THE YEAR OF CRAZY FIGHTS

Credit our last century ancestors with this: When they fought, they fought with conviction, and in 1909 there were more dust-ups reported than in preceeding years. Not that those tangles were unusually violent; it would be hard to compete with the year 1907, when there was a point blank shootout that wounded only bystanders, or 1908, when a brawl ended with one contestant trapped in a barber’s chair where a variety of bones were broken.

Some of the 1909 tangles could have ended in fatalities, certainly. James Maloney was lucky to survive when his fellow woodcutter attacked him with an axe in the kitchen of their cabin (although that 9-inch gash in his chest must have hurt a bit). And then there were the two Sebastopol lawyers whose fight ended up in court, one claiming that he punched the other because he was just about to be bashed in the head with a hammer. Attorney  L. G. Scott conceded to the judge that yes, he was indeed carrying a tack hammer at the time, but had no intent of wielding it as a weapon against the party of the second part. Ah, lawyers.

Also in court that year was Mrs. Emma Fetters, charged with “flourishing a dangerous weapon in a threatening manner” and disturbing the peace. The plaintiff was her husband’s mother, who lost some of her hair in a battle between the two. The paper didn’t identify the dangerous weapon – unless it was presumed to be Mrs. Fetters’ disturbingly firm grip and tugging skills – but did note she was fined for disturbing the peace because the woman was “accustomed to use a great deal of profane language.” Some of the cussing may have been because Emma and husband George had recently opened their Fetters Hot Springs resort and starting any new business is stressful, even without the helpful presence of moms-in-law.

But probably the strangest fight of 1909 started over a family breakfast on West Third Street in Santa Rosa, when a father chided his 22 year-old son for using too much sugar in his coffee. Son Harry spitefully dumped half the sugar bowl into his cup, then began pitching chunks of bread at his father and brother. Papa John followed suit by swearing out an arrest warrant against his kid for disturbing the peace.  Your obl. believe-it-or-not twist: The feuding family members were the father and brother of Blaine G. Selvage, who has been honored here as one of the very first U.S. aviators, having made his maiden flight a few months earlier.

USES SUGAR TO EXCESS
Disturber Escapes Before Serving of Warrant

Harry Selvage, a warrant for whose arrest had been sworn to Friday, by John Selvage, his father, before Justice Atchinson, on the charge of disturbing the peace, had quietly left town. In some way he got wind of the fact that he was scheduled for arrest and when Constable Boswell came upon the scene with the warrant, Selvage had gone hence. The latter does not bear the best of repute, having been given a “floater” in the justice court some time ago.

The present trouble all began over a few morsels of sugar. Harry Selvage had been reprimanded at the family table for putting several spoonfuls of sugar in his coffee. To show how cheerfully he received the admonition and reproof, he dumped half of the contents of the bowl into his beverage receptacle. He then started throwing pieces of bread at the heads of his various kinsmen. Whereupon the warrant referred to above was issued.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 5, 1909
HAIR PULLING MATCH HELD
Young Woman Lost Hair; Old Lady Lost Natural Hair

Mrs. Emma Fetters, of Fetters’ resort near Agua Caliente, appeared before the justice court at Glen Ellen Wednesday and was fined ten dollars in each of two cases for which warrants had been sworn out against her. One of the charges was that of flourishing a dangerous weapon in a threatening manner last Sunday and the other charge was that of disturbing the peace, which arose from a quarrel resulting in the committing of the first offense. The testimony in the two cases showed that Mrs. Fetters, Jr., in a quarrel with her husband’s mother, got into a hair-pulling match in which the elder woman lost some of her natural hair and the younger woman had her artificial coiffure severely handled. From the testimony induced it appeared that the woman fined is accustomed to use a great deal of profane language. District Attorney Clarence F. Lea attended the session of the court for the county.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 19, 1909

USED AXE ON BREAST
John Riley Chops Anatomy of James Maloney

For cutting James Maloney on the breast with an axe, John Riley has been held to answer to the Superior Court on the charge of assault with a deadly weapon, with intent to commit murder. The men were wood choppers employed on the J. K. Bigelow ranch, near Sonoma, and after a quarrel in the cabin had apparently patched up their differences. 

 Maloney subsequently went into the kitchen of the cabin, and there Riley is alleged to have followed and made the assault with the axe. A gaping wound nine inches in length was made on the breast of Maloney. Tbe wonder is that the man was not killed by the blow from the axe.

Riley fled, but was captured later in the night in a box car at El Verano. He was asleep when Constable Joe Ryan found him, but made no denial of his guilt.

Before Justice J. B. Small of Sonoma the preliminary examination of Riley was held Wednesday afternoon. District Attorney Clarence F. Lea and Court Reporter Harry A. Scott were present from this city.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 28, 1909
LAWYERS FALL OUT AND HAVE A FIGHT

Attorneys L. G. Scott and Joseph Rafael, exponents of the law of Sebastopol, having been mixed up in a manner decidedly contrary to law. Rafael struck Scott, and the latter alleges it was without cause or excuse. Rafael paid the sum of ten dollars in Justice Harry B. Morris’ court having been arrested on a charge of battery, which was later raised to a higher misdemeanor, Rafael alleged that Scott had attempted to strike him with a hammer, but this is indignantly denied by Scott. The latter admits having had in his possession a small tack hammer, but denies he ever thought of using it on Rafael’s cranium or any other portion of his anatomy.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 22, 1909

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THERE ARE ANARCHISTS EVERYWHERE

No anarchists were in 1908 Santa Rosa, but it seemed like they were under rocks everywhere else in America that spring as new incidents of terrorism kept roiling through the headlines. If you read the Press Democrat along with one of the San Francisco newspapers, here’s what you knew:

The terror spree began late February in Denver, when an anarchist gunned down a Catholic priest during mass. A few days later, it was reported nationwide that “Denver police are working on theory of a plot,” in part because a witness saw “two foreigners, apparently Italians, at the church, one of whom pointed out the clergyman.” Police discovered that the Italian killer was part of a gang of forty anarchists who had recently come to America, and men in six other cities were part of the plot.

On the very same day as the priest’s funeral, a young man rang the doorbell of George Shippy, Chicago’s chief of police. Shippy was immediately suspicious; the mayor had just banned famed anarchist Emma Goldman from speaking in Chicago, and authorities expected retaliation. The police chief grabbed the visitor and ordered his wife to search for weapons. A scuffle resulted and the chief’s adult son and chauffeur raced into the room. Shots were fired, and the son and driver were wounded. The visitor was struck by six bullets and soon died. Police quickly linked him to an anarchist group and a plot to also assassinate the mayor and captain of the detective bureau.

Rumors flew that the attacks on the Denver priest and Chicago police chief were part of a single conspiracy. In the weeks that followed, police were posted at Catholic churches in Chicago and elsewhere, and police chiefs in several cities received death threats.

The Secretary of Commerce and Labor directed immigration inspectors to work with local police to round up and deport suspected anarchists, a move applauded by newspapers nationwide. The Washington Post went furthest and called for “the scum of foreign countries” to be executed. The government suppressed an anarchist newspaper and President Roosevelt personally ordered the postmaster general to ban another publication from the U.S. mails. Teddy denounced anarchists as “the enemies of mankind” and their philosophy “an offense far more infamous than that of ordinary murder.”

At the end of March came the worst violence yet, as a card-carrying anarchist tried to throw a bomb into a crowd of policemen who were maintaining order in New York’s Union Square following a “desperate socialistic riot.” The explosive went off in the bomb-maker’s hands instead, maiming him fatally and killing a bystander. Identified as a “Williamsburg Anarchist” (a section of Brooklyn said to be a hotbed for socialists and anarchists), the police searched his rooms and found letters from famed anarchists Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. To many, this was proof of a wide-reaching terror conspiracy against the United States.

Those were the facts as you believed them from reading the newspapers available in Santa Rosa, March, 1908. But here’s the believe-it-or-not twist: By the end of the month, every single actual link to the anarchist movement was proven false.

* The man who murdered the Denver priest said in a rambling first statement – translated from Italian, since he spoke no English – that he killed the Catholic priest because he really, really, hated Catholic priests: “I have grudge against all priests in general…my only regret is that I couldn’t have shot a whole bunch of priests in the church.” He told authorities that if he hadn’t been apprehended he was intending to visit four other churches and kill the priests there. Was he an anarchist? In another statement, he explained his political views were guided by the elderly shoemaker whom he had served as an apprentice in Sicily: “I had been inclined to anarchy, but I never understood its teachings thoroughly.” The reporter also noted “his talk is not coherent and he is evidently inventing stories as he goes along–stories that do not fit together.”

* In Chicago, the coroner found that police chief Shippy had killed his would-be assassin in self defense. The jury heard no testimony that the deceased was an anarchist, despite stories that had appeared in the press describing in great detail his role in a conspiracy (San Francisco Call headline: “CHICAGO REDS IN BIG MURDER PLOT”). Shippy said he had premonitions that someone would try to kill him, and testified that he was suspicious of the man because he thought he saw the bulge of a weapon under his coat, and “he looked to me like an anarchist…there was overspread his face the most vindictive look I ever saw upon a human countenance.” (According to the New York Times’ coverage, another reason for suspicion was because “[he] apparently had dressed himself for death. He wore black clothes and overcoat, a new hat, and clean linen, all of fairly good quality.”) No evidence was presented that the bullets that wounded Shippy’s son and driver were shot by the visitor and not Shippy himself, firing wildly. The reason for the visit remains a mystery today, but the best explanation was that Lazarus Averbuch, a Russian Jew, was planning to return to his homeland and wanted to ask the chief of police for a letter stating that he was not a criminal, as was the custom when leaving a European city. Chief Shippy did not return to his position and resigned two months later. He died in 1911 from syphilis, the final stage of which can result in hallucinations and paranoia.

* The Union Square bomber was not connected to the demonstration earlier that day, when mounted police had brutally suppressed a crowd of up to 25,000 who had gathered to protest the desperate unemployment situation. (Because of the 1907 bank panic, unemployment in New York state had reached 36 percent, with 200,000 estimated to be out of work in New York City alone.) The bomber instead was a 19 year-old Russian immigrant who had lived in the U.S. most of his life and who had a grudge against police because he had been recently clubbed by an officer. “The police are no good,” he said before he died of his wounds a month later. “I hate them. I am sorry that I did not make good…It was the police that I wanted.” The incriminating letters found in his apartment from anarchist leaders turned out to be mimeographed fund-raising appeals.

But not many knew that the anarchy conspiracy was bunk; few papers at the time ever published followup articles to correct errors, no matter how whopping. The public was left with the assumption that a dangerous cabal of murderous anarchists was plotting an ongoing campaign of terror. In truth, by 1908 the winds of anarchism had mostly blown through in America, with only six newsletters nationwide – and one of them lasting only a single issue. Of that dwindly group of true believers, only a tiny sliver still advocated violence as a means to an end. No one was deported under the Secretary of Commerce and Labor’s anarchy crackdown edict.


CLICK or TAP on any cartoon to enlarge. The label on the middle cartoon reads, “undesirable citizens”

In those days the Press Democrat didn’t offer much coverage of national news events except for a paragraph or so on the front page; for the attacks blamed on anarchists, the PD offered four short items, an op/ed reprinted from another paper and the three inflammatory editorial cartoons shown here. No updates corrected the wildly inaccurate earlier stories, but again, that was typical. Readers nationwide were left with the muddled impression that anarchists, certain immigrants, organized labor, and anti-clerical fanatics all fit under the same umbrella of “Reds.” Most dishonest of all was trying to also wedge in the large Socialist Party – the PD’s wire story about the Union Square unemployment protest called it a “desperate socialistic riot…of the anarchists,” for example. The main threat the Party posed was to the Democratic/Republican status quo, as over 420,000 ballots were cast later that year for the Socialist presidential candidate, about three percent of the popular vote.

If scholars wanted to pinpoint the beginning of the Red Scare that consumed the remainder of the American 20th century, March 1908 would be a good choice. (This was also the year that there were fears that Japan was planning to invade.) The country was so riven with fear of anarchist bogeymen that the Indiana town of Wawaka (pop. 800) received a letter demanding $750 or the whole town would be blown up. The letter was signed “Anarchists.” Unbelievably, this obvious prank was taken seriously.

Make no mistake: The phony anarchist scare was entirely the fault of yellow journalism and not an actual threat. Nor was it a scheme by the government, police, church, or politicians to demonize the “Reds,” although each of these groups made stuff up or repeated rumor as fact. But at the same time, those organizations benefited by channeling the public’s fear into more popular support for violent police suppression of protest and free speech by reformers. And that in turn generated more headlines about the lurking Red Menace. A classic analysis of this period, “The Search for Order,” sums up how the country became more divided as a result:


“Straws in the wind appeared everywhere around 1908. Critics who had only grumbled about national reform earlier now cried “socialism” and “communism.’ Organized labor received particularly heavy abuse, with each hint of violence reported as the first gun of civil war…the various organizations that brought unionists and businessmen together for conversation and adjustment were dying from disuse. In grays rather than purples, the atmosphere surrounding labor relations darkened a bit year by year.”

RECOMMENDED FOR FURTHER READING

America, 1908 by Jim Rasenberger

The Anarchist Scare of 1908 by Robert J. Goldstein

The Search for Order, 1877-1920 by Robert H. Wiebe

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WHERE THE MUSIC DIED

Even before Konocti Harbor became synonymous with oldie rock bands, the North Bay was a popular stop for fading has-beens. In the first decade of the 20th century, not a single top name musical act played near Santa Rosa, with the arguable exception of John Philip Sousa’s Band in 1904 (and even his group could be viewed as an oldies touring band, as the March King’s glory days had passed). Instead, the little theaters north of the Golden Gate churned through a procession of unpolished – and often cringe worthy – vaudeville acts, novelty athletic exhibitions such as the man who roller skated on stilts, and those geriatric tours of names once famous on Victorian stages, back 20, 30, even 40 years before.

One group that played Santa Rosa in 1908 had been quite famous less than a decade earlier: The Richards & Pringles Original Georgia Minstrels. The Press Democrat interviewed their manager, asking if he had read a recent newspaper article about declining audiences for minstrel shows. Manager Jack Holland predictably dismissed the idea as “the veriest rot,” conceding that a few minstrel touring companies had folded, but the recent theatrical season had been rough for everyone. “The good old style of entertainment still holds a warm place in the hearts of the American people,” he assured the reporter.

Some of this was braggadocio and whistling past the graveyard; minstrel shows were being slowly squeezed out by the modern and always-changing vaudeville bills, as discussed here in an earlier essay. The Richards & Pringles show wouldn’t fold until around 1916, and a few companies would hang on for another two decades beyond that, booking halls in smaller and smaller rural communities in the Deep South and performing for audiences that were mostly African-American.

Sadly, the PD interview with manager Holland begins with that single insipid question and ends with his predictable and banal answer. Even a Journalism 101 student today would have probed a bit, and realized that this man had stories enough to fill the newspaper for days. (Nor was this the only time that year a clueless local reporter had flubbed the shot at a big, newsmaking interview.) Jack had worked for several circuses before becoming an agent for Richards & Pringles, and by the turn of the century, he and his financial partner simultaneously owned that famous minstrel troupe and three others, all using only African-American performers. For showmen they were remarkably successful, and that should have led an astute reporter to drill down to the fundamental questions: Why is your famous company playing a dinky theater in a remote California farm town? Where’s Billy Kersands? And where were you on that night in Missouri, six years ago?

John Holland started working for Richards & Pringles in 1891, about three years after the company was founded. Billy Kersands was already the star of the show. Holland greatly owed the success of his shows to this black showman, who was possibly the most charismatic stage performer of the late 19th century and could be considered the first crossover act, as wildly popular with black audiences as white. Kersands was renowned as a comic genius and also created – or at least, popularized – a dancing style known as “Virginia Essence,” which was the direct ancestor of tap dance. He was universally admired and respected; when the group toured England and Europe, Queen Victoria awarded him a diamond pin. A good biography – and a Ken Burns-quality documentary, even a motion picture (he looked remarkably like Eddie Murphy) – is long overdue.

The money-making Kersands/Holland machine might have chugged along for another decade if not for what happened February 16, 1902, on the outskirts of New Madrid, Missouri. A day earlier, the Richards & Pringles company had come to town and that afternoon, a few well-dressed black performers were taking a stroll when a couple of local young men began pelting them with snowballs. One of the performers cussed at them. At the sold-out performance that night, local youths heckled the performers and at the end of the show, charged the stage. One of the minstrels fired a revolver and at once there were a half-dozen guns firing in both directions. The audience panicked but when order was restored, the only serious injury was a bullet in the leg of a performer. Members of the troupe suspected of firing weapons were taken to jail, where they were beaten. The next evening, mask-wearing men attacked the sheriff’s office. The mob singled out Louis F. Wright, a 22 year-old trombone player, as the performer who began the shooting. He was dragged from his cell and hanged from a tree at the edge of town. His body was cut down the next morning and shipped C.O.D. to his mother. No one was arrested for involvement with the murder. Wright’s friends and family in Chicago raised money for a lawyer to sue the county, but nothing apparently came of it.

A one -paragraph AP wire story on the lynching appeared in many newspapers, including the San Francisco Call, but there was no followup in the press about the incident, much less comment from the owners or players in the troupe. Judging by ads found in digitized newspaper archives – always a hit-or-miss proposition – the company had few bookings for the rest of the season, and almost all of them were in Northern cities with no habit of lynching black men: Places like Minneapolis, Seattle, and Salt Lake City. When they ventured again into the Deep South at the end of the year, their newspaper advertisements downplayed the Richards & Pringles brand, most of the ad space filled with a photo of Billy’s big grin.

Kersands might not have been in New Madrid that night; some sources place him working that year at another of Holland’s touring groups, “Rusco & Holland’s Big Minstrel Festival.” Nonetheless, he severed all ties with Jack Holland’s minstrel empire at the end of the 1902-1903 season. He next performed a solo act, headlined in a stage comedy and formed “Billy Kersands’ Minstrels.” Later with his wife he renamed the troupe “Billy and Louise Kersands’ Minstrels,” and he broke from the minstrel tradition to create a variety show that was the precursor to vaudeville. (In an interesting switch, it was reported that whites were segregated into a corner of the balcony at these performances.) That he was also the owner of these shows and traveled on his private railway car was unprecedented for an African-American entertainer .

Billy Kersands died in 1915, immediately after closing an engagement in New Mexico. He was 73 and had spent the greater part of fifty years in the spotlight. Newspaper clippings showed he toured major cities in the East and Midwest in his last decade, but reference books are contradictory as to his movements and success (one otherwise-respected source has him performing for Queen Victoria nine years after her death). At the time Jack Holland was being interviewed by the Press Democrat in 1908, he was again part of a traditional minstrel show, headlining for the “Dandy Dixie Minstrels” in a swing through small cities in the Texas panhandle and adjoining states. But that doesn’t mean his stardom was in descent; at the same time, a top white vaudeville act, The Three Leightons, were performing an ersatz minstrel routine that centered upon an imitation of Kersands.

Between the 1902 lynching and its closure in 1916, the Richards & Pringles Minstrel Show apparently rarely performed below the Mason-Dixon Line. Perhaps Southern theater owners were skittish that local yokels would want to “finish the job” and string up other members of the company, or maybe they feared that the African-American performers were troublemakers. For whatever reason, the show toured mainly in the West, Southwest, and Upper Plains states, where audiences would be mainly white.

So this was this answer to the question that the Press Democrat reporter didn’t ask: They were in Santa Rosa because they now just performed outside the South in places where a sentimental view of “Dixie” prevailed. And without a bi-racial audience, they undoubtedly cut or “whitened up” sections of the program that appealed directly to blacks, leaving only a parody of the original show with a supersized portion of racism. What appeared here was probably more like “A Tribute to the Richards & Pringles Original Georgia Minstrels,” not so different from those ghost bands that tour under a once-famous name. Had they stuck around another seventy years, they undoubtedly would’ve been playing at Konocti.

JACK HOLLAND TALKS ON MINSTRELSY

A reporter recently met “Jack Holland,” for many years the business manager of Richards & Pringles famous minstrels who appear here on Monday night, and called his attention to an article in a recent issue of a metropolitan paper on the decadence of minstrelsy as a form of entertainment.

Mr. Holland replied with a smile: “Oh, yes, I read the article with a great deal of amusement. Every once in a while you will read an article by some misinformed writer about the passing of the minstrel show. That Americans have tired of the form of amusement that used to make their grandfathers, and yes, even their great grandfathers, laughed till the tears rolled down their cheeks.

“But such talk is the veriest rot. Minstrelsy was never in a more flourishing condition than at this very day.

“This is a progressive age, and one must keep abreast of the times if he is catering to the public. The season of 1907-08 was a particularly disastrous one. Scores and scores of dramatic shows and musical comedies were obliged to close for lack of patronage. Very few indeed were the minstrel shows that gave up the fight. There were two or three minstrel shows closed, to be sure, but they were inferior companies, and scarcely worthy [of] the name.

“None of the leading organizations closed, which proves conclusively that the good old style of entertainment still holds a warm place in the hearts of the American people.”

– Press Democrat, October 31, 1908

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