The Coastal Post - September, 1996

The Amazing Dr. Randall


The late historian, Jack Mason, calls him "The Amazing Dr. Randall," and truly he was. Trained as a medical doctor, he was also interested in journalism, geology, politics, civil service, and finally in California real estate. This last caused his death in 1856.

In those early days of 1800, people would enroll in a course in medicine and afterwards take up a field of science that appealed to them. Dr. Andrew Randall's field was geology. In fact, his training is geology served him in good stead because he used it constantly. Born in Cincinnati, he used it when he came to Wisconsin and Minnesota because he had been hired by the government to survey these states.

Randall's biographer, C.P. Butler, described him as "a gregarious and friendly man, curious about everything he saw or heard." He was also a meticulous keeper of records, and a diligent diarist.

In Cincinnati he had published The Ploughboy and the Western Farmer's Almanac. And in Minnesota he published the territory's first newspaper, the Minnesota Register. It came out in April, 1849.

The same year Dr. Randall went to California with Col. James Collier's overland party. The Army accompanied them west via the Santa Fe Trail and across the Colorado River to San Diego, where they took a vessel to San Francisco. Collier had just been appointed by President Taylor to be the San Francisco customs inspector.

Randall took field notes along the way about Indians, Mexicans, and early settlers, which are still interesting to read.

Mason says Randall was always looking for big opportunities, and he thought he'd found it in politics. He held a seat in the first California Legislature in 1851. He gained attention by making a speech on behalf of, guess what, a statewide geological survey.

He lost on that one, but on his request $10,000 was found at that early date to buy a standard set of weights and measures, vital to Col. Collier (who was the San Francisco customs inspector).

He also founded the California Academy of Sciences in 1853, which is still going strong. And with his own money he bought a set of weather gauges from the Smithsonian Institute, so deserving Collier's quote that he "was the first man in California to invest his own money in pure science."

Somewhere along the way he acquired a wife, possibly in Cincinnati, who was a cousin of Mary Todd, who married Lincoln—Elizabeth Todd Randall. But he spent little time with her, preferring the San Francisco intelligentsia. He dumped her at a ranch in Point Reyes—possibly the F Ranch—at Bull, Point, Mason thinks, but he can't prove it, because the Park Service destroyed what was left of the grand old building in 1967, "precluding any attempt to identify the house as Dr. Randall's."

Andrew had bought a lot of Point Reyes from Antonio Osio in 1852, for which he spent $25,000, possibly with borrowed money. He built a house (by this time he had four children and a wife) which the Marin county tax assessor valued at $4,500 (quite a sum in those days). The tax assessor in 1853 also lists 400 wild horses, 400 tame cattle, 3,500 wild cattle, and 1,000 hogs, sheep and goats on the ranch. It must have ben a sizable ranch, and one cannot but pity Elizabeth being left alone there.

Later Randall in 1854 bought 13,644 acres of Point Reyes, paying $150,000 for it, from Bethuel Phelps. This time all of the money was borrowed.

Mason wrote, "In 1854 and 1855 this was a time of bank failures, collapsing currency and sky-rocketing mortgage rates," and Randall's creditors were everywhere.

One creditor, Andrew Hetherington, took him to court. Hetherington was described as a notorious gambler, listed by Bancroft as a "slippery scoundrel" and an all-around bad lot. Randall was heavily in debt to him, so he deserved to be taken to court, but he didn't deserve to die for the debt.

In the court Randall refused to answer questions saying his residence in Marin County placed him outside the court's jurisdiction; presumably it was a San Francisco court. Judged in contempt, he fled to Sacramento, where he was arrested, handed over to the sheriff of San Francisco and jailed. He appealed the lower court's decision to the State Supreme Court, which turned him down, denouncing his conduct as "improper and contumacious," which means perverse or rebellious.

Randall was released from jail, which provided his undoing, because he knew that if Hetherington caught up to him, he would do something violent. The end came in 1856 when Randall entered the St. Nicholas Hotel to register. "Hetherington, unobserved, came up to him, seized him by his long, flowing beard, and exclaimed with a horrible oath, 'I've got you now!' and reached over and shot a ball into his head," wrote Mason.

Hetherington was seized by the Vigilante Committee and hanged. There are still vivid drawings of this hanging and San Francisco's Daily Herald reported that the"streets leading to the vicinity were one living, excited mass of humanity rushing pell mell to get a sight at the show." (One would hardly call lit a show to see a man hanged, but to each his own.)

Meanwhile, back at the Point Reyes farm, Elizabeth, two months pregnant with Andrew's fifth child, heard of Andrew's death and decided to come to the funeral in San Francisco. How she survived the long trip without losing the baby is lost in the mists of time. We do know that she rode on the old Spanish Trail. Presumably, she went to San Rafael and took the ferry from there to San Francisco. There had been a ferry at San quentin since 1855, and Randall's death was in 1856.

The doctor's scientific friends rallied 'round her, and later they met and wrote, "In the death of the Hon. Andrew Randall we have lost a steadfast and devoted friend."

And Elizabeth? She gave birth to a boy seven months after the murder, naming him Andrew, after his father. At about the same time as the birth, her seven-year-old son Arthur died. Another tragedy. She must have been a woman of true courage to survive the deaths of her husband and son. And at this time she learned that Andrew had left her $237,000 in debt. Nothing but horror upon horror.

From a letter to Jack Mason from the late Helen Van Cleave Park, with whom he collaborated in writing Early Marin, and The Making of Marin, we learn that "Elizabeth was the administrator of her husband's estate. She filed for probate in 1856 and it did not emerge from the courts until 1892." Evidently the debts made the probate so long.

We also learn from the letter that happily, the sale of the Point Reyes land provided funds for the support of her family." The long-suffering widow finally died in San Diego in 1899.

In The Point Reyes Historian, Mason writes, "of Elizabeth Randall, the unsuspecting victim, much too little is known."