In the early morning of November 27, 1933, an enraged mob forced two men out of the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose, California, dragged them across the street to St. James Park, and hanged them from a cork elm tree. The men, Thomas “Harold” Thurmond and John “Jack” Holmes, had been charged with kidnapping and murdering Brooke Hart, 22, the son of a local department store owner and community leader in San Jose.
The crowd outside the jail had been growing throughout the day after hearing that Hart’s body, which had not been found up to that point, was recovered. In spite of a massive search involving police from San Jose, Oakland, and San Francisco; patrol boats; the US Division of Investigation (precursor of the FBI); a blimp; and even the US Marines, two duck hunters came upon the body accidentally in the marshes near Redwood City.
According to newspaper reports, Hart had been bludgeoned with a brick, weighed down with concrete blocks, and thrown from the San Mateo Bridge into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay. He may have survived the bludgeoning and fall, finally succumbing by drowning. Thurmond and Holmes allegedly kidnapped Hart on November 9, demanding first $40,000 from the family and then lowering the ransom to $20,000. Police arrested the pair on November 16 after tracing a call they made from a pay phone near the San Jose police station.
Estimates vary but by late evening on November 26, the crowd in the park could have swelled to nearly ten thousand, including women and children. Newspapers and radio stations had been stirring up vigilante sentiment, and the governor declared that he would pardon anyone arrested for lynching the two “human devils.” He also refused to call up the National Guard to protect the prisoners and law enforcement officials guarding them. As amazing as it now sounds, a radio station broadcast the lynching live to its audience.
By midnight, the mob had grown so unruly that deputies fired tear gas into the crowd to disperse it. In response, the crowd armed itself with whatever it could find and created a battering ram to breach the doors of the jail. The police and deputies did not fire upon them. They pulled Holmes out first, who pleaded with them for mercy and swore that it wasn’t his idea to murder Hart but Thurmond’s. They ignored his cries, hanged him, and then went back for Thurmond.
Terrified, Thurmond had managed to hide in a closet. They pried him out, strung him up, and hanged him on the same tree. Sheriff’s deputy John Moore, whom the mob had roughed up in its attempt to get to the prisoners, declared to the Oakland Tribune, “When they sighted [Thurmond]… the most terrible blood-curdling cries of fiendish delight I have ever heard rang through the jail.” The bodies were left for the coroner to take down several hours later. No one was charged with the crime.
At first, we react with disgust. We stare in shock. How can people work themselves into such a frenzy of hatred and violence? We search for scraps of humanity where we can find them. Thurmond expressed regret in his confession. Holmes was an out-of-work salesman recently separated from his wife with two kids. One of the leaders of the mob asked Moore to confirm Holmes’ identity to be sure they had the right man.
But are we not capable of such barbarism today? The summer of 2020 when cities burned and armed groups fought each other in the streets provides ample proof. We even had our version of elected officials politicizing the issue. And, of course, our electronic, hyper-polarized media makes radio coverage seem quaint. But we, too, cover death as it happens. “Live,” as it were. To wit, the recent NPR airing of a recording of an actual abortion. Can we really claim the moral high ground over the mob in St. James Park?
Then there is humiliation. During the lynching, Thurmond and Holmes were stripped naked, beaten, and spat upon. The crowd fought each other over whatever souvenirs they could find. They had come to witness not just an execution but the humiliation of these two men. There is something reminiscent of crucifixion here, not that I believe Thurmond and Holmes to be innocent. Based on their confessions, they were not. But they deserved what they did not get: a fair trail. And they got what they did not deserve: “fiendish delight.”
Image credits: feature by Tim Hüfner; “Kidnapping and Murder Victim, Brooke Hart,” Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain); Associated Press, “Hanging of Brooke Hart’s Murderers,” History San Jose (catalogue #1997-208-1331). Story details adapted from “Brooke Hart,” Wikipedia. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli.