Thanks to the Archer Taylor Preserve, we are able to walk old logging roads along Redwood Creek and get up to the top of Maggie’s Peak to see the view, and thus gain an affection for the land as we explore it. So it is a shock to find information that this area was one of trauma for some.
Recently, while searching the Napa Register online archives, I came across this 1912 article:
A 12-year-old girl named Helen May Wheaton had been raped while walking to the Redwoods School from her family’s home just over the Sonoma County line, about a mile away. The old wagon road she walked with her brothers that day passes within a 1/4-mile of where I now live. It is an area I have walked through several times, probably in some reverie about how beautiful the woods are.
The girl’s family name was actually Whedon and they had arrived from New York a few years before, and the children probably had been attending the Redwood School since their arrival. The road was a public one back then, used by Napa Redwoods and Sonoma-side residents to get to town. It was likely the imagined country idyll of children walking backcountry roads daily to school for years, until one Wednesday a masked man with a gun came out of the brush at the side of the road and said, “Helen, come here to me.”
The man wore a hooded face mask, a black slouch hat, a black coat, and blue pants. Helen went to him “for fear of her life,” and he leveled the rifle at her brothers, Horace, 13 and George, 10, and told them to get away. They ran off downhill to the school to get help. In these woods now, I sometimes imagine the two boys, scared and shamed that they had been forced to abandon their sister, running like hell down the road. Then I imagine her coming along fifteen minutes later hurt, scared, maybe incoherent.
After the assault, she ran to the school, too, where the teacher had already phoned the Napa County Sheriff. Because the rapist had escaped over into Sonoma County, that county’s sheriff became just as involved because he headed the search.
Law enforcement takes on the search
First reports were that the man had black eyes and dark skin around them. And while this fact was not mentioned in the first Napa Daily Register article about the case that evening, it was apparently known to everyone in the Napa Redwoods: the paper said that “there is a great excitement in the Redwoods and a capture might lead to a lynching bee.” The Santa Rosa Republican said the same day that “from what the children told of the man they saw …it is believed that he is a colored man, but this is decidedly uncertain.” There were several sightings of a possible suspect, said the paper, and “stories of the assault have become twisted.” Since the Sonoma-town-based deputy sheriff knew “the country there like a book,” said the paper, they expected to quickly find the man and turn him over to Napa authorities.
This is the last public mention that the suspect might be “colored.” In the next few days, the sheriff focused on a 20-year-old Sonoma-side “neighbor” (from two miles away) named Charles Seehuber, whose parents were German and who knew the Whedon family.
When the Sonoma sheriff visited the Seehuber residence on Thursday, Charles hid in the barn and then ran into the hills when the lawmen moved to search it. In the young man’s bedroom the deputies found a hat and clothes that matched the description given by the Whedon children. These were taken to Helen and identified by her as those being worn by her attacker. She also seems to have already suspected Seehuber was the attacker as she knew him.
After Seehuber’s escape, he was publicly named as the main suspect. Over the next several days, he was on the run, but never seen. Several articles appeared with headlines that he had been arrested or was soon to be brought in after press time, but, in reality, Seehuber continued to elude the posse.
Case captures public’s attention
On Friday, it was believed Seehuber had stayed to the hills and crossed into Napa County, and the public was asked to keep an eye out for him. A “man who acted peculiarly” boarded the southbound train at Zindandel (Lane) station for Yountville, where he got off. Another “suspicious-acting man” was seen in the Napa station buying a ticket on the electric train and ferry for San Francisco. Both men were investigated and turned out not to be Seehuber. The first likely true sighting of Seehuber was that Sunday, way over in Penngrove, south of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. According to the Petaluma Argus-Courier, the man “appeared to very nervous when he called at the Scheck Saloon near the depot.”
“He asked for several glasses of water, which were given to him, and he drank them quickly and was off in a hurry.” He walked north toward Santa Rosa, but after less than a mile “headed for the hills.” The bartender recognized him from a description and called the sheriff, but the sheriff could not get there for several hours. By the time he arrived and after a search of the hills, Seehuber, if it was him, could not be found.
Five days later, ten days after the assault, Seehuber had still not been caught. The Napa Daily Journal reprinted a short article from the Santa Rosa Republican about a letter it had received from a resident of Sonoma. The letter declared that the reason for Seehuber’s quick departure from the barn was not because he had committed the assault, but that he had been fishing illegally and thought the authorities had come for him for that crime “and for that reason he departed hurriedly and has not since been seen or heard from.”
“[The letter-writer] states,” said the Republican, “that Seehuber has frequently been guilty of fishing during the closed season and was always successful in securing a catch from the waters wherein he cast his line.”
What happened next?
What happened next is: we do not know.
No articles exist about Seehuber’s capture and/or trial, or even that he was no longer sought for the crime. There are no arrest or court records for Seehuber in Napa County, Sonoma County or the State of California. So, we don’t know if he did it, if someone else did it, if he was ever captured by anyone, or if he got away completely—or if he did not do it, convinced the sheriff and returned home. And if he did not do it, who did?
Whatever the outcome, in 1917, Seehuber was free and in Tuolumne County working a diamond drill at the Hetch Hetchy dam project. There, he registered for the draft into the American Expeditionary Force that would fight in WWI with the European allies that year. (Interestingly, the registrar who filled out Seehuber’s draft card lists his eye color as “black.”) Seehuber was drafted and spent 18 months in Europe with the AEF. In 1920, he was back in the states, working at a copper mine in Douglas, Nevada. In 1924, he married Dorothy Sharp in Jackson, California. He was 31; she was 14. By 1930, they had two children and lived in Oakland, where Charles apparently worked with his brother at a pottery kiln.
In 1935, Seehuber, by then living with his wife and children in Visalia, was killed with his brother-in-law Albert Sharp in a mining accident in Nevada City. The two were setting explosives when the charge went off either too early or too late. They shared a double funeral in Visalia, where Seehuber was buried with military honors.
For Helen May Whedon, there is no mention of her anywhere for decades until, somewhat comfortingly, her own death—because it is at the advanced age of 95. She died as Helen May Olson in Lower Lake at Clear Lake, where the entire Whedon family by then resided. By 1920, the Whedon family had moved from the hillside overlooking Sonoma to a house on Adrian Street in Napa. Both Horace and Helen were apparently out of the house by then and did not appear with the family in that year’s census, nor on their own elsewhere. And while there is a Helen Olson in Napa and a Helen Whedon in Calistoga during later years, neither of them are the correct Helen. The family lived in Napa for about 20 years, and then moved seemingly en masse to Lower Lake by 1940. There are sixteen Whedons—including Helen, her parents, and all seven siblings, and likely nieces and nephews—buried in the Lower Lake Cemetery.
Thanks to help from ancestry.com, findagrave.com, the newspaper database at the Napa County Library’s website, Simone Kremkau at the Sonoma County History & Genealogy Library, and Melissa Scroggins at the Fresno County Library.