fhiddengraves

HIDDEN GRAVES

It was 1:15 in the morning when Dr. Phillips’ phone rang at his home in Petaluma. As he was Sonoma County Coroner, this was not terribly unusual; people inconveniently die at all hours. It’s the coroner’s job to investigate when there are unusual circumstances and the good doctor was certainly kept busy in late 1920 looking into odd deaths – in the previous few weeks four people were killed when their car or truck was hit by a train and a seven year-old boy was decapitated in an accident at the fairgrounds. But Phillips had never received a call like this one: He was told there were three men hanging from a tree in the old Santa Rosa cemetery and nobody knew who killed them.


THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID
Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa

BAD TO THE BONE
THE WOLVES OF THANKSGIVING
A FORESHADOW OF TERRIBLE DAYS
FATEFUL KNOCK ON A COTTAGE DOOR
MOB SIEGE OF THE JAIL
96 HOURS TO HANGTOWN
VENGEANCE FOR SUNNY JIM
CONSPIRACIES OF SILENCE
    HIDDEN GRAVES
    A WELL-ORDERED MILITIA

This is a postscript to the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID” and covers one of the conspiracies of silence following the murder of the gangsters: The mystery of what happened to their bodies.

As he drove to Santa Rosa he passed around a dozen cars on the highway headed south, which seemed unusual for that time of night. He unfortunately mentioned this to a Press Democrat reporter when he arrived at the county jail; the newspaper took it as evidence that the lynching party came from San Francisco and most papers in the city chased that angle for days, although it was already pretty clear the vigilantes came from Healdsburg or points north.

Before he left Petaluma, Coroner Phillips phoned Frank Welti, the Deputy Coroner for Santa Rosa and ordered an ambulance to be waiting at the cemetery to transport the bodies. After the dead gangsters were cut down they would be taken to the Welti mortuary at 795 Fourth street, which doubled as the town morgue.

Phillips spent nearly an hour at the jail with the sheriff (probably joined by Welti) prior to heading for the cemetery. This was likely when they all had a very earnest discussion about what might happen next – their jobs were not over just because the gangsters were now dead. “He is in a measure responsible for the safe keeping of the bodies until such time as they are interred,” the San Francisco Call reported after speaking with Phillips. And until the remains were shipped out of the county or securely buried, there was a clear and apparent risk that someone might try to get access to the corpses or even steal them.

Keep in mind this was 1920 and in that era Americans did not shy from all things morbid or gruesome, particularly when it came to dead outlaws. The public snatched up postcards of the lynched gangsters being sold in San Francisco and the fellow who bootleged the photo earned approx. $500 in a couple of days (the equivalent to two months’ wages). As noted earlier, souvenir hunters were cutting off bits of the lynching ropes and ripping bark off the hanging tree, but relics from their actual persons – locks of hair, bits of clothing, blood wiped off skin – would be far more valuable. Should Gentle Reader think our 20th century ancestors were above such barbarity, consider that when Bonnie and Clyde were killed in 1934 people rushed in to do exactly that, even trying to cut off Clyde’s trigger finger and, for some reason, his ear.1

There was also a chance that yahoos might decide a single lynching wasn’t good enough and seek to mutilate the bodies. As they were meeting right after the lynching, the Coroner and Sheriff Boyes might have heard some of the otherwise well-disciplined (and well-armed) vigilantes had to be talked out of shooting up the corpses as they swung at the end of ropes. Considering an angry mob nearly breached the fortress-like county jail a few days earlier, it’s hard to imagine much of a defense could be made if a vengeance-seeking crowd suddenly stormed the Welti funeral parlor.

Around 3AM Phillips and Welti lowered the bodies to the ground and loaded them into the ambulance wagon. It’s doubtful either man caught any further sleep that day; the Coroner’s Inquest was held later that morning and they still needed to suss out the dead gangster’s next-of-kin.

Charles Valento’s mother in San Francisco was quickly found, although the 70 year-old woman was reportedly unaware of her son’s recent infamy. She agreed to claim the body and it was driven to the city before nightfall. The whereabouts of his grave remains unknown.

Finding Terry Fitts’ relatives was likewise easy as he was from Santa Rosa and his two sisters were well known, one of them still living in the area. (When told their brother’s body was to be put on display along with the others they requested his face be covered with a cloth, which Welti did.) Not so simple, however, was settling on where to bury his remains.

Readers of this entire series will recall the Santa Rosa episode began when Fitts Sr. died, leaving the large family home on College Ave. unoccupied and conveniently just at a time when Terry and his criminal companions wanted a hideout from San Francisco police. Poppa – who passed away 31 days before his son was lynched – was buried in the family plot in the Odd Fellows’ cemetery just a short walk from the hangman’s tree.

The sisters wanted Terry interred there as well; no way, said the cemetery. From the Argus-Courier:

It is understood that they sought to have the burial in the Fitts’ family plot in Odd Fellows’ cemetery here, but that the management of the cemetery refused to permit it, claiming that such action was justified by their rules and regulations.

While the sisters were with Welti brainstorming about Plan B, obstacles also arose about what to do with George Boyd’s corpse. The Republican reported, “…it might be shipped to Seattle, where it is understood that Boyd’s mother lives, but word is awaited from that city before final disposition of the body by local authorities. If no claim is made on the body it will be buried in potter’s field [now the Chanate Historic Cemetery -je].”

When he was in the county jail and slowly dying from the gunshot wound, Boyd told reporters his mother lived in Seattle although the address he provided didn’t exist (that might have been a newspaper typo, however). Whether anyone was able to find her or not is unknown, but by the end of the day it was decided Boyd was to be buried here – somewhere.

The next day (Saturday, Dec. 11) there was a quiet funeral service at Welti’s for Terrance Fitts, with only a few attending. And with that, the mystery of what happened to their bodies begins.

The Petaluma Courier reported “the hour and the place of [Fitts’] burial was kept private.” Welti announced both men had been buried but would not say where. But the Press Democrat was told there were no interments in any of the local cemeteries, including potter’s field, and no coffins were shipped from Santa Rosa by train.

And in what seemed like a ruse by a newspaper to trick authorities into revealing what happened to the bodies, the warden of Folsom prison received a letter claiming to be from Boyd’s mother in Australia, inquiring where her son was. The warden wrote back only that he “died in Santa Rosa.”

Interviewed by the San Francisco Call, Phillips made the waters even murkier by saying neither Boyd nor Fitts had been buried to his knowledge. All he would admit was they were still somewhere in the county. The paper added there were rumors around town claiming both bodies were unburied but hidden.

We now know that Coroner Phillips had lied to the reporter. He and mortician Welti – and likely the sheriff and other members of law enforcement – had vowed to keep the locations a secret from the public. The death certificates signed by Phillips on December 13 show they were indeed buried on the 11th in part of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery. The date is confirmed by entries in the funeral home’s receipt book.

Ray Owen, co-author of the new edition of the cemetery’s burial reference book is confident he has found their burying place, or at least the grave of Fitts. There’s even a small discreet grave marker – it’s been hiding in plain sight for a century. (UPDATE: Ray has now published his findings and it can be revealed the gravesite is at Moke 234.)

Now they were buried, why continue the subterfuge? Keep in mind it was the day after the lynching and souvenir hunters were out in force, shredding the hanging tree of bark and stealing grass and pebbles from around its roots. Should it become known that the graves were just a two minute stroll away, you can bet those same people would be adding handfuls of grave dirt to their ghoulish collections.

Also, it would have been impossible to conceal newly-dug graves. In the previous twelve days Sonoma County had endured nearly constant rain, including a torrential downpour 48 hours earlier that left downtown streets impassable. No matter how careful the gravediggers were, they would have left a muddy mess.

Coroner Phillips also had another reason to keep the location secret: He told the Call he wanted to make sure they did not “fall into the hands of some medical college.” His concern wasn’t that the Fitts sisters and Boyd’s mom would sell their cadavers to Stanford Medical School – most likely it would be pseudoscience enthusiasts hiring bodysnatchers.

During that part of the century the dark nonsense of eugenics was given serious consideration by many institutions of higher education (and yes, including Stanford). Today we associate eugenics mostly with racism – Nazi-ish claims that whites (and usually some very specific European flavor) were by birthright the bestest people ever made and everyone else should just give up and admit they were inferior.

But eugenics also leaned heavily on the notion that some were biologically “defective” because of bad genes, neurological disorders (particularly epilepsy) or lower intelligence. Eugenicists believed such people tended to be insane or become criminals and usually needed to be locked up, forcibly sterilized and denied education. There’s more discussion of this (and how our county became a leader in espousing such bullshit) in “SONOMA COUNTY AND EUGENICS.”2

Given their presumption that criminals all had some sort of physical impairment that could be visually seen or measured, the brains (and skulls! don’t forget the skulls!) of hard-core sociopaths like Boyd and Fitts surely would offer “proof” of their crackpot theories.

But is there any evidence that universities and/or medical schools around 1920 were robbing graves in the name of science, pseudo or otherwise? Yes and no.

No, there aren’t any examples (that I can find) of bodysnatchers specifically targeting criminals, but medical schools in Tennessee, Iowa, Virginia, and probably other states were still dependent upon grave robbers to provide cadavers for student dissection. The bodies were usually those of impoverished Blacks.3

Yes, major educational institutions were acquiring bodies, including brains, well into the mid-20th century – a practice not considered illegal because it was Native Americans they were digging up. UC/Berkeley still has the largest collection with the remains of over 8,000 individuals, including entire skeletons. While not done under the banner of eugenics (usually), some of the anthropologists shared the same racist agendas, such as using head measurements to determine the exact degree of a living person’s “Indian-ness.”4

So Coroner Phillips’ worries that Boyd and Fitts might “fall into the hands of some medical college” were probably unfounded, but we can say that only by viewing history with our perfect 20/20 hindsight. How revealing, though, this was a top concern of his at the time.

Phillips said nothing further about the graves and was never confronted about why he kept it secret. He and Welti must have hoped reporters would tire of asking, which they did; by the end of the month the San Francisco newspapers rarely mentioned the lynching except to say it caused the police to beef up security when the other Howard street gangsters went on trial.

A few months later Phillips told the Press Democrat he was contacted by the supposed Australian mother of Boyd. This time she was asking how he had died and not his whereabouts, so perhaps she really was his mom and not a reporter trying to coax out burial details. The PD reported:

Coroner F. H. Phillips has received a letter from Mrs. Elizabeth Barron of Waterloo, Australia, the mother of George Barron, alias Boyd, who was lynched at Santa Rosa in December together with Terry Fitts and Valento, asking whether her son had died from natural causes, violence or accident, and the coroner will reply to the mother that her son died a violent death and will not go into details. He does not relish the task and will make things as easy as possible for the poor mother.

 

1 Artifacts of famous criminals were usually put on display for an admission fee, and such exhibits sometimes included human bodies. Among the grisly attractions touring the country in the 1920s (and for decades afterward) was Elmer McCurdy, a bank robber whose mummified remains were shown as part of a carnival. A different sideshow had the supposed body of John Wilkes Booth, which was once even kidnapped for ransom.
2 The motherlode of material on eugenicist views on criminality can be found at the archive of the American Eugenics Movement.
3 David C. Humphrey, “Dissection and Discrimination: The Social Origins of Cadavers in America, 1760-1915,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 49 (September 1973). (PDF)
4 Robert E. Bieder, “A Brief Historical Survey of the Expropriation of American Indian Remains,” Native American Rights Fund (1990). (PDF)

 

NEXT: A WELL-ORDERED MILITIA

 

Photo of the hangman's tree supposedly taken on December 11, 1920, the same day the gangsters Boyd and Fitts were buried in the same cemetery. The G.A.R. monument is in the foreground. This image has been modified to remove a significant blemish where the original photo was folded in half
Photo of the hangman’s tree supposedly taken on December 11, 1920, the same day the gangsters Boyd and Fitts were buried in the same cemetery. The G.A.R. monument is in the foreground. This image has been modified to remove a significant blemish where the original photo was folded in half

sources
 

GANGSTERS LYNCHED!

[..]

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.

[..]

– Press Democrat, December 10 1920
(Complete article is transcribed in chapter seven)

 

15 MACHINES RUSH OFFICERS’ AVENGERS TO SANTA ROSA JAIL
SAN FRANCISCO POLICEMEN IN LYNCH PARTY, IS REPORT

Fifteen automobiles full of San Francisco lynchers went to Santa Rosa to help execute the three Howard street gangsters strung up there early today, according to information developed coincident with the preliminaries of a formal investigation.

The mob that took from the Sonoma County jail the trio of gangsters arrested Sunday after the murder of three peace officers was drawn from a wide area of the north of bay region, as well as San Francisco.

Reports circulated in Sonoma County today that among the members of the mob, all masked, were San Francisco policemen. It was expected that inquiry would be made in San Francisco to determine the basis of this report.

The rumors of San Francisco participation were widespread, and Coroner Frank Phillips of Sonoma County, while on his way from Petaluma to Santa Rosa before dawn, passed a cluster of fifteen cars on their way south.

[..]

– San Francisco Call, December 10 1920

 

City is Quiet Today After Hanging; No Clue to Avengers

[..]

FITTS BURIED
The body of Terrence Fitts was to be buried today in the local cemetery, his sisters having claimed the body on receipt of news of his death. Relatives of the hanged man came to Santa Rosa yesterday and made arrangements for the burial shortly before noon yesterday the body of the Santa Rosa gangster was swathed in a sheet to keep it from the gaze of the thousands of morbid people who formed in long lines to wait their turn to look at the three dead men. This was done at the request of relatives.

BOYD’S BODY HERE
The body of George Boyd, confessed slayer of the three peace officers and accused of ravishing young girls in San Francisco, is being held at the undertaking parlor. It was said today that it might be shipped to Seattle, where it is understood that Boyd’s mother lives, but word is awaited from that city before final disposition of the body by local authorities. If no claim is made on the body it will be buried in potter’s field.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 11 1920

 

VALENTO’S BODY PASSED THROUGH PETALUMA

The body of Charles Valento, one of the men who was lynched yesterday morning at Santa Rosa, passed through this city in an ambulance last night at 5 o’clock en route to San Francisco early in the afternoon. Many people saw the ambulance go quietly through here, but did not know it carried the body of one of the victims of the lynchers.

The body was sent to the mother of the criminal, who is said to be under a physician’s care. She is 70 years of age and is near collapse. She repeatedly calls for her son and moans, “My Boy, what have they done to you.” She had not known he had been in trouble until notified of the death. She then sent Coroner Phillips word that she would take care of the body.

– Petaluma Morning Courier, December 11 1920

 

BODIES OF THREE LYNCH VICTIMS TAKEN AWAY

The bodies of George Boyd and Terry Fitts were removed Saturday from the morgue where they had been since being brought in early Friday morning following the lynching, according to officials late Saturday night, who declined to give any further information relative to their disposal.

Inquiries at the local cemeteries brought the response that the bodies had not been interred in any of them, and it was also said that the bodies were not shipped from Santa Rosa by train on either railroad line here.

No interments took place in the potter’s field during the day, it was announced.

A report current in Santa Rosa during the day, and printed in newspapers published outside of this city, said that the body of Terry Fitts was interred privately, with only a few persons knowing where it was placed. The hour of the burial was kept quiet, and only those who had to be present were there. These people, it is said, intend to keep the details secret.

Announcement was previously made that Charles Valento’s body had been sent to San Francisco, it having been claimed by the dead man’s mother. It is also said that relatives of Fitts intended to claim his body and give it interment.

[..]

– Press Democrat, December 12, 1920

 

FITTS FUNERAL HELD PRIVATE
The funeral of the late Terry Fitts took place yesterday from Welti’s funeral parlors, Santa Rosa, and was attended by a few people. The hour and the place of the burial was kept private. Fitts’ two sisters requested Coroner Phillips to cover the face of their brother in the morgue from the view of the morbid crowd and their wish was heeded.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, December 12, 1920

 

Mystery Of The Burials

SANTA ROSA. Dec. 12. Deputy Coroner Frank Welti created a mild sensation here this morning when he announced that the bodies of Terrance Fitts and Geo. Boyd, who paid the penalty for murder by being hanged by local citizens, had been removed from the morgue and buried.

At the request of relatives and friends of Fitts and Boyd, Welti said, he refused to give out any information as to when the bodies were taken from the morgue or where they were buried.

Inquiry at all the local cemeteries brought the response that neither of the gangsters had been interred there, so the assumption is that burial was held in another city, possibly San Francisco. On Thursday [sic] relatives of Fitts notified the coroner that they would claim his body. It is understood that they sought to have the burial in the Fitts’ family plot in Odd Fellows’ cemetery here, but that the management of the cemetery refused to permit it, claiming that such action was justified by their rules and regulations.

The body of Valento at the request of his aged mother, was taken to San Francisco on Friday and quietly buried in that city.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, December 13, 1920
[A version of this story appeared in the SF Chronicle Dec. 19 under the headline, “BODIES OF TWO THUGS TAKEN FROM MORGUE”]

 

BODIES HAVE NOT BEEN INTERRED

Coroner F. H. Phillips of Sonoma county when flatly cornered by a Call man over the telephone today, finally admitted that the bodies of Boyd and Fitts have not as yet been buried to his knowledge, but he refused to state where they were, further than to admit that they have not been removed from the county.

The coroner stated that he feels that he is in a measure responsible for the safe keeping of the bodies until such time as they are interred and he does not propose to have the bodies the object of morbid curiosity or perhaps fall into the hands of some medical college. Until such time as they are interred, he feels that it is his duty to give out no information on the subject what ever.

There have been various rumors relative to the final disposal of the bodies of the gangsters. That of Fitts it is said was turned over to the relatives but not buried. That of Boyd is still in the hands of the coroner and is safely hidden away somewhere in the county. He therefore refused to give the Call any information on the subject and does not see why it was sought at this time. Both bodies of course have been embalmed. Valento was buried at San Francisco Saturday, privately. — S. F. Call.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, December 17, 1920

 

Son “Died,” Grim Cable to Mother of Boyd, Lynched

Special Dispatch to The Call. SANTA ROSA, Dec. 21. — Mrs. Elizabeth Barron of Sydney. Australia, today was informed by cable from the Folsom authorities that her son, George Barron, alias Boyd, one of the three gangsters lynched here December 10 for the killing of Sheriff James A. Petray and Detectives Miles Jackson and Lester Dorman of San Francisco, had “died in Santa Rosa.”

Not a word of the lynching was sent to the aged woman, who had written to Warden J. J. Smith making inquiries as to the whereabouts of her son. Word to this effect was received by Coroner Frank Phillips.

The ex-convict’s body is still at the morgue here and will now probably be buried in the potter’s field.

– San Francisco Call, December 21 1920

 

BOYD’S MOTHER SEEKS INFORMATION REGARDING SON

Coroner Frank S. Phillips is in receipt of a letter from J. J. Smith, warden of Folsom penitentiary stating that Mrs. Elizabeth Barron, mother of George Boyd, alias Geo. Barron, is making inquiries for the whereabouts of her son. The letter states that the mother has not heard from the son for some time, and that she is anxious to get information regarding his whereabouts. The mother is residing in Australia.

Warden Smith wrote to the mother that he had authoritative information that her son had died at Santa Rosa on December 10, and he requested Coroner Phillips to break the news of her son’s demise as gently as he could to the mother.

– Sebastopol Times, December 24 1920

 

Mother of Man Lynched Asks How He Died

Coroner F. H. Phillips has received a letter from Mrs. Elizabeth Barron of Waterloo, Australia, the mother of George Barron, alias Boyd, who was lynched at Santa Rosa in December together with Terry Fitts and Valento, asking whether her son had died from natural causes, violence or accident, and the coroner will reply to the mother that her son died a violent death and will not go into details. He does not relish the task and will make things as easy as possible for the poor mother.

– Press Democrat, March 19, 1921

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conspiraciestitle

CONSPIRACIES OF SILENCE

The air was heavy with mist that December morning, peaceful and timeless, each home in Santa Rosa seemingly alone in the world except for neighboring houses not cloaked by fog. You picked up the Press Democrat on the doorstep planning to scan the ads for Christmas presents, but the astonishing headline dampened any enthusiasm for shopping. Nevertheless, you still put on a hat and went downtown – to gawk at the corpses lying on marble slabs in the morgue.

About 3,000 people (including children) queued outside the Welti mortuary on the corner of Fourth and E to see the bodies of the three gangsters lying in the cold room. When the undertakers closed for noon lunch the crowd patiently waited for them to reopen at 2 o’clock. Nobody wanted to lose their place in line, so stores were empty despite Christmas being only two weeks away.

pdheadlinedec10

This is the eighth and final chapter in the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID,” which is not a simple story to wrap up. After the three gangsters were hung there were still loose threads to address and knots to untangle.

Most significantly were two conspiracies of silence, both of which remain (mostly) secret still today. There was the conspiracy by the Healdsburg vigilantes to snatch the gangsters and lynch them, which they carried out with military precision – and perhaps most remarkably, maintained the discipline to keep completely quiet about it afterwards. Then there was the plan by Santa Rosa authorities to conceal what happened to the bodies out of concern for grave robbers. Finally, there were related things that happened in the days (and years) that followed and must be mentioned to complete the history of these events.


THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID
Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa

BAD TO THE BONE
THE WOLVES OF THANKSGIVING
A FORESHADOW OF TERRIBLE DAYS
FATEFUL KNOCK ON A COTTAGE DOOR
MOB SIEGE OF THE JAIL
96 HOURS TO HANGTOWN
VENGEANCE FOR SUNNY JIM
CONSPIRACIES OF SILENCE
    HIDDEN GRAVES
    A WELL-ORDERED MILITIA

Those conspiracies of silence are more like appendices to the lynching story, so I’m breaking them out into parts of their own – otherwise this chapter would be uncomfortably long, and the transcripts of sources would be a jumble of mixed articles spanning from 1919 to 1922. So let’s proceed here with the telling of what happened right after the Dec. 10 lynching before jumping ahead to discover what became of the hanging tree.

Besides standing in line for a gruesome eyeful of the bodies, there were large clusters of people downtown in front of the county jail and outside the Press Democrat and Republican on Fifth street. The PD also had a window display of the bandanas and flour-sack masks discarded by the vigilantes along the road to Healdsburg.

Rumors flew. The vigilantes supposedly were all San Francisco policemen – a belief pushed as all-but-certain by most SF papers. Two oldtimers who had trekked through the morgue thought they recognized gangster George Boyd as a teenager named Riley who lived on Second Street at the turn of the century. (The 1900 census shows a Mary Riley living at 856 Second St. with her son Victor, who was the same age as Boyd.)

There’s no question nearly everyone in town was pleased with the lynching. The Chronicle reported, “On all sides were heard the remarks, ‘They got what was coming to them,’ and ‘Good riddance and a saving of money for their trial.’ All seemed to join in unanimous approval of the ghastly procedure. Ranchers thronged through the streets as if the event were one of carnival nature.”

Had the gangsters not been murdered their arraignments would have been held that morning (although none of them could find a defense lawyer) but charges were dropped because of their deaths. The courtroom appearance of the men – including Boyd on a stretcher – likely would have been a circus, similar to the scene in San Francisco where crowds fought to watch the arraignments of other Howard street gangsters. That it didn’t happen is history’s loss; the District Attorney said the day before that he would be revealing new bombshell charges at the arraignments. It was believed Boyd confessed they plotted to ambush the San Francisco detectives who were pursuing them.

Instead, that morning they used the Supervisor’s chambers at the courthouse to hold the coroner’s inquest.1 But that didn’t just focus on the lynching; testimony also covered the vigilante raid on the jail, details of the murder of the lawmen five days earlier and prior doings of the gangsters around Santa Rosa. That would be a large field to plow even at a capital murder trial, but the coroner crammed it all into a single session and called just five witnesses.

Racing through the narrative of MULTIPLE crimes meant serious questions would not be asked or just given perfunctory attention; inconsistencies with testimony before the Grand Jury were left unclarified. Because this was not an actual trial there was no cross-examination, so Sheriff Boyes wasn’t asked why he didn’t call the Santa Rosa police chief after he knew the vigilantes were coming, or why he left the front door to the jail unlocked.

But no matter; the jury stuck to its simple mission of determining the causes of death for the officers and the lynched men. For the three gangsters, each verdict was exactly the same:

(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.

District Attorney Hoyle – who had been informed of the lynching by the Press Democrat and not by the sheriff – vowed to conduct a thorough investigation into who did it, but apparently gave up after only two days because he couldn’t find anyone willing to snitch on the vigilantes. Asked if he planned to impanel a grand jury, he replied: “I can’t call a session until I have evidence to put before them.”

After the inquest, charges were also dropped against poor Dorothy Quinlan, although she was never accused of anything more serious than having bad taste in men. (She supposedly slept through all the yelling and other commotion at the jail while they were being hauled away by the vigilantes.)

Only a single person was ever prosecuted in connection with the gangster’s ill-fated Santa Rosa sojurn: Domenico Casassa – the 71 year-old wine maker who foolishly believed he saw a trace of goodness behind the cold, dead eyes of Terry Fitts. When he was arrested for running a speakeasy that day he was told it was specifically because he had welcomed Fitts and the others at his place on Guerneville Road. Casassa died in 1923 before his case went to trial, but at the time of his arrest the Press Democrat commented,

Cassassa [sic] is a pioneer grape-grower and winemaker of Sonoma county and is well to do. He has a large family, including grandchildren, and it is said his conduct in connection with the San Francisco gangsters has not met with the approval of his family, who it is declared have strenuously protested but to no avail…

The other big development that day was the struggle to keep up with the latest news – details of the jailhouse siege and the lynching trickled out until bedtime. Both Santa Rosa newspapers published four “extras” on Dec. 10 with the PD claiming 11,000 papers were sold and the Republican saying their total was exactly 23,416. While copies were delivered to all the major towns in the county, it’s worth noting the official census count for Santa Rosa that year was 8,758.

(The impact of the Press Democrat’s coverage is exaggerated today because only the first edition of the Dec. 10 Republican survives, while all editions of the Press Democrat are available. The evolution of the story as told in the additions and changes to the PD extras was summarized and partially transcribed in the previous chapter.)

The PD boasted of their extraordinary middle-of-the-night drive to San Francisco so the Call could make a halftone printing plate of the lynched men, but the Republican had its own photo and a similar deal with the Sacramento Bee. An airplane was commissioned in Sacramento to fly here in poor visibility conditions to fetch their image. The PD printed an item on this pilot’s derring-do flight but editor Ernest Finley, ever the churl, did not mention this was for his rival newspaper. The Republican’s photo is shown below. (Warning: Some might find the image disturbing.)

Meanwhile, souvenir hunters continued to assail the hanging tree at the Rural Cemetery collecting and treasuring mementos of the murders. Even before dawn, people in town were stripping it of bark, snapping off limbs and even pulling up the grass. A fund was started to preserve the tree and install a plaque “so that it will be a perpetual reminder to desperadoes, gangsters and gunmen that death is a certain penalty for such murderous attacks.”

The lynching was done on Friday but vandalism on the tree continued unabated through the weekend – and to such an extent that an expert was asked if it would survive. A 24-hour guard was placed on it Saturday, and there were so many sightseers on Sunday that Santa Rosa policemen were stationed at both ends of Franklin ave. to direct traffic.

Unknown man posing in front of the black locust "hangman's tree" in Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery. Photo: Hamilton H. Dobbin collection, California State Library
Unknown man posing in front of the black locust “hangman’s tree” in Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery. Photo: Hamilton H. Dobbin collection, California State Library

But the locust tree survived and flowered in the spring, casting its shade over the G.A.R. veteran’s monument. In the months that followed it became a popular tourist attraction and probably the top one in Santa Rosa.

And then it was chopped down.

Mrs. Frank C. Newman, who had been elected president of Rural Cemetery Association in April, 1922, ordered the sexton of the cemetery to take it down a month later. She made the decision on her own without consulting other directors of the cemetery’s board, and all of the other members said they would not have approved of the action. Association Secretary Frank Welti resigned on the spot.2

Newman asserted she had a letter from the G.A.R. asking for its removal (she never produced the letter) and that she had the approval of all the women’s clubs in Santa Rosa; the tree was “a reminder of an episode which it were best for our community that we and the world quickly forget,” the federation of the clubs wrote.

Hundreds swooped down on the fallen tree to snag wood chips and other lynching keepsakes, while editor Finley used the occasion to wax nostalgic about the events of December 1920. “There was almost a romantic air about this tree, because the retribution was carried out by an orderly mob…retributive justice, carried out more quickly than the ponderous law could have acted.”

But winds of opinion were shifting. While the lynching was a point of great civic pride right after the event – there was even a lifesize blowup of the PD’s iconic photo kept backstage at the Cline Theater, for purpose unknown – it wasn’t the sort of bucolic, small town “Shadow of a Doubt” image that the Chamber of Commerce and boosters like Finley wanted to promote. They wanted Santa Rosa known (per the future 1946 slogan) as “The City Designed for Living,” not “The City Bent on Hanging Scallywags.”

In short, the movers and shakers came to realize the women’s club federation was right – it was in the town’s best interest not to brag about what happened here. The Press Democrat, which regularly ran “glance at the past” type nostalgia columns, never mentioned the lynching in years to come. For the rest of Ernest Finley’s life, not a word about it would reappear in his newspaper.

Almost thirty years passed until July 1949, when staff writer Frank Herbert (he of sci-fi novel DUNE fame) penned a two-part feature on the murders and lynchings that somehow managed to get almost every single fact wrong. The famous photo – over whose exclusive rights Finley had made such a fuss – would not be printed again until 1968.

So there was actually a third conspiracy of silence at work, this one to not only downplay the lynching itself but to particularly forget Santa Rosa’s complicity and ghoulish misbehavior. Nice communities don’t try to batter down the jailhouse door or parade by the thousands through a morgue. By not mentioning those sticky points the town was shorn of any need to express shame or regret.

For a century the complex story of what happened here in December 1920 has been pared down to its bones. When told nowadays it is a simple tale that begins with how a good man was murdered and ends when the bad men were punished, as the Press Democrat put it at the time, “swinging from the rope’s ends, swaying in the wind and washed by the rain.” Santa Rosa played no part in it whatsoever; why, we can’t even be sure if anyone was here at all that week.

 

 


1 Portions of the coroner’s inquest are transcribed in the previous chapter and appeared complete in the Dec. 11 Press Democrat.
2 Mrs. Frank C. Newman – who is buried in the Rural Cemetery as Minnie Newman Carline – remained president of the Rural Cemetery Association for many years, and made another unilateral decision in 1932 that caused the cemetery to fall into decades of neglect. After a public works project did a major cleanup that year, she decreed there would be no further maintenance of gravesites by volunteers unless the owners/descendants of the individual plots paid for a caretaker to be hired. See “A CEMETERY SO LONG UNCARED FOR“.

NEXT: HIDDEN GRAVES
 

sources

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

 

SISTERS’ PLEA SAVES FITTS’ FACE FROM MORGUE EXPOSURE

The body of Terence Fitts, black sheep, lynched at Santa Rosa, was saved from the eyes of morbid crowds by the petition of his sister, Mrs. Henry Pyburn, 537 Fifth avenue, San Francisco.

In the petition another sister, Mrs. Cecil Riley of Santa Rosa, joined, and Fitts’ face was covered while a crowd of 3000, including women with babies in arms, viewed his body and those of George Boyd and Charles Valento.

Fitts will be buried by the family, but not in the family plot. Exactly a month before the day of Fitts’ death his father was buried in the cemetery a few feet from the tree on which the son was hanged. Fitts as a boy had played about the tree before he became the despair of a respectable family.

Valento’s body was shipped to his mother, who lives in Howard street.

It was expected that Boyd’s body would be claimed by relatives from Sacramento. If not, he will be buried In the Santa Rosa potter’s field.

– San Francisco Call, December 11 1920

 

CROWDS OF CURIOUS GATHER AT JAIL AND VIEW BODIES LAID OUT AT MORGUE

Throughout the day crowds congregated in front of the County Jail and in the downtown streets to talk over the dramatic events of the night before. On all sides were heard the remarks, “They got what was coming to them,” and “Good riddance and a saving of money for their trial.” All seemed to join in unanimous approval of the ghastly procedure. Ranchers thronged through the streets as if the event were one of carnival nature. Shops were deserted and business was virtually suspended.

Long lines of curious citizens passed through the morgue, where the three dead men lay on plain marble slabs. The body of Terence Fitts was covered in deference to a request of his relatives here…The bodies of the trio continued to be the chief attraction during the morning. At noon the morgue was closed until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. A long line waited patiently for the reopening…

– San Francisco Chronicle, December 11 1920

 

City is Quiet Today After Hanging; No Clue to Avengers

[..]

That Boyd might be an alias of the slayer developed yesterday when the crowd were passing through the morgue.

Two elderly men who have lived in Santa Rosa for years both are said to have exclaimed on looking at Boyd, “That is the Riley boy. He lived here 20 years ago.”

They based their belief on resemblance Boyd had for a family by the name of Riley who lived here a score of years past and who conducted a restaurant. Boyd admitted to the officers that he had a sister living in this city many years ago by the name of Riley and that he had visited her several times.

From these two angles it appears today that Boyd also might have been a former Santa Rosa boy. The Riley family lived on Second street…

[..]

HOYLE BUSY

District Attorney Hoyle spend the day in gathering statements relative to the summary executions of the three gangsters.

Practically the entire day was spent in this manner and Hoyle said it was the first step he would make in carrying out his official duties in connection with the case.

Asked if he would call a grand jury session to consider the hanging, Hoyle replied: “I can’t call a session until I have evidence to put before them. I am just beginning my investigations today and until I have taken several statements I can’t tell whether or not the grand jury will be called.”

Apparently the mystery which involved the identify of the avenging throng was still buried from officials and as no trace or inkling of the men who participated in the hanging has leaked out doubt exists in the many minds if an official investigation will yield results…

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican December 11 1920

 

No Grand Jury Probe Expected At Santa Rosa

There is little likelihood of a Grand Jury investigation into yesterday’s triple lynching, District Attorney George W. Hoyle said today as he began his formal inquiry into the mob action. He began his hearing with a program calling for the testimony of county jail officials and any witnesses who might be found, to tell of the actual lynching of George Boyd, Terence Fitts and Charles Valento. There seemed little likelihood of any evidence being secured to identify members of the mob, and without such Identification grand jury action would be improbable. “There will be no grand jury investigation,” said Hoyle, “unless I get evidence enough to warrant it.”

– San Francisco Call, December 11 1920

 

CROWDS VIEW BODIES; CITY QUIETING DOWN

[..]

There was a crowd at the undertaking parlors where the bodies of the lynched men had been removed and thousands asked to view them during Friday. Conspicuous among the crowds were many women and children…

– Press Democrat, December 11 1920

 

CASSASSA ARRESTED
FEDERAL AGENTS SAY WINEMAKER IS ILLICIT DEALER

D. Cassassa, widely known wineman who resides on the Guerneville road west of town, was arrested Saturday night on a charge of selling liquor illegally…

…The arrest comes as a direct result of the harboring of Terry Fitts, Charles Valento and Geo. Boyd recently, and providing the liquor for the men on their various visits, it is declared by the arresting officers. He has been in trouble before, and it is said there is a case pending against him in the Justice Court for selling liquor to Indians which has never been brought to trial.

Cassassa is a pioneer grape-grower and winemaker of Sonoma county and is well to do. He has a large family, including grandchildren, and it is said his conduct in connection with the San Francisco gangsters has not met with the approval of his family, who it is declared have strenuously protested but to no avail. He will now have to answer before the federal grand jury, and if indicted, as no doubt he will be, will have to stand trial before the United states circuit court at Sacramento.

– Press Democrat, December 12 1920

 

PETRAY FUNERAL WILL BE HELD TODAY IN HEALDSBURG

[..]

Both Mayor Rutherford and Chief of Police George W. Mathews announced yesterday that outlawry and flouting of the law must come to an end in Santa Rosa. Those who have long been suspected of breaking the law in various ways will he rounded up without delay, so that there can not be any possibility in future of the town, or anyone in it, harboring such desperate criminals as the three now in jail…

– Press Democrat, December 7 1920

 

We Have Had Our Lesson; Shall We Profit by It?

The sympathy of the entire community will be extended to the relatives and friends of the three brave officers who were murdered here Sunday. It was a shocking affair, and created more feeling than has previously been manifested in Sonoma county for a long time. That three such men should have been laid low by a worthless human rat is worse than shocking; it is horrible, appalling.

And now that the community has had its lesson, shall we profit by it, or merely go along in the same old way? This community has been infested far too long by the presence of such men as those responsible for the tragedy of Sunday afternoon. This is not the place for such cattle to congregate. They should be given to understand that their presence here is not wanted. Santa Rosa cannot afford to be known as a hang-out for criminals and moral degenerates. Whenever they appear, they must be told to move on, and without a moment’s delay. The places that harbor such criminals must be closed up, and kept closed. When criminals and cut-throats find things too hot for them in San Francisco and have to clear out, they must understand that we don’t want them up this way, even temporarily. Their presence is a menace, their very proximity a blight.

Officers, do your duty!

– Press Democrat, December 7 1920

 

START CLEANUP OF ALL IDLERS

That Santa Rosa and Sonoma county be immediately cleaned of all undesirable characters was the edict issued by the sheriff’s office and the chief ot police yesterday.

Orders to officers have already been issued to arrest every person in the city or vicinity of questionable occupation or who is found loitering around any of the saloons or wineries of the city or county.

Not only will a determined effort be made to rid the county of any persons of criminal inclination or intent, but determined action will also be begun to suppress and eradicate places in the county or city where such people rendezvous.

Sheriff John M. Boyes stated Tuesday that the first work which he would undertake would be to ask the co-operation of every peace officer north of San Francisco to join in making this territory too hot for criminals or their associates.

City Recorder C. N. Collins has already started action so far as his court is concerned by inflicting jail sentences for drunkenness. Following the sentence ot five to jail Monday not a drunk could be found in Santa Rosa Monday evening, and underground channels sent the information that several suspected bootleggers had quit their trade in the city. George Matthews, chief of police, is on the warpath and indicates that the bootleggers will not merely go into cover for a few days and then open up again. They are going to be stopped, he declares, once and for all time.

Hoboes, yeggs, idlers and hangers-on about the city are to be arrested and given the stiffest sentence that the law will allow, said Chief Matthews Tuesday. Santa Rosa is going to be known as an unsafe place for criminals.

– Press Democrat, December 8 1920

 

SAN FRANCISCO NEWSPAPER MEN ON SCENE

Soon after the news was telephoned to San Francisco, of the lynching in Santa Rosa, machines carrying San Francisco newspaper men, were soon on their way to the scene. Ralph Cromwell, special writer for the Chronicle, who had covered the shooting of the peace officers Sunday, also covered the lynching story for the big daily.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, December 11, 1920

 

REPUBLICANS WITH LYNCH STORY HAVE BIG SALE IN S. F.

The first word of the summary action taken by the men who hanged Fitts, Boyd and Valento yesterday was sent out by the Santa Rosa Republican which tipped off the majority of the San Francisco papers and which kept them supplied with the news of developments.

In addition to wiring and telephoning in the news the Santa Rosa Republican rushed 100 copies of the extra editions to the United News Agents, San Francisco. So great was the demand for the Santa Rosa paper that an hour after the first ones were received the Republican was sent a telegram asking for more…

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 11 1920

 

11,000 COPIES OF PRESS DEMOCRAT SPREAD THE STORY

The Press Democrat scored a tremendous success yesterday in its handling of the big news growing out of the lynching of Boyd, Fitts and Valento, the San Francisco gangsters. By all odds the most sensational event that ever took place in the history of the county, it was treated by this newspaper accordingly. More than 11,000 copies of The Press Democrat were printed and sold during the day, and the paper was in circulation in all parts of Sonoma county long before daylight. Four separate editions were issued, each replete with sensational details valuable to our readers.

The first edition was in the form of a comprehensive extra, giving a complete a complete account of the lynching. This was on the streets more than two hours before any other newspaper appeared, with only an abridged story and many of the details incorrect. The Press Democrat’s big extra was rushed by automobile to all the important towns in the county, as well as to many of the smaller places, and was followed an hour or more later by a complete morning edition containing two whole pages of news describing the lynching and other features associated with it. This edition was rushed to every town in the county, and in each and every instance all the papers sent out by our distributors were sold, and there was demand for more. Five separate shipments were made to Sebastopol, three to Healdsburg, two to Sonoma and Petaluma, and all day long scores of newsboys were busy on the streets disposing of Press Democrats, for which there appeared be a constant and ever-increasing demand.

Within half an hour after the lynching occurred, The Press Democrat had two photographers on the scene, and shortly afterwards Ernest Ridley with a finished photograph of the three men was making fast time in a high-powered car to Sausalito, where a powerful launch was waiting to convey him across the bay to Meiggs wharf, the nearest point. Here a taxicab was in waiting and Ridley with his photograph was rushed to the Call office, arriving there at 6:15 a. m. He waited there while two halftones were manufactured, one for the Call and the other for The Press Democrat. In less than two hours he was on his way home, bearing the finished cut, and the first and only picture of the lynching to be printed here in any newspaper came out in the noon edition of The Press Democrat, making a big sensation.

At the same time as The Press Democrat was assembling the data of the lynching, messages were flashed to the outside world. By Press Democrat service the Associated Press was enabled to put out 2500 words on the telegraph wire before 2 o’clock in the morning.

A crowd was assembled in front of The Press Democrat office all day long, reading the bulletins and extras posted on the plate glass windows and examining the mementos of the occasion that had been placed on display, while two people were kept busy at the telephone almost the entire day answering inquiries and giving out information relative to the sensational event with which the day had been ushered in.

– Press Democrat, December 11 1920

 

Lynching Photo Fraud

A copy of the photograph of the lynching taken at the direction of The Press Democrat early Friday morning was made into post cards by an enterprising man in San Francisco under an alleged copyright, and thousands disposed of before the police ordered the sale stopped. It is said that the man cleared up $500 in the transaction.

– Press Democrat, December 12 1920

 

THE BEE GETS PHOTO BY AIRPLANE
Mather Field Ship Brings Picture of Lynching

Through the co-operation of Captain T. S. Voss, acting for Major B. M. Atkinson, Commanding Officer at Mather Field, the Bee is enabled to publish to-day the photograph of the three gangsters hanged by the mob at Santa Rosa early this morning as they appeared swinging from the limb of an oak tree in the cemetery there.

Upon receipt of word at noom to-day that a flashlight photograph had been taken by one of those present at the lynching, The Bee arranged through Captain Voss for the dispatch of a De Haviland 450-horsepower Liberty Motor airplane, capable of making 100 miles an hour, to Santa Rosa in order to obtain one of the pictures.

ENCOUNTER FOG

Lieutenant W. A. Maxwell and Cadet L. H. Scott were assigned to the trip.

The two hopped off on Mather Field at 1:22 p. m. and arrived at Santa Rosa at 2:30 p. m. after encountering a heavy fog at intervals.

At Santa Rosa the pictures were already at Noonan Field there, through advance arrangement. At 2:45 p. m. they were in the hands of the birdmen and on their way to Sacramento. The landing was made at Mather Field at 3:40 p. m. From there the photographs were rushed to the engravers by Howard Meiss on a motorcycle.

– Sacramento Bee, December 10, 1920

 

Sacramento Paper Sends Airplane to Get Lynch Picture

The Sacramento Bee sent an airplane from Sacramento to Santa Rosa yesterday to secure a photograph of the lynching scene. The machine lighted in the Noonan field, where it was met by a representative with the picture. The plane was not here more than quarter of an hour and made the round trip in record time.

– Press Democrat, December 11 1920

 

PRESERVATION OF LYNCHING TREE IS URGED

That a public subscription be taken up for the preservation and labeling of the locust tree on which Boyd, Fitts and Valento were hung, so that it will be a perpetual reminder to desperadoes, gangsters and gunmen that death is a certain penalty for such murderous attacks as that of Sunday, is the suggestion made from several quarters here this morning.

One of the first to suggest such a subscription. and the securing of an engraved plate, giving the date and details of the lynching, and the cause for the action, was R. D. Robinson, who contributed fifty cents as a starter for such a fund, and asked that the newspapers of Santa Rosa accommodate people of like opinion by receiving their contributions.

Robinson declares as his belief that the tree should he preserved as an everlasting reminder that murders of police of officers like that in which Sheriff Petray and Detectives Jackson and Dorman did not go unpunished, even if such punishment be by mob action.

– Press Democrat, December 10 1920

 

LYNCH TREE GUARDED

After a day and night in which the lynching tree in Rural cemetery was unguarded, and curiosity seekers removed most of the bark and many of the smaller limbs, the caretaker of the cemetery stationed a guard over it, and has stopped further abuse of the tree at the hands of souvenir seekers.

Tree experts have stated their opinion that not enough bark has been removed to seriously harm the tree, and believe that it will stand and continue to live as a reminder of the lynching and the events which preceded it.

– Press Democrat, December 12 1920

 

LYNCHING TREE DRAWS CROWDS

All day long Sunday there was a stream of automobiles passing along the cemetery road, the curious occupants seeking a view of the tree on which the gangsters were lynched Friday morning.

The traffic became so heavy, with machines passing alone the road from both directions, that it was necessary to call on the traffic police for regulation, with the result that an officer was stationed at each end of the road to maintain order.

The automobiles were from all parts of Sonoma county, and the fine weather of the day attracted many people from San Francisco and other bay cities and from other counties in this vicinity.

– Press Democrat, December 14 1920

 

TWO HUNDRED PYTHIANS SEE COUNTY JAIL

Sight-seeing Pythians, Wednesday, to the number of 200 or more, stormed the Sonoma county Jail, overwhelmed Douglas M. Bills, undersheriff, and almost broke into the barred section at the rear, so enamored were they with the beauty of the building. As a part of the attraction, Santa Rosa is showing the visiting delegates to the grand lodge encampment, Knights of Pythias, the county Jail received more than its share of praise and interest from the visitors.

The gruesome collection reminiscent of the late triple lynching here, drew the greatest attention from the visitors. This collection, which is on display in the sheriff’s office, includes a large photograph of the three hanging to the tree; the gun which fired the fatal shots, empty cartridges, the hangmen’s knots cut from the ropes, and other articles.

The late Sheriff Petray, killed by the San Francisco gangsters was a well-beloved Knight and extended the invitation to the grand lodge to hold their encampment in Santa Rosa at the 1920 meeting. For this reason, his many brother Knights and friends from other sections of the state, were especially interested in the collection.

– Press Democrat, May 19 1921

 

Grim “Hangman’s Tree,” Reminder Of Lynching In 1920, Is Laid Low By Ax

By THE SPECTATOR

The grim reminder of Sonoma county retributive justice — the cemetery locust tree to which on December 10, 1920 a mob hanged the three slayers of Sheriff James A. Petray and two San Francisco detectives — has passed into history.

Yesterday morning, acting on the orders of a woman, Mrs. Frank C. Newman, president of the board of directors of the Rural Cemetery Association, the ax was laid to the roots of the tree.

Today it lies in lengths on the ground, while chips from the trunk and pieces of limb are being carried into hundreds of homes in Santa Rosa, and taken far away by interested people as souvenirs.

TOURIST ATTRACTION

The “lynching tree,” as it became known all over the nation after the news of the hanging was broadcasted from Santa Rosa, was always a first attraction to visitors in Santa Rosa. There was almost a romantic air about this tree, because the retribution was carried out by an orderly mob five days after the murder of the there [sic] peace officers. This was no bitter, hotblooded revenge. It was retributive justice, carried out more quickly than the ponderous law could have acted.

The tree, itself as if to give justification to the deed, burst through the shackles of the tradition which had decreed that a “hangman’s tree” must die, and broke into new foliage early in the spring which followed the lynching. And, as if still proud, again this year it threw out new green leaves, and was in the full flower of spring bloom when laid low by the ax.

When the news spread that the tree had been cut down crowds of people again visited the old cemetery and carried away fragments as souvenirs. Then a general inquiry was started as to why the tree had been cut down and the splendid shade it had afforded destroyed forever.

ACTION IS DEFENDED

Sexton Mets said the tree had been hewn down under an order issued by Mrs. Frank C. Newman, president of the board of directors of the Rural Cemetery association. When Mrs. Newman was interviewed she stated that she had exercised her authority as president of the board in ordering the tree cut down. She said members of the Grand Army had requested its removal and had urged this in a letter she had received.

Other members of the board, however, were greatly surprised and stated that had they been approached they would not have consented to the destruction of the tree. One director stated that the site for the Grand Army plot given that organization was selected on account of the presence of the shade the big locust tree would afford at similar exercises to those held on Decoration Day. But the tree with its associations and history is gone, and cannot be replaced.

– Press Democrat, May 31 1922

 

“HANGMAN’S TREE” REMOVAL PRAISED BY CLUBWOMEN AND OPPOSED BY CEMETERY BOARD

Discussion has raged pro and con around town on the merits of the destruction of the “hangman’s tree” in Rural cemetery, and the action has been followed by endorsement from the Sonoma County Federation of Women’s clubs on the one hand, and an adverse criticism by the majority of the cemetery board of directors on the other.

Secretary Frank Welti tendered his resignation as secretary of the Rural cemetery association at a meeting held Wednesday evening. Mrs. Emma Kopf was elected to fill the vacancy. It is asserted that all of the directors in attendance at the meeting expressed themselves us protesting against the action of Mrs. Frank C. Newman president of the Board, in ordering the tree cut down early Tuesday morning before Memorial Day exercises started.

Mrs. Newman was not present at the meeting. She was prevented by illness from attending the session according to a report received by the other directors.

RESOLUTION ENDORSES

On the other hand, Mrs. Newman’s action received endorsement of the women’s clubs when the federation meeting Wednesday afternoon adopted a resolution, which reads as follows:

“Whereas, the so-called ‘hangman’s tree’ has vanished from the place where it stood, a reminder of an episode which it were best for our community that we and the world quickly forget, “Be it, Resolved, that the Sonoma County Federation of Women’s Clubs in convention assembled at Santa Rosa, May 31, 1922, commend the removal of such tree.”

Signed by the following members of the Saturday Afternoon club: …

The tree in question, a towering locust, was planted many years ago. Because of its shade its site was picked for the G. A. R. monument to “unknown dead,” where exercises are annually held on Memorial Day.

The tree burst into national notice December 10, 1920, when an organized mob took George Boyd, Terry Fitts and Charlie Valento, slayers of Sheriff James A. Petray and two San Francisco detectives five days previously, from the county jail early in the morning, and hanged them to a horizontal limb of the tree.

Since then it has been visited by thousands of tourists who had heard of the revenge meted out to the three men, said to have been connected with the outrages ol the Howard street gang in San Francisco.

Mrs. Newman declared her action in ordering the tree cut down had been taken in response to many pleas from G. A. R. veterans and others, who declared it inappropriate that a “hangman’s tree” should grow in the G. A. R. plot.

– Press Democrat, June 1 1922

 

Santa Rosa Republican as reprinted in the Sacramento Bee, December 10, 1920
Santa Rosa Republican as reprinted in the Sacramento Bee, December 10, 1920

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VENGEANCE FOR SUNNY JIM

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 WILL BE PRICES PAID
Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa

BAD TO THE BONE
THE WOLVES OF THANKSGIVING
A FORESHADOW OF TERRIBLE DAYS
FATEFUL KNOCK ON A COTTAGE DOOR
MOB SIEGE OF THE JAIL
96 HOURS TO HANGTOWN
VENGEANCE FOR SUNNY JIM
CONSPIRACIES OF SILENCE
    HIDDEN GRAVES
    A WELL-ORDERED MILITIA

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.

This is the seventh chapter in the series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID,” and covers just the events of that night, including how Barney’s testimony has changed the record. The next (and final) part describes the aftermath and offers thoughts on who led the lynching party and how it was organized. Also, since we at least like to pretend the internet is a civilized place, please be forewarned:

This article contains descriptions and images that some might find disturbing.


OUR JIM

“Sunny Jim” was a common nickname in his era for any cheery and affable fellow (it came from a turn of the century breakfast cereal). In Santa Rosa at the time we had Sunny Jim Hill of Bennett Valley whose first name was actually William – you didn’t need to be a James to qualify as a Sunny Jim – but the monicker particularly fit James A. Petray, who was known as a guy with a big heart and a ready smile. All of the local newspapers wrote about him with adoration and when he was murdered at age 55 the Republican printed a touching editorial about the sorrow felt by the loss of “our Jim.”

A Healdsburg native and its deputy sheriff in the 1910s, he could have been mistaken for the mayor or district supervisor by his deeds. He arranged a benefit in 1915 to furnish Christmas dinners for anyone in town who was needy and was chairman of the the Healdsburg Red Cross Relief Committee. He was the Grand Marshall for Healdsburg’s day-long 1918 patriotic blowout in support of the troops overseas and when the war was over he declined to join the Armistice Day ceremonies in Santa Rosa, choosing to celebrate in his hometown. When the Santa Rosa High baseball team played Healdsburg High, Jim was the ump.

He was the underdog when he ran for sheriff in 1918; his opponent was Joe Ryan, another deputy who had much more experience and was a bulldog when it came to chasing down suspects (Ryan would be elected sheriff in 1922). But despite the other guy being better qualified Jim narrowly won, thanks in great part to sweeping the vote in District 4 – and he was probably helped by none of the papers mentioning the dark chapter in his life.

The Petray family had a long-time feud with a neighboring rancher and during an 1894 confrontation Jim slugged the old man in the head. He pled guilty to battery and paid a fine, but when the rancher died soon after of meningitis the charge was escalated to manslaughter. Jim went on the lam for over three years. After he voluntarily surrendered his 1898 trial was the most sensational courtroom event of the time, remarkable in part because his legal team spent an unusually long time selecting jurors. (He was represented by the top lawyers in this area, ex-Congressman Tom Geary and A. B. Ware.) Jim was acquitted after the jury was out for only three minutes.

As sheriff he seemingly became even more popular than before. He was Grand Marshall at a Petaluma parade and presided over a welcome-home event for returning WWI soldiers. After he was in office only six months the county deputies threw a banquet and gave him a solid gold sheriff’s badge with a diamond in the center.

On the day of his burial, all stores closed 12:30 to 3 o’clock as thousands lined the road between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg when his funeral cortege passed. Plans for a Petray Memorial Fund began almost immediately and included a proposed big All Star baseball game, possibly with Babe Ruth. The benefit game played in mid-February was instead between two local teams. It still attracted an audience of 2-3,000; the Lieutenant Governor threw out the first pitch, a band played tunes between innings and there were comics who performed a warmup show. A fine time was had by all, and it was a nice way to remember Sunny Jim.
petrayportrait

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.

Robinson was introduced here previously as a somewhat unreliable source who seemed prone to exaggeration and self-aggrandizement. Unfortunately he was the only source during crucial parts of the story that happened next, so we can’t assume everything in his account is completely reliable. All of his statements below come from his testimony at the Coroner’s Inquest the next day, which is partially transcribed below but can be read in full in the Dec. 11 Press Democrat.

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.

The doorbell rang and Butch found three men waiting.2 They were all from Healdsburg, and told him they had attended the San Francisco funeral services for the murdered detectives. Maynard Young, a popular salesman who owned a car dealership there, said they returned to find people in their town agitated.3

“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:


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.

Diagram of the Sonoma County Jail during the vigilante attack. San Francisco Chronicle, Dec 11, 1920
Diagram of the Sonoma County Jail during the vigilante attack. San Francisco Chronicle, Dec 11, 1920

The keys were passed to the men holding Butch and the other deputies. Opening the entrance gate they went upstairs and directly to the padded cell/infirmary where dying George Boyd was being kept. “The fellow was gone,” Robinson told jurors the next morning. “The first words one of these fellows says was ‘they have taken the sons of bitches away.'”

“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:

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…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.

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.

A collage from the December 10, 1920 San Francisco Call credited to staff photographer Joe Marron, who rushed to Santa Rosa as soon as the paper received word of the lynching.
A collage from the December 10, 1920 San Francisco Call credited to staff photographer Joe Marron, who rushed to Santa Rosa as soon as the paper received word of the lynching.

The papers made much of another event happening the same time as the vigilante attack. Two blocks away at the Masonic Hall on the corner of Fourth and D streets the “Ladies’ Night” dance was winding down and people were starting to drive home. There was speculation whether the architects of the jail attack were counting on an unusual number of cars being on the street post-midnight in order to be concealed by the crowd.

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:

We sat around there for a while… After probably half an hour’s time Gus [Jewett] and myself took a ride out, after Charley Jacobs come back and told us they were all three hanging there under an oak tree [sic] out in the cemetery, side by each, so we went out and took a look at them…

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.

Sheriff Boyes went to the cemetery sometime around 1AM and ordered Butch to stay there and guard the bodies until the Coroner arrived. (EDIT: Deputy Robinson told the Healdsburg Tribune, “the sheriff and I went out there and stayed until the coroner arrived and cut the bodies down” but that seems to be another of his inventions. It appears Butch did not remain there to guard the crime scene and Boyes did not go to the cemetery until the Coroner arrived in Santa Rosa. The Coroner testified he found the sheriff and Butch at the jail and they went out to the cemetery together to retrieve the bodies.)

Meanwhile, according to the first report in the Press Democrat,

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.

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.”

L to R: George Boyd, Terrence Fitts, Charles Valento. Image courtesy the Denise Hill and Joe Lilienthal collection
L to R: George Boyd, Terrence Fitts, Charles Valento. Image courtesy the Denise Hill and Joe Lilienthal collection
1 The Heney name only appeared in the Dec. 10 SF Call. There is no evidence of anyone with that name living in Santa Rosa at the time.
2 Robinson actually testified there were “four men, three men returning from the funeral in San Francisco” but only named three: “Mr. Young, Mr. McMinn and Mr. Lattin.” Boyes mentioned just those three, so presumably saying there were four was another of Robinson’s verbal slip-ups or seemingly compulsive need to exaggerate.
3 Besides Maynard Young, the other men from Healdsburg were Joseph A. McMinn and Ray Lattin. These men are discussed at length in the final installment, “A WELL-ORDERED MILITIA.”
4 Jailer Gus Jewett, in an Dec. 10 interview with the Petaluma Morning Courier, said he moved Boyd to a different ground floor cell because the window was found broken in Boyd’s “insane ward” cell. The same article also included a snippet of dialogue Jewett supposedly had with Boyd, where the jailer said he was moving Boyd because he had a premonition. There are several other questionable details in the Courier article, although the Dec. 11 SF Examiner printed a photo of the wall of the jail with an arrow pointing at a ground floor window “where some of the bars were found loose.” As we don’t know whether the padded cell was on the first or second floor, the reason Boyd was moved remains inconclusive.
5 The Boyes’ lived at 611 Monroe street, one door down from College ave. Sheriff Harry Patteson would later live in the same house.

 

NEXT: CONSPIRACIES OF SILENCE

 

sources
 

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…

 

“OUR JIM”

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

 

GANGSTERS LYNCHED!
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]

BLAMELESS!

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.”

INDICTMENTS DISMISSED

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

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