Madera County Historical Society
Enrico Baratta lived above the garage in this historic home on North B Street. He left it on June 25, 1916, and never returned.
Return Roberts had a huge role to play in Madera’s history. When the town’s founding institution, the California Lumber Company, went bankrupt, his San Jose bank had to foreclose on its property. Roberts moved here and built that beautiful Victorian home, which Dr. Dow Ransom later purchased. Toward the rear of that house, he built a garage with two tiny apartments on top. His chauffer lived in one, and in 1916, he hired a gardener to live in the other one. Little did this banking/lumber mogul know that in doing so, he set the stage for a tragedy — not that he was responsible — it’s just that it had its genesis in his gardener’s apartment.
On the evening of June 23, 1916, Enrico Baratta, the recently hired gardener, sat down at a small table in his room; with pencil and paper in hand, he wrote the following words: “I’m tired of living. My legs have given out on me. When you get this note, I’ll be dead. All my belongings I leave to my sister. Some people in Madera owe me money. Please send it to my mother in Italy at the rate of $10 per month.”
While the 22-year-old Baratta was writing his death notice, Clyde Murray, Roberts’ chauffer who lived in the adjoining garage apartment, saw the light burning in Baratta’s room and asked what he was doing. The gardener replied that he was writing a letter to his mother. Murray went back to bed. He would be the last person to see Baratta alive, as far as we know.
Something woke Murray up at four o’clock in the morning, and he noticed that the light was still burning in Baratta’s quarters. When he investigated, he found Baratta gone and the letter he had composed in Italian lying on the table with a watch on top holding it down. Murray took it to the Italian neighborhood in southeast Madera and had it translated. When he found out what it said, he immediately summoned City Marshal John Barnett.
The Marshal got some men from the sheriff’s office and began a hunt for Baratta, but they had no luck. They couldn’t find a trace of the young Italian.
By morning, as word got around, everyone was asking themselves the same question — why? Baratta was in good standing in the community. The paper said he was a “clean-cut Italian without any faults, with plenty of money and without worries,” or so people thought. Roberts said Baratta was a “steady and conscientious worker.” According to his brother-in-law Paolo Dellavalle, he wasn’t sick, so he must have been brooding over something that no one knew anything about.
Baratta had been living in Madera for about five years, and during that time he had saved $1,000. Not a month passed without him sending ten dollars to his aged mother who lived in Italy. According to Dellavalle, just a few days before, he had sent his mother $15, a tidy sum in those days, especially in Italy.
The authorities prepared circulars and sent them to peace officers throughout the state, asking them to keep an eye out for Baratta. In the meantime, local officers scoured the entire region without finding a trace of the missing man, so Dellavalle put up a $60 reward for any information leading to finding his brother-in-law or his body — an unusual amount of money for a hired hand at the Thurman box factory.
Over the next two months, the mystery deepened. Folks began to doubt the veracity of the letter; some even began to suspect murder. Then on August 25, 1916, Baratta was found.
At about six o’clock, Rudy Alviso, while hunting in a Miller & Lux field two miles north of Madera, found what was left of Baratta’s body. He was on his back with his arms and legs outstretched, a most unusual position since he had died from a bullet to the brain. The newspaper claimed the hot sun had dried the remains and partially mummified them. Beside the body were two weapons, a .25 and a .38 caliber pistol. Both had belonged to Return Roberts.
After finding Baratta, they called Jay undertaking parlors to take over from there. Jay found a check for five dollars payable to Baratta signed by Dellavalle, and $2.55 in cash. They also noted that Baratta was wearing a pair of brand new shoes.
The discovery of Baratta’s body caused a big stir in Madera’s Italian community. He was well-known and popular among them. On the night after he was found, 30 of his young Italian friends gathered to view the body.
On Oct. 27, 1916, in a hearing over his estate, the court determined that if Baratta committed suicide, he didn’t do it because of a lack of funds. His estate consisted of $130 in the Commercial Bank of Madera, a $350 note signed by J. Natale and Paolo Dellavalle, due April 1, 1916 and another note for $200 signed by A. Dellavalle, due Sept. 27, 1916.
So here we are 124 years later asking the same questions — at least this writer is asking them. What happened to Enrico Baratta? I am trying to figure out how a guy fires a bullet into his brain and then lies down on his back with arms and legs outstretched. I wonder why his death was not ruled a suicide. Did folks just take the letter at face value?
I think my friend Bill Baratta is somehow related to him. Bill is 99 years old, and he knows a lot of Madera history. He may have heard something about this. I think I’ll ask him.