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Sunday, August 15, 2004

An incident that became wild in Benicia

Jerry Bowen

Druggist and crowd found prescription for violent action

During the settlement of the west, immigration from other countries made up the majority of the population. With this mixture of ideas, cultures and activities, it was inevitable that clashes would result from certain behaviors of various citizens when events dictated some sort of action to be taken.

E.C. Eberlin was one of those ordinary folks who immigrated to the United States before the turn of the 20th century and finally settled in Benicia.

He was from Germany and was very set on how he lived. Trained as a druggist, he opened his own business in Benicia. According to a 1905 Benicia Herald article, “Eberlin was a single gentleman; quiet, unassuming and exceedingly eccentric upon subjects appertaining to the individual rights of man. He takes pride in keeping his store neat and as his business was small he devotes much of his spare time in sweeping, dusting and cleaning; even extending his labors out into the street in front of his place of business.”

It was those habits that many of the people in Benicia considered “eccentric,” although it might make you wonder why the subject of being neat is strange. The article went on to say, “The majority of our people know of his eccentric ideas and save complications by avoiding them; others, with a motive of creating discord and malice, never lost an opportunity to cross him.”

He did have one bugaboo that he was particularly adamant about; he hated saloons.  Back in those early days, a saloon was one of the first businesses that went up in a town and was considered a sort of social center for the populace. Of course many citizens also felt as Eberlin did when you see how active temperance societies were.

He also had a problem in that the building in which his drug store was located also housed a saloon and he never failed to object to patrons parking their horses and buggies in front of his place of business. Most people just respected his objection and parked somewhere else.  Of course there is always someone who will push his luck and did so, shortly before noon one day in late February 1905.

Ed Gise, who owned the saloon in the same building as Eberlin’s Drug Store, tied his horse up to the post in front the store. Naturally, Eberlin objected, and became enraged after Gise refused to move his horse. Eberlin became so angry that he grabbed a gun and started to wave it in Gise’s face threatening to shoot him.  Gise notified the peace officers, but instead of issuing a warrant, Justice of the Peace Biggs entered the store to warn Eberlin of his unlawful action. The very angry Eberlin told Biggs in a threatening manner to leave the store.

A little while later Constable Hyde was notified of what had transpired at Eberlin’s Drug Store and went to see for himself what happened.

Then things went out of kilter.

According to Hyde, Eberlin also ordered him out of the store when a shot rang out breaking the glass in the front of the store. Assuming that the owner had shot at him, he retreated and drew his revolver and blasted away as he backed out the door.

About this time, City Marshall Johnston and Deputy Constable Harnett arrived at the scene. Johnston tried to talk to Eberlin who was hiding behind a counter, but was warned to stay away.

A crowd began to gather around the store. Several of the citizens begged the officers not to enter the store until things settled down. Matters really began to get ugly when some members of the crowd began to throw bottles through the windows, destroying much of the contents in the rear of the store.

About this time, James A. Malone, a night watchman, and his son showed up and led some members of the crowd in a rush through the front door and managed to subdue Eberlin without a struggle. The frightened man was sent to the pokey until things could be sorted out.  After the smoke of the wild encounter cleared away, it seems that an entirely different story about how things happened emerged.

It turns out that Eberlin’s revolver was an old German model that showed no visible powder marks of having been recently discharged. It had three live cartridges that had evidently been in the weapon for a long time.

Since it was obvious that the store owner had not shot at Constable Hyde, what caused the window to shatter? It was concluded that the shattered window was caused by either the concussion of Constable Hyde’s gun, a ricocheting bullet or by something thrown at it.

Eberlin had been hiding behind a counter as the disturbance increased in aggression and could not be accused of firing at the constable. He requested to be moved to the Fairfield Jail so that Superior Court Judge A.J. Buckles could interview him.

During the interview with the judge, he was asked why he did not surrender when requested by the peace officers. He replied, “The disturbance was caused by the officers and mob surrounding my place of business. I am not responsible for the disturbance raised. Those entering my premises and using threatening language had no business there and I told them so. Their actions toward me rendered it justifiable for me to protect my interests, which I endeavored to do to the best of my ability.”

The article went on to state, “The trouble Saturday was caused by a saloon man tying his horse in front of the store door. He was well aware of Eberlin’s objection, but claimed to have forgotten and was threatened by Eberlin to remove his horse. Upon topics of everyday life, Eberlin can talk with a great deal more intelligence than many who are condemning him. He has an honorable and well-to-do brother in Chicago, who could no doubt throw some light of explanation upon his past life and reduce to shame those who are laboring for his downfall.

“The more conservative citizens of Benicia are still in the majority deeply regret the demonstration enacted during Saturday’s affair. The appearance of a mob of excitable citizens bearing shotguns, rifles, revolvers and anything they could put their hands upon, should have received the attention of the peace officers at such a time, before proceeding with the capture of one lone individual who had hid away in his own home for fear of his life. If Eberlin had dared show his face there would have been another story to tell and another blot of shame recorded against a community claiming to be civilized.”

It was also determined during the investigation that when the crowd rushed his store, although Eberlin was in hiding, he was in a position to kill any number of the rioters before he was captured.

In the end, he was charged only with assault with a deadly weapon. It’s interesting to note that none of the rioters, who were also in the wrong, were ever charged with anything.

I don’t suppose Eberlin and Gise ever got together over a beer to have a laugh over the incident, but I suppose that would have been way over the top to ask . . . but you never know; stranger things have been known to happen.