When winter fell on old Benicia it left the town’s streets muddy and inconvenient, a problem that would persist well into the early twentieth century. On hot summer days dust proved a severe menace. In spite of this, the nuns who visited Benicia commended the town’s healthy and accessible location. When the gods of industry moved in, they impugned the atmosphere further with the emissions of a tannery, a cannery, and (eventually) a glue factory: when it comes to the smells of city living, we have little reason to be nostalgic. Benicia’s fans may have celebrated her Mediterranean climate and a landscape that recalled the Bosporus, but many of the visitors’ accounts I read described the town as being notably barren—imagine the blonde hills past Southampton extended across town in one golden mass until it meets the outer reaches of the Tule marshes, and you get a picture of the placid, almost Nebraskan emptiness of the place, broken up with not a scintilla of shade. “There isn’t a tree in Benicia,” claimed19th century military officer and literary wit George H. Derby. Derby was also underwhelmed by the social scene: in a letter called “Squibob in Benicia”, he hyperbolically recalls “looking from [his] airy chamber upon the crowds of two or three persons thronging the streets of the great city.” Still, Benicia became a respectable place to raise a family, and to educate young women and men. Well, a good place to raise a family if you could afford to: land and goods were exorbitantly priced here.
But these defenses notwithstanding, Benicia had its share of the infamy, sin, and ramshackle foolishness that made the nineteenth century fun, or, at least, fun to write about. The past is more than a mere venue for veneration; it’s also a chance to catalogue the inconveniences that no longer trouble our era.
Fans of Benicia history often boast of it as a city of many firsts. We’re the first city in Solano County, we had the first women’s college west of the Rockies, we had the first protestant church in California, and then, of course, we were the first capitol to be the…third capitol. But did you know that we also had the first murder trial in Solano County, and, the first murder conviction?
The first murder case was The People V. William Kemp. It concerned itself with the events of February 1, 1855. Kemp, a workman in a blacksmith’s shop, lived with a fireman named Thomas Sullivan. One night they began quarreling over “which of the two should cook their dinner.” Evidently, the politics of bean and biscuit preparation escalated into an armed conflict, when Kemp picked up his “Mississippi Rifle,” found Sullivan, and watched in revulsion (and, he would say, surprise) as the Mississippi Rifle exploded and killed Sullivan. Kemp was charged with murder. It’s a reasonable thing to suspect, as even Kemp admits that his gun was the fatal weapon. The man was acquitted; however, thus solidifying the 1850’s as either a period of incredibly faulty firearms, or unusually stupid judges. My source material neglects to mention whether Kemp suffered any wounds in his fortuitous explosion, but unless he went to court looking like Wiley Coyote after the fireworks go off, I’m going on the record to say there was something fishy going on.
The second murder was more just sad, a stabbing in the street precipitated by what amounts to little more than a missed horse ride. Perhaps to emphasize our family-friendly sense of decorum, the perpetrator, one Beverly T. Wells, was brought out to Martinez for his hanging, where 400 spectators attended. Before he died he said, “I commit myself to God, and die on amicable terms with all men.” This is odd, because a few seconds before that he had told the crowd that the chief witness against him was the real murderer; but I guess when the prospect of one’s death is inevitable, you try to end things on a good note.
Other events of a cruel nature followed: in 1864, 30 men at the barracks fell ill when their water supply was deliberately poisoned. In 1865 the body of a woman found burned to death in her whiskey store showed evidence of bludgeoning. Neither of these incidents led to any arrests. For the most part Benicia seems either to have buried its unwholesome side, or to have simply evaded one by being a prohibitively expensive, family-centered community. There were village drunks (and 11 different drinking establishments), scuffles in the streets, at least one prominent house of prostitution, and on Halloween even the most upright of local lads were known to pull some pretty hefty pranks: according to the documents I read, the most popular prank involved going around at night and stealing the gates off of people’s property. Evidently, our predecessors were a hardy bunch indeed.
Perhaps it this reverence for the family that brought about the eeriest story I encountered, the fable-like account of “Hastings’ Folly.” The story concerns one Daniel N. Hastings, a resident who established himself in Benicia as a young man, began a fairly prosperous butcher shop, and paid for the carriage of his family from back east. Gradually, Hastings became one of Benicia’s most prominent landowners, and 1881 he decided to build Benicia’s greatest private residence—no matter how maddeningly high the cost. On a superficial level the home was a brilliant success. It stood four stories tall with a 15-foot tower, had over 45 rooms, 88 doors and 85 windows. It had marble floors and a forest’s worth of exotic wood. A convoluted and dangerous-sounding heating system was installed, which included a 2,000 gallon tank kept on top of the home. The historian Richard Dillon claims Hastings spent $265,000 on furnishings alone.
But the trappings of wealth proved to be just those. The family dressed shabbily to save money, a fact which caused Hastings’ son a great deal of social strain during his terms at Harvard. Family life at home took a downward turn: even the finest strips of wallpaper can’t cover the threat of impending bankruptcy.
Tragedy struck the Hastings when their son William suffered a hunting accident that caused him the loss of an arm. William soon entered a period of great despondency that ended in suicide.
The family ended up moving out to a smaller home in San Francisco. They returned after the 1906 earthquake, but departed again soon after, leaving the home to their crippled son Ebenezer. Ebenezer pursued a gentle, withdrawn, Boo Radley-like existence, occasionally blaring his phonograph for passersby to hear. But he died young and lonely all the same.
After that, the building became a dormitory for boys, and, in 1937, the home was purchased and dismantled by a Vallejo resident. During the teardown, local newspapers ran ads enjoining locals to come to the property and save 70% on lumber, brick and pipe.
There’s one last story worth noting, and it concern’s the death of Benicia’s founder Robert Semple. According to Great Expectations by Richard Dillon, a thrilling, fun book questionably unencumbered with a bibliography, “some say” that Semple, believed to have died in horse-riding accident, was actually buried alive, and when he was disinterred, the ceiling of his coffin was scratched and splinters were found jammed under his fingernails. I can’t say whether this is true or not: but I will say that there are reasons to believe an elderly 6’ 9” man could incur a critical injury by falling from a horse.
A final note on Semple. He travelled to California with Lansford Hastings, a man who later established himself in Eastern Solano County. There’s nothing too noteworthy about this, other than that Hastings was the gentleman who gave the ill-fated Donner Party their itinerary.
He let them choose the menu.
Sources for my research include Richard Dillon’s Great Expectations, The 1879 History of Solano County by J.P. Munro Fraser, and various articles Jerry Bowen and Sabine Goerke-Shrode posted on http://www.solanoarticles.com. Many thanks to the Benicia Historical Museum for their assistance with photos for this article and issue!