Thursday, November 26, 2015

Sheriff Frank Barnet (1867-1935): Suspect in Nurse's Death; Defeated by KKK member

Sheriff Frank Barnet
Frank Barnett (1867-1935) was the Alameda County Sheriff from 1905-1927. His grave remained unmarked in the family plot at Mountain View Cemetery until current Sheriff Greg Ahern and the Deputy Sheriff's Association placed a marker on his grave.

Despite having a colorful and arguably successful career, he is best remembered for being a suspect in the case of Elizabeth "Bessie" Ferguson, a nurse whose dismembered body was found in 1925, which led to him being defeated by a member of the KKK.

Ferguson disappeared after telling her mother that she was headed from San Francisco to Oakland to meet Barnett. Ferguson was a known blackmailer, who tried to pass off her sister's infant as the child of at least eleven prominent men in the community, including Barnet. Allegedly, her mother had warned her to leave the Sheriff alone, as he was too powerful to handle. Bessie replied, "Don't worry Mother, he will pay like all the rest of them." She went missing that night.

Ferguson was known to have used a number of aliases over the years, including checking into to her hotel as Bessie Loren the night she disappeared. A March 5, 1926 account in the Oakland Tribune described her as, "A buxom blonde, attractive, with a certain charm of manner..." She allegedly used the blackmail money to care for her family.

Parts of her body were found in a sack floating in the estuary between Oakland and Alameda near Bay Farm Island and more in the tules by the bay in El Cerrito. The case became known as the "Tule Murder Case." Her skin had been stripped from her bones with acid and some of her flesh had been cooked and fed to dogs. The prime suspect became a veterinary surgeon who it was believed was the only person who had the skills to perform such a detailed dismemberment.

Bessie Ferguson Loren
Despite the involvement of then-District Attorney Earl Warren and a number of leading criminologists, the case was never solved and Barnet was eventually cleared of wrongdoing. Years later, Mary Shaw a reporter in the East Bay, revealed to the Earl Warren Oral History Project at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley that she had interviewed Sheriff Barnet. He revealed to her that he was at a party with Ferguson where everyone was pretty drunk. He admitted that he hit her causing her to fall and hit her head on some fireplace irons. Rather than use this in her story, she told her editors that Barnet refused to talk.

Barnet was originally appointed to his post by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors after the death of Sheriff John Bishop. He was easily reelected until the Ferguson murder when Piedmont Police Chief Burton F. Becker challenged him and beat him my 13,000 votes. Becker was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but hid behind a "Christian morality" platform of cleaning up problems related to "liquor and dope." Barnet was known to be vocally supportive of many so-called vices including drinking, gambling and prostitution. Upon taking office, Becker appointment fellow Klansmen as undersheriff and county jailer. In 1930, Becker was investigated and charged on corruption charges by Earl Warren and sent to San Quentin Prison. Ironically, he was accused of taking bribes from bootleggers and slot-machine operators.

Sources: Oakland Tribune, Wikipedia,  Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren by Ed Cray,, Bancroft Library, San Mateo Times

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