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10.03.07

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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
GIVE 'EM ENOUGH ROPE: Director Tim Boxell (left) and writer-producer John D. Murphy have taken on one of the most infamous chapters in San Jose's history in their new film.

Breaking Noose

'Valley of the Heart's Delight' asks new questions about San Jose's crime of the century—and whether a lynch mob murdered two innocent men in St. James Park.

By Richard von Busack


If you believe John Murphy, San Jose got away with murder. Murphy is the producer and writer of the indie film Valley of the Heart's Delight (opening Oct. 26), which fictionalizes the city's moment of darkest notoriety: the lynching of Jack Holmes and Harold Thurmond in St. James Park, Nov. 26, 1933. The two paid the ultimate penalty for what was supposedly their part in the kidnapping and murder of 22-year-old Brooke Hart. Hart was the handsome and popular heir apparent to Hart's Department Store, which at that time had been a downtown San Jose fixture for almost seven decades. It's bad enough that a mob of some 5,000 to 10,000 people stormed the County Jail. They dragged out Holmes and Thurmond, beat them, stripped them, tortured them and hanged them. But it might be even worse if the pair were innocent. The innocence of Thurmond and Holmes is exactly what Murphy is prepared to argue, both in his film and in his upcoming book on San Jose's most infamous night.

An Inconceivable Truth

The Thurmond-Holmes lynching leaves unquiet memories in the valley. In the definitive study of the crime, Swift Justice: Murder and Vengeance in a California Town (St. Martins Press; 1992) the former San Jose Mercury reporter Harry Farrell interviewed scores of those involved. One of them was Holmes' widow, Evelyn. In retrieving the lost history of San Jose's shame, Farrell talked to people who had never discussed the lynching since the night it happened.

When the crowd surged through clouds of tear gas to bash in the jailhouse door, they put the end to what Farrell calls "The dumbest crime of the decade." It was "incredibly brutal and incredibly stupid," he adds. The sequence of events, too bloody for farce and too comic for mystery, was described in the San Francisco Chronicle as "one idiocy after another."

Even Valley of the Heart's Delight has to fictionalize the story. What audience would believe the official version in a movie? Thurmond, supposedly the patsy in the crime, called himself "screwy." Even his mother described him as suffering from "considerable mental dullness." He proved this dullness by the way he disposed of Hart's wallet, a crucial piece of evidence. After getting drunk at a speakeasy, Thurmond allegedly pitched Hart's wallet into the bay off the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Instead, the wallet ended up landing on the railing of a merchant marine ship, where it was found the next morning.

Later, calling in for the $40,000 ransom, Thurmond was stalled on the phone long enough for the cops to trace the call. In those days, telephone operators had to hook up callers personally, so this call-tracing was especially easy. The police claimed they arrested him still holding the receiver.

In jail, Thurmond cracked right after the cops threatened him with the hellfire God reserves for sinners. Quickly he named his partner in crime: an ex-salesman, Jack Holmes, who was holed up in a nearby hotel hiding from the mess of his personal life. (Though he was married and the father of two, Holmes was in love with another married woman.)

The two confessed to the crime, though Holmes later claimed he was tortured through lack of sleep into signing.

And yet both men's stories diverged. Barring some serious differences in the details, essentially both men claimed they had taken Hart to the deserted San Mateo bridge, hooded him with a pillowcase and knocked him on the head (with a pistol butt? A fist? A 22-pound concrete block? No one knows). Then they tied him to some concrete bricks and tossed him into the bay. When Hart managed to slip out of the weights, so the story goes, Thurmond shot at him until he sank into the water. Hart's body, much devoured by marine life, was recovered by duck hunters 16 days after the disappearance.

'The Greatest Thing That Ever Happened!'

After Hart's body was found, the mood in San Jose got ugly. A mob of nearly every kind of person—young, old, cloth-capped and top-hatted—was joined by countless fun seekers from the peninsula and Alameda County. Together, they staged a never-to-be forgotten scene in St. James Park.

All were egged on by the newspaper editorials, and by worries that the two would walk. (The pair still hadn't been arraigned on charges.) Both local and Los Angeles radio—easily audible in those days, before the radio market was jammed up—urged on the mob. They were blessed, before and after the double hanging, by Gov. James "Sunny Jim" Rolph. ("This is the greatest thing that ever happened in California!" Rolph exclaimed after the lynching was done.)

Rolph wasn't alone, though. Three different local judges told reporters that there might be some waivers to the rule of law when a truly heinous crime was committed. One of these, Judge T. L. Fitzpatrick, later said of the mob "they did a damned good job."

There were spoilsports, of course. President Franklin Roosevelt condemned the act—not this lynching in particular, but lynching in general. The respected Kansas editor William Allen White noted that at least "Southern governors have the brains to be ashamed of their lynchers."

But even Will Rogers weighed in, in favor of frontier justice. Looks like there was someone he didn't like after all.

The thousands of participants in the "Sabbath Hangings" were kept anonymous by darkness, and by a conspiracy of silence. No one ever served time for it. Anthony Cataldi, later a prominent developer, gave a first-person account of his participation to the United Press (later UPI). Because of this, he was the only one of the mob who was ever indicted, but the charges were dismissed. Newspaper photographers at the scene were threatened and assaulted. Still, photos of the seminude corpses of Holmes and Thurmond made the Oakland papers. Later some postcards were sold as souvenirs of San Jose.

Even the two hangman's trees, a mulberry and an elm, were soon gone. Some said the trees were chipped apart by souvenir hunters. Others claimed that they were cut down to obscure the crime.

Despite what you've heard, these two dangling skeletons in the city's closet weren't the last persons lynched in California. That honor goes to one Clyde L. Johnson, hanged by a masked gang for shooting the police chief of Dunsmuir, in August 1935.

Lynching was a common enough pastime for the Greatest Generation. More than two dozen other lynchings occurred in the United States in 1933.

But the lynching in San Jose was media circus, civil insurrection and barbaric throwback, all at once.

Lynch Cinema

San Jose's little moment in the limelight has never been filmed point for point, though it has inspired a good deal of art. A John Steinbeck short story called "The Vigilante" daringly describes the sexual charge in being part of a lynch mob. One man, returning from the hanging, is accused by his wife of having seen another woman—and he has to agree that she's just about right.

The film Fury (1935), one of the finest transplantings of German Expressionism to Hollywood, was based on that night in San Jose. According to the Fritz Lang bio The Nature of the Beast by Patrick McGilligan, scriptwriter Norman Krasna based the plot of Lang's Fury on the San Jose lynching.

1950's Try and Get Me, a.k.a. The Sound of Fury, by the later blacklisted Cy Enfield, was a film noir variation on the story set in "Santa Sierra, Calif."

Even with its false names and fictionalization, no film has come closer to the story as it happened than Valley of the Heart's Delight. San Jose gets specified. So does Milpitas, near where Hart's abandoned Studebaker was found. The rivalry between San Francisco and San Jose is a part of the story. In the film, the motive for swift justice is the inferiority complex of a city known for its citizenry of "tomato boilers." Yet the main point of the film is Murphy's contention that the two victims of the mob were innocent.

DESCRIPTION

PAST IMPERFECT: 'Valley of the Heart's Delight' re-creates the St. James Park lynching. The film fictionalizes some details, which isn't surprising since no audience would believe the absurdity of what actually happened.

Long Road to The 'Valley'

John D. Murphy helped found the University of Phoenix, the largest private university in the United States. Before that, he was a San Jose State student, working his way through college painting houses. (House painting was Harold Thurmond's line of work, incidentally.) On one job, Murphy heard the story of the Holmes/Thurmond lynching. He retreated to the SJSU library to learn as much as he could about it. Over the years he wrote versions of the story, one as a novel, and then he worked on a script: "I spent four years of my life learning to script-write."

After studio setbacks, he eventually decided to produce the film himself. He chose as director Tim Boxell, a San Franciscan who has made feature films (Aberration), TV commercials and animation. He was also an underground cartoonist (Commies From Mars: The Red Planet), and he still uses his cartooning skills in storyboards. Currently, he teaches film at San Francisco's Academy of Art.

Valley of the Heart's Delight was shot in 26 days on HD Sony F900.

One of the coups was casting Pete Postlethwaite. The noted character actor, says Murphy, pronounced the Valley of the Heart's Delight's script the best one he'd read since The Usual Suspects.

"He does a great American accent," Boxell added.

The problem of doing a period film is getting the faces right, Boxell told a preview audience. Postlethwaite's raw, knob-nosed face has the look of an earlier, tougher era. (Moreover, Postlethwaite holds his cigar as if he were really from an age when people took their stogies everywhere.)

According to Murphy, there are a couple of reasons for the lack of actual San Jose locations in the film. Murphy had wanted to shoot in San Jose's History Park, where there were vintage buildings and no problem about controlling street traffic. Supposedly, History San Jose's officials asked him for script approval and he refused.

Though Valley of the Heart's Delight is a SAG production, union rules require extra compensation for travel. To save money, Murphy and Boxell worked in areas closer to San Francisco, where so many of his actors lived. The sheriff's office scenes in Valley of the Heart's Delight are staged in San Francisco's Presidio. The mansion of the kidnap victim is Oakland's Dunsmuir House. And Alameda Island's numerous vintage houses double for suburban San Jose. (Murphy says that one aged Alameda local told him that he'd been 7 when the lynchings took place: "They sure cut down on the kidnapping locally!" he boasted.)

Bringing It Home

In April 2006, Murphy staged a preview of Valley of the Heart's Delight at Camera 12. At that point the film was a work in progress, with public-domain library music, and orange-crate art for the titles.

"We had a problem with that down south in L.A.," Murphy said. "People who weren't old enough to know about orange-crate art thought the movie was going to be a cartoon."

The new version, brought out to S.F.'s Yerba Buena Center, moved better, just as advertised; a new score and title sequence wrapped up the story more concisely.

In the lobby of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Boxell displayed the storyboards he had created for the action sequences. His lynching sequence, arguably the film's best, is far less brutal than the way it actually happened. We don't see the Holmes' character having his arms broken, so that he wouldn't clutch at the rope around his neck. But in the lights from swiveling flashlights and swift camera edits, Boxell gives an excellent impression of the brutality of the mob in the dark. The ultralow budget is covered up admirably.

"We all love and respect San Jose," Boxell told me, "but the lynchings cheated justice and due process. "

Strangely, Valley of the Heart's Delight doesn't zero in right where the most suspense might be had, with the scenes of the two men accused and waiting in terror for the lynch mob. It focuses instead on a hero reporter Jack Daumier (Gabriel Mann of The Bourne Supremacy) who refuses to go along with the rush to judgment.

Munson, Daumier's ultraconservative publisher played by Postlethwaite—the film's clear standout—already suspects left-wing sympathy in the reporter. Munson learns Daumier has been covering vigilante attacks on a fruit-picking labor camp—the kind of incidents described at length in Steinbeck's novel In Dubious Battle. The reporter is fired. He is picked up as a stringer for a San Francisco newspaper, but he's still intimidated by goons under the direction of Munson.

At the behest of his new employers, Daumier continues to work on the breaking kidnapping story. At first, Munson and the local boosters try to keep a lid on the kidnapping of wealthy department store heir "Blake Walsh" (Joe Mandragona). Later, they decide to make an example out of the two accused kidnappers who are apprehended. The weakling sheriff Ackle (Tom Bower), eager to wrap things up, yields to the pressure from above, and orders his deputies to yield if the mob arrives.

Love in the Time of Vigilanteism

The story needed a love interest. Valley of the Heart's Delight has an affair going between Daumier and Helen Walsh (Emily Harrison). She is his childhood sweetheart, and the sister of the kidnapped man.

Through his connections to Walsh's family, Daumier discovers what is a fictionalized version of a rumored theory for the Brook Hart kidnapping: namely, the kidnapped boy's supposed links to bootleggers and gamblers.

Unfortunately, this is the part of Valley of the Heart's Delight that is the toughest to parse. We never really get to know the two accused in jail. We can't figure out if they were part of a gang, or completely just wrong-place, wrong-time patsies. Also, the sequence where Daumier meets the real culprit is especially underproduced: somehow you think a man as rich as "Walsh" could find a better speakeasy than a barn in Fremont.

In his book, Farrell deals with these rumors of Hart's ties to serious criminals. He finds such talk improbable: "If we have no credible evidence confirming the gambling-debt theory, we have considerable difficulty tending to refute it."

What is less hard to dismiss is two eyewitnesses' account of seeing Hart transferred into a car with five men. It was a story vetted by the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) but ignored by the local sheriff. Before he was taken out and hanged, Thurmond swore to his God, in front of Santa Clara County Sheriff Emig, that he and Holmes were the only kidnappers.

There is evidence of a different story. Delphine Silveria of then-rural Piedmont Road was described piquantly in the Bureau of Investigation report: "a Portuguese, but rather intelligent." Silveria and her daughter Isabelle saw five men transferring Hart from his Studebaker to a different car than the kind either Thurmond or Holmes drove. In Swift Justice, Farrell describes this lead as an unsolved enigma. However, in his interview with the former Isabelle Silveria in 1988, Farrell claims that she recalled exactly the same details she'd told the government men more than 50 years earlier.

Lingering Doubts

The official story of the kidnapping has some serious holes in it. For example, there's the conflict between the two men's confessions. Considering the brutal methods of 1930s cops, in the days before Miranda Escobedo, there is the possibility of coercion. According to Farrell, Holmes told his wife that he was given water torture in jail to keep him from sleeping until he signed the confession. Circumstantial evidence was a large part of the case, and in jail, Thurmond confessed to a pair of stick-ups he had committed. But there's certainly reasonable doubt that the mob brought the right men to the nooses.

In Murphy's soon to be published manuscript "Jury Rigging in the Court of Public Opinion," he surmises a different version of the Hart kidnapping. It would be blowing the ending of Valley of the Hearts' Delight to discuss it at length. In short, Murphy speculates about Hart's real kidnappers—perhaps out-of-town gangsters—taking a fateful wrong turn during the getaway.

Murphy's speculation isn't meant to erase Farrell's work. In his manuscript, Murphy calls the reporter "candid and honorable" and suggests that Farrell "deserves a sincere debt of gratitude for memorializing a truly singular event ... that had been kept confidential by thousands of individuals."

But as a film Valley of the Heart's Delight casts doubt on some fairly certain matters, such as the identity of the corpse fished out of the bay. Murphy's manuscript, by contrast, relies on Farrell's book, which states that the corpse was identified by Hart's dentist as well as other evidence.

Boxell and Murphy's cinematic mix of fact with fiction may not be enough to convince anyone that Thurmond and Holmes were innocent. And one thing hasn't changed since the 1930s, at least in the movies: a film about lynching is supposedly more poignant if the victims are innocent.

As the recent incident at Jena, La., shows, there's something in our fellow citizens that just loves a noose. This horror from our past isn't softened under any circumstances, even if the mob caught the right two men. If, as it may be, Holmes and Thurmond were really desperately simpleminded kidnappers turned first-degree murderers, they were still butchered by murderers given the blessings of the state. Murderers who were never punished for what they did.


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