Heading back a century to visit Santa Rosa in your time machine? Remember this: Use swear words in front of women or children – or anywhere on the street where they could be within earshot – and you might spend weeks in jail or pay a stiff fine.

The Santa Rosa newspapers of the late 19th/early 20th centuries often reported men (VERY rarely women) being arrested for vile, obscene, profane or otherwise offensive language in public – and even in private, when the cusser was also accused of assault or another crime. Punishment was twice as severe as public drunkenness or brawling, and some spent months in the city jail for letting fly.

This topic has been visited here before in the context of cussing being a more serious offense in 1907 than parents starving their children or someone brutally whipping an animal. Another example like that from 1893 finds drunken “Windy Jim” tried to strangle his landlady in Healdsburg, only to be stopped by her son stabbing the guy with a fork and just narrowly missing his eye. But it appears ol’ Windy got three months in the county slammer not for the choking but for the indecent language that she – as a woman – was forced to endure while he was trying to kill her.

It was never made clear what words were offensive. Was “damn” okay without a preceding “god”? What about compound phrases with “hell,” “bastard,” and “bitch?” Was “arsehole,” “bollocks” or “shite” acceptable if the person saying or hearing it was from the UK? (Full disclosure: While we were reshingling the house, under the original 1905 tarpaper someone had written, “arsehole Baker” on the side of the house, “Baker” presumably being the shingle subcontractor.)

An assortment of items can be found transcribed below, but there were many hundreds of arrests reported in the newspapers over the years. These are a few of my favorites:

* In 1913, Joe Goess was arrested in the town of Sonoma for language that was “said to have been particularly flagrant.” When brought before the judge, “young Goess turned on the justice and unloaded some unseemly language.” He was locked up without bail.

* When Robert Butts’ hounds got loose in 1916, neighbor McIntosh took a few shots at them when they came on his property. Mr. Butts did not like that and went over to have words with his neighbor, where he “used some uncomplimentary language towards Mrs. Mclntosh in the absence of her husband.” Butts was charged with disturbing the peace although there was apparently no one else present.

*  In 1922 a Cotati man named James Codioni was fined $50 for making obscene phone calls, with the interesting twist that it was telephone company employees who nabbed him and marched him down to the police.

Santa Rosa’s obscenity law is really old, dating back to original town ordinances of 1867. Sandwiched between a ban on riding horses on the sidewalk and mildly discouraging prostitution was §5, which outlawed “…[within] the hearing of two or more persons, any bawdy, lewd or obscene words or epithets.”

It appears no one was charged under the law for over ten years (although I really doubt that) when Charles Hall was arrested in 1877 for “using language calculated to cause a breach of the peace.” Nothing more was reported about the case, possibly because the accusation was bogus; the guy accusing him was in serious trouble for brandishing a deadly weapon, having been turned in by Hall.

Obscene language charges began tapering off during the Roaring Twenties, and from then on were most frequently bundled together with more serious offenses, such as the arrest of a group of underage kids for rowdiness and drinking. It also remained a justification for divorce in those pre no-fault years often paired with accusations of spousal physical abuse.

Curiously, I’ve never read of anyone charged during those years with the related crime of obscene graffiti – although during the mid-1930s, Petaluma was itching to catch and arrest the vandals who kept painting dirty words on the “big hen” statue at the end of the town, seen here in 1936 with its most recent defacement not quite scrubbed clean. (Photograph by John Gutmann)

UPDATE: Someone on Facebook commented that these laws were a shout out to the “politically correct crowd.” It’s a lot more complex than just appeasing the churchgoers of the day. I’m sure religious moralists in every town in the country had similar obscenity ordinances in place and some enforced the law strictly while others mostly ignored it. These laws were even exploited as a means of vengeance, as per Mrs. McIntosh in 1916. But the obscenity laws were also sometimes used to deal with bad situations where no laws were yet on the books which were directly applicable – see the 1907 story about the drunk parents starving their children. That said, Santa Rosa seems to have turned the law into a cash cow during the 1900s and 1910s, with the local police dragging offenders into court to pay hefty fines or face months behind bars.





Justices Court.— Mr. L. Howard was arraigned before Justice McGee on Wednesday, charged by Chas. Hall with exhibiting a deadly weapon. He was found guilty. Sentence postponed until Monday, October 29. Howard then had Hall arrested under a city ordinance, for using language calculated to cause a breach of the peace. Trial set for Saturday, the 27th.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 27 1877

Police Court Docket for Tuesday: John Cummings, for using vulgar language, ten days; James Miller, drunkenness, five days; H. Beck, vulgar language, ten days; M. Quin, drunkenness, five days; Wm. Vail, drunkenness, $5.

– Sonoma County Daily Democrat, May 7 1890
“Windy Jim” Stinson Sent to the County Jail for a Term of Three Months.

Wednesday night a week Marshal Leard and his deputy, L. A. Norton, took into their custody the ex-policeman Jim Stinson, better known as “Windy Jim,” at the instance of his landlady, Mrs. C. J. Lelouarn, in whose presence he used profane language. The prisoner made no resistance of arrest and marched to the bastile with little concern. He objected, however, to being confined in jail like an “ordinary” criminal and sent out a couple of men to hunt up sureties for his appearance in court, but they were not to he found and he had not ampIe funds on hand to put up cash bail, consequently he was compelled to go behind the bars. The next day he was arraigned before Justice Coffman on the charge, and when the testimony of the plaintiff and her two little sons was heard he was assigned to the county jail for three months without the alternative of a fine.

Stinson came here about three years ago from Petaluma, where, it is rumored, he was tendered an invitation by the citizens to make his residence elsewhere. Shortly afterward he look up his quarters at Mrs. Lelouarn’s house in North Healdsburg, but only until lately did he compensate the lady for his board and lodging, when he furnished her with a few groceries occasionally. Mrs. Lelouarn is a widow, the mother of three young children and is a cripple. She depends on washing and housework for a livelihood. A week before Stinson’s arrest she alleges that he assailed her. That afternoon she had been at work for Mrs. A. L. Paul, assisting her in moving and when she returned home she found that Stinson had barred her out by fastening the door. When she forced it open the monster grasped her by the throat and she might have been strangled had not her son, Henry, come to her assistance with a table fork, with which he punctured the flesh over Stinson’s ieft eye. Of late Stinson had been drinking heavily and the neighbors say that such disturbances were of frequent occurrence. His absence from Healdsburg is generally hailed with delight.

– Sonoma County Tribune (Healdsburg), January 19 1893


Was Disturbing the Peace

Officer Boyes arrested a young man on Main street Saturday night upon a charge of disturbing the peace and using vulgar language in front of the Salvation Army headquarters. The fellow ran at the approach of the officer, but the latter caught him as he was disappearing down an alley in Chinatown and locked him up at the police station.

– Press Democrat, June 9 1901


Man Arrested for Improper Behavior on Wilson Street Monday Night

George Bates was arrested on Wilson street Monday night and was locked up on a charge of using profane and indecent language in the presence of women and children. Bates will have to explain his conduct to Police Judge Bagley this morning.

– Press Democrat, June 26 1906


George Deacon Punished for Using Bad Language on the Street

Thursday morning George Deacon appeared before Police Judge Bagley to answer to the compfalnt that he used disgusting language on Third atreet on the previous evening. A fine of $30 was imposed with an alternative of fifteen days in jail. Deacon paid the money after spending a few minutes In Jail.

– Press Democrat, August 17 1906

Bad Language on the Streets

On the complaint of S. Graham George Chester was arrested by Policeman Yeager on Sunday night charged with using vulgar and offensive language on the streets. Chester gave bail for his appearance before Police Judge Bagley.

The use of improper language, particularly when women and children are passing, is altogether too prevalent, and the officers mean to take steps to make examples of the offenders in this respect.

– Press Democrat, September 10 1907



Walter Petross paid a fine of $10 in the City Recorder’s court Wednesday for indulging in the use of profane language on the street Tuesday evening in the vicinity of the Nickelodeon. This shall serve as a warning to other profanity hawkers.

– Press Democrat, February 13 1908

Arrested for Disturbance

James Aker, a lad who used profane language and created trouble on the lake Sunday, is locked up In the county jail pending a hearing for disturbing the peace. As he has been in trouble on a number of occasions it is probable that he will serve some time in jail before being liberated.

– Press Democrat, May 24 1910



Sheriff J. K. Smith was called to Cotati Saturday evening to arrest a couple of men whom, it was claimed, had assaulted a man there when he visited their camp, they being members of a hay baling crew from Stockton. On his arrival Sheriff Smith was informed that the visitor to the camp had used vile language in the presence of women and children, and failed to heed the warning to stop, and was then given a trouncing by members of the crew. The Sheriff hunted him up and informed him that it stood him in hand to drop the matter or he might find himself getting a worst defeat In th« courts. That ended the incident.

– Press Democrat, August 20 1911



Joe Goess, a young man of Sonoma, was arrested there on Sunday afternoon by Deputy Sheriff Joe Ryan on a charge of using vulgar language in the presence of women and children. The alleged offense occurred on Main street, and is said to have been particularly flagrant. When spoken to about his conduct by Justice Campbell, young Goess turned on the justice and unloaded some unseemly language. Justice Campbell took the young into custody and turned him over to Ryan, who locked the offender in jail. His examination took place Monday.

– Santa Rosa Republica, April 28, 1913



Monday was a busy time with City Recorder W. P. Bagley. There were thirteen cases in his court that day. Four drunks were dismissed, but one returned later and will face his fate Tuesday. One drunk had his case continued while two others paid fines of $5 each and two went to jail for three days each. One driver who stopped his auto on the wrong side of the street had his case continued, while one vagrant went to jail for five days and another was dismissed. A man who insulted women on the street appeared with an attorney, but it did not prevent him getting sixty days in jail for the offense.

– Press Democrat, May 20 1913


Police Will Endeavor to Check Behavior That is Devoid of Manliness

Chief of Police J. M. Boyes and his department are determined to put a stop to the practice that has become altogether too prevalent in Santa Rosa on the part of some persons who seem to take delight in using vulgar and unseemly language on the sidewalks or in public places.

The only way to reach the offenders will be to arrest one or two and make examples of them in the police court. The language complained of is generally used, possibly not intentionally, at times when ladies are in hearing distance. There is nothing manly in such conduct as this, and complaints have been made.

– Press Democrat, August 8 1913
Charged With Using Improper Language

Robert Butts, charged with disturbing the piece [sic]  by J. O. McIntosh, was arraigned before Justice Marvin T. Vaughan Saturday, and his case continued to be set. Butts was released on $250 bail pending a hearing. It is claimed that when Butts’ hounds got loose and trespassed on the McIntosh place, Mr. McIntosh fired at them, but failed to kill any of them. It is claimed that Butts learning of this went to the home and used some uncomplimentary language towards Mrs. McIntosh in the absence of her husband, which resulted in the complaint being sworn out.

– Press Democrat, March 26 1916


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I see Gaye Lebaron has revisited the story of Dr. Willard Burke, the famous Sonoma county physician convicted of attempting to murder a young woman and her baby by blowing them up with TNT (Explosive act was ‘Crime of the Century’, June 24, 2017). I appreciate her nod to this journal where my ten-part series on the Burke case can be found – although it’s a bit of an academic exercise, as the Press Democrat rarely publishes a URL from local businesses, organizations or otherwise non-PD sources. (Don’t believe me? Visit the PD web page and search for “http”, “www” or any other common part of an internet address.) That’s a particular shame with this story, as the series offers lots to explore beyond the sordid tale of the 60 year-old Love Doctor and his dynamited lover. It’s also an unusual whodunnit mystery and tense courtroom drama; beyond that, the Burke case has much to teach about the power of privilege along with gender bias.












Always most interesting to me is that curious intersection where journalism and history overlap, and Lebaron’s recent article has several good examples, such as this: “… [District Attorney Clarence] Lea, embarking on his own political career, reconstructed the tent cabin in the courtroom, using boards and canvas with telltale rips and burns, and destroyed it with a pull on a rope at a dramatic moment in his summation.”

That was a truly memorable scene – but, uh, it didn’t happen. Nor did the prosecutor risk blowing up the judge and jury by setting explosives in a reconstructed tent and dramatically striking a match, as was claimed in the Press Democrat during the 1970s. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t even a tent built in the courtroom at all (details of what really went on are below).

What’s more important is that these goofs show how it’s always important to go back to the original source material. The facts that came out during Burke’s trial were first eclipsed by what supporters said to make the doctor into a sympathetic character, and then the whole story became larded in myth as it was retold and retold again.

Yet the Burke case offers a rare opportunity to examine events in extraordinary detail, as the PD coverage of the six week trial during 1910-1911 documented everthing that happened in court, including much verbatim testimony. Go back and read their excellent journalism and discover why the jury convicted him after only about two hours of discussion.

But Burke had no shortage of friends in Sonoma county, as seen by the hubbub surrounding his 1910 arrest; he was a well-known, likable and charismatic fellow who was a major employer around Santa Rosa, bringing lots of money and attention to the area. Many well-heeled visitors enjoyed his upscale sanitarium – his obituary singled out Leonard Howarth, as did Gaye Lebaron’s new article.

The myth-making likely has roots in the petition drive of 1912-1913, which began shortly after the state Supreme Court turned down Burke’s final appeal. The petitions for a governor’s pardon seems to have their own fog of fuzzy facts; the Press Democrat reported on March 16, 1913 that “nearly fifteen thousand” had been collected – but four days later, the PD reported it was “signed by something like 50,000 persons.” The paper did not explain how the rolls supposedly ballooned over 300 percent almost overnight.

By the time Burke died in 1941 the narrative had shifted entirely in sympathy to Burke. Where the petition pleaded for clemency because he was old or had suffered enough/atoned for his deeds, Burke’s obituary in the Feb. 1 Press Democrat transformed him into a victim. Anyone reading that might think the true ‘Crime of the Century’ was actually the cruel and unjust persecution of the saintlike doctor.

“The story of Dr. Burke is a story of a lifetime of unselfish service in the interest of health, colored by one incident which failed to shatter the faith of his hundreds of friends…” weeped the PD obit. His “sensational court fight” is dismissed in a single sentence as lead-in to a description of the petition drive. The only quote in the front page article is from a 1920s-era former governor: “I am still confident of his innocence!”

Yeah, obituaries almost always accentuate the positive and put lipstick the dearly departed’s blemishes – but what the PD offered thirty years after his conviction was mostly the sort of “untruth” drawn straight from Orwell’s 1984. “Dr. Burke’s work in the field of health has been an important contribution to the community and will be remembered long after other events are forgotten.”

Sorry, but I don’t think a premeditated attempt to murder an 11 month-old baby is casually an “other event” so easily overlooked. Nor do I like the modern implication that courtroom theatrics – which didn’t even happen – helped lead to his conviction. Burke was unquestionably guilty as hell and I’ll go one step further: That man was as close to being pure evil as anyone I’ve ever found.

Read the original coverage: Either via conspiracy or through intimidation of one of his employees (probably his sister-in-law), Burke intended to murder his mistress and her child because it appeared she was about to sue him for paternal child support. He could (and should) have been also charged with obstruction for initially trying to shoo away investigators, and then for a second count of attempting to murder the woman when he left a lethal dose of arsenic in an unmarked container for the attending nurse to innocently apply to her wounds. That’s a whole bucketful of premeditated awfulness.

The details concerning the tent-related evidence can also be confusing unless the original Press Democrat coverage is read. About a week after the explosion, a deputy went to the scene and took the section of the tent torn by the explosion, which was mounted on a frame and shown to the jury at the beginning of the trial. The defense protested the entire tent should have been preserved.

(RIGHT: Dr. Burke portrait in the Illustrated Atlas of Sonoma County, 1898)

A couple of weeks into the trial, a PD headline stated, “Presentation in Court of Shattered and Scorched Remnants of Tent House.” The original article made it clear the “tent house” in question was an identical structure constructed at a Santa Rosa quarry, where District Attorney Lea and an explosives expert attempted to recreate the crime. Their first effort fizzled because of bad dynamite, but the next experiment reportedly created exactly the same pattern of damage as the attempted murder explosion. Again, the jury saw fragments of shredded canvas, not the whole tent.

Yes, Clarence Lea’s closing argument was powerful, but according to the original PD coverage, it was just verbal fireworks concerning the dynamite: ‘”…much-needed evidence had been destroyed,’ cried Lea in a dramatic manner as he suddenly turned and faced the aged defendant. ‘But it was destroyed on the night of February 5, a year ago, by this defendant when he applied his match to the fuse beside the tent-cottage in which Lu Smith and her child lay peacefully sleeping.’”

Among other interesting bits in Lebaron’s recent offering is that she writes victim Lu Etta Smith was “known locally as ‘Crazy Lu.'” That phrase doesn’t appear at all in the original coverage and is another tweak which apparently first popped up in the Press Democrat during the 1970s.

Smith was inarguably eccentric and had many fringe beliefs, but so did Dr. Burke; much came out at the trial about the screwy metaphysical ideas they shared. Singling her out as the only “crazy” one follows the black-and-white narrative Burke and his followers pressed hard to spread. As I wrote earlier in the “Doctor of Love” chapter, “even in the first hours after the explosion, Burke and his supporters were furiously spinning that Smith was insane. She was suicidal, they said, and had threatened to drown the baby. During the trial Burke’s lawyer offered hours of hearsay testimony that portrayed Smith as loopy and likely clinically schizophrenic.”

But Lu Etta was never shown to be a danger to herself or anyone else – all she wanted was for Burke to admit paternity and pay child support. She made a half-hearted attempt to pursue a civil case against him for the murder attempt(s) and harm to her health, which is remarkable considering her financial situation was desperate. Nearly 40 with no education past grade school and no particular skills, she spent the years after his conviction seeking public aid and living at the Oakland YWCA, always begging the wealthy doctor to support his child. A few more articles about Lu Etta Smith’s pursuit of justice are transcribed below (don’t miss the one when she visits him in San Quentin as he hides in his cell, refusing to see her).

It appears she lived with her son Willard in Oakland for the rest of her life, sometimes listing herself as a “housewife” officially and sometimes not mentioning any job at all. She died on New Year’s Day, 1950, about nine years after Burke. Son Willard Phillip Smith apparently never married, had four years of college and worked as an accountant for the WPA, then as a librarian the rest of his life. He died in 1984.

Then over three-quarters of a century after the night of the explosion, an odd little coda to the story appears in the Press Democrat. It was a tiny ad from the “Bureau of Missing Heirs,” a now-defunct company that fished for relatives of dead people whose bank accounts and other assets had been transferred to the state. The ad appeared only once and apparently only in the PD. It wasn’t a lot of money – it was roughly the equivalent of an average family’s income back in 1910. Still, it was a hell of a lot more than Lu Etta ever saw from the monstrous doctor.

Press Democrat ad, July 2, 1987


Woman Wants Money Assistance from Dr. Burke

Regarding the proposed eviction of Miss Lu Etta Smith from her lodgings, the San Francisco Chronicle has the following in its edition of Monday:

With but $2 remaining in her purse and an order from the owner of the little Cragmont cottage in which she now resides that she must pay him $60 rent or vacate his premises immediately. Lu Etta Smith, complaining witness in the dynamiting case which caused Dr. Willard P. Burke of Santa Rosa to go to prison for dynamiting the tent in which she and her infant boy lived, has made a final appeal through Clarence F. Lea, district attorney of Sonoma county, to secure sufficient funds from Dr. Burke so that she can go back to Maine, where Professor Horatio W. Dresser of Harvard University has promised to take her as a pupil in the study of “New Thought.” Miss Smith denies all statements that she will not work, claiming that she is desirous of securing any kind of honest work she is strong enough to pursue.

“It is because I have spent many years in the study of the doctrines of new thought, and because I am strong enough to become a professional healer, that I called for aid from the doctor to go east,” claimed Miss Smith yesterday. “If Dr. Burke will only assist me, and above all, acknowledge the child, I will leave the state immediately and do all in my power to secure him a pardon. But until he recognizes the little boy, my utmost energy will be spent in preventing his release.”

District Attorney Lea Monday denied that he had received any communication from Miss Smith regarding the securing of assistance for her from Dr. Burke.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 3, 1912

SAN FRANCISCO, July 15.—The failure of Lu Etta Smith, the plaintiff in the dynamiting case against Dr. Burke at St. Helena, to force Dr. Burke to grant her money to go East, where she intended to take up the healing of disease by mental treatments, has resulted in her taking a position as a nurse in this city. Miss Smith, up to Friday, has been occupying the cottage of W. A. Allen at 20 High Court avenue, Berkeley. Forced to vacate on account of inability to pay the rent, she left for San Francisco, telling no one of her destination, as she claims she is to begin life anew.

Up to last week she lived in hopes that her petition through her attorney to Dr. Burke, demanding that he recognize the child and grant her an allowance for its support, would be granted. But when she received the news last Monday that all such attempts would be futile, she decided to take up her old occupation, and become a nurse.

– Sacramento Union, July 16 1912

Without announcing that she was going or giving any name Lu Etta Smith on Sunday visited San Quentin and asked to see Dr. Burke. When he reached the office and saw who wished to speak to him he fled to his cell and could not be induced to come out. Miss Smith sent message after message to him and finally she wrote a note asking aid for the child, if he would do nothing for her. She says she is sick and in need of money and unless he aids her the child will die of starvation. Dr. Burke has made no replies.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 20, 1912

Oakland, March 21.—Lu Etta Smith, who, nearly five years ago, was the object of an alleged attempt on the part of Dr. Willard P. Burke of Santa Rosa to dynamite a tent in which she and her infant child were asleep on the grounds of the Burke sanitarium and for which crime the doctor is now serving a term in San Quentin prison, is again in great distress caused by the depletion of her finances.

Accompanied by her child, which she declared is a son of Dr. Burke, she has applied for aid from Alameda county under the provisions of the Mothers’ Pension Act. The matter, which was taken up with the county expert, will probably be unproductive of Miss Smith being given any material assistance under the Mothers’ Pension Act.

She applied for “half-orphan” aid, but her case does not come under the provisions of the act, the authorities declare. Miss Smith has been living in Berkeley, where friends interested in her case cared for her. At one time she became interested in several university courses with the Intention of fitting herself for a position where she could support herself and child after she had made vain attempts to gain support from Dr. Burke’s estate.

– Press Democrat, March 22 1914



OAKLAND, May 7– Miss Lu Etta Smith, who came into public notice several years ago when she charged Dr. W. P. Burke, head of a sanatorium at Santa Rosa, with attempting to kill her and her child, appeared before Prosecuting Attorney Ezra Decoto this afternoon and asked for a warrant charging the doctor with failure to provide for a minor child. The matter was taken under consideration by Decoto, who will look up the law.

– Santa Cruz Evening News, May 7, 1915



Miss Lu Etta Smith, heroine of the sensational episode that attended the alleged attempt of Dr. W. P. Burke to kill her and her child in 1910 at Santa Rosa, is living at the Oakland Young Woman’s Christian Association building and is making desperate efforts to support her 7 year-old son, Willard, whom she has always claimed was the offspring of Dr. Burke. Hindered by ill-health Miss Smith has found the road a stormy one, and she has arranged to take legal steps to force Dr. Burke to contribute to the child’s support.

Dr. Burke is with his wife at his mine at Hurlton, in Butte county, and has no property in his own name through which his alleged victim may collect a judgement. She has retained as her attorney, Marguerite Ogden, who said Monday that nothing could be done in the matter until Dr. Burke was “financially responsible.”

– Petaluma Courier, March 9 1916

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You lucky, lucky soul; you just won vacation property in Sonoma county! Tell your friends and family so they can rush to buy a lot close to yours!

That was the premise of a con game that swept the nation in the early 1910s. The land existed alright and you actually did own it, as long as you gave the promoters a few bucks for paperwork, sent the county a small recording fee and paid your county taxes. The gotcha was that the property was worthless because it was on a remote, steep hillside. The map showing a neat grid of streets and building lots was a fantasy, which led people in the know to call these “paper subdivisions.” Another name used was “wildcat subdivisions” – they were on land only wildcats roamed.

Sonoma county was dotted with these imaginary little towns, mainly around the Russian River and north of Santa Rosa (outside of Cloverdale there was supposedly Cloverdale Heights, Cloverdale Terrace and Orange City, for example). Very few owners built on their property and almost all stopped paying taxes, letting it default back to the county. But a few years ago a tweak to state law allowed developers to invoke those old deeds as a means to bypass all modern rules and regulations – a crazy story explored here earlier in “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEED.” This is the prequel to those events, explaining how the scam began.

Newspapers in the 1910s were virtually homestudy courses in land fraud, with hucksters selling Florida swampland as lakefront property and Montana scrub desert as homesites with exceptionally swell drainage. Much in the news was a particular swindle where conmen made today’s equivalent of $2.25 million/year before they were busted in 1909, selling lots in Boise City, Oklahoma, “the garden spot of the southwest,” promising no home was more than four blocks from the courthouse. “King Corn and King Cotton grow side by side” they boasted in mailers with photos of happy farmers. In truth, the newspapers later said it was an arid “No Man’s Land” and the men didn’t even own the property outright. Over 250 victims came forward to testify against them before they were sentenced to a couple of years in federal prison for mail fraud. The moral of the story, as viewed by other crooked “land sharks:” Better not to document the scam in printed mailers and to rip-off the suckers in person.

Summerland was the most (in)famous and probably the first of the Sonoma County scams, located in the high hills above Guerneville off of Old Cazadero Road (see map). Its origins are murky and might originally have been intended as a legit summer resort, like Rio Nido, Camp Vacation and many others where you could rent a tent-cabin for a week or buy a small parcel and build a bungalow to stay the whole season. The Summerland lots were platted out in 1910 – the year the Russian River resort scene exploded in popularity – and small ads for Summerland appeared in the “Summer Resort” section of Bay Area newspapers over the next several years. No amenities were ever specified except for “sanitary conditions,” which presumably meant outhouses and maybe a well with a handpump.

There was actually more than one Summerland: Summerland Park, Summerland Villa, Summerland Addition #2 and maybe more. Before it was over there would be thousands of lots sold, which would have given the Cazadero area the largest population north of the San Francisco – had anyone lived there.

Behind the deals were three speculators (for reference, they were: the Enright Brothers, banker I. J. Truman and the Guerneville Land Company, all based in San Francisco). We don’t know if any of them were directing the scams, but a man who worked for some/all of them as the representative for Summerland certainly started the ball rolling.

Robert Romer, a former stockbroker who was kicked out of the San Francisco Stock Exchange in 1907, was contacted by the Healdsburg Enterprise about the unusual lottery being held at the M & M movie theater in town. Romer said each night there was a drawing for a “free” lot – although the lucky ticket holder still had to pay the $6.50 county recording fee of course. He explained the goal was word-of-mouth advertising; the winners would be so enthusiastic they would tell all their friends to buy lots nearby at the regular price of $25.00, and they would tell their friends, and so on.

The obvious problem with this scheme was that Healdsburg really ain’t that far from Cazadero – if the winner didn’t know their prize property was in the middle of nowhere, one of the friends they were supposed to sucker into buying a lot probably knew it. So a few days later, an account appears in the Press Democrat about county officials being contacted by lucky ticket holders in Sacramento, wondering about the Summerland property they had just won at the movies.

As the new year of 1912 dawned, the Summerland scam spread over the nation like a flu epidemic. “Letters from other counties, from British Columbia, from Nevada, from Arizona, from Oregon and Washington are pouring in to the Recorder, the Assessor, the Tax Collector and to other officials of Sonoma, pleading for information regarding these peculiar transactions,” wrote historian Tom Gregory at the time.

There were sightings during March reported in Oregon and Washington after police there became suspicious about the movie theater lottery where every attendee apparently “won.” One of the Portland papers looked into the Summerland offering and told readers it was “said to be a mile from Cazadero, Cal., a milk station back in the hills.”

Romer probably wasn’t one of the two men who claimed to be from the “Exposition Developing Company” jumping from town to town in the Northwest making lottery deals with local theater owners. Instead, he was busy in Sonoma county, trying to sell $50,000 in stock for the “Northwestern Hotel and Water Company,” which was going to build a hotel at Summerland with hundreds of rooms plus a complete utility infrastructure suitable for a town of 20,000 residents. According to the Petaluma Courier, Romer told the Board of Control they had already sold about 5,000 lots.

The Summerland movie lottery scam was made a misdemeanor in April 1913 thanks to a bill written by Santa Rosa’s Assemblyman Herbert Slater (it’s still on the books, but was generalized and renumbered to §532c in 1935). But that was only state law, and the scam was running at full steam everywhere except California.

When two Summerland agents were arrested in Kansas City at the end of 1913, they were charged with old-fashioned mail fraud. (Although the state law didn’t apply, the county recorder and surveyor still went to Kansas to testify against them.) A wire service story stated the men had claimed to represent the “Hot Springs Heights Realty Company” of Sonoma county and had been active across the Midwest and South. It was a lucrative swindle – in Muncie Indiana alone, they pulled in up to $1,500 (over $37k today).

The movie theater bunco game fizzled out in mid-1914 – or at least, the Press Democrat reported the poor recorder’s office was no longer flooded with deed filings. That year there was also a long list of these properties on the delinquent tax list, showing many owners had wised up to the property being worthless. Lots were still being sold, however – only now it was the suckers looking for someone to scam themselves. A 1916 for-sale ad ran for quite awhile in the PD offering a lot at Summerland with a 16 x 16 structure (“sold cheap if taken at once”). In Seattle, A. L. DeLong dumped his property on Effie M. Crowley.

The latter sale didn’t involve Summerland, however – it was another of the wildcat subdivisions, called Glen Artney, which began selling bogus lots about the same time that Summerland took off. It was the phony place nearest to Santa Rosa, in the hills south of Calistoga Road (see map) about four miles as the crow flies – but three times that far by road. And that was just to the edge of the property; a man seeking directions dropped by the Press Democrat offices and was “shattered when informed that he could not reach the lot on horseback, and would have a very hard time scrambling to it on foot.”

The Glen Artney hustle is interesting to compare with Summerland. Both used the movie lottery ticket come-on, but the Summerland agents apparently “gave away” lots of lots hoping to sell a few more for about $25, plus picking up a few bucks for providing the paperwork. The Glen Artney hucksters picked just two winners each day and advertised others lots were for sale at $50.00 per – or at least that’s what their ad in a 1912 Montana newspaper stated. That Glen Artney even had print adverts is another major difference from the Summerland guys, who slipped in and out of towns without publicity.

But don’t presume the Glen Artney promoters were any more honest or virtuous; that ad from the “Russian River Resorts Development Company” read, “Glen Artney is a beautiful sloping tract 60 miles from San Francisco, reached by the Southern Pacific railroad and interurban car line. School house on property…” The train and trolley car only went to Santa Rosa, of course, As for the schoolhouse, that was the Pine Mountain district school on St. Helena Road, which was actually suspended in 1911 for lack of any students. Modern maps reveal that “beautiful sloping tract” has an average 40 percent grade.

And while the moneymen behind Summerland were the stereotype big city tycoons and land speculators, Glen Artney seems to have been a strictly local affair. There are three names on the fraudulent map that was recorded; one was John O. McIntosh, up until about then the owner of the popular Grapevine saloon in downtown Santa Rosa. John was well known and well-liked, as was his older brother, Don, a deputy sheriff often mentioned in these pages nabbing wrongdoers.

Enlarge the map below to find the other names are Manville and Frank Doyle, the famous co-founder of the Exchange Bank and his son. Although the notarized statement refers to the “map of our lands,” we cannot say for sure this meant the bank was a partner in the deal – they might have been just the escrow agents. But since the Glen Artney property was so nearby, it’s very difficult to believe anyone really thought a town about half the size of Santa Rosa was going to spring up on the side of a mountain along the twisty county road to St. Helena.

A survey made about thirty years ago suggested there were up to 424,000 lots in old paper subdivisions throughout the state (see the “Living Deed” article for more about this) with the largest percentage of them – about 75,000 – in Sonoma county. We were the highest because of the unusual number of high density fake town/resorts such as Glen Artney and Summerland, which begs the question: Why was our county Ground Zero for land fraud?

We know Summerland was backed by San Francisco money, but there was never any mention in the papers of who was behind these other scams. It came as a surprise to me that Glen Artney had a barkeep’s name on the map, but perhaps many/all of the other schemes were similarly locally grown; after all, 1911 Santa Rosa was a pretty small town and details of the Summerland fraud would’ve been well known, particularly after the out-of-towners who discovered they were cheated came staggering into Santa Rosa saloons to drown their disappointments.

It would be a fun question to dig into further: Between 1911-1914, did Sonoma county have a flourishing cottage industry in scamming outsiders who were foolish enough to buy property here sight unseen? Were our own esteemed neighbors – the bankers, Chamber of Commerce businessmen and real estate wheeler-dealers – quietly running a bunco syndicate?

“…[T]he main reason for stopping the practice was that the county was being given a black eye by reason of the misrepresentations of the lot sellers,” commented the Press Democrat in 1914, when the craze was over – not that it should have been stopped years earlier because it was, you know, unethical. But nobody was ever arrested, except for a few of the traveling movie lottery hucksters; after all, it’s not a crime to sell worthless land – even if it’s on a slope so steep a mountain goat would begin to wheeze before halfway up.

1911 Glen Artney subdivision map
To Market Guerneville Realty

The firm of Enright Brothers & Co., realty brokers of San Francisco, has bought 400 [sic – it was 40] acres of land in the vicinity of Guerneville, and will subdivide it into small holdings, and place it upon the market. There is much fine farming land in that neighborhood, and quite a demand for small farms has lately been manifest; so that Enright Bros, seem to have bought in the right place at the right time.

Press Democrat, February 2 1909

“Summerland” is the name of the newest recreation spot for Guerneville. Mesgsrs. Eright, [sic] the brothers who recently purchased the Sutherland place have surveyed it into lots and already made several sales to the tired folks about the bay who want a quiet, pretty place to spend their hard-earned vacations.

– Healdsburg Tribune, April 13 1910
The Most Liberal Proposition Yet Offered The Healdsburg People To Secure a Summer Outing Lot

Last Thursday night Mr. Robert Romer gave an interesting sketch on the old and new methods of land subdivision. He explained that his company had allotted Healdsburg a number of free lots in this tract by means of public drawings at the M & M Theater each evening until the allotment has been exhausted. The object in giving those lots in this manner is to create a nucleus tor attracting by means of the winners the vacation and summer home seekers from this district. These winners become agents and a live advertising medium as long as they are deed holders of record. These lots are given away free to winners but they must defray their own expenses in having the title transferred, which amounts to $6.50 which includes the search of title, attorney fees, notary fees, drawing up the deed, etc., the same as any person is forced to do when they inherit a piece of property. He went on to explain that this very feature made their proposition stronger as it eliminated those winners who would look upon the proposition as a Nickelodeon premium and who would have nothing to lose by being inactive. When they pay to have the transfer made, it makes them look into the proposition deeper and is the best sign of good faith that they will become active boosters and attract their friends as buyers and home builders. How can the owners afford to give these lots away, was answered by him in another way. The amount that is generally spent in advertising is turned over to the winners who in turn act as live unconscious agents without pay. The value of any property is determined by the actual amount of deed holders of record which is the only magnet which will draw.

By having the property made valuable by the winners, their friends are glad to pay $25.00 for which these lots are selling. And these buyers in turn attract other buyers which when once started forms an endless chain and they are the ones that actually pay for the lots that are given away. He also made another point to illustrate this which was keen as it is better understood. For instance in a suit club there are generally 25 members, one wins a suit the first month for $5.00 and the second one for $l0.00, but it is the other 23 in number that average up the difference. Some of the lucky winners this week were Mr. C. P. Miller, J. Silberstein, Mrs. H. Sacry, and Fred Boulden who is going to start to improve as soon as his deed is perfected.

– Healdsburg Enterprise, December 2 1911



A moving picture house in Sacramento is bidding for popularity with its patrons by holding out as an allurement to ticket purchasers an opportunity to secure a “Lot at Summerland, Sonoma county, near Russian River.” When the lucky ones present their tickets, they are told that they must put up six dollars for a deed to the lot. Some of them put up the coin. Others do not. Inquiries are being made of the Sonoma county legislators as to the location of the lots, and as to their worth. But prior to their coming to Sacramento the solons had not heard of the inducements offered.

– Press Democrat, December 6 1911

The Northwestern Hotel and Water Company announces that it will soon erect a hotel large enough to accommodate several hundred summer residents at Summerland near Guerneville, in the near future. The company will also establish a water system for Summerland.

– Healdsburg Tribune, March 14 1912
Persons Who Were “Given” Lots in “Summerland Park” Wonder If It’s a Bilk.

Offices of the “Exposition Developing Company” in the Ellers building are closed today. The two strangers, names unknown, who acted as the concern’s representatives, have flown, and a large number of plucked citizens here who paid $6.50 for a deed to a lot in “Summerland Park No. 2,” said to be a mile from Cazadero, Cal., a milk station in the hills of Sonoma county, are wondering whether they were swindled.

The company operated through several moving picture shows here. Theatre patrons were given coupons entitling them to a “free” chance on a lot. Apparently every one won in the weekly “drawing,” as scores of persons were visited by agents of the concern, during the two weeks it operated here…

…Among the motion picture show houses that innocently aided the company were the Rainbow and Cozy theatres on First street.

“The proposition the men made looked good to me,” said G. E. Chamberlain, one of the owners of the Cozy, today. “They told us that all we had to do was to give away the coupons and that our attendance would increase when people learned we were giving away free lots.

“They furnished us with slides showing pictures of the lands they said they owned, and explained that the scheme was to advertise the park so they could later sell lots. We began to get suspicious, however, when every one seemingly drew a lot and we were getting ready to stop giving coupons when the police told us to quit. The strangers got wind of this and left Portland soon afterward…”

– Oregon Daily Journal, March 26, 1912



The following is a funny yet plaintive cry of the “bungalow lot victim”–it should be called “bunco-low,” but the humor of the statement must not hide the fact that in the name of Sonoma county this small, cheap bunco game is flourishing throughout our neighboring states. Those worthless patches of real estate are not marketed to the unwary in this county, nor now in this state. The scheme has become too well known except at a distance. And yet nothing can save the investors who are caught by the plausibility of the spielers’ landscape descriptions, and the little coin demanded for such a priceless bit of domain. All these resort lots are worthless as the investor speedily learns after his money has passed. This communication is one of the many such which almost daily adds to Mr. Nagle’s amusement and perplexity, as the writers tell him their troubles after they have been bunco-lowed.

Butte, Mont., Dec. 5, 1912
Mr. F. G. Nagle, County Recorder, Santa Rosa, California.

Dear Sir–We have your not of the second inst., returning the deed from Arthur Annis to E. S. Rodds, which we had sent you in our letter of November 29th for record, and wish to thank you for the information as to the worthlessness of the property.

We are, however, returning the deed with our draft for $1.00 to cover the recording fees, and would ask that you place the same on record.

Mr. Rodda had some information concerning the non-value of this property, before he asked us to send the deed. He is already stung a little, however, and thinks it is worth one dollar more, on the chance that some time petroleum or ginger ale or some other good chase may be discovered in commercial quantities on the land, or that some one might want it for a site for a factory for the manufacture of second-hand tooth brushes. He says he came west to take chances, and he is going through with this, even if it costs him another dollar.

Yours very truly, W. E. Collins,

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 18 1912


Fixing It So Can’t Even Give Realty Away in This Place
Bill to Beat Moving Picture Game in Sonoma County Goes Through Assembly.

Up in Santa Rosa moving picture theater owners some time ago conceived the idea of boosting their business by advertising they would give away lots to patrons of their nickelodeons who happened to hold a winning number. This was an alluring bit of advertising, and business trebled within a short time. It was apparent from the start that the theaters were doing it up proper, for many there were who drew a winning number. The lucky person had only to deposit a filing fee to get a deed.

Many deeds were filed. In fact, so many were filed that, the Sonoma county recorder’s office was swamped. Assemblyman Slater was appealed to. He was told the lots were absolutely worthless, and that the moving picture men were getting a corner on all the money in the county. Accordingly he introduced a bill in the lower house the first part of the session making it a misdemeanor for any person to give away worthless lots and collect a fee for transferring or conveying them to the owners of persons drawing lucky numbers.

The assembly heard Slater’s explanation of conditions yesterday, and railroaded the bill through without delay. Tired clerks in the Sonoma county recorder’s office and amusement hall proprietors will probably await with interest the action of the upper house on the measure.

– Sacramento Union, March 14 1913
Assemblyman Slater’s Bill to Prevent Frauds Being Perpetrated Is Signed by Governor

The practice of giving away “free” tickets, entitling holders to lots of land, by moving picture shows and other places of entertainment, was checked Thursday when Gov. Johnson signed Assemblyman Slater’s bill, which has added a new section to the penal code. After receiving their “free” tickets, holders have found themselves compelled to pay $6.50 for deeds in addition to paying a fee for recording. Gross fraud has been perpetrated in hundreds of cases, where lots have been said to be located in some sylvan dell and in reality have been perched on some bald rock or inaccessible jungle.

Thousands of deeds have been filed in a number of counties, and, after visiting their land, the deed holders have never returned for their deeds. The measure Introduced by Slater has been indorsed all over the State and was one of his “pet” measures.

The bill is as follows:

Section 1. The penal code is hereby amended by adding a new section thereto to be numbered 532a, to read as follows; 532a. Any person who knowingly and designedly offers or gives with winning numbers at any drawing of numbers or with tickets of admission to places of public assemblage or otherwise, any lot or parcel of real property for the purpose of charging or collecting fees for transferring or conveying the same, or who, under pretense of charging or collecting fees for such conveyance, receives money, labor or property for executing such conveyance, knowing such lots or parcels of real property to be inaccessible, unavailable for the use represented for it, worthless, or without market value equal to such fees, or charges, is guilty of a misdemeanor.

– Press Democrat, April 27 1913


Western Lots Are Put on Market at Wholesale

Lot selling was done in a wholesale manner in room 19 of the Metropolital hotel yesterday. The lots were located in Summerland Villa, Guerneville, Sonoma county, Cal…Women folk, lean folk, fat folk of a good natured kind, sleepy folk, and a few other kind, all seemed to be in a hurry to get a piece of California real estate…

…when callers, of which there were many, presented their cards they were informed by a portly appearing gentleman in that in order to get deeds it would be necessary to pay a fee for surveying the lot, and a few minor expenses, and that $8 good cash, earned by the sweat of the face under the beneficent sky of Missouri, would be necessary to have a look-in on the California real estate.

And some paid the $8.00, and some didn’t. Some looked at $8.00 with a longing look, and after much consideration, came to the conclusion that $8.00 in the hand was worth more than a sand lot 2,000 miles away.

– Springfield MO Republican, June 27 1913


Alleged Land Shark Arrested.

C. E. Ditto, a reputed land shark, was placed under arrest Saturday afternoon on a charge of beating his board bill…The police, while the man is being held, are making an investigation of a certain land scheme which has been worked in Bloomington of late. The scheme is a new one, but it is thought that some real money was secured in some of the transactions.

The play has been put on at moving picture theaters, a ticket being given to each one who pays to see the show and the one at the close of the day who held the lucky number drew a card entitling him to property. The card states that they “are entitled to a lot in Summerland Villa, Guerneville, Sonoma county, Cal.” The Northwestern Dev. Co., is signed to this card. It is said that several have presented these cards to the agent and are then told that to pay for the deed and abstract, that the sum of $9.60 is necessary. It is claimed that a few, thinking that they will get rich, have paid the sum asked and then gone on their way thinking of the riches which are to come.

The police will continue to make their investigation and Ditto will be held on the other charge until the matter is cleared up. Police officers the confident that Ditto is a swindler [sic]

Bloomington IL Pantagraph, November 17 1913
The Guerneville Lots Figure in Kansas City Arrests

The last session of the Legislature passed the Slater bill which was signed by the Governor and is now the law, which put a stop to moving picture houses and other concerns giving “lucky” tickets to lots of land in Sonoma county and elsewhere In the State, It had become such a nuisance and such a fraud in Sonoma county that the introduction of the measure was framed to check it, particularly as the lots were worthless and located in out of the way places and inaccessible places and-—well, the story has been oft told.

This is by way of introduction. Uncle Sam has come to the assistance of the State of California and has swooped down upon men in Kansas City and their prosecution will doubtless check the operation in “lucky” tickets for Sonoma county lots in other States of the Union, for today County Recorder Nagle is receiving deeds for filing and countless inquiries concerning the lots in question. A dispatcn from Kansas City says:

“Kansas City. Dec. 4.—An alleged land fraud which, according to postoffice inspectors, was conducted in several States through the medium of moving picture shows and the United States mails, led to the arrest here today of W. B. Emrich and N. H. Spitzer of Louisville, Ky. The two were arraigned before a United States commissioner on a charge of misuse of the malls.

“According to the federal charge, tickets were distributed among the spectators at picture shows and the announcement made that the holders of ‘lucky’ numbers would be given a deed to a camper’s lot near Guerneville, Sonoma county, California, It is alleged that the lucky ones’ were then required to pay more for the ‘filing of papers’ than the lots were worth.

– Press Democrat, December 5 1913
Man Comes Here With the Idea of Locating on His Moving Picture Ticket Lot

Joe Blakskowski of San Francisco spent $12.50 for abstract deed and filing fees for lot 16, block 17 In “Glen Ertney,” when he drew a free lot is connection with his moving picture show ticket two years ago. The land is a portion of Sec. 23, tp 8 n, r. 7 w., and is located on the mountain side about 14 miles northeast of Santa Rosa off the road to Callstoga.

Mr. Blakskowskl came here this week with the view of settling on his lot and purchasing more for relatives and friends as agents for the tract had interested them with his glowing description. When he arrived here and asked for directions to reach “Glen Ertney,” his castles in the air were shattered when informed that he could not reach the lot on horseback, and would have a very hard time scrambling to it on foot.

Despite his ill treatment in this regard, Mr. Blaks, as he is commonly known, is planning to purchase property here for himself and relatives, and move here to make his home as he has been greatly impressed with the city and its surroundings.

Under the law no more tickets to lots can be given away is this State.

– Press Democrat, January 10 1914

The evil some time since of the giving away of tickets at moving picture shows to lots in Sonoma county, so much complained of in the past, is again to the fore in the announcement of the delinquent tax list of Sonoma county, prepared by County Tax Collector Frank M. Collins.

There is column after column of delinquents on lots that were purchased by the holders of tickets won at moving picture shows in different parts of the State and in other States. Many of the lot holders, after filing their deeds, placing the property on the assessment roll, have never taken any notice of their duties as landowners in the county, hence they have gone delinquent in payment of taxes, disgusted with their purchase.

At the last session of the Legislature, in 1913, the practice of giving away these lot tickets and the fraud connected therewith was stopped by the Slater bill, which was signed by the Governor, and heartily endorsed by the State Realty boards and other organizations. Hundreds of the lots had been disposed of prior to that time and the result is now shown on the delinquent tax list. This explains the length of the delinquent tax roil in large measure.

– Press Democrat, June 5 1914
Recording of Documents Is Up to Date in the Office of the County Recorder

The copying of instruments in the office of County Recorder Fred G. Nagle has been brought up to dale and the well known county official is pleased to have it thus. Everything has been fine for some time.

It will be remembered that prior to the last session of the Legislature the County Recorder’s office here and in other counties of the state were deluged with the recording of deeds to lots of land as the result of the giving away of tickets with moving picture shows in this state and outside. At the session of the Legislature, Assemblyman Herbert W. Slater of this county, introducing a bill which passed both houses and was signed by the governor which made the giving away of such tickets unlawful. The new law attracted much attention and was complimented in the official papers of the State Realty Board and in other papers as being one of the most useful pieces of legislation. Its effect was soon noticeable in a diminishing of the number of deeds.

Copies of the law were also forwarded by the author of the federal authorities asking for their co-operatlon and this has also proved beneficial in the punishment of persons who used the mails to make false representations concerning prarlically worthless lots in this county.

It was learned Thursday that the deeds for the lots obtained in the manner complained of, are very rare now at the county recorder’s office, there only having been one or two in the past few months, and otherwise the practice has been stopped entirely. This is why the county recorder is breathing easier and why the copying has been brought up to dale to the gratification of those who were unavoidably hindred from recording their documents on time as a result of the deluge.

With hundreds of deeds to the moving picture lots coming in weekly it was impossible to cope with the work of copying them and finally special books had to be provided for their speedy recording. But the main reason for stopping the practice was that the county was being given a black eye by reason of the misrepresentations of the lot sellers and Ihe protest was general.

– Press Democrat, September 18 1914

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