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A 19th century firecracker flames out in her private life

Times Staff Writer

If Yda Hillis Addis were alive today, she might show up on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” -- either for her sometimes salacious writings or her troubled and much-publicized personal life.

More than a hundred years ago, Addis was writing about strong, independent and free-spirited heroines and their tempestuous romantic encounters. Her own personal life included poison pen letters and both suicide and murder attempts -- all of which eclipsed her prose and earned her the nickname the “crazy lady of Santa Barbara.”

She was born in Kansas in 1857 and moved with her family to Chihuahua, Mexico, after the start of the Civil War. The daughter of an itinerant photographer, she roamed with him through the Mexican wilderness, into Indian villages and miners’ camps, learning the culture, language and history of the region and the oral tales passed down for centuries.

In 1872, at 15, she moved with her family to Los Angeles, where she was one of seven students in L.A. High School’s first graduating class in 1875.

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She was teaching second grade in Los Angeles in 1880 when she began dazzling readers of the Argonaut, a San Francisco biweekly paper, with her fictional prose. She wrote about the supernatural and about women’s cleverness in matters of love. One such popular tale, called “Poetic Justice,” was about a woman’s revenge on a two-timing man. In another story, “Senorita Santos,” Addis compared U.S. men, whom she found “tallow-faced ... reared on vinegar,” with Mexican men, who were “suave and treacherous.”

Addis also wrote for such publications as Harper’s Monthly, the newborn Los Angeles Times, the St. Louis Dispatch and the Chicago Times, as well as for Mexican newspapers and periodicals, in both English and Spanish. As she achieved fame as a popular fiction writer, men became attracted to her wit and charm. In 1887, former California Gov. John G. Downey asked her to marry him, she told the San Francisco Examiner. But when his family objected, Addis sued for half a million dollars for breach of promise. It was the first of her affairs of the heart to wind up in court.

Adverse publicity prompted her to drop the suit and flee to Mexico, where she was living in 1888 and reporting on Mexican politics and culture when a Chicago woman -- the wife of Addis’ editor -- accused Addis of stealing her spouse. The woman sued her spouse for alienation of affection and named Addis as co-defendant.

During her two-year stay in Mexico, waiting for the dual scandals to clear, Addis wrote for the Argonaut and for a bilingual Mexican newspaper on such disparate subjects as Mexican President Porfirio Diaz and Mexican pottery.

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In 1990, Marian Ecker, a showgirl-turned-freelance reporter in Nevada, resurrected Addis in her research work at Cal State L.A. Ecker said Addis used her childhood and later years in Mexico to write in journalism and fiction about the customs and culture.

“She was the first American writer who translated Mexican legends into English,” Ecker said, “like such tales about ‘La Llorona,’ the weeping woman who killed her children, then herself, after losing her husband’s affections.

“She was a haunted woman,” Ecker said, “who looked into a mirror and said she could ‘see past eternity.’ She described what she saw in her stories.”

Addis returned to Los Angeles in 1890, welcomed by such well-known friends as her high school classmate, Henry O’Melveny, and Ygnacio Sepulveda. She was already a successful and popular writer. But her personal life still dogged her.

Working on what would be her only book, “A Memorial and Biographical History of the Counties of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura, California,” Addis interviewed prominent Californians, including attorney Charles Albert Storke, a former state legislator and founder and publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

The couple married on Sept. 10, 1890 -- the same date that Storke, a divorced man with four children, had married his first wife 17 years earlier. Addis was 33 and Storke was 43. She gave up writing to help care for Storke’s 15-year-old son, Thomas. Soon after the wedding, Storke took the $400 check Addis had earned for her book deal, cashed it and refused to give her a penny, Ecker said.

Less than a year later, in August 1891, Addis -- in poor health and looking disheveled -- climbed aboard the train to L.A. A stranger lent her money for train fare, and in Los Angeles, she accepted the hospitality of former Mayor Antonio Franco Coronel and his wife, Mariana. There, she told a Times reporter that three weeks after the marriage, her husband “commenced to abuse” her. He shook her violently and made her life miserable with “abusive language and gestures.” On top of that, she told the reporter, her stepson, Thomas, was very “insolent” to her and “annoyed” her with “undue familiarities” which she “expressly forbade.”

Storke angrily wrote to The Times in response, saying his wife had “twice attempted to commit suicide, and once was only prevented by the aid of a physician ... she took an insane antipathy to my son ... and threatened again and again to kill him.”

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Addis sued for divorce. An L.A. judge ordered Storke to pay her $50 a month and $50 to her attorney. But the politically connected Storke -- who kept appealing the judgment, alleging that Addis was insane -- got the matter moved to his town, Santa Barbara.

After a second divorce trial -- in January 1892 at the Santa Barbara courthouse -- a judge ruled that the “husband was not cruel, nor the wife insane.” Storke filed more appeals, and in 1895 the divorce was granted. Storke was ordered to pay his ex-wife $200 in attorney fees and $250 in alimony. Still, he kept filing appeals for two more years. Finally, in 1897, he was forced by the state Supreme Court to pay up.

To escape the situation, Addis had moved to San Francisco in 1893, where she again took up her pen for the Argonaut. She returned to fiction with “a stronger, more focused feminism,” Ecker said. She seemed to be caught up in her own anger about her treatment by her ex-husband: The protagonist in one of her stories, “A Human Tigress,” is a mysterious woman who kills strong men by disemboweling them, Ecker said.

In 1898, after Addis’ ex-husband became district attorney of Santa Barbara County, his newspaper and other local figures began receiving anonymous letters, accusing two prominent physicians, a man and a woman, of “immoral and scandalous conduct” with each other. The man, a Dr. Winchester, had testified for Storke and against Addis in the divorce case. Addis was again living in Santa Barbara at the time. Her handwriting resembled that of the poison pen letters, and she was charged with criminal libel. She denied writing the letters but was convicted in June 1899.

On the stand, she had claimed she was being framed by Storke’s underling, prosecuting attorney Teddy Grant Jackson -- a future Los Angeles judge -- with whom Addis said she had entered a “contract marriage.” As Addis was awaiting sentencing, she broke into Jackson’s house. He accused her of trying to chloroform him as he slept. He reached for his gun, which went off in the struggle, but no one was hit. Addis insisted she had only gone to his house to get him to confess to framing her.

Addis had faced a year in jail and a $5,000 fine for the poison pen letters. But now she stood accused of attempted murder. At her arraignment in Santa Barbara, her defense attorney, Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first woman to practice law in the state, stood by her as she pleaded not guilty. Addis looked like a mentally beaten woman, “dressed in a coarse, grey bathrobe, loosely tied at the waist,” The Times reported. She was already serving her jail sentence for the letters.

In December 1899, a grand jury investigation ended with no indictment, and Storke was forced to dismiss the case against his ex-wife. Five months later, a free woman, she won her appeal for a new trial on the poison pen conviction.

But Addis didn’t stick around for it. Broken in health and evidently in spirit, she vanished from California and the newspapers.

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cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com


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