Santa Rosa was filled with bums; there were panhandlers on Fourth street and drunks hanging out in the park, there were petty thefts and burglaries and vegetable gardens raided. The Press Democrat said the Police Chief and Sheriff were working together on “a new drive to rid the city of all ‘undesirables,’ especially the canned heaters.” Uh, “canned heaters?” Everyone knew those were the most screwed-up addicts – in 1931.
If there’s any year in Santa Rosa’s history to NOT visit in your time machine, it’s 1931 (see sidebar). Prohibition was still very much a thing and that year about 800 people were arrested in Santa Rosa, more than half of them for something to do with booze. Money was tight and pockets were empty; farmers and chicken ranchers were lucky to break even and only prunes and Gravensteins made any profit at all. In the Press Democrat’s classifieds, the Help Wanted section was usually entirely missing – while the Real Estate section filled several columns. (“For Sale at foreclosure: 5 acre; modern 5-rm house, chicken equipment. Near town, $3,800.”)
HOW BAD WAS IT IN 1931?
That year was when the Great Depression scraped bottom; those photos we see of long breadlines and former stock brokers selling apples on Wall Street were most likely taken in 1931. There was no safety net whatsoever – no Social Security, no state or federal welfare, no unemployment insurance. Santa Rosa and other cities set up Relief Committees that appealed for anyone who still had a job to donate one day’s wages along with employers asked to donate one day’s profit.
The Santa Rosa Relief Committee saw requests for aid skyrocket from 25 needy families to 300 by the end of the year, which represented 750 men, women and children – seven percent of the town population. Emergency family housing was built at Veterans Park, the corner of McDonald and Pacific avenues (now the site of the First Presbyterian Church). Donated food and clothing were given away at the relief store on Fifth street, as well as any firewood split by hoboes or prisoners in county jail.
Add a few more points to the misery index because of the influx of hoboes that spring. There were several well-established “hobo jungles” along the railroad tracks in Sonoma County: on Lakeville in Petaluma, near Cotati, under the Healdsburg Railroad Bridge, by the Laguna in Sebastopol and close to Fulton. But the best known jungle of all was in Santa Rosa – and that’s where many hoboes went in March, after a murder in the Petaluma jungle led to a police crackdown. The same month Marin authorities ordered every jungle in that county cleared out “for keeps” after a robbery at the San Rafael railroad station. The PD reported that sent about 150 denizens headed north.
The uptick in petty thefts and problems with the “canned heaters” led the Sheriff to declare prisoners in county jail henceforth would have to work on a chain gang. Much ado about this announcement was made in both Santa Rosa newspapers, with particular emphasis that it would scare hoboes away from here. But the program was apparently shut down a month later when the Labor Council protested that it was an affront to exploit free convict labor when there were hundreds of local men desperately looking for any kind of work.
Santa Rosa’s hobo jungle was also frequently in the news because police were making arrests there; it was suspected that vagrants were behind a string of burglaries around town (yup, indeed they were). It was during such a raid when they found Ada Calahan, a 22 year-old woman dressed like a man. Just a month earlier she and husband Frank had married in Reno and although they had the wedding certificate to prove it, they were arrested and sentenced to 10 days in jail while the cops attempted to contact her parents in Yuba City. “Why drag my family into this? I’m not kicking about living in the jungles,” the adult woman groused.
With all this going on, the Press Democrat sent a reporter to live undercover in the tumultuous camp for 72 hours. Despite the possible dangers, the assignment went to 19 year-old cub reporter Herbert Waters Jr. He did more than just prove his mettle; Herb – who would go on to become the PD’s editor-in-chief following the death of Ernest Finley in 1942 – filed an 11-part, 13,000 word series. In 1931 it was a novelty serial that could be considered voyeuristic; today, it’s a valuable historic document because we’re still grappling with some of the same problems over homeless encampments.
About an hour after sunset on that early September night, Herb Waters started walking west along the railroad tracks to Sebastopol (now the Joe Rodata Trail), looking like what he thought a proper hobo should look like.
Although he had expected to come across campfires, it was completely dark and silent; then near Dutton ave. a path to the left led to the back of a warehouse. This was the old Petaluma-Santa Rosa railroad freight terminal, then just used for storing prunes. Here was the heart of Santa Rosa’s hobo jungle.
The opposite side of the building was unobtrusive, set far enough back from Sebastopol Road for large trucks to back into the loading dock. Waters found about forty men sleeping there. “As I reached the front of the building, which has a long loading platform covered with a roof, I saw a continuous row of bodies stretched out on the wooden floor, like a ward in a hospital, or, it seemed to me in the silent darkness, corpse in a morgue.”
The next morning he found the others on the railroad side of the warehouse cooking breakfast over a row of campfires. A closer look revealed more evidence that this was a long-established hobo jungle: “The dozen or more fireplaces were all different – some elaborately built brick ovens, some built from scraps of iron from neighboring dumps, some set in dug-out hollows – but all permanent fireplaces used time after time by the itinerants, never destroyed, but left for the next user.”
A search of the Press Democrat archives turns up a mention of this hobo jungle going back to 1925, when police raided the camp looking for the men who had robbed the White House department store. The building was owned by fruit packers Libby, McNeil & Libby, who used it as a prune warehouse – during Waters’ brief stay a truck came by to pick up a load. Besides the loading dock, men could sleep underneath because the building was elevated several feet off the ground. The company apparently tolerated the hoboes as unpaid watchmen and during winter when the prunes were gone, allowed it to be used as a “hobo hotel” as long as there was no drinking or smoking inside.
He quickly learned these men were homeless drifters and not migrant workers. The “fruit tramps” lived in tents near the fields where they worked, following the harvest seasons up and down the coast; these fellows didn’t work at all if they could help it and particularly turned up their noses at anyone who did field labor.
Looking over what the others were cooking, Herb was astonished how well they were eating; “anything you might see in a restaurant during breakfast.” No one was in a hurry to leave. “Everything has a lazy atmosphere. Eating is a slow process and quite a social occasion. They linger over the meal, trading jokes and banter, calling remarks from one fire the other.”
Aside from the breakfast hobnobbing, Herb soon was introduced to their other major pastime: “The hoboes are happy on two occasions: when they are eating and when they are drunk.”
Unable to buy liquor from a store because of Prohibition and without the money or local connections to score a jug of moonshine or jackass brandy, they were drinking denatured alcohol and Sterno (“canned heat”) – which is to say, they were drinking poison. During his three days of hobo life Herb encountered several men who were expected to soon die. Descriptions of some others strongly imply that Herb believed they were brain-damaged. He met one drug addict who screamed at night and was said to be using “snow,” which at that time likely meant some form of speed.
Herb quickly learned their code of conduct expected – even required – that you shared whatever you had. That included the dangerous ersatz hootch; if a bottle was being passed around you had to take a swig (Herb claimed he faked it). “I was now one of the gang – I had friends – hoboes, to be sure – but friends. They would fight for me, ‘divvy up’ food or money with me, and accept me in any of their plans. I had been tested and found a ‘good guy’ – it would have been an unforgivable insult to refuse to drink when invited.”
In the jungle he found a remarkable spirit of cooperation and comradeship. The men liked and helped each other; they nursed and fretted over their sick and frail. He met a barber, a cobbler and a man who collected bruised fruit that he canned. It was an oasis of equality where African-Americans and Hispanics were welcomed, the jungles being free of racial discrimination (at least in the West, he was told). “All seem tied together by a common sympathy and understanding and one race or color is as good as another as long as you prove yourself a ‘square guy’ according to the code of the jungles.”
For most of them Santa Rosa was a stopover before heading to someplace else, although not necessarily very far away – one hobo later told the PD he had not been outside of the North Bay for over 20 years. While they were here, most hung out at Depot Park in Railroad Square during the day rather than staying around the jungle. “The park is a meeting place and general headquarters during the daytime, although they return to the jungles at night. Transients stop off there to look for friends before continuing their journey.”
Some were also here permanently. “Santa Rosa, I learned, is really a popular town. The bums get good treatment here, plenty to eat, and have a good place to flop in the jungles.”
It appears the welcome mat was first rolled out in 1909 when California and other western states witnessed a surge of vagrants, as told here earlier in “THE HOBOES COMETH.” An evangelical group started a rescue mission near the current location of the Catholic Charities homeless center on Morgan st. which was followed by a W. Eighth st. shelter for “down and outs.” Presumably other Good Samaritan efforts based near the train tracks came and went, unmentioned by the local newspapers; the Salvation Army had a constant presence on the western end of the downtown district and in 1930 a soup kitchen was established on the SW corner of B and Second street.
The main draw, however, was that local residents were an easy touch, despite the hardships of the Great Depression. It had been part of a long standing social contract that a vagrant could knock on a kitchen door and earn a sandwich or slice of pie in exchange for a few minutes of weeding or other light work, but the hoboes who Herb met bragged that a good sob story was all they needed. Although Herb often witnessed them display such great compassion and generosity with each other, the people of the town were clueless suckers who deserved to be scammed.
After one of the men described the “lacing” he had received from a woman after begging for food, another hobo asked for directions to the family’s house. “And sure enough, less than fifteen minutes later, hardly time to walk to the house and no time to have done any kind of work for the food, he returned with a good sized arm load of assorted food – eggs, bread, some cold meat, sandwiches, and some jam. It looked like he had completely cleaned out the lady’s pantry shelves.” He proudly re-enacted for them the melodramatic bullshit that won him the payload.
The Relief Committee asked residents to stop giving handouts to beggars, saying they were doing more harm than good. Like the Salvation Army, the Relief office on Fifth street would give someone a meal ticket after they put in a 30 minute shift at the city woodpile (the wood was mainly from the orchard recently chopped down to create Juilliard Park). It appears few hobos took them up on the work-for-food deal; another PD article said hoboes laughed and cussed at relief volunteers who suggested it. The soup kitchen even printed a notice that their operation was “strictly free from the Salvation Army.”
Stealing food was also common. Herb was told of a chicken farm not far away that stored eggs in an unlocked shed, the hoboes being careful not to take enough to be noticed. Another day they ate hamburger after one of the gang begged a butcher to grind as much meat scraps that 10¢ would buy. “While the soft-hearted butcher was in the back of the shop fixing up much more than a dime’s worth of hamburger and considering himself doing charity work, Williams helped himself to choice pieces of meat behind the counter.”
Another hobo scam that Herb exposed was chimney sweeping. “The chimney sweeps work in pairs, with one always seeking entrance into the house on some pretext. While working around a fireplace from inside the house he invariably picks up any odds and ends he might use himself or peddle to pawn shops. Then they charge the customer $5 for the privilege of having his house robbed and go away leaving the chimney about as dirty as before.”
A small class of hoboes were hardened criminals, called “yeggs” by the press (nobody knows where the term came from – it just popped up in the early 1920s). These burglars and thieves lived apart from the hobo jungles; the pair responsible for about a dozen break-ins around Santa Rosa had a secluded camp on the Creek. Also not welcome in the jungle were hoboes who had been busted for drunkenness in town. After sobering up overnight in jail, the hoboes were routinely given “floaters” by the judge – 30-day sentences which were suspended as long as they got out of town. If they were arrested again during that time there was a risk the police would descend on the jungle and kick out everyone.
Herb met up with a handful of convicted floaters lounging and drinking in the tall grass farther down the track, near where it crossed Stony Point road. Holding court there was “Slippery” Williams, a popular character who actually preyed upon his companions: “He joked and they laughed. He sang and they applauded. And he makes his living in just that manner hooking up with moneyed bums awed by his manner, until he had spent what money they had and then shedding faked tears as he left them, He wasn’t a bit ‘dumb’ like the usual run.”
Then this happened:
I was suddenly startled by a crackling sound and the grass behind me burst into flames. A carelessly tossed cigarette butt had started a fire, with dry grass all around. Instead of putting the fire out, the hoboes surprised me by yelling ‘Beat it’ and starting running away, afraid of getting caught if the fire got burning good. In a few seconds I smothered the blaze with blankets they had forgotten to take in their haste. A few minutes more and it would have been a bad fire.
That little incident is revelatory because vagrants were almost always the prime suspects whenever there was a fire of mysterious origin. They lavished Herb with praise when they returned and discovered he had easily put out the small fire. “‘Gees, yu saved us kid’ said Slippery. Most of them know that tough penalties are dealt out for incendiarism and are afraid of starting fires.”
DOWNLOADAbridged transcript of the 1931 series (PDF)
Not everyone Herb met was a suicidal alcoholic or light-fingered scammer. He found the hoboes well-read and knowledgeable about current events, although most had simplistic views. One of the permanent residents of the Santa Rosa jungle maintained a library of newspapers and magazines on the loading dock because everyone read voraciously.
Nor should we forget that being among the “knights of the open road” was still somewhat considered an honorable, even noble, activity. In 1925, 53 year-old Dudley Kinsell, a Superior Court judge in Oakland resigned from the bench and bummed to Florida. He called it one of the greatest experiences of his life, as it taught him to take joy in the simple things.
Herb spent most of one installment on a respected older hobo’s thoughtful predictions of a coming second world war (and remember, this was 1931): “War, a horrible war, is coming. It will be a world war of size hard to imagine…The war will be unlike any other in history – it will combine revolutions with battles between every nation in a huge slaughter.” Our Nostradamus of the loading dock left his audience rattled, but now we know he got all the prophecies wrong; instead of war with Germany and Japan, he imagined a second American Civil War where Russia steps in to undermine the side fighting to preserve the U.S. government (come to think of it, maybe he was foreseeing the 2010s and not the 1930s.)
When his three days were over, Herb wrote a final piece on what he had learned. Don’t generalize about the hoboes; the men were both good and bad, no better or worse than those in any other group. Permanent jungles with running water should be allowed in every town, preferably indoors, and the camps should have routine inspections. Provide medical care and an employment agency so they can try to find jobs. Never give them money without working for it. Some (all?) of these suggestions probably came from Herb Waters Sr. who was among the leaders of the Relief Committee.
“Hoboes will come and hoboes will go, but as long as a community gives them an opportunity to live fairly decently it has done all that should be done,” he concluded.
There are a few postscripts to our story, and Gentle Reader should be forewarned that none are pleasant.
As everyone in the jungle was a keen reader, you can be certain they absorbed every word in the series as soon as it was available. The Press Democrat blurbed it for two days before the first installment appeared, so I imagine there was angry gossip along with great fear as to who had been the spy in their midst.
While the series was running, there were two fires near the Santa Rosa jungles, and on the day the last of the series appeared, a hobo named George Peterson was found drowned in the shallow Santa Rosa Creek. Foul play was suspected, but no one was charged.
The day after the series finished, deputies raided and cleared out all known hobo jungles near Santa Rosa.
The Santa Rosa jungle at the warehouse endured until 1940. That year a heavy storm caused the building to collapse, killing nine who had sought shelter beneath it.
It’s a bitter coincidence that the location of Santa Rosa’s famous hobo jungle was just steps away from the recent Roseland homeless camp behind the Dollar Tree store. Known as Camp Michela or Last Chance Village, it was cleared out by authorities in 2018 – because making this subculture go away is so, so easy, as history shows.
Top: Hobo camp in the 1920s; Town of Sodus (NY) Historical Society
On a fine clear winter’s day in January, 1896, Kanaye Nagasawa walked into the office of the Santa Rosa Republican. He must have been a most welcome sight – readers were always interested in the big Fountaingrove vineyard just outside of town – and as a bonus for the newspaper this was right after New Year’s, which is always the sleepiest time of the year for news gathering. Was he bringing in an item about prestigious visitors at the winery, perhaps? That a record-setting number of barrels were sold over the holidays on the East Coast and in England?
Nagasawa brought news, all right, but it came with the request that it be suppressed as much as possible. He likely paid calls on Santa Rosa’s other two daily papers and made the same plea to their editors.1 Thus a day later, in its column of short local items the Republican printed this brief notice, following tidbits about members of the Congregational church having “a real good social time” and Elmer Carter getting a new bicycle:
While laboring under temporary insanity, Miss Mary M. Harris of Helena, Montana, took an overdose of strychnine and died of the same Thursday night at Fountain Grove. A coroner’s inquest was held.
There was no obituary, or even mention that she was only sixteen years old.
Nagasawa had good reasons to want the girl’s death kept as quiet as possible; just four years earlier, he and others at Fountaingrove had suddenly found their utopian colony smeared in the national press as being a free-love commune under the sway of a conman who claimed to be the Second Coming of Christ and enjoyed sex with fairies. The titillating stories were exaggerations or outright lies (mostly), and since then the San Francisco newspapers had demonstrated they would use any mention of the winery or Thomas Lake Harris as an excuse to rake the muck again. Who knew how far off the rails they might go once it was revealed that the dead girl was actually the granddaughter of Harris?
His efforts to keep her suicide hush-hush quickly fell apart. A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle was already on his/her way to Santa Rosa, and the next day would file the first of two articles which included revealing details and a rare interview with Nagasawa. While the Chronicle had some of the most sensationalist coverage over the so-called sex cult exposé back in 1892, this time the reporter was fair and openly sympathetic. The paper did, however, dust off some lurid details about the “House of Mystery” in sidebars, and there are bits of anonymous gossip and commentary which were likely added or embellished by editors to juice up the story.
Shortly before Nagasawa visited the newspaper offices in Santa Rosa, an inquest was held at Fountaingrove. The Coroner’s jury reached a verdict of “death caused from strychnine poisoning by her own hand with suicidal intent, while under despondency.” Part of the mystery surrounding her death concerns that inquest, whose full contents would not be known publicly for several weeks – but before getting into the issues with that, here’s a synopsis of the events as told in the first Chronicle article (transcribed in full below):
Mary Harris was “a very high-strung girl and undoubtedly committed suicide while in one of her fits of temporary insanity,” Nagasawa told the reporter. He continued,
She was very much addicted to outbursts of temper, and while in them was very rude. It became necessary for me to discipline her. I had to lock her in her room Thursday evening. A little later she was heard to scream loudly and repeatedly. Mrs. Parting summoned me, and we went to her room. We found her stretched out on a chair with her arms above her head, writhing in agony. I carried her to bed and tried to quiet her, not thinking she had taken poison. She said she had taken strychnine, and that she had only taken a little in order to scare us. I don’t know why she tried to scare us.
“It was 6:15 P. M. when she took the strychnine, and she died after about three-quarters of an hour of suffering. Before she died she said she had gone to the medicine closet and had taken the strychnine from it. When she said she had taken poison we did not believe her, but she pointed to a package near her and said she only took a little, not enough to kill…For the last four months Mary has been quite out of health and under Dr. Thompson’s treatment. She was subject at times to attacks of insanity, when we watched her with special care, so that she would not injure herself, though we had no real fear that she would.
The Chronicle also interviewed Dr. Charles H. Thompson, the Santa Rosa physician who had cared for the Fountaingrove colony nearly since its beginning and had signed Mary’s death certificate. He did not arrive at the scene until she had been dead for some unspecified period of time (“Miss Harris was dead when he got there and had been dead for some minutes”) and based his cause of death decision on what he was told by Nagasawa and a perfunctory lookover. He did not examine the body, much less conduct an autopsy.
According to Thompson she had been in good health, both physically and mentally. “I never heard that she had fits of insanity. She was a high-strung and high-tempered girl, but I never heard of any attacks of insanity. I believe they had to curb her at times, but did not hear that they had to lock her in her room the other night. As I understand it, she was not locked in, but I believe they did lock her in once before, though that was some months ago.” He later said he had prescribed some sort of medicine for her which was apparently to quell anxiety (hello, laudanum, the Victorian “lady’s friend”).
That article also revealed what little we know about Mary’s background. She was actually 15 years and 7 months old, not sixteen, and had a younger sister who also was at Fountaingrove. They were the daughters of Thomas H. Harris Jr., the youngest of two sons of the mystic.
Both of the Harris sons were deeply estranged from their father; Junior took the name of his mother’s family and started calling himself Leonard Van Arnum, while in 1880, his brother had died en route to California where it’s believed he intended to kill Pops.2
Around 1890 Harris Jr. made some sort of arrangement with his father after the girl’s mother died in Helena, Montana. They were sent to Oakland where they boarded with friends of the colony while attending public school; in 1891 Mary can be spotted on a fourth grade class list with her sister, Pearl, a grade behind. The girls were apparently taken out of school and sent to live at Fountaingrove once Mary completed sixth grade. “They have been with us for the past two and a half years,” Nagasawa told the Chronicle.3
Mary and Pearl did not attend school or social functions in Santa Rosa and few in town knew them; less than a dozen attended Mary’s funeral in the Stanley Addition to Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, all of them connected to Fountaingrove. The absence of contact with other people near her age may have indeed left Mary pitying herself as tragically forlorn, as an anonymous local person (supposedly) opined at the end of the Chronicle article – a notion supported by Nagasawa’s description of Fountaingrove as a busy farm and winery with an attached rest home. There were about twenty members of the original colony still living there and most were elderly. After teenaged Mary and Pearl, the only residents under middle age were a couple of women in their mid to late twenties (the Clarke sisters).
Another theory was voiced anonymously at the end of the article: That Mary may have poisoned herself because she was being forced into an arranged marriage. “It is very possible that some one at Fountain Grove told her that the Father had said she should take some man at the Grove for her partner in life, and that her moral instincts revolted at the idea…I believe that Mary Harris killed herself rather than submit to the embraces of the man who was said to be chosen as her partner for life.”
It seems noteworthy that folks in Santa Rosa were ready to assume it was an intentional suicide, as if 15 year-old girls were routinely killing themselves. Maybe they were persuaded by the effort she made to get the strychnine – which leads to the first real unanswered question: If Mary was locked in her room as punishment over something, how did she obtain the poison from the medicine cabinet? From here on, each new layer of the mystery revealed itself like layers of an unpeeling onion.
“The way in which the people of Fountain Grove tried to conceal the crime has aroused suspicion,” the second Chronicle article noted, raising doubts about how Mary Harris got the poison and disputing whether the girl was insane, as Nagasawa kept saying. Mrs. Emma Parting, the doyenne of the aging little colony, said there was nothing wrong with the teenager aside from occasional “fits of despondency.” It would later come out that Parting was the only person at Mary’s deathbed aside from Nagasawa.
In the day since the paper had first revealed initial details about Mary’s death, the rumor mills in Santa Rosa were now grinding away at full speed: “The belief has become stronger that Miss Harris was forced to suicide rather than submit to a supposed order from the primate of the community.”
While the people of this city have shut their eyes to many things that have occurred at Fountain Grove they are beginning to do a little thinking. As Miss Harris could not have secured possession of the poison had she been locked up she must have gone about the act deliberately. The belief is prevalent here that some repugnant command was forced upon Miss Harris and that rather than submit to it she went to the medicine chest, secured the strychnine, repaired to her room and took the fatal dose.
The Chronicle implied the gossip was about Thomas Lake Harris – then living in New York – pressuring Mary to become the wife of his adopted son, 43 year-old Kanaye Nagasawa. While not addressing the whispering campaign directly, the reporter tossed in a non sequitur paragraph debunking it: “[Nagasawa] has often expressed his views on matrimony and the marital laws of this country. He has said that he does not believe in marriage, but that men and women should select their partners in life as their choice directs them.”4
Despite the unresolved questions about her mental state, the locked door and the strychnine, this story could have ended there since Mary was now buried deep on the hill. But ten days later the San Francisco Examiner produced a Sunday feature: “The Victim of an Ungodly System.” It was classic yellow journalism. It rehashed the twice-told stories of two men who were loosely connected with Harris and who committed suicide years earlier, it darkly hinted about Harris forcing people into marriage and recapped bits of the Chronicle’s coverage, all in the most sensationalist tone possible. Since this appeared in William Randolph Hearst’s flagship Examiner, reprints appeared in more than a dozen other papers. The mysterious death of Mary Harris was now a national news story.
It was probably about that same time when someone at the county courthouse finally bothered to look at the inquest report and noticed several things were amiss. The coroner from Healdsburg hadn’t followed basic rules in requiring witnesses to sign their statements, for starters, and he hadn’t called the only possible expert witness, Dr. Thompson, to testify about her cause and time of death. (The doctor later said he was surprised at not being asked to testify.) The only testimony came from Kanaye Nagasawa and two women who said, yup, we agree with what he said.
And then there was mention in the inquest about the trivial incident when Mary threw herself out a second story window.
The District Attorney’s office called for a Grand Jury to be impaneled as soon as possible to look into all these doings.
Let’s flip the calendar ahead several weeks to reveal the Grand Jury did meet for three days and heard much testimony – yet filed no report on the case. The official statement: “We were also called on to investigate the case of suicide at the Fountaingrove farm, but could not find who was to blame for the young woman’s rash act.”
They were immediately slammed for being a do-nothing Grand Jury and returning zero indictments, even in the scandalous case of an armed robbery of the county treasury where the Treasurer certainly lied about what happened and was likely an accomplice to the theft. The Santa Rosa Democrat reamed the Jury for inaction and ineptitude, particularly when it came to “the Fountaingrove matter:”
The report in that affair is utterly contemptible. They were too cowardly to express any positive opinion after an examination, but content themselves with an innuendo that possibly all may not be right. In effect, they say that Miss Harris might have poisoned herself or she might have been poisoned by the Fountaingrove people. Such a pettifogging subterfuge is neither satisfactory to the public or to the parties who were accused. It only proves the imbecility of the investigators. If they could find nothing suspicious in the death of the young girl they ought to have had the manhood to say so.
Still, many details of testimony leaked out daily, which fleshed out the situation at Fountaingrove. Much remains obscured as if it were viewed through a glass darkly, but combined with info from other sources we can piece together much of what was happening up until the moment when the lethal poison passed her lips.
Gentle Reader is probably asking: Why there was strychnine around the house, much less in the medicine cabinet? Although it apparently didn’t come up as an issue before the Grand Jury, there are many reasons why it might have been there, although any use of it was dangerous and of dubious benefit.
In the late 19th century, much of what passed for medical knowledge was based on pseudoscientific anecdotal evidence; around 1890, small doses of strychnine, compounded with other substances, was variously used as a treatment for indigestion, insomnia, chronic alcoholism, snake bites, asthma, a tetanus vaccine and both as a sleeping potion and an energetic “pick me up” – and these recommendations came from medical journals and pharmaceutical recipe books, not the claims of Doc Cheatum’s Cure-All Tonic. (Don’t feel smug; according to the NIH: “As late as the 1980s, strychnine could still be found in over the counter consumer products such as digestive aids, sedatives, stimulants, and cold remedies”.5)
Much had changed at Fountaingrove since the departure of Thomas Lake Harris, almost exactly four years before the Grand Jury hearings. While many there undoubtedly still believed Harris was God Incarnate, it was no longer a strictly religious colony. “We have no community now, in the sense in which the word is generally used. It is a business proposition,” Nagasawa told the Chronicle in the interview after Mary’s death. Harris had men and women living apart even if they were married. Now, Nagasawa said, “the marriage relations among us are the same as among other people,” with couples living together.
One of the married couples were the Clarkes, who had been at Fountaingrove for about a dozen years and played pivotal roles in the story of Mary Harris. In documents and newspapers their name is spelled both Clark and Clarke (often both within the same item) which made this research project far more difficult, as there was another Fountaingrove married couple named Clark. Future historians, beware.6
Ray P. Clarke and his partner Jonathan W. Lay operated Lay, Clarke & Co., which was the production/distribution side of the winery; they were also the real owners of Fountaingrove, along with Nagasawa. In 1885 Thomas Lake Harris sold it to them for $60,000 when he decided his presence was required full time in fairyland. Clarke, Lay and others from Fountaingrove later moved to New York City in order to establish an East Coast office. There Harris took a dislike to Clarke and sent him back to California because “his low animal quality had caused him to gather about him as natural associates horse racers and a low class of the people of the countryside.”7
Mrs. Clarke is more to our interest, however; “Nettie” acted as guardian of Mary and Pearl and the girls lived with the Clarkes. The couple – and particularly Nettie – thus bear full responsibility for what happened to the girls on a daily basis, including how Mary obtained the poison. That Mrs. Clarke did not make a statement to the Coroner’s Jury is another reason for the inquest report to be viewed with suspicion – and add to that the shocker that Ray Clarke served as one of the jurors, who decided the 15 year-old girl was entirely responsible for her own death with no one else to blame.8
Nettie Clarke was called before the Grand Jury, and as summarized by the Chronicle, she “always spoke of [Mary] as being willful, obstinate and absolutely without any idea of what it was to ‘mind,’ to obey.” Clarke was determined “that stubborn will must be broken.”
Clarke’s sister, daughter and Nagasawa all said the same thing, according to the Chronicle: “Their testimony was an attempt to show that all restraints on the liberty of the girl were in the interest of discipline and according to the instructions of a physician.”
It was reiterated that the girl had a stubborn, willful and disobedient disposition. But when examples of how this was manifested were asked, they could not cite any other than the very common disobediences of children. An effort was also made to show that she was insane, or, at least subject to fits of insane despondency which required her being watched and the denied privilege of leaving the house unaccompanied. It was denied that she was confined to her room except for short spaces of time. It was brought out that about three months ago she tried to escape by jumping from a window twenty feet to the ground. This was given as evidence of insanity.
Dr. Thompson testified he had “given directions for her restraint under conditions,” but again did not say he believed she was mentally ill.
Mrs. Clarke’s idea of “restraint” meant far more than sending her to her room for an evening, the paper reported. “It was one of the features of their life and training that the children were never allowed to roam about the house or go from one part of it to another, prompted only by childish playfulness. If they went anywhere, to another room or another floor of the same house, it must be for some purpose, a useful reason of some kind. That was one of the principles of the community and, the children were required to yield strict obedience to it.”
As Mary continued to assert herself, Mrs. Clarke and the others responded by increasing her isolation.
There were three main residential buildings at Fountaingrove. At the top of the ridge was the enormous “Commandery,” a male dormitory that could house a hundred men. (It spectacularly burned in 1908 like a Roman Candle and would have put Santa Rosa at high risk if the day’s earlier northerly winds had not died down.) The original women’s residence was the two-story Cottage (called by Harrisites the “Familistery”), where the five-member Clarke family lived with the girls and where Mary had jumped out the window. The palatial Manor House where Harris had lived was the “Aestivossa,” which was now the home of Kanaye Nagasawa, Emma Parting and her daughters and many other members of the old colony.
Pearl initially refused to testify before the Grand Jury, then was forced to after the District Attorney threatened the Clarkes with arrest. She and Mary were kept on separate floors, rarely seeing each other. A month before Mary died her sister was taken to the other house (Aestivossa) and Pearl never saw Mary again alive or dead, according to the Chronicle. She had refused to attend her sister’s funeral, which sent tongues wagging.
At Aestivossa, Mary’s meals were brought to her room and “whenever she was removed from one room to another it was Nagasawa or Clarke who carried her,” the report said. It’s difficult to imagine a woman in her late fifties hauling a teenager about, so perhaps the reporter really meant someone kept a firm grip on Mary’s wrist or collar.
“Testimony goes on to show that for more than a year Mary had been trying to escape from Fountain Grove…the one illustration of willfulness of disposition upon which Mrs. Clarke relied was Mary’s repeated threat that she would run away.” The Chronicle also stated the Grand Jury was told “the community was expecting a letter from Thomas Lake Harris as to what should be done with the girls,” which strongly implies they were conceding that Fountaingrove was no place to be raising kids.
And that pretty much wrapped up the Grand Jury proceedings on Mary Harris. The yellower newspapers were disappointed there was no scandal to splash across the front page. San Francisco Call headlines were a bit pathetic in their strain to gin up a controversy: “Mary Harris’ Strange Death”, “Fountain Grove Escapes Censure” and “Breaking a Child’s Heart Is Not a Crime in the Eyes of the Law.”
By contrast, the Chronicle’s coverage was a remarkable example of fair and balanced journalism for its day. Its reporter concluded, “The theory best sustained perhaps by the facts now known, is that suicide was due to unnatural and unsympathetic environment, harshness of discipline and physical illness reacting on a highly nervous temperament.”
To that I would add only the paper should have emphasized that it was apparently an accidental suicide. Nagasawa recalling Mary saying, “she had only taken a little in order to scare us” sadly has the ring of truth. There can be no question Mary desperately wanted to get away from that situation, even it meant being sent to a sanitarium.
While there was no report issued, testimony did mostly quash a popular conspiracy theory – while launching a new one. From the Chronicle: “There has nothing so far leaked out from the juryroom to indicate that her reason for committing suicide was to escape being mated with some one she did not like.” But at the end of the session, this was mentioned: “Part of the discontent which Mary Harris evidently felt may have been due to the fact that she was a Catholic, while those about her were not. Her religion, it is said, was a heritage from her mother.” Reading some of the descriptions of her death in later years, one might think she was a novitiate being held at the mercy of sex-crazed heathens.
In its final story the Chronicle reminded its readers there were still suspicious aspects to the case left unresolved. The Grand Jury accepted the Coroner’s inquest, although he neglected to collect testimony from the doctor, Mrs. Clarke, Pearl and others as to her mental state and circumstances of her death. Instead, the coroner’s jury – again, with Mr. Clarke among the jurors – rubber-stamped Nagasawa’s opinion that the girl’s craziness was the cause of her death:
The most significant feature of the whole matter is the wording of the verdict. Kenai Nagasawa is the only witness who testified in any detail to the circumstances of the death. He gave it as his opinion that “she took her own life while under despondency.” This rather unusual form of expression, the jury, composed of his associates and employees, all men under his influence, parrot-like repeated. There seems to have been no effort to find out any motive for the suicide. Nagasawa, insisting throughout that it was a case of suicide due to an unbalanced mind, says she once jumped twenty feet from a window, as indicating that her mind had been unsettled for some time, but he gives no details to make it clear to any one else that this action was the result of such a mental condition.
Nagasawa’s statement to the coroner also differed significantly from what he told the Chronicle later that same day. At the inquest there seemed to be no question that he immediately knew she was in serious condition because she was having convulsions. They mixed an emetic and gave it to her with no effect. In that account he held her hands as death approached. The version found in the paper showed a considerably less empathetic Nagasawa; he and Mrs. Parting didn’t believe her when she said she had taken poison and tried to quiet her down. There was no mention of convulsions or administering an emetic. Was there a life-or-death difference between the two scenarios? Probably not; the doctor was 45 minutes away and there was nothing else that could have been done in 1896. Still, the District Attorney absolutely should have asked Nagasawa to reconcile these very different accounts.
No, there was no conspiracy to poison the troublesome child, and there’s no hint that Nagasawa was lying in order to cover up a crime. But it still rankles that no one at all was held to account for how those two girls were mistreated for so long – today, a Grand Jury would surely indict Kanaye Nagasawa, the Clarkes, and the whole lot of them for criminal neglect and abuse.
After it was clear the Grand Jury wasn’t going to hand down indictments, a reporter from the Call asked Nagasawa for an interview. He declined to answer any more questions concerning the death of Mary Harris, saying only that “silence is power.”
The only loose thread in our sad tale concerns what became of Pearl. Little was written about her personally at the time, except for Dr. Thompson telling the Grand Jury “there was a most marked difference between the dispositions of the two girls.” The San Francisco Call – a paper that wanted to sensationalize her sister’s death – suggested she had an intellectual disability: “Pearl Harris is only 14 years old and has the innocence and ignorance of a girl of eight years.”
A book about Thomas Lake Harris states Pearl soon made her “escape” from Fountaingrove, but no details are found about where she went. Years later, Harris’ wife, Jane, corresponded with Pearl and summarized the letters in her diary.9
In 1904 Pearl was 22 and “living with a kind Swedish lady in Colorado.” She had changed her name to “Bettina” and Harris was sending her $20/month. While offering that pittance of support, her grandfather was also telling her she was disinherited, apparently claiming Thomas Jr. was not her father. “She knows she is not related by blood and makes no claim.” Yet in another diary entry shortly after, Jane remarked, “the child – only surviving one – of Leonard Van Arnum – has been brought into the relation of foster-child to us.” (See above, re: Junior’s name change.)
The final mention appeared a few months after Thomas Lake Harris died and his will was accepted by probate. Jane wrote, “Little Bettina has won our love and confidence in signing a Waiver to any claim.”
1 Besides the daily Santa Rosa Democrat, Ernest Finley’s Evening Press had debuted on Jan. 2, the same day as Mary’s death.
2 Harris Jr. name change: A Prophet and a Pilgrim; Herbert W. Schneider and George Lawton; 1942, pg. 484-485. John Harris murder plans: The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove; Gaye LeBaron and Bart Casey; 2018, pg. 107, and also A Spiritist Spider; San Francisco Chronicle, February 10, 1885.
3 Why they were pulled out of school was never explained, nor was it mentioned whether the girls were adopted by their grandfather, as he had once adopted Kanaye Nagasawa. It’s also unknown if the children were sent directly to Oakland or if they first lived for a while at Fountaingrove; the paper quoted Nagasawa as saying cryptically, “her father brought her and her sister to San Francisco to make their home with us, and we brought them here.” Since Thomas Lake Harris was at Fountaingrove until early 1892, he certainly could have known the girls personally.
4 Further showing sympathy to Kanaye, the Chronicle article gently conceded he had “not confined himself to facts”, but also pointed out he had made those misstatements at the end of a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. Besides having to speak with this Chronicle reporter despite the paper’s history of hostility to Fountaingrove, on January 3 he had testified at the inquest, visited Santa Rosa to arrange for Mary’s funeral (and plea to the editors to downplay the events), all followed by the Fountaingrove cookhouse and laundry burning down in a kitchen fire that threatened the whole place. “In the interview Nagasawa showed that he was greatly disturbed in mind, but he ascribes this to the excitement caused by the suicide and the pecuniary loss by the burning of the kitchen house for the hired help.”
6 The Clarkes were Ray Paul Clarke (often misspelled as “Roy”) and Annette Celia Clarke (called “Nettie”) who came to Fountaingrove around 1884 along with her sister, Mary Babcock. The Clarkes had two adult daughters, Frances Gertrude, 24 in 1896 and who was given the fairy name “Ahina” by Harris, along with Elinor/Elenor (called “Nora”), who was 29 in 1896 and married Dr. Frederick Webley two years later, the newlyweds continuing to live at Fountain Grove. The Clarks were Samuel Clark (a bookkeeper) and Parthenia Clark, who had been part of Harris’ original religious colony at Brocton, New York.
7 The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove; Gaye LeBaron and Bart Casey; 2018, pp. 152-153. Per the sale see also Primate T. L. Harris; San Francisco Chronicle, March 10, 1885.
8 According to Sonoma County Historical Records Commissioner Steven Lovejoy, in 1896 it was perfectly legal for the husband of the guardian (or even somebody suspected of killing Mary!) to serve as an inquest juror. It wasn’t until 1905 that language was added to the Penal Code restricting people from jury duty who might have some personal connection to either the deceased or someone who might be considered a suspect.
9 A Prophet and a Pilgrim; Herbert W. Schneider and George Lawton; 1942, pg. 484-485.
SECRET OF FOUNTAIN GROVE SUICIDE Was She Driven to Death by Despair? NO PROOF OF HER INSANITY MISS HARRIS LOCKED UP BY THE JAPANESE. A Pathetic Funeral – Theory That the Girl Preferred Death to Dishonor.
Special Dispatch to the Chronicle.
SANTA ROSA, January 4. – The mystery of the suicide of Mary H. Harris, granddaughter of Thomas Lake Harris, the old primate of the Brotherhood of the New Life, at Fountain Grove, near this city, remains unsolved. People at the grove adhere to the story published in to-day’s “Chronicle,” and claim that the suicide was committed while the girl was suffering from one of her periodical attacks of insanity.
The story of the attending physician, however, does not bear out the claim that the girl was insane. The few citizens of Santa Rosa who deign to discuss the matter differ widely in their opinions. For the last three years, since Thomas Lake Harris left here, the colony at Fountain Grove has prospered, and has not come into that notoriety which periodically occurred when Primate Harris himself was here, Santa Rosans believed that the peculiar community had settled down to the business proposition of wine-making and farming, but the events of this week have caused much talk.
On Thursday Miss Harris committed suicide. On Friday the large kitchen and boarding-house caught fire and burned down. The two events were almost unknown in this town, as it is the practice to suppress the news of any unusual occurrence at the community. The funeral of the girl was held privately and not a dozen people attended.
The suspicions of those who take an interest in Fountain Grove were aroused by the attempt to suppress the news of the suicide of Miss Harris. The Evening Press alone mentioned either the suicide or the fire. Kanaye Nagasawa, Japanese manager of the Fountain Grove Vineyard Company, made the following statement of the suicide:
“Miss Harris was a very high-strung girl and undoubtedly committed suicide while in one of her fits of temporary insanity. She was very much addicted to outbursts of temper, and while in them was very rude. It became necessary for me to discipline her. I had to lock her in her room Thursday evening. A little later she was heard to scream loudly and repeatedly. Mrs. Parting summoned me, and we went to her room. We found her stretched out on a chair with her arms above her head, writhing in agony. I carried her to bed and tried to quiet her, not thinking she had taken poison. She said she had taken strychnine, and that she had only taken a little in order to scare us. I don’t know why she tried to scare us.
“It was 6:15 P. M. when she took the strychnine, and she died after about three-quarters of an hour of suffering. Before she died she said she had gone to the medicine closet and had taken the strychnine from it. When she said she had taken poison we did not believe her, but she pointed to a package near her and said she only took a little, not enough to kill.
“Mary M. Harris was 15 years and 7 months old, a daughter of Thomas H. Harris of Helena, Mont. Her mother died when she was quite young and her father brought her and her sister to San Francisco to make their home with us, and we brought them here. They were with us for several years, all the time in fact but about six years, when they were boarding with our friends and attending school in Oakland. They have been with us for the past two and a half years.
“For the last four months Mary has been quite out of health and under Dr. Thompson’s treatment. She was subject at times to attacks of insanity, when we watched her with special care, so that she would not injure herself, though we had no real fear that she would.”
Dr. Thompson does not exactly verify the story of Miss Harris being in ill health and subject to fits of insanity. He said: “I have been attending physician at Fountain Grove for sixteen years. The case of Miss Harris is a sad one. She recently had slight trouble with her bowels, but on the very day of her suicide she recovered. She had never been in ill health otherwise. No, I never heard that she had fits of insanity. She was a high-strung and high-tempered girl, but I never heard of any attacks of insanity. I believe they had to curb her at times, but did not hear that they had to lock her in her room the other night. As I understand it, she was not locked in, but I believe they did lock her in once before, though that was some months ago.”
The funeral of Miss Harris took place this afternoon. It was a very quiet affair. Undertaker Stanley went with a hearse to Fountain Grove, three miles from this city, and brought the body to the cemetery. The hearse was followed by three carriages, Rev. Mr. Shepard, the Episcopal minister, and a friend of Thomas Lake Harris joined the funeral procession, if it could be called such, at the City Cemetery. Previously those who died at Fountain Grove were buried at the City Cemetery, but the community recently purchased a 20×20-foot plot in Stanley’s Addition to Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, with ground for twelve graves. When the hearse and carriages reached the cemetery the hearse went by a lower road to the plot, and the few people who attended the funeral went in carriages to the top of the hill, fifty feet from the grave, and watched the proceedings from the carriages. Only the short interment service of the Episcopal church was read at the grave by Rev. Mr. Shepard.
The pallbearers were Ray Clarke, Kanaye Nagasawa, Undertaker Stanley and three Japanese who are employed at the Grove. The only people who witnessed the burial, besides the pallbearers, were Mrs. Clarke, Mrs. Parting, Miss Parting and Dr. Thompson. No other remarks were made except by the minister, and as soon as the interment services were read and the coffin lowered into the grave, the people left the cemetery without any demonstration. The funeral was conducted in the most perfunctory way as a ceremony which could not be omitted.
The fact that the suicide of Miss Harris was followed in less than twenty-four hours by a fire at Fountain Grove is regarded as a peculiar coincidence, though people in this city pay little attention to it. The truth is people believe that the community is run much better since Harris left here nearly four years ago. Few young men and few young women, except the Harris sisters, have been here for three years or more, and most people think Fountain Grove is now run on strictly business principles. The Fountain Grove people do all their trading in Santa Rosa and people seem to believe that patronage, like charity, covers a multitude of sins, and they make no inquiry…
…Kanaya [sic] Nagasawa, manager of the Fountain Grove Vineyard Company, is a very shrewd Japanese. He is very reluctant to talk about the community and those who remain as remnants of the colony started by Thomas Lake Harris. After repeated questions he said:
“There are about twenty members who live at Fountain Grove, besides the laborers we employ. These are Ray Clarke, his wife and two daughters, Fred Weberley, Mr. Coles, Ari, a Japanese, Mrs. M. E. Parting, the two Misses Parting and some elderly ladies, besides Miss Harris, a girl two or three years younger than her sister who committed suicide. There are but five men at Fountain Grove, besides the hired help. They are three Americans and two Japanese.
“The stories that men and women ever bathed together nude at Fountain Grove is not true. Some years ago a hydropathic doctor treated people at the baths, but the men and women were separate. He is now dead. The marriage relations among us are the same as among other people. Mr. Clarke and his wife live together. None of the others are married. In fact, we have no community now, in the sense in which the word is generally used. It is a business proposition. We have between 400 and 500 acres in grapes…”
While none of the people on neighboring ranches say openly anything more about Fountain Grove than the citizens of Santa Rosa, they privately express their opinion regarding the suicide of Miss Harris. Few doubt that the girl really committed suicide, but they differ as to the reason. Some believe that Miss Harris, a high-tempered girl, took poison because of her pride being hurt when locked in a room like a schoolgirl, but not many accept this theory. The majority believe it was a deliberate suicide, because she was dissatisfied with her mode of life. These people are about evenly divided as to the reason which drove her to suicide. One man, who knew the girl well, said:
“I believe Miss Harris committed suicide because she did not like to live at Fountain Grove and be kept from all society. She was high strung, and having been educated at a seminary in Oakland, she wanted to see more young folks. There were really none at the grove. She undoubtedly had social aspirations, and having met many young ladies and young gentlemen when in Oakland, she longed for congenial company. She was ambitious and would have liked to shine in the social world. At Fountain Grove she was shut off from all companions of her age, and seeing no better future, I believe she became desperate and took her life.”
Another man, who was once a member of the community under Harris’ regime, is not so generous. He said: “I cannot say I know why Mary Harris committed suicide, but I will tell you what I believe. I think she was a pure, high-minded girl, who did not believe in the doctrines of her grandfather. It is very possible that some one at Fountain Grove told her that the Father had said she should take some man at the Grove for her partner in life, and that her moral instincts revolted at the idea. I know whereof I speak. Harris did have the custom of saying that he had received revelations from God that certain men and certain women should become partners for life, and he was obeyed. I don’t know that he forced these connections. To my rememberances, he only suggested them, rather forcibly I will admit, and he may have ordered them at the start. I believe that Mary Harris killed herself rather than submit to the embraces of the man who was said to be chosen as her partner for life.”
– San Francisco Chronicle, January 5 1896
SANTA ROSA SUICIDE STILL A MYSTERY. What Caused Mary Harris’ Despondency? THE SECRET WELL GUARDED. SHE WAS NOT IN ILL HEALTH NOR INSANE. First Statements of the People of the Community Shown to Be Untrue.
Special Dispatch to the Chronicle.
SANTA ROSA, January 5. – The secret of Miss Mary M. Harris’ suicide is still held by the people of Fountain Grove, and they will say little. What evidence can be obtained seems to substantiate the theories of persons formerly connected with the colony who are now disgusted with the practices of the place. The belief has become stronger that Miss Harris was forced to suicide rather than submit to a supposed order from the primate of the community. Kanaye Nagasawa, the Japanese in charge of the Fountain Grove ranch, claims that the girl had been long suffering from ill health and that in a temporary fit of insanity she took her life, while locked in her room for disobedience. In the interview Nagasawa showed that he was greatly disturbed in mind, but he ascribes this to the excitement caused by the suicide and the pecuniary loss by the burning of the kitchen house for the hired help.
While the people of Fountain Grove will not speak to outsiders, some words have been dropped which positively contradict the statements of Kanaye Nagasawa. Mrs. M. E. Parting, an elderly lady whose heart is in the social idea formulated by Thomas Lake Harris, but who is strictly honest, has made some statements which go to show that the Japanese manager of the large vineyard company has not confined himself to facts.
Mrs. Parting has told outsiders that for some time past Miss Harris has suffered from fits of despondency, though the cause of these fits is unknown. She has admitted that Miss Harris was never troubled with ill health, except slightly on rare occasions. On the morning of January 2d, the day on which Miss Harris committed suicide, she wrote a letter to Dr. Thompson telling how Miss Harris had recovered her health. This disproves Nagasawa’s statement of Miss Harris’ illness. After the death of the unfortunate girl Mrs. Parting told a friend that Miss Harris had not been locked in her room for disobedience, but that she had committed suicide in a fit of despondency which no one could explain.
Nagasawa claims that Miss Harris had been locked up in her room as, in a fit of temper, she had been very rude. Had Mary Harris been locked in her room she would not have been able to get to the medicine chest, from which she secured the strychnine that she took with deadly effect.
While the people of this city have shut their eyes to many things that have occurred at Fountain Grove they are beginning to do a little thinking. As Miss Harris could not have secured possession of the poison had she been locked up she must have gone about the act deliberately. The belief is prevalent here that some repugnant command was forced upon Miss Harris and that rather than submit to it she went to the medicine chest, secured the strychnine, repaired to her room and took the fatal dose.
The way in which the people of Fountain Grove tried to conceal the crime has aroused suspicion. Though a doctor, the Coroner and the minister were summoned few people knew about the mysterious suicide until they read of it in the Chronicle. Dr. Thompson was summoned, but before he could get to the grove the girl was dead. Coroner Young of Healdsburg was summoned, but he went through the formality of an inquest without looking into the facts. Undertaker Stanley was engaged to bury the girl, and his duties were carried out in a perfunctory manner, as stated.
At the funeral of the unfortunate young woman few people were present. The services were held before the time which was announced to only a few friends. Some of the older members of the mysterious colony were present, but the dead girl’s sister was not allowed to attend the funeral. This absence of the girl’s only relative has caused much comment.
Kanaye Nagasawa explained the small attendance at the funeral by saying: “We do everything so as to gain as little notoriety as possible. Some of our people are sick and could not attend; others are busy, as we must not neglect our business interests, even though a death occurs. We wish to do everything in a simple way.”
Nagasawa is the controlling spirit at Fountain Grove since Harris left for New York. He has often expressed his views on matrimony and the marital laws of this country. He has said that he does not believe in marriage, but that men and women should select their partners in life as their choice directs them. He has also made many remarks to show his admiration for young American girls. He is a Japanese of good education, who is said to have been duped by Thomas Lake Harris into putting $100,000 into the Fountain Grove scheme, but who, upon having his eyes opened, made the best of the bad investment and determined by good business management of the Fountain Grove Vineyard Company to make himself whole. He now rules the colony as Harris ruled it before, though he does not lay traps for converts. He governs the colony as though he were on an independent island, and the people under him believe he is the representative of Thomas Lake Harris, whom they look upon as the vice-regent of God.
The principal feature of Nagasawa’s government is that all the doings of the people in the colony be kept an absolute secret. No member of the community is allowed to converse with other people except on simple business propositions which involve few words. Whenever a photograph of the grounds at Fountain Grove or of any individual is taken the negative is destroyed by Kanaye. Occasionally visitors from Santa Rosa are received. They are royally entertained by Kanaye, but the other members of the community are kept in retirement…
…The wonderful magnetism of Thomas Lake Harris has still its hold on the people of Sonoma county or Kanaye Nagasawa is a worthy successor of that wonderful man. All trespassers upon the land of the Fountain Grove community are driven away by the Japanese laborers, whom Nagasawa hires to work for the colony as they are cheap and will not tell any secrets.
– San Francisco Chronicle, January 6 1896
The Chronicle was in error in its statements in a recent special dispatch from Santa Rosa that no newspaper of that place on Saturday, except tbe Evening Press, contained any mention of the suicide at Fountaingrove. The real facts were that tbe suicide occurred Thursday night and tbe fire on Friday morning, but neither was known in Santa Rosa until Friday morning. The Santa Rosa Democrat of Saturday contained all tbe information on tbe subject that could be gained. —Sen Francisco Chronicle.
We are obliged to our contemporary for the above courteous correction.
– Sonoma Democrat, January 11 1896
THE MYSTERY OF FOUNTAIN GROVE. Cause of the Death of Mary Harris. SHE WAS DRIVEN TO SUICIDE. THE GRAND JURY INVESTIGATING THE CASE. Life of a Motherless Girl in the Community Founded by Thomas Lake Harris.
Special Dispatch to the Chronicle.
SANTA ROSA, February 13. – The Grand Jury and District Attorney have at last undertaken to probe into the mystery of the death of little Mary Harris, the sixteen-year-old suicide of Fountain Grove. Witnesses have beer closely examined today and yesterday and the saddest stories of desolate childhood that ever were listened to have been revealed. Whether or not all has been learned about the circumstances that led to the suicide that there is to learn the Grand Jurors have learned a great deal. The evidence they have heard will not, it is said, warrant an indictment, but will [be] a report which will move every lover of childhood.
Mary Harris, motherless and renounced by her father, was sent by her grandfather after he took her from the Oakland school to live in about as desolate an atmosphere for a child as could well be imagined. She and her sister, two or three years younger, were immured in what is practically a community of recluses. They were without playmates of their own age. They were without, as it would seem from the testimony adduced, the sympathy of companions of any age. They were not even allowed to associate with each other. They were never allowed to leave Fountain Grove ranch with its dull routine of existence and for several months before she sought escape by death, she was practically a prisoner in one of the community houses. She was under a tutelage which, however kind may have been its motive, was seemingly unsympathetic, and against it she chafed.
Mrs. Clarke, who seems to have been acting in place of a parent, always spoke of her as being willful, obstinate and absolutely without any idea of what it was to “mind,” to obey. This was the reiterated description of the child’s characteristics made to Dr. Thompson and indicated to the Grand Jury. The necessary corrollary of this, in her own mind, was that stubborn will must be broken. And so it was in the unnatural and unsympathetic surroundings that Mary Harris lived for two or three years. Testimony goes on to show that for more than a year Mary had been trying to escape from Fountain Grove; and finally escape seeming hopeless, and life under such conditions unendurable, she committed suicide. Such seems to be the fair deduction from all the testimony heard.
So isolated does the Fountain Grove community live and so closely were the two grandchildren of Thomas Lake Harris kept, that few people in Santa Rosa from which place Fountain Grove is only three miles distant knew that the girls were there until they read of Mary’s suicide in the Chronicle. The mystery that surrounded the death and the secrecy observed regarding it led the District Attorney’s office to think that an investigation would not be out of place. The present is the first Grand Jury impaneled since the suicide January 2. Assistant District Attorney T. J. Butts brought the matter to the attention of the Jury and subpoenas were issued for several members of the community. The first one was for Pearl Harris, a younger sister of Mary. When a deputy Sheriff went to Fountain Grove to serve it, Roy Clarke refused to let the girl come before the Grand Jury. Nagasawa, the head of the community, was in San Francisco.
The Sheriff returned to the District Attorney for instructions, and was told to bring the girl and arrest all who resisted. Under this threat Mrs. Clarke brought the child to the Grand Jury room. Her testimony was that Nagasawa, Mrs. Parting the latter’s sister and two daughters lived in the house formerly occupied by Thomas Harris and the Clarke family in the other community dwelling. The two children lived with the Clarkes, but on separate floors, rarely seeing each other until a month before Mary died, when she was taken to the other house, and Pearl never saw her again in life or death.
It was one of the features of their life and training that the children were never allowed to roam about the house or go from one part of it to another, prompted only by childish playfulness. If they went anywhere, to another room or another floor of the same house, it must be for some purpose, a useful reason of some kind. That was one of the principles of the community and, the children were required to yield strict obedience to it.
Other witnesses heard were Kenai Nagasawa, Miss Babcock, sister of Mrs. Clarke, and Miss Clarke, a daughter. Their testimony was an attempt to show that all restraints on the liberty of the girl were in the interest of discipline and according to the instructions of a physician. It was reiterated that the girl had a stubborn, willful and disobedient disposition. But when examples of how this was manifested were asked, they could not cite any other than the very common disobediences of children. An effort was also made to show that she was insane, or, at least subject to fits of insane despondency which required her being watched and the denied privilege of leaving the house unaccompanied. It was denied that she was confined to her room except for short spaces of time. It was brought out that about three months ago she tried to escape by jumping from a window twenty feet to the ground. This was given as evidence of insanity. Whenever she was removed from one room to another it was Nagasawa or Clarke who carried her.
Dr. Thompson says that in his opinion the physical condition of the girl was such as might readily account for a mental state leading to suicide. It was for this condition that he was treating her, and he had given directions for her restraint under conditions, justifying it from a medical standpoint. He had not visited her often but a friend came to his office for medicine. He says there was a most marked difference between the dispositions of the two girls. The reason given why Pearl Harris did not see her sister’s body or attend the funeral was that she did not want to.
If there were nothing else to throw an air of mystery about the death of this unfortunate child, for she was little more than a child, it would be the manner of the inquest the Coroner’s report of the testimony and the form of tha verdict. The jury was composed of two members of the community and four of its employees. Of the six jurors only one is a registered voter in Sonoma county. That one is Schuyler Colfax Gum, whose home is near Healdsburg.
The most significant feature of the whole matter is the wording of the verdict. Kenai Nagasawa is the only witness who testified in any detail to the circumstances of the death. He gave it as his opinion that “she took her own life while under despondency.” This rather unusual form of expression, the jury, composed of his associates and employees, all men under his influence, parrot-like repeated.
There seems to have been no effort to find out any motive for the suicide. Nagasawa, insisting throughout that it was a case of suicide due to an unbalanced mind, says she once jumped twenty feet from a window, as indicating that her mind had been unsettled for some time, but he gives no details to make it clear to any one else that this action was the result of such a mental condition. Miss Parting testified that Miss Harris had been ailing for some time and that Dr. Thompson had been attending her. But Dr. Thompson was not called as a witness, though he was the only one in any way connected with the matter capable of giving an expert opinion as to what the cause of death was as indicated by the symptoms, and he had told the Coroner he would attend the inquest if he was wanted.
No post-mortem was made to demonstrate the cause of death and really the only evidence as to what did cause death is the testimony of Nagasawa and the other members of the community as to what she said and as to what her symptoms were.
Dr. Charles L. Thompson, who for eighteen years has been the attending physician of the community, says he received a telephone message about 6 o’clock Thursday afternoon, January 2d, asking him to come out at once. The message was brought to his house from the telephone office. As he was on his way to make one or two urgent calls at the time, he went to the telephone office to try and find out what he was wanted for. He was unable to get into communication with Fountain Grove, however, and so went out, arriving there about three quarters of an hour after he received the summons. But Miss Harris was dead when he got there and had been dead for some minutes. From what he was told of what she said and of her symptoms, as well as her appearance after death, he concluded she had died from strychnine poisoning. It was this opinion expressed at the time which, repeated at the inquest, was the only evidence on which to base the verdict.
The record of the inquest held on January 3d, as Coroner Young made it up – omitting, however, the signature and affidavit after each statement – is as follows:
Testimony of K. Nagasawa: “I am one of the firm of the Fountain Grove Vineyard Company. Miss Parting heard screams and called me, so we – Miss Parting and myself – went upstairs and found Miss Harris sitting in a chair and seemed to be in great agony, and I took her in my arms and placed her on the bed. I held her hands, as I saw she was having convulsions. She said she was going to die, and said she had taken poison (strychnine). We administered white of egg, mustard and warm water and sweet oil, but could not relieve her.
“She told us where the poison was to be found and we found it. She said she had only taken just a little, and think she did not realize what she was doing. Do not think she intended to take her own life. Think she only tried to frighten us.
“She has at times seemed despondent and insane. She at one time jumped out of a window some twenty feet high. It was some three months ago. She was about 16 years of age and a native of Montana, and I know of no trouble she ever had with any one. I am satisfied she took her own life while under despondency.”
Testimony of Miss M. E. Parting: “My name is Miss Parting and I live here on this place and was present at the time of Miss Harris’ death. I know nothing more than that that Mr. Nagasawa has testified to, only we sent for Dr. Thompson. He came and Miss Harris was dead. He said there was no doubt she had taken poison.
“She has been ailing for some time and Dr. Thompson had been attending to her, and I corroborate the same testimony as that of K. Nagasawa.”
Testimony of Mrs. Emma Parting: “I live here on the ranch and know nothing more than has been testified to and corroborate the same testimony.”
The verdict: “Death caused from strychnine poisoning by her own hand with suicidal intent, while under despondency. TOM G. YOUNG, Coroner, S. C. Gum, F. M. Harris, John Fields, J. S. Turk, L. Cowles and R. P. Clark, Jury.”
When Mary Harris was removed from the Clarke residence to the other dwelling known here as the “House of Mystery,” she was carried by Nagasawa and Clarke and kept locked up. Her meals even were brought to her. It has transpired that at this time the community was expecting a letter from Thomas Lake Harris as to what should be done with the girls. Whether this letter has since been received or not, is not known. It has been a matter of wonder here that their grandfather, who required their father to renounce all claim to them as a condition of his adopting them, and who according to Dr. Thompson has spent $5000 on their education, should leave them here among strangers and without companions, instead of taking them to live with him.
Part of the discontent which Mary Harris evidently felt may have been due to the fact that she was a Catholic, while those about her were not. Her religion, it is said, was a heritage from her mother. The one illustration of willfulness of disposition upon which Mrs. Clarke relied was Mary’s repeated threat that she would run away. There has nothing so far leaked out from the Juryroom to indicate that her reason for committing suicide was to escape being mated with some one she did not like. The theory best sustained perhaps by the facts now known, is that suicide was due to unnatural and unsympathetic environment, harshness of discipline and physical illness reacting on a highly nervous temperament.
A MYSTIC COMMUNITY.
[Sidebar on Thomas Lake Harris, the Colony, and accusations made by Alzire Chevaillier]
– San Francisco Chronicle, February 14 1896
MARY HARRIS’ STRANGE DEATH Investigating the Methods of the Fountain Grove Community. THE HOUSE OF MYSTERY. Where the Girl Was Kept a Prisoner Before She Took Her Own Life. CARRIED BY FORCE TO A ROOM. Assistant District Attorney Butts’ Efforts to Throw Light Upon the Case.
SANTA ROSA, Cal., Feb. 13.— The judicial probing into the mysterious death of Mary Harris on January 2 at the Fountain Grove community has brought to light some very strange things. For instance, tbe dead girl was kept a close prisoner in the “House of Mystery” for ten days before she summoned courage or desperation enough to take the deadly draught that released her from her unhappy life.
She was formerly kept under strict watch in the Clark house, but was removed by force to the house occupied by the two Japanese, Nagasawa and Ari, and by Mrs. Parting, her sister and two daughters. This house gained its mystical designation because it was the residence of Thomas Lake Harris, the founder of the colony, before he went to New York, a couple of years ago.
Nagasawa and Clark carried Mary Harris by force to her prison-room in the “House of Mystery,” and her meals were brought to her there until the end.
All this was elicited by the cross-examination of Mrs. Clark, who was asked why Mary was removed to the Japanese residence. She said it was to guard her the better until word could be had from Thomas Lake Harris making final disposition of the girl. Harris had been written to on the subject, and they were waiting his orders.
When the Deputy Sheriff went to subpena [sic] Pearl Harris for the Grand Jury Clarke refused to let the girl leave the community until he was threatened with arrest.
It seems there were but two living witnesses to the death of Mary — Nagasawa and Miss Parting. The former has testified before the Grand Jury, but the latter is said to be too ill with nervous prostration to leave the House of Mystery at present.
Mary Harris was a Catholic, the faith of her mother, and resisted to the last the doctrines of Fountain Grove.
BEFORE THE GRAND JURY.
[…Rehash of familiar claims: Mary was kept like a prisoner, had jumped from a window, Mrs. Clarke described her as willful…]
… The day after the tragedy Nagasawa appeared at the office of the Republican, in Santa Rosa, and announced to its editor and proprietor, Mr. Lemmon, that “One of those alleged granddaughters of Harris'” had committed suicide, and accompanied the statement by the request that, Mr. Lemmon should have the matter treated in his paper as briefly as possible.
Indeed, the tragedy was kept rather quiet for a time, and had it not been for the energy of Assistant District Attorney Butts no further investigation would have been held.
The people of this city and county are not greatly excited over the occurrence, for sensations and rumors of sensations in connection with the Harris community are old stories here. But they are anxious that the truth should be known in this instance…
…Pearl Harris is only 14 years old and has the innocence and ignorance of a girl eight years. She said her sister was always kind and gentle to her, but she knew from what others said that Mary must have been obstinate and willful. In truth, Mary seems to have been a highstrung, sensitive girl, who suffered much from ill health, brought on by confinement and an unsanitary way of living…Yet Pearl Harris is still a prisoner there. She lived in the house with her sister and yet was not permitted to see her. Even when Mary lay at the point of death and Pearl begged to be allowed to go to her, she was restrained…
…There are a great many rumors about to the effect that Mary Harris took her life as an alternative to indignities that were sought to be put upon her, but nothing that has leaked out of the Grand Jury room seems to bear out this view. Dr. Thompson is authority for the statement that the dead girl led a pure life.
A PECULIAR INVESTIGATION.
[..Rehash of the inquest, with transcripts…]
…However, Dr. Thompson does not state it as a fact that the strychnine was self-administered or that it was taken with suicidal intent, or that it was taken during a fit of despondency. Yet Dr. Thompson, a man held in good esteem throughout this county, is inclined to believe that these were the circumstances surrounding the tragedy and that there are no ill doings at Fountain Grove, no unlawful nor immoral practices there that there never has been and could not be so long as the colony is under its present management.
But Dr. Thompson, the only expert witness available, was not called upon to testify before the Coroner’s jury. And, as a medical man, he admits that he was surprised at not being called upon.
The truth is that the verdict was rendered in precisely the same words as those used by the Japanese vice primate and present supreme ruler of the colony, Kanai Nagasawa…
– San Francisco Call, February 14 1896
FOUNTAIN GROVE ESCAPES CENSURE Sonoma’s Grand Jury Will Not Mention Mary Harris. NOTHING TO CONDEMN. Breaking a Child’s Heart Is Not a Crime in the Eyes of the Law. KANAI NAGASAWA’S REGIME. The Famous Community Allowed to Degenerate Into a Business Proposition.
SANTA ROSA, Cal., Feb. 14.- The Grand Jury of Sonoma County will submit its report to the Superior Court to-morrow morning and then adjourn sine die. It will be an outspoken report, in which spades and other things will be called by their right names, but there will be no mention in it of the death of little Mary Harris at the Fountain Grove community. The sensational features of that tragedy have all been exhausted, and no well-informed person believes that there is any ground upon which to base a criminal accusation against any member of the colony.
Those in this city who are personally acquainted with Thomas Lake Harris, the community’s founder and its primate, speak in the highest terms of him. Judge Temple is his friend, and was one of the signers of a document which declared as vicious and false the accusations brought against Harris by Miss Chevalier about three years ago. But since then Harris has resided in New York, living in quiet with his wife and a few congenial friends in a handsome house on Upper Broadway, and enjoying the society and confidence of intellectual and thoughtful men, among them William Dean Howells, and during his absence Fountain Grove has been under the management of the Japanese Kanai Nagasawa.
However, it is no crime to break a girl’s heart; and then, again, there may be even another side to this story, for most stories are two-sided.
“We investigated the matter very carefully, I think,” said B. M. Spencer, foreman of the Grand Jury, to-day, “and we are satisfied that we have not warrant sufficient to even censure the Fountain Grove people in the matter of the death of Mary Harris. My own opinion is that they were too strict and rigid in their treatment of the girl, but even that is merely an opinion, and I could not state it as a fact. The Grand Jury will make no report in the matter whatever. Its members do not entertain any suspicions against the inmates.”
To-day a Call correspondent went out to the Grove and sought an interview with the vice-primate. This he firmly declined, saying that “silence is power.” One of the newspapers had misrepresented and misquoted him, he said, and in future he would make no statement whatever for publication. The people of Sonoma County who knew him did not believe all the wild rumors in circulation, he declared, and for the opinion of those who did not know him he did not care..
All Bernice wanted was a good night’s sleep. She didn’t mean to throw the town into an existential crisis. At least, I don’t think so.
On July 2, 1951, she went to a City Council meeting. “I am complaining about roosters that wake us up,” she said. “I think we should get rid of these birds.”
It was a shocking proposal. The birds in question were chickens and Bernice Gardner lived in Petaluma, a town which had long shackled itself to the Leghorn and its skill at reliably cranking out lovely white eggs – which sometimes pop out fuzzy baby chicks, hence: Roosters.
“We must consider the poultry business,” Councilman Walter Brown said, adding helpfully “all roosters crow.” Perhaps he was wondering if Mrs. Gardner didn’t understand she was complaining about chickens. In Petaluma.
The acting City Manager pointed out there was no prohibition on keeping animals within city limits and presented a thumbnail history of an earlier tussle over the issue that limited the animal kingdom to dogs and cats. This was useful, as it gave the Council members a moment to recover from shock and gather their political wits about them.
Councilman Norwood suggested they could write an anti-noise ordinance. A zoning ordinance might be the thing, Councilman Shoemaker thought. Norwood added that they could make it a nuisance ordinance. “We would do something about a howling dog. It’s the same thing, only a different noise.”
City attorney Brooks offered his two cents, although I’ll bet he billed the city at a considerably higher rate. He said the Council could write a general ordinance or a specific rooster ordinance – but if roosters were being kept with malicious intent, a special specific ordinance could be enacted. With that said, the council voted to hold the item over for the next meeting.
Note there was no thought of restricting – much less banishing – chickens within city limits.
Bernice and husband Ralph, both in their early sixties, lived in the 600 block of Baker street, a Westside neighborhood off of Bodega Ave. where many homes have big backyards and plenty of room for a hen house. She told the Council, “at 5AM it’s anything but trivial. There are two across the street from my house, and another large one nearby which crows every five seconds. I have called the neighbors at 5AM to complain but nothing has been done about it.”
She seemed to make a valid point but at the next Council meeting, a woman named Clara Perry said she represented the neighbors and they had something to say – and not about chickens, but about Bernice. This was an eccentric thing to complain about, Clara charged, and surely the Council had more serious matters to consider. The record does not reveal whether she was, or was not, in possession of a rooster.
Again punting on a decision, the Council decided Bernice should next visit the Planning Commission. She also needed to file a complaint with the police signed by six other persons. It’s likely they now believed she was an isolated crank – although there was always a risk the rooster fight could turn into a replay of 1948.
That was the year of the petition against “fowls and livestock within the city limits” (Bernice was one of the three ringleaders in that effort). Petaluma was no longer a rural community the petitioners argued, and animals were both a nuisance and health risk, specifically “chicken raising in residential areas [is] an insurmountable source of rat nuisance.” About 300 signed the petition and a draft ordinance was hammered together. At the first Council meeting of 1949 the room was packed with protesters and a counter-petition with 900 signatures was presented. Their lawyer made a 15-point argument against the ordinance; #7 was that seized animals would be denied due process. The Argus-Courier headline the next day was, “Livestock Ordinance Beaten Down by Opposition Barrage.”
Alas for Bernice, her 1951 appearance before the Planning Commission didn’t go so well, either. Commissioners were only willing to discuss future considerations on the “subject of nuisances.” Nor could she muster even six people to sign her noise complaint. All the city had received was a single letter which condemned all “roosters, hens, flies, rats and odors” within the city. It was anonymously signed, “A Petaluma Citizen.”
Petalumans, it seems, were a remarkably tolerant bunch when it came to barnyard noises; a quick search of mid-century newspapers turns up surprisingly few police blotter items. In 1952 a woman on I street called the police over her neighbor’s cow, who “mooed all night and was still making a noise the next day.” A couple of times the Argus-Courier joked that rooster complaints were resolved via a dinner table. In fact, there’s only one other occasion that can be found where a resident thought roostering was serious enough to merit the government’s attention.
The year was 1945, and a woman complained to the City Council that roosters were waking her up each morning at 4:30. At the next Council meeting five of her neighbors showed up to defend the right to crow. “Mostly all the speakers felt the situation could be amicably corrected by the neighborhood itself,” the A-C reported. Note the article implied at least one of them thought the matter couldn’t be settled peaceably.
So here’s the obl. Believe-it-or-Not! reveal: The warring neighborhood in 1945 was Baker street, same as in 1951. One of the neighbors fighting the complaint in 1945 was again Clara Perry, who lived three door away from the woman who was so bothered by the crowing. The woman who said she couldn’t sleep in 1945 was again Bernice Gardner. And Bernice – who apparently couldn’t stand to be around chickens even though she was living in the most chicken-y town in America – knew well what roosters do, having spent about twenty years of her early married life on chicken ranches in Vallejo and Cotati. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say. In her case, lots.