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.

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.

NEXT: MANHUNT PT. II: PURSUIT

 

1Oakland Tribune, January 22, 1886

2Daily Alta California, January 25, 1886

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

4Daily Alta California, January 25, 1886

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

6Petaluma Courier, January 27, 1886

7ibid

8Petaluma Argus, January 30, 1886

9Daily Alta California, January 27 1886

10 Daily Democrat, January 24 1886

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

12Oakland Tribune, January 27 1886

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THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

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

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

The 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; part two follows the manhunt for the Chinese cook and suggests who were the more likely suspects; part three provides overall context, showing why our ancestors were quick to presume the cook was guilty and what they did immediately afterward.

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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kronckepreview

SANTA ROSA’S QUEST FOR A HEART

Courthouse Square is (finally) reunited, so we can (finally) say our downtown has sort-of a park, although there’s so much parking on the sides it is much smaller than need be. But the important thing is Santa Rosa (finally) has a central place where citizens can gather together – something the town has sought since its founding in 1854.

In the layout of the town 163 years ago it was called the Plaza, but I can’t recall seeing much evidence it was used for public gatherings except for a portion of the ceremonies for the 1876 Centennial. It was simply a small lot criss-crossed by footpaths and usually in pretty rough shape because no one took care of it. Its potential as a park was further limited when it was clearcut in 1884 to build a courthouse and after that one tumbled down in the Great Earthquake of 1906, the parcel was almost completely filled with the elephantine courthouse built to replace it.

But having a nice public park was a Very Big Deal for our ancestors, and not just for sports and recreation; parks were the heart of 19th century communities. Having a pretty park came with considerable bragging rights – it was the yin to promoting a town paired with the yang of boasting about the burg’s economic prowess and promising future. So if you want to grasp the history of Santa Rosa understand this: The city fathers yearned to be a great Bay Area metropolis, and at the tippy-top of their wishlist was having a terrific park.

At a minimum, Santa Rosa needed a place for political rallies, holiday celebrations, group picnics and the like. Except for the occasional circus or traveling theater group, these doings were about the only entertainment in a small town like this during the 19th century; if there was to be an Admission Day parade with marching band followed by a snoozefest speech about the Mexican War from Colonel I. Blather, Ret., you, sir or madam, would be in that audience along with hundreds of your neighbors – and glad for it.

For about a dozen years around the 1870s, the destination was Arcadia Park, also known as “Willows.”  (Its site was obliterated by Highway 101 but the current intersection of Morgan and Ninth street was near the southeast corner, with the northwest end being the corner of Davis and Tenth street on the west side of the freeway.) It was privately owned and available for rental, but apparently not open every day.

Public use faded in the 1880s after it was bought by the Metzger family, who built a home on the property followed by a winery. But it also had other drawbacks which made it less than optimal. It was about a half-hour walk from downtown with no public transport (meaning horse-drawn trolley) and was apparently little more than a vacant lot with no amenities – although some newspaper descriptions mention a saloon, dance floor and a ten-pin bowling alley, these structures must have been quite small or temporary. The whole place was only an acre, not much larger than the original plaza. That it was so well-used only shows how desperate Santa Rosa was.

On the east side of town was another private park over twice as big and with much more to offer. It was closer to downtown and on the trolley line, where Fourth st. meets McDonald and College avenues (today it’s the Creekside Park apartment complex at 1130 4th street). “City Gardens” backed on to Santa Rosa Creek and had a tiny lake/pond, a zoo of some sort and a velocipede track where bike enthusiasts could race around “at a 2-40 gait” (about 22 MPH), according to an 1869 item.

That place also had a special significance in Santa Rosa history, as it was around there where Julio Carrillo and his pals hosted a blowout Fourth of July picnic and ball in 1854 to convince county residents to vote for making Santa Rosa the county seat – although the town barely existed at the time. Spoiler alert: It worked. Never underestimate the power of free BBQ.

There’s quite a nice description of City Gardens from 1884, when the First Regiment of the National Guard held their annual encampment there and along McDonald ave. “[T]he camp was lighted up and the illumination furnished by from fifteen hundred to two thousand Japanese lanterns was magnificent in the extreme. It was superb beyond description, and presented an appearance much more easily imagined than described.” The article in the Sonoma Democrat continued poetically:

The usual dress parade and guardmounting [sic] was had on Tuesday, and we noticed a marked increase in the crowd of citizens in attendance. After its close the sunset gun was fired, and supper discussed, and the non-commissioned officers and privates began to prepare for their enjoyment. The tents were placed in order with alacrity, and when the shades of evening begin to lower, the campfires were lit, the lanterns to shed their dubious light, and the camp took on its usual gala appearance. The splendid band took its position in the pavilion at the City Gardens, and soon the floor was filled with dancers.

At the same time Arcadia Park was fast fading away as the Metzger winery expanded. About the only events advertised at the park now were picnics for the German Social Club (of which William Metzger was a leader) and the annual Italian picnic. And that was another reason park use dwindled: The area around it had grown into being the Italian community which was shunned by the racist, pro-Confederacy society which dominated Santa Rosa – and would continue to do so for decades.

City Gardens closed for a year and reopened under a new owner: Peter Henry Kroncke (that spelling is correct, but he was variously tagged in the newspapers as “Kronke,” “Kroncker,” and the grunty, “Kronk”).

Henry Kroncke was well-established in town as owner of the Santa Rosa Planing Mill and was often mentioned for his partnerships with others in the lumber and construction trades. There is no dispute that he built a beautiful park and it looked like Santa Rosa at last had found its heart – or at least, a nice place for anyone who could afford the 25¢ admission, the equivalent of about six bucks today.

“Kroncke’s Park” grand opening was on May Day, 1886, featuring a ball with a 17-piece orchestra and with the promise of a musical concert every Sunday. The following week a “mounted sword contest” was advertised, so after a relaxing picnic with your cherished family you could watch a couple of guys flail at each other in a medieval-ish way. (The Sonoma Democrat reported the other attraction was “Professor S. J. Reeves giving an exhibition of horsemanship on the back of a wild mustang, which seat he kept notwithstanding the saddle occupied the neck of the animal part of the time.”)

That second ad also stated this: “Grand excursion from San Francisco.” From Kroncke’s agent in the city anyone could buy a round-trip ticket to Santa Rosa at the subsidized price of $1.00 – not including the park admission price, of course. Enough daytripping San Franciscans to pack fourteen train cars came to watch the sword fight, and those attendance numbers continued all summer, with apparently 1,000-1,500 coming to Santa Rosa each Sunday.

Kroncke’s Park was clearly a smashing success for both itself and the town. There was one eensy little drawback: The big crowds attracted pickpockets. “That exception to the pleasures of the day is one that is attendant on all such occasions,” wrote the Sonoma Democrat. Uh, since these “occasions” were scheduled for every weekend, did that mean Santa Rosa should brace for a regular influx of wrong-doers? Why…yes.

Both Santa Rosa newspapers downplayed the problems at first. A month later the Petaluma Courier wrote their town would never welcome Sunday excursion visitors because of the “hoodlums and roughs” who were showing up in Santa Rosa. “While it is a fact that two or three pickpockets plied their trade successfully in the crowd that attended the sword contest here,” the Sonoma Democrat replied, “otherwise these excursions to this place have been very orderly and almost entirely free from the hoodlum element, considering the number of people present.”

As the summer wore on, the papers could no longer gloss over the mounting problems. In August, excursionists vandalized two commercial orchards, seriously damaging and even destroying trees. Then a few weeks later, a Democrat article began with this: “The excursion to this city and Kroncke’s Park Sunday, was made up chiefly of hoodlums…”

While still being an apologist and stating “it should not be inferred that all the excursions have been objectionable,” the paper reported police had to break up a free-for-all fight at the park and brawls continued throughout the afternoon. An officer clubbed a disorderly man unconscious on Fourth street. Worst of all, “when the train left for San Francisco in the evening about sixty ot the hoodlums got left, and put in the night parading the streets.” I’m sure that must have been a peaceful evening in old Santa Rosa.

The worst incident came the following year, as an excursion coincided with the last day of the county fair. The “sallow-faced individuals dressed in chinchilla coats” and “their vulgar female companions [were] an outrage on all sense of decency” as they bullied their way around downtown, pushing people off the sidewalks and stealing booze and cigars from saloons. One of the crowd entered a hotel and grabbed the heavy bell used to announce dinner service and hit the hotel owner in the head with it, knocking him cold. A Deputy Sheriff and two off-duty San Francisco policemen arrested the man on the returning train, but only after a confrontation with the guy’s pals who were trying to hide him from the cops.

Yet the newspapers – particularly the Republican – continued holding Kroncke’s Park and its excursion train promotion blameless. In a February 1888 puff-piece, the Republican paper gushed, “We have begun to look upon Kroncke’s Park as an almost necessity; in fact it would be difficult to tell what we would do without it”. Finally, in 1890 and after some 700-800 signed a petition demanding the City Council take action (the town population at the time was around 5,000), Kroncke’s liquor license was denied.

The end of booze apparently meant the end of the excursions, and likewise the end of the troublemakers. The park didn’t close, but it’s not clear whether it was still open every day. Like the old Arcadia Park, it’s mentioned in the papers as being used for political rallies and rented for group picnics.

Even sans alcohol it was a special place. As seen on the fire map below, there was an enclosed bowling alley (they played ten pin, same as today, except with a wooden ball), the large pavilion with a dance floor, and “swimming baths” back by the creek. An ancient oak was surrounded by a stairway and electric lights were strung overhead.

The park name reverted to City Gardens after it was sold, and it was sold again in 1897 to the Grace Brothers of local brewery fame. Now it became a beer garden with a concession stand that sold ice cream and a roller-skating rink was added. As “Grace Park” it came closest to being Santa Rosa’s own; Rose Carnival parades usually ended there, Burbank Day celebrations were held, and there were always big doings on Labor Day. There were concerts and children’s carnivals and in 1905 there was a contest where men tried to catch a greased pig.

Any illusions that it was a de facto public park ended in 1921 when Frank Grace sold the property. Nor had they maintained it as a town rightly should; the only original structures left were the pavilion and tree staircase. Even as far back as 1908 the fire map had noted the buildings were “old and dilapidated.”

Our story of the place ends with new owners Dr. Joseph Shaw and wife Frances, who started building their extravagant Xanadu-like mansion to house their art treasures. Construction of “Villa Francesca” was abandoned after his death in a 1925 auto accident, but the Shaws and their architectural dreams deserve their own item here, someday, As Luther Burbank’s personal physician and closest friend, the couple’s cremains are buried alongside Burbank.

Santa Rosa’s continuing – and painful – search for a park continued. It wouldn’t be until 1931 that Santa Rosa had a true public-owned space with the donation of the nine acre Juilliard homestead (although the first official park was created in 1922 when they set aside an unused spot out at the city’s reservoir). Before and after the Great Earthquake there had been various proposals to create a water park on the banks of Santa Rosa Creek, or buy the current location of the Santa Rosa Middle School, or buy the grounds of an old mansion on Mendocino avenue, or buy any of several undistinguished lots to the west or south of city limits. But it always ended the same ways: The town was too cheap, voters weren’t interested or there was too much heavy lifting involved. For more on that history see: “NARY A PARK TO PLAY IN.”

Serious questions remain unanswered about the legacy of Kroncke’s Park: Was it his Sunday excursions which set Santa Rosa skidding towards the ditch? We know by 1905 this was a “wide-open town,” with thriving underground economy from illegal gambling and having the largest red light district between San Francisco and Reno.

It seems the park introduced habitual gambling to Santa Rosa. Gambling was always sanctioned at the County Fair racetrack with the newspapers even printing the odds, while the rest of the year saloon keepers could be found to serve as hometown bookies for customers wanting to bet on out-of-town horse races and other events (see “THE MAYOR OF MAIN STREET“). But it’s noteworthy that after Kroncke’s grand opening with the ball and picnic, almost all of his excursion ads promoted some sort of sporting event. Besides sword fighting there was wrestling and sparring, baseball and football games and all kinds of athletic tournaments – just the sort of competitions which attract gamblers.

I’ll also argue Kroncke’s excursions could have spurred prostitution here. The subsidized train tickets brought first-time visitors to Santa Rosa who learned it wasn’t a bad daytrip – the ferry/train ride was only about three hours. Still, that was far enough away for scant risk of bumping into the minister or other acquaintances from the Bay Area.

But what is certain is the weekly surge of a thousand or so tourists brought in a lot of money – and downtown interests would have been loathe to jeopardize that.

Taken together, it exactly fits the pattern of the corruption the muckrakers exposed here in 1905 – with the courts and police willing to look the other way (for the most part), government ignoring public outcry (it took 700-800 signatures, really?) and the newspapers spinning PR instead of calling for reforms.

Such has often been the story of Santa Rosa, even today; we too easily find ourselves waylaid along the road of good intentions and forget where we were headed.

Kroncke’s Park gave us a place which was nice enough that we wanted to ignore it also brought criminals to town. The reunited courthouse square gives us a place nice enough we can try to ignore its design and size makes it most look like a glorified helicopter landing pad. If you squint hard enough you can pretend to see anything you want to see, and Santa Rosa’s pretty good at doing that.

Portion of 1893 Sanborn fire map showing layout of Kroncke’s Park
SUNDAY LAST.

What a pleasant day it was! Churches all full, and pleasure resorts ditto. City Gardens thronged with several hundred people—listening to the splendid music of the brass baud, (36 pieces,) wandering through the lovely walks and saying sweet nothings while resting on the rustic seats, boating on the miniature lake, looking at the birds and animals, or watching gay youngsters going around the velocipede track at a 2-40 gait. A great many persons also crossed the Bay on Sunday last, and enjoyed themselves finely.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 27 1869

 

THE SOLDIERS NIGHT.

The usual dress parade and guardmounting was had on Tuesday, and we noticed a marked increase in the crowd of citizens in attendance. After its close the sunset gun was fired, and supper discussed, and the non-commissioned officers and privates began to prepare for their enjoyment. The tents were placed in order with alacrity, and when the shades of evening begin to lower, the campfires were lit, the lanterns to shed their dubious light, and the camp took on its usual gala appearance. The splendid band took its position in the pavilion at the City Gardens, and soon the floor was filled with dancers. Drum Major Mayberry acted as master of ceremonies with ease, grace and dignity. All went off splendidly with the exception that the quarters were entirely inadequate to accomodate the crowd which thronged to participate.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 13 1884

 

A Public Park.

On Friday, P. H. Kronke purchased from Manville Doyle the eastern portion of the old Hewitt homestead on Fourth street, commencing at the old barn opposite the southern terminus of McDonald avenue, and will commence operations at once to lay it out for a public park. The tract fronts 130 feet on Fourth street, and is 700 feet in depth, so it covers an area of 91,000 square feet. He will erect an octagonal dancing platform sixty feet in diameter, remove the old barn and place a neat fence about it; and in every way beautify and adorn it. As it is near the intersection of Fourth street and College and McDonald avenues, its convenience will render it a very attractive place.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 26 1885

H. Kronke is fitting his park up at the intersection of Fourth street and McDonald avenue, in a very tasty manner. He has just employed an English gardener, who will commence at once to lay the grounds out. There will be a large lawn, interspersed with flower beds here and there, and it will also have a fountain of running water in the center. Mr. Kronke expects to have the park opened to the public next season at which time he will give picnics and open-air concerts at short intervals during the summer season.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 10 1885

 

The Sword Contest.

The sword contest between Duncan O. Ross and Sergeant Charles Walsh, at Kroncke’s Gardens Sunday afternoon, attracted a large crowd of people from the surrounding country as well as from San Francisco, which place contributed fourteen coaches full of pleasure seekers. Tbe excursion train from San Rafael arrived about 2 p. m., and found street cars, ’buses and vehicles of all descriptions awaiting to convey the people to the grounds. The contest was one of the most exciting witnessed on this coast. Ross won the match by a score of fifteen to thirteen. At the close of the eighteenth attack the contestants availed themselves of an intermission, which interval was filled by Professor S. J. Reeves giving an exhibition of horsemanship on the back of a wild mustang, which seat he kept notwithstanding the saddle occupied the neck of the animal part of the time. With but few exceptions a good time was enjoyed by all. The exceptions were the loss of money through the agency of pickpockets, but that exception to the pleasures of the day is one that is attendant on all such occasions. Credit is due the enterprising traveling agent of the Donahue road, Mr. T. C. Wills, for his successful efforts in behalf of our little city.

-Sonoma Democrat, May 15 1886

 

Sunday Excursions.

It is evident the editor of the Petaluma Courier does not entertain a very exalted opinion of Sunday excursions, as he comes out with the following rather flat-footed remarks:

We understand that Mr. Wills, agent for the S. F. and N. P. R. R., has been in our city trying to make arrangements for Sunday excursions to agricultural Park. Now, we are willing to do any thing in the world we can to help build up our town and attract visitors, but it we are to be cursed with such crowds of roughs as some Sundays visit Sonoma valley, and that recently visited Santa Rosa, we trust the directors will refuse to allow the Park to be used for any such purpose. Just let a crowd of such hoodlums and roughs as we have mentioned have the free run of the Park for a few Sundays, and we will find hell located only half a mile from the center of our city.

We think the Courier has a mistaken idea about the matter, so far as Santa Rosa is concerned, if by its allusion in the above, it has reference to any of the excursions from San Francisco that have visited Kroncke’s Park in this city. While it is a fact that two or three pickpockets plied their trade successfully in the crowd that attended the sword contest here, otherwise these excursions to this place have been very orderly and almost entirely free from the hoodlum element, considering the number of people present.

-Sonoma Democrat, June 12 1886

 

Hoodlum Vandalism

Heretofore the class of excursionists that have visited our city and Kroncke’s Park have proven, with but one or two exceptions, to be as quiet and orderly while in our midst as could be desired. The excursion party Sunday, however, must have been made up of a different element. The depredations committed by some of the crowd have incensed our people, and they cry out against such excursion parties coming here, or if they are to come, to be kept from repeating their actions of last Sunday. A party of them, it is not known how many, broke into the Hungarian prune orchard of thirteen acres at the head of Third street, owned by H. and W, Pierce, and destroyed one or two trees and broke off at least fifty limbs, some large and some small, besides strewing the ground with several bushels of the half ripe fruit. Judge Hoag, in whose charge the orchard is entrusted, was away, and did not hear of the injury perpetrated by these hoodlums until Monday morning. It is also understood that a plum orchard suffered similarly, and, if anything, worse, for they did not leave a single plum on the trees.

-Sonoma Democrat, August 14 1886

 

Another Crowd of Hoodlums.

The excursion to this city and Kroncke’s Park Sunday, was made up chiefly of hoodlums, although there were many respectable people; and it is due them to say they took no part with the other and rougher portion of the crowd. It is well that the excursion Sunday is to be the last of the season, for our citizens have got enough of such visitors as have come here on one or two occasions of similar character this summer, and are about ready to organize a remonstrance committee. It should not be inferred that all the excursions have been objectionable; many of them have been composed of laboring men and their families, who came here to spend a quiet Sunday away from the noise and bustle of the great city. But the majority of the excursionists last Sunday were of a class contaminating in their mere presence. Their conduct while here was such as to keep our officers busy all the time preserving the peace. The women were equally as bad as the men, and incited their escorts to ribald actions. At 3 o’clock in the afternoon a general fight ensued at tbe gardens, and it was with much difficulty that the officers finally restored peace. One of the roughs was taken in custody and brought before Justice Brown, who fined him $7, and let him go. The Marshal arrested another “tough” on Fourth street soon after the arrival of the train, and experienced much trouble in getting him to jail. At the corner, by the Hall of Records, he showed fight, and had to be knocked senseless with a club before the balance of the distance was completed. Several personal fights ensued at the park during the afternoon, but no further arrests were made. When the train left for San Francisco in the evening about sixty of the hoodlums got left, and put in the night parading the streets.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 4 1886

 

In the Police Court.

His Honor, Justice Brown, was seated on his bench bright and early Monday morning, in anticipation of a flourishing business after the excursion of Sunday. Jeremiah was also on hand, and after sweeping out the halls ot justice and tidying things up a bit, seated himself by the door to await the coming of the soreheads. The first one of the latter mentioned articles that Jeremiah had the pleasure of introducing to his Honor was one R. Taylor. His appearance was not in perfect keeping with his name; he looked as if he had not seen a tailor for some time. He informed his Honor that he had come up from San Francisco with the excursionists Sunday, and mistaking our City Marshal for an old friend trier to embrace him and was knocked down for so doing. The Judge thought that a man should pay for such a sentimental display, and charged him $10. He paid it, and Jeremiah bowed him out. The next was Thomas Jackson, who informed his Honor that he had merely engaged in a friendly tussle with an acquaintance at the Park Sunday, for $5 a side, and added that he thought he had been sufficiently punished in the whipping he accepted from his friendly antagonist. His Honor differed with him on that point, and, greatly to Jeremiah’s satisfaction, made the thing square for $6. The only occupant yet remaining in the prisoners’ dock was old Michael Fiahare, who was vigorously endeavoring to scrape a friendship with Jeremiah, greatly to that functionary’s disgust. At last his turn came, and after he once got started with his story of how he tried to bum a drink and was bounced by the barkeeper, there was no hope ot getting in a word edgeways. After a few ineffectual attempts at stopping the voluminous old bum, his honor gave it up and settled back in his easy chair. It was some time before the old man finished, and with tears in his eyes asked the Judge what he thought ought to be done to a barkeeper who treated his customers as he had been treated. His Honor was not much affected with the old man’s grief at the hard heartedness of the bar-tender, and in default of $30, Jeremiah was instructed to take Michael over to the County Jail for a period of thirty days.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 4 1886
A DASTARDLY DEED,

M. Byrne, proprietor of Byrne’s Hotel, opposite the depot, was assaulted by an unknown party Sunday evening in the reading and bar-room of his hotel. Samuel Stoner, an eye-witness to the assault, related the following particulars to a Republican reporter who arrived on the spot shortly after the deed was done: “The assailant stepped behind the bar-counter, picked up the dinner bell and commenced to ring it. Mr. Byrne asked him to quit ringing the bell. The man still presisted in his annoyance when Mr. Byrne started toward him uttering an unpleasant epithet. The assaulting party then struck Mr. Byrne on the head with the bell and ran out saying he did not allow any one to abuse him. As soon as stuck Mr. Byrne fell senseless to the floor and those present ran to his rescue. The fleeing man made good his escape.” It is thought he was an excursionist and left on the train which pulled out for San Francisco soon after the affair took place. The police officer searched the train in company with a witness to the scene but did not succeed in identifying the man. Deputy Sheriff L. Brietenbach and a witness boarded the 5 o’clock excursion train for the city with the hope of apprehending the assailant. Chief of Police Crowly, of San Francisco, was telephoned a description of the man. The offender is a young man with auburn hair and at the time deed was committed was in his shirt sleeves. A woman was instrumental in hiding him away. It is supposed he was intoxicated. Drs. Davis and Shearer were summoned immediately after the occurence and administered to the sufferer. Mr. Byrne, although unconscious for some time, is not necessarily injured fatally. He was struck in the back of the head.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Daily Republican, August 22, 1887

 

SUNDAY’S EXCURSION
Depredations Committed by the Tough Element While in this City.

Excursions like the one from San Francisco Sunday are unequivocally the reverse of desirable. There may be some cities in the State desirous of supplying their stock of Sunday amusements with importations of San Francisco hoodlum and tough, but Santa Rosa is willing to relinquish all claims to such pre-eminence.

While there was undoubtedly a large number of respectable people among the excursionists, the major part was composed of the usual gang of San Francisco toughs, accompanied by their customary companions–first-class candidates for the Magdalen Asylum. The arrival of the train in this city was the signal for an unrestrained outbreak of that spirit which the tough is prevented from indulging freely at home on account of the vigilance of the metropolitan police force. This element, during their passage from the depot to the Park, took occasion to render themselves obnoxious to the respectable people with whom they came in contact. Ladies were insulted and a number of our citizens were crowded off the sidewalks. The conversation with which the sallow-faced individuals. dressed in chinchilla coats, entertained their vulgar female companions was an outrage on all sense of decency. During their stay it required the utmost vigilance of the officers to keep them within bounds.

One of the toughs, who was arrested under the name of Tim Hallihan, entered Byrne’s Hotel, Sunday afternoon, shortly before the departure of the train, and perpetrated an outrage which is likely to be revenged with the full penalty of the law. The tough walked behind the bar, announcing his attention of taking the establishment and commenced ringing the dinner bell violently, as if to demonstrate his ability and willingness to verify his words. Mr. Byrne’s requested him to desist. His words had no other effect than to increase the volume of sound. He started towards the obstreperous individual as if to take the bell from his hands, whereupon he was felled to the floor unconscious, by a heavy blow under the left ear from the bell. The large crowd which had gathered immediately rushed to Mr. Byrne’s assistance, which gave his assailant an opportunity to escape. He was not backward in improving it, and disappeared among the crowd which was just then swarming around the cars. A gentleman who had witnessed the occurence pointed the man out to Deputy Sheriff Breitenbach, who followed him on to the train. In the bustle and confusion the escaping tough concealed his identity and was not captured until the train was nearing Miller’s Station. Trouble with the friends of the prisoner was anticipated, and the conductor of the train, Frank Grace, and two San Francisco policemen who were on the train came to the arresting officer’s assistance. True to their loyalty, the toughs arose from their seats as if by one impulse and made a dash for the prisoner’s liberation. No blows were exchanged. The toughs depended on their numerical strength, but were unsuccessful. The prisoner was brought to this city on the evening train and changes filed against him for assault with a deadly weapon. Justice Brown, before whom he was taken Monday morning, held him to bail at $500. It is understood that several of the saloons in this city were robbed in a bold manner. It is stated that while the train was at the depot in Petaluma a number of the excursionists weht into a saloon close at hand and robbed the proprietor of several bottles of liquor and boxes of cigars in a high-handed manner.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 27 1887

 

Kroncke’s Park.

From Mr. Henry Kroncke a Republican reporter learned that he was making extensive improvements in the park, preparatory for the coming season. This delightful place of resort became quiet famous last season, and as a result Mr. Kroncke states that every Sunday in April, May and June have already been engaged, and  Mr. Kroncke’s agent in San Francisco informs him that there will be no difficulty in securing picnics during the season up to August 1st. The park has been rented only to social clubs and societies, and  Mr. Kroncke has exercised the greatest care in making contracts, as he can assure us that only the most respectable societies will be permitted to hold picnics at the park. The bowling alley will be fixed up again with several improvements. An outside bar will also be arranged for picnics. The swimming baths, will be in operation and conducted upon the same thorough and strict system as last year. These baths are one of the most attractive features of the park and arranged probably better than any of a similar character in the State. They are something that Santa Rosa has been in need of for some time, and the liberal patronage justifies Mr. Kroncke in continuing them. The work of improving the grounds has already commenced and the green grass, shady trees and blooming flowers will be a great attraction for Santa Rosans during the warm days and evening of summer. We have begun to look upon Kroncke’s Park as an almost necessity; in fact it would be difficult to tell what we would do without it. The construction of the park and its success, has been one cause of Mr. Kroncke being placed in the lead of enterprising citizens of Santa Rosa.

– Santa Rosa Daily Republican, February 11 1888

 

 The Kroncke’s Park Liquor License Denied

…[I]t is the duty of this committee to ascertain the effect of establishing such a business in the locality described in the petition and ascertain whether or not it would be to the detriment of any other individual. We find no evidence that it would not, while we do find that within the last twelve months a protest of some seven or eight hundred names was filed with your clerk protesting against the licensing of a bar or drinking saloon in the premises described in the petition. Our own Superior Court has interpreted the spirit of article 2 of the ordinance to be the confinement of the liquor traffic to the central or business portion of the city, as a police regulation. If so, we should not ourselves break the law.

The committee recommended that the petition be denied…The report was adopted by a unanimous vote of the council.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 5 1890

 

City Garden Sold.

The property former known as Kroncke’s Park, now the City Gardens, was sold on Saturday to Grace Brothers, who will fit up the residence and the garden as a pleasure resort and park. The grounds are attractive and the location central. The property has been owned for some time by Joseph Kohnenberger, and the sale was consummated through the real estate agency of Davis & Farnham. It is expected that very extensive improvements will be made by the new owners.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 29 1897

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