We’re all familiar with the famous Los Angeles case in the 1990s in which a famous celebrity committed murder, hired a dream team of lawyers and was acquitted. But, as usual, San Francisco beats L.A. We did the same thing 100 years earlier.
In the early morning of Sept. 11, 1891, shots were heard near the police station at 829 Folsom St. Police rushed outside to find Officer Alexander Grant dying on the street. A policeman rushed after a man seen fleeing the scene and caught him. Still attached to the man’s arm were Officer Grant’s “nippers,” a 19th century version of handcuffs.
The man was Maurice Curtis, an actor better known as “Samuel of Posen.”
Samuel of Posen was the title of a popular play in which Curtis played Samuel, a shrewd Jewish peddler with a heart of gold. It was the role of a lifetime. Curtis, who made a fortune playing the role, also developed the opulent Peralta Park Hotel and other properties and became one of Berkeley’s leading citizens.
“If I could only take back the last four hours of my life,” Curtis said when questioned in the police station. But Curtis, who was heavily intoxicated, denied shooting Grant and told the following story …
Curtis claimed he had been at the Grand Opera House on Mission and 3rd streets with his wife and that he left at 10 p.m. to have drinks at the Tivoli Opera House on Eddy and Market streets with a friend. He was carrying $240 in gold that he planned to pay to a contractor. As Curtis was returning to the Grand Opera House, he was mugged. The next thing he remembered was being arrested by Officer Grant.
The following morning, Maurice sent for the top three attorneys in San Francisco. Their advice: Stop talking to police.
Curtis’ story was suspect. If he was returning to the Opera House, why was he walking on dark and empty Folsom Street instead of busy Mission Street?
Police worked overtime to gather information, led by Captain of Detectives Isaiah Lees, and the evidence against Curtis was strong.
A tamale vendor saw Officer Grant and another man walking down the street and heard Grant say, “Come along, now.” Shortly after this, a Mrs. Holman and her daughter heard loud talking. They looked out the window and saw two men arguing. The smaller man reportedly shot the other man three times and then fled the scene. A few minutes later, police brought a man back who strongly resembled the smaller man. The revolver that fired the bullets was found a few blocks away.
At trial, Curtis’ attorneys charged the prosecution with suppressing evidence helpful to the defense and with coaching witnesses. Curtis was a pillar of the community; what possible reason would he have to shoot Grant?
The defense had another explanation: There was a third man involved. Officer Grant had come upon a man mugging Curtis and had arrested both of them. As the three walked toward the police station, the mugger shot Grant and ran off. Curtis got scared and started running. The trial ended in a hung jury, with the jury voting 10 to two for conviction. A second trial was ended when a juror died.
At the third trial in August 1893, some of the prosecution witnesses disappeared, and the defense produced two new witnesses who said they had seen Grant with two other men. Other witnesses cast doubt on the testimony of Mrs. Holman. The third time was a charm for Curtis, and he was acquitted. But the story continued …
In November 1893, King McManus and Sen. Bill Dunn were arrested for bribing Juror Tom MacFarlane at the behest of Maurice Curtis. MacFarlane and Curtis disappeared, and the case was dropped.
Later, a juror in the first trial was convicted accepting a bribe to hold out for acquittal, and a key witness in the case admitted he had been paid $3,000 to leave town so he could not testify.
Curtis was free, but the case had ruined him financially. He spent the rest of his life eking out a meager living as a bit actor and producer and died a pauper in L.A. in 1920. The key question left is what could have driven Curtis to murder?
Years later, Captain Lees revealed the likely answer: Curtis had been caught in flagrante delicto with another man, and an arrest would have ended his marriage and career.