wildwest1880

2½ TALES FROM OUR WILD WEST DAYS

Yay, sesquicentennial! So what was Sonoma county really like in 1868? If a movie was made of Santa Rosa in those days, would it have the flavor of the sweet little town in “The Music Man” or the sort of rough place seen in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?”

I recently visited the Midwest and while waiting at the St. Louis airport I met a very nice Dutch family (Jan, if you’re reading this, please get in touch; I lost your business card). They found it novel to meet someone from the West Coast, then became excited when they learned I was a local historian – to them, this place called Santa Rosa was somewhere between Deadwood and Dodge City.

Jan used to follow the Wild West festival circuit around Europe (yep, that’s really a thing). He even had a custom-made Indian costume which he said was authentic down to the eagle feathers. (NOTE: the feathers were probably imitations, as it’s illegal to sell them in the U.S.)

He peppered me with questions: Does our history museum have any guns of famous outlaws? (Uh, I doubt it.) Was Billy the Kid ever here? (No.) Jesse James? (No.) Wild Bill Hickok? (No.) Buffalo Bill? (Yes, but only with his circus.) Was there an army fort? (No.) Did Indians go on the warpath? (Oh, please.) Were there gunfighter shootouts? (No.) Were there lynchings? (Sure, the last being in 1920 – which gave him such pause that he asked me to write down the year to make sure he understood correctly.)

There never really was a “Wild West” here, I explained; Sonoma county was mostly settled by farmers from Missouri, and as a result the people in Santa Rosa and the rest of the county acted pretty much like, well, Missouri farmers. Yeah, it was unusual that Santa Rosa cheered for the Confederacy to win the Civil War and anti-Chinese racism was virulent, but there was never exceptional violence or lawlessness in Sonoma county during the latter 19th century. Then reflecting on our conversations during my long flight back to California, I regretted portraying that our history was ever so clear cut.

First, Sonoma county indeed had the sort of Old West outlaws that so intrigued my friend from Holland – he even might have heard of the poetically-inclined “Black Bart” who robbed three stage coaches here. B.B. gets all the press, but there was also the Cloverdale-based Houx Gang in 1871 and just a bit further north there was the cattle rustling and stage robbing Buck English Gang in the mid-1870s (and yes, Jan, his gun is in a museum). This pattern of stick-em-ups continued through the next decade with Dick Fellows and others whose names were never known.

As per Missouri: Sure, Santa Rosa’s love of Dixie came from Missouri families often having deep ties to the Old South – but it was simplistic to say those Missouri immigrants hung on to all their Midwestern values once they were here. Even a deeply-rooted belief in civility can be degraded when someone is dropped into a frontier situation, where there are loose rules for conduct and weak institutions. All of the tales told below show the result; there are acts of impetuous behavior which never would have been tolerated back in their hometowns – including person-on-person violence and community vigilantism.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner discussed this across several essays about the unique problems of the American frontier. When people are “unchecked by restraints of an old social order,” it didn’t matter if the frontier was the Carolinas during the 1730s, Missouri in the 1810s or California in the 1850s. The pattern was the same: American pioneers were quick to take the law into their own hands instead of waiting for the legal system to preserve order. “If the thing was one proper to be done, then the most immediate, rough and ready, effective way was the best way.” That often meant lynching or pulling out a pistol.

Turner also pointed out that “a crime was more an offense against the victim than a violation of the law” and an insult or show of disrespect could swiftly lead to violence. Add the presence of firearms and a confrontation which might never have gone beyond shouting or bloody noses can become deadly. And that brings us to the first tale from our Wild West days.

This is the “half” tale, which means I’m only summarizing it because you should read the whole story in John Schubert/Valerie Munthe’s Hidden History of Sonoma County. It’s a gripping yarn and well told by them; the book also has a chapter that reveals the history of Houx Gang (I once tried to figure out their doings, but there was so much confusing info I gave up). All together, “Hidden History” is easily the best book on Sonoma county history published in ages. My only quibbles are the lack of footnotes/endnotes, and the title grossly overpromises – a full “hidden history” would fill bookcases. As of this writing, it’s even on sale at the Santa Rosa Costco.

In 1867, Charles Henley killed James Rowland. The two farmers lived about a half-mile apart near Windsor, and there was bad blood between them because Henley’s pigs kept getting loose. Rowland corralled some of those hogs and Henley went over to fetch them, carrying a shotgun; there was a confrontation inside the pig pen and Rowland was shot dead at close range. The animals would mutilate his body until it was later discovered.

Later that night Henley visited a friend, confessed to the shooting and sought advice. The friend urged Henley to ride over to Windsor and surrender to the authorities, though he was hesitant because “they are all Odd Fellows,” as was Rowland. Henley also asked the friend not to tell his hired hand because he was likewise a I.O.O.F. member, but the man had overheard Henley’s confession anyway. Henley turned himself in the next morning and later that day, members of the Windsor Odd Fellows Lodge showed up to claim the body. Lodge members wore their badge of mourning for thirty days.

Henley was taken to the county jail to await trial. Exactly thirty days after the killing, Santa Rosa’s night watchman was surprised by four masked men. “Keep quiet,” he was told, “there are 150 of us, well-armed, and we have come to take a certain man out of jail.” The watchman was held captive and soon joined by the jailer. Another of the masked vigilantes encountered a policeman on patrol and held the officer at gunpoint.

The jailer was forced to open Henley’s cell and the prisoner was bound and gagged before being carried away. His body was found hanging about a mile west of town in what’s now the Roseland district.

There was an outcry over the lynching in both the local press and the big San Francisco newspapers, with a reward of $2,000 offered for information on the identity of the mob. Any suggestion that the masked men were Odd Fellows was met with fierce denial and the pursuit of the guilty was soon forgotten.

Then just a few days after the lynching there was another killing in Santa Rosa.

Around midnight on the night of June 20, 1867, Byrd Brumfield used his pocket knife to slash John Strong to death at Griffin’s Saloon. The number of wounds varied between 7-16, depending on who was telling the story. Although witnesses testified that Strong was running for the door at the time, the Coroner’s Jury ruled that Brumfield had killed him in self defense. Testimony also revealed Strong had a six-shooter that he may (or may not) have attempted to draw, but the verdict seemed to come down to the jury being told that nobody liked Strong  and Brumfield was a good guy.*

Between the slashing and the lynching, we can all probably agree 1867 was a pretty violent year in Santa Rosa (and remember, that was the year just before the one which we are about to sesquicentennial-ly celebrate). Still, the Sonoma Democrat boasted after Brumfield was acquitted, “to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.” That of course was technically true, as Henley had been just strung up outside of city limits and when Michael Ryan had buried the point of a pickaxe in his poor wife’s head two years earlier, his murder victim was not male.

Brumfield apparently decided that a pocket knife was no longer adequate for his needs. The following year he had an argument with Captain L. A. Norton and both men drew their guns. Brumfield fired four times before Norton’s sidearm left his holster and the Mexican War vet was wounded in the left hand. A jury again ruled Brumfield merely acted in self-defense.

In his youth Byrd had worked on the big Brumfield family farm, somewhere in the Russian River valley. By the 1870 census he appears at age 32 with the profession of “sporting man,” by which we can assume means he was a professional gambler. By 1875 he found himself blacklisted by all saloon owners around Healdsburg; we don’t know if that was because he was a card shark or just a violent alcoholic.

“Byrd’s on a big drunk today,” Harry Truitt warned those sitting in front of a Healdsburg Hotel on an afternoon that November. Brumfield was more than just liquored up – he was looking for a fight.

“There’s been a big poker game in town,” Byrd told a friend. “I’m going to play poker in this town,” adding he had been kept out of the bars long enough.

“They don’t treat me right in this town,” he told another, who asked, “Who don’t treat you right?”

“These Zane boys; they’ve got rich now and don’t notice a common man. I knew them when they didn’t have a cent: then they treated me all right. I’m going into Will Zane’s saloon today or die; and I’ll get away with it if I go in.”

Byrd held some sort of grudge against Willis Zane; six months earlier, Brumfield had borrowed Zane’s revolver only to turn it on the owner and attempt to kill him (or so the “special reporter” for the Sonoma Democrat wrote). Zane was warned that Byrd was drinking and telling people he intended to show up at the bar. “I’ll let them know that I’m not dead yet, but don’t care a damn how soon,” said the drunken Brumfield.

Shortly before sunset, Byrd staggered into Zane’s saloon. Willis told him twice to get out. Byrd didn’t say a word, but moved towards Willis (it was unclear whether his gun was drawn or his hand was still reaching under his coat). Zane drew his pistol from a pocket and shot three times. Byrd Brumfield was dead.

The Coroner’s Jury acquitted Zane, declaring it was justifiable homicide, but much of the testimony was a mirror image of the 1867 inquest – only this time, nobody liked Brumfield and Zane was the good guy.

The takeaway from the story is not that Byrd Brumfield was a bad guy (which is pretty indisputable); it’s how every time he had a beef with someone, he expected that other person to be armed. And he was right.

Scholars like to point out communities in the Wild West had strict no-gun laws, requiring those entering town to check firearms with a peace officer – remember the plot of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” While that’s true, our local newspapers also show there were multiple “shooting affrays” every year in Sonoma county, although rarely did the incidents end in a death or even injury.

It’s doubtful anyone ever walked the mean streets of Healdsburg or Santa Rosa with a gun holstered on his hip (other than lawmen), but all those affray items reveal too many people were certainly packing under that Victorian garb. Often they were the Usual Suspects (see Male: young, drunkenness of) but others would probably be surprising. Captain Lewis A. Norton, the man Brumfield shot in the hand, was not a cocky ne’er-do-well; he was a middle-aged Healdsburg lawyer and local Democratic party bigwig, a former Justice of the Peace who ran for county judge the year before he was shot, then state senate a year after.

And sometimes the shooters were even women.


J. G. Hill of Forestville, better known as “Sock” Hill, while on his way to church at Forestville last Sunday evening, was fired at twice by Miss Georgia Travis. The first shot passed close to his left ear and through the rim of his hat, the second shot missing him entirely. Miss Travis was arrested Monday morning, on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder…

That little item appeared in the Healdsburg Enterprise and other local papers in September 1879. (The item right below it, incidentally, was another shooting affray, describing a 21 year-old Lakeport bartender killing a patron who was told to leave but went for his gun instead.)

Details emerged a few days later: Sock – whose real name was Joshua – along with two young women, were walking to a Sunday night church service, as was Georgia. As they passed Faudre’s Chair Factory (there’s a reference sure to excite Forestville historians), Georgia drew her “bull-dog” pistol and began shooting at him. After firing both shots, she handed the gun over to a man who intervened. Sock and his women friends sat through the entire service (!) then went to Santa Rosa to file a complaint. He said Georgia had been threatening to kill him for over a year and he was afraid. The Grand Jury dropped the charges for lack of evidence, and it was never explained why she wanted the 42 year-old man dead. All she ever said was that she had been “slandered” by him.

Another month passed and there was a meeting of the Forestville Blue Ribbon Club, part of a very popular nationwide evangelical temperance movement. Although it was a night of heavy rain, 60-70 still turned out including women and children. Sock Hill attended as did Georgia Travis and her brothers, Wirt and John.

John was seated two rows behind Hill, and Wirt was the same distance in front. John reached over and punched Hill in the face. Sock Hill jumped up and confronted John Travis, drawing his gun. Wirt Travis then shot Hill point blank in the base of his skull. Amazingly, he would remain conscious until he died about fifteen hours later.

Panic ensued. John Travis apparently fired his own gun and Wirt shot again, wounding a bystander in the leg as he fled the room along with the dozens of other attendees. In court testimony there would be the usual claims and counterclaims – Hill fired his gun, John did not, John socked Hill because he turned around “made a face at me,” Wirt claimed he shot Hill because he believed his brother’s life was in danger, &c.

Wirt was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to San Quentin. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty for his brother John. “One of the most exciting trials ever had in Sonoma county,” sighed the Sonoma Democrat, having stretched the sensationalist coverage over two issues.

So there you are, Jan; I was mistaken to tell you at the airport that we were just a bunch of boring ol’ Missouri farmers. There absolutely was a true gun culture here in Sonoma county, and our communities – with somewhat of an exception for Petaluma – were very much gun-toting “Wild West” towns. Here I’ve only describe some of our frontier-type violence over a dozen years, but there could be dozens of essays like this to document all our uncivil behavior in the latter 19th century.

And don’t presume the pistol-packin’ days ended with the Gaslight Era. As documented here earlier, it was common to carry a “bicycle revolver” at least through the 1910s. There was also a dramatic four-way shootout in 1907 that managed to avoid hurting anyone seriously because no one knew how to aim.

A final note: Lest anyone rush to claim that crimes were deterred in those 50+ years of locals carrying concealed weapons, let it be known that I’ve never found an incident where a good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy with a gun. Instead, it’s a miserable chronicle of holdup men using them to scare victims, fools and drunkards wielding these deadly toys at times of heated emotions, plus a hearty portion of gun owners shooting themselves by accident. Just tragedies with a dose of farce.

 

* Later that year Byrd’s sister, Jane, married an Alfred Strong, who is listed in the 1860 census as a farmer living in the Brumfield family home. I cannot find any family connection between him and John Strong. Byrd was living with the Alfred Strongs in the 1870 census.

 

Quick Work.—Santa Rosa might be called a fast place in some respects. This week a man was killed, buried, and the perpetrator examined and discharged, all in less than twenty-four hours. We may remark, to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 22 1867

 

Disgraceful. —We regret to see in the San Francisco Police Gazette a disgusting wood cut, purporting to represent Byrd Brumfield in the act of killing John Strong in Santa Rosa on the night of the 20th of June. The Gazette was grossly deceived by its informant in regard to the relations of the parties, circumstances of the killing, and burial of Strong. The latter, we learn, was buried under directions of a relative, had a good coffin, and was decently interred.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 6 1867

 

Testimony in the Case of the People vs Brumfield

[inquest]

– Sonoma Democrat, October 26 1867

 

Death of Byrd Brumfield.

[inquest]

– Russian River Flag, November 18 1875
– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1875

 

From Forestvllle. Our regular correspondent writes us November 11th, as follows; “Forestvllle against the world. We have said this before and have occasion to reiterate it now. Saturday night last, 8th Inst., was one of our dark limes, and we were pained to witness such scenes as then occurred in our usually quiet village. As our tempetauce club was about to be called to order its peace and quiet was disturbed and the lives of women and children endangered by two brothers, Wirt and John Travis, who assaulted and shot to death J. G. Hill. The meeting was of course broken up for the evening, and the Society will hereafter convene at the Christian Church instead of the hall. Mr. Hill’s funeral took place at 2 o’clock on Monday, and the high esteem in which he was held by the community was manifested in the unusually large number of persons who attended the obsequies, over three hundred persons escorting his remains to the grave. He was a kind hearted man; one who was always ready to help the needy and to accommodate his neighbors. During an acquaintance of twelve years your correspondent always found him correct in his dealings, and his neighbors generally deplore his untimely death.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1879

 

People Vs. Wirt Travis

[testimony]

– Sonoma Democrat, March 20 and 27 1880

 

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man at window

WHO KILLED THE WICKERSHAMS?

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

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


THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

MANHUNT PT. I: ESCAPE

MANHUNT II: HOW (NOT) TO CATCH A FUGITIVE

WHO KILLED THE WICKERSHAMS?

SOURCES (PDF, 31 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Petaluma Courier, January 27, 1886

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

3 San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

4 Sonoma Democrat, January 22, 1886

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

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

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

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

9 San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 1886

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

11 San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

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MRS. PRESTON HAS A GRUESOME CURE FOR YOU

Seriously ill? In late 19th century Sonoma County there were faith-healers, physicians and quacks. And then there was Mrs. Preston, who was something of all three combined.

From 1876 until her death in 1909, Emily Preston practiced medicine by mail and from her home on the Russian River, two miles outside Cloverdale. Or rather, she didn’t “practice medicine,” as claiming to do so could have got her into a world of trouble, seeing as she had no medical training whatsoever. Instead, she saw patients and diagnosed their sickness, then sold them homemade medicines. Completely different thing, right?

(RIGHT: Mrs. Emily Preston. Undated photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Madam Preston was not a huckster or a complete spiritualist nutcase like Fountaingrove’s Thomas Lake Harris, but she did believe God communicated with her via otherworldly “photographs” and messages written on “walls of light.” Probably thousands of people believed she had cured them via her hotline to God, some devoting their lives in her service. On the large ranch owned by Emily and husband Hartwell, followers built the community of Preston. At its peak c. 1895-1900, there were up to 200 residents with a school, post office, general store, train station, lumber yard, a water system, bottling works and a church where she preached the “Religion of Inspiration.” There was also Emily and Hartwell’s 18-room Italianate home and a 20-room convalescent hospital (both completely destroyed in a 1988 fire, along with most other buildings). In summer the community adjourned for two months to a camp near Preston Lake, where people from Cloverdale joined them for their Fourth of July festivities. Everyone was likewise welcome at Madam Preston’s sermons at the camp’s Church of the Wildwood, where she read to them what she saw mystically written in the air.

Also called the “Preston Colony,” the village (Emily Preston, mayor) and its Prestonites existed to serve the little industry founded by Madam Preston. They filled mail orders for medicine and accommodated a steady parade of pilgrims seeking a consultation from Madam during her Monday office hours, where she offered patients a glass of cordial as she stared at them for several unspoken minutes to diagnose their sickness. Some of the afflicted would stay on for treatment at the Preston hospital/sanitarium or seek boarding at nearby resorts, maybe in a Cloverdale hotel when all Preston beds were filled. Mrs. Preston also kept an office in San Francisco where she saw patients. But most who sought her help did so through writing, and she believed her divine powers allowed her to “diagnosticate [sic] cases at a distance.”

We know nothing about Mrs. Preston’s true diagnostic skills, but we do know a fair amount about her treatment methods, which were spelled out in her pamphlet, “Price List of Medicines and How to Use Them.” Before discussing that topic, it must be said that apparently many who sought her help were considered hopeless cases by the doctors of that time, and many believed they were better for her treatment. Some of that improvement may be due to bed rest at her country sanitarium with lots of exercise, fresh air and clean water, or convictions that her spiritual powers included miracle cures. But if their health actually improved, it certainly wasn’t due to her remedies.

By the time began she treating patients in the 1870s, her school of allopathic medicine was mostly considered backward and downright dangerous, not far from the distain held for the Middle Ages view that bloodletting was a cure for what-ails-you. People became ill, she believed, because some of their blood circulation had stopped (!) or there was inflammation deep within the body. The cure-all was to create a running sore over the affected area and keep it oozing for 2-4 weeks “according as your strength and nerves will allow.” It was also good to do this when you were healthy, just in case, you know.

This technique was called “blistering,” and Mrs. Preston’s main therapeutic tool was her homemade iodine-based liniment. The patient was instructed to rub this stuff on a spot twice a day until blisters form and rupture, then cover it with a “pad” (an oil silk bandage that the Prestons also sold). “The Liniment penetrates the skin and draws the impurities of the body to the surface in the form of a running sore,” the pamphlet explained. “By applying the Liniment on the parts affected, you draw the disease from the inside to the surface. And when you have made sores enough to cleanse and purify the system, you will feel the benefit derived from the treatment…in chronic cases where the disease is located, it takes many sores before you get much relief.”

Preston’s catalog included other items, including cough medicine, “vagina balls,” “gin and garlic,” “fasting paste,” and some sort of lotion available by the gallon. But the remedies usually centered on that liniment; she even recommended that it be mixed with “sweet oil” (olive oil) and swallowed to cure stomach aches. Rub it all over the body once or twice a week as a preventative (which must have given the Prestonites a unique coppery complexion). The Price List also recognized it wasn’t very comfortable having a seeping wound for weeks: “While using the Liniment, if you feel the need of a tonic, take the Wine Cordial, or Blood Medicine, according to the directions on the bottles.” The Prestons would sell you a jug of their fortified wine at $3.50 per gallon. Honest, reverend, I’m a faithful teetotaler but this is medicine.

The liniment treatment was no harmless placebo, despite Mrs. Preston’s promise that “You can make sores on your arms, legs, feet, or anywhere on the body, and they won’t hurt you.” It was a strong formula that could leave scars; Nathan Bowers, the son of Preston colonists, wrote in 1966 “My body, more than sixty years later, still carries the marks where blisters caused by her liniment went so deep as to leave permanent scar tissue.” Mrs. Preston also promised, “While using the Liniment, the privates and eyes are liable to become sore. Poultice them with scraped potato, or onion poultice, and then wash them with hot water. It is only the disease coming out, and need cause no alarm.” Nathan’s father followed directions and went blind – the green onion poultice drew the lens from his right eye.

Yet despite the scarred child and partially blinded father, the Bowers family did not leave Preston. The community and the place were dear to them, as was hearing Madam Preston’s sermons. Some of her followers would have been happier if she dropped the pose of Physician and/or Mystic Seer to simply become Madam Reverend Mayor, and Mrs. Preston likewise knew she was undermining her religious message and endangering the colony’s future by being branded as a fake twice over. She wrote in frustration about her critics in 1902:


If everybody would look at what we are trying to do, and how we are trying to live, and what our object in life is, they would not want to ridicule or make fun of us. They would say, “I would like to know how that is. I would like to feel that on me.”

So why didn’t she do everyone a favor and dial down the crazy talk, particularly the bit about seeing the words of God written in light? She didn’t really believe that, did she?

Emily Preston was born in upstate New York in 1819. This was at the peak of the Second Great Awakening, a period in American history marked by intense religion passion, much of it spurred by the belief that Christ was about to return. New evangelical cults formed overnight; even common folk were primed to debate merits of the latest -ism and weigh the meaning of new epiphanies and visions. And nowhere in the country was this movement more supercharged than the “burned-over district” of Western New York, which spawned Mormonism, Millerism (an apocalyptic cult that led to the Seventh-day Adventist Church), Spiritualism (as in seance communication with the dead) and others. Growing up in a world where the supernatural happenings were commonplace, it seems less odd that she believed Jehovah was texting her.

(RIGHT: “The covered bridge spanned the Russian River at Preston from 1872-1931. Preston’s commercial district was located west of the river, next to the Northwestern Pacific railroad tracks. The Preston residences, school and church were located across the bridge on the east side of the river.” Description and photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Mrs. Preston was confident that her “Free Pilgrims Covenant Church” would survive her death, and left $125,000 to sustain it. Alas, when she died in 1909 her will was undated and unwitnessed; relatives easily had it thrown out. The property went for auction and sold for $19,000, the buyer being Emily’s grand-niece who kept everything as it was, aside from later selling off some land around the edges.

The colony of Preston endured. There were still weekly meetings at the church to sing and pray. There were still jobs at the bottling works. But over the years people drifted away. People died. The train station closed. The post office closed. The bottle works closed. Meetings at the church ended in 1935. Three years later, a reporter from the Press Democrat visited Preston and described the old mansion:

We pushed open the gate and walked through the ruined garden. The house is white and colonial-looking, with a porch clear around it, and dark green trimmings. It looks as if it died long ago everywhere leaves and debris and loneliness. Beyond it tumble-down outbuildings that must have been servants’ quarters. Not a soul, not a sound. We were startled to find three bright silk cushions piled on the step, as if just set there – we went closer and saw they were oriental pottery work. We walked up to the front door and knocked. No answer. We peered through a hole in the shutter and saw a stuffy Victorian parlor, completely furnished, with a paisley shawl on the table and an old-fashioned phonograph with a brass loudspeaker. We knocked and called, but still no answer…now, all quiet, all fallen away. Nothing left but the ghostly, shuttered house, the century plants, the wind in the eucalyptus.

In 1943 a couple bought the property to open a camp and summer school for boys. They unlocked the doors and found her clothes still in the closets, books on the shelf, pill roller on the table. Also gathering dust were 85 boxes of letters addressed to Mrs. E. Preston, Preston, Sonoma Co., California. Madam just stepped out for a spell, and surely would be back soon.


SOURCES AND NOTES: Almost everything in this article specific to Mrs. Preston is drawn from Holly Hoods’ extraordinary thesis, “Preston: History of a Late-Nineteenth Century Religious Community in Sonoma County, California,” which is available at SSU, at the Healdsburg, Cloverdale and central county libraries and at the Healdsburg Museum. It contains much interesting material not covered here, such as how Mrs. Preston answered critics who pointed out that she was functionally illiterate, despite spending decades reading the words of God writ large before her eyes. An appendix includes a reproduction of the 1903 edition of “Price List of Medicines and How to Use Them.”

Hoods’ research is also summarized at the web site for the Preston Historical Research and Restoration Fund, which is welcoming donations to restore the church and other buildings not destroyed in the 1988 fire. There is a 2005 Press Democrat article about the restoration project.

Most information about the Preston Colony comes from “Recollections of 19th- and 20th-Century Communal Life at Preston Ranch,” a project edited by W.M. Sefton. Particularly valuable are transcriptions from local Healdsburg and Cloverdale newspapers. The recollections include descriptions of what happened to Preston after Madam died, including the formation of an artist’s colony in 1969. Warning: Details concerning desecrations of the cemetery are not for the squeamish.

Hoods commented in 2000 that therapeutic blistering “has fallen out of favor in the United States within the last 100 years,” citing an entry in the 1903 edition of Chambers’s Encyclopedia. This was the same printing plate as first used in the 1888 edition (and which continued to be reprinted at least through 1912), so it reveals nothing about 20th century opinions on blistering. Evidence instead shows that the medical community had largely rejected the method even before Mrs. Preston began her medical practice. In an 1869 rebuttal to allopathy, “blood-letting, blistering, cauterizing, physicking, poisoning, freezing, and starving” were denounced as quackery.

Iodine was used medically in the late 19th century as a counter-irritant (1870 reference) and in liniment. A lengthy review of iodine uses in an 1876 handbook of therapeutics specifically warns against iodine solutions strong enough to cause scarring. No references, even Chambers, could be found that describe Preston’s method of using liniment to keep an open sore running for weeks.

MADAM PRESTON IS DEAD AT COLONY SHE FOUNDED
Sudden Passing of Famous Woman Yesterday

Dr. Emily Preston, familiarly known as the founder of the Preston Colony near Cloverdale, is dead.

This noted woman was called from life very suddenly yesterday morning shortly after eight o’clock. Death found her as she was gazing out from the little lattice window of the kitchen of her stately residence, upon the delightful landscape dotted here and there by its beautiful homes and its trees and flowers. At the time she was going about her simple household duties. A sudden attack of heart failure and she was gone.

Four-score years was her life span and when the silver cord was snapped the life went out without a murmur and without a struggle. She was prepared for the rest that came to her. Hers had been a busy life, one devoted to the work of making those about her happy and well.

While no arrangements have been made for the funeral she will be laid to rest in the picturesque cemetery at Preston near by the little church in which on every Sunday morning, rain or shine, winter or summer, she was wont to meet and preach to her followers. She will rest beside the loved ones who have gone before.

Madam Preston ministered to the ailments of the body and of the soul. She taught that a pure mind and pure living are essential to the cure of bodily ailments and the administration of her remedies is said to have produced in many people wonderful cures. While not parading as a healer in the way in which most people accept the term, it was acknowledged by her followers that she was possessed of spiritual gifts of healing. Some ranked her as prophetess, and the use of her herb medicines for bodily ills was accompanied by faith. Her religion found many followers. They came from many sections of the state, and from other states, and in addition she had a large correspondence. There are thousands of people in the cities of this country and throughout the state who knew Madam Preston, either personally or by reputation. She was said to be a woman of some eccentricities, but be that as it may she was a good woman with one of the kindest of hearts. Those who knew her well testify to this.

Madam Preston had lived at the Preston health resort for many years. She was a native of New York state. The little, plain old lady was often seen about the Colony grounds and in Cloverdale, where she had many old friends. She took an active interest in the advance of the country about her and was the inspiration for many years of the fine Preston Colony exhibits at the Coverdale Citrus Fairs. On a number of occasions the writer met her and chatted with her in the pavilion during the arrangement of the Colony exhibit.

From friends at Cloverdale yesterday it was learned that she had not been feeling well and had complained of pains in the region of her heart. As if realizing that the shadows were soon to lengthen over the landscape of her life, she predicted that she would pass away in the manner in which she did. Coroner Frank Blackburn went up to Preston and held an inquest over the remains and the verdict was in accordance with facts related.

– Press Democrat, January 23, 1909

MAD. PRESTON PASSES AWAY
Died Suddenly on Friday at Colony She Founded

Dr. Emily Preston, founder of the Preston colony above Cloverdale, and familiarly known to thousands of people as Madam Preston, died there quite suddenly on Friday. She was stricken with heart failure and death came to her in the kitchen of her residence as she was going about her usual household duties. For some days the deceased had not been feeling well, and complained of pains about the heart. This was the only suggestion of illness which she suffered, and she had not been confined to her apartments.

Coroner Frank L. Blackburn went up to Preston Friday evening and held an inquest. A verdict of death from heart failure was returned. It is stated that Madam Preston had predicted to her friends that her death would occur just as it did, and she seemed to realize that the end was approaching for her.

The deceased woman led a splendid life, and while ministering to the physical ailments of the people, she never neglected their spiritual welfare for an instant. She conducted services regularly each Sabbath day, preaching the gospel to her followers in the pretty little church edifice at Preston, where many were wont to gather and listen to her exposition of the Scriptures. Her religious cult drew many persons to Preston, and the devoted followers of the woman claimed almost supernatural powers for her in the curing of human ailments. Her medicines were compounded by herself, and were principally made from herbs, and the good woman is credited with many splendid cures.

All over the State, and even beyond the confines of the State, she was known as a healer. While many hundreds have visited her place above Cloverdale, many thousands have heard of the remarkable woman, and have corresponded with her.

The deceased was eighty years of age, and a native of New York. She had resided at Preston, which she founded as a colony, for many years past. She was actively interested in everything pertaining to the welfare of the vicinity of her home, and each year she and the other ladies of Preston made an exhibit at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair. She took more than a passive interest in this annual festival, and always attended to view the exhibits. There are many who will mourn her demise.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 23, 1909

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