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Memory Lane

Rebecca Yerger, Memory Lane: Crime in Napa County, 1931

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Life as usual throughout Napa County was turned upside-down by Prohibition and the Great Depression. In addition to disrupting the accustomed lifestyle and creating financial hardships, Prohibition and the Great Depression triggered a spike in criminal activity.

Although Prohibition was nearing its conclusion in 1931, governmental agencies were still enforcing the anti-liquor law.

For example, a late August Napa Journal headline announced, “Liquor Raids Conducted in Calistoga by Carl Pierce.” The chief of police, Pierce, and one of his officers, Hugh Van Valkenburg, carried out raids on several upvalley businesses. These raids resulted in three Calistoga men — Frank Oral, J. McCanish, and J. Gambruno — being arrested for possession of liquor.

While the first two of this trio were in possession of only “a small amount of liquor,” the Journal continued, “between 300 to 400 gallons of wine (were seized) at Gambruno’s.”

Each defendant stood before Calistoga Police Judge J.B Winkelman, plead guilty, and paid their respective fines of $100 each before being released.

The newspaper also reported, “A fourth place, O’Hara and Simpsons pool hall, was raided by the officers but no liquor was found on the premises.” The Journal added, “These raids were in the works for quite some time.”

As those cases wrapped up, Yountville became a hotbed of aggression. The first of two violent acts were revealed with a sensational headline blazoned across the front page of a late August Journal edition. “Vets Home Guard Is Knife Victim — Home Member Stabs Guard, Surrenders to Sheriff.”

The article disclosed the guard, Henry Hook, had confronted Veterans Home resident Henry Berys, 45, about the latter’s pets. Hook even threatened to kill the cats.

The Journal continued, “When Hook apparently attempted to carry out his threat of ending their lives with a gun, Berys stabbed him with a long knife.” Hook was rushed to the Veterans Home hospital where it was discovered he received a deep stomach wound. However, the newspaper added, “while serious, it is not expected to prove fatal.”

As Hook was receiving emergency medical care, Berys went to Napa, surrendered to Napa County Sheriff Jack Steckter and confessed to stabbing the guard. While Hook remained in the hospital, Berys would stand trial for the assault. As this sensational case progressed, the local press updated its readers regarding Hook’s condition and Berys’ trial. But none of the local newspapers ever reported on the fate of the cats.

A youth who made it into the local news was, in a way, a visitor or tourist. The early Sept. 1931 Journal wrote, “The familiar advice of ‘Go West, Young Man,’ didn’t work out so well in the case of Clarence Clowell, a 16-year-old youth who was picked up on the streets of Napa last night by Police Officer Ed Moore.”

Clowell told the authorities he had left his Chapman, Kansas home about five weeks earlier. His westward adventure included “stealing rides on freight (train) cars and getting lifts from motorists,” wrote the Journal. But his vagabond days ended in a local detention home while his widowed mother was contacted by the local authorities.

The Depression brought a lot of migrants to Napa County, especially those who were looking for seasonal work. Some of these individuals found themselves mixed up with the local law. Another early Sept. 1931 article printed in the Napa Daily Register bore this point out while detailing the legal trouble of two pairs of drifters.

The first duo, J.C. Gifford and Gabriel Knoll, found themselves before Napa Police Judge Hackett on the charges of petty theft. During those proceedings, it was revealed the two men had stolen a pair of revolvers stored behind the counter of a First Street soft drink business. Following their respective arrests, Gifford and Knoll stood before Judge Hackett. Knoll plead guilty to the petty theft charges and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. However, Hackett suspended the sentence when Knoll promised to permanently leave Napa. As for Gifford, after the charge of vagrancy against him was dropped, he was released.

Another case of petty theft against two itinerant laborers, James Davidson, 29, and H.D. Kagle, 27, indicates the suspension of a sentence in exchange for leaving town was a common practice. Police Judge Hackett had sentenced this pair of men to 30 days in jail for stealing a roll of canvas from the Main Street store of Marcus Klein. But, with the pair’s promise to leave Napa immediately, the sentence was dropped.

Yet, there were some wanderers who eluded the local law such as the case of the robbery of Mrs. and Rev. Josiah Daniel’s home. The late Aug. 1931 Journal article reported the couple had returned to their Napa home after vacationing in the Santa Cruz Mountains for a month. When the couple entered their bedroom, they discovered they had been robbed of men’s clothing - a new pair of trousers, an old coat and vest as well as several pairs of socks.

In exchange for those articles of clothing, “an old and worn suit of men’s clothing was left on the floor.” The Journal added, “Nothing else in the house had been disturbed and with the exception of the old suit no clues were left by the marauders.”


For those interested in Napa County’s criminal history, I will be teaching a four-week, one-hour per session, virtual course through Napa Parks and Recreation. “True Crimes of Napa Valley - The Dramas Continue” will be offered Tuesday evenings, 7 to 8 p.m., Sept. 28 to Oct. 19. For more information, and to register, please visit

Also, on Thurs. Sept. 30, 7 - 8 p.m., I will be presenting “From the Days of Wine and Rebels — Local Prohibition-era stories.” This free, Zoom program is in partnership with the Napa Library. For more information about this program, please, visit or call 707-253-4235.

Thank you!

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