Cultured killer fascinates SF phrenologists

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A recent Department of Education survey revealed that over half of American adults over the age of 16 were functionally illiterate.
Nothing more clearly illustrates this problem than the poor quality of today’s holdup notes.

For example:

  • Bank robber nabbed after handing the teller a note that read, “Give money, I gun.” — via Minnesota Local News
    “This is a stickkup. Put all you muny in this bag.”
  • — Holdup note given to Bank of America teller.

    By comparison, take a look at this note, which was handed to the cashier of the San Francisco Savings Bank on March 24, 1894:
    Mr. Cashier, Sir:
    After considering my deplorable
    circumstances I have decided that this
    life is not worth living without liberal means and therefore I am resolved to make one more effort in the high road of self-help to sustain my miserable existence. Should you not comply with my demand, I am compelled to employ my last remedy, a bottle of nitro-glycerine, and to bury myself under the ruins of this building, blasted to everlasting nothingness.
    Yours respectfully,
    A despondent man

    Now this is a holdup note to be proud of; well written, respectful, even philosophical. Unfortunately, cashier William Herrick did not see it that way. He reached into his desk and pulled out a gun. The despondent bank robber fired; his first shot went by Herrick’s ear. His second shot hit Herrick’s heart, killing him. Herrick managed to get a shot off before he died that shattered the glass in the teller’s window and drove a piece into the robber’s eye.

    Charles Melvin, the bank’s bookkeeper, pulled out a gun and opened fire on the bank robber. The bank robber dashed onto Market Street towards the Mission. Bystanders pursued him. He ran up Valencia Street, stole a horse and buggy and drove it into a blind alley on Mission and 13th streets.

    He abandoned the buggy and ran into a basement at 14th Street, where a crowd surrounded the house and the police arrested him. When captured, the man was armed with two Smith and Wesson .44 caliber pistols, a cartridge belt with 50 rounds, a dirk knife, and carried a notebook written in code.

    He gave his name as William Bonnement. Police suspected otherwise and searched further to identify him. On his body was an extensive tattoo panorama including ballet girls, cowboys, sailors, Indians, the Goddess of Liberty and the American Flag. He was quickly identified as William Fredericks, who had served four years at Folsom Prison. Fredericks, a notorious outlaw and associate of noted train robbers and folk heroes Chris Evans and John Sontag, was no boy scout.

    He had murdered at least three people including a sheriff, smuggled weapons into prison to free Evans and had organized a prison break in which three people were killed. His decoded notebook revealed evidence of additional crimes, formulas for bomb making and an interest in phrenology. Police considered him a serious escape risk.

    Yet somehow Fredericks got out of his cell on April 5, attacked a jailor and reached an outer door before other guards overcame him.

    Despite his background, or perhaps because of it, Fredericks was visited by legions of female admirers in jail.

    At his trial his attorney tried the following arguments:

  • Frederick shot Herrick in self-defense, since Herrick pulled a gun on him;
    Herrick was killed accidently by the bank’s bookkeeper, Charles Melvin;
    Frederick was insane, and therefore not guilty.
  • The jury rejected these arguments. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. During his sentencing, Fredericks screamed and howled constantly, trying to convince authorities of his unsound mind.

    Public interest in Fredericks continued even after his conviction. A team of phrenologists measured his skull and declared that his measurements showed that he was “ruthless, combative but had a fine sense of parental love and a highly developed love of art and poetry.”

    The phrenologists’ predictions were proven accurate just a few months later.
    “Murderer Fredericks Chloroformed for Reciting Original Poetry,” read a subhead of a December 9, 1894 article in the San Francisco Chronicle about San Quentin. The article went on to relate the combative Fredericks had been put in a straight jacket after setting his mattress on fire and that his epic poem about the Folsom Prison jailbreak had ended with his sedation.

    By July 25, 1895, Fredericks had regained his equilibrium and his hanging went without a hitch. The widow of Herrick, Frederick’s victim, received $5,000 from the San Francisco Savings Bank as compensation.

    Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.

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