by Jon Kinyon
Most of us have seen those cute Ancestry.com TV commercials where a bald guy discovers that he descends from a long line of barbers or an airline pilot learns that his great-great-grandfather’s cousin lived down the block from the Wright Brothers. Researching your family history can be a fun pastime, a relaxing hobby that can reveal interesting and even amazing stories at times, but there is also a dark side to digging into the past. Imagine discovering that you’re directly descended from a family that traded in slaves, or to some other fiendish pariah in history. Revelations of this kind can be an unsettling experience, especially if you’re not prepared for it.
Among all of the remarkable family connections I’ve traced in my own genealogical research, from Mayflower passengers to a signer of the Declaration of Independence, I stumbled upon a horrifying family secret and dark moment in the early history of my hometown which had been buried deep and long forgotten. To this day, a large part of me wishes it had stayed that way.
Our family goes back five generations in Palo Alto, CA., back to the very founding of the town which was built in conjunction with Stanford University. It turns out that one of our pioneering family members had not only committed one of the town’s earliest murders, he had – horrifically – poisoned an infant child to death in its crib. The appalling news had so upset and disgusted me that I kept it to myself for several years. I wondered if I would ever tell anyone what I had learned.
The culprit, Joseph Brister, 25, was the second youngest of five Brister brothers who came to Palo Alto from Holmes County, Mississippi. My grandmother and her siblings were told next to nothing about their uncle Joseph while growing up, only that he had died when they were very young after contracting Tuberculosis at age 34. It is not surprising that the family kept this horror story a secret from them, or that the town people would want to distance themselves from such a nightmarish incident.
To the chagrin of citizens of the up and coming town, stories of Palo Alto’s “Baby Killer” would appear and reappear in newspaper headlines across California for more than a year as Joseph Brister’s lawyer fought to have him deemed insane and incompetent to stand trial. After much legal wrangling, a plea deal was finally hammered out and Joseph Brister was sent to San Quentin on April 19, 1912 with an 8 year sentence for manslaughter. The news stories quickly died out, as did any mention of it in polite conversation around town.
My maternal great-grandfather Robert Jack (R.J.) Brister moved to Palo Alto from Mississippi in 1900, following close on the heels of his oldest brother William who arrived in 1897 (three years after the town was incorporated). After marrying Octavia Brown, a young lady he met at a dance hall in Redwood City, R.J. sent for his widowed and ailing mother Margaret Jane, moving her into their new home on Webster St., near Lytton Ave. The three remaining Brister brothers would make their way out the next year, and being industrious, hardworking and jack-of-all-trade types, they would quickly weave themselves into the fabric of the booming small town.
Edward and Thomas Brister opened a successful concrete business which contracted with the city and would lay many of the sidewalks in Palo Alto and surrounding townships. R.J. worked for Palo Alto Transfer & Storage for a number of years, hauling shipments from the train depot to Stanford University and the farthest reaches of the Peninsula by horse drawn carriage. When automobiles began filling the streets of town, R.J. opened Brister Brothers Garage on Bryant St. where he, William and Joseph maintained vehicles and did blacksmith work. R.J.’s mechanical prowess also kept him busy maintaining the printing presses at The Stanford Daily and the Palo Alto Times newspapers.
In 1910, R.J. ran for Police Constable and Officer of the Court of Palo Alto, an elected office in Santa Clara County. His charisma, neighborly charm and can-do attitude led to his winning by a landslide in the election that year. In the meantime, his younger brother Joseph, who was still living at R.J.’s, fell for a young Palo Alto woman named Ida Madeline Davis and proposed marriage – despite the fact that she had just given birth to the illegitimate child of Albert Partington, a local grocer with whom she had been carrying on a very public extramarital affair.
The two were soon married and moved into a boarding house at 446 Hamilton Ave., but marital bliss lasted less than a year. Lying in bed one night, after a bitter bout of quarreling with his wife, Joseph calmly arose to attend to the crying child who stayed in a separate bedroom. A little surprised at how suddenly the baby stopped crying, the wife got up to find that Joseph had locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out. She rushed to check on the baby only to discover that he was not breathing and foam was seeping from his mouth. Joseph had poured carbolic acid down the throat of his infant stepson, George Partington, killing him in one of the most gruesome ways imaginable.
Newly elected Constable R.J. Brister was the one who answered the police call, coaxing his brother out of the bathroom and arresting him for murder without further incident.
Joseph Brister served 5 years of his sentence and was released April 20, 1917. Returning to Palo Alto, he found himself an outcast, as you can well imagine. He took work back at the family’s auto garage downtown and rented a room at the nearby Cardinal Hotel.
10 months later, Joseph Brister shoved the muzzle of a revolver into the stomach of a guard at Camp Fremont in Menlo Park and demanded a match to furnish a light for his cigarette. As Joseph let down his guard to light the cigarette, the soldier overpowered him and took him to the ground. He was arrested and held at the Palo Alto jail, then transferred to San Quentin 10 days later to serve a sentence of 1 year.
On Feb. 19, 1919, Joseph was released again from Quentin. This time he didn’t return to Palo Alto because he had come down with Tuberculosis behind bars. The state helped to place him at an old farm in Oakley, CA. where a Japanese family took care of victims of TB; offering treatment, bed rest and square meals.
Joseph died there Sept. 4, 1920, a month after his 34th birthday.
It was pointed out, by an early reader of this story, how proud I should be of my great-grandfather R.J. Brister, who in a time when women did not have many rights and were readily dismissed, acted honorably in the law instead of attempting to protect his younger brother. He could have easily shifted the blame to the “crazy woman” or worse. Surely, a cover-up in this case would have been a more common outcome in that era than what actually happened.
So, in bringing myself to confront this uncomfortable reality head on and publicly acknowledging an incredibly evil act perpetrated by a not-so-distant relative, I’ve actually come to better understand an even closer relative of mine – to greatly admire the solid character and integrity of my mom’s Grandpa Brister.
Good job, sir.
My ancestry research: https://kinyonresearch.wordpress.com