Tom McEnery: San Jose rose above the horrors of ‘Swift Justice’
January 14, 2016 at 9:14 am
It was 1933 and America was a troubled country. Millions were out of work, thousands of banks had closed, veterans were angry, fear was constant. In Europe, fascism was on the march. A young, inexperienced president, Franklin Roosevelt, noted that if he did not succeed, he might not be the worst president but the “last one.”
In our beautiful valley, San Jose remained somewhat insulated. There were parks, churches, civic buildings and many fine departments stores, chief among them the wonderful Hart’s. The economy was seasonal, with canneries and dried fruit facilities numbering more than 50. The weather was always sunny, it seemed. Yet beneath the surface, these were grave times. Even the impending end of Prohibition could not lift the
Then, on a cold November night, the heir to Hart’s, young Brooke, was kidnapped. Although the Lindbergh baby’s killer had not been captured, and stories of gangster exploits filled the newspapers, no one imagined that such crime might descend on their city. Incomprehensible demands were made to the family, and soon two local men were captured and confessed. The match was struck when Brooke’s body was found in the bay: The community burst aflame. Now San Jose reaped the whirlwind.
A mob of students, businessmen and excitement seekers stormed the jail, seized the two men and beat, burned and hung them. It was not quick. Alex Hart and his family did everything possible to discourage such violence. They went unheeded.
Then all was quiet as shadows descended.
The governor, “Sunny Jim” Rolph, vowed to pardon anyone convicted. Other players earlier had fought to inject themselves in the saga like J. Edgar Hoover, whose men abandoned defense of the jail, and Alameda County District Attorney Earl Warren, who would later win fame as chief justice and derision for the internment of Japanese citizens.
No one was ever tried.
This conspiracy of silence continued right through the publishing of Harry Farrell’s fine book, “Swift Justice,” in the 1990s. Yet in the horror of that night, there are lessons to learn.
The courage and resilience of the Hart family allowed San Jose and their iconic store to bridge the terror of the murder and lynching and move forward. Perched on the corner of Market and Santa Clara streets, the store survived world war and the Depression until time and the suburban exodus finally forced its demise.
We also see in those 17 days in November 1933 the story of Rabbi Joseph Karesh, who was at the side of the Hart family throughout. I believe that night was the epiphany that propelled him to a seat on the bench — presiding over the Huey Newton and Zebra trials and serving as a model of justice for half a century.
He and many others of those days made sure that the life of young Hart was not senselessly squandered but carried meaning forward into a new America where San Jose no longer put fruit into boxes but squeezed knowledge onto chips.
In San Jose, we must remember our past — the good
and bad. It can be used to instruct and embolden. History to a community is like memory to a person. Bereft of it, the path forward is cloudy.
Although a world without Hart’s was indeed tragic, their spirit is something that continues to imbue our valley and can inspire us to continue on to that better future.
Tom McEnery is a former mayor of San Jose whose play, “Swift Justice,” is being performed at the Tabard Theatre on San Pedro Square. He wrote this for this newspaper.