firebug1

SANTA ROSA, WE HAVE A FIREBUG

The fourth time someone tried to burn down Robert Ross’s building he became agitated and said some things he shouldn’t. He was taken to jail and charged for “using language too strenuous to suit the occasion,” making him the only person who was arrested in connection with a string of arson attempts which plagued Santa Rosa for 28 months.

Between 1902 and 1904 there were eighteen suspicious fires, all but four of which were declared to be positively caused by “incendiarism,” which was our ancestor’s word at the time for arson. Among the incidents was the 1903 Railroad Square fire which burned for two days, making it the worst blaze Santa Rosa firemen had yet faced.

In the months that followed, the Fire Chief and police repeatedly told the Press Democrat there was a firebug at work here, but a broader analysis shows a pattern which probably began in early 1902. With one exception, all 18 were on the south side of downtown, mostly within a block from Santa Rosa Creek. Most happened during the months of April, May or July and were discovered around midnight, with Saturday being by far the favorite night.

(UPDATE: There were 19 suspicious fires, not 18. I neglected to count one of the Ross fires blamed on arson.)

Those familiar with this journal know I often end with a Believe-it-or-Not! oddity or twist to a story, but this time the surprise has to be revealed at the top: Incidents of serial arson were shockingly common out here at the turn of the century – and authorities didn’t seem too concerned about finding the culprits. When the firebugs were caught it was usually by accident.

Thankfully rare today, a search of turn-of-the-century era newspapers found arson sprees in rural towns like Santa Rosa all over the Bay Area. Almost always the pyromaniacs were teenage boys (MORE on the psychology of fire setting). The only known adult was Carlos Benedetto, a Petaluma firebug 1897-1898 who destroyed the town’s largest warehouses, part of a lumber yard and tried to burn a bridge. He was described as “a demented Italian laborer” (SF Examiner) and as “vicious looking, has a wild eye and is no doubt insane” (Petaluma Courier).

(RIGHT: Illustration of the San Rafael firebugs, San Francisco Call, Sept. 25 1902)

A 14 year-old was caught in Martinez for fires at the school, town hall and coal yard in 1904; a couple of years later a 15 year-old boy in Santa Cruz burned several barns, a school house and two bridges. There were also serial arsonists in Hopland (caught) and Ukiah (not caught). In 1901-1902 San Rafael, two boys aged 9 and 14 set as many as 16 fires; the younger boy was the ringleader and said he did it because he “liked to see firemen run.”

What made the Santa Rosa arsonist unique, however, was that he repeatedly went after the same buildings. Robert Ross’s blacksmith shop at First and Main was torched six times. A few doors down at Second and Main he tried to burn a barn/horse stable twice. Three times he hit the Star Feed Mill building at Fourth and A streets and two fires were set in vacant houses in the tenderloin district along First street.

While Fire Chief Lynchberg Adams apparently listed the Railroad Square conflagration as cause unknown, circumstances suggest it was our arsonist. It was the fourth suspicious fire in six weeks, and Adams had said the others were definitely incendiary. The fire began BENEATH the freight loading platform, and in the northwest corner – the only point which could not be seen from the train depot. There were rumors that boys were seen throwing firecrackers under the platform, although a policeman told the Press Democrat he was certain there was no truth in it.

Two days afterward the City Marshal offered a $50 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of “the incendiary.” After another rash of fires the next year Board of Fire Commissioners discussed raising it to $100, but nothing came of it. (The money would have been better spent by just paying a guard to sit in Robert Ross’s place.) But other than adding a streetlight at First and Main, no further preventative measures were mentioned in the papers.

The pattern of arson fires ended May 28, 1904, with the final attempt to torch the building with the mill. As the PD reported about the last of the Ross fires, “the identity of the miscreant remains a mystery.”

There were suspects but they were never named. Fire Chief Adams said two boys were seen playing in one of the red light district vacant houses before flames were spotted. And on July 2, 1903 – three days before the Railroad Square blaze – there was an incident at the high school on Humboldt street. A janitor was cleaning up the grounds when “a lad named Gardner” asked if he could help. The janitor said yes, but told the boy not to burn the rubbish. He did anyway, and the resulting fire destroyed a neighbor’s barn, two sheds and tons of hay. Nothing more was mentioned about that lad who couldn’t resist lighting a match.

 

APPLIED A TORCH
Attempt to Burn the Cnopius Barn on Second Street
Fire Discovered Before it Had Gained Much Headway and Was Extinguished

Some miscreant made an attempt Thursday night about 7 o’clock to burn the barn and stable of Cnopius & Co. on Second street near Main street. A piece of rag or matting, presumably soaked with oil, was thrust through a hole in the front of the barn and was snugly tucked in against a bale of hay. The torch was then applied and the would-be incendiary doubtless hurried away. Luckily Frank Cootes happened to pass along the street and noticed the flame. He gave an alarm at once and several men were quickly on the scene. Dr. Summerfield, the veterinary, and others forced open the barn doors and water was thrown on the fire and it was extinguished before any damage to speak of was done. Had the fire gained headway serious damage would have resulted. There were six horses in the barn Thursday night. What prompted the Incendiary to act in the manner described is unknown.

– Press Democrat, January 10 1902

 

HOP BARN BURNED
Destruction of a Building on the Burgess Place
Origin of the Fire Unknown — Building Reduced to Ashes In a Short Time

Shortly after midnight the large hop barn nearest the city pumping station alongside the road on the Burgess hop ranch on Sonoma avenue, was burned to the ground.

The building was reduced to ashes, together with the fence around it. From Chief Engineer Will Yandel at the pumping station it was learned by phone that the barn was empty at the time, according to a statement made by Mr. Burgess, who was awakened and told of the fire.

How the fire originated is a mystery. It was undoubtedly incendiary. At first it was stated that many bales of hops were stored in the barn. It was afterward learned that the hops were in another barn. The fire caused a big reflection in the sky, which attracted considerable attention among those who were abroad on the streets awaiting the election returns.

– Press Democrat, April 3 1902

 

WORK OF INCENDIARY
Attempt to Burn Robert Ross’ Establishment on Sunday Night

About 11:30 o’clock on Sunday night what appears to have been an attempt to burn down Robert Ross’ blacksmith shop at First and Main streets was discovered. Some people who were driving by happened to notice the flames on the First-street side and gave the alarm.

The fire was burning against one of the posts of the doors leading into the blacksmith shop and had it once gained headway a serious conflagration would have resulted as the room in which the dry wood is stored and the paint and oil room are in close proximity. The fire was started from the outside. A big wagon was drawn up alongside the doors. There is a probability that a lighted cigar stump might have been thrown against the woodwork which is old and would burn easily. No damage was done. The fire department responded with commendable promptitude.

Dr. Summerfield pulled the wagon out of the way and Fireman Len Colgan, assisted by Gus Donovan, who hurried to the scene, accompanied by Mr. Bertolani, put the fire out with a tub of water, which Mr. Ross keeps standing near the door for use in case of an outbreak of fire. Mr. Ross was home in bed at the time the alarm was rung in and in a few minutes Dr. Summerfield telephoned to him that everything was safe and the fire out. The damage was slight.

The authorities are investigating. They believe that they have their eye on the guilty party. It is believed to be the same person who set fire to another building some time ago. Mr. Rosa will repair the damage to his building immediately.

– Press Democrat, July 15 1902

 

ROOF WAS ON FIRE
EARLY MORNING BLAZE DISCOVERED AT PETERSON BROS. WAREHOUSE LAST NIGHT
Fire Department Called Out to Extinguish Another Mysterious Fire — Flames Were Making Headway When Discovered

A disastrous fire was narrowly averted at an early hour this morning.

At 1:10 an alarm was rung in from box 26 at Second and Wilson streets aod the fire department hurried to the large fruit packing warehouse of Peterson Brothers on Third street near the railroad crossing, whore a fire in the center of the roof was gaining headway.

The flames were quickly extinguished by the use of the chemical engine. Firemen got on the roof and chopped away the burning embers with axes and a small quantity of water was used to thoroughly prevent any danger of a further blaze.

Thanks to Mike McNulty, who was on his way home, a more serious fire was prevented. McNulty chanced to look through the warehouse windows as he passed and noticed showers of sparks falling from the roof onto the floor of the warehouse. He at once ran around the brewery premises to where the fire alarm box is located me gave the alarm.

How the fire originated is a mystery. It may have been caused by a spark or may be the work of the incendiary who has apparently plied his work on other buildings in Santa Rosa lately. The damage to the roof was nominal.

– Press Democrat, July 26 1902

 

Fire Still a Mystery

The fire at the Peterson warehouse early Saturday morning is still a mystery. It may have been caused by boys climbing on the roof and playing with matches although it is not very likely. The more general opinion is that it may be work of the incendiary who fired the Robert Ross building on First street a few nights ago and also the Cnopius warehouse.

– Press Democrat, July 27 1902

 

DISASTROUS FIRE
Barn Destroyed and Horse Burned to Death Early Monday Morning

The barn back of E. H. Hollenbeck’s residence on Sonoma avenue was destroyed by fire at 1 o’clock Monday morning. The flames wiped out everything in the barn. A horse was burned to death. The conflagration was noticed by the crew of the night freight on the C. N. W. R. and the locomotive whistle was blown for sometime before the fire alarm was rung in. Before the fire department was called the barn was in ruins. The property was owned by Mr. Hollenbeck. The fire was undoubtedly incendiary. The barn was recently built.

– Press Democrat, October 28 1902

 

HORSES IN DANGER
A BARN AND CONTENTS DESTROYED AND 18 EQUINES RESCUED
Conflagration at 10:30 O’Clock Wednesday Night in the Rear of the Bizzini Place on Tupper Street

A large barn in the rear of the Bizzini place on Tupper street, between Henley and Brown streets, was destroyed by fire Wednesday night.

Shortly before 10:30 o’clock Jack Barrickio, who noticed the blaze, phoned into the fire station and the department responded quickly. An alarm was also rung in.

The barn contained sixteen head of horses, the property of Ross Garrison, the horse-trader, and a large quantity of hay and straw. The horses were all rescued by Mr. Garrison, Edward Campbell and Mr. Whitcomb. A few minutes later and three at least of the horses would have been burned. The burning straw and hay made a fierce fire, which was soon dampened by the streams of water poured on.

Despite the stormy weather a large crowd ot men, women and children hurried to the scene. The Bizzini residence is occupied by a family by the name of Brown. For a time the Browns feared some of their property in a barn on the place would be destroyed. The barn, however, being some distance from the burning structure, was not harmed.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. In response to a number of inquiries made at the scene no one could explain how it originated, other than it was incendiary.

– Press Democrat, December 11 1902

 

THE TORCH APPLIED
FIRE DOES DAMAGE AT ROBERT ROSS’ CARRIAGE WORKS ON MAIN STREET
Third Attempt Made by Incendiary to Burn the Building Was Discovered Late Last Night

At 11:05 o’clock last night a fire was discovered in Robert Ross’ carriage works on Main street. Flames were burning in the top end of the building on the corner of Second street, on the roof and side of the structure. The fire department were soon on the scene and the fire was extinguished before much damage was done, except by water. How the fire originated is a mystery. It was undoubtedly of incendiary origin. Mr. Ross inclines to the belief that the same party, who on two previous occasions has fired the building. is responsible for last night’s conflagration. The fire apparently caught from the outside as investigation last night failed to show where it had originated on the inside. From the corner the flames ran along the rafters for some distance. Lumber and tools in a portion of the building will suffer by reason of the water.

– Press Democrat, January 7 1903

 

Investigating the Recent Fire

The cause of the fire of Tuesday night, when for the third time an attempt was made to destroy the blacksmith shop and carriage manufactory of Robert Ross, is carefully investigated. A survey of the building on Wednesday showed that, as stated in these columns, the fire was started outside near the corner of First and Main streets. From there the flames traveled to the roof, finally burning through and working along and under the shingles towards the rear of the structure. It was thought by some that the flames might have originated in the paint shop, but this theory is incorrect. There was no fire inside the building except where it burned through the side wall and roof. Mr Ross says that a number of tools marked with his name have disappeared.

– Press Democrat, January 8 1903

 


INCENDIARY AT WORK
Another Attempt to Burn the Barn of Cnopius & Co.

At half past four o’clock yesterday morning the fire department were called to Second and Main streets where a conflagration was in progress in Cnopius & Co.’s barn and storehouse. The flames were burning among the bales of hay. The fire was soon subdued, and what would have been a bad fire but for the promptitude of the response to the alarm was averted. The fire was undoubtedly incendiary.

– Press Democrat, May 16 1903

 

Want Light In Darkness

Residents and property owners of the vicinity of First and Main streets in view of the recent incendiary fires, petitioned the Council for a street light at the intersection of those streets for the protection of their property. The petition was referred to the Street Committee.

– Press Democrat, June 3 1903

 

APPLIED THE TORCH
AN INCENDIARY SETS FIRE TO A HOUSE ON D STREET ON SATURDAY NIGHT
Fire Was Discovered Shortly Before Midnight and Promptly Extinguished—Wanted to Drive Over Hose

About twelve o’clock the fire department was called to D street to extinguished a fire at No. 5, an unoccupied house. While the house is not a very valuable one the fire was a deliberate attempt to destroy the property.

The incendiary had placed a pile of blankets on the floor of a room in the corner and applied the torch. When discovered the fire was gaining headway. The flames were extinguished before much damage was done.

At the scene of the fire a youth from the country essayed to drive over the hose and was ordered to desist by Fireman Ed Hyde. He was abusive and Hyde without much ceremony jerked him from the vehicle. The youth afterward deemed it discretion to leave the hose and Hyde unmolested and went his way.

– Press Democrat, June 28 1903

 

PRETTY WARM BLAZE
Fire Department Busy On Thursday Afternoon

An alarm from box 52 called the fire department to Humboldt street on Thursday afternoon where a lively blaze was in progress, and before it was extinguished a barn and several tons of hay and two sheds and a summer kitchen went up in smoke and flame. The flames had gained considerable headway before the department were called. After the firemen arrived on the scene the conflagration was soon under control.

The fire originated on the grounds of the High School which adjoins the residence of G. W. Wallace of the Wallace Brokerage Company, who was the loser by the spreading flames through the fence. From Janitor Jones it was learned that the fire was started in some rubbish by a lad named Gardner, who had wanted to assist him in cleaning up the grounds. Jones says he cautioned Gardner not to start the fire.

Despite the warmth of the temperature there was the usual large crowd of spectators at the fire. They came in ail directions in vehicles, on horseback, in automobiles and a foot.

– Press Democrat, July 3 1903

 

HOUSE SET ON FIRE
DEPARTMENT CALLED SHORTLY BEFORE MIDNIGHT FOR FIRE ON FIRST STREET
Another Incendiary Fire Nearly Destroys an Unoccupied House — The Fire Had a Good Start

Last night shortly before midnight there was another alarm of fire and the department hurried to First street, near D street, where a fierce fire was in progress in an unoccupied house. The fire occurred just around the corner from the scene of the fire the other night, and like that one was the work of an incendiary. The building was damaged considerably and would have been entirely destroyed but for the exertions of the department. Two boys were noticed in the house in the morning, but no one was seen there later in the day. Fire Chief Adams had no hesitancy in saying that the fire was of incendiary origin.

– Press Democrat, July 4 1903

 

DISASTROUS BLAZE
RESIDENCE OF THE HON. J. T. CAMPBELL BADLY GUTTED BY FIRE LAST EVENING
Willing Hands Assist in Removing the Valuable Bric-a-brac — Fire Fighters Included a Number of Ladies

The pretty residence of the Hon. and Mrs. J. T. Campbell was practically gutted by fire last evening soon after six o’clock. Thanks to the energies of many willing hands much of the very valuable bric-a-brac and curios, which have been their great pride, were saved. Much of the furniture was rescued but of course many of the articles, including some of the curios and other furnishings were badly damaged or burned. From top to bottom the house was drenched with water and plastering and ceiling fell everywhere. The roof and the rear end of the residence was a prey of the flames to a greater extent than the front. What was a delightfully furnished house up to last night is now pretty much of a wreck.

How the fire originated is something of a mystery. There had been no fire in the house for some time, as a gas stove is used principally. The fire started in the upper story, and the burning roof was the first intimation to outsiders that a fire was in progress. Mr. and Mrs. Campbell were enjoying a chat after supper totally unaware that overhead a fire threatened to destroy their home was in progress. Two theories as to the cause of the fire were advanced. It was suggested that probably the conflagration might have been caused by electric wires, or might have been caused by combustion in the storeroom which is under the roof in the rear of the house upstairs. In this storeroom a great many things were stored. The blaze was a stubborn one to get under control, but the firemen succeeded well.

Among those assisting in the removal of the curios and works of art so highly prized by Mr. and Mrs. Campbell, were a number of the fair sex. They worked like Trojans and did not mind getting deluged by the water pouring through the roof. The fair fire fighters were indefatigable in their efforts and a number of men also assisted. The articles saved from destruction were carried into the residence of E. Morris Cox, which adjoins the Campbell home. The conflagration caused some little excitement while it lasted. It was very fortunate it did not prove worse.

 

  WILL PAY REWARD
Information as to Incendiary Wanted by the Marshal

City Marshal George Severson has offered a reward of fifty dollars for information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the incendiary, who has fired several buildings in this city of late. The Marshal is determined, if possible, to locate the guilty person and citizens should assist in the endeavor.

– Press Democrat, July 8 1903

 

THE FIRE RECORD
LAST MONTH WAS RECORD BREAKER FOR FIRE ALARMS AND FIRES HERE
Fire Chief Thanks Citizens for Help at Depot Fires — Urges Purchase of New Engine and More Hose

Last month was a record breaker for fire alarms and damage done by fires in Santa Rosa. There were nine alarms of fire during the month. The most serious of the fires were those that destroyed the depots and other buildings on Sunday. July 5, and the one that destroyed $2,400 of the property at the residence of the Hon. J. T. Campbell. Fire Chief Adams made his report at the monthly meeting of the Fire Commissioners last night at the city hall. In making his report Chief Adams urged the purchase of another fire engine and 1,500 feet of new hose. He called attention to the destruction of fire hose at the time of the depot fire. A new engine and more hose are necessities, he said. Chief Adams thanked the citizens for the assistance rendered the regular firemen on the occasion of the depot fire. Acting President L. L. Veirs was in the chair and Commissioners Fred King, C. D. Johnson and G. S. Brown were present. At the other fires outside of the two mentioned considerable damage was done. The Council at its meeting subsequently ordered the purchase of 1,000 feet of new hose.

– Press Democrat, July 22 1903

 

NEW RESIDENCE GUTTED BY FIRE
CONTRACTOR BUSH’S HOME ON SOUTH E STREET RUINED ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT
The Residence Had Just Been Completed and Family Were About to Occupy the Same

At a few minutes to ten o’clock on Wednesday night fire was discovered in Contractor H. N. Bush’s new residence on South E, street and before the flames were extinguished the house was completely gutted.

The residence had just been completed and Mr. and Mr. Bush and family were ready to move into the place. In fact they thought something of moving in the beds Wednesday night and occupying it for the first time, but later derided to give the paint more time to dry. The family had been occupying the barn in the rear of the house which was completed first. Some articles were moved into the new house on Wednesday, principally canned fruits and preserves.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. It started first near the roof and when the flames were noticed first they had gained considerable headway. The fire department were summoned by a still alarm and had a long run to the fire. There was a copious supply of water but the new lumber made the fire a stubborn one to fight.

The gutted residence was one of the neatest and best in the neighborhood and was built by Mr. Bush himself, and the loss is considerable for him. The house cost about $2,600 and was insured for $2000 in a company represented by B. M Spencer.

As usual there was a very large crowd of spectators at the fire, many of whom walked to the scene, while others went in automobiles and vehicles and on bicycles. It is thought by some that the fire was deliberately started by an incendiary. Others say that it may have been a case of spontaneous combustion caused by painters’ rags. The residence had bean wired for electricity but had not been connected.

– Press Democrat, September 17 1903

 

May Be an Incendiary Here

There is an impression around that there may be an incendiary in Santa Rosa at tho present time, judging from the several suspicious fires that have occurred here lately. Fire Chief Adams says beyond doubt in his opinion the conflagration that gutted the Bush residence on E street on Wednesday night was the work of an incendiary.

– Press Democrat, September 18 1903

 

INCENDIARY AGAIN AT WORK
Fourth Attempt to Burn Robert Ross’ Carriage Repository

Shortly before one o’clock on Monday morning fire was discovered in the rear of Robert Ross’ building at Main and First streets. The fire was of incendiary origin making the fourth attempt to burn the building. Little damage was done by the fire. Had the flames once gained headway the result might have been very serious.

The identity of the miscreant remains a mystery and not only Mr. Ross but other property owners in the block and in the neighborhood would like to have the matter solved. This fire like the preceding ones was started with the aid of kerosene, the odor being plainly detected by those early at the scene of the conflagration.

After the fire was about over, Mr. Ross who was naturally somewhat excited got into a controversy with the Fire Department officials over the taking of a hose through the store room used as a carriage repository, with the result that he was temporarily placed under arrest upon a charge of using language too strenuous to suit the occasion. Later he appeared and paid a small fine, which ended the matter.

– Press Democrat, April 5, 1904

 

FIRE DAMAGES THE TOSCANO HOTEL
CONFLAGRATION ORIGINATED IN ROOM IN THE UPPER STORY OF THE BUILDING
Exact Cause of the Fire Not Known— Building Drenched With Copious Supply of Water Thrown

Considerable damage was done by a fire at the Toscano hotel at Seventh and Adams streets yesterday evening about half past five o’clock, for which the fire department was called by an alarm rung in from Box 25. The fire started in room 3 on the upper story of the hotel building. The room was gutted and its contents were destroyed. In addition other parts of the building were charred, but owing to the prompt work of the department the damage was not nearly as serious as it otherwise would have been, as the flames had considerable headway at the time of the alarm and it seemed as if the entire upper portion of the place was on fire. The smoke was so dense that the firemen had considerable difficulty in at first locating the seat of the conflagration. The room in which the fire started was like a blazing furnace when the department arrived and the fire was spreading.

Two streams of water were quickly poured on the flames and the fire was soon extinguished. The building was drenched with water and this and the smoke will necessitate the complete renovation of a part of the interior of the building. Many willing hands removed most of the furniture and effects from the building, and these articles were piled up here and there, some distance from the scene of the conflagration.

 The hotel is owned and occupied by Mrs. T. Guidotti. The fire was discovered by A. Guidotti. The origin of the fire at present is somewhat of a mystery. There was no stove in the room and the flue from the stove below runs up in another room The fire seemed to have started in the corner of the apartment. The occupants of the hotel could not account for the fire, and there were suggestions that the origin might have been of an incendiary nature. Chief Adams picked up a piece of newspaper in the room most damaged by the fire and it smelt strongly of coal oil. Strange enough this piece of paper was not singed and everything else in the room was charred. Another report at the fire was that a man had laid his lighted pipe on the bed in the room, but this story was not confirmed. A defective flue was also suggested. The building was insured. The water was played on the flames with so much effect that the roof overhead was not damaged. The fire occasioned some excitement among those living in the immediate neighborhood of the hotel and some of them were prepared to remove their belongings and did do so until assured that the danger of the fire spreading was past.

– Press Democrat, April 16, 1904

 

FIREBUG AT WORK SATURDAY NIGHT
ATTEMPT TO BURN THE “STAR FEED MILLS” AT FOURTH AND A STREETS
Fire Started in a Bale of Hay in the Rear of the Building — Flame Seen By Passerby on the Street

On Saturday night shortly after eleven o’clock Loren Jenkins, Will Carter and Val Calhoun while walking along Fourth street, chanced to notice a flame shoot up into the air in the rear of the Star Feed Mills at Fourth and A streets where the hay is stored. They gave the alarm at once and Mr. Jenkins ran to Fourth and Washington streets and turned in an alarm from the box there.

He then rushed back to the place and by this time Police Officer Boyes had arrived on the scene. Jenkins was assisted through the window and unfastened the door on A street. Police Officer Boyes made his way as quickly as possible to the fire and chanced to see a small hose attached to a faucet kept for supplying the boiler in the mill. He quickly turned on the water and extinguished the blaze, which had been kindled on a bale of hay.

The department were quickly on the scene and Police Officers Boyes and McIntosh and Fire Chief Adams made an investigation of the premises. At first it was thought that an electric wire had caused the fire. Investigation proved, however, that this was not the case and that it was a deliberate case of incendiarism. The fire had been started on top of the bale. Had the flames gained headway the old frame building would have gone up in smoke. The prompt action of the youths after they had noticed the flame through the windows on Fourth street and the prompt application of the hose undoubtedly saved a worse conflagration and damage to the contents of the mill and building.

– Press Democrat, May 1 1904

 

YEARS’ FIRE RECORD IN SANTA ROSA
ANNUAL REPORT OF FIRE CHIEF ADAMS PRESENTS INTERESTING STATISTICS
The Loss by Fire and the Insurance on the Property—The Causes of Conflagrations of Past Year

Fire Chief Adams has filed his annual report at the City Hall, which gives statistics regarding the fire record in Santa Rosa for the past year. The Chief states that there were thirty-eight alarms of fire in the city during the year. At thirteen of these fires the engine was used. At twenty-fie the chemical extinguishers were brought into play. The loss by fire in Santa Rosa during the twelve months was $57,017.05. The insurance on the property was $25,217.90, and the net loss was $31,799.15. Of the total number of fires seven were of incendiary origin; three were caused by children playing with matches, thirteen were chimney fires and nine fires resulted from unknown causes.

– Press Democrat, May 4, 1904

 

ANOTHER ATTEMPT MADE TO BURN ROSS’ BUILDING
TORCH IS APPLIED FOR SIXTH TIME
FLAMES DISCOVERED IN ROBERT ROSS’ CARRIAGE REPOSITORY SATURDAY NIGHT
Identity of the Incendiary Still a Mystery — Prompt Work of Firemen Prevent a Serious Fire

For the sixth time the firebug who seems bent on destroying Robert Ross’ building at Main and First streets, applied the torch on Saturday night. The fire was discovered about eleven o’clock and an alarm brought the department in quick time to the place.

The fire was burning in the paint shop which occupies the second floor facing on First street near the end of the building. A hose was attached in a few seconds and the flames were extinguished before much damage was done to the building. The glow of the fire could be plainly seen through the windows and the smoke poured through the roof. Like the five other previous attempts, it was a deliberate plan on the part of the firebug to destroy the premises. Mr. Walsh ahs [sic] the paint shop, and a buggy in the shop was pulled out of the way of the flame by one of the firemen. Like all the previous fires, the work of the incendiary was discovered before the flames had made much headway.

The fire had probably been smoldering some time before the flames shot up. The odor of something burning was noticed some time before the alarm was turned in summoning the fire department. The fire was in among the paints and had it gained much headway the inflammable material would have kindled a fierce blaze. A large crowd was attracted to the scene of the fire in a very few minutes and some little excitement was caused.

The identity of the firebug is apparently as much of a mystery as it has been at the fires that have preceded the one of Saturday night. It has also been noticeable that the incendiary chooses either a Saturday night or Sunday night for his work. While at a loss as to the identity of the guilty person, Chief of Police Severson intends to make a rigid investigation and will probably offer a reward for the necessary information that will lead to the arrest of the guilty party. Once before Mr. Severson offered a reward but without result.

Why this place should be singled out by the incendiary is also mysterious. Mr. Ross has been in business here for many years and so far as is known there is no reason for the dastardly attempts made to destroy his premises on six occasions. This was talked of very generally among the crowd gathered at the fire Saturday night, but no solution could be arrived at. One thing is sure, everybody in the neighborhood would like to have the guilty one brought to justice, as a fire once started in that section, if it got headway, would be very disastrous.

– Press Democrat, May 16, 1904

 

MAY OFFER REWARD TO CATCH FIREBUG
WORK OF INCENDIARIES DISCUSSED AT FIRE COMMISSIONERS’ MEETING
Fire Chief’s Report Discussed—Rigid Investigation Ordered of Main Street Fires

The Board of Fire Commissioners met last night…Commissioner Reynolds called attention to the frequent attempts to burn the Ross building on Main street and asked if some steps should not be taken to locate the incendiary.

Fire Chief Adams said in view of the investigation he had made he was confident that all the fires had been of an incendiary nature.

It was suggested that possibly the last fire in Walsh’s paint shop in the Ross building, might have been caused by spontaneous combustion as it occurred among the paints.

The matter was discussed at some length. It was remarked that three of the fires reported for the month by the Fire Chief had been of incendiary origin…Several of the commissioners were of the opinion that the city should offer a standing reward of one hundred dollars for the information that would lead to the arrest and conviction of incendiaries.

– Press Democrat, May 18, 1904

 

ANOTHER ATTEMPT TO BURN BUILDING
FIERCE FIRE IN THE CHARTRAND BUILDING AT FOURTH AND A STREETS
Conflagration on Saturday Night Looked Threatening for Some Time and Was Stubborn One to Handle

Another determined effort was made to burn down the Chartrand building at the corner of Fourth and A streets about half past eleven o’clock on Saturday night. The fire was discovered about the same time at night as one the occasion of the first application of the torch a few weeks ago. That attempt was also on a Saturday night.

The fire on Saturday night was in the rear end of the room occupied by A. Sander’s second hand store. The flames broke out and spread with great rapidity, as a few minutes before the alarm was given Police Officer Mclntosh had passed by the premises and could not detect anything wrong.

When the department arrived the fire had gained considerable headway in the rear of the building and the flames shot up for a fierce conflagration. A line of hose was attached to the hydrant at the corner of the streets named and water was thrown on the flames. The fire engine ran back to Fourth and A streets and another line of hose was attached to the hydrant there and the engine was soon pumping away with remarkable promptitude. The engine was moved to this hydrant so as not to be too close to the heat of the burning building in the event of the fire getting beyond the control of the firemen.

The fire did considerable damage to the stock in Sanders’ store and water and smoke assisted. The fire was a stubborn one and it was some time before the flames were subdued. Then Chief Adams detailed Fireman Doc Cozad to watch the premises and a section of hose was left attached to the hydrant.

The first attempt to burn the building was in that portion of it occupied by the Star Feed Mill. The building is owned by A. E. Chartrand and alongside the part where the fire was started he is erecting a new brick building. A large crowd of people gathered at the scene of the fire, coming from all parts of the city. The accepted theory is that the fire was undoubtedly of incendiary origin.

– Press Democrat, May 29, 1904

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opensafe

STOLEN: THE SONOMA COUNTY TREASURY

The safe was open and Sonoma county’s treasury was gone, every last cent. As a key was needed to unlock the safe and the end-of-year tax money was going to Sacramento the following day, it was presumed the robbery was an inside job. It was: the county treasurer stole all of it. Maybe.

In January 1857 one William A. Buster was the county treasurer and kept the county’s safe at his house. That was not as dumb as it may seem; at the time Santa Rosa was still a village at a muddy crossroads – later that year, the newspaper editor boasted there were “probably upward of a hundred” buildings. There was no bank and although it was also the county seat, the only public buildings were the courthouse and jail, both criticized for being dinky and rickety.

Initial details in the newspapers were scant, but add in later remarks and it seems Buster was playing cards at the saloon on Saturday, the 17th and went home around midnight accompanied by two friends. They found the front door partly ajar and the safe open with all the money gone: $14,439.13 – equivalent to over a half million dollars today.

Buster offered a $500 reward and left for Sacramento, where it was presumed he intended to lobby members of the legislature to not hold him personally responsible for the theft. While he was there he also picked up $2,795.10 from the State School Fund intended to support county schools. Also while he was there he hooked up with Joe Nevill.

“I told Nevill what I wanted to get,” Buster later told the court, meaning indemnity from the stolen tax money. “[Nevill] went with me and seemed to know most all the members. Harrison and Taliaferro talked favorable; Edwards I did not see. Nevill seemed to be very kind, and done all he could for me, and we drank considerable with members of the Legislature.”

His pal Nevill was still around the next morning as he prepared to leave. “He said he was out of money, and so was I, and if we would take some of the money and go to a faro bank we could win expenses.”

“I took out one hundred dollars – it was lost; we drank some brandy – it was good brandy.” Lest we get distracted by his tasting notes, keep in mind that Buster is talking about dipping into the school fund money.

“[Nevill] insisted the stake was so small he could do nothing, and wanted me to increase it and he would certainly win. I did so until we had lost a thousand dollars. He swore by his right arm and the blood of his heart, that if he lost he knew where he could get the money and would pay me back.”

The two men took a boat to San Francisco with Buster growing anxious over having gambled away so much money. Nevill proposed a poker game “and make a sure thing for me to win.” A third man joined the hand with Nevill as the dealer. “I watched him deal; he took my cards from the bottom and the other man’s from the top – the other man bet along moderately for some time and then raised to four hundred and fifty dollars.”

Buster continued: “…And then I found that Joe was not acting fair with me, and I was then all out except what I had in my pocket, one hundred and forty dollars and a bit. I talked with him, told him I was broke and ruined; he said he would make it all right in the morning.” He wandered down to the wharf where he found a Faro table and lost the $140.

He returned to Santa Rosa with only a bit (12½ cents) in his pocket and immediately confessed having gambled away the school money. Buster was jailed until the next session of the court in April. There were four indictments against him. Apparently there was also talk of people storming the jail and lynching him.

When all this occurred, Buster was already in trouble for playing fast and loose with the county’s treasury. A year before he had “borrowed” $2,000 from the safe and loaned it to a man in San Francisco. When this was discovered he was indicted by the Grand Jury and due to appear in court in January, 1857 – which is why he hadn’t gone to Sacramento on New Year’s Day to make the big end-of-year deposit, as was customary for county treasurers. That indictment was quashed when it came before the court, and at the sentencing he went on at length about this 1856 crime and seemed miffed at having been arrested for embezzling that $2k; after all, by the time his case came to trial he intended to have paid it back with interest.

William Anderson Buster had no prior government experience; he was elected treasurer in 1855 as part of the “Settler’s Ticket” that swept the local elections that year. (His opponent was one of the town founders, Barney Hoen.) Aside from having a gambling addiction and/or being remarkably stupid, all we know about him is that he was 37 at the dawn of 1857 and with Margaret had four children: Harriet, John, Missouri (female) and Eliza. Years later he would say he was just a farmer, but I cannot find anything about what he was doing in Santa Rosa at the time. The only clue comes from his courtroom soliloquy where he volunteered, “Gentlemen, I have borrowed money of many of you, not by dollars but by hundreds and thousands, in my business, and paid you back honestly.”

The Buster trial lasted all of April, 1857. He was found guilty of embezzling state money (2½ years), county money (2½ years), and county school funds (8 years). He also paid a $300 fine for gambling.

His odd speech at his sentencing hearing (transcribed below) is worth reading in full, although much has been already excerpted here. Even skipping the part about how easily he was conned by Joe Nevill, Buster comes across as a rube.

He pled guilty to gambling, but insisted he did not steal the treasury money in the safe. Yes, he admitted, “I was in debt in my business, and wanted to borrow a thousand dollars,” but the money stolen included the $2000 and $88 interest from his “borrowing” crime the year before. The proof of his innocence, he argued, was he had bothered to repay that earlier theft when he was caught: “If I had been disposed to rob myself, I might have taken much more; and you all know I am in the habit of doing things by the wholesale.” In other words, I didn’t do it in 1857 – because I could have done it in 1856.

Gentle Reader may now pick up his/her jaw from the floor.

According to the Petaluma Journal, “The prisoner shed tears quite copiously during his remarks.” The court apparently ruled his terms were to run concurrently, so he was sentenced to eight years.

Unfortunately, nothing further appeared in the newspapers about the case against him. Yes, he confessed to “borrowing” money the year before and gambling away the school funds, but it wasn’t explained why he was convicted of embezzling the $14,439.13. Did the prosecutor show he lost it at card tables or tapped it for loans to himself and others, despite having been caught the previous year? One might expect juicy details of proven guilt would have appeared in the press, even though papers were few and far between in 1857 California.

The ease of the robbery – knowing where the key to the safe was and when the home would be empty – gives me reasonable doubt that he was guilty. Then a few months later, the Santa Rosa paper printed this:

It is well known that some eight or ten thousand dollars of the missing public moneys [sic] for the loss of which Wm. A. Buster is now serving a term of years in the State Prison, was abstracted from the county safe without any agency of his. Since that time, it has been a matter of wonder how certain men not more than sixteen miles from Santa Rosa, having no lucrative business, could become “men of leisure” and always have plenty of money.

The “men of leisure” remark was likely just a swipe at Petaluma, as this was the beginning of the feud between Petaluma and Santa Rosa newspapers – but what was this about “it is well known” that Buster didn’t steal the money?

In 1860 and under a different editor, the Santa Rosa Democrat urged the governor to pardon Buster. “…There is no doubt but his temporary departure from the paths of rectitude is thoroughly cured, and we dare say, that a large majority of his old acquaintances, even here where his misdeeds were committed, would trust him to-day, as readily as they would men whose integrity has never been impeached.”

The warden at San Quentin gave him a week furlough (!) to visit his family in Santa Rosa, and later in 1860 he was pardoned. The family continued to live here for a few years – apparently next door to the notorious Otho Hinton – then moved to Anderson Valley. They ended up in the Los Angeles County town of Wilmington, where William Buster died in 1890.

The obl. Believe-it-or-not! epilogue to this story is that in 1859 the Petaluma Journal mentioned that treasurers in nine other counties had vanished with public funds. And at the exact same time in 1857 while Buster was awaiting his trial(s), the state treasurer Henry Bates was arrested for losing about $300,000. In Bates’ first trial there was a hung jury, followed by a second mistrial. As far as I’m able to tell, the only person in California who went to prison for stealing public money in those days was William A. Buster – who possibly did not steal it. Well, not all of it, anyway.

 

Robbery of the County Treasury.

W. A. Buster, Treasurer of Sonoma County, reports that the safe in which was deposited the public funds, was robbed some time during last Sunday Evening. Of the particulars of this affair, we are unadvised, other than by rumor. As near as we can get at the matter, it would appear that at the time of the robbery there was, or should have been. In the safe, from $13,000 to $14,000, all of which belonged to the State, excepting about $1,200. – That the robbery was discovered about 1 o’clock, A. M., Sunday morning, by two acquaintances of Mr. Buster’s whom he was lighting to their rooms, and that his attention was called to it by one of them remarking that the safe door was open. We further learn that the safe exhibited no evidence of force having been used upon it, but on the contrary went to show that it had been opened by a key.

Whoever committed the robbery was evidently perfectly familiar with the premises and state of finances. One day later, and they would have had dry picking, as Mr. Buster was to leave for Sacramento early on Monday morning to pay into the State Treasury the money belonging to the State.

Mr. Buster had offered a reward of five hundred dollars, for the apprehension of the robber and recovery of the money.

– Sonoma County Journal, January 23 1857

 

THE MISSING FUNDS — We cannot learn that any additional light has been thrown upon either the whereabouts of the funds missing from the County Treasury, or of the perpetrators of the robbery. Mr. Buster, we believe, has gone to Sacramento, probably with the view of getting the Legislature to release himself and bondsmen from the payment of the sum due the State. The Board of Supervisors meet on Monday next, when it is probable an additional reward will be offered for the detection of the robbers. We are also informed, that the County Attorney has given an instruction to the Sheriff, to retain in his hands, until further ordered, all moneys which may be paid in, belonging to the County.

– Sonoma County Journal, January 30 1857

 

The Late County Treasurer.

By reference to the Report of the Board of Supervisors, it will be seen that W. A. Buster, late Treasurer of Sonoma County, is a defaulter to the State to the amount of $17,263.98. Of this sum, $14,439.13 was money collected in this County, for State purposes, and paid over to him, to be paid by him into the State Treasurer’s hands. The remainder, with the exception of $29.75, is money drawn from the State School Fund, $2,795.10 being the proportionate amount due this County for school purposes. This money he drew from the State Treasury since the reported robbery of the County Treasury, but when called upon by the Board of Supervisors to make an exhibit of the same, he was unable to comply. How this money has been disposed of, remains to be proven.

The evidence that Mr. Buster was unlawfully appropriating the public moneys to private purposes, has been so strong from the time of his entering upon his official duties, that legal proceedings were instituted against him as early as October, 1856, at which time the Grand Jury found an indictment against him for the improper use of public funds. In the following December he was arrested on a bench warrant and held to bail in the sum of $3,000 to appear at the January term of County Court. From some informality, the indictment was quashed at the January term, but the case submitted to the Grand Jury which will be summoned previous to the setting of the April terms of the Court, and bail fixed in same amount. On the 5th last, his sureties surrendered him to the Sheriff, and he is now in prison awaiting his trial at the April term of Court.

Of the guilt or innocence of Mr. Buster we wish not to speak at this time. The feeling already existing against him, is strong. We would not add to this feeling by giving publicity to the thousand and one stories in circulation, lest the public mind might become prejudiced to such an extent as to render it difficult to obtain an impartial and unprejudiced jury to try him. He is now in the hands of the law, and no doubt justice will be meted out to him according to his deserts. If proven guilty of the offence charged, his punishment, according to the statutes of 1855, will be imprisonment in the State Penitentiary from one to five years, or a fine, discretionary with the Court.

Since his imprisonment Mr. Buster has sent in his resignation, and the Board of Supervisors have appointed Dr. J. HENDLEY of Santa Rosa, who is now acting as County Treasurer.

– Sonoma County Journal, February 13 1857

 

THE ROBBERY OF THE SONOMA TREASURY. — Some time since it was stated that Mr. Buster, the Treasurer of Sonoma county had been robbed of $13,000 of State and county funds. — The people in that section now generally believe that Mr. Buster robbed himself, as appears by the following from the Napa Reporter:

MR. BUSTER. — This County Treasury “busting” official, it in currently reported, went to the Capital to have his bonds cancelled, which he didn’t do, as far as we can learn. Report also says that he was paid the apportionment of the School Fund due Sonoma county, which he “bucked off” before reaching the locality of the county safe. He is now in the Santa Rosa jail, we understand. He’ll do to play second fiddle to the State Treasurer.

– Daily Alta California, February 16 1857

 

Wm. A. Buster, Late County Treasurer, was arraingned [sic] on Tuesday, and entered the plea of “not guilty” to two indictments, one for using and loaning County funds, and one for using and loaning State funds. His counsel, C. P. Wilkins, gave notice of a motion for a change of venue on the ground that the prisoner could not obtain a fair and impartial trial in Sonoma county.

Oliver Baileau, arraigned for branding cattle with intent to stal the same, was discharged – the jury rendering a verdict of “not guilty.”

An unsual number of persons have been in attendance. There is no apparent indication in regard to time of adjournment. Should Busters’ application for a change of venue be denied and his case tried at this term, the court will probably be in session during next week.

– Sonoma County Journal, April 10 1857

 

COURT OF SESSIONS — The case of the People vs. W. A. Buster charged with using and loaning State funds, is drawing its weary length to a close. On Saturday last the Court appointed Thomas Hood, elisor, to bring into Court, on Tuesday, 48 jurors. This duty Mr. H. performed. Out of the number the Court succeeded in getting a panel. The prosecution was commenced on behalf of the State, on Tuesday evening, and closed on Wednesday morning. The defence offered no testimony, but asked time to prepare instructions, which request was granted. The case was submitted to the jury on Wednesday evening, who, after a half hour’s absence, returned a verdict of “guilty.” – Sentence not passed at out latest date. On the charge of gambling, to which it will be recollected, Mr. Buster had plead guilty, the Court has fined the prisoner $300. On the charge for using and loaning County funds, he is yet to be tried. As order for the jury has been issued.

– Sonoma County Journal, April 24 1857

BUSTER SENTENCED. — Last Wednesday morning the Court passed sentence on W. A. Buster, found guilty of using and loaning State Funds. His sentence is thirty months imprisonment in the State Penitentiary. The venire issued last week for a Jury to try the prisoner of the charge of using and loaning County Funds, was returned into court on Wednesday. A panel has probably been selected [be]fore this. We learn that there is still another indictment against him – that of embezzling the School Money, upon which he is yet to be tried.

– Sonoma County Journal, May 1 1857

 

Defaulter Convicted. — W. A. Buster, the late defaulting Treasurer of Sonoma county, has been found guilty of trafficking in State funds; and has also been fined the sum of $300 for gambling part of the money away. He will shortly be tried for squandering the moneys of the county in the same way.

– Sacramento Daily Union, May 4 1857

 

COMMITTED. — Last Wednesday. Deputy Sheriff Greene passed through Petaluma, on his way to San Quentin, accompanied by the late treasurer of that county, W. A. Buster, who is about entering upon new duties in that institution for the next eight years.

– California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences, May 8 1857

 

The People vs. Wm. A. Buster

This trial which has occupied the Court of Sessions for the last four weeks, terminated last Saturday. There were four indictments against the Defendant – the first for permitting gaming, upon which he plead guilty, and was $300. The second, for using and loaning State Moneys, which came to his hands as Treasurer of Sonoma County, on a plea of not guilty and a verdict of guilty, he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years’ imprisonment. On the third, for using the moneys belonging to the County, he was found guilty and sentenced to 2 1/2 years’ imprisonment. – On the fourth, for embezzlement of School Moneys belonging to the County of Sonoma, he plead guilty, and was sentenced to 8 years’ imprisonment. On being called upon, before sentence in the last two cases, if he had any cause to show why judgment should not be pronounced against him, he said: –

“I wish to state to the people here how all this came about, and if I say anything incorrect, I want to be corrected. I don’t know that Mr. Wickersham, the District Attorney, has had any cause to do so, but I think he has not only prosecuted but persecuted me. In his argument to the Jury, he said that my attorneys had not even proven that I had previously sustained a good character. I was born in Tennessee, and have taught school about ten years of my life; and I defy any man to bring anything against my character up to the time these indictments were prosecuted; and I don’t want any disgrace cast upon my family.

In the early part of my official duties, I did not know that there was any exceptions taken. After I borrowed the $2000, testified by the high Sheriff, I started to Sacramento, on the 4th of January, 1856. I deposited the money at Sacramento, and went up into the mines on other business, and remained until the 16th, when I returned to Sacramento, and settled with the State Treasurer, and came down to San Francisco and loaned to Menefee $2000. When I came home I was surprised to hear that it was reported I had run away, and some of my securities had withdrawn – that it was known how much money there should be in the Treasury, and all the Scrip had been bought up a few to make a run on the Treasury – and I was to be raised right out of my boots! I met all the warrants presented, and was then easy until July ’56.

Gentlemen, I have borrowed money of many of you, not by dollars but by hundreds and thousands, in my business, and paid you back honestly. Now, as to the August report: I did make a previous report which the Board of Supervisors accepted, but did not publish, and I was censured, and also charged with not having made a report; and I had to make this report, going back and including my previous one, and am charged of using $2000 of the public money, which I had to raise to make up the amount of the August exhibit, which I shall neither admit or deny; but I think the District Attorney took a very ungentlemanly course to make it appear that I was delaying the Board of Supervisors and trying to borrow money to make my exhibit. It is not true; and they did not wait one day on me, but remained in session three days after on other business. The District Attorney did not read all the report.

Above what I exhibited with my report, there was sixteen or seventeen hundred dollars at that time paid into me by the Sheriff and that was all that could have been lost to the people if I had eat it up.

I had bought some county warrants; as I have been charged with one crime I might as well admit that. The new Board met to organize and I wanted them to do business; the old Board had ordered me to give a new bond in the sum of $40,000, which, under the excitement against me, was out of the question. I expected them to require me to make a full exhibit, and I was ready to do so. I was indicted in January, and had to be here, and could not go to Sacramento on the 1st of January, ’57; it was usual for other Treasurers to settle with the State any time during the month, and I did not think it was material. Some one reported that I was not going to Sacramento; God forgive him, for if I knew who it was I could not.

I was in debt in my business, and wanted to borrow a thousand dollars. I concluded on Saturday the 17th of Jan. to go to Sacramento on the following Monday. I was at the saloon on the evening of the 17th (Saturday) at 10 or 11 o’clock, playing cards for one thing or another. Treadwell (Jo.) and Russell went home with me to go to bed; they found the front door partly open and the safe partly open. I had gone round the back part of the house, and they called to me. I went round and all the money was taken out of the safe – God knows by whom, but I didn’t. That is the only thing for which I can make no showing excepting my acts.

If I had been disposed to rob myself, I might have taken much more; and you, all know I am in the habit of doing things by the wholesale. From the time I should have started to Sacramento up to the time the safe was robbed, I paid two thousand and eighty-eight dollars, and offered to pay more. Now, you will all agree with me, that any man who would have done this, (if he intended to steal) would have been a fool; but I could only deny the charge and give the above reason; and my best friends passed me by without speaking and thought me guilty, and I was almost driven to despair.

Sometimes I thought I would not go to Sacramento – Dr. Williams told me he heard I was afraid to go; I told him that I had rather die than be thought afraid to go; I don’t know what fear is. I went to Sacramento, and fell in with Jo. Nevill; some of you know who he is; and now I will relate the only thing I regret in this whole matter. I told Nevill what I wanted to get; (a relief bill passed) he went with me and seemed to know most all the members. Harrison and Taliaferro talked favorable; Edwards I did not see. Nevill seemed to be very kind, and done all he could for me, and we drank considerable with members of the Legislature.

Next morning I went to draw the School Money, and he helped me pack it up; and after I had deposited it, he said he was out of money and so was I and if we would take some of the money and go to a faro bank we could win expenses. I took out one hundred dollars – it was lost; we drank some brandy – it was good brandy; he insisted the stake was so small he could do nothing, and wanted me to increase it and he would certainly win. I did so until we had lost a thousand dollars. He swore by his right arm and the blood of his heart, that if he lost he knew where he could get the money and would pay me back.

We got aboard a boat and started for San Francisco. I felt so bad I could not sleep; he said he could not and would get up a game of poker, and make a sure thing for me to win. I gave him a twenty; he was to put up the cards so as to deal me a full; I suppose you know what a full is. I watched him deal; he took my cards from the bottom and the other man’s from the top – the other man bet along moderately for some time and then raised to four hundred and fifty dollars. I supposed he meant to bluff me, and proposed to let Jo. hold my hand until I went for the money, but he would not consent. I then sent Jo. for the money; when the money was up, I said I had three fives and two sixes – I will always recollect the hand; he showed four kings, and took the money – and then I found that Jo. was not acting fair with me, and I was then all out except what I had in my pocket, one hundred and forty dollars and a bit. I talked with him, told him I was broke and ruined; he said he would make it all right in the morning.

I felt as though I was gone in, and the next morning I went down on the wharf and had a great mind to throw the hundred and forty dollars in the Bay, for I knew that amount was no use to me; I went and bucked off the hundred and forty dollars and kept the bit. I had lost all confidence in Jo., and told him that he had ruined me; he told me not to go home; I told him by the Gods I would and let the people all know what I had done; he said he could not find the man he was to get the money from, but would get me the money and bring it up.

I came home and was loathe to tell it. Dr. Williams asked me if I had brought the School Money, and I said yes. Ogan wanted me to pay a school warrant, and I told him just how it was; and I was then charged all over town of stealing the School Money; and I suppose it was no better. I was then delivered over by my securities to the Sheriff, and had to go to jail, where I have been ever since.

Many reports were circulated against me, and I understand they threatened to take me out of the jail and hang me; all I could hear was through my family; no man could come, he was denied admission either by the Sheriff or Jailor. I don’t know which, nor do I care.

I was told I would be punished to the extent of the law, and I don’t believe there could have been a Jury in the county but what would commit me. I was without money and without counsel; I told C. P. Wilkins my situation, and he offered to do all he could for me; he was in bad health, and I asked Temple to assist; he said he could do me no good before this community, but he would assist all he could. I made an application for a change of venue, but was denied, and was advised to run away; I could have done so and been gone long ago, but I would rather hang than to acknowledge the crime by running away and thereby saddle it on my family.

I expect if I live, to serve out my term and come back here – for if I cannot live here. I cannot anywhere. I don’t make these remarks with the hope of influencing the Court; I want them to do their duty – appoint the time which they see cause to allot me, and I will go and try it. I have nothing more to say.”

The prisoner shed tears quite copiously during his remarks, and when he took his seat he covered his face with his hands and wept. The Court House was crowded to excess, but the strictest order prevailed.

– Sonoma County Journal, May 8 1857

 

PARDON ASKED FOR.

Margaret F. Buster, wife to Wm. A. Buster, given notice that she will apply to the Governor for the pardon of her husband, now an inmate of the State Prison, for the crime of embezzlement of the county and school funds of Sonoma county, and for using and loaning the funds of the State; also for using and loaning the funds of this county. The aggregate term of imprisonment imposed by the Court for these offences, is eight years. We learn that petitions to this effect are now in circulation for signatures.

However deeply we may, and do sympathize with the afflicted wife and children of the prisoner, we cannot so far forget our duty to society, as to thus early lend our aid in favor of the object prayed for. The character of the crime for which Mr. Buster is now incarcerated within the prison walls, has been, and still is, one of too frequent occurrence in California to permit this course on our part. Few indeed have been the cases of either County or State officials retiring from posts of trust, with an untarnished name. Many have been the evidences of peculaton or defalcation, on the part of men placed in positions of honor and trust; but few the convictions. Indeed, until within a few months past Justice has apparently withheld her hand, and the criminal has escaped merited punishment.

Though others equally guilty, and may be much more culpable, have been allowed to escape through the meshes of the law, and Mr. Buster alone occupies the prisoner’s cell, we cannot see that he should be thus early liberated. Scarce eight months of the eight years have yet expired. For the Governor to pardon the prisoner, under the circumstances, at this early day of his confinement, would, to say the least, be setting a bad example. There can be little or no doubt that a too free exercise of executive clemency, is pernicious in the extreme to the well being of society. If to the difficulty of conviction is to be added a ready pardon, we need not be surprised should crimes of every kind become of even more frequent occurrence. It is not the severity of law, but the certainty of its enforcement, that deters men from crime. While, therefore, humanity pleads for the liberation of a devoted husband and a kind parent, justice and the public good requires that the laws of our land be faithfully and impartially administered. But while we thus stand for the supremacy of law, let me not forget the demands of humanity, and if need be, let us all show our sympathy for the bereaved family, by more convincing proofs than mere words, or scrawls of pen and pencil.

– Sonoma County Journal, November 13 1857

 

Wm. A. Buster.

We last week called attention to the fact that Wm. A. Buster, formerly Treasurer of this county, and who is now in the State’s Prison, where he was sent for embezzling the public funds while in that office, was here on a visit to his family. He returned on Saturday last.

We have before had occasion to speak of the propriety of enforcing the remainder of Mr. Buster’s sentence — and as we are informed a Legislative committee will visit the State Prison soon, and that the case of Mr. Buster will be laid before that committee, with a view to his release prior to the expiration of his sentence, we deem it appropriate that we repeat those views. Our opinion, as heretofore expressed, is: that the Governor would be fully justifiable in interposing the pardoning power in his behalf; and we will endeavor to express as plainly as we can our reasons for that opinion.

While it is not contended even by his most interested friends that he was not guilty of the offense charged, those who know him best, even among those who are not his personal or political friends, do not pretend to ascribe to Mr. Buster a really depraved heart. We believe it is admitted by nearly all these, that he was led away by the circumstances that surrounded him, having lived the early part of his life in an humble, unpretending sphere, away from the follies and dissipations incident to life in towns, and particularly in that society composed of county officials, who are very liable to be flattered by the vicious, and tempted to dissipation by his most intimate associates. In fact he was a novice, wholly ignorant of the vices to which he was exposed, on entering upon his official career. He engaged in those vices and follies which we all see almost every day of our lives, not realizing that any harm was likely to grow out of his indulgences. He held the key of the county safe, and at the same time was allured with the prospects of wealth to be derived from speculations and gaming. he embarked in both; but it does not require a great stretch of the mind to divine how and wherein he must fail to cope with the more experienced and shrewder portion of mankind, whom he in this sphere had to contend with. He became, as he supposed, temporarily embarrassed, and used the public moneys in his keeping. We will not say he fully intended, and thought he would be able to replace this from his own funds; for these thoughts can bedemonstrated only by himself and his God, But so far as we have heard the expression of those who were acquainted with the circumstances, we believe all are impressed with this belief. This, we admit, is not a legal excuse for his conduct — neither should it prevent his punishment; but wo do think it should materially mitigate that punishment.

All know the theory upon which penalties for crimes is based. It is, first, to imprison the criminal, that the power to do harm may be placed out of his reach. Second, that the fear of punishment again shall in future deter him from crime, and thus reform the abandoned; and thirdly, an example to the depraved part of the world that if they are detected in similar crimes they will be punished in like manner.

In Mr. Buster’s case, the two first of these reasons are out of the question, so far as future punishment goes. There is no doubt but his temporary departure from the paths of rectitude is thoroughly cured, and we dare say, that a large majority of his old acquaintances, even here where his misdeeds were committed, would trust him to-day, as readily as they would men whose integrity has never been impeached. Even more, that the lesson he has already had, would have the effect to make him even scrupulous in his efforts to do right. Everything indicates this: He has a family — an interesting, and we may say a respectable family, with whom he wishes to reside. Were he a depraved, irredeemable outlaw, who cared not what part of the world he might be compelled to flee to, nor how soon he had to go, it would be different; he is trusted by the keepers of the Prison to visit his family, fifty miles off, without guard or bond — with no more than his own word and his attachment to that family — rather than leave which, he will return to the degrading bondage with which he suffers.

The man who will thus suffer affliction, with the hope of once more being called an honest man by those who have best know his short-cormings — who would prefer incarceration in the State Prison to abandonment of his family — is not at heart a bad man; and after the serious evidence ho has already had of the danger of crime — would be the last man in world again to violate the law.

We have but one more reason to give why he should be released. Other men, both before and since the development of his case, have proven in like manner, and even to greater extent, delinquent, but have uniformly escaped punishment. So generally has this been the case, that persistance in the continuation of his punishment has no terror to others. Men of more craft, but less real merit than he possesses, escape with impunity — laugh at the law, and call him stupid for allowing himself to be proven guilty. They attribute his conviction, and his punishment rather to his verdance, than to the excess of his crime.

Then every argument for the punishment of criminals, so far as he is concerned, fails. Holding these views of the matter, which we certainly do, we hope Governor Downey will take the very first opportunity to give Mr. Buster an entire legal pardon for his offense, and in doing so, we have good reason to believe he will receive the approbation of nine-tenths of this community.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 26 1860

 

PARDON BUSTER. — We are pleased to see so much interest taken in the pardon of this unfortunate man, as has of late been manifested by our citizens. We learn from good authority, that a petition has been forwarded to Governor Downey, signed by the proper officials of this County, asking his release, and hope soon to hear that it has been granted. There is no doubt but that the news of his pardon would be welcomed with gladness by a greater portion of our people.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 28 1860

 

We are pleased to announce that Gov. Downey has at last complied with the prayer of many citizens of Sonoma County, and pardoned Wm. A. Buster. It is our candid opinion, that the action of the Governor in pardoning Buster, will meet with the approval of two-thirds of the people of the County. Mr. Buster arrived home on Friday last.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 18 1860

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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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