‘Joe the Barber’


You can get away with murder if you pick the right person. Just ask James Turner.

When he was killed, on August 29, 1899, the San Francisco Chronicle said, “The last kink in the infinitely crooked career of James F. Turner was twisted yesterday forenoon when J.P. Frenna, one of his victims, shot him to death in the Crocker Building.”

Turner was a consummate pro with high standards for his low practices. Cheating widows and orphans was beneath his dignity and his pay scale. Turner was after bigger game, conning sophisticated investors, money lenders and bankers looking for a high return on their cash.

Turner, described as a “land shark and half-interest swindler,” involved his investors in a dizzying whirl of real estate speculation, borrowing at high rates and giving a half ownership in the properties as collateral. It was estimated that Turner made more than $400,000 over the years from disgruntled investors.

In 1891, Joseph Frenna, a Sicilian barber with a thriving practice on Bush Street, was looking for a good return on his money. He agreed to a short-term loan to Turner in exchange for an annual interest rate of 60 percent, secured by mortgages on Turner’s properties. Other loans followed, and Frenna’s investments did well for the first few years. Gradually, the loans became larger and more complicated. By 1895, Frenna had given Turner $18,000, for which he had received a pile of deeds that turned out to be worthless.

Frenna, realizing he was on the receiving end of a financial clipping, went on the offensive. He testified against Turner, who was indicted and convicted of forgery and grand larceny and sentenced to 10 years. But Turner proved as successful at avoiding jail as he was at avoiding his creditors, and the conviction was voided on a technicality.

After escaping a perjury charge in 1897, Turner went on the offensive. He sued his creditors, claiming they conspired to send him to prison so they could take his real estate holdings. He told a judge Frenna had threatened to kill him, but the case was thrown out when Frenna’s witnesses disputed the charges.

In July 1899, the feud reignited when Frenna learned that Turner had secretly altered a deed to give himself ownership of land that Frenna owned in Sonoma County. On August 29, 1899, their paths crossed in the Crocker Building at 626 Market St. with fatal results.

Turner had left his lawyer’s office on the third floor and was standing in front the elevator. The elevator doors opened, revealing Frenna, who was on his way to see his attorney on the same floor. Five shots rang out, and Turner lay dead on the floor with two bullet holes in his back.

Frenna claimed that Turner cursed him and put his hand on his hip pocket. Fearing for his life Joseph started shooting. Frenna’s story was disputed by a bank messenger, who was on the stairs when the shooting started. The witness said Turner spoke no words to Frenna.

Frenna was arrested and taken to the city prison where he was visited by merchants, lawyers, and other Turner victims who promised to support him in any way they could.

Frenna’s lawyers pleaded not guilty by reasons of temporary insanity, claiming that Turner’s swindles had caused the barber to lose his reason. After a two-week trial, the jury acquitted him and he left the court a free man.

Though Turner was no longer around to bedevil him, Frenna found new opportunities for violence. In 1902, Frenna was arrested for disturbing the peace. Later that year, while in court, Frenna attempted amateur brain surgery with his cane on a lawyer who was questioning him but was restrained. And in 1907, he took his barbering skills to a new medium.

Frenna was identified as the notorious “Jack the Slasher,” the man who had been cutting the gowns of well-dressed women with scissors in the theatre and on streetcars.

Frenna, who described himself as a capitalist, pleaded guilty and paid a fine.

Joseph P. Frenna cashed in his chips on August 14, 1915, and left a small estate to his daughter. There is a message in this story, but I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it’s “never trim a Sicilian.”

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit to www.crookstour.com.

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