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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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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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