It was a story that O’Henry might have written, and the widow Higginson could have been a character from one of his tales. And not to give too much away, O’Henry’s short stories always ended with a twist. Read on.
It was just after the Fourth of July in 1907 when Gertrude met her husband-to-be, Tom. He was the chef-owner of a successful restaurant in Healdsburg that served French-American food; that summer the San Francisco Call even ran an item praising his restaurant, and particularly his way with a beefsteak. He was taking a camping vacation on the coast when he happened to meet Gertrude at a summer resort. Over tea, sparks flew. He cut his vacation short and returned to Healdsburg, where she soon joined him. Ten days later, she was sporting a diamond engagement ring and they were planning to be married as soon as possible.
Gertrude was already a widow at age thirty, and was five years younger than Tom. She was quite pretty, dressed nicely, and had some talent at piano playing. She also was well off, thanks to a savvy investment in gold mine stocks. One more thing to know about Tom and Gertrude: She was white, he was Chinese.
It was illegal for them to marry in California; the state’s anti-miscegenation law dated back to 1880, forbidding weddings between a white person and “a Negro, mulatto, or Mongolian.” Not all states had such a racist law, however, so Gertrude and Tom were soon on the train to Seattle, where they were wed. Their interracial marriage and out-of-state flight was unusual enough to make the newspapers in San Francisco and Reno.
Coverage of the events by the Santa Rosa papers was fairly predictable. The Santa Rosa Republican called him a “Celestial” and a “son of Confucius,” regrettable stereotypes that were old-timey but still commonly used by even progressive newspapers in that era. But at least the Republican gave him some measure of the respect he deserved; the Press Democrat’s coverage ended with a dismissive, you’ll-never-be-as-good-as-us swipe that while he was successful, “he is a Mongolian, just the same.”
Tom Chun was certainly a man of accomplishment. Born about 1870, he emigrated at age eleven and settled in Healdsburg while still in his teens. He acclimated into American culture, spoke and wrote fluent English, and was adept at the card games that were the primary social activity of Americans in that day. That he was in turn embraced by the community is shown in the description of his wedding reception in Healdsburg, where “a large company of doctors, lawyer and others were there with their wives.”
But here’s the next twist in the story: Within three months of their marriage, Gertrude disappeared.
A notice appeared in the Healdsburg newspaper: “Gertrude May Chun (formerly Mrs. Higginson) having left my bed and board, I will not be responsible for any debts contracted by her after this date, November 13, 1907. TOM CHUN.” Tom also swore out a warrant against her, charging that she had stolen his gold watch and chain.
Was Gertrude a con artist who only married Tom with the intent of theft? This is reminiscent of the 1904 two-week marriage of wealthy hop-grower Ah Quay to a woman of Hispanic and Indian ancestry, who disappeared after having expensive dental work that included gold fillings. Maybe it’s a coincidence that there were two such similar incidents in little Sonoma County within a few years, or perhaps prosperous Chinese immigrant men were not infrequently tricked into sham marriages. Scholars. sharpen your pencils.
What happened to Gertrude is not known, except that it’s likely that she didn’t return to Tom; he’s again single in the 1910 census, and the 1920 census shows he has a new wife named Sena. But we do know this: Her name when they met was not really Gertrude May Higginson.
As it turns out, “Gertrude Higginson” happened to be a very unusual name in the U.S. at that time. There was only one Mrs. Gertrude Higginson, and she apparently spent her entire life in Rhode Island and Connecticut, married to a steam fitter. Gertrude May Higginson is absolutely unique; this was the maiden name of a woman wed to a Kansas farmer. Both women were about the same age as the woman who married Tom Chun. While it can’t be proven that one of the Gertrudes didn’t leave her husband and child, travel across the country to become a bigamist and roll the poor guy for his jewelry, then return home and spend the rest of her life in the bosom of her family, it’s, um, unlikely. The woman in question probably made all or part of the name up, or happened to know one of the real Gertrudes at some time in her life.
There are some clues, however, about this mystery woman’s past. “She hails from Goldfield, Nevada,” the Republican reported, “where she states that she has relatives and that others of her family are living at Coronado, in southern California.” Goldfield was one of the last great boomtowns in the West, and in that year it was the largest city in Nevada, boasting a 195-room hotel (which still stands), three newspapers, and a saloon with 80 bartenders on duty. Coronado is a small island just offshore from San Diego that had (and still has) a luxury resort frequented by royalty and presidents and others world famous. What they had in common was that both areas would have been well known to prostitutes in that day.
Aside from the wealthy who stayed at the resort there were few who lived on the island, most of them workers at the hotel. But about 2,000 feet across the water from Coronado Island was San Diego’s infamous Stingaree District, which at the time was a booming tenderloin near the U.S. Naval base. An excellent study found that the number of prostitutes in the area approximately tripled between 1900 and that year while the number of saloons doubled.
Anyone who lived in San Diego knew of Coronado, just as anyone who lived in Goldfield would know the supposed source of her fortune, the Mohawk mine, which produced about $5 million of gold in less than four months. The red-light district in Goldfield was even larger than San Diego’s; one contemporary source estimated that there were 500 women working there at one time, making the district virtually a “city onto itself.” A Nevada history web site offers photos of the prostitution cribs, with the names of the women painted on signs by the shack doors.
Goldfield and Stingaree were two of the three largest prostitution districts in the western U.S. The last of the trio was San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, which was a short hop from the north county summer resort where Tom happened to meet “Gertrude.”
All this is conjecture, of course. Perhaps nothing was amiss; maybe they just didn’t get along. Maybe Tom Chun misplaced his valuable watch, and “Gertrude” somehow evaded mention in all official records, just as she oddly happened to be associated with every hot spot for prostitution in the West. Maybe it’s a coincidence that she said she was a waitress in Goldfield, and that San Diego study found that “waitress” was the most common profession claimed by prostitutes. Maybe it’s also irrelevant that “Gertrude” speedily married Tom at a time when the women working in the San Diego brothels were almost all younger than her, even though she still had her good looks.
We’ll probably never know if she really was one of the “soiled doves,” but even if she was, pity is in order; it’s doubtful that she ended her days living in a nice cottage in a nice little town with a nice, prosperous husband. Her fate was probably as far from all that niceness as you can imagine.
AMERICAN WOMAN TO WED A HEALDSBURG CHINESE
From Healdsburg, Monday, came a story of romance, love and betrothal. The peace and quietude of the fair city of Sotoyome vale is sadly disrupted by the proclamation of the coming event. Cupid has played a queer prank, and woven with his ribbons of love a heart of the Orient with that of the Occident.
Tom Chun, a celestial, who has lived in Healdsburg for over twenty years, is the party of the Orient, and he is to wed Mrs. Gertrude Higginson, an American by birth, and a comely widow of perhaps thirty years of this world’s life.
Tom Chun keeps a restaurant in the northery [sic] city, and during his thirty-five years of life has accumulated a goodly store of American gold. About two weeks ago, growing weary of the griddle and the flapjack, he held himself to a hunters’ camp on the coast ranges. While passing a summer resort by the way he stopped for a cup of good tea to quench his dusty throat. It was there he met his fate. It was there the comely widow became a reality in the life of this son of Confucius. He was in need of a waitress in his chowchow house and she was in search of just such a position.
Over the tea cups she promised to assist him, on his return to Healdsburg, in dispensing rice to the hungry. Right then he forgot his camping trip, forgot his cue, forgot his joss. He returned the same day to his restaurant and sent for the widow waitress. That was but ten days ago. Today on East street in Healdsburg is a cottage all new with tables of oak and chairs of cherry. Oriental rugs are on the floor and an upright piano stands ready for the touch of the bride’s deft fingers, for she is an accomplished musician.
Monday the couple left on the afternoon train for Seattle, Washington. The laws of this state forbid their marriage here, so they will travel to the northern city to become man and wife.
Personally the bride-to-be is quite a pretty widow and of seeming ordinary intelligence. She is neat and attractive in appearance. She hails from Goldfield, Nevada, where she states that she has relatives and that others of her family are living at Coronado, in southern California. She was a waitress in Goldfield and made considerable money in Mohawk stock. She now wears a brilliant diamond ring, the engagement token from the groom. On her wrist an ivory bracelet of the royal house of Tom Chun rattles.
Tom Chun is an Americanized Celestial. He speaks English fluently and can read and write with ease. At the gaming table he plays pedro with the boys and is an all around sport in games of chance.
They expect to return from the north during the later part of the week, when they will go to housekeeping in their newly furnished cottage. A wedding feast has been promised and “at home” cards will be sent out by Mr. and Mrs. Tom Chun.– Santa Rosa Republican, August 5, 1907
LEAVE STATE TO EVADE THE LAW
White Woman Infatuated With a Healdsburg Chinaman Goes With Him to Washington to be Married
Mrs. Gertrude Higginson, a white woman who recently came from the mining town of Goldfield, Nevada, and Tom Chun, a Chinaman, started Monday together from Healdsburg to go to the State of Washington to be married.
The laws of Washington provide no such penalties for the crime of miscegenation as do those of California. There neither the parties to the contract nor the clergyman who performs the marriage rites may feel the hand of the law. After Mrs. Higginson has become Mrs. Tom Chun, she and her Mongolian spouse could return to Healdsburg to reside.
Tom Chun has lived in Healdsburg twenty years and runs a restaurant. He long ago cut off his pigtail, and he wears American clothes. But he is a Mongolian, just the same.– Press Democrat, August 7, 1907
CHINESE IS DULY WEDDED
Tom Chun Marries Mrs. Gertrude Higginson
A telegram from Seeattle announces that Tom Chun, the Healdsburg Celestial, and Mrs. Gertrude Higginson, also of that city, were married Wednesday by Justice of the Peace R. R. George. The Rev. J. P. Lloyd, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, refused to marry the couple, declaring the laws of the state did not permit the ceremony between the white woman and the Celestial. The bride broken [sic] down and cried at the refusal of the minister, but was smiling and happy when the justice spoke the words which made the couple husband and wife. The bride declared she was a music teacher and missionary.– Santa Rosa Republican, August 8, 1907
TOM CHUN BRINGS HIS BRIDE HOME
Tom Chun, the Healdsburg Chinaman, who recently went to Seattle to marry a Caucasian woman, Gertrude Higginson, after only a three weeks’ acquaintance, arrived home from the north a few nights ago. The bridal party stopped off of the evening train in Santa Rosa and from here took a carriage to Healdsburg. A reception was tendered them and a large company of doctors, lawyer and others were there with their wives. “Jim,” as the Celestial is familiarly known, has furnished a neat cottage in Healdsburg for the home of himself and bride.– Santa Rosa Republican, August 16, 1907
CHINESE WIFE LEAVES HER HOME
Tom Yun [sic], the Healdsburg Chinese restaurant man, who a few months ago went to Washington in order to marry Mrs. Gertrude May Higginson, is now looking for his fair white wife. After living with her Celestial husband for a short time, the woman has wearied of her spouse and “flew the coop.” Yun is now after her with a warrant, claiming that she took his gold watch and chain and that this was his separate property.
Soon after Mrs. Yun left her husband and home the man advertised in the Healdsburg papers that he would not be responsible for any debts contracted by her, and that she had “left his bed and board.” It is thought that should the officers find the woman and she agree[s] to return the watch, that would be the end of her prosecution.– Santa Rosa Republican, November 19, 1907