By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications
On April 18, 1906, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay area. The city and many of the surrounding communities were left in ruins and some unscrupulous types took advantage of the confusion and chaos. Meanwhile, the sturdily built San Quentin State Prison was relatively unscathed but the jolt certainly caused a scare among staff and inmates.
“At San Quentin, the convicts raised an unearthly yell as the cells buildings shook violently, and begged to be released. Some of the buildings show the effects of the severe twisting of the (quake),” reported the Sausalito News, April 21, 1906.
The prison also helped quake victims by baking extra loaves of bread and took in additional inmates from damaged jails. Many inmates were transferred to San Quentin, “for safekeeping,” reported the Marin Journal, April 26, 1906.
“Warden John C. Edgar of the San Quentin State Prison has reported to Governor Pardee that the damage done to the buildings of that institution by the earthquake was not heavy and that repairs will cost not to exceed $500. The chimneys were shaken down and some plaster fell, but otherwise little damage resulted,” reported the Sacramento Union, April 28, 1906.
The scene in and around San Francisco, however, was completely different. An eyewitness account of the morning of the quake described the devastation, confusion and early signs of criminal activity.
“We had seen enough (devastation) to be dazed and felt that a few moments rest were imperative as we could not comprehend the situation. Returning, we found the first looting going on,” wrote Paul Spring on April 19. His letter was published April 28 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
Gas pipe murderers
Two young men used the chaos to go on a murderous crime spree.
John Seimsen, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and a former San Quentin inmate, used his influence to gain the help of an impressionable 18-year-old, Louis Dabner. The younger man had only lived in the city a short time, moving there from a farming community.
The pair and a few accomplices used gas pipes to bludgeon people while robbing them. Eventually, they robbed a bank, killing the manager and causing severe brain injury to one of the tellers.
The Nov. 7, 1906, edition of the San Francisco Call quoted the men directly from court proceedings and transcripts of police interviews as they confessed their crimes in great detail.
Seimsen said he went to the military academy in Honolulu, served as a private in the war, and came to the U.S. in 1896. After coming to San Francisco, he did odd jobs.
“The money didn’t come fast enough so I turned to burglary, and before long was sentenced to San Quentin and was given a criminal record,” Seimsen said. “When I got out, I tried to earn money legitimately, but, like before, could not get it fast enough, and I simply had to have it.”
A detective asked, “Do you think it was right to mix up a young boy like this in your crooked jobs?”
“Let me explain my association with Dabner,” Seimsen, 28, told police as he puffed on a cigar, blowing a mouthful of smoke toward the ceiling. “When I first met him I was straight, even though I had just been out of jail. In time, I needed money as usual, however, and decided that I’d have to get it some way. I decided then to tell Dabner who I was. … He said he didn’t care what I had been, that he liked money himself, and was not particular about how he got it. You can ask him yourself if I’m not speaking the truth. How about it, Louis?”
“He’s saying what’s right,” said Dabner. “I liked his style, wanted more money than I was making, and was solely responsible for my own actions … I knew all the time what I was doing, and am only sorry now because of my family.”
“That’s the truth,” chimed in Seimsen. “I am frankly sorry, however gentlemen, if his downfall was due to my influence. I never knew until tonight he was only 18 years old. I always thought he was older.
“Passing on to the Japanese bank murder, (Seimsen), walking up and down the room, demonstrated how he held the head of Sasaki while Dabner dealt the blows that made the … teller a doddering idiot. Dabner himself was weak on the day of the assault, he said, and hadn’t the usual force behind his blows.
“Once I had struck Murakata, he was as good as done for,” said Seimsen. “I never have to strike a second blow.”
Seimsen also told police he watched them investigate the crimes, pointing them out to Dabner as they strolled down the street.
“I knew I would be caught in the end,” he said, “and was always impressing this fact on Dabner. I never did think that I would always be able to escape, but that fact never troubled me.”
In all, the duo confessed to seven crimes. They had one to two other men involved with them in the crimes, but didn’t give up the names. Their crimes steadily escalated in severity and the press dubbed them the “gas pipe gang.”
Less than a month after the earthquake, on May 18, they robbed a hardware merchant of $38. Former coroner Dr. Thomas B. Leland was held up July 11 and robbed of $450. J.H. Dockweiler, an engineer, was held up and beaten by three men on Aug. 18. Johannes Pfitzner was beaten to death in his shoe store on Aug. 20 with the pair snatching about $100. William Friede was beaten in his clothing store on Sept. 14 and died a few days later. They didn’t get much money from the robbery so set their sights on a bigger target – a bank. H. Murakata, the banker, was killed and A. Sasaki, his assistant, seriously injured by two men who got away with $2,700 from the bank on Oct. 3. But they had one last crime to commit and targeted Henry Behrend. The victim was beaten and severely injured on Nov. 3.
“The running down of the chain of gas pipe crimes was one of the most baffling things that the police of San Francisco have ever been confronted with,” said Police Chief Dinan. “The city can now rest assured that the men responsible for these unusual crimes are safely jailed.”
“Louis Dabner, the young man charged with John Seimsen of beating three men to death with a piece of gas pipe, wept in Judge Shortfall’s courtroom this afternoon when Captain of Detectives Duke read his signed confession. Seimsen, however, smiled when portions of the confession were read. Several Japanese witnesses told of how the murder at the Kimmon Ginko (bank) had been committed,” reported the Sacramento Union, Nov. 21, 1906.
A few weeks later, the men were sentenced to death.
“Seimsen, the young gas pipe thug, was this afternoon convicted of murder in the first degree after a deliberation of 12 minutes by the jury, who heard the evidence,” reported the Press Democrat, Jan. 11, 1907. “He was tried for the murder of the Japanese banker at the time Seimsen and young Dabner, of Petaluma, held up the bank in (San Francisco). Dabner is also charged with murder in connection with the same case (and later sentenced).”
“With the hope that the death sentenced passed on Louis Dabner, one of the notorious gas pipe murderers, be commuted to life imprisonment, attorney W. L. Barnes is preparing an appeal on behalf of Dabner to be presented to the governor,” reported the San Francisco Call, May 29, 1908. “After the reign of terror was ended by the capture of Dabner and Seimsen, Dabner confessed to many crimes and, on the advice of his father, refused at first to have counsel to defend him. … The matter went to the Supreme Court, which upheld (the sentence).”
“In the cell once occupied by Theodore Durrant, the most notorious murderer ever hanged in California, Louis Dabner, the youthful gas pipe murderer, sleeps tonight. Next to him, a steel lattice separating them, is John Seimsen,” reported the Call, July 25, 1908.
Simultaneously, they were executed.
“Seimsen and Dabner, the gas pipe thugs, (were) hanged side by side Friday at San Quentin,” reported the Press Democrat, Aug. 2, 1908. “After the great earthquake and fire, when conditions in San Francisco were such as to make strict police supervision almost an impossibility, these two young men, who appear to have been capable of better things, began to ply their nefarious trade and instituted what became in time a veritable reign of terror there.”
Hypnotist uses quake to hide company financials
A self-proclaimed psychologist, high priest of his own church, hypnotist and leader of multiple businesses tried using the San Francisco tragedy to hide financial information from his investors. This led to investigations and criminal charges for the con man.
Stockholder B.C. Hatch sued W.R. Price, president of Guerrero Development, claiming hypnotism was used to sway the board of directors and that Price hid financials he claimed were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake.
“Dr. Price, for more than three years, has been conducting at Long Beach an organization or sec known as the New and Practical Psychology. It has for its basis hypnotic treatment, and all the directors of the Guerrero Development company are members,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Nov. 18, 1908. “Hatch says more than $90,000 has been poured into the treasury of the company. Of this amount he claims only $63.93 remains, with 6,000 acres of unimproved and almost worthless land.”
Hatch claimed Price used a “hypnotic spell over the mind of the other directors, and when the earthquake and fire occurred in San Francisco it is claimed that Price made the other members of the board believe that the books of the company were destroyed. A new set of books was arranged from the data saved.”
Another stockholder, George H. Walker, discovered the original unharmed books hidden in a vault in Price’s office and compared them to the new books. This comparison “only went further to prove that Dr. Price was dealing unfairly with the stockholders.”
Hatch sued to block Price from calling a special board meeting “at which further liabilities will be incurred. If this is done, he says, the company will be insolvent.”
Walker also filed suit against Price.
A judge approved the order barring the board from managing the affairs of the company until a trial could be held.
The civil suit eventually led to criminal charges.
“Held to answer to the superior court on a charge of obtaining money by false pretenses, rearrested on a similar charge, involving $7,000, … was the experience yesterday of W. R. Price,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 21, 1909.
Price swindled J.M. Sewell out of $7,000 and $1,000 from Mary J. Helm, selling shares of the National Gold Dredger Company, of which he was also president.
Helm said Price told her “gold in the river bed was like wheat in a bin.” She was also a member of his church.
Price claimed his company was dredging gold on the American River near Sacramento and Folsom.
“Many stockholders in the National Gold Dredging Company representing thousands of dollars of Long Beach capital, another of the companies organized by Dr. W.R. Price, past of the Psychological temple, were thrown into consternation today by the report of the executive committee appointed to report on the condition of the company’s property,” reported the Sacramento Union, Jan. 24, 1909.
The committee, comprising three members of the company’s directors, claimed they visited the dredging site on the river and found “a great storm raging, the dredge wrecked, badly broken up and carried down the river, with but little hope of any salvage worth recovering.” They found the company was in debt and after a year of work had produced about one-half ounce of gold.
It is doubtful the dredger ever existed. The damaged dredger spotted by the committee most likely belonged to Natomas Consolidated as it was the only dredger “overturned in that (river) by the recent floods.”
“The stockholders in the company are mostly members of Dr. Price’s church. Already two other of the companies organized by the minister-promoter are plunged in a legal battle,” the paper reported.
His first trial resulted in a hung jury. His second trial resulted in a guilty verdict but in 1911, a judge granted a third trial for the shady stock promoter.
In June 1912, the state Supreme Court set $7,000 in damages against Price, reversing a previous decision by the superior court. As far as criminal charges, his trail historic newspapers goes cold after 1912.