It happened on July 19, 1898. Five peace officers killed in an explosion. Melrose was an unincorporated part of Alameda County that included the area where High Street and HWY 880 are today (Oakland annexed this area into the City at a later date). What we will refer to going forward as the Melrose Incident, is now known to be the fifth worst single incident of the murder of Peace Officers in our nation’s history! The first is September 11, 2001 where 72 peace officers were killed. The second is the murder of nine peace officers in 1917 in a Milwaukee Police Station. The third is “The Oklahoma City Bombing” in 1995 where eight peace officers lost their lives. The fourth is 1932 when six peace officers were killed in a shootout on a farm in Missouri.
Could have Alameda County, the Sheriff’s Office, and the public just wanted to forget this horrible incident? Was it the disappearance of Melrose itself, or simply the passage of time?
In 1972 I became a Deputy Sheriff for Alameda County, and from the beginning I was interested in the history of the department. I collected old badges, stories, and information about the officers who had come before me. In 1989, while I was a sergeant, I was on a tour of the Coroner’s Bureau with Sheriff-Coroner Charlie Plummer. The Board of Supervisors had just changed his job description by adding Coroner to his title.
During this walk through he spotted a stack of old leather bound logbooks that listed deaths, as well as inquests, that occurred in the early days of Alameda County. Sheriff Plummer picked out one of these books and brought it back to his office on 12th street in Oakland, where it sat on a bookshelf behind his desk. I didn’t realize it at the time but placing this old Coroner’s logbook covering the years 1897 and 1898 on the bookshelf in Sheriff Plummer's office would become so important.
In 1991, I received a call from a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff. The call had been transferred to me because of my interest in departmental history. The deputy said he had a part-time side business selling old newspapers. He offered an original 1898 Oakland Tribune newspaper featuring the killing of five of our “Deputy Sheriffs” (his words) for $25.00. I responded that he had made a mistake, as we never lost five deputies in a single incident. He countered by giving me the date and said he was sure it was in Alameda County. I told him to mail it to me and I would send the $25.00. (Today that original newspaper is displayed at the Sheriff’s Office headquarters). After talking with the L.A. County Deputy, I went to the Oakland Main Library and looked up the newspaper for that date in the microfilm file. The front-page headline shocked me. When I got back to the office I asked Sheriff Plummer if he had heard of this case. He had not. While we were talking and looking at the microfilm copy of the newspaper, I gazed at the leather bound ledger on his bookshelf. I opened the big ledger and turned the pages until I came to July 19, 1898. There it was. A page for each of those heroes killed so long ago. It wasn’t five deputies as the L.A. County Deputy had said, but four deputies and one county constable. In 1898 county constables, who were sworn peace officers, were elected for each Township Justice Court.
After re-discovering this long ago tragedy I talked with many members of the Sheriff's Office as well as retired officers. One, my uncle, Gene Davidson, had joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1941. He was in his 90’s when I talked with him. No one could recall anyone ever even mentioning the Melrose Incident. There were no plaques, no memorials, no displays in the Sheriff's Office Archive (museum) – not even a simple notification that the incident had occurred. In the weeks after this discovery the Sheriff’s Office went to work and got the names of these five heroes on the memorials in Sacramento and Washington D.C.
Our next post will go into the details of what happened in Melrose on that July day in 1898. We have discovered two of the five heroes from this incident lie in unmarked graves.