Before the 1933 lynch mob that shamed San Jose, there was the inept kidnapping and brutal murder that filled the South Bay’s biggest city with blood lust.
When they met in early 1933, Jack Holmes and Harold Thurmond found they completed each other. Holmes was a salesman working the South Bay for various oil companies. Thurmond worked at his dad’s gas station in downtown San Jose. Holmes had a roguish charisma. Thurmond took a severe blow to the head as a child that left him a little slow and highly suggestible.
Both men had jobs, which put them among the lucky ones as the Great Depression lurched towards its fourth year, but Holmes believed his high school crush would dump her husband and run off with him if he only had enough cash. He convinced Thurmond to stick up some oil company clerks as they made their employers’ cash deposits. The pair split nearly $1,400 from two robberies, but that still wasn’t enough to fund Holmes’ romantic aspirations: It was time that the duo moved up to kidnapping.
As Holmes planned this abduction, he fixated on the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. He felt it was as the perfect crime because the perpetrators were able to murder hero aviator Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month old son and still collect $50,000 in ransom money without getting caught (at least by 1933). Combing through newspaper society articles, he found a target that was just as prominent in San Jose as Lindbergh was nationally.
At 6 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1933, Holmes and Thurmond snatched local retail heir Brooke Hart out of a downtown San Jose parking lot near L. Hart & Son, the popular department store owned by his father, Alex Hart. With little interest in returning Brooke alive, the kidnappers didn’t have a place to stash him while they haggled over the ransom. However, they did come prepared with three 22-pound concrete blocks and 70 feet of wire clothesline that Thurmond bought before the kidnapping.
After nightfall, they drove Brooke onto the eastern span of the Hayward-San Mateo Bridge, which linked both sides of the Bay five years before construction of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges had even begun. They pulled over when they got out over the water and bashed in Brooke’s skull with one of the concrete blocks.
“They were pretty good blows and he (Hart) didn’t give us much trouble after that,” Thurmond recalled.
The kidnappers then tied Hart up with the clothesline, weighed him down with the blocks, and shoved him into the Bay. Fearing that he might have survived, they fired a few shots into the water after him.
Holmes and Thurmond’s first attempts at ransom notes were so full of secret codes and talk of masked men that FBI agents dismissed them as fakes. The kidnappers’ zeal for disposing of anything that linked them to Brooke Hart also left them with nothing to prove that they ever had him in the first place, and Alex Hart really wanted this proof before he was forked over a $40,000 ransom to anybody. Making things even more like something out of a Three Stooges short, Holmes and Thurmond demanded that Alex drive down to Los Angeles by himself to deliver the payoff unaware that the elder Hart didn’t know how to drive.
At 7 p.m. on Nov. 15, 1933, a desperate Thurmond called Alex Hart. The negotiations over how the ransom would be delivered dragged on so long that police were able to trace the call to the Plaza Garage on Market Street, just one block from the San Jose Police station. Police descended on the garage and caught Thurmond just as he was hanging up the phone. He confessed and Holmes was arrested later that night.
Holmes had dreamed of masterminding the perfect crime, but had to settle for committing what the Chronicle called “the most stupid crime in California history.” But the stupidity of Holmes and Thurmond’s criminal enterprise didn’t dampen the rage felt by the people of San Jose. The violence was so contagious that the entire town and even California’s governor would soon have blood on their hands.
In the next Yesterday’s Crimes: a look at the state-sanctioned lynching of Holmes and Thurmond, and its dreadful aftermath.