ELECTION 1910: WHY BOTHER TO VOTE?

Flip a coin and vote for either the Democratic or Republican candidates; it doesn’t matter because they’re the same guys.

For the second election in a row, the 1910 Santa Rosa election was fixed – the Democrats and Republicans united to offer a “fusion” ticket with the same slate for mayor and city council. The main difference between that year’s setup and 1908 was that the earlier candidates were “chosen” by a sham vote at local party conventions; in 1910, the nominees were selected by a committee of political party leaders.

Having the winners of the upcoming election already settled in a smoky backroom deal was a bit much, even for Santa Rosa’s go-along lumpenproletariat. There were apparently grumbles, addressed by Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley in a pair of editorials. There was nothing un-democratic at all about the process because the committee’s decisions were “authorized by the central or executive committees of those organizations.” And besides, the nominations were only recommendations:


There is no good reason why there should be any opposition whatever to the non-partisan ticket suggested by the representatives of the three local political organizations as the result of their recent conference…Some people seem inclined to object to the manner in which “the ticket was nominated.” They say a mass meeting should have had a voice in the proceedings and contend that the action of the conference committees savors of “star-chamber” proceedings. But as a matter of fact, no ticket has yet been nominated. All that the conference committees did, after getting together and ascertaining that there was no real difference between the three organizations as to questions of local policy, was to recommend that James R. Edwards be nominated for Mayor, and Messrs. Johnston, Forgett and Pressley be nominated as candidates for councilmen.

       

WAS THE 1910 SANTA ROSA ELECTION ILLEGAL?

Santa Rosa voters in 1910 were presented with a single mainstream candidate for mayor and most of the City Council seats, the nominees picked in a secret meeting by the city’s political bosses. Was that actually legal? It probably was – technically – although a judge might have thought otherwise, had anyone challenged the doings. It certainly violated the spirit of the recently passed elections law which was intended to make the process more democratic, not less so.

“Under the new primary law, conventions and mass meetings are things of the past,” Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley explained to voters who were understandably concerned by the doings. Finley was telling a series of half-truths – or maybe he was just unclear about the law himself. California’s 1909 Direct Primary Election Law was a confusing mess, the result of a pitched legislative fight that ended up creating a law no one liked.

The new primary election law was mainly intended to replace the entire reliance on election-year conventions, where party delegates gathered together to select one nominee from a pool of many candidates – a system that had proven to be easily corrupted by special interests, particularly the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad. The new law allowed every voter to directly choose nominees for his party by ballot. Party conventions were still expected to resolve disputes and settle on candidates when there was no clear primary winner.

But direct primary voting quickly proved as corruptible as the convention system. The political machines had inserted a party loyalty clause that made it all but required for candidates to be party flacks. They also found they could swing elections by having tens of thousands of voters under their control switch to a particular party affiliation in order to nominate a weak candidate, as happened in the 1909 San Francisco mayoral race. These and other loopholes were removed when the direct primary law was greatly revised in 1911, which in turn led to the end of the era when the railroads deftly controlled California politics.

Santa Rosa’s “fusion” ticket, marrying the Democratic and Republican parties together along with the Municipal League was unusual, but not illegal. The law is clear, however, that anyone was able to put their name forward as a nominee in the primary as long as they met partisan requirements, gathered a certain number of signatures and paid a fee, just as today. There is no nonsense in the law about party leaders first “recommending” a bloc of pre-selected nominees to voters. After all, it was called the “Direct Primary Election Law,” not the “Rubber Stamp Election Law.”

In his editorials Finley also praised the selection process for “getting rid of the usual election squabble” that divided the town. “Many a time we have fought and struggled through a two-months’ campaign, engendering feelings that lasted for years,” he wrote. That morning, a loud thunk! was probably heard all over Santa Rosa as jaws hit the ground; it was always Finley who instigated the squabbles, viciously attacking his political foes even after the elections were over. Close to his heart he kept his enemies list, and it seemed written in permanent ink. (See “The Many Wars of Ernest Finley” for background.)

But politics can make for strange bedfellows and besides the Democrats and Republicans making the committee’s decisions that Finley deemed proper and praiseworthy, the third party at the table was the Municipal League – the very political group that Finley had hammered two years earlier as lying troublemakers with a secret agenda. The Municipal League of 1910, however, was not the Municipal League of 1908; the progressive faction that wanted reform – the people who always seemed to make Finley feel most threatened – had mostly split off to form a county chapter of the Lincoln-Roosevelt League that was attempting to elbow its way into the local Republican party. (Much more about that drama later.) Apparently the Municipal League was now mainly the church element that wanted prohibition, which accounts for the “fusion” plank that promised there would be no new saloons and existing liquor laws would be enforced. New hotels and restaurants were exempt, of course, and fat chance on the latter.

Although he lacked a proper foe to demonize in this election, Finley did not retire his cudgel. His target now was the man who had the temerity run against the fusion ticket candidate for mayor: Evariste de Bernardi, an Italian immigrant who had operated a hotel and grocery in Petaluma and now owned the Magnolia Hotel in Santa Rosa. Apparently unwilling to openly attack a Santa Rosa businessman, Finley smeared de Bernardi using an editorial page “humor” column from his alter-ego, “Sleepy Bill.” Written in thick dialect supposed to imitate an old-timer, Sleepy Bill longed for a return of the good ol’ days when Santa Rosa was “wide open” and hoped that he and his sort could elect de Bernardi on the sly. “Bernardi’s a cute one, all right, and if youse blokes don’t tie no handicap to him, he’ll fool de talent and make de trip dead easy.”

The libel against de Bernardi continued with asides that “He’s promised seven or eight fellers to make ’em Street Commissioner,” that he was plotting to bring back prostitution, that he was arrested for backroom gambling and that he gouged customers by jacking up prices after the 1906 earthquake:


De good peeps ain’t fergot as how Bernardi was arrested and fined two or three times fer runnin’ a gambling game in his joint after de shake, or how he soaked de price of beer up to a quarter and coffee to a half, and de boys in blue had to call him down. And if I gets it straight, a lot of folks here already knows how he used to run dat hotel in Petalumy. No sir, we don’t want to do nothin’ that will git any of dem stories started around dis burg just yet.

While the dissolute Sleepy Bill hoped de Bernardi was voted into office “afore anybody drops on to what’s doin,” he still wouldn’t knock the fusion candidate for mayor: “Jimmy Edwards ain’t fer no dry town…Jimmy Edwards is all right, but he don’t trot in my class” (‘live the high life like me,’ probably). And, in fact, candidate James R. Edwards invited no rebuke. Like the previous mayor, James H. Gray, he was by all counts an honest man untouched by scandal, and unlikely to exploit his position as Santa Rosa’s mayor.

James Edwards was the assistant cashier at Exchange Bank and after the 1906 earthquake was treasurer of the Earthquake Relief Fund. It was James who drove his father-in-law, Bertrand Rockwell, to a Petaluma bank immediately after the earthquake, where Rockwell cashed a check needed to pay emergency workers. Edwards later became president of the Luther Burbank Company and honorably resigned when the company became mired in disgrace (not of his doing). And as the obl. Believe It Or Not! item for this article, be astonished that he has two graves! One is in the Santa Rosa Memorial Park Cemetery and the other in the Rural Cemetery. James died in 1932 (age 59) and was buried next to his mother at Rural, but his widow, Florence, lived another thirty years – presumably she requested he be disinterred and reburied at her side in the Memorial Park. But the earlier headstone remained behind at Rural.

Edwards also shared with his predecessor, Gray – also elected as a “fusion” candidate – a lack of any experience or apparent ambition in politics. Finley and the Chamber of Commerce bunch probably wanted them in office not because they were supposed to act upon the behalf of special interests, but because they could be counted upon to head a laissez-faire administration. Neither mayor stepped up to the plate as a leader, although Gray tried to mediate a dispute early in his tenure and ended up putting the city at risk of a lawsuit as a result. Edwards offered little or no leadership in his two years, even staying on the sidelines during the battle over moving the tannery, which pitted most of the citizenry against the town’s largest employer.

On election day, Edwards beat de Bernardi 69 to 31 percent, which seems like a huge win until you consider that de Bernardi won a third of the vote with absolutely no support from any political party. The fusion ticket councilmen also all won, although one of them faced a pair of opponents who together received more votes. The anti-fusion votes may have been only a minority dissenting against the town’s status-quo polity but it was dissent just the same, and a sign that a sizable number of voters were no longer marching to the beat of the same old political drums.

THE POLITICAL POT BOILING
Lion and Lamb to Lie Down Together This Spring

The political pot has begun to boil in Santa Rosa already, and there seems to be a general disposition among the parties to eliminate any contest in the coming municipal election.

With that end in view conferences have recently been held between committees representing the fusionists at the last election and the Municipal Leaguers. Certain matters have been tacitly agreed upon, but other matters are yet in the embryonic state.

A mayorality [sic] candidate has not yet been found and a nominee to succeed Councilman L. W. Burris has not been chosen. Councilman Burris long since announced tht eh would not under any condition accept the nomination again.

In the conferences held, as stated, it has been agreed that the Fusionists shall name the nominee for councilmanic honors from the fourth ward, and it is understood that means the selection of Councilman C. Fred Forgett to succeed himself.

The selection of the nominee for the sixth ward has been left entirely to the Municipal Lague, and it is understood that Councilman Robert L. Johnston, the incumbent, is to be his own successor.

In the fifth ward, from which Councilman Burris retires, there are two candidates in the open, with a dark horse who may yet take the lead. The men who have been mentioned for councilmen in this ward are Henry A. Hoyt, the contractor, and Leslie A. Jordan, the insurance man. If a choice cannot be made between these  men by the committee having the matter in charge, a dark horse is known to be in existence.

Representing the parties in the conferences have been seven men, two Republicans, two Democrats and three Municipal League men.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 17, 1910
FUSION TICKET NOMINATED AT COMMITTEE CONFERENCE
Edwards for Mayor, Johnston, Forgett and Pressley for Council

THE TICKET

For Mayor–James R. Edwards
For Councilman, Third Ward–Robert Lyle Johnston
For Councilman, Fourth Ward–Charles Frederick Forgett
For Councilman, Fifth Ward–Lawrence Adams Pressley

MATTERS AGREED ON FOR THE PLATFORM

We, the representatives of the municipal organizations of the Democratic, Republican and Municipal League parties of the City of Santa Rosa, pledge our candidates for the offices of Mayor and Councilmen to the following platform:

I.

Impartiality and non-partisanship, in the appointment of all city officers, in the employment of labor, the purchase of materials, and the letting of contracts.

II.

That no bawdy-house district, or public prostitution, shall be permitted to exist within the corporate limits of the city.

III.

The regulation of the saloons, and the orderly conduct of of the same; a strict and impartial enforcement of all municipal and state laws with respect to the sale of spiritous, malt, and vinous liquors; the issuance of no new liquor licenses except to bona fide hotels and restaurants, and the reduction of the number of saloons now existing as opportunity will permit, without undue injury to individuals; and in the event of the forfeiture of a license for any cause, no new or other license to be issued in lieu thereof.

– Press Democrat, February 29, 1910

AN ACCEPTABLE TICKET

Much satisfaction is being expressed over the ticket proposed by the conference committee, and there is little question but that it will be heartily endorsed at the polls. Many a time we have fought and struggled through a two-months’ campaign, engendering feelings that lasted for years, only to emerge with a set of officers not nearly so well qualified and not half so acceptable generally. James R. Edwards is a man of high character, fine business ability and sterling worth. He can be depended upon to discharge the duties of Mayor faithfully and well. Messrs. Johnston and Forgett have rendered good service on the City Council, and no mistake will be made in electing them for another term. Lawrence Pressley has occupied numerous positions of responsibility and trust, always acquitting himself with credit. As a member of the City Council he will fully substantiate the confidence that has been placed in him.

– Press Democrat editorial, March 1, 1910


JAMES R. EDWARDS IN AN INTERVIEW
Non-Partisan Nominee for Mayor Outlines Position in Talk With Press Democrat Representative

[..]

“The several matters covered in the platform speak for themselves, and seem fair enough to suit anybody. This nomination came to me entirely unsolicited, and I am bound to no party, individual or set of individuals. If elected, I shall try to serve the interests of all the people. As far as I am able to learn, affairs in the various departments appear to be running along in a satisfactory condition, and as the object of this election seems to be to avoid any undue disturbance. I see no reason at this time why any changes should be necessary among the city’s employees. If I should be elected and later discover that any of the employees of the municipality are not doing their duty or giving the city the proper kind of service, they will have to go, and that is all there is about it. A city, it seems to me, is pretty much like a business concern, and there is no reason why it should not be run along business lines.”

– Press Democrat, March 3, 1910

OPPOSITION ILL-ADVISED

There is no good reason why there should be any opposition whatever to the non-partisan ticket suggested by the representatives of the three local political organizations as the result of their recent conference. The four men recommended for office are all good representative citizens, who can be depended upon to treat all interests with fairness and impartiality; all are well qualified for the positions they have been asked to fill; there  is absoulutely no issue to be fought out; and the best interests of the city demand that the strife and turmoil attending recent municipal elections here be avoided this year if such a thing be possible.

Some people seem inclined to object to the manner in which “the ticket was nominated.” They say a mass meeting should have had a voice in the proceedings and contend that the action of the conference committees savors of “star-chamber” proceedings.

But as a matter of fact, no ticket has yet been nominated. All that the conference committees did, after getting together and ascertaining that there was no real difference between the three organizations as to questions of local policy, was to recommend that James R. Edwards be nominated for Mayor, and Messrs. Johnston, Forgett and Pressley be nominated as candidates for councilmen. The nominations have not yet been made. They are being made now, by petition.

Under the new primary law, conventions and mass meetings are things of the past. And the members of the three committees named to confer regarding the best way to go about handing the election under the new and untried law were all duly accredited representatives of the political organizations for which they acted, and their acts were not only authorized by the central or executive committees of those organizations, but also duly ratified before being made public.

In addition to the facts above set forth, the action of the conference committees has resulted in saving the city the expense of holding a primary election. Less than a couple of hundred electors were registered in time to qualify themselves to vote at the primaries, and the expenses of holding the primary would have been between $1,200 and $1,500.

Taking everything into consideration, it is difficult to understand how any citizen having the welfare of the community at heart can conscientiously oppose the plan that has been suggested for getting rid of the usual election squabble here this year.

– Press Democrat editorial, March 3, 1910

ANNOUNCES CANDIDACY FOR MAYORALTY

E. DeBernardi has announced his candidacy for the office of Mayor. Yesterday he called at this office and handed in the following signed communication with the request that it be published:

Having been requested by a number of prominent business men and citizens of Santa Rosa to become a candidate for Mayor in the next election to be held in our city on the 5th day of April, I come before you after due consideration and ask your support.

I must say that I come before you with free hands, pledged to no machine nor party, making you no promises, nor trying to mislead you. I do not want you to criticize what I am going to do, but what I have done.

My platform will have no planks (especially if rough lumber one may get slivers), no flourishing words, but only three phrases; honesty of purpose, justice to all, and favor to none.

I want your support and the support of those that love liberty; liberty of thoughts and action, and if by the past you may judge the future, then I have nothing to fear, fully believing that you will entrust to me the care of your city. I have lived among you for nearly a decade, and having been in business all this time, you have had a chance to see more or less of me and judge if I am not worthy of your confidence, and if next April, the 5th you will choose to cast your ballot for me. I will give an administration that you shall have just reason to be proud of.
[signed] E. DeBernardi.

Mr. DeBernardi does not come before the public as the nominee of any organization, political or otherwise, but merely as a citizen willing to occupy this high place and take over the direction of public affairs here if the people so desire. In launching his candidacy he proceeds under the general law, which provides that any citizen may become a candidate for office upon presenting a petition duly signed by at least three percent of the voters. Mr. DeBernardi was out yesterday securing signatures to his petition, and met with good success. He hopes to file his petition today. Mr. DeBernardi has been a resident of this city for several years, and lived in Petaluma for some time before coming here. He is a native of Italy, where he was born 46 years ago. He was naturalized in 1885, in Marin county.

– Press Democrat, March 5, 1910

OLD SLEEPY BILL COMES BACK
Well-Known Local Character Discusses Political Situation Straight from the Inside

“Say, what are youse guys a-tryin’ to do, start something?” said Sleepy Bill yesterday, as he strolled into a down-town resort and began to shake hands all ’round after his long absence. “Can’t youse mutts see dat a scrap now is a-goin’ to spoil de game and beat de big bloke for Mayor?” he continued. “Our play is fer to lay low, and shoot Bernardi in afore anybody drops on to what’s doin.'”

“Why, if de choich gang ever gets wise to our man we won’t have no more show dan Jim Ramage has of winnin’ out in de big race meet wid his one-lunger. Say, dey’d make us look like Joe Tarzyn after a game of pool  at de Elk’s Club. De good peeps ain’t fergot as how Bernardi was arrested and fined two or three times fer runnin’ a gambling game in his joint after de shake, or how he soaked de price of beer up to a quarter and coffee to a half, and de boys in blue had to call him down. And if I gets it straight, a lot of folks here already knows how he used to run dat hotel in Petalumy. No sir, we don’t want to do nothin’ that will git any of dem stories started around dis burg just yet.

Bernardi’s a cute one, all right, and if youse blokes don’t tie no handicap to him, he’ll fool de talent and make de trip dead easy. He’s promised seven or eight fellers to make ’em Street Commissioner, and de way dey is out a-leggin for him is something pitiful. Why, when it comes to promisin’ t’ings, he’s got Henry Silvershield beat to a pulp. Tarkey Rains, Little Bill Nichols, Charlie White, Political Dick, Jess Musselman, Charley Holmes and three or four others t’ink dey has got de street job nailed to de cross fer fair. Dey say he promised ’em de place right out. He’s kinder overdid de promisin’ act as fer as de Street Commissioner busines goes, dough. A day or two back, one of de boys heard conflictin’ yarns about who was to git de place, and went and asked him what id meant. ‘Well,’ says Bernardi, ‘I did tell Jess he could have it, but you’re de real Injun, see? I was only a stringin’ Jess, so as to make him feel good.’

“Naw; de Police Chief aint settled on yet. De big one wants to give it to Curley Murphy, but we has promised it to t’ree or four, and I don’t know just how it is a-goin’ to come out. Yes, when it comes to promisin’ dats our strong suit, but if you know who you’re a talkin’ to you don’t take any chances. We promised the good gang dat we wouldn’t stand fer no red lights and den we turned ’round and throwed de gaff into de udder gang and told ’em if dey wanted t’ings put back de way dey was before, dey would have to come across wid de goods. And dey come, you bet. Oh, when it comes to doin’ slick politics, DeB is right dere wid bells, and don’t youse fergit it. Pop Collins learned him de game down in Petalumy.

“Jimmy Edwards ain’t fer no dry town; he says everything is a-runnin’ along all right now. But what we wants is to t’row ‘er wide open, wake up dese chicken-farmers and make ’em circulate dere egg money.

“Me and Dock Reed and Charlie Holmes was a-talkin’ yesterday in de J & M and Dock he says dey has got to be a change. ‘De choich crowd and Rolfe Thompson and his gang has run dis town long enough, and its a dead one alongside of Reno and Truckee and some of them up-to-date burgs,’ says Dock. ‘Jimmy Edwards is all right, but he don’t trot in my class. It’s me fer de swinging doors and de ‘lectric lights–lots of ’em. If de gang had a-put me up, I’d a-made de old town go some, you bet.’

“‘You’re de man what ought to a-had it too, Dock,’ says Charlie. ‘You had no business a-gettin’ cold feet like dat, and lettin’ Bernardi beat you to it.’

“‘You bet, I’d sure a-showed ’em some real speed,’ says Dock.

[..]

– Press Democrat editorial page, March 27, 1910

EDWARDS’ MAJORITY LARGEST EVER POLLED FOR MAYOR
Entire ‘Non-Partisan Party’ Ticket Elected, by Majorities that Vary from 529 to 21

[..]

The election passed off quietly, as such things go, although during the day much interest was manifested regarding the probable outcome.

Edwards’ supporters were out early with teams and carriages, and Bernardi had an automobile at work, supplementing this later in the day with a carriage or two. Several of the other candidates also had carriages out.

The voting began early, and the total vote cast was 1427. With one or two exceptions, the election officers were those already announced in these columns.

As usual, the Press Democrat office was the principal scene of activity in the evening when the returns began to come in. The crowd began to gather before seven o’clock. As the messengers came in from the polling places with the return of votes, the results were quickly totalled up and announced, thus keeping the crowd posted as to the progress of the count.

All the returns were in shortly after eight o’clock, with the exception of those from the Fifth precinct, where the count was slow. The fact that there were three men running for Councilmen in this ward may have accounted for the delay there to some extent.

Shortly after nine o’clock all the votes were in and as soon as the result was formally announced a procession was formed and headed for the Edwards’ residence on Mendocino Avenue to congratulate Mr. Edwards on his election. Arriving there, Mr. Edwards was called out, and from the porch introduced by Ernest L. Finley as “the next Mayor of the City of Santa Rosa.”

Mr. Edwards’ appearance was greeted with much enthusiasm, and after the cheering had subsided the crowd called upon him for a speech. Mr. Edwards responded with a few well-chosen remarks in which he thanked the citizens for the honor conferred upon him, and pledged himself to do all in his power to promote the welfare and advancement of Santa Rosa. He concluded by inviting all present to come in and have “something to eat and drink.”

The invitation was accepted with three rousing cheers and the entire gathering trooped inside where Mrs. Edwards and a number of her lady friends served coffee, sandwiches, etc., everybody shaking hands with the new Mayor as they entered the door. After felicitating the new Mayor personally upon his his election and partaking of his hospitality, the crowd departed and later on in the evening, when the meeting of the City Council had adjourned, Mayor James H. Gray and the city officials also called at the Edwards residence and congratulated Mr. Edwards upon his election. The latter party remained about an hour.

About half-past nine o’clock, Mrs. DeBernardi, wife of Mr. Edwards opponent, telephoned to the new Mayor congratulating him upon his election and wishing him a successful administration.

[..]

– Press Democrat, April 6, 1910

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THE MANY WARS OF ERNEST FINLEY

You can say this about Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley: He didn’t shy from making enemies and picking fights. At best, he was the tireless champion of anything that might bring prosperity to Sonoma County; at worst he was a relentless bully and yellow journalist who kept Santa Rosa bound to its 19th century ways.

(RIGHT: Ernest L. Finley, 1909)

Today his name is remembered for the generosity of the Ernest L. and Ruth W. Finley Foundation (although that wasn’t founded until decades after his death) and his determination in the 1930s to build the Golden Gate Bridge, despite efforts by railroad interests to organize a boycott of his newspaper – “Damn the circulation! The bridge must be built!” remains his most famous (and likely apocryphal) quote.

The usual hagiography paints him as a humble small town newspaper editor who preferred to jaw with farmers over the price of hops and hogs, but he was much more complex than that. In the first four decades of the Twentieth Century, no man or woman cast a longer shadow on Santa Rosa history than Ernest Latimer Finley; favorite son Luther Burbank might have been the town celebrity, but Finley was the kingmaker, the media baron of print (and later, airwaves), the superarbiter of almost everything that happened north of the Golden Gate. Finley blazed a trail that directly continued into the era of Codding before arriving at the place we live today, better or worse.

In the handful of years between 1904 and 1909 Finley would deny he was the most divisive person in town, although he declared all-out war five times, usually resorting to ad hominem attacks against his antagonist as well as the politician or group he opposed. Even in the knockdown world of turn-of-the-century newspapering, this was playing rough.

His longest running feud was with Allen B. Lemmon, editor of the rival Santa Rosa Republican. During the run up to the 1904 elections, Finley and Lemmon were both throwing sharp elbows as they championed their party’s candidate for Congress. Finley, however, played foul by publishing a dialogue between Lemmon and the Republican nominee where the editor supposedly denounced his own candidate as a liar and a coward. The Press Democrat named no source for the quote or gave any indication of how they could have been privy to know about such an argument, much less the exact words said.    

Shortly after that election, Lemmon stepped away from the Republican newspaper for a time and leased it to a pair of experienced newsmen from out of town. Finley (un)welcomed them with a pair of snide parody ads that cast them as snooty city slickers, “having just passed under control of people from the big town, who never saw a pumpkin in their lives, will henceforth be devoted to the pleasant, though arduous task, of teaching metropolitan ways to hayseeds, and introducing city culture to the backwoods” Finley also wrote snarky little editorials when the newcomers dared criticize the City Council. After the Republican’s new editors became muckrakers and broke Santa Rosa’s omertà to reveal that the town thrived upon an underground economy of prostitution and illegal gaming, Finley tossed out a red herring that the “real issue” was the Republican paper printing short market crop prices, thus somehow undermining local hop growers. And when the Republican raised questions about graft and corruption before the 1906 city election, the Press Democrat charged them with playing cheap partisan politics.

If Ernest Finley festered perpetual grudges against his newspaper rivals, he reserved his unbridled contempt for the citizen reformers who wanted to clean up their town. To Finley, reform came with the risk of negative publicity that would damage Santa Rosa’s “good name abroad.” Unmentioned was that should a reform movement gain traction, they could follow contemporary San Francisco in calling for Grand Jury hearings, which in Santa Rosa might risk indictments of the downtown property owners and businessmen who profited from the town being the Sin City of the North Bay.

Finley first took aim at the Good Government League, a short-lived group formed in 1905 to “secure the nomination and election of competent and trustworthy men for office” and encourage “honest and vigorous investigation of civic affairs.” It was hardly Occupy Wall Street activism, but Finley wasted no time in comparing them to vigilantes and violent hate groups. Finley’s wild charges quelled only after it was revealed that the League vice president was none other than Santa Rosa’s lionized Luther Burbank.

Now calling themselves the “Municipal League,” reformers mounted a serious effort at winning city political offices in the 1908 election. The Press Democrat immediately accused them of being a stalking horse of “the church element,” although it was apparent that the new League was an alliance of prohibitionists, anti-corruption progressives, and voters angered over the City Council’s legalization of Nevada-style prostitution. Finley called them liars with a secret agenda to turn Santa Rosa “dry” and who were agitators stirring up “hard feelings” in town using “cowardly and un-American” tactics. (At least this time Finley had the good sense to delay mentioning the reformers had Burbank’s endorsement until the last possible moment.) After weeks of mud-slinging and dissembling and having pissed off a goodly portion of the town, there were grumblings about a boycott of the Press Democrat. In response, Finley had the gall to claim the PD “never intentionally misrepresents things.”

Finley’s keep-the-status-quo ticket won the election, and he was elected president of the Chamber of Commerce, following the man who was now the mayor. Nothing more was heard from the Municipal League, which presumably dissolved after losing at the ballot box. It was time to let tempers cool and animus fade. But that wasn’t how things were done at the Press Democrat; Ernest L. Finley always kept slugging away until no opponent was left standing.

(RIGHT: The April, 1909 edition of The Citizen, one of two copies of the newsletter known to survive. Copy courtesy Sonoma County Public Library)

His main target was now the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, which was “the church element” that had supported the Municipal League. In a rambling editorial that clocks in at almost 3,000 words, Finley rehashed issues from the election half a year earlier to defend the city leaders he endorsed and continue bashing the Ministerial Union along with their monthly newsletter, “The Citizen” (UPDATE HERE).

The Press Democrat editor told readers that the Ministerial Union represented a “radical element” whose “fanaticism, vicious and uncalled-for attacks” on Santa Rosa administrators was responsible for dividing the town. Finley declared  “more ill-feeling was engendered here during the last city campaign than during any other similar period in all the town’s history. The most bitter and uncalled for personalities were indulged in, and unfounded charges were hurled right and left with no thought of responsibility and apparently without regard to their truth or lack of it.”

So who were these malcontents that Finley portrayed as the enemy of the town? Of the 12 churches in town, eight apparently belonged to the Ministerial Union, according to a directory that appeared in The Citizen. Members included all three flavors of Methodist (Southern, Episcopal, and German), the Baptists, and four kinds of Protestants. The congregations that didn’t belong were the Catholic church, the Unitarian church, and the two Lutheran churches.

Much of Finley’s harangue centered on the issue of prostitution. Both the reformers and the status-quo “fusion” ticket vowed to repeal it in the 1908 election. Finley’s fusion boys won, quickly repealed the prostitution ordinance – and then did nothing to enforce it for more than a year, aside from arresting a few women for illegally selling booze. But what could they do? lamented Finley. “All the history of the world goes to show that when ‘driven out’ this form of vice invariably returns in another and far worse guise, distributing itself through the residence districts, establishing itself in hotels and lodging houses.” What Finley disingenuously neglected to mention was that Santa Rosa was unique in the region for turning prostitution into a major industry, with no fewer than 8 or 9 bordellos operating here at the time – nearly one whorehouse for each church. That’s a statistic that probably didn’t make the Chamber of Commerce tourist handouts.

Finley was also muchly troubled by the churches in the Ministerial Union shining light on Santa Rosa’s underworld. Because of the ministers there was “a general topic of discussion almost everywhere.” And what of our poor children? While patting his own back for avoiding “using language that is either unpleasant or suggestive,” Finley complained The Citizen had shamefully printed “open, bare-faced and disgusting references to this unpleasant topic. As a result, the children have become almost as well posted on such things as their parents…what was once tabooed or mentioned only in undertones is now regarded lightly.” Finley was particularly upset that the Union had “worked irreparable injury” to Santa Rosa’s reputation by “forever trying to make the outside world believe that this is one of the worst cities in the land, governed by some of the country’s most disreputable men.” Take a moment to reflect upon his remarkable positions: The editor and publisher of the Press Democrat – and not incidentally, also president of the Chamber of Commerce – was clearly stating that criticism of public officials should be muted, and the cover-up of some types of criminal activity was a matter of civic duty.

Also on Finley’s enemy list were unnamed “interested parties” who had blocked the mayor’s proposed solution to the prostitution problem. “Unofficially the administration had quietly been given to understand that quarters would be provided for them elsewhere in a less public part of the city,” wrote Finley. Alas, in his view, the plan was killed because “petitions were gotten out and industriously circulated.” What Finley didn’t mention was that the grand scheme was to dump the red light district on the Italian neighborhood. In other words, town officials intended to keep the bordellos around, just not on such valuable real estate.

Since Finley had earlier decried brothels in “the residence districts,” he apparently viewed the Italian community as something lesser. But that didn’t stop the Press Democrat from publishing an overwrought defense of Italian honor when it presented a new opportunity to attack the Ministerial Union.

Judging from the two copies that have survived, The Citizen newsletter used most of its ink reporting on developments in the temperance movement, so it’s no surprise that the August, 1909 edition noted that there had been 18 arrests in Cloverdale for public drunkenness that year. “[T]he number of Whites arrested for drunkenness was 10; Italians, 8,” the item stated. Rev. Cassin of St. Rose fired off a letter to the PD that it was an “undeserved insult to the Italian population by excluding them from the list of white people.” A spokesman for the Union replied that they intended no offense and regretted the “verbal inaccuracy.” Cassin was not placated, and charged the “insult was given with malice aforethought” by the Ministerial Union. The Catholic church, recall, was not part of the Union, and its priest apparently shared Finley’s animosities. Finley did not editorialize this time, but gave the letters prominent coverage with large type headlines.

There were two snarky footnotes to Ernest Finley’s wars of 1909. The Citizen ceased publication a couple of months after the Italian-White hubbub, and was followed by the “Sonoma County Advance and County Home Weekly,” about which nothing is known. Noting that the journal would be published in Sebastopol, Finley sneered, “it will not be the first time outsiders have been good enough to come in to a town just previous to an election for the purpose of telling the people how to vote.”

The Press Democrat also ran a gossip item that Allen Lemmon’s partner was trying to find investors to buy the Santa Rosa Republican from the 61 year-old Lemmon. “Inability to work together harmoniously is given as the cause,” the PD added unnecessarily. Even for Finley, that was a low bit of work.

THE UNDESIRABLE “CITIZEN”

Another issue of “The Citizen,” published under the auspices of the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, has made its appearance. And as usual, the little paper devotes most of its attention and space to The Press Democrat.

Under the direction of three or four ministers with whose radical views we have been unable to agree, The Citizen has been hammering The Press Democrat for a long time. It never loses an opportunity of telling its readers what a bad paper this is, and how wicked its proprietors are. According to that authority, The Press Democrat is “the saloon organ,” and “protector of vice,” and it “stands for immorality.” Needless to say, these things are not true, and The Press Democrat stands for nothing of the sort. In their narrowness and mistaken zeal the gentlemen dominating the so-called local Ministerial Union even went so far on one occasion as to attempt to institute a boycott against The Press Democrat upon the grounds that this paper was an enemy to society and a menace to the welfare and progress of the community. No criticism is too harsh for The Citizen to employ in its condemnation of this paper, and such has been its policy from the start.

And in the meantime the people only laugh, because they know for themselves that the things charged against The Press Democrat by The Citizen are not true. The public does not have to be assured through these columns or in any other way that The Press Democrat has only the best interests of this town and community at heart. Its consistent record for more than fifty years as an exponent and advocate of the right is all the answer necessary to the mouthings of the men now working so hard to keep themselves in the limelight and who appear to be so very desirous of gaining control of public affairs here.

During the last municipal campaign, the Ministerial Union was particularly active. Through its little “official organ” it kept things stirred to fever heat. It is no exaggeration to say that more ill-feeling was engendered here during the last city campaign than during any other similar period in all the town’s history. The most bitter and uncalled for personalities were indulged in, and unfounded charges were hurled right and left with no thought of responsibility and apparently without regard to their truth or lack of it.

In an excess of zeal that gave the movement the unmistakable stamp of fanaticism, vicious and uncalled-for attacks were made upon the out-going administration almost daily–although none of the men connected with that administration were candidates for reelection, while they had just successfully carried through a great work that should have and did earn them the grateful thanks of the community, and in spite of the fact that they represented our very highest types of mental and business ability, and our best citizenship.

The effect of the irrational work carried on here during the last municipal campaign is still apparent in many ways. Feelings have been engendered that it will take years to allay, a good portion of the town is solidly arrayed against some of the things it ought to be and otherwise would be for, and valuable co-operation and support has been alienated which might just as well have been retained.

The Citizen is now busy casting stones at Mayor Gray and the present administration with the same bitterness and lack of reason previously displayed toward the old council.

One of its charges is that the officials now in authority have not reduced the number of saloons here.

Mayor Gray and the members of the present city council did not run on the Ministerial Union platform, nor were they elected to carry out its policies. We only know of one new license that has been granted, and when the matter was passed up to Mayor Gray in open council he said he would do whatever the people living in that immediate part of town wished. Upon investigation, he found that only one person living or doing business within two blocks of that point was opposed in the license being granted, and that person was a man engaged in the same line of business. Without exception the others favored the granting of the license. Having given his word on the matter, there was only one thing left for Mayor Gray to do, and he did it.

Attempting to dismiss this matter in its last issue, The Citizen displays its usual disregard for facts, and after gravely assuring its readers that it knows what it is talking about this time, anyhow, says:

On the 26th of January the City Council passed a resolution favoring the reduction of the number of saloons in Santa Rosa and immediately afterwards, at the same meeting, granted an application for a license.

Yet the truth is that the application was granted first, and the resolution passed afterwards, which, of course, gives the situation a somewhat different aspect. And not only does The Citizen mis-state the facts regarding this phase of the matter, but it is also incorrect as to the date of the meeting to which it refers.

Of course it would have been no more trouble for The Citizen to verify these facts than it has been for The Press Democrat to do so, but The Citizen appears to regard facts as of no consequence. “Make your facts agree with your arguments,” is The Citizen’s motto, and always has been.

In many respects conditions have been materially improved here since the present administration went into office, although no one would ever surmise it from reading The Citizen. There is little if any disorder, the poolrooms have been abolished, the town is carefully policed, and one of the first acts of the incoming administration was to rescind the ordinance previously enacted for the legal regulation of the redlight district–a law that appears to have been a little ahead of the times here, but which has the strongest approval of practically every important European community and many of the larger cities in our own county.

 And this brings us to a discussion of another charge being made against the administration of the Ministerial Union, through its “official organ.” We refer to the existence of the district above mentioned, in its present location.

 Before Mayor Gray went into office–before he even thought of becoming a candidate, for that matter–he had a plan under way for moving the denizens of that part of town, and for transforming that valuable section into a public park. This was no particular secret, and after his election he proceeded with renewed vigor to try to carry the plan to a successful conclusion. Matters progressed to a point where considerable of the property was bonded, and notes was finally given certain objectionable tenants living in that part of time that they must leave. Unofficially the administration had quietly been given to understand that quarters would be provided for them elsewhere in a less public part of the city. But this information coming to the ears of interested parties in advance, petitions were gotten out and industriously circulated protesting against any action likely to result in the establishment of any similar quarter in any other part of the city.

 And strange as it may seem, this petition was signed by a number of these [people] who, previous to the election, had stated that they were in favor of doing just what the plan had in contemplation.

 The result of the petition was to leave the administration powerless in the matter, for it did not care to assume the responsibility of taking all restriction off of such traffic, which would have been and always has been, in any town where it has ever been attempted, the result of “driving them out.” All the history of the world goes to show that when “driven out” this form of vice invariably returns in another and far worse guise, distributing itself through the residence districts, establishing itself in hotels and lodging houses, here, there and anywhere it can gain a foothold, and conducting itself in such a way that, except in rare instances only, is it possible to combat it under the law.
 
 We will have to confess that we much dislike to thus openly discuss a problem of this nature in these columns. The time has come, however, when this study should be understood. The world is not called upon to meet conditions as they might or as they should be, but as they actually are. The plain facts of the matter are that these things have always existed, ever since the days of Mary Magdalene, and before. No community ever organized has yet been able to stamp out the social evil. No community ever will. For this reason men who have really made a study of public questions and understand the world and its ways, are agreed that it is better to recognize the existence of certain omnipresent evils and do what can be done to restrict and regulate them, thus minimizing as far as possible their bad effects, rather than pretend not to see them and force the public later to reap the inevitable results of such mistaken policy.

 Contrasted to this, is the plan now in operation here and with certain modifications practically throughout the entire world–a plan which has for its basic principles the restriction of the area within which such people may reside; strict police surveillance at all times, and (where the plan is carried to its logical development) certain other features of a precautionary nature to which it is perhaps unnecessary here to refer.
 
In penning these lines we have endeavored, as far as possible, to refrain from using language that is either unpleasant or suggestive. It will have to be admitted, however, that any adequate discussion of such a subject is difficult when one is thus restricted in his use of words.

Unfortunately The Citizen appears to feel no such restriction upon its editorial utterances. For months its columns have been filled with the most open, bare-faced and disgusting references to this unpleasant topic. As a result, the children have become almost as well posted on such things as their parents. This handling and regulation of the evil has become a general topic of discussion almost everywhere, and what was once tabooed or mentioned only in understones [sic] is now regarded lightly. Under the circumstances, it is of course but natural that a certain looseness along social lines should have resulted. No other result was to have been expected.

Yet the Ministerial Union doubtless imagines that it has accomplished a vast amount of good by its open, constant and flagrant discussion of these and kindred topics. Let there be no misunderstanding regarding this matter. We mean exactly what we say when we state that the discussion of these matters carried on by the Ministerial Union has been open and flagrant. Not only has the topic been discussed barefacedly in every issue of its official organ for months, but the policy of the organization as manifested in its mass meetings is open to the same criticism. “Women and young people are particularly invited,” is the way a certain minister once closed his announcement regarding such a gathering, from his pulpit. It has remained for certain of Santa Rosa’s ministers to inaugurate the custom of openly discussing such topics before and in the presence of innocent girls and respectable women.

There an be no question whatever that this policy is all wrong. In our opinion it has worked irreparable injury not only to the rising generation here at home, but also to the reputation of the community abroad.
 
Nobody will dispute the fact that the section complained of should be removed to another and less public part of town, for Santa Rosa has grown some during the past thirty years, and what was once an area of no particular importance is now surrounded with homes and residences. This is the idea entertained by the administration, and this is exactly what the administration tried to do. The question is, how can such a result be brought about? A public petition blocked it once. What will block it next time? Public sentiment would scarcely stand for the authorities taking the initiative in such a matter, even if they cared to do so. As officials and consequently as the guardians of the interest of all equally, what right have they to say that one part of town is any better than another. These suggestions give only a little idea of the difficulties that beset the administration in its attempt to handle this difficult and trying problem–a problem that has troubled public authorities ever since the world began, and to which the past and present political administrations of Sanata Rosa have probably devoted more study and thought than all the migratory gentlemen of the cloth who ever resided within the corporate limits.
 
  When the question was once up for discussion, it was seriously proposed that the entire matter be turned over to a commission, and that this commission consist of the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union. Perhaps this suggestion is still good. The gentlemen making up that organization would at least discover that the problem before them was more difficult than it looks and they might even be willing by going through the motions of “driving them out” to take the responsibility of removing all restrictions from the traffic. This is a responsibility that the municipal authorities refuse to take, flatly and absolutely.
 
  If the Ministerial Union will not consent to act as such a commission, perhaps it will come forward with some suggestion that might be of value. If it could give the name and location of any city or town in Christiandom where the social evil has ever been abolished, except perhaps a few days or a few weeks at a time, while some public agitation has been going on, it would be helping some. Up to the present time they have never done anything more helpful than to stand off and throw stones.
 
  But whatever course is pursued, let its final disposition be made quietly and as the judgement of the men entrusted with the problem may decide is for the best. The time has come when the open discussion of the subject must be stopped. The public is sick of it, and is beginning to resent it, as it should.
   
 The Press Democrat has never been the advocate of the saloon, or any of its allied interests. We have fought the so-called Ministerial Union in its attempt to secure control of public affairs here, just as we should fight a similar attempt upon the part of any other radical element, because we believe that to turn government in any form over to impractical men or theorists is unwise–yes, dangerous. As a matter of fact, Santa Rosa would be better off with half the number of saloons she has today, and with each one paying three times the present license. Aside from the fact that this is a great wine and hop producing section, in which to talk of prohibition would be inconsistent as well as unreasonable, there is a narrowness and provincialism about the very idea of a “dry” town that is displeasing to any man with experience and breadth of vision. Careful supervision and close restriction is a good thing, but there is no good reason why prohibition should ever be seriously talked of in a county like this.
   
 The Citizen reflects little if any of that broad Christianity or kindness of spirit that one would naturally expect to see manifested by a publication issued by ministers of the gospel. Harsh and uncalled-for criticisms, constant fault-findings, never-ending objections, make up the burden of its utterances. If the men responsible for the things appearing in its columns have ever been to any of the present municipal authorities to talk over the betterment of conditions here, or if they have ever proposed any likely solution for the difficulties complained of, we have never heard of it. The lash rather than the helping hand is The Citizen’s way, and apparently the way of the so-called Santa Rosa Ministerial Union. We say so-called, because it is well know that the organization does not represent anything like the unanimous sentiment of the ministers of the city. Several refuse to have anything to do with the organization, and others who belong make no secret of the fact that they do not endorse the policies that have marked its course during the past two or three years.
    
 If the so-called Santa Rosa Ministerial Union really cared as much for the welfare of this community as it professes to, it would not be forever trying to make the outside world believe that this is one of the worst cities in the land, governed by some of the country’s most disreputable men.

— Press Democrat editorial, May 4, 1909
“THE WHITES VS. ITALIANS” FATHER CASSIN’S REBUKE

St. Rose’s Church, August 7, 1909–Editor of the Press Democrat:

My attention has been called to an article in the “Citizen” of August, 1909. In that article, page 7, speaking of the arrests in Cloverdale for drunkenness, it says: “The docket of Cloverdale precinct from January to June 1909, shows that the number of Whites arrested for drunkenness was 10; Italians, 8; Indians,0. When it is borne in mind that the White population in larger than the Italian and that the Indians have prohibition, etc.”

Precluding altogether the question of intemperance, it does seem strange that the write of the above should offer a bitter, intentional and undeserved insult to the Italian population by excluding them from the list of white people. Swarthy their faces may be from the honest and hard toil necessary to make Sonoma county the garden spot of California, while the writer with a face blanched with hatred was in his closet penning this insult to a hard-working people. Better to have referred to them the words of our great American poet:

“His hair is crisp and black and long;
His face is like the tan;
His Brow is wet with honest sweat–
He earns whate’er he can.
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.”

Italy was civilized and was the mistress of the world as it is today, the center of art, when, I venture to say, the country of the writer of the article in the “Citizen” was unknown or its people yet to be civilized. While the writer condemns so vehemently intemperance in drink, he should remember there is a greater intemperance he is guilty of–hatred for those who do not follow his opinion. “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but what cometh out of a man this defileth a man.”–St. Matthew xv:11.

I sympathize with the Italian population for the undeserved insult offered to them in the “Citizen,” and I sympathize with the cause of Temperance that has such intemperate supporters.

J. M. Cassin.

— Press Democrat, August 8, 1909

MINISTERIAL UNION SAYS NO INSULT WAS INTENDED

Editor Press Democrat: In the paragraph on page seven of the Citizen for August in which those arrested for drunkenness at Cloverdale were classified as “Whites,” Italians and Indians, there was no intention of casting any sort of reflection on the Italians or in anywise insinuating that they do not belong to the “White” race. The word  “White”  was used in a very loose sense and was meant to include all  “Whites” other than Italians. It was an inadvertence, a verbal inaccuracy which we regret and we disclaim even the remotest purpose of offering the least insult to our Italian citizens. We are somewhat familiar with the ancient and honorable Roman and the long line of heroes, which “the Eternal City” justly boasts from the mythical Romulus to the patriot Mazzini and we would not, if we could, dim the radiance of one star that shines in the galaxy of Italy’s immortals nor detract one iota from the glory of her race.

Francis A. Downs, Secretary.

Done by order of the Ministerial Union of Santa Rosa, Aug. 9, 1909. Pastor’s Study, Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

— Press Democrat, August 10, 1909
FATHER CASSIN SAYS AN APOLOGY IS DUE ITALIANS

St. Rose’s Church, Santa Rosa. Editor of the Press Democrat:

The paragraph in the August number of the “Citizen” was generally as a bitter insult to the Italians. An apology plain and humble was due to them, and this was looked for. What do the insulted Italians get? Only an explanation which repeats the insult. The Ministerial Union, while denying that they wished to differentiate between Whites and Italians, yet admit they wished to hold up Italian drunkards as apart from what they call “White” drunkards. They pled inadvertence, and verbal inaccuracy. This might be admitted in the case of one minister writing under the influence of hatred for the Italians, but a ministerial union should be able to correct the mistake of an individual minister. The idea of inadvertence and verbal inaccuracy cannot be admitted. The insult was given with malice aforethought … [three lines of illegible microfilm]… They plead looseness of language. This plea cannot be admitted as they are aided by legal skill that should secure them from this pretended looseness of language. Now, as to the figures they give of cases of drunkenness in Cloverdale–“Whites” 10; Italians 8. It is said that figures do not lie, but some times they do not tell the truth. We may rest assured that the 8 cases of Italians represent the whole. There is no consideration for them. But what about the “Whites”? Do the ten cases represent the whole? Are they not sometimes taken home in a hack and their name and their number omitted from the list? I think this may be so in Cloverdale, and I know that it is so in a place much nearer to me than Cloverdale.

In fine, the insult to the Italians by the Ministerial Union still stands. They have not and will not apologize as is duty bound. Their explanation does not explain, but repeats the offense. I again offer my sympathy to the Italians for the insult given to them by the Ministerial Union and for the repetition of it under the guise of an explanation.

J. M. Cassin.

— Press Democrat, August 11, 1909

“The Citizen,” formerly put out by the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, is now a thing of the past, its publication having been discontinued. In an attempt to fill the void, Marcus L. Waltz, a Sebastopol real estate dealer and printer, has launched the “Sonoma County Advance and County Home Weekly,” the place of publication being Sebastopol. Mr. Waltz says that in a few months he will move his plant to Santa Rosa and issue the paper from here. This is understood to mean that the change will be made election time. If so, it will not be the first time outsiders have been good enough to come in to a town just previous to an election for the purpose of telling the people how to vote.

— Press Democrat editorial, November 16, 1909

Impending Newspaper Change

A report in circulation yesterday was to the effect that there would soon be a change at the Republican office, either A. B. Lemmon or J. E. Mobley being about to retire. Inability to work together harmoniously is given as the cause. Mobley is said to be trying to induce a number of Republican politicians to go in with him and buy Lemmon out.

— Press Democrat, September 15, 1909

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THAT WILD STORY ABOUT OATES

James Wyatt Oates purchased his first car in 1908, which gives us a likely date for the most infamous story told about him. The complete tale is reprinted below, but here’s a summary, for the purpose of discussion:

Late one evening, a man came to the home of Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley to warn him about death threats made by Oates. “If I were you, I would get out of town for a few days. Take a trip to San Francisco until Oates cools off. He says he is going to cut your heart out.” Finley cooly replied, “[G]o back and tell Oates, tell him for me that I said he will never cut anybody up, because he hasn’t got the guts. Tell him I said he had been talking around here for thirty years about killing people, but in that time the only man he ever tackled was a cripple, and then if the crowd had not been prevented, the cripple would have beaten him to death with his crutch.”

It’s a spiteful little story intended to make Oates look a fool, but the joke was on Finley – he didn’t know Oates actually had killed a man. From a biography of Oates’ brother, we learn that he shot someone dead in a fit of anger when he was sixteen, and was acquitted only after his brother paid a “considerable sum of money” to the prosecutor – who happened to be the father of the victim. Apparently no one in the West knew of his crime; in her oral history, Helen Comstock said the story was told that Oates had shot a man, but not fatally.

(RIGHT: A previously unknown portrait of James Wyatt Oates that appeared in the San Francisco Call, October 23, 1900)

Finley’s tale appeared in “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” a compilation of profiles he penned for the newspaper which were gathered together into a book after he died in 1942. Oates was the only “pioneer” he disparaged, and the essay rankled Hilliard Comstock, who told his family he thought it was mean-spirited of Finley to insult the memory of an honorable man.

While there’s no doubt that Oates was a hothead of legendary proportions, Finley certainly confused facts, and might have confabulated parts of the story. Finley’s late night visit could not have happened before Oates bought his first car in August, 1908 – yet the event that supposedly sent Oates into a rage was Finley’s criticism of “his” city charter, which had been adopted back in 1904 (the PD editorial mentioned by Finley appeared on Sept. 14 of that year). Also, he claimed this all happened when Oates was city attorney, which was in 1912. And lastly, Finley misidentified his brother as a senator instead of a congressman.

Finley’s lack of factchecking aside, I’m unable to find evidence the other two anecdotes he mentioned even happened. Finley wrote that Oates once led the local delegation to the Democratic party state convention, but stormed out when “he could not have his way.” Oates was a delegate for many years, but only was Sonoma County chairman in 1892. No mention of an incident like that can be found in local or state papers.

I also can’t find any account of Oates being beaten by a “cripple,” although that story is harder to sleuth because no year is mentioned. John M. Carter was a Santa Rosa councilman from 1896 to 1904, but Finley wrote vaguely that the incident happened when he was “a member or perhaps a former member of the city council.” While it wouldn’t be surprising to learn there was a scrap (see above, re: Oates, hothead), I doubt it was nearly as dramatic as Finley claimed. Like Sherlock’s “dog that didn’t bark in the night,” the lack of evidence is evidence itself. Newspapers of the day loved this kind of juicy story, often giving it front-page coverage. (In fact, I stumbled across just such an item while researching 1892 politics: Following election primaries in Los Angeles, a man named Ignacio Bilderrain cracked a political foe’s head open with his cane.) If a man as prominent as Oates really had been badly beaten with a crutch, it undoubtedly would have been reported far and wide.

Why Ernest L. Finley felt the need to posthumously whack James W. Oates is a mystery. They didn’t appear to be bitter personal enemies; Finley attended a 1906 card party at (what would become known as) Comstock House. Won first prize, even.

My guess is that clues can be found in Finley’s opening sentence: “Oates came here as a young lawyer from Alabama, expecting to control Democratic policies in Sonoma County.” Yes, Oates wanted to launch himself into politics, but Sonoma County’s political world was controlled by a “good ol’ boy” clique. Oates lacked the temperament to be a cog in anyone else’s political machine, and famously always said he had no interest in dealing with people who he felt weren’t “square” with him. Oates also didn’t have the Missouri pedigree that greased entry into the clique. In all ways, he was the unwelcome black sheep.

By contrast, Finley was always the defender of the good ol’ boys, and his Press Democrat was their official organ. His editorials viciously attacked anyone who challenged the status quo, much as he savaged Oates in this profile. Perhaps here Finley was settling (very) old scores related to Oates’ threat to their power. Or perhaps Finley simply didn’t like black sheep who didn’t get along with his pals.

Colonel Oates is one of the latest devotees of the automobile and he has purchased a fine machine. For a long time the Colonel has had the “auto fever” and finally the impulse to own a car became irresistible.

– Society Gossip column, Press Democrat, August 30, 1908

James Wyatt Oates came here as a young lawyer from Alabama, expecting to control Democratic policies in Sonoma County. A man of many fine qualities, he possessed none of the attributes of political leadership and died a disappointed man. He could not brook opposition in any form, and when opposed either developed a violent fit of temper or gave up the fight.

He once went to a state convention in Sacramento as the head of a delegation from this county, and he could not have his way jumped on the train and came home, leaving the delegates to work out their salvation alone.

Oates came out of a prominent Alabama family, a brother being governor of that state and afterwards United States senator. He talked a great deal about the South, and frequently boasted about being a great fighter, but he usually managed to keep the peace.

One night about 11:30 o’clock, a then well-known automobile salesman here drove up to my house, rang the doorbell and said he wanted to talk to me. I had not yet retired and we went for a drive. It appeared that he had sold Oates an automobile and delivery had been taken that day in San Francisco. When he and the salesmen were driving home together, Oates, then city attorney, had begun talking about the new city charter at that time up for adoption. We did not consider it much of an improvement over the old one and had said so editorially. Oates considered himself responsible for the charter, having prepared a good part of it, and he had argued himself into the belief that the paper’s opposition was prompted by personal feeling. This was not true, but as he talked he grew extremely angry and became greatly excited.

“If I were you, I would get out of town for a few days,” said the automobile man. “Take a trip to San Francisco until Oates cools off. He says he is going to cut your heart out.”

“Do you want to do something for me?” I inquired with grade apparent solicitude.

“I certainly do,” replied my friend.

“Then go back and tell Oates, tell him for me that I said he will never cut anybody up, because he hasn’t got the guts. Tell him I said he had been talking around here for thirty years about killing people, but in that time the only man he ever tackled was a cripple, and then if the crowd had not been prevented, the cripple would have beaten him to death with his crutch.”

Not too long before Oates had passed John M. Carter, a member or perhaps a former member of the city council, while the latter was seated in his buggy. Some altercation arose and Oates attempted to strike Carter. The latter, a one-legged man, jumped clear out over the buggy wheel and onto the sidewalk, brandishing and striking out with his single crutch in a deadly fashion. He was an angry man, but bystanders prevented serious casualties.

No man could have been more courteous and charming in his own home than James W Oates. He entertained extensively, and had many warm friends. He could be a delightful companion wanted he chose, but he possessed an unfortunate disposition that in time caused him disappointment and sorrow, and brought pain and anguish to some who were extremely near and dear to him. Oates enjoyed a good law practice here for many years, confining himself largely to probate practice. He would have gone further and gotten much more pleasure out of life if his had been a less tempestuous nature.

– “Santa Rosans I Have Known” by Ernest L. Finley, pg. 29-30

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