Everyone’s endured a few bad houseguests, but none so horrible I considered attacking them with an iron pipe or hog-tying them with bailing wire. Well, not many.

Both of these odd stories from 1907 leave the reader hungry for additional details. In one tale, a stranger appears at a ranch near Cotati, where he’s welcomed to supper. Some time later, he “acted like a crazy man” and it was decided he must be tied up. The incident would be unusual enough if it just ended there, but the guest then “gnawed the rope in two as a rat would have done” and instead of quietly running away like a sensible maniac, he draws attention to his lack of bondage and is again tied up, this time with wire.

The other vignette has Mr. William Miller at the home of his sister in Guerneville. Allegedly caught peeping through a keyhole, sister Bertha “struck Miller across the head with a piece of iron and laid open his scalp.” Her husband then joined in and “finished the job she had auspiciously begun,” leaving Miller badly injured. Left unanswered is what Miller saw that drove the pair to beat him so brutally. Was he peeping at his sister, her husband, or the pair of them, behind that closed door?


Constable Samuel J. Gilliam went over to Guerneville Saturday to arrest Clyde and Bertha Ayers, husband and wife, on the charge of assault on the person of one William Miller. According to the story as related here, Miller is accused of peeping through a keyhole and this is alleged to have been the trouble. He is related to the persons who beat him, being a brother of Mrs. Ayers. When the Peeping Tom tactics were divulged Mrs. Ayers is said to have struck Miller across the head with a piece of iron and laid open his scalp, after which the husband of the woman finished the job she had auspiciously begun. Miller was in a bad state as the result of his beating. He denies the peeping portion of the story.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 6, 1907
Raised Rough House at Nesbit Ranch on Cotati

H. Canevascini made a rough house at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Nesbit on the Cotati rancho Sunday evening and was with difficulty restrained from doing harm to the people there. He acted like a demented man and for a time Mr. and Mrs. Nesbit and others had a tussle to prevent being injured by the man. Canevascini jumped over the fence of the county jail Satuday while he was supposed to be sawing wood there and made his way under cover of darkness out of town. He was a trusty [sic].

When the man appeared at the Nesbit ranch he was recognized at once as a Petaluma man, and was given his supper and a hearty welcome. Later when he acted like a crazy man the men folks at the ranch had a hard time to subdue him. The cook at the ranch knocked him down with a chair and then his hands and feet were tied with bailing rope. The man gnawed the rope in two as a rat would have done, and it was found necessary to bind his hands with bailing wire which he could not gnaw.

Early Monday morning he was taken to Petaluma jail in this bound condition and was alleged to be insane. He will be returned to the county jail.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 18, 1907

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Admit it: There have been times you’d like to chop your car to pieces – although Winnie Davidson clearly has more problems in early 1906 than just his inability to drive.

The euphonious word, “mahout” mentioned in the second story was slang for automobile driver at this time (lifted from India’s traditional name for an elephant handler), but maybe the writer was trying to convey that poor, mad Win was imitating the raspy “a-oOOgah” sound of early car horns.

Winnie Davidson of Occidental Alleged to Have Chopped Auto with Axe to Discover Why It Refused to Run

Winnie Davidson of Occidental, a young man who has recently been spending some time in this city, is being detained at the County Jail on a charge of insanity. He was brought over from Occidental this morning by Constable James O’Brien at the instance of Sheriff Frank P. Grace.

Davidson has been posing as a man of means, and spent his money with a free hand. He seemed plentifully supplied with coin, and among his purchases were an automobile and a piano. The auto was paid for outright, but the instrument was bought on the installment plan. It was the auto that probably led to his downfall and dethronement of his reason.

According to the story told by one of the unfortunate young man’s friends he purchased a horse last Sunday in Sebastopol, paying $125 for the animal. He was thrown from the horse, and concluded that electric cars would be safer. When he tendered a check to the conductor of an electric car and it was refused, he declared his independence of that mode of travel and purchased a horseless vehicle.

Last night the young man started for his home in the auto, and had some difficulty in keeping the auto going. He was assisted, it is claimed, to climb one of the hills en route to that place, and in descending another hill is said to have placed his feet over the dashboard, and letting go of the steering gear coasted down the hill. Then when the machine refused to go, it is declared that Davidson borrowed an axe and began chopping away at the sides of the machine to see if he could locate the trouble. According to the story he had chopped one side almost completely away and had begun to chop on the seat when he was restrained. Confirmation of the chopping portion of the story is lacking, but it is declared to be a fact by those who claim to be conversant with the case.

At a late hour this afternoon the young man was reported considerably improved.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 7, 1906
Win Davidson Sets Fire To Bedding In Jail at San Rafael

While in the jail in San Rafael on Thursday night, Win Davidson, the San Rafael youth who formerly resided at Occidental in this county and who was arrested near Occidental and on Thursday morning turned over to relatives from the Marin county town, set fire to his bed and when rescued from the flame and smoke he was taking a seeming ride in an automobile. It was stated in this paper the day before yesterday that Davidson had gone insane on the subject of automobiles. A dispatch from San Rafael describe his actions in the jail there:

“San Rafael, February 8. At 6 o’clock this evening the county jail under the court house looked like a volcano in working order. Dense clouds of smoke curled through the doors and windows, and a series of shrieks, toots, and whistles flew outward with the smoke. Win Davidson, an insane patient awaiting the morning train for the Ukiah asylum was responsible for the smoke and the noise. When found by Under Sheriff Liehtenberg, Davidson was sitting on a blazing mattress on top of his cot, where, oblivious to his surroundings, he was enjoying an automobile ride.

“Toot, toot, mahout, mahout,” would be followed with “Chug, chug, mahout, mahout,” all screamed at the top of the man’s voice. The fire raging in the mattress had no [concern] for him. The smoke only added to the realism of the scene. He would spring his body up and down on the mattress which, bellows-like, would pump forth the choking, blinding smoke. Through it all Davidson drove his imaginary devil-car as reckless of life and limb as any real mahout.

“The man was rescued and dragged from the burning mattress to the fresh air. The fire was stamped out and a double guard was established at the cell door. Davidson is a young man well known here, where up to a few weeks ago, he drove a local grocery wagon. About two weeks ago he went to Santa Rosa and Occidental to pay some bills for his mother. While there he was stricken insane and the first intimation his family had of his affliction was when a local contractor received a dispatch from Davidson telling him to bring a few shingles and come to Occidental. After this they heard that the young man had turned automobilist and was “mahouting” around Santa Rosa, where he got an axe and was industriously hacking his automobile to pieces when stopped by the officers. Davidson has always been a sober and industrious young man.”

– Press Democrat, February 10, 1906

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Dispatch to Press Democrat

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

– Press Democrat, January 29, 1905

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