hypnosistitle

THE MURDEROUS SOMNAMBULIST

“I am the king of Siam,” the young man told the Marshal.

The officer and the hotelkeeper knew very well that he was not the king of Siam, who was not likely to be staying at the United States Hotel in Cloverdale. His name was Ed and he was well known, having lived in the town as recently as five years earlier.

“I am the king of Siam,” Ed repeated, adding that he had just killed several men, primary among them a judge whom he had shot 43 times. On a table behind him could be seen two revolvers, one covered in blood.

This scene took place at 2:30 in the morning on October 29, 1891, not long after he had drawn those guns on an elderly man, firing seven times. Four of the bullets hit the victim in the face but incredibly did no serious damage – his forehead was grazed along with the bridge of his nose, an eye tooth was knocked out and a bullet passed through his neck wattle.1 The shaken old fellow walked unaided to a nearby doctor’s house where his wounds were dressed.

livernashprofile(RIGHT: Edward J. Livernash, SF Examiner, Oct. 29 1892)

The next day Ed was taken to Santa Rosa, where a sanity hearing was immediately held in the judge’s chambers. Questioned about the shooting, he “told a story which revealed the workings of a mind that is in the habit of making excursions on its own account,” according to the Democrat newspaper, insisting that he had used eight guns to shoot the old man (whom he believed was actually someone else in disguise) 48 times. At the end of the hearing he was committed to the Napa asylum, “there to he held in custody until his sanity or insanity has been demonstrated.”

Normally this would have been the end of our story, and Ed would have been salted away at the asylum at Napa or elsewhere for the rest of his life. Yet five months later he was free awaiting trial and walking around Santa Rosa greeting friends. How could this be? That’s because he was not your average homicidal lunatic – he was Edward J. Livernash.

At the time of the assault Livernash was 23 years old and that was not the first time he had done something considered insane. An episode from just a month earlier will be told in a following part of this series; his peculiar life which followed the trial will be explored in part three.

Sanity questions aside, everyone recognized Livernash was absolutely brilliant. He had founded a newspaper (the Pacific Sentinel in Cloverdale) at age 14 and sold it two years later to buy the paper in the town of Sonoma. Before his 18th birthday Ed had passed the bar exam and was an attorney.

His smarts were well known in Sonoma County which often led people to give him plenty of slack – and nor did it hurt that he was married to the daughter of Judge Overton, one of the most influential men in this neck of the woods. His privilege can be seen in the gentle handling of his case in Santa Rosa’s Democrat newspaper. For trial coverage locals had to turn to the big San Francisco papers, particularly the Examiner. The Democrat didn’t even print the findings of the preliminary hearing held in Cloverdale, which included details that made the shooting appear less like the impetuous action of a madman and more like an attempt at premeditated murder.2

Livernash knew the 71 year-old man, Darius Ethridge, well from his time in Cloverdale; Ethridge was a wealthy bachelor and supposedly had no relatives. Days prior to the shooting, Livernash sent him a letter asking Ethridge to stay up late on a certain night because he would be passing through and wanted to conduct a business deal. Livernash signed the letter as A. P. Overton, his father-in-law.

When Livernash arrived in Cloverdale, he met Ethridge and said Judge Overton and others were coming later that evening to buy his livery stable. He gave Ethridge a gift bottle of what he said was fine wine. Authorities later determined the wine was poisoned with prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide).

Livernash returned to his hotel room intending to rest but could not sleep. Around 2AM he climbed down from his second floor balcony with his revolvers and headed for Ethridge’s house.3

Rousing Ethridge from bed, they made smalltalk while supposedly waiting for the others. Livernash remarked on two portraits on the wall and was told those were his niece and nephew. “I thought you had no relatives,” Livernash said.

livernashethridge(RIGHT: Darius Ethridge, SF Examiner, Oct. 29 1892)

Livernash became restless and began pacing. He put $150 on the table as good faith money towards buying the stable and asked Ethridge to write a receipt, but then stopped the old man from taking the money.

Suddenly Livernash pulled out his guns and pointed them at Ethridge’s face. “Make out your will in my favor or I will kill you, God damn you!”

“You would not kill me would you?” asked the startled man. Livernash began firing the guns. Ethridge ran out the door and made his way to the doctor. When he returned home after Livernash was in custody, he found the $150 and the receipt gone, along with the letter forged with Judge Overton’s name.

News of the incident reached Santa Rosa the next morning, where it immediately became the talk of the town. From the Daily Democrat:

The town is divided in opinion on the case. Some say he is crazy, while others say it was a premeditated attempt at murder, as Mr. Ethridge is an old bachelor with no known relatives and quite wealthy, and if Livernash could have scared him into making his will he would have forced him to drink the poison or shot him and people would thought he committed suicide. The will would probably have stood, as there were no relatives to contest it and no one who would ever have suspected anything wrong, as Mr. Ethridge used to be a great friend to the Livernash’s when they lived in Cloverdale.

What did seem suspicious was that Livernash seemed to be able to turn the crazy talk off in a snap. After his arrest he was allowed to remain in his hotel room overnight under guard of the town constable, it appears all the king of Siam jabber ended. He sent a telegram to the most prominent lawyer in Santa Rosa, asking him to stand in his defense. He tried to bribe the constable to let him sneak back into the scene of the crime. He asked for the return of his blood-stained shirt cuffs, commenting that he knew as a lawyer that they could be used as evidence against him.

At the preliminary hearing following his release from Napa the court also was told by Dr. Gardner, Superintendent of the asylum, that Livernash was a somnambulist and at the time of the shooting was unaware of what he was doing.

The judge would have none of that. While acknowledging that Livernash’s mind may have unhinged after the shooting, everything he had done up to that point showed he was sane. Edward J. Livernash was ordered to be tried in Santa Rosa for attempted murder.


WHAT WAS WRONG WITH LIVERNASH?

Was he actually mentally impaired in some way, or faking it to avoid punishment? Here are some possibilities, which might have also existed in combination:

* He suffered hallucinations because of temporary psychosis caused by acute sleep depravation (he had chronic insomnia and regularly used chloroform or a “sleeping powder”)

* He sometimes lost touch with reality because of a neurological disorder such as schizophrenia

* He had a chronic inflammation of the brain such as encephalitis (his cause of death at age 70 was post-encephalitic syndrome)

* He had a rare form of temporal lobe epilepsy where seizures were followed by spontaneous acts of violence and amnesia (“petit mal intellectuel” or postictal agression) which his brother reportedly sometimes exhibited

* He had bouts of delirium which caused personality changes

* He had delusional thinking which led him to take daring risks and believe he could get away with crimes

* He was an addict recklessly cycling between drugs to put him to sleep and keep him alert

* He actually was a homicidal sleepwalker, which sometimes has been used successfully as a legal defense

The trial opened exactly a year after the shooting. Little new evidence was introduced – the whole case rested on whether or not Livernash was in a “somnambulistic state” while he was blasting away.

One new detail solved a lingering mystery: Why didn’t Ethridge drink any of the poisoned wine? He might have, until Livernash said it came from the hotel where he was staying. It turned out Ethridge believed there was a conspiracy against him by others in Cloverdale, and the owner of the U.S. Hotel had been paid $500 to poison him. As the reporter for the Examiner quipped, “a little insanity has before been proven a very good thing.”

The centerpiece of the defense’s case was to be Dr. Gardner placing Livernash into a hypnotic trance on the witness stand, where he would be able to recall in exquisite detail all the events of that night. Before Gentle Reader snorts at this premise, recall all this is taking place in the early 1890s. In the sources transcribed below is the description of a popular lecture given in Santa Rosa shortly after the trial, where our ancestors were told that hypnotism exercised a spiritual “sixth sense” and that the hypnotist’s power over the subject “was far greater than it is possible for any man to exercise over his own mind or body.” Good grief.

That was also an era when we believed the mentally deranged could toggle between good/evil personalities. The gruesome Jack the Ripper murders happened just four years prior and were still talked about (the same issue of the Democrat that reported Livernash’s assault also had an item about a Ripper-like killing in Germany) and it was assumed that Jack lived an otherwise respectable and nondescript life. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was both a best-seller and a popular stage play in the year before Livernash’s trial, while the San Francisco Examiner introduced its trial coverage with a headline calling him “an involuntary Jekyll and Hyde.”

The courtroom exhibition began with Dr. Gardner holding a small mirror in front of Livernash. Soon his eyes were unfocused and half closed. Dr. Wachendorf, the expert for the prosecution, approached Livernash and pulled a punch aimed at his eyes. He did not flinch. Dr. Gardner stuck pins in his cheek, ear and hands. He did not react. Then he was asked to tell his story.

The first part was dreamlike nonsense with a crying baby, seeking a man named Smith and wandering the streets. He told of sending the letter asking Ethridge to stay up and signing Judge Overton’s name to it.

“I went to Cloverdale to work out a scheme I had,” he said. “There was a general conspiracy among those men against me.”

“Those men” were led by San Francisco Judge Joachimsen, who had fined Livernash $100 in the incident discussed in the next part of this series. There were fifteen in all, including his brother, father-in-law, most lawyers in Santa Rosa and the reincarnated presidents George Washington, Benjamin Harrison and James Garfield.

“I wanted to make sure whether Ethridge was a man who ought to be on the list,” he said, and asked the hotel owner about him. Livernash said he was told that Ethridge was an “obstacle to progress” and “it would be a godsend if he were taken out of the way.” (Maybe the old man had good reason to be paranoid about his neighbors!) Livernash met Ethridge and they looked at the stable, with an understanding that Livernash would return with Overton and make the deal.

Back in his hotel room, he began to worry The Fifteen might show up early. “If they got to drinking they might not drink my stuff,” he said. So he took his poisoned bottle over to Ethridge (climbing down from the room’s balcony) and declared it was choice wine for Judge Overton. He went back to his room (“it was hard to climb up, but easy to go down”) and tried to sleep, but couldn’t find his sleeping powder.

Late that night was the confrontation. As soon as he saw Ethridge, he knew he was really Joachimsen in disguise. “I found confirmation of all my fears and all my suspicions…they wouldn’t fool me any longer.” Livernash pulled out his guns and ordered him (Ethridge? Joachimsen?) to make out his will:

He wrote a couple of words and turned round as quick as a flash and grasped one of my revolvers. Then there was no foolishness. If he got that revolver I was a goner. I felt as weak as I could. He struck out and hit me, but do you suppose be could hurt me? Not the least particle. I was invulnerable. He fought like a tiger, but it had no effect. I kept shooting at him, I judge forty-three times.

Asked by the prosecutor if he thought he had a right to shoot him, Livernash replied “Think? I know it! He was transgressing one of the fundamental and ultimate principles of fate – of nature.”

Livernash described his arrest, being the king of Siam and such, although his version had, as the Examiner put it, “his eerie, insane philosophies permeating it all.” Dr. Gardner told him to wake up from his trance. He seemed flustered and noticed a needle was still in the back of his hand and he pulled it out, wincing.

The next day Livernash testified without hypnosis. “His story was plausible, logical, and though simply told, forceful and dramatic. Surely there is much beside insanity in that long head with the shock of tumbled hair,” reported the Examiner. “He could have more than held his own with any man in the courtroom, or with all.”

The big news in court that day was that Livernash couldn’t buy a small dose of prussic acid from a druggist, so he went to a wholesaler where he purchased two pounds worth. “Answering a quirk of his crazy brain, he might have wiped out a city,” gasped the Examiner reporter.

Dr. Wachendorf testily told the court that Livernash was faking and not acting like someone actually under hypnosis. In later cross-exam, it was revealed that Wachendorf was no expert on hypnotism and barely a doctor. He had obtained a degree in homeopathy just a few months before and learned about hypnotism via “instruction from different experimenters.” He expounded at some length on his theory that the phase of the moon affects “natural somnambulists,” which amused the Napa doctors greatly.

Dr. Gardner also told the court that he had proved Livernash could not be faking. The night before at the asylum he was placed in a trance and a bottle of concentrated ammonia was placed under his nose for a minute, without him having the slightest reaction. The powerful-smelling bottle was passed around members of the jury, but for reasons not explained, the prosecutor took Gardner’s word that he had been unresponsive so the test was not performed in court, much to the disappointment of spectators.

The case went to the jury, who were out for 30 hours. They came back undecided, with eight voting for conviction and four against. Livernash was held over to await retrial.

Dr. Gardner hypnotizing Edward J. Livernash in court. SF Examiner, Oct. 29 1892
Dr. Gardner hypnotizing Edward J. Livernash in court. SF Examiner, Oct. 29 1892

Back at the Napa asylum, Livernash wrote to Congressman Thomas J. Geary. “Friend Geary: Will you come to the rescue and get me out of the unfortunate muddle in which I am involved?”

Geary was the attorney who Livernash telegraphed the night of his arrest and had represented him at the arraignment in Santa Rosa. As he was in the area while campaigning for reelection he also testified at the trial as a character witness – never mind that Livernash had named Geary among The Fifteen men he wanted to kill.

In his letter Livernash seemed awfully sane, complaining his defense attorneys made mistakes which almost led to his conviction because they were not “pushing forward the theory of hypnotism with overwhelming evidence of insanity” that should have put acquittal within “easy reach.”

He had three lawyers at his first trial, but at the next one he would be representing himself alone. That risky decision could have been driven by the manic side of his personality or by necessity. Everyone assumed his wife’s father had paid for his defense, but now that it was revealed Overton was among The Fifteen – not to mention that Livernash had exploited his name to trick Ethridge – it would be understandable for Pops-in-law to not feel so generous anymore. Livernash further told Geary that he wanted to hire the lawyer/congressman although he was “not in a position to pay a cash fee” at the present time.

The second trial began about five months after the first. It was less about evidence than flair.

Jury selection took two days because Livernash examined each “very particularly as to the jurors’ association with various prominent citizens and as to their ideas of hypnotism and insanity” (Sonoma Democrat). This time there would be no courtroom hypnosis; what he was seeking was to discover if they believed in what was then often called “auto-hypnosis” – that the meek-looking overachiever could suddenly be triggered to turn into a monster.

His defense was simply that he sometimes went crazy – as did others in his family – and at those times was unable to distinguish between right and wrong. He introduced this argument in what was called a “brilliant opening statement” (SF Chronicle):

The theory of hypnotism, so strongly dwelt upon at the first trial, was not adhered to. Livernash claimed that he would be able to prove that be inherited from his parents an impaired nervous system, and that in his constitution there had always been lurking a tendency which, if unchecked, might develop into insanity.

In his defense he called several witnesses (including Geary again) who testified that, yeah, he went nuts sometimes. The Napa doctors came back and said again that he really had blackouts and wasn’t faking. The prosecutor brought out those various prominent citizens (including Exchange Bank founder Matt Doyle) who said Livernash was completely untrustworthy. The biggest excitement came when the county assessor was called and said, “I won’t go on the stand until that man is searched. He is a dangerous man and may have weapons and might hurt somebody.”

The retrial wrapped up with another show of his eloquence. As the Healdsburg Tribune put it, “His plea to the jury was one of the most remarkable ever heard in Santa Rosa. It abounded in brilliant metaphor and biting sarcasm.” He spoke for five hours.

The case went to the jury and they were out but seven minutes. Verdict: Not guilty. Ed Livernash walked out of the courthouse a free man.

COMMENTARY:   As of this writing (2021), I’ve pondered over the Livernash case for eight years. In that time more newspapers have come online that added new details (particularly coverage of the first trial), although they haven’t significantly changed the story. There are also now many more medical resources available on the internet which discuss the various psychological or physical conditions he might have suffered, as are listed above. (An interesting paper: “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: a case of epilepsy in the late nineteenth century“.)

My conclusion is that there is no simple binary explanation. At some points of his life he did abnormal things – but mostly he was completely rational and a man of extraordinary accomplishments. There are three episodes to the story for Gentle Armchair Detective to consider separately:

*
PLOTTING THE CRIME   There is little doubt he schemed over several days (weeks?) to make himself the beneficiary in Ethridge’s will before murdering him with the poison. He bought the revolvers, bought the the poison, wrote the fake Overton letter and traveled to Cloverdale, all acts which seem to show he acted with deliberation and premeditation – but whether he could have executed such a detailed plan while in his “Mr. Hyde” persona must also be weighed. Note he also had motive, as up that point in his life he was perpetually broke.
*
BEHAVIOR DURING THE ASSAULT   Livernash either intended to force Ethridge to drink the poison after writing his will or hoped he would already be dead after having sampling the wine when alone – in that case, he presumably planned to forge the will. The plan fell apart when he saw the portraits on the wall and realized the old man did have heirs (after Ethridge died in 1894, the Cloverdale City Marshal had little trouble finding his niece in San Jose). That led him to draw his guns and begin firing wildly, which can only be considered a moment of raw madness.
*
BEHAVIOR AT THE FIRST TRIAL   It’s my firm belief that his trance testimony was completely faked. The king of Siam business was laughable, like a child’s idea of what a crazy person might say. The tale he told the court in his “trance,” in contrast, was a complex narrative involving a conspiracy of reincarnated presidents (among others) and the man he hated having taken possession of Ethridge’s body.

 

From their testimony, Gardner and the other asylum doctors showed they were entranced (sorry) by Livernash, who was not the run-of-the-mill lunatic they normally treated. He was very, very smart and exhibited no evidence of mental impairment aside from a dependency on sleeping aids. Dr. Gardner spoke excitedly of having “discovered his real condition” – that his patient had an exceedingly rare condition “that made him capable of leading a dual life.” But as Livernash wrote to Geary, his own objective wasn’t to be cured of a mental illness – he was just trying to be acquitted due to “overwhelming evidence of insanity.”

 

Over the course of his months at the Napa asylum, it appears the doctor and the patient developed a codependent relationship. The doctor was given an exciting case study in the burgeoning field of psychology – and in turn, he inadvertently coached Livernash in developing a story about somnambulism which would hold water with other doctors. Together they needed to sell that yarn to the public to advance the doctor’s reputation and obtain the patient’s freedom. And together, they did just that, convincing a jury he used to be a murderous Mr. Hyde but now he’s back to Dr. Jekyll, completely cured and perfectly harmless. As it turned out, this wasn’t a milestone in the progress of medical science or legal precedent; it was, however, one helluva show, and something that Santa Rosa still talked about years later.

 

COMING NEXT: SUCH A VERY STRANGE MAN

 


1 Although it was agreed that he was struck four times, newspaper descriptions of his injuries were inconsistent over the following two years. It was variously reported he was shot twice in a shoulder, that a bullet passed through his mouth and through both cheeks, that each cheek was grazed and the tip of his nose was now missing.

2 The court report on the preliminary examination appeared in the Cloverdale Reveille, April 30 1892. Several details vary from later testimony as reported in the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle.

3 From Livernash trial testimony in the San Francisco Examiner, October 29 1892.

 

sources
 

Old Man Ethridge Shot by E. J. Livernash.
Strange Story Concerning the Conduct of the Attempted Slayer.
THE CLOVERDALE TRAGEDY
Ed. J. Livernash the Author of the Shooting, Pronounced Insane.

A report from Cloverdale that E. J. Livernash, formerly editor of the Healdsburg Enterprise, and more recently of the Livermore Herald, had shot and killed a man by the name of Darius Ethridge caused a great sensation, and was the principal topic of discussion on the streets for the rest of the day. The reports were very conflicting and unsatisfactory. It was first stated that the shooting was the outgrowth of a quarrel over a poker game, and later it became noised about that Livernash had borrowed money from Ethridge for a legitimate business enterprise, and that they quarreled over a settlement. No one could judge between the accuracy and truth of these and many other rumors, and people waited anxiously for the arrival of the afternoon train from Cloverdale, in the expectation that Livernash would be brought to the county jail.

The supposition proved correct, and with the arrival of the 3:30 train came Livernash in the charge of a Deputy Sheriff from Healdsburg, and accompanied by his attorney T. J. Geary, his brother, John Livernash. Dr. Weaver and M. Minehan, of Cloverdale. He was taken at once to Judge Dougherty’s chambers in the oourt-house, and no time was lost in summoning another physician to participate in the examination of his mental condition.

The story of the shooting was related to Judge Dougherty and the physicians by T. J. Geary and Mr. Minehan. It seems that Livernash arrived in Cloverdale on the evening train Wednesday and went directly to the United States Hotel. Mr. Minehan, the proprietor, noticed that he was feeling badly and did not eat. He sat in the hotel office reading a paper for some time, and at the suggestion of Mr. Minehan went to bed. He arose and dressed himself between 1 and 2 o’clock and went across the street to a small house occupied by Ethridge. As soon as he entered the room he told Ethridge that Judge Overton and Mr. McElarney were coming up on the morning train from Santa Rosa to buy his (Ethridge’s) livery stable. Ethridge said he had no desire to sell his property, but Livernash urged that it was a fine bargain and threw $150 on the table in front of him as earnest money and asked for a receipt. While in the midst of their discussion about the proposed sale Livernash suddenly changed the subject by demanding that Ethridge should draw up his will and make Livernash his heir. Mr. Ethridge very naturally declined to do so, whereupon Livernash drew two revolvers and began shooting. He stood very close to Ethridge, and the bullets flew around the latter’s head like pellets of ice in a hailstorm, and four took effect. One passed through the fleshy part of the throat under the chin, another grazed the bridge of the nose, and the other two abraised the skin on either cheek. None of the wounds were serious.

Livernash thought he had killed the man and returned to his room in the hotel. When the constable and marshal, with Mr. Minehan, knocked at his door, he opened it immediately. He was dressed and the two revolvers laid on a table farther in the room. He told the officers that be had killed several men and informed them where the bodies were to be found. He was particularly certain that Ethridge was Judge Joachimsen, of San Francisco, who he said had closed out his business in San Francisco and opened chambers in Cloverdale. At the intercession of Mr. Minehan he was allowed to remain in his room the rest of the night in charge of the constable.

When a Democrat reporter entered Judge Dougherty’s chambers Livernash was weeping and his brother, John, was trying to comfort him. He did not recognize the Democrat representative at first, but a few words recalled his memory and he shook hands in a passive way. Before Dr. Smith arrived Livernash approached the reporter and expressed the hope as best he could in a choked voice that the Democrat would not make sport of his misfortune. The request was a natural one and his manner failed to reveal any taint of insanity.

When questioned as to his conduct at Cloverdale he told a story which revealed the workings of a mind that is in the habit of making excursions on its own account, unaccompanied by its guardian’s reason and will power. He said he had gone to bed at the suggestion of Mr. Minehan, but finding he could not sleep, had gotten up and dressed and started out for a long walk. He wanted to go to his father’s old place of business, about which clustered a thousand tender memories. If he could stand in front of the old place once more he thought he might give vent to the feelings within him. At this point he broke down and sobs choked his voice. He soon regained his composure and told about drawing up ten wills for people living in Cloverdale, and then he went off into a rambling account of his grievances against Judge Joachimsen, of San Francisco, before whom he was taken after his masquerading escapade. He knew the Judge had gone to Cloverdale. In fact he had seen him, and knew he was in the house where he found Ethridge. When he entered the house Ethridge told him that be was not Judge Joachimsen, and in order to humor the man he pretended to believe that he was talking to Ethridge and not Judge Joachimsen. He said he knew all the time, though, that the Judge was deceiving him, and he watohed tor a chance and began firing at him. He thought he had put forty-eight bullets into the Judge’s body. The next he remembered was running down the street and into the arms of a man. The man grabbed him so that he could not shoot and then robbed him of $600 in gold which he had in his right-hand trousers pocket. A hundred and fifty dollars in his other pocket was not touched. He tried to shoot the man but could not. During the oourse of his rambling story he took ocoasion to explain the two kinds of sleep to which he is accustomed. One, he said, was a semi-consciousness where the mind was free to act, but without the aid of the will power. The other was darkness, a total blankness which he characterized as a natural slumber.

John Livernash testified that he had noticed a change in his brother ten months ago. He, Ed, had not been able to sleep, and when he did doze off his slumber was accompanied by constant talking and muttering. He knew that he had been in the habit of taking narcotics for some time.

Without many minutes lost in deliberation the physicians pronounced Livernash insane and his commitment to the Napa Asylum was made out and signed. He will be taken to the asylum to-day.

LATER.

We later learn that Judge Dougherty has ordered the Sheriff to hold Livernash until further order is made, as the fact of his arrest upon a complaint filed in the Justice Court of Cloverdale township was not made known at the examination.

 

 

Another Account.
Special to the Democrat.

Cloverdale, Oct. 29.—Ed. J. Livernash, the young man who created a sensation by appearing on the streets of San Francisco in the disguise of a negro woman, added another link to his unenviable reputation in this town this morning by shooting and dangerously wounding D. Ethridge, at his home in this place. Mr. Ethridge, who is an old bachelor, was awakened this morning about 2 o’clock by a rap on his door. He got up and found it was Ed. Livernash, who told him he had a purchaser for his livery stable, and wanted to pay him some money on it so as to bind the contract, as he wanted to leave on the early train. Mr. Ethridge, suspecting nothing, invited him in, when Livernash counted out $150 and laid it on the table, setting a bottle on the table at the same time. He then pulled out a contract and asked Mr. Ethridge to sign it, which he did. When Mr. Ethridge had signed the contract he looked up and found Livernash pointing two revolvers in his face. At the same time Livernash demanded that he make a will, leaving all his property to him (Livernash). Instead of complying with his demand Mr. Ethridge grabbed him, when Livernash fired at him three times in rapid succession, one shot just touching the nose, knocking the skin off, another just grazing the mouth, knocking out a tooth, and one hitting him in the neck, passing through the flesh, making a very serious wound. Livernash then grabbed the money he had counted out on the table and the contract Ethridge had signed, jumped out the door and disappeared. Mr. Ethridge then walked over to Dr. Mason’s residence and had his wounds dressed. In the mean time the City Marshal, J. S. Conner, was notified and went to hunt Livernash and arrest him. He found him at 2:30 a. m., one-half hour after the shooting, locked in a room at the U. S. Hotel, where the Marshal placed him under arrest. He had in his possession when arrested two revolvers, one of which was cocked and had blood all over it, showing how close he was to his intended victim when he did the shooting.

The City Marshal then went around to the residence of Mr. Ethridge and secured the bottle Livernash left setting on the table and failed to take when be grabbed the money and contract, and found it contained a deadly poison. When arrested Livernash said he was the king of Siam and that he had shot Judge Joachimsen, or some such name. He said he did not take his sleep powder last night and felt bad.

The town is divided in opinion on the case. Some say he is crazy, while others say it was a premeditated attempt at murder, as Mr. Ethridge is an old bachelor with no known relatives and quite wealthy, and if Livernash could have scared him into making his will he would have forced him to drink the poison or shot him and people would thought he committed suicide. The will would probably have stood, as there were no relatives to contest it and no one who would ever have suspected anything wrong, as Mr. Ethridge used to be a great friend to the Livernash’s when they lived in Cloverdale. Livernash was taken before Justice Abraham this afternoon, who ordered him to be sent to Santa Rosa for trial.

– Daily Democrat, October 30 1891

 

Another Order.

Judge Dougherty made another order Friday night committing Livernash to the asylum at Napa, there to he held in custody until his sanity or insanity has been demonstrated. If he proves to be sane he will be brought back for his preliminary examination on charge of assault to murder, but in the event that his mental irregularities are genuine and not purposely induced he will remain in the asylum.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 7 1891

 

Wants a Jury Vindication.

Santa Rosa, March 15. It has been learned that Ed J. Livernash, the Livermore newspaperman, who was arrested for masquerading in female attire in San Francisco last Fall, and who afterward attempted to kill Davis Ethridge at Cloverdale, will be brought here for trial on the latter charge next month. After Livernash’s attempt to shoot Ethridge he was examined on a charge of insanity and committed to the Napa Asylum, where he has been ever since. He is in a fair way to recovery, and as soon as discharged from that institution he will be brought here for trial. His relatives will insist that he be tried, as many have charged that he was not crazy when he made the attack on Ethridge, and they desire to see him vindicated by a jury.

– The Napa Register, March 18 1892

 

Ed. Livernash called on us Monday. He is looking quite well.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 16 1892

 

EVIDENCE AND DECISION IN THE LIVERNASH CASE.
Justice’s Court, Cloverdale Township April 26, 1892.
THE PEOPLE VS. ED. J. LIVERNASH.

Preliminary examination of defendant on the charge of felonious assault with deadly weapon upon one Darius Ethndge, held April 6, 1892. The prosecution proved, among other things the following:

[..]

The defense then established the following:

That the defendant was of a very nervous temperament and that the least trouble or excitement would cause him great mental distress which would be followed by his being low spirited, melancholy and moody lasting for period of days. That while in this condition he was always quiet and orderly with one or two exceptions.

The evidence of Dr. Gardner, Superintendent of the Napa Insane Asylum, was to the effect that the defendant was a somnambulist; that his condition was such that he was living a dual life; that is he was subject to frequent moments of unconsciousness and at the same time acting and doing things of which he knew nothing when he would return to his lucid moments. That at the time of the committal of the deed, by the defendant, he was in this somnambulistic state, and that it was some time after the defendant was placed under his care at the Napa Insane Asylum before he was able to restore him to his normal condition. The Doctor further stated in his testimony that after studying the case of the defendant he discovered his real condition and became able himself to put the defendant asleep when desired, and could have perfect control over him, having the defendant do whatsoever he commanded.

[..]

The defendant was proven to be a person having a highly disordered, nervous organization and that great excitement would throw him in a state of somnambulism. It is perfectly consistent with the theory of sanity that he was conscious of the act and for weeks prior thereto and having worked himself up to a state of great excitement consequent upon the shooting he shortly afterward lapsed into the somnambulistic state. Believing then that the defendant was sane at the time of the shooting it is ordered that defendant be held to appear before the Superior Court with bail fixed at $3000.

– Cloverdale Reveille, April 30 1892

 

SLEEP PROMPTS MURDER.
Remarkable Somnambulistic Affection of E. J. Livernash.
He Is Held on a Charge of Attempting te Kill a Cloverdale Citizen for Refusing te Make a Will in His Favor.

[Special to the Examiner.] Santa Rosa, April 26.- Ed. J. Livernash, the young man who created a sensation in San Francisco last October by appearing on the streets disguised as a negro woman, and who, the morning of October 29th, created great excitement in Cloverdale by attempting to kill D. Ethridge of that place, has been held to appear before the Superior Court for trial. Livernash’s preliminary hearing was held before Justice Abraham of Cloverdale two weeks ago, but decision was not rendered until this afternoon.

The trial promises to be one of the most interesting ever known in California. Livernash claims to have been in a somnambulistic condition when he made his attempt to kill Ethridge, and that he knows nothing about the affair.

The morning of the assault he went to Ethridge’s house and ordered him to make a will in his favor, leaving him all his property. Ethridge demurred, and then Livernash fired four shots at him, two of which took effect, but only slight wounds were inflicted. Livernash was arrested, and told such wild stories about having put forty bullets into Judge Joachimsen of San Francisco who, he said, had assumed the person of Ethridge, that he was examined for insanity and committed to Napa Asylum. A few weeks ago he was discharged from that institution and pronounced cured. He was then brought back here to answer to the criminal charge preferred against him.

At the preliminary examination at Cloverdale Drs. Gardner and Robertson of Napa testified that Livernash was subject to a somnambulistic influence that made him capable of leading a dual life, and that when in his somnambulistic state ha was not accountable for what he did. In their opinion he was in that condition when he made the attack on Ethridge. Opinion is divided upon the matter among the Sonoma county people, and the case will be stubbornly contested on both sides.

– The San Francisco Examiner, April 27 1892

 

An information has been filed against Ed. Livernash, charging him with an assault with intent to commit murder. His arraignment has been set for next Monday,

– Sonoma Democrat, May 14 1892

 

HE HYPNOTIZED HIMSELF.
The Remarkable Defense In the Case of E. J. Livernash.
AN INVOLUNTARY JEKYLL AND HYOE.
It Is Claimed That the Assailant of Ethridge, the Cloverdale Capitalist, Was Mentally Irresponsible.

[..]

– The San Francisco Examiner, October 26 1892

 

MENTAL FREAKS AND FANCIES.
An Extraordinary Trial Now in Progress in the Superior Court of Sonoma County.
The Wonderfully Endowed Mind of E. J. Livernash “Jangled Out of Tune” Whether He Sleeps or Wakes.
IS HE SOMNAMBULIST OR LUNATIC?

[..]

– The San Francisco Examiner, October 28 1892

 

HIS MIND ON COURT PARADE.
Livernash, the Duplex Mental Wonder of Sonoma, Appears Before the Bar in a Trance.
An Exhibition of Dual Intellect practically Seen for the First Time in Any American Court.
TELLS HIS CRIME UNDER A SPELL.

The trial of Edward J. Livernash at Santa Rosa yesterday developed something startlingly unique in California courts – probably in all the courts of America and possibly in the courts of the world…

…The skies were “ashen and sober” on the morning of this “lonesome October” day, entirely befitting the story of a clouded mind and of a man in a trance, conscienceless, purposeless and uncontrollable, ready to commit murder at any suggestion of his crooked brain – a roaming, scheming monster, like that of Frankenstein.

[..]

– The San Francisco Examiner, October 29 1892

 

…Ethridge testified to-day aa follows: “I received a letter from the defendant from San Francisco stating that he had a purchaser for my stable and arranging for a meeting at my place on the evening of October 28th. Livernash came to my house in the evening and said the purchaser would arrive that night and asked me to remain up. At 11 o’clock he came over with a bottle containing a liquid, saying that it was a choice wine. He returned to his room at the hotel and at 1 o’clock knocked at my door saying the parties were in town and would be over presently. He paid down $150 to bind the bargain and when I attempted to take the money told me to leave it alone.

“He then drew two revolvers and pointing them at my head commanded me to make my will, leaving everything to him. I told him that I could not write and he replied, ‘Write quick or I’11 kill you!’ I said, ‘You would not kill me would you?’ Immediately he fired seven times, six shot taking effect but not seriously. I ran for a doctor and on my return found the light out and the money and receipt gone.”

[..]

– The San Francisco Chronicle, October 29 1892

 

LIVERNASH HIMSELF AGAIN.
With Mind in Fine Poise He Patches With Sanity the Breaks in the Story of insanity.
But With All His Weird Actions and Unnatural Impulses Dr. Wachendorf Persists He Was Shamming.
HIS BROTHER’S MENTAL MALADY.
Enough Poison in the Hands of an Uncontrolled Madman to Have Wiped Out a City – The Man of Two Lives shows Himself at his Best, Fencing the Attorneys With Rare Skill and Enthralling His Hearers With the Dramatic Vividness of His Recital.

Santa Rosa, October 29.-Yesterday developed Edward J. Livernash in a hypnotic trance, peering with glum eyes into the beyond, and living over again the days of a year ago, when, moved by grisly fancies, be walked tba earth to murder men and ghosts. To-day found him at himself – out of the spell, acute, argumentative, dramatic – justifying Dr. Gardner’s estimate of him: “One of tba brightest men in tbe State of California.”

[..]

– The San Francisco Examiner, October 30 1892

 

PUT TO THE AMMONIA TEST.
Experts Subject Livernash to the Influence of the Pungent Drug.
They Declare That the Result of the Experiment Proved Him to Be a True Hypnotic.
NO SIMULATION BY THE ACCUSED.
The Representations of Doctor Gardner and Robertson Disputed by Dr. Wachendorf, Who Discourses Elaborately on Moon and Magnetic Theories and the Differences Between Artificial and Natural Somnambulism – The Five Hundred Dollar Mystery Unsolved.

[..]

– The San Francisco Examiner, November 2 1892

 

Napa Asylum.
18th Nov. ’92

Friend Geary:

Will you come to the rescue and get me out of the unfortunate muddle in which I am involved? Of course I refer to the charge of assault to murder pending against me.

Your absence in Washington and your subsequent duties on the street naturally forbids any request of the nature heretofore; but now that you are somewhat less engaged I hasten to ask your aid, feeling that if anybody in the state can clear me fully your are the man.

Confidentially, my case most damnably mismanaged at the trial recently concluded. The surprising thing to me was that a conviction did not result. Pushing forward the theory of hypnotism with overwhelming evidence of insanity [illegible] our easy reach was an almost fatal error and it was supplemented by a score of omissions and weaknesses that could readily have been avoided. And while I am not unmindful of the kindly intention of my attorneys, I have the greatest indisposition to have them appear for me at the second hearing.

You know my situation well enough to guess that I am not in a position to pay a cash fee; but you may also guess that I know the value of the service I solicit and would compensate you at the earliest opportunity. Once I get upon my feet again I think I can reach out for opportunities as well as though the calamity had not befallen me.

[page/pages missing]

ting together whatever is likely to be useful in the direct examination of our experts and in the cross examination of experts called by the People.

Now, my dear Geary, this request is put forth in the utmost earnestness. If you can at all imagine to appear for me you will have my gratitude through life. I am nearly worn out by Burnett’s vindictive persecution and I feel that you can clear the trouble away in a manner that will silence opposition and leave my future unclouded by suspicion.

I shall be here for a fortnight to come, and a letter addressed to me at the asylum will be promptly delivered.

Sincerely yours,
E. J. Livernash

 

Dr. Truesdell’s Lecture.

In Dr. Truesdell’s opening lecture on Hypnotism at Armory Hall Friday evening the lecturer presented the expert testimony of the doctors as given in the Livernash trial, and then proceeded to show that tbe spiritual power of the hypnotizer over the subject was far greater than it is possible for any man to exercise over his own mind or body, and hence a power for good or evil of fearful magnitude, and one that could be controlled for good only by knowledge and law, and not by ignorance or prejudice.

He claimed that the sixth sense was a spiritual, and not a physical sense, as seeing, hearing, etc., and could only be understood through the facts of hypnotism, somnambulism, trance, clairvoyance, etc., and could only be relied upon when truth appealed through it.

He also showed how the well [sic] were paralyzed by hypnotism or the paralyzed restored by the same power. At the close of the lecture questions were asked in relation to important points of distinction between hypnotism, somnambulism and mental and spiritual influences, in which a prominent minister of this city proved himself most thoroughly informed on the whole question.

The doctor will continue his series of instructions on the same subject next Wednesday evening, at the same place.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 19 1892

 

HYPNOTISM HIS DEFENSE.
Livernash on Trial Again at Santa Rosa.
The Man Who Was Placed Under Mesmeric Influence to Testify In His Own Behalf-A Case Without Precedent.

[..]

– The San Francisco Examiner, April 14 1893

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wildwest1880

2½ TALES FROM OUR WILD WEST DAYS

Yay, sesquicentennial! So what was Sonoma county really like in 1868? If a movie was made of Santa Rosa in those days, would it have the flavor of the sweet little town in “The Music Man” or the sort of rough place seen in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?”

I recently visited the Midwest and while waiting at the St. Louis airport I met a very nice Dutch family (Jan, if you’re reading this, please get in touch; I lost your business card). They found it novel to meet someone from the West Coast, then became excited when they learned I was a local historian – to them, this place called Santa Rosa was somewhere between Deadwood and Dodge City.

Jan used to follow the Wild West festival circuit around Europe (yep, that’s really a thing). He even had a custom-made Indian costume which he said was authentic down to the eagle feathers. (NOTE: the feathers were probably imitations, as it’s illegal to sell them in the U.S.)

He peppered me with questions: Does our history museum have any guns of famous outlaws? (Uh, I doubt it.) Was Billy the Kid ever here? (No.) Jesse James? (No.) Wild Bill Hickok? (No.) Buffalo Bill? (Yes, but only with his circus.) Was there an army fort? (No.) Did Indians go on the warpath? (Oh, please.) Were there gunfighter shootouts? (No.) Were there lynchings? (Sure, the last being in 1920 – which gave him such pause that he asked me to write down the year to make sure he understood correctly.)

There never really was a “Wild West” here, I explained; Sonoma county was mostly settled by farmers from Missouri, and as a result the people in Santa Rosa and the rest of the county acted pretty much like, well, Missouri farmers. Yeah, it was unusual that Santa Rosa cheered for the Confederacy to win the Civil War and anti-Chinese racism was virulent, but there was never exceptional violence or lawlessness in Sonoma county during the latter 19th century. Then reflecting on our conversations during my long flight back to California, I regretted portraying that our history was ever so clear cut.

First, Sonoma county indeed had the sort of Old West outlaws that so intrigued my friend from Holland – he even might have heard of the poetically-inclined “Black Bart” who robbed three stage coaches here. B.B. gets all the press, but there was also the Cloverdale-based Houx Gang in 1871 and just a bit further north there was the cattle rustling and stage robbing Buck English Gang in the mid-1870s (and yes, Jan, his gun is in a museum). This pattern of stick-em-ups continued through the next decade with Dick Fellows and others whose names were never known.

As per Missouri: Sure, Santa Rosa’s love of Dixie came from Missouri families often having deep ties to the Old South – but it was simplistic to say those Missouri immigrants hung on to all their Midwestern values once they were here. Even a deeply-rooted belief in civility can be degraded when someone is dropped into a frontier situation, where there are loose rules for conduct and weak institutions. All of the tales told below show the result; there are acts of impetuous behavior which never would have been tolerated back in their hometowns – including person-on-person violence and community vigilantism.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner discussed this across several essays about the unique problems of the American frontier. When people are “unchecked by restraints of an old social order,” it didn’t matter if the frontier was the Carolinas during the 1730s, Missouri in the 1810s or California in the 1850s. The pattern was the same: American pioneers were quick to take the law into their own hands instead of waiting for the legal system to preserve order. “If the thing was one proper to be done, then the most immediate, rough and ready, effective way was the best way.” That often meant lynching or pulling out a pistol.

Turner also pointed out that “a crime was more an offense against the victim than a violation of the law” and an insult or show of disrespect could swiftly lead to violence. Add the presence of firearms and a confrontation which might never have gone beyond shouting or bloody noses can become deadly. And that brings us to the first tale from our Wild West days.

This is the “half” tale, which means I’m only summarizing it because you should read the whole story in John Schubert/Valerie Munthe’s Hidden History of Sonoma County. It’s a gripping yarn and well told by them; the book also has a chapter that reveals the history of Houx Gang (I once tried to figure out their doings, but there was so much confusing info I gave up). All together, “Hidden History” is easily the best book on Sonoma county history published in ages. My only quibbles are the lack of footnotes/endnotes, and the title grossly overpromises – a full “hidden history” would fill bookcases. As of this writing, it’s even on sale at the Santa Rosa Costco.

In 1867, Charles Henley killed James Rowland. The two farmers lived about a half-mile apart near Windsor, and there was bad blood between them because Henley’s pigs kept getting loose. Rowland corralled some of those hogs and Henley went over to fetch them, carrying a shotgun; there was a confrontation inside the pig pen and Rowland was shot dead at close range. The animals would mutilate his body until it was later discovered.

Later that night Henley visited a friend, confessed to the shooting and sought advice. The friend urged Henley to ride over to Windsor and surrender to the authorities, though he was hesitant because “they are all Odd Fellows,” as was Rowland. Henley also asked the friend not to tell his hired hand because he was likewise a I.O.O.F. member, but the man had overheard Henley’s confession anyway. Henley turned himself in the next morning and later that day, members of the Windsor Odd Fellows Lodge showed up to claim the body. Lodge members wore their badge of mourning for thirty days.

Henley was taken to the county jail to await trial. Exactly thirty days after the killing, Santa Rosa’s night watchman was surprised by four masked men. “Keep quiet,” he was told, “there are 150 of us, well-armed, and we have come to take a certain man out of jail.” The watchman was held captive and soon joined by the jailer. Another of the masked vigilantes encountered a policeman on patrol and held the officer at gunpoint.

The jailer was forced to open Henley’s cell and the prisoner was bound and gagged before being carried away. His body was found hanging about a mile west of town in what’s now the Roseland district.

There was an outcry over the lynching in both the local press and the big San Francisco newspapers, with a reward of $2,000 offered for information on the identity of the mob. Any suggestion that the masked men were Odd Fellows was met with fierce denial and the pursuit of the guilty was soon forgotten.

Then just a few days after the lynching there was another killing in Santa Rosa.

Around midnight on the night of June 20, 1867, Byrd Brumfield used his pocket knife to slash John Strong to death at Griffin’s Saloon. The number of wounds varied between 7-16, depending on who was telling the story. Although witnesses testified that Strong was running for the door at the time, the Coroner’s Jury ruled that Brumfield had killed him in self defense. Testimony also revealed Strong had a six-shooter that he may (or may not) have attempted to draw, but the verdict seemed to come down to the jury being told that nobody liked Strong  and Brumfield was a good guy.*

Between the slashing and the lynching, we can all probably agree 1867 was a pretty violent year in Santa Rosa (and remember, that was the year just before the one which we are about to sesquicentennial-ly celebrate). Still, the Sonoma Democrat boasted after Brumfield was acquitted, “to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.” That of course was technically true, as Henley had been just strung up outside of city limits and when Michael Ryan had buried the point of a pickaxe in his poor wife’s head two years earlier, his murder victim was not male.

Brumfield apparently decided that a pocket knife was no longer adequate for his needs. The following year he had an argument with Captain L. A. Norton and both men drew their guns. Brumfield fired four times before Norton’s sidearm left his holster and the Mexican War vet was wounded in the left hand. A jury again ruled Brumfield merely acted in self-defense.

In his youth Byrd had worked on the big Brumfield family farm, somewhere in the Russian River valley. By the 1870 census he appears at age 32 with the profession of “sporting man,” by which we can assume means he was a professional gambler. By 1875 he found himself blacklisted by all saloon owners around Healdsburg; we don’t know if that was because he was a card shark or just a violent alcoholic.

“Byrd’s on a big drunk today,” Harry Truitt warned those sitting in front of a Healdsburg Hotel on an afternoon that November. Brumfield was more than just liquored up – he was looking for a fight.

“There’s been a big poker game in town,” Byrd told a friend. “I’m going to play poker in this town,” adding he had been kept out of the bars long enough.

“They don’t treat me right in this town,” he told another, who asked, “Who don’t treat you right?”

“These Zane boys; they’ve got rich now and don’t notice a common man. I knew them when they didn’t have a cent: then they treated me all right. I’m going into Will Zane’s saloon today or die; and I’ll get away with it if I go in.”

Byrd held some sort of grudge against Willis Zane; six months earlier, Brumfield had borrowed Zane’s revolver only to turn it on the owner and attempt to kill him (or so the “special reporter” for the Sonoma Democrat wrote). Zane was warned that Byrd was drinking and telling people he intended to show up at the bar. “I’ll let them know that I’m not dead yet, but don’t care a damn how soon,” said the drunken Brumfield.

Shortly before sunset, Byrd staggered into Zane’s saloon. Willis told him twice to get out. Byrd didn’t say a word, but moved towards Willis (it was unclear whether his gun was drawn or his hand was still reaching under his coat). Zane drew his pistol from a pocket and shot three times. Byrd Brumfield was dead.

The Coroner’s Jury acquitted Zane, declaring it was justifiable homicide, but much of the testimony was a mirror image of the 1867 inquest – only this time, nobody liked Brumfield and Zane was the good guy.

The takeaway from the story is not that Byrd Brumfield was a bad guy (which is pretty indisputable); it’s how every time he had a beef with someone, he expected that other person to be armed. And he was right.

Scholars like to point out communities in the Wild West had strict no-gun laws, requiring those entering town to check firearms with a peace officer – remember the plot of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” While that’s true, our local newspapers also show there were multiple “shooting affrays” every year in Sonoma county, although rarely did the incidents end in a death or even injury.

It’s doubtful anyone ever walked the mean streets of Healdsburg or Santa Rosa with a gun holstered on his hip (other than lawmen), but all those affray items reveal too many people were certainly packing under that Victorian garb. Often they were the Usual Suspects (see Male: young, drunkenness of) but others would probably be surprising. Captain Lewis A. Norton, the man Brumfield shot in the hand, was not a cocky ne’er-do-well; he was a middle-aged Healdsburg lawyer and local Democratic party bigwig, a former Justice of the Peace who ran for county judge the year before he was shot, then state senate a year after.

And sometimes the shooters were even women.


J. G. Hill of Forestville, better known as “Sock” Hill, while on his way to church at Forestville last Sunday evening, was fired at twice by Miss Georgia Travis. The first shot passed close to his left ear and through the rim of his hat, the second shot missing him entirely. Miss Travis was arrested Monday morning, on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder…

That little item appeared in the Healdsburg Enterprise and other local papers in September 1879. (The item right below it, incidentally, was another shooting affray, describing a 21 year-old Lakeport bartender killing a patron who was told to leave but went for his gun instead.)

Details emerged a few days later: Sock – whose real name was Joshua – along with two young women, were walking to a Sunday night church service, as was Georgia. As they passed Faudre’s Chair Factory (there’s a reference sure to excite Forestville historians), Georgia drew her “bull-dog” pistol and began shooting at him. After firing both shots, she handed the gun over to a man who intervened. Sock and his women friends sat through the entire service (!) then went to Santa Rosa to file a complaint. He said Georgia had been threatening to kill him for over a year and he was afraid. The Grand Jury dropped the charges for lack of evidence, and it was never explained why she wanted the 42 year-old man dead. All she ever said was that she had been “slandered” by him.

Another month passed and there was a meeting of the Forestville Blue Ribbon Club, part of a very popular nationwide evangelical temperance movement. Although it was a night of heavy rain, 60-70 still turned out including women and children. Sock Hill attended as did Georgia Travis and her brothers, Wirt and John.

John was seated two rows behind Hill, and Wirt was the same distance in front. John reached over and punched Hill in the face. Sock Hill jumped up and confronted John Travis, drawing his gun. Wirt Travis then shot Hill point blank in the base of his skull. Amazingly, he would remain conscious until he died about fifteen hours later.

Panic ensued. John Travis apparently fired his own gun and Wirt shot again, wounding a bystander in the leg as he fled the room along with the dozens of other attendees. In court testimony there would be the usual claims and counterclaims – Hill fired his gun, John did not, John socked Hill because he turned around “made a face at me,” Wirt claimed he shot Hill because he believed his brother’s life was in danger, &c.

Wirt was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to San Quentin. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty for his brother John. “One of the most exciting trials ever had in Sonoma county,” sighed the Sonoma Democrat, having stretched the sensationalist coverage over two issues.

So there you are, Jan; I was mistaken to tell you at the airport that we were just a bunch of boring ol’ Missouri farmers. There absolutely was a true gun culture here in Sonoma county, and our communities – with somewhat of an exception for Petaluma – were very much gun-toting “Wild West” towns. Here I’ve only describe some of our frontier-type violence over a dozen years, but there could be dozens of essays like this to document all our uncivil behavior in the latter 19th century.

And don’t presume the pistol-packin’ days ended with the Gaslight Era. As documented here earlier, it was common to carry a “bicycle revolver” at least through the 1910s. There was also a dramatic four-way shootout in 1907 that managed to avoid hurting anyone seriously because no one knew how to aim.

A final note: Lest anyone rush to claim that crimes were deterred in those 50+ years of locals carrying concealed weapons, let it be known that I’ve never found an incident where a good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy with a gun. Instead, it’s a miserable chronicle of holdup men using them to scare victims, fools and drunkards wielding these deadly toys at times of heated emotions, plus a hearty portion of gun owners shooting themselves by accident. Just tragedies with a dose of farce.

 

* Later that year Byrd’s sister, Jane, married an Alfred Strong, who is listed in the 1860 census as a farmer living in the Brumfield family home. I cannot find any family connection between him and John Strong. Byrd was living with the Alfred Strongs in the 1870 census.

 

Quick Work.—Santa Rosa might be called a fast place in some respects. This week a man was killed, buried, and the perpetrator examined and discharged, all in less than twenty-four hours. We may remark, to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 22 1867

 

Disgraceful. —We regret to see in the San Francisco Police Gazette a disgusting wood cut, purporting to represent Byrd Brumfield in the act of killing John Strong in Santa Rosa on the night of the 20th of June. The Gazette was grossly deceived by its informant in regard to the relations of the parties, circumstances of the killing, and burial of Strong. The latter, we learn, was buried under directions of a relative, had a good coffin, and was decently interred.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 6 1867

 

Testimony in the Case of the People vs Brumfield

[inquest]

– Sonoma Democrat, October 26 1867

 

Death of Byrd Brumfield.

[inquest]

– Russian River Flag, November 18 1875
– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1875

 

From Forestvllle. Our regular correspondent writes us November 11th, as follows; “Forestvllle against the world. We have said this before and have occasion to reiterate it now. Saturday night last, 8th Inst., was one of our dark limes, and we were pained to witness such scenes as then occurred in our usually quiet village. As our tempetauce club was about to be called to order its peace and quiet was disturbed and the lives of women and children endangered by two brothers, Wirt and John Travis, who assaulted and shot to death J. G. Hill. The meeting was of course broken up for the evening, and the Society will hereafter convene at the Christian Church instead of the hall. Mr. Hill’s funeral took place at 2 o’clock on Monday, and the high esteem in which he was held by the community was manifested in the unusually large number of persons who attended the obsequies, over three hundred persons escorting his remains to the grave. He was a kind hearted man; one who was always ready to help the needy and to accommodate his neighbors. During an acquaintance of twelve years your correspondent always found him correct in his dealings, and his neighbors generally deplore his untimely death.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1879

 

People Vs. Wirt Travis

[testimony]

– Sonoma Democrat, March 20 and 27 1880

 

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man at window

WHO KILLED THE WICKERSHAMS?

There was no question who killed the Wickershams because no one questioned who killed them; it was definitely their Chinese cook – right?

This is the final chapter in the series about the 1886 killings of Sarah and Jesse Wickersham on their ranch at the most remote part of Sonoma county, between Cloverdale and the ocean. The same night, their cook – whose real name is unknown and here called “Ang” – ran away to San Francisco where it was presumed he boarded a steamship bound for China. This man was apprehended once the boat landed and he died in a Hong Kong jail cell – supposedly by suicide rather than face extradition to California. Further details can be found in the chapters listed to the right.


THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

MANHUNT PT. I: ESCAPE

MANHUNT II: HOW (NOT) TO CATCH A FUGITIVE

WHO KILLED THE WICKERSHAMS?

SOURCES (PDF, 31 pages)

News that one of their countrymen had murdered Americans spread fast and far, and could have hardly come at a worse time for Chinese immigrants in the West. For months, anti-Chinese sentiments had been escalating from grumbling newspaper editorials to acts of violence, even mob riots. Eureka banished its 300+ Chinese residents, as did Tacoma, which followed by razing its Chinatown area. In Wyoming, white miners went on a rampage and murdered at least 28 Chinese men with many burned alive.

Ang was a perfect villain in that swirling torrent of racist hate and fear. The story being told was he had murdered the couple in cold blood for no apparent reason, shooting Jesse Wickersham in the back of his head while he was eating supper and tying Sarah to her bed before killing her as well (some versions of the story also falsely suggested she was sexually assaulted). As a domestic servant living under the same roof as them, the Chinese haters pointed to it as proof that none of the immigrants could ever be trusted, that they could unexpectedly turn on you like a rabid dog. And that fever burned no hotter than in parts of Sonoma county, where the Wickersham victims were members of an esteemed Petaluma family.

Trouble was, Ang made for a lousy suspect. There was zero evidence linking him to the double murder. He had no known motive nor history of trouble; a journal found in his room was translated and revealed a bent towards philosophy. Louis Smith, who worked frequently for the Wickershams and seems to have known Ang better than anyone else, told a reporter that Ang was a “good Chinaman” and  “…got along nicely at the ranch and said he liked the place. When last asked how he was getting on he said all right, but he did not know how long he would remain…”1

But if it wasn’t Ang, then whodunnit?  I believe the culprit was apparent at the time, but swiftly overlooked because the focus entirely turned to the exciting pursuit of (the man believed to be) Ang enroute to Asia. Further, I believe reenacting the event based on the inquest and descriptions of the crime scene supports no other possible interpretation. Read on.

The first suspect to consider has to be Elliott Jewell, the neighbor who discovered the murders. Jewell said from the beginning he believed the Chinese cook killed them – in fact, he wouldn’t shut up about it. As an honors graduate of ACU/Wingback (Agatha Christie University, Armchair campus), I can tell you that the character who kept yapping “the butler did it, the butler did it” likely was the one who killed Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick.

Jewell told the Coroner’s Jury he was certain Ang was the killer, although he had no proof to offer: “I think China cook killed him; [I] should think so from the position of Mr. Wickersham and disappearance of Chinaman.” As for Mrs. Wickersham, Jewell testified, “I do not know who killed her but believe it to be [the] Chinaman.” Based on that (non) evidence, the Jury decided “ail evidence [was] pointing towards a Chinese cook in the employ of deceased.”2

Around two miles away, Jewell and his wife were the closest neighbors. “We were continually over at each other’s places,” he later said, and the four of them had just spent the long New Years’ weekend together. The Jewell’s ranch was something of a country retreat for the couple as both he and his wife were prominent in Petaluma society; he also owned an important business there and had investments.3

Like Ang, however, Jewell had no apparent motive to kill the Wickershams. While we can’t rule out a crime of passion, shooting them separately and tying up Mrs. Wickersham doesn’t seem like part of an impulsive act.

Still, this detail bothers: Jewell did not say anything about hearing the three (four?) shotgun blasts that evening. Even at two miles they should have been noticeable – and that two miles was by road, so the houses might have been closer by earshot. Remember that was 1886 and there was no TV, radio, motors humming or other distracting sounds, just mountain stillness a few hours after sundown on a winter’s night.

But in the brief window before Jewell and the others put the spotlight on Ang, another sort of suspect was considered. In the very first article in the Santa Rosa newspapers about the killings, the Democrat wrote, “…The general supposition is that the crime was committed by parties who expected to obtain possession of his money, knowing that he had many men in his employ, and being such a distance from town they probably thought he kept a large sum of money in his house…”4

That’s the simplest – and I argue, most likely – explanation of the murders: It was a robbery gone wrong. A criminal learned a middle-aged recluse had a sheep ranch in a very remote area. The man was weak or sickly and couldn’t do much so he relied upon hired hands, which meant he must have cash money around to pay them. The man was a Wickersham, and everybody knew they were the North Bay’s wealthiest banking family. The man was married, and rich wives must have valuable jewelry.

As this history blog is concerned with Santa Rosa and the surrounding county, little has been mentioned here about what was going on outside our little bubble. But in 1886 a traveler heading further north would have found it steadily became wilder and woolier, and from Cloverdale onward it well could be considered frontier.

Today writers romanticize highwaymen like “Black Bart,” the gentlemanly robber who left some poems. Forgotten are his vicious colleagues such as Buck English and his gang, who terrorized Napa and Lake counties with brazen stickups at gunpoint. Buck supposedly wasn’t in the area at the time (I can’t find conclusive proof of that) but there were plenty of other bad guys around.

On January 28, a week after the Wickersham murders were discovered, the front page of the Los Angeles Herald neatly summarized the trends going on that week in Northern California. Item 1) reported the arrest of a man in Cloverdale who attempted to rob a stagecoach; 2) provided the latest details on the Wickersham case from Santa Rosa; and 3) mentioned a secret meeting held in Red Bluff to drive out their Chinese residents.

That thwarted stage holdup was not unusual; in 1886 there was a rash of other armed robberies in the region. About three weeks after the Wickershams were killed a couple of masked men robbed a convey of pack horses carrying mail outside of Cloverdale. The same month two armed robbers held up horse buyers on the road to Alexander Valley. There were at least three other highway robberies later that year around Cloverdale, according to the Santa Rosa newspapers.5

Sometimes the holdup guys were later caught (gotta admire those Wells Fargo detectives) or made jailhouse confessions, but none were implicated in the Wickersham deaths. And that may be the strongest evidence that highwaymen were not the real killers. Those dimwits seemed to squeal on each other eagerly, and there was an enormous $1,500 reward offered in the Wickersham case – although it’s not clear whether or not it was specifically for the capture of Ang.6

I readily concede there is a real chance that everything happened as they presumed at the time, that Ang the Chinese cook went berserk for some unknown reason and murdered the couple. But once you strip away the racist notions about the Chinese being monsters, that interpretation makes little sense. Evidence shows it is far more likely that two (or more) robbers surprised them in their home, demanded money and murdered them not to leave witnesses. In this scenario, Ang is completely innocent but flees because he thinks they are pursuing him, or he anticipated (correctly) he would be presumed guilty.

Deciphering whatever really happened mostly comes down to answering this question: Who placed the napkins?

Four days after the killings, a party of 17+ men crowded into Wickersham’s small cabin to investigate and hold an inquest. From there emerged six first-hand accounts of mixed quality.

All of the damning claims – that Sarah Wickersham had been “outraged,” that a piece of cake was left next to her as some sort of Chinese offering to the dead, that she feared to be alone with Ang and that he supposedly killed someone in Sacramento – can be traced directly to Petaluma City Marshal Julius Blume and Healdsburg Constable Roland Truitt, both of whom were quoted widely in the press. Any article relying entirely upon these highly prejudicial lawmen has to be dismissed as untrustworthy.

Fred Wickersham, the adult cousin of Jesse, confirmed some important details in a telegram to his family and later knocked down some of the stories being told by Blume and Truitt. As mentioned already, neighbor Elliott Jewell had little to offer aside from parroting “the Chinaman did it.”

The most reliable sources were a description of the scene by a correspondent from the Petaluma Courier (no byline) and details found in the Coroner’s report about the bodies, per testimony by the doctor who performed the autopsies. (Unfortunately, the inquest did not include any testimony concerning material evidence.) Based on those two accounts, here is the information we can trust:7

All signs pointed to the Wickershams being interrupted while eating supper. Food was still on their plates at the table and the lamp on the table had burned out of oil. Jesse was seated with his back to the fireplace, the door next to it leading to the kitchen. He looked as though he had fallen asleep in his chair. The autopsy found he had been shot twice, once in the back of his head with the other shotgun wound on his side.

Scene of the Wickersham murders showing the approximate position of the victims. In the actual crime scene Sarah was seated directly across the table from Jesse but is shown here at the side as to not obscure him from view. The people shown were selected from vintage images on the internet and are NOT either of the Wickershams. An untouched view of the room can be found in part one. Photo courtesy David Otero and Wickersham Ranch

 

 

Sarah was found in their bedroom (presumably the door on the left in the photograph). She was thoroughly tied up with clothesline, her arms pinned behind her back and the end of the rope tied to the head of the bed. She was in a kneeling position with her head resting on the mattress and was killed by a single shotgun blast to her side, likely standing but already tied up.

Most viewing the scene remarked on the evidence on the kitchen door. The Courier: “On the kitchen side, about four feet from the floor, were marks of powder burn almost as large as a man’s hand. The gun from which the shot was fired that ended the life of the owner of the house was evidently held close against the door, and in that position the muzzle would have been only about five feet from the body of the unsuspecting victim.”8

The shotgun was found in its usual position in the kitchen, leaning behind the door. “On the table was two empty shells, and two other empty shells were taken from the gun.” As there were three shotgun blasts in the killings, it is unknown if the fourth used shell was already in the gun. There is a large bullethole in the ceiling in front of the bedroom door but it’s unknown if that was made by the killers or was the work of some joker at a later time. No contemporary source mentioned it.

After mulling over the evidence for the better part of a year, here’s my best guess as to what happened:

Around six in the evening on Monday, January 18, two or more men rode to the Wickersham ranch. Someone had been there before (one of Jesse’s many hired hands, perhaps?) and knew how to find the place; it was off a lane which was then little more than a cowpath and far from main roads.

As they approached the ranch a heavy storm was brewing, if rains were not already lashing the hills. The flooding resulting from that and a following storm would hamper investigators later in the week, but on the night of the murders the bad weather only added to the enveloping darkness. There was no electricity at the cabin in 1886; the only light inside was the weak glow from candles and coal oil lamps, with the robbers certain to have carried in hurricane lanterns which would cast deep shadows as they moved around.

The small cabin has three rooms and a kitchen; there is a front door in the room where the Wickershams were eating. In the kitchen there is a back and a side door which the robbers probably used, likely carrying revolvers or long guns. At the time everyone presumed the Wickershams were killed by Jesse’s own shotgun, but no evidence of that was ever given – we’ll just have to take their word because back then, they certainly knew a thing or three about firearms.

The assault probably began with a shotgun blast fired from the kitchen into the front room. I believe this caused the hole in the ceiling, and was intended to surprise and terrify the Wickershams.

I imagine the frightened couple must have jumped to their feet, throwing their hands in the air – whether ordered or not. The accomplice(s) likely made a quick search of the cabin, finding the coil of clothesline rope in Ang’s room which they used to tie up Sarah, all the more to terrorize Jesse into revealing the whereabouts of his supposed strongbox.

Jesse likely protested there was little gold coin in the house – he usually paid everyone by a check from a Healdsburg or Petaluma bank account. This was borne out by others who later spoke to reporters, including neighbor Jewell, in one of the few moments when he wasn’t yammering about the Chinese cook being the killer:  “He could hardly have been murdered for the sake of any money that he might have about the house, because in all our transactions I used to be given a check on the bank, Wickersham often telling me that he had strong objections to keeping money in the house”. (True to form, Jewell followed that statement by volunteering, “the only solution that I can give you of the mystery is that the Wickershams have been murdered by the Chinaman.”)9

Here’s the most controversial part of my interpretation: I don’t believe the robbers went there intending to murder anyone, and I think the shot that killed Jesse was accidental. The highwaymen mentioned above rarely fired their guns except to scare people.10

It appears everyone presumed Jesse was first shot in the head – but I believe the autopsy evidence proves not; the doctor said only that either shot would have killed him. He was meticulous in describing the buckshot in Jesse’s body, and no wound was mentioned in his right arm. This suggests his hands were up when he was shot in the side and fired by someone slightly behind him. Like the blast from the doorway, the upward trajectory of the buckshot found in the autopsy suggests the gunman was firing the weapon from his hip, most likely holding a lantern in his left hand with his right trigger finger on an unfamiliar shotgun. It’s easy to imagine how it could happen.

The bandit was not facing Jesse and probably still in the kitchen doorway, which is why the blast hit him “a little posterior to middle” between his fifth and sixth ribs (directly below the sternum), as the coroner wrote. He fell back into his chair, slowly bleeding out with buckshot through both lungs and heart. But the worst was yet to come.

Those pushing an anti-Chinese agenda made up details about the scene where Sarah was discovered bound by the rope, but all described her having been savagely beaten on her head and face, most likely as the robbers demanded she reveal where all the money was hidden. Her “…face was swollen and bruised, the appearance ghastly in the extreme,” reported the Petaluma Courier, and another account stated her nose was broken. A witness who saw her body at the undertaker’s said her “face was much discolored.” There were further nightmarish descriptions which I am sparing Gentle Reader.11

The robbers left, but not before a point blank kill shot to the base of Jesse’s brain – the amount of bleeding makes it apparent the first shot had not killed him. His “pool of blood” was mentioned more than any other detail, the Petaluma Courier noting specifically, “beneath the chair on which the body rested were two pools of blood…”

Besides the made-up stuff about Sarah’s sexual assault and the ritual offering of cake, the other big canard was that nothing was stolen, thus proving it was an act of rage by a deranged Chinaman. But no one knew how much money Jesse had around to steal, if any. From the reliable Courier:


The orderly appearance of the house showed that after the double crime was committed it was not generally plundered or ransacked…In a bureau drawer was found a gold watch belonging to the deceased husband, gold-rimmed spectacles, gold bracelets, and one or two articles of jewelry belonging to Mrs. Wickersham. A small satchel, however, in which the rancher was known to sometimes keep money, was found open, and its only contents, when taken charge of by Fred A., the nephew, was few old and curious coins. No one present was able to state whether there was much or little money in the house before the deed was committed.

That the gold items were left might raise suspicion, but consider again the darkness problem: Oil lanterns cast light to the sides but obscure anything below, where the light is completely blocked by the base. Only by holding a lantern far above your head can someone peer downward – and if valuables are kept in a top drawer, it may not be possible to raise it high enough to see inside. Or maybe it simply wasn’t worth much; a pocket watch that dated back to Jesse’s days in the Civil War was probably of low value, and it’s doubtful Sarah kept anything but costume jewelry on the ranch.

The thieves were also pressured to finish up and leave by not knowing who else might be around and armed. Clearly they were in Ang’s room and knew the Wickershams had a house servant; perhaps there was also a stableboy in the barn or a hired man herding sheep in the hills in advance of the big storm. Which brings us to the critical question: If Ang didn’t do it, where was he all that time?

The Wickershams had just started eating supper and Ang had served everything, including the apple pie dessert and cups of tea. It was one of the few moments of the day when he had time to himself. My guess is that when the highwaymen arrived Ang wasn’t in the cabin but rather in the outhouse or barn. Once the curtain rose on the tragic play, all he could do was hide and hope he would not be sucked into it. There can be no doubt the robbers would have murdered a Chinaman without hesitation.

Ang probably remained hidden long after they left, terrified the killers might return. What he did when he finally crept back into the little house proves, to my mind, that he was not the raging mad killer as he was portrayed.

When the investigators arrived at the cabin four days later, this is how they found Jesse C. Wickersham, according to the Petaluma Courier: “…About the neck was twisted a large linen tablecloth, and underneath it several napkins. These were almost as thoroughly soaked with blood as if they had been dipped into a bucket…it was evident that the tablecloth was taken from the drawer in which the linen was kept for the express purpose of absorbing the blood…”

Incredibly, Jesse’s heart apparently kept beating even after the second shotgun blast. Someone desperately tried to stanch the bleeding. It was not a rational act because anyone thinking normally could see he was nearly dead; it was the sort of compassionate thing done instinctively by someone in shock. And the only person around to offer such a  gesture of futile kindness was Ang.

What followed was hashed over in the previous three chapters, and I’ll repeat only that I doubt Ang was the man who died in the Hong Kong jail, although it’s certainly possible. But I am 100 percent certain the evidence shows he did not harm Sarah and Jesse Wickersham; trying to prove otherwise is like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle by hammering in pieces that don’t fit.

Overall this is the most terrible tale I have ever told. Before and after 1886 awful things occurred in Sonoma county, but the impact of what happened on that lonely ridge rippled outwards through the Bay Area, throughout California and the West and influenced people who had never before heard of a place called Sonoma county.

Weep for the Wickershams who suffered horrible deaths, but also weep for the Chinese who were abused and sometimes killed in the aftermath; weep for the communities that acted disgracefully by turning into anti-Chinese vigilantes, and weep for all our American ancestors who were willing to believe there existed on this earth a race of people who did not share our common humanity. We can all weep an ocean of tears but it still will not wash away such a mournful legacy.

1 Petaluma Courier, January 27, 1886

2 Coroner’s inquest January 22, 1886, pages 3 and 2b

3 San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

4 Sonoma Democrat, January 22, 1886

5 North county violence (or threats of same) was not limited to highway robberies. Had not the Wickersham murders taken center stage, the county newspapers would likely have been buzzing about the threat to financier John A. Paxton. Just a couple of days before the killings, a woman and man were charged with threatening him. Minnie Kasten had been stalking men connected to a Nevada bank who gave her late husband a ruinous tip on mining stock some years before. She had horsewhipped one man (the wrong guy, as it turned out) and had pulled a handgun on Paxton’s former partner (she was found not guilty by reason of insanity, in part because nobody believed her pipsqueak revolver could do much damage). Now she had shown up in Healdsburg looking for Paxton with a thug, who told someone, “That if Paxton did not look out he would get the drop on him, and then he would not be troubling anybody around there very much.” They were acquitted when it came out that Mr. Thug was a sometimes-San Francisco constable, and “that expression was used very much by that fraternity.” (So death threats were okay as long as they were just cop talk?)

6 The reward was $500 from the governor and $1,000 pledged by the Chinese merchants of San Francisco

7 Coroner’s inquest January 22, 1886 / Petaluma Courier, January 27, 1886

8 According to details in the inquest and Petaluma Courier, the shot was fired with the door slightly cracked open to prevent the gun barrel being noticed. The Courier states there were powder burns on the kitchen side of the door. But it is currently hinged in towards the kitchen; it would have to be completely open, or then opened the other way, to leave burns from the muzzle of the shotgun. Either these sources are both wrong (doubtful) of the door was rehung to open the other way at some later point in time, perhaps when an addition was added to the back about forty years ago.

9 San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 1886

10 While few victims were injured during those stickups, a member of the Wickersham Coroner’s Jury working as a stagecoach guard was shot to death by highway robbers between Cloverdale and Preston a couple of years later.

11 San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

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