Don’t Frighten the Horses: On (Not) Being a Nuisance in Sausalito

By Nora Sawyer, Sausalito Historical Society

 “The horse and the Snake,” painted in 1787 by Bénigne Gagneraux, hangs in the Musée Magnin in Dijon, France.

“The horse and the Snake,” painted in 1787 by Bénigne Gagneraux, hangs in the Musée Magnin in Dijon, France.

In December 1909, Ed Baraty was acquitted of being a nuisance.

A local butcher, Baraty was the proprietor of The Richardson Bay Market. A neighbor, in a “forcible communication” to the town’s board of trustees, had alleged that Baraty was maintaining a nuisance in violation of town Ordinance No. 45. At issue was the area in the back of the market, where “foul matter accumulated. . . causing odors which spread over the adjoining property and were both obnoxious and nauseating to residents.”

It’s not clear what section of the ordinance Baraty was purported to be in violation of. Perhaps it was Section One, which prohibited any person in Sausalito from depositing “within the corporate limits off the Town of Sausalito any dead animal or to suffer the same to be or remain upon any premises in said town owned or occupied and controlled by such person” unless it was “covered in earth to a depth of not less than four feet.” Or, more likely, it was Section 9, which barred any property owner to allow “any premises belonging to or occupied by him” to become “foul or offensive, and prejudicial to public health or public comfort.”

Regardless of the offense, the charges soon proved moot. Though Baraty’s attorney was “prepared to show that his client had not violated any ordinance and that he had taken most every precaution against creating a nuisance,” the defense was un-necessary. For although Ordinance 45 had been passed by the board of trustees and published in the Sausalito News in October 1895, it had not officially become a law. The town clerk “in copying the original into the ordinance book failed to show that it had ever been signed by the chairman of the board as required by law.” Despite the prosecution’s efforts, the jury found that no such ordinance existed on Sausalito’s books.

(Baraty soon recovered from his brush with the law. Covering his wedding in 1910, the Sausalito News described him as “a native of Sausalito and a very prominent business man” who “at the last municipal election practically received all the votes cast for trustee.” In 1912, he was unanimously voted mayor by his fellow Trustees.)

Sausalito’s earliest ordinance regarding nuisances, Ordinance No. 3, set forth laws concerning sinks, cesspools, vaults and privies, the disposal of garbage and animal waste, littering, and the posting of bills and posters. Its placement in the list of town ordinances hints at its importance within the newly incorporated town: it comes immediately after the establishment of a regular monthly meeting schedule for the town’s trustees in Ordinance No. 2, and before “offenses against public peace and property” (Ordinance No 8), the collection of taxes (Ordinance No. 9), and the establishment of a town jail (Ordinance No. 13).

Published together in the Sausalito News on October 20 1893, these earliest ordinances paint a picture of Sausalito’s early days, with ordinances prohibiting a number of activities including horse racing, concealed weapons, the discharge of firearms inside town limits, and “on a public highway any sport or exercise having a tendency to frighten horses.”

Though the equanimity of horses is no longer a pressing concern for Sausalito’s citizens, nuisance laws have continued to provide a glimpse into Sausalito’s ongoing preoccupations and concerns. In 1954, the City Council debated the adoption of Ordinance No. 465, which would have outlawed the ownership of snakes, crocodiles, alligators and other reptiles. The Sausalito News reported that City Attorney John Ehlen “was charged to draw up the ordinance after neighbors of [Leslie] Hood and his wife, Isabel, complained about their two pets -- a five-foot South American boa constrictor (Xipc Totec) and a three-foot king snake (Ebisu).” The Hoods “also owned another king snake called Hu, but he disappeared last January.”

Ehlen, who noted that Hu’s occasional appearances around town had “reduced the amount of drinking in Sausalito considerably,” based the proposed ordinance on section 370 of California’s Penal Code, which at the time defined a public nuisance as anything that "deprived a reasonable person from the normal enjoyment of his property.” With an eye to the future, Ehlen expanded proposed ordinance to include a variety of reptiles, explaining “if we just forbade snakes, the next thing you'd know one of our local characters would bring in a crocodile and we’d have to start all over again."

Still, some saw the snake ordinance as an attack on personal liberty. As one San Francisco newspaper editorialized, “we would expect that mankind in Sausalito would. . . though despising Xipo Totcc and Ebisu, yet at the same time [be] ready to defend to the death a man’s right to keep them.”

In a victory for both freedom and local reptiles, the City Council took no action on the issue. Though the idea of a ballot measure was floated, demand for a reptile ban seems to have petered out. And there’s even a happy ending: in February 1955, the Sausalito News reported that Hu the missing king snake had been discovered on the front porch of 3 Lower Crescent Avenue, captured by police in a half-gallon mayonnaise jar donated by the homeowner, and returned to Mr. Hood.

In Sausalito’s 125th anniversary year, it seems appropriate to meditate on the nature of our citizenship, and the intention behind our laws. So, in the spirit of our founding fathers, let us start with nuisances and govern ourselves accordingly, doing our best not to be foul or offensive, not to frighten the horses, and whenever possible to return our neighbor’s snakes unharmed.