In the early years of the twentieth century, before San José became “The Capital of Silicon Valley”, it was known mainly as a pleasant northern California city. In those days, that part of the Bay Area was called The Valley of Heart’s Delight, and downtown San Jose was at its center.
Among the many businesses waiting to tempt shoppers who visited downtown was a rather important one known as Hart’s Department Store. From a humble drugstore founded in 1866 by Leopold Hart, the store had grown over the years until it was what would today be called an “anchor” of the downtown area. Indeed, one had to go to San Francisco to find a more opulent department store.
At the beginning of the 1930s, Hart’s, with its famous slogan, “San José’s Big Department Store”, was in the capable hands of Alex J. Hart. It was assumed that someday Hart would retire, and pass the running of the store on to his son, Brooke. As with many leading businessmen before and since, Hart and his family were public figures, and well-liked ones at that. Hart’s son Brooke -- young, handsome, and popular -- was the best known of the family, and the heir apparent to the family business. He worked in his father's store, and was a familiar face to many customers.
On the evening of November 9, 1933, Brooke, just 22 years old, left the department store to go pick up his car, and didn’t return. It wasn’t until a few hours later that his family learned, via a phone call, that their son had been kidnapped. The caller demanded $40,000 ransom for his safe return. The Hart family wasted no time in notifying the police, and almost immediately the Federal Bureau of Investigation became involved as well.
A few days later, Brooke’s car was found abandoned, on the outskirts of town. There were more calls as the family attempted to negotiate for Brooke’s release. They received barely readable notes that led nowhere, as did the manhunt that the police had mounted in conjunction with the FBI. Finally, during of the calls the kidnapper spent just a little too much time on the phone to Alex Hart. The police were able to trace the call, and apprehended Thomas Harold Thurmond. Some intense questioning revealed the name of his accomplice, John Holmes.
The pair told police how they had murdered Brooke Hart, almost immediately after snatching him, and dumped the body off a bridge into the San Francisco Bay. Thurmond and Holmes were charged, and hauled off to the Santa Clara County Jail to await trial. Their story was borne out a few weeks later when Hart’s body was found.
Thurmond and Holmes may have realized, at some point, that they’d made a serious mistake in kidnapping the popular son of a prominent family. What they may not have remembered was that the Lindbergh kidnapping case was still fresh in people’s minds. As details of the Hart kidnapping spread, the public reacted with fury, outraged that a popular ‘son of the valley’ had been so brutally murdered. That public fury turned ugly when it became apparent that the kidnappers probably never intended to return Brooke Hart alive.
On the night of November 26, an enraged mob gathered outside the jail. The police force was not enough to hold them back; the mob dragged Thurmond and Holmes from the jail toward nearby St. James Park. Frantic calls were put through to Sacramento, pleading for help from then-governor “Sunny” Jim Rolph. The authorities got no relief, however, when Rolph refused to call out the National Guard to protect the kidnappers.
Once the mob and the captives reached the park, a crowd began to gather around the scene. Soon the crowd grew to over 3000, and someone yelled, “string ‘em up!” Thurmond went first, hung from a nearby mulberry tree. A few feet away, Holmes was similarly hung from the limb of a great elm tree. The mob, satisfied that justice had been done, dispersed into the night.
Many citizens of San José had been horrified at the crime, and felt that the two kidnappers got what they deserved. People outside the valley, however, were horrified by the spectacle of vigilante justice enacted in modern times. Newspapers around the country criticized the mob’s actions, the California authorities, and Governor Rolph in particular. Rolph remained intractable and did not apologize for his refusal to call the Guard. He later told reporters he felt a lesson had been learned that day.
The Hart family, of course, went on with life. Hart’s Department Store continued to thrive and eventually became a chain of stores. The famous downtown store later moved into a suburban mall in the late 1970s. A few years later, the entire Hart’s operation was bought by a larger retail chain, and faded away not too long after. Today, all that remains of Hart’s, other than memories, is a large advertisement painted on a building wall in downtown San José. Nothing remains of the two lynching trees; they were badly damaged by souvenir hunters, and had to be cut down.
Farrell, Harry, Swift Justice: Murder & Vengeance in a California Town. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Carlson, Eric, "St. James Park: Hangings, Tarring & Feathering, Etc.", Soft Underbelly of San José. 1997. <http://www.sjunderbelly.com/unbelly/Sanjose/james/james9.html> (April 2004).