07 August 2012

REDEUX: Not Your Average Nursery Rhymes

The following two posts - first published in 2011 -  I have mashed together here for your reading enjoyment.


So I have been working on a new project for a client and I have to tell you, it is probably the most interesting  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?


Well upon further investigation I have found that it is not just a simple case of jealous husband tries to kill his wife. In fact, I'm not sure what it is anymore! 

There had to be more to the story and I found it.  I went back to the library to re-check the newspaper microfilm and found that the library is missing 3 weeks of the Stockton Daily Record - the 3 weeks during the trial of the husband.  So like the educated genealogist I am, I went to the source.  I went downtown to the newspaper's office and asked to see their archived copies of the paper for that time period.  After much begging, pleading and skillful negotiating (a 1lb box of See's Candy) I was able to obtain this accounting from the Stockton Daily Record [I have only posted the important snippets]:

"A WOMAN SHOT BY HER HUSBAND - Insane Jealousy The Reason For The Shooting"

"It was learned incidentally of Douglass that he is addicted to drink, or in the habit of having sprees at which times he abused his wife shamefully.  That these abuses and beatings had led once to separation and divorce but that the man was desirous of resuming the relation." 

"It is learned from District Attorney Nutter that Mary E. Douglass procured a divorce from J.J. Douglass last summer, alleging failure to provide as a cause for action.  It seems that the ladies of the Aid Society found Mrs. Douglass in poverty and sleeping on old sacks stuffed with straw and her two children as well as herself in tatters."

"Finally the neglected woman applied to the District Attorney under the impression that it was his duty as a public official to procure  her a divorce.  Mr. Nutter did not try to disabuse her mind of the error, having learned of the circumstances, but filed the complaint and obtained the divorce.  Mrs. Douglass did not allege drunkenness, but indolence and neglect on the part of the husband."

It goes on to say that the husband had been visiting the wife's place rather frequently of late on the pretext of spending time with the children.  On the morning of the incident, the husband accused the wife of "not being straight."  She told him he was full of baloney whereupon he pulled a revolver and shot her.

Incredulously the last paragraph in the newspaper article is:

"Douglas showed no signs of having been drinking and there is nothing to suggest that he is a drinking man."

Huh?  At the beginning of the article the man is accused of being a drunk and the article ends with the complete opposite!

The information provided by the District Attorney to the newspaper is interesting enough but still does not explain his change of heart for the defendant. 

So after I read the wonderful comments and suggestions that many of you left for me, I thought of a source that I had not checked out.  My client had given me a file folder of records that she had procured from the California State Archives.  There was the Commitment Order from San Joaquin Superior Court, a copy of the man's entry in the Prison Register and Descriptive List of Convicts, and the Application For Pardon which had attached to it the petitions and the personal letter from the District Attorney who prosecuted the case. But was there more?

What is one of the basic rules of research?  Go have a look at the original source.  I drove up to Sacramento to the California State Archives to have a look at the pardon file.  There was one letter that my client had not  included for some reason.  It tells yet another version of the story.

From the Postmaster of the town of Linden to the Governor of California:

"James Douglass is a most respected young man of his neighborhood.  His family are old pioneers and highly respected by all.  I have been Postmaster nine years and know the facts of this case.  He married a strange girl that came here.  They had two children.  She did not love home and quietness he did and she was determined to get rid of him to take up with another stranger that moved in our town.  She did and ran away with him in eight days after her husband was convicted.  It is a fact she was living a life of asignation inside one month after leaving her home and when last heard from (one year later) she was still leading a life of shame.  It was said to dissappoint the man she ran away with.  She said to people (when leaving Linden) that she had put up a job on her husband, he was only a stupid fool anyway and now she was going to have her own way and a good time."

Who knows what the real story is.  It seems that the part about the wife running away with another man is true, found her in the 1900 census with him and her two children.  I'm off with the new information to try and find the rest of the story.

NOTE:  The California State Archives has State Prison records that include San Quentin and Folsom prison registers, inmate photographs, inmate case files and pardon files. There is a name index for the years 1850–1979.


  1. Yet more proof that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Or at least the editors of the time couldn't get their heads around it... Would have loved to see those letters from the jurists who reversed their position. Now just how do you explain that???

    Your perseverance, by the way, is stellar, as usual.

  2. Amazing story and great detective work! This could be fodder for a novel, a movie .....

  3. LOVE the background sleuthing here, Sheri!

  4. Such a curious tale. No wonder you spent time searching for more information. If walls could talk!

  5. Great details and quotes, Sheri. I'm sure you simply HAD to get to the bottom of this weird story! Were the jurists' letters part of the pardon file? Hard to know when to quit searching... there's bound to be more!