R.I.P. James Wyatt Oates, wherever the hell you may be.
December 9, 2015 is the centenary of his death, so this is an appropriate time to write his final chapter. There’s still more to come about his life, however, particularly his difficult final three years, a mixture of melancholy and joy along with an outlash of violence that took Santa Rosa by surprise. More also has been unearthed about his life in the years around 1880, when he was a journalist and aspiring author in the mold of Bret Harte. Someday, too, I hope to be able to write the full story of the man he murdered.
Published elsewhere here is an overview of his life and his writings but for the purpose of this article, here is a thumbnail sketch of the story so far:
Called Wyatt by his family, he was born in 1850 and the brother of William C. Oates, a Confederate commander in the Civil War famous for losing the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Wyatt adored his much older brother and followed him by becoming a lawyer in their Alabama hometown. Also like William, he was known both for his courtly Southern charm and his volatile temper as well as being famously quick to judge. Eventually Wyatt married and settled in Santa Rosa. He and wife Mattie had no children, but mentored a number of younger people who often lived with them for months at a time. The Oates’ were closest to Anna May Bell, whom they clearly regarded as a daughter, and Hilliard Comstock, who studied law under Wyatt and became his law partner. When Mattie died in 1914 Wyatt was despondent. He visited his old haunts in Alabama and bonded with his cousin’s families, returning to Santa Rosa with Pat Granberry, a 24 year-old grandniece who stayed with him for several months, sometimes joined by two of her sisters. Also living with Wyatt in his grand home on Mendocino avenue during those final months was Hilliard.
As the end of 1915 approached, Oates was finally emerging from his mourning. He spent Thanksgiving in Los Angeles with Anna May Bell – now Mrs. Samuel Carey Dunlap – and “when he returned home [he] was bubbling over with happiness over his visit,” according to the Santa Rosa Republican. On the train, however, he caught a cold he couldn’t seem to shake. A week later he called for a doctor. (For the record, it was Dr. Joseph H. Shaw, Luther Burbank’s personal physician and best friend.)
Pneumonia developed and the condition of the 65 year-old man continued growing worse. Anna rushed up from Los Angeles. She and Hilliard were there when he died in his home.
The Republican newspaper eulogized in both his obituary and funeral notice. “Amid manifestations of sincere grief the mortal remains of the late Colonel James Wyatt Oates were borne to the tomb,” moaned the reporter, larding on the jeremiad. He was “a cheery, kindly and happy nature far in excess of that of the majority of men.” There was also this sideways compliment: “He was a man of strong convictions, and never hesitated to give his opinions on the questions of the day…Those who did not measure up to this standard of being ‘square’ were not admired by the deceased in even a slight degree.” In other words, he was an opinionated hothead you didn’t want to cross.
Many years later, Ernest Finley wrote vignettes about people in that era and Oates was the only person he called out as a jerk. After Wyatt was reported to have threatened to kill him, Finley allegedly remarked, “he will never cut anybody up, because he hasn’t got the guts.” Finley might not have been as blustery if knew Oates actually had killed someone, but apparently few, if any, people in Santa Rosa knew about his darker past.
As Finley was editor and publisher of the Press Democrat, you know his paper’s obituary was not a love letter to the “cheery, kindly and happy” side of the late Mr. Oates. In the days following the funeral, the PD could scarcely conceal its schadenfreude over hearsay that the last will and testament contained shocking details which might prove James Wyatt Oates was indeed an asshole. Never before or since have I read in those century-old newspapers gossipy speculation about the contents of someone’s will.
The first rumor to emerge was the estate was worth over $100,000 (the equivalent of about $2.5 million today) much of it in stocks and cash, quite a windfall for the lucky heirs. “It is also reported that Mr. Comstock is given the right to occupy the residence on Mendocino avenue until such time as it is sold,” the PD claimed. There was actually nothing in the will concerning this but it must have been an agreement with the executors so the house did not sit unoccupied. Hilliard’s mother, Nellie, and sister Catherine immediately moved into the house as unpaid caretakers until the Comstocks were able to buy it with a $10,000 closed bid from probate the following year.
The PD also speculated Anna May Dunlap was supposed to inherit much of the estate (quite predictable, actually) and the grandnieces might “come in for a large share of the property,” which possibly surprised some, given he met them for the first time only about a year earlier. Then there was this: “There has been a persistent rumor that some time prior to his death, Mr. Oates disinherited his nephew…if this proves true it will come as a surprise, as Will Oates is the Colonel’s nearest relative.”
William C. Oates Jr. – usually called “Willie” – was the 32 year-old son of Wyatt’s beloved brother. (William Sr. had another child with a house slave.) As such the Press Democrat was correct; Willie was indeed his closest blood relative, and eyebrows would have raised around town if Wyatt truly left him nothing.
And Wyatt truly left him nothing.
When the will was officially filed the PD produced a half-page story, reprinting the entire document – another unprecedented step for the paper – and the Republican published it in full as well. As it turned out, Wyatt had added a codicil making several changes.
(Press Democrat cartoon following James Wyatt Oates’ stepping down as president of the Sonoma County Automobile Association in 1911. Note in particular his “elevator” shoes; from the 1892 voter registration records we learn his distinguishing features were a scar on the left side of his head and that he was exactly five feet, seven and five-eights inches tall – the only voter to specify his height with such exact precision.)
Wyatt’s will, created shortly after his wife died the previous year, reflected her own bequests almost exactly (should Wyatt have died first, of course). About $30,000 was given away to friends and relatives and to his nephew, Oates left the gold watch and chain which was given to him by Willie’s father when Oates turned 21 in 1871. The will left one-third of the entire estate before taxes and any other distribution to Willie and the remainder of the estate to Anna May Bell Dunlap.
The codicil was written about two months before Wyatt’s death and following a visit by his nephew. Willie must have said something that really pissed off his temperamental uncle during that visit because he was cut off entirely – Willie didn’t even inherit the legacy watch. That third of the estate that was once promised to him went to May, Pat and Lois Grandberry, Wyatt’s grandnieces.1
The codicil also took away a $1,000 bequest to Mattie’s uncle and another thousand dollars going to the widow of his old law partner. No reasons were given. Added was a new part giving “all coal lands and coal interests” in Arizona and mining interests in Mexico – which were “very valuable if they can ever be properly gotten at” – to his three cousins including Pocahontas (“Pokie”) Granberry, the mother of the three young women.
“There is an unconfirmed rumor that Mr. Oates plans to contest the will,” the PD speculated hopefully, but with absolutely no basis. The will was not contested.
That was not completely the end of the story, however. A month later, the papers reported Dr. Bogle – one of the executors of Wyatt’s will – had fulfilled a very odd last request.
Although the obituary stated “…the mortal remains of the late Colonel James Wyatt Oates were borne to the tomb,” that wasn’t exactly true. His coffin had been stacked inside the holding vault at the Rural Cemetery, the same little stone shed which also still held the coffins for Mattie (d. 1914) and his mother-in-law (d. 1910). None of them had been buried. Supposedly Wyatt asked Dr. Bogle to have their bodies cremated together.
Such a request was out of character, to say the least. Years before, Oates had purchased a large plot at the entranceway of the Rural Cemetery. Most likely he originally wanted all to be interred under a glorifying monolith, such as the obelisk with life-size statue that marked the Alabama grave of his Civil War brother, William. It is hard to reconcile the shift from owning the most prominent gravesite in town to wanting the most anonymous disposal of their remains.
And if that wasn’t strange enough, Wyatt also demanded the remains of Mattie’s two sisters and brother be disinterred along with his father-in-law, Perrin L. Solomon – a man who Oates could not possibly have known because he died in San Francisco when Oates was a 13 year-old boy in Alabama.2
Ordering your long-dead in-laws – people whom you never met – dug up for a mass family cremation is unfathomable, at least to me. Perhaps he developed the idea while wallowing in his deep depression following Mattie’s death; perhaps he wanted to make a dark nihilistic statement about her family; perhaps the request was a caustic joke which his friend tragically took seriously; perhaps he asked for it because he was barking mad. Whatever the reason, all of their bodies were indeed cremated together.
“The ashes will be thrown to the winds by Dr. Bogle, in conformity with another wish of Colonel Oates,” the Santa Rosa Republican reported. “The cremation of this number of bodies from the same family, all in one day, is a very unusual proceeding.”
|1 The women were grandchildren of Wyatt’s aunt, which made them his first cousins once removed. Pat (also known as “Patti” or “Pattie”) was 25 at the time of Oates’ death and Lois (“Louise”) was twenty. May cannot be clearly identified through census and genealogical records among the three (possibly four) other daughters in the family but “Mae” appears in the 1920 census with the same age as Pat, so perhaps they were twins.
2 The Press Democrat article transcribed below implies the Solomons were buried in Santa Rosa, but that is very unlikely. Perrin L. Solomon died in 1863 and according to Mattie’s obituary, her siblings died as infants. Wyatt’s estate included a burial plot in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco, which presumably was where they were buried.
James Wyatt Oates, one of Santa Rosa’s most loved and revered citizens, and a resident of this city since 1876, died about 2 o’clock Thursday morning after an illness of some weeks. Toward the last of his sickness developed into double pneumonia, and every effort was made by physicians and nurses to ward off the fatal attack, but in the end his age of 65 years counted against him and he passed away.
Mr. Oates was born in Alabama. When a young man he went to Arizona, and later came to California, settling in Santa Rosa, which has been his home ever since. Soon after coming to Santa Rosa he married Miss Mattie Solomon, daughter of Mrs. M. S. Solomon of San Francisco. After his marriage Mr. Oates, who was a brilliant attorney, formed a law partnership with Barclay Henley, afterward sent to Congress from this district, and E. L. Whipple. This firm of Henley, Whipple & Oates was recognized for many years as the leading attorneys of Santa Rosa.
Mr. Oates had always taken an active interest in the political and social life of the city, and was interested in state and national politics. He was a strong and self-reliant figure through many years of political battles and earned the respect and admiration of everyone in the city.
His wife died about a year ago, after he mother had passed away previously, and Mrs. Oates never quite recovered from the shock of her loss. He made a trip to his old home in the South and returned with two nieces, but it was seen that his health was failing. A short time ago he made a trip to southern California, and was forced to return because of a bad cold contracted while away. This cold grew worse and developed into this final illness which caused his death.
The sudden death of Colonel Oates has brought a poignant grief in many households in this city and county. Early Thursday morning telephone messages from Cloverdale and other sections of the county were received at this office inquiring as to his condition, and the announcement of his death was greeted with exclamations of surprise and genuine regret. Recently Colonel Oates had been feeling better than he had at any time since the death of his beloved wife, to whom he was devotedly attached. Her death left a void in his life that could not be filled. He planned a trip to Los Angeles to spend Thanksgiving with Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Carey Dunlap, who were probably his closest personal friends on the coast. Returning home he caught a severe cold in the sleeper coming north, and was unable to keep warm. He did not feel particularly bad, but the cold kept him confined to his residence for several days. Even then he resented any one’s believing he was ill, and thought that his robust constitution would be abundantly sufficient to overcome any slight indisposition which the cold might have occasioned.
It was only last Friday afternoon that Colonel Oates really complained of feeling badly, and Dr. Joseph H. Shaw and a nurse were summoned to attend him. His bronchial tubes were affected, and even then it was believed that his condition would readily yield to treatment. The condition proved far more obstinate than at first believed and pneumonic symptoms appeared on Sunday. Tuesday morning Colonel Oates was quite low physically and serum was administered to the patient. Wednesday a chill showed the reaction from the serum, and at noon of that day Colonel Oates rallied and declared that he felt fine.
Wednesday evening the patient collapsed, and from that time on his decline was rapid, and despite the efforts of skilled physicians and trained nurses, he passed to the Great Beyond. The dread pneumonia had secured such a hold on him that its ravages could not be stayed.
Colonel Oates had thoroughly enjoyed his stay in Los Angeles with his friends, the Dunlaps, and when he returned home was bubbling over with happiness over his visit. He was never more pleased than when with the Dunlaps, and always enjoyed their company. Mrs. Dunlap was with Colonel Oates when he passed away and had done much to soothe his last moments on earth. Another happiness which had come to Colonel Oates since the death of his wife and his return from a visit to his old home in the South, was the visit of the Misses Pat and Lois Granberry and Attorney William C. Oates of Montgomery, Ala. The latter has been notified of the death of the eminent Santa Rosan, and is en route here. He will arrive Monday evening if all goes well.
The funeral of Colonel Oates has been set for Tuesday afternoon, and Rev. Willis G. White will be the officiating minister. The services will be conducted at the Oates residence on Mendocino avenue. The deceased was a member of Santa Rosa Lodge, No. 57, F. & A. M., and of the Santa Rosa Lodge, No. 646, B. P. O. E.
In the death of Colonel Oates Santa Rosa has lost one of her foremost citizens, a man who was alway valorously fighting for the right in civic affairs, and who always championed the cause of the oppressed and the downtrodden. He was a man of strong convictions, and never hesitated to give his opinions on the questions of the day, even though in doing so he might have disagreed with his friends. He was a man who had the courage of his convictions, and who had the temerity to follow the dictates of his own conscience. The world is better than he should have been permitted to live, and the example of his life will be a guide for many young men of this community who knew him intimately and who will revere his memory. The world can ill afford to lose such men as James Wyatt Oates, for he was one of its staunchest men, a man who measured everybody by the standard of being “square.” Those who did not measure up to this standard of being “square” were not admired by the deceased in even a slight degree.
To many in this city the death of Colonel Oates will come as a personal grief. He was a sincere friend to those who knew him well and his counsel was eagerly sought by these friends. He was a man well versed in the law, and for many years past had made a specialty of corporate law. He was looked upon as an authority in his line, and a man of superior talents. He was a brother of the late Governor Oates of Alabama, and a member of a prominent family in that favored land.
The active pallbearers will include…
When the Superior Court assembled Monday morning, Judges Seawell and Denny sat en banc for the purpose of receiving official intimation of the death of the late Colonel Hames W. Oates.
Will C. Oates arrived here Monday afternoon from Alabama for the funeral of the late Colonel Oates, his uncle, which takes place this afternoon. Mr. Oates’ father was Governor of Alabama. He came west immediately upon receiving the news of his uncle’s death.
Amid manifestations of sincere grief the mortal remains of the late Colonel James Wyatt Oates were borne to the tomb Tuesday afternoon. Will C. Oates of Montgomery, Alabama, who had been a guest at the Oates home here during the recent fall, came hurriedly from his southern home and attended the funeral of his uncle. Mr. Oates came from Montgomery immediately on receipt of the news of his uncle’s death.
Beautiful flowers, the loving remembrances of friends, were brought in profusion to adorn the casket of the deceased, and to mark his last resting place. These flowers ran the gamut of the blossoms of the season and were in various designs, from the modest shower bouquet to the massive designs. They spoke eloquently of the love of the living for the deceased. Among the designs were those forwarded by the fraternal societies to which the deceased was attached and which he greatly loved.
Of a cheery, kindly and happy nature far in excess of that of the majority of men, accompanied by a sense of absolute honor and fairness, which makes for perpetuation of the individual in memory of his fellow men. James Wyatt Oates will be remembered for many years to come, and until long after a new generation has come to take the places of those now active in the affairs of this section. He was a man who was quick to see and appreciate the virtues and possibilites of his fellow men, and he interested himself in them in such a manner that made life-long friendships.
Throughout this section and wherever he was known, Colonel Oates was held in high esteem, and deep sorrow at his untimely demise has been expressed by these friends. He had a conspicuous and honorable career of usefulness as a good citizen and was a striking figure of the Sonoma county bar. For many years his kindly face and familiar figure were so well known in the community in which he had spent practically the best part of his life, and for such a considerable period were his wise counsels sought by his neighbors that many of his old-time friends can scarcely realize that he has gone from them forever. It was a privilege to have known Colonel Oates intimately, and many residents of this city and county rejoiced in that privilege.
The funeral services were conducted by Rev. Willis G. White, pastor of the Presbyterian church, who paid a splendid eulogy to the deceased and his many admirable traits of character.
William C. Oates, Dr. S. S. Bogle, Hilliard Comstock, Charles H. Rule, Samuel Carey Dunlap and Dr. D. C. Farnham were the active pallbearers. The honorary pallbearers included the following:
Admiral J. B. Milton, San Francisco, Blitz W. Paxton, W. E. McConnell, Charles A. Wright, Judge Emmet Seawell, Judge Thomas C. Denny, Charles C. Belden, Mark L. McDonald, Jr., A. C. McMeans, Walter W. Monroe, Herbert Whitton, Elwyn D. Seaton, Charles A. Hoffer, John Tyler Campbell, L. D. Jacks, Paul T. Hahmann, Glenn E. Murdock, Wm. E. Woolsey, J. L. Mercier, Edward M. Norton, J. Elmer Mobley, W. Fraser, Herbert Slater, Arthur K. Lee and Rev. C. C. Cragin.
The will of the late J. W. Oates, as is customary in the south, was opened and read yesterday afternoon following the funeral. While it has been agreed among those interested that no details relative to its contents shall be made known prior to the filing of the will for probate. It is known that Dr. S. S. Bogle and Charles H. Rule, two of the most intimate friends of the deceased, are named as executors of the instrument.
The will was opened in the office of Attorney Hilliard Comstock in the presence of Dr. Bogle, Charles Rule, Samuel C. Dunlap, Will C. Oates, and Attorney Comstock, who was associated with the deceased in the practice of law. It is expected the document will be filed for probate within a day or two by the gentlemen nominated therein as executors.
The late James Wyatt Oates left a valuable estate. It is said that in realty and personally it will aggregate over $100,000.
In addition to the beautiful home on Mendocino avenue, Mr. Oates owned a prune orchard on Sonoma avenue and other real estate, and also considerable bank stock and other securities.
While the will of the deceased lawyer has not as yet been filed for probate, it is understood that a cousin of the late Mrs. Oates, Mrs. Samuel Carey Dunlap, formerly Miss Anna May Bell, comes in for the largest share of the estate.
Mrs. Dunlap was a great favorite of both the deceased and his wife and both prior to her marriage to Mr. Dunlap and since has visited at the Oates house here.
It is also understood that the Misses Pat and Lois Granberry, granddaughters of Mr. Oates, also come in for a large share of the property.
It will be remembered that the Misses Granberry spent a considerable portion of the summer in Santa Rosa at the Oates home.
There has been a persistent rumor that some time prior to his death, Mr. Oates disinherited his nephew, William C. Oates, who came here from his old home in Alabama to attend the funeral and will return today, and cut him off from any share in the property. If this proves true it will come as a surprise, as Will Oates is the Colonel’s nearest relative. He is a son of the late William C. Oates, former Governor and United States Senator of Alabama.
In addition to the share of the estate, which it is understod goes to Mrs. Dunlap and the Misses Granberry, Mr. Oates is understood to have made other personal bequests, among which is his law library and practice to Attorney Hilliard Comstock, who was his law partner and who, since the death of Mrs. Oates, was his constant companion. Attorney Comstock will probate the estate.
As has been stated previously, Dr. S. S. Bogle and Charles H. Rule are named in the will as executors. It is likely that the will may be filed today.
It is not unlikely that when the will of the late James W. Oates is filed for probate a provision will be found whereby the fine collection of books in his private library will be conveyed to the Free Public Library as a gift. Mr. Oates is known to have had this idea in mind for some time previous to his death, and is said to have told at least two of his friends that he had embodied such a provision in his last will and testament.
As already stated in thes columns, Mr. Oates bequeathed his law library to his partner, Hilliard Comstock, along with his legal practice. It is also reported that Mr. Comstock is given the right to occupy the residence on Mendocino avenue until such time as it is sold and the proceeds turned into the estate. For some months prior to Mr. Oates’ death, Comstock has been making his home there with him.
THE WILL of the late James Wyatt Oates has been filed for probate in the Superior Court of this county, and as stated several days ago in the Press Democrat, the deceased cut off his nephew, Will C. Oates without anything, leaving the bulk of his estate to Mrs. Samuel Carey Dunlap of Los Angeles (formerly Miss Anna May Bell) and to the Misses May, Lois and Pat Granberry of Alabama, his grand-nieces.
As was also stated in the Press Democrat on Sunday morning, Mr. Oates left his private library to the Santa Rosa Public Library, and his valuable law library and office furniture and practice to Captain Hilliard Comstock, for years his close friend companion [sic] and law partner. And, as was also stated, the deceased made a number of bequests to other relatives and intimate friends. The estate is valued at about $100,000.
Dr. S. S. Bogle and Charles H. Rule, the executors named in the will, filed their petition for letters testamentary in the Superior Court yesterday through Attorney Hilliard Comstock. Among the property left by Mr. Oates is the family home and grounds on Mendocino avenue; two lots on Spencer avenue and adjoining streets; a prune orchard on Sonoma avenue; a lot on Fourth street, occupied by Brown’s poultry store; $20,000 worth of mortgages and notes; much bank stock and other securities; and, as stated in the will, valuable interests in coal mines in Arizona and in gold mines in Mexico. The latter, however, are of uncertain value owing to the conditions there.
In his will Mr. Oates had previously bequeathed his nephew a third of the estate, but in a codicil, olographic in nature, executed only last October, he cut him off entirely.
Mrs. May Whipple, life-long friend of the family, and widow of Mr. Oates’ former law partner, the late E. L. Whipple, is also cut off in the codicil although she was a beneficiary to the amount of $1,000 under the terms of the will as originally written.
The will and codicil, as filed in court yesterday, are as follows:
The will of the late Colonel James W. Oates was filed for probate in the Superior Court Tuesday afternoon by Attorney Hilliard Comstock, former law partner of the late Colonel Oates. The estate is valued at about $100,000 and many bequests are made.
Personal articles are given to intimate friends, sums of money to other friends, and Mrs. Samuel Cary Dunlap, formerly Miss Anna May Bell, is left the bulk of the estate with his grandnieces, the Misses May, Lois and Pat Granberry.
William C. Oates, a nephew of the deceased, is completely cut off by a codicil, which was executed in October last. There is an unconfirmed rumor that Mr. Oates plans to contest the will. Thus far no authority for this state can be secured.
There is a letter referred to in the will, and this letter makes a number of personal bequests, among them being a walnut table and other pieces of furniture to Charles Rule; Miss Grace Dougherty is given Mrs. Oates gold watch; the Saturday Afternoon Club gets a large and handsome mirror for the club house, which was intended for such gifts by Mrs. Oates. The gifts practically dispose of the house furnishing, paintings, etc., following out suggestions made by Mrs. Oates as well as the deceased. The intimate friends who are remembered with keepsakes, etc., included those just mentioned, and Dr. Bogle, Mrs. Frank Doyle, Mrs. Woodward, Miss Bess Woodward, Mrs. C. H. Dwinelle, Miss Sadie Morrill, Mr. and Mrs. B. W. Paxton, Mrs. Margaret Farnham, Miss Harrell and others, and the relatives in the South and East.
The will and codicil in full are as follows:
Some time prior to the death of the late James Wyatt Oates, he asked Dr. S. S. Bogle, his personal friend and one of the executors of his will, to promise him that he would see that his body and the bodies of the late Mrs. Oates, General and Mrs. Solomon, her parents, and of her brothers and sisters, were all removed from the Santa Rosa cemetery and cremated.
On Wednesday, Dr. Bogle fulfilled his trust and all seven bodies were cremated in the Oakland crematorium in a short time, als in carrying out another wish of the late Mr. Oates, the ashes will be scattered to the winds.
Undertaker Frank Welti of this city removed the caskets of Mr. and Mrs. Oates and the late Mrs. M. S. Solomon from their temporary vault and the bodies of the late General Solomon and his other children, Perrin L. Solomon, Maria S. Solomon and Ann Solomon, making seven bodies in all and took them to Oakland. Prior to the creation of the same Dr. Bogle, who was present, inspected all of them, and they were consigned to the furnace and reduced to ashes.
The creation of the mortal remains of seven members of the same family on the same day and in the same crematorium is rather unusual. Some of the bodies thus disposed of had been buried for many years, and when taken up were found to be still in a good state of preservation.
William C. Oates, nephew of the late James W. Oates of this city, apparently has given up his intention of contesting his uncle’s will, as the year has passed by without his having done so. The law provides that a contest must be brought with a year after the issuing of the letters testamentary.
The latter was brought to mind in the Superior Court on Wednesday when a petition was filed by the Misses Pat, Lois and May Granberry asking the court to partially distribute the estate to them. The petition sets forth that each of the Misses Granberry is entitled to over $15,000, and they ask that $10,500 be distributed to them for their respective shares. Mention is also made that a year has massed since the letters testamentary were issued in the estate. Donald Geary is the attorney for the Misses Granberry. Captain Hilliard Comstock represents the estate.