By J. L. Starkey
“We can’t constantly tell stories of heroes. We have to hear the other stories, too, about people in dire straits who make bad choices.“– Rebecca Hall
The first time I saw the photo, I stared at it in amazement. That man could have been my grandfather’s twin. The resemblance was nothing short of eerie.
But this wasn’t just any photo. That man was my grandfather’s cousin, and the photo I discovered? Well, it was that man’s mugshot.
That’s how I met Michael Patrick Holmes, the subject of this week’s 52 Ancestors Challenge. It’s fair to say that he was a thief, but he didn’t steal cars or money.
Michael, my first cousin twice removed, stole a life.
The Mystery of the “Death Driver”
The news reports were detailed and devastating. On Valentine’s Day 1932 in Oakland, California, an unidentified driver plowed into a group of pedestrians. Walter Streuli was killed instantly, while Lillian Aspern suffered compound fractures to both of her legs.
Apparently unaware that he had killed one person and gravely injured another, the driver “continued without slackening speed,” according to reports . He was apprehended one block away as he inspected a broken headlight on his damaged vehicle. Though he claimed he was not the driver of the car involved in the accident, he was arrested and jailed on suspicion of drunk driving .
His name was Michael Patrick Holmes.
American Dream – or Nightmare?
Contrary to what I originally believed, Michael’s uncle (my great-grandfather John Reedy) wasn’t the first in his family to immigrate to America. That honor went to John’s sister (Michael’s mother), who arrived in the USA around 1889 . Mary Reedy Holmes first lived in Chicago, but later settled in California . John and Mary were close, and at one point John even considered moving to California, so impressed was he with the state’s quality of life .
Mary probably didn’t tell John that life was far from perfect, especially for her son Michael. Though he had a promising future, Michael’s life included a failed marriage, a quickie divorce, and a move back into his parents’ home, all before he turned thirty .
By 1932, he had worked a string of odd jobs as a painter, salesman, carpenter, and driver . He probably dreamed of a better life, but a single decision on Valentine’s Day in 1932 changed everything.
On that day, Michael drank and drove…and he became a criminal.
Michael claimed to have no memory of the accident he caused, and due to a lack of evidence he was not initially named as a suspect. Fortunately, the testimony of an eyewitness enabled prosecutors to charge Michael with manslaughter, failure to render aid, drunk driving, and hit-and-run driving. Despite the horrific nature of the crimes, bail was set at just $3000, an amount equal to about $51,000 today .
The justice system moved swiftly in 1930’s America; Michael’s case went to trial less than two months after his arrest, on 11 April 1932 . Two days later, prosecutors revealed that Lillian Aspern would be brought to court on a stretcher to testify against Michael. She was still hospitalized at that time, as was her husband, who had become critically ill in the stressful weeks following his wife’s ordeal .
Michael opted to halt the trial at that point. He accepted a deal instead of taking his chances with a jury, and on 14 April, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter . Two days later, he was sentenced to one to ten years at San Quentin prison .
Lillian Aspern’s husband passed away one week later .
The death toll from Michael’s actions, according to some, now stood at two.
San Quentin Inmate 51980
Michael arrived at San Quentin prison on 18 April 1932. According to his inmate record, he was just under five feet eight inches tall, with blue eyes, blond (or reddish) hair, and “poor” teeth. Records indicated that he had no prior offenses, a factor that probably worked in his favor in parole hearings .
On 11 February 1933 Michael applied for parole along with 298 other San Quentin inmates, including the notorious Clara Phillips, aka “the hammer killer” or “Tiger Girl” . Two months later, he again appealed to the parole board. This time, he requested consideration for an indeterminate sentence, perhaps hoping to be released early for good behavior .
But Michael wouldn’t be released early enough to say goodbye to his mother. On 31 October 1933, Mary Reedy Holmes passed away at age 68 . Less than six months later, on 18 May 1934, Michael was paroled from San Quentin.
Twenty years and one day after his release, Michael Holmes died in Oakland, California . He was just 54 years old.
An Unexpected Legacy
How did Michael live with the consequences of his actions? Did he seek the forgiveness of the families he destroyed? Did he try to make amends? Did he wonder if he would leave a legacy?
I only know the answer to one of those questions. Yes, Michael will leave a legacy, because today, his story will be told. It was difficult to write about an ancestor who caused so much pain and sorrow, but I hope that in telling Michael’s story, he will be remembered by others facing similar choices.
I hope that Michael’s story will be remembered by the employee who drinks a few beers at a company holiday party, but insists that he “should be OK” to drive home.
I hope that Michael’s story will be remembered by the college student who wonders if she should get the keys from her friend who has been downing margaritas all afternoon.
I hope that Michael’s story will be remembered by the parent who finally has a kid-free night out, and decides to drink “one more for the road” before trying to drive home.
Every 48 minutes, someone in the United States dies in an alcohol-related crash. That’s close to thirty people every day, and over ten thousand people per year.
Before you drink and drive…stop. Think again. There is always a better choice.
(Note: All newspaper citations were retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- “3 Killed in Auto Crashes; Man Held as Hit-Runner,” Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, 15 Feb 1932, p. 10, col. 2-3. (See also: “Two Injured as Cars Crash,” The San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco, California, 15 Feb 1932, p. 1, col. 2.)
- “Driver in Jail as Hitrunner; Victim is Dead,” The San Francisco Examiner, 16 Feb 1932, p. 2, col. 3.
- “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M9LF-9VC : accessed 26 Nov 2019), Mary Holmes in household of Thomas Holmes, Davenport Township, Precincts 1-2 Davenport city Ward 1, Scott, Iowa, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 122, sheet 8B, family 166, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: NARA, 1972.); FHL Film 1,240,458.
- “United States Census, 1930,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XCJX-TSM : accessed 25 Nov 2019), Mary Holmes in household of Thomas T Holmes, Alameda, Alameda, California, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 218, sheet 17B, line 60, family 15, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: NARA, 2002), roll 100; FHL Film 2,339,835.
- “Easterner Pleased With California,” Petaluma Daily morning Courier, Petaluma, California, 24 Feb 1915, p. 1, col. 6.
- “United States Census, 1930,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XCJX-TS9 : accessed 25 Nov 2019), Michael P Holmes in household of Thomas T Holmes, Alameda, Alameda, California, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 218, sheet 17B, line 61, family 15, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: NARA, 2002), roll 100; FHL Film 2,339,835.
- California State Library; Sacramento, California; Great Register of Voters, 1900-1968. Voter registration for Michael P Holmes, Alameda County, 1932, Roll 032, image 1110 of 1720. Retrieved from Ancestry.com: California, Voter Registrations, 1900-1968 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2017. (See also: Polk’s Oakland Berkeley: Alameda City Directory, 1926, listing for Michl P Holmes, p. 879, col. 1 (digital image 446 of 993). U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 for Michael P Holmes. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.)
- “Auto Driver Charged with Victim’s Death,” The San Francisco Examiner, 18 Feb 1932, p. 1, col. 4.
- “Trial of Death Car Driver is Opened,” Oakland Tribune, 11 Apr 1932, p. 3, col. 7.
- “Motor Victim to Attend on Stretcher,” Oakland Tribune, 13 Apr 1932, p. 17, col. 5.
- “Defendant, on Trial in Auto Death, Halts Case to Plead,” Oakland Tribune, 14 Apr 1932, p. 4, col. 2-3.
- “Judge Sentences Man for Auto Death,” Oakland Tribune, 17 Apr 1932, p. 4, col. 5.
- “Deaths,” Oakland Tribune, 25 Apr 1932, p. 29, col. 5.
- California State Archives; Sacramento, California; San Quentin State Prison Inmate Identification Photograph Cards/Inmate 50851-52320. Original data: Department of Corrections. San Quentin State Prison Records, 1850–1950. ID #R135, California State Archives, Office of the Secretary of State, Sacramento, California. (See also: California State Archives; Sacramento, California; Secretary of State California State Archives San Quentin Prison Registers; and Tulare County, California, Sheriff’s Office and Jail Records 1874-1963 for M P Holmes, Description of Criminals, Prisoners, California State Prison at San Quentin, 1915-1925, digital images 124-125 of 160. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.)
- “$3,000,000 Pyromaniac Asks Parole,” Oakland Tribune, 11 Feb 1933, p. 13, col. 8.
- “County Forger Seeks Release From Quentin,” The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, California, 14 Apr 1933, p. 9, col. 1.
- Death index for Mary Holmes. California Department of Health and Welfare. California Vital Records-Vitalsearch (www.vitalsearch-worldwide.com). The Vitalsearch Company Worldwide, Inc., Pleasanton, California. Retrieved from: California, Death Index, 1905-1939 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013. (See also: “Life Ends for Mrs. M. Holmes,” The Petaluma Argus-Courier, Petaluma, California, 2 Nov 1933, p. 12, col. 4.)
- Death index for Michael Patrick Holmes. State of California. California Death Index, 1940-1997. Sacramento, CA, USA: State of California Department of Health Services, Center for Health Statistics. (See also: “Deaths,” Oakland Tribune, 20 May 1954, p. 43, col. 4.)