fhiddengraves

HIDDEN GRAVES

It was 1:15 in the morning when Dr. Phillips’ phone rang at his home in Petaluma. As he was Sonoma County Coroner, this was not terribly unusual; people inconveniently die at all hours. It’s the coroner’s job to investigate when there are unusual circumstances and the good doctor was certainly kept busy in late 1920 looking into odd deaths – in the previous few weeks four people were killed when their car or truck was hit by a train and a seven year-old boy was decapitated in an accident at the fairgrounds. But Phillips had never received a call like this one: He was told there were three men hanging from a tree in the old Santa Rosa cemetery and nobody knew who killed them.


THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID
Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa

BAD TO THE BONE
THE WOLVES OF THANKSGIVING
A FORESHADOW OF TERRIBLE DAYS
FATEFUL KNOCK ON A COTTAGE DOOR
MOB SIEGE OF THE JAIL
96 HOURS TO HANGTOWN
VENGEANCE FOR SUNNY JIM
CONSPIRACIES OF SILENCE
    HIDDEN GRAVES
    A WELL-ORDERED MILITIA

This is a postscript to the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID” and covers one of the conspiracies of silence following the murder of the gangsters: The mystery of what happened to their bodies.

As he drove to Santa Rosa he passed around a dozen cars on the highway headed south, which seemed unusual for that time of night. He unfortunately mentioned this to a Press Democrat reporter when he arrived at the county jail; the newspaper took it as evidence that the lynching party came from San Francisco and most papers in the city chased that angle for days, although it was already pretty clear the vigilantes came from Healdsburg or points north.

Before he left Petaluma, Coroner Phillips phoned Frank Welti, the Deputy Coroner for Santa Rosa and ordered an ambulance to be waiting at the cemetery to transport the bodies. After the dead gangsters were cut down they would be taken to the Welti mortuary at 795 Fourth street, which doubled as the town morgue.

Phillips spent nearly an hour at the jail with the sheriff (probably joined by Welti) prior to heading for the cemetery. This was likely when they all had a very earnest discussion about what might happen next – their jobs were not over just because the gangsters were now dead. “He is in a measure responsible for the safe keeping of the bodies until such time as they are interred,” the San Francisco Call reported after speaking with Phillips. And until the remains were shipped out of the county or securely buried, there was a clear and apparent risk that someone might try to get access to the corpses or even steal them.

Keep in mind this was 1920 and in that era Americans did not shy from all things morbid or gruesome, particularly when it came to dead outlaws. The public snatched up postcards of the lynched gangsters being sold in San Francisco and the fellow who bootleged the photo earned approx. $500 in a couple of days (the equivalent to two months’ wages). As noted earlier, souvenir hunters were cutting off bits of the lynching ropes and ripping bark off the hanging tree, but relics from their actual persons – locks of hair, bits of clothing, blood wiped off skin – would be far more valuable. Should Gentle Reader think our 20th century ancestors were above such barbarity, consider that when Bonnie and Clyde were killed in 1934 people rushed in to do exactly that, even trying to cut off Clyde’s trigger finger and, for some reason, his ear.1

There was also a chance that yahoos might decide a single lynching wasn’t good enough and seek to mutilate the bodies. As they were meeting right after the lynching, the Coroner and Sheriff Boyes might have heard some of the otherwise well-disciplined (and well-armed) vigilantes had to be talked out of shooting up the corpses as they swung at the end of ropes. Considering an angry mob nearly breached the fortress-like county jail a few days earlier, it’s hard to imagine much of a defense could be made if a vengeance-seeking crowd suddenly stormed the Welti funeral parlor.

Around 3AM Phillips and Welti lowered the bodies to the ground and loaded them into the ambulance wagon. It’s doubtful either man caught any further sleep that day; the Coroner’s Inquest was held later that morning and they still needed to suss out the dead gangster’s next-of-kin.

Charles Valento’s mother in San Francisco was quickly found, although the 70 year-old woman was reportedly unaware of her son’s recent infamy. She agreed to claim the body and it was driven to the city before nightfall. The whereabouts of his grave remains unknown.

Finding Terry Fitts’ relatives was likewise easy as he was from Santa Rosa and his two sisters were well known, one of them still living in the area. (When told their brother’s body was to be put on display along with the others they requested his face be covered with a cloth, which Welti did.) Not so simple, however, was settling on where to bury his remains.

Readers of this entire series will recall the Santa Rosa episode began when Fitts Sr. died, leaving the large family home on College Ave. unoccupied and conveniently just at a time when Terry and his criminal companions wanted a hideout from San Francisco police. Poppa – who passed away 31 days before his son was lynched – was buried in the family plot in the Odd Fellows’ cemetery just a short walk from the hangman’s tree.

The sisters wanted Terry interred there as well; no way, said the cemetery. From the Argus-Courier:

It is understood that they sought to have the burial in the Fitts’ family plot in Odd Fellows’ cemetery here, but that the management of the cemetery refused to permit it, claiming that such action was justified by their rules and regulations.

While the sisters were with Welti brainstorming about Plan B, obstacles also arose about what to do with George Boyd’s corpse. The Republican reported, “…it might be shipped to Seattle, where it is understood that Boyd’s mother lives, but word is awaited from that city before final disposition of the body by local authorities. If no claim is made on the body it will be buried in potter’s field [now the Chanate Historic Cemetery -je].”

When he was in the county jail and slowly dying from the gunshot wound, Boyd told reporters his mother lived in Seattle although the address he provided didn’t exist (that might have been a newspaper typo, however). Whether anyone was able to find her or not is unknown, but by the end of the day it was decided Boyd was to be buried here – somewhere.

The next day (Saturday, Dec. 11) there was a quiet funeral service at Welti’s for Terrance Fitts, with only a few attending. And with that, the mystery of what happened to their bodies begins.

The Petaluma Courier reported “the hour and the place of [Fitts’] burial was kept private.” Welti announced both men had been buried but would not say where. But the Press Democrat was told there were no interments in any of the local cemeteries, including potter’s field, and no coffins were shipped from Santa Rosa by train.

And in what seemed like a ruse by a newspaper to trick authorities into revealing what happened to the bodies, the warden of Folsom prison received a letter claiming to be from Boyd’s mother in Australia, inquiring where her son was. The warden wrote back only that he “died in Santa Rosa.”

Interviewed by the San Francisco Call, Phillips made the waters even murkier by saying neither Boyd nor Fitts had been buried to his knowledge. All he would admit was they were still somewhere in the county. The paper added there were rumors around town claiming both bodies were unburied but hidden.

We now know that Coroner Phillips had lied to the reporter. He and mortician Welti – and likely the sheriff and other members of law enforcement – had vowed to keep the locations a secret from the public. The death certificates signed by Phillips on December 13 show they were indeed buried on the 11th in part of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery. The date is confirmed by entries in the funeral home’s receipt book.

Ray Owen, co-author of the new edition of the cemetery’s burial reference book is confident he has found their burying place, or at least the grave of Fitts. There’s even a small discreet grave marker – it’s been hiding in plain sight for a century. (UPDATE: Ray has now published his findings and it can be revealed the gravesite is at Moke 234.)

Now they were buried, why continue the subterfuge? Keep in mind it was the day after the lynching and souvenir hunters were out in force, shredding the hanging tree of bark and stealing grass and pebbles from around its roots. Should it become known that the graves were just a two minute stroll away, you can bet those same people would be adding handfuls of grave dirt to their ghoulish collections.

Also, it would have been impossible to conceal newly-dug graves. In the previous twelve days Sonoma County had endured nearly constant rain, including a torrential downpour 48 hours earlier that left downtown streets impassable. No matter how careful the gravediggers were, they would have left a muddy mess.

Coroner Phillips also had another reason to keep the location secret: He told the Call he wanted to make sure they did not “fall into the hands of some medical college.” His concern wasn’t that the Fitts sisters and Boyd’s mom would sell their cadavers to Stanford Medical School – most likely it would be pseudoscience enthusiasts hiring bodysnatchers.

During that part of the century the dark nonsense of eugenics was given serious consideration by many institutions of higher education (and yes, including Stanford). Today we associate eugenics mostly with racism – Nazi-ish claims that whites (and usually some very specific European flavor) were by birthright the bestest people ever made and everyone else should just give up and admit they were inferior.

But eugenics also leaned heavily on the notion that some were biologically “defective” because of bad genes, neurological disorders (particularly epilepsy) or lower intelligence. Eugenicists believed such people tended to be insane or become criminals and usually needed to be locked up, forcibly sterilized and denied education. There’s more discussion of this (and how our county became a leader in espousing such bullshit) in “SONOMA COUNTY AND EUGENICS.”2

Given their presumption that criminals all had some sort of physical impairment that could be visually seen or measured, the brains (and skulls! don’t forget the skulls!) of hard-core sociopaths like Boyd and Fitts surely would offer “proof” of their crackpot theories.

But is there any evidence that universities and/or medical schools around 1920 were robbing graves in the name of science, pseudo or otherwise? Yes and no.

No, there aren’t any examples (that I can find) of bodysnatchers specifically targeting criminals, but medical schools in Tennessee, Iowa, Virginia, and probably other states were still dependent upon grave robbers to provide cadavers for student dissection. The bodies were usually those of impoverished Blacks.3

Yes, major educational institutions were acquiring bodies, including brains, well into the mid-20th century – a practice not considered illegal because it was Native Americans they were digging up. UC/Berkeley still has the largest collection with the remains of over 8,000 individuals, including entire skeletons. While not done under the banner of eugenics (usually), some of the anthropologists shared the same racist agendas, such as using head measurements to determine the exact degree of a living person’s “Indian-ness.”4

So Coroner Phillips’ worries that Boyd and Fitts might “fall into the hands of some medical college” were probably unfounded, but we can say that only by viewing history with our perfect 20/20 hindsight. How revealing, though, this was a top concern of his at the time.

Phillips said nothing further about the graves and was never confronted about why he kept it secret. He and Welti must have hoped reporters would tire of asking, which they did; by the end of the month the San Francisco newspapers rarely mentioned the lynching except to say it caused the police to beef up security when the other Howard street gangsters went on trial.

A few months later Phillips told the Press Democrat he was contacted by the supposed Australian mother of Boyd. This time she was asking how he had died and not his whereabouts, so perhaps she really was his mom and not a reporter trying to coax out burial details. The PD reported:

Coroner F. H. Phillips has received a letter from Mrs. Elizabeth Barron of Waterloo, Australia, the mother of George Barron, alias Boyd, who was lynched at Santa Rosa in December together with Terry Fitts and Valento, asking whether her son had died from natural causes, violence or accident, and the coroner will reply to the mother that her son died a violent death and will not go into details. He does not relish the task and will make things as easy as possible for the poor mother.

 

1 Artifacts of famous criminals were usually put on display for an admission fee, and such exhibits sometimes included human bodies. Among the grisly attractions touring the country in the 1920s (and for decades afterward) was Elmer McCurdy, a bank robber whose mummified remains were shown as part of a carnival. A different sideshow had the supposed body of John Wilkes Booth, which was once even kidnapped for ransom.
2 The motherlode of material on eugenicist views on criminality can be found at the archive of the American Eugenics Movement.
3 David C. Humphrey, “Dissection and Discrimination: The Social Origins of Cadavers in America, 1760-1915,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 49 (September 1973). (PDF)
4 Robert E. Bieder, “A Brief Historical Survey of the Expropriation of American Indian Remains,” Native American Rights Fund (1990). (PDF)

 

NEXT: A WELL-ORDERED MILITIA

 

Photo of the hangman's tree supposedly taken on December 11, 1920, the same day the gangsters Boyd and Fitts were buried in the same cemetery. The G.A.R. monument is in the foreground. This image has been modified to remove a significant blemish where the original photo was folded in half
Photo of the hangman’s tree supposedly taken on December 11, 1920, the same day the gangsters Boyd and Fitts were buried in the same cemetery. The G.A.R. monument is in the foreground. This image has been modified to remove a significant blemish where the original photo was folded in half

sources
 

GANGSTERS LYNCHED!

[..]

FIRST “TIP” SENT HERE

The first inkling of the lynching came to Santa Rosa by phone from Petaluma just before 11 o’clock. A phone message said it was reported there that the lynching was to take place at 11 o’clock, and asked for information, but at that hour all was quiet on the streets and about the jail. This would seem to reference the report that the party came from San Francisco and may have stopped in Petaluma for something to eat or for gasoline and oil for cars, giving rise to the report.

It is also definitely known by the Petaluma information sent here that there were Healdsburg people in the party.

Further strength is given to the theory that members of the mob were from San Francisco by the report from Coroner Frank H. Phillips, who reported that he met from 15 to 20 automobiles headed south on the highway while he was driving from Petaluma to Santa Rosa to take charge of the bodies of the three men lynched.

[..]

– Press Democrat, December 10 1920
(Complete article is transcribed in chapter seven)

 

15 MACHINES RUSH OFFICERS’ AVENGERS TO SANTA ROSA JAIL
SAN FRANCISCO POLICEMEN IN LYNCH PARTY, IS REPORT

Fifteen automobiles full of San Francisco lynchers went to Santa Rosa to help execute the three Howard street gangsters strung up there early today, according to information developed coincident with the preliminaries of a formal investigation.

The mob that took from the Sonoma County jail the trio of gangsters arrested Sunday after the murder of three peace officers was drawn from a wide area of the north of bay region, as well as San Francisco.

Reports circulated in Sonoma County today that among the members of the mob, all masked, were San Francisco policemen. It was expected that inquiry would be made in San Francisco to determine the basis of this report.

The rumors of San Francisco participation were widespread, and Coroner Frank Phillips of Sonoma County, while on his way from Petaluma to Santa Rosa before dawn, passed a cluster of fifteen cars on their way south.

[..]

– San Francisco Call, December 10 1920

 

City is Quiet Today After Hanging; No Clue to Avengers

[..]

FITTS BURIED
The body of Terrence Fitts was to be buried today in the local cemetery, his sisters having claimed the body on receipt of news of his death. Relatives of the hanged man came to Santa Rosa yesterday and made arrangements for the burial shortly before noon yesterday the body of the Santa Rosa gangster was swathed in a sheet to keep it from the gaze of the thousands of morbid people who formed in long lines to wait their turn to look at the three dead men. This was done at the request of relatives.

BOYD’S BODY HERE
The body of George Boyd, confessed slayer of the three peace officers and accused of ravishing young girls in San Francisco, is being held at the undertaking parlor. It was said today that it might be shipped to Seattle, where it is understood that Boyd’s mother lives, but word is awaited from that city before final disposition of the body by local authorities. If no claim is made on the body it will be buried in potter’s field.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 11 1920

 

VALENTO’S BODY PASSED THROUGH PETALUMA

The body of Charles Valento, one of the men who was lynched yesterday morning at Santa Rosa, passed through this city in an ambulance last night at 5 o’clock en route to San Francisco early in the afternoon. Many people saw the ambulance go quietly through here, but did not know it carried the body of one of the victims of the lynchers.

The body was sent to the mother of the criminal, who is said to be under a physician’s care. She is 70 years of age and is near collapse. She repeatedly calls for her son and moans, “My Boy, what have they done to you.” She had not known he had been in trouble until notified of the death. She then sent Coroner Phillips word that she would take care of the body.

– Petaluma Morning Courier, December 11 1920

 

BODIES OF THREE LYNCH VICTIMS TAKEN AWAY

The bodies of George Boyd and Terry Fitts were removed Saturday from the morgue where they had been since being brought in early Friday morning following the lynching, according to officials late Saturday night, who declined to give any further information relative to their disposal.

Inquiries at the local cemeteries brought the response that the bodies had not been interred in any of them, and it was also said that the bodies were not shipped from Santa Rosa by train on either railroad line here.

No interments took place in the potter’s field during the day, it was announced.

A report current in Santa Rosa during the day, and printed in newspapers published outside of this city, said that the body of Terry Fitts was interred privately, with only a few persons knowing where it was placed. The hour of the burial was kept quiet, and only those who had to be present were there. These people, it is said, intend to keep the details secret.

Announcement was previously made that Charles Valento’s body had been sent to San Francisco, it having been claimed by the dead man’s mother. It is also said that relatives of Fitts intended to claim his body and give it interment.

[..]

– Press Democrat, December 12, 1920

 

FITTS FUNERAL HELD PRIVATE
The funeral of the late Terry Fitts took place yesterday from Welti’s funeral parlors, Santa Rosa, and was attended by a few people. The hour and the place of the burial was kept private. Fitts’ two sisters requested Coroner Phillips to cover the face of their brother in the morgue from the view of the morbid crowd and their wish was heeded.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, December 12, 1920

 

Mystery Of The Burials

SANTA ROSA. Dec. 12. Deputy Coroner Frank Welti created a mild sensation here this morning when he announced that the bodies of Terrance Fitts and Geo. Boyd, who paid the penalty for murder by being hanged by local citizens, had been removed from the morgue and buried.

At the request of relatives and friends of Fitts and Boyd, Welti said, he refused to give out any information as to when the bodies were taken from the morgue or where they were buried.

Inquiry at all the local cemeteries brought the response that neither of the gangsters had been interred there, so the assumption is that burial was held in another city, possibly San Francisco. On Thursday [sic] relatives of Fitts notified the coroner that they would claim his body. It is understood that they sought to have the burial in the Fitts’ family plot in Odd Fellows’ cemetery here, but that the management of the cemetery refused to permit it, claiming that such action was justified by their rules and regulations.

The body of Valento at the request of his aged mother, was taken to San Francisco on Friday and quietly buried in that city.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, December 13, 1920
[A version of this story appeared in the SF Chronicle Dec. 19 under the headline, “BODIES OF TWO THUGS TAKEN FROM MORGUE”]

 

BODIES HAVE NOT BEEN INTERRED

Coroner F. H. Phillips of Sonoma county when flatly cornered by a Call man over the telephone today, finally admitted that the bodies of Boyd and Fitts have not as yet been buried to his knowledge, but he refused to state where they were, further than to admit that they have not been removed from the county.

The coroner stated that he feels that he is in a measure responsible for the safe keeping of the bodies until such time as they are interred and he does not propose to have the bodies the object of morbid curiosity or perhaps fall into the hands of some medical college. Until such time as they are interred, he feels that it is his duty to give out no information on the subject what ever.

There have been various rumors relative to the final disposal of the bodies of the gangsters. That of Fitts it is said was turned over to the relatives but not buried. That of Boyd is still in the hands of the coroner and is safely hidden away somewhere in the county. He therefore refused to give the Call any information on the subject and does not see why it was sought at this time. Both bodies of course have been embalmed. Valento was buried at San Francisco Saturday, privately. — S. F. Call.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, December 17, 1920

 

Son “Died,” Grim Cable to Mother of Boyd, Lynched

Special Dispatch to The Call. SANTA ROSA, Dec. 21. — Mrs. Elizabeth Barron of Sydney. Australia, today was informed by cable from the Folsom authorities that her son, George Barron, alias Boyd, one of the three gangsters lynched here December 10 for the killing of Sheriff James A. Petray and Detectives Miles Jackson and Lester Dorman of San Francisco, had “died in Santa Rosa.”

Not a word of the lynching was sent to the aged woman, who had written to Warden J. J. Smith making inquiries as to the whereabouts of her son. Word to this effect was received by Coroner Frank Phillips.

The ex-convict’s body is still at the morgue here and will now probably be buried in the potter’s field.

– San Francisco Call, December 21 1920

 

BOYD’S MOTHER SEEKS INFORMATION REGARDING SON

Coroner Frank S. Phillips is in receipt of a letter from J. J. Smith, warden of Folsom penitentiary stating that Mrs. Elizabeth Barron, mother of George Boyd, alias Geo. Barron, is making inquiries for the whereabouts of her son. The letter states that the mother has not heard from the son for some time, and that she is anxious to get information regarding his whereabouts. The mother is residing in Australia.

Warden Smith wrote to the mother that he had authoritative information that her son had died at Santa Rosa on December 10, and he requested Coroner Phillips to break the news of her son’s demise as gently as he could to the mother.

– Sebastopol Times, December 24 1920

 

Mother of Man Lynched Asks How He Died

Coroner F. H. Phillips has received a letter from Mrs. Elizabeth Barron of Waterloo, Australia, the mother of George Barron, alias Boyd, who was lynched at Santa Rosa in December together with Terry Fitts and Valento, asking whether her son had died from natural causes, violence or accident, and the coroner will reply to the mother that her son died a violent death and will not go into details. He does not relish the task and will make things as easy as possible for the poor mother.

– Press Democrat, March 19, 1921

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THE DELINQUENT WOMEN OF SONOMA

Dear Valley of the Mooners: The state will soon build a lockup there for morons who are outcast women, which is to say they are really prostitutes. P.S. Most of them will probably have chronic cases of venereal disease. P.P.S. It will be your patriotic duty to cooperate fully to show your support for our troops.

This odd proposition came up during the winter of 1917-1918, as California fully ramped up home front efforts for fighting World War I. Under the so-called “American Plan,” it was decided our draftee soldiers in training camps needed to be protected against booze and sex workers, so the Navy established “dry zones” around Mare Island and other military bases. Liquor could not be sold within this five-mile radius and brothels were likewise closed under military order. President Wilson expanded this further by declaring areas around shipyards, munition factories, and schools with military prep programs to likewise be temptation-free.

As explained in part one, this led to tens of thousands of women accused of prostitution nationwide being swept up in vice raids and held under “quarantine” without due process. For such women of Northern California, the state was proposing to build a secured building at the Sonoma State Home at Eldridge big enough to imprison 300.

Why they pitched the “moron” angle is less clear. In the early 20th century “moron,” “imbecile” and “idiot” were accepted quasi-medical terms (although the methods used to classify people as such were complete and utter bullshit). As the institution near Glen Ellen was still widely known by its old name as the California Home for Feeble-Minded Children, maybe it was thought there would be fewer objections from locals if the women supposedly were of lower than average intelligence.1

There was plenty of local pushback against establishing such a “moron colony” at Eldridge even after the projected number of inmates was reduced by two-thirds. Nonetheless, by the summer of 1918, there were 110 “weak-minded girls and young women” from San Francisco quartered there.2

When the federal government abolished liquor in the Dry Zones, it helped pave the way for passage of Prohibition after the war ended. Similarly, the interest in keeping prostitutes locked up continued unabated – although the excuse was no longer protecting the troops from disease in order to keep men “fit to fight.” As also explained in part one, the new call was to abolish prostitution in California by reforming the women – even if it was against their will (and likely unconstitutional).

The loudest voices calling for enforced reform were the women’s clubs. In April, 1919, they succeeded in having the legislature pass an act establishing the “California Industrial Farm for Women” which was “to establish an institution for the confinement, care, and reformation of delinquent women.” Any court in the state could now commit a women there for six months to five years. But where would this “Industrial Farm” be located? The state only considered two locations – both in the Sonoma Valley.

One possibility was the big chicken ranch of J. K. Bigelow between Glen Ellen and Sonoma (today it’s the Sonoma Golf Club, and the sprawling clubhouse is the “cottage” the Bigelows built in 1910). The other option was the old Buena Vista winery, where Kate Johnson, a philanthropist and noted art collector, had built a 40-room mansion in the 1880s. The state chose Buena Vista and began bringing in women after winning a 1922 test court challenge over a single inmate.

A slightly different version of the colorized postcard shown in “THE MAKING OF A CRAZY CAT LADY.”
From the Bartholomew Park Winery

Battle lines formed. Women-based organizations – the clubs, League of Women Voters, the W. C. T. U. and other temperance groups – enthusiastically supported the “Industrial Farm” (it was also called the “Delinquent Women Home” and every variation in between; here I’ll simply refer to it as the “Home”). On the other side were politicians and bureaucrats (all male, of course) who thought the property could be put to better use, or just objected to the idea of spending taxpayer dollars trying to rehabilitate women of ill repute.

The attack on the Home locally was led by the Sonoma Index-Tribune, grasping at every opportunity to bash the place as a misguided experiment by do-gooders who foolishly believed they could domesticate feral humans. A scrapbook of clippings from the I-T during the 1920s can be found in the museum for the Bartholomew Park Winery (which traces its history back to Haraszthy’s original Buena Vista vineyards) and I am indebted to the winery – as well as the anonymous soul who originally assembled the scrapbook – for sharing that invaluable resource with me.3

The Index-Tribune’s bias was so unfettered we can never be certain how much of what they reported as fact was true – and alas, it was the only newspaper regularly covering doings at the Home. Sometimes the fake news is obvious; the I-T once claimed the monthly cost was $509.59 per inmate, but from later testimony and articles elsewhere we learn it was really in the $80-90 range, and was only that high because of building construction and other start-up costs.

A popular theme in the Sonoma paper was that the women were dangerous, depraved criminals. When the W. C. T. U. proposed incorporating some of the inmates from the women’s ward at San Quentin (almost all women at the prison were in for non-violent crimes, mainly check kiting and forgery), the Index-Tribune played up the “unthinkable” threat they would bring to the community:

…We have had ample opportunity to judge the farm already, and do not hesitate to say that as a penal institution it is a failure, because it is a menace to the community and a nuisance to local officers…to bring 50 San Quentin inmates here, unconfined, without guards and a prison wall, is unthinkable. Surely the people of the surrounding country are to be thought of, despite theorists of the W.C.T.U. Perhaps if these good women knew how the handful already at the farm have acted, they would hesitate to pass their sob-sister resolutions. Perhaps if they were informed that there has been leaks, escapades and communication with companions on the outside, they might understand something of the danger such an institution is in our midst…

That editorial appeared in September 1922, when the Home had been accepting women only about four months and had thirty inmates. The I-T rushed to declare it already a failure, although the only reported trouble had occurred the week before. The paper would still scream about that incident years later, and as with all other damning news from the Index-Tribune, their version should be presumed slanted.

Two women escaped, were caught and returned. They became belligerent and started a riot. The ringleader was arrested, handcuffed (a later rehash would say she was “hog tied”) and taken to the county jail in Santa Rosa. While enroute, “the prisoner, who is a drug fiend, hurled the vilest epithets at the officer.” Deputy Joe Ryan was immediately called back to the Home to arrest another riotous inmate, and the two women were sentenced to 40 days in the Sonoma county jail.

Six months later the Sonoma paper reprinted a Sacramento Bee report about another escape under the headline, “THREE WOMEN’S PRISON MILK MAIDS FLEE”:

…[the] aesthetic atmosphere, created to comfort the women jailed because of commission of the sin that has come down the ages, now includes “lowing herds winding slowly o’er the lea.” At least, a herd of milk cows recently was installed at the home, there to replace a herd of milk goats. Perhaps the break for liberty taken from them was actuated by resentment over the transfer of the lowly but picturesque milk goat for the more impressive bossy. Or mayhaps the duty of parking a cow on the farm and relieving her of her fluid treasure proved more arduous to the three “sisters of sin” than being maid to the goats. This is not officially explained. It is officially admitted, however, that the maids three have gone…Anyway, the first big break has been staged at the prison farm. As far as is known, this is the first break from jail in California by three women.

The Index-Tribune felt compelled to append an editor’s note: “The Bee was misinformed as to this being the first break. There is such a gap between the honor system and discipline at the prison farm that there is a jail break every week.”

As the I-T had not been reporting all those weekly “jail breaks,” the editor was either admitting such events weren’t newsworthy or didn’t happen. Either way, it opens the question: What was really going on at the Home?

Rarely mentioned was that a small hospital was built next door when the Home opened. The original 1919 Act specified that women only could be released “with reasonable safety and benefit to herself and the public at large,” which meant treating – and hopefully, curing – any venereal diseases. As discussed in part one, the best medical protocols in that era involved weeks of painful shots using solutions which had to be prepared under very precise conditions. Thus it’s safe to assume that the hospital’s (20? 30?) beds were filled at any given time.

The Act also called for the inmates to be given “industrial and other training and reformatory help,” but aside from milking those cows – and before that, goats – there was no mention of other work, aside from a later comment in the I-T about them “painting flower boxes and pots,” which could be just gratuitous snark from the editor. Nor was any formal education or training ever mentioned.

Before the place had a single inmate, Superintendent Blanche Morse was interviewed by the Press Democrat. “We are going to give the inmates work to do,” she said, “but we are not going to apply the institutional idea and make them do it to bells and march-time. Each woman will help around the house in some way.” To her and other women’s advocates at the time, the inmates would be transformed once they were lifted out of their abnormal environment. That meant placing these women – who came from San Francisco and other big cities –  in the countryside to learn farm chores along with traditional domestic skills like sewing, laundry and housecleaning in a communal women-only setting.

(RIGHT:) Blanche Morse portrait used in the San Francisco Call 1911-1912

Blanche Morse was the guiding force of the Home from the beginning. When the Home opened she was 52 years old, a former Berkeley librarian, middle school principal, and feminist with a decade of positions in several East Bay and state women’s groups. In 1911 she was a speaker and organizer on the historic suffrage campaign tour to gain the right to vote in California. Her complete lack of any background in penology or social work or administration might seem to make her unqualified to handle the unique problems of the women sentenced to the Home, but she still probably looked like the ideal person to many in 1920 – because of her activism with the Mobilized Women.

The “Mobilized Women’s Army” was a coalition of Bay Area women’s groups that organized in Berkeley just after the U.S. entered WWI in 1917. Its objective was to locally enforce “Americanization,” which was another creepy project of the Wilson Administration akin to the American Plan – but instead of unconstitutionally locking up women accused of moral crimes, Americanization sought to encourage citizens to spy on their foreign-born neighbors and intimidate them into behaving more like “real Americans.”

It was Blanche Morse who organized efforts to compile a list of every single immigrant in the Bay Area via a house-to-house survey – a list which would have been invaluable to the government and industrialists after the war during the “Red Scare” years, when both sought to crush Bolshevism and labor activism dominated by first-generation immigrants.

And just as the American Plan gained more steam once the war was over, the Mobilized Women’s mission became a well-funded program to push cultural assimilation. It was the Mobilized Women’s “American House” in Berkeley that clearly became the model for the learn-by-osmosis rehabilitation efforts at the Delinquent Woman Home at Buena Vista. There foreign-born women were shown American-style houswifery, which, as one scholar put it, meant “in order to be better citizens, immigrant women should learn to dress, shop, cook and clean in new, better, and more ‘American’ ways.”4

It’s unknown whether Morse’s delinquent women similarly adopted “American ways” and became prostitutes no more. That is, if they were prostitutes to begin with; according to the Sacramento Bee, of the 54 inmates there at the end of 1922, only 17 were prostitutes and the rest were addicts/alcoholics. The law gave courts broad leeway to sentence any woman to the Home for having any connection at all with prostitution or merely being considered a “common drunkard.” One woman was reportedly 67 years old, and all were charged with simply vagrancy.5

Much was later made by critics about the 67 year-old; “When do ‘wild women’ cease being wild?” taunted the Index-Tribune, although she could well have been a bordello’s madam – and the law specifically mentioned, “any women…keeping a house of ill fame.” Others would accuse Morse of padding the rolls. A member of the State Board of Control shared with the I-T a letter where he made the unlikely charge that federal prisons were in cahoots with Morse, and wardens were lending her convicts in order to polish up her budget:

…The institution never had many of the class of women for which it was intended, namely prostitutes or street walkers. When criticism arose because the institution was costing about $1100 per capital per year, the superintendent ‘borrowed’ a number of narcotic addicts who were under federal conviction, thinking that by increasing the inmates the per capita rate would be decreased…

Hammered by critics, by the end of 1922 – when the Home had been active only about seven months – a bitter fight was already underway to keep it open for even another year.

The Sacramento Bee came out strongly against it, as did bureaucrats and politicians with influence and oversight responsibilities. Themes emerged: The women should be treated in regular state hospitals or imprisoned; the property should be used for a more deserving cause; if the women’s clubs wanted the Home so badly they should pay for it and make it their charity. On the other side, the state League of Women Voters vowed to fight closure and many women’s clubs demanded the project even needed to be expanded. Some clubs pledged to raise money.

Governor Richardson’s recommendations for its 1923 budget was chopped down to about twenty percent of what he asked, which clearly wasn’t enough to continue operations. Morse went to Sacramento ready to surrender. Then this happened:

Just after Miss Blanche Morse, superintendent of the Sonoma prison farm for Delinquent Women, had finished telling the joint legislative committee holding hearing upon the Richardson budget that she was about to recommend temporary suspension of the institution, word was flashed over the wires telling of the total destruction of the home by fire.

“Sonoma Valley’s beautiful landmark, The Castle, for 40 years nestled against the Buena Vista hills, is today a blackened ruins, for the building, since 1921 used to house women delinquents of the state of California, suddenly broke into flames Monday night at 6:15 and burned to the ground…” read the lede in the Sonoma Index-Tribune on March 17, 1923.

The fire began while the 65 inmates were starting supper and was well underway before a member of the Sebastiani family saw it from their house and called the fire department.

All managers were away that evening with Blanche Morse and the Home’s business manager in Sacramento and the farm manager off duty, leaving only a groundskeeper and attendants to cope with a life-threatening emergency. Everyone sought shelter in the hospital; even though it was made of brick, there must have been fear and panic as the immense building next to them blazed away for three hours. All of their clothing and personal items in their top floor dormitory were lost.

The Sonoma and Boyes Springs fire departments responded. The Index-Tribune wrote, “…When the fire departments arrived they found the farm water supply of little value owing to repairs which were being made to the reservoir, so the Sonoma engine therefore pulled water from a nearby creek. Despite four streams playing on the building it burned like tinder.”

A later view of the mansion at Buena Vista, probably c. 1920. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

The I-T rushed to suggest inmates had set the fire. A few years later the paper fleshed out the rumor in more detail: “It was common talk in Sonoma that an inmate boasted she had set the fire — the last of three conflagrations in the building — had locked the door where the flames were started and thrown the key out of the window…” Today it seems commonly believed that it was indeed arson.

But less than three weeks earlier there had been a major fire because of a “defective flue” (no details were ever provided). So serious was the incident that the Sonoma firemen had to chop several holes in the roof to get it under control. Repairs were ordered and the very day of the big fire, a local contractor was working on the problem flue. It seems far more likely the building was destroyed because a workman accidentally did something (knocked loose creosote buildup?) which caused a chimney fire the next time the fireplace was used.

Although the old mansion was destroyed, the state still owned the land and its valuable hospital. Led by indomitable Mrs. Aaron Schloss – the feminist who almost singlehanded turned California clubwomen into a formidable political bloc – the women’s club organizations immediately began to lobby hard for a new building so the Home could resume its purpose.

The pushback was fierce, critical of not only rebuilding any facility for women at Buena Vista but continuing the project at all. Gilbert B. Daniels, State Board of Control chairman said, “If it is the last thing I do, I’ll oppose that farm. It is a fad.” The director of the State Department of Institutions called it a boondoggle and a failed experiment. And as always, from the Index-Tribune’s columns plentiful sexism oozed: The law only passed originally because legislators were “stampeded by the petticoat brigade” and the only people who wanted the Home to reopen were “women theorists and job chasers.”

But even though the governor wanted to give it funding for another year at least, the California Industrial Farm for Women ceased to exist on June 30, 1923.

Over the next two years many ideas of what to do with the hospital were floated. The Sonoma County Federation of Women’s Clubs wanted it to be a children’s TB sanitarium. A veteran’s home was suggested as well as an orphanage for children of WWI vets run by the American Legion, which was proposed by Jack London’s sister Mrs. Eliza Shepard, state president of the women’s auxiliary. In 1924 it unofficially became sort of an annex of the nearby Sonoma State Home at Eldridge, when they housed 35 epileptic boys at the hospital.

The women’s club movement was split; some moved on to lobby for new female quarters at San Quentin (it was built in 1927).6 But in 1925, there was a last push by some clubwomen to revive a woman-only institution at Buena Vista.

A bill was introduced to construct an actual prison building for a “California Women’s Reformatory.” Housed there would be women felons, drug addicts, and “women committed under the provision of the act establishing the California Industrial Farm for Women.” A group from Sonoma county went to the capitol to lobby against it; some, like Eliza Shepard, thought such a place was a good idea, but just didn’t want it in our county. The party rehashed all the old horror stories about inmates escaping and causing havoc – until a legislator produced a letter from Sonoma City Marshal Albertson “denying that wild women had ever given anyone trouble.”

A test vote easily passed in the Assembly and according to the I-T, “Senators had apparently pledged support to not antagonize ‘the army of women lobbying for this bill’ and hoped the governor would veto it.” He obliged, and that was that.

Whatever anyone’s opinion of the Home’s purpose, its ending was tragic, particularly the terrible loss of that building, which was the largest and most palatial home ever built in Sonoma county. It’s also a shame we don’t know what really went on there, except through the spittle-flecked pages of the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Blanche Morse was required to keep detailed reports on all the inmates, so there are probably reams of data in the state archives. Maybe there’s a grad student out there looking for an interesting thesis topic.

Morse certainly thought it was successful; during her testimony on the day of the fire she said, “so far 60 per cent of those who had been freed had made good in the occupations to which they were sent.”

“…I believe that if a 15 per cent average of those who make good can be maintained in the future we will be doing extremely well…I do not think it reasonable to expect a woman who has lived the life of the streets for twenty years to completely reform in one year.”

For the 65 women who were at the Home following the big fire, however, there would be only incarceration – and worse. Before winding up this dismal coda to our story, remember the women were sent there for up to five years only on the fuzzy charge of vagrancy after having been denied their basic constitutional rights. Nor had a county “lunacy commission” been convened to determine whether any of them were mentally unfit.

As they couldn’t remain confined in the small hospital for long, the plan was to gradually resettle them at Eldridge. Two days after the disaster, four of the inmates sent there escaped and had to be recaptured by long-suffering Deputy Ryan. The same day he was called to the hospital, where the women were said (by the Index-Tribune) to be rioting. Five of them were carted to the Napa State Hospital. A five year commitment to an asylum would be no fun, but it was the women taken to Eldridge who most deserve pity.

By 1923, the Sonoma State Home had become virtually a factory operation of forced sterilization under superintendent Dr. Fred O. Butler, a firm believer in eugenics (see, “SONOMA COUNTY AND EUGENICS“). Between 1919 and 1949 about 5,400 were sterilized there – “We are not sterilizing, in my opinion, fast enough,” Butler said. And in his early years there was also a marked shift in the types of patients arriving at Eldridge: Instead of the “feeble-minded children” of the old days, a large proportion of the inmates were now female “sexual delinquents.”7

Just as the legislature in 1919 gave the state broad powers over delinquent women, they also authorized forced sterilization of inmates, including any “recidivist has been twice convicted for sexual offenses, or three times for any other crime in any state or country” (emphasis mine). A later amendment extended it to include, “…those suffering from perversion or marked departures from normal mentality, or from diseases of a syphilitic nature.” In other words, there can be no doubt that all of the Buena Vista women were sterilized – the only question is whether Butler also performed some of the other horrific experimental genital surgeries which were described in part one.

There’s never been a book written about the Home, or even an article (well, until now). Was it was successful rehab program far ahead of its time or just a misguided social experiment by do-gooders? Or something in between?

What’s certain, however, is it ended up badly for almost all of the women. Picked off the streets on some misdemeanor – soliciting, drunkenness, homelessness – they expected a fine and a few days in county jail. Instead they were sent to state prison (albeit a beautiful prison) indefinitely. And then after a few weeks or months a few found themselves confined to the madhouse, while most of them discovered the punishment for their minor crimes would be going under Dr. Butler’s eager knives.

 

1 This era was the start of America’s faith that an “IQ test” objectively measured intelligence with scientific precision, although we now recognize the exam was filled with cultural and racial bias – see my discussion here. Using such quack methodology, a 1917 study by the San Francisco Dept. of Health claimed about 2 out of 3 prostitutes examined were “feeble-minded” or “borderline.”

2 Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom by Wendy Kline; University of California Press 2005, pg. 47. Although I could find no newspaper articles mentioning the 110 women arrived, Kline is the authority on Eldridge for that era and had access to the institution’s records.

3 Sonoma Index-Tribune clippings in the scrapbook sometimes were reprints of articles from the Sacramento Bee and Bay Area newspapers, but all clips are consistently negative about the Home. An op/ed in the January 13, 1923 I-T suggests the other regional newspaper, the Sonoma Valley Expositor, was in support of the Home, but nothing from that paper was included in the scrapbook. Scattered issues of the Expositor from the early 1920s only can be found at the state library in Sacramento.

4 Gender and the Business of Americanization: A Study of the Mobilized Women of Berkeley by Rana Razek; Ex Post Facto/SFSU; 2013 (PDF)

5 From the March 17, 1923 Sonoma Index-Tribune: “Senator Walter McDonald of San Francisco declared that he did not believe the women were being treated fairly in that they can be sentence to the home for a term not to exceed five years, while men charged with vagrancy, the charge under which all commitments have been made to the home, can receive only six months in the county jails of the state.”

6 A Germ of Goodness: The California State Prison System, 1851-1944 by Shelley Bookspan, University of Nebraska Press, 1991; pg. 81

7 op. cit. Building a Better Race, pg. 54

Collage of Sonoma Index-Tribune headlines, 1922-1925

 

 

MANAGERS ASKED TO COOPERATE
Would Establish an Institution for High Grade Morons at the Estate of the Sonoma State Home.

Representatives of the Probation Committee of San Francisco appeared before the board of managers of the Sonoma State Home at their meeting at Eldridge on Wednesday and asked the board for co-operation in the providing of cottages and a place for about three hundred delinquent women from the bay cities. They belong to a class designated as morons.

This step is said to be in the nature of an emergency measure on account of the unusual conditions that have arisen incident to the health protection of soldiers in camp in and around San Francisco. But long before the recent conditions that have arisen this matters was discussed at Eldridge.

The board of managers took no definite action in the premises other than promising whatever co-operation th«y could give. The delegation appearing before the board of managers wanted cottages built on the home grounds in some suitable location. There is no fund available for such buildings in the hands of the state at the present time and even though there was an available fund it is doubtful if the home estate is the proper place for an additional institution as that suggested.

– Press Democrat, November 16 1917

 

MUCH BUILDING AT STATE HOME
New Cottages for Female Delinquents to Be Rushed to Completion at an Early Date: New Laundry Building and Bakeshop Are Also to Be Built Right Away.

The Sonoma State Home at Eldridge will be the scene of much building for several months for there are a large cottage and the new laundry and the bake shop to he erected.

Work on the new cottage, which will house one hundred, has been commenced and it will be rushed to completion. As stated it will be used, for the present at any rate, as a moron colony, to which young women delinquents, will be committed from San Francisco and the other big centers. The matter was explained in these columns several days ago. From Manager Rolfe L. Thompson it was learned Wednesday that the work ot this building is to be rushed to completion right away.

The board of managers on Wednesday selected the sites for the laundry building and the bake shop. The two latter buildings will supply a long felt need at the home. They are very necessary buildings.

The State Board of Control has placed Business Manager William T Suttenfleld in charge of the construction work on the buildings. He is a splendidly capable man and is always so busy working for the interests of the institution and the state that one more little burden makes little difference to him. “Bill” has been at the Sonoma State Home for almost a score of years.

– Press Democrat, March 14 1918


OPPOSITION TO MORON COLONY
Many People in Sonoma Valley and the Town Object to Having the Colony Located With the Sonoma State Home for the Feeble Minded.

The people of the Sonoma valley and the old Mission Town of Sonoma are not taking very kindly to the idea of locating the “Moron Colony” at the Sonoma State Home for the Feeble Minded. Many protests are being heard and it is likely that a largely signed petition will be presented to the authorities, asking that the plan be not carried out.

In last Saturday’s Sonoma “Index-Tribune,” editorially, there was a strong protest against the additional institution being located in the Sonoma valley.

As stated in the Press Democrat some days ago the board of managers literally had the location of the colony at the home thrust upon them is an emergency measure, backed by the state and national administration, it was said.

There is considerable objection to having the moron colony established in connection with the feeble minded home, in addition to having it in the valley at all. The late medical superintendent. Dr. William J. G. Dawson, was bitterly opposed to having an institution for the care of socially outcast young women at Eldridge and shortly before his death again expressed his views.

There is said to be one ray of hope for the objectors and that is the one cottage that is to be built will only provide temporary relief for a very few of the young women who are to be removed from the big centres, particularly from the borders of army cantonments, as one building will afford only little room for conditions that are said to exist. It is knowm that the board of managers were reluctant to take in the new institution the grounds of the home, even as an emergency measure, but the showing made by the state authorities was so strong as a necessary war emergency measure that they withdrew their opposition.

– Press Democrat, March 19 1918

 

OBJECT TO LOCATION OF STATE HOME

The Sonoma Valley is still seething in protest against the establishment of the home for moron women and girls at Eldridge. Dr. A. M. Thompson, president of the commerce chamber, voices his protest in the following words:

“My protest not only goes against the location of the new institution in the Sonoma Valley, but particularly having it at the home for the feeble-minded. The late Dr. Dawson, the medical superintendent for many years, held the same views as I do–that the feeble-minded home had its problems to take care of without having any new ones.”

– Petaluma Courier, March 22, 1918

 

MAKES PLEA FOR FEEBLEMINDED
Senator Slater Leads Opposition to Proposed New Penal Institution or Farm For Delinquent Women and Urges More Room for Unfortunates

“Before we take on a horde of other dependents I believe the State should take care of those who are already dependent and must and should have attention first.” said Senator Slater before the Finance and Ways and Means Committee last night, when the proposed new penal institution or farm for delinquent women was discussed.

“At the Sonoma State Home for the Feeble Minded we have a waiting list of 447, and many of these cases are deserving in the fullest sense. In fact many of them heart-breaking in their need right now. Take the $250,000 you are asking for this women’s farm vision and build more cottages to house the dependents waiting, and who have been waiting for years to get the help and protection the State should offer.

“If the finances were available the new project, over which I have no quarrel as to its probable good, might be considered. But the State must stop somewhere when we are at our wits ends over taxes and finances, and particularly when we have hundreds of feeble-minded and other dependents who are crying for aid. Let’s care for these first. That is my idea, and I am sincere in my expression on this subject,” said Slater. Senators Ingram. Sharkey and others, and Assemblymen Salahnn. Stanley Brown, Stevens,. Madison and others agreed with Slater.

– Press Democrat, March 2 1919

 

Club Women From Various Parts Of County Assemble At Interesting Petaluma Session

The other speakers from abroad were Miss Blanche Morse of Berkeley, former corresponding secretary of the State Federation, and at present executive secretary of the State Industrial Farm Commission…Miss Morse, who will be the superintendent of the Industrial Farm which is to be situated in this county at “The Castle” the Kate Johnson estate near Sonoma, told of the needs for the home and the plans of the commission in reference to it. She met the objections raised in connection with the project and asked the cooperation or at least the interest of the Sonoma county women in the scheme when once it is under way.

– Press Democrat, October 3, 1920

 

S. F. POLICE HEAD AT NEW STATE HOME
Industrial Farm For Women, Near Sonoma, Not to Be Like a Prison; There Will Be No Bars.

The following article about the new industrial farm for women located near Sonoma appeared in Monday’s San Francisco Bulletin. It was written by Dolores Waldorf:

A prison that is not a prison, a jail without bars, an institution that spurns the stigma of the name, stands in the hills of Sonoma county today, waiting for its first inmate. It is to be known as the California industrial farm for women, a place where delinquent women over 18 years of age may make a fight to regain a normal view of life and where they may prepare themselves to face the world after their term ha* been served. The sentences will vary from six months to five years.

The house and surroundings were inspected Saturday hy Police Judges Sylvain Lazarus and Lile T. Jacks, Chief of Police Daniel O’Brlen and Captain of Detectives Duncan Matheson. They expressed their approval in emphatic terms and seemed to think that it offered the solution to one of the greatest problems before the criminal courts today.

In 1919 the legislature passed a bill providing for such a place and appropriated $150,000 to start work. Nothing could be done until the board was chosen, however. and in 1920 the governor appointed…

680 ACRES IN FARM

Since then men have been steady at work carrying out the plans. The Kate Johnson home, two miles east of Sonoma was purchased for $50,000. This included 680 acres of land mostly under cultivation. The house itself is a huge, rambling mansion with spacious rooms and great hallways. Though the whole place has been completely renovated new plumbing installed and modern conveniences added in the laundry, there is an air of ancient and settled serenity about it. The house will accommodate about seventy women.

Captain of Detectives Duncan Matheson, who attended to the purchasing and remodeling of the home, said of it during the inspection Saturday: “In choosing, a place, we had to think of two things Isolation and cheerfulness. Who couldn’t he cheerful with these hills around them?”

Miss Blanche Morse, recently ot Berkeley, and an active worker in all suffrage and reform movements, has been appointed superintendent of the farm.

SANS THE LOCKSTEP

“We are going to give the inmates work to do,” she said, “but we are not going to apply the institutional idea and make them do it to bells and march-time. Each woman will help around the house in some way.” Miss Jessie Wheelan of the Southern California hospital for the insane, is to have charge ot the indoor work.

– Press Democrat, December 20, 1921

 

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THE MEASUREMENT OF THE BARLOW BOYS

Like robins in spring, the return of the Barlow boys to the Sebastopol work camps announced the arrival of summer.

(Handwritten caption on photo: “A squad goes to a near by farm to pick berries.” Photo early 1910s and courtesy Western Sonoma County Historical Society)

In the early Twentieth Century, California juvenile courts sentenced boys who committed minor crimes or deemed incorrigible to spend the rest of their youth at institutions not unlike a modern prison halfway house. One of these places, the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society of San Francisco, struck a deal with the Barlow family of Sebastopol; during summers the boys would camp on the ranch and pick berries and fruit for low pay. Soon other farmers wanted in on the sweet deal for ultra-cheap labor and it wasn’t long before the Aid Society and similar institutions were sending up hundred of boys – some as young as seven – to work in West County fields and canneries every year. (For more background, see “SEBASTOPOL’S CHILD LABOR CAMPS.”)

The year 1911 wasn’t much different than previous years; at least four boys tried to escape and a pair of them made it as far as Sacramento – no easy task, considering their clothes were locked up at night and they probably had little or no money. The Santa Rosa newspapers predictably described the Aid Society children as being on “vacation” during their time here and boasted they were earning “splendid wages,” without mentioning they were being paid a fraction of the rate formerly earned by the adult farmworkers they were displacing.

Some new details did emerge however; we learn the Barlow boys were sometimes working over eleven hours a day in the fields, which certainly puts a crimp in the ol’ “vacation” portrayal. Thanks to a Press Democrat summary of the Aid Society’s annual report, we find more than a dozen of the boys escaped or tried to escape from their facility in San Francisco during the year, so it wasn’t just that they disliked their hands and arms being incessantly scratched by thorns all summer. The Aid Society placed employment above education and about two in three of the kids had a job, which suggests the Barlow boys were the leftovers, either too young to work or unemployable for some reason. Although they said “night classes are conducted for the benefit of these working boys and every boy is given an opportunity to improve his education,” I’m certain a 12 year-old who spends all day sweeping factory floors is raring to be drilled on his multiplication tables after supper.

We don’t know much about the boys individually except for the occasional anecdote, such as the two Santa Rosa kids who were sentenced there for truancy and stealing chickens in 1907. But we do know some interesting stuff about them as a group because a medical journal published a 1916 study of the “juvenile delinquents” at the Aid Society. We learn they were mostly a little taller and heavier and stronger than average for their age, with over half suffering dental problems – which is really no surprise as the kids were expected to pay for their own dentistry out of their earnings (clothing, too). .

Measuring their physical traits is all well and good, but what the researchers really wanted to know was this: How smart were they? Linking criminality to low intelligence was one of the burning scientific questions of the day, and most of the boys were sentenced to the Aid Society for minor crimes – stealing, burglary, truancy and incorrigibility (children who committed serious crimes went to the Preston School of Industry at Ione, which was like a prison). To make sense of what they found, we have to first wade into the murky waters of the “IQ” test.


How do you estimate intelligence? At the turn of the century, you primarily measured the size and shape of someone’s head; a pretty skull meant there were probably pretty brains inside, and a noggin that was small or shaped the “wrong” way meant the person wasn’t too bright and probably wanted to steal your watch. There were other considerations (tattoos! long arms! “precocious” wrinkles!) but all came down to the nonsense that you could tell how smart, dumb, or inclined to criminality someone was by looking at their body.

French psychologist Alfred Binet was among a few pioneers in his field experimenting with a radical new approach: Evaluating how well someone answered questions and solved problems. In 1904 the French government hired him to develop a test to identify children with learning disabilities so they could be helped with special education. Over the next several years he refined his method with a colleague and the “Binet-Simon Scale” became the standard method of evaluating children, although he never claimed his technique measured intelligence.

Binet’s test was adapted for American use in 1916 by Stanford University professor Lewis Terman, whose main interest was the opposite – using the test to spot “gifted” children. If those kids were given a good education, he believed they would grow up to be captains of industry, statesmen, brilliant scientists and other topnotch achievers. Professor Terman, it seems, was a true believer in the dark nonsense of eugenics with its notion some people are superior to others.

To prove his point, he followed over a thousand high-IQ youths – almost all white and middle class – around for the rest of their lives (Terman called the subjects his “Termites,” yuk, yuk). Ultimately he proved himself wrong; while a great many of them went to college, overall they were no more successful than other American boys and girls in their generation. Only a handful made any sort of notable achievement, but ironically two young men who Terman deemed not smart enough to qualify later won a Nobel Prize in Physics (William Shockley and Luis Alvarez).

Terman’s eugenic views are most obvious when he classified kids at the lower end of the scale. Binet called these children “retarded,” meaning simply they weren’t keeping up with their peers, and besides a lack of intelligence the cause could be family problems, bad teachers, or other reasons that could be fixed. When explaining how his test should be used, he worried that psychologists were too eager to tar these children for life by slapping labels on their backs with vague meanings such as “idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron.” Professor Terman and other eugenicists instead claimed those derogatory terms had scientific precision. Those below an IQ of about 25 he classified as idiots; a ranking of 25-50 was an imbecile; anyone between 50 and 70 was a low, middle, or high moron. Terman believed schooling these “defectives” was a waste of time and taxpayer money, except for vocational training. Possibly.


COULD YOU PASS A 1916 IQ TEST?

Lewis Terman’s first revision of the Binet test can be found in his 1916 book, “The Measurement of Intelligence.” Getting a good IQ score required more than quick wits, however; you also had to share Terman’s prejudices and cultural background. Some examples:

* Shown a drawing of a Native American rowing a white man and woman in a canoe, children were asked to explain the picture. An acceptable answer was, “In frontier days a man and his wife have been captured by the Indians.” An example of an unsatisfactory reply was, “Indians have rescued a couple from a shipwreck.”

* Asked how a “knife blade, a penny and a piece of wire” were alike, acceptable answers included, “All are metal” or “All come from mines.” It was wrong to say “they are small” or all were the same metal. Aside from the problem of assuming knowledge of different types of metal qualifies as a measure of intelligence, this is a poorly designed question. All three objects could be copper; it was regularly used in wire and copper letter openers were made. Also, brass and steel, both commonly used in blades and wire, are alloys and not mined metals.

* “My neighbor has been having queer visitors. First a doctor came to his house, then a lawyer, then a minister (preacher or priest). What do you think happened there?” The only acceptable answer was some variation of “a death.” Of those who failed to answer correctly, over half apparently did not know that attorneys wrote wills or ministers conducted home funerals. Wrong answers also included “a baby born” and “a divorce,” which Terman remarked was a very common reply from children living in Reno, then a destination for people nationwide seeking to end a marriage.

In his book Terman provided several case studies of low-IQ children, and a common thread was the futility of keeping them in school.  A boy of eight was kicked out of kindergarten because his 50 IQ “required so much of the teacher’s time and [he] appeared uneducable.” A boy who just “stands around” and was “indifferent to praise or blame” was enrolled in a sixth-grade class at age 17, but was doing “absolutely nothing” in the classroom. They were also troublemakers, according to Terman: A “high-grade moron” boy “caused much trouble at school by puncturing bicycle tires.” A 14 year-old girl with an IQ of 65 was a “menace to the morals of the school because of her sex interests and lack of self-restraint.” Another young woman he called “the type from which prostitutes often come.”

The problem with eugenics (well, one of the problems) is that it’s built on the worst sort of slippery slope logic. Not only were defectives unteachable, declared Terman, but also prone to crime – a false assumption which still carried over from the days when we were looking at the shape of heads. In his 1916 book on the IQ test he wrote, “not all criminals are feeble-minded, but all feeble-minded are at least potential criminals. That every feeble-minded woman is a potential prostitute would hardly be disputed by any one.”

So did the IQ study of the Aid Society kids prove Terman right? The researchers found “dull normals” – meaning just slightly below average intelligence – were most likely to be there because they were skipping school (interestingly, they were also ten times more likely than any of the others to have bad hearing).

In the other three crime categories – stealing, burglary and incorrigibility – the boys with normal intelligence exceeded or were tied with those classified as being not as smart. More than half of the “normals” were there for stealing or burglary. The researchers also did a limited survey of the Aid Society boys’ backgrounds and it shows the main environmental factors they shared were extreme poverty and bad friends. It completely disproved Terman’s eugenics theories; these bad eggs were mostly average boys who happened to be poor and hung out with the wrong crowd.

Whether Terman read that study is unknown but it is extremely likely, given that it was based on the Binet tests he was then adapting for American use. It certainly didn’t make him waver in his views; as years went on his enthusiasm for eugenics hardened. He began saying some people – including entire nationalities and races – were uniformly inferior. He later wrote, “a median IQ of 80 for Italian, Portuguese, and Mexican school children in the cities of California would be a liberal estimate.”

We also can’t be sure if Terman ever came up from Stanford to visit Sonoma County, but if he did it was surely to meet Dr. Fred O. Butler of the Sonoma State Home (now called the Sonoma Developmental Center). Prof. Terman was an enthusiastic believer that “defectives” should be sterilized so they can’t parent children, and Dr. Butler had turned the hospital into a sterilization mill, leading the nation in performing thousands of such operations. And when eugenicists later classified homosexual boys and promiscuous girls as sexually delinquent defectives, they were forcibly sterilized by Dr. Butler as well (see “SONOMA COUNTY AND EUGENICS” for more).

Today the reputation of Lewis Terman has been largely whitewashed. A recent textbook on multicultural education points out that high school and college texts are likely to describe his genius tracking study and his revision of Binet’s scale but rarely is his eugenics history noted. A Google search for his name in scholarly books and journals shows the word “eugenics” appears in only 1 out of 10 works.

Yet the damage he caused was incalculable. By turning Binet’s method – which wasn’t intended to measure intelligence at all – into a written test with right and wrong answers, Terman made it easy to condemn people who tested poorly as inferiors, which usually leads to lives of lesser opportunities and hopes. He was a bad scientist with regrettable ethics; Terman was on the Advisory Committee of the American Eugenics Society and didn’t resign until after Hitler came to power, so maybe he should be called clueless as well.

The one bright spot in this dismal tale is that in 1916, the Barlow boys proved him completely, utterly wrong about everything. Too bad he wasn’t smart enough to pay attention.

DID GOOD WORK FOR THE BOYS
Accomplishments of the Boys and Girls Aid Society–Boys Are Picking Berries

The annual meeting of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society was held on Tuesday for the purpose of hearing reports of the officers of the Society and electing a Board of Trustees for the ensuing year. In the absence of the president, Senator George C. Perkins, who is in Washington, D. C., the chair was taken by the vice-president, Charles A. Murdock.

The report of the superintendent, George C. Turner, gave the details of the splendid work of the Society for the needy boys of San Francisco and vicinity.

Two hundred and forty-one boys were received into the hands of the Society during the year ending June 30th, and received the benefits of special training and schooling including manual training under the Lloyd system.

The Society is working in conjunction with the juvenile courts and probation officers of this and other counties in the State and has received one hundred and forty boys from the courts.

As the boys improve in their conduct and when they have made satisfactory progress in their school work, they are secured positions through the employment agency maintained by the Society, through which one hundred and fifty-one boys were placed in good positions during the year.

The best qualities of manhood are developed by the care given the boys who are placed on their honor. This is shown by the fact that during last year 5,172 leaves of absence were granted on Sundays with but 13 failures to return–less than ½ of 1%.

For homeless boys the Society maintains the Charles R. Bishop Annex, where boys may board while they are learning trades and until they become self-supporting. These boys have individual rooms not very large, but neat and tasteful and have sitting rooms, library, and the family dining room where excellent meals are served at moderate rates. Night classes are conducted for the benefit of these working boys and every boy is given an opportunity to improve his education.

The younger boys are sent to approved country homes through the Children’s Agency, the Children’s Home Society and the Native Sons and Native Daughters Committee on Homeless Children, who last year placed out fifty-two boys for the Society. Children so placed are permanently removed from the streets of the city and often grow up in their environment.

In addition to the work in San Francisco, the Society maintains a summer camp on the Barlow ranch near Sebastopol, where last year one hundred and sixty-three boys were engaged in picking loganberries and Mammoths and Lawton blackberries, picking one hundred and ninety-four tons of berries and earning in all $3,948, of which the boys received $2,328.39, which was used for clothing and dentistry, and some of it put in the bank.

The summer outing is a great benefit to the boys and a great help to the berry growers, who have learned to depend on the boys for assistance in harvesting their berries.

The officers and trustees for the following year are: […]

– Press Democrat, July 21, 1911
BOYS PICKING MANY BERRIES
Having Great Financial Success in Their Labors

Special Officer W. D. Scott, of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society, came up on the evening train Tuesday with several boys, who were being escorted to the berry fields at the Barlow ranch near Sebastopol.

Two of the boys in charge of Mr. Scott had recently made their escape from the berry fields, having taken French leave at night. They passed through this city and made their way to Sacramento before they wee captured. They were Clarence Johnson and H. Chapman. They enjoyed liberty for four days.

Officer Scott declares the boys in the berry fields are not only having one of the finest vacations they have ever enjoyed, but they are meeting with greater financial success than ever before. One of the boys in camp earned $2.64 in one day during the past week and most of the boys are averaging splendid wages. The berries are ripening rapidly and the lads are laboring until 6 o’clock each evening in the endeavor to relieve the vines of their burden of fruit before it becomes too ripe for shipment.

On a recent evening the books at the camp were examined and it was found that the boys had collectively earned $1800 up to that date in harvesting the berry crop. The harvest will last for some time to come, and it can be readily be seen what a financial benefit the outing of the boys turns out to be. Aside from this it gives the lads one of the best vacations in the country that could be planned for them.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 26, 1911
RUNAWAY BOYS RECAPTURED

Two runaway boys from the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society camp at Mrs. Barlow’s ranch in the Gold Ridge district were taken back to camp by officers of the association Saturday night, after having been caught here by Officer Nick Yeager.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 31, 1911
BOYS EARNED MUCH MONEY
Berry Harvesting Profitable to Large Number

Something of the magnitude of the berry industry in the Gold Ridge section can be ascertained when it is realized that the forces of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society this season earned more than $4600 gathering the crop. The boys were paid four cents per tray for the harvesting of the berries, both Logans and blacks.

The boys went into camp on the Barlow place about June 1st, and finished picking the berries on September 13. Their record this year shows that they have earned one hundred dollars more than on any previous year, the record of $4500 having been made in 1910. This would indicate that the berry crop was slightly larger this year than the previous season.

Two-thirds of this money will be distributed to the boys who earned it, and it will be given them in proportion to the amount earned by each individual boys. With the moneys [sic] given to the boys they have the right to choose what they will do with it, so long as the contemplated expenditure is legitimate. Many of the lads buy clothing, some place the money in bank to draw interest, while still others help their families financially. Most of the boys buy magazines with a portion of their coin.

During the year the boys were engaged in picking for about twenty people while they were in the Gold Ridge section. Their camp at the Barlow ranch was dismantled Friday morning, preparatory for their start for home and Old Glory, which has floated from the flagstaff there daily was hauled down with appropriate ceremonies.

Ninety-five boys were in the merry party which returned to San Francisco on the afternoon train Friday, having had one of the most enjoyable outings on record.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 15, 1911

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