Yesterday’s Crimes: The State Sanctioned Lynch Mob

San Jose became the center of attention in the worst way possible when a mob stormed its jail and lynched two men from trees in 1933.

On Nov. 9, 1933, Jack Holmes and Harold Thurmond kidnapped 22-year-old department store heir Brooke Hart in downtown San Jose, bashed his head in with a cinder block on the Hayward-San Mateo Bridge, and chucked him into the Bay. They were arrested and confessed to the crimes on November 15, and the people of San Jose were pissed.  

But leaving the punishment up to the authorities didn’t seem like enough. Within weeks of the arrests, the Chronicle reported “lynch talk” coming out of San Jose, and stoked the fires with an editorial calling for hanging the killers “without the law’s needless delays, at the earliest date.”

The San Jose Evening News went even farther with an op-ed titled “HUMAN DEVILS” that read: “If mob violence could ever be justified it would be in a case like this and we believe the general public would agree with us.”  

One person who definitely agreed was California Governor “Sunny Jim” Rolph, who refused Santa Clara County Sheriff Emig’s request to send in the National Guard if a lynch mob tried to storm the jail and get the confessed murderers. Rolph even let it be known that he would pardon the lynchers.“I am not going to call out the Guard to protect the kidnappers who willfully killed a fine boy,” Rolph told reporters. “Let the law take its course.”

Things didn’t quiet down; on Sunday, Nov. 26, 1933 a pair of duck hunters found Brooke Hart’s half-decayed body near the Alameda shore. This was the moment that all hope in the case was lost. The mob outside the Santa Clara County Jail in downtown San Jose grew thicker once the news got out that the beloved Brooke Hart was definitely dead.

With no backup coming from the governor, Sheriff William Emig and 35 officers barricaded themselves in the stone fortress of a jailhouse with a stockpile of teargas grenades. Emig was confident he could hold off any mob.

But later that night, the riot commenced with a pair of gunshots from the crowd. Bricks and stones gathered from a nearby post office construction site were hurled at the jail’s edifice. The guards responded by firing their first barrage of teargas canisters into the crowd, which had grown to over 3,000 angry people since the siege began.

The mob fell back and waited for the tear gas to dissipate before mounting another attack. This time a gang of men charged the jailhouse gates with a 20-foot long steel pipe they had confiscated from the construction site. The deputies shot off another round of tear gas, but the mob just fell back again. They even turned a firehose onto the walkway in front of the jail to make the gas dissipate more quickly.

With the next attack, the mob employed two steel rods as battering rams. The jail’s doors caved in. Sheriff Emig was knocked out by the mob and other officers were sent to the hospital. The mob seized Holmes and Thurmond and dragged them into the palm tree-lined St. James Park across the street.

Thurmond was the first to hang. As the crowd hoisted him in the air, somebody pulled off his pants, exposing the confessed kidnapper’s genitals to most of San Jose. Someone tried to light Thurmond’s pubes on fire while he slowly strangled to death and the crowd chanted, “Brook-ie Hart! Brook-ie Hart!”

Holmes was a powerfully-built man. He fought against his aspiring executioners, but he couldn’t overcome everyone who wanted him dead. The crowd stripped him naked, teenagers beat on him with clubs, and women put matches out on his bare skin. A team of men placed the rope around Holmes’ neck and hoisted him aloft from the limb of an elm tree not far from the odd statue of martyred President McKinley standing over a cannon.

Hanging several feet above the ground, Holmes pulled himself up hand-over-hand, and started to slip the rope off his neck. The lynch mob lowered him so they could break his arms, and hung him again. As Holmes started to die, he lost control of his bladder and pissed down on the crowd as if giving a final fuck you to the people of San Jose. People laughed. Women held up their babies to see the dying man an entire city had conspired to kill.

The bodies hung there for a while illuminated only by the headlights of cars and photographers’ flashbulbs with clouds of teargas still wafting through the air. When Thurmond was finally cut down, crowds swarmed the park again to break twigs off the hanging trees as souvenirs.

When Governor Rolph was informed of the lynching he said, “This is the best lesson that California has ever given the country. We should the country that the state is not going to tolerate kidnapping.”

But Californians clung to the notion that the lynching curbed kidnapping when the opposite appeared to be true. There were ten major kidnappings in 1933. The next year, there were 18, with steady increases each year until the number ballooned to 37 U.S. kidnappings in 1938. If anything, the publicity from the hangings of Holmes and Thurmond served as an advertisement for the crime as well as a primer on mistakes to avoid.

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