Wanna make a sawbuck in 1908 Sonoma County? Capture a kid trying to escape the workcamp at the Barlow ranch near Sebastopol.

Every summer, the “The Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society” – a San Francisco institution for boys “not sufficiently wayward to require assignment to the reform school, and too hard to manage to be placed in family homes or orphanage” – forced dozens of boys, some as young as seven, to work in West County fields and canneries. Earlier essays have described the child labor situation here, but the 1908 newspaper coverage provided much additional detail.

The program was expanding every year; in 1908, “the Aid” brought here 170 youths, up from 130 the year before. In 1907, they had worked for the Barlows and two neighbors, picking 125 tons of berries. The following year they were hired out to 22 growers between Sebastopol and Forestville and picked 157 tons, plus “many tons” of peaches and plums. So popular were the child workers that still more farmers were planning to take advantage of the boys and not hire adults. One of the Santa Rosa papers reported, “arrangements are now being made for next year’s picking by several who have heretofore depended on Japanese help, or any who came along.”

Both local papers consistently portrayed the experience as a pleasant treat for the kids (“a delightful outing for many of them who otherwise could have had no vacation”), but the number of attempted escapes suggests differently. At least a dozen boys tried to flee the workcamp in 1908, including Raymond Onion and George Springer, who were named here earlier as possible suspects in the arson that destroyed the barns of Harrison Finley and another farmer that summer. If caught, the escapee was taken back to the camp in handcuffs, and the captor was paid a ten dollar reward. In one potentially dangerous situation, a couple of young men held a group of boys captive with a shotgun, only to find that they were ordinary and worthless runaways from their parents, not the workcamp.

The papers always trumpeted that the boys were allowed to keep some of their earnings, but here it was mentioned for the first time that the boys apparently had to pay their own railway fare between the camp and the area where they were required to work, and that their puny paycheck was docked “a small charge for camp expenses.” (There was no mention of who paid the $10 bounty hunter reward, but we can safely guess it wasn’t “the Aid.”) And although it was expected that “nearly all will subscribe for magazines” with some of their earnings, the money mainly was spent on clothing and dentistry. Clothes I can perhaps understand, but the kids had to pay for their own dentistry?

Included below are also a couple of bonus juvenile escape tales: A boy who fled St. Vincent’s Orphanage in Marin County and stole a horse and buggy was to be sent to Preston School of Industry at Ione (AKA San Quentin for Kids) and a pair of boys at the “Home for the Feeble Minded” in Glen Ellen used a rope made of blankets to get away from that institution. A few years later, Jack London wrote about a similar escape by two boys with epilepsy in a short story, “Told In the Drooling Ward.”

Five Escapes from Aid Society at Sebastopol

On Thursday three of the boys of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society camped at the Barlow ranch made their escape from the camp and up to this morning the officers had been unable to locate them. On Friday morning sometime between one and three two more of the lads left the camp, and in doing so, stole clothing from some of the other boys. It was thought that the first three lads had gone toward Occidental and taken the narrow gauge road from there to the city, but no trace of them could be found, and the officers are keeping a sharp lookout for them.

It will be remembered that a few days ago two little boys left the camp during the night in their night clothes. These later returned of their own accord regretting much that they had attempted to regain their liberty. There are 130 boys in the camp this year and many of them become very restless after they have been in camp awhile, and want to get off for themselves.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 24, 1908
Boy Who Crossed Continent is in Hands of Law

The boys who escaped from the camp of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society on the Barlow ranch on Thursday and Friday of last week are all back in the camp. Two of them, Raymond Onion and George Springer, were brought in by ranchers in the vicinity and the other three came back voluntarily and reported in.

Raymond Onion is the boy who it will be remembered escaped on the 5th of the month and was picked up in Santa Rosa by the crew of the local train who very generously forebore collecting the usual reward of $10 offered by the Society for the return of wanderers from Camp.

This boy is an Eastern lad who stole a large sum of money from his father and traveled across the continent to San Francisco, where he was relieved of the remainder of the money by his traveling companion. Left penniless in San Francisco he was taken to the Juvenile court and sent to the camp temporarily until his parents could be communicated with. His father refused money to pay his fare back and it was intended to secure him passage on a sailing vessel. He and the Springer boy, who is a friendless orphan who was discharged from an orphan asylum, because of his bad temper, have been the instigators of most of the trouble which the management of the camp has had during the past three weeks. They each made two attempts to escape and were brought back each time and all the others returned voluntarily. They were returned on Saturday to the custody of the juvenile court for such disposition as Judge Murasky may think best. It is the desire of the Superintendent, Mr. Turner, to have the boys stay at the camp voluntarily and much is done to make it pleasant for the boys in his care.

The major part of the earnings at the berry picking is paid to the boys on their return to San Francisco each year and spent by them on clothing, magazines, dentistry, and pocket money or put in the bank. This summer the Society has cared for a large number of city boys during the summer vacation of the public schools, affording a delightful outing for many of them who otherwise could have had no vacation.

Over 40,000 trays of berries have been picked thus far and the boys are being engaged for prune and peach picking which will soon commence. One or two squads will be needed in the Sebastopol cannery when peaches begin to come in.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 28, 1908
Youths Held Up by Boys While Officers are Called

It was reported Wednesday that four boys have escaped from the Aid Society Camp near Sebastopol and the officers were kept busy looking for the lads during the forenoon. It was stated that they were seen near the depot about nine o’clock and Officers Boyce and Yeager started after them post haste but when they reached the freight house they boys were gone and on going down the railroad they found two lads at the freight cars on the siding below the trestle. These boys were arrested but were found to be other than the ones wanted and were allowed to go again. The officers started on down the track but learned that the boys had preceded them to Bellevue.

Two boys near the Ice Factory learned of the runaways and hitched a horse to a cart and drove to Bellevue where they headed off the lads and one of them remained while the other came back and notified the police. He stated that his companion was holding the other boys at the point of a shotgun and wanted to know what to do with them.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 29, 1908

The article in Wednesday’s paper to the effect that four boys who were supposed to have escaped from the Aid Society Camp near Sebastopol were arrested by two Santa Rosa lads near Bellevue, left the impression that the boys were escapes, whereas they were only suspects, and it is learned from the officials of the Society that there have been no escapes for over a week, or since the dissatisfied ones had been sent back to the city. The four boys mentioned were strangers here, and were evidently well started on the “vag” route.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 31, 1908

The boys of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society passed through Santa Rosa Friday afternoon in two special cars en route to the home in San Francisco. There were 125 boys in the party, some having gone ahead.

The season has been very enjoyable and quite successful financially. Over 39,000 trays of ninety-seven tons of blackberries have been picked; 24,000 trays, or sixty tons, of loganberries, raspberries and mamoths, and many tons of peaches and plums gathered by the boys. They have been of great assistance in saving the enormous crop of peaches, having worked for twenty-two different growers between Sebastopol and Forestville, and have to their credit the sum of $4000.

The amount is credited to the 170 individual boys, who have enjoyed the benefits of the summer outing, and will be paid to them, less a small charge for camp expenses. The money is used for the boys for clothing, dentistry and in useful channels. Many put part in the bank and nearly all will subscribe for magazines on their return to the city.

Not all of this money is taken out of the county, however, as might be thought, as the expenses of maintaining the camp each year are heavy. About $2500 has been expended for supplies in the local markets at Sebastopol, Petaluma and Santa Rosa, it being the policy of Mr. Turner, the superintendent, to favor local dealers whenever he can do so without detriment to the society; $1500 has been paid out in salaries through a Sebastopol bank, a portion of which is spent right here and over $200 has been spent in local travel on the electric line.

More and more are the boys being recognized as a real help in handling the berry and fruit crop, and their reputation for thorough work is well established. When a berry patch is picked by the boys, the grower can depend on having it picked from start to finish at a uniform rate. With the growth of the work and the increased number of boys cared for each year, a larger amount of work is possible.

Originally only the berries on the Barlow ranch were picked, but now the society is in a position to handle the crops on 100 acres of blackberries, and arrangements are now being made for next year’s picking by several who have heretofore depended on Japanese help, or any who came along.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 11, 1908

On Witness Stand in Justice Court Frank Silva Freely Tells of His Escapade

Frank Silva, the youth who escaped from St. Vincent’s Orphanage on more than one occasion, will be sent to the Preston School of Industry at Ione, and will there be given another chance to make a man of himself. He recently stole a horse and buggy from a Petaluma man, was captured and brought here. He was given an examination before Justice Atchinson yesterday, and was held over to the higher court. He told his story frankly and admitted everything. This lad has been give a number of chances, and it is hoped that when he goes to school he will make good.

– Press Democrat, August 22, 1908


Two of the boy inmates of the Home for the Feeble Minded at Eldridge escaped from the institution on Monday. The lads were named Holley and Boem, and made a rope of their blankets by knotting the corners together and letting themselves from the dormitory window. As soon as the escape was discovered the attendants at the Home started a search and the sheriff’s office was notified. It is believe that the boys are in hiding on the farm of the home, and will be found in the woods there. This is the third effort of young Boem to gain his liberty from the place.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 13, 1908

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National news stories are off-topic here, but that 1905 Press Democrat headline, “Dr. Brown Would Drown the Idiots”, is irresistible, and also lends the opportunity to briefly discuss Sonoma County’s shameful role in the 20th century eugenics movement.

Like many other states, California had an institution for children that were diagnosed as “feeble-minded” (more about that offensive term below). Founded in 1883 by a pair of civic-minded women, the facility shuffled between four South Bay and East Bay towns until the state agreed to buy a ranch near Glen Ellen. With a band playing a cheery tune at the train stop, the first 148 children arrived in 1891 at what was then called The California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children. By 1904, the Home had 541 “inmates” and a staff of 70, making it the largest employer in the county. The state was also pouring money into the institution to expand it rapidly. (More on the history of the institution proper can be found in a November 19, 2000 Gaye LeBaron column available by searching the Press Democrat web site archives. The Home is still often referred to interchangeably as “Eldridge,” which was the name given to the train stop.)

“It was with the idea of providing a home for the purely custodial cases as well as undertaking the training and development of the epileptic feeble-minded that the management in the past ventured its memorable struggle…from its former inadequate quarters to the present unrivaled location,” the PD noted in a 1904 promotional insert that contained a full page on the Home, partially seen at right. But wait — read that section again: why the mention of the epileptic feeble-minded?” That’s because, according to a 1904 Census Bureau report, (PDF) about 18 percent of those institutionalized as feeble-minded were actually epileptic — by far the largest category of those considered “physically defective.”

Jack London visited the Home (which was adjacent to his ranch) in the summer of 1905, later writing a short story, “Told In the Drooling Ward.” Written from the viewpoint of a “high-grade feeb” (who sounds more like a cousin to Huck Finn), the story follows the attempted escape from the institution by two boys with epilepsy. London’s character described the world of the “epilecs” at the Home:

“You see that house up there through the trees. The high-grade epilecs all live in it by themselves. They’re stuck up because they ain’t just ordinary feebs. They call it the club house, and they say they’re just as good as anybody outside, only they’re sick. I don’t like them much. They laugh at me, when they ain’t busy throwing fits. But I don’t care. I never have to be scared about falling down and busting my head. Sometimes they run around in circles trying to find a place to sit down quick, only they don’t. Low-grade epilecs are disgusting, and high-grade epilecs put on airs. I’m glad I ain’t an epilec. There ain’t anything to them. They just talk big, that’s all.”

“Club house” or no, these children with epilepsy were still captives, warehoused until age 18 as “feeble-minded” alongside others with severe cognitive disabilities, such as microcephaly. What “training” they were given at the Glen Ellen facility is not apparent; photos from a few years later show inmates tending crops in fields surrounding the grounds. Contemporary pictures of East Coast institutions show girls sewing or doing needlepoint, and boys working in tailoring or leatherwork.

The children also may have faced a greater risk of harm from the institution itself than their disability. The late Victorian era believed that there was a dangerous form of epilepsy — search Google books for “epileptic insanity” and you’ll find it discussed in hundreds of articles and book chapters in medical literature between the 1880s and the 1920s. Although there was no scientific proof that epileptic insanity was an actual physiological disorder, some authors at the time confidently reported that it accounted for 10-30 percent of all epilepsy cases. Some also claimed that everyone with epilepsy was, by definition, mentally unstable; a 1883 text on insanity stated, “There are those who, as soon as they find the slightest indications of epilepsy in the person under investigation, instantly jump at the conclusion that, ergo, that subject cannot be of sound mind.”

(Although their definition of epileptic insanity was fuzzy, it didn’t stop doctors from prescribing specific medical treatment: A 1917 medical text says epileptic insanity attacks can be treated with a regular enema cocktail of chloral hydrate, tincture of cannabis and digitalis, although “use of opium for a long period has been known to break up recurrent maniacal attacks.” Well, I should think so.)

Not only was their notion of “epileptic insanity” mistaken, but also was their certainty of precise underlying causes of epilepsy. According to our best science in 2008, about 100 diseases and conditions are thought to have possible links, but we admit today that no certain cause is discovered in 7 out of 10 cases. But a 1902 Clinical Psychiatry textbook noted “genuine epilepsy” was linked to unknown anatomical changes in the brain most of the time — with the insanity form, however, “defective heredity” was diagnosed as the cause in most cases. Such certainty that “defective heredity” caused a non-existent disorder was an early step down the very dark road of eugenics.

Eugenics was a popular debate topic in the 1890s and first years of the Twentieth Century. America’s leading popular scientist, Santa Rosa’s own Luther Burbank, contributed a widely-reprinted 1906 treatise, “The Training of the Human Plant.” To Burbank, “mingling of races” was healthy, but he thought it was a “crime against the state” if “degenerates” had children:

“Suppose we blend together two poisonous plants and make a third even more virulent, a vegetable degenerate, and set their evil descendants adrift to multiply over the earth, are we not distinct foes to the race? What, then, are we not distinct foes to the race? What, then, shall we say of two people of absolutely defined physical impairment who are allowed to marry and rear children? It is a crime against the state and every individual in the state. And if these physically degenerate are also morally degenerate, the crime becomes all the more appalling.”

The truly appalling thing was Burbank’s flawed humans-as-plants metaphor. Aside from implying that some people are no better than weeds, he lost what scientific authority he had in this essay by sweeping “moral degenerate[s]” into his definition of “absolutely defined physical impairment.” As with his poorly-reasoned “kinetic universe” theory (see earlier post), Burbank didn’t seem aware that he was spoiling the stew by tossing a dollop of pseudoscience into his pot.

To his credit, Burbank stopped short of linking “moral degeneracy” to heredity. But in the years that followed, there was no shortage of medical experts who sought to blame criminality and other anti-social behavior on impaired brains or bad genes. A 1916 Boston Medical and Surgical Journal article reported that one examining doctor found 1 in 3 delinquents were feeble-minded. The author followed with a sweeping generalization that “every person who is called a criminal is now thought to have some mental variation from the normal.” Nor were epileptics exempt from this thinking. A 1918 study, “American Social Problems,” went even further: “Many feeble-minded, however, are also epileptic, and epilepsy is a common trait of criminals.”

Down the slippery slope of eugenics we tumble; if criminals usually had epilepsy (not true, of course), were epileptics usually criminals? If someone in authority, such as the 1916 “Special Investigator” for Massachusetts State Board of Insanity wrote in the article above that all criminals had some sort of mental disorder, wasn’t having a brain impairment suspect behavior in itself?

The stigma of once being labeled (or suspected) of feeble-mindedness also carried the risk of incarceration at a state hospital. The Insanity Board investigator — surely with the best of intentions of separating the disabled from the population of hardened criminals — believed that cops and other law-enforcement officials could be trusted to pick out the feeble-minded and send them to an institution without court hearings:

My belief is that the first mental examinations should be made by probation officers, judges and police officers…I think that an examination several hours long is not feasible or necessary. I think that a good history of the life, brief and easy to get from every man arrested, obtained before sentence, would in the majority of cases enable a non-medical man to separate out most of the insane and feeble-minded.

Those sent to the Sonoma State Home (the new name for the institution, as of 1909) possibly faced harsher punishment than a regular convict. A just-passed state law allowed for the “asexualization… [of] any person who has been lawfully committed to any state hospital for the insane, or who has been an inmate of the Sonoma State Home, and who is afflicted with hereditary insanity or incurable chronic mania or dementia.”

To be clear: The California law was authorizing forced sterilization of any inmate — and with no more review than a signature from two health board members. As the years progressed, they must have suffered writer’s cramp.

Although many other states followed suit before WWI, California was by far the most active. A 1922 study found 4 out of 5 forced sterilizations nationwide were performed in the state, with the justification being “mainly eugenic, also for the physical, mental or moral benefit of inmate, also partly punitive in certain cases.” Women usually had their tubes tied, and men were given vasectomies; but about 5% of the time, doctors performed hysterectomies or castrations.

(For details on sterilization in all states in this era, see the Carnegie Institution’s survey: “Eugenical Sterilization in the United States.” The Carnegie Institution — which, incidentally, was Luther Burbank’s patron for a few years at this time — actively promoted race-cleansing eugenics projects in the U.S. that were later studied approvingly by the Nazis, including a proposal for locally-operated gas chambers.)

Until 1918, sterilization was rare at Eldridge, with only 12 inmates forced to undergo the operation. But under new superintendent Dr. Fred O. Butler, it became virtually a factory operation, with about 5,400 sterilized between then and 1949, a thousand of the procedures performed by Dr. Butler himself. “We are not sterilizing, in my opinion, fast enough,” he said.

In examining admittance records from Butler’s tenure for her book, “Building a Better Race,” scholar Wendy Kline found there was also a marked shift in the types of patients arriving at the Home: “…a large proportion of Sonoma’s activities had nothing to do with the problem of mental deficiency and much to do with the problem of female sexuality.” Kline cited a 1926 study of the Sonoma Home that reported almost half of the women were there because they were classified as sexually delinquent, with notes in their records that they were “passionate,” “immoral,” “promiscuous,” or similar. The study found only 3 percent of the women were accused of actual crimes, such as prostitution. Male patients, however, were never found to have “sex delinquency;” most were adolescents sent to Eldridge for sterilization by their families because they were “masturbators” or “passive sodomists.”

Like all eugenics true-believers, Butler and his staff always sought evidence of physical deformity to “prove” their crackpot theories. Wrote Kline:

Doctors took note not only of patients’ sexual behavior but also of the sexual organs themselves. For example, of the eighty-two women admitted to Sonoma between January 1918 and August 1919 who were sterilized, forty-one, of 50 percent, were also noted for their “abnormal” genitals. Twenty-two of these patients were singled out specifically for enlarged genitals — the clitoris, vaginal wall, or labia — additional evidence (in the opinions of institutional physicians) of sexual deviance…and underscored the assumption that feeble-minded women were indeed “oversexed.”

The valuable chapter in Kline’s book aside, very little is written about Dr. Butler’s house of eugenic horrors. What happened there certainly wasn’t a secret; Butler was a prolific writer. And nothing is available (at least, nothing that I’ve found) about Sonoma County’s views on the doings behind the walls at the Home, which continued through WWII and after, even as Germans were being rightly condemned for the same practices. This is fertile ground for an American History grad student seeking a thesis topic.

As for our theme item about Dr. Brown and the idiots, not much else is known; several newspapers around the country printed a small item like this, also usually quoting a quip from the Richmond Times-Dispatch: If we were to drown all the idiots like rats, “some states would soon be mighty hard up for legislators.”

Special Dispatch to Press Democrat

New York, Jan. 28 — Dr. Brown of the Board of Health created a sensation while speaking of the proposed new system of education for the backward scholars when he declared that idiots should be drowned. He argued that there was no time these days to spend on children that were deficient in mental powers and said that as there was no hope for idots [sic] their lives should be extinguished.

– Press Democrat, January 29, 1905

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