Solving a mystery

The broken headstone of Petra Johnston grave rests next to her daughter Alice's headstone at Pilarcitos Cemetery. Dean Coppola / Review

J’aime Rubio intended on having dinner at a Coastside restaurant famous for its ghost story and ended up helping to solve a mystery at a local cemetery.

Rubio is a Northern California resident and writer who contributes columns on local history for Placer County’s newspaper. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that she took a detour into Pilarcitos Cemetery while on her way to the Moss Beach Distillery. She wrote in a subsequent blog post that she found the small cemetery looking a bit forgotten. Trash, a transient’s tent and signs of neglect greeted her as she stepped through the gate.

What grabbed her attention, though, wasn’t so much what she saw as what she didn’t see. The gravestone for Petra Johnston — the matriarch of the white house on the hill known as the Johnston House — was broken in half and the top half was missing.

Rubio isn’t the type to simply shake her head and move on.

“I’m a very inquisitive person,” she said. “I like looking things up. This is kind of what I do.”

She learned that other historians had already discovered Johnston’s grave had been vandalized. And she learned quite a bit about the woman buried there.

Petra Johnston was born in Mexico in 1833. She caught the eye of an older Scotsman who had come to California seeking his fortune. She and James Johnston, who became a successful San Francisco saloon operator, were married in 1852.

James Johnston invested in more than 1,100 acres of the Miramontes Rancho de San Benito land grant on the coast. He convinced his brothers to join him, and, shortly after his marriage he moved his growing family into the saltbox-style house now known as the Johnston House.

The happy times didn’t last. The couple’s eldest daughter, Alice, died at the age of 4. Then, Petra Johnston suffered complications while giving birth to their fifth child, Adelaida. That child and her mother both died soon after. Both were laid to rest in the Pilarcitos Cemetery, next to Alice’s grave.

Rubio was taken by the story and a haunting photo of Petra Johnston that she found on an online forum at While poking around on the site, she also found that an anonymous participant had posted another remarkable photo. It was Petra Johnston’s gravestone, cemented into the ground 90 miles away, at the Green Valley Cemetery in Sonoma County.

“How in the world did this half of the gravestone end up so far away?” she asked.

“That is a real good question. I have guesses,” said Jeremy Nichols, president of the Sonoma County Historical Society and author of a 2002 book titled, “Cemeteries of Sonoma County, Calif., a History and Guide.” Rubio contacted Nichols and Half Moon Bay History Association President Dave Cresson after making her find.

Nichols has seen this kind of thing before. So far he has arranged for what he calls “tombstone amnesty” for about 10 similarly displaced tombstones that somehow found their way to Sonoma County cemeteries long after being placed in the ground elsewhere. He suspects teenagers might move gravestones as a prank or out of boredom.

“Things like this rarely get any press,” he said.

Nichols has an explanation for the cement base that had been added to keep the gravestone upright in the Green Valley Cemetery. He said a special taxation district maintains the largely forgotten cemetery in a rural portion of his county. Maintenance crews found Johnston’s gravestone and simply constructed the concrete base right where it lay.

The find has also grabbed the attention of the Johnston House Foundation, which maintains the famous white house on the south end of town.

“When I first heard of it, I wondered if it might be some kind of scam — pay us to get the gravestone back,” said foundation President John Ryan. But after talking to Rubio and longtime foundation member Mary Bettencourt, he was convinced that Rubio and the history buffs merely wanted to do a good deed. Now, he says, he expects the foundation will want to help bring home the gravestone.

Cresson was just as excited to hear of the find.

“It’s a terrific history project and it’s a great story,” he said.

The next chapter involves bringing the stone home to Petra Johnston’s final resting place. Nichols says he’s happy to make that happen, though the transport hasn’t been set just yet.

“If I need a friend with a truck, well, I’ve got that,” he said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect nationality for James Johnston. r

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