What do you do when you’re facing a five-year sentence in San Question for a vicious attack on your husband’s penis? Obviously you do up your hair, put on your largest and most fetching hat and face the prison camera with a look of utter confidence on your face. At least that’s what Bertha Boronda did in 1908.
Bertha and her husband, Frank Boronda, had been married about 6 years when her assault on him took place. Frank was born Mario Narcisso Boronda in 1863 to a large family with Mexican roots that had lived in California for several generations. At the time of the attack Frank, age 43, was a fire captain with the San Jose Fire Department in northern California. Bertha Zettle was born to German immigrant parents in rural Minnesota in 1877. She moved to California around 1900. She and Frank were married the following year.
Shortly after midnight on Friday, May 31, 1907, Bertha slashed Frank’s penis with a razor at their San Jose residence. Reporting of the incident was tactful and non-specific. ”She drew a razor and cut her husband.” Then she walked to her nephew’s room and simply stated, “Frank cut himself.”
Frank was able to get to his firehouse — conveniently located next to his home — and from there he was taken to the Red Cross Hospital where the wound to his genitals was dressed. No one was sure he would recover but evidently he was well enough to make a statement. He said the attack by his wife came out of the blue. He and Bertha were chatting and she was in a friendly mood when suddenly she wounded him.
Meanwhile Bertha fled the scene and wasn’t discovered until the wee hours the following night. She was located at the San Jose Railroad Yards dressed in men’s clothing. (She has an angular, somewhat masculine face — I’m sure you can picture her in men’s attire, no doubt looking quite dapper). She admitted to the attack on Frank and claimed, in her confident style, it was actually his fault. He’d driven her out of her mind with fear that he was going to desert her and move to Mexico.
Frank recovered from his injuries. Bertha was charged was “mayhem,” a charge applied to someone who “unlawfully and maliciously deprives a human being of a member of his body or renders it useless…” She was tried, found guilty and sentenced to five years in San Quentin Prison in 1908.
Why did Bertha attack her husband so viciously? The San Jose Sheriff jailed Frank and a fellow fire captain a few months before Bertha’s assault on her husband. The rumor on the street was that the two men had been involved in some kind of election fraud and more arrests would follow. It’s plausible that, as Bertha feared, Frank was contemplating a move to Mexico (where he had relatives) at least until the election scandal blew over.
It was also rumored that Frank was cheating on Bertha with other women and she was in a jealous rage over his infidelities when she slashed him. Frank had a history of marital problems. His previous wife, Belle Doane, left her husband to marry Frank and then tried, unsuccessfully, to kill herself a couple years later. Belle said she attempted suicide out of desperation because Frank had abandoned her. The unhappy couple divorced in 1895.
Did Bertha succeed in lopping off her husband’s penis? A distasteful rumor circulated that Frank’s penis, preserved in a jar of formaldehyde and used an exhibit at Bertha’s trial, was discovered decades later, stored in a basement cupboard of the courthouse. Though there’s no doubt his penis was badly cut, it’s highly unlikely that it was severed (and thus put in a jar) because an injury like that would probably have led to his death from blood loss and infection. Microsurgery and replantation of body parts were 55 years in the future. In 1993 it was possible to reattach John Bobbitt’s penis after his wife, Lorena, cut it off in a fit of rage, but that would not have been the case in 1907.
Bertha was paroled on December 20, 1909, after serving less than two years of her sentence. She and Frank did not reconcile, however both of them gave marriage another shot. Frank married a woman 33 years his junior named Josie Warburton. Bertha worked as a hotel chambermaid in San Francisco after her release from San Quentin. Later she worked as a waitress at Camp Meeker, a rustic vacation spot in northern California. She married an older widower, Alexander Patterson, in 1921 in Los Angeles, but that marriage also ended in divorce.
Frank lived to be 77 and died in 1940. Bertha died in 1950 at age 72. The firehouse in San Jose where Frank worked is still there but now it’s a gastro pub. If you have a meal there, try not to think too hard about its past history. Just enjoy the food and beer!
Featured photos: Bertha Boronda, California State Archives, Sacramento, California. Duplicate Photograph Album, Dept. of Corrections, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs.