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.
BEAT BABE AND MISTREATED HIS WIFE
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
WIFE’S TONGUE TIED BY RULE OF COURT
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