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Celebrated Mendo Sheriff Byrnes: Another View

The fascinating account of early 20th Century Mendocino Sheriff Ralph Byrnes in Zack Anderson and Deborah Silva’s history of the Herman Knaesche case brought some praise from several on-line readers, but not everyone in Mendocino County at the time was a fan of Sheriff Byrnes who was County Sheriff for a record breaking five terms, 20 years from 1910 to 1930.

The article describes Sheriff Byrnes in 1919 as “Mendocino County's celebrated law man, Sheriff Ralph Byrnes…”

That description, certainly justified by the available historical evidence, wouldn’t be the first time an elected Sheriff made sure he received due credit for high-profile arrests like the Knaesche case.

Former Mendo Sheriff Tom Allman commented, “The Mendocino County Museum in Willits has (had?) a great exhibit on Sheriff Byrnes and his ability to find alcohol stills in the county.”

Deborah Silva added, “Sheriff Byrnes was amazing. He served as the Sheriff for 20 years, by far the longest tenure of any sheriff in this county. I’d love to check out the Willits Museum exhibit once we open back up.”

George Hollister added, “Sheriff Byrnes has a number of family descendants still living, and owning property in this county. Some read this paper.”

The period 1910 to 1930, most readers will recall, will be remembered as the Prohibition Era. In Mendocino County, in the years before national prohibition, the “pro-hi’s” (prohibitionists) as they were called, were dominant in inland Mendocino County, while the saloon owners and their many patrons, friends and supporters were in the majority on the hard-drinking Mendocino Coast.

As former Sheriff Allman notes, part of Sheriff Byrnes’s celebrated reputation was “his ability to find alcohol stills in the county.”

In other words, Byrnes was an ardent pro-hi. So ardent that feature articles like the following appeared on the front page of the Ukiah Republican Press on August 9, 1922 as candidate Byrnes was running for his fourth consecutive term as Sheriff: “MENDOCINO COUNTY NEEDS SHERIFF BYRNES.” The piece was accompanied by a large portrait of the dashing Sheriff.

“Dear Mr. Byrnes: It is with much satisfaction that I endorse your candidacy for Sheriff of Mendocino County.To one familiar with your unparalleled record in that office and with your statewide reputation as a fearless, capable officer, it seems out of place that there would be any other contenders for the office. This is not said in disparagement of the others seeking the position, but because throughout your tenure of office you have displayed those qualities which peculiarly and pre-eminently qualify you to discharge its duties. Your fearless, efficient, capable and impartial enforcement of the law commends you to the responsible, law abiding people of your county who should give you their whole hearted undivided support. 

“To all criminals, and particularly to the ‘bootleggers’ who profit by violating the law, your candidacy is unwelcome for the faithful performance of your duties interferes with their illicit traffic and reduces to the minimum their ill-gotten gains. It has come to my notice that the ‘bootleggers’ are using every means at their command to defeat you. This is evidence enough that you are doing what you are paid to do, that the oath so solemnly taken by you as an officer ‘to support the constitution of the United States and of California and to perform the duties of sheriff to the best of your ability' has no idle form. 

“These men are fighting you, Mr. Byrnes, because you have done your full duty. The opposition of the ‘bootleggers’ and the methods they are using to beat you guarantees your election. I know this because the keen sense of justice of the Mendocino voters will cause them to rebel at the thought of turning down a faithful officer because he has done his duty. 

“Commending you to the law-abiding people of Mendocino County, I remain, Sincerely yours, J. E. PEMBERTON. (Attorney for Anti-Saloon League)”

This blatant political endorsement was not published as a simple letter to the editor, it was the lead, front page story for the Ukiah Republican Press a couple of months before the election and it was written by the Attorney for the Anti-Saloon League, obviously representing their enthusiastic support for Sheriff Byrnes’s anti-bootlegging crusade, a common stance among lawmen of the time who saw the ravages of alcohol close-up, much as lawmen of today oppose the loosening of drug laws because they see the damage drugs do, and occasionally as a default charge when they’re having trouble proving underlying crimes.

The “bootleggers” that Sheriff Byrnes was after didn’t get much positive press in those days as the prohibition movement grew during the 1910s as most of Mendocino County went “dry” in the years leading up to national prohibition.

My uncle, the late, great Fifth District Supervisor Joe Scaramella wasn’t a fan of Sheriff Byrnes. Joe wasn't a bootlegger, although his Italian Point Arena family had been in the saloon business. The saloonkeepers were so popular on the Coast that they were the prime agents for incorporating Fort Bragg and Point Arena so that they could stay “wet” while inland and unincorporated Mendocino went dry before national prohibition in the 20s.

Scaramella family lore has it that my uncle Charley Scaramella, Joe Scaramella’s younger brother and a long-time dairyman and sheep rancher on the Coast, was in some kind of boundary line dispute with a neighbor in the Manchester area where Charley’s dairy was located. One day, Sheriff Byrnes’s deputies arrived to inspect Charley’s barn where they found a piece of copper tubing — a remnant of a still! they soon concluded. The next thing Joe knew, his brother Charley was charged with felony bootlegging based on that tubing and, presumably, a tip from the neighbor alleging that Charley was making booze in his barn.

Charley was not a schooled man. So Joe, who was by that time the owner/operator of the Point Arena Gas Station and Garage, took up organizing Charley’s defense. After weeks of long trips to and from Ukiah and lots of paperwork and lawyer costs, the charges were eventually dropped for insufficient evidence. Joe Scaramella later told me that he had heard numerous other similar stories from other coast residents over those years, mostly Italian and Irish and other immigrants.

Joe Scaramella didn’t dispute that some “bootlegging” was going on — the Mendocino Coast certainly didn’t stop drinking booze during Prohibition — but that Sheriff Byrnes’s ardent anti-booze crusade was sweeping up a lot of ordinary citizens based on less than solid evidence for political reasons. Byrnes' Ukiah constituents, among them few Italians, approved and Byrnes was re-elected again and again.

From an interview with Joe Scaramella the AVA conducted in the mid-90s:

“The County had always been a fairly hard-drinking area, especially in Fort Bragg and in a little burg like Point Arena. I can remember when there were nine liquor establishments at the time when Point Arena incorporated. So there had to be some drinking. The law enforcement attitude that was prevalent then exists today [the mid-90s during marijuana prohibition] — selective law enforcement. The impression was that certain people who were enemies, or on the outs, would be targeted by law enforcement. Ben Byrnes was the ‘wonderful’ Sheriff -- they thought. I didn't think so. Because he got things done. In order to get things done he would trample over everybody's rights. That's what makes the difference. Hell, might makes right, and he had the might. It was rumored, it's beyond proof I suppose, that there were certain people that he would ignore... It was difficult. 

“There was certainly money to be made with illegal booze, but how much was a matter of speculation. It was profitable for a lot of people and they made good money, and afterwards they moved on and out to bigger and better things. Very little of the illegal product was exported to my knowledge. To this day [in the 1990s] there is still some moonshine made ‘out back.’ 

“There was a man who went to Fort Bragg with his meat for his butcher shop. He'd take the moonshine which he hid down amongst the stuff he was taking to Fort Bragg. Nobody ever bothered him. One time the Feds got suspicious and went out there to check him out. They went into his cellar. In those times you were allowed to make 200 gallons of wine for home use, not sale. So he had a bunch of barrels around there. He had a whole barrel of grappa right under the tree and they passed that one. So that's as close as they ever got to him. 

“There was a dairyman who had specially made milk cans with false bottoms near the top of the can. When he made milk deliveries to Fort Bragg sometimes some of the cans would be mostly booze but if you lifted the lid all you’d see is milk. They had a plug in the false bottom that they used to fill and drain the booze from the cans. 

“There was also some smuggling. Matter of fact there's a spot down the coast they call ‘Smuggler's Cove.’ There used to be liquor from Canada which would come down. It landed all along the coast here. That was serious criminal activity, some real thugs involved in that. The characters involved in that kind of thing had very few scruples that you and I would recognize. If you got into trouble with them, you were in serious trouble. Hell, they killed one man down here, about a mile south of Point Arena. He was coming up with a load of stuff and they thought he was a squealer or something. They shot him dead. He was from out of the area. He was involved in whatever transaction was transpiring. 

“There were some Italians in the Yorkville hills who were bootlegging. That was well known. But it was all small scale. I don't think they even broke even. You had to go and get it — it was quite a trip and they only sold to people they knew. It was never really big money. Mostly grappa, just a distilled wine by-product. Strong stuff though.”

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