Vigilantes, punk rockers, and David Kulczyk
After years of poring over photographs of snapped necks and historical accounts of bloody shootouts, David Kulczyk has a new appreciation for life. The grisly research informed the Sacramento writer’s California Justice: Shootings, Lynchings and Assassinations in the Golden State.
While strolling through Midtown on a breezy Sunday afternoon, Kulczyk discussed his latest work, punk rock and his newfound respect for human fragility. He has always been fascinated with both death and history, he explained, as he lit cigarette No. 1. The smoke rose to the windows above Deep Yoga on 21st and H streets. Pausing briefly, he noted that Lux Interior from the ’80s punk band the Cramps used to live up there.
Kulczyk has chosen various blood baths from across California for his book, all of which he has given his own personal twist. Each chapter begins with a death toll and ends with his commentary. Like the chapter about the vigilant druggist in the early 20th century, Frank J. Quirin, who was forced to protect his store in Sacramento on J and 19th streets from violent thugs and criminals. Kulczyk writes, “At certain times, he and his wife were forced to fill a prescription with an element the intruder had not ordered—lead.”
Did you have a goal in writing this book?
Yeah, I wanted to have a book that the average person could read and not be overwhelmed with dryness. So many history books are so lifeless. I see history everywhere I go and I kind of wanted to show that in this book.
It seems like you added a lot of spice by storytelling and speculation. Was that to help overcome the dryness?
Well, it’s human nature to wonder what the hell these people were thinking. You know, they are going to break down the jail door and pull this guy out. You could only speculate what they were thinking, most of the people who had anything to do with this book are all dead. What was the guy getting lynched thinking? What were the people watching thinking, who thought it was bad but didn’t react? This is something that they had to live with for their whole lives. I don’t think you can be involved in something like a lynching or a shootout and not have it stick with you.
Did you have a favorite story in the book?
The cowboy in Santa Rosa who shot the marshal. That one, because he was an honorable man. A man who knew nature, who could live out on his own. He was a cowboy. He was the last of his kind and the technology around him changed so rapidly that his skills and his knowledge meant nothing anymore.
Did you relate to him?
Oh sure. I mean, I’m almost 50. I can remember that when I was about 19, to dress like a punk rocker meant that you were taking your life into your own hands. You know, you carried a switch blade and mace with you. I had mace sewed into my jacket that I could rip out and mace people with, and I maced a lot of people in those days. You know, I’ve always been a pretty big guy, and I grew up in Michigan, we fought all the time, so I knew how to take care of myself, but you still never knew what was going to happen. And now little kids dress that way. Recently I’ve been hanging out with my younger nieces and it’s like the cultural references just go way over their heads, but the same with some of their stuff and me. I’m like the old cowboy.
In your book you talk about the death of Robert Kennedy changing history. In your opinion what would have been different if he had lived?
If either Kennedy would have been alive I am sure that we wouldn’t have this right-wing backlash that we have. And social services like insurance and things would be better. I’m an old commie. You know, when the Berlin wall fell, I was like, “Oh shit.”
What do you think was the most infamous lynching in California?
I think the weirdest one was when they hung the four guys in Yreka [in 1895] because the jail was full. That’s a lot of people hanging at once.
What do you think of so-called modern-day vigilantes like the Minutemen?
It’s horrible. They’re idiots. You know vigilantism isn’t usually planned like a weekend sport like flag football or something. In my book it’s more like the things that come together. In the old days you can say that it was justified because some of these people were being terrorized.
What was the most significant thing you learned while doing this research?
What I found out about myself is that it is painstaking to write a book [laughs]. One thing I learned is that newspapers have always sucked. They have always been biased, they have always been political, they never follow up, they have always been sensationalized, and it was even worse in the old days.
Is this an obsession with death that you have?
No, I’m pretty normal. I grow roses and cactuses and have three dogs. I’m just a guy. I was always interested in death because it is so final. I just find it fascinating how things end for people. What were the actions that pushed their life to an end faster than a natural way? I used to be a pretty glum guy but now I am happy to live. This has made me realize how fragile humans are.