Thursday, June 3, 2010

Last Public Lynching in California: But Were They Guilty?

by Cathy Scott

Handsome, popular and wealthy, 22-year-old Brooke Hart, the son of a wealthy department store owner, was the most eligible bachelor in San Jose. But that very good fortune made him a target for those seeking a shortcut to riches. Less than two years after the Lindbergh abduction -- and while the perpetrator of that crime was still on the loose -- Brooke became the latest victim of the epidemic of kidnappings for ransom that was sweeping the US. This time, however, the public wouldn’t wait for justice to be served: Within hours of the discovery of Brooke’s body, the suspected killers -- Jack Holmes and Thomas Harold Thurmond -- were hanged by an angry crowd in what would be the last public lynching in California.

The Harts were one of the foremost families in San Jose. Brooke’s grandfather had founded Hart’s Department Store in 1866, and under his son Alex it had become a local institution. It provided employment to hundreds, and nearly every family in the city shopped there. Brooke was Alex’s eldest son; he had worked in the store throughout his childhood, and he was expected one day to step into his father’s shoes and run the business. Soon after he graduated from Santa Clara University, his father appointed him junior vice president of the store and began grooming him to eventually take over the day-to-day operations. He also presented him with a light-green 1933 Studebaker President roadster.

It was when he drove his new roadster out of a parking lot near the store, on November 9, 1933, that Brooke was kidnapped. His captors drove him 10 miles out of town in his own car, then abandoned the Studebaker for a Chevy, shoved Brooke into the back seat, and drove to the San Mateo Bridge. Here, they ordered Brooke out of the car and hit him over the head with a concrete block, knocking him unconscious. They bound his hands and feet with wire and tied two blocks to his feet before pushing him into the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay. The tide was out, and there was just a few feet of water at the base of the bridge. The fall didn’t kill Brooke, who regained consciousness and thrashed about in the shallow water yelling "Help!" To finish him off, Thurmond shot at Brooke with a pistol until he stopped struggling.

Brooke’s disappearance was noticed almost immediately. He’d left the store five minutes before closing, at 5:55 p.m., telling his father he’d be back directly with the car, ready to drive him to a dinner party. The parking lot was only half a block from the store. By 6:15 p.m., when Brooke still had not shown up, it was obvious to his father that something was amiss. It wasn’t like Brooke to ignore an appointment. The family called Brooke’s friends and co-workers. No one knew where he was.

At 9:45 that night, the kidnappers called the Hart home and spoke to Brooke’s younger sister. According to court transcripts, the caller said, "We have your brother. He is safe, but it will cost you $40,000 to get him back. If you ever want to see him alive again, keep away from the police. We will phone further instructions tomorrow."

The family notified police, and an all-points bulletin was issued, instructing all law enforcement officers to be on the look-out for the Studebaker. Meanwhile, Hart’s employees scoured the streets in a desperate search for Brooke’s car. Later that evening, Perry Belshaw, manager of the San Jose Country Club where Brooke and his father were to have attended a dinner meeting that night, spotted a Studebaker parked at an awkward angle on the shoulder of a rural road with its headlights left on. No one was inside. He went home and telephoned the county sheriff’s department to report the abandoned car.

The sheriff himself responded to the call and confirmed that the car’s plate was registered to Brooke Hart. The family waited anxiously for further instructions from the kidnappers. On Wednesday the 15th, six days after Brooke’s abduction, Alex received a letter telling him to take the ransom money and drive alone toward Los Angeles in the Studebaker. Alex was willing to cooperate, but he had never learned to drive, so he had a large sign placed in the window of the department store that read "I cannot drive."

That evening the kidnappers phoned. Alex spoke to them, and managed to keep the caller on the phone long enough for police to trace the call to a phone booth in downtown San Jose. Officers swooped down on the location and arrested Thomas H. Thurmond as he left the booth. After some intense questioning, he opened up and described the murder, giving details of his accomplice. Early the next morning, Thurmond (pictured right) led police to a hotel where Jack Holmes, caught by surprise and wearing only his underpants, was holed up. He, too, confessed to the crime. The men, who were both from San Jose, were booked into the downtown county jail behind the courthouse on First Street.

Meanwhile, two weeks after Brooke Hart went missing, his body was discovered by duck hunters in San Francisco Bay, three miles south of the San Mateo Bridge where his killers had thrown him into the water.

When they learned details of Brooke’s fate from the radio and newspapers, the public were outraged. The San Francisco Chronicle reported, "The temper of San Jose citizens is still at white heat." People wanted justice, and they weren’t willing to wait for a trial, especially since rumors were circulating that the men might get off on grounds of insanity. The evening after Brooke’s body was found, an angry, hysterical throng of 5,000 gathered outside the county jail. Armed with a battering ram and a garden hose -- used to douse tear gas canisters that police threw out at the crowd -- the mob broke into the jail and dragged Holmes and Thurmond across the street to St. James Park. The terrified suspects were stripped, strung up and hanged from trees -- Thurmond from a mulberry tree and Holmes from an elm.

The feeling in the community was that the kidnappers had gotten what they deserved. This was reflected the next day in Oakland’s Post Enquirer, which prominently featured photos of the two men’s nude bodies hanging from the trees. The governor of California, James Rolph, earned himself the nickname "Governor Lynch" when he declared publicly that if it were up to him, he would release all kidnappers and murderers incarcerated at San Quentin and Folsom prisons in Northern California and deliver them to the "patriotic San Jose citizens who know how to handle such a situation." However, across the rest of the country newspapers reacted with horror to this extreme act of "vigilante justice," describing the mob as "bloodthirsty," "crazy" and "savage."

Seven men were eventually arrested and charged in connection with the mob violence, but no one was ever convicted. Since the lynchings, some have claimed the accused men were innocent, but no credible proof has ever been presented providing any reasonable doubt, and the case remains closed.

The story about the Brooke Hart case is included in the book The Rough Guide to True Crime by Cathy Scott.

Photos courtesy of TRUtv and Old Cars Weekly.

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