In 1894, a mob of inebriated San Franciscans at Market and California streets threw a rope around the neck of a statue of temperance leader Henry Cogswell and pulled it to the ground. In 1920, San Franciscans had a similar reaction to the new prohibition law. Saloons that had previously been only for men became speakeasies, crowded with couples eager to taste the forbidden fermented fruit. Police and politicians took bribes from bootleggers and looked the other way. A wave of lawlessness swept The City.
At 1256½ Howard Street stood a small shack used for bootlegging and as the headquarters of the Howard Street Gang, led by local boxers and criminals Spud Murphy and Kayo Kruvosky. But after Nov. 23, 1920, the shack became known as the “Frisco House of Terror.” It was the site of a brutal attack — the first of a chain of events that ended with the death of three policemen and a lynching that was unsolved for almost 90 years.
On the day in question, teenagers Jeanne Stanley and Jessie Montgomery, who were leaving a dance, were approached by an acquaintance who offered them a ride home. On the way, the car stopped first at a poolhall and then at a cafe, where each girl had a drink of sherry and two additional men joined the party. The girls were then taken to 1256½ Howard Street, where they were assaulted by nine men, led by Murphy and Kruvosky. By 3 a.m., Stanley, left alone in one of the rooms, broke a window and escaped. She returned with three policemen, who found Montgomery bruised and unconscious. Police arrested two men in the cottage: Allen McDonald, who leased the property, and Kruvosky. Both women were taken to the hospital in serious condition.
The brutality of the crime shocked The City.
District Attorney Matthew Brady declared, “No political pressure will save these criminals. We must make an example of these hoodlums to safeguard the women and girls of San Francisco against another outrage.”
Leading the police search were Sgt. Miles Jackson and Det. Lester Dorman, who soon arrested Murphy and two other members of his gang. Jackson and Lester then got a tip that three of the other attackers were staying in a house in Santa Rosa. On Dec. 5, they arrived in Santa Rosa and, accompanied by Santa Rosa Sheriff James Petray and two other deputies, surrounded the house where the fugitives — Terrance Fitts, George Boyd and Charles Valento — were staying.
Sheriff Petray and the San Francisco cops entered the house, but their plans soon went horribly wrong. When Jackson ordered the men to get up, Boyd pulled out a hidden gun and began firing. His first shot badly wounded Det. Dorman. The next two shots hit Jackson, who, though mortally wounded, was able to return the fire and hit Boyd. Sheriff Petray was shot and killed while struggling for Boyd’s gun. And as Boyd and his partners attempted to flee, they were arrested by the two Santa Rosa deputies waiting outside.
Det. Dorman died later that night. Stanley and Montgomery, the female victims, were brought from San Francisco to the Sonoma County jail and identified the men as being among their attackers. The three men all had long, violent criminal records dating back to 1906.
An angry mob surrounded the jail. After an all-night standoff, the mob dispersed and it appeared the danger of mob action was over.
Thousands of people attended the funerals for Jackson and Dorman in San Francisco. More than three thousand people attended Sheriff Petray’s funeral, and he was buried in his hometown of Healdsburg.
Despite anonymous threats, the police in San Francisco continued their crackdown on the Howard Street Gang. Murphy and his co-defendants were all convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.
In Sonoma, a grand jury indicted Fitts, Boyd and Valento for murder. The trial was scheduled for Dec. 10, but it was a trial that never came to fruition.
Late in the evening on Dec. 9, the phone lines to the Sonoma Jail were cut. At midnight, a well-organized group of more than 50 armed vigilantes stormed the jail and seized the three men. They were driven to a rural cemetery and hung from a limb of a locust tree.
“Straighten them up,” cried one of the vigilantes. “Let’s give them all an equal start to heaven.”
The lynching was headline news throughout California and, though many suspected San Francisco police were involved, the case remained a mystery. Then, in 2008, it was revealed that longtime Healdsburg resident Clarence Barnard had recorded a confession before his death at the age of 108. The vigilantes were from Healdsburg and were all friends of slain Sheriff Jim Petray. Barnard and his father both participated.
“I’ve often wondered if I did the right thing,” said Barnard in his confession. “But, you know, I just can’t believe it was wrong.”
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.