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A Severed Relationship – Podcast #192

There’s an old idiom that states that it takes two to tango, and this story is no exception.  As with all marriages, whether they succeed or fail, two people are always involved.

The male protagonist in today’s story is Frank Boronda, born in California as Mario Narciso Boronda on October 29, 1863, to a family of Mexican descent. His name first appeared in the newspapers on September 16, 1893, when his first wife Belle attempted to take her own life after their marriage had failed, leaving her with no means of supporting her children from a previous marriage.

Belle told the San Jose Daily Mercury, “I went to Fischer’s drug store and told the clerk that I wanted chloroform to mix with liniment. He gave it to me. When I came home, I told my daughter Lillie that I was going to kill myself, as we were left in poverty. She then ran out and called for assistance.”

12-year-old Lillie ran out into the street and screamed, “Help! Help! Help! Mamma is trying to kill herself.” Passerby Michael Haggerty rushed into the house and struggled to get the bottle of chloroform away from Mrs. Boronda. Most of the chloroform was spilled, although Belle did manage to swallow about a teaspoon of it and bit one of Haggerty’s fingers. While she did have a burning sensation in her throat, Belle was expected to make a full recovery.

Afterward, Belle told the reporter that Frank had been physically abusive towards her, stating that “My husband always treated me cruelly, and on one occasion when he came home he gave me a beating.”

Two years later, on November 20, 1895, Frank would petition the San Jose court for divorce, and while Belle played no further part in this story, her testimony helped set the stage for Frank’s second marriage.

Bertha “Bessie” Zettle was Frank Boronda’s second wife. She was born on March 14, 1877, in Morton, Minnesota. Unfortunately, the details of how Bertha ended up in California and how she met Frank remain a mystery that is lost to history. What is known is that the couple tied the knot on Christmas Day in 1901, when Bertha was 24 years old, and Frank was 38.

Marriage certificate between Bertha Zettle and Frank Boronda, December 25, 1901.
Marriage certificate between Bertha Zettle and Frank Boronda, December 25, 1901.

After about 18 months of living together, Bertha observed that Frank’s love for her had dwindled significantly. She suspected that he was seeing other women, leading to frequent quarrels between the couple. Eventually, Bertha moved to San Francisco and began working as a saleslady at the Emporium department store situated at 835 Market Street. While he never went to visit her, Frank would often write to Bertha, urging her to return to San Jose and come live with him. After six months, Bertha relented and moved back, but the relationship remained tumultuous.

Fast forward to Sunday, February 10, 1907.  Frank was working as the captain of Chemical Engine Number 1 in the San Jose Fire Department when he, along with fellow fire captain, D. Amador, were arrested and taken to the county jail.  It was rumored that the two had been involved in some sort of election fraud, possibly in the buying of votes. Frank was soon released, although it is unclear if any charges were ever filed against him.

From this point on, the narrative becomes a matter of he-said/she-said, relying on testimonies presented during Bertha’s trial.

During a two-week period in mid-May of that same year, Frank stopped coming home for his meals. He was required to spend most evenings sleeping at the firehouse, so there was no mystery there, but Bertha was unable to determine how Frank was feeding himself.

Frank departed from San Jose abruptly on May 26, 1907, but returned the following day, although he didn’t return home to Bertha. According to Frank, he left to get a fireman’s cap in Oakland and ended up staying overnight at his sister’s house after meeting with a friend named Giraldo. Bertha, on the other hand, believed that Frank had left in anticipation of being rearrested for election fraud and was making plans to flee to Mexico and leave the country, possibly with another woman.

Bertha Boronda in 1908.
Bertha Boronda in 1908.

Two days later, on Wednesday, May 29, 1907, Frank finally returned to their home at 28 San Pedro Street and invited Bertha to join him at the theater. They had a meal together before heading off to the Jose Theater, located at 62 S. Second Street. (Sidenote: it is worth noting that the Jose Theater, which opened in 1904, is the oldest theater in San Jose. David Jacks, a wealthy landowner in Monterey who sold a popular cheese known as Jacks’ Cheese, funded the construction of the theater. That cheese is better known today as Monterey Jack.)

As the classic Charlie Rich song goes, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors and that describes what happened next very well.  The couple returned home, had a short conversation, and then it was time to go to bed.  Frank insisted that the two didn’t quarrel at all and that everything seemed fine. Bertha’s version of the story, on the other hand, was that she asked Frank if he still loved her as much as he once did.  He replied that he did, but she was in tears.  After that, Frank supposedly made a vile proposal to her, but exactly what he proposed was never revealed.

But what happened next goes without question. Shortly after Frank retired for the evening, Bertha grabbed a straight razor and with one slice, permanently maimed her husband. Yes, Bertha Boronda had become the Lorena Bobbitt of her day.

Needless to say, Frank was bleeding profusely and screaming in pain.  Bertha told him to stop yelling and that she would go get a doctor.  Instead, shortly after midnight, she went to the room of Frank’s nephew, Balbino Boronda, who lived nearby. She awoke him and stated, “Frank is hurt.” Without offering any further information, Bertha disappeared into the night.

Balbino quickly dressed himself and went over to his uncle’s place, only to find no one there.  What he didn’t know was that Frank had run to the station house, which was located next door.  Fireman Dan Durkin heard Frank calling at the side door and let him inside. Frank told Durkin that he was bleeding to death and asked him to call a doctor.  Durkin did exactly that, but he also contacted the police.

San Jose Fire Department, circa 1916. Until 1908, Frank Boronda was the chief of Chemical No. 1, center.
San Jose Fire Department, circa 1916. Until 1908, Frank Boronda was the chief of Chemical No. 1, center.

When officers John Humburg and Theodore Swanson arrived, they first went to the Boronda home, but also found no one there.  Subsequently, they made their way to the fire station, where they encountered Frank clad in his blood-stained nightclothes. Shortly after this, a Dr. Harris arrived and attempted to treat Frank’s wound.  However, there was little that he could do there, so the decision was made to transport Frank to the Good Samaritan/Red Cross Hospital. There, Dr. Harris, along with a Dr. Holbrook, stitched Frank up. It was uncertain if he would survive.

Meanwhile, officers Humburg and Swanson began the search for Mrs. Boronda.  They would finally catch up with her at 3 AM at a railroad switch tower, which was about a ten-minute walk from the Boronda home.  According to tower operator Elmer Mitchell, Bertha walked in shortly after midnight dressed in men’s clothing and collapsed from sheer exhaustion on the floor.

It was a busy time of the night for Elmer, so while he was focused on avoiding train collisions, he did try to talk to her when he could.  He first questioned her attire, so Bertha explained that she had been on previous hunting trips with her husband and was comfortable wearing them.  After her arrest, she stated that she had changed her clothing in an attempt to escape to Mexico.  At her trial, she said that the clothes belonged to her brother and that she had worn them several times before as a disguise while trying to find her husband.

After confessing to Elmer that she had slashed her husband, Bertha expressed uncertainty about the extent of his injuries. She also harbored fears of being apprehended for both her actions and for donning male attire. Elmer urged her to return home and offered his bicycle as a means of transportation. However, his proposition was not solely intended to expedite her journey home but also to serve as a disguise. Elmer surmised that the police would not stop her because they would assume that any person on a bicycle dressed in male attire was a man.

Bertha put up no resistance at the time of her arrest.  The officers took her to the police station and Chief of Police T. W. Carroll spoke to her the next morning.  Bertha told him, “I had heard for some time that my husband was going to leave me. When he went to Oakland a few days ago, I thought he would pack up his things and leave, so I just fixed him.”  She expressed no regrets then, or ever, for what she had done.

Meanwhile, that morning’s newspapers reported that it was unlikely that Frank would survive.  And if he didn’t, Bertha was certain to face murder charges.  Bail was set at $10,000 (over $322,000 today), which Bertha was unable to pay.  She would remain in jail until her trial.

Luckily, Frank would survive.  Assuming no further complications, Dr. Holbrook estimated that he would be in the hospital for about fifteen days.

But he was now faced with a big decision to make: Should he press charges against his wife or not? Initially, it was thought by close friends that he wouldn’t, but at noon on June 1, 1907, he was propped up in his hospital bed and swore a complaint before Justice Brown that charged Bertha Boronda with mayhem.

Bertha Boronda's San Quentin mugshot, February 29, 1908.
Bertha Boronda’s San Quentin mugshot, February 29, 1908.

While most of us here in the United States are most familiar with mayhem being the name of the character played by actor Dean Winters in those Allstate insurance commercials, the June 1, 1907, San Jose Daily Mercury printed the text of the criminal code: “Every person who unlawfully and maliciously deprives a human being of a member of his body or renders it useless, or cuts or disables the tongue, or puts out an eye, or slits the tongue, nose, ear or lip, is guilty of mayhem.” The article added that Section 204 of the code states that “Mayhem is punishable by imprisonment in the State prison not exceeding 14 years.”

The case of the People of the State of California vs. Bertha Boronda began on Monday, January 13, 1908, with Judge James R. Welch presiding. Attorney B.A. Herrington defended Bertha Boronda, while Deputies District Attorney H.A. Bridges and C.C. Coolidge represented the state. Frank was called as the first witness and Attorney Coolidge asked him to go step-by-step “through the disgusting, but essential, details of the horrible affair.”  Attorney Herrington then did the usual cross-examination, which was followed by a number of witnesses, including the firemen, policemen, doctors, and Elmer Mitchell, the switch operator.  Then Bertha was called to the stand.  She told of how she suspected that her husband was going to leave her, how she found suspicious letters from other women, and what happened in the hours leading up to the moment that she inflicted that terrible wound on her husband.  Yet, she claimed to remember nothing from the time of the attack until she woke up in jail the next morning.

After closing remarks, Judge Welch gave his instructions to the jury of twelve men, which read, in part: “What is known as transitory mania, moral insanity, irresistible impulse, and uncontrollable impulse cannot be advanced as an excuse for the commission of crime, where the person so committing crime is capable of knowing right from wrong. If in the case before you it should appear that the defendant was laboring under some irresistible impulse or some uncontrollable impulse or moral insanity, this would be no excuse for the commission of the act charged, if it appears that she was capable of discerning right from wrong.”

At the time of her incarceration, Bertha Boronda was 31 years old.  She had dark brown hair, hazel eyes, and stood 5'6" tall.
At the time of her incarceration, Bertha Boronda was 31 years old. She had dark brown hair, hazel eyes, and stood 5’6″ (167.6 cm) tall.

He further went on to state, “Jealousy of wife is no excuse for the commission of the crime of mayhem. The law knows no sex in crime. A woman is as amenable to the law as a man.”

On Thursday, January 16, 1908, the jury went into deliberation just before the noon lunch recess.  Two hours later, jury foreman R. A. Crosby stood up and read the verdict. “We, the jury, find the defendant, Bertha Boronda, guilty as charged in the information.”

Bertha Boronda and her San Quentin prison record.
Bertha Boronda and her San Quentin prison record.

On Monday, February 24, 1908, Bertha received a sentence of five years in San Quentin prison from Judge Welch. In reporting the story in The Californian newspaper, it described her act as “unspeakably mutilating her husband.” Five days later, Bertha would make history as the first woman ever admitted to San Quentin on the 29th of February, the first woman ever to do so on a leap day.

There was an attempt to appeal the verdict.  It mainly centered around two prisoners who claimed that they overheard one of the jurors, W. Kennedy, telling Deputy Sheriff W. H. Cropley that “Bertha Boronda is guilty of mayhem. Her attorney cannot win because I believe her guilty.” Kennedy and Cropley denied that the conversation had ever taken place, the two prisoners were charged with perjury, and Bertha’s appeal was denied.

Bertha would not serve out her entire sentence.  She was paroled on good behavior from San Quentin on December 20, 1909.  From the day of her arrest through the day of her release, her entire incarceration totaled 2 years, 6 months, and 20 days.

Bertha Beronda was formally discharged from San Quentin prison on September 29, 1911, although she had been out on parole since December 20, 1909.
Bertha Beronda was formally discharged from San Quentin prison on September 29, 1911, although she had been out on parole since December 20, 1909.

Little is known of what happened to Frank and Bertha afterward, but it should come as no surprise that they did not get back together.

Frank’s tenure with the fire department was not destined to last much longer. With the election of San Jose Mayor Charles W. Davison in 1908, his administration embarked on a policy of purging the department. In July of that same year, numerous members of both the police and fire departments were either terminated, demoted, or coerced into resigning. As a consequence, Frank was demoted from Captain to Extraman, so he ultimately decided to submit his resignation.

On April 14, 1923, Frank filed for divorce from Bertha. The claim?  His wife had “slashed him with a razor and deserted him.” No surprise there.

What is surprising, however, is that the California marriage records clearly show that Bertha had already remarried.  She had tied the knot with Alexander Patterson on May 24, 1921. This raises the question of whether or not Bertha committed bigamy. However, it is difficult to determine with absolute certainty. One possibility is that she obtained a swift divorce in Reno or another location, or she may have been under the assumption that her marriage to Frank had already been dissolved.

May 24, 1921 marriage certificate between Bertha Beronda and Alexander Patterson.
May 24, 1921 marriage certificate between Bertha Beronda and Alexander Patterson.

It’s hard not to speculate whether Patterson was aware of the grave injury that Bertha had inflicted upon her first husband. The answer to that question is almost certainly yes. He just had to know, and there’s a straightforward explanation for it: Alex had been previously married to Mary, Bertha’s older sister.

While one has to wonder if Bertha may have been a bigamist, there is no question that Frank’s third marriage to Josephine Carmela Warburton on June 9, 1925, was above board. This time, the marriage was successful and the two would stay together until Frank’s death in Monterey, California on April 2, 1940.  He was 76 years of age. Josephine, who was 32 years younger than Frank, passed away on May 29, 1988, at the age of 92.

As for Bertha, historical documents show that she was a chambermaid in San Francisco in 1910, a laundress for the Southern Pacific Hospital in that same city in 1917, and a waitress at Camp Meeker in Sonoma, California in 1920.  In 1930, the census revealed that she was employed as a hotel chambermaid in San Francisco, but her marriage status is questionable. Bertha is listed as being married, but clearly wasn’t living with Alex at the time. He was residing in Los Angeles with his son George and is listed as a widower. Did they separate? Did they divorce? Alex would pass on four years later, so is it possible that he was staying with his son because he was in poor health?

Tombstone for Bertha "Bessie" Boronda.
Tombstone for Bertha “Bessie” Boronda. Note the misspelling of her last name. Find-A-Grave image.

On January 18, 1950, Bertha passed away in San Francisco at the age of 72. She was laid to rest at the Calvary Catholic Cemetery in San Jose, alongside her youngest brother Albert Zettle. Interestingly, their shared tombstone contains a typo, with her last name reading Borondo instead of Boronda.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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