"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 15, 2019

Yda Hillis Addis, California Literature's Stormiest Petrel

All images via Newspapers.com

Although she is largely forgotten today, Yda Hillis Addis is an important figure in California literary history. She was the first to write and publish English translations of Mexican history and folktales, the most enduring of which is the now-popular legend of La Llorona, the "Weeping Woman." (Her translations, which originally appeared in the San Francisco journal "The Argonaut," were later compiled in the book "Wicked Legends.") She was also a talented author of fiction. Her numerous short stories, which utilized elements of folklore, the supernatural, and proto-feminism, appeared in many of the newspapers and magazines of her day. Addis also wrote a major history of the city of Santa Barbara. She was a prolific, influential, and unique literary voice.

All this, of course, is to be applauded. However, I would not be including Ms. Addis in the hallowed halls of Strange Company if it were not for her personal life, which was as strange and colorful as anything she put on paper. When a woman manages to gain nationwide renown as the "Crazy Lady of Santa Barbara," I throw open the doors to this blog and say, "Come on in!"

Addis was born in Kansas in 1857. When she was about four, her father, photographer Alfred Addis, moved her family to Chihuahua, Mexico. Yda assisted in her father's work photographing the Mexican frontier, which gave her an early familiarity with Indian villages, mining camps, and the other features of border life. She developed a deep love for the culture and history of the region. She learned Spanish, French, Italian, and several Indian dialects. When Yda was fifteen, her family moved to Los Angeles. After her graduation from Los Angeles High School, she began teaching, while also launching her career as a writer. By her early twenties, her name was well-known to readers across the country for her eerie Mexican-influenced ghost tales and tempestuous love stories which always ended badly--for the men. Critics lauded her writings as "original, daring, strong, polished."

Before long, her name became even more famous--for reasons that had nothing to do with her literary talents.

"Los Angeles Herald," April 17, 1875

The fun started in 1887, when "Argonaut" owner Frank Pixley introduced her to his friend, former California governor John Downey. A romance soon reportedly developed between the sixtysomething Downey and the beautiful young Yda. Wedding bells loomed in the horizon. Well, they would have, if it hadn't been for Downey's sister, Mrs. Peter Donahue. When Mrs. Donahue learned that her brother planned to marry someone young enough to be his granddaughter, she was outraged. Yda told the press that Mrs. Donahue was keeping Downey in literal captivity in order to get him to break the engagement. Downey responded by publicly declaring that he had never had any intention of marrying Miss Addis.

"San Francisco Examiner," July 30, 1887

Yda promptly sued Downey for breach of promise, but for whatever reason, Yda dropped the suit and moved to Mexico City, where she found work writing for the newspaper "Two Republics." The paper's editor, Theodore Gesterfeld, quickly became infatuated with Yda.

This would have been all well and good, if it had not been for the inconvenient figure of Mrs. Gesterfeld. Theodore's wife sued him for divorce, naming Addis as co-respondent. During the trial, Gesterfeld admitted to sleeping with other women, but insisted that Addis had not been one of them. Despite Theodore's gallant, and very likely perjured, testimony, the uproar only added to Yda's increasingly notorious reputation. (Yda later claimed that she did not figure in the Gesterfeld scandal at all. According to her, she had an illegitimate half-sister, Maud Addis, who looked remarkably like her. It was Maud, and not herself, who was the correspondent in Gesterfeld's divorce suit. Make of that what you will.)

Realizing that Mexico was getting a bit too hot for her, Yda relocated to Santa Barbara, where she began compiling material for her 1891 book, "A Memorial and Biographical History of the Counties of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura, California." In 1890, she married attorney and newspaper owner Charles A. Storke.

"Los Angeles Herald," January 8, 1888

True to form, the marriage almost immediately collapsed, with every lurid detail lovingly published by the local newspapers. Yda publicly accused Storke and his 15-year-old son Tommy of abusing her both physically and mentally. For good measure, she informed the world that Storke had a taste for certain unspecified but clearly shocking sexual practices. Yda declared that her husband's "refusal to have reasonable marital intercourse" left her in a state of "nervous and hysterical morbidity." As if that weren't bad enough, his table manners were "loathsome, repulsive, and obscene." Oh, and he rarely bathed, causing him to emit a "mephitic odor."

Yda was not finished with Storke yet. In 1896, a Santa Barbara mother and daughter named Richardson were found brutally murdered in their own home. The ghastly crime, which was never solved, became an obsession with Yda. She eventually developed a "solution" for the murder that was an elaborate conspiracy involving the city's most prominent citizens--with the chief architect of the murder plot being her very own former husband Charles Storke. (A contemporary paper noted dryly that this theory "tended to strain the relations between Yda Addis Storke and Santa Barbara.") There were a number of people who came to seriously believe that Yda had committed the Richardson murders herself. While there was no proof that she was responsible for the crime, by this point in our story I'm sure you share my belief that nothing Yda Addis did would be surprising.

Storke sued for divorce, on the grounds of Yda's insanity. He told the press that Yda had twice attempted suicide, by taking morphine and setting fire to her clothes. He added that she had developed an "insane antipathy" to Tommy, and frequently threatened to kill him. Yda, he stated, was an adulteress who had only married him for his money. She refused to perform her "womanly duties." She had a perverse fondness for witnessing public executions. Worst of all, she hung out in Bakersfield dance halls!

While Yda was still legally married to Storke, she decided to make the most of the situation by suing him for alimony. After a great deal of legal wrangling, in January 1892, a judge essentially found for both sides, ruling that "the husband was not cruel, nor the wife insane." The divorce was finally granted in 1895, with Storke being ordered to pay Yda's attorney fees, as well as $250 in alimony. Storke repeatedly appealed the ruling, until in 1897, the California Supreme Court ordered him to make the payments.  (Storke reportedly continued to default on his obligations.)

During these protracted court battles, Yda moved back to San Francisco, where she tried to refocus on her writing career. During this period, she published stories in which women killed men in various gruesome ways, and knowing our Yda, I am not altogether certain these were works of fiction.

In 1898, Storke became D.A. of Santa Barbara County. Soon afterward, local newspapers and prominent Santa Barbara citizens began getting some very interesting mail. They were bombarded with anonymous letters accusing a local man, Dr. Robert Winchester, of "immoral and scandalous conduct." Santa Barbara men received letters advising them that the back rooms of Winchester's offices doubled as a brothel. Santa Barbara women were sent notes suggesting they make some quick and easy money by "lying on their backs" in Winchester's offices. Winchester immediately suspected Yda of writing these scurrilous messages. It was no secret that Yda had a grudge against Winchester, who had testified against her in the divorce trial. There was the significant fact that her handwriting was identical to those of the poison pen letters. Besides, it just seemed so perfectly the sort of thing she'd do. In 1899, Yda was charged and convicted of criminal libel.

"San Francisco Chronicle," June 22, 1899

During her trial, she claimed she was being framed by the prosecuting attorney Grant Jackson. She claimed that she and Jackson had entered into a "contract marriage," (something he denied,) and that he betrayed her by secretly working for the Storke camp.

Well. Clearly, there was only one thing she could do: namely, kill the man.

One night, Yda broke into Jackson's house, armed with chloroform, a glass-cutter, two revolvers, acid, and poison--our heroine was never one to do things by halves--and attempted to have the attorney permanently disbarred. Fortunately for Jackson, Yda was a better writer than she was a murderer, and he was able to wrestle the arsenal from her before any damage was done. This little escapade meant Yda faced eight months in prison, (on top of the sentence she faced for the poison pen letters,) and probably did little for her efforts to have herself proven sane. (Her defense was that she entered Jackson's house merely to "talk matters over with him.")

"San Francisco Examiner," July 13, 1899

As a side note, while all this was going on, a man named Frank Gutierrez, whom Yda had accused of being the real writer of the libelous letters, asked for police protection. He claimed that Yda had threatened to kill him (and when Yda made such threats, they clearly were to be taken seriously.) Gutierrez told reporters that he was being followed at night by "certain Italians and Mexicans over whom Mrs. Storke is supposed to have considerable influence."

"San Francisco Examiner," July 15, 1899

At about this time, the "San Francisco Examiner" did a lengthy profile of this now-infamous public figure. Describing Yda as "Santa Barbara's bogie," the reporter marveled, "In all California there is not another being so brilliant and at the same time so weird as Yda Addis Storke; and perhaps not another so feared and hated--and unhappy." The newspaper mourned "poor, wretched, unhappy, brilliant, erratic, vindictive little Yda Addis Storke...Nothing can daunt or tame or soften her, or tire her relentless hatred."

If Yda ever read those words, she probably took that last line as a high compliment.

"San Francisco Examiner," November 1, 1900

In December 1899, a grand jury declined to indict Yda for the Jackson incident (they possibly felt the man had had it coming.) Five months later, she won an appeal for a new trial in the matter of the poison pen letters. However, this retrial never took place. Accounts of her life generally state that the destitute Yda, her physical and mental health now completely broken, was committed to an insane asylum. In 1902, Yda escaped from her confinement, where her sad and hectic story came to an abrupt end.

She disappeared, and was never seen or heard from again.


  1. Yikes! I've never heard of her, but she sounds downright startling. I suspect that her escape led more or less directly to her demise in one form or another, since I can't see her not making news in some form, if she had survived for long.

  2. I discovered Yda Addis in 1992, as the subject of my master's thesis. Due to the fact that a great deal of your information about Addis was in my master's thesis, did you read my master's thesis? If so could you tell me how you got a hold of it. Thanks,the Ghost

    1. While reading up about Addis, I did see that someone had written a thesis about her, but I was unable to find it online. I got virtually all my information from old newspaper reports.


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