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Barsotti’s home was his castle

Madera County Historical Society

Nello Barsotti is seen here standing beside his father, Domenico Barsotti.


Nello Barsotti sat in his hotel on F Street enjoying a brew with a couple of friends and looking forward to the dawn of a new year — 1915 — just a few days away. He wasn’t paying attention to the time, so he didn’t give much notice to Marshal John Barnett when he entered the bar and walked up to them. The lawman did, however, get his attention when he grabbed the bottle off the table and informed him that he had committed a misdemeanor by serving alcohol after hours.

Barnett turned on his heels and headed for the door with Barsotti right behind. At first, he inquired if Barnett was going to charge him, and when he got an answer in the affirmative, Barsotti asked him to keep it out of the newspaper. He backed up his request with a monetary consideration. At that point, Barnett informed Barsotti that he had dug his hole a little deeper. Now he was facing a bribery charge.

Barnett was as good as his word. On Jan. 1, 1915, the Madera County Grand Jury indicted Barsotti on a bribery charge. It was alleged that he had attempted to “bribe an officer of the law, in violation of the statutes of the State of California.” A court date was set for February 12, but was postponed due to the absence of one of the attorneys. It was rescheduled for April 30, 1915. In the meantime, the misdemeanor violation of the liquor ordinance was dropped. Barnett had much bigger fish to fry.

Nello Barsotti was well-known and well-respected, especially in Madera’s Italian community, so it was no surprise that on the morning of the trial, Judge William M. Conley’s court room was filled to capacity. The hotelman had an abundance of support.

The Grand Jury indictment charged, “On the night of Dec. 27, 1914, Nello Barsotti offered money to City Marshal J.H. Barnett to drop a case of alleged violation of the closing law.” The all-male jury was seated, and District Attorney Stanley Murray took his place at the prosecution table. Joseph Barcroft stood for the defense.

Marshal Barnett was the first witness. He testified that he had warned Barsotti about violating the local closing law on the morning in question. Barnett said he came back that night and found two men drinking at the hotel bar after the required closing time.

According to Barnett’s testimony, he told Barsotti that he “had him” and Barsotti replied, “Yes, you got me this time, John.” As the Marshal left the bar, Barsotti followed and asked him if he could keep it out of the newspaper. When informed that he couldn’t, Barsotti told Barnett that he would pay him to keep it quiet. It was at that point that the lawman informed Barsotti that he was being charged with bribery.

When court resumed after lunch, Barsotti’s lawyer was almost giddy with glee. He was sure he would soon have the district attorney on the ropes and his client cleared of all wrong doing.

Barcroft called Barnett back to the stand to ask him whether the offer of money had been made to stop criminal prosecution or to suppress the matter from the press. When Barnett stated that he didn’t know, Barcroft called for a dismissal of the case, and Murray asked for a recess. When he returned, he opposed dismissing the charges. The District Attorney argued that since Barnett had no power to keep the matter out of the newspaper, the offer of money could have been for just one thing — to keep Barsotti from being charged.

The grin slipped from Barcroft’s face, but not for long. In making his final argument before the jury, he admitted that Barsotti and his friends were having a drink in the hotel bar after hours, but in doing so, they broke no law. Barcroft maintained that since Barsotti owned the hotel and since the bar was in the hotel and since he lived in the hotel, on the night in question, he and his friends were simply enjoying a brew in his home, which was certainly no violation of the law.

The case went to the jury at 3:30 p.m., and at 4:40 p.m., it emerged with a verdict — not guilty!

Barsotti sold the hotel a year later, and in 1918, it burned to the ground. He continued his success in the bakery business and went on to become one of Madera’s most respected citizens. He belonged to numerous organizations, including the Rotary Club, never missing a meeting until his final illness.

Apparently there was no stigma attached to enjoying a beer with friends at “home.”

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