Brooke Hart was the young, good-looking, and athletic heir to his family's department store fortune. Which is what made him a prime target in the depression of 1933. In November of that year, Hart was kidnapped and murdered and his captors were publicly lynched in California's last ever public lynching. The Brooke Hart kidnapping shook the nation and is a horrifying glimpse of justice gone wrong in American history.
The son of Alexander Hart, owner of Leopold Hart and Son Department Store in San Jose, Brooke was the golden boy of the community. His disappearance and the ransom demands of his captors were alarming to the San Francisco Bay area community but the subsequent revelation of the case's details instigated a massive public response and made it a permanent part of San Jose's lore. Here are the unsettling specifics of the case and its after effects.
- Photo: John C. Gordon/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
The Family's Prominence Made Hart A Target
1933 was the middle of America's Great Depression, which meant a wealthy family would stick out in an urban community full of those down on their luck. The Harts were such a family, having earned their millions owning Hart's Department Store.
Brooke Hart's captors, Harold Thurmon and John Holmes, had been targeting him for weeks before they kidnapped him on November 9, 1933. Hart had recently bought a green Studebaker roadster to drive his father, who couldn't drive, around in. They knew he parked said car in a private garage near the department store and after work that day this is where they approached and abducted Hart.
The Hart family was also well-liked in the San Jose community, having given generously to local charities, and Brooke was their poster-child. His charm and good looks only made the alarm at his kidnapping that much more pronounced.
- Photo: FindAGrave / FindAGrave
Hart's Captors Were Immediately Brutal
One of the more outrageous details of the Hart case is that his captors, although they sought a ransom, never had any intention of releasing Brooke Hart. The two men signed confessions later detailing what they did to Hart.
After taking Hart from the car garage, they immediately drove him to the San Mateo Bridge. Once there they bound him with wire. They beat him with a brick and attached concrete blocks to his feet. Then they threw Hart over the bridge into the low-tide river where he struggled to free himself. Noticing he wasn't dead, the men shot at him.
When his body was found later his cause of death was determined as drowning. The bullet had not hit him and he instead died slowly as the river tide rose and the concrete weighed him down. Such a brutally violent end to what was supposed to be a kidnapping for ransom.
- Photo: San Jose Police Department / San Jose Police Department
The Killers' Motivation May Not Have Been Money
According to Thurmond and Holmes's confessions, Hart was killed about an hour after they kidnapped him. The men called in their first ransom demand to the Hart residence at 9:30 pm, about four hours after Hart vanished. At this point, Hart had already been thrown off the bridge and was likely already dead.
The men asked for $40,000 which equates to over $700,000 in today's dollars. Each of the murderers later blamed the other, neither owning up to having come up with the scheme. Thurmond said Holmes approached him six weeks previous with the plan. Holmes had separated recently from his wife who had taken their two children. Holmes said they both devised the plan.
Whoever led the crime, there are those who think the murder may have been one driven by jealousy over Hart's fortune and that the ransom was an afterthought. After all, the men bought the tools they needed to kill Hart ahead of time and had no apparent plans to hold him anywhere.
- Photo: California Pioneers of Santa Clara County / YouTube
The Kidnappers' Continued Hopes For A Ransom Resulted In Their Capture
After their initial demand of $40,000, Thurmond and Holmes sent ransom letters from San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento asking for the same amount. Multiple locations were used to shake police off their tale.
The kidnappers stipulated for Hart's father, Alexander, to start driving with the money to LA. This was an impossibility due to Alexander's lack of driving ability. A few days later the family received another call from the kidnappers, and this time they had a trace on their phone. Police caught Thurmond in a parking garage where he was calling from a pay phone.