs the way to vast exploitation. Few are able to withstand the temptations which the removal of restrictions bring. Our real prison is the human mind and heart. Democracy seems too, as great a likeliness of failure as Christianity…the Truth is neither honored nor worshipped nor crucial as it rightly is. We need a new birth and a new death.”

For 1910 those were pretty radical views – and still are today, I’ll wager.

As dedicated as she was to her children so they remained to her, with all returning for her 80th birthday on March 8, 1937, when they were captured in the famous family photo.

 

1) Cornelia Matthew   2) Hurd Comstock   3) Catherine Seidneck   4) Dr. John Comstock   5) Judge Hilliard Comstock   6) Nellie Comstock   7) George Franklin Comstock   8) Hugh Comstock

 

Cornelia Matthew and Nellie Comstock, probably photographed during the same 1937 visit shown above. Image courtesy Martha Comstock Keegan

 

 

 MRS. NELLIE COMSTOCK OCCUPIES OATES HOME

Mrs. Nellie H. Comstock and family are moving into the Oates home on Mendocino avenue. Under the terms of the will of the late James W. Oates. His law partner, Hilliard Comstock, son of Mrs. Comstock, was given the use of the house until it was disposed of by the executors.

The family will make their home in the handsome residence pending its disposal, which may be some time. In this way it will be given proper care and protection.

– Press Democrat, January 7 1916

Route 5.
Santa Rosa, Cal.
Jan 23 – 10

My little woman – way off in the cold city of the Middle West –

I employ part of this rainy rainy rain-y day writing to you trying to satisfy your curiosity and friendship. Sunday – all Sundays – remind me of Sanitariums. The advent of our acquaintance. We met in one. I hope we won’t again. I hope both you and I will be sensible enough never to come to that pass of meeting in such a place again.

Let us think that such places are for the people who have not reached a place in life which learning, experience, and something vastly above either, will forever work imminently from.

Now I will look over your list of questions – for it is one of my failings,

I have a lot to tell you about Burbank which will be strictly private. I will put it in a separate sheet and let it follow. No Earthquake shock yet to my knowledge. Have not even thought of Earthquakes.

Now I believe this answers all your questions except the two-two’s.

Maybe you don’t think I get homesick once in a while – and wish I could still [be] in my family house. But I can never think of such a step as going back until the thing I came for is fully accomplished. Then I may be prepared to go back and remain to the end of my days. Coming here was an act inspired. I could never have done what is being done in any other place in time or manner what I have done by just this move I made and just how I made it. Surely such wisdom was not thought out – by my little brain alone. Something greater was back of it, something far seeing.

Now I am not going into all sorts of particulars at the present. I may say that if I sought out my own comfort alone I would not be doing just as I am, but the satisfaction of my present life is that numerous strides are being taken by my children. Opportunity is here – not because the here is California – but because change is here and just the material to correspond with that change was stored up in my children. Already all that immense newness has paid for itself. Already I can see why it must inevitably have been like destiny. That is a great thing to be certain of. If I were not certain of it I would be plunged into grief and remorse over my act and would set about it to return and nurture myself and belongings to their former place. There stands the old house ready at my beck and call. It is now mine by the act of division of property, and there stands my ???? at home – that too at my will. I am getting $100.00 per anno, not from that. My place here is paid for (10 acres and nice little cottage all put in the best of order since we came.) My mortgage on Wesley av house [in Evanston] is part paid – I have $2000.00 in pure cash and up in the bank – and am not living up more than 2/3 my income. I have $2000.00 in the business here. So you see I am able to say things have progressed with me, ???? I was deeply in debt about two years ago. That place I have bought here will increase in value from now on. It has already done so. What I paid $150 per acre is now on the market at $400.00 per acre – and the house has nearly doubled in value. My Wesley av property has doubled in value since I took it up – and the entire locality is now under a change for improvement still further. Thus you can see I am getting my worldly affairs in good order – and now at a time when I am desiring to extend opportunity to all my children at an age when they see values, my means are sufficient to that end.

This is my condition from a financial standpoint.

No child will ever be able to see how life looks from the standpoint of the parent. If I speak of liking the East better than the West they are amazed. They no not know that I like it from the place I see it. It is their place to see something to their special advantage in a new country – and in a new place, i. e. new to them. The extreme dry season and the extreme wet one, is against any place. It is not moderate. Nor do I think it can possible be advantageous to life in general either from a standpoint of health, or from one of prosperity. It takes a long time to train a country. Its very climate needs modifying, and what cannot be definitively changed must be offset by conditions – artificially constructed. I do not see how anyone can feel it wise to locate here for a lifetime without a substantial income to depend on in some foreign properties. I should never have dared do it. I can see things opening up in localities for the future – especially for the energetic youths.

I do not attempt any social life here. What I do is toward my children’s welfare and happiness. They get study and work and play into their daily living in very good proportions. Mainly I keep the house. I do almost all the work – cooking, scrubbing, sweeping, sewing – sometimes washing – and general ???? . I stay right at the helm. I read some and follow Hugh in his studies. We find such pleasure in the surrounding scenery and in the out-of-doors life during the pleasant weather. The fruits and flowers help to make life more attractive. But living in the midst of so much struggle for subsistence is somewhat depressing to me. I see so few people able to make a living on their small farms. It is growing as it did in the far East some time back – when the small farming died out, and homes everywhere ran down and dwindled into decay. Only large ranches make a living and even those are run at less risk having become largely speculation. This locality is full of chicken farms – small ones. That too is a struggle and tis nasty work. Many women work among the chickens. Husband and wife must both work, the children should work, but do not. The schools do not induce work in the mind and heart of the child. Generally the young people of Calif. are very rampant for pleasure and for dissipations of all sorts – bad and worse than bad. I never saw the young so generally disposed to dress, and idleness, and pleasure-seeking. It was well to have had my sons and daughters as far along as they are. They will not as easily be led. The young men are scuff. Only one or two to be found in among a large group, whom one would care to encourage as company. That is a problem for our young. And the grown men are not much better. I do declare. I do not see men nowadays I can call men. Am I turning sour? Or what is the matter and how is it from your standpoint? Oh, I get an inside view. I have boys who see things. It is an open chapter that I read with horror and a dark forecast for the race – our beautiful Americans.

I would like to talk with you – yes – a lot of things. Am glad to learn about your sister’s family. She has had many burdens. How some of those are lifted and she can begin to enjoy her growing family and their families. Marriage is such a critical act in our present age with conditions as they exist. The true family spirit seems to be dying out in America, as it died in other countries as wealth increased and brought its trials of manly struggle. As a man acquires liberty how is he to use it? That is the question. Money spurs the way to vast exploitation. Few are able to withstand the temptations which the removal of restrictions bring. Our real prison is the human mind and heart. Democracy seems too, as great a likeliness of failure as Christianity. Do I maintain that Christianity is a failure? I maintain that in this age we have not enough of it to save us. After all these centuries and all these churches and all these testimonies – the Truth is neither honored nor worshipped nor crucial as it rightly is. We need a new birth and a new death.

I am glad you tell me of Dr. C. and how noble his constancy in friendship. But I tell you he is sure to appreciate the sterling quality which abides in your soul – for he is one to know Woman and be a judge. I wish I could see him, really. He is quite an unusual man – taking him all in all – worldly enough, tis true, but very human and often tender as a woman. Skillful too in his profession. Nay – he is good enough to be remembered always by one who knew him.

As I say I will tell you more of us before long – and believe me I wrote you more than you say. I have not been so delinquent.

Do not allow yourself to get old and crabbed. Keep your nerves ??? together with a calm mind. Nerves are closely allied to character and what we term the heart.

As ever – your friend – N. Comstock

 

Portrait of your Mother

She is a little lady, frail and with the exquisite delicacy of a flower. She is always dressed in white; clean, cool, fragrant. Her hair is like snow found lying lightly where the fingers of the wind do not disturb it.

You may see her on a day in Spring sitting under her haw-thorn tree…the beautiful wide-spreading branches bending to the ground with their trailing sprays of blossom. She sits in her chair under this pink and white bower, glad of the earth, the air, the birds that come to drink at her fountain. She loves all natural things.

When you are ill or troubled, her fingers touch your brow…with a feather-weight like a bird’s wing; but through that light caress there comes a power from the spirit of her. For with all her fairy-frailty she has a source of strength that never fails. There is no one who does not feel this; even the news-boy, the gardener, the tramp who comes to her door.

What is her secret? How has she kept so close to the eternal fountain of life, and at the same time clothed herself in the lightest of earthly garments? How can she be so delicate and at the same time so strong? Her tall son and daughters stand around her. They protect her tenderly…yet they must turn to her for strength and counsel.

What is her magic? Is it the quiet poise of a flower, that gives without conscious effort to all who come within its radius of peace and beauty? Or is it the full-fathomed depth of the sea?…the salty humour of the light spray?…the power of the wind?…the healing of the sun?

Dora.
Christmas 1934.

Read More

THE VILLAGE OF VICE IN THE VALLEY OF THE MOON

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.

(RIGHT: Louis Parente, “Proprietor dive frequented by Barbary coast women, Pacific and Kearny” San Francisco Call, October 30, 1908)

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.

After Baby Face Nelson moved on to Nevada, police received a tip that he had been in El Verano and was expected back. According to the Oakland Tribune on Nov. 30, 1934,

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.

Read More