The Passing of an Oak

Cover of “The Passing of an Oak.” Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

In 1905, workers in Monterey, California cut down a dead oak tree and tossed it into Monterey Bay. Perhaps they did not know that it was the most famous tree in the city’s history.

Three centuries before, on 3 December 1602, the expedition of Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno landed at the mouth of a creek in Monterey Bay. Vizcaíno’s mission was to locate safe harbors that the Spanish galleons could use on their voyages back from the Philippines, and this bay looked superb. The expedition’s chronicler, a Carmelite friar named Antonio de la Ascensión, celebrated Mass under the limbs of a large oak tree that stood near the creek. In his report, Vizcaíno noted the tree as an excellent landmark for future Spanish explorers.

Title page of “The Passing of an Oak”

Despite Vizcaíno’s glowing report, many decades would pass before the next expedition to Monterey, that of Gaspar de Portolá in 1769. Spain was now anxious to establish outposts in California before the empires of Russia and England could do the same. After many hardships, Portolá arrived overland on 24 May 1770. Junípero Serra sailed into Monterey Bay the following week, on 3 June 1770, and said Mass under Vizcaíno’s oak tree.

The oak tree was damaged by lightning in 1840 but remained otherwise healthy until 1903, when workmen repairing a culvert accidentally introduced salt water to the roots. The tree died the next year. (Our book’s foreword instead blames the tree’s illness on damage from engraving beetles, which are a type of bark beetle.) Let us charitably assume that those who cut down the tree in 1905 and unceremoniously threw it into the bay were ignorant of what the tree meant to the city.

Foreword of “The Passing of an Oak”

Fortunately, Ramón Mestres, the pastor of Monterey’s Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, heard what had happened and had the tree pulled from the water. With financial assistance from civic leader and philanthropist Harry Ashland Greene, the remains of the trunk were preserved with creosote and erected behind the cathedral. Greene also commissioned local craftsmen to make several chairs out of its branches, two of which he donated to the local parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West. One of the chairs was exhibited along with other Monterey products at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. The oak trunk remained on display at the Cathedral, along with a marble plaque, for many years until it deteriorated beyond repair. Several fragments of the tree are now preserved in local museums.

Page 1 of “The Passing of an Oak”

At this point, enter James A. Murray (1840-1921), a wealthy entrepreneur. According to his biographer Bill Farley, Murray was a “western iconoclast, a pioneering and dominating spirit, more comfortable in saloons than board rooms, who fought for wealth and mother country to his last breath.” Murray had made his first fortune in the mines of Montana, and proceeded to make further fortunes with investments across the United States. He established a second home in Monterey in 1904, and quickly took a keen interest in local history. Murray owned one of the three paintings by Léon Trousset depicting Junípero Serra’s first Mass beneath the famous oak tree. In 1908, to commemorate the lost tree, Murray commissioned sculptor Douglas Tilden to carve a tall granite Celtic cross with bas-relief portraits of Serra and Mission Carmel. The cross was erected near the original site of the tree and is now California Historical Landmark #128. (The Celtic design was a nod to Murray’s homeland of Ireland, where he feverishly supported the expulsion of the British and creation of an independent Irish republic.)

In 1949, the California Centennials Commission unveiled another historical marker a few yards away from the granite cross, this one commemorating Portolá’s founding of the Monterey Presidio in 1770.

The Vizcaíno-Serra Oak, late 1800s. At some point a plain wooden cross was set in the ground, bearing the date of Serra’s landing. Several different postcards were printed with views similar to this.

With all that as backstory, let us turn to today’s book, The Passing of an Oak. In 1909, Mary Murray, James’s wife, commissioned Paul Elder & Company to publish Mary Spence’s short poem about the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak. It is an elegant but slim volume: just seven stanzas of poetry, one stanza per page, in simple blue paper wraps. Remarkably, only twelve copies were printed, an almost comically small press run. Elder’s books were typeset by hand, and this was a lot of trouble to go to for just twelve copies. Surely it took longer to set the type than to print the twelve copies! If Mrs. Murray felt so strongly about printing Mrs. Sullivan’s poem and honoring her husband’s philanthropy, why did she print so few?

It’s unknown whether Murray first saw Spence’s poem and decided to publish it, or Spence wrote the poem upon commission from Murray. In any case, Mary Murray and Mary Spence must have been acquainted, and were perhaps even good friends. As you will read below, poet Mary Spence married well, and was ensconced in Monterey’s upper-crust society. The Murrays often vacationed in Monterey before moving there, and were donors to the local arts scene.

The granite monument as first erected in 1908, near where the oak once stood.

Mary Spence was born Mary Teresa Sullivan in San Francisco in 1863. Her father was Irish immigrant “Big John” Sullivan (1824-1882), who was a member of the pioneer Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party of 1844, the first wagon train to cross the Sierra Nevada during the expansion of the American West. He later was one of the five co-founders of the Hibernia Bank of San Francisco. Mary received a private education from a French governess, and later attended the College of Notre Dame in San Jose. In 1886 Mary married Rudolph B. Spence (1858-1913) of Monterey. Rudolph’s Scottish grandfather David Spence had married into Monterey’s Estrada clan, owners of the extensive Rancho Llano de Buena Vista, a large Mexican land grant in the Salinas valley. In due course Rudolph inherited a portion of the rancho. Mary did not pursue a literary career, content with occasional short poems, fables, parodies, and book reviews under different pen names. She died in San Francisco in 1920 and is buried next to her husband in the Monterey City Cemetery.

Close-up of the monument. Photo by Kevin Dayton, 2015.

The landscape where the oak once stood has been much altered since the late 1880s and does not resemble the period photographs shown here. The granite cross is located at the corner of Pacific St. and Artillery St. in Monterey (see annotated photograph below). There is no parking of any kind at that intersection, but turn right onto Artillery and then right again on Corporal Ewing and you will find a small parking lot. It’s also an easy walk from other historic buildings nearby, such as the Custom House (where the United States flag was first raised over California in 1846) and California’s first theater, at the corner of Pacific and Scott.

In 2015, a mural was unveiled along the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, depicting the oak as it was thought to look in Vizcaíno’s day. While the mural and the oak tree site are only about 50 yards apart as the crow flies, there is no direct way to get from one to the other: you must walk the long way around via Scott St.

The preserved remains of the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak at the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo
Close-up of the plaque underneath the preserved oak tree
Map of the immediate vicinity. The landscape has been much altered since Serra’s day, when the shoreline was much closer to the oak tree.
One of the chairs made out of fragments of the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak
2015 mural of the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak alongside the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail.
Historical marker commemorating the founding of Monterey by Portolá on 3 June 1770, located a few yards south of the granite cross.

The Boers and the Uitlanders

Cover of “The Boers and the Uitlanders”

Why did Elder & Shepard publish a book about a guerilla war in southern Africa?

In 1901 the southern tip of Africa was immersed in a conflict known as the Boer War. The belligerents were the Boers, pastoral farmers who were descendants of the original 17th- and 18th-century Cape Dutch settlers, and the British Empire. The Boers lived in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic, and the British controlled the Cape Colony. The Boer War was the culmination of more than a century of lesser conflict between the Boers and Britain, but the War’s immediate concern was who would control and benefit most from the lucrative gold mines in Witwatersrand, in the Transvaal. American engineer John Hays Hammond was plop in the middle of all this—along with his wife Natalie, the author of The Boers and the Uitlanders (1901).

Title page of “The Boers and the Uitlanders”

John Hays Hammond (1855-1936) was born in California, where his father had prospected in the Gold Rush. Perhaps this rubbed off on the young John Hammond, for he studied science at Yale, then mining in Freiburg, Germany, where he met and married Natalie Harris (1859-1931). He soon was a respected mining engineer, working for, among others, Senator George Hearst. In 1893 the Hammonds moved to southern Africa where John helped open new mines in Witwatersrand. The Boers were happy to reap profits from the gold mines, but resented the presence of the British and American prospectors, whom they called uitlanders (“foreigners”). By 1895 Hammond was managing Cecil Rhodes‘s gold mines and had become quite wealthy.

Natalie Harris Hammond, author of “The Boers and the Uitlanders” (courtesy Library of Congress)

It was then that history caught up with Hammond. Cecil Rhodes, Hammond, and others had formed the Johannesburg Reform Committee in the Transvaal in an attempt to secure basic rights for the uitlanders. The Committee was something of a sham, in that Rhodes knew President Paul Kruger would never accede to their demands, but his hope was that the British uitlander community would rise up against Kruger’s government. This did not happen, and after the botched Jamieson Raid of December 1895, most of the committee members, including Hammond, were arrested and thrown in jail. Hammond was one of four defendants who were sentenced to be hanged, but this was soon reduced to 15 years in prison, and later commuted entirely. Most of the ringleaders were shipped back to Britain, and the Hammonds returned to America in mid-1896.

The Boers and the Uitlanders, p3
Page 3 of “The Boers and the Uitlanders”

Five years later, on 9 January 1901, Natalie Harris Hammond gave a speech at the Century Club of California (a private women’s club in San Francisco), and the text appeared later that year under the Elder & Shepard imprint as a vanity publication. She begins with a short history of the Boers in the Transvaal and the subsequent tension as the uitlanders flooded in during the gold rush. Her villain is Transvaal president Paul Kruger, whose railroad monopolies charged the uitlanders outrageous fares, and whose taxes on uitlanders verged on extortion. But her views of the Boers themselves—as well as the displaced native peoples—borders on racist:

The natural disaffection of the Boer against any governing control became thus accentuated to a degree that brought open rupture, and the so-called “Great Trek” was the result. … With scant food and small supply of water, surrounded by hostile tribes, these dogged Vortrekkers pushed along through wasted of arid land, sweltering under a brazen sun by day, tented at night by a strange and silent sky. For more than twenty years they wandered on, in search of their land of Canaan, leaving solitary graves to mark their course; for privation, fever and native assegais [spears] claimed a heavy toll. …

In ceaseless fight against wild beasts and savages, the courage of the Trekkers became tinctured with cunning. Habits of cleanliness inherited from their Dutch forefathers, and the spirit of thrift which came from their French ancestry, were thrown aside as useless burdens on that long and painful march.

The Transvaal Boer of today was evolved, uncleanly, improvident, cruel to the weak, crafty with the strong, ignorant, superstitious, strong in family affection, but lacking attachment to any special locality. Honesty and truthfulness towards others were virtues unknown to him, for with others he had little or no dealings. …

Neither President Kruger nor his Boers had the education or experience which would enable them to work out the questions which arose when the Uitlanders came in. A very small percentage of the Boers could even read or write.

John Hays Hammond, Sr. (courtesy Library of Congress)

As one would expect, Hammond is hardly the impartial historian. The British and American uitlanders were there to extract immense wealth from the gold fields, and were not above treachery and warmongering to attain those ends: the riches they extracted was not going to stay in Transvaal to benefit the Boers. This was still the golden age of British imperialist colonialism, and Queen Victoria was still on the throne (she died 13 days after Hammond’s talk at the Century Club). And in fact, the Boers would eventually lose the Boer War in 1902, and with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging the Boer republics became part of the British Empire.

When John Hammond returned to the United States in 1896, he was now both rich and famous. He became a professor of mining engineering at Yale in 1902, and also served as a very highly paid general manager for the Guggenheim Exploration Company, making him wealthier than ever. He became active in the Republican Party and was friends with several U.S. Presidents, particularly William Howard Taft. He was announced as a candidate for vice-president in 1908, but did not get many votes at the convention. Hammond appeared on the cover on Time magazine on 10 May 1926.

John and Natalie Hammond are buried in the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Errors of Thought

Title page of "Errors of Thought"
Title page of “Errors of Thought”

This book is surely the strangest that Paul Elder ever published. It is the antithesis of the attractive, well-printed, easily-read giftable volume that was the Elder specialty. Without a doubt a vanity publication, Errors of Thought in Science, Religion and Social Life (1911) is a long, rambling, incoherent screed on education, science, history, religion, and politics. It’s also poorly typeset, printed on coated stock, and published without a stiff binding. Two states have been seen, the second including an errata page which is just as incomprehensible as the main text. Indeed, it is difficult to understand why Paul Elder was willing to put his name on this bizarre book. And who was the author, identified only as “St. George”?

The story of St. George begins with George Hugo Malter (1852-1927) who immigrated to the United States from Silesia (then in Germany, now part of Poland) in 1866. Malter made his way to California and became a mining engineer, but by 1879 he had abandoned engineering to become a grape grower and winemaker. He proved a successful vintner, and by 1900 Malter owned one of the largest vineyards in California at over 2000 acres. He was a member of the Bohemian Club and the owner of the Emerald, a well-known yacht. The village around his home base in Fresno County was named Maltermoro (today a residential neighborhood of Fresno known as Sunnyside).

The winery’s main brand was called “St. George,” and it specialized in aperitif and dessert wines: Pale Dry Sherry, Dry Sherry, Sherry, and Mellow Sherry; Ruby Port and Tawny Port; Golden Muscat and Muscatel; Madeira and Grenache; Tokay, White Port, and Angelica.

In 1904, Malter married Mabel P. Richardson (b. ca. 1884), a California native. He was 52, she was about 20; it was the first marriage for both of them. Their son George Jr. (1906-1979) would eventually take the reins of the winery. It is the 27-year-old Mabel who is the author of our book. Sadly, I know nothing else about Mabel, although it’s now clear where she found her pseudonym. In 1914, Mabel wrote another eccentric book, The World Process, this time self-published by the “St. George Publishing Company.”

Prohibition was not kind to the St. George winery. By the time Malter died in 1928, all that was left was a small acreage and the manor house. The winery limped along until 1942, when it was purchased by the the Eastern wine enterprise L. N. Renault & Sons.

 

The Life of a Successful Banker

Cover of "The Life of a Successful Banker"
Cover of “The Life of a Successful Banker”

The Life of a Successful Banker (1905) is humorous short story, purporting to describe a young man’s journey from humble beginnings in North Carolina to become a “great financier” at the First Rational Bank in San Francisco. The author fancifully claims to have gone from the dry-goods business to the “wet-goods” business (alcohol) to the back door of a San Francisco bank on a dark and stormy night (the safe was already empty). My favorite bit is the author’s own proposed epitaph:

Hic jacet Sam, who we deplore / Thou art not dead, just gone before / Take not more than thy share of glory / For we come next — Memento Mori

The title page notes the author as “His Boswell,” a reference to James Boswell’s famous biography of Samuel Johnson. However, the author, as well as title character, is Samuel Green Murphy (1837-1926), the very successful President of the First National Bank at the corner of Bush & Sansome. He was born in North Carolina and served in the Confederate Army before coming to California.

Title page and frontispiece of "Life of a Successful Banker"
Title page and frontispiece of “Life of a Successful Banker”

The Life of a Successful Banker is perhaps the most memorable of all the vanity publications published by Elder at the Tomoye Press. Only fifty-five copies of this little book were produced, surely for private circulation amongst Murphy’s friends. At barely 700 words, the text would fill only two typed pages, but with a pleasing design on small paper and interspersed with amusing drawings by Spencer Wright, the work becomes a 32-page booklet. And what the book lacks in substance, it makes up for in intrigue of the Rich and Famous.

Several notable things happened to Samuel Murphy in 1905, the year this booklet was published. The first was a reconciliation with his daughter Adelaide (1882–ca. 1955), who had in July 1902 married against his wishes. Though her fiancé was rich—indeed, John Cabell Breckinridge (1879–1914) was the grandson of  John Cabell Breckinridge (US vice-president under Millard Fillmore) and son of John W. Breckinridge, the first President of Wells Fargo Bank—Samuel Murphy was vehemently opposed to Adelaide’s elopement and disowned her. The whole affair was front-page fodder for the local newspapers. “I had a daughter once,” he was quoted as saying. “If she is married, she is dead.”

Page 1 of "Life of a Successful Banker"
Page 1 of “Life of a Successful Banker”

Nor did the notoriety end there. Eight months later, while the newlyweds were in Paris, John fell from a second-story balcony of the Hotel d’Albe on the Champs Elysées. He was lucky to escape with only bruises, but that was just the beginning. Three months later, in May 1903, both Adelaide and John’s mother were petitioning the French courts for legal control of John (I suppose today we would say “medical power of attorney”) due to his incompetency. The courts upheld Adelaide’s claim, and John was placed in a sanitarium. The San Francisco newspapers duly reported on all the twists and turns of the Murphy clan. What they did not report during all the hubbub, but which would surely be reported today, was that Adelaide was six months pregnant with their son John Cabell Breckinridge, Jr., who was born on Aug 5th. 

In December 1905, Samuel Murphy received word that Adelaide herself was gravely ill. He decided then to lay aside his grievances and travel to France. “We had a misunderstanding once, but that is all over now,” he told the San Francisco Call. “I shall go to her if she needs me.” Happily, Adelaide recovered from her illness.

The Murphy Windmill: (left) shortly after construction in 1909, (center) derelict in 1999, (right) restored in 2014. Photo at right by Allie Caulfield.
The Murphy Windmill: (left) shortly after construction in 1908, (center) derelict in 1999, (right) restored in 2012. Photo at right by Allie Caulfield.

The other notable event in Samuel Murphy’s life in 1905 was his donation of $20,000 (more than $500,000 in today’s money) for the construction of a windmill in Golden Gate Park.

The creation of Golden Gate Park in the 1870s and 1880s from a long stretch of sand dunes was a tremendous feat of landscape design, but the new plantings required a great deal of water. In 1902, the San Francisco Park Commission authorized the construction of two windmills to pump groundwater for park irrigation, to avoid purchasing water at exorbitant costs from the Spring Valley Water Company. The windmills would be built on the western edge of the park, just off Ocean Beach, in order to take advantage of the winds that blow almost every afternoon. The Dutch Windmill was completed in 1903 and pumped 30,000 gallons per hour. The Murphy Windmill was completed in 1908 and pumped an additional 40,000 gallons per hour.

Page 7 of "Life of a Successful Banker"
Pages 6-7 of “Life of a Successful Banker”

The Murphy Windmill had an additional fifteen minutes of fame when it appeared in the 1915 Charlie Chaplin movie A Jitney Elopement. (You can watch the movie here; the windmill appears at 21:08.) Not long afterwards, electric pumps (which could pump when it wasn’t windy) made the windmills obsolete. They fell into disrepair, and probably spent more decades without their massive spars and sails than with them (this is how I remember the windmills; see the middle photograph above). Restoration work on the Murphy Windmill began in 2002 and was completed in 2012, and today the blades can often been seen turning in the wind.

How did the Murphy family turn out in the end? I’m glad you asked:

  • After the events of 1905, Samuel G. Murphy seems to disappear from the historical record. He died in Helena, Montana in 1926 at the age of 89.
  • Adelaide Murphy Breckinridge apparently spent the rest of her life abroad. She lived at least until 1955, when she is known to have sued her son John Brekinridge Jr. for support. It’s unknown how she ended up in financial straits, given that both her father and husband were very wealthy men.
  • John C. Breckinridge Sr. continued to show signs of mental illness, and was committed to an asylum in France. His marriage to Adelaide was annulled in 1914, and apparently John died soon afterwards.
  • John C. “Bunny” Breckinridge, Jr. (1903-1996), Adelaide and John Sr.’s son, had a remarkably colorful life. Educated at Eton and Oxford in England, he lived for many years in Paris before coming to the United States. He was openly gay in a time when it was rare to do so, and often performed onstage as a drag queen. He is known among film buffs for his one and only movie role, that of “The Ruler” in the 1959 cult favorite Plan 9 From Outer Space. (I am not making this up.) Shortly thereafter, he spent a year in prison on sex offences, but enjoyed a revival in popularity during the 1960s, in part for his knowledge of gay history.
Pages 28-29 of "Life of a Successful Banker"
Pages 28-29 of “Life of a Successful Banker”
Pages 30-31 of "Life of a Successful Banker"
Pages 30-31 of “Life of a Successful Banker”

Stray Leaves

In addition to books published under the Paul Elder imprint, the Tomoye Press also printed a number of vanity publications. Stray Leaves is a particularly handsome example. Author Mary Murphy has gathered poetry from various sources into this elegantly bound volume. I do not know the identity of the artist or bookbinder.

Stray Leaves cover
Cover of “Stray Leaves”
Stray Leaves title
Title page of “Stray Leaves”
Stray Leaves p96
“Stray Leaves”, pp 96-7