The past always holds surprises. Several weeks ago, Stockton historian Alice van Ommeren started an online discussion among local archivists about "wanted postcards," postcards that law enforcement officials from an earlier age circulated by mail hoping to catch criminals. That exchange reminded me of a scrapbook I found in the Museum’s collection some time ago.
The book is about three inches thick and its cover measures around twelve by sixteen inches. On its front are the words Scrapbook Elkhorn Township. The scrapbook covers the years 1916 to 1917, and it holds not only wanted postcards of the kind that interest Alice, but also posters, telegrams, and other documents that describe lawbreakers. It was apparently compiled by law enforcement agents in Elkhorn Township, the area around Lodi, who received and sent such messages as part of a statewide network.
Whatever official purposes those messages served, they also left glimpses into a parallel universe on the other side of the law, alongside what we often consider "the good old days."
Many of the documents contain photographs of lawbreakers or suspected lawbreakers, and most include physical descriptions. All of them tell stories, often in unsettling detail. They tell about murder, arson, larceny, assault, embezzlement, burglary, abduction, rape, child abuse, and escape from prison. They appeal for the return of missing minors, and they tell about husbands who left families for parts unknown. Above all, they tell stories of people who couldn’t seem to find their way living within the boundaries of civil society.
In June 1916,for example, a wanted poster arrived from the sheriff of Tulare County. It offered a reward of 250 dollars for the arrest of one Bert Shaffer, who was wanted for a murder in Three Rivers. According to the poster, Shaffer was approximately forty years old, stood about five feet nine inches, and weighed around 160 pounds. Shaffer had "medium" complexion, dark brown hair, and a mustache.
Now, close your eyes and have someone read the next part of Shaffer’s description out loud. "The right eye looks dim," reads the poster, "as if covered with scum, and when looking at you points to the right, like an artificial eye. The second finger on one of his hands is slightly stiff, and when walking his shoulders move up and down."
The sheriff goes on to describe Shaffer as an "industrious worker," who nevertheless "frequents saloons whenever he has money" and "is likely to be arrested for drunkenness." When last seen, Shaffer wore "a brown hat, gray trousers and a pair of new tan work shoes (No. 9)."
Get the picture?
Sometimes we idealize the past. We see in our minds happily married couples with large broods of smiling children. We imagine God-fearing families that attend church each weekend, hold to traditional values, find steady employment, and successfully weather whatever bumps in the road of life they encounter.
But this scrapbook tells a different story. It points to a society laced with deviant, dangerous people on the run, people whose presence shattered norms and threatened the well-being of those who lived within the mainstream. It suggests that life on the fringes could be uncaring, depressing, brutal, and downright violent.
I don’t know whatever happened to Shaffer, but his story has set me wondering: Were "the good old days" really all that good? I honestly have my doubts. Obviously, I can’t go back in time. But if I could, I would lock my doors, take care with strangers, and know how to reach the police—just as I do now.