Crime History: Brooke Hart’s Kidnappers Get Lynched — Did “Uncle Fester” Hold The Rope?

John Holmes, Thomas Thurmond [Santa Clara County Jail]; Jackie Coogan [Wikipedia]

SAN JOSE, CA — On the evening of November 9, 1933, Brooke Hart never made it home. The popular 22-year-old scion of a major California business family had gone to pick up his car from a local garage, only to be thwarted by a pair of fiends who had long been plotting Hart’s abduction.

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John Holmes and Thomas Thurmond, two down-on-their luck schemers embittered by the Great Depression, waited for Hart in the garage. They forced him to drive, at gunpoint, to another car, which they ultimately took to the San Mateo Bridge above the San Francisco Bay.

While Holmes and Thurman would later demand that the Hart family pay $40,000 ransom (worth about $750,000 today), investigators think perhaps they had only ever intended to murder their target.

Just an hour after grabbing Hart, the kidnappers beat him with a brick until he passed out. From there, they tied Hart’s arms together with wire, attached concrete blocks to his ankles, and tossed him off the bridge. When they could hear Hart crying for help in the water, they shot at him. Ultimately, Brooke Hart died by drowning.

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Over the course of the next week, the kidnappers attempted to extract ransom from Brooke’s father, Alex Hart, only to be strung along by clever police work.

At 8 P.M. on November 16, Thurmond called the Harts from a pay phone. The number was quickly traced. Hart had dialed from a parking garage right next door to the San Jose Police Station. Officers ran less than 150 feet outside and grabbed their suspect.

By 3 A.M., Thurmond signed a confession and named Holmes as his accomplice. Cops picked Holmes up at a flophouse and got his signed confession by one that afternoon.

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In short order, news of the kidnappers’ capture broke, and a mob amassed outside the Santa Clara County Jail.

The Hart family, who owned and operated the massive Leopold Hart and Son department store, had always been enormously charitable and, as a result, beloved by the San Jose community. In addition, Brooke spent his youth working on the floor of the store and made many friends among staffers and shoppers alike. The locals were taking this crime very personally.

In the meantime, searchers scoured the bay for Brooke Hart’s body. After finding physical evidence such as a brick smeared with blood and blond hair, a pair of hunters stumbled across the corpse on November 25.

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Back at the jail, each killer blamed the other. Holmes and Thurmond also announced they’d plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Holmes said he’d lost mind after his wife took their kids and left earlier that year, while Thurmond claimed he’d gone “crazy” since getting dumped by his “sweetheart.”

San Francisco Chronicle, dated November 27, 1933 [front cover image]

Psychiatrists tossed out that possibility, but the crowds assembled outside only grew larger and more furious.

Talk of “lynching” got so loud that police attempted to hide the killers and said they’d be held “indefinitely.” Whether the doors and walls could hold off the mob indefinitely would be an entirely different story.

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Twenty high-powered friends of the Harts reportedly formed a committee to “insist on immediate and drastic punishment” of the kidnappers. The Madera Tribune newspaper used its front page to outwardly call for “mob violence.”

As tensions escalated toward the boiling point, Governor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph told the press he would not be calling for the National Guard to dispel the increasingly bloodthirsty throngs. In fact, Rolph said, if a vigilante execution did happen to occur, he would “pardon the lynchers.”

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The rage fully erupted on November 26. Word hit not just the street but radio airwaves that the crowd would break into the jail and exact revenge on Holmes and Thurmond. The number of rabid citizens assembled out front multiplied all day and into the night.

John Holmes, Thomas Thurmond [Santa Clara County Jail]

At 9 P.M., Sheriff William Emig asked one last time for the governor to send the National Guard. Sunny Jim said no way. Two hours later, a mob of more than 5,000 stormed the jailhouse.

The crowd scavenged parts from a nearby construction site to build a battering ram. They quickly overcame the officers inside and found Holmes and Thurmond. They dragged the killers across the street to St. James Park and promptly hanged them to deafening cheers and popping flashbulbs.

This wholly unauthorized use of capital punishment has come to be known as “the last lynching in California.”

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The following day, The San Jose News openly condoned the violence. A professor at Stanford University allegedly told students to stand and clap for the vigilantes.

Governor Rolph doubled down on his original position, calling the lynching “the best lesson ever given the country” and further declaring: “I would like to parole all kidnappers in San Quentin to the fine, patriotic citizens of San Jose.”

Various prosecutors expressed disinterest in pressing charges against those who killed the killers. The ACLU attempted to intervene, and San Jose overwhelmingly let the organization know that the community did not welcome “outsider” meddling.

Among the thousands of participants, just one boastful teen ever faced a charge for the lynching, but it was dropped before his trial.

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Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family [Wikipedia]

Of all the unique aspects of this case — the media calling for vigilante justice, the governor giving his blessing — none is actually weirder than the claim that one of the reported participants who readied and hoisted an execution rope was Hollywood star Jackie Coogan.

Coogan had become world famous as a child actor, most prominently by playing the title role in the Charlie Chaplin classic, The Kid (1921).

He had also won admirers with his charity work, leading a “Children’s Crusade” at age 10 that raised more than $1 million ($14 million today) for relief in war-torn regions. On top of that, the “Coogan Law” — named after Jackie — has long safeguarded the earnings made by child actors from parents who would squander it (as his did).

While attending Santa Clara University, Jackie Coogan met and became close friends with Brooke Hart. It has never been officially confirmed that Coogan “held the rope,” but it’s widely believed he did.

The very idea of Jackie Coogan running wild with a noose has invited decades of gruesome jokes about how he was perhaps just preparing for his other most famous role — that of ghoulish Uncle Fester on TV’s The Addams Family.

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Main photos: John Holmes, Thomas Thurmond [Santa Clara County Jail]; Jackie Coogan [Wikipedia]