Yda Addis and Her Criminal Libel Trial, 1899

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Even with the unconventional nature of her life through controversies with powerful men like former California governor John G. Downey, Harper’s Monthly Magazine editor Charles Dudley Warner, and former husband and lawyer, politician and district attorney Charles A. Storke, the events that led to the end of Yda Addis’ public life and persona are so strange and fantastic that it can be difficult to put into perspective.

Addis was arrested early in 1899, after fleeing Santa Barbara in the face of what was likely a certain conviction of libel against her former stepson Thomas M. Storke, but for a new and highly remarkable charge—that she’d fabricated and sent damaging letters alleging that certain Santa Barbara residents were responsible for the heinous unsolved murders in summer 1896 of Mary Richardson and her daughter Ethel.

While local authorities were convinced the crimes were perpetrated by a young man who was killed as he resisted arrest, Addis insisted, as detailed in a San Francisco Examiner article of 20 February, that the two women were killed by persons in the mission town who owed money to Mary Richardson’s late husband, alleged by Addis to have been a moneylender, and that papers concerning these loans were taken from the Richardson home after the murders were committed.

Murder Ghosts and Yda Addis Mystery detail 1 The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Mon__Feb_20__1899_
San Francisco Examiner, 20 February 1899.

Addis, claiming to be acting as a journalist, one of her literary vocations over the years, pointed out that Barnard was a very small man, that there were other footprints found at the death scenes.  She told the press that she went in disguise as a barefoot Mexican and a Chinese woman to gather clues and unearth evidence, though she added that all her material was stolen by her enemies, because her investigation threatened to implicate prominent Santa Barbara residents for their purported role in the Richardson killings.

Adding to the bizarre and, yet, unverifiable claims raised by Addis was her allegation that a business agent of the Richardsons “was concerned in the killing” but, as she began to close in on him, the unnamed figure “was suddenly taken to a lone sanitarium near Los Angeles,” where, apparently, he died.  Yda asserted, however, that the body returned to Santa Barbara for burial was not his and that the suspect “is alive to-day, hiding from her efforts to bring him to justice.”

As if this was not enough intrigue, Addis went on to state that there was a building contractor who vanished and she determined that he “was put out of the way by those concerned in the Richardson murder[s] because he had overheard their plots for other killing and further plunder.”  This story, the Examiner (owned by William Randolph Hearst and known for its sensationalizing tendencies) opined, “runs full of blood, degradation and horror.”

Murder Ghosts and Yda Addis Mystery detail 4 The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Mon__Feb_20__1899_
Examiner, 20 February 1899.

The article summarized much of Addis’ recent travails with Downey and the Storkes, noting “her life has been as full of fight as her present story is of allegations and suspicions” and it stated that “those who are opposing her declare that her mind has been affected by her troubles.”  The victims of the purported libel perpetrated by Addis were two women, a physician and a nurse, “of eminent respectability” who were suffering “much pain and trouble” because of Addis’ insinuations.

While her trial loomed, Charles Storke, who’d recently ended his term as district attorney, still had not obeyed court orders dating back to the divorce decree some five years previously, and, in early April, he was called to appear before the Santa Barbara Superior Court “to show cause why he should not be held for contempt for not paying alimony.”  This was a little more than a week before Yda’s criminal libel trial was to begin, though the matter was delayed and extended into the late spring.

It was, naturally, a sensational affair and caused all manner of intense media coverage during much of June 1899 as the case was heard by a judge, Frank F. Oster, brought in from San Bernardino to indicate impartiality.  The doctor, Martha Case, testified that a letter she received indicting Dr. R.F. Winchester, a prominent figure in town, (other sources read “S.A. Winchester,” who was the doctor’s sister) as one of those involved in the Richardson killings included names she’d provided to Addis when Yda visited her in her guise as a reporter in May 1898.  Mrs. E.J. Thompson took the stand and related that she’d seen Yda write letters at her residence and, when shown the letter cited in the indictment and a pair of others, affirmed that they were penned by Addis.


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Examiner, 20 February 1899.

A handwriting expert was brought in by the prosecution and subjected to many, many hours of detailed questioning by it and the defense as to the similarities between writings known to be from Addis and the one used in the prosecution.  Samples were published in the Los Angeles Times of 9 June and it appears that this expert witness was crucial to the prosecution’s case.

A surprise was sprung when Mattie Goss, reported to be an old friend of Yda, told the court that she was asked by Addis “to copy anonymous letters” and added that “she could not disguise her hand but an expert could detect it.”  Goss further stated that Yda told her “she intended giving several people a bad scare” and wanted “to accomplish the ruin of Dr. Winchester and drive him from town.”

More sensation came with a blow-up in court between the prosecutor and attorney Grant Jackson, who represented Yda in her divorce trial and whose disbarment was unsuccessfully sought by Charles Storke. Addis’ attorney John J. Boyce, who was the prosecutor in a murder case that was central to the Storke divorce case, was examining Jackson, who was accused by Yda “of having a hand in the writing of the anonymous letters.”

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Examiner, 1 June 1899.

Jackson, in turn, expressed unmitigated anger at the accusation and he and Boyce nearly came to blows in the courtroom as they traded insults and Boyce accused Jackson of helping to pay for the handwriting expert after the judge refused to allow him to try to link the attorney to the case of perjury Yda faced when that charge was brought by Thomas Storke.

With respect to the criminal libel matter, it was averred by Boyce that it was Jackson who stole stationery and envelopes from Addis’ living quarters and used them to pen the letters used to charge her.  Boyce then delivered the coup de grace by asking the lawyer if he was not, in fact, a “husband by contract” of Yda during the time the anonymous letters were penned.  At this, Jackson leapt out of his chair, shook his fist at Boyce and yelled out “No, I did not, and you know it.  Don’t judge me by yourself, sir!”

When the judge reprimanded the battling attorneys, he added that they could take their dispute outside, to which the Examiner noted that, “the audience applauded this remark vigorously.”  When cross-examined by the prosecutor, Jackson flatly denied any knowledge of or involvement in the letters.  Two lawyers called by the defense then followed and said that, in contradiction to the handwriting expert, the letters used in the case were not written by Addis.

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Examiner, 8 June 1899.

Now, it is largely universally felt that defendants should not testify in their own defense as the prosecution has the burden of proving its case, but Yda did take the stand.  The paper noted that “she looked a nervous wreck” having lost weight and grown paler.  It added “her face has assumed a pinched and worn expression and she has been noticeably more reserved.”  Despite the testimony of three witnesses before her, Addis asserted the opposite of what they told the court.

When she was shown one of the letters, though, she appeared to try to restrain herself, but then blurted out that Jackson was the author, wiped tears from her eyes, and then broke down and wept during a recess.  She then added that much of her correspondence wound up being intercepted and in the possession of her ex-husband, accusing him of criminal theft of mail.

While she denied any knowledge of most of the letters in evidence, she allowed that she did write one to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff saying she would return from Los Angeles “to cause the arrest of several citizens for murder, to charge a prominent doctor [Winchester] with having performed several criminal operations [abortions, probably], and to send people to jail right and left.”

Yda talks for her liberty San_Francisco_Chronicle_Tue__Jun_20__1899_
San Francisco Chronicle, 20 June 1899.

On cross-examination, Yda denied telling Jackson “that they must stand or fall together, and that if she went down in this case she would drag him down with her.”  She claimed that Jackson, the sheriff and another man told her some of the seized letters used in the case against her were written by typewriter and she claimed she could take just one line “to identify the machine if it was in use in any office in the city.”  When recalled, the three men offered with “unqualified denial” that this was the case.  Boyce, who was known for breaking another lawyer’s cheekbone in an earlier incident, got into another argument with a witness and another fight appeared to be on offer.

Finally, on 22 June, after about four hours of deliberation, the jury found Yda guilty and it was reported in the Times that Addis “took the verdict calmly and without apparent emotion.”  A brief on the case added that “a detective traced authorship of the letters” to Yda, but the case went sent to the Santa Barbara County grand jury rather than a federal one (which, presumably, would have heard the matter because of the illegal use of the mails).  It added that the defense tried to link Charles Storke to the letters because he, purportedly, as part of “a conspiracy to drive her from the city.”

While she awaited sentencing, Yda had another court case in which she accused a friend of retaining some of her property while Addis was in Mexico, presumably after she fled Santa Barbara during the Thomas Storke “fracas.”  Addis sought $299 for the value of the material and for damages, but the jury decided against her.

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Los Angeles Times, 22 June 1899.

On 10 July, Addis appeared in court to hear her sentence and, notably, her attorney, Boyce, told the court that, while he had exceptions and a new trial motion to file, he could no longer represent Yda due to “the action of the defendant since the trial.”  She then spoke up expressing surprise at Boyce’s decision and asking for a chance to speak because her side of the story was not told.

Judge Oster stopped her, saying she could speak at an appropriate time, and recited the charge and read the incriminating letter.  He then asked if Addis had anything to say before sentencing.  One of the more interesting items she brought up was that, after the trial, information came to light that would prove her innocence including affidavits.  She mentioned a man named Gutierrez who “told her he knew she had not written the letters and felt sorry now that she was convicted, but if he told the truth now he would be convicted for perjury.”

As Yda started to say more, she was cut off by the judge who told her that Boyce “had done his duty in every way possible” and could quite representing her, leading Addis to reply “she knew she was in the hands of the Court and community.”  The judge told her she’d had a fair and impartial trial, that “he had allowed her every liberty” in terms of evidence and instruction, and that there was no legitimate basis for a new trial.

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Santa Barbara Independent, 10 July 1899.

Turning to the sentence, Oster imposed a fine of no more than $5,000 and no more than a year in the county jail, though “as she had no money, he would commit her for one year.”  He added that the verdict was correct “and it was justified and substantiated by the evidence.”  Moreover, he did not want “to hurt the defendant, and his feelings were those of sympathy, that all criminals were entitled to sympathy for their course.”

The judge, however, felt compelled to say that “the only objection he had was that the limit of imprisonment was restricted to one year, that it was not enough for a crime of this kind.”  Oster also issued a $1000 bond for her to appeal to the state supreme court.  Notably, the Santa Barbara Independent observed “Yda Addis took her sentence without a change of expression, and did not seem to mind it in the least.”

When a reporter asked her about Boyce’s decision, she said “she expected it,” though she told the court she was surprised, and “that he had sold out to the other side” and went against her after the first week.  Further she claimed that Jackson told her “that if Mr. Boyce had not made such a vicious attack on him that he would have given evidence that would have cleared her.”

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Independent, 10 July 1899.

Yet, another stunning development between her and Jackson immediately followed and which took this already remarkable matter into another realm of the fantastical and strange.  We’ll move to that part of the tale next time.


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