Governor Supported San Jose Lynch Mob

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Mug shots of John HolmesMug shots of John HolmesOn November 16, 1933, Thomas Harold Thurmond and John M. Holmes were arrested for kidnapping and murdering Brooke Hart, the 22-year-old son of Alexander Hart, owner of the popular L. Hart and Son department store on Market Street in downtown San Jose. The elder Hart had recently promoted his handsome, wavy-haired son to a job as vice president of the store.

Nearly everyone in the small city of 60,000 either had met or knew Brooke Hart, who had graduated from Santa Clara University. Since childhood, he had worked in his family's store, starting as a stock clerk and cashier and rising to management. It was clear that he would take over the business upon his father's retirement.

A Son Disappears

On the early evening of November 9, 1933, Brooke Hart parted with his father momentarily on a downtown street to retrieve his green Studebaker roadster from a nearby garage to take his father to a meeting.

He never returned.

That night the Hart family received a phone call demanding $40,000 for Brooke Hart's return. Alexander Hart reported the kidnapping to police, who tapped the family's phone. Almost a week later, one of the kidnappers called the family, and police traced the call to a downtown phone booth where they apprehended Thurmond. After hours of interrogation, Thurmond confessed to kidnapping and killing Hart. He led them to a San Jose hotel where police arrested Holmes.

Governor Endorses Vigilante Violence

When news of the crime spread through San Jose, public outraged boiled over. A front-page, bold-typed editorial in the San Jose Mercury News fanned the public's already vengeful spirit. "If mob violence could ever be justified it would be in a case like this, and we believe the general public will agree with us." Rumors of mob action reached Governor James Rolph, who publicly responded, "I am not going to call out the National Guard to protect the kidnappers."

Aware of the danger to his prisoners, Santa Clara County Sheriff William Emig moved Thurmond and Holmes to a San Francisco jail to protect them. On the evening of Saturday, November 25, however, the sheriff had the prisoners returned to San Jose for a court appearance.

The following day, Brooke Hart's body was discovered in San Francisco bay a mile south of where it had been dumped.

By that night, plans for lynching the two men were public. At six o'clock, the coroner received an anonymous call instructing him to pick up the bodies of the two men at 11:00 in St. James Park. Within an hour, the San Francisco news media knew about the plans for lynching and sent reporters.

Men Like Angry Dogs

By the late evening, a crowd of thousands gathered in front of the brick county jail. Some yelled "Turn them over!" Other's shouted "Hang the bastards!" Sheriff's deputies fired tear gas into crowd, which temporarily sent them in retreat but only intensified their anger. Using iron pipe from a nearby construction site, a group of angry men, in full view of reporters and photographers, rammed down the steel doors to the jailhouse.

The mob dragged the two frightened prisoners feet first across the street to St. James Park, which was lit by torches and car headlights. Along the way angry citizens kicked and hit the two men with tree branches. Others threw bricks. Holmes was stripped naked before a noose went around his neck and he was hoisted and hung from an elm tree.

Robert C. Elliot, of the San Francisco Chronicle reported, "Like angry dogs, men of the mob leaped up and tore the trousers from Thurmond's body. Someone made a torch of a newspaper, poured cigarette lighter fluid on it and burned the bottoms of Thurmond's feet, then fired his coat and shirt. Slowly flames licked up around Thurmond's coat, blazed up on his deathmasked face and singed his hair. The lynchers themselves had led the cheers over the double hanging."

Upon learning of the murders, Governor Rolph is quoted as saying "I have absolutely no criticism of tonight's events. I would pardon the lynchers if they were convicted." In another public statement, Rolph said that the San Jose lynching was "the best lesson California has ever given the country."

San Jose Responds to Criticism

Women reading story of San Jose lynchingWomen reading story of San Jose lynchingThe morning after the lynching, San Jose police echoed the governor's sentiments and announced that, despite witnesses and photos of the event, no one would be prosecuted.

Because the incident received coverage nationwide, newspapers, civic organizations, and prominent citizens from all over the country publicly denounced the lynching, Governor Rolph, and San Jose officials for not taking action.

Despite this outrage, San Jose leaders were indifferent, if not annoyed by what they perceived as pointless attention to the lynching. Referring to the killings, the San Jose Mercury News editorialized "That day has passed from the memory of everyone in San Jose. . . It is a thing of the past and why make such a fuss over it? There is no sane reason why a Grand Jury or county officials should incur thousands of dollars of unnecessary expense caused by a long drawn-out trial which would have only one probable ending—that of acquittal."

Police arrested seven people in association with the lynching, but no one was ever convicted.

(See a trailer for the 2007 film Valley of the Heart's Delight, based on the San Jose lynching.)

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