Welcome to the 650th entry appearing in this journal, which sifts down to 1.3 million words posted over a decade – enough to fill eleven meaty academic books. Should that wobbly leg on a coffee table fall off, such a stack might well serve as an emergency prop.
Overviews are usually reserved for 100x milestones but it’s been over three years since a “best of” item appeared here. It might also be a while before I reach #700 – not that I am writing less, but articles are now lengthier and more footnote-ier on the average, some multipart stories composed of tens of thousands of words.
For those unfamiliar with the territory, this is (and will remain) a warts-and-all accounting of Santa Rosa and its environs, researched via original newspapers and other primary sources. Any errors discovered are corrected with mistakes acknowledged, and the borders between documented fact and opinion are (hopefully) always clear. The survey article for the 500th milestone speaks about the origins of this journal and offers another selected list of stories, of which only a few are duplicated here.
|THE FORGOTTEN FIRES OF FOUNTAINGROVE AND COFFEY PARK Santa Rosa was very, very, lucky in 1908 and 1939 when major fires burned at the same locations destroyed in 2017. Had the winds shifted on either occasion much of Santa Rosa could have burned. Also popular are the bonus details about the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport, which was between Piner Road and Hopper Ave.
|WHEN THE FAIRIES CAME FOR THOMAS LAKE HARRIS After the guru of the former Fountaingrove commune died in 1906, his followers left his body untouched for three months – he was supposed to be immortal, after all, so maybe he just was in a really deep sleep. Even after he was buried, Harris’s supposedly scandalous life remained catnip to Bay Area newspapers; when the big Fountaingrove dormitory was destroyed in 1908 (see above item) a San Francisco headline read, “Free Love’ Home Burned to Ground.”
|THE GRAND MANSION SANTA ROSA THREW AWAY It was the grandest, most beautiful house ever built in Santa Rosa, and a century ago this was a town with no shortage of grand and beautiful homes. Hundreds attended one swank affair in 1903, with an orchestra on the balcony and San Francisco chefs in the kitchen. Elaborate evening gowns and diamonds glimmering in myriad electric lights, the rooms perfumed from honeysuckle, azaleas, carnations and roses – overall an ostentatious show of wealth by the scion of an old Sonoma County family with enough money to act like aristocrats. Then in 1969 the grand mansion disappeared – and why it came down will make you want to scream.
|THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF OTHO HINTON Probably America’s first criminal celebrity, “General” Hinton was a conman extraordinaire. Newspapers in the Midwest and beyond reported every sighting of the infamous mail robber as he was arrested, escaped, was arrested again and escaped again; Hinton sightings were reported all over the country and in Cuba, making him something of a mid-19th century Elvis. He lived for a time in Hawai’i where he declared himself a lawyer, then moved to Santa Rosa after the statutes of limitations expired on his felonies. Here he practiced law, but only after the county Bar Association quizzed him on “charges touching his moral character.” But as always, Hinton could con anyone into believing he smelled sweet as a rose, and in the years around the Civil War he convinced locals he was the town’s benefactor while actually doing little beyond making pompous speeches. After his death in 1865 the street on the east side of Courthouse Square was named after him.
|THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS Sarah and Jesse Wickersham were members of one of Sonoma county’s most esteemed families, and their horrific 1886 murders became nationwide news after their Chinese house servant was named as the only suspect. There was zero evidence he committed the crime, but anti-Chinese sentiment then was at its peak on the West Coast and he made a perfect villain. Although the inquest testimony pointed to a robbery gone wrong, in that swirling torrent of racist hate and fear no one questioned that he murdered the couple in cold blood for no apparent reason.
|THE CRIME OF DR. BURKE Although no one was killed, the Burke case was Sonoma county’s crime of the 20th century; newspapers in East Coast cities and small Western mining towns alike were often publishing daily courtroom updates, sometimes with front page headlines. The crime in question was the 1910 attempted murder of his mistress and their baby – by blowing them up with dynamite. This nine part series follows the unfolding suspenseful story.
|THE CASE FOR ARSON AT WOLF HOUSE Jack London didn’t spend a night in the baronial home he named “Wolf House” before it burned down in 1913. A forensic report in 1995 concluded the cause of the fire was spontaneous combustion, but that theory leaned heavily on evidence that is now shown to be provably wrong. That reopens the possibility of arson, and there’s a strong suspect: Jack’s unstable brother-in-law who quarreled with him a few hours before the fire.
THE 1906 SANTA ROSA EARTHQUAKE
|NEW REVELATIONS Think you kinda know what happened in Santa Rosa on April 18, 1906? Sorry; details found in the Petaluma Argus rewrite the story significantly. The big takeaway is that the interim newspaper published by Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley covered up the worst news about the disaster. There was serious looting and the stench of death lingered over the town for days. Most significant was confirmation of a massive explosion at the Haven Hardware store, which was so huge it took out one side of its block on Fourth street, killing at least eight. As it turns out, Haven Hardware was one of two places in town that sold gasoline.
|SEEKING MISS EXCELSA “Mrs. C. Heath” is named at the top of the memorial stone at the Rural Cemetery, but in the newspapers death lists she appeared usually as “Miss Excelsa,” which was a misspelling of her vaudeville stage name; the earthquake came the morning after her second performance at Santa Rosa’s tiny theater. Hers is probably the most poignant story of what happened that day, because her stage partner – the only person in the Bay Area who knew anything about her – promptly fled after the quake. Her backstory remained a mystery until now.
| THE 1906 EARTHQUAKE GRAVESTONE: WHO LIES BENEATH? Buried along with Heath in the mass grave are others whose presence reveals the chaos during the aftermath of the quake. There is someone listed on the tombstone who is actually buried somewhere else and there are certainly more people under that concrete slab than the sixteen claimed.
THE TRIBULATIONS OF LUTHER BURBANK
|SELLING LUTHER BURBANK Always seeking the financial independence that would allow him to concentrate on his plant breeding, Burbank repeatedly stumbled into deals with dodgy characters through no fault of his own. Probably the worst was a 1909 plan to sell Burbank’s seeds and live plants directly to the public. The main investors were the Law brothers, who owned the Fairmont Hotel and other blue-ribbon real estate. But the brothers made their fortune through a quack medicine and pyramid scheme (which they still owned) that was singled out by medical journals and muckrakers as one of the worst of all the insidious medical frauds. It seems likely the Laws sought out a partnership with Luther Burbank – one of the most respected men in the nation – so he could be called as a character witness, should they ever be enmeshed in a wrongful death lawsuit.
|THE UNDOING OF LUTHER BURBANK Burbank expected his set of “Methods & Discoveries” books would establish his legacy as a great scientist and provide a steady income, thanks in part to a $300,000 bond issue in late 1912, only a few months after Burbank Press was formed. What he did not know was that the man directing his publishing company was a fugitive on the run with several aliases, wanted for a previous stock scam as well as bigamy after having abandoned his wife and children.
| THE PRICKLY LUTHER BURBANK The spineless cactus was Burbank’s moon shot – an odyssey with the goal of creating a hybrid that would be as important to mankind as his namesake potato, where deserts would be turned into pastures and croplands. But never would the desert bloom in vast cactus farms; spineless varieties were more delicate than the spiny forms, sensitive to cold and not as drought tolerant. His variety grew best only in places with year-around rainfall or with wet, mild winters and dry summers. Places like Santa Rosa, California, for example.
PEOPLE YOU WOULD HAVE LIKED TO MEET
|MARTIN TARWATER, MOST HAPPY FELLA Had Martin Tarwater behaved himself, he would have died peacefully at home near Mark West Creek and been quickly forgotten. Instead, he did something so crazy that he was immortalized in one of the best stories written by Jack London. At age 66 he joined the 1897 Yukon Gold Rush, despite having no experience with prospecting or, for that matter, surviving in extremely bad weather. Despite the awful conditions, Tarwater kept such a cheery disposition he appeared to be nuts. A correspondent to the Press Democrat wrote of coming across “Mart” alone in the wilderness that winter merrily bellowing out an old music hall tune.
|ED MANNION HAS SOMETHING TO TELL YOU “Grizzly Bear wanted for bull and bear fight Main Street Petaluma, reply to the judge”, read the ad in a San Francisco paper a month before the town’s centennial celebration in 1958. “The judge” was Ed Mannion, Petaluma’s unofficial historian and sometimes columnist for the Argus-Courier. Mannion had a wild sense of humor for his time but took history research seriously, tapping primary sources for information rather than repeating hand-me-down stories. He wrote so much there are probably mistakes which I don’t know enough to spot, but so far I’ve only found one glaring error – and to his credit, he found it himself some years later and corrected it.
| OUR LOVEABLE, AWFUL HISTORIAN The most cited history of Sonoma county is probably the 1911 version written by Tom Gregory, and that’s unfortunate. He was a popular, maybe even beloved, fellow around Santa Rosa but he wasn’t a scholar or historian as much as he was a storyteller – and that is why his book is so godawful. Errors probably blot every page; at times his book resembles nothing more than the TV series “Drunk History,” where someone is liquored-up and asked to recount some great moment in history which they only half remember from school. That said, if I could go back in time to his day there’s nothing more I’d like to do than hang out with Tom and have a beer while listening to him spin his wild tales. He was the closest we’ve ever had to homegrown Mark Twain.
PEOPLE NOBODY LIKED
|THE SEDUCER’S SCHOOL Around 110 years ago, “professor” Forest C. Richardson ran a little business school on Fourth street which was mainly attended by “poor girls, struggling to get along in the world and make something of themselves.” Only after a Santa Rosa woman died from a botched abortion in 1909 was it discovered he was a serial sexual predator who was preying on his students. When any of them became pregnant he gave them some sort of pill that was supposed to induce miscarriage. Richardson – who was married with four kids – was arrested after signing a lengthy confession and charged with criminal assault (rape) and furnishing drugs for illegal purposes (abortion). He was sentenced to only four years in San Quentin.
|THE MAN WHO STOLE BODEGA BAY Tyler Curtis married the widow of Captain Stephen Smith (who owned the vast Mexican land grant of Rancho Bodega), making him the richest person on the Sonoma county coast during the early decades of statehood. Over the following years he acted with methodical guile, destroying the lives of everyone around him, robbing Smith’s children of their inheritance and then wasting much of the family fortune in a Quixotic attempt to become mayor of San Francisco. He embezzled the modern equivalent of a million dollars from an insurance company and after his wife died, was engaged simultaneously to five or more women in the city. He fled to Europe and the East Coast, posing as a wealthy Californian who had found himself in the embarrassing position of asking for loans until he could sort out complicated business deals back home. When Curtis died in New York City (“a victim to rum and loathsome diseases”) one of Smith’s sons told the press he suspected Curtis had poisoned his mother.
| THE BATTLE FOR SANTA ROSA HIGH After its old high school burned down, Santa Rosa had the will to quickly rebuild a fine modern school and soon was ready to break ground. Then suddenly the project was stopped indefinitely by Sampson B. Wright, an anti-tax crank who filed a series of lawsuits 1922-1923 to block the project. He accused county officials of crimes that could send them to jail, including criminal conspiracy, election fraud and felony misappropriation of public funds. His underlying gripe, however, was that he didn’t want a centralized high school in Santa Rosa and thought school buses were a frivolous luxury. Public anger at Wright was so great there was a community meeting called to discuss what to do about him, with a notice given that violent measures would not be considered. He finally dropped his lawsuits and the school opened in 1924 – the same year his wife filed for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty, particularly because he refused to pay for electricity in their Santa Rosa home.
STORIES THAT SHOULD BE IN OUR HISTORY BOOKS
|SONOMA COUNTY AND EUGENICS “The California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children” at Eldridge took in youths which were mentally handicapped or had severe epilepsy in the early 20th century, But once Dr. Fred O. Butler became superintendent in 1918, it became virtually a factory operation for forced sterilizations. A study four years later found 4 out of 5 of these operations nationwide were performed in the state, with the justification being “mainly eugenic, also for the physical, mental or moral benefit of inmate, also partly punitive in certain cases.” Almost half of the women were there because they were classified as sexually delinquent, with notes in their records that they were “passionate,” “immoral,” “promiscuous,” or similar; most males were sent there for sterilization by their families because they were “masturbators” or gay. Dr. Butler’s house of eugenic horrors continued through WWII and after, even as the Nazis were being rightly condemned for the same practices.
|SANTA ROSA, WHERE THE REVOLUTION (ALMOST) BEGAN America was a fragile place in the spring of 1933, with considerable fury towards the banks which were foreclosing on family farms in record numbers. Sonoma county found itself in the national spotlight over the upcoming auction of the 50-acre farm James Case owned near Forestville, where he grew cherries and apples. The Sebastopol bank refused to delay foreclosure and already had a deal to sell the farm at a profit immediately after the auction. The newly-seated FDR administration got involved in seeking a compromise, as did the governor; the banker only dug in further and like a cartoon villain, vowed he would get his hands on the Case ranch. On auction day 3,000 people were jammed together in front of the courthouse in downtown Santa Rosa as the Press Democrat described a “grim determination and anxiousness” in the crowd, “somber, serious, not a smile on a single face.” But just as the sale was about to begin, it was announced that Judge Hilliard Comstock had ordered it cancelled. Case and his supporters were jubilant, both for him personally and what it would mean for other farmers now that a Superior Court judge had set such a precedent. Had Comstock not ruled that way, the mob’s actions could have gone in any of a number of directions – a riot, an attack on the courthouse, even sparking a national populist uprising which could have squelched the New Deal reforms before they took root.
| TWO MARTYRS FOR THE FLAG OF THE BEARS The history of the Bear Flag Revolt and the short-lived California Republic is overdue for a revision; what is told today is almost entirely just the American side of the story, which was cast in stone near the end of the 19th century. That version memorializes all things heroic about the Revolt, particularly the story of how the flag was designed and the martyrdom of a couple of Bear Flag rebels named Cowie and Fowler. Forgotten was that many Americans at the time had mixed feelings about ousting the Mexican government, and missing are the voices of the Californios, who only sought to coexist on their ranchos. Then it spun out of control as someone on the Californio side killed Fowler and Cowie and someone on the American side killed the a pair of teenagers and their elderly uncle. Lofty principles were forgotten and it became a gang war, each side hunting the hunters on other side, both sides wanting to absolve what they did by claiming the other guys drew first blood.
OUR STRANGE, STRANGE PAST
|HEAR THAT LONESOME CHICKEN BLOW “Betty,” Petaluma’s giant plaster advertising chicken, sat on her nest at the south end of town for nearly twenty years. She survived the indignities of obscene graffiti and sometimes there were messages concerning the pitiable intelligence or lack of personal hygiene possessed by some local football team, which was always quite informative. Then in 1938 someone used dynamite to blow her up. Suspicion turned to Santa Rosa and years later the crime was finally solved via an anonymous confession: “We got together a bunch of guys and somebody said it would be a great idea to blow up that big, ugly chicken. If you came from Santa Rosa, that seemed like a hell of a good idea.”
|LET’S GO DOWNTOWN AND SEE SOMETHING WEIRD On any given Saturday around 1914, chances were you could pay a dime and watch performers do things on stage which demonstrated more self-delusion than discernible talent. That was the peak year for vaudeville in Santa Rosa with two theaters downtown presenting comedians, singers, novelty whistlers, birdcallers, “barnyard humor,” midget boxers and blackface “shouters,” not to mention a couple of acts which were apparently just young women doing calisthenics. There was Miss Livingstone’s skating bear, Captain Webb’s seals, a steady procession of dog and bird acts plus two “goat circuses.” As awful as it sometimes was, vaudeville was still live theater and it’s a shame it’s completely gone.
| SONOMA COUNTY, FAMOUS FOR SHARKS AND LUCKY BEANS Starting in 1909, Sonoma and other North Bay counties sponsored a man named Mondula Leak in an official traveling exhibit on rails. “Mon” visited everywhere in the country except the West Coast, which probably kept local Chambers of Commerce from realizing how damned strange his operation really was. One train car was dedicated to local attractions – “the creations of Luther Burbank,” redwood trees, samples of major crops and so on. Admission to that car was free, but to step aboard the other cost 25¢ and what was there was the real draw, with oddities such as a giant stuffed shark, a “California ostrich,” live monkeys, “Peruvian Cavies” (guinea pigs) and an alligator. Sometimes there was an x-ray machine so you could see the bones in your hands. In short, it was all much like a carnival sideshow showing stuff that had nothing to do with Sonoma county or anywhere else in the North Bay. Many communities around the country charged hefty fees on circus-y exhibits like that or banned them outright – but since Mon could claim part of it was free and “educational” he had a cloak of legitimacy. After that ended in 1915, Leak settled down in Georgia and inverted his scam; now he expected businesses and Chambers in the state to pay dues to his “association” which would provide promotional space in an Atlanta warehouse. As every Sonoma county item should properly include an obl. Believe-it-or-Not! ending, please note an associate of Mon’s later embraced this business model and used it to organize the modern Ku Klux Klan.
The title of this essay, by the way, refers to “A Thousand Kisses Deep” – not the recent movie of that name, but the original Leonard Cohen poem. Fans debate exactly what it means; it seems the “thousand kisses” stands for the big, messy stack of memories we’ve collected over our lives that define who we are, and how we flounder about trying to make sense of them. In 2001 Cohen obliquely wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail, “…you live your life as if it’s real. But with the understanding: it’s only a thousand kisses deep, that is, with that deep intuitive understanding that this is unfolding according to a pattern that you simply cannot discern.”
Sorting through those memories can be confusing and stir emotions; sometimes you look backward and see things you regret, sometimes you’re simply perplexed about how things happened. That’s not unlike how historians grapple with the past, trying to understand why events unfolded as they did – or whether they actually took place as generally presumed. If only a diary or letter would turn up to answer a riddle; if only we could go back for a blink in time to witness a critical moment of the event itself, the puzzle would be forever solved.