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THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

It was a fearsome crime and although newspapers in those days were packed with stories about terrible murders, this incident was so horrific that news of it spread nationwide, becoming the first time most Americans heard of a place called Sonoma county. Even your great -great (-great?) grandmother Augusta in far-away Minnesota read this wire story on the front page of her local paper in 1886:

CLOVERDALE, Cal., Jan 23–Details reached here to-day of a double murder, the victims of which are a prominent farmer, Jesse C. Wickersham, and wife….Wickersham was found sitting in a chair in the diningroom dead, with blood oozing from a wound in the breast and another in the head. Mrs. Wickersham was found dead on the bed in a bed-room up stairs, her hands and feet bound and a wound in her breast. The valuables on both bodies were intact, which showed robbery was not the object of the crime. All the wounds were inflicted by a shotgun. Strong circumstantial evidence points to a Chinese cook, Ah Kai, employed by the murdered couple. Ah Kai is nowhere to be found…1

THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS
THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

MANHUNT PT. I: ESCAPE

MANHUNT II: HOW (NOT) TO CATCH A FUGITIVE

WHO KILLED THE WICKERSHAMS?

SOURCES (PDF, 31 pages)

The picture it painted portrayed nightmarish scenes: A woman tied up on her bed, the gruesome view of her husband, the idea that both were innocents slaughtered senselessly by a member of their household. That the supposed mad killer was a Chinese immigrant only confirmed what fear-mongering politicians and the press had been shouting for years.

But aside from the Wickershams indeed being murdered, most of the important facts in the article were wrong. Robbery probably was the motive; no evidence implicated the Chinese cook, who immediately became the prime suspect only because his whereabouts were unknown and other (more likely) culprits weren’t considered.

The Wickersham killings had an immediate impact on Sonoma county and the state, leading to boycotts of Chinese businesses and expulsion of immigrants from towns – and its ripples even reached Congress as more anti-Chinese legislation passed in the following years. But despite its importance. actual details of the Wickersham case never have been closely examined.

What follows is part one, which dives into the conflicting stories about the double murder; parts two and three follow the manhunt for the Chinese cook and part four suggests who were the more likely suspects.

This is a tricky tale to write because every newspaper added, omitted and/or contradicted details found in other papers. Often the differences were minor – but sometimes they were critical to interpreting events. In almost every case I selected a version that came from an interview with someone with first-hand knowledge, but some players were so eager to implicate the Chinese man that they apparently lied or exaggerated, and in one case, possibly tampered with the crime scene. Any non-trivial differences are discussed. If you want the complete scoop, newspaper transcriptions for the whole series will be available for download in a separate text file.

As we begin, keep in mind this is an important moment in our history only because of a perfectly awful set of circumstances. Had the Wickershams been murdered six months earlier or later the tragedy might have been little noticed – but it happened at the peak of local anti-Chinese frenzy. Had the Wickersham ranch not been so hard for authorities to reach, accurate details might have been reported quickly – instead, newspapers fed the public’s hunger for news by printing lies and rumors. And even Mother Nature seemed to conspire to make any possible investigation difficult – there was a Perfect Storm before the crime was discovered which likely obliterated evidence.

Location of the Wickersham ranch and vicinity on the map from the 1898 county atlas

 

The winter of 1885-1886 was fairly mild and dry in Sonoma county – except for the third week of January, when the North Bay was slammed with torrential rains and high winds. There was snow on St. Helena and Sonoma Mountains; major roads were impassible, with the well-traveled route through the Sonoma Valley compared to a lake.

It was just before the biggest storm hit on Wednesday the 20th when two Indians showed up at Elliott Jewell’s ranch, far from any town in the rugged northwest corner of the county. Jewell knew the men and considered them friendly. “You see Wickersham?” he was asked. “Wickersham” was Jesse C. Wickersham, who had a place with his wife about two miles away. Jewell replied he had not seen his neighbor recently. They asked again, “Where Wickersham?” and then, “You come Wickersham?” He promised to ride over the next day and check on his friends. 2

With the weather clear mid-morning on Thursday, Jewell went over but did not approach the cabin, apparently because he saw no smoke from the chimney nor other sign of life. “I had already made up my mind something was wrong,” he told a reporter a few days later, “possibly a murder.” He detoured back to the Indian’s camp about a half-mile away from the Wickersham place, where they had been hired to cut wood. 3

When had anyone last seen a person at the cabin? He asked. Not since mid-morning on Monday; on Wednesday, “they said they had gone down to the house, and fearful of approaching it, they had stood afar off and hallooed for Wickersham, but without an answer.” 4

“Taking the two Indians with me, I attempted to open the door of the sitting-room but found it locked. The window was down and I pulled out the sash. The Indians then suggested that I should come round to the dining-room. I did so. The door did not yield. I went to the window, pulled aside the blind, and there my eyes fell upon the rigid form of my old friend – a blanket about his head and his feet in a pool of blood.” 5

Without investigating further, Jewell immediately returned to his horse and went home, where he fetched his wife and headed towards Skaggs’ Springs, the nearest place where he could seek help. 6


It was fourteen miles to the Skaggs’ Hot Springs resort, where hopefully the telephone and telegraph lines were still up despite the overnight storm winds. Jewell knew the winding road well and in good weather he probably could get there in under three hours. That day it apparently took him twice that long. The weather had made the route treacherous; the next morning the county coroner’s horse would slip and fall along this road enroute to the crime scene.

The long ride probably gave Jewell and his wife time to reflect. They had last seen the Wickershams about three weeks earlier, when the two couples spent the weekend together to celebrate the new year. “We were continually over at each other’s places,” he later told a reporter. But aside from the companionship of being the only neighbors within walking distance, they didn’t have much in common. 7

Jewell was more of a gentleman farmer and the place he called “Castle Rock Ranch” was the couple’s country home. At the time Jewell was 35 and owned the Petaluma News Depot, one of the most important businesses in south county because it handled all newspaper, magazine and book sales. Although his parents were rich he seemingly did well on his own, later owning a hop ranch near Fulton and trying his luck at gold mining in the Yukon. The couple mainly lived in Petaluma before moving on to Santa Cruz and San Francisco.

Jesse C. Wickersham had a very different lifestory. His uncle was Isaac G. Wickersham, the wealthiest man in Sonoma county and president of the National Gold Bank of Petaluma – one of nine banks in the state allowed to actually print money. Jesse was 52 and had lived in his uncle’s shadow for years, working as an assistant cashier and notary at the bank, then as an insurance agent for another of his uncle’s companies. He married the sister of his uncle’s wife, a widow who was his same age. He was also dependent upon his in-laws; he and wife Sarah lived with them in Petaluma, and his father-in-law was co-owner of the ranch.

There was something the matter with Jesse which was never explained. “About Wickersham being poorly – that is true,” said a Healdsburg man who owned property near the ranch. “He is a weakly man – unable to ride and unable to look after the rancho properly.” Jewell agreed he was “in a very sickly condition” when he first moved to the country, but said he was better now and “could ride about and do light work.” 8

Or maybe the problem was psychological. Unlike the Jewells who came and went between their ranch and Petaluma, Jesse and his wife apparently remained there all the time. That they chose to live a reclusive life at one of the most remote places in Sonoma county is worth noting along with his earlier “failure to launch” – never advancing beyond menial clerical jobs, despite the remarkable advantage of his family connections.

Another important detail in his bio: Jesse was a Civil War vet who served almost the entire duration of the war, advancing to First Lieutenant (not Captain, as claimed in some of the contemporary articles). He was in the 2nd Iowa Infantry – where nearly half the regiment was wounded or killed – and fought in some of the worst battles, including Vicksburg, Shiloh and Atlanta; perhaps he had shrapnel that later dangerously shifted in his body, or maybe he had severe PTSD.

The cabin of Sarah and Jesse Wickersham as seen today. All photos here courtesy David Otero and Wickersham Ranch

 

The Jewells reached Skaggs’ Springs in late afternoon and fortunately, both telephone and telegraph lines were functioning – no sure thing in rural Sonoma county even 25 years later, as outlying customers provided the wires to connect to the nearest company office, which in this case was Geyserville.

Jewell either spoke or telegraphed the coroner, sheriff and I. G. Wickersham. Some of the misinformation that spread over the following days was probably due to the lo-fi quality of the telephone connection – the wood cutters were first identified as Italians and not Indians, for example. And soon after that all lines to Skaggs’ Springs went down, blocking reporters from asking questions or receiving any updates for two long days.

Although there was little more than an hour before the last “up-train” departed from Petaluma, the county coroner and marshal were onboard headed north, along with Fred Wickersham, the adult cousin of Jesse. They were joined by others in towns along the way;  the party that finally arrived at the Wickersham ranch included at least 17 men and likely more.

It took them around twelve hours to get to the ranch overnight from Cloverdale. The Dry Creek crossing was flooded out; there Sheriff Bishop turned back while the others swam their horses across. Other streams and creeks were swollen from the week’s storms and they also had to swim the horses across Hot Spring creek. The coroner’s horse fell, injuring him and Dr. Swisher “lost his horses” (no further details of what that meant). Healdsburg Constable Truitt called it “one of the hardest trips of my experience.” 9

While they were still slogging through the mud heading to the crime scene, the rest of the county was afire with rumor and gossip. “The news was carried from mouth to mouth, and soon the horror was the theme of conversation on every hand.” 10

The first published article appeared the same evening as Jewell’s telephone calls, which is to say the only known facts were that Wickersham was dead and the whereabouts of his wife and Chinese cook were unknown. The Oakland Tribune set a low bar with its story datelined Santa Rosa: “…there are not a few people here who express the opinion that [Mrs. Wickersham] may have met a fate worse than death to a woman of her character, and that her former servant, after murdering his master may have carried her off to some hiding place, possibly aided by confederate of his own race, for the basest purposes…” 11

Wickersham’s mysterious illness was the core of a widespread rumor the next day. An unnamed man “from near that locality” rode into Santa Rosa and claimed he knew what happened: “…Wickersham, who had been for a long time in low health, died suddenly, while sitting in his chair, from hemorrhage of the lungs. His wife, who had previously dispatched the Chinaman for the doctor, after finding that her husband was dead, threw a blanket over him, and started for the neighbors, fainting on the way.” 12

The hemorrhage theory was chewed over for two days, then forgotten once the bodies were found. But another rumor persisted for weeks – that the Chinese killer had “outraged” Sarah Wickersham. The inquest report did not mention sexual assault and the family vehemently denied it was true. “The statements that have been made in the papers concerning foul outrages are not true, nor are they kind,” Fred Wickersham said the day of the funerals. His banker father also asked for understanding: “Our feelings can better be imagined than described, but it makes the pangs of regret the keener when such reports are spread. It is bad enough, God knows, without making the facts worse.” Ignoring their pleas, newspapers – particularly papers in Sonoma county outside of Petaluma, including Santa Rosa’s Sonoma Democrat – continued to claim she had been raped. 13

Meanwhile, back on the ranch (oh, how I have longed for a chance to use that phrase) the party arrived a few hours after dawn Friday, having ridden all night except for a short rest at Skaggs’ Springs. While others were unsaddling, Constable Truitt was the first to enter the house. This was unfortunate because he was an unreliable figure; he exaggerated his role in the events and gave the press an interpretation of Sarah’s death which contradicted the coroner’s report (he also pushed the “outraged” claim). That he was alone in the house for several minutes casts doubt on whether the crime scene was really undisturbed. 14

Scene of the Jesse Wickersham murder. The door to the left of the fireplace led to the kitchen, and the door on the left wall led to a bedroom, where presumably Sarah’s body was found. A back bedroom can be partially seen through the open kitchen door.

 

When the group entered the cabin they found Truitt examining Jesse’s body, which was in a chair with its back to the fireplace. He had been shot in the back of the head as the couple was sharing a meal.

“He was sitting at the table as though he had fallen asleep,” Marshal Blume told a Santa Rosa reporter. “His head had dropped over to tbe left side slightly and the chin was resting on his breast…The plate was upset in his lap. The plate of his wife, which was opposite, had potatoes on it and was undisturbed. There was a piece of pie at each place. The chair which had been occupied by Mrs. Wickersham was overturned.” 15

There was at least one reporter there who wrote a remarkably detailed account of the scene for the Petaluma Courier. Evidence showed the shotgun blast came from the kitchen doorway:

The kitchen door on both sides was painted white. On the kitchen side, about four feet from the floor, were marks of powder burn almost as large as a man’s hand. The gun from which the shot was fired that ended the life of the owner of the house was evidently held close against the door, and in that position the muzzle would have been only about five feet from the body of the unsuspecting victim. All present came to the conclusion that the murderer had certainly opened the door only a few inches, thus being able to level his gun on the husband without allowing it to project beyond the edge, while the door screened him from the wife’s view. 16

Jesse had another shotgun wound on his right side. The coroner did not say which shot he believed was first, but either of them would have been fatal. The significance of this shot is discussed in part two.

For reasons unknown, someone had tried hard to stop the bleeding before he died. Again from the Courier:

Beneath the chair on which the body rested were two pools of blood, the clothing worn by the deceased also being saturated. About the neck was twisted a large linen tablecloth, and underneath it several napkins. These were almost as thoroughly soaked with blood as if they had been dipped into a bucket filled with it. From the corners and here and there on the edge only could it be told what the original color of the articles were. From the snowy whiteness of these spots, still stiff with starch, it was evident that the tablecloth was taken from the drawer in which the linen was kept for the express purpose of absorbing the blood. 17

Sarah was found in their bedroom. Her wrists were tied behind her back with the same clothesline rope looped around her chest, the end tied to the bed (I’m guessing the rails of a brass bed). She was half-kneeling beside it with her head resting on the bed. She had one shotgun wound to her right side. The bed was neatly made and unruffled. The coroner made no mention of sexual assault, but he also did not describe the condition of her face, which several newspapers described as being “mutilated.” One account claimed her nose was broken and the reliable Petaluma Courier reporter wrote her “face was swollen and bruised.”

And then there was the cake story. “One of the most curious things discovered was a piece of cake, which had been placed by the murderer after accomplishing his diabolical designs on the pillow beside the dead woman. It is said that this is a custom of the Chinese to exorcise evil spirits from the bodies of the dead,” wrote one Healdsburg paper. In another account there were five pieces of cake. 18

There is indeed a religious belief that the spirit of someone who has died violently can become a “hungry ghost,” but it’s hardly a secret that Chinese generally made food offerings to the dead. The meticulous Courier reporter does not mention anything about a piece of cake on the bed; the newspapers that did so were quoting or paraphrasing Marshal Blume or Constable Truitt, who both kept pushing the “outraged” claim even after the Wickersham family asked everyone to knock it off. In short, I don’t think there’s much question that this part of the story was planted in order to prove the Chinese cook had to be the killer.

The cook’s room was also inspected, and will be discussed in part two; all that’s crucial to know is that nothing incriminating was found there except for some clothesline like the rope used to tie up Sarah. Elsewhere in the house someone found Jesse’s meticulously-kept journal with the last entry made after Sunday night supper. That and a burned-dry lamp on the table led them to conclude the murders happened between 5-6PM on Monday, four days earlier.

The house was not ransacked and Wickersham still had his watch and pocket change. “This shows that the object of the fiendish criminal was not robbery,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the papers pushing the outraged/cake angle. 19

But at least some times of the year, Jesse kept large amounts of cash around to pay ranch hands. Again the Petaluma Courier seemed to have the last word: “A small satchel, however, in which the rancher was known to sometimes keep money, was found open… No one present was able to state whether there was much or little money in the house before the deed was committed.” The Courier also had an anecdote about Jesse unexpectedly settling a $100 debt with a neighbor – the equivalent of over $3,300 today. Another time he had to defer paying the neighbor because “He had nothing less than a twenty.”

While the Healdsburg doctor did the autopsies, Marshal Blume took a party of the men to search the range for any signs of the cook. Finding nothing, the coroner’s jury heard evidence from the doctor and Elliott Jewell, coming to the conclusion that the Wickershams “came to their death from gunshot wounds, inflicted by unknown hands, ail evidence pointing towards a Chinese cook in the employ of deceased.”

And that was all, except for getting the bodies back to Petaluma for a funeral. It took them until Sunday to reach Healdsburg; the Alta California speculated the bodies were lashed in a wagon which was floated across the flooded creeks. 20

A Santa Rosa paper reported, “In consequence of tbe bad weather and swollen streams great difficulty was experienced in bringing them in. People gathered at every settlement along the roadside to get a sight of the sad procession.” When the bodies finally arrived in Petaluma on the night train, “The crowd that awaited the arrival of the bodies at that depot on Sunday night was a large one, and when the rude coffins were placed upon two express wagons, the citizens forming about escorted the remains to the undertakers.” 21

The funerals were held in Petaluma on Monday, and the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the mood of the town:

There was a Sunday stillness in the town of Petaluma yesterday. The stores, saloons, and even banks were closed. Conversation was carried on in undertones, but underneath that sorrow lurked a revengeful spirit, which displayed itself by frequent gesture and ill-guarded remark against the race from whom came the murderer that laid low in a foul and bloody death their esteemed town people. There were no Chinese to be seen on the streets. 22

Sarah and Jesse were buried in the Wickersham family plot at Cypress Hill Cemetery in Petaluma.

1 The Saint Paul Globe, January 24, 1886

2  “I think Indians are friendly” Jewell inquest testimony, page 3
Dialogue from Jewell interview in Petaluma on January 25. San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

3 Chronicle, ibid

4 ibid

5 ibid

6 Some accounts state he rode immediately to Skaggs’ Springs, but I found it doubtful that he would leave his wife alone, given that the murderer could still be in the area. Two people traveling in a buggy would also be slower and help explain why the trip took around six hours. 

7 Chronicle ibid

8 Interview in Petaluma with J. Seawall on January 22. San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 1886
op. cit Jewell interview Chronicle, January 26

9 Truitt quoted in the Daily Republican, January 25, 1886

10 Petaluma Argus, January 23, 1886

11 Oakland Tribune, January 22, 1886

12 Sacramento Record-Union, January 23, 1886

13 San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

14 Truitt interview in the Daily Republican, January 25, 1886

15 Daily Democrat, January 26, 1886

16 Petaluma Courier, January 27, 1886

17 ibid

18 Russian River Flag, January 27 1886 

19 San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 1886

20 Daily Alta California, January 24, 1886

21 Daily Democrat, January 26, 1886
San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

22 Chronicle, ibid

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kronckepreview

SANTA ROSA’S QUEST FOR A HEART

Courthouse Square is (finally) reunited, so we can (finally) say our downtown has sort-of a park, although there’s so much parking on the sides it is much smaller than need be. But the important thing is Santa Rosa (finally) has a central place where citizens can gather together – something the town has sought since its founding in 1854.

In the layout of the town 163 years ago it was called the Plaza, but I can’t recall seeing much evidence it was used for public gatherings except for a portion of the ceremonies for the 1876 Centennial. It was simply a small lot criss-crossed by footpaths and usually in pretty rough shape because no one took care of it. Its potential as a park was further limited when it was clearcut in 1884 to build a courthouse and after that one tumbled down in the Great Earthquake of 1906, the parcel was almost completely filled with the elephantine courthouse built to replace it.

But having a nice public park was a Very Big Deal for our ancestors, and not just for sports and recreation; parks were the heart of 19th century communities. Having a pretty park came with considerable bragging rights – it was the yin to promoting a town paired with the yang of boasting about the burg’s economic prowess and promising future. So if you want to grasp the history of Santa Rosa understand this: The city fathers yearned to be a great Bay Area metropolis, and at the tippy-top of their wishlist was having a terrific park.

At a minimum, Santa Rosa needed a place for political rallies, holiday celebrations, group picnics and the like. Except for the occasional circus or traveling theater group, these doings were about the only entertainment in a small town like this during the 19th century; if there was to be an Admission Day parade with marching band followed by a snoozefest speech about the Mexican War from Colonel I. Blather, Ret., you, sir or madam, would be in that audience along with hundreds of your neighbors – and glad for it.

For about a dozen years around the 1870s, the destination was Arcadia Park, also known as “Willows.”  (Its site was obliterated by Highway 101 but the current intersection of Morgan and Ninth street was near the southeast corner, with the northwest end being the corner of Davis and Tenth street on the west side of the freeway.) It was privately owned and available for rental, but apparently not open every day.

Public use faded in the 1880s after it was bought by the Metzger family, who built a home on the property followed by a winery. But it also had other drawbacks which made it less than optimal. It was about a half-hour walk from downtown with no public transport (meaning horse-drawn trolley) and was apparently little more than a vacant lot with no amenities – although some newspaper descriptions mention a saloon, dance floor and a ten-pin bowling alley, these structures must have been quite small or temporary. The whole place was only an acre, not much larger than the original plaza. That it was so well-used only shows how desperate Santa Rosa was.

On the east side of town was another private park over twice as big and with much more to offer. It was closer to downtown and on the trolley line, where Fourth st. meets McDonald and College avenues (today it’s the Creekside Park apartment complex at 1130 4th street). “City Gardens” backed on to Santa Rosa Creek and had a tiny lake/pond, a zoo of some sort and a velocipede track where bike enthusiasts could race around “at a 2-40 gait” (about 22 MPH), according to an 1869 item.

That place also had a special significance in Santa Rosa history, as it was around there where Julio Carrillo and his pals hosted a blowout Fourth of July picnic and ball in 1854 to convince county residents to vote for making Santa Rosa the county seat – although the town barely existed at the time. Spoiler alert: It worked. Never underestimate the power of free BBQ.

There’s quite a nice description of City Gardens from 1884, when the First Regiment of the National Guard held their annual encampment there and along McDonald ave. “[T]he camp was lighted up and the illumination furnished by from fifteen hundred to two thousand Japanese lanterns was magnificent in the extreme. It was superb beyond description, and presented an appearance much more easily imagined than described.” The article in the Sonoma Democrat continued poetically:

The usual dress parade and guardmounting [sic] was had on Tuesday, and we noticed a marked increase in the crowd of citizens in attendance. After its close the sunset gun was fired, and supper discussed, and the non-commissioned officers and privates began to prepare for their enjoyment. The tents were placed in order with alacrity, and when the shades of evening begin to lower, the campfires were lit, the lanterns to shed their dubious light, and the camp took on its usual gala appearance. The splendid band took its position in the pavilion at the City Gardens, and soon the floor was filled with dancers.

At the same time Arcadia Park was fast fading away as the Metzger winery expanded. About the only events advertised at the park now were picnics for the German Social Club (of which William Metzger was a leader) and the annual Italian picnic. And that was another reason park use dwindled: The area around it had grown into being the Italian community which was shunned by the racist, pro-Confederacy society which dominated Santa Rosa – and would continue to do so for decades.

City Gardens closed for a year and reopened under a new owner: Peter Henry Kroncke (that spelling is correct, but he was variously tagged in the newspapers as “Kronke,” “Kroncker,” and the grunty, “Kronk”).

Henry Kroncke was well-established in town as owner of the Santa Rosa Planing Mill and was often mentioned for his partnerships with others in the lumber and construction trades. There is no dispute that he built a beautiful park and it looked like Santa Rosa at last had found its heart – or at least, a nice place for anyone who could afford the 25¢ admission, the equivalent of about six bucks today.

“Kroncke’s Park” grand opening was on May Day, 1886, featuring a ball with a 17-piece orchestra and with the promise of a musical concert every Sunday. The following week a “mounted sword contest” was advertised, so after a relaxing picnic with your cherished family you could watch a couple of guys flail at each other in a medieval-ish way. (The Sonoma Democrat reported the other attraction was “Professor S. J. Reeves giving an exhibition of horsemanship on the back of a wild mustang, which seat he kept notwithstanding the saddle occupied the neck of the animal part of the time.”)

That second ad also stated this: “Grand excursion from San Francisco.” From Kroncke’s agent in the city anyone could buy a round-trip ticket to Santa Rosa at the subsidized price of $1.00 – not including the park admission price, of course. Enough daytripping San Franciscans to pack fourteen train cars came to watch the sword fight, and those attendance numbers continued all summer, with apparently 1,000-1,500 coming to Santa Rosa each Sunday.

Kroncke’s Park was clearly a smashing success for both itself and the town. There was one eensy little drawback: The big crowds attracted pickpockets. “That exception to the pleasures of the day is one that is attendant on all such occasions,” wrote the Sonoma Democrat. Uh, since these “occasions” were scheduled for every weekend, did that mean Santa Rosa should brace for a regular influx of wrong-doers? Why…yes.

Both Santa Rosa newspapers downplayed the problems at first. A month later the Petaluma Courier wrote their town would never welcome Sunday excursion visitors because of the “hoodlums and roughs” who were showing up in Santa Rosa. “While it is a fact that two or three pickpockets plied their trade successfully in the crowd that attended the sword contest here,” the Sonoma Democrat replied, “otherwise these excursions to this place have been very orderly and almost entirely free from the hoodlum element, considering the number of people present.”

As the summer wore on, the papers could no longer gloss over the mounting problems. In August, excursionists vandalized two commercial orchards, seriously damaging and even destroying trees. Then a few weeks later, a Democrat article began with this: “The excursion to this city and Kroncke’s Park Sunday, was made up chiefly of hoodlums…”

While still being an apologist and stating “it should not be inferred that all the excursions have been objectionable,” the paper reported police had to break up a free-for-all fight at the park and brawls continued throughout the afternoon. An officer clubbed a disorderly man unconscious on Fourth street. Worst of all, “when the train left for San Francisco in the evening about sixty ot the hoodlums got left, and put in the night parading the streets.” I’m sure that must have been a peaceful evening in old Santa Rosa.

The worst incident came the following year, as an excursion coincided with the last day of the county fair. The “sallow-faced individuals dressed in chinchilla coats” and “their vulgar female companions [were] an outrage on all sense of decency” as they bullied their way around downtown, pushing people off the sidewalks and stealing booze and cigars from saloons. One of the crowd entered a hotel and grabbed the heavy bell used to announce dinner service and hit the hotel owner in the head with it, knocking him cold. A Deputy Sheriff and two off-duty San Francisco policemen arrested the man on the returning train, but only after a confrontation with the guy’s pals who were trying to hide him from the cops.

Yet the newspapers – particularly the Republican – continued holding Kroncke’s Park and its excursion train promotion blameless. In a February 1888 puff-piece, the Republican paper gushed, “We have begun to look upon Kroncke’s Park as an almost necessity; in fact it would be difficult to tell what we would do without it”. Finally, in 1890 and after some 700-800 signed a petition demanding the City Council take action (the town population at the time was around 5,000), Kroncke’s liquor license was denied.

The end of booze apparently meant the end of the excursions, and likewise the end of the troublemakers. The park didn’t close, but it’s not clear whether it was still open every day. Like the old Arcadia Park, it’s mentioned in the papers as being used for political rallies and rented for group picnics.

Even sans alcohol it was a special place. As seen on the fire map below, there was an enclosed bowling alley (they played ten pin, same as today, except with a wooden ball), the large pavilion with a dance floor, and “swimming baths” back by the creek. An ancient oak was surrounded by a stairway and electric lights were strung overhead.

The park name reverted to City Gardens after it was sold, and it was sold again in 1897 to the Grace Brothers of local brewery fame. Now it became a beer garden with a concession stand that sold ice cream and a roller-skating rink was added. As “Grace Park” it came closest to being Santa Rosa’s own; Rose Carnival parades usually ended there, Burbank Day celebrations were held, and there were always big doings on Labor Day. There were concerts and children’s carnivals and in 1905 there was a contest where men tried to catch a greased pig.

Any illusions that it was a de facto public park ended in 1921 when Frank Grace sold the property. Nor had they maintained it as a town rightly should; the only original structures left were the pavilion and tree staircase. Even as far back as 1908 the fire map had noted the buildings were “old and dilapidated.”

Our story of the place ends with new owners Dr. Joseph Shaw and wife Frances, who started building their extravagant Xanadu-like mansion to house their art treasures. Construction of “Villa Francesca” was abandoned after his death in a 1925 auto accident, but the Shaws and their architectural dreams deserve their own item here, someday, As Luther Burbank’s personal physician and closest friend, the couple’s cremains are buried alongside Burbank.

Santa Rosa’s continuing – and painful – search for a park continued. It wouldn’t be until 1931 that Santa Rosa had a true public-owned space with the donation of the nine acre Juilliard homestead (although the first official park was created in 1922 when they set aside an unused spot out at the city’s reservoir). Before and after the Great Earthquake there had been various proposals to create a water park on the banks of Santa Rosa Creek, or buy the current location of the Santa Rosa Middle School, or buy the grounds of an old mansion on Mendocino avenue, or buy any of several undistinguished lots to the west or south of city limits. But it always ended the same ways: The town was too cheap, voters weren’t interested or there was too much heavy lifting involved. For more on that history see: “NARY A PARK TO PLAY IN.”

Serious questions remain unanswered about the legacy of Kroncke’s Park: Was it his Sunday excursions which set Santa Rosa skidding towards the ditch? We know by 1905 this was a “wide-open town,” with thriving underground economy from illegal gambling and having the largest red light district between San Francisco and Reno.

It seems the park introduced habitual gambling to Santa Rosa. Gambling was always sanctioned at the County Fair racetrack with the newspapers even printing the odds, while the rest of the year saloon keepers could be found to serve as hometown bookies for customers wanting to bet on out-of-town horse races and other events (see “THE MAYOR OF MAIN STREET“). But it’s noteworthy that after Kroncke’s grand opening with the ball and picnic, almost all of his excursion ads promoted some sort of sporting event. Besides sword fighting there was wrestling and sparring, baseball and football games and all kinds of athletic tournaments – just the sort of competitions which attract gamblers.

I’ll also argue Kroncke’s excursions could have spurred prostitution here. The subsidized train tickets brought first-time visitors to Santa Rosa who learned it wasn’t a bad daytrip – the ferry/train ride was only about three hours. Still, that was far enough away for scant risk of bumping into the minister or other acquaintances from the Bay Area.

But what is certain is the weekly surge of a thousand or so tourists brought in a lot of money – and downtown interests would have been loathe to jeopardize that.

Taken together, it exactly fits the pattern of the corruption the muckrakers exposed here in 1905 – with the courts and police willing to look the other way (for the most part), government ignoring public outcry (it took 700-800 signatures, really?) and the newspapers spinning PR instead of calling for reforms.

Such has often been the story of Santa Rosa, even today; we too easily find ourselves waylaid along the road of good intentions and forget where we were headed.

Kroncke’s Park gave us a place which was nice enough that we wanted to ignore it also brought criminals to town. The reunited courthouse square gives us a place nice enough we can try to ignore its design and size makes it most look like a glorified helicopter landing pad. If you squint hard enough you can pretend to see anything you want to see, and Santa Rosa’s pretty good at doing that.

Portion of 1893 Sanborn fire map showing layout of Kroncke’s Park
SUNDAY LAST.

What a pleasant day it was! Churches all full, and pleasure resorts ditto. City Gardens thronged with several hundred people—listening to the splendid music of the brass baud, (36 pieces,) wandering through the lovely walks and saying sweet nothings while resting on the rustic seats, boating on the miniature lake, looking at the birds and animals, or watching gay youngsters going around the velocipede track at a 2-40 gait. A great many persons also crossed the Bay on Sunday last, and enjoyed themselves finely.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 27 1869

 

THE SOLDIERS NIGHT.

The usual dress parade and guardmounting was had on Tuesday, and we noticed a marked increase in the crowd of citizens in attendance. After its close the sunset gun was fired, and supper discussed, and the non-commissioned officers and privates began to prepare for their enjoyment. The tents were placed in order with alacrity, and when the shades of evening begin to lower, the campfires were lit, the lanterns to shed their dubious light, and the camp took on its usual gala appearance. The splendid band took its position in the pavilion at the City Gardens, and soon the floor was filled with dancers. Drum Major Mayberry acted as master of ceremonies with ease, grace and dignity. All went off splendidly with the exception that the quarters were entirely inadequate to accomodate the crowd which thronged to participate.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 13 1884

 

A Public Park.

On Friday, P. H. Kronke purchased from Manville Doyle the eastern portion of the old Hewitt homestead on Fourth street, commencing at the old barn opposite the southern terminus of McDonald avenue, and will commence operations at once to lay it out for a public park. The tract fronts 130 feet on Fourth street, and is 700 feet in depth, so it covers an area of 91,000 square feet. He will erect an octagonal dancing platform sixty feet in diameter, remove the old barn and place a neat fence about it; and in every way beautify and adorn it. As it is near the intersection of Fourth street and College and McDonald avenues, its convenience will render it a very attractive place.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 26 1885

H. Kronke is fitting his park up at the intersection of Fourth street and McDonald avenue, in a very tasty manner. He has just employed an English gardener, who will commence at once to lay the grounds out. There will be a large lawn, interspersed with flower beds here and there, and it will also have a fountain of running water in the center. Mr. Kronke expects to have the park opened to the public next season at which time he will give picnics and open-air concerts at short intervals during the summer season.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 10 1885

 

The Sword Contest.

The sword contest between Duncan O. Ross and Sergeant Charles Walsh, at Kroncke’s Gardens Sunday afternoon, attracted a large crowd of people from the surrounding country as well as from San Francisco, which place contributed fourteen coaches full of pleasure seekers. Tbe excursion train from San Rafael arrived about 2 p. m., and found street cars, ’buses and vehicles of all descriptions awaiting to convey the people to the grounds. The contest was one of the most exciting witnessed on this coast. Ross won the match by a score of fifteen to thirteen. At the close of the eighteenth attack the contestants availed themselves of an intermission, which interval was filled by Professor S. J. Reeves giving an exhibition of horsemanship on the back of a wild mustang, which seat he kept notwithstanding the saddle occupied the neck of the animal part of the time. With but few exceptions a good time was enjoyed by all. The exceptions were the loss of money through the agency of pickpockets, but that exception to the pleasures of the day is one that is attendant on all such occasions. Credit is due the enterprising traveling agent of the Donahue road, Mr. T. C. Wills, for his successful efforts in behalf of our little city.

-Sonoma Democrat, May 15 1886

 

Sunday Excursions.

It is evident the editor of the Petaluma Courier does not entertain a very exalted opinion of Sunday excursions, as he comes out with the following rather flat-footed remarks:

We understand that Mr. Wills, agent for the S. F. and N. P. R. R., has been in our city trying to make arrangements for Sunday excursions to agricultural Park. Now, we are willing to do any thing in the world we can to help build up our town and attract visitors, but it we are to be cursed with such crowds of roughs as some Sundays visit Sonoma valley, and that recently visited Santa Rosa, we trust the directors will refuse to allow the Park to be used for any such purpose. Just let a crowd of such hoodlums and roughs as we have mentioned have the free run of the Park for a few Sundays, and we will find hell located only half a mile from the center of our city.

We think the Courier has a mistaken idea about the matter, so far as Santa Rosa is concerned, if by its allusion in the above, it has reference to any of the excursions from San Francisco that have visited Kroncke’s Park in this city. While it is a fact that two or three pickpockets plied their trade successfully in the crowd that attended the sword contest here, otherwise these excursions to this place have been very orderly and almost entirely free from the hoodlum element, considering the number of people present.

-Sonoma Democrat, June 12 1886

 

Hoodlum Vandalism

Heretofore the class of excursionists that have visited our city and Kroncke’s Park have proven, with but one or two exceptions, to be as quiet and orderly while in our midst as could be desired. The excursion party Sunday, however, must have been made up of a different element. The depredations committed by some of the crowd have incensed our people, and they cry out against such excursion parties coming here, or if they are to come, to be kept from repeating their actions of last Sunday. A party of them, it is not known how many, broke into the Hungarian prune orchard of thirteen acres at the head of Third street, owned by H. and W, Pierce, and destroyed one or two trees and broke off at least fifty limbs, some large and some small, besides strewing the ground with several bushels of the half ripe fruit. Judge Hoag, in whose charge the orchard is entrusted, was away, and did not hear of the injury perpetrated by these hoodlums until Monday morning. It is also understood that a plum orchard suffered similarly, and, if anything, worse, for they did not leave a single plum on the trees.

-Sonoma Democrat, August 14 1886

 

Another Crowd of Hoodlums.

The excursion to this city and Kroncke’s Park Sunday, was made up chiefly of hoodlums, although there were many respectable people; and it is due them to say they took no part with the other and rougher portion of the crowd. It is well that the excursion Sunday is to be the last of the season, for our citizens have got enough of such visitors as have come here on one or two occasions of similar character this summer, and are about ready to organize a remonstrance committee. It should not be inferred that all the excursions have been objectionable; many of them have been composed of laboring men and their families, who came here to spend a quiet Sunday away from the noise and bustle of the great city. But the majority of the excursionists last Sunday were of a class contaminating in their mere presence. Their conduct while here was such as to keep our officers busy all the time preserving the peace. The women were equally as bad as the men, and incited their escorts to ribald actions. At 3 o’clock in the afternoon a general fight ensued at tbe gardens, and it was with much difficulty that the officers finally restored peace. One of the roughs was taken in custody and brought before Justice Brown, who fined him $7, and let him go. The Marshal arrested another “tough” on Fourth street soon after the arrival of the train, and experienced much trouble in getting him to jail. At the corner, by the Hall of Records, he showed fight, and had to be knocked senseless with a club before the balance of the distance was completed. Several personal fights ensued at the park during the afternoon, but no further arrests were made. When the train left for San Francisco in the evening about sixty of the hoodlums got left, and put in the night parading the streets.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 4 1886

 

In the Police Court.

His Honor, Justice Brown, was seated on his bench bright and early Monday morning, in anticipation of a flourishing business after the excursion of Sunday. Jeremiah was also on hand, and after sweeping out the halls ot justice and tidying things up a bit, seated himself by the door to await the coming of the soreheads. The first one of the latter mentioned articles that Jeremiah had the pleasure of introducing to his Honor was one R. Taylor. His appearance was not in perfect keeping with his name; he looked as if he had not seen a tailor for some time. He informed his Honor that he had come up from San Francisco with the excursionists Sunday, and mistaking our City Marshal for an old friend trier to embrace him and was knocked down for so doing. The Judge thought that a man should pay for such a sentimental display, and charged him $10. He paid it, and Jeremiah bowed him out. The next was Thomas Jackson, who informed his Honor that he had merely engaged in a friendly tussle with an acquaintance at the Park Sunday, for $5 a side, and added that he thought he had been sufficiently punished in the whipping he accepted from his friendly antagonist. His Honor differed with him on that point, and, greatly to Jeremiah’s satisfaction, made the thing square for $6. The only occupant yet remaining in the prisoners’ dock was old Michael Fiahare, who was vigorously endeavoring to scrape a friendship with Jeremiah, greatly to that functionary’s disgust. At last his turn came, and after he once got started with his story of how he tried to bum a drink and was bounced by the barkeeper, there was no hope ot getting in a word edgeways. After a few ineffectual attempts at stopping the voluminous old bum, his honor gave it up and settled back in his easy chair. It was some time before the old man finished, and with tears in his eyes asked the Judge what he thought ought to be done to a barkeeper who treated his customers as he had been treated. His Honor was not much affected with the old man’s grief at the hard heartedness of the bar-tender, and in default of $30, Jeremiah was instructed to take Michael over to the County Jail for a period of thirty days.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 4 1886
A DASTARDLY DEED,

M. Byrne, proprietor of Byrne’s Hotel, opposite the depot, was assaulted by an unknown party Sunday evening in the reading and bar-room of his hotel. Samuel Stoner, an eye-witness to the assault, related the following particulars to a Republican reporter who arrived on the spot shortly after the deed was done: “The assailant stepped behind the bar-counter, picked up the dinner bell and commenced to ring it. Mr. Byrne asked him to quit ringing the bell. The man still presisted in his annoyance when Mr. Byrne started toward him uttering an unpleasant epithet. The assaulting party then struck Mr. Byrne on the head with the bell and ran out saying he did not allow any one to abuse him. As soon as stuck Mr. Byrne fell senseless to the floor and those present ran to his rescue. The fleeing man made good his escape.” It is thought he was an excursionist and left on the train which pulled out for San Francisco soon after the affair took place. The police officer searched the train in company with a witness to the scene but did not succeed in identifying the man. Deputy Sheriff L. Brietenbach and a witness boarded the 5 o’clock excursion train for the city with the hope of apprehending the assailant. Chief of Police Crowly, of San Francisco, was telephoned a description of the man. The offender is a young man with auburn hair and at the time deed was committed was in his shirt sleeves. A woman was instrumental in hiding him away. It is supposed he was intoxicated. Drs. Davis and Shearer were summoned immediately after the occurence and administered to the sufferer. Mr. Byrne, although unconscious for some time, is not necessarily injured fatally. He was struck in the back of the head.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Daily Republican, August 22, 1887

 

SUNDAY’S EXCURSION
Depredations Committed by the Tough Element While in this City.

Excursions like the one from San Francisco Sunday are unequivocally the reverse of desirable. There may be some cities in the State desirous of supplying their stock of Sunday amusements with importations of San Francisco hoodlum and tough, but Santa Rosa is willing to relinquish all claims to such pre-eminence.

While there was undoubtedly a large number of respectable people among the excursionists, the major part was composed of the usual gang of San Francisco toughs, accompanied by their customary companions–first-class candidates for the Magdalen Asylum. The arrival of the train in this city was the signal for an unrestrained outbreak of that spirit which the tough is prevented from indulging freely at home on account of the vigilance of the metropolitan police force. This element, during their passage from the depot to the Park, took occasion to render themselves obnoxious to the respectable people with whom they came in contact. Ladies were insulted and a number of our citizens were crowded off the sidewalks. The conversation with which the sallow-faced individuals. dressed in chinchilla coats, entertained their vulgar female companions was an outrage on all sense of decency. During their stay it required the utmost vigilance of the officers to keep them within bounds.

One of the toughs, who was arrested under the name of Tim Hallihan, entered Byrne’s Hotel, Sunday afternoon, shortly before the departure of the train, and perpetrated an outrage which is likely to be revenged with the full penalty of the law. The tough walked behind the bar, announcing his attention of taking the establishment and commenced ringing the dinner bell violently, as if to demonstrate his ability and willingness to verify his words. Mr. Byrne’s requested him to desist. His words had no other effect than to increase the volume of sound. He started towards the obstreperous individual as if to take the bell from his hands, whereupon he was felled to the floor unconscious, by a heavy blow under the left ear from the bell. The large crowd which had gathered immediately rushed to Mr. Byrne’s assistance, which gave his assailant an opportunity to escape. He was not backward in improving it, and disappeared among the crowd which was just then swarming around the cars. A gentleman who had witnessed the occurence pointed the man out to Deputy Sheriff Breitenbach, who followed him on to the train. In the bustle and confusion the escaping tough concealed his identity and was not captured until the train was nearing Miller’s Station. Trouble with the friends of the prisoner was anticipated, and the conductor of the train, Frank Grace, and two San Francisco policemen who were on the train came to the arresting officer’s assistance. True to their loyalty, the toughs arose from their seats as if by one impulse and made a dash for the prisoner’s liberation. No blows were exchanged. The toughs depended on their numerical strength, but were unsuccessful. The prisoner was brought to this city on the evening train and changes filed against him for assault with a deadly weapon. Justice Brown, before whom he was taken Monday morning, held him to bail at $500. It is understood that several of the saloons in this city were robbed in a bold manner. It is stated that while the train was at the depot in Petaluma a number of the excursionists weht into a saloon close at hand and robbed the proprietor of several bottles of liquor and boxes of cigars in a high-handed manner.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 27 1887

 

Kroncke’s Park.

From Mr. Henry Kroncke a Republican reporter learned that he was making extensive improvements in the park, preparatory for the coming season. This delightful place of resort became quiet famous last season, and as a result Mr. Kroncke states that every Sunday in April, May and June have already been engaged, and  Mr. Kroncke’s agent in San Francisco informs him that there will be no difficulty in securing picnics during the season up to August 1st. The park has been rented only to social clubs and societies, and  Mr. Kroncke has exercised the greatest care in making contracts, as he can assure us that only the most respectable societies will be permitted to hold picnics at the park. The bowling alley will be fixed up again with several improvements. An outside bar will also be arranged for picnics. The swimming baths, will be in operation and conducted upon the same thorough and strict system as last year. These baths are one of the most attractive features of the park and arranged probably better than any of a similar character in the State. They are something that Santa Rosa has been in need of for some time, and the liberal patronage justifies Mr. Kroncke in continuing them. The work of improving the grounds has already commenced and the green grass, shady trees and blooming flowers will be a great attraction for Santa Rosans during the warm days and evening of summer. We have begun to look upon Kroncke’s Park as an almost necessity; in fact it would be difficult to tell what we would do without it. The construction of the park and its success, has been one cause of Mr. Kroncke being placed in the lead of enterprising citizens of Santa Rosa.

– Santa Rosa Daily Republican, February 11 1888

 

 The Kroncke’s Park Liquor License Denied

…[I]t is the duty of this committee to ascertain the effect of establishing such a business in the locality described in the petition and ascertain whether or not it would be to the detriment of any other individual. We find no evidence that it would not, while we do find that within the last twelve months a protest of some seven or eight hundred names was filed with your clerk protesting against the licensing of a bar or drinking saloon in the premises described in the petition. Our own Superior Court has interpreted the spirit of article 2 of the ordinance to be the confinement of the liquor traffic to the central or business portion of the city, as a police regulation. If so, we should not ourselves break the law.

The committee recommended that the petition be denied…The report was adopted by a unanimous vote of the council.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 5 1890

 

City Garden Sold.

The property former known as Kroncke’s Park, now the City Gardens, was sold on Saturday to Grace Brothers, who will fit up the residence and the garden as a pleasure resort and park. The grounds are attractive and the location central. The property has been owned for some time by Joseph Kohnenberger, and the sale was consummated through the real estate agency of Davis & Farnham. It is expected that very extensive improvements will be made by the new owners.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 29 1897

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clementgraves

YOU DON’T KNOW ME

“Fake news” is bad stuff, but at least it’s usually exposed as phony and no longer taken seriously. Fake history, however, can stagger on for decades – and often does.

Researcher and fellow history spelunker Ray Owen has a saying: “Once a mistake gets into print, it takes on a life of its own.” He’s absolutely right; a favorite example of his concerns a fellow who was supposedly an Indian fighter and so adept at dodging arrows that a tribe agreed to sign a treaty with him. True? Not a word; the story apparently first popped up in a 1920s magazine and since then it has been repeated as gospel in books, articles and on Wikipedia.

In this item I’m not writing much about Santa Rosa or Sonoma county, so if that’s your only interest take a look at some of the other 600+ items in the archives. You’ll find many examples of local fake history debunked or the record clarified, including an unwrapping of the layers of myth surrounding the deaths of Bear Flaggers Cowie and Fowler, how the most prominent African-American ever to live in Sonoma county, Mammy Pleasant, had her legacy smeared by a madwoman and a racist author, and especially how popular beliefs about the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake greatly exaggerate the damage and loss of life.

But if you like a good mystery, I think you’ll find this story jaw-dropping, with a Believe-it-or-not! twist at the end. I have never encountered anything quite like it; just as a cheap sweater can unravel with a tiny tug on a thread, this tale fell to pieces once I went back and read the original sources. Yet bits of the flubbed version firmly have taken hold and can be found in books written in several languages, magazine articles going back 90 years and items scattered all over the internet.

I caught wind of this story a few weeks ago, while researching the previous item on the dismal vaudeville acts which appeared in Santa Rosa during the years around 1914. One performer, “Musette the Dancing Violinist,” particularly drew my attention because the local newspapers had a news item about her. It seemed a stage door-Johnny tried to hook up with her after the show, only to find himself arrested by two cops she had summoned (he claimed to have mistaken her for someone else, apologized, and charges were dropped). “Musette” – real name, Theresa Flower – was also of interest because she had a professional career, unlike the other wanna-be and has-been entertainers who drifted through Santa Rosa on their road to nowhere. She had studied with one of the most renowned teachers of her era and did several European tours in a career that continued at least until 1923. Then five years later, this item appeared on the Hearst newswire:

SEEK INVENTOR SUSPECTED AS ‘TORCH SLAYER’

New York, March 3-The ‘torch murder’ Saturday became a scientific crime puzzle of the sort usually assumed to be born only in the mind of a master of fiction.

The long arm of circumstance Saturday had drawn into the range of police curiosity a man of three names.

With smashing suddenness, then, one of these mystery personalities was revealed as the inventor of a “self-igniting fluid.”

The plot, so delineated, takes on the consistency of something fresh from the pen of Sax Rohmer.

“Dr. Louis Clements” is the inventor the police seek for questioning.

Miss Margaret Brown, 40 year-old spinster and Park avenue governess, was found along a lonely stretch of New Jersey road, a human torch, and died without speaking.

Clements’ solution, if poured over a substance, will ignite it by contact with the air…

…Theresa Flower Van Norden, known on the vaudeville stage as “Musette,” admitted Saturday that she married Doctor Clements a year ago. They separated after a brief interlude of wedded life.

“When I married him,” said Mrs. Van Norden, “he represented himself as Louis Clement Van Norden. If he really did commit such a horrible crime, I want to see him get his just deserts…”

That was the first time Theresa’s name appeared in the story, although Hearst’s news service had been churning out articles about the “torch murder” for a couple of days prior. To the sensationalist press of 1928, it was the crime of their dreams: A mysterious mad scientist was suspected of burning to death a well-heeled Park avenue woman with his own devious “liquid fire” invention. And that was before it was revealed the man was actually a notorious international spy.

“…[He] is in reality Armgaard Karl Graves, former self-styled German spy, whose checkered career has taken him thru varied adventures in many lands,” revealed another Hearst story. “…just before this country went to war, he was arrested in Washington charged with blackmailing the wife of Count Von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States…According to the man’s own story he acted for a time as an informer for Kaiser Wilhelm. In this connection, Levine said Clement told him that he had once piloted a Zeppelin on a cruise which the former kaiser made incognito.”

(RIGHT: The undated photo distributed by the Hearst syndicate in 1928 of the man wanted for questioning. Although it was supposed to be a portrait of Louis Clement, it is possibly Armgaard Karl Graves, who was at least ten years older)

The “Levine” in that item was Charles A. Levine, who at that time was the most famous aviator in the world after Charles Lindbergh. Levine said a man he identified as Clement/Clements had approached him about creating a $4 million airline between the U.S. and South America, signing a contract with the name Armgaard Karl Graves. “The last that Levine heard from the man was on Sunday, February 19, the day before the flaming, gasoline-soaked body of Miss Brown was found,” Hearst reported ominously.

The story probably made the front page of a daily newspaper in every town across America during the first week of March, 1928 because the Hearst syndicate kept dishing up new details: Ten years prior, Clement had been indicted for grand larceny over his claim of having invented a water-based substitute for gasoline. Police received an anonymous letter where someone confessed to killing the woman after robbing her of $2,500 in securities –  which were enclosed in the letter.

After days of whipping up a national frenzy with a “where is the madman Clement/Graves” manhunt, Clement quietly appeared at the police HQ for questioning. He provided a solid alibi for that night and the friend of Margaret Brown who said she once saw Brown’s fiancée named “Dr. Clement” or “Clemens” couldn’t identify him. After a few hours of questioning he was dropped as a suspect. (The case was never solved, but there were two similar “torch murders” on New Jersey highways over the following year.)

The Hearst story absolving him of suspicion ran six paragraphs and did not receive anywhere near the heavy coverage of the sensationalist earlier items. Hearst never cleared up there was no connection between Clement and Graves – or that several days earlier, the rival Associated Press had revealed police no longer assumed they were the same guy, or that Levine admitted he contacted police because he thought a newspaper photo of Clement sorta resembled the stranger with the big talk about starting an airline. All portly, balding, middle-aged men look alike, apparently.

But like a bug caught in ambergris, the stories of Clement and Graves are still suspended together in those moments of Hearst hysteria. Easily found today are confused claims that Graves was “often seen with vaudeville starlets” such as Musette and “Dr. Clement” was his Jekyll and Hyde alter ego who liked to screw around with chemistry when he wasn’t being Mr. Secret Agent Man. Once you separate them, however, their individual stories emerge – and as Ray Owen also says, “the truth is always more interesting.”

Doctor Armgaard Karl Graves was a major celebrity a century ago – a real-life James Bond super spy who was supposedly a high-ranking officer in the pre-WWI German secret service spying on the British, then switched sides to be a double agent for England.

Graves’ best-selling (ghostwritten) memoir about espionage was released just as the war began, followed in 1915 with another book supposedly revealing secrets of the German government. His memoir was serialized by newspapers (“Revelations of the Kaiser’s Personal Spy”) and there was a book series of adventurous yarns aimed at kids (“Dr. Armgaard Karl Graves, Secret Service Agent”). He wrote many articles predicting what was about to happen in the war based on his supposed insider knowledge: Germany and Czarist Russia were going to jointly invade England, London was about to be destroyed in three weeks after it was attacked by an armada of hi-tech zeppelins and a fleet of thousands of submarines, plus Germany had a “vapor ray” which instantly blinded anyone who saw it. A modern book, “Spies of the Kaiser,” seems to do a good job of sorting his biographical fact from (mostly) fantasy, so read that section on Graves if you really are curious about that part of his life (the last paragraph, however, describes him being “accused of burning a woman alive”).

His stardom began to fizzle after he was arrested for the blackmail attempt in 1916 (see the book cited above). Later that year the New York Times published details from an exposé by the Frankfort Gazette, where it was revealed he was actually a dental school dropout name Max Meincke. When confronted about his claims to having been adopted in Australia by a “Major Graves” and earning an M.D. at the University of Adelaide, he “admitted that he had been exaggerating.”

Having escaped prosecution for blackmail, “Graves” was arrested in 1917 for being in an area off-limits to alien nationals (he tried to talk his way out by telling police he was secretly working for the State Department). He was shipped off to Leavenworth prison, then later Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia for the duration of the war.

Most of the rest of Graves’ sordid story did not make national news, but was great fun to dig up via regional newspapers. In 1921 he was arrested for scamming another former Fort Oglethorpe detainee out of $430, but that was amateur league stuff – afterwards it would be the Great Buried Treasure con game.

Using the alias Dr. Paul W. Graumann, he was busted in Panama in 1924 for telling suckers he had smuggled a million dollars worth of gold, $700,000 and the Saxony crown jewels out of Germany after the armistice, hiding the loot in a Haitian swamp then later reburying it on a Panamanian beach. In 1929 he was arrested in Los Angeles under the alias Paul Gunther using the same basic story to con a man out of $3,500 to fund an expedition to dig it up. In between those years he supposedly received a large sum of money from German royalist sympathizers seeking to restore the monarchy.

His undoing came in 1934 when he tried the treasure scam on Clarence Saunders, founder of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain. Now Graves was saying he needed $1,500 backing to recover $3 million buried in Haiti – that he had been in the German Secret Service during WWI and ordered to hide the trove in advance of American troops arriving. When Graves disappeared with his money, Saunders hired an investigator and discovered still more victims of the Haiti con game; Graves was tracked down and brought back to face prosecution. (For more, read, “Clarence Saunders and the German Spy,” although the first part of the article badly scrambles the Graves and Clement stories together.)

Graves was sentenced to 2-5 years. When he came up for parole in 1937 the government wanted to deport him back to Germany immediately upon his release from prison. The federal agents booked him under the name Paul Peter Gunther Von Kanitz, but Graves said that was not his real name. “Only three people know it,” he said.

Although he insisted he would be shot by a firing squad within 24 hours of arriving in Germany. He was briefly detained on Ellis Island and finally deported on May 5, 1937.

He was not heard from again.

As it turns out the real mystery man of our story is not Armgaard Karl Graves – it’s Louis Clement.

Clement shows up in the press for the first time in the summer of 1917 shortly before Graves went to Leavenworth, which proves conclusively they weren’t the same guy. These early articles mention he was a Danish chemist and a graduate of the Copenhagen Institute. The same year he filled out his WWI draft registration card which declared he was a Danish subject born in Copenhagen. A later census states he came to the U.S. in 1915, so we have a pretty clear picture of his bonafides.

He was in the news for claiming to have invented a gasoline substitute he called “Nuoline.” There were different descriptions of what was in it (mostly the result of bad reporting) but it was variously said to be somewhere between 10-50 percent plain water, with other ingredients being kerosene, wood alcohol, naphta, benzine plus a bunch of secret juju. Whatever the formula, the promise was that it would cost a small fraction of the price of gasoline.

Money began rolling in at an average of about $10,000 per month (almost $200k today) – not bad for a maverick inventor working out of his bedroom. But after a few months went by with nothing to show except for a few demos where observers were kept at least twenty feet away from the Nuoline-powered auto, some investors began suspecting the secret sauce in the formula was really flim-flam. One of them had a chat with the New York City District Attorney’s office and police were dispatched to pick up Clement.

They returned with Louis and a package. According to the New York Herald, it was “securely wrapped and sealed; twelve large blotches of red wax decorated it.” On it was written, “This book contains a secret formula for turning water into gasoline. Whoever tampers with this book will meet with instant DEATH.”

“When the wrapping was removed, carefully removed, there was on the prosecutor’s desk a book. Its title was: “Elements of Urinalysis.”

The assistant D.A. examined this standard college textbook with care to see if it contained a hidden slip of paper with the formula. One can only imagine the extraordinary care he must have given the search, given the warning the book did contain, you know, death.

Finding nothing more than that package with the sort of stupid threat a 10 year-old might post on his bedroom door, Clement was indicted for grand larceny. The following month, March 1918, the grand jury and six chemists selected by the District Attorney assembled to see a Nuoline demonstration. Over three hours Clement mixed a batch from scratch (the secret ingredients included talcum powder, cedar oil and saccharine!) which was pumped into the tank of a two-ton truck. The engine would not start. Next was tried a Ford, which puttered around the block without problem, as did another auto. Louis Clement said he was vindicated, but the prosecutor was not so sure; instead of costing a tenth as much as gasoline, the chemists determined his concoction would cost about ten times more.

Since the formula worked – albeit at a much higher than advertised price – it was unclear whether Clement could be prosecuted for fraud. He continued to promote Nuoline for at least another year and was sued by other investors. Towards the end of WWI he gave a demo to the Army’s Quartermasters Department which came to the same conclusion: It did work, but was too expensive.

About ten years passed and nothing was heard from Louis D. Clement. Then Margaret Brown was murdered and we suddenly heard a very great deal.

Besides the mistaken ID by aviator Levine and Margaret’s friend saying she was dating someone with a similar name, the third clue used to stir up suspicions about Clement was that he had a company called, “Good Oxide Laboratories.” Nothing can be currently found about what he was doing, but the papers at the time reported he had invented an insecticide specifically for Japanese beetles which could be self-igniting. (Many chemicals can spontaneously burst into flame, as might oily rags, piles of hay, etc.) The Hearst papers, of course, sensationalized the angle: “This substance, poured over a person’s clothing, would ignite by contact with the air after several minutes of evaporation. Any one using it for incendiary purposes could begin his escape long before the blaze was discovered, according to chemists.”

When Clement surrendered, his perfect alibi revealed a perfectly dismal life. The night of murder he was the dishwasher at a cafeteria, living in a 35¢ night flophouse in Brooklyn. A man who knew Clement from the Nuoline days told the Philadelphia Inquirer he had bumped into the chemist recently and he was living on the edge, sleeping in a railroad station and parks.

But Clement’s problems were far from over; when police were finished questioning him, he was held on grand larceny for the theft of Musette’s $600 diamond pendant, confessing he had pawned it for a hundred bucks. Theresa met him at the police station with her attorney, where he was served with papers for annulment of their marriage. She dropped the theft charge after a few days (continuing with the annulment) and visited him in jail, dropping off a check for $15, a heavy overcoat, a hat and dozen neckties. He was immediately rearrested on forgery charges from his former Good Oxide partners for cashing $2,230 in company checks.

And then there was the business of the aliases. Besides marrying “Musette” as Louis Clement Van Norden, he was booked as Louis Clement Schwartz, followed by the arraignment under the name Louis Clement Schmidt. During the search of his room ten years earlier when police turned up the “death” package they found a passport with the name Clemente. There is no reason to believe any of these were his true name. On the business card he used at the time he called himself, “Dr. L. Clements, M.C., D. Sc. Ph. D., F. R. D. G. S.” On the back of the card was, oddly, a purple illustration of a snapping turtle. No reporter who saw it knew what the hell it meant, but were compelled to mention it and its odd purpleness.

At this point, Gentle Reader probably thinks our story of Mr. Louis Clement Van Norden Schwartz Schmidt is over. He was caught committing grand theft and fraud – and did I forget to mention Theresa had already repaid Good Oxide $1,000 because he was cooking the books?  He was living in the gutter during one of the great economic booms in our history with little hope his miserable life could even marginally improve, given that the Great Depression was right around the corner.

Yet a handful of years later, as everyone else’s fan had been thoroughly hit by crap, he was the cornerstone of building an enormously successful business. There were probably other companies born during the darkest days of the Depression that went on to greater heights, but I don’t know about them. (See, I promised you this was a Believe-it-or-not! story.)

The business was Sanitized, Inc. which still exists as a Swiss-based company – their Sanitized® trademark dates back to 1934, the year after the corporation was formed. In earlier decades the company promoted Clement’s role in its origins, telling the story of how he created the first products while working with the Army Quartermaster Corps during WWI, where he noticed an experimental gas not only sterilized soil but kept it resistant to bacteria for a long time.

(RIGHT: A portion of a 1936 ad which appeared in newspapers nationwide)

The Quartermaster connection aligns with his 1918 Nuoline demo – note it wasn’t claimed he was necessarily working for the Army at the time; he could have picked up the tip during his visit. And anything powerful enough to sterilize soil would probably wipe out Japanese beetles in their grub stage when they are just beneath the surface eating the roots of your lovely lawn.

If Louis Clement made Sanitized, Inc., then Sanitized, Inc. surely remade Louis Clement. Never again would his fake gasoline be mentioned; the 1928 murder suspect debacle, thievery, and days on Skid Row were forgotten. Although he was never a naturalized citizen he was mentioned in the papers for his good works around the start of WWII as chairman of the “Chinese Women’s Relief Association” and a sponsor of the “Free Denmark Committee.” He married a much younger woman from Tennessee and they lived in cozy little house in New Jersey (currently for sale!) which happened to be just about five minutes from the Margret Brown murder site, but let’s not muse about that.

And here’s the final twist: There’s no proof “Louis D. Clement” really existed. Not a single related patent between 1917 and 1936 can be found granted under Clement, any of the variant spellings, or any of his known aliases. There is no matching Clement-like person found on ship passenger lists arriving in the U.S. around 1915. There is no newspaper obituary or the tiniest social item that can be found for him or his wife under Clement, all during an era when newspapers believed the way to sell newspapers was to mention every local person’s name as often as possible.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that everything he had to do lawfully which involved presenting an ID – enter the country, apply for a patent, die – were done under his true and legal name. Which was not Clement.

We can probably assume the twenty-something immigrant had a secret he wanted to hide when he came to this country (that is, if he even was an immigrant) but that’s about all. He was a man of science with a streak of dishonesty; witness the Good Oxide fraud and that he kept pushing Nuoline on investors even after it was proven to be impractical, which makes him appear to be a con man just like Armgaard Karl Graves – except Clement was more successful at getting money out of suckers.

The fascinating aspect of the Louis Clement story is that it can be told two different ways. There’s the inspirational version where the plucky scientist who makes some mistakes, then turns his life around and becomes a founder of a great company. A motivational speaker such as Norman Vincent Peale would have loved telling that.

Then there’s Clement’s cascading nightmare which was March 1928. Penniless and wanted by the police for jewelry theft and forgery, he wakes up one morning to find an old photo of himself on the front page along with news he is a suspect in a shocking murder. And if that isn’t bad enough, the man with many secrets is next confused with a notorious former spy who’s simultaneously trying to pull a scam on a celebrity aviator. Know who would have loved that version? Alfred Hitchcock.

LEFT: Louis Clement, 1928           RIGHT: Armgaard Karl Graves, 1929

 

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