Sheriff Frank Barnet and the Case of Bessie Ferguson


We had a sheriff named Frank Barnet. Contra Costa County had a sheriff for over forty years. His name was [R.R.] Veale. Veale was the oldest sheriff in point of service at this period of time in the state of California. He had a son named Billy Veale, who was under-sheriff. Sheriff Frank Barnet and Veale were really old-time sheriffs. Frank Barnet was very liberal. He'd sit down and drink during Prohibition. He was what a lot of people called a regular guy. He didn't think anything of prostitutes and open gambling operating. He believed you needed those!


That's life, huh?


Yes. You needed this, you see. It was a common belief that if you close these places up, you'll have a lot of rape cases on your hands. Well, that's what many people thought.

In his investigative force he had a criminal and a civil division. Joe Soares was a very liberal sort of a fella. He was the chief criminal deputy. A very good man, a good investigator--an honest man in all intents and purposes.

Sheriff Frank Barnet became involved in the Bessie Ferguson case. It was reported that he was supposed to be out at a bootlegging place on Park Avenue. It was reported that Bessie Ferguson met her death there. It was rumored that Frank Barnet was keeping company with her. She had lived over on, I think, Fifth Avenue, between Fourth or Fifth Street, down in that neighborhood.

Anyway, it was reported that she got in an argument there at this place, and someone struck her and knocked her down a flight of stairs and killed her. Now, I don't know if that's true, so this would only be a hearsay story, as far as I'm concerned. It was reported that they were drunk at the time.

I later heard that in order to dispose of the remains they cut her up. The newspapers were full of the story. They had to dispose of the body, and she was just going to disappear into thin air, as far as whoever was responsible for this was concerned. The story went on that there was a certain veterinarian who was very closely associated in this group,

and that after they took the body out there, they dismembered the body and they cooked all of the meat off of the bones, and this is what was believed by those who were investigating it. They kept it very, very quiet.

Some of her remains were disposed of by throwing the bones into the marsh along the bay in Contra Costa County over in El Cerrito. Some duck hunters found this woman's ear with some hair on it hanging on a tule.


So that's why it's called the "tule murder"?


Yes. They found these here and some of the bones in a sack, which was just thrown over there. Cut up in small pieces so they'd fit into a stew pot. That's the reason--they were satisfied, but they could never prove it--they were cut to a certain size that would fit certain kettles, to cook the meat off. They didn't find all of the remains.

However, these were guarded very closely, and they were taken out to the University. Some pathologists or some other scientists worked on this and later on, by the Bay Farm Island bridge they found some more bones--just happened to be fished up by someone. So they put this together, and Bessie Ferguson had disappeared, and they come to the conclusion that this was Bessie Ferguson's remains.

I don't think they ever positively identified--now maybe they did--that this was Bessie Ferguson's remains. The ear had something to do with it, the hair had something to do with it. In those days they weren't too scientific about examination, to make a positive determination. I don't think they found the skull or any of the teeth.

Now I did hear that a good portion of the remains were at the University, but I don't know. The Oakland Police Department and the Contra Costa authorities were handling the investigation.


About this text
Courtesy of Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley
Title: Oscar J. Jahnsen
Contributing Institution: Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley
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