Here was the justice system, Santa Rosa, 1908: A man’s arrested for allegedly beating his wife and infant child. Yet when everyone appeared in court, the case was closed – because the husband told the judge he wouldn’t allow his wife to testify against him. Um, was that even legal?

Probably so, amazingly. Like other states, California had inherited from common law the notion that a spouse couldn’t testify for or against the other without permission. Many exceptions were added during the first decades of statehood, and it was clear by 1872 that it didn’t apply when the testimony concerned a “crime committed by one against the other.” (Legal scholars can find a history of the state’s “for and against” laws here.)

But in this era, wife beating and child beating were considered morally reprehensible, yet not necessarily a crime. Partly this attitude was rooted in the common law principle of “chastisement” – that the master of a house actually had a right to physically “punish” members of the family as he saw fit (as long as there were no deaths or permanent injuries). Also, courts nationwide repeatedly ruled domestic violence was a private matter; in a 1874 decision by the North Carolina Supreme Court that was widely quoted by other jurists in following years, “…it is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze, and leave the parties to forget and forgive.” it wasn’t until 1945 (!) that California declared it was a felony to inflict “cruel and inhumane corporal punishments or injury” to a wife or child.

With his wife unable to tell the court why “both she and the child were terribly bruised about the body and face,” the husband called witnesses that testified that their 9 month-old baby was clumsy and always falling against chairs or the stove. Mr. Joseph Vagas was acquitted.

Then to add insult to very real injury, a relative of the husband visited the Press Democrat to attack the mother for the baby’s condition (and her own, presumably) and to suggest “she did not produce evidence was because she had none to produce.”

This dismal story ends with a faint glimmer of hope for the abused Pearl Vagas: Two years later, she is listed in the census as unmarried, working as a housekeeper for the Frank Silva family in Petaluma. There was no mention of her child.


Mrs. Pearl Vagas, the pretty little wife of the of the brutal fellow who was arrested for beating his nine-months-old babe and also his wife, was taken by the chief of police to Rev. F. T. Hopper of the Peniel Mission Friday night and placed in his care. She and the child were taken to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Warren Brentner, where the Hoppers reside, and there given the best of attention. Both she and the child were terribly bruised about the body and face, and were in a half starved and poorly clad condition. She told the people who befriended her a pitiful tale, and of how they were married in Petaluma, and the manner in which her husband has treated, or rather mistreated her since. She will be given shelter temporarily at the Bentner home until such time as she may be able to secure permanent quarters. In speaking of the trouble Friday night Mrs. Vagas stated that she would be glad to get a position where she could work for a living if she could only take her little babe along. She is quite a handsome little lady, and seems to have been given a very poor chance while tied to her brutal husband.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 18, 1908
Man Charged With Beating Child is Acquitted Because of Lack of Evidence

Joseph Vagas, charged with beating his infant child, escape conviction in Justice Atchinson’s court Wednesday by invoking the rule of practice which prohibits a wife from testifying against her husband. There was no evidence to connect the child’s injuries with his misconduct when the wife’s testimony was barred, and he produced several witnesses who had known of the child being injured by falling against the stove and chairs in the house.

The prosecution was represented by…

A relative of the accused man called at the Press Democrat office and alleged that the child’s mother had neglected it, and that she was to blame and not the father. He intimated that the reason why she did not produce evidence was because she had none to produce. The parties concerned are well known in Petaluma.

– Press Democrat, January 30, 1908

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The old Santa Rosa papers apparently reported every incident of juvenile crime on the police blotter (and 1907 was a banner year for our hometown hoodlums), but articles about domestic abuse were few, and rarer still were accounts of child neglect. For both newspapers to write about the tragic Cline family was unprecedented.

Although the four little Clines were allegedly reduced to begging for food, it’s interesting that the most serious charge made against the parents was using “profane and vulgar language in the presence of children.” And given the seriousness of the neglect, it’s absolutely amazing that the court released the parents on just thirty days probation.


Officers Boyes and Lindley were called to Madison street Wednesday night to quell a family disturbance. They found a man and woman drunk, with several children, living in filth and poverty seldom seen in this city. There was nothing but bread and wine on the table for supper and the neighbors declare that the children have had to beg food to keep from starvation. Both husband and wife were using the coarsest and most vulgar language toward one another in the presence of the young children. The man was given a stern rebuke and warning that unless he provided for the children and maintained a more respectable place both he and his wife would be locked up as common vagrants.

– Press Democrat, June 13, 1907
She And Husband Used Too Much Intoxicants

Mrs. Frances Cline was arrested by Officer John M. Boyes and Deputy Sheriff Don McIntosh Friday afternoon. She and her husband are jointly charged with being drunk and using profane and vulgar language in the presence of children under their control. The husband was not captured and the woman and her daughter made an ineffectual attempt to hide from the officers.

The parents were given a warning by the police several nights since, when they were carousing and there was nothing for their four children to eat except dry bread, while an abundance of wine was being consumed by the parents. The neighbors complain bitterly of the treatment accorded the children. The family live down on Boyce street.

When the officers called Friday they were not given admission, and Officer Boyes finally crawled in through a window and then admitted McIntosh. A search of the premises failed to reveal them until McIntosh struck a match and looked beneath a rude bed standing on boxes. There he saw a piece of a calico wrapper and called Boyes’ attention to the same. Boyes took hold of the woman and shook her, commanding her to come from beneath the bed, which she did. Following her was her daughter, who was taken in charge by a neighbor, while the mother was carted off to jail in the patrol wagon. The woman shed bitter tears en route to the jail and after her arrival there. She showed she had been imbibing. When the husband is taken into custody the pair will be given a hearing before Justice A. J. Atchinson.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 21, 1907
Pleas Of Children Save Them From The Jail

Mr. and Mrs. Cline, who reside in the northwestern portion of the city. and who were arrested Friday for neglecting their children and using profane language in their presence, entered please of guilty to the charge before Justice Atchinson. The pleas of the children saved the parents from incarceration and the sentence was suspended for thirty days and they were permitted to go on probation.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 22, 1907

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This is the first report of local domestic violence that I’ve yet encountered in any 1904 or 1905 Santa Rosa newspaper.

Had a Legal and Moral Right to Beat Mrs. J. Thompson When He Pleased

John Thompson holds that he has a right, legal and moral, to whip his wife. This is a pet theory of John Thompson’s, especially when he is drunk, and as that is quite often, it may be said to be a ruling passion jointly with his passion for whisky. His latest outbreak along the lines occurred today, when Officer Herman Hankel was called down to the Johnson home, west of the California Northwestern railroad yard to rescue Mrs. Thompson from becoming a victim of her husband’s theoretical faith and incidentally to quell Mr. Thompson.

The officer succeeded in doing both in a prompt and effective manner, though he had to apply some of Thompson’s theory to that person. The wife-beater was busily beating the woman when checked by the stalwart man of peace. Thompson told Hankel he had a lawful right to whip her. He was then transferred to the city prison and a charge of battery lodged against the name he gave, but is probably incorrect.

Last night he visited the ante-room of the Eagles and with a “hard luck” story, worked on the feelings of a number of the brotherhood, getting a donation of $7.50. This he evidently used to theorize with on the person of his abused wife.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 26, 1905

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