If you are a member of any San Jose History groups on social media, you doubtless have seen Bertha Boronda’s mugshot photograph. It is a marvelous and eerie portrait, captured on leap day in 1908, and likely a rare example of an inmate documenting a fellow inmate. I have spent more than a year on-and-off researching the population of the long defunct San Quentin Women’s Ward, and the majority of narratives and artifacts of prison life hail from wardens, guards, matrons, and journalists. You can imagine my relief when I read of the photographer’s inmate status in a 1911 exposé on booking procedures in San Quentin as published in the Santa Cruz Evening News.
The author writes [Next the prisoner] pays a visit to the photographer (also a prisoner) who always tries to make his subject look pleasant. Of course there’s no way of knowing what kinship or rapport might’ve existed between Bertha and her documentarian, but the likeness the photographer captured is timeless to say the least. San Joseans are still talking about it, comparing her smirk to a Mona Lisa smile.
Bertha’s expression often gets described as smug, and she indeed looks like the cat who has swallowed the canary. With searching, I find that a meme version of the portrait has spread as far away as Leeds, United Kingdom, which is fifteen hours from San Jose by airplane. A few lines of praise atop the image sire Bertha the IDGAF queen of ‘08.
The Legacy of the Mugshot Photograph
If you need affirmation that rape culture and misogyny are continuing to thrive 112 years after Bertha’s arrest, read the comments on the aforementioned social media posts.
One man, after calling her bitch, says i do like her hair, i’d do her back then.
She’s hot stuff !!! remarks another.
She may well have been an early man hater, pipes in a third.
Owing to the nature of Bertha’s crime of mayhem, comparisons to Lorena Bobbitt abound. One could be Borondaed before Bobbitted? Know your history ladies, writes one commenter.
Like other locals my age, I long ago took glee in Bobbitt’s misunderstood crime via a gag song that circulated on the playground of St. Patrick’s Elementary School in 1993. Sung to the tune of the popular do-wop hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight, we schoolchildren replaced the refrain of a-wimoweh a-wimoweh with a-weenie-wack a-weenie-wack. With research I learn that a-wimoweh is Pete Seeger’s unfortunate mishearing of Solomon Linda’s Zulu lyric uyimbube which translates to you are a lion. The words of the do-wop version have little if any fidelity to Linda’s song, and yet they are the most well known. Only the original melody remains, a ghost behind white-washed pop vocals.
I wonder what faint truth remains in these poor translations of Bertha’s misfortunes, if any.
Past midnight one evening in May 1907, Bertha Boronda spilled into the street in her nightgown. Her husband-slash-bedfellow, having been maimed in his penis, attests in the Santa Cruz Sentinel that they had not been quarreling when Bertha produced the sharp razor. He claims they were friendly and chatting. The journalist reports that her husband, a fire captain, was known about town as a good family man. (The journalist leaves out by whom.) Her actions occurred “without warning.” And yet, this was not the first time Bertha had wielded a weapon against her old man. On one occasion, the same journalist reports, a revolver which she had secreted in her home was discovered and was given to the police. Though the statement contains few actors, I imagine how the uniformed men conspired to strip her defenses.
When I describe Bertha’s crime to a friend over lunch at the Rose Garden, her words stick with me. If there’s anything I know about wives who cut off their husband’s penises: they probably had a good reason to. Something in my gut tells me that Bertha may have been a survivor of intimate partner violence, but the moraes of the time make it tough to confirm.
The crime occurred at the Boronda’s former residence at 28 N. San Pedro Square, which adjoined the firehouse where Frank then worked. Today, the site of their old home is the rightmost edge of the parking garage across the street from San Pedro Square Market and next door to Sushi Confidential. The latter establishment features custom rolls with names that unintentionally echo Bertha’s legacy. There’s the gluten-free incognito roll, the vegetarian most wanted roll, and the undercover unagi roll. In addition to vehicles, today’s parking garage houses MOMENT, a gentrifying development featuring pop-up shops owned and conceptualized by incredible women who are inventors, makers, artists, and, most importantly, entrepreneurs. I wonder what Bertha would think of all this.
Whatever the case, the next time you visit San Pedro Square, I encourage you to envision our Bertha, cast off in the night wearing bedclothes. Her husband, by contrast, wailed into the neighboring firehouse, rousing his fleet of subordinates who rushed to his aid. Physicians at the Red Cross Sanitarium, a half mile away near the site of today’s Tech Museum, ministered to his wounds.
A Spiritual Medium Weighs In
When I send the mugshot photograph to Courteney Hill, a spiritual medium who has guided me through many historical inquiries, I offer no context besides Bertha’s first name. Courteney conducts her readings over a messaging app. The process is simple: you pay upfront, she grounds herself, you send her a photograph of a deceased person, and she relays what details come through over the course of an hour. The whole affair can take place almost anywhere; in this case, I am in the rain-soaked courtyard of a North Side San Jose housing complex on the eve of Thanksgiving. In an overhanging tree, I spot the red crown and white-and-black barred wings of a Nuttall’s Woodpecker, and I think if this is a sign from beyond, then Bertha has a wild sense of humor.
I immediately got a wave of like big energy—still deciphering it—but it feels masculine? Courteney tells me. I definitely know she was a very magnetic spirit in that she drew people to her with her silence and her gaze.
She describes Bertha as someone who laughed often. She was popular but had few friends—she could probably count her confidantes on her fingers. Humble and open-hearted, she wanted to hear about other people’s lives more than sharing her own experiences. She enjoyed kids and their energy, but having her own descendents was never in the cards. She wanted to be able to leave a legacy, Courteney tells me. Despite a fluid sexuality that went unexpressed, Bertha had a traditional view of how marriage should go. When she didn’t have children, her vantage changed. She was unhappy in her marriage, and had mixed feelings about her husband.
Of her place in local lore, Courteney hears Bertha’s voice say I always expect(ed) to be in history. This disembodied sentiment heartens me ever so slightly.
Of the motives for her notorious crime, Courteney says I’m not sure entirely the reasons for her actions. I just keep getting sexuality, another woman, and an ultimatum that [her husband] didn’t go for. She doesn’t mind that people are talking, it’s just she wanted to share the truth. I’m still unsure exactly of what it is though. She wants people to know she was a real person who lived through a lot.
When I ask for more detail about life in San Quentin, Bertha’s mood goes predictably dark. There’s definitely emotional turmoil that comes up, Courteney tells me. I feel there was abuse there because there was no one really seeing how things were ran and if they were ran humanely. She relays that the inmates formed close bonds with each other, and that Bertha had a few kidred friendships while on the inside. She started adult life young so she didn’t get time alone with her thoughts until she was incarcerated.
This history of neglect and abuse echoes one of the few accounts of prison life I have found from an actual inmate. In 1909, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union began agitating for prison reform. They collected accounts of suffering from released inmates, and called for the cruel matron to resign. One such released inmate had her story published anonymously in the paper. She referred to the women’s ward as “the bear pit,” describing the cells as cold, barren, foul smelling, and overcrowded. Inmates huddled together on the cement floors, with no opportunity to exercise and infrequent access to the lavatory. Owing to the lack of a protective night matron, male guards cornered them in their cells in the off hours without consequence. The lid has been held down on this Hades, the released inmate writes. Held down for fifteen years! Beyond the storeroom, the cruel matron reserved a pair of unventilated cells as torture chambers she refered to as “the holes.” The matron cast inmates into these damp cells at her caprice, including disabled and elderly folks, and without the warden’s intervention.
What Remains Unanswerable
No journalist retraces Bertha’s journey into the night, and as such her course is invisible. In the hours preceding her arrest, what terror did she feel and what power?
For several hours the police searched for the woman and finally captured her near the broad gauge depot as she was mounting a bicycle on which she hoped to escape, one writer notes. She was dressed in male attire, states another.
Where did Bertha procure male attire after midnight? Did she have trousers secreted away like her revolver? A satchel she tucked in a bush? A ready ally in cahoots?
Of her own motives, Bertha says: I did it because I thought Frank intended on leaving me and go to Mexico. I must have been frenzied at the time. Half-a-year later, while on trial, her defense will be that she was led to commit the act by a vile request which she declared her husband made of her on the night of the assault. The prosecution put forth the theory that Bertha believed her husband had been untrue and she was acting in revenge and jealousy.
I want to imagine an alternate ending for Bertha, but the roads in my mind all lead to her ruin. When I uncover a 1909 postcard of the depot in an online image gallery, I note that white steam spurts from the phallic locomotive through a blowhole. A shadowy, black-clad figure stands on the platform in a hat.
Since 1950, Bertha’s remains have been entombed at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in East Side San Jose. In an online directory of gravesites, in addition to streaky portraits of her headstone, there is the mugshot and a clipping related to her crime. The inscription reads Rest In Peace.
I use the coordinates listed in the online directory to locate her headstone in person. My unfamous Avós and Bisavós are buried nearby, along with several well-known San Jose settlers with streets and neighborhoods named for them. Bertha and her brother are interred in the farmost corner of the lot, the tenth grave in the 21st row of the San Gabriel section, nearest to the bustling intersection of Alum Rock and Capitol. Since her brother predeceased her by 21 years, I wonder if she too knelt at what would one day become her own graveside. After her stint at San Quentin she became a chambermaid and then a waitress. I envision her on leave, bringing him a bouquet of fresh lilies. What might the crossroads of Alum Rock and Capitol have looked like 70 years ago? Laying a clutch of false flowers atop her marker, I note how her surname is misspelled. Rather than ending in an A, it ends in an O, like a mouth poised for a scream.
Li Patron lives and writes in her hometown of San Jose, CA. Find more of her writing at www.romancingthevoid.com.
Boronda May Not Make Charge, Say His Friends. (1907, June 1). San Jose Mercury News, LXXII (152), p. 9. Available from Readex: America’s Historical Newspaper
Maimed Husband Will Recover from Injury Wife is Caught in Male Attire When Fleeing from. (1907, May 31). San Jose Mercury News, LXXII (151), p. 8. Available from Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers
Mrs. Boronda is Found Guilty of Mayhem Prompt Verdict is Returned after a Sensational Trial. (1908, January 16). San Jose Evening News, 49, p. . Available from Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers
Prison matron out after harsh tales. (1909, October 08). San Francisco Examiner, p. 1
Conroy, W. (1911, December 30). Willam Conroy tells of the introduction of convicts to the prison. Santa Cruz Evening News, p 1. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
Malan, R. (2000, May 14). In the jungle: inside the long, hidden genealogy of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/in-the-jungle-inside-the-long-hidden-genealogy-of-the-lion-sleeps-tonight-108274/