Last week, we featured Tom Horn, a hired killer from the waning days of the old west. We stay in the West this week, but we flash forward to 1933. In that year in San Jose, a vigilante mob dragged the confessed kidnappers of Brooke Hart from jail. The mob then lynched the two men in a public park.
Brooke Hart Kidnapped
It was just before 6:00 p.m. Thursday, November 9, 1933, in San Jose, California. Brook Hart, the 22-year-old son of prominent department store owner Alexander Hart retrieved his car from a parking lot. Hart’s car, a 1933 Studebaker President roadster had been a graduation gift from his parents. The lot was behind the Hart & Son department store at Market and Santa Clara Streets.
At 9:30 that night, the oldest of Brooke’s younger sisters answered the telephone. A soft-spoken man told her Brook had been kidnapped and that instructions would follow. An hour later, a caller that sounded like the same man spoke with another sister. He told her the kidnappers would return her brother if paid $40,000 (worth about $851,000 in 2021).
The San Jose Police Department, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, and the Division of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) all joined the investigation. After a few days of telephone calls and mailed notes, police were able to trace a phone call. It came from a payphone just 150 feet from the San Jose Police station. There they arrested Thomas Harold Thurmond just as he was hanging up the phone.
At 3:00 a.m. on November 16, Thurmond signed a confession. It named John Holmes as his accomplice. Ominously, he told police the pair had tied Brooke’s hands with wire and tossed him off the San Mateo Bridge. Holmes was arrested and signed a confession at 1:00 p.m. the next day. It wasn’t until November 26 that two duck hunters discovered Brooke’s badly decomposed body. He had died from drowning.
Rumors and Signs of a Vigilante Mob
The Hart family was prominent in San Jose. Hart & Son had been in business since 1866 and the family was well-known and well-liked. Threats of a vigilante mob caused Sheriff William Emig to move the pair to the Potrero Hill police station in San Francisco for their safety. In a front-page editorial, a San Jose newspaper called for “mob violence.” And when the pair returned to San Francisco after questioning, cries of “lynch them” issued from the crowd surrounding the jail.
A grand jury indicted Thurmond and Holmes on charges of extortion, using the mails to extort, and conspiracy. The accused men returned to the San Jose jail on November 22. The next day, California’s Republican governor, James “Sunny Jim” Rolph announced he would not call out the National Guard to protect the pair.
A volatile vigilante mob grew daily outside the San Jose jail. Holmes’ attorney, San Francisco lawyer Vincent Hallinan, called Governor Rolph and asked that he deploy the National Guard if a vigilante mob should attempt to lynch the Holmes and Thurmond. Rolph responded that he would “pardon the lynchers.”
A Vigilante Mob Runs Amok
The discovery of Brooke Hart’s body on November 26 was the catalyst that incited a lynching. All day that Sunday and into the evening, radio stations announced that a lynching would occur that night in St. James Park in San Jose.
Rolph had plans to attend the Western Governors’ Conference in Boise, Idaho. At 9:00 p.m., he canceled those plans. This was specifically to prevent his Lieutenant Governor (and rival) Frank Merriam from calling out the National Guard. At about the same time, the crowd outside the jail got restless. They demanded the Sheriff release Holmes and Thurmond to the vigilante mob. At 10:30, Sheriff Emig called Rolph, asking him to deploy the National Guard to protect the prisoners. Rolph again refused.
The Vigilante Mob Lynches Homes and Thurmond
By midnight, thousands of people were outside the jail. Sheriff’s deputies fired tear gas at the growing vigilante mob but that only made them angrier. After the first round of tear gas, the mob raided a nearby construction site for materials to throw at the jail. Vigilantes then fashioned a battering ram from a heavy pipe. Sheriff Emig ordered deputies to abandon the first two floors of the jail, where Thurmond and Holmes were. Emig, nine deputies, and eight state patrolmen were all beaten, choked, or trampled during the riot.
A vigilante mob estimated to be anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 people now stormed the jail. They dragged Holmes and Thurmond by nooses tied around their necks across the street to St. James Park. There they stripped the two prisoners, then beat and otherwise tortured them before hanging them. The mob hanged Holmes from the branch of an elm tree and Thurmond from a mulberry tree. Members of the mob took pieces of the trees as souvenirs as they exited the park en masse.
“Sunny Jim” Rolph was publicly criticized by President Franklin Roosevelt and former President Herbert Hoover, among others, for advocating “lynch law.” Rolph responded by saying, “I would like to parole all kidnappers in San Quentin to the fine, patriotic citizens of San Jose.” He also promised to pardon anyone involved in the lynching case. However, Rolph died on June 2, 1934, after suffering several heart attacks.
No one was ever convicted in connection with the lynchings. Seven people were eventually arrested but none were convicted. One young man was charged after publicly boasting that he led the vigilante mob, but those charges were dropped. The Santa Clara County grand jury met in 1934 but, despite thousands of witnesses, returned not a single indictment.
Brooke Hart’s brother, Alexander J. Hart, Jr., sold the Hart & Son department store in 1975 and died in 2010 at the age of 89.
In 1994, former San Jose Mercury News reported Harry Farrell published Swift Justice: Murder and Vengeance in a California Town. Initially praised at the time (it won an Edgar award), it came under fire from writer John D. Murphy. In Jury Rigging in the Court of Public Opinion, Murphy criticized Farrell’s approach, especially his uncritical acceptance of Holmes’ and Thurmond’s confessions as truth.
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