For decades the mystery of the castle on Mesa Drive has captivated a select number of Oceanside residents. There are several social media threads in which people inquire “do you remember the castle house?” There are no pictures and little information. Only the memories of children and teenagers who remembered that the castle was haunted or spooky. Rumors or perhaps truth, that an old man lived there, who would threaten them with a salt rock rifle. The house looked odd and eerie. It was made entirely of beach rock they said.
Yolanda Mitchell remembers as a little girl growing up in the 1960s that the house was two stories, made of stone. It both captivated and frightened young children. “None of us had the nerve to go in there. In fact, we thought if you went in there you might not come out. So, we never did,” Yolanda said. But the memory of the castle is so vivid, even to this day, every time she drives down Mesa Drive, she still looks for the “castle.”
But just who built this castle-shaped house? Who lived there and what became of it?
Noah Freeman purchased a portion of Tract 8 in the Ellery Addition in about 1929. The subdivision was established by Henry E. Ellery in 1925, which runs along Mesa Drive from Rose Place to the then city limits (which ended just about where Pajama Drive intersects Mesa).
Little is known about Noah Freeman, but he was born June 19,1880 in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1920 he was living in Michigan working as a machinist. It appears he was never married. At some point, year unknown, he made his way to California and purchased a vacant lot in Oceanside.
Freeman lived a solitary life on his property off Mesa Drive, which provided expansive views of the San Luis Rey Valley. He made his living as a farmer and doing odd jobs. But as inconspicuous as the life of Noah Freeman was, the small home which he built upon his triangular shaped plot of land would make the newspaper for curious reasons. And little did anyone know — would become the stuff local legends are made of.
On July 15, 1934, the San Diego Union published an extensive piece about Oceanside, detailing its establishment and then its amenities as a city. Included in this feature were images of different architectural styles, namely the Mission San Luis Rey, the Healing Temple of the Rosicrucian Fellowship, the Oceanside-Carlsbad Union High School, Oceanside Pier, AND, the home of Noah Freeman, “self-made architect.”
It included the only image of the house that at present can be found. Are there others out there? It is very likely, but they have yet to be shared.
The article read as follows: “On Mesa Drive, [at] the rim of the hills east of Oceanside, is a residence that’s unique. It has been built, piece by piece and over a five-year period, by Noah Freeman, its owner, and behind its size and form there’s a story.
“Freeman first built a cracker box stucco room as a base for tending his avocado trees. Then he picked up a wheel barrel load of field stone and stoned one wall of the stucco house. ‘I had some stones left over, so I started a stone garage,’ says Freeman.
“Every time I finish something I had stones leftover, and I started something else. Then I had to get more stones to finish it, and I got enough to start something else again. I followed no plan or idea, unless it was subconsciously, and if the various units harmonize, it is because of intuition, not design.”
The article goes on to describe what would be known in later years as the “castle”: “The spectacular feature of Freeman’s rambling rock establishment is a tower room above the garage, barely large enough to contain a single bed. It is reached by a ladder, set vertically in the rounded interior of the tower’s base, so that the climbing visitor fits into available space, almost as smoothly as a cylinder in a pneumatic tube.
“In a single room of this distinctive structure, Freeman lives and ignores economic conditions almost entirely. ‘I keep a goat,’ he explains pointing to a newly finished goat yard built of old bricks burned in Oceanside in the 1880s, ‘and the goat keeps me. Her milk, with a little fruit and some vegetables, is all I require. I do odd jobs for money when taxes come due, and my avocados will bear pretty soon.’
The article finishes by saying that “Freeman is one of the many who have adapted to their own tastes like the slogan ‘Oceanside, where life is worth living.’”
Freeman was mentioned again in the San Diego Union on November 7, 1934, when it noted that “Noah Freeman, Oceanside, self-made architect, who designed and built his “most uniquest” home east of town climbed El Morro, nine years ago.” It went on to describe the large hill and the steep pitch reported by Freeman, but just why this was newsworthy, is unknown, but it suggests that Freeman had come to San Diego County as early as 1925.
Noah continued to occupy his property until 1938 when the Oceanside Blade Tribune announced on April 16 that “a ranch in the Ellery tract that was owned by Noah Freeman has been sold to Mr. and Mrs. George Babb of Kansas City.” The Babb’s did not occupy the property but may have leased it.
By 1940 Noah Freeman was living at the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles and working as a janitor there. The census record of that year has a notation that reads: “Wages in this institution are paid in board and room, plus small cash allowance.”
Two years later he was working and living at the Page Military Academy in Los Angeles. In 1950 he was living in a small house he owned on Quail Drive. Sadly by 1967 Freeman had been declared “incompetent” and his property sold. He died on May 29, 1968, and his passing was noted only by a small death notice published in the Los Angeles Times. No survivors or family members were mentioned.
While that marked the end of Noah Freeman’s life, the little castle on Mesa Drive lived on. In 1940 the stone house and the property it stood upon was sold to Karl Stebinger. If Noah Freeman was somewhat of an enigma, the same can be said about Stebinger.
Stebinger was born December 26, 1873, in Freiburg, Germany. He came to the United States in 1893 and became a naturalized citizen. In 1900 he was living in Riverside, California and making a living as a farmer. By 1917 he was in Kern County, California engaged in stock raising. Moving to his property in Oceanside he was listed as a “nurseryman” in public records.
Like Freeman, Stebinger never married and lived in solitude. He occupied his little “castle” but over the years apparently grew tired, then angry at curious passersby. Stories of Stebinger chasing off, or at least scaring, trespassers with a rifle were shared amongst neighbors.
One Facebook member posted her memories: “I grew up on South Barnwell Street from 1960-1972. There was an old man who lived in that castle in the early years who supposedly built it. I used to sell stationery and stuff for Camp Fire Girls and would be the only one who would go near it because the kids were afraid of it. The man was old, and not very friendly, maybe a little crazy. When I knocked on the door he just shouted, “NO SOLICITORS!”. My parents told me never to go to that house again. It was shaped like a castle, made entirely of beach rock and shells and mortar, and it stood out because it did not match any other houses in the whole neighborhood. Even back then it had very little if any landscaping, so it looked abandoned, but someone definitely lived there, did not have a car, and had a magnificent view of the valley from the rear.”
Karl Stebinger sold his property in 1964 to residents Dave and Barbara Jones, but he may have continued to live there until his death on November 10, 1968 (the same year as Noah Freeman died).
Now unoccupied, the “castle” could be explored by those brave enough to venture onto the property. One neighborhood resident remembered going to the castle with her friends in the early 1970s. She described it as “dirty” with “empty wine bottles around” likely left from other visitors.
Stories abounded and the legend of the castle grew. Tales spread like wildfire and rumors became truth solidified in ghost stories told at slumber parties. Many believed a witch lived there and surely it was haunted.
Frank Quan posted his memories which echoed the fear of many at just the sight of the castle: “I rode past there every morning delivering the Union. I’d pedal as fast as I could and try not look over there.”
Sean Griffin remembers that the castle looked right down at his house on Turnbull Street and can still picture its turret-like roof and the fear the castle evoked. “As a kid, I always thought it was huge, but I know it really wasn’t that big. Growing up on Turnbull Street in the 1960s, the rumors of how it was haunted scared most of the kids in the neighborhood. At night, I would always run home from my friend’s house because I was scared of the castle. The older kids would dare us to go up and touch the wall and we would run down the hill scared to death.”
By 1999 the land once owned by Noah Freeman was cleared, and the castle he built torn down. By 2000 four new homes were under construction and the property it sat on became part of suburbia. But the legend of the “castle” lives on in the memories (and perhaps nightmares) of a select number of locals who long for just one more glimpse of that rock house, to either satisfy their curiosity or make their heart pound with fear again.
Thank you to Sean Griffin, Janice Ulmer, Randy Carpenter and Yolanda Mitchell for sharing their memories.
Denkichi Fujita immigrated to the United States from Japan in 1900, his wife Fuji in 1910. Like many Japanese in the Oceanside area, Denkichi engaged in farming to support his family. In 1930 there were of 132 Japanese living in the Oceanside census district, including the Fujita family. In 1940 the census records indicate that number to be 349.
The Fujitas raised three children, all born in San Diego County, including Minoru Fujita, who was born on February 10, 1917. Minoru, along with his siblings Isamu “Sam” and Audrey, who has born in Carlsbad, attended Oceanside-Carlsbad Union High School.
Both Isamu and Minoru played sports, football, baseball and track. Minoru was notably involved in the high school student body. In 1941, Audrey Fujita was noted for “the fastest speed ever typed in competition in Southern California Commercial Meets” typing 79 words per minute.
All three Fujita children were mentioned prominently in the local paper for their participation in local clubs and activities. It seems they were included and accepted in the local community and given due recognition for their many achievements.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and during World War II, heightened anger and suspicion grew of Italian, German and Japanese immigrants. In February 1942, registration of “enemy aliens” began. The local paper reported that there was a “long queue of applicants” being registered of “non-citizen residents of Japanese, Italian and German parentage. Mrs. Ferrell Lauraine, assistant postmaster, and Harold Ulmer, of the post office clerical staff, are conducting the examinations and issuing the identification certificates which bear the photo, thumbprints and detailed data.”
The local paper reported on April 1, 1942 that “Arrangements to put one of the most successful of the Japanese ranches on the Santa Margarita Rancho into trust, for the duration, has been completed this week, according to Mr. M. Tachibana of the Aliso at Sycamore canyon, seven miles north of Oceanside.” Tachibana leased over 200 acres on the rancho which was being transformed into a military base.
Two weeks later the South Hill Market was offering free cabbage with the purchase of 50 cents of grocery or meat. The ad said, “This cabbage was obtained from an abandoned Japanese ranch. It is the finest cabbage you have ever had. Come in and get yours while it lasts.” Of course the ranch had not been willfully abandoned; its owners had been rounded up and sent away.
It was estimated in 1942 that Japanese grew and farmed 35 to 50 percent of the vegetables grown in California. The government scrambled to find farm workers to replace both the Japanese farmers who were being interred and men who had been drafted to fight in the war.
Locals had mixed feelings but largely supported the evacuation of the Japanese. While feelings of hostility were on the rise, some came to the defense of the local Japanese community and in a letter to the editor of the Oceanside Blade Tribune Bessie Lindsey Stewart wrote, “I do not feel however, that developing a hatred toward these worthy Japanese people who have won the affections of the residents of Oceanside and Carlsbad will remedy this situation in the least. They, like us, are caught in the torrent from a broken dam but can do nothing to stop the onrush of the water.”
The following month curfew for Japanese was enacted. Public Proclamation Number 3, issued by Lieut. Gen. J. L. DeWitt, U. S. Army, was received by Oceanside Judge W. L. Hart on March 27, 1942. The proclamation, became effective at 6 am and “established” the hours which “Japanese nationals and citizens alike may be on the streets.” The order went on to say, “at no time are they allowed on the streets between 8 pm and 6 am, and at all other times such persons shall be at their place of residence or employment or traveling between these places.” In addition, Japanese were prohibited from firearms, weapons, ammunition, bombs, explosives, short wave radios, transmitters, signal devices, codes or even cameras.
The next month J. Amamato, a 57-year-old native of Japan, was arrested for breaking the new curfew. He was staying at a boarding house (The Bunker House) but had ventured up to Hill Street (Coast Highway) where he was detained. Many felt that the boarding house should be immediately cleared of all Japanese inhabitants because of its proximity to the electrical utilities yard directly behind it. Citizens expressed fears of sabotage.
The “relocation” of Japanese immigrants, and Japanese Americans began in San Diego in late March and early April of 1942. The Oceanside Blade Tribune reported that “Three hundred Japanese are preparing to leave Oceanside by train Friday for the Parker reception center on the California-Arizona line, and 300 more will leave Sunday. This will complete the evacuation of all Japanese from San Diego County. The Japanese all must go by train and are allowed to take only limited personal effects. Their cars have been stored in San Diego for the duration.”
Isamu “Sam” Fujita was the executive secretary of the Japanese-American Citizens League and was noted for his “valuable assistance and cooperation in the Japanese evacuation.” During the registration process he and his sister Audrey served as interpreters to their fellow countrymen and women.
Included in this forced relocation was the Fujita family, who were sent to the Poston Interment Camp in Yuma County, Arizona. Sam Fujita was quoted as saying, “It is part of our duty as Americans to go. If our departure will improve public morale, it is our job to accept it in the spirit possible. This seems to be the best way we can be of service, and we are taking it in our stride.“
Despite the fact that he and his family were incarcerated by the US government, Minoru Fujita enlisted in the Army on May 21, 1943. He was injured during combat by an artillery shell in 1944 and was discharged December 28, 1945. The internment camp where his family lived had closed just one month earlier.
It is unknown whether the family returned to the immediate area after they were released. Sam Fujita died in 2003, four months before his 90th birthday in La Mesa. Minoru Fujita died at the age of 92. Audrey Fujita Mizokami died at the age of 101 in Hawaii.
South Oceanside, a popular (and some would say “trendy”) neighborhood, was once a separate township of its own. Situated between the town sites of Oceanside and Carlsbad, it was established by John Chauncey Hayes, who was also heavily intertwined with the establishment of the City of Oceanside.
Born in Los Angeles in 1852, he was the son of Judge Benjamin I. Hayes and Emily Chauncey. His father was the first judge of the district court to serve Los Angeles, San Diego and San Bernardino counties. The Hayes family moved to San Diego and the younger Hayes studied law in his father’s office until 1875, when he married Felipe Marron, daughter of Silvestre Marron. The newlywed couple moved to San Luis Rey, where Hayes “engaged in locating government and state lands” along with farming and delivering mail.
In the early 1880s Hayes bought 1200 acres of coastal land between Oceanside and Carlsbad. Even when he became the exclusive real estate agent for Andrew Jackson Myers, Oceanside’s founder, he also served as Justice of the Peace and postmaster. If that wasn’t enough for an enterprising, ambitious businessman, Hayes began to develop his new township of South Oceanside which included a depot, hotel, cemetery, a two-story brick schoolhouse and its own newspaper, The South Oceanside Diamond, of which he was the editor.
South Oceanside also had a brickyard just south of Kelly Street between Ditmar and Moreno Streets. The muddy clay from the nearby lagoon was used to fashion and fire bricks used to build buildings and no less than 10 homes. Hayes had a brick building erected to house his newspaper printing and real estate office.
In addition to these amenities, South Oceanside also offered a hotel for visitors. Located on the corner of Kelly and Tremont Streets (the exact location is unknown), Hannah Trotter operated The Diamond House. The name of Trotter’s establishment went along with the theme of South Oceanside, with its newspaper, the Diamond, and Hayes’ hyperbolic advertisement of “buying and wearing diamonds.”
Hannah Bell Trotter was born in 1836 in Pennsylvania. She married Thomas Trotter, a coal miner, in about 1866 and the couple had five children. After her husband’s death, Hannah and her children came to the new township of Oceanside as early as 1886. In 1887 Trotter acquired and filed her own addition to the town of Oceanside, a five acre tract in the northern part of town. It would be the first addition/subdivision in Oceanside established by a woman.
In March of 1888 it was first announced that the “foundations are being laid for Mrs. Trotter’s boarding house. It will be a brick building, costing $3000.” (The foundation was brick, but the house was actually made of wood.) The house would be finished by May 1st and it was noted that Mrs. Trotter would “keep a first class place.”
The South Oceanside Diamond reported on May 18, 1888 that “The Diamond House, built and to be conducted as a hotel by Mrs. Hannah Trotter, is almost completed, and will be of great benefit to this community. The grounds surrounding the hotel will be highly ornamental, choice trees, flowers, grass, etc., having already been selected by the proprietress, who is adept in the art of floriculture.” The following month, the Diamond reported that “Hannah Trotter has opened her boarding, house and is ready to accommodate boarders.” Weekly advertisements were included in each edition stating that the Diamond House was “first class in every respect” and the “best table set on the coast.”
Hannah Trotter died in 1911 at the age of 76. Prior to her death the property upon which her boarding house was sold to Augusta Dickson Garden in about 1896 and the two-story home was featured in a grainy photo in the Oceanside Blade newspaper.
In 1913 Belle McWilliams bought what was then called the “South Oceanside Hotel” from Mrs. Garden. It was noted that Hannah Trotter had operated the hotel “in early days.” Belle McWilliams was said to have plans to make “considerable improvements to the property” which included an “amusement pavilion” and “facilities provided for catering to automobile parties.” It is likely that the building had been moved to front South Hill Street, or what was known as the Coast Route or Highway 101, as the hotel was referenced as “being on the auto route.”
Emma “Belle” Mitchell McWilliams was a native of Arkansas, born in 1863. She married Hugh Harris McWilliams in 1900 in Texas. Hugh McWilliams had a daughter, Murrie, from a previous marriage. The trio arrived in Oceanside from Texas in 1913.
On July 5th of that year, an opening celebration and dance was held at the former boarding house and hotel, renamed the “Ye Wayside Inn.” Admission to the dance was 75 cents but spectators were welcomed “free of charge.” It was announced that “parents can be sure that their daughters will be carefully chaperoned and no rowdyism permitted.” Perhaps there was concern by locals because Belle McWilliams had petitioned the county supervisors for a liquor license.
Belle operated her Wayside Inn with little incident but in 1915 a bizarre and tragic event unfolded there.
George Melvin Slobohm, superintendent of the state highway, overseeing road work on the Highway 101, had been staying at the Wayside Inn. Belle McWilliams would later state that the Slobohm “had been acting oddly for several days.”
On Sunday, August 8th, Slobohm, approached McWilliam’s 24-year-old daughter Murrie and asked to speak with her privately. While in the house, he proceeded to confess his love for her, but told Murrie that because he was already married he had decided to kill her and then himself, as a future together was not possible.
In spite of this terrifying news, Murrie McWilliams kept her wits about her, and convinced Slobohm that they should leave the house and walk down to the beach. As they walked out of the Inn, Slobohm was armed with a shotgun.
Murrie spotted her father and instinctively ran to him for help. The crazed man shot at her as she ran, but missed. Miraculously, just at that time Belle arrived at the property in a buggy, and witnessed the fearful scene. Father and daughter climbed into the buggy as Belle drove hard and fast to the home of Warren E. Spaulding, a dairy farmer, just to the east near Cassidy and Stewart Streets, to call for help on the telephone.
George Slobohm remained on the property and did not give chase. When local Constable DeBord, along with M. J. Maxey, George and Robert Borden responded to the emergency, they found Slobohm dead on the porch with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
But before he turned the gun on himself, Slobohm had set fire to the McWilliams’ house in several places, pouring gasoline on the floor in four of the rooms and setting it ablaze. The officers managed to put out the fire and “save the house without much damage except in the laundry room which was pretty badly scorched.”
San Diego County Coroner Marsh came up that evening and a jury was summoned consisting of George A. Lane, Ben Higgins, John Osuna, D. A. Ellis, A. B. Curtis, and Josephine Jascen. They listened to the testimony of Murrie, Belle and Hugh McWilliams, viewed the scene and a verdict of suicide “was rendered accordingly.”
The Oceanside Blade stated that “Slobohm, who was about fifty years old, was a quiet man who bore a good reputation and was well liked by those who have had occasion to do business with him since he has been connected with the highway work here. He leaves a son, Henry, who has been living here, and two daughters and a widow in Los Angeles.” The next day George Slobohm’s wife and son came down from Los Angeles Monday and made arrangements for the removal of the body.
By the 1920s, Hugh and Belle McWilliams sold their Wayside Inn and moved closer to downtown Oceanside. Hugh McWilliams died in 1928 and Belle one year later.
What became of the Wayside Inn, formerly the Diamond House and South Oceanside Hotel, is unknown. South Oceanside was annexed years prior and became part of the City of Oceanside. But it would stay a largely rural area for several years. Even as late as 1930 there were less than 10 homes or buildings fronting the coast highway. It wasn’t until the post war years when tracts of homes replaced the dairy cows, fields of crops and eventually the acres of flowers planted by the Frazee family.
Captain Harold Davis of the Oceanside Police Department was a collector of many things, including three large scrapbooks in which he placed various photos of crime and accident scenes, along with a variety of newspaper articles dating from the 1930s to the 1950s.
One scrapbook contained a human-interest story of John M. Caves, a retired sea captain who was hospitalized in the Oceanside Community Hospital. This was not Caves’ first visit to Oceanside, and it wouldn’t be his last. Curious, about Mr. Caves and his peculiar claims, I did a bit of research and uncovered two different hoaxes perpetuated by Caves for over four decades. In between he would murder a traveling companion and serve time in prison.
John Murile Caves was born January 4, 1882, in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, a small borough of less than 2,000 person in Allegheny County. He was the second of four children born to Samuel T. and Martha Caves, who lived in a rather stately home at 713 Pennsylvania Street in the town of Oakmont. His siblings were Samuel Meredith, Henry Adams and Mary Caves. Their father Samuel Caves worked as a blacksmith with Verona Tool Works.
At the age of 18 John Murile Caves was still living with his parents but held no occupation, nor was he attending school, in an era where this would have been atypical. His brothers, one older and one younger were both employed at Verona Tool Works with their father.
In 1907, at the age of 25, John was arrested along with two other men for breaking into a train car. In the newspaper account, John Caves was described as a “cripple who walked with a crutch” and “peddled shoestrings.” This may have been the first of John Caves’ personas as he was not at all crippled, at least not permanently. T. B. Shaffer, the railroad detective, reported that Caves’ two companions seemed distraught about their arrest, but in contrast John Caves was “cheerful” about the encounter. Regardless of his hapless attitude, the arrest landed Caves in jail, awaiting trial for several months after which he was found not guilty and released.
Walking Career Begins
John Caves would begin an “illustrious walking career” two years later in 1909. No official record was found of the starting point or date but in September 7, 1909, the Quincy Journal announced that Caves had arrived in Macomb, Illinois.
Going by the moniker of “Happy Jack” the Journal reported that Caves had started his walk on April 6th of that year, starting from Boston. He claimed he ran away from home at the age of 9 and (incredulously) had already completed two walking trips across the continent. Now he was determined to travel around the world against a wager of $2,000 from “Bryan’s Commoner and Munsey’s Magazine”, which purportedly provided the route that he should travel.
According to Caves, he was not to ask for a cent from anyone along the way but could accept gifts. Apparently and supposedly people were very generous as he claimed to have eaten no less than three meals a day and stayed at the finest of hotels while on his journey.
Caves further claimed he had a year in which to complete his trip across the United States, but four years to travel the world. Caves announced his intention to make his way to Lincoln, Nebraska and from there to San Francisco where he would eat a Christmas Dinner. The article ended that “Happy Jack” was 28 years old and walked at an “easy gait of 5 miles an hour.”
On September 21, 1909, Caves had walked to, or at least arrived in, Burlington, Iowa by way of Fort Madison. The Burlington Hawk Eye reported that Caves had now walked 10,090 miles and that he was on his way to Des Moines to Omaha, then to San Francisco “by Christmas.” From there Caves said he would get “free passage to Japan and Australia, from Australia to London and from there home again.” Caves next stopping place on his route would be Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, the newspaper informed readers.
For the next several years John Caves would convince or at least amuse folks with variations of this tale, and it would be perpetuated from town to town, newspaper to newspaper. But the good residents of Ottumwa, Iowa saw through the tall tales and when Caves stopped through their town they were not taken in by his charm or his story. The Burlington Evening Gazette in Burlington, Iowa (where he been just days before) disclosed: “Happy Jack, the big bum alleged globetrotter, who is trying to fool the people throughout the country, was arrested for drunkenness in Ottumwa.”
The Ottumwa Courtier shared this news in September of 1909: “John M. Caves, who claims to be a globetrotter, has clasped to his belt of claims another item. Yesterday he proceeded to tank up as much of the brew down his throat, but before he covered as much distance in this direction as he claims he has covered over the country, he fell into the hands of Office L. Lightner. ‘Happy Jack’ was jugged, and in police court he acknowledged he was drunk. Judge Morrissey gave him three days to repent.”
After this encounter and 3-day jail stay, on September 27th Caves had reached Albia, Iowa, stating, “I’m still going. Roads are good. I’m making 50 miles a day. I will be out of the state, Saturday, October 2.”
Oh, but “Happy Jack” was still in the state of Iowa on October 5th where he was giving a lecture of his travels in Glenwood at the Opera House.
Did Caves ever make it to Omaha or San Francisco? It is hard to say. Perhaps he was detoured.
Eight years later John Caves was in the news again when in August of 1917, he was arrested for assaulting a railroad conductor with a knife while working as a restaurant cook. He pled guilty and was put on parole.
In September of 1918 Caves was working as a “blacksmith helper” at Verona Tool Works where his father was employed in Oakmont, Pennsylvania (his hometown), according to his World War I registration card. He seemed to have settled down for a very brief time, but he would soon be on the move again for another walking trip “around the world.”
But before that Caves found himself again in trouble with authorities when on May 22, 1921, he was arrested in Bellwood, Pennsylvania. After an altercation with members of a train crew, he was ejected and in retaliation threw a rock that subsequently hit the brakeman. Caves spent over two weeks in jail until his day in court. The Altoona Mirror reported: “Happy Jack Caves, an individual of tall stature who assured the court that he was ‘a sailor from the high seas’ who had come to this section of the country to visit some friend and became intoxicated, pled guilty to through a stone through a passenger car window near Bellwood.”
It is worth noting that Caves would again claim to be a sailor decades later. However, before that reinvention, he began another worldwide trek.
A Trip “Around the World” Begins
On April 1, 1919, (notably April Fool’s Day), Caves purportedly began a journey from Boston that would take him to every continent in the world, and every state in the U.S. Supposedly a total of 16 men began this trek, that would take them 99,986 miles in a period of three years. The winner of this race of sorts would allegedly win $30,000, which is equivalent to $500,000 today. The contest was supposedly sponsored by Johns Hopkins University and was the starting point.
Nothing was found about this race or contest until June 25, 1921 (two years later from its supposed start date) when the Times Herald in Olean, New York ran a story with the headline: “Happy Jack Is Ahead On His Hike Schedule.” The story stated that he had arrived in Olean, New York at 5:35 am from Eldred, Pennsylvania (a distance of about 13 miles). At that time Caves had claimed to have visited 42 of the then 48 states and that he 28 days ahead of schedule. He was due to return to Boston April 1, 1922.
The following details were included in the Times Herald article, and it is worth noting that similar details, which varied from time to time, would run in more than 50 articles from just as many newspapers around the eastern part of the country:
In every state and county which he enters he has to go to the capital and county seat. When he returns to Boston, he must have a dollar for every county seat and $5 for every capital.”
Additionally, he was to receive a signature from every town or city official that he passed through and dutifully mail these signatures to the “committee in charge.”
He was not allowed to “ask for rides or money” but he was allowed to accept “gifts of money.” The prohibition of rides included a reward of $500 to anyone who witnessed him riding rather than walking.
Happy Jack Caves walked an amazing 40 miles a day, at least according to the Herald piece, and at the time the article was written, he simply carried a knapsack weighing 65 pounds.
On July 12, 1921 the Hudson Columbia Republican newspaper reported that “Happy Jack” arrived in Hudson, New York from Albany. He had purportedly completed 70,182 miles, 23,000 of which were on foot. Caves claimed to have 20,804 miles to complete before April 1, 1922. From Hudson he was on his way to New York City, to Fall River, Massachusetts, then back to New York to Niagara Falls and then on to Canada and Montreal. Countries claimed already visited were: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Italy, Greece, France, Russian, England, Germany, Australia, Japan, China, as well as “every country in South and Central America.”
Caves arrived in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on August 15th. The newspaper there reported that Caves was walking to settle a $30,000 wager between the Boston Pedestrian Club and the Pedestrian Club of John Hopkins University. He was on his way to Greensburg next, but the newspaper also added the unbelievable detail that Caves had “circumnavigated a wheelbarrow around the globe during the years 1893-97.” (He would have been 11 years old based on Caves’ ACTUAL age.)
On October 7, 1921 Caves passed through Massillon, Ohio “enroute to New England and Canada.” The stories kept coming as Caves went from town to town. The journey expanded, he turned his 65 pound knapsack and instead began pushing a wheelbarrow and the wager or bet became prize money instead, which grew. Caves followed no particular route but seemingly meandered back and forth, retracing his steps while approaching “the last leg,” while the finish line seemed elusive.
On or about November 2, 1921 Caves arrived in Bucyrus, Ohio and then made his way to Marion, Ohio, where he stayed at the Royal Hotel on Main Street. In just five months his story had changed significantly. According to the Marion Star, Caves had traveled 91,000 miles, visiting every country in the world, but had eight of the U.S. states left to visit (not six) but he was now 38 days ahead of schedule. During this tremendous journey Caves claimed to have worn out 90 pairs of shoes covering 43,000 miles on foot. At this point, the traveler was accepting gifts as the article stated he “‘passed the hat” while giving lectures on his adventures.
The following day the Richwood Gazette in Richwood, Ohio informed its readers that Caves arrived in town. This time Caves was to walk 99,986 miles and had 5,000 to go but was still a full 38 days ahead of schedule. The Gazette reported that Caves could ask for nothing except water and the use of a telephone.
Caves made it to Newport, Kentucky (population 316) the following day – traveling over 140 miles to do so. Even at 40 miles a day it would take him over three days nearly a week to travel that distance, so it is safe to say that he hitched a ride or hopped a train. At Newport Caves claimed to have 2500 miles to go, adding that the money he collected from county seats and state capitols was sent directly to the “Pedestrian Club of Boston” who co-sponsored the trek with Johns Hopkins Hospital.
It was more likely that he simply pocketed any money he received from gullible officials who believed his elaborate stories.
Later that month Caves made his way 400 miles south to Huntsville, Alabama. He claimed to have been 38 days ahead of schedule of his deadline of April 1, 1922. In Huntsville Caves claimed that he was native of Norway and this “fact” would often be included in many subsequent stories.
There was no telling how much farther south he traveled and then supposedly headed north towards the finish line. Little is known of Caves and his travels until June of 1922, well after the supposed deadline.
The Baltimore Sun announced the arrival of “Happy Jack Caves” on June 26, 1922 with the headline “World Pedestrian Here.” Caves was on the “last lap of his journey” and now it seems he had four months (rather than three) to complete his trek. More new details were that he now pushed a wheelbarrow containing a tent and cooking utensils and a Great Dane dog was his companion.
Now he added a detail to his ever evolving story that 17 other contestants had begun with him, but they had all dropped out. In addition, out of the 99,986 miles required he had just 700 to go, although it was reported he had visited every “state in the Union” and in “every foreign country.” But if Caves was now in Baltimore, Maryland, the finish line (Boston) was just 400 miles away.
Three weeks later, on July 11, 1922 Caves was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania a mere 80 mile trip, but it seems Caves was no longer keeping his 40 mile a day pace. The Evening News of that city reported that he had “traversed every country, continent, ocean and sea, and river in the world” along with just 45 states (versus all 48). Although these details varied, Caves still had no less than 700 miles to go, despite the fact that he had traveled 80 since his last encounter.
Rather than traveling northeast to Boston to the “finish line”, Caves instead went west to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a distance of 24 miles, arriving July 24th. He then continued on a southwesterly direction to Shippensburg, (population 4300) a distance of just 20 miles, arriving July 26th.
A representative of the town’s newspaper interviewed “Happy Jack” who now claimed to have been born in 1861, coming to America in 1881 from Norway. Still on his “last stretch” but traveling in the opposite direction, Caves added to his tall tale saying that he had been in 4 wars. His story evolved again saying he had visited “all the principle countries” — Europe, Asia and Africa and had been to 47 states. To keep track from his last count of 45, what two states did he visit in two weeks as he had only been in Pennsylvania during that time frame?
If that wasn’t enough, Caves’ wheelbarrow was said to have weighed 165 pounds and he claimed to have worn out 5 wheels, 12 axles and exactly 284 bearings, along with 46 pairs of shoes. The article went on to say that Caves expected to arrive in Boston by August 18 or 20 (even though he wasn’t headed that way) and that he was going to beat the world record by 8 months. It concluded by saying that Caves was on his way next to Hagerstown.
It was noted by one newspaper that Caves offered proof of his travels by newspaper clippings that he collected about himself. It was also pointed out that while his wheelbarrow was plastered with photos, clippings and postcards of places he claimed to have visited, none of them were outside of the United States.
On August 30, 1922, Caves meandered his way northwest (away from Boston) to Saltsburg, to Blairsville and then traveled east to Indiana, Pennsylvania. The local newspaper there said that Caves eight months away now (probably because he wasn’t going in the right direction)! It went on to say that he was a happy looking man and that at age 61 (he was really 40) “looks good for at least that many more.” After his stay Caves was on his way to Punxsutawney.
Several months seem to pass without a “Happy Jack” sighting until December 9, 1922 when Caves traveled to Snow Hill, Maryland. This 300 mile route traveling southeast was nowhere nearer Boston and he most certainly did not complete his journey by August. Nonetheless the paper dutifully reported that Caves was on his “last leg” of his journey. Notably, Caves talents and skills expounded as now he spoke 17 languages, all of which he was “more proficient in than English.”
But Caves could top even that, by saying that in 1888 he had pushed a “hogshead” (a 63-gallon barrel) from Boston to San Francisco. By completing this fete he won $16,000. If that claim wasn’t wild enough, he added that next he had SKIPPED across the entire continent and out of 24 contestants he was the only one to finish and was awarded $12,000. (Caves also claimed to have roller skated from coast to coast.)
Did anyone question these claims? The newspapers seemed very happy to take him at his word or at least print them.
Finally, it seemed that Caves’ journey was over when the Boston Globe announced on December 19, 1922, that John Muriel Caves had finished his endurance walk around the globe after reaching Wilmington, Delaware. (Eight months later than one of his supposed deadlines).
The Journey Continues
But “Happy Jack” was not finished. It seems he started over OR more likely just kept his ruse going, traveling to towns he had not yet visited with the same story. No doubt this was a continuation of the “original contest” or journey, but no one seemed to know or realize.
On January 9, 1923 he arrived in Reading, Pennsylvania. Caves was on his “last lap” of a “hike” around the world. They happily put him up at the local YMCA, noting that Caves had “obtained the seal and signature of every burgess, mayor and county clerk, or prothonotary of every borough, city or county through which he passed.”
Martha Meredith Caves, John’s mother, died on June 14, 1923 at her home in Oakmont, Pennsylvania at the age of 71. It is possible that John was there for her funeral, but he did not stay long. Just about two weeks later he arrived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on June 27, 1923.
His arrival was regaled with a large photo in the newspaper with the headline that read: “Pedestrian Here is Near End of Journey Around the World.” Some of the “facts” remained the same: 1. The race started April 1, 1919; 2. Seventeen contestants began the race but only he continued; 3. Caves had to obtain signatures from every clerk, mayor (or king). Compared to his “previous race”, he had now worn out 47 pairs of shoes, 7 wheels, 28 axles and 284 ball bearings.
On July 5th the Chronicle Newspaper of Shippensburg, PA noted that Caves had passed through Lancaster and noted that he had traveled through Shippensburg a year prior. They did not question why he was back in the area, seemingly traveling in circles.
In May of 1924 the Edwardsville Journal, Edwardsville, Illinois announced that Caves was nearing the end of his “long walk.” He had until September 29 to arrive in Chicago, but since he was well ahead of time, he was “not rushing.” It was revealed he had been in a St. Louis Hospital for two weeks and that his dog had to be kenneled for sore feet. Caves had now worn out 52 pairs of shoes and 28 axles on his wheelbarrow. This time the newer added detail was that out of 17 contestants, Caves was the only one left, but the others had simply not quit, as previously reported, Caves now said that 5 died while walking and 2 were killed in accidents.
Happy Jack made his way to Columbus, Indiana on January 8, 1925. Embellishments of his travels continued, including that he was given 39 dogs by the Boston Kennel Club over the course of his trip as traveling companions. He spoke all of 21 languages and was an interpreter during wartime. It was also noted that he had worn out 83 pair of specially made boots, 9 wheels and 286 ball bearings. Caves purportedly was on his way to Indianapolis to obtain the signature of the governor and that after doing so his list of signatures would be complete. He then had until January 25th to reach Boston to finish. But he never made it to Boston because he was still on his “last lap” when he reached Greenfield, Indiana on January 27th.
He then made his way to Dayton, Ohio and from there to Marion, Ohio on February 25, 1925. The local paper noted that Caves was on his “return trip” and that he had passed through 3 1/2 years earlier. No one seemed to notice that he was meandering from town to town.
Caves visited Crestline, Ohio one month later on March 21st. The newspaper shared that Caves had just ten days to complete his walk and claim a $10,000 prize (considerably less than $30,000 to $50,000 claimed a few years ago). It was astutely noted that he would have to travel 100 miles a day to make that happen. Days later Caves “was found ill” and brought to the Monnette hospital to recover from an undisclosed malady.
On November 3, 1925 Caves was hospitalized again, for gall stones. He was still on the “last leg” of his journey, of course. This time it was disclosed he would receive $26,000. The following month he was in Kingsport, Tennessee. In April of 1926 Caves arrived in Wythville, Virginia where he declared he had just 930 miles to go.
Then finally, on April 22, 1926 it was announced that he had arrived at the Potomac Park Tourist Camp in Washington, D.C., which apparently was the new finish line or the completion of his 99,986 “required” mileage. The accomplishment took 8 years, 3 months, 21 days and 5 hours, according to Caves, but if he started April 1, 1919, it really took 7 years and just 21 days. (But who’s counting?) Caves claimed he continued without “a day’s interruption” which wasn’t true because of recorded hospitalizations.
Caves gave his usual statistics to the newspaper: he had worn through 90 shoes, 30 wheelbarrows, 28 axels and 30 dogs, which had all died according to Cave. He also kept track of his lectures which totaled 321.
Caves revealed that he was on his way next to Annapolis, and then headed north to meet up with his wife and 5 children! At least once he claimed he had 4 children and years later he would repeat a story that his one and only wife had died from scarlet fever while traveling around the Horn.
Whiskey and Bay Rum
Despite the completion of his required 99,986 miles, John Caves continued to travel and on May 27, 1927 he was in Plymouth, North Carolina where he was scheduled for a lecture at Darden’s Christian Church to talk about his travels. The lecture was well attended but it came to abrupt halt when church leaders determined Caves was under the influence of whiskey.
On January 15, 1928 Caves was a patient in the Allegheny Hospital after a “general breakdown” although doctors could not decide the cause of his illness. He had visited his sister who was a nurse at Pittsburg Tuberculosis Hospital and had fallen while on the road near the town of Creighton. Curiously, it was revealed that Caves had been unable to talk or hear for a period of two years and communicated by writing with paper and pencil. This, of course, was untrue because of his willingness and ability to give lectures from town to town.
The Pittsburg Press, who announced Caves’ hospitalization, also reported that “during his long walk, the best time Caves made was 8 miles an hour” and that he once walked 71.5 miles in 21 hours.
In early March of 1929 his travels came to another halt in Akron, Ohio after he was “picked up” by police after drinking too much Bay Rum, which was used as cologne and aftershave lotion. The newspaper reported that the 50-year-old (closer to his actual age than most reports) had been wandering for 10 years. Caves told authorities he was the only one left in the race and he had to do now was to walk to Boston. “No more bay rum for me,” as he allegedly continued on to the fictional finish line.
However, later that year, Caves was found by police in Lancaster, Pennsylvania after drinking nearly a half bottle of Bay Rum (which was 58% grain alcohol). Caves claimed that he was cold and in an effort to warm up he drank the highly toxic alcohol mixture that was used as astringent.
It seems as Caves continued drinking, the public began to question some of his claims. The Intelligencer Journal printed Caves’ claim that he had traveled 99,000 miles in 12 years (with a starting year of 1917 rather than 1919) and figured that Happy Jack would have to average 22 miles a day, each and every day including “Sundays and holidays.”
Lancaster police noted that Happy Jack was neither happy nor congenial and he was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
But things would get worse for “Happy Jack” when on February 20, 1930 the Morning Post of Camden, New Jersey revealed that Caves was penniless, his dog was dead and his wheelbarrow wrecked. The newspaper cited that Caves had started his “endurance trip” 11 years ago and noted that he passed through Camden in 1926, obtaining the signatures of the County Clerk. But now he hobbled into the police station on crutches, looking for food and a place to sleep.
Caves claimed to have been struck by an automobile at Kennett Square, PA a month earlier, suffering a broken ankle. As a result of the accident he was hospitalized nearly three weeks at the Chester Hospital. The hospital gave Caves enough money to reach Philadelphia and from there he had made his way to Camden. He was sent to the Salvation Army barracks but instead went to the police department located next door because the former institute was “too crowded.” Caves informed the newspaper that he had completed 99,286 miles (still 700 shy, even years later, of the required 99,986).
Murder in Macungie
Six weeks later “Happy Jack Caves” was arrested and charged with murder on March 30, 1930. The Berwick Enterprise of Berwick, Pennsylvania said that it was the same Caves “who gained fame” by pushing a wheelbarrow “from New York to Los Angeles.” Caves was arrested for the stabbing death of John Barrett during an argument at a “hobo camp” near Swabia Creek on the outskirts of Macungie, a small town near Allentown. He confessed to the stabbing but claimed self-defense.
A subsequent newspaper reported that Caves was “well known in police circles” because of his frequent arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct. No longer referred to as an adventurer, he was now simply a “wanderer,” an “itinerant” or even a “hobo,” and his walking expedition called a “stunt”.
Published accounts detailed that Caves stabbed Barrett after a dispute over milk and the killing was witnessed by four young boys. He was placed in the Lehigh County jail awaiting trial. Despite previous newspaper accounts that he was 62 years old, the jail records list his correct age at 48.
During his trial in June of 1930, Caves testified in his own defense including the fact that he was a “consort of wayfarers and hoboes” with colorful nicknames such as “Baltimore Whitie”, “Old Man Morrissey” and “Barrett the Barber”, whom he killed.
Barrett was given his nickname because he carried a razor around his neck. He was portrayed by others as ferocious and vicious.
Caves voice was described as thin and high pitched as he recounted how the two men had met in “The Jungles”, an Allentown hobo camp. Caves would beg for food for Barrett and himself, since he was a more sympathetic figure on crutches. After an argument over milk in the coffee, apparently Barrett was too liberal with the pour, Caves said Barrett struck him with a pocketknife and he in turn simply grabbed a butcher knife in self defense. The knife hit Barrett in the heart, killing him instantly.
The prosecution called four young boys to contradict Caves’ version of what happened. John Ritter, 12, Edwin Bortz, 13, Harold Rhoads, 10 and Donald Rhoads, 12 spent the entire afternoon with the two men and each testified that Caves “quarreled and grumbled” throughout the day about various things, including about a piece of liver.
The boys also testified that Caves had begged for and acquired turnips, potatoes, onions, and coffee. The two men, and apparently the boys as well, stole two kettles, two knives and “a big piece of suet” (animal fat). Caves had managed to collect $2.85 after panhandling which he used to buy bread, cigarettes and four containers of “canned heat” (Sterno). Perhaps the intention was to warm a meal with the aforementioned ingredients, Caves instead made an alcoholic mixture to drink with the liquid contents after squeezing it through a handkerchief and diluting it with water. This was not an uncommon practice during Prohibition, particularly in hobo camps.
While at their encampment, Barrett complained that Caves put too much water in the coffee and Caves in turn complained that Barrett put in too much milk. Angry, Caves lunged at Barrett with his crutches, hitting him in the mouth and cutting his lip. The incident resulted in the soup that would be the group’s meal being spilled.
Caves reportedly said to Barrett, “Are you sorry for what you did?” to which his companion replied, “Do you want some more?” Caves then responded angrily, “I’ll give you some more!” and suddenly drew a knife, stabbing Barrett.
Afterwards, Caves placed a pocketknife in the hands of the lifeless Barrett and went through his pockets. He found two coins but said in disgust, “Two lousy cents” and then kicked Barrett’s dead body. As he walked or hobbled away, Caves said to the boys, “This is the second time he tried to kill himself.” To which Donald Rhoads replied, “You killed him, you skunk!”
John M. Caves was found guilty of 2nd degree murder after the jury deliberated over 29 hours. The only relative that showed support by attending the trial was his sister Mary Caves, who took the verdict much harder than her brother. It was revealed that he showed no sign of emotion except what was termed “a sigh of relief.”
Caves was sentenced 6 to 12 years and sent to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Noted for its innovative wagon wheel design, the imposing prison once housed notorious gangster Al Capone. Caves was given the prisoner number of C-6262.
Records provided by Eastern State Penitentiary and the Pennsylvania State Archives indicate that Caves’ stay there was not without problems. He was sent to solitary confinement more than once for fighting.
The prison was visited by Dr. Doncaster G. Humm of Los Angeles, who specialized in “industrial psychology”, visited and interviewed several prisoners, including Caves, to “secure material for research.” He would later publish his findings and identified seven different temperaments defined as “normal, hysteroid, manic, depressive, autistic, paranoid and epileptoid.” Humm was of the opinion that “the marriage of those with a poor hereditary background should be discouraged. Sterilization and marriage education were suggested as eugenic ideals.”
Records show that on June 5, 1934 Caves was transferred to Graterford Prison, a newer facility, but he was returned on January 3, 1935. Nine days later he was transferred to the Lehigh County Jail, then released on parole June 26, 1936. In December 16, 1936 he was once again returned to Eastern State Penitentiary for violation of parole.
Cave was released again on parole on June 16, 1937, perhaps because his father died, but the Pittsburgh Press reported in October that Caves had nowhere to go and asked to go back to prison. He was returned on November 7th.
By 1940 Caves was paroled again, because in April of 1942 Caves filled out a World War II registration card (for men born on or after April 28, 1877 or before February 16, 1897). At that time he listed his address as 428 Fourth Street in his hometown of Oakmont, Pennsylvania. He was officially discharged from the penal system on January 3, 1943, which was nearly 12 years from his sentencing.
A New Life – A New Story
One year after his official release, John Murile Caves began a tour of the country with a new life story of adventure which again brought him notoriety and attention — that of an elderly seafaring captain.
On April 10, 1944, the Cumberland News of Cumberland, Maryland said that the “80-year-old former merchant marine captain, John M. Caves, Baltimore, was taken to Memorial hospital at 7:15 pm yesterday by Officer John G. Powers after being stricken with a heart attack near Central Y.M.C.A. His condition was reported to be fair.”
Seven months later Cave had made his way to the west coast to Southern California. In January 1945, he reportedly collapsed in Descanso, about 40 miles east of San Diego. He was picked up by the Highway Patrol and brought to San Diego and was described as “penniless and ill.” However, Caves’ story was filled with heroic yet fantastical details, saying that he was a merchant marine for 65 years, “shipping supplies in five major wars, six historical rebellions, captaining the lead ship in the first convoy to Guadalcanal, and losing his own ship January 16, 1942, off the coast of Newfoundland.”
He told Patrolman George Dowdy that he was hitch-hiking home to Philadelphia so that he could get medical attention and “get back into service again.” The San Diego Union promulgated this “fantastic story” but didn’t seem to question any detail. Caves, who claimed again to be from Norway, said that at age 10 he was a mess boy “on an old Norwegian sailing vessel” and that he had traveled no less than 208 trips around Cape Horn. When asked about a wife, he said he married a daughter of another sea captain many years ago, but she had died of scarlet fever while rounding the Horn.
Additionally, Caves claimed to have continued his career “through World War II and until, he left a ship at Richmond, California in December 14, 1943, his career was halted by a hit-and-run auto driver.”
He gave his date of birth as January 4, 1861 (21 years earlier than his actual birth year) and his birthplace as Upland, Norway. The newspaper article concluded with a story that Caves was the captain of the Jenny P. Higy (or Hickey in other accounts), which sunk off the coast of Newfoundland in 1942, “carrying 250 Polish refugees and a crew of 85.” All lives were saved but Caves lost his life savings. (Editor’s Note: No record could be found a ship by this name being sunk or a similar event.)
Rather than head to Philadelphia as planned, one month later “Captain” Caves was in Shreveport, Louisiana waiting for transportation to his “hometown” of Baltimore. It was a very familiar story published in the Shreveport Journal in February 1945, but with the added embellishment that he was the captain of the Paul Revere which brought needed supplies to Marines in Guadalcanal. His ship was torpedoed three times during 1941 and 1942. Caves shared the same story of losing a wife to scarlet fever.
The following month Caves arrived by train in Indianapolis, Indiana sickly and penniless. His age was given as 84 when he was really 63, but he happily told his yarns of his “long and colorful maritime career.” He was, he said, headed to Baltimore.
However, three months later he was in Ogden, Utah. Seemingly in much better health he was entertaining folks with his stories at a local canteen. The Ogden Standard-Examiner reported on June 23, 1945 that Caves was the “oldest seafaring maritime captain still on active duty” who had “a store of sea tales as long as his years of service.” These talks, of course, included the sinking of the Jenny P. Hickey, and leading a convoy to Guadalcanal. Caves however, was not trying to get back home (to either his hometown in Philadelphia or Baltimore) but “to pick up another ship and another cargo of supplies to carry somewhere across the sea.”
The following month, in July, Caves had not traveled east but west, and was in Tulare, California where he had collapsed from another heart attack. Information was provided that he was a retired sea captain but still “in service of the government at Port Hueneme.” His age was listed as 70 years old, which was a bit closer to his actual.
Just as when he claimed to have walked around the world, his only evidence of his seafaring career was saved newspaper clippings about himself from various towns he had visited.
In August of 1946, Caves was in a Bethsaida hospital in Maryland, after suffering yet another heart attack. Caves said he was “visiting” in Baltimore, but on his way to San Diego when he stricken.
One month later John M. Caves was in an Albuquerque jail for being in “a dazed condition.” It was assumed he was drunk (and likely he was) but because he claimed he was 87 years old, the police had pity on him and took him to the hospital. However, it was his second visit to the same hospital in as many days and the hospital said they could not handle him, so he was taken to the county jail. When taken to jail he “relapsed into a coma” and could not speak “from the effects of a medicine found in his possession.”
The police found previously published newspaper articles that Caves had collected about himself, one published out of Kansas stating that he was born in Superland, Norway and was a sea captain for 32 years. It seems while in Chapman, Kansas he stayed at a hospital there and officials discovered several receipts or bills for various hospitals around the country. Caves was crisscrossing the country, having “heart attacks”, telling his stories, collecting newspaper articles about himself, along with the bills, and going on to the next town.
He reportedly made his way to Newark, New Jersey in January of 1947 only to travel back west to California.
In February of 1947 he was found “writhing in pain” on a sidewalk in downtown Oceanside. It seems he had suffered another heart attack, but Captain Harold Davis took him to the local hospital where he made a quick recovery after taking “a heart pill.” Caves said he was on his way to Corona by bus but didn’t have any money. Davis bought the stranger some food, who claimed now to be 87 years old, listened to his stories of the sea and purchased him a bus ticket so he could go on to his next destination.
Months later, in October, Caves was in Redding, California where he suffered another one of his trademark heart attacks. However, the next month while in Sacramento it was determined he was “just drunk” and not ill and was booked in the county jail. In 1948 he was in El Paso, Texas where he was hospitalized for, (you guessed it) a heart attack.
In March of 1951 John Caves was back in Oceanside, California. The Oceanside-Blade Tribune reported the following:
“Police were called the other night to a modest room in a local hotel—an elderly man, a heart attack, not much if any money—and thereby hangs a tale. It’s a tale of the sea, of iron men and wooden ships, dating back to the middle of the last century. As it turns out, the tale has been told before, and Capt. Harold Davis of the local police department, along with a few other people, are wondering about it.”
Well, at least there was some skepticism but that didn’t keep the paper from sharing his stories, including how he was born in an igloo in Norway!
The account continued: “Further checking by Capt. Davis showed that the man suffered heart attacks in this city in January , and again in April, and there is evidence to show that his heart has put him in hospitals in other communities in California and Arizona at least. These circumstances, plus the fact that hospital nurses and Capt. Davis don’t think the man looks as old as the 92 years he claims to be, make observers somewhat doubtful. After all, a policeman of 20 years becomes so accustomed to hearing stories that he is inclined to believe nothing which can’t be documented. Still, it is a good story and the grizzled old gentleman tells is simply and well. He can’t prove it with papers, except for news clippings he has collected from other interviews, but on the other hand, his listeners can’t disprove it either. As far as we know, it may just be the best yarn since Edgar Allen Poe’s fabulous trans Atlantic balloon race.”
The Oceanside Blade Tribune then printed Caves’ “biography”, which was slightly similar in detail to other previous versions, but included mostly a new and different story of his early sea-faring career:
“Capt. John Murile Caves, a Norseman, was born in 1859 in the Land of the Midnight Sun in an igloo. One of several children, he went to sea as a cabin boy when he was 10 years old, aboard a barkentine bound for San Francisco, around Cape Horn. From there the ship loaded with wheat and barley bound for England, and then back to Norway.
Later he shipped again aboard a three-masted, full-rigged ship to Boston with a load of matches. When they docked, he tried to run away, but was caught and taken back aboard ship.
Young Caves made a number of voyages, spending 11 years on Norwegian ships. On one cruise in 1881 his ship had docked in Baltimore, and was ready to set sail for San Francisco, when Caves met a man who agreed to help him get off the ship just before it sailed. He put his bags and seat chest in the forecastle, and that night a small boat came alongside and took Caves ashore.
He lay low for three months, living in the attic of a large hotel outside Baltimore, and then went to the US commissioner to get his first papers. He became naturalized in 1886, went to sea again aboard a ship to San Francisco, and on that particular trip the vessel sprang a leak out on the Atlantic. The crew had to pump her by hand all the way around Cape Horn to Frisco to keep her afloat, Caves recalls.
After that trip Caves decided to become a steward, but one trip and went back to being an able-bodied seaman. He said the crews, who were often shanghaied in those days, complained too much about the food.
By hard work and the good fortune of having captains over him who could teach him, Caves eventually worked his way up. On Caves’ second cruise the captain of the ship had his family aboard, including, two daughters who were school teachers and who helped young Caves with his education.
In 1890 he joined the US navy to increase his seafaring knowledge, signing on for four years, but stayed in for 10 and took part in the Spanish-American war. When he was discharged at Norfolk, he took the examination and received his captain’s license.
All told, Capt. Caves has been in five wars, serving in the merchant marine in all but the Spanish-American. The others are the Boxer war, the Boer war and World Wars 1 and 11. In the last one, in 1943, he says his ship was bombed on a return trip from the Marshall Islands. For 32 years he sailed the seven seas as ship’s captain.
Since the war his health has not been good, and when he was taken ill here Tuesday night he had come from a US merchant marine hospital in Fort Stanton, N.M. He was en route to Santa Ana, where a government pension check awaits him, and then he planned to go to Port Chicago to see a nephew who is about to ship out on his first deep-sea voyage as ship’s captain.”
The article ended with this curious and telling notation: “Thursday afternoon, disappointed because the newspaper story had not appeared yet, Capt. Caves boarded a bus to Santa Ana.”
Just days later Caves was back in Oceanside. The Blade-Tribune said he had been in the hospital at Santa Ana for a heart attack. This return visit to Oceanside was not quite as welcoming as he landed in jail for vagrancy charges after panhandling.
After leaving Oceanside Caves traveled to Modesto three weeks later, had his requisite heart trouble but was jailed for vagrancy.
Two years later, in March of 1953, he stopped in Tucson, Arizona but was arrested for being drunk in public. Three weeks later Caves was in a Las Cruces, New Mexico hospital.
In June of 1953, Caves was on his fourth visit to Oceanside. This time he was given a Greyhound Bus Ticket by the “Oceanside Community Chest”, a local charity, for a one way trip to Los Angeles. The voucher was signed by Captain Harold Davis of the Oceanside Police Department.
From 1956 to 1957 Caves traveled back and forth to Baltimore only to come back to San Diego, then on to Denver, Kansas City, Missouri, to Indianapolis, Indiana to Claymont, Pennsylvania and then to New York.
His brother Samuel Meredith Caves died in May of 1956. His sister Mary Caves, who faithfully attended his murder trial in support of her brother, died November 28, 1956 at the age of 77. On January 2, 1958 his last surviving sibling, Henry Adams Caves, died of a self-inflicted gunshot.
One of the last mentions of John Murile Caves was found on May 15, 1958 in the Evening Sun, Baltimore, Maryland. Isaac Berman, a real estate agent had been receiving bills from hospital and ambulance services all over the west coast addressed to “Capt. John M. Caves. Berman was quoted as saying, “Who is this man and why did he give my address?”
The Evening Sun announced that Caves was receiving welfare and had given the 228 South Broadway address as his home, and supplied it to the police as well.
Caves had been in the Maryland hospital in 1956, claiming to be 99 years old. He told the staff he came from New Mexico with money given to him by a minister. His next trip, he said, was to Washington, D. C. to see about his military pension. This was a story repeated in many of the articles, but he never received a pension because of the fact that he was never in the military or merchant marines.
He stayed for a full two weeks at the Maryland hospital and then just walked out one day. Although Caves claimed chest pains, the hospital had found nothing wrong with him, noting he ate “like a horse.” His two week stay in Room 528 was $400 which like dozens others went unpaid. Other bills were left unpaid as well. Exasperated Berman said, “I guess I’ll be sending mail back to the Post Office for him as long as I live.”
It seems that soon after this unwanted publicity, Caves was sent to stay at Delaware State Hospital Cemetery in New Castle. Many of the patients there were diagnosed with mental illness and a variety of disorders.
John Murile Caves died January 23, 1961, at the age of 79. He was buried in the Delaware State Hospital Cemetery and was given just a number to mark his burial spot.
According to Cris Barrish of WHYY, the cemetery “has 776 such cubes that are arranged in concentric circles in what’s now known as the Spiral Cemetery. A small and weathered stone angel with her hands clasped in prayer serves as a lone sentinel over the lost souls. Patients without families who would or could afford to bury them were instead laid to rest on site.”
With all the attention and publicity he had received for four decades, his nameless resting place belies the colorful, if not fabricated, and sometimes troubled life of an infamous wanderer.
Captain Harold Davis of the Oceanside Police Department kept several scrapbooks in which he placed newspaper clippings, letters, and photographs, some of which were graphic in nature. Throughout these books, he wrote personal notes and memories about a particular crime or accident, or about a fellow officer he enjoyed working with in his long career.
Included in the many pages of one scrapbook were two mugshots of a Thomas Happel, along with two newspaper articles from the local newspaper. In his photos, Happel does not appear to be a hardened criminal, but he may just be one of the few, if not only person, to successfully escape from the Oceanside jail.
On September 25, 1951, Motorcycle Officer Hubert C. Russell spotted what he thought was a suspicious vehicle at a local service station. He noted a small corner window of the car was broken, and then noticed two teenage girls seated inside the vehicle while a young man talked outside with an attendant. A closer inspection of the car revealed keys that were broken off in the door locks and as the officer peered inside, “a jumble of blankets, clothing and other items.
With the likelihood of the car being stolen, Russell made contact with the driver, Thomas Happel, and instructed him to follow him to the police station. Happel seemingly complied and drove dutifully the few blocks to the Oceanside Police Department, then located at 305 North Nevada Street.
After pulling into the parking lot, Officer Russell waited for Happel to park, but instead Happel put his car into drive and sped away. Happel traveled north on Freeman Street with Russell in pursuit, joined by fellow Officer Paul Ricotta. As he attempted to make a left turn at Eighth Street (now Neptune) and make his way to Highway 101, Happel ran off the road and hit a house. Unhurt all three occupants of the car emerged and fled on foot. An unidentified Marine witnessed the trio running, followed by two uniformed officers, and took action, heading off Happel and bringing him down “with a flying tackle.”
After taking Happel into custody, Oceanside Police discovered that Thomas Happel was an 18-year-old Air Force private who had gone “AWOL” from Lowery Fareli Field in Denver, Colorado. Walking away from his duty station, he stole a 1950 Ford and drove to his home state of Maryland, some nearly 1700 miles away. In Brooklyn, Maryland Happel picked up the two girls, ages 15 and 16, and obtained Maryland license plates for the stolen car, using a “phony registration slip.” Then the trio drove headed west, driving across the country while Happel cashed or wrote bad checks to pay for gas and food. Just before coming to California, Happel stole two wheels and tires in Arizona.
The girls were never publicly identified because of their age, and were taken to the Anthony House in San Diego and then returned to their parents in Maryland.
Happel was booked and placed into a cell in the Oceanside jail, which was located on the second floor of the police station. That same night Happel escaped from his cell by breaking a bar off the grating of a roof ventilator and squeezing through a narrow opening. The Oceanside Blade Tribune described the scene: “The opening he made at one end of the grating was about seven inches wide and 10 inches long. Happel is about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 130 pounds. The bar which he broke was not one of the original ones in the grating but had been welded on the cross-pieces after a similar escape attempt was once made through the opening.”
The account went on to say that “Happel must have had help from other prisoners in the cell block in order to get up to the ceiling and work the bar loose. When he had the piece of steel free, he used it to force the next bar over enough to get through.”
With Happel’s escape his list of charges continued to grow and the F.B.I. were now involved. On the run, Happel stole another car, a Cadillac, which he abandoned in Fontana, California. He apparently stole yet a third vehicle and made his way east.
Three weeks later the Oceanside Police Department received word that Happel had been apprehended by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and was in custody in Oklahoma City. The fugitive was caught after a traffic accident at Woodward, Oklahoma and apparently tired of running, admitted his identity to law enforcement.
It was reported that Happel would be made to return to Oceanside to face charges, including felony escape, but it seems he managed to “escape” extradition and perhaps served his time elsewhere. Thomas Happel, it appears, gave up his brief stint as an outlaw and went on to live a presumably quiet life in south Florida.
The scrapbooks of Harold Davis hold many more stories waiting to be told…
Boxing fans may be interested to learn about the history of the sport and the stories of two early boxers in Oceanside.
Fighters in the early 20th century like Jim Jeffries, Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey ignited interest around the country and filled arenas for both amateur and professional bouts. But shortly after organized matches were brought to Oceanside, boxing was banned here for two decades.
John L. Sullivan, a bareknuckle fighter who became the first American heavyweight champion in 1882, may have been the inspiration for Oceanside’s founder Andrew Jackson Myers. Myers, who was known to race a horse or two, was once featured in a local bout. The South Oceanside Diamond announced on August 10, 1888, that Myers would face the “Great Unknown” in a “grand slugging exhibition at the old Pavilion.” Spectators had to pay 50 cents to view the event, which also featured Myers’ son Joseph Myers and Charles Kolb in a bare-knuckle contest.
Local boxing enthusiasts were likely pleased when in 1908 the Oceanside Blade reported that the “Blake brothers have fitted up a gymnasium at the Mira Mar hotel for the free use of the young men of the town. The outfit is composed of a turning pole, swinging rings and trapeze. Some of the citizens intend adding a punching bag, boxing gloves, etc., which will make it very complete. The hall room is used for the purpose.”
Aloysius Cloud Thill, known as “Allie”, was one of the first local boxers to box professionally. He was the son of Andrew and Clara Thill who relocated to Southern California, along with younger son Francis around 1910.
Born October 29, 1898, in Buffalo, Minnesota, Allie Thill was both studious and athletic. He was the Vice President of the Freshmen Society at the Oceanside-Carlsbad High School and played on the school baseball team.
The elder Thill owned a popular barber shop for years and both he and his son Allie shared the occupation. The Oceanside Blade commented on Thill’s barbershop in 1914: “A. Thill recently placed in front of his tonsorial parlor on Cleveland Street one of the niftiest barber poles ever seen in these parts, it is of the rotary kind and when lighted up at night makes a fellow want to get shaved whether he needs it or not.”
In 1914 a group of Oceanside businessmen formed the California Social Club. Founding members included Hale Backensto and Andrew Thill. The club was formed for “educational and amusement purposes”. The source of amusement it seems was found in alcohol, which would find the club embroiled in controversy. But one other purpose of the organization was to hold boxing matches in Oceanside.
Hale Backensto, president of the Social Club, was in trouble for operating a “blind pig” or selling liquor without a license. He was arrested three times, and twice acquitted. He filed a $5,000 lawsuit against L. W. Stump, justice of the peace, and G. D. Love, constable for damages. Backensto’s arrests and subsequent lawsuit did not make him friends with the Oceanside City Council and Andrew Thill resigned from the social club.
Just before his 18th birthday, Allie Thill stepped into the boxing ring. He went by the name of Al Barber. The Oceanside Register shared some of the highlights of Al’s first fight against Fred Fadley on September 29, 1915: “Al Thill Wednesday night won an honor for himself and for Oceanside when be fought Fred Fadley in a four round go at the Field rink in San Diego. Although the fight was a draw Thill did splendid work and had fearful odds, his opponent being a trained fighter. Thill was supported by a score of local fans, whose voices were heard above the other 800 members of the audience. He won the favor of the whole crowd when he started the bout with an aggressive campaign against his opponent, giving him three punches for every one he received in the first round. In the second. Thill easily doubled the points over Fadley, but owing to lack of training, he tired out before the finish. With remarkable cleverness the local champ held off the well figured out blows of the San Diego fighter, but at two or three occasions failed to grasp opportunities to lay his opponent on his back. Had it not been for this, he would doubtlessly have been given the decision.”
Thill certainly made an impression, especially since he had started boxing only a week prior to his first match! Given direction by W. A. Roche, a member of the notorious California Social Club, Al Thill quickly became a local favorite, known for his heavy punch.
The excitement of Thill’s prowess and future success brought boxing to Oceanside when the following month several bouts were held at Mildred Hall on North Tremont Street. The Oceanside Blade reported that “Frank Fields of San Diego, outboxed Charlie Tapsico, an Oceanside product, for three rounds of what was to have been a four-round bout.” (Charles Tapsico was an amateur boxer only and a mechanic by trade.)
Summaries of the other bouts were as follows: “Red Gardner stopped Blacky Sandow in two rounds while Billy Howard performed the same service for Billy Patton in the third. Al Barber secured the decision over Shano Rodriguez of Tia Juana, the contest going four rounds in one of the bouts.” The article concluded with the sensationalized detail that “there was a satisfactory amount of gore visible to satisfy the fans and the crowd seemed to have obtained the worth of the fifty and seventy-five cents charged for the seats.”
Despite the previous lawsuits and scandals, in November of 1915 the California Social Club held a subsequent boxing match in Oceanside promoted by Frank Fields, former boxing champion and promotor of San Diego.
In March of 1916 Allie Thill began training with Frank Fields. Thill and Fred Fadley fought again the following month at Oceanside’s Mildred Hall but once again the bout ended in a draw. The fight drew over 100 attendees who also saw other matches, one with locals Frank Mebach and William Patton, followed by Joe Lopez who outboxed the Oklahoma Kid, and then another draw between Windy Briley and Shining Oscar.
Al Thill would finally get his first winning decision on April 29th in a four-round match against “Young Sandy.”
On June 10, 1916 Thill as “Al Barber” faced Joe Berry, known as the “Italian Crackerjack” in Oceanside. The Oceanside Register announced the bout touting both fighters: “Berry has a knock-out punch that has set many other fighters to flee and young Barber’s courage in taking him on will win still higher praise among his many local admirers.”
At the height of enthusiasm and growing excitement of boxing matches, sanctioned or hosted by members of the now defunct California Social Club, the Oceanside City Council put an end to any and all future bouts. In July of 1916 they passed Ordinance No. 226 “Prohibiting the Holding of Sparring or Boxing Exhibition for Profit.” The ordinance read “Any person, who, within the corporate limits of the City of Oceanside, California, engages in or instigates, aids, abets or does any act to further any contest, sparring or boxing exhibition between two or more persons, with or without gloves, for prizes, reward or compensation, directly or indirectly, or who charges, receives, accepts, gives or takes any ticket, token, prize money, or thing of value from any person or persons for the purpose of seeing or witnessing any such contest, sparring or boxing exhibition —- shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not more than $300.00 and be imprisoned for a period not to exceed three months or both such fine and imprisonment.”
Nonetheless, the Oceanside Register announced on October 20, 1916, that “Thill the Barber here, is soon to return to the boxing game. He is known as Al Barber and will meet Sandy from ‘Frisco. They are both said to be in first class condition and are about equally matched, so it ought to be a good fight.” Due to the ban, this fight was likely not held in Oceanside.
Thill’s professional boxing career was interrupted in 1917 when he entered the Navy during world War I. Stationed in San Francisco, he met and married Cecilia Goodwin of Napa. (This marriage ended in divorce, but Allie married again in 1926 to Ethel T. Vesely by whom he had two children.)
Although it appears his boxing career was well behind him, in July of 1919, Thill took to the ring again to entertain spectators in an exhibition held at the Oceanside Beach. The Oceanside Blade reported: “Saturday’s amusements under the supervision of W. H. Trotter were enjoyed by a crowd almost as large as that of the day before and consisted of music, dancing, sparring matches, rodeo, ball game and other sports.The boxing took place at the new band stand on the beach. Al Barber, the “Pride of Oceanside,” sparred four rounds to a draw with Kid Dillon of San Diego. Frank Fields and Battling Clark went four fast rounds, also to a draw.”
In 1924 Thill took over his father’s barbershop which had relocated to the basement of the Palace Hotel on North Hill Street (which his father built). He and his wife Ethel raised their two children, LaGloria and John (known to friends as Gloria and Jack), in a home located at 801 Alberta Street. Thill remained a sports enthusiast, hunting, golfing, playing billiards, and was one of the founders of Oceanside’s annual rough water swim. Active in a variety of local organizations, he served as commander of the Disabled American Veterans.
Al Thill died in 1962 and was laid to rest in Eternal Hills Memorial Park. His son Jack was proud of the fact that his dad never lost a professional fight.
Another Oceanside resident who stepped in the ring and went professional was George Webler, better known to boxing fans as “Battling Doty.”
The son of Thomas and Mary Webler, George Napoleon Webler, born in Kankakee, Illinois in 1903, was one of six children, and the oldest of three sons. George was named after his paternal grandfather, George A. Webler, who arrived in Oceanside in 1904 and operated a restaurant in downtown Oceanside.
Thomas Webler supported his large family by working at the Oceanside-Carlsbad High School as a custodian and groundskeeper. The Webler children all attended Oceanside schools, both grammar and high school. The boys were athletic and known for the prowess in foot racing and particularly baseball.
Although George Webler was skilled with a bat, he was just as well known for his fists. William Reid Couts remembered him all too well. “I remember George Webler; [he] was two grades ahead of me. He used to beat me up pretty nearly every day. I always had a girl, you know, and Doty would want to take her away from me. I remember one time he was on top of me, beating the hell out of me, one of the teachers took him off of me.
“Doty was just a nickname they gave him; George was his first name. If you looked up his records for his fight, it was Battling Doty. He was a middleweight, I think he was a welterweight to start, but he wound up a middleweight.”
George Webler did not graduate high school but instead, at the age of 17, joined the Navy. The Oceanside Blade reported on July 24, 1920, that, “George Webler has signed up as a jacktar in Uncle Sam’s Navy.” A jack tar was a term used to refer to seamen of Britain’s Merchant or Royal Navy, but by World War I it was also used for those in the U.S. Navy. The following week Webler left for training at Goat Island, San Francisco.
Webler’s time in the Navy was short because by 1921 he was back on the local Oceanside baseball team, where he played off and on for three more years.
By 1922 Webler went from a street fighter to a professional one, using the name of “Battling Doty”. In November of that year the Santa Ana newspaper reported that Battling Doty of Wintersburg was scheduled to fight Joe Riley. (Wintersburg is a small area or neighborhood near Huntington Beach, established largely by Japanese. It is unknown how or why Webler became associated with Wintersburg, he possibly lived there for a brief time.) In Oceanside he was a local favorite and by all accounts he was a powerful puncher.
Webler lost his debut match with Riley on a technical knockout on November 15th but came back two weeks later in a rematch and won. A bout with Kid Tex ended in a win for Webler but he lost to Babe Orton in San Bernardino on March 1, 1923. Webler’s boxing career seesawed, with 28 wins, 26 losses and 7 draws. (Stats from boxerlist.com)
William Reid Couts, who spoke at length with his run-ins with Webler recounted vividly: “Man, that guy was ornery, even when he grew up he was ornery. Mean! I went to Escondido to see him fight one time, that’s when he was on his way down –when booze and women got him. He was a good fighter, Doty was. I seen him fight a couple of times. He fought everything in the west coast, the middle west. He was big time. But you just can’t battle that booze.
Webler was in Escondido for a scheduled fight in 1924. Couts recalled an encounter with Doty before the match: “I went over to Escondido and I walked in his dressing room, before Doty had this fight and he shook hands, ‘How are you?’ and all that and all of a sudden, WHAM, took me in the kidney, just WHAM. No reason, absolutely no reason at all. A professional fighter whacking you in the kidneys, they know where to hit, you know. So I picked up something, I think it was a chair. ‘I’m going to brain you, you son of a bitch.’ He said, ‘Come on, can’t you take anymore?’ ‘You watch your step,’ I said. I always told him, ‘Someday I’m going to kill ya.’
From January to April of 1925 Doty dominated in the ring. He won seven consecutive bouts, two by knock out.
In March of that year Webler married Ruth Chambers of San Diego. The marriage however was short-lived. Ruth filed for annulment on the grounds that she was underage when the two married. She was just 16 ½ years old at the time of their nuptials. A judge granted the annulment in June 1925.
That year Doty fought seventeen matches professional matches, winning eleven, five of them consecutively; two ended in a draw. He fought three opponents in just as many days in exhibition fights, which were just as long and grueling. In 1926 his win record was eight out of fifteen, with two draws. In 1927 Webler won just three out of eleven matches and was knocked out twice. His boxing career ended just after five years but his sixty-one professional fights, and numerous exhibitions took a toll.
Webler was working as a taxi driver in San Diego in 1928 and 1929. Perhaps his hard drinking caught up with him, along with the many hard punches his embattled body would have taken. Local newspapers circulated the sad story that he attempted to take his life by “inhaling gas in his room at 1334 Front Street.” He was taken by police ambulance and transported to the “psychopathic ward.”
He recovered and was released from the hospital but his life continued in a downward spiral. In 1930 he was arrested and found guilty of first-degree burglary while in Los Angeles. He was sentenced to 1 to 5 years and sent to San Quentin Prison on November 22nd. Paroled in 1934 and discharged from supervision in 1936, Webler stayed in Northern California after his release. He worked as a shoe shiner along the Embarcadero in the 1940s.
Unaware from his fall from grace, William Reid Couts, who had been the target of Webler as a young man, was still confounded by his assaults. “The last time I ever saw Doty I told him, ‘The day will come when I’m going to knock you from here to yesterday.’ Last I heard he was a merchant sailor.”
Then perhaps thinking of George’s probable age in 1987 (the year of his interview) added: “But he’d be 82, so I might not do it! But believe me, I might think about it if I see him!”
Couts was unaware of Battling Doty’s fall from grace, and his death which had occurred two decades previous. George Webler died May 31, 1966 in his hotel room at the Lincoln Hotel at 115 Market Street in San Francisco. Records indicate his cause of death was fatty degeneration of the liver, perhaps due to long term drinking. His sister Lillian Webler Newton paid his funeral and cremation expenses.
The City of Oceanside repealed the ban on boxing in June of 1938. The small town of Encinitas was featuring boxing every Thursday night and proved to be quite popular. Subsequently Councilmember Ted Holden stated at meeting that he had been approached by a “responsible party” about holding boxing matches of a “professional character”.
City Clerk John Landes informed him of the 1916 ordinance and an additional 1930 ordinance banning matches except those under the auspices of the American Amateur Union. Rather than amend the previous ordinance it was suggested a new one altogether and to update others as it was pointed out that there was an ordinance forbidding “a speed of more than 8 miles an hour for motor vehicles.”
Later that summer Jim “Dynamite” Dawson and Herb ‘‘Dangerous” Dunham faced each other in a three-round boxing bout at the beach.
In 1941 Oceanside’s Recreation Park hosted exhibition boxing. On August 29th the main event featured a three-round battle between locals Johnnie Dominic “The Vegetable King” and “Hit ’Um” Eddie Hubbard.
Amateur boxing matches were featured at the Oceanside Athletic Club shortly after it opened in 1949. (Wrestling, however, proved much more popular.)
Lee Ramage, a native of San Diego, moved to Oceanside in 1950. In 1931 he was the Light Heavyweight Champion of California and fought 105 fights over his nine-year profession career. At the peak of his career, he was ranked in the top five of heavyweight boxers. Most notably he fought Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, TWICE. In his first meeting with Louis in Chicago in 1934, Ramage held his own for seven rounds, but Louis won by TKO. Three months later they fought again in Los Angeles with the same result. Ramage operated a gas station/grocery store and trailer camp at 1624 South Hill Street (Coast Highway) in the 1950s.
Oceanside was thrilled to host Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson in 1958. Patterson stayed at a local hotel and trained at the Beach Community Center for his title bout against Roy Harris. Patterson was accompanied by his trainer and manager, the legendary Cus D’Amato who would train boxer Mike Tyson years later.
Ham Ging Lung was born in Canton, China in about 1855 and was known by the more “Americanized” name of Sam Wing. He came to this country with his cousin Ah Quin sometime between 1874 and 1879. According to newspaper reports both Ham Ging Lung (“Sam”) and his cousin “performed manual labor for many years before getting ahead in this world.”
It wasn’t an easy road to success. There was a real anger and hatred of Chinese, particularly in California. Even though the Chinese played an enormous role in building the Transcontinental Railroad, they were considered “undesirable” and viewed with disdain. Although useful for hard labor, working arduous hours for little pay, Chinese immigrants were seen as a threat. Because they were paid lower wages than their white counterparts (through no fault of their own) they were accused of taking jobs from whites. In response to what was perceived as a growing problem, President Chester A. Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It halted Chinese immigration for a ten-year period and prohibited Chinese immigrants to apply for naturalization.
Then in 1892, California Congressman Thomas Geary introduced The Geary Act which extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for an additional ten years. In addition, it required Chinese residents to carry documentation, “certificates of residence”. If caught without this documentation, Chinese immigrants could be sentenced to hard labor and/or deportation.
Because of these laws, Chinese had to be smuggled into the country. (Chinese women had been banned in 1874). The Chinese were looking for work and their counterparts were looking for cheap labor.
Despite the unfavorable social climate, Ham Ging Lung (sometimes misspelled as Hong Gim Lung) immigrated to the United States, but nothing is known of his early years or his journey here. He first “settled” in San Diego and eventually made his way to the new town of Oceanside, which was established in 1883. In 1885 Wing purchased four lots on North Myers Street from Oceanside founder Andrew Jackson Myers. He eventually purchased a “truck garden” and sold his produce to locals. Wing also operated a laundry business on North Cleveland Street and offered Chinese merchandise including children’s toys.
Sam did well enough to regularly advertise in the local paper. An ad from 1888 in the South Oceanside Diamond contained the following text: “Help of all kinds constantly on hand. Officeof Employment and Information Bureau. Will contract to furnish any number of men, for all kinds of work.“
Intelligent and industrious, Wing was so successful that he was included on a list of the top taxpayers in the city. He was also one of the stockholders of Oceanside’s first pier (called a wharf). In December of 1888 Wing purchased a $400 lot near the Oceanside wharf and from there continued to buy other lots. He owned a home on the 700 block of North Tremont Street. Wing expanded his real estate holdings in 1907 by leasing 100 acres with a well from the South Coast Land Co. The Oceanside Blade reported that Wing would install a 24-horse power gasoline engine “and the land planted to potatoes and cabbages.”
However successful Sam Wing appeared to be, it was clear to many that he made more money smuggling men and opium. He was on the radar of local law enforcement and was suspected of running an “opium den”. In March of 1888 Marshal Charles C. Wilson raided Wing’s establishment and “arrested three Chinamen in a stupid condition.” Ironically, two white men were said to have “escaped in the darkness.”
Someone allegedly tried to murder the wealthy “Laundry Magnate” by poisoning him with strychnine in 1906. According to the Blade newspaper, after smoking his pipe one evening, Sam “took a few swallows from a bottle of Chinese gin” which he kept on a table by his bed. He noticed the intensely bitter taste and beginning to feel badly sent for Dr. Wall.” According to the doctor, the bottle contained enough strychnine crystals to kill 150 people. Wing was treated and made a full recovery, but he was robbed of $8.50, and his watch was stolen.
Wing attended a meeting of the city trustees in March of 1909 wherein he petitioned a reduction in his water bill, asking for the same courtesy extended to another resident, and none other than a city trustee. Sam’s appearance before the council was newsworthy and used as an opportunity to mock his English, with the headline “Pidgin English in Copious Flow, Trustees Addressed by Sam Wing, Eloquent Grower of Vegetables.”
Then the newspaper recounted the story in detail, taking the opportunity to hold Wing in esteem and ridicule him at the same time.
“Sam was paying more taxes than any man in Oceanside and the board could not refuse him a hearing. Sam paid his taxes regularly, never being delinquent a cent, but he learned that in several instances water taxes had been rebated to favorites of the council. An Englishman had induced the council to return to him half the water taxes he had put up. A trio of citizens who didn’t like the way the council was running things, took Sam in hand and rehearsed him for the part he was to play.
“On the night of the meeting, for the first time in his life, Sam wore a white, stiff collar and necktie. He was attired in a long black coat and his shoes were polished. The Chinaman, abashed for a few minutes, soon recovered himself and the criticism he hurled at that council made the ears of the members uncomfortably warm.
“Big high-tone Englishman,” shouted the Oriental, “he come to see ’bout water tax. He give you nodding an’ you give him half back! My same as cooley me pay eve’y cent. You dam’ fools you fool you-se’f.”
“One member suggested that Sam be ejected, whereupon Sam pointed an accusing finger at him. “How much you pay?” Sam demanded. “How much watah tax you pay? Let me see in book how much you pay.”
It is unknown if the council relented to Sam Wing’s passioned appeal.
Likely due to his notable wealth, Wing was robbed again in November of 1909 when Albert Page, a fisherman working for the McGarvin brothers, entered his house and stole two tourmaline gemstones or crystals, and an “opium smoking outfit.” When arrested and charged, Page confessed to the theft. They recovered one of the stones and Wing’s opium pipe along with two bowls which were turned over to the constable.
That same week Oceanside resident A. M. Matthews complained to the city the Wing’s dogs were a menace to public safety and the Marshal was ordered to have the dogs chained or destroyed.
Then in 1911 the Oceanside Blade reported that “Ham Ging Lung, locally known as Sam Wing, is being sought by the officers in connection with the seizure of ten cans of opium in Los Angeles Thursday of last week. The opium was concealed in a box of clams shipped to Yee Sing & Co., Chinese merchants of the Angel City and a letter captured by the officers with the box is said to have connected Sam Wing with the shipment.”
Newspapers in Los Angeles later announced charges of smuggling opium against Wing, and of his arraignment in the United States District Court. The Herald also noted that Wing conducted a “laundry at Oceanside” and that the “goods which he is alleged to have handled was seized at the Yee Sing company, 322 Marchessault Street (which was in Los Angeles’ Chinatown).
Sam was sentenced to a four-month jail term and given the notorious title of “King of Opium Smugglers” in the Los Angeles Herald. The article went on to say that Wing had confessed to officials and implicated others in the smuggling ring.
After Wing’s release from jail in February of 1912, another smuggling arrest was made and this time the newspapers reported that an unnamed law enforcement officer was involved in smuggling of “coolies”, saying the “possibility that more than one of the San Diego officials may be mixed up in the business is strongly hinted at by the local Immigration inspectors, who intimate that arrests may be expected at any time.”
Despite his arrests, Sam Wing was still highly thought of by many and in some regards well respected.
Chinese immigrants were sometimes buried in temporary graves due in part because they had intended one day to return to China and reunite with family members. However, if they died in the States (and abroad) many wanted their remains returned and buried in their homeland China. Even after several years, the remains would be exhumed, the bones cleaned and packaged, and then shipped to China. Because of his renown and status in the county, in 1913 Sam Wing supervised this careful and solemn ritual, tasked with the disinterment of three of his fellow countrymen who had been buried in an Escondido cemetery.
In January of 1914 Wing, who was well known throughout San Diego County by friends, customers and law enforcement, was featured in the San Diego Union along with his likeness. The inclusion of a photograph was not a common one, and this rare image was proof of Sam’s renown. However, while regaling his accomplishments and his net worth of $250,000 (touting him as the richest man in Oceanside), the article included derogatory slurs and made fun of his broken English. When the article was published in the Oceanside Blade, the headline read: “Alle Same Sam Wing Rich Man”.
The article provided Wing’s Chinese name of Hong Gim Lung, and noted his status as “pioneer Chinaman of Oceanside.” It went on to say that after arriving in San Diego forty years ago, Wing was “the owner of lands and ranches, town lots and other property, besides being heavily interested in Chinese mercantile houses in various coast cities.” And then, “He is nearly 70 years of age and still is a hustler.” It is assumed this is meant as a compliment. The article goes on to say, “He ascribes his financial success to his accumulation of land, together with his abstinence from the use of opium. His first savings went to buy an interest in a truck garden and he has been purchasing lands ever since. He has a fine sense of humor and likes to be in the company of white men. Of his deeds of charity hundreds of stories have been told, and it has been said that no person in need ever left Sam’s house without being given relief.”
The short-lived newspaper the Oceanside Record published what they touted as Sam Wing’s “orphic sayings” which included the following:
“Me just Chink, that’s all —all same coolie, but pay my debt to ev’ybody. Some high tone people no pay ’em’ up debt.’’ “When I live in China I got no shoe on foot —poor all time. Come to Oceanside an’ make ’em money. I no go back to China.”
Just days after the articles on Sam Wing appeared in the local papers, he reported to City Marshal Love “that a man on a white horse (another account said it was gray) shot and killed his favorite dog.” Included in the brief article was the following statement: “The Blade considers this a shame. It is known who the man is, but it is difficult to convict without more absolute proof.” Was this in retaliation of some sorts? Out of resentment? Was it A. M. Mathews who had complained just a few years earlier?
Ah Quin, Wing’s beloved cousin, died in February of 1914. Quin’s obituary stated that he was a “wealthy pioneer merchant of San Diego’s Chinese quarter.” The San Diego Union reported that Sam Wing brought a car load of carnations and other flowers from Oceanside for the funeral.
Then in March of 1914 Sam Wing was arrested by Immigration and Government officers and taken to Los Angeles by train after a prisoner turned state’s evidence against Sam. The Blade reported “unauthenticated rumors of a rancher, while carrying a lantern at night, being fired at by a boat at sea” and “a number of Chinamen being landed near here on Monday night.”
A month later Sam Wing along with Oceanside residents Clinton Culver and William E. Freeman, were indicted by a Federal grand jury. Culver and Freeman were accused of being in charge of the Chinese during the smuggling operation and Sam Wing was described as “the Oceanside Chinese who has been a thorn in the flesh of the immigration authorities for years.” While awaiting trial in Los Angeles, it was reported that Sam was doing laundry in jail and making $48 a month.
Both Sam Wing and Clinton Culver, a former deputy constable, were convicted of smuggling and sentenced to 18 months at McNeil’s Island in Washington. It was known as the Alcatraz of Puget Sound. Due to Wing’s then failing health, a petition for pardon signed by numerous residents of Oceanside was sent to President Woodrow Wilson but never acted upon. The harsh conditions of prison life took its toll and Sam Wing died in prison on May 30, 1915. His accomplice Clinton Culver had been paroled just 15 days earlier.
Sam willed his Oceanside property consisting of eights lots and his house on Tremont Street to his cousin Hom Ging Choy. His laundry business was sold.
One wonders if the remains of Ham Ging Lung aka Sam Wing were sent back to his homeland by his countrymen where he could be buried there and reunited with his family members.
Oceanside’s infamous adult club is no more. Demolition crews have torn down the Main Attraction and surrounding buildings. While a strip club and its clientele may be a loss to some, an eyesore to most, and a curiosity to others, the building dates back to the early 1940s and has an association with some of the biggest acts in Country and Western music.
Once owned by notable resident David Rorick, the two acre parcel of land had a small building fronting the west side of the coast highway. This building was leased or rented to William L. D. Hamilton and George A. Strahan, who operated Red and Bill’s Café. (Behind their café was a large vacant lot which was used for several years as a baseball field. It also served as the location for a traveling circus in the 1940s.)
“Bill” Hamilton and his wife Minnie lived in Los Angeles during the early years of the Depression, where Bill worked on the California Aqueduct as a cook. In 1935, Minnie Hamilton moved to Carlsbad to help take care of her ailing grandfather. Bill soon followed and began working as a cook at the Bridge Café, located near the San Luis Rey River Bridge on Highway 101 north of Oceanside.
While Bill Hamilton was working at the Bridge Café, he met George “Red” Strahan. The two decided to go into business together and opened a café of their own. In 1946 Hamilton and Strahan purchased the land on which their restaurant stood at 939 North Hill Street. Their café was so successful, they opened another in Solana Beach.
In July of 1948, the partners sold their café property to John and Mary Vieszt, who just three years later, sold the property to R. G. Hunter, a resident of Vista. It was likely at this time the building at 939 North Hill/Coast Highway was substantially enlarged. On May 1, 1952, with George Duros as the new proprietor, “The Wheel” held its grand opening featuring The Valentines, an “all girl orchestra” as entertainment. The Wheel, soon to be renamed the “Wheel Club” served food and cocktails with live entertainment and dancing. No longer just a small café, it became a popular night spot on the Highway 101.
The nightclub was not without scandal. In 1956 its then manager Jerome Apelby was arrested for showing obscene material. Described in local newspapers as a coin-operated “peep hole moving picture machine featuring five pornographic movies”, it was confiscated by police on November 2nd. At a hearing the films were shown on a screen in a courtroom and deemed “not decent by any stretch of the imagination.” Apelby was found guilty, fined and given a suspended jail sentence. In response, the club was declared “out of bounds” by military personnel at Camp Pendleton. The Alcohol Beverage Control department revoked the alcohol license due to the conviction and owner R. G. Hunter foreclosed for failure to pay rent.
In 1957 Jimmie (sometimes spelled Jimmy) Brogdon began operating the Club. Jimmie Clarence Brogdon was born in 1929 in Hornersville, Missouri. He was the third child of Clarence and Mary Irene Brogdon. Jimmie’s father, a piano salesman, was murdered over a heated business dispute in 1933 when Jimmie was just 4 years old. Mary Irene Brogdon moved her four children to Southern California in the mid 1940’s, and Jimmie attended his senior year of high school in South Pasadena in 1947.
Brogdon was living in Escondido in 1954 and it was there he played piano for the band “Hidden Valley Boys” at the Squeaky’s El Patio. The band played at the Wheel Club in September of 1954 and by 1957 Brogdon was managing the Wheel Club along with Milton Forester. Brogdon was successful in bringing notable acts to Oceanside, including Freddie Hart, who appeared on a weekly television program, along with Merle Haggard, Little Jimmy Dickens, Johnny Cash and the Maddox Brothers and Rose.
Known as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” the group consisted of four brothers, Fred, Cal, Cliff, and Don, along with their sister Rose. After leaving Alabama during the Depression, the Maddox family settled in Central California. Tired of endless hours of picking cotton to make ends meet, the Maddox siblings tried their hand at singing and by 1937 made their live radio debut when Rose was just 11 years old.
In the 1950s and 1960s Rose Maddox had over a dozen hits as a solo artist and four solid hits with legendary Buck Owens. She is considered one of the “grand dames” of traditional country music.
On December 7, 1959 Brogdon married country western star Roselea Maddox Hale in Las Vegas, Nevada. Lyle Duplessie wrote in 2015 biography of Rose Maddox: “Rose had met Jimmy Brogdon, owner of the Wheel Club in Oceanside. Brogdon was well connected in the music industry and his club regularly hosted such luminaries as George Jones, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, and the up-and-coming Merle Haggard. Brogdon would now host another star: Rose. It didn’t take long before Brogdon and Rose were in love.”
In an interview before her death Maddox said of her career in the late 1960s, “Times were changing. Nightclubs were using house bands instead of guest stars. We weren’t working as much. I found out I could make as much money as the whole family by myself. I had a son to support. I got married to a man in Oceanside. Jimmy Brogdon. He still lives in Oceanside. When I married him he was a nightclub owner. Now he owns half of Oceanside.”
Despite these claims, in 1959 Brogdon was living in a modest 700 square foot home at 410 Grant Street, behind Oceanside High School. However, by 1970, in addition to owning and managing the 101 Club, he was the general manager and owner of the Oceanside Ice Company on South Cleveland Street. In 1986 Brogdon stated that his company handled “between 50 percent and 75 percent of the cube ice delivery business in San Diego and Orange counties, providing 200 tons of block and cube ice per day to more than 1,500 convenience stores, markets and produce companies.”
Another star who performed at the 101 Club was Barbara Mandrell, a local girl who graduated from Oceanside High School in 1967. She performed with her family, The Mandrell Family Band, at various local nightspots and one of their first records was recorded in Oceanside. Barbara Mandrell would go on to be a huge star with several hits and a variety television show.
In 1971 Cpl Garry Lee Hanson was murdered outside the 101 Club after an altercation inside the bar. The City of Oceanside noted in a study that in a one year period a number of felonies had been committed at the Club, along with a dozen misdemeanors, a variety of reported crimes and an equal number of citations and violations.
But the City Council and planners were more concerned with the high concentration of crime in the downtown area, particularly what they termed “the honky tonk area”, establishments which were seen as “major deterrents to the revitalization of the downtown area, attracting prostitutes, drug peddlers, transients and other negative elements which produce a climate that seems to encourage crime.” The study presented in 1977, reported that in 1973, 47% of felonies and 51% of misdemeanors were reported in downtown Oceanside within a four to six block radius and arrests for felonies had increased 80 percent. So despite the declining reputation of the 101 Club, because it was outside of this “zone” it was not considered a public nuisance.
By 1979 the roadside club went from a Country & Western bar and restaurant to a disco called “First Edition”. An ad that ran in the Los Angeles Times that year seeking a part-time disc jockey and a fulltime promoter which went on to say “promotion [is] very important, unless experienced in promoting successful disco do not apply.”
Two years later the establishment was changed to “Francine’s” and advertised dancing and cocktails to “Top Forty” hits. One year later Francine’s introduced “Tuesday Night Ladies Only” which featured adult male entertainers, which was considered a novelty act at the time. Performers known as the Lone Ranger, Macho Man and Indian Jim were “regulars.”
Soon after its foray into adult entertainment, the club was renamed Pure Platinum, and featured female semi-nude dancers. Another name change occurred in the late 1980s when the club went by Dirty Dan’s, and lastly, in 1990 it was renamed The Main Attraction. Jimmy Brogdon dissolved his management company in 1987 and died ten years later on November 18, 1997.
For years people have mocked Oceanside for having such an establishment on Hill Street (aka the historic Highway 101) across from the Chamber of Commerce, no less. Some are now lamenting its inevitable demise. Regardless of its reputation, its association with country music is worth remembering.
If you’ve ever driven down South Freeman Street near Godfrey, which borders the Oceanview Cemetery, you might have seen and been curious about this vintage neon sign. It does seem an odd place for an electric sign. How did it get there and who is Ray?
Raymond (Ramon) H. Nolasco was born in 1918 in Brawley, California. He was the youngest child of Pedro and Barbara (Ayala) Nolasco, who immigrated from Mexico in 1913. By 1920, the Nolasco’s were living in Oceanside on South Hill Street, near Short Street (now known as Oceanside Boulevard). Pedro was supporting his wife and three small children working as a truck driver.
When Ramon was just three years old, his father died and his mother was left to care for and support her children. However, the family received assistance from local community leaders, and in particular four Oceanside women: Mrs. J. E. Jones, Julia Scott, Mrs. W. M. Spencer and Anna Bearhope all petitioned the county welfare office to have a small house built for the widow at 508 Godfrey Street.
Ramon and his siblings attended Oceanside schools and more than once he was noted in the local newspaper as being a good student, receiving “honorable mention” for his grades.
In about 1939 Ramon, now known as Raymond, married Barbara Arebalas. In 1940 he was employed doing roadwork and living at the same tiny house on Godfrey Street in which he was raised. That same year they welcomed the birth of their daughter Barbara.
Raymond later went to work for George Yasukochi, who was a “tenant farmer” on the Rancho Santa Margarita. In 1945 Raymond enlisted in the Army and was sent briefly to Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California. He was discharged in 1946.
Two years after his discharge, Raymond began working for the new Eternal Memorial Park Cemetery which opened in 1947. As a former servicemember, Raymond likely took the advantage of the VA home loan program, when in 1951 he built a house (directly behind his childhood home) on the corner of Freeman and Godfrey Streets.
While continuing to work for Eternal Hills, Ray apparently ventured into his own business and around 1956 opened Ray’s Radio & Television Service, which was located at 108 South Hill Street (Coast Highway). He was at the location just one year, when he moved his business next door to his home at 1217 South Freeman Street. It was likely at that time he erected the neon sign at his store front, which at that time could be seen by vehicles traveling on Hill Street (Coast Highway). While the business is no longer open, the sign remains at this location.
Ray continued operating his service repair store until the early or mid 1960’s, all the while maintaining his job as groundskeeper at Eternal Hills, then as Cemetery Superintendent, until his death in 1982. So beloved was Raymond Nolasco by the cemetery, that a water feature, “Nolasco Falls” bears his name.
For nearly all of his life, over six decades, Ray lived on the same “corner”; first on Godfrey Street and then on South Freeman. But from a humble beginning, Ray Nolasco made his mark on the history of Oceanside, both in neon and in bronze.
In late January of 1931, newspapers across the United States published stories with a similar rumor: That famed gangster Al “Scarface” Capone was bringing his mobsters to Southern California along with plans to purchase the Rancho Santa Margarita. The Los Angeles Times reported that if taken over by Capone, the vast property could be “fortified into an estate defying entrance, with a boat landing where liquor could be landed at will, defying Federal forces.”
Al Capone both terrified and captivated the Nation with his crimes and exploits. Two years prior Capone’s men were responsible for the deadly St. Valentine’s Day Massacre which killed seven men. Although he was not at the scene of the murders, it was believed he ordered it. He was then given the status of “Public Enemy Number One.”
The little town of Oceanside had a population of just 3,500 people. Residents enjoyed a quiet relationship with the owners of the Rancho Santa Margarita. The cattle ranch employed a number of locals and area farmers leased land to grow crops, including lima beans, sugar beets and alfalfa. This would seemingly come to a halt should the Rancho be under the control of the most infamous gangster in America.
Los Angeles law enforcement revealed that among various gangsters in the Southland included Frankie Foster, Baldy Nevins, Louis Frank, Bill Bailey and a brother of Ralph Sheldon. The men were said to be “all known hoodlums from the ranks of the gangster army.”
Charles S. Hardy, the general manager of the Rancho bordering Oceanside to the north, refuted the claims that Capone was buying the vast property. The Oceanside Blade published his statement: “We have had no call from agents relative to the sale of the rancho for some time,” said Hardy, “I am positive that neither Capone nor any of his men nor anyone representing him has ever made any overtures to purchase the holdings. I doubt very much that any of the Chicago gangsters ever heard of the ranch, much less started an attempt to purchase it.”
The Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores once belonged to Pio Pico, last Governor of Alta California under Mexican rule. Pico sold his interest to his brother-in-law, John Forster. After Forster’s death in 1882, the property was sold to Comstock silver magnate James C. Flood, who hired cattle rancher Richard O’Neill as manager. Some years after the death of James Flood, Richard O’Neill was given half ownership of the land, 133,440 acres. O’Neill gave his interest in the Rancho to his son Jerome. When Jerome O’Neill died in 1926, the rancho was inherited by his descendants who later hired Hardy to help manage it.
While Hardy’s statement sought to dispel the rumor of Capone’s interest in the Rancho, law enforcement was in fact “on the trail of men described as gangsters” who were associated with a series of recent crimes in Southern California. The Oceanside Blade newspaper reported that the suspects were believed to be members of the Sheldon gang, a notorious bootlegging gang in Chicago affiliated with Al Capone.
Despite Hardy’s denials, The Los Angeles Times reported “Heads of a local real estate firm are said to have reported three men representing themselves as agents of Capone recently offered $200,000 for an option on the ranch, which has an 18-mile ocean frontage and attempted to rush the deal before authorities could prevent it.” In another article, it was said that the men had a certified check ready to remit as a down payment.
Law enforcement believed a smuggling ring was particularly interested in the historic rancho because of the extensive ocean frontage it provided. “Long miles of unguarded coast line and Southern California’s easy accessibility to the Mexican border” were attractive to the “racketeers” and had in fact been used by smugglers and bootleggers for many years.
With the onset of Prohibition, boats were often used to transport alcohol that was smuggled from Mexico. The open coastline north of Oceanside was a perfect place to land small boats, and bootleggers made extensive use of the lonely beaches in landing their cargoes. Oceanside Police and other law enforcement were kept busy chasing bootleggers and confiscating liquor.
While authorities downplayed the Capone story near Oceanside, Southern California residents may have been surprised to hear that police admitted that “75 percent of the Hollywood speakeasies [were] under the control of a Chicago gang.” Bootleggers were assigned territories and promised protection as long as they agreed to purchase liquor from the gang. This takeover was described as an “octopus” with strength and muscle to control the area. The Times also reported that an “influx of Chicago, Detroit, New York, St. Louis and Kansas City gangsters” were an indication that Southern California would soon be a “smugglers’ paradise.”
Whether or not Capone was in the State of California, just two months earlier, Capone was blamed for what was called the “grape juice war” with California grape growers. It was alleged that Capone warned Fruit Industries, Ltd. to stop selling and distributing juice concentrate in Chicago, which could later be turned into wine and therefore compete with Capone’s illegal liquor sales. The Sacramento Bee reported that Capone had threatened that if sales were attempted against his orders that someone was “going to be bumped off”.
In Washington D.C. an elected official seeking legislation against Capone commented, “When Al Capone can go from Chicago to California and threaten the life of a man who is selling grape juice, something must be done.” Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation monitored the “grape juice war” and is included in the FBI files on Al Capone.
Los Angeles newspaper reporters claimed that they went to a ranch outside Los Angeles to an undisclosed location to speak directly to a man who identified himself as Al Capone (who told them not to divulge the ranch’s location). During the interview Capone denied involvement in the grape juice wars and instead blamed it on the New York mob.
Where was this ranch where Capone was residing in 1930? It may have been in Lancaster, California. Just days after the news that Al Capone had made an offer on the Rancho Santa Margarita, newspapers reported that there was a mob hideout in Lancaster, about 75 miles north of Los Angeles where bombs and weapons had been found. (It was later rumored but never substantiated that Capone also had a house in Fontana.)
Oceanside residents were rightfully concerned. What would happen if Capone took control of the Santa Margarita? Would local farmers lose access to their crops? Would gangsters seek control over the tiny beach town? Would access via the state highway through the Rancho be hindered? It was a lonely stretch of road that was even lonelier at nightfall.
Fears of the Rancho being taken over by gangsters subsided in February, when Capone was found guilty in Federal Court on a contempt of court charge and was sentenced to a brief stint in the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois.
However, in June of 1931, Homer Croy, a writer from Hollywood, resurrected the story in an article that he wrote for Liberty Magazine. The two page article declared that Al Capone had in fact “acquired a domain in California about two thirds as large as the state of Rhode Island, 35 miles from end to end and with many miles of seacoast.” A photo of Capone, along with a map of the Rancho Santa Margarita, was included.
Croy wrote that Capone would be well suited to Rancho life and that “horseback riding will do him good, for Al is getting overweight” and added, “Don Alfonso Capone can live on his hacienda, sit in his patio, and smoke and talk to his friends to his heart’s content about real estate.”
The Oceanside Blade Tribune suggested that Croy’s piece was fiction and “some good publicity” as the map provided in the article showed the San Luis Rey Mission and Oceanside’s proximity to the famed rancho.
And while Homer Croy’s article was written either tongue in cheek or for pure sensationalism, it didn’t matter. Liberty magazine boasted a readership of over 2 million, and was sold from coast to coast. The story of Capone purchasing the historic ranch once again attracted national attention and was front page news.
Charles Hardy once again went on the defensive, vehemently denying that the Chicago crime czar had purchased the property.
Whether Al Capone really attempted to purchase the Rancho Santa Margarita is unknown. But if so, Capone would never have a chance to pursue or close the deal. Just days after the Liberty Magazine story was published and circulated, Al Capone pled guilty to tax evasion and prohibition charges under the assumption he would serve a light sentence as before. But on October 17, 1931, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion and he would eventually be sent to Alcatraz. It was the end of his life of crime but he would long reign as America’s most notorious criminal.
Oceanside residents breathed a collective sigh of relief and a sense of normalcy settled back in. Little would change until a decade later when the historic Rancho became the largest military base in the country, training Marines for World War II.