When the history of Prohibition in Sonoma County is written, one name will appear more than any other: John W. Pemberton, County Detective – the nemesis of bootleggers and rum-runners and the scourge of anyone with a blind pig or backroom speakeasy.

Technically the County Detective was the investigator for the District Attorney but “Jock” Pemberton was like our resident G-man, on hand whenever federal Prohibition Agents conducted local raids (in the photo above Pemberton is the man on the right next to the feds). He also was often alongside the sheriff or Santa Rosa police chief during harrowing moments while they were trying to apprehend the most dangerous criminals.

Yet the most important moment of his career happened after his retirement, when he gave crucial testimony showing the California Attorney General was so corrupt he was running a protection racket out of his office.

In 1926, the peak year of Prohibition here, Pemberton was appointed County Detective although he seemed an unlikely prospect for the job. He was 49 when he took the position, with no background in investigating crime; his only experience in law enforcement being a dozen years as Santa Rosa constable, ending in 1923. He had the gregarious personality of a salesman, which is what he was before and after being constable (real estate, then autos). Jock held high rank in both the Elks and Eagles; he and wife Maude were constantly mentioned in the society columns for attending or hosting parties and whatnot.

pembertonduck(RIGHT: Duck hunter in a three-piece suit. 1923 photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Not long after being hired, though, he showed his worth. A 27 year-old man named Jasper Parkins was found dead in his bedroom with a bullet wound to his right temple. The sheriff pegged it as an obvious suicide, even though the dead guy didn’t seem troubled and was about to take a walk along the railroad tracks with his brother and niece. Pemberton argued Parkins had his little target pistol in hand when he bent over to pick something up from the floor and bumped his elbow against the edge of the bed. The coroner’s jury ruled it an accidental death.

A few weeks later came the bust of the most famous bootlegging operation in county history. In March 1927 Pemberton led a raid on the old Kawana Springs resort where he and the sheriff’s department found the long-closed hotel had been retrofitted for a three-story copper still that produced 1,400 gallons of pure alcohol/day. The booze was then trucked to San Francisco and LA where it was processed and bottled as “genuine Gordon gin.”

And that wasn’t all. There were two other stills with 250/150 gallon daily capacity, all fed by mash held in seven 2,000 gallon tanks. The big still had a steam boiler weighing two tons; that and the smaller boilers for the auxillary stills were fueled by gravity-fed oil tanks. It was a massive – and ingenious – operation.

The Press Democrat reported, “Pemberton had had the place under surveillance for some time, and had spent several nights in the vicinity of the resort to make certain of its use before the raid was made.”

The only person arrested was a San Francisco steamfitter named George Darnell, who insisted he was only hired to dismantle the equipment (everything had been drained from the tanks and stills). And no, he didn’t know who had hired him. Darnell was held for a few days and released after paying a $500 fine.

Not resting on his laurels, the same week Pemberton arrested a farmer from Cloverdale hauling thirty gallons of “jackass brandy” – a day after busting bootlegger Joe Garayalde near Sebastopol with 800 gallons of “jack” and three stills.

And that set the pace for the following years. It was a rare week when readers of the PD didn’t see at least one story about Pemberton making a liquor arrest, and it was not infrequent for there to be two or three. Just as he once was a familiar name on the society backpages, he was now a regular on page one. As County Detective he investigated other crimes as well and judging from news coverage, Gentle Reader would be forgiven for mistaking him as being the top lawman in the area.

Pemberton had an uncanny knack for discovering hiding places. He found liquor hidden behind false walls in closets and in secret panels that popped open when a button or push latch was pressed. In one restaurant kitchen, a yank on a roller towel opened a cabinet with cases of whiskey.

He also used his nose to find stills, as fermenting mash has a strong, distinctive odor. In a barn near the Shiloh cemetery in Windsor he found one even larger than the monster at Kawana Springs, and this one was still operating (although not producing as much alcohol). Other places where it was hoped strong smells would mask the stink were chicken coops and old outhouses, sometimes further disguised with open buckets of sheep dip or creosote.

Most of the items about him and the sheriff busting up stills and arresting people aren’t so interesting – unless, of course, you knew the bootlegger, which would have been true for many people in small, rural Sonoma County. Here are a few vignettes from those years that appeared in the PD:

Dolly Allen of El Verano is a fortune teller. But she failed to see far enough into the future to know that she was going to be raided last night…a party was in progress in Dolly’s place when County Detective John W. Pemberton and Deputy Sheriff W. A. Shulte burst in and seized wine, “jackass” and gin as evidence and confiscated three slot machines. Dolly said afterwards that she had had a “hunch” the raiders were coming, but, according to officers, she apparently didn’t believe enough in her own forecasting power to dump the evidence. (1927)
“Readin’, ‘Ritin,’ ‘Rithmetic, Rum” – “pupils of a little rural school two miles east of Petaluma carried word to their parents that liquor was being made near the school, and that the odors crept through the windows during class hours, and that one might, if one was careful, sneak up to the windows, of the adjoining house and see forbidden juices dripping from the coil of a little still. County Detective John W. Pemberton and Deputy Sheriff Phil Varner, to whom the children’s tales eventually drifted investigated yesterday and found, they reported, a 50-gallon still, boiling merrily, and about 20 gallons of hard liquor…” (1928)
Mrs. A. Garayalde, living on the Guerneville highway, yesterday came to the sheriff’s office here to claim an automobile truck picked up Wednesday when it was found abandoned on a roadside near Windsor, loaded with 390 gallons of wine. She asserted that the machine had been stolen from her garage and that she knew nothing about its wine cargo. (1929 – remember the Garayaldes from above, and Joe would be charged again for having a still in 1932)

(As far as I can tell, neither Pemberton nor District Attorney Carl Barnard were temperance zealots or had any moral objections to drinking. Their aggressive number of arrests, however, brought in a substantial amount of money to the county treasury. Fines generally were in the $100-500 range and in 1927, $100 was the equivalent of about $1,600 today.)

As the 1920s wained the adventures of Jock Pemberton began to look less thrilling. There were fewer busts of even middling-size bootlegging operations; what jackass stills he found were usually small and amateurish. Finding a stash of a few hundred gallons of ordinary wine in a farmer’s shed was now considered a big deal. By end of 1929 Pemberton was arresting drinkers caught with a jug (or even a pint) of moonshine and mainly searching the cars and homes of those he knew as repeat offenders, also busting hotel restaurant owners who likewise had been caught before.

His run as County Detective paused for about eight months in early 1931 as a new District Attorney took office and appointed someone else. In that time Pemberton opened a private detective agency out of his house at 435 (West) College Ave. After that D.A. died in a car crash the new prosecutor brought Pemberton back to his old job, where he resumed knocking over little stills and re-arresting The Usual Suspects over petty (but lucrative) quantities of wine or hootch.

The last hurrah of bootlegging here was the 1932 discovery of a 1,000 gallon rum still near Fulton. His final liquor bust was at the end of that year, when 70 year-old Emil Gerhman, a rancher near Healdsburg, was arrested after three five-gallon cans of jack were found in his cellar. He was fined $100.

Once FDR was elected president, Congress easily passed a bill to repeal the 18th Amendment. Pemberton was 55 when Prohibition officially ended in December 1933.

As tempting as it might be to view him as merely a local “Revenuer,” Pemberton packed a gun and acted like any member of law enforcement at the time. During the Prohibition years he and a deputy pumped four bullets into a car with two bootleggers fleeing the site of a still, shattering the rear window and nearly killing one of them. (The County Treasurer was surely grateful he missed.)

In February 1933 two brothers held up the gas station at the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport, getting away with all of $27.75. Knowing the pair were ex-cons who lived near Cloverdale, the police chief from there and Deputy Sheriff Harry Patteson joined Pemberton in his “heavy sedan” to search for them. The culprits were spotted in a car on a gravel road and Pemberton gave chase, the officers and the robbers locked in a running gunfight. After the suspect’s auto was hit by five bullets they ditched the car and ran into the brush, pursued by the three lawmen as the shooting continued on foot. After one of the brothers was killed the other surrendered, with Pemberton handling the arrest and taking him to county jail.

As Prohibition was winding down in 1933, the county decided to eliminate the County Detective position – but at the same time create a post for a deputy sheriff charged with criminal investigations. “It was generally understood that Pemberton would be transferred to the sheriff’s staff when his present position was wiped out,” reported the PD. In February 1935 he was appointed investigator for Sheriff Harry L. Patteson, who earlier as a deputy had been something of a partner to him during all those bootlegging arrests.

pembertonaxe(LEFT: Chief Deputy Melvin Flohr, James Charles and John Pemberton, left to right. Photo Santa Rosa Republican, March 17, 1936)

Pemberton was well suited for the investigations he made over the next few years, but it wasn’t exciting work. He found out who was passing bad checks, stealing cars and burglarizing houses; he looked into suicides and a couple cases of bigamy. He served warrants on suspects wanted for crimes elsewhere and often was the guard who transported them back to whence they came.

The most notable event in those years was when he obtained a full confession from James Charles, who had murdered his brother with an axe. (Pemberton got him to talk only by assuring the 28 year-old he wouldn’t be hanged.) An insanity trial was held a week later and after the jury deliberated for ten minutes, Charles was committed to the Mendocino State Hospital for the Insane. The reason for the killing, BTW, was that the brother didn’t come home on time that Sunday and Charles was very upset that dinner was late.

The last chapter in his career began in 1943, when he was rehired as a deputy sheriff. John and Maude had gone into semi-retirement four years earlier when there was a surprise election upset and Sheriff Patteson lost to a forest ranger. The Pembertons rented their Santa Rosa home and went to live at their ranch on route 128 near Kellogg, where they intended to start a large rabbit farm. Once Patteson was elected again they were back in Santa Rosa and life resumed as before. Sort of.

John was almost 65 and his dangerous days of running gun battles were over. Now he was mainly a court bailiff and sometimes a deputy jailer; he apparently took care of the Sheriff’s Office mascot, a black cat named “Black Bart” (yuk, yuk). He retired without fanfare in mid-1948, around the time he turned 70.

And here’s where his story gets really interesting.

Another of Pemberton’s duties in those final years was serving as an escort and driver for visiting law officers, so it wasn’t unusual when a special agent from the Attorney General’s office showed up on October 9, 1947. Agent Charles Hoy wanted a ride to specific places in Occidental and between Santa Rosa-Petaluma he had on a list. All (or nearly all?) were taverns.

After each stop, Hoy returned to the car with an armful of punchboards. Pemberton noted the agent seemed interested in nothing else but those things, so when he couldn’t find a place on the list and popped in to an inn to ask directions, he told the agent, “if it is punchboards you want, they got plenty of them in there.” Hoy replied, “I don’t want them.” Pemberton later said Hoy “showed no interest” in places not on his list. After they had hit all the locations, Hoy dropped the punchboards on Sheriff Patteson’s desk saying, “you can have them now,” and left.1


Punchboards were a common form of gambling in the first half of the 20th century, found in taverns, cigar stores, pool halls, even barbershops and lunch counters across America.

They were like primitive versions of today’s lottery scratchers; a colorful sheet – often with a cheesecake picture or sports theme – was glued on a piece of wood. Punchboards bought by Young had titles including: Big Hit, Win Er Bust, Nice Curves, High Bidder and Gold Bucket.

On each were many tiny holes stuffed with slips of paper. A gambler used a little stylus to punch through the top sheet and hopefully find a winning number. There were myriad variations; sometimes there were few holes but a higher cost to play, or a great many holes to punch very cheaply. But always the odds favored the owner of the board; on the example seen here, the chances of winning anything on a brand-new board was 1 in 50.

The “branding” described here was a crude way to establish a monopoly and says nothing about whether the punchboards were rigged by the manufacturer. Few (or even none) of the winning numbers might be on the punchboard, or they might be sold together with a key to which holes had winners so the gambler could pay extra for a tip as to where to punch.

In California punchboards were illegal “lottery devices” – but as in many states, using them was only a misdemeanor not rigorously enforced. Some owners tried to skirt the law by offering payouts in cigarettes, candy, glasses of beer or trinkets instead of cash.

Vintage punchboard, courtesy S. David O'Shea/Pinterest
Vintage punchboard, courtesy S. David O’Shea/Pinterest

What Pemberton and the sheriff didn’t realize at the time was they had witnessed part of a criminal conspiracy that reached to the top of the state Department of Justice.

Attorney General Fred N. Howser (the “N” stood for Napoleon!) entered office in 1947 vowing to keep organized crime out of California. More likely he wanted to keep other foxes out of his henhouse; he had a long history of corruption involving gaming interests. Knowing this, Governor Earl Warren set up the “Special Crime Study Commission on Organized Crime.” The final 1950 report has an entire chapter on the “state-wide plan for racket protection under the cloak of the Attorney General’s Office” which is quite jaw-dropping to read.2

Exactly a week before Pemberton was chauffeuring agent Hoy around Sonoma County, a man named Thompson Norman Young was making a deal in San Francisco to obtain a monopoly on punchboards up in the Marysville area. Later he would testify being told at that meeting they were part of a syndicate which gave Howser $50,000 in exchange for a virtual statewide monopoly on punchboards.

Young would also testify how the racket worked. After a dealer bought punchboards from the syndicate, they would be “branded” – meaning a serial number would be burned into the back of the board with an electric woodburning tool. This was for “protection;” should a local sheriff or police chief bust the dealer, the Attorney General wouldn’t prosecute. And as an extra incentive, a special agent from the A.G.’s office would first sweep through the territory confiscating all other punchboards so the dealer would have a monopoly. One of those former agents testified that indeed happened in Marysville, under orders from Howser’s chief enforcement officer.

Besides the cost of the punchboards, Young was told he would have to pay protection money on each. According to him, the sales pitch was, “…it costs you around a dollar and a half for the brand. That is around seven dollars; you can make forty dollars on a board. You can put five or six boards in each location. Each location should bring you a hundred or two hundred dollars a week.”3

After Young agreed to sign up, he drove the syndicate men to Sonoma County. Their destination was the Buckhorn saloon; besides being the first watering hole in Petaluma a thirsty driver encountered, it was where the punchboards were being branded. (The Buckhorn tavern is still there at 615 Petaluma Blvd South. Virtually unchanged since that time and with its walls covered in old photos, stop by for a taste of Petaluma’s colorful history you won’t find on a tour of the West Side’s elegant Victorian neighborhoods.)

All of this came out because Young turned informant on the syndicate after he contacted the Crime Commission, then became the first witness to testify to the Sonoma County Grand Jury in February, 1950. That ended up with indictments of four men on criminal conspiracy, including Mervyn McCoy, owner of the Buckhorn.

On the day of the indictments, Superior Court Judge Hilliard Comstock signed a search and seizure warrant on the Buckhorn, and the surprise raid netted five tons of branded punchboards from a backroom of the bar – so many the county had to rent a moving van to haul them away. They also found a large stash of “winnings” that could be given away to lucky gamblers, including watches, rings and novelty statuettes. “Among the latter was one of a shapely sea-island hula girl, with electrically operated hips,” the Press Democrat gamely reported.

What appears here only barely skims the surface of a complex and gripping crime story that dominated local news almost daily for five months in 1950. All credit to the PD for its excellent coverage of the case – they even printed every word of the Grand Jury transcript on the front page.4

The punchboard investigations and prosecution in Sonoma County also drew widespread statewide and national attention because Howser’s corruption had become household news. After popular muckraking broadcaster Drew Pearson revealed the Attorney General had taken a bribe, Howser sued him for $300,000 damages in libel (Howser would lose the suit).5

Howser also didn’t have the sense to keep his mouth shut and kept drawing attention to the upcoming trial in Sonoma County. He insisted the charges were trumped up and an attempt to “smear” him during an election year, running a full-page ad in the PD denouncing District Attorney McGoldrick for “foul political calumny.”

howserad(RIGHT: Political ad from Attorney General Fred Howser that appeared in the Press Democrat, March 30, 1950)

Nor did it escape attention that Howser was desperately trying to get one of his boys in to “interview” Young without any other witnesses present. D.A. McGoldrick responded by assigning a 24-hour guard for his star witness. Pause for a minute to let that sink in: The District Attorney in little Sonoma County is protecting a prosecution witness from being – bribed? threatened? harmed? – by the Attorney General of the state of California.

The trial lasted exactly a month, spanning June-July 1950. In the dock sat Merv McCoy of the Buckhorn, charged with being a punchboard distributor. Another distributor from Los Angeles was also there, along with an ex-LA cop who worked for him. The fourth defendant was the Chicago punchboard manufacturer who was supposedly the ringleader and the man who gave Howser the $50k bribe.

The prosecution’s case closely followed what had been heard earlier by the Grand Jury, including Pemberton’s testimony of driving agent Hoy around the county to confiscate punchboards at specific places. Items about his testimony appeared in papers across the state, although the UP newswire screwed up badly and implied he was working for the syndicate. “ExDeputy Sheriff Admits Picking Up Punchboards,” read the headline in the Fresno Bee.

The surprise witness was Thomas Judge, an undercover investigator for the Crime Commission who met with McCoy while posing as someone who wanted to get in on the branded punchboard racket. McCoy sold him some punchboards and allegedly said their operation was safe because Howser was “getting a cut out of the scheme.” When Judge scoffed that Howser was personally involved, McCoy told him Howser would send a letter on the Attorney General’s stationery to anyone he wanted – and that McCoy had indeed provided the name of a friend who received such a letter.

It seemed an open-and-shut case, particularly since the defense apparently had no strategy other than sowing confusion. Jurors were told District Attorney McGoldrick and Assistant District Attorney Dennis Keegan would be called as hostile witnesses (they weren’t). That Thomas Judge was completely drunk when he met with McCoy (he wasn’t). That Young was in cahoots with Drew Pearson, who had “nurtured” Young’s story (which the lawyers said he had completely made up). And there was an uproar when a defense lawyer tossed out an odd remark that a witness had a striking resemblance to Pearson, implying the famed journalist was testifying under a fake name.

And then it was verdict time: After debating five hours, the jury announced they were “hopelessly deadlocked,” 10-2 in favor of acquittal.

Comments by Judge Don Geary and D.A. McGoldrick both politely expressed shock at the decision. But the jury foreman told the PD that jurors “didn’t show much interest” in the testimony of either Young or Thomas Judge and “didn’t believe part of Young’s testimony.” In deliberation “very, very little of Judge’s testimony came up.”6

And so it was all over. Howser’s hopes to continue his corrupt career had actually ended a week before the trial began, when he came in a distant second in the Republican primary. His involvement in punchboard and slot machine rackets were part of the Senate hearings on organized crime the following year, but he was never indicted.

Pemberton lived another ten years. The PD ran a nice photo of Maude and John on their Sept. 20, 1953 golden wedding anniversary. His name occasionally appeared in the “this day in history” newspaper columns. Johnson Watson Marvin Pemberton died on June 23, 1961 and is buried in the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery.


1 Pemberton testimony to Grand Jury as reported in the Press Democrat, March 25, 1950
2 Howser shamelessly used his staff to support and coverup criminal activity. One outrageous example from the Commission report noted another of Howser’s agents was convicted of attempting to bribe the Mendocino County sheriff to allow slot machines in Ukiah. Before the trial Howser sent more than a dozen investigators there to dig up information helpful for his agent’s defense, evidence which was not shared with prosecutors.
3 Thompson Norman Young testimony to Grand Jury as reported in the Press Democrat, March 26, 1950
4 Only the testimony of ex-agent Charles Hoy was not made public for reasons unexplained, but his attorney commented to the press “he did what his superiors told him to do.”
5 Pearson had even more evidence against Howser which was not made public until decades later. See: “Howser Hit by Kefauver Committee, Loses Libel Action Against Drew Pearson
6 Press Democrat, July 12, 1950

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When the only daughter of the richest family in town gets married you expect a fuss. The engagement will be announced in the press, often with a portrait. The big church wedding would be the social event of the season; the newspapers would describe the bride’s trousseau in loving detail, the bridesmaids and others in the party would be named, followed by a long list of family members and VIPs attending the ceremony.

Thus many in 1891 Santa Rosa were likely surprised to read a small item in the Democrat stating Jessie Overton and Ed Livernash were married one Monday morning. “The wedding was very private, only the members of both families being present,” the Democrat paper reported.

Perhaps they wanted to avoid a showy wedding because of Jessie’s deep piety; not long before that her father, ex-Judge A. P. Overton, had convinced her to leave the convent she had joined as a novitiate. Or maybe they wanted it kept quiet because she was then three months pregnant.

The Overtons probably approved of Ed as their son-in-law, despite his role in creating the family’s awkward situation. He was ambitious, whip-smart, and seemed headed towards Democratic party politics, which would have certainly pleased the old judge. They might have felt differently if they had a crystal ball, however – by the end of the year Ed would be charged with attempted murder as well as being arrested for impersonating an African-American woman.

Most of we wretched souls have life stories that tread a straightforward path, cradle to grave. Not so Edward J. Livernash; he did remarkable and more than a few crazy things; he was brilliant and unpredictable, sometimes cunning and criminally inclined; he had spells when he seemingly had a tenuous grip on reality and had other episodes where he saw the world with greater clarity than anyone around him. Why there is not a book or movie about this guy is a complete mystery.

Jessie was 25 when they married and her new husband was 24, yet he already had a biography of someone who lived a full life.1 He was an attorney (having passed the bar on his 21st birthday) but was mainly a newspaperman, having founded a successful paper in Cloverdale at age 16, which he sold a couple of years later to buy the Sonoma Index (which he renamed The Tribune). After selling that he worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, edited and published a respected literary journal, and at the time of their marriage was editor of the Healdsburg Enterprise.2

livernashportrait(RIGHT: Undated portrait of Edward J. Livernash courtesy of Craig Livernash)

Regular visitors to this dusty digital nook have already met Ed via “THE MURDEROUS SOMNAMBULIST,” where he attempted to kill an elderly Cloverdale man and claimed at the trial he was not responsible because he was in a “somnambulistic state.” This article is about an incident a month earlier when he was arrested for dressing like a woman, but the two episodes were really different sides to the same coin. There are several callbacks below to the somnambulist tale and if Gentle Reader does not have time to (re)read that entire story, please review the synopsis provided below as a sidebar.

While waiting for Jessie to give birth, Ed worked for the San Francisco Examiner during the spring of 1891 and in June paid $1,000 cash for another country weekly, the Livermore Herald. Their baby Alberta was born in August.3

But in September, Ed’s life began to unravel. The Livermore newspaper’s office caught fire and was nearly a total loss, yet Ed continued publishing it by contracting with a printer in Oakland. He began seeing Dr. John W. Robertson, who owned the Livermore Sanitarium and often testified in Bay Area courts during the 1890s as an expert on insanity.

And so we arrive at the afternoon of Saturday, September 26.

The policeman on duty at the San Francisco Ferry Building saw someone who didn’t look right to him. Said the sergeant, “You are a man, sir, masquerading in female attire.” The suspect denied it.

“You are a man,” reiterated the sergeant, gazing at the masquerader sternly. “It is against the law for one of your sex to appear in public in petticoats. I shall have to take you in.” With that the sergeant snatched the black veil away, revealing sharp features, smeared with black grease-paint.

Illustrations from the September 27 1891 San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle
Illustrations from the September 27 1891 San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle

All San Francisco newspapers covered the story, but it’s obvious only the Chronicle happened to have a police reporter at the station house. The Chronicle described the dress as blue sateen “almost concealed under a fashionable traveling ulster” (now called a “duster coat”), a gray hat, black gloves and new leather bag.

From the Chronicle: “‘What is your name?’ demanded the desk sergeant. ‘George Jones.'”

“Nothing of any importance was found about the prisoner’s person but the opening of the satchel created a sensation. First was fished out a pound bottle of chloroform which had not been opened. Next were produced two one-pound bottles labeled prussic acid, likewise unopened…By this time the police were genuinely interested, and pressed Jones for explanations. But he had nothing to say.”

Asked why he was wearing women’s clothes, he said only he planned to play a joke, but would not say who it involved. “I decline to answer that. It would involve the names of some very prominent people, and I would die before dragging their names into the matter.”

Livernash was placed in a cell pending a court appearance on Monday. Later that night he dashed off a lengthy note to the Chronicle which appeared in the Sunday edition. This was his new explanation: “I determined to play a joke I had been planning for a fortnight or so. It was this: To dress as a negress and apply for service to a lady friend in this city, who shall be nameless.”

When he appeared before the judge he told still another version – apparently expecting no one had read his statement printed in the Sunday Chronicle. He now said it was a joke “to fool my wife” because “he wanted to see if she would recognize him.” He claimed in court the new mother was staying with someone she knew in San Francisco and while he was indeed wearing her clothes, he had taken them and dressed up in the city hotel where he stayed when not in Livermore.

Swiss cheese has fewer holes than that story.

Then there were questions about the poisons and why he was waiting to take a ferry. Again his answers made no sense.

In his letter to the Chronicle, Livernash wrote he intended to pour out the bottle of chloroform but put it in the satchel anyway. The prussic acid was too dangerous to leave in the hotel room so he took it along as well.

While costumed and enroute to his wife, or lady friend, or very prominent people, he suddenly remembered someone from San Francisco was going to meet him in Livermore that evening. That took priority, so he hustled to the Ferry Building to intercept his buddy from making a needless trip. Alas, he was busted before he was able to board the ferryboat.

strangeportraits(RIGHT: Newspapers heavily played up the impersonation angle of the story, illustrating stories with highly feminized portrayals of Livernash. At top is a drawing from the September 29 1891 San Francisco Chronicle and below is an engraving which appeared in many papers nationwide)

In both his jailhouse letter and in court, Livernash said he was inhaling chloroform because of chronic insomnia – although the police reporter noted the bottle was unopened. He said that in Livermore he and his pal were going to use that industrial-size stash of prussic acid for oddball experiments in extracting gold from coins.4

At his court appearance Dr. Robertson testified his patient “is afflicted with insomnia and hypnotism. Hypnotism, a condition not thoroughly understood, is produced artificially by mesmerists and magnetizers, or is produced by the person afflicted. Livernash hypnotized himself.”

SF Examiner: “In Dr. Robertson’s opinion Livernash was not in normal mental condition during his masquerading tour.” SF Chronicle: “the case went on it developed into one which would hold the Society of Psychic Research spellbound with interest…he is not morally responsible for what he does.”

Like the police, Judge Joachimsen showed a great deal of skepticism about the entire story, particularly why Livernash was carrying an enormous supply of an extremely lethal compound. He took the case under advisement and found Livernash guilty of the misdemeanor charge of wearing woman’s apparel in public. Accounts differ as to the fine being $50 or $100.

Newspaper editors across the country (helllooo, Sioux City Iowa!) loved the story and can be found printing a shortened version of the Chronicle’s court reporting over the next few months, the delays presumably due to them waiting for the engraved portrait to be shared. Curiously, that version got the judge’s decision wrong: “After thinking the matter over for a day, the judge concluded to let Mr. Livernash go.”


On October 28, 1891, Ed Livernash paid a visit to a wealthy bachelor in Cloverdale. Days earlier, Livernash had written a letter claiming to be from his father-in-law, stating he wanted to buy the elderly man’s livery stable. Livernash said he would return when his in-law arrived and gave the man a bottle of wine as a gift. The wine was poisoned with prussic acid.

Livernash came back by himself later that night and made smalltalk while supposedly waiting for his relative. Livernash remarked on two portraits on the wall and was told those were the man’s niece and nephew. “I thought you had no relatives,” Livernash said before growing agitated.

Suddenly Livernash pulled out two guns. “Make out your will in my favor or I will kill you, God damn you!” He fired seven times. Four of the bullets hit the victim in the face but incredibly did no serious damage.

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

During part of his testimony Livernash was supposedly placed in a hypnotic trance by the Superintendent of the asylum in Napa. He spoke of an elaborate conspiracy against him and that the man he shot was really Judge Joachimsen in disguise. The Napa doctor told the jury he was certain Livernash had an exceedingly rare condition and was not faking. In a commentary section I remarked that during his months at the Napa asylum, it appeared the doctor and patient developed a codependent relationship to use his case to support theories in the emerging field of psychology.

The jury deadlocked 8:4 and a second trial was held, Livernash acting as his own attorney. Jury selection was lengthy because he quizzed them closely “as to their ideas of hypnotism and insanity.” His defense did not include hypnosis again but argued he and others in his family sometimes just went nuts. This time the verdict was not guilty.

What to make of this unusual story? Today Edward J. Livernash lives on as a footnote in LGBTQ history, mentioned in books, academic papers and websites as a documented example of 19th century cross-dressing. That might be true or not; there’s no evidence of gender dysphoria aside from this 1891 incident, and Ed later had plenty of enemies who might have gladly used something like that to attack and discredit him.

(The articles transcribed below do, however, say a great deal about how the press was – and still is – pushing aside hard news when it has a delicious scandal it can serve up instead. The lede for this story should have been that police suspected Livernash was planning some sort of serious crime. From the Chronicle report on his arrest: “The peculiar articles found in the satchel and the fact of the prisoner assuming such an elaborate disguise incline the authorities to believe that they have unearthed something much more sensational than an intended joke.”)

Lurking in the background of Ed’s 1891 misadventures is the question of whether there was something actually wrong with his mind. A sidebar in the somnambulist article discusses some possibilities, but it’s now too late to know if he had real problems or was faking temporary madness to stay out of prison.

But aside from Ed’s shifting excuses for dressing up and having toxic chemicals, when this incident is taken in context with other events around that time a more complex picture appears – and strongly points to him methodically plotting a series of crimes rather than being a madman performing impulsive and irrational acts.

Whether insane or no, he certainly intended to murder the Cloverdale man. He dropped off the poisoned wine and began shooting when he returned and found his victim still alive. His motive was apparently to forge a will making him the beneficiary.

If Livernash was not deranged, then the only explanation must be that he was desperate for money. In that light, recall the Livermore newspaper office burned in early September; just a few days prior, he had taken out a $1,000 insurance policy on it.

So was there likewise some sort of financial motive behind the cross-dressing episode? His “practical joke” explanations made no sense to Judge Joachimsen or anyone else. Either he had a sexual kink for dressing up in public or was intending to travel back to Livermore looking like that.

Perhaps the dress and particularly the blackface makeup meant he was trying to slip into Livermore in disguise. At the time the town only had about 1,400 residents, and Ed Livernash would have been known by many on sight. Yet a glance at a well-dressed, face-veiled, African-American woman in a traveling coat with a large bag might easily be presumed to be newly employed at Ravenswood, the ever-expanding estate just outside of Livermore where the San Francisco elite frequently hobnobbed.

The sole part of his story which was consistent and believable, however, was he intended to meet in Livermore a man named Peter Cunningham.5

Peter Cunningham was reportedly an expert jeweler who had even worked for Tiffany in New York, which might explain Livernash’s uncharacteristic interest in gold plating. It could be why Ed was hauling around two pounds of prussic acid (although at the later Cloverdale trial Livernash would give an excuse for having it that didn’t mention anything to do with Cunningham or jewelry).

But Cunningham was also crazy himself, or at least extremely eccentric. Every year or so in the late 1880s-1890s there would be a rash of San Francisco newspaper stories about him being arrested as a suspected lunatic or for vagrancy – once specifically for being “in the nightly habit of visiting swill barrels in the rear of hotels, bakeries and saloons and picking out pieces of meat and bread.” Each time charges were dismissed after Cunningham gave the names of well-known people as references and produced bank books showing he was actually quite wealthy. In 1898 he was worth exactly $51,559, which was the equivalent of $1.6M today.

Cunningham was unmarried and lived in a house he owned just a couple of blocks from the Ferry Building. In sum: He was a very rich elderly bachelor who appeared to have no family members – exactly the same profile as the man in Cloverdale who Livernash would try to kill a month later with the same prussic acid he was carrying in his satchel.6

Illustration of Peter Cunningham that accompanied the article transcribed below from the San Francisco Call, August 21 1898
Illustration of Peter Cunningham that accompanied the article transcribed below from the San Francisco Call, August 21 1898

Ed’s arrest at the Ferry Building put an end to whatever he planned to do in Livermore, and after being taken into custody “the prisoner cast one last mournful look at the ferry boat and turned away as if resigned to fate,” in the Chronicle’s fanciful description. It was an embarrassing failure in a life that had been surprisingly full of failures – despite his marvelous smarts and law degree, he had never been more than a printer and editor of struggling little country papers.

There will be a final chapter here about Ed (although I humbly beg your indulgence as it will drift ever farther away from doings in Sonoma County) because his bizarre story has never been properly told. Not to give away too much, but he did other things both awful and heroic; he remained a newspaperman for the rest of the decade, entered politics, divorced Jessie (1909) and married Zilla Daisy Shaw Ashby Mayne Dumouriez, possibly the only person on the planet who could match (and exceed!) Ed’s penchant for strangeness.

As for Jessie, she returned to Santa Rosa following the breakup of the marriage, although she and Alberta also lived in San Francisco and spent extended time in Europe while her daughter studied piano.

Her father had died in 1898 but his vast estate wasn’t settled for seven years (he had owned or co-owned much of downtown). The lawyer for the estate was Edward J. Livernash. Yes, he was then the Overton’s in-law but that was still mighty generous of the family, considering Ed had used the name of the late judge in that forged letter sent to the Cloverdale man.

Jessie obtained some of her father’s prime real estate on the corner of Fourth street and Mendocino Ave. The new Exchange Bank was built directly on the corner (architect: Brainerd Jones) and in 1909 she built “the Livernash Block” on the L-shaped property surrounding the bank. The Fourth street side was used for retail stores (including the town’s first Woolworth) and the Mendocino side was professional offices on the ground floor with apartments upstairs. Jessie lived there and Alberta had a piano studio which included a small recital hall.

Jessie Overton Livernash died in 1913 and is buried in the Overton family plot at the Rural Cemetery.

1 The death certificate for Edward J. Livernash lists his birth year as 1868, but all other records, including voter registrations, the 1880 and 1900 census reports and his 1899 passport application all specify 1866.
2 The Livernash family bought the Healdsburg Enterprise in 1890 and sold it two years later, shortly before Ed’s first somnambulism trial and presumably to pay for his three lawyers. The buyer was M. Menihan, owner of the United States Hotel in Cloverdale, where Ed had stayed during the attempted murder. Ed and his siblings Lizzie and John J. continued publishing the paper until Menihan sold it in 1898. Besides running the Enterprise almost single-handed, Lizzie supported her five younger siblings and grandmother and was bitter about the sale, as the new owner promptly told her to get out. In a statement to the Feb. 20 1898 SF Call, Lizzie said: “We were turned out without a dollar. As soon as Mr. Menihan acquired possession of the paper he turned us out bag and baggage.” (The Call reporter confused Menihan as the buyer instead of the seller.) She continued: “Ed had deserted us and brought shame upon us. He has not contributed one cent to the support of our five young brothers and sisters since he was married. He is the cause of the rumor that there is a taint of insanity in our family.”
3 Alberta Pauline Livernash was born in San Francisco in August 1891 (1900 census) or September 13 1891 (1899 passport application). I have not seen her birth or death certificates, but family genealogists have settled on her birthdate as Aug. 15. Until her death in 1920, she was known by the nickname “Pink”.
4 Prussic Acid was the 18th century name for hydrocyanic acid. A combination of hydrogen, carbon, and ammonia, it is the precursor for more practical forms of cyanides used in electroplating and mining, the latter where it extracts gold from low-grade ore. Taken at face value, Livernash seemed to be saying he wanted to create a non-smelting process to remove gold from coins and then plate it on a different coin or something else. If this was an actual plan it would have returned little or no profit, as a $20 gold coin contained nearly $19 worth of gold at 1891 market rates. It would have been far more practical just to use lower-carat raw gold for plating, as others were doing. Prussic Acid is also a fast-acting poison if swallowed or inhaled.
5 A search of online California newspapers, voter registrations, census data and other resources available through turned up only two adults named Peter Cunningham living in the Bay Area during the 1880s and 1890s. The other was Peter R. Cunningham, who lived in Oakland and had various management positions at the Oakland Planing Mills company.
6 Cunningham did have an older brother who lived with him, but that was never mentioned until the subsequent 1898 article, and the brother might not have been around in 1891.



LIVERMORE September 6. – This morning at 5:30 o’clock the Herald office, Bank of Livermore and G. W. Langan’s law office were destroyed by fire. The fire broke out in the Herald office and soon extended to the other two buildings. All three are wrecks…

– San Francisco Chronicle, September 7 1891


A Masquerader Captured at the Ferry.
Chloroform and Poison in His Satchel.
He Is Identified as E. J. Livernash, a Livermore Newspaper Man.

She appeared to be a stylishly dressed colored woman with a dainty mincing gait and she glanced about with a timorous air aw she walked through the Oakland ferry entrance to take the 4:30 o’clock boat yesterday afternoon.

Sergeant Kavanaugh, who was on duty at the ferry, saw the ebon-hued belle but was too astute to be deceived.

Stepping up and clutching her arm, the sergeant said:

“You are a man, sir, masquerading in female attire.”

The object of the sergeant’s suspicions flashed an indignant look at him through her black veil.

“How dare you attempt to insult me, Mr. Officer? I am a lady, if I am black.”

That settled it. Her last hope of escape was gone. The voice was too unmistakably masculine to deceive even a policeman.

“You are a man,” reiterated the sergeant, gazing at the masquerader sternly. “It is against the law for one of your sex to appear in public in petticoats. I shall have to take you in.”

With that the sergeant snatched the black veil away, revealing sharp features, smeared with black grease-paint.

The prisoner cast one last mournful look at the ferry boat and turned away as if resigned to fate. Sergeant Langford turned up and constituted himself assistant captor. The patrol wagon was summoned and fifteen minutes later the hero stood before the booking desk at the city prison.

The prisoner was a sight well worth gazing upon. Not a stitch of masculine clothing was there about him. A blue sateen dress was almost concealed under a fashionable traveling ulster of gray goods with a small cheek. A splendid sample of the milliner’s art – a symphony in gray – surmounted the prisoner’s head. On his hands were a pair of new black gloves. Not the least noticeable feature of the outfit was a brand new russet leather satchel. Everything about the prisoner, in fact, was of inviting newness.

“What is your name?” demanded the desk sergeant.

“George Jones.”

And after giving this cognomen, not another word could the prisoner be induced to say.

Nothing of any importance was found about the prisoner’s person but the opening of the satchel created a sensation. First was fished out a pound bottle of chloroform which had not been opened. Next were produced two one-pound bottles labeled prussic acid, likewise unopened. After these discoveries two keys, attached to long metal shanks and evidently taken from some hotel were found; then came four small satchel keys, $82.45 in money, a lady’s gold watch, a razor, a pocket knife, a package of black grease paint, a paper of hairpins and other minor articles of utility, some used by the sterner sex and some by the gentler.

By this time the police were genuinely interested, and pressed Jones for explanations. But he had nothing to say. Sergeant Kavanaugh rushed up stairs and noticed Chief Crowley. Then Detective Ben Bohen came down to investigate, followed shortly by Detective Rogers. A trusty brought hot water and Jones was ordered to wash up. Then all hands, including Chief Crowley, who had just arrived, took a good look at Mr. “George Jones.”

They saw a short, slight, sharp-featured young man about 25 years of age. The Chief and the detectives shook their heads. They did not know him.

“Come, now,” said Chief Crowley, “tell us all about this, Jones.”

“I will tell you privately,” was the answer; “I won’t talk here.”

So they took him into the city prison hospital.

“It was all intended as a joke,” Jones began.

“Upon whom?” interposed Chief Crowley.

“I decline to answer that. It would involve the names of some very prominent people, and I would die before dragging their names into the matter.”

A ticket for Livermore which the prisoner had attempted to throw away was here produced.

“What were you going to do in Livermore?”

“I am employed there as a printer. I was a reporter at one time and have also dabbled in law.”

“Yet you didn’t know it was against the law to masquerade in female attire?” demanded the Chief.

The prisoner became suddenly mute.

“What were you going to do with those bottles of poison?” resumed Chief Crowley.

“I use the chloroform myself.”

“And the prussic acid?”

Again the prisoner was mute.

Thereupon the prisoner was conducted to a cell. There may have been no facetiousness intended, but he was assigned to one of the “bird cages” usually occupied female prisoners.

The prisoner was identified later as Edward J. Livernash, a country newspaper man. He was at one time editor of the Healdsberg Enterprise, and recently bought and ran the Livermore Herald, the office of which was destroyed by fire about two weeks ago, an adjacent bank building being consumed at the same time.

What Livernash was doing with three pounds of poison and hotel and satchel keys are things which the police would give a good deal to know. The peculiar articles found in the satchel and the fact of the prisoner assuming such an elaborate disguise incline the authorities to believe that they have unearthed something much more sensational than an intended joke. At any rate they refused to admit him to bail, although the $82.50 found on his person was more than sufficient for cash bail for the misdemeanor of masquerading in feminine attire.

Livernash’s Peculiar Explanation of His Queer Action

About midnight Livernash, who was still in the city prison, sent to the Chronicle office the following statement written in his own hand in the form of an interview with himself and requested that it be printed as his explanation of the cause of his arrest:

“I am publisher of the Livermore Herald. I got into this unpleasant but somewhat ludicrous fix through a clumsy attempt at practical joking, and of course will readily establish my entire innocence of any questionable motive. I’m deucedly sorry the affair has happened, but I’m trying to look on it as valuable in curing me of my propensity to joke.

“I came to town to-day to meet my brother and by appointment saw him at the Lick House, where I had a room for several days. I intended to return to my home by the 4:30 o’clock train, having business needing attention there tomorrow.

“I have been feeling unwell for several days, and felt especially so to-day. I happened to inhale a little chloroform recently, during one of my spells of restlessness, and I liked the results, save for the after effects. So this morning I bought some of the preparation and put it in a small grip intending to take it home with me. But when I found myself unusually ill after luncheon I concluded not to use the drug, fearing after all that it would do me more harm than good. I didn’t pour the stuff away but intended to.

“I went to bed in my room and on arising felt bright and well. Then it was that I determined to play a joke I had been planning for a fortnight or so. It was this: To dress as a negress and apply for service to a lady friend in this city, who shall be nameless. I dressed, and was about to go to her home, when I remembered that I ought to save a friend of mine from an unnecessary journey in search of me, so I went directly to the ferry in search of my friend. Not finding him, I supposed he had gone aboard the steamer. I arose to get a ticket to Oakland and return in order to meet him, but I was conscious of being much stared at and grew ashamed of my folly, and concluded to back down, get into a corner of a car and return home without further nonsense. I bought a ticket and as I was boarding the boat was arrested.

“As to the acid found in my grip, I placed it there to-day to avoid the risk of accident from having it in my bureau. I bought it in quantity of a wholesaler, and intended to use a little of it in testing for myself a statement made to me by the friend last mentioned as to plating silver with gold.

“I took the grip as it was for the sake of having something in hand and merely added to its contents a few trifles needed in my masquerade and a razor I had just bought and did not wish to leave on the bureau top.”

– San Francisco Chronicle, September 27 1891


The Masquerading Livermore Editor Is an Auto-Hypnotist.
During One of His Hypnotic Conditions His Wife Roused Him by Wagging His Right Wrist Exactly Forty Times.

Edward J. Livernash, editor and proprietor of the Livermore Herald and owner of a part of the Healdsburg Enterprise, who was arrested Saturday at the Oakland ferry dressed in woman’s clothing and with face blackened by cork, is described by Dr. John W. Robertson, an expert in nervous disease, as a man subject to strange hypnotic conditions.

Less than a year ago Livernash married Miss Jessie Overton, daughter of ex-Judge Overton, the Santa Rosa millionaire. She at one time determined to become a bride of the church, and took the while veil. Her father was much opposed to her becoming a nun, and she yielded to his opinions, left the sisterhood aud subsequently married young Livernash, who is an attorney-at-law as well as editor, author and publisher.

Last week the office of the Livermore Herald was destroyed by fire, and only two cases of type were saved. The proprietor, who estimates his loss at $1,000, is having the paper printed in Oakland until he can procure a new supply of material.


Yesterday he was tried before Judge Joachimsen on the charge of wearing woman’s apparel in public. The police officers proved the arrest at the ferry and the garments that Livernash wore when arrested.

Then the young man told his story to the Court. He described strange dream-like conditions that control him at times. He is greatly troubled with insomnia and somnambulism. At night when he sleeps he lives over the work of the day or events in his past life, or sometimes seems to see himself doing things he would not do in his normal state, yet has no will power to control his actions. He awakes more tired than on going to bed.

On the day that he was masquerading in black face and skirts he came to San Francisco, and at the Lick House had a consultation with his brother about their mother, who is very ill. About 2 o’clock in the afternoon he went to bed, hoping to sleep, as he had not rested the night before.

He awoke at 4 o’clock, but instead of putting on his trousers and other garments he donned long stockings, patent leather shoes, a white skirt, a dress, a cloak and a hat, all of which were the property of his wife.

He blackened his face and then walked out of the ladies’ entrance to the Lick House.

“Why did you dress like that?” asked the prosecuting attorney.


“To fool my wife,” he replied. He explained that Mrs. Livernash was visiting at a house on California street, and he wanted to see if she would recognize him. He intended to put on her garments in a room at the house where she is staying, and why he thus arrayed himself at the Lick House he could not tell.

When about to go out to California street he remembered that he had an engagement at Livermore with Peter Cunningham, and took a car to go to the ferry in order to intercept his friend. In the car he noticed that people stared at him, and at the waiting-room at the ferry he tripped twice on his dress skirt. He noticed that he was attracting attention, became dizzy, purchased a ticket for Livermore, explaining that seeing people watching him he thought if he could get on the Livermore train he would be safe, because the conductor knew him. He was arrested at the ferry landing.

Of the chloroform and hydrocyanic acid found on him he said he had bought the chloroform intending to inhale some to produce rest, as he was very nervous and particularly depressed on this day that he was to play the joke on his wife. The acid, he said, was to be used for some experiments in removing gold from coins to be used for plating. He had a letter from his friend Cunningham explaining the sweating process.


Dr. John W. Robertson, for two years a physician at the Napa Asylum for the Insane, has been treating young Livernash for some time. He testified that his patient is afflicted with insomnia and hypnotism. Hypnotism, a condition not thoroughly understood, is produced artificially by mesmerists and magnetizers, or is produced by the person afflicted. Livernash hypnotized himself. Sometimes when in a hypnotic state he knew his condition and would tell his wife how he might be aroused from it. He told her once to move his wrist forty times, and at the fortieth movement he came from under the hypnotic influence.

Another time he told her to put a drop of alcohol in his hand. She did so and he awoke.

During one spell he told her to give him some water. He drank half the water in a glass and threw the remainder over himself. Instantly recovering his normal condition he blamed his wife for throwing water on him.

He also was a somnambulist, and one night wanted to climb out of a window to walk on a balcony when there was no balcony there.

In Dr. Robertson’s opinion Livernash was not in normal mental condition during his masquerading tour.

Judge Joachimsen reserved his decision until to-day, and incidentally expressed surprise that a wholesale druggist should sell two pounds of hydrocyanic acid to a stranger.

– San Francisco Examiner, September 29 1891


Editor Livernash’s Queer Defense.
A Strange Story Sustained by a Doctor.
A Good Subject for Investigation by the Society of Psychic Research.

Editor E. J. Livernash of Livermore, who was arrested at the ferry Saturday for masquerading in female attire with his face blackened, was given an opportunity to explain his escapade yesterday in Judge Joachimsen’s court. As the case went on it developed into one which would hold the Society of Psychic Research spellbound with interest. An attempt was made to prove that Livernash is a rare example of a hypnotic patient – a man who has occasional lapses of memory and loss of mental control during the existence of which he is not morally responsible for what he does.

The prisoner was neatly attired in his proper habiliments when he appeared in court. He appeared to be in a condition of suppressed but intense nervousness, and this is the story he told:

“My great trouble,” said he, “is restlessness and insomnia. For some months past I have been in a state verging upon nervous prostration. When I retire at night I generally fail to get refreshing rest and wake up in the morning frequently more exhausted than when I retired.

“I began to go to school when I was 7 years old,” continued Livernash. “At 14 I left school From 16 until now at 25 I have been engaged at intervals in publishing newspapers. I have also been a reporter. When I was 19 I began to study law and was admitted to practice on my twenty-first birthday. I have always been engaged in hard mental work and it has affected my health seriously. Very often, when I go to bed at night, instead of sleeping healthily my mind goes over all the incidents of the day in very vivid dreams. I have often while resting thus gone over the most trivial details of things that happened many years before. During my real waking hours in the day time my will-power very often is not strong enough to recall the past with anything like the same distinctness.”

“Have you any recollection of the events of last Saturday?” was asked.

“I have a distinct recollection,” Livernash replied. “I came to the city in the morning from Livermore and put up at the Lick House, where I had had a room for several days past. My mother’s health is in a critical state, and I came down mainly to consult my brother as to what should be done for her. Through the day I was weary and unwell, becoming gradually worse. I went out and got some chloroform, with the idea that inhaling it would calm me. I saw my brother and we made arrangements for the care of our mother.

“At 2 o’clock Saturday afternoon I felt the need of sleep. I meant to try the chloroform but decided not to, as I was afraid of its effects. A little before 4 o’clock I woke up and proceeded to carry out a plan which I had for some time in mind. This was to black my face, put on woman’s clothes and call upon my wife who was visiting in this city, and play a joke upon her without revealing my identity. My original plan had been to assume this disguise in a vacant room in the house where my wife was staying.

“Now I had promised to meet a friend in Livermore that evening. After I was dressed in the woman’s clothes, in which I meant to play the joke upon my wife, I remembered my appointment. As I did not intend to go to Livermore, it occurred to me that as he would probably leave San Francisco on the 4:30 o’clock boat I could meet him at the ferry.”

Livernash claims to have but a very confused recollection of what happened on the way from the Lick House to the ferry, but he remembers starting to go aboard the boat and also remembers the fact of his arrest.

Dr. Robertson of 705 Sutter street gave the technical part of the testimony for the the defense. Livernash has been under his treatment for the past two weeks.

“He is,” said the doctor, “one of the most pronounced instances of hypnotism that ever came under my observation.”

“What do you mean by hypnotism?” demanded the counsel.

“Hypnotism is a thing generally misunderstood,” waa the expert’s reply. “It is a condition of trance, which may be induced by a mesmerist, or may be induced by the patient himself, without even the intention of so doing.”

“And is the subject conscious of what he is doing while in the hypnotic state?”

“That is just as it happens. Sometimes the subject is partially conscious and sometimes absolutely unconscious as long as the hypnotic trance lasts.”

Dr. Robertson continued, giving a history of Livernash’s case since the young man has been under his treatment. When asked if he considered that the prisoner was morally responsible when he dressed himself in woman’s clothes on Saturday, the physician replied that in his professional opinion. Livernash would never have done such a thing if he had been in complete possession of his faculties.

Judge Joachimsen took the case under advisement and will give his decision this morning.

Dr. Robertson told a Chronicle reporter later that he had never known a man of such peculiar hypnotic temperament as Livernash although the latter’s brother presents a case full or interest to experts.

“The brother,” said the physician, “was taken with epileptic fit not long ago and it required six men to hold him. He acted vindictively toward all six of the men, but when he came out of the fit he had no recollection of what had happened. The next time he had an epileptic fit, however, he remembered perfectly all that happened on the previous occasion and all his former vindictiveness against the men who had held was revived. He put a pistol in his pocket and started for this city from Healdsburg with the intention of shooting one of the men who had held him during the former attack. Fortunately he came out of the trance before he found the man. Yet if he had shot him while in that hypnotic trance he would not have been morally responsible.

The case of Editor E. J. Livernash is one that well recommends itself to any one who is interested in psychic research.

– San Francisco Chronicle, September 29 1891


Livernash, the Female Masquerader, Is Found Guilty.

E. J. Livernash, who was arrested for masquerading in female attire by Sergeant Kavanagh on Saturday evening last, was found guilty by Judge Joachimsen, Tuesday, and ordered to appear Wednesday morning for sentence. His honor held that the hypnotic idea was not tenable. That Mr. Livernash, a lawyer and journalist, should array himself in female attire at a hotel and then glide out on the street, take a street car, go to the ferries and purchase a ticket for Livermore while waiting for one Cunningham, under the pretext that he was going to play a joke on his wife, who lived on California street in this city, was an improbable story. His honor had never been hypnotized save by Prosecuting Attorney Martin Stevens or Attorney J. H. Long, and then he thought that “paralyzed” would have been the proper word. Therefore he did not believe in such bosh: hence the order.

Detective James Rogers recovered a wig worth $40 which Livernash had hired from Goldstein & Cohen on the pretext of using it for a masked ball. It was in the Property Clerk’s office. —S.F. Post.

Edward J. Livernash, the Livermore publisher who was convicted of masquerading as a negro woman at the ferry in San Francisco, appeared before Judge Joachimsen for sentence. The case was continued until to-day, when a motion for a new trial will be argued.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 3 1891


What is Thought of His Joke at His Home.

Livermore, Sept. 28. — The arrest of Editor Livernash has caused much excitement here. He came here four months ago and bought a newspaper from W. P. Bartlett for $2000, paying $1000 cash. A few weeks ago a fire in his office burned out his establishment, but an insurance policy taken out a few days before covered his loss. He was in town Sunday afternoon, and he repeated his statement that he was merely playing a practical joke. The presence of so much poison in his satchel caused a great amount of speculation here.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 3 1891


Editor Livernash’s Sentence.

E. J. Livernash, editor of the Livermore Herald, convicted of misdemeanor for having masqueraded in female attire around the ferry landing, was sentenced by Judge Joachimsen, in San Francisco, Friday, to pay a fine of $100 or be imprisoned in the county jail for fifty days. His counsel gave notice of appeal to the Superior Court, and Livernash was released on $600 bonds pending the hearing of the case.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 10 1891


Peter Cunningham, an old man of fifty years, dressed in rags, after being found guilty of vagrancy yesterday morning by Judge Rix declared that he was worth $36,000, and gave the names of several reputable citizens as references. The Court gave Cunningham till this morning to prove what he said under promise of a new trial.

– San Francisco Examiner, June 19 1889



Peter Cunningham, an old miser, was convicted of vagrancy by Judge Conlan yesterday, although he has $51,559 on deposit in six banks and is the owner of real estate in the city and a ranch in the country. He was arrested last Tuesday night on Bush and Sansome streets by Pollceman Tom Langford, who committed suicide the following night, and Special Officer Rowland. Several officers testified in court yesterday that Cunningham was in the nightly habit of visiting swill barrels in the rear of hotels, bakeries and saloons and picking out pieces of meat and bread, which he took to his home at 316 Davis street. When arrested several scraps were found in his pockets. He and an old beggar had been seen to run a race to get first to a swill barrel. Special Officer Rowland said that on one occasion he had given his dog a juicy leg of mutton to eat and Cunningham had taken it from the dog. He was also in the habit of going along the streets in the daytime and picking up odd things.

Cunningham, in his own defense, denied that he purloined stuff from swill barrels, but he appeared to know something about whether they were boxes or barrels, and that some of them were locked. He produced six bank books, showing that he had, as he said, about $52,000 on deposit. He admitted that he very frequently took some meat and bread that a Chinese employed in a saloon on Front and California streets used to leave at the foot of a palm tree in front of the saloon for newsboys.

Judge Conlan said it was one of the worst cases that had come before him. If a poor man had taken meat and bread out of swill barrels, there would be some excuse for him but there was no excuse for the defendant, who, although a wealthy man, was, in his opinion, “an inveterate bum.” It was not necessary that a man should be a drunkard or an associate of known thieves to be a vagrant, and he had no hesitation in saying that the acts of the defendant constituted him, in the eyes of the law, a vagrant. He would convict him of the charge and order him into custody to appear for sentence to-morrow morning.

Cunningham was was up on a similar charge before the late Judge Campbell in February last, and the case was dismissed. He was therefore considerably taken aback by the judgment of Judge Conlan, and instructed his attorney to appeal the case. He had given his attorney, E. S. Comyns, his bank books, but later insisted upon their being given into the custody of the police.

“I am not a vagrant,” said Cunningham when seen in the City Prison, “and this is a job on the part of the police. I have lived here since 1856, and should be allowed to live my own way. I do not need to work, as I have plenty of money, which I honestly earned. I was born in the west of Ireland and am a jeweler by trade. I worked for Tiffany in New York before coming here, and worked for some of the leading jewelers in this city. I speculated in stocks and was successful, and then I gave up work. I have an elder brother living with me and have relatives in the country. I suppose they call me an old miser, but that is none of their business.”

– San Francisco Call, August 21 1898

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She stumbled down the darkened street, her face bloody and swollen. This was an industrialized section of San Francisco and no workers were around at such an early morning hour, particularly on that day because it was Thanksgiving. Nearly two blocks away she found an apartment building on a cross street where she roused a middle-age couple and begged them to telephone the police.

Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa


The woman was 22 year-old Jean Stanley. She had just escaped from a gang hangout where her friend, Jessie Montgomery, had been repeatedly raped. The public outrage following that vicious assault would set into motion the events which would soon lead to six men dead in Santa Rosa, three of them slain by a gangster’s bullets and three hanging by their necks in the Rural Cemetery.

This is the second part of the series, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID” about the 1920 Santa Rosa lynchings. Although everything described below happened in San Francisco, this chapter aims to clear up misinformation concerning the crime and its victims, which were the sparks that lit a very short fuse.

For research I scoured all news coverage in the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Call and San Francisco Chronicle between November 1920 and February 1921. I found almost everything written about the events since then has mostly relied upon the earliest accounts – which often had errors large and small. More trustworthy details appeared in trial testimony and particularly the summary prepared by the state Attorney General’s office (transcribed below for the first time), although even that report didn’t cover some critical and shocking facts that came out late in the proceedings.

A broader goal is to offer context about what else was going on around the time of the lynchings, particularly to show the vigilante act in Santa Rosa happened amid a wave of vigilantism which suddenly swept across other cities in the state. And finally, before we get started, please note the stories about the gangsters who committed the crime and their punishments are not found here; for that background I again point Gentle Reader to the e-book, “The Fall of San Francisco’s Notorious Howard Street Gang.” Only two of the six men are mentioned here by name; from the viewpoint of our narrative, the rest can be thought of as interchangeable, faceless monsters.

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American culture has changed greatly since 1920, and here are some differences particularly relevant to understanding this series:

DANCE HALLS were favorite places for Jennie and June to spend their evenings. The Winter Garden (it was formerly an ice skating rink, hence the name) near Pacific Heights was highly popular and considered a respectable place, complete with a checkroom for babies (!) while the parents were dancing. It had nice floors and live bands, charging admission for both men and women except for Monday and Wednesday being Ladies Night. More controversial were the eight “closed” dance halls in the city, where men bought tickets to dance with women who worked there on commission. In other cities they were sometimes the target of vice raids which turned up wanted criminals, prostitutes and runaway teenage girls.

BOXING enjoyed a popularity in 1920 that’s hard to imagine today. Public interest in boxers went far beyond how well they performed in the ring; prizefighters were regarded as celebrities. Sports writers obsessively reported on where they were and what they were doing, conditions of their health and how they were feeling. Besides being outraged by the details of the Howard street crimes, most people were likely shocked to learn two well known pro boxers were not only involved but the most guilty players.

PROHIBITION and the long reach of its destructive effects play out in every step of this story, including the Howard street crime scene being a safe haven for the gangsters because it was chosen as a secluded location needed to operate a speakeasy. And besides turning bootlegging into a major industry, it sharply increased violent gangsterism, up 25 percent in 1920 alone. Fun Fact: Prohibition not only cost the U.S. economy billions in lost revenue, it even created a tax-free security backed by booze. Since pre-Prohibition liquor was legal, some 69 million gallons of it had been deposited before 1920 in government bonded warehouses, where it could be withdrawn by the person holding the deposit receipt. Just before the events in this story the Supreme Court ruled those certificates could be sold in a manner similar to gold bullion, and as a result most of the receipts ended up held by banks which accepted them as collateral for loans.

Rewind the tape; it is now a couple of hours before Jean Stanley is running down an unfamiliar street looking for someone to help. She and her friend and roommate, Jessie Montgomery, are waiting outside the streetcar transfer station at 16th and Mission to go home, having spent the evening at the Winter Garden dance hall. A man pulls up in an auto and offers them a ride; they hop in because Jessie remembers him as being a nice guy from having danced together earlier.

But he drives in the opposite direction instead, stopping at a poolhall. He wants to introduce them to a pal of his, who also climbs into the car. It’s now around midnight on Thanksgiving morning.

The driver parks outside a café and the four of them go in. They all have a sherry (illegal – this is Prohibition, never forget) and the men order other drinks, which the women decline.

Two other men enter the café and join them. Both are prizefighters, which is to say they are Bay Area celebrities. One is Edmund “Spud” Murphy, a welterweight who could be a boxer straight from Central Casting; he has coarse, puffy features that make his face appear as if it had been recently pounded with a rock. The other man is larger and has movie star good looks – at least, compared to other boxers at the time; he is Edward “Kayo” Kruvosky (as in “Knockout” or “K.O.”).

There is a whispered conversation between the four men which the women can’t overhear. As they leave the café yet another man shows up and goes with them, with all seven people squeezing into the car. It would be uncomfortably tight for a long drive but they are only going about a block away.

The car stops and the three men from the café enter a small nondescript house, leaving the women alone with the driver and his poolhall pal. They entice the women to go in by one of the men saying, “oh, it’s just a refreshment parlor and I know every one in the place” and promising them ice cream. Once they are inside the door is locked behind them.

The little front room is nearly bare, with just a table, a few chairs and a rolled up mattress. A man they had not seen before comes out with a round of drinks. This brings the number of men in the house to six.

Jean refuses the gin fizz but Jessie drinks half a glass. The rest Kruvosky pours down her throat as her head is tilted back and her arms are held. Another glass is brought in and it is done again. And then she is led into the kitchen, where Murphy is waiting.

[I am herewith skipping the rest of what followed – I doubt you want to read the details and I certainly don’t want to write about them. Anyone who just has to know what happened can review the Attorney General’s summary of their testimony. What needs to be known here is that Murphy and Kruvosky used their fists; Murphy hit Jessie and knocked her down twice, then punched Jean so hard her nose was broken. Kruvosky also struck Jean, leaving her with a black eye and a broken tooth. Kruvosky initiated the sexual assaults against Jessie in the bathroom before turning her over to Murphy and the others. Jean managed to escape by breaking a window while she was left alone in another room. Jean was not raped; Jessie was raped by five of the six men.]

During one of the later trials a prosecutor tells a jury, “It was the psychology of the wolf pack that night in the Howard street shack,” meaning the rest of the men understood their lesser places in the hierarchy, patiently waiting for their turn to perform their unspeakable acts.

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News about the assault started appearing the day after Thanksgiving and updates would appear daily for more than a month. Most of the reporting mistakes from those first accounts would be cleared up in later stories (although some of those errors continue to be repeated today).1

San Francisco reacted in horror, although it was a city not easily shocked. Every police captain told patrolmen to give highest priority to finding the suspects as a dragnet stretched over the city. Jessie Montgomery was taken by police from her hospital bed that night to attend an amateur boxing match and scan the audience for their faces. The Police Chief assigned Detective Sergeant Miles Jackson and Detective Lester Dorman to the case fulltime. A few days later, both would be shot to death in Santa Rosa by one of the guilty men.

Over that post-Thanksgiving weekend every law enforcement agency in the state received the names and descriptions of the wanted men, even though this info was not released to the public. That was when the (soon to be lynched) group left the city for up here.

ednaperl(RIGHT: Pearl Hanley and Edna Fullmer)

Police announced they were investigating claims of more than twenty other women who said they likewise had been gang raped at Howard street, but it appears only two were considered credible.2 A week later they were named as Pearl Hanley and Edna Fullmer from Southern California. They described being similarly attacked on November 10, two weeks before Jessie and Jean, and said they never reported it because they wanted to avoid the shame and publicity.

Early in the investigation Detective Jackson said the police believed the gang maintained the Howard street shack to lure girls there for the purpose of assaulting them. That might have been partially true, but his remarks need clarification on several points.

Detectives later clarified the place was a speakeasy – specifically a “blind pig,” where liquor was usually sold through a walk-up window or via a pass-through. The day before the attacks on Jessie and Jean, the proprietor (who was also among the rapists) spent $1,100 on hootch – the equivalent to over $14k today – to prepare for the expected surge of customers over the holiday weekend.3

Newspapers were quick to call the building a “shack” and that label is still used by modern writers. But today most of us would call 1256½ Howard street a granny unit. It was small but from the photos appeared well tended; it had indoor plumbing, which was no given thing in 1920. The previous tenant was a hat maker and his family. It was behind and to the side of 1256 Howard, which at the time was the Eastern Broom Factory (surprisingly, it appears that building is still there).

Nor was the Howard Street Gang really a gang, except in the sense the men who hung out there coalesced as a rape gang on two or more occasions. Early on the papers took to calling Spud Murphy the gang’s leader, but there was no evidence anyone was giving orders – as the prosecutor said, they were more akin to a wolf pack on the lookout for prey. From mentions in the newspapers it seemed a Runyonesque set of characters drifted in and out of the Howard street speakeasy: Boxers and wannabes, hardened criminals, touts, toughs, hangers-on and every kind of idle, strutting bullyboy loser in between.

“Gang,” however, was quickly becoming the buzzword of 1920. San Francisco and other cities had experienced a significant uptick in all types of crime ever since Prohibition began at the start of the year. Stories about bootlegger arrests were daily fodder (contender for most outrageous headline of the year: “200-Pound Woman, Caught in Act of Making Brandy, Fights Off 6 Officers for Half Hour” – SF Chronicle, Nov. 27). There were an increasing number of reports about groups of men joining together to plot armed robberies, burglaries and commit gang rapes. Besides the intense coverage of the Howard street crime, newspapers around the state (including the Press Democrat and Healdsburg Tribune) used barrels of ink reporting on the prosecution of a particularly notorious gang in Fresno.

Big crime stories always make it easy to sell papers, and the reporting frequently slopped over the line into sensationalist yellow journalism. But a good thing was that it also brought a new awareness that violence against women was horrifically commonplace. As noted in the SF Examiner, in the latter half of 1920 there were 100 men jailed for abuse of women or children in the city, including 56 for contributing to the delinquency of young women, 11 for “tampering” (!) with little girls and 16 for attempted assault – with police saying there were many more but the assailant escaped. Los Angeles began offering police escorts to any women who had to be out after dark.

Vigilantism was in air the air before the lawmen were murdered in Santa Rosa, but it grew worse during the days following. In San Francisco vagrants and crooks were rounded up by police and told to “get to work or get out of town.” Prizefighting was temporarily banned in San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and other places simply because of its association with Murphy and Kruvosky. The American Legion offered to aid in a “clean-up of undesirables” and the VFW said crimes against women were increasing because of lax enforcement, while pledging “active co-operation in any capacity.”

A Woman’s Vigilant Committee was formed in San Francisco to call for a greatly expanded police presence – although the force was already maxed out, with officers given only one day off every two weeks. The Committee further overreached by insisting the city government adopt their intolerant views of acceptable behavior and morality. There should be a strictly enforced 8PM curfew for children under 16 and a prohibition on “three or more minor youths from causing any disturbance at night.” They wanted the city zoned according to their “vice map” which would establish the degree of policing by neighborhood. They insisted pool halls be shut down along with the “closed” dance halls where they (falsely) accused the women working there of all being prostitutes.4

While this was brewing in December 1920, the Howard street trials were underway, with all five defendants charged with the same crimes.5 Security was tight in the courtroom, with extra bailiffs – Kruvosky’s father had threatened to kill him for bringing disgrace to the family.

The jury trials rolled along smoothly and four were convicted quickly – the exception was found innocent, guilty at his retrial, and finally had the charges dropped in 1922, after having spent a year and a half in county jail (he claimed to have gained 25 pounds behind bars because the food was so good).6 The gangsters mostly offered stupid-criminal alibis; they were at Howard street but left before the women were assaulted, they were there but in a different room in the tiny house and didn’t see or hear anything.

Jean Stanley and Jessie Montgomery testified eight times in all and none of the defense attorneys could shake their stories. Each time they both told exactly same story: the offer of a ride home, the stop at the poolroom, the café, being lured inside the speakeasy, the booze poured down Jessie’s throat, the beatings, the rapes, Jean’s escape.

Then after the trials were over came the real shocker: They both lied under oath, and had conspired to do so.

Front and side of 1256½ Howard street, San Francisco in 1920. The window that Jean Stanley broke to escape can be seen here boarded up. Photo: California state archives
Front and side of 1256½ Howard street, San Francisco in 1920. The window that Jean Stanley broke to escape can be seen here boarded up. Photo: California state archives

Let’s rewind the tape again, this time all the way back to the start of 1920.

In January, boxing promoter Billy Murray leased the top floor of a building on E. Washington in Petaluma as a boxing gym with an exhibition ring.

Petaluma could not have been happier; this would surely bring fame and fortune to the town because he was the former middleweight champ and a nationally-known figure. Articles about him appeared in the local papers almost every day that winter, particularly as the date approached for a series of bouts at the Unique Theatre on March 19, “an evening for the ladies as well as the men.”

Living in Petaluma at that time was Jessie Montgomery. Her father had been the Salvation Army captain in the town a couple of years earlier but his current assignment was in Eureka, where the family received a telegram from her in early February: “We are married, forget and forgive.” She had married Arthur Matthias, co-owner of an auto dealership in Petaluma, who she had only known for a few weeks.

She was 15 years old at the time.

After Howard street the newspapers first said she was 20, then began using her stated age of 17. It would be years later before it came out that she was really a year younger than that when she was assaulted (this is verified by census records).

The marriage was a short one. When Jessie was brought to the Sonoma County Jail in December to see if she could identify any of the three men being held for the murders, Arthur tried to see her but authorities would not let them meet, fearing it could cause trouble. The next day the Press Democrat reported,

They were separated in two months, his wife leaving him after Matthias charged her with too close intimacy with prize fighters who were training in Petaluma under the direction of Billy Murray. Matthias charges that she went to San Francisco with Kruvosky…

kruvosky(RIGHT: Edward Kruvosky)

Was that true, or was it a bitter lie told by an estranged husband? Had Jessie previously known one of her rapists (and having abandoned her marriage to be with him, no less!) it’s impossible to believe the defense attorneys would not have brought that up at the trials. They repeatedly tried to discredit her character with misogynistic attacks suggesting she was “unchaste.” She was badgered on the witness stand for using her maiden name instead of “Mrs. Arthur Matthias” as well as for having left her husband and having “boy friends” in San Francisco afterwards.7

But when Kruvosky came to trial he offered a defense completely at odds with what the other rapists made. From the Dec. 24 SF Examiner:

When Kruvosky took the stand in his own behalf yesterday morning he told a story of advances made by the Montgomery girl and of his final capitulation. He said that when he met her with Thomas Brady, James Carey and Jean Stanley at the Strollers’ Cafe shortly after midnight on Thanksgiving morning she moved over and invited him to take half of her chair, put her arms about him and told him that she liked him. He told of that same arm being about him as they drove in an automobile to the Howard street shack and of how he was followed by the girl into a small room there, where he said he submitted to her entreaties.

“She made me do it” is infamously the go-to excuse for men who abuse women in all kinds of ways, and the jury obviously didn’t believe a word of what he said. They were out only eleven minutes before declaring him guilty – just long enough to elect a jury foreman and take a single vote without discussion.

The last trial wound up in early February, 1921, about ten weeks after the crimes had been committed. But then came the bombshell: A defense attorney produced signed affidavits claiming Jessie and Jean had committed perjury.

Policewoman Kate O’Conner had acted as matron for Jean and Jessie throughout the case, and in early December they had lived at the O’Conner home with Kate, her husband, a San Francisco deputy sheriff, and their married 19 year-old daughter, Anita.

The deputy’s statement noted Jessie had never claimed one of the men was guilty of rape until she testified at his trial. He said he overheard her tell Jean that she was going to accuse him despite his innocence on that charge: “I know he didn’t do anything to me, but I hate him anyhow.” The deputy said he would testify to hearing that in court “to see justice done.”

More damning were Anita’s statements about her conversations with Jean.8 “You don’t know how I’ve shielded Jessie Montgomery’s character,” Jean supposedly told her. “I could go to the penitentiary for what I’ve told on the stand…”

The affidavit also stated Jean confirmed some of Kruvosky’s surprising defense claims: “..Jean Stanley also stated to me that said Jessie Montgomery ‘fell for Kruvosky’ in the Strollers Cafe and sat on the same chair with Kruvosky in the Strollers Cafe with their arms around each other…”

Once at Howard street, Jean told Anita she saw Jessie willingly going into the bathroom with Kruvosky. “I grabbed a hold of Jessie and asked her not to go into the bathroom with Kruvosky, because I knew that he would get the best of her. That was when I was struck for the first time by Kruvosky.”

Besides withholding evidence, they conspired to commit perjury, according to the affidavit:

Jean Stanley said to me, “I shielded Jessie Montgomery because she was a girl. Why, at the hospital, Jessie said: ‘We’ll say that they forced the drinks down my throat so that it will save my character.’ Kruvosky had been so mean to me that I thought it would be all right to say that he forced drinks down Jessie’s throat…whenever Jessie gets into trouble with men she always claims that she was either doped or that she was forced.”

These statements created an uproar statewide, pulling in the Attorney General and the Governor. Headlines suggested Jessie Montgomery was about to be arrested. The District Attorney said he would ask Jessie and Jean for their own affidavits declaring the other affidavits untrue. An Assistant D.A. resigned, saying Jean admitted having “lied and lied” in court.

A Grand Jury was empaneled and they decided – on the narrowest of grounds – “there was no perjury committed by Jean Stanley or Jessie Montgomery on any material point” that would affect the verdict of the single case then before the court. The judge who heard all of the cases said he would not issue a perjury warrant because what they supposedly said was “nothing that has not been whispered into every ear ever since Kruvosky was placed on trial.”

So the consensus was, “the women won’t be held accountable for perjury because it didn’t matter – we know these guys were guilty as hell.”

The obl. Believe-it-or-Not! epilogue to the story is that years later, Jessie wrote a letter to the District Attorney’s office in 1925 to confess that yes, she had lied. She lied about her age and that she was forced to drink liquor. More importantly, she had lied when she testified she was absolutely sure that two of the men took part in the rape.

“All the excuse I can offer for my falsehoods are that I was just a child and I was afraid of their getting free to kill me,” she wrote. (The whole letter is transcribed below.)

Her post facto confession made no difference to the District Attorney or Governor. No retrials were ordered, no prison sentences commuted and no perjury charges filed against Jessie or June, as the statute of limitations for that crime had now expired.

Jean Stanley. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
Jean Stanley. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

Tying up loose ends:

According to the only interview she gave, Jean Stanley was from Portland.9 But during the trials the Oregon Daily Journal ran a photo of her on the front page with the headline, “Do You Know This Girl?” adding local reporters were unable to find anyone who knew her. (A friend did turn up, and a month later the Portland paper had an item claiming Jean was to appear in a movie.)

In the interview Jean said she left home at 17 and toured around in the Pantages vaudeville circuit on the East Coast, apparently as a dancer. After that she joined the famous Barnes circus (which had a major Santa Rosa connection during the 1920s) where she learned to ride bareback. Jessie and Jean were each given $600 at the close of the trials and Jean said she would use it for tuition at a business school. It appears she did, because she can be found in the 1930 Los Angeles census as an office stenographer for a department store. She died at age 39 on Nov. 11, 1939 (place of death and burial unknown).

Pearl Hanley and Edna Fullmer were never called to testify, although they were brought to Santa Rosa along with Jessie to see if they could ID the three gangsters. Still, the District Attorney wanted them available while the trials were ongoing and under protective custody – members of Murphy’s family (and possibly others) had tried to make contact with June and Jessie. But instead of lodging them with the O’Conners or giving them hotel rooms with police guards, Pearl and Edna were locked in the women’s dormitory at the county jail. No fun that. Shortly before Christmas, Pearl’s husband, Paul H. Hanley came to San Francisco and told a judge she had deserted him along with their 20 month-old baby, but he wanted to reconcile. Moved by his plea and the holiday spirit, she was released from jail and they went home – where he was immediately arrested. Remember how a vicious Fresno gang was in all the newspapers? He was allegedly part of their burglary team, while other members were being held for the gang rape of a fifteen year old.

Another gold star citizen was Arthur Matthias, Jessie’s husband in Petaluma. In 1922 he and his brother, along with two other fine hoodlums, ran a man down with their car and then beat him with brass knuckles before robbing him. They were arrested for that assault plus beating and robbing a Press Democrat linotype operator of his watch. Arthur was released from San Quentin in 1928 and died in a reckless driving incident near Penngrove two years later.

It seems Jessie Montgomery always had trouble telling the truth, even about things that didn’t matter. In her Dec. 17 testimony (see footnote seven) she must have thought the year 1920 had 13 or 14 months in it, because that many would be needed to account for her version of her whereabouts, scooting around between Petaluma, San Francisco and Reno, where her family usually was. Yet she didn’t mention being in Eureka at all – although that’s where the census taker caught up with her and the rest of the Montgomery family – or Seattle, which was where she met Jean.

Jessie told reporters she was going to use her post-trial $600 to study music but in 1922 she married Wilfred E. Miller, a Spokane, Washington truck driver. True to form, she told a string of lies on her marriage certificate – she stated it was her first marriage, that she was 19 instead of 18, her maiden name was June Matthais (yes, that’s how she spelled it), and her father’s name was J. M. Matthais from Kentucky instead of Lee L. Montgomery of Kansas. She and Wilfred had two children; she worked in beauty shops and then always went by the name June J. Miller. Jessie died in 1985 and is buried in Orange County next to Wilfred.


1 Among the errors reported in the Nov. 26-27 San Francisco papers were that nine men were involved; it was implied both women were raped and the attack went on for three hours; that the liquor forced upon Jessie was probably doped; that Jean had a broken jaw and when she returned with two policemen they caught a couple of the gangsters about to assault Jessie again (Kruvosky and another of the rapists were still in the house, but non-threatening at that moment).
2 Another possible victim named in the newspapers was 17 year-old Thelma Fulton, who said she and another young woman she knew only as “Bobbie” were raped at Howard street by Murphy and other men for three hours on Hallowe’en. Her story closely tracked with Jean and Jessie’s testimony, with them being offered a ride after a dance, liquor forced upon them and Bobbie making a surprising escape. Thelma claimed she had met Murphy at the “closed” dance hall known as the Metropolitan, but the manager there said Thelma and her friend had been barred weeks earlier for disorderly conduct. It appears the police didn’t give much weight to her story; nothing more about her appeared in the papers, other than the Chronicle printing a photo of her on Dec. 12.

3 While Detectives Jackson and Dorman believed for several days it was the HQ of a major crime gang, they came to realize it was run-of-the-mill speakeasy. The owner of the building was real estate investor James O’Sullivan, who was the brother-in-law of Charles Valento, one of the gangsters lynched in Santa Rosa. The building was rented to Allen McDonald who operated the speakeasy.
4 The Vigilant Committee’s desire for for a crackdown was supported by the federal Hygiene Board, whose representative stated the city “was so vice-ridden it was an unfit place for a naval base.” San Francisco did shutter the “closed” dance halls at the end of 1920. (The Winter Garden survived, but only after much scrutiny.)
5 The men were charged on four counts: Rape of Jessie Montgomery (called “a serious statutory offense” in the Examiner’s prurient reporting), attempted rape of Jean Stanley, assault with intent to do bodily harm and abduction.

6 For more on this interesting case see “The Fall of San Francisco’s Notorious Howard Street Gang,” which has an entire chapter on it.

7 The full transcript of Jessie Montgomery’s testimony is in the Dec. 17 San Francisco Call

8 The entire Anita Larrieu affidavit can be read in the Feb. 9, 1921 SF Call.

9 “Gangster Victim Tells About Night of Horror,” Press Democrat, Dec. 9 1920. This interview with Jean Stanley probably was not written for the PD, but no other copies can be found in other online newspapers.



Appeal of the defendant from a judgment of conviction of the crime of rape and from the order denying motion for new trial


The facts of the case are substantially stated in the brief of the Attorney General as follows:

On Wednesday evening, November 24, 1920, Jessie Montgomery (whose marriage name is Matthias) was waiting on the corner of Sixteenth and Mission streets, San Francisco, for a car to take her to her home at 315 Fifth street. James Carey, whom she previously had met and danced with, drove by in an automobile. After recalling himself to her he invited her and her chum, Miss Jean Stanley, into his car to be taken home. They were driven to Clark’s poolroom on Mission street near Twentieth, and there were joined by Thomas Brady, a friend of Carey. The four then drove in Carey’s car to the Stroller’s Café, Ninth and Folsom, where each had one drink of wine. Other drinks were served but were consumed by the men; the girls not partake of them.

While the four were in the café, Murphy and Edward Kruvosky entered. There ensued a whispered conversation among the four men, the nature of which girls do not know. But when the girls and their escorts left the premises by one door, Murphy, Kruvosky and a third man, named Boyd, left by another door and jumped into the machine in which the four were seated. The car was driven to a shack on Howard street and Murphy, Kruvosky, and Boyd alighted and entered the house, leaving the two girls and their escorts in the car. Upon one pretense and another Brady and Carey prevailed upon the girls to enter the Howard street place; they were admitted by Allan MacDonald, who locked the door after them. Carey and the two girls entered a front room, which was furnished with a table, chairs, and a mattress rolled up. Murphy had already gone out into the kitchen. Brady also went out into another room, and returned with Allan MacDonald, who brought in a round of drinks. The Stanley girl took none of them; the Montgomery girl took one-half of her own glass.

Kruvosky in the meantime had come in from the kitchen. With Brady holding one of her hands, Kruvosky put the glass to the Montgomery girl’s lips, tilted her head back and poured the liquor down her throat. Another drink was brought in, and the performance repeated. Brady next led the Montgomery girl into the kitchen, where Murphy and Kruvosky were. Murphy demanded that she sing and, she refusing, insisted that dance for them. Upon her refusal to dance Murphy struck her on the side of the jaw and felled her. Brady went up to her as she struggled to her feet and said, “Go on; take off your clothes and dance for them,” and upon her further refusal Murphy struck her to the floor a second time. This blow was so violent that she did not know what was going on; at times she did know anything, and at other times she knew everything that was going on but could not resist because her strength had failed her. The Montgomery girl screamed when she was hit and the Stanley girl ran to her aid. Kruvosky hit the Stanley girl in the jaw, and Murphy hit her on the face, breaking her nose. Murphy then picked her up by hips, held her on the floor and “binged” her on the floor. Kruvosky then dragged the Montgomery girl, weakened as she was the two fellings, into the bathroom adjoining, where he picked her up by the shoulders, threw her to the ground, and knocked her head against a washstand, pulled her to the floor, tore her dress from off her body, rolled her around upon the floor, soiling her underclothing, and finally ravished her. Murphy repeatedly thrust his head in the bathroom during this time and cried “Hurry up, hurry up!” The girl knew nothing more until she found herself on the mattress in the front room. Here Murphy and Kruvosky pulled her clothes off her in the presence of Boyd, Carey, and Brady, and here Murphy, followed by the others in turn, violated her. These acts were done without her consent and against her will after she could not resist because her strength was gone, and she was absolutely powerless. She was never the wife of the defendant and had never been married to him.

Carey had meanwhile led the Stanley girl into an adjoining bedroom and brought her a wet rag to bathe her bruised face. He left the room and defendant entered. Defendant demanded that she submit to him. She refused and he menacingly brandished a gun in her face. She persisted in her refusal. Defendant then picked her up and threw on the couch and held her legs; MacDonald seized her hands and Boyd her head, while Kruvosky, coatless and with trousers unbuttoned, advanced to the attack. She struggled, begging them to kill her rather than to torture her like that, and finally all left the room save MacDonald. The Stanley girl then got MacDonald to leave the room. She broke the window and jumped out. About this time Carey came to the door of room where the Montgomery girl was lying on a mattress and cried, “Hurry up, your coats on; the cops are coming,” and Murphy, Kruvosky, Carey, Brady, and Boyd left. The Stanley girl returned to the place with two police officers. Her face was all swollen, her eye blackened, and there was blood all over her clothes and upon her wrists.

Entrance to the Howard street premises was effected by one of the officers through the broken rear window. He opened the door for his fellow officer and the Stanley girl. They found Jessie Montgomery lying on a mattress in the front room doubled up a jackknife, her face against the wall and her hands over her face; she was perfectly nude; she was in a very hysterical condition and moaning that she had been raped. Kruvosky, who had returned was standing behind the door and MacDonald was sitting on a chair in the room. The Stanley girl dressed Miss Montgomery; the two were taken to the Central Emergency Hospital where they were placed under the care of a physician and nurse. The doctor found the Montgomery girl’s vulva to be reddened, and somewhat inflamed. The girls were removed before noon that morning to the San Francisco Hospital, where a physician examined the Montgomery girl and found her suffering from bruises over the left eye and in the temple region, and considerable swelling over the malar bone, the bruises extending over onto the upper eyelid. There were bruises on the arms, mostly on the right elbow, a small discoloration on the left wrist, several bruises on the legs, the medial aspect of the right thigh just above the knee, and the left knee, on both lower legs, the tibial surfaces of the legs, and several scratches on the feet.

[…description of the capture of Murphy, and that he and Carey were brought to the hospital to be identified…]

En route from the hospital to the hall of justice, while defendant and Carey were in the police automobile, there ensued a conversation between Carey and the defendant wherein Carey commented on fact that Miss Stanley had noticed his diamonds, and that she did not look to be 21 years old. He further remarked, “Those blondes are my jinx. The last time I got in trouble a blonde got me into that too,” to which the defendant rejoined, “She is a fighting bitch, all right.” Later the defendant declared that the Montgomery girl came prepared for what she got and that she got it.

Pacific Reporter September 26 – November 14, 1921, pp. 485-487


Spokane, Wash., Oct, 17, ’25.

Dear Mr. Riley:

I suppose you think it queer that I should write you such a letter after such a long time, but it has been heavy on my mind all these years. I suppose after all we have gone through I was tempted to make things stronger than was necessary,

jessieportraitI suppose you are wondering who I am, so I will tell you before I go on with my confession. I was Jessie Montgomery. I am now Mrs. W. F. Miller.

You will remember that I told you I was 17 years of age. I was only 16 at the time. I also said I was positive that Carey and Brady were there at the time I was assaulted.

I wasn’t positive, but my instinct said they were, and at no time did I hear their car start out in front, so therefore I swore I was sure they were there.

I also swore that Jean (Stanley) and I had met Brady before, but we had not. It was the first time, and neither was the booze they gave us forced down us. All the excuse I can offer for my falsehoods are that I was just a child and I was afraid of their getting free to kill me, as they had threatened the other two girls.

So if you want to use this confession for anything you know best. I felt as if I had to tell someone who would understand.

If you can give me Jean’s present address I would greatly appreciate it.

Unless you intend to use this for the righting of a wrong will you please destroy it? Yours ever grateful. JESSIE MILLER.”


Montgomery Girl is Wife of Petaluman

Jessie Montgomery, one of the victims of the San Francisco Howard-street gang, and whose plight as a good girl aroused such deep sympathy, is not Miss Montgomery, but Mrs. Arthur William Matthias, wife of a Petaluma automobile man.

Matthias, 23, and the Montgomery girl, then 16, eloped from Petaluma February 3, 1920, and were married at Novato, Marin county. They were separated in two months, his wife leaving him after Matthias charged her with too close intimacy with prize fighters who were training in Petaluma under the direction of Billy Murray.

Matthias charges that she went to San Francisco with Kruvosky, one of the Howard street gang, and that she has since posed as an unmarried girl.

Two months after she left Petaluma her father, Captain L. L. Montgomery of the Salvation Army, secured a transfer to Reno.

Matthias came to the county Jail Sunday night and demanded to see his wife, but was denied admission because it was feared he would make trouble.

– Press Democrat, December 7 1920


Pearl Hanley, S. F. Gang Victim, Aids Husband in Jail

FRESNO, Dec. 24.—Pearl Hanley, one of the girls who disclosed the brutality of the Howard-street gangsters in San Francisco, has come to the aid of her husband, Paul H. Hanley.

He is charged with burglary and with receiving stolen goods, his case being linked with those of the thirteen alleged Fresno gangsters.

The thirteen, three of whom have been indicted for alleged attacks on girls, are held in ball aggregating $261,000.

Frank Stefanlch, complainant against them on some charges, denies having been in collusion with them in bootlegging.

– Press Democrat, December 25 1920

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