Hello everyone, and welcome to Forgotten True Crime by Okie Investigations, the True Crime Podcast where we tell the stories of crimes that happened long ago. If you are a true crime fan, make sure you subscribe to the podcast. That way, when we have new episodes, you will be the first to know. Also, check us out on our Facebook page Okie Investigations and visit our blog TrueCrime.Blog where we post a lot of the cool things we found for each episode. This episode, “One Night in San Francisco,” has a lot of exciting stuff for you to dig into. Make sure you go there and check it out.
Parts of this story may contain opinions and speculations and should be taken as such. These stories depict violent crimes of all types and may be a trigger for some listeners. Listener discretion is advised.
Your life can change in an instant. One day your here, and the same day you’re gone. It’ll happen to us all, but yet for many of us; we don’t often think about it. It’s perfectly normal not to. We live our lives like we will live forever, but we all know the truth. We also live our lives assuming that we will live well into old age. If I stay healthy and in shape, I have a good chance of a long and happy life. That is unless someone decides to take it away from me.
One thing I take comfort in is that we live in an age where if I’m murdered, there’s a good chance that enough evidence will be left behind in some way that they at least have a shot at solving the crime. I think the Gabby Petito case is a good example. They knew where to search because someone happened to be driving by in the area where they were camping. That driver just so happened to have had a camera recording their trip, and they could see the couple’s van in that video.
But what would they do in the 1890s? This is way before anything like DNA, Video Surveillance, and the like. This case is an excellent example of policing in the late 19th century, and I hope you all enjoy the story. This was initially written in the book Celebrated Criminal Cases of America by Thomas Duke, in the public domain. It has since been rewritten and researched by myself. I hope you enjoy it.
Around 1AM on August 17th, 1890, Samuel Jacobson staggered into his home on 2300 California street in San Fransisco. He could hardly walk, and he was bleeding profusely. He lit the wall lantern in the entryway with a shaking hand, and then he called for his mother.
It didn’t take long for his mother to respond. She was asleep but had been awakened by a loud bang outside. When she went downstairs, she screamed at the sight. Her son was in the hallway, bleeding and trying to stay standing. Soon after her screams, two other men arrived at the home. Both of them had heard the bang sound and came to investigate. The three of them helped Samuel to his bed, and before they could go to get help, a fourth person arrived at the Jacobson home, Police Officer Warnick.
Officer Warnick had heard the bang. He lived nearby and was sound asleep when it woke him. He knew that sound anywhere. It was the sound of a gunshot. He ran out toward where he thought the sound had come from. When he didn’t see anyone on the street, he thought he might have gone the wrong way. But then he heard the screams of Samuel’s mother and knew he was in the right area.
When Officer Warnick arrived at the Jacobson home. He was told that Samuel was shot by footpads in the area. So Officer Warnick sent word to Captain Douglass about the shooting, and he then searched the surrounding area for the footpads.
Now, the word footpad might have some of you scratching your heads. It’s a term used widely until the 20th century, which meant pretty much the same thing as a mugger. At the time, a highwayman would have been on a horse, a footpad would have been on foot. At this time in San Francisco’s history, it was perilous to go out and walk the streets at night. Even if you went with a friend, you were always running the chance of getting robbed on the streets.
Now, Officer Warnick looked in the area but didn’t find anyone. He didn’t expect to find them seeing that the shooter had a lot of time to get away. By the time he returned to the Jacobson home, he had found that a Doctor had arrived and attended to Samuel. The Officer asked to speak to Samuel, who was still awake but in terrible pain, and the Doctor refused to let him. He was afraid that if Samuel gave a dying declaration, he would give up on life and die soon after. The Doctor wanted Samuel alert and fighting for his life.
Police Captain Douglass soon arrived at the scene, and he too asked to Speak to Samuel, but the Doctor refused him. They then questioned the others in the home. The two men who helped Samuel reported that they heard the shot and came to investigate what had happened. One of them was a Chinese American. He was a Chinatown guide, and he was getting off of a cablecar in the area. After he heard the shot, he looked around the area, he saw no one else. The other person was a young man. He said that he was accompanying his sister to the drug store, and they were on their way back when he heard the shot. He ran as fast as he could toward the noise to see what had happened. He told the police that he believed that the shot didn’t happen on the street. He thought it happened in the house.
Sylvain Weill, a very close friend to Samuel, was permitted to see him the next day. The Doctor thought that seeing a friend would help Samuel. Although Samuel was in a lot of pain, he related what had happened that night before. Sylvain wrote down everything his friend told him in hopes that it would help catch the person who did this. This is what he said.
“I had just jumped off a California streetcar at 12:30 and was about to turn into my gate when two men got in front of me, and one of them cried, ‘Put up your hands!’ I thought it was a joke being played on me by one of my friends, and being somewhat nearsighted, I grabbed one of them in fun. Just as I did so, the other man called out: ‘Give it to him, Bill!’ The man whom I was grabbing then put a pistol to my side and fired. I have had no trouble with anybody that I know of and know no reason why anybody should have shot me!”
He then went on to give vague descriptions of the two men. One was short, and the other was tall. He couldn’t give much since they were both wearing masks.
When Sylvain left, he knew that this would probably be the last time he talked to his good friend. Samuel was not looking well and was in a lot of pain. Although they had stopped most of the bleeding, he still had a bullet in him that did who knows what damage lodged in his stomach.
Police started investigating this case by talking to everyone who lived in the area. Canvasing the neighborhood is a great starting point because it was still believed that this happened on the street, and if so, someone might have witnessed the crime before, during, or after it happened. Detective Bohen was assigned to the case. He wanted to speak to the cable car conductor to see if he had witnessed anything. The Conductor would be working that night, and he would talk to him then. The Detective also spoke to Mr. Hickox, who was a janitor at Cooper’s Medical College. Mr. Hickox stated that he was on his way home and was in the area of the crime just before it happened. He saw two men in the streets lamplight just ahead of him. He was worried about them because he did not notice them before, and this area was pretty well lit. So, unless they quietly exited a house and made no noise doing so, he believed that they were in hiding and only had just come out. Luckily, he didn’t have to approach the two men. Mr. Hickox lived in a house just up the street from them, and he quickly entered and then gave the two men little thought until he heard the gunshot minutes later. Mr. Hickox said that he was getting ready for bed and heard the shot. Shortly after, he looked through his window, being careful not to be seen, and saw no one on the streets. The two men were gone.
While the Detective was getting these statements, he soon found out that his case went from an assault case to a murder case. Samuel Jacobson died on August 19th.
Now, one of the problems that the San Francisco Police Department had at the time was that some of the police and Detectives would freely speak to the press about ongoing cases. Even if they were well removed from the case, some didn’t mind giving out their theory or what they had heard what the current view the case detectives have. In this case, several officers and detectives began tossing out ideas about suicide, murder from a rival, and that his family was in on it.
Suicide was something that was not completely disproven. The fact that no one had seen the crime, the lack of evidence that the crime happened on the street, and that it appeared that the shot was very close range, close enough that Samuel could have done it himself, kept this theory alive.
They also looked to Samuel’s love life and found that he did have a rival. Someone that threatened him in the past. You see, Samuel was good friends with a man named Joe Schwartz. Joe was seeing a woman named Miss Ida Kirchner. Joe was in love with her, and he wanted to introduce her to his friends. So, one day he had introduced Ida to Samuel, and Samuel became somewhat obsessed with the young lady. Soon after, Ida left Joe for Samuel. It was well known that Joe never forgave Samuel, but he had also moved away and had not come back to San Francisco since.
So, to test both of those theories, the Detectives talked to Miss Ida Kirchner. She had been with Samuel the night of the murder, and she recounted their history. This is her statement.
“I met Mr. Jacobson when I was keeping Company with Mr. Schwartz,” she said. “I was at the time living in Oakland, but shortly afterward came over to this city to live. I first began to associate with Mr. Jacobson twelve months ago, the 1st day of last July, and since that time, he has been assiduous in his attentions. Five months ago, we became engaged to be married, and he gave me a ring. His family objected to the marriage, and we deferred it from time to time. He was a kind and considerate friend and came to see me every night of the week, generally staying from 10 to 11 o’clock. The last time I saw him was Saturday night when we went to the Orpheum Theatre. He returned home with me and said ‘good night’ to my mother and me about a quarter past 11.”
The Detective asked, “Did you have any unpleasant words that night, on the street or in the house?”
Ida replied, “Not one. I am sure I was unusually pleasant because he told me he was tired.”
The Detective then asked, “Was there anything unusual in his conduct? Had he been drinking?”
Ida again replied, “No, Certainly not to excess.”
The Detective asked, “Did he speak of suicide?”
Ida quickly replied, “Why no; he had a great dread of it. Sometimes when I came home from work tired and said: ‘I wish I were dead,’ he would lecture me terribly.”
After interviewing Ida, Detectives would run down every lead that they had. But eventually, they had none. They could not find a solid reason why someone would have shot and killed Samuel unless it was a robbery gone wrong.
Weeks would go by without a break in the case. Those weeks would turn into months. The only thing that came out in the news was continued theories and rumors about the case, but no solid leads.
It wasn’t until police Detectives met a man named Edward Campbell, a sewing machine solicitor, that they finally gained some leads. Edward met Detectives Hogan and Silvey and attempted to become friendly with them. But instead of being a friend, he appeared fake, and they suspected that he had other motives for being their friend.
Edward wanted to appear helpful to the Detectives and pointed them in the direction of some big busts. They suspected that this was to gain favor with them so that if he were to get in trouble in the future, they would help him. One of these busts led to the arrest of Charles Schmidt, who was in possession of some of the items stolen by two robbers who fit the description of the two footpads who killed Samuel.
After that bust, Edward asked the Detectives, who he believed were his friends, a curious question. He asked that if someone were involved in a crime with someone else, and one person killed someone without talking to the other person about it first, then would the person who had not planned on murdering anyone and had not assisted in any way be responsible?
The detectives gave a noncommital answer, playing it cool. But they quickly pieced it together, Edward Campbell was somehow involved in the murder of Samuel. So they arrested Edward and brought him into the station.
Samuel refused to speak about the crime, but from the talk earlier, they were convinced that he had not committed the murder, but he knew who did. So, in exchange for confessing, they offered Samuel immunity for the murder. That deal was too good to pass up, and Samuel confessed. This is his confession.
“In May, 1890, I was sent out with Sydney Bell to canvass for the Singer sewing machine. We became confidential and Bell suggested that I assist him in robbing belated pedestrians. After some hesitancy I consented and we executed several ‘jobs’ successfully.”
“On the night of August 17, I met Bell at my home, 235 Clara street, and we traveled out through the Western Addition. Bell showed me a 32-calibre revolver and a policeman’s club loaded with lead. Throughout the entire evening I protested against robbing anyone and Bell became provoked at me.”
“We arrived at Webster and California streets after midnight, and I told him that I intended to take the next eastbound California-street car and go home. Before it arrived, a westbound car passed, and a man whom I have since learned was Samuel Jacobson alighted, and, without consulting me, Bell went up to him and commanded him to throw up his hands. Jacobson grabbed Bell, who fired a shot, and then Bell and I ran along Webster street and started for town. When we separated, Bell said that he would get someone that night. “He came to my house the next night and stated that he had robbed a fellow of $240 after we parted that morning.”
Edward informed the police that he was going to meet with Sydney Bell later that day. If they wanted to arrest him, they would not have to look for him. They agreed to let Edward go with a police guard. Edward went home, and they waited for Sydney to arrive. When Sydney came to Edward’s door, police surrounded him and arrested him. He had on him the pistol and club that was described in the confession.
The trial of Sydney Bell was swift. The evidence brought forward was the confession of Edward, Samuels statement, which fit the confession, and the gun found on Sydney after he was arrested. Besides that, there was not a lot of evidence that directly showed that Sydney had anything to do with the murder or that he was the one who pulled the trigger. The trial began on April 22nd, 1892, and ended on May 7th. Sydney was found guilty of the three robberies he was charged with, and he was found guilty of murder in the first degree. Which is punishable by death.
After the trial, Sydney Bell was sent to death row. But he later was able to appeal his sentence and get a retrial. This time Sydney did not fight the robbery charges. He accepted them. He pled not guilty to the murder charge, and this time it worked out in Sydney’s favor. He was acquitted of that charge and was sentenced to 60 years in prison for the robberies.
Sydney would be later be paroled in 1909