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
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|
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