The Temperance Family Grocery Store murders

Illustration By JORDAN YEE

David Kulczyk is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and author of California Justice: Shootouts, Lynchings and Assassinations in the Golden State on Word Dancer Press. It’s available at Time Tested Books and on

For decades, Francis Weber ran the Temperance Family Grocery Store at 1217 L Street. The store catered to the burgeoning temperance movement in the late 1800s, and Weber became quite prosperous. The Civil War veteran and his wife, whose name was not recorded in these days before equal rights, raised their family in an apartment above the store.

On December 20, 1894, Weber’s adult son Luther stopped by the store and discovered blood seeping through the ceiling and coagulating in a large puddle on the floor. Luther ran upstairs and found his parent’s butchered bodies. Their brains had literally been beaten out. Bloody, bare footprints and gore covered the ransacked apartment. In a shed behind the store, police found a bloody axe and blood-soaked rags, which the killer or killers had used to clean up with after the butchery.

The citizens of Sacramento immediately blamed the homeless for the crime. The Great Depression of 1892 had put hundreds of thousands of people out of work, and vagabonding became an attractive alternative to the unemployed and disillusioned Civil War veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Sacramento, being the end of the transcontinental rail line, was overwhelmed with hobos and tramps, who became handy scapegoats for media, politicians and police to pin the crime on.

The police questioned every homeless person in the city, to no avail. All the usual suspects from Sacramento’s criminal underground were rounded up and aggressively interrogated. Committees were formed and rewards were offered, but the criminals appeared to have gotten away.

But not for good.

On January 2, 1895, law-enforcement officials finally caught a break. San Francisco police discovered Mrs. Weber’s gold watch stuffed in a cranny in an empty cell in the city jail. The cell was a drunk tank that had been filled with overinebriated New Year’s Eve revelers. All of the men had been released after they sobered up. The investigation narrowed to one of the men whose names had appeared on the blotter, recent Russian émigré Ivan Kovalev.

Two years earlier, a U.S. sailing vessel had picked up 10 Russians on the high seas. The emaciated men claimed to be political prisoners who had escaped from a prison camp in Siberia by stealing a boat and sailing out to sea. Their story was half-true. In reality, they were dangerous felons who escaped from a legitimate Russian prison on the Pacific island of Sakhalin. The men were showered with sympathy and money when they debarked in San Francisco. Two years later, two of the criminals would find themselves in Sacramento.

While drinking with a friend, one of the Russians, Matthiensky Tacherbakoff, confessed that he and Kovalev had robbed and murdered the Webers. The friend informed the San Francisco police, and detectives found Kovalev’s name on the New Year’s Day crime blotter. Kovalev was arrested and taken to Sacramento.

Police tried to beat a confession out of him, and Luther Weber identified Kovalev as a man that he had seen loitering outside the Temperance Family Grocery Store days before the murders. In the meantime, a San Jose shopkeeper shot and killed Tacherbakoff during a bungled robbery attempt. Kovalev would stand trial for the murders alone.

He appeared in court wearing Weber’s clothing and plead not guilty. Tacherbakoff’s body was exhumed and was found to be wearing Weber’s clothing as well. Kovalev claimed he was a passive observer, afraid to intervene while Tacherbakoff hacked the Webers to death. The trial lasted 16 days, but the jury only took 15 minutes to sentence Kovalev to death.

He was hanged in Folsom Prison on February 21, 1896. According to the newspapers, he went to the gallows maintaining his innocence and still expecting his sentence to be reprieved. He refused to see a priest or minister and did not touch his last meal. Kovalev was trembling and could barely walk to the gallows. He was dropped through the trap door and was dead in less than a minute after he had walked out of his death row cell.

The Hyatt Regency hotel now stands at the site of the Temperance Family Grocery Store.