Anatomy of a Street (Part 1)

What San Jose street is actually in two cites, has had a murder by hired assassins, has three churches and narrows at both ends?

What street had a property with a live lion patrolling the grounds in the 1930s and has a house that was once a brothel before it was moved to its present location?

What private eye living on this street was stabbed when answering his door late one night in 1974?

On what street were two neighboring families united when their children married?

On what street did author Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”) hide out when running from the police who were looking for him to arrest him on drug charges?

What street was named after a “seed king?”

What street has had many prominent San Jose citizens living there including the head of a food machinery company, lawyers, architects, college professors, doctors and engineers, alongside just plain common folk like me? 

If you answered Morse Street, you were correct. A quiet, Rosegarden-area street that runs northwest from the old Singletary Estate in San Jose, Morse Street terminates in Santa Clara. The width of the last block on both ends of the street narrows by ten feet on both sides.

The street wasn’t always quiet. On April 6, 1972, two hired assassins, Mims and Rodriguez, were hiding in the bushes behind 795 Morse. When James Edward Carr exited his home to go to work one morning, the bushes exploded with seven shots, killing Carr immediately. Carr was rumored to be connected with the famous Angela Davis case then in the courts. An alert neighbor, Warren Hansen, heard the gunshots and saw two men running south down Morse Street, opposite his house. Hansen’s wife, Frenchy, heard the shotgun blasts and, seeing the men flee in their getaway car, wrote the license plate number on a popsicle wrapper, the only paper she could lay her hands on, and they notified the police. The getaway car, a black over blue Ford Fairlane LTD, was spotted in Morgan Hill later by police officer Bob Carroll on his way to work and he intercepted the assassins. Imagine his surprise when they surrendered just as he remembered that he had left his gun in the locker at Morgan Hill police station. Checking the back seat of the Ford after the arrest, Carroll found more loaded guns and a bucket containing Molotov cocktails.

There are three churches located on the street: the Calvary Methodist Church and the Quaker Meeting House, both founded in 1889, and the Center of Spiritual Enlightenment. Neither of the churches founded in 1889 are on their original sites. Prior to its founding, the house that became the Center for Spritual Enlightenment was built and occupied in the 1920s. The Center faces on to University Avenue, but the side where a lion patrolled the grounds is on Morse Street. Old time San Jose residents and historians, Frances and Theron Fox and Lawrence Campbell, remember the story well.

Dorothy Martin was a nurse at the county hospital when she became involved with a wealthy San Francisco car dealer. It seems that “John,” who lived in Woodside, put up the money for the purchase of the new house on the corner of University and Morse. Dorothy became his mistress and he would visit her often. According to Campbell, the car dealer had a different fancy car for each day of the week for his visits to his fancy lady. (Dorothy also changed her name often. According to old records and directories, she was listed as Dorothy Martin, Mrs. Dorothy Martin, Dorothea Martyn and Mrs. Martin, and on title papers for the house she is listed as a single woman.) John became alarmed that someone else might be paying attention to Dorothy, so he had a wall built around the property and installed a lion as a watchdog, or more correctly, a watchcat. The real, live African lion patrolled the grounds for quite a few years. Can you imagine living next door to a lion? I say that’s a lot of cat to protect a little . . . well, you fill in the blank!

13 Comments

  1. Another well known personality who lives on Morse Street is our present day historian, Leonard McKay, the author of this and many fine history pieces about San Jose.  Leonard lives closer to the Singletary or Rose Garden end of Morse.  There are many fine homes on this street and is well worth a ride from one end to the other interupted only by the 880 or Highway 17 Freeway.

  2. Having grown up near the intersection of Morse and University, I know all of the above stories well and heard the shots fired while getting ready for school that April morning in 1972.

    Ken Kesey’s bus “Further” could be found parked on the 1200 block of University as recently as a few years ago, as he had a friend there he would visit once in a while.  It seems SJ had a few Kesey connections concentrated in close proximity. 

    I also have been told that there was a suicide by gunshot in the basement of the Bloom home on Morse.  That home seems marked by tragedy, as the family that lived there in the early 60’s had one child badly burned in the basement (quite a grand basement with full bar and fixed stools) and later occupants had a child paralyzed in a traffic accident.

    The lion story has always been a legend.  I had heard about it as a kid and have advised newer neighbors who are interested in the history of the neighborhood about it.  I did not realize that the wall around that house was not original.  The kitchen in that house still has its original built in ice box, which of course isn’t used for cold storage anymore but has survived since being sold out of private hands sometime in the late 60’s.  The last person to live there was a Mrs. Williams who had a beautiful daughter much older than I was and seemed so glamorous at the time.  Mrs. Williams knew Charles Shultz and had some original pre-Peanuts work by him in her home.  She sold to next door neighbor Christ Church Unity which many years later sold their complex to current occupant CSE.

    There’s a lot of history in this particular section of town.  Thanks for highlighting some of it, and especially for confirming the long told story about Ms. Martin’s lion.

  3. For the information of Leonard’s readers, this is the first of a three-part piece on Morse Street history so there is a lot more to come over the next two weeks, including more on Ken Kesey and Leonard’s own house.

    Meanwhile, we’d love to get posts here on the site from those of you with any stories about Morse Street or the nearby area. Leonard loves to read your comments.

    And thanks “Mark T” and “Native San Josean” for your contributions so far.

  4. In the early 30’s the Blooms lost a son to an accidental gun shot while playing with a neighbor and an “unloaded” pistol. That was when my father started my gun safety training!

    Jerry

  5. Jerry, thanks for the clarification.  I do recall the term used was “shot himself” rather than “suicide” so that was my own fault.  Still wondering what kind of cloud or curse has hung over that property considering the various tragedies that have visited all but one of the families I’ve known to have lived there.

  6. Would love to be able to take a walking tour some day of this area with a live or digital guide.  Great stories!  As a fairly new arrival to SJ I know very few of the interesting stories that are the fabric of this area.  Keep ‘em coming.

  7. Leonard, thanks so much for the interesting info on Morse Street.  I always enjoy your column, there’s so much to know about our Valley of Heart’s Delight!

  8. Jack, thanks for advising there’s more to come.  This neighborhood is a very interesting part of town with quite a bit of history.  I’ve often felt that SJ was more big time and sophisticated before the post-war building explosion when it was still a fairly small town, and this neighborhood’s history is a great source to find a few colorful slices of that sort of pre-suburban environment.

  9. Looks like lots of us are familiar with this fine neighborhood.  I agree with Mark T about San Jose being more sophisticated in the “old days”.  Lots of colorful noteworthy families made up the city core.

  10. Carole,  you captured the bike riding experience on Morse.  I used to ride to St. Leo’s each morning and always took Morse to Singletary.  The biggest “ramp” was at Morse & University, but the dip at University and The Alameda was nearly impassible for some cars.  When the project to widen Hedding St began in 1966, Hedding was completely closed and traffic was diverted onto University.  That big dip at The Alameda was filled in to help keep traffic flowing.  When I delivered the San Jose News one of my fellow carriers mentioned that he used the slope of the east-west streets to his advantage based on his load of papers, as all streets sloped towards The Alameda for drainage.

    The other thing I like about Morse St between University and Naglee is the many sections that have no sidewalk.  And many times as a kid I thought how great it would be to have the guest houses behind 795 or 837 Morse as my own space.  I’m sure there were plenty of noises behind 795 and many others in the neighborhood from all the critters that enjoyed the wooded yards and it would be easy for an older baby sitter to use this kind of activity to scare kids.  I guess growing up in this neighborhood immunized me against any level of fear or creepiness regarding big older and in particular empty homes. 

    It’s sad to see the home at Morse and Emory (owned by the YMCA for many years) turning into a white (actually pink) elephant.  I believe the last attempt by the current owner to sell it failed, as it needs lots of work.  I know the family who lived there up until it was sold to the Y back in the 60’s, and stories by YMCA workers about it being haunted were quickly discounted by them.  Instead, my friend shared more disgusting stories of having to clean sludge out of the basement when it rained too hard.  Not nearly as entertaining as a ghost story but I’m sure the memory of that chore still haunts him!

  11. During jr. high sleep-overs, my friend who used to babysit the kids at 795 Morse, would scare us with stories of hearing mysterious noises from behind that house, and seeing shadows in the trees.

    Morse Street was always a favorite for riding bikes as kids.  It was wider than all the rest, and even had built-in bumps at its intersections that we could try to get airborn on.

    What a wonderful neighborhood, and thank you Mr. McKay for sharing its stories.  I will never forget playing a daring game of Midnight Hide and Seek in the Rosecrucian Museum grounds, and being so afraid of coming across an awakened mummy or pharaoh!

  12. Thanks to my neighbor, Leonard McKay, for keeping the colorful history of this area alive. I moved to this neighborhood when I was 11 years old. I lived on University Ave as a child and now live on Morse Street with my family and have been in this home for 23 years. I too heard the gunshots fired when I was getting dressed for school that morning in the 70’s. And that was just ONE of the many stories from this neighborhood. I look forward to Leonard’s future stories.

  13. Amazing history on Morse Street.  Although I moved to central FL nearly nine years ago, two individuals mentioned I have traded postcards with or breweriana.  Small world from a great big street!

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