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THE YEAR OF THE ANTI-CHINESE LEAGUE

There were up to 1,500 men crowded into Santa Rosa’s Armory that winter’s night. Some were there because they were angry, some were curious and some were frightened, but all there learned that racial discrimination was now a civic duty. It was the first official 1886 meeting of the Santa Rosa Anti-Chinese League.


SOURCE NOTES (37 page PDF)

Spoiler alert: this is not a pleasant story, yet it’s not nearly as awful as some try to portray.

A few days before, a meeting was held to elect a “Committee of Fifteen” which would write a mission statement.* They composed a resolution stating any Chinese presence in Santa Rosa was a “source of great evil” and detrimental to the “white race.” Chinese immigrants should leave town ASAP and Santa Rosans should sign a pledge vowing to boycott their businesses and fire any Chinese workers they might have.

Santa Rosa was actually a latecomer – and although about half the men in town showed up, attendance was relatively light. Meetings had been held previously in Petaluma (2,000 there) and Cloverdale (1,000). At Healdsburg almost the entire town came to their first meeting and their Chinese boycott was already going strong.

The resolution also asked the Santa Rosa City Council to appoint additional policemen for night duty to prevent “riotous demonstration by white persons toward Chinamen”. That was a very real concern; throughout the West, anti-Chinese sentiments had been escalating from grumbling newspaper editorials to acts of violence, even mob riots. Newspapers reported local bigwigs were having “secret meetings” to figure out how to get rid of the Chinese – although telling a reporter about it seems to defeat the whole secrecy biz.

In Wyoming, white miners went on a rampage and murdered at least 28 Chinese men with many burned alive. Three more were shot to death in Washington state over hop picking. A mob armed with clubs drove out Tacoma’s 350 Chinese residents which was followed by the razing of their neighborhood. Federal troops were stationed in Seattle because vigilantes were itching to attack the large Chinatown there, which was the home to 1 out of 10 people in the town. And matters were about to become far, far worse; even as our ancestors were getting organized in Santa Rosa, thousands of Chinese immigrants were escaping to Portland from Oregon’s interior under vigilante threats. It seemed as if an actual pogrom of an ethnic minority was rapidly sweeping the Western states and territories. The shadow of madness had fallen upon them and enveloped the sun.

Yet it’s quite possible the anti-Chinese frenzy might have bypassed Sonoma county – if not for the  Wickersham murders.

Sarah and Jesse Wickersham were a reclusive couple who were brutally killed at their remote cabin west of Cloverdale in mid-January 1886. The presumption of guilt immediately fell upon their Chinese cook, who could not be found and was presumed to have fled to China. As explained in my four-part series, it’s highly unlikely he had any hand in it but everyone at the time was certain of his guilt, thanks in great part to two racist law enforcement officers who were widely quoted in the initial accounts. They told reporters there was no question the “Chinaman” slaughtered them and hinted Sarah had been raped (possibly gang raped) – a lie they continued repeating even after the Wickersham family asked them to knock it off.

The charge that an American family had been killed by their live-in Chinese servant gave bigots a new, powerful weapon to demonize Chinese people as crazy, unpredictable, and, for the first time – extremely dangerous. James Ragsdale, editor of the Santa Rosa Republican and soon to become part of the “Committee of Fifteen,” dipped his pen in the bigot’s inkwell and wrote a vicious screed:

…The tragedy that occurred in the northwest portion of this county on Monday last, where two of our most highly respected citizens, man and wife, were murdered in cold blood by a Chinese fiend, has done much to increase the bitterness against a race that are most wicked and inhuman. It only proves the assertion that they have neither conscience, mercy or human feeling and think no more of murdering a human being than they do killing a pig. They are monsters in human form, cunning and educated therefore more dangerous and vile. Let us get rid of them and at once.

The first anti-Chinese Leagues in the county were formed just a few days later.

Up to then, both the Republican and Sonoma Democrat had occasionally used the popular catchphrase, “the Chinese must go” in an editorial or in a reprinted item but it was framed in the abstract, as if “the Chinese” were different than the immigrants who lived and worked here. Just two days before the Wickershams were killed, the Democrat ran a sort-of travel story describing a tour of the Santa Rosa opium dens. It concluded with mention that the Chinese community here had both a Masonic and an Odd Fellows lodge.

(RIGHT: ad from the 1885 Sonoma Democrat)

While our newspapers portrayed the Chinese immigrants as an exotic (but somewhat suspect) underclass, the local economy depended upon them. In the towns, the Chinese did our laundry and sold us produce from pushcarts on the streets – Santa Rosa had six roaming vegetable vendors. On the farms and in the vineyards they did the hard work no one else wanted to do. And everyone in town or country who wanted a cook or house servant could find a Chinese man or boy ready to hire. Because they did all this for less money than anyone else, they were in great demand; in 1885 there was a Chinese employment agency on Fifth street.

Their low wages led to accusations they were “taking jobs away from Americans,” exactly mirroring the anti-Latino immigrant bias of today. In some cases it was true; companies used Chinese workers as strikebreakers or to replace an entire workforce.

But in truth, good manual labor jobs were scarce at the time not because of the Chinese but because the national economy wasn’t so hot; effects of the Depression of 1882-85 began to be felt locally with an uptick of newspaper articles about “tramps” in the area. “These men, with few exceptions are in destitute circumstances and are compelled to move from place to place in search of employment,” sympathized the Democrat paper, while at the same time noting that many were responsible for burglaries and other theft. The paper suggested that the first Anti-Chinese League meeting have an aftersession so everyone could discuss what should be done to “protect the women and children” who were hesitant to leave home lest a vagrant break in.

Meanwhile, there were now an estimated 600+ Chinese living in Santa Rosa according to the Democrat – likely an all-time high. Some had just arrived from Cloverdale and other places where Anti-Chinese Leagues were already acting out.

A week after that big League meeting at the Armory, the Committee of Fifteen visited these locations as “forty or fifty citizens accompanied the committee on its rounds,” the Democrat observed, which probably made it look like quite the vigilante mob.

Committee president John Kinslow – speaking “in good pigeon-English” [sic] – told them that as of the end of the month, “all white men would cease to patronize them” and they should leave. From the description in the Democrat it appears some of the immigrants misunderstood and thought he was offering to pay for their passage back to China, which most greatly desired but could not afford.

The committee also divided Santa Rosa into seven wards, each with a few men expected to walk the neighborhood and ask residents to sign the boycott pledge. Lists of the ward men appeared in both town newspapers and are reproduced in the source notes. Both lists have 49 names, of which only five appear in any other articles about the League. Aside from some spelling differences the lists are the same with two exceptions: One adds “James Gray” in ward five and the other includes “Burbank” in ward two. On the basis of the latter mention, the Press Democrat published two articles and an editorial in May, 2018 claiming Luther Burbank was a racist and leader of the Anti-Chinese League – see discussion here.

(RIGHT: ads from the 1886 Sonoma Democrat)

As the month of February rolled on, news was mixed. There were regular items about Chinese immigrants trickling out of town, countered by articles of some vowing to stay. The Democrat found one Chinese laundry with half its workforce idle, followed a few days later by a story that the white laundry wagons “didn’t have enough aboard to make a decent load for a poodle dog.” An interview with an immigrant called Hoodlum Jim said the boycott only served to “get rid of the scum of the race, and the others were glad of it, but the better class would stay here, just the same.”

It was remarked that “white labor is scarce in Santa Rosa” while many Chinese men were out of work and crowding into the tenements on Hinton avenue to save money. It was also written that they were going hungry, reduced to foraging for greens along the banks of the creek and on the Plaza. It’s difficult to understand how that could be the case, given that Chinese truck gardens had been feeding the entire town not so long before.

Oddly, the only real conflict in Sonoma county centered on Duncan’s Mills. The League in that vicinity had a torchlight rally and marched on the little Chinatown there to demand the residents clear out. The mill owners contacted the U.S. Marshal and asked him to appoint a deputy to protect the Chinese workers. Complaints over this went on for weeks, with the Republican paper and the Leagues squawking over the involvement of a federal officer instead of local police, plus that it was really a labor issue because the mills brought in Chinese workers instead of hiring white men from the community.

The March 1 boycott deadline came and went, but apparently little changed. A banner was hung over a downtown street reading, “The Chinese Must Go; We Mean Strictly Business!” In terms of threats, that ranked down there with a schoolyard bully drawing a line in sand while toothlessly bellowing, “you step over this and you’re really gonna get it!”

In truth, there was little the Santa Rosa Anti-Chinese Non-Partisan Association (hey, new name!) could do to force the immigrants to leave, short of violence. Attention of the League – uh, Association – turned to Plan B: Boycotting fellow Americans who weren’t boycotting the Chinese. That sort of “nuclear option” was discussed at the beginning, but it was not believed matters would come to that. The Committee’s subcommittee on the issue hashed it over; local farmers were saying they depended on Chinese workers. If there was to be a boycott of the farmers as well as those who wanted to hang on to their Chinese domestics and other workers it would cause “strife and bitterness” in the county. “We do not believe that a general boycott can be made successful at the present time,” the subcommittee concluded.

By the end of the month, the Committee of Fifteen was hunkered down in its racially-pure safe space muttering about retribution against “backsliders.” State Assemblyman Allen suggested they should publish the names of all those who signed the pledge but still “either allowed their families to patronize the heathens, or did so themselves.” He was voted down.

In Santa Rosa, the fight came to a head over strawberries.

A Sebastopol man named Crawford raised what were considered the best strawberries around, but he used Chinese workers. Two hardcore members of the Committee paid a little visit to a downtown grocer who sold his fruit. They suggested they step out of the store to discuss the difficulty, but the grocer said they could talk right there, in front of his customers. The grocer said he had signed the pledge, but one of the Committee men remarked he did not think the grocer was “sincere in his action.” (Feel free to re-read this paragraph while imagining the Committee men as played by Sopranos goons Christopher and Paulie Walnuts.)

After receiving his own little visit from Committee “investigators,” Mr. Crawford took a wagon load of his strawberries to Santa Rosa. He hitched up on Fourth street, according to the Democrat, and began selling his berries. “His price to Chinese boycotters was $1 a box, and to all others thirty cents. It was but a very short time before he was entirely sold out.”

But pushback to the anti-Chinese movement was happening all over northern California. The Sacramento Bee ran a story about a housewife seen buying vegetables from a Chinese peddler and a “spotter” rushed over to confront her, demanding to know the name of her husband. When she indignantly refused he sneered, “You must be a lover of the Chinese.”

Yet the bigots in Santa Rosa kept wandering even farther into the weeds. The Committee of Fifteen appointed a Committee of Nine “to act on the outside, to keep their eyes open, talk with the people, see what is going on and report to the League.” For those who were unwilling to cooperate with the boycott “the League should not hesitate to treat them with severity.”

That Committee of Nine immediately went into executive session to appoint another secret sub-subcommittee of nine to ferret out the traitors to the white race who were not discriminating enough against Chinese immigrants. Oh, good grief…

Further, it was proposed that a committee “should go to all the business men in town and present the membership roll and request them to sign the same and pay the initiation fee of 25 cents. If they refuse then the League will know where to find them…there were but two sides to this question — either for or against the cause.”

Healdsburg appears to be the only place that followed through and publicized names of Americans who refused to boycott, and by summer their racist hatred of Chinese people had spiraled down into foolishness that bordered on lunacy. The Healdsburg paper reported a secret society had been formed:

…signs may be frequently seen done in chalk on the sidewalks. They, to us, unintelligible signs are in the form of a large arrow or dart, surrounded by figures and small signs. By following the direction of the pointing arrow you are led to a similar one on the next corner, and so on until you reach the place of meeting. At the last meeting, beyond the river, some forty of our citizens were seen to pass into a building. All our efforts to learn anything in regard to the organization have so far failed. It is a branch or lodge of a secret order existing in this state, whose sole object is to rid the country of the Chinese.

By every measure, Santa Rosa’s anti-Chinese campaign was a flop. The last League meeting I can find mentioned was poorly attended and came only seven months after the group was formed. A newspaper item revealed the League’s dues-paying membership at its peak was merely 43.

While the boycott certainly created economic hardships for the Chinese community, it was by no means catastrophic. One Chinese wash house closed and some landlords evicted immigrant tenants. The population was reduced to roughly 100-125 residents. From the Sonoma Democrat:

…the Chinese population in this city has decreased about one-half since the anti-Chinese movement started, and they are still going. There are a few who manage to live by taking in washing, and some who are still employed as servants; the latter, however, are very few. Within the last week three Chinese house servants have been discharged, and they were working for people who have not signed the pledge.  How they live is becoming a mystery. Dozens of them may be seen loitering on Hinton avenue every day…
1885 map of downtown Santa Rosa showing Chinese businesses and residences. Some of the locations on 9th avenue (better known as Hinton av) are estimates

 

It may seem a victory that the population had dropped by half after the League began in February, but even that claim is shaky on closer examination. House servants, pushcart sellers, laundry workers and the like were the smallest categories of Chinese immigrant labor – most men worked in the country for much of the year, staying in tents or bunkhouses near where they were employed. (The state Labor Commissioner said that year there were “30,000 Chinamen employed in the hop fields, vineyards and orchards.”) These men only came to live in the towns during winter, so it was the customary pattern for them to begin drifting out of Santa Rosa and other urban areas as spring approached.

What happened as the seasonal work ended that year is a mystery. Now that the League had fizzled the local papers lost interest in writing about all things Chinese, and returned to the old pattern of only covering the men when someone was arrested or created a commotion. There was one mention that because hop-picking was over “the Chinese are returning to San Francisco by the carload,” so perhaps some of the Sonoma county immigrants chose to spend their winter in the big city than come back here.

But the League had no long term impact; the 1890 census – taken during peak growing season, when farmworkers were away from town – shows 151 Chinese living in the city of Santa Rosa, a boost of at least 30 percent from the year of the League. (There were 277 found in the whole Santa Rosa Township during 1890.)

In the years that followed, Santa Rosa’s Chinese community migrated to the corner of Second and D streets to form a compact little Chinatown (see 1908 map here). There would be little or no growth of that neighborhood in the years that followed, but not due to any discrimination by the town or racist nonsense from white citizens; it was because a different place had emerged as a hub for Chinese-American culture and commerce in Sonoma county – Sebastopol’s two Chinatowns.

 

NEXT: SEBASTOPOL’S CHINATOWNS

 

* Membership of Santa Rosa’s “Committee of Fifteen” was never explicitly listed in the newspapers, which only named those in attendance at meetings. Membership seemed to fluctuate over the first part of 1886. Some either did not attend meetings regularly or dropped out while new names appeared. Looking over all newspaper coverage, there seems to have been an overall core group of thirteen men, with eight of them being very outspoken. In rough order of frequent mention: John Kinslow, David Sheward, Assemblyman Samuel I. Allen, Lawson Ross, Frank Muther, Peter Towey, James W. Ragsdale, Jacob Harris, Ellis Morrow, Charles Bane, M. V. Vanderhoof, John F. Smith and Frank Berka.

Poy Jam, who opened Santa Rosa’s long-standing Jam Kee restaurant. Shown here in a studio portrait taken in Oakland, c. 1875, he was Song Bourbeau¹s maternal grandfather. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum

 

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BURBANK AND THE CHINESE

“There are some Chinamen in this place. I like them very well. They know about four times as much as folks generally give them credit for. They are disagreeable in some respects.” That was in Luther Burbank’s first letter to his mother from Santa Rosa, October 31, 1875 – the same letter with that “chosen spot of all this earth” quote which has become the town’s brand.

But that same fellow has a “dark past,” according to a Press Democrat headline last week.

“Luther Burbank was a racist and leader of Santa Rosa’s Chinese removal project. He leveraged his local influence and heroic stature to villainize an entire community on the basis of ethnic difference…Burbank stripped Sonoma County of cultural diversity.” Then, there’s this: “Trump’s campaign ran off the same racism and xenophobia that Burbank employed in the 1880s, and it worked out pretty well for them both.” Good grief, what kind of monster has the Chamber of Commerce been promoting for the last 120 years?

The article that makes those accusations was written by Julia Modell, features editor for the Santa Rosa Junior College’s newspaper, the Oak Leaf. It appeared there in April, and on May 27, the PD reprinted it unedited.

Modell wants SRJC to rename Burbank Auditorium after pretty much anyone else, all in the cause of social justice. “He didn’t lead a Confederate army, and he didn’t enslave people,” she wrote. “But in the context of ‘liberal’ Sonoma County, where people point to the lack of diversity but fail to accept history of racism, Burbank is a perfect idol to fall.”

On Facebook and other low spots on the internet where opinions easily puddle, some agreed with Modell, and some thought it was a stupid thing to argue. Most dived in to take a position on its moral relativism – whether it’s proper to apply our modern values to 19th century doings. Also on May 27, the editorial board of the PD agreed “there’s a dark chapter in Burbank’s biography” and stated it was a sticky problem, like Confederate flags and racist team mascots.

But few are pondering the big question: What if the accusations aren’t true at all? What if it’s really “fake news” – or rather, “fake history?”

Again from Modell’s commentary: “A group of Santa Rosans formed the Anti-Chinese League in 1886 with the explicit goal of removing all Chinese residents from Santa Rosa. ‘Santa Rosa: A 19th Century Town,’ lists Burbank as the secretary of this committee.”

That book was written by Gaye LeBaron et. al. Trouble is, the book DOES NOT state Burbank was the secretary. Nor does it appear in any of the three biographies of Burbank. Nor did any of the 1886 newspapers name him as the secretary. Since the foundation of Modell’s entire accusation that he was a racist mastermind because of being the League secretary, methinks she needs to disclose her source of this information, pronto.

See the following article for details on Santa Rosa’s 1886 Anti-Chinese League, “THE YEAR OF THE ANTI-CHINESE LEAGUE“. But briefly, much of the West Coast was enflamed during February of that year in a frenzy of racist hatred against Chinese immigrants, fueled by the Sonoma county murder of the Wickershams, supposedly by their Chinese house servant – and no, he probably wasn’t the killer, as explained in my series.

Every town in the North Bay had their own League or Committee, and the local papers documented all their doings in detail because interest was so high; at one Santa Rosa meeting, up to 1,500 people attended. Names of officers were regularly mentioned and at the January 29th meeting at Santa Rosa’s roller skating rink, three secretaries were elected to correspond with other anti-Chinese groups: F. Berka, W. C. Kellogg and R. D. Cannon. (Note: No Luther Burbank.)

So what was Burbank’s involvement with Santa Rosa’s 1886 Anti-Chinese League?

At their February 8th meeting, it was decided to request every business and household sign a pledge vowing to boycott Chinese immigrant businesses and fire any Chinese workers. Ugly racism, yes, but it was in line with what was happening that same time in towns all over the west – in Healdsburg over 700 had already signed a similar boycott pledge. It’s also important to note that the boycott eschewed confrontation and violence. At that same meeting, the League asked City Council to add more police to night patrol to prevent “riotous demonstration by white persons toward Chinamen”.

To distribute the pledge, the League divided the town into wards with 4-7 men appointed to each. The full list of the ward subcommittees appears in the following article, but here are the lists for Ward 2 as they appeared in both Santa Rosa newspapers. “Burbank” only appears in one of them.

Santa Rosa Republican February 9, 1886; Sonoma Democrat February 13 and 20, 1886

 

As far as I can tell, “Burbank” was the only name which appeared on one list and not the other. What to make of this? Sans the discovery of the actual signup sheet from 1886, it means that his involvement with the League – even at this lowest level – is inconclusive. We can’t even say that “Burbank” was certainly Luther, as his brother Alfred was also living here at the time and his whereabouts for that year are unknown.

Thus: Unless heretofore unknown evidence surfaces, Luther Burbank’s “dark past” is that he walked around his neighborhood asking people to sign a petition. Maybe.

While waiting for an unpublished document to appear that shows Luther Burbank was a monster in human form, let’s review a few things about him that any social justice activist should cheer.

Start with those lines about Chinese immigrants from his first letter home: “I like them very well. They know about four times as much as folks generally give them credit for.” Do you have any idea how remarkable it was for someone to write that in 1875? Chinese people were rarely shown any respect at all, being treated more like work animals. In Burbank’s only other letter mentioning the Chinese, he sent home a receipt from a Chinese laundry, marveling at the written Mandarin. “Can you read it? I should like to see the white man that could.”

The first chapter of Burbank’s essay, “The Training Of The Human Plant,” was titled “The Mingling of the Races.” There he applauds America’s “vast mingling of races brought here by immigration” and writes approvingly of interracial marriage. That was far ahead of its time when he wrote it in 1906; the state of California would not drop the ban on interracial marriage until 1948.

As I wrote in my “Wide-Open Town” series, Santa Rosa was a pretty corrupt place around the turn of the century. The scene downtown was compared to a “mining camp” and our small community had a red-light district large enough to service, well, a mining camp. Saloons and hotels turned into casinos while cops and local officials looked the other way, or even joined the illegal gaming. Even local children were found alongside professional gamblers from San Francisco at roulette wheels and crap tables in the backrooms. All of this activity was condoned, even encouraged, by the City Council – as well as by the Press Democrat. Fighting this corruption were reform-minded citizens who called themselves the “Good Government League.” Their reform efforts did not have an impact for years, but it was a watershed event where the 19th century good ol’ boys began to lose their grip on the town. Know who was the Vice President of that progressive citizen’s group? Luther Burbank.

And as for the SRJC’s Burbank Auditorium, some institutional history is in order. The auditorium concept predated the Junior College by a decade. The city and Chamber of Commerce originally bought the land in 1921 to make it the “Luther Burbank Creation Garden” – although it had very little to do with Burbank, aside from a promise he would contribute some plants. It was really the latest installment in the perennial melodrama over Santa Rosa’s efforts to create its first public park, this time with the good juju of Burbank’s famous name and intentions that it would someday include a 3,000-seat community auditorium, another benefit the town lacked. Nothing much came of it (although they passed the hat at events for years, seeking donations) and the property was sold in 1930 to become the basis of the new Junior College campus.

While we’re still waiting for evidence to show Luther Burbank was “a racist and leader of Santa Rosa’s Chinese removal project,” there are a few other writing assignments that folks could start.

The Oak Leaf editor-in-chief and its faculty advisor could explain why there were no fact checking efforts. Julia Modell clearly stated that her information supposedly came from Gaye LeBaron’s book. That section of the book is four pages long and about half is taken up by pictures. Someone could have read it in a couple of minutes. But no one did.

The Press Democrat editor might also tell us why they did not bother to fact check this extraordinary accusation – and then doubled down by publishing a hand-wringing “whatever shall we do” editorial. Remember Gaye LeBaron, the woman who wrote that book? She’s on your staff! Couldn’t someone take a moment away from polishing that Pulitzer Prize to give her a call and ask, you know, is any of this crap even true?

And the PD can also apologize for giving its readers a severe case of whiplash. On May 20 we were celebrating community spirit at the Luther Burbank Rose Parade, and exactly one week later, readers are told it might as well have been called the David Duke Rose Parade. And now we’re all going to get another neck jolt when the paper publishes a double retraction. You are going to retract the article and editorial, right, Press Democrat?

Luther Burbank c. 1900 (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

 

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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 had 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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