Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley loved drunks, and if the tippler was also a hobo, so much the better.

Finley could write prose worthy of Mark Twain when the spirit moved him, and could sketch a memorable little portrait from just a routine court appearance (while likely inventing all the dialog in the scene). But Finley’s favorite muse was “Tennessee Bill,” a hobo with a window-rattling yell who also had a penchant for tearing off his clothes and setting fire to them. More of Finley’s poetics over the skunk-drunk can be found in the 1906 papers.


“Look here, Judge,” You let me go this time and I promise you I will not take a single drink. If I do and am brought before you again, you just give me the limit, six months, and I will not blame anybody but myself.”

So said Joe Fenton, an old offender to Judge Bagley on Tuesday morning shortly after his release from jail, where he had been doing time for over indulgence in liquor, when he was again presented before the magistrate.

“Very well,” said the magistrate. “Now, remember, you have made a bargain.”

Wednesday morning Fenton was picked up again, drunk and incapable. He was hauled before the police judge again, having been brought to court in the patrol wagon. Asked to explain the why and the wherefore, he said:

“Judge, I just took one drink.”

“That’s one more than you said you would. You told me to give you the limit. But sixty days.”

“All right sir.”

And Joe was taken over once more.

– Press Democrat, September 5, 1907
“Tennessee Bill” Jailed in a Northern Calaboose, Burns His Clothes–Widely Known Specimen of Genus Hobo

William Cornelius Tennessee Goforth, familiarly known to all the officers of California from San Diego to Siskiyou and from the Sierras to the sea as “Tennessee Bill,” will probably drop into town in a day or two.

This noted specie of the genus hobo has been spending a few days of enforced retirement in the jail at Ukiah. The other day the people of that quiet Mendocino town were terrified by a series of most ungodly yells, and when the town marshal and the available police force investigated they found that the possessor of the powerful lung blast was none other than “Tennessee Bill.”

Bill was quickly gathered in and when taken before the magistrate was given a term in jail. It was necessary to prescribe a bath for Bill at Bastille soon after his arrival there. Then he tried on the same old joke he worked when he was last a guest at the county jail on Third street in this city. He watched an opportunity while the bath was being prepared and shoved all the old clothes he was wearing through the [illegible microfilm] as the flames preyed upon them. He reckoned without a realization that two can play a joke. Consequently instead of being passed out a brand new suit of overalls he was ordered at the conclusion of his ablutions to proceed to his cell and remain there wrapped in the folds of a blanket. Bill had to submit with all the grace he could commit under the circumstances in the long run, however he will win only when he is liberated he will get the clothes all right.

– Press Democrat, September 7, 1907
Hop Pickers Indulge Too Freely– “Tennessee Bill” Once More an Inhabitant of County Jail

There was something doing in police circles yesterday afternoon and Fourth street was kept alive with the jingle of the bell of the patrol wagon.

Half a dozen men, from the hop yards, celebrating the fact that they had been paid off, took a little too much hop brew aboard, and were overcome. Three of them required the assistance of the patrol wagon to reach a cool spot in the police station. Three of them were walked there. Police Officer Lindley was the arresting officer in each case.

Some time during the afternoon there was a lusty use of lung power and in response Constable Sam Gilliam hurried to Third street. Some how or other, the shouts seemed sort of familiar to the officer. It was none other than William Cornelius Tennessee Goforth, more familiarly known as “Tennessee Bill.” Bill went over to the county jail for fifteen days and thanked Justice Atchinson for the rest given. Bill finds the jails throughout the state the best homes he knows. He has been there often enough.

– Press Democrat, September 21, 1907

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Another strange vignette from the 1906 earthquake finds a letter warning homeowners to shun smooth-talking hobos offering to do cleanup and repair jobs on the cheap. In truth, that was a light year for hobo sightings, so methinks that the letter-writer was one of those “reputable, responsible local contractors” who was not getting homeowners to pay the prices he was asking. Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley loved to elaborate on hobo stories, but aside from a brief sighting of “Tennessee Bill” and a couple of brushes with the law, pickin’s were slim.

Editor Republican: Refugees, some worthy, some not; hobos from everywhere and nowhere are finding that Santa Rosa is a veritable Mecca. Scarcely do they hit the town till they also hit some brother hobo who has taken the G. M. H. degree, and immediately he is set to work cleaning brick, shoveling debris, sawing, nailing, hammering, or what not, at a price that suits the G. M. H. The G. M. H. degree man very adroitly wormed himself into the confidence of some patriotic, kind hearted, enterprising citizen, securing a contract by smooth talk and underbidding all the reputable, responsible local contractors. Of course Mr. Grand Master Hobo has the best interest of the city at heart, and that is his pocket. He starts out with the full intention of working for the best interest of the city. He knows he cannot do along legitimate lines, so he calls his weaker brother hobo to his relief. Results: If contract is completed at all, a miserable botch job; our own legitimate, taxpaying contractor, journeyman and laborer, temporarily at least, laid on the shelf, the owner buncoed, the business man robbed to the tune of the hobo’s wages for he spends his money elsewhere. – CITIZEN

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 6, 1906
Man Upsets Serenity of Healdsburg Avenue Vicinity by Peeping Through Fences

Some little excitement was caused this morning in the vicinity of Healdsburg avenue, and College and Benton streets, by an individual who kept peeping through the fences of rear yards, and acting in a suspicious manner. This was noticed by D. J. Paddock, a resident of that vicinity, who made it his business to keep his eye on the suspicious acting individual. He finally lost sight of the man entirely, and then sought his good friend, Tol T. Overton, and from him borrowed a saddle horse with which to round up the man.

Finally the services of Officer Herman Hankel were called into requisition, and the officer apprehended the man and took him into custody. He gave the name of James Gordon, and said that he had been peering into rear yards to see if there were any wood piles he could get to cut, or any yards he could spade for the residents. He said he saw a man with “whiskers” eyeing him, and decided to get out of the vicinity. It was while escaping that Hankel captured the man, some distance from the section where he had caused such uneasiness by his peering around.

The neighbors breathed easier after Hankel had taken the man into custody. He has probably learned a valuable lesson from his experience, that it is not well to peer through fences into yards and act in a suspicious manner. Gordon is a genuine hobo.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 29, 1906
“Tennessee Bill” is Glad

Charles Cornelius Tennessee Goforth, one of the best known characters of the state, who was released on Monday by City Recorder Bagley on a charge of drunkenness, was before Justice Atchinson yesterday charged with disturbing the peace. Tennessee is noted for his voice and when he gets a little too much liquor aboard he lets it be heard in a yell which startles the whole city. Yesterday morning he mounted the court house steps and expressed his joy at again being in town after an absence of a year and a half. Justice Atchinson gave him fifteen days in the county jail to entertain him while here. Goforth came to California in 1856 from Tennessee and since 1858 has been a resident of the state.

– Press Democrat, February 28, 1906
Cheery Greeting Given Man From Healdsburg When He Entered Jail Here on Thursday

“Hello, Lapmin, you here again.” This was the cheery greeting given an elderly man Thursday afternoon as he passed through the portals of the county jail on Third street, escorted by City Marshal Parker of Healdsburg, by Jailer Serafino Piezzi.

“Yes, I have come to stay with you again for a time,” was the rejoinder. Piezzi had recognized in O. Lapmin on sight, a former boarder at the Hotel de Grace.

The man was sent here by Justice Provines for sixty day for vagrancy. On the pretense that he was the owner of a valuable stallion, that he had money in the bank, that he had worked for a Healdsburg citizen and was owed a considerable sum of money, that he had a large ranch in Humboldt county and that his sons there also had ranches–goodness knows how many more reasons–he had fed well and fattened at the residence of a respected old lady in Healdsburg who takes in boarders. Finally it was proved that he was minus all the worldly possessions he claimed. Then for a week past, it is said, he imbibed quite freely and sought the shade of the plaza benches in the northern capital to “sleep it off.” He was dozing peacefully more than once when the majesty of the law as represented in the Healdsburg marshal descended upon him and finally he went “up against” Judge Provines, who suggested that sixty days of more enforced rest would be about the thing for him.

– Press Democrat, August 24, 1906

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There was no more colorful figure in 1904 Santa Rosa than “Tennessee Bill,” a well-known loquacious drunk who popped up in the spring and again in midsummer. The Press Democrat so loved reporting on Bill that they even lifted an entire story from the rival Petaluma Argus. Writing about the man seemed to bring out the poet in PD editor Finley: “Bill’s distances are uncertain” is a turn of phrase worthy of Yeats.

Asked why he started a fire in his cell, “he answered that it needed fumigation and took it upon himself to accomplish the deed,” according to the Santa Rosa Republican, July 29.

Believes it Himself
William Charles Cornelius Tennessee Goforth, more briefly “Tennessee Bill,” was in town yesterday and left on the afternoon train for somewhere. Bill’s distances are uncertain, as he is arrested in almost every town he visits on a charge of vagrancy or of intoxication. In almost every city in the State that he visits he has his “old mother buried out in the cemetery.” Bill has told this story so many times that he believes it himself. He told the same story ever again here yesterday. Not long since an exchange told how he had “a mother buried” in a cemetery in southern California. He tells a similar yarn when he reaches Petaluma, Sonoma, or wherever he lands and can find an ear to pour in his troubles. His tale of woe usually terminates with “I was just about to ask you to give me a quarter. I have not had a bite to eat all day and — you know old Bill.” Yes everybody knows him.

– Press Democrat, July 27, 1904

Sets Fire to the City Jail in Petaluma and Burns His Clothing
When Tennessee Bill left Santa Rosa on Wednesday afternoon he told people at the depot that he was going to San Francisco and the south. Instead he jumped off at Petaluma and next morning landed in jail as usual, having taken too much liquor aboard, a failing that Bill encourages. Shortly after he was incarcerated he started a fire in the jail and destroyed the meagre furnishings and his own clothes. The Argus describes the conflagration as follows:

“At noon on Thursday William Cornelius Goforth, Esq., more commonly called “Tennessee Bill,” was arrested by Constable Sullivan on a charge of being drunk and was locked up in the city prison to sober up. At 2:30 persons passing the city hall noticed heavy volumes of smoke issuing from the windows of the city prison in the basement of the city hall building. Assistant Fire Chief Myers was passing at the time and he notified Marshal Collins who was upstairs in his office. The jail door was hurridly [sic] opened and the entire jail was found filled with smoke while Tennessee without a stitch of clothing on, was dancing around a big fire in the west corridor. Every blanket in the jail, mattresses, brooms, etc., were consumed and all of Tennessee’s clothing, including his shoes. Hose Co. No. 3 is stationed in the building and two length of hose were quickly taken from the cart and attached to the hydrant in front of the building, and Messrs. Collins, Myers, L.L. Goss and Frost flooded the place and extinguished the fire. Tennessee persisted in getting in the way and was struck by the stream and spun around like a top. He touched the ceiling a couple of times, was buffetted around like a frog in a puddle and finally had to swim out. A number of ladies were attracted by the excitement and went to the jail door but did not stay long. Tennessee’s vocabulary is not all parlor tongue.”

– Press Democrat, July 30, 1904

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