Last fall, we took a tour of the Grant family home in San Jose’s Joseph D. Grant park, and we heard a riveting story of gold-rush wealth, local nobility, homosexuality, alcoholism, and homicide: the rise and fall of a great family in just three generations. The history of the San Francisco Bay Area is rife with eccentrics and scandals, from Emperor Norton and Sarah Winchester to James Lick and Carol Doda. Even so, I was surprised how little known the Grants are in local lore.
As with almost every tale of wealth in Northern California, the Grants made their money during the Gold Rush. Adam Grant went west with the prospectors, but instead of digging for dust, he sold them the dry goods they needed, and made a killing. His son (or maybe his grandson–I wasn’t clear), Joseph D. Grant, was smart enough to understand that the real California treasure was its real estate. He took the family fortune and bought the large Hubbard ranch on the eastern side of San Jose. From then on, he kept buying the adjoining land until he owned most of the land from what we know today as downtown San Jose to the western side of Mount Hamilton. He didn’t always live in the ranch house on the land: it was more a modest version of Hearst Castle, a retreat where he could entertain guests. He was also a philanthropist who bought land in Humboldt County for the Save-the-Redwoods League, land that is now public, protected land such as Del Norte State Park.
Joseph D. Grant married well, too. The Stanfords (of Stanford University fame) had a son who died, but it’s not well known that they had an adopted daughter as well. She married Joseph Grant, and as a result, he was on the board of trustees for Stanford for over 50 years. Together, they had three children, who blessed with the family wealth, never had to think about working. And that’s where the family history turns into a prime-time television soap opera.
The only son, Douglas, was born deaf. These days that wouldn’t be considered a tragedy, but Joseph Grant considered his son an invalid and arranged both his marriages. The first marriage resulted in Douglas’ only child, a son, Ian, who died in World War II.
The older daughter, Josephine, was gay, but she found an equally gay husband in a rich Englishman who owned a lot of land in San Benito County. They carried on their seperate homosexual affairs disguised by their marriage, and accounts say they were fairly happy with the arrangement. After a few years, they separated, but remained conveniently married.
The younger daughter, Edith, was beautiful but homicidally insane. If it hadn’t been for her family’s wealth, she would have been institutionalized: as it was, she was cloistered in a room on the ranch for most of her life. As she was expected to do, she married rich, and moved to Burlingame, where she had a habit of shooting people she didn’t like. Once, while riding on her property in the 1930s, she shot some vagrants she said had trespassed on her land. The next year, she shot a man she had had an argument with in a bar. In both instances, the same sheriff, undoubtedly impressed by wealth and status, wrote the murders off as self-defense.
The saddest part of the story came when Edith had a daughter, also named Edith. Aware of her sister’s murderousness, Josephine took custody of baby Edith, convinced her husband to return, and raised the child on the ranch. Josephine and her husband, however, loved to entertain lavishly, and were both also heavy drinkers. To pay for their lifestyle, Josephine started selling off all the land her father had amassed. Josephine died before baby Edith came of age, so the young girl returned to life with her natural mother. Within a year, baby Edith was dead, of a gunshot wound.
Eventually, Santa Clara County bought what remained of the Grant estate and turned it into a public park, where you can camp, and go biking, and fishing. And all that’s left of the Grant family is their story.