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San Jose's Shame: The Kidnapping of Brooke Hart

Updated: Nov 6, 2020


The novel, St. James Park, reflects actual events that occurred in San Jose in 1933.


Brooke Hart, was a recent graduate of the then called University of Santa Clara.


Hart worked at and was the heir apparent at his father’s prominent department store at First and Market Streets in downtown San Jose.


On the evening of November 9, at approximately five minutes before six o’clock, he left the store, strolled to a nearby parking lot, and got into his car.



He was to have picked his father at the Sainte Claire Club, a few blocks away next to St. James Park, and take him to a Chamber of Commerce gathering in the eastern foothills.


Then, he was to return and join his friend at the De Anza Hotel back downtown. He never made it to the Sainte Claire Club.


The elder Hart became alarmed and called the store. Store clerks confirmed that his car was gone. He called his family; they had not seen him. The police and then the sheriff were notified of his disappearance.


At 10:30 that evening, the Hart family received a telephone call at their residence on the Alameda stating that Brooke had been kidnapped.



The caller demanded $40,000 in ransom and said that there would be another call on how the ransom would be paid.


After midnight, Brooke’s Studebaker was discovered abandoned on an isolated road near Milpitas, a small farming community northeast of San Jose.


Reed Vetterli , an investigator in J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, was called in to join the San Jose police chief Ray Blackmore and the county sheriff William Emig to launch an investigation of the kidnapping.


After scores of spurious ransom demands and many dead-end leads, law enforcement was baffled.




On November 15, the Hart family received another ransom call.


This call was immediately traced to a garage in downtown San Jose and an arrest was made. When nabbed, Harold Thurmond insisted he was innocent.





After hours of questioning Thurmond led police to a second man, Jack Holmes.


Throughout the interrogations, there was the unusual participation of Louis Oneal, a local political boss, who had no direct investigatory role. After the questioning, Thurmond confessed that he and Holmes kidnapped Hart. Holmes resisted, initially offered an alibi, but later he too signed a confession to the abduction.


When the confessions were published on November 16, the public became enraged even though there were discrepancies in their confessions. Further, the newspaper accounts did not reveal what the local authorities had known and likely suppressed: a credible eyewitness had sworn that there might have more than two kidnappers.


Citing impending threats to the prisoners, Emig sent them sixty miles north to San Francisco for safe-keeping.


Meanwhile, Brooke Hart was still missing.


On November 19, the San Francisco Chronicle published an editorial stating that Holmes and Thurmond should be “hanged, legally but promptly.” Others, including Governor James Rolph, insisted on swifter methods.



On November 22, Sheriff Emig signed a formal complaint charging Holmes and Thurmond with kidnapping; the two were inexplicably returned to San Jose despite widespread threats of violence. Vetterli offered the Bureau’s assistance to help protect the prisoners, but the sheriff refused. Emig requested the Governor to call in the National Guard. The Governor decided otherwise.


On November 26, Hart’s body was found in the mudflats south of Hayward.



By mid-day, thousands gathered in St. James Park. Across the street stood the County Jail.


Later that evening, tens of thousands were egged on by media announcements.



By midnight, with shouts of “We want a touchdown,” a group of young men, reportedly from the University of Santa Clara, rushed the barricades, broke down the jail’s door, overwhelmed deputies, took Holmes and Thurmond from their cells, battered them, and then the mob strung them up on elm trees across the street in St. James Park.



The Governor pronounced that it was “a fine lesson to the whole nation.” He went further to state that he would pardon any vigilantes arrested by local law enforcement.



The Governor also announced that he should release all the convicted kidnappers in San Quentin and Folsom prisons and turn them over to “those fine, patriotic San Jose citizens who know how to handle the situation…”





But not everyone agreed with this sentiment.


President Roosevelt described that action taken in San Jose as “a vile form of collective murder.”


Former President Hoover, residing in Palo Alto, stated that the “very spirit of government has been violated and the state has been disgraced in the eyes of the world by a brutal outburst of primitive lust for vengeance.”



Santa Clara County grand jury took no action against those who stormed into the jail and lynched Holmes and Thurmond.


In the days that followed, a San Jose Mercury-Herald editorial argued that “the kidnappers deserved it, but San Jose did not,” meaning that San Jose should not have received all the national backlash against San Jose’s reputation.


But, the stain remained. The kidnappers never received a trial.


A trial might have revealed more than the local authorities were willing to admit about the circumstances of Brooke Hart’s kidnapping and murder.

Did Holmes and Thurmond act alone? If profit was the motivation, why murder Brooke Hart?


And, why had the mob got away with murder?


In the months that followed, San Jose’s civic leaders wanted to forget.


In doing so, they preserved the reputation of the city’s elite young men who in different circumstances might be called ‘domestic terrorists.’


It took years before civic boosters could trumpet San Jose again.


And for decades, people did not speak of “San Jose’s shame.”

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