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 (coming soon) 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



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


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.


“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.”


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

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
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


Read More



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
“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


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


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



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



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



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



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


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


Read More



Candidate for best headline ever in the Press Democrat: “The Town OK, People Wrong”. That was how the paper described one of the talks given as part of a 1913 lecture series titled, “What Is the Matter with Santa Rosa?” Some of the complaints were quite serious (corruption, unsafe schools) and some were personal gripes (our kids “are allowed too much of a certain kind of liberty”) but they all offered a unique window into life here a century ago.

Leading off the series was Rev. G. W. Henning, pastor of the Unitarian church at the corner of Third and D streets. His charges were broad and explosive: Our elected officials ignore the will of the people and we need a new city charter, “one under which ‘bad’ men can do no mischief.”

Most eye-opening was his complaint about “our partnership in the saloon and ‘red-light’ district,” going into some detail that we must rehabilitate the prostitutes “whereby they can earn an honest and decent living.” Santa Rosa’s tenderloin was supposedly abolished in 1909, although there were hints in subsequent years that most of the ladies were still working at several houses around the intersection of First and D streets. This is the first confirmation it was still an ongoing problem.

(RIGHT: Scene from “An Unseen Enemy” with Dorothy and Lillian Gish. This short silent film played at the Theaterette in Santa Rosa October 4, 1912)

It was also surprising to find the reverend insisting the charter must be rewritten to keep “bad” men from harming the town. That sounds like the accusations made shortly before the 1906 earthquake in the Santa Rosa Republican, when that paper was briefly operated by a pair of muckraking journalists. They charged city leaders were in cahoots with a “scheming coterie of gentlemen who manage to protect their private interests by the conduct of the city government through the present administration.” Nothing more about their detailed allegations of graft and corruption was discussed in the Republican after editorial control returned to the publisher after the quake.

The next speaker was City Health Officer Jackson Temple who complained he was underpaid and overworked, his department lacked funding, the water supply would likely be contaminated because the city was too cheap to improve it and someone’s gonna die because important public health decisions were being made by know-nothings like the mayor and police chief. Dr. Temple was probably lots of fun at parties.

The lecture with the winning “The Town OK, People Wrong” headline was presented by Attorney Frances McG. Martin, an eloquent suffragist in the 1911 fight to grant women the right to vote in California.

Press Democrat coverage of her remarks was slim, but the Republican newspaper reprinted all (or nearly all) of what she said. And some of it was pretty wild, telling the audience you can’t legislate morality, but you can criminalize immoral conduct and drive it into the shadows. (“…Even if immoral men and women are only forced to be secretly immoral, it is far preferable to flaunting their indecencies in the faces of young and old.”) Then she went on a rant against the lousy way Santa Rosa parents were raising their kids:

Young people of Santa Rosa are allowed too much of a certain kind of liberty. Children, disobedient to parents and teachers, bid fair to make very poor citizens. Young girls and boys are permitted to frequent our streets and public places of amusement at night, unaccompanied by parent or guardian, thereby incurring the gravest risks. High school girls, in many cases, attend school dressed as though for a social function, sometimes roughed and powdered and crowned with a wealth of rats and false hair. Elaborate dancing parties, given in club house or hall, are here considered necessary for pupils attending school, instead of simple home parties; and no ‘coming out’ will be possible for these young people when their school days are over, for a ‘bud’ once unfolded, can never again be a bud.

The PD didn’t cover the following talk at all, but Attorney Thomas J. Butts was the most cheery and optimistic speaker of the bunch. Our schools were good, churches plentiful, courthouse the best and “our city government is as good as we deserve” The following year Butts ran for mayor and lost by a considerable margin.

“The one great trouble with Santa Rosa is lack of co-operation,” said Butts. “We don’t work together. Take the matter of parks. The energy and zeal which it called forth is commendable, but there was no co-operation. Every section wanted a park. Every property owner want a park in his back yard. Consequently, we have no spot to which we may point with pride, much less where a person may rest.” The town’s lack of a single park was obviously a cause for Butts, who wrote an essay on the same theme a year before. As I commented then, you should read it and decide for yourself whether it’s the work of someone a little unhinged.

Butts also wanted the citizens of Santa Rosa to get serious about gardening. “We have Luther Burbank in our midst…All our gardens should be emulation of Burbank’s but we seem to prefer to raise cabbage.”

The final speaker was Margaret Stanislawsky, a parent and activist for better schools. She singled out the Fremont school (corner of Fourth and North streets) and Lincoln school (Eighth and Davis) as being “fire-traps,” invoking the tragedy of the 1908 Collinwood school fire, where 172 children were trapped and burned to death at an elementary school on the outskirts of Cleveland. Frances McG. Martin earlier had also commented on school conditions: “The Fremont school house has been the lurking place of contagious diseases for more than 20 years, and should fire break out on the lower floor, the faulty construction of this relic of the dark ages would surely cause the loss of many precious lives.”

These comments echo muckraking stories on the poor conditions of Santa Rosa schools which appeared in the Republican during Dec. 1904. The reporter found the elementary schools overcrowded and in poor condition, with only natural lighting so classrooms were sometimes dark. The South Park school didn’t even have a sewer hookup, with an outhouse and greywater from the building  draining into an open ditch in front of the building. (EDIT: on closer reading, the 1904 paper stated only water from sinks went into the ditch.) Like the investigative series on political corruption, there was no followup concerning school issues by either Santa Rosa paper after the muckraking duo departed.

Martin and Stanislawsky were also in agreement that the town treated people from outside the town like second-class citizens, even though Santa Rosa was “dependent on the farmers of the surrounding territory for an existence,” as Martin said. She chided the city for “refusing to supply them with hitching places for their horses,” a complaint which first aired in 1910 because hitching posts were yielding to parking spots. Martin also dropped the interesting statistic that there was then (in 1913) three hundred automobiles owned in Santa Rosa.

Stanislawsky further slapped the town for not allowing farmers to use its public library. “You people in town depend upon these neighbors as much as they depend upon you. If it were not for their support, there would not be much business in Santa Rosa-—not much business property to bear taxes for the sake of the library or for anything else. It is well worth your while to have the goodwill of the country people,” she said.



Reproducing in part the lecture of the previous Sunday evening, the Rev. G. W. Henning continued last Sunday evening to point out some of the things that are the matter with the city of his adoption. He said:

“We are not satisfied with out streets, our lights, our schools, our partnership in the saloon and ‘red-light’ district, and want these conditions changed. We have elected ‘good’ men—-the very best available to administer our municipal affairs, and yet are not satisfied—-in fact, we repudiate their sober propositions 15 to 1. We are sure we have neither efficiency, economy nor progress in our municipal management-—and will not be satisfied with anything else, nor less.

“But, I want it understood,” said Mr. Henning, touching the ’red light proposition, “that I will take no part in a campaign to drive out these unfortunate and sinful women, not to disturb them in any way until provision is made whereby they can earn an honest and decent living. They are driven for the most into vice by economic conditions our making—-and we-—the social body-—must bear the blame and the shame until we provide the remedy.

“In diagnosing the case of Santa Rosa, I have decided that it calls for constitutional treatment. Our charter is antiquated and unfit for a modern city. We must have a new one, adapted to changed conditions, one under which ‘bad’ men can do no mischief. We must have the latest and the best—-a city government after the pattern of Houston, Des Moines, Sioux City-—efficient, economical, progresslve.”

Mr. Henning announced the would be assisted in the case of Santa Rosa by Dr. Jackson Temple, Rolfe Thompson, Dr. I. H. Wyland and District Attorney Clarence F. Lea, whose several topics and dates would be advertised.

– Press Democrat, March 4, 1913

“You and I, and the rest of us—-we are Santa Rosa!” City Health Officer Jackson Temple told an audience of about 250 persons at Unitarian church Sunday evening. “There Is nothing the matter with us–that is, nothing that we ourselves may not remedy,” he went on.

The occasion was the first of a series of five lectures to be delivered by prominent citizens upon invitation of the Rev. G. W. Henning, on the subject “What’s the Matter With Santa Rosa?” Dr. Temple, as health officer, devoted his speech mainly to matters of sanitation. He favors a “commission” form of government, and would have the health department reconstructed, with a physician and a sanitary plumber as its working officers, rather than the present body, which consists of the Mayor, the Chief of Police, the City Engineer, one member of the City Council, and a physician, who is also health officer. Their duties are to enforce municipal ordinances and State and national laws affecting sanitation; enforcement of quarantine regulations, and recording the city’s vital statistics. The health department is handicapped by lack of equipment and by lack of funds,

“When I assumed my duties as health officer,” said the speaker, “I did so for the munificent recompense of ten dollars a month. I had to pay out of my own pocket more than that amount just for the filing of necessary records alone. This fault has since been partially obviated by increasing my salary to twenty-five dollars a month: but still I use that much or more for absolutely necessary expenses of the work, and I do the work for nothing. The same may be said of the other members with whom I serve. We have made periodic inspections of stores and restaurants: we have had backyards cleaned when they needed it, and have enforced the provision of fly-proof containers for such garbage as cannot be frequently removed. We have enforced the State law requiring all food to be screened from flies, and we have helped the State Dairy Bureau in improving your milk supply. Without expense to the city we have made bacteriological and microscopic examinations in contagious and infectious diseases-—there having been more than 250 of these in four months for diphtheria alone. The State board can do this work, but we can always do it 24 hours earlier than they can; and if the gain in time has saved only one life, it was certainly worth while to have the work done by the local board…

…”Our streets and their drainage present a trying problem. Our city has been laid out in disjointed sections, complicating the problems of the sewer system. The city’s water supply needs additional protection from contamination. Improvement has been made in this respect, but there Is more to be done. A concrete wall to keep surface water from the wells would cost approximately $2,000, and it is badly needed.

“Our present form of city government lacks the essential element of fixed responsibility. A commission form of government would change this. The people of Santa Rosa—-you and I and all of us-—should study these questions and solve them ourselves.” The Rev. Mr. Henning called upon those who endorsed Dr. Temple’s views to signify their approval by raised hands, and virtually all those present did so. Also the audience gave the health officer a vote of thanks for his discourse.

– Press Democrat, April 1, 1913
Attorney Frances McG. Martin Has Something to Say on “What Is the Matter with Santa Rosa?”

The question “What is the matter with Santa Rosa?” which is being discussed by various speakers at the Unitarian church, was ably handled Sunday night by Attorney Frances McG. Martin. A large audience greeted the speaker and her remarks were cordially received.

Mrs. Martin held that nothing was wrong with Santa Rosa, but that several things were wrong with the citizens of the community. She dwelt on the fact that although dependent on the farmers of the surrounding territory for an existence, the city treated the farmers in a most selfish manner, refusing to supply them with hitching places for their horses or a park in which they might spend a part of their long trying shopping days.

The speaker said that the question of cost had been raised, but pointed out that there were three hundred automobiles owned in Santa Rosa and that if the cost of each machine averaged $1,000 it would mean that $300,000 was spent for machines to take people out of town, while the cry was being raised that there was not money enough to provide accommodations for the people coming into town.

Mrs. Martin touched on many other points, and her argument was logical, clear and forceful. She was heartily applauded by her hearers at the close of her remarks.

– Press Democrat, April 8, 1913



“No community has the right to compel children to attend school in buildings wherein any precaution for their health and safety has been neglected. Attendance upon our grade schools in Santa Rosa is made compulsory by law. Can we say that sucn precautions are not neglected here? If catastrophe should come, with what horror-stricken eyes and aching hearts should we look back upon what might have been done!

“Does Santa Rosa need the lesson of Cleveland brought to her own doors? May God avert it! To my mind, remedy of this neglect is Santa Rosa’s most urgent duty.”

The speaker was Mrs. Henry Stanislawsky. Sunday evening at First Unitarian church, in one of a series of lectures by well known residents ot this city, upon the same topic—-” What Is the Matter with Santa Rosa?” Mrs. Stanislawsky has not lived in Santa Rosa so long as have others who had given lectures upon the same subject in the same church, but she is evidently a close observer and a thoughtful student. Withal she is a pleasing and forceful speaker, with an earnest delivery and a lucid diction that make her meanings clear. Improvement of the school buildings was her first and strongest demand.

“In the town where I lived before I came to Santa Rosa,” she said, “there was at the time of the terrible Cleveland fire a nearly new brick schoolhouse—-large, commodious, comfortable. The shocking disaster at Cleveland made every school district in the country at least momentarily alert to precaution for safety in case of fire. Then it was seen that our new schoolhouse was utterly and criminally unsafe. Fire drills had been frequent, but the exits from the upper stories were only two flights of stairs leading Into the central hall—-exits like to those that had murdered so many little ones at Cleveland-—exits quite similar to those of the Fremont school and the Lincoln school in Santa Rosa. It was seen that, if fire broke out, the large probability—-almost certainty-—was that the draft in those stairs and halls would make them the main pathway of the flame; exit there would be blocked, and the fire-drills would have proved worse than useless. A panic would be inevitable…

…If you cannot afford new buildings, can you not at least make, the old ones safe?”

Extend Library Privileges

“Another recommendation I wish to urge is, that Santa Rosa should make her public library free to her rural neighbors. True, the townspeople maintain the library, but to permit people from the nearby country to borrow books would involve no initial cost, and but a slight additional cost for upkeep. That courtesy to your neighbors would be appreciated. You people in town depend upon these neighbors as much as they depend upon you. If it were not for their support, there would not be much business in Santa Rosa-—not much business property to bear taxes for the sake of the library or for anything else. It is well worth your while to have the goodwill of the country people. It is a good business proposition…

– Press Democrat, April 29, 1913



Read More