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A young attorney, who had hung his shingle in Mendocino's county seat, proved to be the first witness in the history of the courts of the United States to testify while under hypnosis. The same case marked the initial instance in California jurisprudence in which the defense based its case on the accused having been in a hypnotic or somnambulistic state at the time a crime was committed.

The figure at the center of this true tale, along with two of his siblings, attained prominence in Northern California journalistic circles in the final decades of the 19th century. Their lives and careers demonstrate the proximity between triumph and tragedy as well as the power of perseverance.

Generations of the Livernoche family resided in the Pointe-du-Lac region of Quebec throughout the eighteenth century. No documentation exists to suggest a strain of mental illness, no record of somnambulism gone haywire. The apparent predilection toward epilepsy in the family remained unnoticed in the public annals.

What can be noted through census and other data was the name Jean in each generation up until the early 1800s. That changed with the birth of John Livernoche in 1808. The Livernoches subsequently ventured into Wisconsin then New York state, and Vermont. There, a son named John Henry entered the world in 1836. The surname then Anglicized to Livernash. 

John Henry Livernash pushed westward to California. He married Margaret Hearen, a native of Ireland and a dozen years his junior. Perhaps the Irish carried the mystical genetics that would play out in the next generation. Witnesses asserted that Margaret Hearen Livernash, by her middle years, behaved in an unsettling manner.

John Henry and Margaret's first child arrived on Valentine's Day, 1866. They named the boy Edward James Livernash. The boy's birth occurred in Calaveras County, but by the time he'd turned twelve the family had moved to San Francisco then Cloverdale and several siblings had entered the fray. Within a couple of years the Livernashes resided in Ukiah with the senior Livernash running a furniture store, much the same business he operated in Cloverdale.

Edward Livernash proved a precocious lad. At fifteen he gained employment as a printer. At sixteen he commenced work, almost single-handed, on his own newspaper in Cloverdale. The editor at the cross-county Sonoma Democrat noted, “The first number of the Pacific Sentinel, a new Democratic paper published in Cloverdale by Edward J. Livernash came to us this week. The editor, although yet a youth, has been one of the Democrat’s most valued correspondents, and from our knowledge of his capabilities we were not surprised to find his paper a breezy eightcolumn, full of news, and gotten up very attractively. The first issue is exceedingly creditable, and we wish for his paper the success that the youthful editor’s pluck and energy deserves.”

The young newspaperman also stumped for national Democratic Party candidates, but seemingly could accept defeat with good cheer if not a unique sense of humor. When his party suffered defeat in a crucial Ohio election, eighteen year old Edward Livernash paraded a hearse through downtown Cloverdale with banners acknowledging the loss.

Apparently the upstart journalist incurred the wrath of some of his competitors. After he left Cloverdale to edit the Sonoma Tribune, the proprietor of the Cloverdale Reveille was anything but sad when the Tribune failed in November 1884. “The Sonoma Tribune, edited by Ed. Livernash, has busted, for the want of support or proper management we know not which… We understand the editor, that was, is now going to study to be a 'President' of this country. The chances are that he will bust at that too, and then go back to his old profession, janitor in a country school house.”

What Edward studied in his spare time often did lead to the political world. He matriculated toward a degree from the Hastings School of Law. In the meantime he had become prominent in the fast-growing Young Men's Institute, a Catholic organization founded in 1883 at St. Joseph's Parish Hall, San Francisco. Its motto: “Pro Deo, Pro Patria,” (For God, For Country). To promote the Young Men's Institute, Livernash began publishing a sixteen page weekly, The Saturday Gazette.

After passing examination, he received his attorney's license on his twenty-first birthday. He also continued campaigning for Democratic candidates. He made speeches in big communities and small, visiting Mendocino City more than once. As soon as he gained admittance to the bar, Edward practiced law in Ukiah, where he also authored several editorials.

Next, he took over publishing and editing the Livermore Herald with assistance from his younger brother, John J. Livernash. In his spare time, Edward served his legal clients in Bay Area courts.

In 1889, five days short of Edward's twenty-third birthday, his father, John Henry Livernash, died at Ukiah. Edward married Jessie Overton two years later. Her father was a wealthy former judge in Santa Rosa. Jessie, a few months Livernash's senior, had previously joined a convent, but her father's protestations convinced her to leave the nunnery. She found Edward Livernash shortly after and their wedding occurred early in 1891. In mid-September of that year, fire destroyed most of the Livermore Herald's office building. The young editor continued publishing out of an Oakland locale.

Scarcely a week after the fire, Edward Livernash was arrested at the ferry terminal by a police sergeant. At the time of apprehension, a Saturday evening, Edward was dressed in women's clothing with his face blackened by cork. At trial in the first days of October, the defendant claimed he'd chosen said gussying up as part of a practical joke he wanted to play on his wife then averred that the outfit played a part in a masquerade ball. In addition, Dr. John W. Robertson testified that Livernash was subject to strange hypnotic conditions.

The Sonoma Democrat, previously friendly to the young journalist, reported the court hearing this way: “E. J. Livernash, who was arrested for masquerading in female attire… was found guilty by Judge Joachimsen, Tuesday, and ordered to appear Wednesday morning for sentence. His honor held that the hypnotic idea was not tenable. That Mr. Livernash, a lawyer and journalist, should array himself in female attire at a hotel and then glide out on the street, take a street car, go to the ferries and purchase a ticket for Livermore… under the pretext that he was going to play a joke on his wife, who lived on California street in this city, was an improbable story. His honor had never been hypnotized save by Prosecuting Attorney Martin Stevens or Attorney J. H. Long, and then he thought that 'paralyzed' would have been the proper word. Therefore be did not believe in such bosh: hence the order. Detective James Rogers recovered a wig worth $4O which Livernash had hired from Goldstein & Cohen on the pretext of using it for a masked ball.”

A writer in the Sacramento Daily Union took a more thorough look at the case in a September 30, 1891 article. “The case of Livernash at San Francisco is a peculiar one, and it is thought will greatly interest scientists. 'He is,' said the doctor, 'one of the most pronounced instances of hypnotism that ever came under my observation. Hypnotism is a thing generally misunderstood. It is a condition of trance, which may be induced by a mesmerist, or be induced by the patient himself, without even the intention of so doing. Sometimes the subject is partially conscious, and sometimes absolutely unconscious as long as the hypnotic trance lasts.'

“The doctor continued, giving a history of Livernash's case since the young man had been under his treatment. When asked if he considered that the prisoner was morally responsible when he dressed himself in woman's clothes on Saturday, the physician replied that, in his professional opinion, Livernash would never have done such a thing if he had been in complete possession of his faculties. He added later that he had never known a man of such peculiar hypnotic temperament as Livernash, although the latter's brother presents a case full of interest to experts. 'The brother,' said the physician, 'was taken with an epileptic fit not long ago, and it required six men to hold him. He acted vindictively toward all six of the men, but when he came out of the fit he had no recollection of what had happened. The next time he had an epileptic fit, however, be remembered perfectly all that happened on the previous occasion, and all his former vindictiveness against the men who had held him was revived. He put a pistol in his pocket and started for this city from Healdsburg with the intention of shooting one of the men who had held him during the former attack. Fortunately he came out of the trance before he found the man. Yet if he had shot him while in that hypnotic trance he would not have been morally responsible.'”

To place this article in historical context, keep in mind that in 1891 Freud had only been specializing his practice in what he called “nervous disorders” for five years. Just seven years before Livernash's case, neuropathologist Theodor Meynert, Freud's teacher, wrote on the title page of his Clinical Treatise on Diseases of the Forebrain, “The historical term for psychiatry, i.e., 'treatment of the soul,' implies more than we can accomplish, and transcends the bounds of accurate scientific investigation."

The Daily Union writer continued, “This is a wholly new view of hypnotism: one that will not be generally accepted by scientists, and that needs better verification than that of one physician. Yet there may be truth in his theory, and it is possible that men may in a trance-like state, self-induced, act in a manner not creditable to the sane. But until there is more light cast upon the Livernash case, the young man must be regarded as subject to fits of insanity. He himself says that he has been the victim of insomnia and somnambulism for a long time, and that he has freely used chloroform to induce sleep and reduce nervousness.”

Sympathy from the Daily Union ended there. Near the conclusion of the article the author stated, “If the theory of Livernash's physician is correct, and he is the victim of self-induced hypnotic states, in which he is at the mercy of his whims, then such a condition is a state of insanity, calling for restraint and treatment, as likewise is that of the brother…”

Livernash was released after paying a fine. His sister, Lizzie, and one of his brothers, John, took it upon themselves to accompany Edward in his travels. On Tuesday, October 29, they staged from Healdsburg to Cloverdale, their old stomping grounds. They arrived in the evening and put up at the United States Hotel.

Not long after all three Livernash siblings had secured separate rooms, Edward left his, strode across the street and made a beeline to the home of Darius Ethridge. A well-to-do man of commerce about seventy years old, Ethridge had done business with Ed Livernash before, so he was not surprised to find him knocking at his door. Livernash arrived with a bottle in one hand and news that he had secured a buyer for Mr. Ethridge's livery stable. The younger man offered a drink from the bottle as a sort of toast, but Ethridge declined. Livernash left the bottle then departed, saying he'd return later with papers to complete the livery stable transaction.

Around 1:30 a.m., Edward arose from his bed, left the hotel again, and walked directly to Ethridge's house. Livernash knocked continually at the front door until Mr. Ethridge eventually roused and let him in. The youthful newspaperman said he wanted to make a cash payment to complete the deal for the livery stable. He pulled $150 from a pocket and counted it out on a table. Next, he produced a contract and asked Ethridge to sign to seal the deal. No sooner had Ethridge signed and looked up, Livernash pulled out two revolvers, pointing them at the older man's face. At the same time he demanded Ethridge make out a will, leaving all his property to Livernash.

Ethridge swiped a hand toward the guns and Livernash fired four times in rapid succession then grabbed the $150 and the contract before running out the door into the night. One bullet passed through the flesh beneath Ethridge's chin, another grazed the edge of his mouth, a third took off a tiny tip of his nose, the fourth apparently missed. Otherwise, he remained healthy enough to walk himself to a nearby doctor's residence to have the wounds dressed.

The doctor telephoned the city marshal, who set out on an immediate manhunt. He didn't have to search far. Half an hour later, the lawman found Livernash locked in his room at the United States Hotel. When arrested he still possessed the two revolvers, one of which had blood splattered on it. The young lawyer and journalist declared, “I am the King of Siam,” to the marshal. “You have no authority over me.”

The Livernash trials and tribulations continue next time: Part 2

(More tales of unique yesteryears at

One Comment

  1. Craig Livernash May 19, 2021

    Very interesting. I thought I had read some where that he shot 6 times. No big deal – I can wait to read the next

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