It’s the most infamous event in Santa Rosa history, but there’s really not much to say about it – as long as you stick to the facts, that is.
There are just four first-hand accounts of what happened at the jailhouse late on the night of November 9, 1920 and the lynching that followed at the Rural Cemetery. The most important came from Clarence H. “Barney” Barnard, who was the only member of the lynching party to talk about it. Almost 65 years after the events, Barnard walked into the Press Democrat office and asked to speak to Gaye LeBaron. His recollections – which appeared in her December 8, 1985 column – rewrote several key parts of the story. She also recorded an interview with him in 1989 which is available on the SSU website (it adds little to what she originally wrote, and Barnard was so confused at that point he was unsure if he had been born in 1889 or 1899).
Setting the record straight is important, but the core of the story remained unchanged: An unidentified group of men seized three gangsters being held at the Sonoma County jail and hung them from a tree. It was not unexpected; after Sheriff Jim Petray’s murder and the subsequent riot at the jail, the county was awash with rumors that a lynching was in the works.
It was presumed that the attack was being organized in San Francisco or Healdsburg and would most likely come on Tuesday, the day of Petray’s funeral. “Frankly, I fear for what may happen after the funeral tonight,” an anonymous county official said in a widely reprinted United Press wire story. Sheriff Boyes doubled the guard at the jail and stationed deputies outside.
But Tuesday night passed without incident except to note it kept raining – although it was still early December, they were soon to pass total rainfall from the entire previous year. Wednesday night was calm (but wet) as well. As the arraignments were coming up Friday morning, it looked like there would be no trouble after all. Sheriff Boyes and the others went home Thursday night to a well-deserved rest, leaving Chief Deputy Sheriff Marvin “Butch” Robinson alone on the night desk.
Butch was tired as well, and sometime after 11PM went upstairs to the cellblock to get some sleep. The phone rang. It was a Mrs. Heney who lived near the Rural Cemetery.1
“I asked her what was the trouble,” Robinson told the Coroner’s jury. “She said there were several machines [cars] out there and there was a crowd and didn’t know that there had been an accident or not.” She wanted someone to come out and investigate, but Butch had no other deputy to dispatch to the scene and anyway, assumed it was probably just a fender-bender. He went back to bed.
“Well, I will tell you, when I got home tonight from this funeral the people were getting pretty well stirred up,” Butch quoted him, “and I think from what I can gather there is going to be some trouble.” The deputy took his word for it, calling Sheriff Boyes to suggest he come in. It was about 11:30 by then.
“It was not but a few minutes and the telephone rang again; it was a long distance call and they wanted to know if we anticipated trouble in behalf of the friends of those three ruffians we had in jail,” Butch Robinson testified. He said the caller warned him, “You better be prepared, because I think there is a move on foot their friends [sic] are going to come up and take them from your custody.”
A different person called from the neighborhood by the cemetery. “There is more machines congregating out here, certainly something is going to happen,” Robinson recalled him saying.
By then Sheriff Boyes was back at the jail, where Robinson told him, “I think that gang is congregating out here near the cemetery.”
Boyes asked two of the Healdsburg visitors to go there and see if their leaders would come speak with him so he could (hopefully) dissuade them of violence.
Boyes started telephoning deputies and ordering them in. One of the mysteries of that evening is why he didn’t contact Santa Rosa’s Chief of Police, as their combined forces had successfully repelled the Sunday night assault on the jail.
The Healdsburg emissaries returned from the cemetery and told Boyes they were willing to parlay with him in thirty minutes. “Their half hour was but a few minutes,” said Robinson, “when that mob come through the door, they had guns in their hands.” One of the attackers was carrying an acetylene torch. They were wearing bandanas or flour sacks with eye hole cutouts as masks.
Sheriff Boyes gave his account twice, first to a Press Democrat reporter and then as testimony at the inquest the next morning. Unfortunately, the PD added some embellishments that have been since repeated as fact, such as claiming Boyes said there were 400 vigilantes.
At the inquest he said there were over 50 men in the jail; Robinson told the jury there were about 40. Barney Barnard later said there were no more than 30 in all and some remained outside guarding the autos and watching the street. Deputy Sheriff Dickson was enroute to the jail before he was stopped half a block away and held at gunpoint until the operation was over. A PD reporter was chased away by another vigilante with a gun.
Robinson and the two deputies who had lately arrived were pushed back to the entrance gate of the cellblock by some of the masked men. They demanded Butch surrender the key. He couldn’t, he explained, because the sheriff took away all the keys every night. Barnard told Gaye LeBaron in 1985, “If we couldn’t get the keys, we were ready to burn our way in. We had cutting torches to cut the locks.”
Another group was holding Boyes and the visitors from Healdsburg in his office. The sheriff tried to reason with the vigilantes – let the law do its job, he begged, let the courts pass sentence on the gangsters and let San Quentin hang them soon after. “They howled me down.”
His revolver was taken away and they found the keys in his pockets. Boyes and the visitors were taken to the back office. The sheriff grabbed for the phone as one of the five guards immediately snipped the cords. “Sit down here and be still, we will not harm you,” ordered a “big fellow” who did all the talking. Boyes continued:
“Show us where they are,” a vigilante demanded while a gun was held to Robinson’s head. In truth, he didn’t know where Boyd was – before his night shift began, the sheriff had moved the wounded gangster downstairs. The District Attorney had promised to bring Boyd into court on a stretcher for the upcoming arraignment, and that would be easier if the prisoner was already on the ground floor.4
In the cell next door, however, they found another of the gangsters. Butch Robinson testified:
In a nearby cell they found Terry Fitts, who likewise shouted for help until he was muzzled: “My God, men, save me! Save me! I didn’t have anything to do with it,” he reportedly cried. The sheriff could hear his screaming from downstairs.
Failing to find Boyd in the regular cellblock, the vigilantes moved to search the ground floor, where they found him in a cell lying on a cot. “Here is the skunk we are looking for,” Butch heard one of them say. They pulled him off the cot and tied him up like the others.
With the three gangsters tied up and covered in blankets, they were rushed out the jail to the waiting cars on Third street. “We had it all planned,” Barnard recalled. “One man to take his feet, one man around the middle and another at the shoulders.”
Everything went like clockwork. Asked how long it took, Sheriff Boyes said, “It was a very short time, I don’t think they were in the building over eight or nine minutes.”
One of the last vigilantes to leave said goodbye to Boyes and threw the keys to him over the wall [entrance gate]. In the few moments it took him to unlock the gate and walk to the front door, all the cars were already gone.
“I wonder what the people did with my gun; did they take it away?” he pondered. When he stepped outside a fellow walked up and handed him the revolver. As the vigilantes were leaving, one of them gave it to the man and told him to return it to the sheriff.
Our last firsthand account came from a man who might have attended that dance. “While I was passing one of the guards downtown I was mistaken for one of the lynchers. ‘Put on that mask you fool,’ the guard said. I pulled my handkerchief and put it across my face.”
Realizing what was underway, he trailed them to the cemetery and hid across the street to watch the lynching take place. As the only eyewitness to speak of it other than Barney Barnard, this anonymous person – dubbed here as “Eyewitness” – confirmed that the lurid accounts that appeared in the press were not true. (The creative juices were certainly overflowing in some newsrooms: “Terry Fitts, the bravado and the bully, ended life in a cringing, screaming fung of fear” – Associated Press.)
In his 1989 interview with Gaye LeBaron, Barney Barnard said everything was ready when the caravan arrived at the cemetery; the ropes with the hangman’s knot were already over the tree limb.
“The cars parked in a semicircle and kept their lights on. There were a couple of spotlights on the tree, but all the headlights were on so we could see” (1985 interview).
The nooses were slipped over their necks. Barnard, 1989: “…they never said a word. Even Valento, they didn’t holler or say a word, they just seemed to be paralyzed…you have to drag him up off the ground, see. It takes several men to drag a man up. I know I helped pull on one of the ropes and it was quite a job to get him up off the ground.”
The Eyewitness: “The three men didn’t kick much at first. Then when their necks began to stretch, Valento began flopping his arms just like a rooster dies when its head is cut off. He did this for quite a while and the crowd shouted, ‘he is getting his medicine now.’ Boyd didn’t kick much because he was too weak and Fitts was too scared and beaten up to do much kicking.” Fitts – the despised Santa Rosa native who had gotten away with much because of his family’s privileged status – was the only gangster whose face was bloodied.
Barnard called the ringleader of the lynching party “the Captain,” and in 1985 said he wouldn’t let anyone leave until all of the gangsters were dead: “The Captain kept testing them, taking their pulse. It took 10, 15 minutes for them to die. Longest time I can ever remember. Every minute seemed like an hour to me. All I wanted to do was get out of there.”
The Eyewitness: “A bunch in the crowd had their guns out and were ready to fill the gangsters with bullets but others shouted not to shoot as they would hit their friends. The men with guns were pushed back and no shots were fired.”
“Pretty soon I got sick and turned away,” the Eyewitness concluded. “I had been crouching across the road from the cemetery. It was sickening. I was afraid to leave because the men around there were so nervous and high strung that I was afraid they would think I was trying to give them away. I couldn’t recognize any of them.”
Gentle Reader may be asking, “hey, what did the sheriff and the deputies do once they were free? Did they race to the police station two doors away to phone the state police and/or other local law enforcement agencies in hopes of stopping the lynching, or at least try to nab the vigilantes by setting up roadblocks (as the Captain was expecting)? Answer: None of the above. Sheriff Boyes didn’t even wake up the District Attorney. From Butch Robinson’s testimony:
In the collage of photos from the SF Call shown above, the top left shows a group of men and women dumbly examining a rope as if they’ve never seen such a thing before. The guy in the middle wearing a derby and tan overcoat is likely Butch.
And so it was over. There’s lots to wrap up in the next and final chapter, but let’s update this part of the story until around dawn.
Waiting for her husband to return and not knowing what had happened, Clara Boyes watched as an unusual number of cars drove by in the early morning hours. “When I had come home I told my wife about it and she told me she counted 47 machines passing there, that is, coming down College Avenue…” the Sheriff said at the inquest.5
The Press Democrat had received a tip earlier in the evening that the lynching was about to take place, but the night editor apparently dismissed it as a hoax. “A phone message said it was reported there that the lynching was to take place at 11 o’clock, and asked for information, but at that hour all was quiet on the streets and about the jail.” The call came from Petaluma and the paper afterwards speculated a lynching party from San Francisco must have stopped there – another myth which would be repeated until Barney Barnard came forward. But after a PD reporter was stopped by a vigilante on the street, the newsroom mobilized to cover the biggest local story of their era.
As soon as the vigilantes were gone, the Press Democrat had two photographers there to record the scene. The one who took the iconic picture was Oscar Swanets, who had a photography studio on Fifth street. The PD did not have the equipment to make a halftone printing plate, however, so the paper – which had an editorial arrangement with the San Francisco Call – had it rushed to the city. In a replay of events following the Monday riot, speed demon Ernest Ridley, who the PD called “one of the ‘wildest’ automobile drivers in the county,” raced it to the Call, arriving before dawn. (To the irk of publisher Ernest Finley, a man illegally obtained a copy of the negative and sold thousands of high-quality postcards, as seen below.)
By the time Coroner Frank Phillips and Deputy Coroner Frank Welti cut down the bodies, hundreds of people had come and gone from the scene. But they weren’t there just to gawk – they hungered for souvenirs, and they kept coming long after events otherwise settled down.
“The rope which was used to hang the men had been cut into many pieces and divided,” reported the Santa Rosa Republican. “The lynching tree has been nearly hacked to bits by souvenir hunters. Even grass, rocks and bits of the fence in the immediate vicinity of the hanging have been carried off,” according to the PD. Deputy Gus Jewett pleaded for the return of the blankets which had been used to wrap the gangsters. “Jewett says that he is custodian of this property and responsible to the county of Sonoma and that if the blankets are returned no questions will be asked.”
Displaying a souvenir showed you wholeheartedly supported what happened that night at the cemetery. In the days afterward, men in Santa Rosa wore strands of hemp supposedly snipped from the lynching ropes in their buttonholes and women wore little bows of the same on their hats as a sign of solidarity.
Barney Barnard – who died in 2008 at the age of 108 – was only twenty when he participated in the lynching and lost little sleep over what he did. “I’ve often wondered if I did the right thing,” he told Gaye LeBaron in 1985. “But, you know, I just can’t believe it was wrong. Jim Petray was a wonderful man. Everybody loved him. Nobody spoke against it. Ninety-five percent of the people were in favor of the lynching after it happened.”
Deputy Sheriff Marvin Robinson inquest testimony, December 10, 1920
Q. Now, Mr. Robinson you were in the jail this morning 12 o’clock?
A. Yes sir.
Q. I want you to tell the Jury what what happened at that time.
A. Well, I was pretty tired and I went to bed a little early last night. The telephone rang, a lady said she thought there was some trouble out there near the mausoleum in the cemetery, she thought an officer should come out and investigate. I asked her what was the trouble. She said there were several machines out there and there was a crowd and didn’t know that there had been an accident or not. There was no one there to go. I thought probably a couple of machines had collided, and didn’t pay very much attention to it, just put the telephone back and went back upstairs.
The door bell rang. I come out to see who was at the door bell. There was some fellows there, four men, three men returning from the funeral in San Francisco stepped in there, Mr. Young, Mr. McMinn and Mr. Lattin. Maynard informed me that he thought there was going to be some trouble here tonight. I told him I hoped to God they wouldn’t have nothing started like that; everything was getting pretty well shaped up: I thought things were getting pretty well cinched and that they were going to hang all three for the crime and I hoped they would let the law take its course. Thought it would not be over 10 days until they would all be sentenced to be hung. He says, “Well, I will tell you, when I got home tonight from this funeral the people were getting pretty well stirred up and I think,” he says, “from what I can gather there is going to be some trouble;” so I says, “if there is going to be any trouble I want the chief here himself.” So I immediately called up John and to him to come down. He wanted to know what was on; I told him that as near as I could tell and understood that they was anticipating trouble. John said, “all right,” he would be down in a few minutes.
It was not but a few minutes and the telephone rang again; it was a long distance call and they wanted to know if we anticipated trouble in behalf of the friends of those three rufians [sic] we had in jail. I told them I didn’t think so. They said “You better be prepared, because I think there is a move on foot their friends are going to come up and take them from your custody.” I said, I hope they don’t get that foolish notion in their heads, they would have a great job on hand.” Well, they said, “All I want to do is to caution you to prepare yourself.”
“In a few minutes the telephone rang again; some lady who lives out here above the cemetery said she wished some officers would come out there, there was getting to be an awful crowd out there, she says, “there is more machines congregating out here, certainly something is going to happen.”
John come down, I told him. “I think that gang is congregating out here near the cemetery,” I told him the telephone had rung a couple of times from there and that the last time I answered they asked to send Mr. Boyes out there. John said he didn’t think that was the place to go, he was not going to go out there and while we were talking there he tried to get two of the men that were there, Mr. McMinn and Mr. Lattin to go out and see if that crowd was out there and if they were there he would like to talk to some of the leaders they had and explain things, he thought in a very few minutes he could convince them that they better lay off of this here rail they were anticipating.
They came back and they had told him they would be down in half an hour. Their half hour was but a few minutes, when that mob come through the door, had guns in their hands. I found myself going through the back end of the hallway, clear to the back wall.
As they come in the door there was two of them grabbed me and they rushed me back to that back door. They said “open that door.” I said, “I got no key to open it. They said, “you are the chief deputy in here, you’ve got a key, open that door.”
I says, “I haven’t got one. I haven’t got the key to do it with.” They searched me. They said “you know where them keys are?” I says, “the Sheriff took my key tonight as he has been doing every night since this trouble Sunday night, he has taken up our keys.” They said, “he must know where they are;” I says, “don’t know: I know he took them up. I don’t know nothing about it.”
While they had me back there one fellow was trying – he said he would shoot the lock right out with a rifle. Another husky fellow come. He says, “give me room.” When he come there he had a key and opened the door. He immediately went to the insane ward where we had been keeping this sick man and where I still supposed he was, but he was moved last night and I didn’t know anything about it.
They went in there. The fellow was gone. The first words one of these fellows says was “they have taken the sons of -—-— away.” But he had the keys. It wasn’t the first jail door he ever opened because he went through those doors, he beat it for the next door, they opened the door… So they says, “show us where they are, we don’t want to get the wrong men, show us where they are. Some fellow told me “open that door.” I says, “I got no key to open that door.” He says, “I guess the key that opens this other will open this one”. So they opened the door.
He opened the door that led into the cell where Valento stood. When they opened the door this Valento started hollering “For God’s sake” not to let them get him. When they got inside of the ward the cell door was still locked and the boys went out to work the levers to open that cell door and that took them some little time [About 5 minutes]. All the time they was trying to open the door this fellow Valento was hollering for mercy, for somebody to try to save him…
Q. All this time, Mr. Robinson, you were stuck up by fellows with guns, you were perfectly powerless?
A. Yes sir. A fellow had an automatic gun pointed down close to my head most of the time. They got the door open. It was not long after they got it open they had Valento out there and he was tied hand and foot. He had no time to holler after they got the rope on him because very soon they had a rag in his mouth to stop his hollering. Then they opened the next door and brought out Fittsy, and he was no sooner out of the cell than his hollering was stopped by stopping his mouth and he was soon tied. Then they come down and commenced looking for this other fellow.
I says, “Don’t take those fellows up stairs for there is nothing but about 15 innocent young fellows up there. You don’t need to go up stairs, he must be down stairs, must he here somewhere.”
They went down and opened the other door and the fellow was laying inside on a cot. They opened that door and one of them says, “Here is the skunk we are looking for, and they took hold of him and pulled him off the cot, and there was a blanket on him, they pulled him right off, took hold of him and pulled him out. Some of the crowd says. “Well, get your men.” Four fellows took hold of each man and they paraded out the door, and they went out, and left on 3rd street. When the crowd rushed out I went to the door. There was a man there with a rifle. He says. “Just stay inside. Butch, everything is going all right.”
Well, I stayed inside, and they immediately left the place and went up 3rd street. We sat around there for a while, and a few excited people come in. After the crowd went off and piled in the last machine and went up the street the crowd began to gather around. After probably half an hour’s time Gus and myself took a ride out, after Charley Jacobs come back and told us they were all three hanging there under an oak tree out in the cemetery, side by each, so we went out and took a look at them…
Sheriff John M. Boyes inquest testimony, December 10, 1920
… We did everything possible to keep them. When they came in there there was about 15 or 20 came in the front door and rushed on me, pulled a pistol on me; three of four grabbed me and took my gun off, shoved me back over a chair and asked me for the keys. I told them I didn’t have any. They said I knew where they were.
One fellow says “search him;” he put his hand in my vest pocket, took out two or three dollars I had, put that back, said he didn’t want that, went down into the other pocket, pulled out the keys. The jail key was loose, never have had it on my ring, and it dropped on the floor. The other fellow that was searching me picked up the bunch and he run and left the other lay there.
Somebody wanted to know what the small keys were. I told them they were for the jail. They wanted the keys. I said “I haven’t the keys.” I was sitting in the chair like that, shoved me back over this way. One fellow punched me in the belly with the gun and said, ”You hand over the keys, you know where they are;” I says, ”you fellows are making damn fools of yourselves here. I haven’t any keys; you have got all the keys I have, you have taken them from me.” They said “who has got them,” I says, “I don’t know who has got them.”
Somebody says, “come on.” They left five men with me, if I remember right. They told me to get up, took me back In the rear office. I tried to phone in there; as I tried to phone some fellow [with a] pair of nippers, he just cut the wire, he cut them, cut all the phones there. They took me in the back room, took me back there in the office. I grabbed the phone and they cut it loose. One fellow says, “sit down here and be still, we will not harm you.” One big fellow did the talking.
Q. It didn’t require all five to hold you?
A. No, they stayed there. I could hold myself right then. This big fellow did the talking. He waited a little while. I heard a commotion in the rear, somebody begging for mercy and all that. I says, “That sounds like Fitts.” He says, “Don’t worry about that.”
A picture of Jim Petray was hanging over the desk draped in mourning. He says. “We are doing this sort of thing to save you from getting the same thing he got; just keep quiet.” Well I didn’t have anything to say. I sat there. It was a very short time, I don’t think they were in the building over eight or nine minutes. They went on around.
Pretty soon I could see the people going by, couldn’t see all of them, see the crowd going by, three or four standing in the door. As they went out, the last fellow went out of the office where I was, he stood in the door. Pretty soon be said, “Well, we are going.” He took the key and threw it over my head back over the other side of the wall. I got up and picked the key up and went on out. They were all outside at that time.
I walked to the front and I says, “I wonder what the people did with my gun; did they take it away?” He said, “A fellow just going out just handed me the gun told me to give it to you as he went out.” I stepped in the door and by that time the machines were gone…
…Q. How many men would you estimate were in that Jail this morning?
A. I couldn’t say. between 50 and 75 I would judge…
SHERIFF JAMES A. PETRAY, while in the performance of his duty as sheriff of this county, was murdered in cold blood yesterday and no tragedy in the history ot this county was ever so deeply felt as the cruel murdering of Sonoma county’s beloved sheriff.
The news of the murder of Sheriff Petray spread like wildfire throughout the county and words of sympathy were on every tongue, a feeling of sympathy deep in the hearts of every citizen of this county.
He was “Our Jim.” Men, women and children knew him as plain, upstanding, uprighteous, big, courageous “Jim” Petray and they all loved him for the great qualities that he possessed in life, and the great and unswerving courage that he showed when he was murdered in the performance of his duty by the lethal bullet of an assassin who had murder in his heart, murder in his mind and murder in the finger which pulled the trigger that sped the bullet to the brain of “Our Jim.”
With the murder of the three officers here, the maze of criminality into which the San Francisco gangsters have plunged themselves is one of the most shocking in the history of California and civilization. But withal, it is gratifying to know that they are all behind prison bars and that justice will be done.
Santa Rosa and Sonoma county has never been stricken with sorrow like it is today. The death of Sheriff Petray is a blow that will never be forgotten. Men of his type are few and far between and their tragic deaths live forever in the minds of their home people.
The entire county joins the Republican in extending its deepest sympathy to the mourning family of the murdered sheriff, “OUR JIM.”
– Santa Rosa Republican, December 6 1920
Armed Mob Takes Boyd, Valento and Fitts From Jail; Hangs Them on Cemetery Tree
At 12:30 o’clock this morning a masked mob surrounded the Sonoma county jail, gained entrance, overpowered Sheriff John M. Boyes and five deputies, seized the three men charged with the murder of James A. Petray and took them away in automobiles with the avowed intention of lynching them. The key to the inner jail was seized from Boyes’ person. George Boyd, confessed murderer of Petray, Jackson and Dorman, was the first to be seized. The mob had Terry Fitts and Charles Valento out of their cells in another two minutes. The entire affair of capturing the men did not take five minutes, and everyone was barred from the vicinity by armed guards.
The three victims of the mob’s wrath were hanged to an oak tree on the border of Rural Cemetery, less than a block from the free automobile park on McDonald avenue. The lights of several automobiles were turned on the swinging bodies, and allowed to remain there for many minutes, while a ring a half a block away was made by armed members of the mob and people who had followed.
The mob leaders entered the jail in a rush. While one man made it his duty to cut the telephone wires, several others stuck their guns in the face of the sheriff, took his gun away from him, threw him over a chair and took the keys away, and then marched him into the private office. One of the leaders pointed to the draped picture of the slain sheriff on the wall and said—
“ISN’T THAT ENOUGH?”
Boyes with several deputies and Joseph McMinn and Maynard Young of Healdsburg, the latter two who had just called at the jail on their return from San Francisco, where they had attended the funerals of the San Francisco detectives, pleaded with the leaders to not take vengeance into their own hands.
“Wait until tomorrow; they are all three going to be taken into court, and they are sure to be convicted and hung,” shouted Boyes.
“Let the law take its course,” shouted another deputy.
“We don’t want to take any chances,” shouted back one of the masked men.
“Why put the county to such cost to try such cattle?”
“They are brutes,” yelled another.
Deputy Sheriffs Gus Jewett, Marvin Robinson and I. N. Lindley all pleaded for law and order, but their pleas were ignored.
Deputy Sheriff Robert Dickson was stopped half a block from the jail at the point of a gun, and held there by one of the masked men until the prisoners had been removed from the jail.
Once the three men were in the hands of the mob they were rushed out of the jail, loaded into automobiles, and the lynchers, headed by the cars with the doomed men in them, fifteen automobile loads strong, headed out Fourth street to the cemetery, where they had formed their forces and had awaited quiet streets the lynching procession.
So far as is known Boyd made no protest at the action of the mob, and did not beg for his release.
Valento had to be forcibly silenced.
Terry Fitts pleaded loudly and wept profusely.
STRUNG UP IN THE RAIN
No time was lost in stringing the three men up, once the cemetery was reached. Ropes were in readiness, and in less time than it takes to tell it the three men were dangling in the air.
“Pull Boyd up a little higher,” cried one of the leaders of the mob. “Give them all an even start to where they are going.”
The command was instantly obeyed, and one of the dangling bodies, which had been hanging a foot or two below the others, was moved slowly into the air until all three were on a line.
HEADLIGHTS ILLUMINE SCENE
Close approach to the scene of lynching was prevented by guards stationed in the roadway leading alongside the cemetery. All were heavily armed, and each wore a mask, consisting of a dark handkerchief tied about his face.
As the flashlights in the hands of the mob leaders were turned upon the three bodies dangling in midair, all could be seen distinctly by the hundred or more spectators who, attracted by the noise and excitement on the streets and informed by the shouts of others already on the way, had driven wildly through the rain to the usually quiet spot where the night’s grim tragedy was enacted.
The lynching occurred at a spot not far from the G. A. R. plot, in Rural cemetery. All three men were hanged from the same limb of a giant oak which stands close by, and not more than fifty or seventy-five feet from the roadway, and close to the J. C. Lindsay home.
MOB FROM OUT OF TOWN
A report at 2 o’clock this morning was to the effect that the lynching was the work of a party of San Francisco police officers who had left that city late in the afternoon following the double funeral in which Miles Jackson and Lester Dornan were laid to their final rest. Several reports were heard of many cars coming from the south during the early evening.
The fact that the ropes with which the men were hanged were tied with the true hangman’s knot and were placed truely [sic] under the left ear, as is done at San Quentin for official executions, gives color to the report that the work was done by professional workers and not by amateurs.
FIRST “TIP” SENT HERE
The first inkling of the lynching came to Santa Rosa by phone from Petaluma just before 11 o’clock. A phone message said it was reported there that the lynching was to take place at 11 o’clock, and asked for information, but at that hour all was quiet on the streets and about the jail. This would seem to reference the report that the party came from San Francisco and may have stopped in Petaluma for something to eat or for gasoline and oil for cars, giving rise to the report.
It is also definitely known by the Petaluma information sent here that there were Healdsburg people in the party.
Further strength is given to the theory that members of the mob were from San Francisco by the report from Coroner Frank H. Phillips, who reported that he met from 15 to 20 automobiles headed south on the highway while he was driving from Petaluma to Santa Rosa to take charge of the bodies of the three men lynched.
FITTS IN THE CENTER
Fitts hung between Boyd and Valento, Boyd closest to the tree and Valento on the outside and nearest the end of the limb.
Boyd’s arms were tied by his side. Fitts’ and Valento’s feet were tied together. Valento was stripped to the waist. All three were in their undergarments when they were strung up.
When the men had been raised to the proper height, the three ropes were wound around the tree trunk as one. No amateur tied the nooses. Each was a true hangman’s knot.
RUSHED FROM THE JAIL
Boyd was carried from the jail on a stretcher, and the two other victims were hustled out without ceremony. All three were thrown into waiting automobiles and were rushed at top speed to the scene of the lynching.
No inkling of the mob’s intentions was allowed to leak out. The members were all in automobiles, and they went by circuitous routes to the cemetery on the northeastern edge of Santa Rosa. They were aided in their operations by the stormy nature of the night. Few people were out, and fewer paid any attention to the automobiles.
So carefully had the preparations been made that Sheriff John Boyes, who arrived at the jail inspection for the night, had hardly entered the building, leaving the front door unlocked, when the mob leaders poured around the corner.
The first intimation of what was happening came when A. R. Waters, a Press Democrat reporter, approached the county jail. He was halted at the city hall by an armed guard who thrust a gun in his face and ordered him back.
Before he turned away Waters was able to see that there was a considerable mob in front of the jail, watching quietly.
He dashed into the city hall, secured telephone connection with the Press Democrat office and reported the state of affairs.
When the Press Democrat representative made his late rounds to visit the county jail shortly after midnight he was met at the city hall by a man with a black mask over his face who raised a gun and called out “Stop where you are.”
Turning back, the newspaperman made haste to get around on D street, and was going toward Third, where automobiles were lined up along the curb from the county jail to D street. As he neared Third the Command was given, “Get ready.”
Instantly the self-starters began pumping and all seemed to respond instantly, and quickly a long line of men silently but hastily came and loaded into the machines and without a sound the machines started off, one after the other, while guards in several directions were seen to unmask and quietly slip away into the darkness of the side streets.
A quick return to Fourth street found the machines already coming from Hinton avenue, and a steady stream poured out Fourth, until fifteen or more had disappeared towards upper Fourth, loaded with men, some even on the running boards.
At the county jail were Sheriff J. M. Boyes, Deputies Marvin Robinson, Gus Jewett and I. N. Lindley, Maynard Young and Joe McMinn, all of whom were in the jail when the assault was made and the prisoners taken.
Sheriff Boyes said he had received a telephone call from a woman shortly after 11 o’clock say something was going on at the mauseleum, [sic] as a crowd had gathered there, and he had better investigate.
TWO WARNINGS GIVEN
This aroused the suspicion of the sheriff, who feared trouble, and he decided to remain at the jail to await developments. A few moments later another message, this time from a man, said he feared murder was being committed, as a great crowd with machines had gathered in the roadway at the cemetery.
This information made it certain to the sheriff that a demand was to be made for the prisoners and he at once started to summon his deputies by phone had called Deputy Dickson when the line went out. An attempt was made to use another phone and then it was discovered that every one of the three phone lines into the jail had been cut from the outside and it was impossible to summon help.
Owing to the large number of autos on Fourth street owned by those attending the Masonic reception only two blocks from the county jail, and the large number of people leaving the hall around the midnight hour, the crowd had a fine opportunity to work without arousing much suspicion.
But it was not long until those going home noticed something going on about the county jail corner and many stopped to see what the excitement was about. Few, if any, cared to approach the building, although when Waters visited the corner at 11:30 no one was in sight and no cars were to be seen on Third street. A few men were seen loitering on Fourth street, however, as if they were keeping silent guard or awaiting those who were to take autos they came from the Masonic Temple.
CORONER IS NOTIFIED
Coroner F. H. Phillips was notified, and with Deputy Coroner Frank Welti left at 3 o’clock for the scene to cut down the bodies and bring them to the morgue to await the inquest which will no doubt be held shortly.
BODIES ARE CUT DOWN
Large numbers of those who had been tn attendance at Masonic “Ladies’ Night” hearing of the lynching made haste to visit the scene, and for more than two hours autos poured out to the cemetery to satisfy their curiosity. Many women made the trip and witnessed the bodies hanging in the cemetery before they were removed by the coroner shortly after 3 o’clock.
Many of those who went to the scene of the lynching found pieces of the rope used by the party, as well as pieces of black and white cloth which had been used as masks by those engaged in the lynching. Other cut pieces from the ends of the ropes which were hanging from the tree to take home with them as mementos of the occasion.
P. L. Jewett, who with his wife was at the Masonic “Ladies’ Night,” when informed of the telephone wires at the county jail being cut, went to the jail and made a connection so one of the phones could be used by the officers.
– Press Democrat, December 10 1920
[Additions and changes in the “Extra” edition]
…“Wait until tomorrow; they are all three going to be taken into court, and they are sure to be convicted and hung,” shouted Boyes.
“Let the law take its course,” shouted another deputy.
“We don’t want to take any chances,” shouted back one of the masked men.
“Why put the county to such cost to try such cattle?”
“They are brutes,” yelled another…
…Deputy Sheriff Robert Dickson was stopped half a block from the jail at the point of a gun, and held there by one of the masked men until the prisoners had been removed from the jail.
Once the three men were in the hands of the mob they were rushed out of the jail, loaded into automobiles, and the lynchers, headed by the cars with the doomed men in them, fifteen automobile loads strong, headed out Fourth street to the cemetery, where they had formed their forces and had awaited quiet streets before starting the lynching procession…
MOB FROM OUT OF TOWN
The assertion is made that the members of the lynching mob were mostly from out of Santa Rosa. It has been established that the majority of the members were from Healdsburg, and that some of them went to Petaluma earlier in the evening and recruited their strength there. Some Santa Rosa people are said to have also been included in the party.
No inkling of the mob’s intentions was allowed to leak out. The members were all in automobiles, and they went by circuitous routes to the cemetery on the northeastern edge of Santa Rosa. They were aided in their operations by the stormy nature of the night. Few people were out, and fewer paid any attention to the automobiles…
– Press Democrat, December 10 1920 EXTRA
[Additions and changes in the 3rd “Extra” edition]
ACCLAIM MEMBERS OF THE MOB TO BE HEROES
…The attack at at 12:30 [sic]. A few minutes afterward the prisoners, Boyd, Fitts and Valento, were placed in waiting automobiles, rushed to the tree picked for the mob execution, and before 1 o’clock the bodies were swinging from the rope’s ends, swaying in the wind and washed by the rain.
The mob members were armed with revolvers and rifles, and all coats turned inside out. Some had their hats jammed out of shape. All were disguised to such an ex-tent [sic] that officers say they were unable to recognize any of them.
After the hanging several automobiles were wheeled into positions where the rays of their headlights and spotlights focused on the bodies. The lights remained in this manner for nearly half an hour, while armed members of the mob formed a line half a block away, menacing the gathering crowd with rifles and revolvers, and forbidding closer approach…
– Press Democrat, December 10 1920 3rd EXTRA
[Additions and changes in the 4th “Extra” edition]
Complete exoneration of Sheriff John M. Boyes and his deputies from any blame for the lynching of their prisoners in the county jail, and fixing of Terry Fitts and Charles Valento as accomplices of George Boyd in the murder of Sheriff James A. Petray, Detective Sergeant Miles Jackson and Detective Lester Dorman, were the features of the verdict returned at 11:20 this morning by the coroner’s jury.
The verdicts in the cases of Boyd, Valento and Fitts were identical, reading as follows:
“(Name) died from being hanged from the neck by a lynching mob of unknown persons, who stormed the county jail, overpowering the peace officers and forcibly removing him for that purpose. We exonerate the sheriff and his deputies from any blame therewith.”
The verdicts in the cases of the three slain officers were also identical, save in the particular of where the ‘man was shot, as follows:
“(Name) died from shot wounds at the hands of George Boyd, with a revolver owned by Terrence Fitts, the cartridges for which were purchased by Charles Valento, both of whom were accomplices.”
In a brief session of the court after the inquest, Superior Judge Emmett Seawell dismissed the indictments returned Monday morning by the grand jury against Boyd, Fitts, and Valento. The dismissal of the indictments was made on the motion of District Attorney George W. Hoyle.
That Maynard Young and J. A. McMinn, who were in the sheriff’s office when he received warning of the gathering of the mob, went to the cemetery to intercede for the sheriff; that they saw and talked to leaders of the mob; that they returned to the jail and told the sheriff they had succeeded in securing a promise that, leaders would come in and talk it over before they acted, and that Sheriff Boyes was expecting these leaders in about half an hour, when in fact the attack broke inside of five minutes, is a chain of circumstances not before made clear until brought out at the inquest from the testimony of Deputy Marvin Robinson and Sheriff John M. Boyes.
– Press Democrat, December 10 1920 4th EXTRA
TWO VICTIMS CRY FOR MERCY; BOYD UTTERS GROAN
“My God, men, save me! Save me! I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
With these words piercing the air in an agonized appeal, Terry Fitts was half dragged, half carried through the corridors of the jail early this morning while members of the lynching party put the hangman’s noose around his neck, in readiness for what was to come.
Valento also screamed for mercy until a heavy cloth was jammed into his mouth. Another cloth silenced Fitts in the same manner.
Boyd did not say a word, according to several accounts, from the time the leaders of the mob tore into his cell until he was taken out of the jail. He groaned as they wrapped him in a blanket, but said nothing audibly. It is believed that he was hardly more than conscious.
Blankets also were wrapped around the bodies of Fitts and Valento while they were being taken out of their cells, and as three or four men carried each prisoner through the corridors of the jail others walked along beside them and tied their hands behind them, and their feet together with ropes.
The ropes with which they were hung were placed around their necks while still in the jail.
SHERIFF BOYES TELLS STORY
Sheriff John M. Boyes gave a coherent account at 2 o’clock this morning of the second tragedy which has racked Sonoma county within the week.
“I was called from my home at about 11:30,” Sheriff Boyes said, “and told that a huge mob was congregating in the cemetery. I rushed to the county jail and called in all deputies in the county, but before any organized force could be gathered the mob was down upon ua, fully an hour before I had any idea they would be there.
“Things happened so quickly that I lost all sense of time, but I think it was about 12 o’clock when, without warning, a mob of men suddenly bore down upon the jail and stormed it.
“At the time Deputies Marvin Robinson, Ike Lindley and Gus Jewett and three Healdsburg men who had but lately returned from the Jackson and Dorman funerals in San Francisco were with me on the main floor of the jail building.
“Two of the Healdsburg men were Joe McMinn and Maynard Young. I don’t know the name of the third.
“Several of the lynchers rushed into my office and with guns leveled at me commanded me to hold up my hands.
“I did not hold up my hands, however, but started to talk with them and appealed to them not to carry out their purpose, but to let the law take care of the desperate criminals whose lives they were seeking.
“I assured them that the three prisoners would speedily be convicted and hung if they allowed full process of the law to take its course.
“They howled me down, however, and one man stuck a vicious looking revolver into my stomach while other [sic] pushed me back into a chair, held my hands in the air, while still another went through my pockets.
My revolver was taken from me and also the master key to the cell doors. This is what they had been after from the moment of entering the jail. I had taken the precaution every night since the triple murder to take up all cell keys from my deputies, and secreting them where no one but myself knew where to find them.
“My deputies who were in the building when the lynchers arrived tell me that when the men first entered the jail they demanded keys to the cells. None of the deputies had a key, though, and the masked men, who did not know that others of their party were at that very moment taking a key from me, declared that they were prepared for just such an eventuality and that they would burn the locks off with Acetylene torches.
“After the group which had surrounded me had stripped me of my gun and my master key they marched me into my back office where I again tried appeal to them not to carry out their purpose.
“One of the men raised his hand toward the draped photograph of Jim Petray, turned to his companions, and said:
“‘Boys, ain’t that enough?’
“With one voice the men in the room yelled ‘YES!’ and they then said to me it would be no use for me to argue further, that they were going to lynch my prisoners.
“One of the men said:
“‘Sheriff, we’re your friends, we don’t want to do you any harm, but we’re also the friends of Jim Petray, who was your friend too, and we’re going to take care of these men so that their kind will know better than to try to do to you what they did to Jim.’
“In the meantime the hundred or more men who had completely jammed the corridors and offices of the jail building were continuing with their plan. Groups had rounded up all of my officers and were guarding them so that they could not interfere.
“The Healdsburg men who had been with me and had been telling me about the funerals in San Francisco, joined me in protesting against the lynching, but their appeals were as futile as mine.
“As soon as the three prisoners had been taken from the jail and the crowd of some 400 men including the hundred who had stormed the jail had piled into their waiting automobiles and sped east out Third street, I rounded up my men but it was then too late to thwart the lynchers’ plans.”
– Press Democrat, December 10 1920
NEWS APALLS HOYLE; WILL START PROBE
“The lawlessness of the thing is what appalls me,” was District Attorney George W. Hoyle’s statement early this morning when informed of the lynching. “It now becomes my duty as district attorney to conduct an investigation to determine, if possible, who are responsible for this lawless act.”
“My God, no!” said Hoyle when he was first informed of the lynching from The Press Democrat office at 2:30 this morning. The district attorney had not then heard of the occurrence and was so stunned at the news that he was unable to comment further at that moment.
– Press Democrat, December 10 1920
Gus Jewett, Sonoma county jailer, in seeking the return of several blankets which some unknown men took from the cells at the county jail Thursday night. Jewett says that he is custodian of this property and responsible to the county of Sonoma and that if the blankets are returned no questions will be asked.
– Press Democrat, December 11 1920
Late reports indicate that the lynching tree has been nearly hacked to bits by souvenir hunters. Even grass, rocks and bits of the fence in the immediate vicinity of the hanging have been carried off.
– Press Democrat, December 11 1920
PEOPLE VIEW DEATH TREE
Few people are going to the cemetery today to look at the death tree. Yesterday hundreds of people went to the scene of the triple execution and the bark of the tree, to the height of a tall man, has been practically stripped by people eager to possess a relic of the hanging.
Long before the inquests were held yesterday the rope which was used to hang the men had been cut into many pieces and divided. Tiny bits of the rope were seized eagerly as souvenirs…
– Santa Rosa Republican, December 11 1920