man at window

WHO KILLED THE WICKERSHAMS?

There was no question who killed the Wickershams because no one questioned who killed them; it was definitely their Chinese cook – right?

This is the final chapter in the series about the 1886 killings of Sarah and Jesse Wickersham on their ranch at the most remote part of Sonoma county, between Cloverdale and the ocean. The same night, their cook – whose real name is unknown and here called “Ang” – ran away to San Francisco where it was presumed he boarded a steamship bound for China. This man was apprehended once the boat landed and he died in a Hong Kong jail cell – supposedly by suicide rather than face extradition to California. Further details can be found in the chapters listed to the right.


THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS
THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

MANHUNT PT. I: ESCAPE

MANHUNT II: HOW (NOT) TO CATCH A FUGITIVE

WHO KILLED THE WICKERSHAMS?

SOURCES (PDF, 31 pages)

News that one of their countrymen had murdered Americans spread fast and far, and could have hardly come at a worse time for Chinese immigrants in the West. For months, anti-Chinese sentiments had been escalating from grumbling newspaper editorials to acts of violence, even mob riots. Eureka banished its 300+ Chinese residents, as did Tacoma, which followed by razing its Chinatown area. In Wyoming, white miners went on a rampage and murdered at least 28 Chinese men with many burned alive.

Ang was a perfect villain in that swirling torrent of racist hate and fear. The story being told was he had murdered the couple in cold blood for no apparent reason, shooting Jesse Wickersham in the back of his head while he was eating supper and tying Sarah to her bed before killing her as well (some versions of the story also falsely suggested she was sexually assaulted). As a domestic servant living under the same roof as them, the Chinese haters pointed to it as proof that none of the immigrants could ever be trusted, that they could unexpectedly turn on you like a rabid dog. And that fever burned no hotter than in parts of Sonoma county, where the Wickersham victims were members of an esteemed Petaluma family.

Trouble was, Ang made for a lousy suspect. There was zero evidence linking him to the double murder. He had no known motive nor history of trouble; a journal found in his room was translated and revealed a bent towards philosophy. Louis Smith, who worked frequently for the Wickershams and seems to have known Ang better than anyone else, told a reporter that Ang was a “good Chinaman” and  “…got along nicely at the ranch and said he liked the place. When last asked how he was getting on he said all right, but he did not know how long he would remain…”1

But if it wasn’t Ang, then whodunnit?  I believe the culprit was apparent at the time, but swiftly overlooked because the focus entirely turned to the exciting pursuit of (the man believed to be) Ang enroute to Asia. Further, I believe reenacting the event based on the inquest and descriptions of the crime scene supports no other possible interpretation. Read on.

The first suspect to consider has to be Elliott Jewell, the neighbor who discovered the murders. Jewell said from the beginning he believed the Chinese cook killed them – in fact, he wouldn’t shut up about it. As an honors graduate of ACU/Wingback (Agatha Christie University, Armchair campus), I can tell you that the character who kept yapping “the butler did it, the butler did it” likely was the one who killed Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick.

Jewell told the Coroner’s Jury he was certain Ang was the killer, although he had no proof to offer: “I think China cook killed him; [I] should think so from the position of Mr. Wickersham and disappearance of Chinaman.” As for Mrs. Wickersham, Jewell testified, “I do not know who killed her but believe it to be [the] Chinaman.” Based on that (non) evidence, the Jury decided “ail evidence [was] pointing towards a Chinese cook in the employ of deceased.”2

Around two miles away, Jewell and his wife were the closest neighbors. “We were continually over at each other’s places,” he later said, and the four of them had just spent the long New Years’ weekend together. The Jewell’s ranch was something of a country retreat for the couple as both he and his wife were prominent in Petaluma society; he also owned an important business there and had investments.3

Like Ang, however, Jewell had no apparent motive to kill the Wickershams. While we can’t rule out a crime of passion, shooting them separately and tying up Mrs. Wickersham doesn’t seem like part of an impulsive act.

Still, this detail bothers: Jewell did not say anything about hearing the three (four?) shotgun blasts that evening. Even at two miles they should have been noticeable – and that two miles was by road, so the houses might have been closer by earshot. Remember that was 1886 and there was no TV, radio, motors humming or other distracting sounds, just mountain stillness a few hours after sundown on a winter’s night.

But in the brief window before Jewell and the others put the spotlight on Ang, another sort of suspect was considered. In the very first article in the Santa Rosa newspapers about the killings, the Democrat wrote, “…The general supposition is that the crime was committed by parties who expected to obtain possession of his money, knowing that he had many men in his employ, and being such a distance from town they probably thought he kept a large sum of money in his house…”4

That’s the simplest – and I argue, most likely – explanation of the murders: It was a robbery gone wrong. A criminal learned a middle-aged recluse had a sheep ranch in a very remote area. The man was weak or sickly and couldn’t do much so he relied upon hired hands, which meant he must have cash money around to pay them. The man was a Wickersham, and everybody knew they were the North Bay’s wealthiest banking family. The man was married, and rich wives must have valuable jewelry.

As this history blog is concerned with Santa Rosa and the surrounding county, little has been mentioned here about what was going on outside our little bubble. But in 1886 a traveler heading further north would have found it steadily became wilder and woolier, and from Cloverdale onward it well could be considered frontier.

Today writers romanticize highwaymen like “Black Bart,” the gentlemanly robber who left some poems. Forgotten are his vicious colleagues such as Buck English and his gang, who terrorized Napa and Lake counties with brazen stickups at gunpoint. Buck supposedly wasn’t in the area at the time (I can’t find conclusive proof of that) but there were plenty of other bad guys around.

On January 28, a week after the Wickersham murders were discovered, the front page of the Los Angeles Herald neatly summarized the trends going on that week in Northern California. Item 1) reported the arrest of a man in Cloverdale who attempted to rob a stagecoach; 2) provided the latest details on the Wickersham case from Santa Rosa; and 3) mentioned a secret meeting held in Red Bluff to drive out their Chinese residents.

That thwarted stage holdup was not unusual; in 1886 there was a rash of other armed robberies in the region. About three weeks after the Wickershams were killed a couple of masked men robbed a convey of pack horses carrying mail outside of Cloverdale. The same month two armed robbers held up horse buyers on the road to Alexander Valley. There were at least three other highway robberies later that year around Cloverdale, according to the Santa Rosa newspapers.5

Sometimes the holdup guys were later caught (gotta admire those Wells Fargo detectives) or made jailhouse confessions, but none were implicated in the Wickersham deaths. And that may be the strongest evidence that highwaymen were not the real killers. Those dimwits seemed to squeal on each other eagerly, and there was an enormous $1,500 reward offered in the Wickersham case – although it’s not clear whether or not it was specifically for the capture of Ang.6

I readily concede there is a real chance that everything happened as they presumed at the time, that Ang the Chinese cook went berserk for some unknown reason and murdered the couple. But once you strip away the racist notions about the Chinese being monsters, that interpretation makes little sense. Evidence shows it is far more likely that two (or more) robbers surprised them in their home, demanded money and murdered them not to leave witnesses. In this scenario, Ang is completely innocent but flees because he thinks they are pursuing him, or he anticipated (correctly) he would be presumed guilty.

Deciphering whatever really happened mostly comes down to answering this question: Who placed the napkins?

Four days after the killings, a party of 17+ men crowded into Wickersham’s small cabin to investigate and hold an inquest. From there emerged six first-hand accounts of mixed quality.

All of the damning claims – that Sarah Wickersham had been “outraged,” that a piece of cake was left next to her as some sort of Chinese offering to the dead, that she feared to be alone with Ang and that he supposedly killed someone in Sacramento – can be traced directly to Petaluma City Marshal Julius Blume and Healdsburg Constable Roland Truitt, both of whom were quoted widely in the press. Any article relying entirely upon these highly prejudicial lawmen has to be dismissed as untrustworthy.

Fred Wickersham, the adult cousin of Jesse, confirmed some important details in a telegram to his family and later knocked down some of the stories being told by Blume and Truitt. As mentioned already, neighbor Elliott Jewell had little to offer aside from parroting “the Chinaman did it.”

The most reliable sources were a description of the scene by a correspondent from the Petaluma Courier (no byline) and details found in the Coroner’s report about the bodies, per testimony by the doctor who performed the autopsies. (Unfortunately, the inquest did not include any testimony concerning material evidence.) Based on those two accounts, here is the information we can trust:7

All signs pointed to the Wickershams being interrupted while eating supper. Food was still on their plates at the table and the lamp on the table had burned out of oil. Jesse was seated with his back to the fireplace, the door next to it leading to the kitchen. He looked as though he had fallen asleep in his chair. The autopsy found he had been shot twice, once in the back of his head with the other shotgun wound on his side.

Scene of the Wickersham murders showing the approximate position of the victims. In the actual crime scene Sarah was seated directly across the table from Jesse but is shown here at the side as to not obscure him from view. The people shown were selected from vintage images on the internet and are NOT either of the Wickershams. An untouched view of the room can be found in part one. Photo courtesy David Otero and Wickersham Ranch

 

 

Sarah was found in their bedroom (presumably the door on the left in the photograph). She was thoroughly tied up with clothesline, her arms pinned behind her back and the end of the rope tied to the head of the bed. She was in a kneeling position with her head resting on the mattress and was killed by a single shotgun blast to her side, likely standing but already tied up.

Most viewing the scene remarked on the evidence on the kitchen door. The Courier: “On the kitchen side, about four feet from the floor, were marks of powder burn almost as large as a man’s hand. The gun from which the shot was fired that ended the life of the owner of the house was evidently held close against the door, and in that position the muzzle would have been only about five feet from the body of the unsuspecting victim.”8

The shotgun was found in its usual position in the kitchen, leaning behind the door. “On the table was two empty shells, and two other empty shells were taken from the gun.” As there were three shotgun blasts in the killings, it is unknown if the fourth used shell was already in the gun. There is a large bullethole in the ceiling in front of the bedroom door but it’s unknown if that was made by the killers or was the work of some joker at a later time. No contemporary source mentioned it.

After mulling over the evidence for the better part of a year, here’s my best guess as to what happened:

Around six in the evening on Monday, January 18, two or more men rode to the Wickersham ranch. Someone had been there before (one of Jesse’s many hired hands, perhaps?) and knew how to find the place; it was off a lane which was then little more than a cowpath and far from main roads.

As they approached the ranch a heavy storm was brewing, if rains were not already lashing the hills. The flooding resulting from that and a following storm would hamper investigators later in the week, but on the night of the murders the bad weather only added to the enveloping darkness. There was no electricity at the cabin in 1886; the only light inside was the weak glow from candles and coal oil lamps, with the robbers certain to have carried in hurricane lanterns which would cast deep shadows as they moved around.

The small cabin has three rooms and a kitchen; there is a front door in the room where the Wickershams were eating. In the kitchen there is a back and a side door which the robbers probably used, likely carrying revolvers or long guns. At the time everyone presumed the Wickershams were killed by Jesse’s own shotgun, but no evidence of that was ever given – we’ll just have to take their word because back then, they certainly knew a thing or three about firearms.

The assault probably began with a shotgun blast fired from the kitchen into the front room. I believe this caused the hole in the ceiling, and was intended to surprise and terrify the Wickershams.

I imagine the frightened couple must have jumped to their feet, throwing their hands in the air – whether ordered or not. The accomplice(s) likely made a quick search of the cabin, finding the coil of clothesline rope in Ang’s room which they used to tie up Sarah, all the more to terrorize Jesse into revealing the whereabouts of his supposed strongbox.

Jesse likely protested there was little gold coin in the house – he usually paid everyone by a check from a Healdsburg or Petaluma bank account. This was borne out by others who later spoke to reporters, including neighbor Jewell, in one of the few moments when he wasn’t yammering about the Chinese cook being the killer:  “He could hardly have been murdered for the sake of any money that he might have about the house, because in all our transactions I used to be given a check on the bank, Wickersham often telling me that he had strong objections to keeping money in the house”. (True to form, Jewell followed that statement by volunteering, “the only solution that I can give you of the mystery is that the Wickershams have been murdered by the Chinaman.”)9

Here’s the most controversial part of my interpretation: I don’t believe the robbers went there intending to murder anyone, and I think the shot that killed Jesse was accidental. The highwaymen mentioned above rarely fired their guns except to scare people.10

It appears everyone presumed Jesse was first shot in the head – but I believe the autopsy evidence proves not; the doctor said only that either shot would have killed him. He was meticulous in describing the buckshot in Jesse’s body, and no wound was mentioned in his right arm. This suggests his hands were up when he was shot in the side and fired by someone slightly behind him. Like the blast from the doorway, the upward trajectory of the buckshot found in the autopsy suggests the gunman was firing the weapon from his hip, most likely holding a lantern in his left hand with his right trigger finger on an unfamiliar shotgun. It’s easy to imagine how it could happen.

The bandit was not facing Jesse and probably still in the kitchen doorway, which is why the blast hit him “a little posterior to middle” between his fifth and sixth ribs (directly below the sternum), as the coroner wrote. He fell back into his chair, slowly bleeding out with buckshot through both lungs and heart. But the worst was yet to come.

Those pushing an anti-Chinese agenda made up details about the scene where Sarah was discovered bound by the rope, but all described her having been savagely beaten on her head and face, most likely as the robbers demanded she reveal where all the money was hidden. Her “…face was swollen and bruised, the appearance ghastly in the extreme,” reported the Petaluma Courier, and another account stated her nose was broken. A witness who saw her body at the undertaker’s said her “face was much discolored.” There were further nightmarish descriptions which I am sparing Gentle Reader.11

The robbers left, but not before a point blank kill shot to the base of Jesse’s brain – the amount of bleeding makes it apparent the first shot had not killed him. His “pool of blood” was mentioned more than any other detail, the Petaluma Courier noting specifically, “beneath the chair on which the body rested were two pools of blood…”

Besides the made-up stuff about Sarah’s sexual assault and the ritual offering of cake, the other big canard was that nothing was stolen, thus proving it was an act of rage by a deranged Chinaman. But no one knew how much money Jesse had around to steal, if any. From the reliable Courier:


The orderly appearance of the house showed that after the double crime was committed it was not generally plundered or ransacked…In a bureau drawer was found a gold watch belonging to the deceased husband, gold-rimmed spectacles, gold bracelets, and one or two articles of jewelry belonging to Mrs. Wickersham. A small satchel, however, in which the rancher was known to sometimes keep money, was found open, and its only contents, when taken charge of by Fred A., the nephew, was few old and curious coins. No one present was able to state whether there was much or little money in the house before the deed was committed.

That the gold items were left might raise suspicion, but consider again the darkness problem: Oil lanterns cast light to the sides but obscure anything below, where the light is completely blocked by the base. Only by holding a lantern far above your head can someone peer downward – and if valuables are kept in a top drawer, it may not be possible to raise it high enough to see inside. Or maybe it simply wasn’t worth much; a pocket watch that dated back to Jesse’s days in the Civil War was probably of low value, and it’s doubtful Sarah kept anything but costume jewelry on the ranch.

The thieves were also pressured to finish up and leave by not knowing who else might be around and armed. Clearly they were in Ang’s room and knew the Wickershams had a house servant; perhaps there was also a stableboy in the barn or a hired man herding sheep in the hills in advance of the big storm. Which brings us to the critical question: If Ang didn’t do it, where was he all that time?

The Wickershams had just started eating supper and Ang had served everything, including the apple pie dessert and cups of tea. It was one of the few moments of the day when he time to himself. My guess is that when the highwaymen arrived Ang wasn’t in the cabin but rather in the outhouse or barn. Once the curtain rose on the tragic play, all he could do was hide and hope he would not be sucked into it. There can be no doubt the robbers would have murdered a Chinaman without hesitation.

Ang probably remained hidden long after they left, terrified the killers might return. What he did when he finally crept back into the little house proves, to my mind, that he was not the raging mad killer as he was portrayed.

When the investigators arrived at the cabin four days later, this is how they found Jesse C. Wickersham, according to the Petaluma Courier: “…About the neck was twisted a large linen tablecloth, and underneath it several napkins. These were almost as thoroughly soaked with blood as if they had been dipped into a bucket…it was evident that the tablecloth was taken from the drawer in which the linen was kept for the express purpose of absorbing the blood…”

Incredibly, Jesse’s heart apparently kept beating even after the second shotgun blast. Someone desperately tried to stanch the bleeding. It was not a rational act because anyone thinking normally could see he was nearly dead; it was the sort of compassionate thing done instinctively by someone in shock. And the only person around to offer such a  gesture of futile kindness was Ang.

What followed was hashed over in the previous three chapters, and I’ll repeat only that I doubt Ang was the man who died in the Hong Kong jail, although it’s certainly possible. But I am 100 percent certain the evidence shows he did not harm Sarah and Jesse Wickersham; trying to prove otherwise is like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle by hammering in pieces that don’t fit.

Overall this is the most terrible tale I have ever told. Before and after 1886 awful things occurred in Sonoma county, but the impact of what happened on that lonely ridge rippled outwards through the Bay Area, throughout California and the West and influenced people who had never before heard of a place called Sonoma county.

Weep for the Wickershams who suffered horrible deaths, but also weep for the Chinese who were abused and sometimes killed in the aftermath; weep for the communities that acted disgracefully by turning into anti-Chinese vigilantes, and weep for all our American ancestors who were willing to believe there existed on this earth a race of people who did not share our common humanity. We can all weep an ocean of tears but it still will not wash away such a mournful legacy.

1 Petaluma Courier, January 27, 1886

2 Coroner’s inquest January 22, 1886, pages 3 and 2b

3 San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

4 Sonoma Democrat, January 22, 1886

5 North county violence (or threats of same) was not limited to highway robberies. Had not the Wickersham murders taken center stage, the county newspapers would likely have been buzzing about the threat to financier John A. Paxton. Just a couple of days before the killings, a woman and man were charged with threatening him. Minnie Kasten had been stalking men connected to a Nevada bank who gave her late husband a ruinous tip on mining stock some years before. She had horsewhipped one man (the wrong guy, as it turned out) and had pulled a handgun on Paxton’s former partner (she was found not guilty by reason of insanity, in part because nobody believed her pipsqueak revolver could do much damage). Now she had shown up in Healdsburg looking for Paxton with a thug, who told someone, “That if Paxton did not look out he would get the drop on him, and then he would not be troubling anybody around there very much.” They were acquitted when it came out that Mr. Thug was a sometimes-San Francisco constable, and “that expression was used very much by that fraternity.” (So death threats were okay as long as they were just cop talk?)

6 The reward was $500 from the governor and $1,000 pledged by the Chinese merchants of San Francisco

7 Coroner’s inquest January 22, 1886 / Petaluma Courier, January 27, 1886

8 According to details in the inquest and Petaluma Courier, the shot was fired with the door slightly cracked open to prevent the gun barrel being noticed. The Courier states there were powder burns on the kitchen side of the door. But it is currently hinged in towards the kitchen; it would have to be completely open, or then opened the other way, to leave burns from the muzzle of the shotgun. Either these sources are both wrong (doubtful) of the door was rehung to open the other way at some later point in time, perhaps when an addition was added to the back about forty years ago.

9 San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 1886

10 While few victims were injured during those stickups, a member of the Wickersham Coroner’s Jury working as a stagecoach guard was shot to death by highway robbers between Cloverdale and Preston a couple of years later.

11 San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

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Gene Carr Step-Brothers

WHEN WE BEGAN DRIVING LIKE MANIACS

Ah, 1913, the year Californians demonstrated how easy it was for untrained drivers to get behind the wheel, drive really fast and run people down.

On just one December day in San Francisco, a man named Caseilli was arrested for a hit and run of three children (“I didn’t think they were badly hurt and they were picked up, so I went on”). A man named Roy Burton was charged with hitting a pedestrian (at least he gave the victim a ride part of the way home, dropping him off within two blocks). Louis Kantor was arrested as the suspect of a joy ride that killed a bank teller and the driver of an “auto hearse” ran down a four year-old. The child was not seriously hurt but that fellow should be cheered for stopping at all, although it may have been to check whether he had a new customer to ride in the back.

Those numbers weren’t unusual; the Santa Rosa Republican offered an editorial that June, noting five were killed on a single day in Oakland. On the same day the Santa Rosa paper spotted a car racing down King street (“where police officers seldom come”) at unsafe speeds. “Wherever it is believed the police officers are not plentiful or are too busy to see everything, some auto drivers will take advantage of the situation,” the editor complained. “There seems no way to check the habit. The daily auto death toll grows larger.”

It was a serious issue not being treated very seriously by the state, which still regarded a car as horse-and-buggy version 2.0. At the time the entire section of California law related to automobiles was only 19 short paragraphs and could easily fit on a pocket-sized card. All auto accidents were classified misdemeanors and as for hitting someone, the law stated: “In case of accident or injury to person or property car must stop and if requested, give name of owner” (emphasis mine). There was no requirement to help the victim or mention of what was required if the person was unconscious – or dead.

At least the law did say the driver and/or owner of the car could be sued for injuries or property damage, but a couple of earlier high-profile local accidents demonstrated how well that worked out – or didn’t.

In late 1910 a Sebastopol farmer named Walter Elphick was driving a car at night on the road from Santa Rosa to Penngrove. (Before you ask, Elphick Road in Sebastopol is apparently named after his father Henry.) He hit the buggy of David Batchelor, who had a real estate and insurance office in Penngrove. Batchelor was thrown 25 feet from the buggy. His horse broke free as the car shoved the buggy 50 feet back. Elphick lied about his identity (he said his name was Jones and he was headed to Cloverdale) but Batchelor noted the license number on the car. Bachelor sued for $3,000 damages.

At the jury trial Bachelor testified that the car was on the wrong side of the road and going over 40 MPH (this was 1910 and country roads were not paved). Elphick said he tried to stop but his tires skidded. As for the fake name, he claimed he didn’t really remember that clearly, but he lied to “avoid publicity.” The jury awarded Bachelor $700, which was about what the average family earned for a year.

But the matter still wasn’t settled because: Lawyers.

Five months later, Elphick asked for a new trial. His lawyer was this journal’s anti-hero James Wyatt Oates who built (what would become known as) Comstock House. A young apple farmer wouldn’t normally be able to hire the top lawyer around, but Oates was a fanatical car nut who had just ended two terms as president of the Sonoma County Automobile Association, and likely took on the case gratis. Elphick now claimed “the accident was unavoidable and that Batchelor was not thrown from his buggy at the time of the impact, but was thrown later when his horse became unmanageable,” according to the Press Democrat. After seven hours of deliberation, the jury knocked the award down to $125.

The other notable accident happened in 1911 when Sloan Boyd, a young man who lived in Rincon Valley, was hit while riding his bicycle home from work at night. This time the victim’s injuries were quite serious; he was hospitalized for six weeks and “for several days he was delirious and it was not thought he would live,” reported the Republican. The PD showed great interest in the case and offered regular updates on Boyd’s improving condition but curiously, never mentioned who was responsible except for the initial story declaring it was “a San Francisco man.” But even that was wrong; he was Samuel Stitt, the manager of a significant Los Angeles bank and the car belonged to his fiancée Hazel Farmer, a member of Santa Rosa’s elite society.

The daughter of Dorothy Farmer (think Farmers Lane), Hazel and her mother were as crazy about cars as Wyatt Oates and both were part of the Oates’ small circle of friends. In 1909 Dorothy had purchased a Packard in Los Angeles and she and Hazel drove all the way back to Santa Rosa – no easy feat since those primitive automobiles broke down regularly and most roads between towns were horse trails. Both were often featured in the Press Democrat for their motoring adventures around the state.

The badly injured bicyclist sued for $21,720 – an amount so specific that it had to be itemized – and the suit was quickly settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Hazel married Stitt shortly thereafter and her name again regularly adorned the PD social pages. (As a little Believe-it-or-Not! aside, mother Dorothy lived to 100 and died in 1964, enjoying good health all of her life except for 1947, when she fell and broke her hip on the corner of Fifth and Humboldt streets – struck by a bicycle.)

Sloan Boyd was well compensated for having been hit by an heiress, while David Batchelor probably didn’t have enough left over after paying his attorney to buy a new buggy wheel. But the bigger picture is that both were totally on their own after being run over; there was no requirement for car insurance (the first ads for it didn’t appear in the Press Democrat until 1916) and no expectation the police would investigate whether or not the driver was driving dangerously.

Meanwhile, every year the new cars were bigger, heavier and faster – and there were lots more of them; by the spring of 1913, California had over 100,000 registered cars. That worked out to about one per every 25 residents, and you can bet more people than just car owners were driving them. Few had any kind of insurance and none were expected to pass even the most minimal driving test, as there was no license required to drive. What would you expect the outcome to be?

Always a good reflection of popular culture, nearly every Sunday the funnies found in city papers would have at least one cartoon showing some hapless soul losing control of a car and crashing. There was also “Motorcycle Mike,” a popular comic strip where the whole gag was a reckless guy riding around accidentally causing random destruction and sending people flying.

By 1913 there was also a new disturbing trend: Hit and run accidents.

“Hit and run” was not yet a common term in 1913, but Google offers an “Ngram Viewer” that scans all 30 million items in Google Books (which includes many magazines and journals) for words or phrases, and for the first two decades of the 20th century it shows a spike nationally around that year for accident-related terms such as, “hit by an automobile,” run over by an automobile” and yes, “hit and run.” From then onward, phrases like these climb sharply in use.

Locally there were at least three serious hit and run incidents in 1913. In Santa Rosa a man on a motorcycle was run down on Mendocino avenue near Cherry street and a bicyclist was knocked unconscious on Santa Rosa avenue. Those drivers apparently were not caught, but a Napa man named Oscar Godwin was arrested for rear-ending at high speed a buggy on the road to St. Helena, where two young women were thrown to the ground. Godwin’s excuse for not stopping was that his passengers forced him to keep going.

Clearly, something had to be done. Lacking a workable set of rules of the road from the state, local jurisdictions were stepping in to set their own basic laws, such as Santa Rosa requiring tail lights and drivers to keep to the right side of the street (see “DRIVING LIKE A SANTA ROSAN“). Finally, the legislature revamped the entire section of code with the Vehicle Act of 1913.

The new state code was comprehensive – far too comprehensive to the likes of many. Drivers had chafed even under the old laws and griped they were being picked upon; the great cartoonist Rube Goldberg earlier had produced a cartoon for the San Francisco Call satirizing a tortuous visit to police court for a speeding ticket (the harassed driver looks suspiciously like Rube himself, BTW).

Rube Goldberg/San Francisco Call, May 7, 1911

 

 

Little, if anything, in the 1913 law seems controversial today. No street racing was allowed without a permit, no drunk driving, joyriding was illegal without the owner’s permission and no one under the age of 16 could drive, for ex. Addressing hit and run, §367c of the new law finally required the driver to not only stop but provide help, while making it a felony to flee the scene.

But there were loud complaints that even those changes were overreach and an affront to liberty itself. A superior court judge in San Bernardino had declared all these rules were “discrimination” against drivers because similar restrictions weren’t placed on people using horses. Even providing your name at the scene of an accident was unconstitutional, that judge said, because it could be self-incriminating – and again, not at all required if you were behind a horse. Because of this absurdly strict interpretation, hit and run was knocked down from a felony back to being a misdemeanor.

The rollicking statewide fight over the California Vehicle Act of 1913 would be a fun article to write (my god, the passion!) but not for here. I’ll close by adding there was even a squabble over the new requirement for an “automobile warning signal.” Every vehicle had to have a signaling device “capable of emitting an abrupt sound, adequate in quality and volume to give warning of the approach of such vehicle.” Further, it was illegal to use the signals “for any purpose except as warnings of danger.” In other words: A horn.

 

 

SUES FOR INJURIES IN AUTO COLLISION
D. W. Batchelor Brings Action for $3,000 from W. R. Elphick Whom He Says Was Careless

For alleged carelessness and negligence on the part of W. R. Elphick, in driving his automobile into the vehicle in which D. W. Batchelor was riding on the night of December 11, 1910, Mr. Batchelor, through his attorney, Judge Samuel K. Dougherty, commenced a suit to recover $3,000 damages from Elphick in the Superior Court on Saturday. Mr. Batchelor cites in his complaint that he sustained painful injuries and that his vehicle was damaged. He was required to have medical attention and medicines and his business as a real estate man was interfered with. The collision occurred on the road from Santa Rosa to Penngrove.

– Press Democrat, January 1 1911

 

Will Contest the Case

Attorney J. W. Oates has been retained by W. R. Elphick to defend the action filed against him by D. W. Batchelor, to recover damages for injuries received in a collision on the county road on the night of December 11, when it is alleged Elphick ran into the buggy occupied by the plaintiff. Mr. Elphick denies any responsibility for the accident.

– Press Democrat, January 5 1911

 

DAMAGES ASKED IN AUTO SUIT
D. W. Batchelor Sues W. R. Elphick For Injuries Sustained in Automobile Collision

Before Superior Judge A. J. Buckles of Solano county, sitting in Judge Denny’s court, the trial was commenced of the suit for $3,000 damages brought by W. W. Batchelor against W. R. Elphick for injuries sustained and damage done near Penngrove, when Elphlck’s automobile crashed Into the buggy In which he was riding.

It was a Jury trial…

Surveyor Newton V. V. Smyth was called to explain a chart he had made of the scene of the accident. He also computed the speed at which the auto was going.

Batchelor testified that at the time of the crash he was hurled twenty-five feet and that the buggy was carried or dragged for fifty feet on the front of the automobile, the horse having broke loose.

Batchelor testified that at the time of the colllson he was on the right side of the road and the automobile driven by the defendant was on the wrong side of the road. He testified that the machine was being driven at a rate of not less than forty miles an hour. He testified that Elphick gave his name as “Jones,” and said he was going to Cloverdale. Batchelor said he took the number of the machine and by this means learned the identity of the owner of the automobile. He testified that he was injured on the arm and shoulder and also suffered from shock.

Mrs. Batchelor testified as to her husband’s injury and Dr. Bogle was called to the stand and said he found Mr. Batchelor suffering from a contused arm and complaining of pain in the region of the kidneys.

J. D. Cook and son testified as to the manner in which the buggy had been dragged by the automobile and the indentations it had made on the side of the road.

Chief Deputy Assessor J. C. Smith testified as to the assessed value of Mr. Elphlck’s property in this county.

H. A. Atkinson testified as to Batchelor’s having come to his office two weeks after the accident, nursing his arm and in a nervous condition. Geo. Vogt was another witness.

At a few minutes to five o’clock an adjournment was taken until nine o’clock Friday morning. Judge S, K. Dougherty, counsel for Mr. Batchelor, stated that he had one more witness he expected to call before resting the case. Colonel James W. Oates represents Mr. Elphick, and he will call some witnesses. The case will probably go to the jury today.

– Press Democrat, July 7 1911

 

VERDICT GIVES PLAINTIFF $700
D. W. Batchelor Wins His Suit Against W. R. Elphick in the Superior Court

D. W. Batchelor was yesterday afternoon awarded a verdict of $700 by a jury in Judge Denny’s department of the Superior Court, against W. R. Elphick. Judge A. J. Buckles presided at the trial.

Batchelor asked for $1,400 for injuries and damages sustained on account of a collision between Elphlck’s automobile and his horse and buggy. The alleged details of the case have already been stated.

Elphick, Tony Veir and D. H. McReynolds were the witnesses called for the defense yesterday. Mr. Elphick testified that he only saw Batchelor’s rig when he was only a short distance away, and that he did his best to swerve to his side of the road. He said he did not remember fully that he did at first give his name as “Jones.” He did so as to avoid the publicity. He testified that his machine skidded at the time of the collision, and he could not avoid the impact.

Judge Samuel K. Dougherty, who represented the plaintiff, made the opening argument to the jury. Colonel James W. Oates, who represented Mr. Elphick, followed, and Judge Dougherty closed. The jury returned its verdict after a short deliberation. Judge Buckles granted a stay of execution.

– Press Democrat, July 8 1911

 

NEW TRIAL IS GRANTED IN DAMAGE SUIT

In an opinion received yesterday from Judge A. J. Buckles of Solano county, a new trial is granted in the case of D. W. Bachelor against W. R. Elphlck. This sets aside a judgment for $700 granted the plaintiff in the first trial, which was heard by Judge Buckles, sitting in this county. The action was for $3,000 damages for a collision between Batchelor’s buggy and Elphick’s automobile. It was alleged in the complaint that Elphick’s automobile ran up behind the buggy and collided with it, injuring both the vehicle and the plaintiff. The plaintiff is represented by Attorney S. K. Dougherty, and the defendant by Attorney James W. Oates.

– Press Democrat, December 20 1911

 

ALL THE EVIDENCE IN ARGUMENTS TODAY

…Elphick took the stand in his own behalf at the trial on Wednesday and he alleged that the accident was unavoidable and that Batchelor was not thrown from his buggy at the time of the impact, but was thrown later when his horse became unmanageable. He went pretty thoroughly into his contention before he left the stand on direct and cross-examination.

– Press Democrat, March 14, 1912
JURY GIVES HIM $125

After being out for almost seven hours and casting many ballots, the jury in the suit of D. W. Batchelor against W. R. Elphlck brought a verdict into Judge Seawell’s department of the Superior Court on Thursday night shortly before ten o’clock awarding the plaintiff a judgement in the sum of $125. covering all phases of the damages he sustained. Batchelor sued for over $3,000 damages for for alleged personal injuries received and damage done his horse and buggy when Elphlck’s automobile collided with him as he was driving along the country road some distance from this city…

– Press Democrat, March 15, 1912
SLOAN BOYD IS SERIOUSLY HURT
Run Down by an Automobile on Saturday Night Out on the Sonoma Road Near Town

Sloan Boyd, a well known resident of Rincon Valley, while riding home on his blcycle from his employment at the National Ice Company’s establishment in this city on Saturday night, met with a serious accident. He came into a collision head-on with a touring car coming to Santa Rosa in the opposite direction. He was thrown with terrific force from his wheel and suffered serious cuts about the face and head and a bad contusion of the shoulder. A San Francisco man was at the wheel in the automobile.

The machine stopped and Mr. Boyd was hurried to the Mary Jesse Hospital in this city where his injuries were attended to by Dr. Jesse. It Is feared that he may be internally hurt also. He was detained at the hospital. Mrs. Boyd was also brought to the hospital to see her husband as soon as possible after the accident in the automobile which ran him down. The accident happened on a dangerous turn out on the Sonoma road not far from the city limits.

– Press Democrat, October 15 1911
AUTOIST RAN INTO FRANK KURLANDER

Frank Kurlander, a son of Mrs. Maurice Kurlander, was run down by an automobile driver Saturday evening on Mendocino avenue, near Cherry street. The Kurlander boy was riding a motorcycle at the time. Fortunately he was injured but slightly, but his motorcycle was badly damaged. The automobile driver put himself in a serious position by running off without stopping to ascertain what damage he had done and for not rendering assistance. The law is very severe on the auto driver who runs off in hope of not being recognized after he has run into a person. The authorities have the number of the machine which struck young Kurlander, and it will be an easy matter for them to locate the machine.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 1, 1912
AUTO HITS MAN AND LEAVES HIM UNCONSCIOUS IN ROAD
Dashes Away Into the Darkness After the Collision

While riding a bicycle on Santa Rosa avenue Saturday night about half past seven o’clock, Fred Kruse, who lives at Fifth and Riley streets, was run down by an automobile and badly hurt.

The auto did not stop after striking Kruse, but the driver threw on more power and sped away into the darkness. The machine was running at a high rate of speed and had only the small lights burning and did not light up the roadway at all.

Kruse had been working on a ranch belonging to his sister, in Bennett Valley. He was returning to this city and his uncle, mother and brother were following in a buggy. When they turned from Bennett avenue to Santa Rosa avenue they came upon the unconscious form of their relative lying in the road. They picked him up and hurried him to the family home, where Dr. S. I. Wyland was hastily summoned.

The young man was found to have suffered a severe wrenching of the back and his right side and shoulder were badly bruised. There may be internal injuries, though this cannot be determined as yet.

When found Kruse was lying at one side of the road about ten feet ahead of his wheel, which was badly smashed. He was unconscious but was talking incoherently and kept asking why the auto did not stop. When he regained consciousness he could throw but little light on the accident. He said that he thought he had been struck by the fender of the machine. He heard the auto coming Just before it hit him and looked back over his shoulder. He says he instantly realized that he was about to be hit and swerved sharply to one side in an attempt to get out of the way The machine struck him and he called to the occupants of the car as he was hurled to the ground. He says there can be no doubt but that they knew they had hit him. He can give no description of the car. There is not the slightest clew to the Identity of the perpetrators of the outrage. It is about time such business as this was stopped.

– Press Democrat, March 2 1913
NEW AUTOMOBILE LAW SIGNED BY GOVERNOR
Owners and Drivers Will Be Affected by Its Terms
Stringent Regulations Provided for Auto and Motorcycles and New Rate of Licenses Is Provided While County Gets Half the Money Collected

Sacramento, June 14.—Among the bills signed by Governor Johnson today was Assembly bill No. 2095, the automobile registration bill, which transfers the department from the office of the Secretary of Stale and places it in the hands of the State Engineer and the State Treasurer, and provides a new schedule of automobile licenses.

This measure sets forth rules of the road; makes joy-riding, where the consent of the owner has not been obtained, a felony; provides that minors under 16 years shall not be licensed; fixes the speed limit at thirty-five miles an hour; prohibits intoxicated persons from driving an automobile or a motorcycle, and provides that “muffler cutouts” shall not be used within any incorporated city or city and county.

No races or contests for speed shall be permitted without first securing a permit from the proper authorities of the city or county. Motor vehicles must always be driven on the right-hand side of the highway and be under control of the driver, and in case of collision in which a person is hurt ths driver must stop and lend assistance and upon request of the person injured or whose property has been damaged the driver shall give his name and address and the number of his auto license.

Here is the schedule of licenses to bp charged: Motorcycle. $2 a year: automobile, less than 20 horsepower, $5; 20 and less than 30, $10; 30 and less than 40. $16; 40 and less than 50, $20; 50 and less than 60, $25; 60 and above, $30; dealers, for five or less autos. $50, $10, for every automobile In excess of five; dealers in motorcycles, $5 for five seals; every original chauffeur’s license, $2; renewal, $2, and additional seal of registration or license, 50 cents.

All fees or other moneys collected by the State Treasurer shall be placed in a fund known as “the “motor vehicle fund,” and one-half of the receipts shall be returned to the Counties from which they were received, and these funds shall be paid into the road funds of the counties receiving them. San Francisco shall, under the provisions of the act, be deemed a county.

Fines collected in the counties shall be paid into the county treasury, and placed in the “county good roads fund.” Applications for licenses shall be made to the State Engineer, and the licenses shall be issued by him, the money for the same to be paid to the State Treasurer, thus providing a double check on the business.

– Press Democrat, June 15, 1913
HURRY AWAY IN THE DARK
Auto Joyriders Leave Their Victims in the Road

Oscar Godwin, an auto proprietor and driver of Napa, is alleged to have collided with another vehicle near St. Helena last week–also with the new law which makes a crime of the neglect to stop and render assistance in the case of an automobile accident.

Godwin late Tuesday night at a high speed ran his automobile into the rear of a buggy driven by William Bradley. The buggy was wrecked and Misses Beth and Grace Nottage of Oakland were thrown out and severely injured. Godwin hurried on without stopping, though he heard the screams of the frightened and injured girls. In his car were E. Bailey of Napa and two women. The two men have been arrested. Godwin makes the lame excuse that his passengers forced him to drive on, and so to escape bodily injury he left his injured victims lying in the road. The offense is a serious one, as the maximum penalty is five years in the penitentiary, or a fine of $5000, or both. Both men have been released on bail of $1000.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 16, 1913

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steamboatpassengers

MANHUNT II: HOW (NOT) TO CATCH A FUGITIVE

Remember the pursuit of O.J. Simpson in his white Ford Bronco? Of course you do; that strange, slow-speed police chase mesmerized the nation for an evening in 1994. Now flip the calendar back to 1886, when an even slower pursuit of a man suspected of a double murder transfixed the country for nearly three months, with even the White House becoming involved.

In January, 1886, Sarah and Jesse Wickersham were found brutally murdered at their remote cabin west of Cloverdale. Suspicion immediately fell upon their Chinese cook who was nowhere to be found, and who was further assumed to have skipped the country on a steamer going back to China. Supposedly he also confessed to a close friend before fleeing.

As explored in “MANHUNT PT. I: ESCAPE,” there are many serious holes in that story. The cook, whose name was usually reported as some garbled version of “Ah Tai” (he’s referred to simply as “Ang” here) had no motive to kill his employers. Word about the supposed confession in Cloverdale came from second-hand sources and the name/description of the person on the boat were very different. In sum: Not only was there actually no evidence Ang had killed the Wickershams, there was no proof he was heading for China either.

(RIGHT: Chinese passengers on a steamship probably bound for Hawaii, c. 1910-1915. Photo courtesy of the Hawaii State Archives)

It would be nearly a month before the steamship “City of Rio de Janeiro” made its first stop in Yokohama, Japan where authorities could take Ang into custody. But there were obstacles to first overcome, foremost being no extradition treaty existing at the time between the United States and Japan – more about that in a minute.

The other problem was simply getting a message from San Francisco to Japan. It was 1886, twenty years before the first trans-pacific cable. A telegram from here had to hopscotch 9-10 times across across Europe, the Mideast, India and China – and that was after it had already crossed the continent and reached the East Coast. The cost for all that was $2.50 a word, or about $85 in today’s money. A week after the murders I. G. Wickersham, the wealthy uncle of the murdered man, “volunteered to defray all the expenses for telegraphing, even if they amounted to $500.” As that would only pay for 125 words, he would come to regret that promise.1

The plan was for San Francisco Police Detective Christopher Cox to take the next ship bound for Yokohama and bring Ang back for trial. He would be accompanied by Sam Weston, a 23 year-old Petaluman who was following his father’s path and learning the newspapering trade at the Argus, where he was something of a cub reporter when he wasn’t knocking around looking for adventures. He apparently had visited the Wickersham ranch during his rambles and could recognize the suspect – but before Sam could leave for China to identify Ang, he had to go to Southern California to see if a man arrested near Fresno was Ang. Weston said no, he wasn’t the suspect.

The very next day, Japanese authorities cabled that the steamship Rio arrived and Ang had been arrested. Much excitement ensued; all that remained was for Cox and Weston to fetch him, so round trip tickets were purchased (by I. G. Wickersham?) for $350 each, or today over $24 thousand total.

But suddenly there was trouble: Japan wouldn’t allow his extradition and the excitement turned into outrage. The editor of the Santa Rosa Republican howled, “Before the last election the Democrats cried themselves hoarse over what they would do when the got in power. Well, they captured a forgerer [sic] through the intervention of the Japanese government but refuse to ask the same assistance in apprehending this pig-tailed [sic] beast.”2

Earlier that year a police detective went to Yokohama and brought back a forger who had stolen $14,000 from a San Francisco bank. The Japanese government explained that was different because the bank robber was an American being returned to America – while Ang was a Chinese national. The solution was a rather elegant diplomatic pas de deux choreographed by the State Department:

Japan would escort the Chinese man to Hong Kong, which was his intended destination anyway. Hong Kong was a British colony. There the Chinese Consul would receive the prisoner and turn him over to British authorities. As there was an extradition treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain dating back to the War of 1812, the suspect could then be held until he was taken into custody by an officer from California (because the murders were not a federal crime). The Secretary of State and President Grover Cleveland personally signed the arrest warrant.

That settled, Cox and Weston left for China on April 3. Pity no one in Hong Kong had bothered to cable them that it was a waste of time and money – the man believed to be Ang Tai Duck had hanged himself five days earlier.

News of the suicide did not reach the states until a steamer from Hong Kong berthed at the end of the month. An inquest conducted at the Victoria Jail in Hong Kong found that he hung himself from a peg high on the wall of his cell while his two cellmates slept.

The coroner’s jury did not question that his death was suicide, although they chided the British turnkey of the jail because “in view of the charge against, him, [he] should have been kept under more constant supervision.”3

While negligence by the guards is certainly the most likely reason he died, it should be noted that in the U.S. at least, Chinese immigrants accused of killing whites had a habit of turning up dead in jail. A local example happened six years earlier in Marin when a Chinese cook suspected of shooting his employer “took off his undershirt tore it into straps, knotted it, and hung himself in his cell.”4


THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS
THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

MANHUNT PT. I: ESCAPE

MANHUNT II: HOW (NOT) TO CATCH A FUGITIVE

WHO KILLED THE WICKERSHAMS?

SOURCES (PDF, 31 pages)

Other bits of news included a claim that the man had confessed to the Chinese quartermaster on the steamer Rio de Janeiro – but while he was being transported from Yokohama to Hong Kong in irons, he remained silent except to protest his innocence. Nothing was mentioned about the jury confirming his identity or Hong Kong authorities presenting evidence as to whom he was.

So was the man who killed himself in Hong Kong rather than face extradition really the Wickersham murderer? The San Francisco police didn’t think he was on the ship at first, ransacking Chinatown for days in search of Ang – but since they assumed he couldn’t possibly be anywhere but in SF or on the boat, came to believe he must be a passenger on the ship.

I. G. Wickersham soon became the most prominent skeptic, writing to the San Francisco Police Chief “announcing his doubt as to the identity of the Chinaman who sailed on the steamer.” He was also concerned about the heaps of his money being spent on cablegrams to Asia, “…requesting that no further expense of international proceedings leading to the suspected man’s capture be incurred.” A year later, he asked the state to reimburse him over $2,000 related to the futile extradition.5

In Manhunt part one, it was explained that the man on the boat suspected of being Ang – and presumably, the same person who died in a Hong Kong jail – was named Ang Ah Suang and his appearance poorly matched the description of Ang circulated by authorities. So at best, we can ask the Magic 8-Ball if this was the right person and the answer will be, “Don’t count on it.”

But recall Sam Weston had been called to Fresno because the Deputy Sheriff there had arrested a man whom he was certain was Ang. The stranger appeared in the area just days after the murders and exactly matched the description of Ang, right down to the unique white spot in pupil of one eye. The man had an exit certificate allowing him to return to China and reportedly had several hundred dollars. He acted suspiciously, tore up papers when caught and was also said to be carrying a pistol.6

It’s probably safe to presume Ang arrived in San Francisco in the afternoon of January 19th and obtained an exit permit allowing him passage on a China steamship. He could not have possibly been aboard the SS Rio de Janeiro had it departed as planned that same day, but the ship was delayed for over 24 hours because of rough seas. For Ang that was good fortune; he then had plenty of time to catch it the next afternoon. But by late morning of Jan. 20 – about three or four hours before the ship’s departure – the San Francisco police and Chinatown authorities were alerted that a Chinese immigrant had reportedly murdered some Americans in Sonoma county.

There are two pressing questions: Did Ang realize he was being sought for the murders during the final hours before the Rio weighed anchor? Next, was he clever enough to anticipate that he would become a sitting duck if he boarded the ship, almost certain to be arrested on arrival in Asia?

With anti-Chinese bigotry already threatening to explode into violence, you can bet the news that someone from their community had supposedly killed whites would have spread like lightning through San Francisco’s Chinatown that morning. If Ang were there at the time, ask the Magic 8-Ball whether he knew there was a dragnet specifically looking for him – and the answer will be: “Signs point to yes.”

As to his smarts, the one fact that’s indisputable about the man who worked for the Wickershams is that he was intelligent. Besides being fluent in English, in his room he left behind a journal written in Chinese. Instead of finding incriminating evidence showing he was the killer, a translation revealed “…its contents prove the owner to have been educated far above his coolie employment. It is filled with notes of the sayings of philosophers and sages, interspersed with numerous original comments.”7

Whether or not he committed the murders (see the next and final part) my bet is Ang recognized he was in imminent danger of being captured either before the boat left or on arrival in Asia, so he took a train south, possibly hoping to disappear within the large Chinese population in Southern California. And except for Sam Weston saying the guy arrested near Fresno was not the fugitive, the weight of circumstantial evidence points to Mr. Fresno being Ang instead of the fellow on the boat. Which leads to a final question: How well did Weston really know Ang? Did the young man stay at the Wickersham place for awhile and get to know their Chinese cook, or did he only stop there briefly while riding through? His qualifications as someone who could positively ID the man were never explained in any newspaper that I can find.

Nor did Weston apparently see the body of the man who hung himself in Hong Kong. He and detective Cox arrived about a month after the suicide, and authorities told them the same details as reported about the inquest. There was no mention whether a photograph had been taken of the suspect before or after death.

But it wasn’t a total waste of time; Weston enjoyed the trip of a lifetime, completely free. “Sam Weston got back from his ocean voyage this morning,” reported a Petaluma paper in early June. “He looks as if the trip had agreed with him.”8

SS Rio de Janeiro

1 Alta California, January 27 1886

2 Daily Republican, February 22 1886

3 San Jose Herald, April 28, 1886

4 Sonoma Democrat, April 24 1880

5 Sacramento Record-Union, February 16 1886 / Alta California, February 18 1887

6 Alta California, February 16 1886

7 Alta California, January 28 1886

8 Petaluma Courier, June 2 1886

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