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THE DELINQUENT WOMEN OF SONOMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collage of Sonoma Index-Tribune headlines, 1922-1925

 

 

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

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

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

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

– Press Democrat, November 16 1917

 

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

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

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

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

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

– Press Democrat, March 14 1918


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

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

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

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

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

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

– Press Democrat, March 19 1918

 

OBJECT TO LOCATION OF STATE HOME

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

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

– Petaluma Courier, March 22, 1918

 

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

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

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

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

– Press Democrat, March 2 1919

 

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

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

– Press Democrat, October 3, 1920

 

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

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

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

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

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

680 ACRES IN FARM

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

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

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

SANS THE LOCKSTEP

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

– Press Democrat, December 20, 1921

 

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BETTY’S GILDED CAGE: THE HOME FOR DELINQUENT WOMEN I

Betty Carey rattled around the huge mansion the winter of 1922, alone except for the 20-member staff who served her. She was waiting for a court decision; at stake was whether she could be kept there indefinitely, against her will.

She was a prostitute and a drug user who hated being at the 40-room “castle” outside of Sonoma, but was ordered to be sent there by San Francisco Police Court Judge Lile Jacks. After a month she begged the judge to let her leave, writing she’d “rather serve a year in the county jail than spend a month in the Valley of the Moon.”

“What awful, narrow-minded people are in the beautiful Sonoma Valley!” she wrote, according to the SF Daily News. “They said I was so wicked they wouldn’t have me in the city of San Francisco, that I have actually asked one of the insignificant farmers for a cigarette. I did, Judge Jacks, such a breach of etiquette! Such small town newspaper talk! They said a woman captured me. It took three men to capture me…”

It was true her neighbors in the Sonoma Valley did not want her there, and their “small town newspaper,” the Sonoma Index-Tribune, objected fiercely. One reason was because the place was a point of local pride: The old Kate Johnson estate on the grounds of the historic Buena Vista winery, with 645 acres of vineyards and manicured lawns which were once compared to Golden Gate Park. The mansion was a landmark by itself, being probably the largest private residence ever built in Sonoma county and where it was gossiped that Mrs. Johnson had devoted an entire floor to her hundreds of cats. (Not true; see “THE MAKING OF A CRAZY CAT LADY.”)

But what the locals really disliked was not Betty’s presence. It was the fear that her pending court decision might mean five hundred more Bettys would be coming to live indefinitely at the big mansion in the Valley of the Moon. And all would presumably have venereal disease.

This is part one of our history of the “California Industrial Farm for Women” – usually instead called some variation of “the Sonoma State Home for Delinquent Women” –  which explains the background about why the women were there; part two describes what happened after the Home opened and what became of the building.

It has been an uncomfortable article to write, which is probably why no local historians have touched this topic before. Understanding what happened/why requires wandering down some darker alleys of our past we’d like to forget; it requires coming to grips with how such unjust treatment of women was considered not only legal but embraced as fair and just – as were some unspeakable medical procedures which will make you cringe (or at least, should).

Also difficult to understand is how all this happened just as the women’s rights movement was at a historic peak, having just gained clout with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920. Why wasn’t there backlash to the all-male legislatures and all-male courts declaring some women did not even have the basic constitutional right to bail or a trial? Surprise: The loudest voices chanting, “lock her up!” were other women – who believed people like Betty needed to be disenfranchised for their own protection.

This is a complex and grim story; although the Sonoma State Home for Delinquent Women was supposed to reform and benefit the women under its care, its real purpose was to protect men from venereal disease.

The estate where lonesome Betty Carey roamed was purchased by California in 1919 for a quarter million dollars 1920 for $50,000. Legislators didn’t seem to mind spending that much money for the grand old place, but from the start some were griping it could be put to better use than housing riff-raff like prostitutes and junkies, with a TB sanitarium or a home for disabled WWI veterans suggested as early alternatives. More on this thread in the following article.

That the state was spending such a large chunk of the budget on any sort of a female-only facility was considered a major victory for women. Starting more than forty years earlier, the W. C. T. U. and other temperance groups began beating the drums for a separate women’s state reformatory/prison; up to then female convicts from all over the state were crammed into small quarters at San Quentin. Some improvements were made after a shocking 1906 expose´ revealed there was no heat, rats ran loose and chamber pots were dumped into a hopper in the common room. But the women were still rarely allowed outdoors lest they be seen by the male prisoners, and windows in their quarters were whitewashed to likewise prevent men from peering in.1

RIGHT: Few of the women at San Quentin in the early 1910s were guilty of sex crimes. One exception was Laura Paulson, wife of a saloon and dance hall owner in Burke, Idaho, convicted in 1911 under the “White-Slave Traffic Act” (the Mann Act) for bringing over prostitutes from Washington state

The awareness of how poorly women were treated behind bars came during a period of explosive growth in social groups for women (that same year, the Press Democrat gossip columnist estimated there were 100 women’s clubs in Santa Rosa, when the town had a population of about 10,000). After California women won suffrage in 1911 the clubwomen became a formidable political bloc, and before the end of the decade the Women’s Legislative Council of California claimed it represented over 187,000 club members throughout the state. Improving conditions for “delinquent women” was among the Council’s top priorities – but what did that mean, exactly?

At the 1918 Council convention they urged the state to “establish rehabilitation farms and colonies for delinquent women and to establish a state boarding school for incorrigible public school children whose offenses do not demand reformatory treatment.” Take note first of “farms and colonies;” it was long presupposed by prison reformers and women advocates that rural, women-run institutions would transform law-breaking ladies into model citizens. “These pastoral prisons were supposed to accommodate the domesticity attributed to women’s natures,” explained prison historian Shelley Bookspan, because they could have “schooling and training in marketable female skills, such as sewing, mothering and nursing.”2

Second point: Even though the term was widely used, “delinquent woman” had no clear definition. Did it mean a sex worker/drug addict? A woman charged with any crime? Here the Council lumps delinquent woman together with juvenile delinquents (“incorrigible public school children”) which implies a D. W. is someone who makes poor decisions and may have committed petty crimes. The latter was indeed the definition earlier in the 1910s when legislators first considered a women’s farm; in a 1911 article transcribed below it’s stated that a delinquent woman was someone who had committed five or more misdemeanors such as drunkenness, vagrancy or shoplifting.

The clubwomen clearly expected a woman’s farm would be used for women who could be rehabilitated and released, but less clear is whether it was believed the place would be used to house all female criminals. Even as the opening date approached, there was uncertainty about who would be sent to Sonoma. Recently released from San Quentin was Dr. Marie Equi, who had served time for sedition.3 Shortly before Betty Carey became the test case, an Oakland Tribune reporter interviewed Dr. Equi, who apparently believed all the women inmates at San Quentin were going to the elysian gardens at Buena Vista:

The girls at Quentin are wild to get on the farm. They are housed in a little square mausoleum being permitted to go out among the green fields but once a week and having nothing to do to occupy their minds…The women inmates at San Quentin are not morons by any means…my cell mates at San Quentin were just the type of bright, pretty ‘chickens’ that the tired business man cultivates for his amusement. Check-passer, murderers, women of the street, forgers and narcotic addicts mingle together…

But although the April, 1919 act establishing the Home stated it was “to provide custody, care, protection, industrial, and other training and rehabilitation for the delinquent women,” none of that would be provided, except for custody and care. And few, if any, of Dr. Equi’s cellmates would be welcome. The Home was only for women like Betty Carey – prostitutes who were to be held under an indefinite quarantine because they had diseases considered nearly incurable at the time.


The Home never would have existed if not for the Wilson Administration’s obsession with the so-called “American Plan,” starting when the U.S. entered World War I and continuing on through most of the 1920s. Like Prohibition which soon followed, this was a morals crusade in the guise of patriotism – in this case, keeping our boys healthy before they went overseas to fight the Germans by attempting to eradicate venereal diseases.

There had been vice crackdowns in American cities before, or course, but the War Department decided the U.S. needed “invisible armor” around every training camp to protect soldiers against “heated temptations.” A five-mile radius “moral zone” was established around the camps where no alcohol could be sold; women suspected of being prostitutes could be detained and forced to undergo a blood test and gynecological medical exam. Even though any sexually active woman could have a venereal disease, every woman found to have VD was presumed to be a prostitute – and every prostitute was presumed to have VD. And that meant she could be locked up without due process.4

Besides local and military police, the Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) created its own national Law Enforcement Division and even local public health investigators now had powers to arrest civilian women on suspicion. The dragnet expanded after Congress passed The Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918, which was not restricted to the immediate vicinity of military camps. It’s usually said 30,000 women were swept up, but Scott Wasserman Stern, the author of an excellent study on the American Plan (see footnote 4), believes that greatly underestimates the true numbers.

The need to lock up so many women created a problem of what to do with them all. Local hospitals and jails were kept full; state reformatories and orphanages were pressed into service and the CTCA began building detention camps. In a believe-it-or-not! twist, the feds decided that former brothels were ideal places to house them – just surround the place with barbed wire and add guards.5

Much of this was being paid for with money personally controlled by President Wilson, including $1 million from the Chamberlain-Kahn Act. And it wasn’t just for lockup; the CTCA was also charged with lobbying states to adopt a set of model laws it had written to curb promiscuity. Among the provisions were creating reformatories for women detained on “incorrigibility or delinquency” charges and outlawing all premarital sex. By 1919, 39 states had passed such laws.

To be sure, VD was endemic among prostitutes. A 1917 San Francisco study found 72 percent had syphilis, gonorrhea or both. In that year – just as the CTCA was starting – the city was lenient, allowing women who tested positive to sign an agreement to report to a physician or clinic within a few days. If she was not known to have a disease, a woman paid a $5.00 bail and was released, even though some were rearrested up to four times a night and certainly not retested every time. Under new pressure from federal officials, the bail was increased to $1,000 for the first arrest. As a result of the astronomical increase, many skipped bail and fled the city for places with lax enforcement.

Today it may seem odd that infected women did not eagerly agree to medical treatment, but in that pre-antibiotic era the options ranged from bad to awful; there was no guarantee of being cured – but weeks, months, or a lifetime of pain was assured and side effects could be crippling or lethal.

Arsenic-based Salvarsan was the first drug that could actually cure syphilis but problems abounded with the treatment: The shot was described as “horribly painful” followed by days of sustained misery – and the drug would be effective only if it were prepared immediately before injection under precise, nearly laboratory, conditions. Repeat for 4-8 weeks.

At the time the wonder drug for gonorrhea was 3-6 weeks of shots with a solution where the main ingredient was mercurochrome. Like the syphilis treatment, though, the compound had to be absolutely fresh and precisely formulated to cure. For women with untreated chronic gonorrhea – which most prostitutes suffered – doctors cut away or cauterized any parts of the reproductive system they deemed infected. Surgical procedures were routinely performed that today would be condemned as types of female genital mutilation.6

But let’s presume our misfortunate heroine, Betty Carey, was given the full course of treatment and it worked exactly as hoped. She’s now completely STD free. Maybe she sticks around the Buena Vista castle a little longer for followup tests to show that she’s really and truly cured; maybe she’s required to attend a class on contraception and safe sex taught by someone from Margaret Sanger’s new American Birth Control League. But after that, she would be given a pile of condoms and released, right?

Sorry, Betty – that might be the European Plan, but it wasn’t the American Plan. Over there prostitutes had to be registered so their health could be monitored for public safety; over there use of condoms was encouraged. Here prostitution was being driven underground by the new, harsher CTCA-written laws; here we didn’t even send our boys overseas in WWI with condoms, despite all the Wilson administration’s squawking about soldiers “keeping fit” and the president personally directing spending on ways to protect them from VD.

No, the state was not yet done with Betty; besides confinement and care, section one of the delinquent women act also calls for rehabilitation. What did that legally mean? How could Betty prove to a judge and the Board of Trustees that she was rehabilitated – and from what, exactly? Remember: She had not been convicted of prostitution or any other crime, but instead simply ordered to be sent to the Home by a justice of the peace.

Her court-appointed attorney immediately appealed when she was sentenced to the Home. For three months Betty would pace the empty corridors of the mansion awaiting a decision from the state appeals court. If she lost, they could keep her there up to five years.

Betty Carey’s fate was to be decided by the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento. As Gentle Reader already knows there’s more to appear here about the Home for Delinquent Women, it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal now that she lost her case. Badly. But it’s the court’s reasoning behind the decision that is a true jaw-dropper, and reveals how unjust and unconstitutional the overall concept was.

Had she won any of her points it would have been unprecedented. The first suits against such sentencing appeared not long after the launch of the American Plan; with CTCA encouragement, Seattle police had conducted widespread vice raids, sweeping up “suspicious” and “disorderly” women and men (including labor activists) during the winter of 1917, holding them without bail or court hearings and forcibly starting the painful treatments whether the person had VD or not. Judges dismissed the complaints, ruling the police were acting in the interest of public welfare.7

One of those cases made it to the Washington State Supreme Court in 1918 and set an astonishing precedent. An unelected official – in this case, Seattle health commissioner J. S. McBride – had virtually unlimited authority to declare someone had a contagious disease and thus hold the person indefinitely in quarantine. Dr. McBride even refused to allow those being held to communicate with their attorneys. Not only was venereal disease now in the same category as lethal communicable diseases such as smallpox or plague, it gave police the authority to arrest and deny rights of habeas corpus to anyone they claimed was “reasonably suspected” of having VD.8

It cannot be said Betty had a poor defense. The petition for appeal was brought by Darwin J. Smith, then a statehouse reporter for the Sacramento Bee, and the attorney arguing on her behalf was Charles E. McLaughlin, Director of the State Prison Board and a former judge on the same appeals court. Their defense had five basic points:

*
A police court doesn’t have the power to commit offenders to reformatories
*
A police court can’t commit someone to an indefinite sentence
*
Commitment to an indefinite sentence is cruel and unusual punishment
*
It is discriminatory to confine women to reformatories for sex crimes and not men
*
  It is discriminatory to confine women for soliciting sex yet not men for pimping, which is soliciting sex on behalf of a woman

All were strong arguments, and in another context or another time, at least some should have won the day. But the appeals court turned down everything, even though they had to frequently wander out into legal weeds. You can read the entire decision in a few minutes; it’s only five pages. But you might want to first make sure the windows are tightly shut because you’ll probably be screaming in outrage.

Let’s get the most absurd stuff out of the way first: The court claimed the law couldn’t lock up men in the way they were about to incarcerate Betty. Why? Because there was no such thing as a male prostitute (“men cannot commit the crime of carrying on the business of prostitution…a business that can be carried on only by women”).

Next: Betty’s indefinite sentence couldn’t be considered cruel and unusual – because it wasn’t actually indefinite. Today we’d call it a Catch-22 situation: “It has uniformly been held that the indeterminate sentence is in legal effect a sentence for the maximum term.”

Women had no more legal rights than children. In order to justify Betty’s commitment to the Home by a police court judge, the appeals court cited two decisions, one of its own and another from the state supreme court. Both concerned juvenile offenders being sent to reformatories. Part of the supreme court cite stated the police court was just acting in the same role “…which, under other conditions, is habitually imposed by parents, guardians of the person, and others exercising supervision and control…”

The court also used the comparison to juvenile delinquents to make the Orwellian claim that Betty wasn’t being incarcerated at all, but merely being required to attend a reform school. Again quoting the state supreme court regarding police courts sending children to reformatories: “…the purpose in view is not punishment for the offense done, but reformation and training of the child to habits of industry, with a view to his future usefulness when he shall have been reclaimed to society…”

The longest, and most important part of the appellate court decision, didn’t address any of Betty’s complaints; instead, it attempted to justify the need to quarantine and disenfranchise women like her. Prostitutes, the judges wrote, are a unique danger to the rest of “the human kind.” They are like “the chronic typhoid carrier – a sort of clearing house for the very worst forms of disease” and that they are “a constant pathological danger no one would question.”

…The statute in question does not purport to deal with her as an innocent person. On the contrary, the law appraises her as so steeped in crime and in so exceptional an environment that ordinary methods of reformation and escape are impossible. Every door is closed to her. Every avenue of escape is shut off. The state, realizing this, has undertaken to take forcible charge of this class of unfortunates and extend to them a home, education, assistance, and encouragement in an effort, otherwise hopeless, to restore them to lives of usefulness.

This mix of loathing and compassion matched the clubwomen view, and they likewise shared a belief that Betty and the others had to be locked up until they were rehabilitated. Given enough time, eventually they would have to emerge from their chrysalis as women of adequate moral character – just as Prohibition would surely transform every drunk into a fine sober citizen.

With the court decision lost, Betty was no longer alone at The Sonoma State Home for Delinquent Women, as the “castle” began to fill up with women inmates from San Quentin and other prostitutes sentenced directly from police courts.

As for the “education, assistance, and encouragement” the court promised she would receive, Betty told the San Francisco Daily News she was being treated like an imbecile or a naughty child, with nothing to do except caring for farm animals. “I feel like one of the goats out on this farm,” said the woman born in New York City, “I shall never milk these goats.”

 

1 A Germ of Goodness: The California State Prison System, 1851-1944 by Shelley Bookspan, University of Nebraska Press, 1991; pg. 74-75
2 ibid pg. 77-78
3 Under the Sedition Act of 1918, criticism of the U.S. government, the American flag or military uniforms was outlawed. As a socialist and outspoken pacifist while the country was gearing up to enter WWI, Dr. Marie Equi was an early target of J. Edgar Hoover, then a rising star at the Bureau of Investigation office charged with harassing “radicals.”
4 The Long American Plan: The US Government’s Campaign Against Venereal Disease and Its Carriers by Scott Wasserman Stern; Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, 2015 (PDF). Much of this section is sourced from this excellent thesis.
5 ibid, pg. 384
6 Mercurochrome was not universally accepted as a cure  for gonorrhea, and the medical journals c. 1920 show physicians experimenting with a wide variety of treatments which were frequently torturous. Because it was known that a sustained high fever killed the bacteria, electrical rods or cathode ray tubes (gauss lamps) heated to 112 F were sometimes inserted vaginally for up to four hours a session and repeated daily. The most common form of gonorrheal surgery was removal of the Bartholin glands, which would cause the women agonizing pain during sex for the rest of their lives. And if that wasn’t punishment enough, the gynecology department head at the San Francisco Polyclinic Hospital wrote in the 1922 AMA journal that the Skene’s gland also should be cauterized with a hot needle, which would have destroyed nerve endings (PDF).
7 op. cit. The Long American Plan, pg. 389
8 ibid, pg. 393

 

Collage of San Quentin mugshots, 1918-1919

 

 

ALL FARMS LOOK ALIKE TO WALLACE
Agricultural Committee Will Grapple With Delinquent Women Bill
Aim of Measure Is to Take Female Prisoners From Penitentiaries

[Special Dispatch to The Call]
CALL HEADQURTERS SACRAMENTO, Jan. 13.—Thanks to Lieutenant Governor Wallace’s determination to accept things for what they may appear to be, a bill designed to establish an indeterminate sentence farm for delinquent women who have been convicted of five or more misdemeanors reposes in the hopper of the senate committee on agricultural and dairy interests.

The bill, which Is a free copy of the New York law for the treatment of delinquent females, has the support of virtually all the women’s clubs of California. It provides for the appointment by the governor of a board consisting of the prison directors and two women to have the management of a state farm for the custody of delinquent females. The board is to select a site and upon approval by the  governor purchase it and equip it with buildings for the accommodation of at least 250 inmates. The farm is to take the place of custody for females over the age of 25 who shall have been convicted on misdemeanor charges five times. The sentences are for indefinite terms, but not to exceed 3 years.

The women’s organizations framed the measure and gave it to Finn, chairman of the committee on prisons and reformatory, for introduction. Finn sent it to the desk confidently expecting that Lieutenant Governor Wallace would immediately refer it to his committee. The reading of the title “state farm for the custody of delinquent females” was lost on none but Wallace. He gravely referred the measure to the committee on agricultural and dairy interests, A shout of laughter instantly went up, but it failed to perturb Wallace. A farm measure the bill was labeled and to Wallace farm suggested agricultural and dairying.

– San Francisco Call, January 14 1911

 

WOMEN PRISONERS WILD TO GET TO BUENA VISTA.
Recently Released Political Prisoner From San Quentin Says Newcomers to Delinquent Women’s Farm Here Will Be “Classy” Janes

There has been considerable specilation among Sonoma Valley folks as to the kind of wards the State of California is to care for at the new penal institution at Buena Vista. The former Kate Johnson place known as the Castle was purchased about a year ago to be used as a farm for Delinquent Women and according to Dr. Marie D. Equi, recently released political prisoner from San Quentin, the women are yearning to get here and will be bright, classy Janes. Here is what the Oakland Tribune reveals:

“Girl prisoners at San Quentin penitentiary are the smartest women felons in the United States, according  to Dr. Marie D. Equi, political prisoner, who has just been released from the prison and who says that the latest styles are all the vogue at the Marin county resort.

“The women inmates at San Quentin are not morons by any means,” Dr. Equi declared yesterday. “They roll ‘em down, wear ‘em high and the sleek silk-clad ankle and high-heeled shoe are always in evidence at the parties staged in S. Q. F. D.” The S. Q. F. D. means the San Quentin Female Department, she explained.

The high moral tone at the State prison, however, bars cigarettes for the girls, limits the night owls to 10 p.m., prohibits debutantes from going out unchaperoned, while at the same time countenancing the “shimmy,” the bunny hug” and the “San Rafael Waddle,” Dr. Equi says.

CLASSY PRISONERS

“Western women prisoners are greatly superior in all respects to the inmates of Eastern penitentiaries where the majority in the female departments are morons or lower,” Dr. Equi, a graduate physician of Portland continued.

My cell mates at San Quentin were just the type of bright, pretty “chickens” that the tired business man cultivates for his amusement. Check-passer, murderers, women of the street, forgers and narcotic addicts mingle together – crochet, sew, cook, read books, discuss the latest styles or dance in the big living room to the jazz tunes of a piano, just like their sisters outside.

“These girls are intelligent, not intellectual. Some of them are more intelligent than the intellectual free women. Their wits are sharpened from contact with the world.”

STATE FARM BOOSTED

Dr. Equi is beginning a campaign to have the women prisoners at San Quentin transferred immediately to the new farm provided for them near Sonoma.

“Here the women will live an outdoor life and will be able to work and become more self-supporting,” says the Doctor. “The girls at Quentin are wild to get on the farm. They are housed in a little square mausoleum being permitted to go out among the green fields but once a week and having nothing to do to occupy their minds.

“Their removal from the prison to the farm is being held up pending the construction of a hospital. I contend that the women can be transferred and the hospital built afterward…

– Sonoma Index-Tribune, September 3, 1921
WILL TEST SONOMA FARM LAW

San Francisco, December 7.- Following the sentencing of Betty Carey, an alleged drug addict, to the new state home for delinquent women, near Sonoma, for an indefinite term, legal steps will be taken to test the law giving the courts authority to impose such sentences.

This was decided upon today by Police Judge Lile T. Jacks when he announced that he would pronounce sentence sending Betty Carey to the home.

Attorney Harry McKenzie, appointed by the court under agreement with Chief of Detectives Duncan Matheson, to appeal from the court’s judgment in the case, in order to test the law, expressed the hope that the law would be sustained.

Judge Jacks and Captain Matheson also declared their hope that the law would be upheld and thus give the courts clear headway in their efforts to cure the addicts who are brought before them.

The question at issue is whether or not the courts have the right to deprive an addict of his or her liberty for an indefinite period.

– Sotoyome Scimitar, December 9 1921

 

First Woman for Sonoma Farm

Miss Betty Carey, who lost a Christmas present of her liberty by failing to leave town as she promised Police Judge Lile T. Jacks, was Saturday ordered committed to the Sonoma Home for Girls. She is the first woman to be sent to the new home on court order from San Francisco county.

– Argus-Courier, January 9, 1922
WOMEN MAY BE SENT TO FARM
Court of Appeals Upholds Act; Will Operate to  Protect Morality
(By Associated Press leased Wire)

SACRAMENTO, April 10. The constitutionality of the act establishing the state prison farm for women and also the right of police and justice courts to sentence women to the prison farm for a period not exceeding five years, today were upheld by, the third district court of appeals, denying the application of Betty Carey, an inmate of the farm, for a writ of habeas corpus.

Four points were urged by Judge C. E. McLaughlin on behalf of the petitioner in applying for the writ, as follows:

That it was beyond the jurisdiction of the police court of San Francisco where Betty Carey was arrested to sentence her to the prison farm for an indeterminate sentence which might amount to a detention for five years; that the punishment is cruel and unusual; that the act is discriminatory in that it applied only to women and that the legislation can not be general enactment modify an ordinance of San Francisco.

Replying to Judge McLaughlin’s first contention, Judge J. T. Prewett of Auburn, as the juristice protem, who wrote the opinion, declared the claim that the police court was without jurisdiction to sentence women to the prison farm was untenable. He cited Supreme Court cases upholding the right of police and justice courts to commit minors to reformatories and he held the same right existed in the matter of sentencing women to the prison farm. He declared the purpose in view is not punishment for the offense done but reformation to reclaim the women to society.

Being that the commitment of women to the prison farm is only for the purposes of assistance and reformation,” Judge Prewett held that the incarceration can not be regarded as cruel and unusual punishment.

Replying to Judge McLaughlin’s claim that the statute is unconstitutional in that it discriminates against women, Judge Prewett quoted from a Supreme Court decision holding that legislation may be directed to women as a class and that they may be segregated into groups or sub-classed in the interests of public health, safety or morals.

– San Bernardino Sun, April 11 1922

 

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THE HIGH COST OF CUSSING

Heading back a century to visit Santa Rosa in your time machine? Remember this: Use swear words in front of women or children – or anywhere on the street where they could be within earshot – and you might spend weeks in jail or pay a stiff fine.

The Santa Rosa newspapers of the late 19th/early 20th centuries often reported men (VERY rarely women) being arrested for vile, obscene, profane or otherwise offensive language in public – and even in private, when the cusser was also accused of assault or another crime. Punishment was twice as severe as public drunkenness or brawling, and some spent months in the city jail for letting fly.

This topic has been visited here before in the context of cussing being a more serious offense in 1907 than parents starving their children or someone brutally whipping an animal. Another example like that from 1893 finds drunken “Windy Jim” tried to strangle his landlady in Healdsburg, only to be stopped by her son stabbing the guy with a fork and just narrowly missing his eye. But it appears ol’ Windy got three months in the county slammer not for the choking but for the indecent language that she – as a woman – was forced to endure while he was trying to kill her.

It was never made clear what words were offensive. Was “damn” okay without a preceding “god”? What about compound phrases with “hell,” “bastard,” and “bitch?” Was “arsehole,” “bollocks” or “shite” acceptable if the person saying or hearing it was from the UK? (Full disclosure: While we were reshingling the house, under the original 1905 tarpaper someone had written, “arsehole Baker” on the side of the house, “Baker” presumably being the shingle subcontractor.)

An assortment of items can be found transcribed below, but there were many hundreds of arrests reported in the newspapers over the years. These are a few of my favorites:

* In 1913, Joe Goess was arrested in the town of Sonoma for language that was “said to have been particularly flagrant.” When brought before the judge, “young Goess turned on the justice and unloaded some unseemly language.” He was locked up without bail.

* When Robert Butts’ hounds got loose in 1916, neighbor McIntosh took a few shots at them when they came on his property. Mr. Butts did not like that and went over to have words with his neighbor, where he “used some uncomplimentary language towards Mrs. Mclntosh in the absence of her husband.” Butts was charged with disturbing the peace although there was apparently no one else present.

*  In 1922 a Cotati man named James Codioni was fined $50 for making obscene phone calls, with the interesting twist that it was telephone company employees who nabbed him and marched him down to the police.

Santa Rosa’s obscenity law is really old, dating back to original town ordinances of 1867. Sandwiched between a ban on riding horses on the sidewalk and mildly discouraging prostitution was §5, which outlawed “…[within] the hearing of two or more persons, any bawdy, lewd or obscene words or epithets.”

It appears no one was charged under the law for over ten years (although I really doubt that) when Charles Hall was arrested in 1877 for “using language calculated to cause a breach of the peace.” Nothing more was reported about the case, possibly because the accusation was bogus; the guy accusing him was in serious trouble for brandishing a deadly weapon, having been turned in by Hall.

Obscene language charges began tapering off during the Roaring Twenties, and from then on were most frequently bundled together with more serious offenses, such as the arrest of a group of underage kids for rowdiness and drinking. It also remained a justification for divorce in those pre no-fault years often paired with accusations of spousal physical abuse.

Curiously, I’ve never read of anyone charged during those years with the related crime of obscene graffiti – although during the mid-1930s, Petaluma was itching to catch and arrest the vandals who kept painting dirty words on the “big hen” statue at the end of the town, seen here in 1936 with its most recent defacement not quite scrubbed clean. (Photograph by John Gutmann)

UPDATE: Someone on Facebook commented that these laws were a shout out to the “politically correct crowd.” It’s a lot more complex than just appeasing the churchgoers of the day. I’m sure religious moralists in every town in the country had similar obscenity ordinances in place and some enforced the law strictly while others mostly ignored it. These laws were even exploited as a means of vengeance, as per Mrs. McIntosh in 1916. But the obscenity laws were also sometimes used to deal with bad situations where no laws were yet on the books which were directly applicable – see the 1907 story about the drunk parents starving their children. That said, Santa Rosa seems to have turned the law into a cash cow during the 1900s and 1910s, with the local police dragging offenders into court to pay hefty fines or face months behind bars.

 

 

 

 

Justices Court.— Mr. L. Howard was arraigned before Justice McGee on Wednesday, charged by Chas. Hall with exhibiting a deadly weapon. He was found guilty. Sentence postponed until Monday, October 29. Howard then had Hall arrested under a city ordinance, for using language calculated to cause a breach of the peace. Trial set for Saturday, the 27th.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 27 1877

Police Court Docket for Tuesday: John Cummings, for using vulgar language, ten days; James Miller, drunkenness, five days; H. Beck, vulgar language, ten days; M. Quin, drunkenness, five days; Wm. Vail, drunkenness, $5.

– Sonoma County Daily Democrat, May 7 1890
HE USED INDECENT LANGUAGE.
“Windy Jim” Stinson Sent to the County Jail for a Term of Three Months.

Wednesday night a week Marshal Leard and his deputy, L. A. Norton, took into their custody the ex-policeman Jim Stinson, better known as “Windy Jim,” at the instance of his landlady, Mrs. C. J. Lelouarn, in whose presence he used profane language. The prisoner made no resistance of arrest and marched to the bastile with little concern. He objected, however, to being confined in jail like an “ordinary” criminal and sent out a couple of men to hunt up sureties for his appearance in court, but they were not to he found and he had not ampIe funds on hand to put up cash bail, consequently he was compelled to go behind the bars. The next day he was arraigned before Justice Coffman on the charge, and when the testimony of the plaintiff and her two little sons was heard he was assigned to the county jail for three months without the alternative of a fine.

Stinson came here about three years ago from Petaluma, where, it is rumored, he was tendered an invitation by the citizens to make his residence elsewhere. Shortly afterward he look up his quarters at Mrs. Lelouarn’s house in North Healdsburg, but only until lately did he compensate the lady for his board and lodging, when he furnished her with a few groceries occasionally. Mrs. Lelouarn is a widow, the mother of three young children and is a cripple. She depends on washing and housework for a livelihood. A week before Stinson’s arrest she alleges that he assailed her. That afternoon she had been at work for Mrs. A. L. Paul, assisting her in moving and when she returned home she found that Stinson had barred her out by fastening the door. When she forced it open the monster grasped her by the throat and she might have been strangled had not her son, Henry, come to her assistance with a table fork, with which he punctured the flesh over Stinson’s ieft eye. Of late Stinson had been drinking heavily and the neighbors say that such disturbances were of frequent occurrence. His absence from Healdsburg is generally hailed with delight.

– Sonoma County Tribune (Healdsburg), January 19 1893

 

Was Disturbing the Peace

Officer Boyes arrested a young man on Main street Saturday night upon a charge of disturbing the peace and using vulgar language in front of the Salvation Army headquarters. The fellow ran at the approach of the officer, but the latter caught him as he was disappearing down an alley in Chinatown and locked him up at the police station.

– Press Democrat, June 9 1901

 

USED BAD LANGUAGE
Man Arrested for Improper Behavior on Wilson Street Monday Night

George Bates was arrested on Wilson street Monday night and was locked up on a charge of using profane and indecent language in the presence of women and children. Bates will have to explain his conduct to Police Judge Bagley this morning.

– Press Democrat, June 26 1906

 

WAS FINED $30
George Deacon Punished for Using Bad Language on the Street

Thursday morning George Deacon appeared before Police Judge Bagley to answer to the compfalnt that he used disgusting language on Third atreet on the previous evening. A fine of $30 was imposed with an alternative of fifteen days in jail. Deacon paid the money after spending a few minutes In Jail.

– Press Democrat, August 17 1906

Bad Language on the Streets

On the complaint of S. Graham George Chester was arrested by Policeman Yeager on Sunday night charged with using vulgar and offensive language on the streets. Chester gave bail for his appearance before Police Judge Bagley.

The use of improper language, particularly when women and children are passing, is altogether too prevalent, and the officers mean to take steps to make examples of the offenders in this respect.

– Press Democrat, September 10 1907

 

MAN IS FINED FOR USING PROFANITY

Walter Petross paid a fine of $10 in the City Recorder’s court Wednesday for indulging in the use of profane language on the street Tuesday evening in the vicinity of the Nickelodeon. This shall serve as a warning to other profanity hawkers.

– Press Democrat, February 13 1908

Arrested for Disturbance

James Aker, a lad who used profane language and created trouble on the lake Sunday, is locked up In the county jail pending a hearing for disturbing the peace. As he has been in trouble on a number of occasions it is probable that he will serve some time in jail before being liberated.

– Press Democrat, May 24 1910

 

VILE LANGUAGE LED TO A THRASHING

Sheriff J. K. Smith was called to Cotati Saturday evening to arrest a couple of men whom, it was claimed, had assaulted a man there when he visited their camp, they being members of a hay baling crew from Stockton. On his arrival Sheriff Smith was informed that the visitor to the camp had used vile language in the presence of women and children, and failed to heed the warning to stop, and was then given a trouncing by members of the crew. The Sheriff hunted him up and informed him that it stood him in hand to drop the matter or he might find himself getting a worst defeat In th« courts. That ended the incident.

– Press Democrat, August 20 1911

 

USED VULGAR LANGUAGE BEFORE LITTLE CHILDREN

Joe Goess, a young man of Sonoma, was arrested there on Sunday afternoon by Deputy Sheriff Joe Ryan on a charge of using vulgar language in the presence of women and children. The alleged offense occurred on Main street, and is said to have been particularly flagrant. When spoken to about his conduct by Justice Campbell, young Goess turned on the justice and unloaded some unseemly language. Justice Campbell took the young into custody and turned him over to Ryan, who locked the offender in jail. His examination took place Monday.

– Santa Rosa Republica, April 28, 1913

 

SIXTY DAYS IN JAIL FOR INSULTING WOMEN

Monday was a busy time with City Recorder W. P. Bagley. There were thirteen cases in his court that day. Four drunks were dismissed, but one returned later and will face his fate Tuesday. One drunk had his case continued while two others paid fines of $5 each and two went to jail for three days each. One driver who stopped his auto on the wrong side of the street had his case continued, while one vagrant went to jail for five days and another was dismissed. A man who insulted women on the street appeared with an attorney, but it did not prevent him getting sixty days in jail for the offense.

– Press Democrat, May 20 1913

 

THE VULGAR TALK TO BE STOPPED
Police Will Endeavor to Check Behavior That is Devoid of Manliness

Chief of Police J. M. Boyes and his department are determined to put a stop to the practice that has become altogether too prevalent in Santa Rosa on the part of some persons who seem to take delight in using vulgar and unseemly language on the sidewalks or in public places.

The only way to reach the offenders will be to arrest one or two and make examples of them in the police court. The language complained of is generally used, possibly not intentionally, at times when ladies are in hearing distance. There is nothing manly in such conduct as this, and complaints have been made.

– Press Democrat, August 8 1913
Charged With Using Improper Language

Robert Butts, charged with disturbing the piece [sic]  by J. O. McIntosh, was arraigned before Justice Marvin T. Vaughan Saturday, and his case continued to be set. Butts was released on $250 bail pending a hearing. It is claimed that when Butts’ hounds got loose and trespassed on the McIntosh place, Mr. McIntosh fired at them, but failed to kill any of them. It is claimed that Butts learning of this went to the home and used some uncomplimentary language towards Mrs. McIntosh in the absence of her husband, which resulted in the complaint being sworn out.

– Press Democrat, March 26 1916

 

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