Yda Addis: The “Woman Who Terrorized a Whole Town,” 1900

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It’s now time to bring the amazing saga of Yda Addis and her battles with powerful men and the legal system in Santa Barbara and California to an end.  In doing so, we find an unexpected twist and then an abrupt conclusion with the talented poet, journalist and writer literally disappearing in 1900 once her legal situation was finally cleared up.

It was early in this last year of the 19th century when the California Supreme Court ruled on Addis’ appeal on her 1899 conviction of criminal libel for anonymous letters sent to individuals in Santa Barbara accusing them of involvement in the murders of a mother and daughter in that city three years prior.

In its 22 February edition, the San Francisco Chronicle merely noted that the high court “found no error in the proceedings” held at the Santa Barbara County Superior Court and upheld her conviction, the sentence for which was one year and which was rapidly approaching its end.

Yda Supreme Court ruling San_Francisco_Chronicle_Thu__Feb_22__1900_
San Francisco Chronicle, 22 February 1900.

Notably, the paper thought it important to mention her past, including a threatened breach of promise suit, which was never filed, against Los Angeles luminary and former California governor John G. Downey in the late 1880s and her protracted and extraordinarily bitter divorce from Santa Barbara attorney and state legislator Charles A. Storke.  It was added that Storke was county district attorney when the indictment was filed on the criminal libel charge (though he shortly thereafter completed his term).

Yet, there was a stunning turn of events by the end of March when it was reported in the Los Angeles Times on the 28th that Yda was granted a rehearing by the supreme court.  Amazingly, a motion for such a proceeding was filed by her lawyers and rejected, but Addis “at once went to work independently to prepare a petition herself” and a rehearing before the entire court.

The Times observed that such a development “illustrates again the remarkable ability that underlies the defendant’s character.”  Because Addis spent much of her younger years in Los Angeles, including being in the inaugural graduating class of Los Angeles High School in 1875 and a subsequent six-year stint as a teacher, with later stints in the Angel City, she was afforded more positive coverage in the press of that city than in Santa Barbara or San Francisco.  The paper added that it was likely that Yda would be released from jail before the hearing was held because she had two months’ credit for good behavior.

Yda rehearing The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__Mar_28__1900_
Los Angeles Times, 28 March 1900.

It turned out that the high court rehearing was held on prior to her release and, on 3 May, the Times reported that the Supreme Court took particular notice of the crucial element of the criminal libel case: the testimony of a handwriting expert, who averred that “the writing in all the letters” submitted as evidence “was similar to the writing of the defendant.”

Yet, when Addis’ attorneys “introduced the testimony of another expert to offset that” of the one brought forward by the prosecution, “this evidence was afterward stricken out, and the jury instructed to pay no heed to it in its deliberations on the merits of the case.”  It was largely on this question that a motion for a new trial was filed and rejected and then was the basis of the appeal to the high court.

That body, consequently, determined “that the lower court erred in refusing to admit this evidence, and it accordingly sends the case back for a rehearing.”  While this did not mean that Yda was innocent of the charges or that a jury would render a different verdict, there was no reason for the Santa Barbara Superior Court to take up the matter again, because, a week later, on 10 May, she was released from jail, having served ten months of her year’s sentence.

Yda victory The_Los_Angeles_Times_Fri__May_4__1900_
Times, 4 May 1900.

Following the high court ruling, there was no order to hold her pending any further action at the local level and the San Francisco Examiner, in its coverage, opined that “the new trial will probably never come off.”  Why would it have?  She’d served a full sentence and it would not have served any interests of justice or been worth the use of resources in the court system to even try for a new proceeding.

Six months later, the Examiner, owned by William Randolph Hearst and known for its sensationalist approach to journalism, ran a lengthy article titled “Woman Who Terrorized a Whole Town.”  The piece revealed that, although six years had passed since Charles Storke, recently elected Santa Barbara’s mayor, was granted a divorce from her, Yda refused to accept that ruling and she was seeking to have the divorce ruling tossed out so that she could seek her own divorce judgment and the payment to her of alimony, which she so vigorously sought from summer 1891 when she first filed for divorce from Storke.

The Examiner added that she pursued this course of action despite her declaration that she was married “by contract” to Grant Jackson, who represented her in the divorce case, but who emphatically denied they had any relationship approximating a marriage, though they were, he acknowledged, “intimate friends.”

Yda released from jail The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Fri__May_11__1900_
San Francisco Examiner, 11 May 1900.

The article referred to Yda as “this most extraordinary woman and one-time brilliant writer” and said of her, in addition, that “in all of California there is not another being so brilliant and at the same time so weird.”  The latest development, it went on, “is but another page in the strange, stormy life of this strange, brilliant woman” whose life “reads not like one, but like a dozen romances.”

Here is more of the introduction of the article to give a fuller sense of its views:

Fancy one woman’s matrimonial complications destroying the serenity of an entire community.

Fancy one little woman turning a whole city topsy-turvey—and terrorizing its Mayor; one little, ninety-pound woman, poor, friendless, hungry, almost ragged.

This is why Yda Addis Storke has done to Santa Barbara and the Mayor of Santa Barbara—poor, wretched, unhappy, brilliant, erratic, vindictive little Yda Addis Storke.

Poor little Ishmael [referring to the protagonist in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick who was obsessed with killing the whale who deformed him] in petticoats.

Nothing can daunt or tame or soften her, or tire her relentless hatred.

In this accounting, Yda transformed a town with a “delightful, sleepy peace and placid faith” into one filled with “turmoil and distrust” and that the entirety of the community “hates and fears her,” considering Addis to be “the most dangerous, malignant and pestiferous little woman that ever breathed the salubrious air of that paradise by the sea.”  It even claimed that some denizens talked of tar and feathers and even lynching.

Yda image The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Thu__Jul_13__1899_
Examiner, 13 July 1899.

This “proud, fragile, desperate little woman” was assumed to die either by suicide or grief in jail, but the article said she surprised all by completing her term and coming out ready to fight once more.  After describing her appearance as comprising a “wasted form, faded beauty, silver-threaded hair and shattered hopes” in contrast to her youthful “piquant and fascinating” character, it looked to give a detailed biography of Addis.

At Los Angeles in the early 1870s, Yda was “a trim little figure of a woman, dark-haired, dark-eyed, charming in manner, dainty in dress, young, accomplished, subtle, imperious, with the added witchery of coquetry.”  After her teaching career, she went into literary work and it was “original, daring, strong, polished” and “won the favorable criticism of the most fastidious critics of the East.”

On the ascendant, she, however, “interrupted it with an episode as wild as it was ludicrous,” this being her alleged engagement with Downey.  After that drama subsided, she removed to Mexico City and fell in with Theodore Gestefeld, who employed her for his English-language newspaper and, reputedly, had a torrid affair with her.  As noted in an earlier post, Yda claimed that it was not her, but a “wicked vaudeville” actress and her look-alike half-sister Maud, who was Gestefeld’s paramour.  Next was the short-lived disastrous marriage to Storke and the two purported suicide attempts by morphine and setting her clothes on fire.

Woman Who Terrorized a Whole Town The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Sun__Nov_11__1900_
Examiner, 11 November 1900.

From there, it was the fantastical incident involving the anonymous letters fixing responsibility for the Richardson murders on prominent Santa Barbara residents, including a well-known doctor.  The Examiner painted a picture of Yda finding her life’s work in breaking open the case and rhetorically wondered the effect it had “on the high-strung, imaginative, sensation, mystery and intrigue-loving little woman.”

Addis’ role in this, the paper continued, was to have “woven a theory in which fact and fancy are blended with the most marvelous ingenuity” and, in it, “points the finger of suspicion toward her one-time husband, C.A. Storke, and tries to indicate that his is the master hand that directed the doing of the deed.”  Moreover, the statement went on, people in Santa Barbara were concerned that Yda would implicate anyone of complicity in the murders if they “offended her or excited her ill-will.”

With respect to Grant Jackson, it was asserted that the purported marriage contract involved a provision that the attorney “had collected for her . . . the alimony C.A. Storke had to pay to her,” though there is no evidence of any such alimony, though Storke aggressively fought to provide the funds for legal expenses that the court ordered he hand over to his ex-wife.

Woman Who Terrorized a Whole Town headline The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Sun__Nov_11__1900_
Examiner, 11 November 1900.

After the bizarre episode just prior to her sentencing in which she entered Jackson’s room with chloroform and a pistol, but claimed she was merely there to speak with him, the good folks of Santa Barbara were “ready to believe her capable of any crime, from robbing a hen-roost to having committed the Richardson murders herself.”  Moreover, rumor had her responsible for a criminal network in the area.

The paper, however, asserted that more rumor told of her dressing as a Chinese person or a Mexican to spy on citizens, when Addis actually told a reporter she assumed disguises of this type in her attempts to discover the “truth” of the killings.  Another reference was to a “timid professor of Spanish” who was afraid to leave his home after dark because of Yda—this was likely the Frank N. Gutierrez referred to in an earlier post and who, in 1901, still expressed fear of her.

While she served her sentence on the criminal libel conviction, the Examiner stated, the “imperious, relentless, scornful, vindictive” Yda sat “in a shabby gray dressing gown, with the gray prison blanket wrapped around her legs, and sneered at all Santa Barbara as a pack of fools and cowards.”  She was “a wicked, malicious little lady” who “was arrogant and defiant and bitterly contemptuous,” yet, the Examiner added, Addis was “infinitely pathetic, the pitifullest woman figure one could have the pain to see, a wretched little woman.”

Woman Who Terrorized a Whole Town detail 2 The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Sun__Nov_11__1900_
Examiner, 11 November 1900.

She was quoted as saying from jail after her arrest in confronting Jackson in his room, “I have wanted love—genuine love,” which Storke was incapable of providing.  As for Jackson, “he was tenderly considerate of me” and she suggested a marriage by contract thinking, she claimed, it would never be public and that he might want someone younger later.

She allowed that “I am exacting, jealous” in wanting his total devotion and, this denied her, “I decided to kill myself” and brought the chloroform and pistol to do herself in on a lonely stretch of beach.  Instead, she decided, she would live “and fight to the end—whatever that end may be.”

When someone “remonstrated with [her] for giving rein to her vindictiveness,” Yda purportedly replied, “if I could eliminate every other characteristic of my nature and cultivate but that one, I would gladly do it.”  The piece dramatically concluded by observing that, now that Addis was out of jail, she was prepared to take on her enemies “with all her might—pitting her small woman’s hand against the world as fiercely as ever” and adding, “Poor little Ishmael in petticoats!”

Woman Who Terrorized a Whole Town detail 3 The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Sun__Nov_11__1900_
Examiner, 11 November 1900.

Despite the asserted inclination to battle it out with Storke one more time and to secure her own divorce decree and the long-deferred alimony, not only was there no further indication of any such legal action, but Yda simply and starkly disappeared.  No reference whatsoever to her could be found, though there are several family trees posted on Ancestry.com that states that Addis died in 1911 at Mesa de Huracán, a mountain hamlet in the state of Chihuahua, México. 

This is certainly plausible, as she lived in Chihuahua City and other areas of the country in stints from the late 1860s to the late 1880s and her brother, Judge (also known as Carlos in México), lived in Chihuahua for many years.  None of these trees, however, provide any documentation for that date, though one noted without any supporting information that “Addis was friendly with the Creel family of Chihuahua, that led to her death.”

Whatever happened to her, there is no question that Yda Addis was one of the most notable and colorful characters associated with 1870s Los Angeles, though her most notorious years were in Santa Barbara.  As an unconventional woman, she garnered plenty of media attention for her looks, intelligence, writing ability and penchant for personal problems that became stranger and more fantastic as time went on.

Woman Who Terrorized a Whole Town detail 4 The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Sun__Nov_11__1900_
Examiner, 11 November 1900.

Despite frequent allusions to her fragile and explosive mental state, it is worth nothing that John G. Downey and Charles A. Storke were likely not free from their own troubled psychological conditions with Downey likely having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the horrific rail crash that killed his wife in early 1883 and Storke probably having the same malady from his confinement, at only sixteen years of age, in notorious Confederate prisoner of war camps during the late stage of the Civil War.

Downey and Storke (and to an extent, Harper’s Monthly Magazine editor Charles Dudley Warner) were also wealthy, powerful men, who had the resources to fight Addis in the courts of law and public opinion as reflected through the media.  This isn’t to say that she was always in the right or that these men were victims of her manipulations and manias without their own complicity in wrongdoing.

It may be that Addis was increasingly unstable and unhinged and committed many, if not all, the actions of which she was accused.  She consistently claimed she was the victim of broad and shadowy conspiracies, averred that crucial exonerating evidence was stolen from her, and was prone to dramatic pronouncements that her end was near, though she always bounced back with substantial determination to fight her enemies.

As for Downey, his family certainly looked to have gone to great lengths to hide him from her and there are varying accounts about his own mental state (much less alcoholism) and ability to conduct his affairs.  Storke went through a very tumultuous divorce just prior to marrying Yda and his doggedness to avoid paying even modest sums decreed by judges for her legal fees and his role as a powerful figure, including district attorney, in Santa Barbara could well have been used against Addis.  Her worsening psychological state could, in part, be attributable to being worn down by confronting these wealthy and powerful men.

Woman Who Terrorized a Whole Town detail 5 The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Sun__Nov_11__1900_
Examiner, 11 November 1900.

Media coverage of her was somewhat mixed, with Los Angeles papers being more sympathetic, due, it seems, to the effect the young Yda had as a talented poet on the Angel City, while the Santa Barbara and San Francisco press, recognizing her literary abilities early on, became more critical and focused on her appearance and mental fitness over time.  Addis did not fit the societal expectations for women and Downey, Warner and Storke generally did, though media sympathy for the trio was far from uniform.

In the end, much of the substance of what transpired between her and these men took place in private.  It does not appear that anyone knew, for example, what Downey told Addis as they spent time together after his wife’s death. There were a few witnesses (her aunt, for instance, and a handful of others, including Storke’s son Thomas, who later became a combatant against Yda) during the short-lived Storke marriage, but it looks like much of the serious allegations took place outside the knowledge of others.  Even the Warner incident did not seem to involve much possibility for corroboration.

So, was Yda the “woman who terrorized a whole town”?  Was she the victim of a series of remarkable circumstances?  Was it both in varying degrees on a spectrum?  These posts have looked to provide enough detail to give a decent grounding with the events and issues and encourage readers to look further and make their own determinations.


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