steamboatpassengers

MANHUNT II: HOW (NOT) TO CATCH A FUGITIVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS
THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

MANHUNT PT. I: ESCAPE

MANHUNT II: HOW (NOT) TO CATCH A FUGITIVE

WHO KILLED THE WICKERSHAMS?

SOURCES (PDF, 31 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SS Rio de Janeiro

1 Alta California, January 27 1886

2 Daily Republican, February 22 1886

3 San Jose Herald, April 28, 1886

4 Sonoma Democrat, April 24 1880

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

6 Alta California, February 16 1886

7 Alta California, January 28 1886

8 Petaluma Courier, June 2 1886

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AhCheongPreview

MANHUNT PT. I: ESCAPE

The Wickershams were brutally murdered in 1886 at a remote cabin west of Cloverdale, but the San Francisco police were the first authorities to learn of the crime – and they didn’t share what they knew with investigators in Sonoma county or the press, as crucial days slipped by.

That’s the surprising new twist in Sonoma’s most infamous 19th century murder mystery. Yes, the history books say the Wickershams were killed by their Chinese cook (which may or may not be true) and he escaped by catching a ride on a steamboat back to China (which may or may not be true). But it’s never mentioned the San Francisco Police Chief knew of the murders for 24 hours before the crime scene was discovered, and even then didn’t share what he knew about the suspect. If he were too busy to telephone or send a telegram to our county sheriff, a postcard would have been thoughtful.

“Manhunt” is part two of the series on the Wickersham murders, and this section tells the story of what was said to happen during the first week afterwards. I’ve reluctantly split “Manhunt” in half because of its length – simply too much new information turned up which has never been examined by historians. The conclusion of “Manhunt” is about the pursuit across the sea and looks at who were the more likely killers. Part one explored the conflicting details told about the murders, but is probably not required reading to understand most of what follows.

In all parts of this series, the degree of misinformation which appeared in the papers is part of the story. Important details may be truth or fiction or something in between. Sometimes we can spot the fake news, but often we can’t tell because much of the reporting was sloppy to a degree that would have been unacceptable, had the subjects not been Chinese.

We can’t even be sure what his name was; it was first supposed to be “Ah Tai” but in the second week of press coverage a friend and fellow immigrant in Cloverdale corrected that he was “Ang Tai Duck.” Newspapers at the time garbled both versions, the worst being a Washington D.C. paper calling him “Yai Duck.” Here he will be referred to simply as “Ang,” since the great majority of Chinese immigrants to California came from Guangdong (formerly Canton) province and 王 is common family name, often romanized as Ang.

And as you could probably guess, no photos of Ang are known to exist. Seen above and to the right is Ah Cheong, a Chinese immigrant who was arrested in 1883 for assaulting an officer on an Australian schooner. I selected his picture to be Ang’s stand-in not only because he appears to be about the same age and was likewise a cook, but because of the intelligence and wariness in his eyes. The real Ang was either a reckless-but-lucky madman or a clever and innocent man who somehow managed to elude an entire state determined to find and hang him. My money’s on the latter.  (This mug shot courtesy twistedhistory.net.au.)

Around 10 o’clock on Thursday morning, John Elliott Jewell peered through a window and saw his neighbor dead. He notified authorities as fast as he could, telling them Jesse Wickersham had been murdered in his cabin. No, he didn’t know the whereabouts of Mrs. Wickersham, but she was probably killed as well. Also, their Chinese cook had disappeared, so he probably did it.


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)

No more details were known for the next two days, as the Wickersham cabin was in one of the most inaccessible parts of Sonoma county. The absence of further details did not stop some newspapers from charging ahead with made up facts and innuendo.

“A CHINESE FIEND,” screeched a headline in the Oakland Tribune the next day. “The deed is supposed to have been committed by some Chinese employees, with whom Mr. Wickersham has been having some trouble,” the paper claimed, but that was not the worst of their phony reporting, as the article also claimed there was “a theory that Mrs. Wickersham was outraged before the murder,” meaning that she was raped. “…There are the gravest reasons for believing that the unfortunate woman has also fallen a victim to the cupidity or revenge of her husband’s assassin…and there are not a few people here who express the opinion that she may have met a fate worse than death.” Although no evidence of sexual assault was later found, the lie that the Chinese man had “outraged” Mrs. Wickersham was continually repeated by some papers as if it were a simple fact when they printed updates about the story.1

Back-to-back heavy storms made travel hard for officers to reach the Wickersham ranch by horseback and wagon but they finally arrived at the scene on January 21, the day after neighbor Jewell had reported foul play.

Jesse Wickersham was found in his chair at the table, with all signs he had been killed during Monday supper. He had fatal shotgun wounds in his right side and the back of his head. Sarah Wickersham was found in their bedroom, tied up with her hands behind her back and likewise slain by a shotgun blast. Again, read part one for details.

A search of Ang’s room turned up nothing suspicious except for some of the same clothesline rope which was used to tie up Sarah. There was an open trunk with some clothing and other garments were neatly folded on the bed. There was also a tintype photograph, a few letters and “…three bottles of good whisky, which was at once sampled by the wet and exhausted Coroner and Marshal Blume.”2

At the cabin late that afternoon the Coroner’s Jury heard testimony from the doctor who performed the autopsy and Jewell. From the Coroner’s handwritten notes, Jewell told them he was certain Ang was the killer, but 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 – whose fate he did not discover until investigators arrived – Jewell said, “I do not know who killed her but believe it to be [the] Chinaman.”3

Despite the preponderance of no evidence whatsoever, the Coroner’s Jury decided “ail evidence [was] pointing towards a Chinese cook in the employ of deceased.”

The manhunt was on.

From the New York Times, three days later:

CLOVERDALE, Cal., Jan. 24. — Details reached here yesterday of the murder of Jesse C. Wickersham, a prominent farmer, and his wife at their ranch about 20 miles from this town…Strong circumstantial evidence points to a Chinese cook, Ah Kai, employed by the couple, who has disappeared. The murder was evidently committed on Monday night. It is believed the Chinaman took an early train on Tuesday at Cloverdale for San Francisco, and embarked on the steamer Rio de Janeiro, which sailed for Hong-Kong on Wednesday. The discovery of the crime was made on Thursday, but, owing to the bad condition of the roads, caused by the recent storm, no reliable information could be obtained earlier.

The Wickersham murders were already stirring up the state’s roiling anti-Chinese racism (see part three) and now that it was presumed that the killer was on a Slow Boat to China there would be no resolution until Ang was arrested in Yokohama (or not). This would keep the story alive for at least three weeks and naturally, the Bay Area newspapers had to find something to keep interest whipped up in the meantime. That did not prove to be a burden for them.

“There was so much method in his cruel deed as to give rise to but one theory — revenge for some fancied injury,” the Alta California reported. “It has been learned by Mr. Blume that for some time Mrs. Wickersham was annoyed by Ti’s actions whenever her husband was absent, and the result was that she used to retire to her room and lock the door. Not long ago he made so much trouble that she complained of him to her husband, and he gave Ti a severe tongue-lashing, but used no violence. This affair is thought to have rankled in his heart, and, as he was in the habit of drinking heavily and, suffering from sullen fits of anger, he took the first chance to wreak his vengeance on the helpless victim.”4

We can be sure that story would register as “pants on fire” on the truth-o-meter because its source was Petaluma City Marshal Julius Blume, who along with Constable Roland Truitt of Healdsburg pushed the false claims of rape. They also appear to be sources of the story that the killer left behind a piece of cake next to her, supposedly a Chinese offering to the dead. Blume was also telling the press “he had heard that the Chinaman had killed a man in Sacramento” and “the murderer talked of leaving Captain Wickersham at one time, and when asked why, said, ‘Bossee velly good, but lady too much talkee.'” Any article that used either of them as a source can be dismissed as prejudicial and untrustworthy.5

While Truitt and Blume’s fictions were quoted far and wide, the Petaluma Courier – which offered eyewitness reporting on the inquest at the scene of the crime that appeared highly reliable – interviewed a local man who sometimes worked for Wickersham and knew Ang. “Mr. Smith was at the ranch three months ago when the Chinaman first arrived, and has frequently been there since,” the paper said. Directly contradicting Blume, the article continued, “Mr. Louis Smith is the reporter’s authority that the Chinaman 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…[Ang] was regarded by Mr. Smith as a good Chinaman, as the Chinese go.” No wire service or other newspaper reprinted Smith’s favorable opinions.6

And then there was this: There was no reliable description of what Ang looked like. Louis Smith described Ang to the Courier as being heavy set, about 5 feet 4 inches and about 28 years old. He spoke English well and smiled while speaking. Other papers completely agreed except he was either an inch or two shorter or four inches taller plus being forty years old. Sometimes it was stated he had a mole or dark birthmark on his cheek. The official description always mentioned specifically he had a white spot in pupil of right eye and vaguely that there was a scar on his neck – or face.

Marshall Blume took the tintype photograph found in Ang’s room and delivered it to San Francisco Police Chief Crowley so Ang could be identified. It portrayed four Chinese men – but was the image too old to be used for ID? Again from the Petaluma Courier: “On the day of his arrival at the ranch he showed Mr. Smith a tintype of himself, but the gentleman failed to see any resemblance between the picture and the alleged original.”7

As days passed while waiting for news from the China steamer, focus shifted from Ang’s presumed guilt to documenting his escape. His flight from the backcountry to San Francisco’s Chinatown would take about 17 hours, including a quick stopover to make a odd  damning confession.

The Wickersham ranch was 18-20 miles from Cloverdale over the road that existed at the time and required fording two major creeks. Three days later, it would take the Coroner’s party about twelve hours to cover this same distance on horseback and with a wagon, guided by local men. Ang was on foot and since he had only worked there for three months, was probably unfamiliar with the road and certainly wouldn’t have known any shortcuts through the hills. Complicating matters further it was night – investigators presumed the Wickershams were killed during supper, probably between 5-6 PM on Monday. There was nearly a full moon that evening but it still was probably pitch dark, as a heavy storm was a few hours away (or might have already begun).

Anyone who made that winter’s night trek through rough country would have been wet and filthy when he arrived in Cloverdale before dawn. He would also likely be shivering cold – a coat was one of the items found on the bed in Ang’s room.

This is an example of the account which was in most newspapers days later: “Ah Ti, appeared at the wash house of his uncle in Cloverdale. He was mud bedraggled and much excite, and wished to talk privately with his uncle. The latter went out and talked with Ah Ti, who told him that he had killed his employers. It was then near the time of the departure of the down-train, and Ah Ti, rushed off to get aboard.”8

That was a summary of a lengthy report about the San Francisco Police inquiry that didn’t happen until the following week, when it was finally revealed how much the SF police actually knew. This was part of the full statement by the “uncle:”

“I have known Ang Tai Duck about seven years. For a number of these I did not see him, and our acquaintance was renewed when he went to Hopland to pick hops some six months ago. When he was through with that work he loafed about Cloverdale for a few days before getting a situation with the Wickershams. I am not the real uncle of Ang Tai Duck, but he calls me so because I bear the same surname.”9

Between 4 and 5 AM of Tuesday, January 19th, there was a knock at my door in the rear of the laundry…On going out there saw Ang Tai Duck; I asked him: ‘What is your business at this early hour?’ He replied: ‘I am going away to the city.’ I asked him again: ‘What important business takes you to the city?’ In reply he said: ‘I have killed two persons and must go.’ With this he started and ran away, without giving me time to ask any further questions. I suppose he was anxious to catch the cars, as it was then about 5 AM and the station was some distance from the laundry, and the train left at 5:10.

The southbound train from Cloverdale actually left precisely at 5:00, but other than that I think the account rings true, if inexplicable. But why would anyone wake up an old friend only to blurt out a murder confession before running away?

My guess is that a change of dry clothes and something warm to eat would have been strong motivations to seek out his “uncle,” and it’s doubtful Ang carried a pocket watch; he probably only realized the train was soon to depart when he saw a clock at the laundry.

As for the confession, it’s crucial to note their contact might have only lasted a few seconds. Could he instead have told his friend something more like, “I was there when two persons were killed,” or “I’m getting out of here because they will blame me for killing two persons”? With such a very short conversation, I think it’s quite possible his sleep-bleary buddy might have misunderstood whatever Ang was trying to say. If this was the only evidence of guilt (and it was), a prosecutor might have had trouble getting a conviction even back in 1886.

Ang indeed made the train, according to a Santa Rosa paper: “Conductor Moul, who runs on the early morning train from Cloverdale, says that Tuesday morning a Chinaman took passage with him for the city…He had the appearance of having walked some distance through mud and water, and was badly travel stained.” Both the conductor and the newsboy noticed the man “on account of his peculiar manner and appearance” and the conductor thought “his actions indicated that he was anxious to find some one, or not to be found.” The newsboy chatted with him at length and sold him some cigarettes. The conductor added the man “had a mole on his cheek of the same shape and size of the one said to have been on Ah Tai.” This mole or birthmark was mentioned in only one other description, which seems unusual if it was really was such a distinguishing feature.10

From the very first articles about the investigation at the Wickersham’s cabin, it was presumed the Chinese cook stepped off the Tiburon ferry that afternoon and went straight to the dock with the steamship Rio de Janeiro, bound for Japan and Hong Kong. It was even sometimes darkly suggested this was part of his escape plan after he committed premeditated murders of the Wickershams. Uh…no.

First, the Rio was supposed to depart before Ang’s ferry reached San Francisco. Only because of rough waters due to the storm then hitting the Bay Area was the steamer delayed until the following day, making it even feasible for Ang to be aboard as it left port on Wednesday, January 20. There would be no other ships heading to the Far East from San Francisco for eleven days.

Nor did a Chinese immigrant in 1886 California simply walk up to a ticket window and buy passage on a ship. By an arrangement between the steamship operators and the “Six Companies,” all departing immigrants were required to have an exit permit issued by the association where the man was registered as a member. And to get that permit he had to be up-to-date on dues and other fees as well as owing no debt for his passage to America – thus every Chinese immigrant leaving the country was positively identified. And on top of that, there was a Customs House officer examining all departing Chinese at the gangplank; if the immigrant did not also have a return certificate authorizing him to come back to America, a description of the man was recorded. In short: Everyone on that steamship in 1886 was better documented than passengers flying on a United 757 to China today.11

Whether or not Ang was on the boat is the big question examined in the next “Manhunt” segment. Before looking at that, however, there’s another mystery: With all that the San Francisco police and Chinese authorities in the city knew about the Wickersham murders even before the crime scene was discovered – why didn’t they share that crucial information with Sonoma County?


The details that follow come from the most respectable newspaper of the time (The Daily Alta California) and all of it concerns statements which were made to police, including direct quotes. There are problems because the reporter and/or editor did not seem to understand the structure of Chinese society in America, particularly the importance of the Six Companies and the exit permit system. The true identity of the man on the steamboat could have been determined by a reporter asking a simple direct question of the President of the proper company. Here’s the summary of what appeared:

Ah Kum, who worked at the Cloverdale laundry with Ang’s “uncle,” was there the morning Ang arrived before dawn, “all covered with mud and looked very much frightened and troubled. We asked him what was the matter and what brought him there at that time of the night, but he refused to say anything until he saw his uncle, Ong Hin Lung.”

Ang and his uncle spoke privately. “At last the uncle came back alone. He was crying and seemed to be in great distress. The rest of us suspected something at once and asked Lung what the trouble was, and what his nephew had done. He replied that Duck had committed a great crime; he had murdered his boss.” Ah Kum and the others worried “we might all get into trouble when the police learned of the murder.” It was decided he should take the next train to San Francisco in order to notify the company of Ang’s murder confession so he could be arrested. Ah Kum didn’t know the city, so he went to his uncle’s place and waited for him to return home. When his relative came in at midnight, it was decided to wait until the next morning, when they contacted the company between 8-9 o’clock.

The narrative shifts to the remarks of Lee Cum Wah, President of the Ning Yung Company. Unfortunately, this crucial section is paraphrased with no direct quotes. And what’s really unfortunate is that we don’t know if this was the association to which Ang belonged, which was the only place he could have obtained the crucial exit permit. In another part of the Alta California coverage it is stated in passing that Ang belonged to the Hop Wo Company, and Ang had apparently gone directly to their offices on arriving in the city – but no one from that company besides a porter was interviewed. It would make sense that Ah Kum would reach out to his own company Ning Yung, as that was undoubtedly the only official contact he had in Chinatown.

On hearing that a Chinese immigrant had reportedly murdered some Americans, Lee Cum Wah immediately telephoned the Chinese Consulate, where Colonel Frederick Bee – an American lawyer who acted as the Western U.S. Consul for the Emperor – called the Police Chief, asking him to send officers to the steamer which was to depart in less than thirty minutes. A pair of detectives rushed to the dock.

They “made a hasty search with lanterns through the darkened steerage of the ship, but as they had no description of [Ang] with them they did not meet with any success. Their only hope was to find somebody who knew him and would point him out,” the Alta reported. There were 73 Chinese passengers on the ship and alas, not one of them stepped forward to confess.

By the time Ah Kum and the company president arrived, the ship was already streaming towards the Golden Gate.

The Alta California coverage appeared on January 27, exactly one week after the steamship Rio de Janeiro departed (the official statements were made at the police inquiry on the 25th).

The Alta was a widely-read morning newspaper, and some papers that published in the evening – including Santa Rosa’s Republican – shamelessly cribbed details from their coverage, which was not unusual for the time. Mistakes were introduced in the retellings; several editors didn’t read the original story closely and mistakenly wrote Ang was a member of the Ning Yung association.

That last-minute rush to intercept Ang before the steamship departed happened 24 hours before neighbor Elliott Jewell peeked in a window and saw his dead neighbor Wickersham. To my complete amazement, not a single paper can be found questioning why the San Francisco police did not contact the Sonoma county sheriff immediately about what they knew about a serious crime – that a Chinese man from Cloverdale had come forward to say he had heard (admittedly secondhand) that Ang had supposedly confessed to a double homicide up in Sonoma. Ah Kum might not have known lots of details, but he knew the name of suspect, Ang’s contacts in Cloverdale and was able to identify him a week later in the tintype photograph taken by Marshall Blume from Ang’s room.

Like everyone else at the time, the Alta was absolutely certain Ang had to be on the boat. This led them to overlook three critical bits of information that came out during the police inquiry:

*
It was discovered the suspect was registered with the Hop Wo Company, but the Alta did not followup and ask the president of that association about the exit permit, which would have revealed his true identity.


*
Ang’s uncle arrived in San Francisco three days after their encounter at the laundry and sought news from a man whose store was apparently a clearinghouse for Chinatown news and gossip. “I went direct to Sun Lee Lung, 761 Clay street, and asked him if Tai Duck was there. He said: ‘We don’t know Ang Tai Duck, but a person named Dar Ng Sang has gone back.'” This was an important clue that Ang might not have been on the steamship.


*
It was revealed the suspect bought a discount “poor man’s ticket” – which only four passengers on the steamship had – and did not acquire a return certificate, which meant the Customs House had a name and description of the man.

A smart reporter or detective would have beelined over to the Customs House to take a close look at the entries on those four men – particularly since the Alta had reported both “no Chinaman answering the description of Ah Tai obtained a certificate for passage on the Rio de Janeiro” (Jan. 24) and “Customs officials took a description of him, which corresponds exactly with the one furnished to the police” (Jan. 27).

No one from the Alta checked their source, but a reporter from the Oakland Tribune did:12

Ang Ah Suang. When this man, who was no other than Ah Ti, went aboard the vessel, and, having no Consular certificate, he was examined on Wednesday, and the following description was entered on the book kept for that purpose: Ang Ah Suang, aged 35; 5 feet 2 inches; scar on left eyebrow; residence, Sacramento; came to the United States for the first time in 1871.

But the suspect “who was no other than Ah Ti” looked nothing like him – the age and height were different and he was lacking the characteristic white spot in the pupil of his eye or black spot on his cheek. This meant there was no evidence that Ang was heading for China.

 

1Oakland Tribune, January 22, 1886

2Daily Alta California, January 25, 1886

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

4Daily Alta California, January 25, 1886

5Daily Democrat, January 26, 1886 and Sacramento Record-Union, January 25, 1886

6Petaluma Courier, January 27, 1886

7ibid

8Petaluma Argus, January 30, 1886

9Daily Alta California, January 27 1886

10 Daily Democrat, January 24 1886

11It was a common myth in the 19th century and later that the Six Companies were the driving force behind Chinese immigration, bringing over peasants who were then indentured to the association for the cost of their passage and finding them work. To the contrary, it was usually American businesses (such as the railroads) using Chinese or American contractors to recruit workers from Guangdong province and arrange their transport – Cornelius Koopmanschap, a Dutchman, famously claimed to have brought 30,000 laborers to California. The contractors made their money by usurious markups, such as charging $175 for a ticket which cost $50, then seeing the employer docked two-thirds of an immigrant’s wages until the debt (plus any other fees or interest) was repaid, which was tantamount to servitude. While the Six Companies didn’t often play a middleman role in bringing immigrants here or finding them work, the exit permit system acted as strong-arm enforcement on behalf of the labor contractors to prevent debtors from skipping out and returning to China. See: Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Chinese Historical Society, 1987, and also, A Century-old “Puzzle”: The Six Companies’ Role in Chinese Labor Importation in the Nineteenth Century, Yucheng Qin, The Journal of American-East Asian Relations Vol. 12, No. 3/4.

12Oakland Tribune, January 27 1886

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THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

It was a fearsome crime and although newspapers in those days were packed with stories about terrible murders, this incident was so horrific that news of it spread nationwide, becoming the first time most Americans heard of a place called Sonoma county. Even your great -great (-great?) grandmother Augusta in far-away Minnesota read this wire story on the front page of her local paper in 1886:

CLOVERDALE, Cal., Jan 23–Details reached here to-day of a double murder, the victims of which are a prominent farmer, Jesse C. Wickersham, and wife….Wickersham was found sitting in a chair in the diningroom dead, with blood oozing from a wound in the breast and another in the head. Mrs. Wickersham was found dead on the bed in a bed-room up stairs, her hands and feet bound and a wound in her breast. The valuables on both bodies were intact, which showed robbery was not the object of the crime. All the wounds were inflicted by a shotgun. Strong circumstantial evidence points to a Chinese cook, Ah Kai, employed by the murdered couple. Ah Kai is nowhere to be found…1

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)

The picture it painted portrayed nightmarish scenes: A woman tied up on her bed, the gruesome view of her husband, the idea that both were innocents slaughtered senselessly by a member of their household. That the supposed mad killer was a Chinese immigrant only confirmed what fear-mongering politicians and the press had been shouting for years.

But aside from the Wickershams indeed being murdered, most of the important facts in the article were wrong. Robbery probably was the motive; no evidence implicated the Chinese cook, who immediately became the prime suspect only because his whereabouts were unknown and other (more likely) culprits weren’t considered.

The Wickersham killings had an immediate impact on Sonoma county and the state, leading to boycotts of Chinese businesses and expulsion of immigrants from towns – and its ripples even reached Congress as more anti-Chinese legislation passed in the following years. But despite its importance. actual details of the Wickersham case never have been closely examined.

What follows is part one, which dives into the conflicting stories about the double murder; parts two and three follow the manhunt for the Chinese cook and part four suggests who were the more likely suspects.

This is a tricky tale to write because every newspaper added, omitted and/or contradicted details found in other papers. Often the differences were minor – but sometimes they were critical to interpreting events. In almost every case I selected a version that came from an interview with someone with first-hand knowledge, but some players were so eager to implicate the Chinese man that they apparently lied or exaggerated, and in one case, possibly tampered with the crime scene. Any non-trivial differences are discussed. If you want the complete scoop, newspaper transcriptions for the whole series will be available for download in a separate text file.

As we begin, keep in mind this is an important moment in our history only because of a perfectly awful set of circumstances. Had the Wickershams been murdered six months earlier or later the tragedy might have been little noticed – but it happened at the peak of local anti-Chinese frenzy. Had the Wickersham ranch not been so hard for authorities to reach, accurate details might have been reported quickly – instead, newspapers fed the public’s hunger for news by printing lies and rumors. And even Mother Nature seemed to conspire to make any possible investigation difficult – there was a Perfect Storm before the crime was discovered which likely obliterated evidence.

Location of the Wickersham ranch and vicinity on the map from the 1898 county atlas

 

The winter of 1885-1886 was fairly mild and dry in Sonoma county – except for the third week of January, when the North Bay was slammed with torrential rains and high winds. There was snow on St. Helena and Sonoma Mountains; major roads were impassible, with the well-traveled route through the Sonoma Valley compared to a lake.

It was just before the biggest storm hit on Wednesday the 20th when two Indians showed up at Elliott Jewell’s ranch, far from any town in the rugged northwest corner of the county. Jewell knew the men and considered them friendly. “You see Wickersham?” he was asked. “Wickersham” was Jesse C. Wickersham, who had a place with his wife about two miles away. Jewell replied he had not seen his neighbor recently. They asked again, “Where Wickersham?” and then, “You come Wickersham?” He promised to ride over the next day and check on his friends. 2

With the weather clear mid-morning on Thursday, Jewell went over but did not approach the cabin, apparently because he saw no smoke from the chimney nor other sign of life. “I had already made up my mind something was wrong,” he told a reporter a few days later, “possibly a murder.” He detoured back to the Indian’s camp about a half-mile away from the Wickersham place, where they had been hired to cut wood. 3

When had anyone last seen a person at the cabin? He asked. Not since mid-morning on Monday; on Wednesday, “they said they had gone down to the house, and fearful of approaching it, they had stood afar off and hallooed for Wickersham, but without an answer.” 4

“Taking the two Indians with me, I attempted to open the door of the sitting-room but found it locked. The window was down and I pulled out the sash. The Indians then suggested that I should come round to the dining-room. I did so. The door did not yield. I went to the window, pulled aside the blind, and there my eyes fell upon the rigid form of my old friend – a blanket about his head and his feet in a pool of blood.” 5

Without investigating further, Jewell immediately returned to his horse and went home, where he fetched his wife and headed towards Skaggs’ Springs, the nearest place where he could seek help. 6


It was fourteen miles to the Skaggs’ Hot Springs resort, where hopefully the telephone and telegraph lines were still up despite the overnight storm winds. Jewell knew the winding road well and in good weather he probably could get there in under three hours. That day it apparently took him twice that long. The weather had made the route treacherous; the next morning the county coroner’s horse would slip and fall along this road enroute to the crime scene.

The long ride probably gave Jewell and his wife time to reflect. They had last seen the Wickershams about three weeks earlier, when the two couples spent the weekend together to celebrate the new year. “We were continually over at each other’s places,” he later told a reporter. But aside from the companionship of being the only neighbors within walking distance, they didn’t have much in common. 7

Jewell was more of a gentleman farmer and the place he called “Castle Rock Ranch” was the couple’s country home. At the time Jewell was 35 and owned the Petaluma News Depot, one of the most important businesses in south county because it handled all newspaper, magazine and book sales. Although his parents were rich he seemingly did well on his own, later owning a hop ranch near Fulton and trying his luck at gold mining in the Yukon. The couple mainly lived in Petaluma before moving on to Santa Cruz and San Francisco.

Jesse C. Wickersham had a very different lifestory. His uncle was Isaac G. Wickersham, the wealthiest man in Sonoma county and president of the National Gold Bank of Petaluma – one of nine banks in the state allowed to actually print money. Jesse was 52 and had lived in his uncle’s shadow for years, working as an assistant cashier and notary at the bank, then as an insurance agent for another of his uncle’s companies. He married the sister of his uncle’s wife, a widow who was his same age. He was also dependent upon his in-laws; he and wife Sarah lived with them in Petaluma, and his father-in-law was co-owner of the ranch.

There was something the matter with Jesse which was never explained. “About Wickersham being poorly – that is true,” said a Healdsburg man who owned property near the ranch. “He is a weakly man – unable to ride and unable to look after the rancho properly.” Jewell agreed he was “in a very sickly condition” when he first moved to the country, but said he was better now and “could ride about and do light work.” 8

Or maybe the problem was psychological. Unlike the Jewells who came and went between their ranch and Petaluma, Jesse and his wife apparently remained there all the time. That they chose to live a reclusive life at one of the most remote places in Sonoma county is worth noting along with his earlier “failure to launch” – never advancing beyond menial clerical jobs, despite the remarkable advantage of his family connections.

Another important detail in his bio: Jesse was a Civil War vet who served almost the entire duration of the war, advancing to First Lieutenant (not Captain, as claimed in some of the contemporary articles). He was in the 2nd Iowa Infantry – where nearly half the regiment was wounded or killed – and fought in some of the worst battles, including Vicksburg, Shiloh and Atlanta; perhaps he had shrapnel that later dangerously shifted in his body, or maybe he had severe PTSD.

The cabin of Sarah and Jesse Wickersham as seen today. All photos here courtesy David Otero and Wickersham Ranch

 

The Jewells reached Skaggs’ Springs in late afternoon and fortunately, both telephone and telegraph lines were functioning – no sure thing in rural Sonoma county even 25 years later, as outlying customers provided the wires to connect to the nearest company office, which in this case was Geyserville.

Jewell either spoke or telegraphed the coroner, sheriff and I. G. Wickersham. Some of the misinformation that spread over the following days was probably due to the lo-fi quality of the telephone connection – the wood cutters were first identified as Italians and not Indians, for example. And soon after that all lines to Skaggs’ Springs went down, blocking reporters from asking questions or receiving any updates for two long days.

Although there was little more than an hour before the last “up-train” departed from Petaluma, the county coroner and marshal were onboard headed north, along with Fred Wickersham, the adult cousin of Jesse. They were joined by others in towns along the way;  the party that finally arrived at the Wickersham ranch included at least 17 men and likely more.

It took them around twelve hours to get to the ranch overnight from Cloverdale. The Dry Creek crossing was flooded out; there Sheriff Bishop turned back while the others swam their horses across. Other streams and creeks were swollen from the week’s storms and they also had to swim the horses across Hot Spring creek. The coroner’s horse fell, injuring him and Dr. Swisher “lost his horses” (no further details of what that meant). Healdsburg Constable Truitt called it “one of the hardest trips of my experience.” 9

While they were still slogging through the mud heading to the crime scene, the rest of the county was afire with rumor and gossip. “The news was carried from mouth to mouth, and soon the horror was the theme of conversation on every hand.” 10

The first published article appeared the same evening as Jewell’s telephone calls, which is to say the only known facts were that Wickersham was dead and the whereabouts of his wife and Chinese cook were unknown. The Oakland Tribune set a low bar with its story datelined Santa Rosa: “…there are not a few people here who express the opinion that [Mrs. Wickersham] may have met a fate worse than death to a woman of her character, and that her former servant, after murdering his master may have carried her off to some hiding place, possibly aided by confederate of his own race, for the basest purposes…” 11

Wickersham’s mysterious illness was the core of a widespread rumor the next day. An unnamed man “from near that locality” rode into Santa Rosa and claimed he knew what happened: “…Wickersham, who had been for a long time in low health, died suddenly, while sitting in his chair, from hemorrhage of the lungs. His wife, who had previously dispatched the Chinaman for the doctor, after finding that her husband was dead, threw a blanket over him, and started for the neighbors, fainting on the way.” 12

The hemorrhage theory was chewed over for two days, then forgotten once the bodies were found. But another rumor persisted for weeks – that the Chinese killer had “outraged” Sarah Wickersham. The inquest report did not mention sexual assault and the family vehemently denied it was true. “The statements that have been made in the papers concerning foul outrages are not true, nor are they kind,” Fred Wickersham said the day of the funerals. His banker father also asked for understanding: “Our feelings can better be imagined than described, but it makes the pangs of regret the keener when such reports are spread. It is bad enough, God knows, without making the facts worse.” Ignoring their pleas, newspapers – particularly papers in Sonoma county outside of Petaluma, including Santa Rosa’s Sonoma Democrat – continued to claim she had been raped. 13

Meanwhile, back on the ranch (oh, how I have longed for a chance to use that phrase) the party arrived a few hours after dawn Friday, having ridden all night except for a short rest at Skaggs’ Springs. While others were unsaddling, Constable Truitt was the first to enter the house. This was unfortunate because he was an unreliable figure; he exaggerated his role in the events and gave the press an interpretation of Sarah’s death which contradicted the coroner’s report (he also pushed the “outraged” claim). That he was alone in the house for several minutes casts doubt on whether the crime scene was really undisturbed. 14

Scene of the Jesse Wickersham murder. The door to the left of the fireplace led to the kitchen, and the door on the left wall led to a bedroom, where presumably Sarah’s body was found. A back bedroom can be partially seen through the open kitchen door.

 

When the group entered the cabin they found Truitt examining Jesse’s body, which was in a chair with its back to the fireplace. He had been shot in the back of the head as the couple was sharing a meal.

“He was sitting at the table as though he had fallen asleep,” Marshal Blume told a Santa Rosa reporter. “His head had dropped over to tbe left side slightly and the chin was resting on his breast…The plate was upset in his lap. The plate of his wife, which was opposite, had potatoes on it and was undisturbed. There was a piece of pie at each place. The chair which had been occupied by Mrs. Wickersham was overturned.” 15

There was at least one reporter there who wrote a remarkably detailed account of the scene for the Petaluma Courier. Evidence showed the shotgun blast came from the kitchen doorway:

The kitchen door on both sides was painted white. 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. All present came to the conclusion that the murderer had certainly opened the door only a few inches, thus being able to level his gun on the husband without allowing it to project beyond the edge, while the door screened him from the wife’s view. 16

Jesse had another shotgun wound on his right side. The coroner did not say which shot he believed was first, but either of them would have been fatal. The significance of this shot is discussed in part two.

For reasons unknown, someone had tried hard to stop the bleeding before he died. Again from the Courier:

Beneath the chair on which the body rested were two pools of blood, the clothing worn by the deceased also being saturated. 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 filled with it. From the corners and here and there on the edge only could it be told what the original color of the articles were. From the snowy whiteness of these spots, still stiff with starch, 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. 17

Sarah was found in their bedroom. Her wrists were tied behind her back with the same clothesline rope looped around her chest, the end tied to the bed (I’m guessing the rails of a brass bed). She was half-kneeling beside it with her head resting on the bed. She had one shotgun wound to her right side. The bed was neatly made and unruffled. The coroner made no mention of sexual assault, but he also did not describe the condition of her face, which several newspapers described as being “mutilated.” One account claimed her nose was broken and the reliable Petaluma Courier reporter wrote her “face was swollen and bruised.”

And then there was the cake story. “One of the most curious things discovered was a piece of cake, which had been placed by the murderer after accomplishing his diabolical designs on the pillow beside the dead woman. It is said that this is a custom of the Chinese to exorcise evil spirits from the bodies of the dead,” wrote one Healdsburg paper. In another account there were five pieces of cake. 18

There is indeed a religious belief that the spirit of someone who has died violently can become a “hungry ghost,” but it’s hardly a secret that Chinese generally made food offerings to the dead. The meticulous Courier reporter does not mention anything about a piece of cake on the bed; the newspapers that did so were quoting or paraphrasing Marshal Blume or Constable Truitt, who both kept pushing the “outraged” claim even after the Wickersham family asked everyone to knock it off. In short, I don’t think there’s much question that this part of the story was planted in order to prove the Chinese cook had to be the killer.

The cook’s room was also inspected, and will be discussed in part two; all that’s crucial to know is that nothing incriminating was found there except for some clothesline like the rope used to tie up Sarah. Elsewhere in the house someone found Jesse’s meticulously-kept journal with the last entry made after Sunday night supper. That and a burned-dry lamp on the table led them to conclude the murders happened between 5-6PM on Monday, four days earlier.

The house was not ransacked and Wickersham still had his watch and pocket change. “This shows that the object of the fiendish criminal was not robbery,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the papers pushing the outraged/cake angle. 19

But at least some times of the year, Jesse kept large amounts of cash around to pay ranch hands. Again the Petaluma Courier seemed to have the last word: “A small satchel, however, in which the rancher was known to sometimes keep money, was found open… No one present was able to state whether there was much or little money in the house before the deed was committed.” The Courier also had an anecdote about Jesse unexpectedly settling a $100 debt with a neighbor – the equivalent of over $3,300 today. Another time he had to defer paying the neighbor because “He had nothing less than a twenty.”

While the Healdsburg doctor did the autopsies, Marshal Blume took a party of the men to search the range for any signs of the cook. Finding nothing, the coroner’s jury heard evidence from the doctor and Elliott Jewell, coming to the conclusion that the Wickershams “came to their death from gunshot wounds, inflicted by unknown hands, ail evidence pointing towards a Chinese cook in the employ of deceased.”

And that was all, except for getting the bodies back to Petaluma for a funeral. It took them until Sunday to reach Healdsburg; the Alta California speculated the bodies were lashed in a wagon which was floated across the flooded creeks. 20

A Santa Rosa paper reported, “In consequence of tbe bad weather and swollen streams great difficulty was experienced in bringing them in. People gathered at every settlement along the roadside to get a sight of the sad procession.” When the bodies finally arrived in Petaluma on the night train, “The crowd that awaited the arrival of the bodies at that depot on Sunday night was a large one, and when the rude coffins were placed upon two express wagons, the citizens forming about escorted the remains to the undertakers.” 21

The funerals were held in Petaluma on Monday, and the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the mood of the town:

There was a Sunday stillness in the town of Petaluma yesterday. The stores, saloons, and even banks were closed. Conversation was carried on in undertones, but underneath that sorrow lurked a revengeful spirit, which displayed itself by frequent gesture and ill-guarded remark against the race from whom came the murderer that laid low in a foul and bloody death their esteemed town people. There were no Chinese to be seen on the streets. 22

Sarah and Jesse were buried in the Wickersham family plot at Cypress Hill Cemetery in Petaluma.

1 The Saint Paul Globe, January 24, 1886

2  “I think Indians are friendly” Jewell inquest testimony, page 3
Dialogue from Jewell interview in Petaluma on January 25. San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

3 Chronicle, ibid

4 ibid

5 ibid

6 Some accounts state he rode immediately to Skaggs’ Springs, but I found it doubtful that he would leave his wife alone, given that the murderer could still be in the area. Two people traveling in a buggy would also be slower and help explain why the trip took around six hours. 

7 Chronicle ibid

8 Interview in Petaluma with J. Seawall on January 22. San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 1886
op. cit Jewell interview Chronicle, January 26

9 Truitt quoted in the Daily Republican, January 25, 1886

10 Petaluma Argus, January 23, 1886

11 Oakland Tribune, January 22, 1886

12 Sacramento Record-Union, January 23, 1886

13 San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

14 Truitt interview in the Daily Republican, January 25, 1886

15 Daily Democrat, January 26, 1886

16 Petaluma Courier, January 27, 1886

17 ibid

18 Russian River Flag, January 27 1886 

19 San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 1886

20 Daily Alta California, January 24, 1886

21 Daily Democrat, January 26, 1886
San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

22 Chronicle, ibid

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