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County assessor J.H. Johnson auctioned the San Diego Zoo in 1932

Crank with a prank

Ever since James Hervey Johnson’s death in 1988, press coverage has focused entirely on the endless lawsuits over his $17 million estate. One would never know from these news stories that once upon a time, Johnson was one of San Diego’s most beloved—and crankiest—public servants. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear….


The roaring ‘20s made a brief comeback in the middle of 1932. The stock market shot up for several weeks, and the GOP’s war cry of “Hold on to Hoover” actually looked as though it would pay off in the November elections. With Old Man Depression all but dead and buried, hemlines started to rise and the nation was once again awash in fads and ballyhoo.

It was a summer of scandal. Jean Harlow’s new husband, Paul Bern, went to his room after dinner one night and shot himself. New York’s dapper “night mayor,” Jimmy Walker, was indicated for graft and finally persuaded to resign, lest he hurt Governor Roosevelt’s chances in the upcoming presidential election. In Los Angeles, site of the 1932 Summer Olympics, ghosts of the 1920s returned with a vengeance. Fatty Arbuckle signed a contract to star in his first film in ten years. Charlie Chaplin sued to keep his pre-teen sons from being pushed into the movie business.

In July, a Philippine gewgaw called the “yo-yo” swept the nation. The San Diego Sun kept up a running series of tips for yo-yo enthusiasts—usually illustrated by photographs of sailors and policemen and schoolchildren trying to get the hang of it—and capped it off with a San Diego Yo-Yo Tournament in August “(FILIPINOS and PROFESSIONALS are not allowed to enter”).

But it wasn’t all yo-yos and geraniums down in San Diego either. Wild headlines were being made every day by the unlikeliest culprit imaginable: the county tax assessor, a poker-faced fellow names James Hervey Johnson. Son of a prominent local realtor, Johnson had won the post of assessor in 1930 by promising to cut property taxes. During his five years as assessor, he actually succeeded in reducing the tax burden on the average San Diegan by about 25 percent. Some of the tax relief was simply a result of property value declines during the depression years; other reductions came about by getting tough with tax delinquents. Johnson’s deputies were constantly being called into court for roughing up debtors and waving loaded guns under their noses. They seized debtors’ automobiles, houses, machinery, and just about anything else that could be assessed and auctioned off. Religious organizations’ tax exempt status had not yet been codified, so Johnson even taxed the churches—land, buildings, pews, Bibles.

No one could mistake the 30-year-old Johnson for a glad-handing politician on the make. He came across as a cranky young soul whose idea of a good time was taking solitary 50-mile hikes around the county. But the business community loved him—his wild adventures made good copy, and Johnson was always ready with sardonic put-downs of the local politicos.

One day Jim Johnson decided to seize 300 yachts and fishing boats that moored in the city harbors. His roving buccaneers came back, alas, with one tiny speedboat. All the big craft were out sailing or catching tuna. The San Diego Sun’s front-page head: Hi-ho, Ye Tax Unpayers! Assessor Will Get Your Boats If You Don’t Look Out!”

So no one was terribly surprised when he decided to auction off all the animals in the San Diego Zoo. He gave the Zoological Society fair warning—theirs was a private institution that had never registered with the city as a tax-exempt public museum.

Johnson assessed the value of the animals and fixtures at $100,000; back taxes amounted to $6354.54. The two leading lights of the Zoological Society, Harry Wegeforth and Belle Benchley, regarded Johnson as a nut case and ignored the warning. But six weeks later—August 30, 1932, to be exact — Johnson toted an auctioneer’s stand and gavel to the front gate of the zoo and declared that the gorillas and rhinos and seals and giraffes were all up for bids.

It was a hot, sunny day, but Johnson was dressed as usual like an undertaker — dark tie, three-piece suit, and grey fedora. A crowd gathered around him and giggled as he banged the gavel and made his opening speech: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to sell the zoo here….We have all the fixtures, including hay for the elephants.” No one offered bids for individual animals, so Johnson began to auction the zoo has a whole. “We have a fine setup here! Fine cages — they could be used to house several councilmen if required!” The crowd laughed again — a councilmen named Joe Russo had warned Johnson that if he proceeded with the zoo auction, Russo would have him locked up in one of the monkey cages.

In the end, none of the 200 or so onlookers dared to make a bid (a cop standing nearby had announced that he would arrest anyone trying to leave the grounds with an animal). Johnson then banged his gavel and declared the zoo animals, cages, and other fixtures “sold to the state of California for delinquent and unpaid taxes.”

Sacramento officials didn’t know what to do. They didn’t want to seize the zoo, so they directed the local district attorney, Thomas Whelan, to determine whether the “sale” was legal. For the next few weeks the matter dragged through the local courts while Whelan and Johnson hurled daily insults at each other. Finally, the Zoological Society decided to sell off some of its holdings, pay the tax, and then formally deed all the animals and cages to the City of San Diego.

This was the high-water part of Johnson’s public career and also the beginning of its end. As the zoo case was winding down, Johnson found himself in court again on a libel charge. A former friend with the curious name of C. Leon de Aryan claimed that the assessor had maliciously attacked him in Johnson’s weekly mimeographed newsletter, The Spotlight. (No relation to the current Spotlight newspaper published in Washington D.C. — although, fascinatingly, that ornery tabloid was founded in 1975 by some of Johnson’s later cronies.) By this point district attorney Whelan had had enough of Johnson’s hijinks; he got Johnson’s countersuit motion thrown out of court and persuaded the presiding judge to find Johnson guilty of criminal libel. Whelan’s war on Johnson finally ended when he got the assessor convicted of a felony: apparently he failed to refund some taxpayers’ overpayments by a specified cutoff date.

Johnson was removed from office in February 1936. Despite later attempts to run for county supervisor and Congress, Johnson never held public office again.

James Hervey Johnson lived on for another half-century, amassing a fortune in real estate and securities. He wrote and published “freethinker” books and pamphlets under the imprint of Superior Books. He also spent a lot of time in litigation, pursuing endless nuisance suits against the government. Sometimes he found himself on the receiving end of the suit: in the early ‘50s his aged mother accused him of misappropriating funds for medical care.

He never married. The love of his life was a devout Catholic, and there was no way James Hervey Johnson would agree to bring up his children as Papists.

In the early 1960s some friends introduced him to the Truth Seeker Foundation, a freethinking agnostic organization dating from the 19th Century. The foundation’s magazine needed a full-time director, and Johnson volunteered his services. The only catch was that Johnson insisted on moving Truth Seeker operations from Park Row in New York to Johnson’s home in San Diego. After some deliberation, the Truth Seeker board agreed, and in early 1964 they gave Johnson a big send-off party in Manhattan. Upon returning to San Diego, he refashioned Superior Books as the Truth Seeker, Inc., and devoted his remaining years to the cause.

“I had no idea how rich he was,” says Malcolm Dalgliesh, the New York psychiatrist who introduced Johnson to the Truth Seeker and visited him every year till his death in 1988. “The man lived like a hermit in an austere two-room apartment. He didn’t talk too much about his past. He once said he had been the tax assessor, but I had no idea when that was. He kept a garden and grew papayas for his digestion — he told me he was the first person to introduce papayas to San Diego.

“The other delight of his life was walking. When he was in his 80s, I’d ask him how he spent the day, and he’d say, ‘Oh, I went down to Tijuana and back.’ He meant on foot.”

“Did he go to the zoo or talk about it?”

“No,” says Dalgliesh. “I don’t recall him ever mentioning anything about the zoo.”

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