The Whistling Girl

Sep 1, 2013

The history we learn from text books is made up of stories selected by academics to explain and give shape to a civilization’s collective past. But history is much more than that. Beyond the textbook stories of political battles and sweeping social movements are the stories of ordinary people who make history in their own right by everyday acts of bravery and by standing up to injustice in the very communities in which they lived.

One such story of an everyday act of bravery comes from my friend, Jim Walsh. A few years ago my aunt Norma surprised us all by marrying a guy whom she had known in childhood but hadn’t seen or heard from in over fifty years. That alone is an interesting story but not mine to tell. However, that man Jim Walsh, tells a story that was sensational in its time but never made it into the history books. It is a story about his mother, a spunky young woman, who liked to whistle while she walked and who whistled herself right into history.

Her name was Janet Sunter and by all accounts she was a good girl who lived with her mother on Third Street in Eureka, California. She was in her late teens in 1921 when on a Sunday evening she was walking home from church, whistling as she strolled along. Her melody caught the ears of one George Meakin, described in the local paper as “…a stranger in town” who “...arrived at hasty conclusions and repaired to the police station, there expressing the belief that Miss Sunter was not entirely in her right mind and that she should be cared for.” Mr. Meakin apparently concluded that Miss Sunter was “not in her right mind” because she was whistling in the street as she walked home.

This “stranger in town,” a great defender of propriety no doubt, was so disturbed by the girl’s whistling, he made an official complaint to the police. It must have been a slow night at the Eureka Police Department because the officer on duty, one Officer James Fraser, decided the complaint worthy of immediate investigation. He and Mr. Meakin went to the girl’s house where they found her standing in her front yard. Officer Fraser ordered the girl into her house. Miss Sunter, as the news account phrased it, “…maintained stoutly that she was at perfect liberty to remain where she stood. Given the alternative of entering the house or going to the police station, she took the latter course.” At that point, Officer Fraser and Mr. Meakin manhandled the girl to the station, where it was later entered into evidence that Miss Sunter received bruises on her arms and legs from the incident. In addition, Miss Sunter was charged with disturbing the peace for her cheery whistling.

When the case came before Judge Falk the next week, he ruled quickly and decisively, roundly condemning the actions of the self-appointed morality police in the community. He ruled, “It’s no crime for a young woman to whistle on the streets of Eureka, particularly if the melody is engendered by a sunny disposition and a happy disregard of the stiff conventionalities which are taking all the picturesqueness out of life.” Charges dismissed!

Victory for Janet Sunter could have ended there, but the young lady was not about to let the accusing parties get off so easily. Driven by who knows what, maybe the recent passage of the 19th Amendment, or her own sense of justice, Janet Sunter got herself a lawyer and sued Officer Fraser, for $10,000 in damages stemming from her arrest.

The following spring, Judge Denver Sevier presided over the civil case of the now famous “Whistling Girl.” The case gained national interest because of both its humorous subject and the spunky plaintiff who defied law enforcement on principle and who dared to sue the very officer who arrested her.

At the civil trial, Judge Sevier dealt with a courtroom packed to capacity by interested citizens and warring lawyers who, at times, were playing to the crowd for both sympathy and laughs. One incident that nearly moved the judge to clear the court came when citizen George Meakin, under cross examination by plaintiff attorney Logan Beamer, testified that he had believed Miss Sunter crazy the night he had informed Officer Fraser of her actions, specifically whistling on the street.

Attorney Beamer, “Does your wife ever whistle?”

Witness, “Yes.”

Attorney Beamer, “Do you think she is crazy, then?”

Witness, “Sometimes, yes.”

The Times reported, “…the court room broke into a storm of laughter and Judge Sevier announced that the next little bit of a ripple of merriment would land the spectators in the corridor.”

Other damning evidence included sworn testimony by two firemen that Officer Fraser had been drinking in the station the night of the arrest which corroborated Miss Sunter’s testimony that she had smelled alcohol on the officer’s breath that night. While not directly stated, it appears from the news accounts that Miss Sunter “blackened” Mr. Meakin’s eye sometime during the arrest. When asked about this by defense attorneys, Sunter’s attorney objected stating that, “… it made no difference whether his optic had been discolored or not and then added as an aside, if it wasn’t, it should have been.”

The five day trial ended when the jury returned a unanimous verdict awarding Miss Sunter damages of $2000. The verdict was set aside by the State Court of Appeals but Miss Sunter and her right to whistle were vindicated nonetheless.

The feisty Miss Sunter went on to marry one James J. Walsh and produce five children, one of whom is the Jim my aunt Norma married. Jim had this remembrance of the incident, “I remember about 1932 while riding with my mother on our way to Larabee Creek where she was teaching school we passed a group of highway maintenance workers and my mother pointed out a man shoveling dirt into a dump truck as the policeman who had arrested her in the Whistling Girl case.” I guess by today’s jargon, Officer Fraser received a “job reclassification.”

History is made every day by ordinary people who have the courage and determination to stand up for what is right. And although many of these stories do not make it into the history textbooks, they are no less important. Next time you find yourself whistling a happy tune as you walk along, think of Janet Sunter, “The Whistling Girl” who fought for your right to do just that.