09 May 2011

A Most Curious Case

So I have been working on a new project for a client and I have to tell you, it is probably the most interesting one I have had in a long time.

The year is 1897 in San Joaquin County, California. A man is hauled into jail for attempting to kill his wife. Reading the newspapers of the day, it appears that the wife was going to run away with another man. The padding in her dress stopped the bullet from doing any real damage, she suffered a slight flesh wound.

The jury took only 2 hours to find him guilty and gave him the maximum sentence allowed by law at the time - 14 years.

So off to San Quentin Prison he goes. Then two years later in 1899 the Governor of California is presented with an application for a pardon for the man. The contents of this application makes this case extremely unusual:

1. A formal petition from THE PANEL OF JURORS THAT CONVICTED HIM stating that the man had been in prison long enough that justice has been served. It is signed by each and every juror.

2. A letter to the Governor from the District Attorney who prosecuted the man, asking that he be given a full pardon. The District Attorney states

"This is the first case of the number I have prosecuted as District Attorney, wherein I felt that I could address the Governor upon the grounds and in behalf of a person seeking pardon or parole."

3. A formal petition requesting a pardon for the man that is signed by every adult in the small town of Linden where the man had been born and raised and had been a resident up until his incarceration.

Well this just stunned me. What had happened in the two years 1897-1899 that changed everyone's mind. Remember this is the same jury that wasted no time in throwing the book at the guy. The District Attorney had wasted no time in getting the case to trial. Start to finish was approximately 3 weeks.

I have gone through the newspapers page by page for those two years and there are no items about the man, his family, any of the jurors, the District Attorney (other than different cases he was prosecuting at the time).

I checked local vital records and there were no deaths, births or marriages that might have been a factor.

The man was finally granted a pardon three years later in 1900. So again I am at the newspapers, but there is no mention of his homecoming. Census records have not been useful in this case either.

Any thought on what might have happened to make basically an entire community do an about face? And why it would not have been news?


  1. Curious, indeed, Sheri! Will contemplate in my sleep tonight.

  2. Weird. Perhaps he was very ill?

    Bancroft library has the San Quentin records, 1851-1910:


    Let us know what you find out!

  3. If t is a small community like the one I was raised in then the gossip mill got going, and things came to light about the affair that was not available at the trial. As it was a scandal it would be silenced. You might check to see if the wife left the area and remarried.

  4. I had the same reaction as Jennifer - he may have been quite ill and the people may have taken pity on him.

  5. How strange - I hope you can find out more and let us know...

  6. My guess would be the wife died or left the area and the assumption was he'd no longer be a threat to anyone. It's also possible that his children or parents were suffering due to his absence and the community felt their need was great. Fascinating stuff.

  7. My burning question is where exactly was the padding in her dress? I'd like to suspect something came to light from or about the wife, i.e. extenuating circumstances. Could the DA's letter have included additional sensitive documentation that was censored from the material you saw? Really, I'm not anti-femlib!
    - Brenda

  8. Very interesting story. Did the town/jury know about the affair before the trial? Maybe (considering the time period) when it was discovered they turned against her. Apart from that I am at a loss!

  9. I'm with Brenda. I'm guessing something came about about the wife that made people think that his actions were justified. Or maybe it came out that one of their kids (or someone else) did the shooting, and the husband was taking the fall for the kid. I saw that on Law and Order once.

    I hope you find out what the real story was!