When a vicious killer is caught, sometimes the townspeople lose control of their emotions and take matters into their own hands. While it is a little less common these days, people would sometimes storm the jail to execute the prisoners themselves. Often it was thought that justice would not be served in the court system. People fear the possibility that the killer might get off and be back out in society again. These days, it is pretty hard to storm a jail, but jails weren’t as secure then, as they are now.
On November 9, 1933, Brooke Hart was abducted by two men in his own Studebaker. His family received a $40,000 ransom demand and, soon after, Hart’s wallet was found on a tanker ship in a nearby bay. The investigative trail led to John Holmes and Thomas Thurmond, who implicated each other in separate confessions. Both acknowledged, that Hart had been pistol-whipped and then thrown off the San Mateo Bridge. After Hart’s body washed ashore on November 25, a vigilante mob began to form. Newspapers reported the possibility of a lynching and local radio stations broadcast the plan. Not only did Governor James Rolph reject the National Guard’s offer to send assistance, he reportedly said he would pardon those involved in the lynching. Now, when you have a governor who is on the side on the lynch mob, you have a volatile situation.
On November 26, 1933, thousands of people in San Jose, California, stormed the jail where Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes were being held. The angry mob converged at the jail and beat the guards, using a battering ram to break into the cells. Then, Thurmond and Holmes were dragged out and hanged from large trees in a nearby park. Contrary to the way most of us think, when our emotions aren’t raw, the public seemed to welcome the gruesome act of vigilante violence. After the incident, pieces of the lynching ropes were sold to the public. Though the San Jose News declined to publish pictures of the lynching, it condoned the act in an editorial. Seventeen-year-old Anthony Cataldi bragged that he had been the leader of the mob but he was not held accountable for his participation. At Stanford University, a professor asked his students to stand and applaud the lynching. Perhaps most disturbing, Governor Rolph publicly praised the mob. “The best lesson ever given the country,” said Governor Rolph. “I would like to parole all kidnappers in San Quentin to the fine, patriotic citizens of San Jose.” I understand the anger, but not the method. While the two killers might have deserved the death penalty for their crimes, this was not the way it should have happened. Nevertheless, I guess justice was served…even if it was vigilante justice.