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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cabinclose

THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

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

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

THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS
THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

MANHUNT PT. I: ESCAPE

MANHUNT II: HOW (NOT) TO CATCH A FUGITIVE

WHO KILLED THE WICKERSHAMS?

SOURCES (PDF, 31 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

The kitchen door on both sides was painted white. On the kitchen side, about four feet from the floor, were marks of powder burn almost as large as a man’s hand. The gun from which the shot was fired that ended the life of the owner of the house was evidently held close against the door, and in that position the muzzle would have been only about five feet from the body of the unsuspecting victim. All present came to the conclusion that the murderer had certainly opened the door only a few inches, thus being able to level his gun on the husband without allowing it to project beyond the edge, while the door screened him from the wife’s view. 16

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

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

Beneath the chair on which the body rested were two pools of blood, the clothing worn by the deceased also being saturated. About the neck was twisted a large linen tablecloth, and underneath it several napkins. These were almost as thoroughly soaked with blood as if they had been dipped into a bucket filled with it. From the corners and here and there on the edge only could it be told what the original color of the articles were. From the snowy whiteness of these spots, still stiff with starch, it was evident that the tablecloth was taken from the drawer in which the linen was kept for the express purpose of absorbing the blood. 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 The Saint Paul Globe, January 24, 1886

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

3 Chronicle, ibid

4 ibid

5 ibid

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

7 Chronicle ibid

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

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

10 Petaluma Argus, January 23, 1886

11 Oakland Tribune, January 22, 1886

12 Sacramento Record-Union, January 23, 1886

13 San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

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

15 Daily Democrat, January 26, 1886

16 Petaluma Courier, January 27, 1886

17 ibid

18 Russian River Flag, January 27 1886 

19 San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 1886

20 Daily Alta California, January 24, 1886

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

22 Chronicle, ibid

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