Devil's Brew Was Stirring in Visalia's Past
Last updated 1/4/2024 at 11:02pm | View PDF
Human attraction with alcoholic beverages is a worldwide condition. It's been that way for millennia. Its taste and its effects on the consumer causes many to seek it out. For some drinkers, Benjamin Franklin had it right when he said, "Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried with few tensions and more tolerance."
For others, the concoction was evil with destructive effects. In 1898, Visalia newspaperman Alonzo Melville Doty spoke for them when he poetically wrote, "He once had wealth and people say, he owned half of the town; but now be begs because strong drink, has rudely thrust him down."
Visalia history is filled with stories about alcohol and those who consumed it. Not all ended in tragedy, of course, but many did, leaving families reeling from its deadly effects.
Regularly, the Visalia newspapers would proclaim its evil outcomes with headlines like this one published in 1863, "Whiskey held high carnival last Saturday night and Sunday morning, knock down drag out was the order of the day..."
One incident in Visalia in 1866 involved alcohol, wild and reckless gun play, and a Visalia physician. Dr. John Benn was a well-respected medical doctor who had been a California volunteer physician for the Union troops stationed at Visalia's Camp Babbitt just two years earlier. The Irish medical man stayed in Visalia to practice after he was mustered out of military service.
On the evening of November 30, 1866, without warning as he walked on Main Street, he drew his pistol and fired it into the air several times. A friend walking with him cautioned about the dangerous act. Shortly thereafter, the street was bustling with activity.
One of his stray shots had killed an 18-year-old boy named Zera Barr, the son of a prominent Visalia family. One of the doctor's bullets had shattered a window in Baker's Drug Store and struck the young man sitting inside, killing him instantly.
The Visalia newspaper called the killing a "terrible tragedy" and bluntly reported that the "bullet had been fired in unconscious carelessness by a man, whose reason and judgment were obscured by the effects of liquor." The doctor had been under the influence of alcohol.
The boy's family, the community, and the doctor mourned the loss of the young man, and memories of the reckless incident lingered in Visalia for many years. The doctor was forced to live with his careless act until he died in 1884.
Another tragedy in which alcohol played a part involved a man who had great potential to do good things, but his insatiable urge to drink cut his life short. Jim McCrory had been a Visalia Deputy Marshal, volunteer firefighter and business owner, and was on the fast track to do amazing things, but he had a serious drinking problem. When sober he was a pleasant and cordial, but when drinking he became mean and violent. After killing several, his problem forced him to leave town.
On December 24, 1872, he unexpectedly returned to Visalia and word spread quickly. He spent his time drinking heavily and by the end of the day he sat inside the El Dorado Saloon highly intoxicated. While in a drunken stupor, he shot a man inside, not just once, but multiple times at close range, killing him. Lawmen quickly took McCrory into custody.
An angry group of citizens gathered at the Tulare County jail and demanded that the sheriff turn the killer over to them for vigilante justice. The sheriff refused. The citizen mob forcibly removed McCrory from his cell, took him to the Court Street bridge that spanned Mill Creek at Center Street, and there they lynched him. Alcohol had claimed more victims.
Not all drinking related incidents resulted in death. One took place in Lovern's Saloon on Main Street in Visalia in 1892. A Civil War veteran named Riley was passing through Visalia on his way from Santa Monica to Yountville, California. Described as nearly 60 years old and feeble, the man stopped off for refreshments at the saloon and to play some cards.
An argument started at one of the card games between Riley and a professional Visalia gambler named Rupert Tomlinson, alias "Tom the Roller." Tomlinson, the younger of the two, picked up a bottle of gin and hit Riley in the head three times. The victim's face was badly injured, and he was taken to the Visalia House where he was treated by Dr. Pendergrass.
The traveling veteran survived and went on his way. Tomlinson escaped prosecution for his vicious assault and stayed in Visalia.
There is no question about it, the use and abuse of alcohol played a significant role in shaping the history of Visalia.