bighen

HEAR THAT LONESOME CHICKEN BLOW

She was a good hen, sitting patiently on her nest for nearly twenty years. Then she loudly blew up.

In the 1920s and 1930s she was Petaluma’s first goodwill ambassador, greeting visitors driving into town from the south.

Her name was Betty.

She was originally part of a float for the very first Egg Day parade in 1918 and made by Albert Welchert, a German carpenter turned chicken rancher. “Mr. Welchert is building the biggest hen that has ever been made,” the Argus-Courier noted. “It will be twelve feet long, ten feet high, five feet across the back and will be sitting on golden eggs.”

There’s no photo of her debut. We first see her in a picture from 1920 when a couple of flappers are dancing on her back for a newsreel movie – quite a change from seven years before, when Petaluma banned “rag” dancing and arrested people for it. (All images shown below.)

The Welcherts moved to Oregon in 1921 and presumably gave the big hen to the Chamber of Commerce, who built a perch for her a mile south of city limits on the old Redwood Highway (roughly where Petaluma Blvd. South meets McNear avenue, close to the Vets Building).

She didn’t have much company out there, except for her noisy neighbor: The Colony Club, about a quarter-mile further down the road. Petaluma’s nightclub!

Bill Soberanes, Argus-Courier’s columnist and “peopleologist” later wrote often about the Club as a place where “Petaluma’s Cafe Society set” dressed up for dinner and dancing. It wasn’t very big – about the size of a modern three-bedroom ranch house. Still, it had a dance floor, and outside it advertised both “DRINKS” and “COLD DRINKS.”

Like other swanky places it often had a floor show. Among the headliners were contortionist Rue Enos (“Making Both Ends Meet”), harmonica virtuoso Ernie Morris (“formerly with the Minevitch Harmonica Rascals”), “tap tumbler” Tommy Konine and song stylist Charlotte Day (“she’s gorgeous to look at”). Should Gentle Reader think I’m cherry-picking the really unusual acts, note that I have avoided descriptions of the ventriloquists and puppeteers.

The joint closed every night at 2AM when the master of ceremonies said, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” That sounds less threatening if it can be imagined said in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon voice.

Meanwhile, things weren’t going so well for Betty.

Some artistic pioneer happened to notice her big, beautiful white sides were like a blank canvas. And get this: If someone wrote a comment there, officials would eventually paint over it, thus providing a fresh canvas for a response! It was like instant messaging, except not so instant.

In 1934, the Argus-Courier reported the “big hen” had been vandalized by someone “placing obscene language thereon… This is the second time within a year that obscene language has been painted on the ‘big hen.'”

Not to worry: The paper also stated, “Officers at the Chamber of Commerce have information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the offenders, it is said.” Uh, nope.

Apparently this cat-and-mouse game with the vandals went on for years. The next evidence was shocking: Betty was now disfigured! A 1936 image shows the remains of the latest grafitti, but also now gone was her lovely wattle; no more the red mask around the eyes, so typical of the Petaluma’s noble leghorn. Both were clearly visible in the 1920 picture.

It gets worse. An undated photo (1937?) shows Betty with eyelashes! What next, lipstick?

Then came the awful night of October 27, 1938. It was a Thursday. 10:25PM.

“A blast that shook the outskirts of Petaluma on Thursday night and blew its ‘advertising chicken’ to smithereens,” the Petaluma paper announced. The Colony Club shook like there was an earthquake. A man who lived about a mile away said “it seemed as though the walls would fall in.” The explosion “scared the wits out of passing motorists,” the Press Democrat observed, and plaster chicken nuggets were “littering the highway with chunks of stucco, twisted wire and sticks.”

Petaluma police and the Highway Patrol rushed to the scene. No evidence was found, except for a piece of a dynamite fuse. An investigation began immediately, and the result was possibly my favorite newspaper headline of all time:

The lawmen on the case were Marin Undersheriff Frank Kelly and Sonoma county Chief Criminal Deputy Melvin “Dutch” Flohr, who became Santa Rosa’s much-respected police chief a couple of years later.

“Both Kelly and I are of the opinion that Tam students are the logical ones to be involved,” said Dutch. “Tam” meant students of Tamalpais high school, whose football team was about to play against Petaluma. The Tam principal told the Argus-Courier a “thorough investigation of all Tamalpais students revealed that none were involved.”

The other suspects were from Santa Rosa Junior College. Kelly said Santa Rosa students were spotted in Kentfield around 10PM, where they were trying to sabotage a pre-game bonfire before a football game against Marin Junior College. That gave them time to reach the chicken. But Floyd P. Bailey, president of SRJC “didn’t believe any [investigation] was necessary…Santa Rosa students were too busy at their own bonfire and rally Thursday night to be bothered with any trips or blastings.”

The Argus-Courier ran a photo obituary, showing Betty’s scattered innards. “Largest Hen’s Career Ends,” read the headline over a final image of poor Betty.

Whodunnit remained a mystery. An A-C article years later mentioned in passing that she was bombed because of the upcoming “Santa Rosa-Petaluma annual football classic.” No one was charged.

The crime was finally solved via an anonymous confession which appeared in Lee Torliatt’s Golden Memories of the Redwood Empire (the most enjoyable book about Sonoma county history, IMHO):


We got together a bunch of guys and somebody said it would be a great idea to blow up that big, ugly chicken. If you came from Santa Rosa, that seemed like a hell of a good idea. A couple of farm boys, I can’t mention their names, provided the dynamite, we got a car caravan together, and went down and planted the dynamite in the chicken.

So there you go: It was the dirty rotten sneaks from Santa Rosa – as if there really was any doubt.

There’s an epilogue to our tragedy: Some time later, Betty’s spot was taken by “Chantacline.” This chicken was nearly as old as Betty and stood for many years between the Petaluma train depot and Hotel Petaluma, which was her owner. Chantacline was smaller and more delicate, supported with guidewires. There would be no dancing on the back of this hen, no sir.

Like her predecessor, Chantacline was repeatedly vandalized. The worst happened in 1945, just a day after her most recent repainting had finished. Both legs, tail and head were broken and her wires were cut. Since Chantacline belonged to the Hotel Petaluma and not the town’s Chamber, hotel manager Harold Eckart was determined to Sherlock out the perps. He succeeded; five Santa Rosa High School students were taken into custody and ordered to pay $500 in damages.

All of this is now gone, of course. There are no giant statues of plaster poultry on the old route, and Colony Club burned down in 1955 (another place was built north of Petaluma). With the heyday of Betty and the nightclub now about eight decades in the rearview mirror, there’s few still around to be nostalgic about their passing. Even in the 1970s, details about the Club were Trivial Pursuit-type items in Bill Soberanes’ columns.

Places like that little stretch of road are suspended in a kind of twilight zone, reserved for locations which were landmarks even though nothing historical happened and no one noteworthy setup home or business. Yet for a generation or more, there was probably no patch of Sonoma county better known.

It was where stylish couples and flirty singles danced to the tunes of Kim Kimmel on the Hammond organ, the women in their rayon dresses from Carithers and men in their worsted tex sport coats bought at the Penny’s.

For those traveling through or returning home from San Francisco, there was also that whimsical super-sized chicken announcing the egg basket of the world was up ahead, just around the curve. And sometimes there was a bonus message concerning the pitiable intelligence or lack of personal hygiene possessed by some local football team, which was always quite informative.

Newsreel cameramen filming dancers, Petaluma, California, March, 1920 (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

 

Betty in 1936 with its most recent defacement not quite scrubbed clean. (Photograph by John Gutmann)

 

Undated image of Betty with eyelashes, probably 1937 or 1938

 

Argus-Courier obituary photo, November 3, 1938

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cabinclose

THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

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

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

THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS
THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS

MANHUNT PT. I: ESCAPE

MANHUNT II: HOW (NOT) TO CATCH A FUGITIVE

WHO KILLED THE WICKERSHAMS?

SOURCES (PDF, 31 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 The Saint Paul Globe, January 24, 1886

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

3 Chronicle, ibid

4 ibid

5 ibid

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

7 Chronicle ibid

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

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

10 Petaluma Argus, January 23, 1886

11 Oakland Tribune, January 22, 1886

12 Sacramento Record-Union, January 23, 1886

13 San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1886

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

15 Daily Democrat, January 26, 1886

16 Petaluma Courier, January 27, 1886

17 ibid

18 Russian River Flag, January 27 1886 

19 San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 1886

20 Daily Alta California, January 24, 1886

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

22 Chronicle, ibid

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marktwain1866

THE TIME MARK TWAIN CAME TO PETALUMA

Petaluma was soooo lucky. Mark Twain, that funny guy everyone was buzzing about, made only a few appearances before he left for the East Coast and Europe, probably never to return out west. Reviewers had been giddy with delight over his recent appearance in San Francisco: “From the beginning to the end, the interest was never allowed to flag,” gushed the Chronicle. “Taking it altogether, ‘Mark Twain’s lecture may be pronounced one of the greatest successes of the season.” Other SF newspapers sang with similar praise. Thus on November 26, 1866, you can bet Hinshaw’s Hall was crowded with Petalumans expecting to spend a jolly evening. Spoiler alert: They hated him.

The next edition of the Petaluma Journal and Argus offered a review of his lecture with the headline, “REPREHENSIBLE.” That fellow who called himself Mark Twain was a complete flop (“…as a lecturer he falls below mediocrity”) and the San Francisco papers should be condemned for misleading the public by giving good reviews to such bad entertainers.

Now, wait a minute; today, everyone knows Sam Clemens/Mark Twain was the most celebrated speaker of his time, if not all of American history. Surely that Petaluma critic was as much an idiot as the Hollywood producer who supposedly dissed Fred Astaire’s screen test, “can’t sing, can’t act, balding, can dance a little.”

As it turns out, the Petaluma review was truthful, albeit inartfully written (the full review is transcribed below, apparently for the first time since 1866). Evidence found in contemporary papers show Twain’s appearances in those weeks were often stinkers – and it seems he was aware of that but did not know how to improve. Following one lecture he told a friend he felt like he was a fraud who was taking people in.

But that’s not the story he tells in his memoir and first popular book, Roughing It, or when reminiscing as he did in his remarks about stage fright made after his daughter’s musical recital. In his version, he was nervous about his debut performance in San Francisco, fearful that no tickets would sell and no one would laugh at his jokes. He papered the house to pack it with friends including three “giants in stature, cordial by nature, and stormy-voiced” who were expected to howl with glee and beat their shillelagh on the floor whenever Twain made a funny. Still, he was terrified of failure. From Roughing It:


…before I well knew what I was about, I was in the middle of the stage, staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away. The house was full, aisles and all! The tumult in my heart and brain and legs continued a full minute before I could gain any command over myself. Then I recognized the charity and the friendliness in the faces before me, and little by little my fright melted away, and I began to talk. Within three or four minutes I was comfortable, and even content. My three chief allies, with three auxiliaries, were on hand, in the parquette, all sitting together, all armed with bludgeons, and all ready to make an onslaught upon the feeblest joke that might show its head. And whenever a joke did fall, their bludgeons came down and their faces seemed to split from ear to ear…

“All the papers were kind in the morning,” Twain finished up, referring to those reviews the Petaluma paper later called “reprehensible.” As he didn’t write about his subsequent appearances, Gentle Reader was left with the impression all went smoothly after his debut butterflies. And as far as I can tell Twain biographers all take him at his word, speeding past events of that autumn to arrive without delay at his rise to international fame.

It’s a great shame more attention hasn’t been given to this period, as this was a turning point in his life. “Without means and without employment,” as he wrote in Roughing It, he convinced himself public speaking was his “saving scheme,” despite having absolutely no experience or training at it. And although the reviews after his debut were often poor, his convictions seemingly never faltered that he would now do this for a living. If nothing else, it’s an inspiring story of determination; constructing a Mark Twain from scratch was not easy work.

The topic of Twain’s lectures were the “Sandwich Islands,” AKA the Kingdom of Hawaii, where he had just spent five months as a special correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union. The Kingdom was a pretty exotic place to Americans in 1866 and the couple of dozen articles he wrote were well received, but travelogue lectures are not where you usually expect an evening of knee-slappin’ humor. Twain destroyed his copy of the speech years later so we don’t know exactly what he said, but from snippets and summaries we know the lecture was mainly a travel description of people, places and things along with his wry observations. Or as the Sacramento Union critic wrote, he “seasoned a large dish of genuine information with spicy anecdote.”

The advertisements he placed in the papers became celebrated in their own right. Shown here is his first from the Sept. 30 Daily Alta California (CLICK or TAP to enlarge) with its funny blurbs. “A SPLENDID ORCHESTRA Is in town but has not been engaged“, read one of them. At other lectures he came up with different items, such as “THE WONDERFUL COW WITH SIX LEGS! Is not attached to this Menagerie“. Most famous was the tag at the end: “Doors open at 7 o’clock. The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock.” He varied this line, too; another example was, “Doors open at 7; the inspiration will begin to gush at 8.”

Once back in his old Gold Country stomping grounds, he also ran this in the Nevada Transcript and Grass Valley Union:


After the lecture is over, the lecturer will perform the following wonderful feats of SLIGHT OF HAND, if desired to do so: At a given signal. he will go out with any gentleman and take a drink. If desired, he will repeat this unique and interesting feat – repeat it until the audience are satisfied that there is no deception about it. At a moment’s warning he will depart out of town and leave his hotel bill unsettled. He has performed this ludicrous trick many hundreds of times in San Francisco and elsewhere, and it has always elicited the most enthusiastic comments.
At any hour of the night, after ten, the lecturer will go through any house in the city, no matter how dark it may be, and take an inventory of its contents, and not miss as many of the articles as the owner will in the morning. The lecturer declines to specify any more of his miraculous feats at present, for fear of getting the police too much interested in his circus.

The Mark Twain who appeared on stages in those weeks was more or less an imitation of his contemporary and friend who went by the name of Artemus Ward. One of the most popular humorists during the Civil War – Lincoln opened the cabinet meeting about the Emancipation Proclamation by reading aloud a little humor sketch – Ward’s stage persona was a backcountry hick who drawled through rambling stories, clueless there was anything remotely funny about his remarks. Audiences ate it up. It was Ward’s great success that undoubtedly inspired Twain to try his hand at it.

Those early lectures by Twain included a great deal of clowning. He would open by pretending he did not know there was an audience; if there was a piano available the curtain sometimes went up with him yowling and banging away at an old saloon tune, “I Had an Old Horse Whose Name Was Methusalem.” From a good profile of Twain’s years in the West, “Lighting Out for the Territory:”


As can best be reconstructed, he simply sauntered onto the stage from the wings, his hands stuffed into his pockets and a sheaf of papers clutched under his arm. He wandered vaguely around the lectern for a bit, looking for the most comfortable place to stand, and then appeared to notice the audience for the first time, the expression on his face registering an equal mixture of surprise, perplexity, and fear. For a long moment he looked silently at the audience while it looked back at him, waiting.

Once he introduced himself the comic shtick continued as he pretended to be shocked and mystified whenever there was laughter or applause. Describing his debut performance, a journalist in the audience recalled “…the apparently painful effort with which he framed his sentences, and above all, the surprise that spread over his face when the audience roared with delight or rapturously applauded…”

His Petaluma review was certainly the worst. but other reactions were decidedly mixed. Even as the Chronicle called his debut “one of the greatest successes of the season,” the back page of the same edition had a little item about running into Twain on Montgomery street and telling him “the envious and jealous” were saying it wasn’t worth the price of admission. When he appeared in San Jose the Mercury said “the lecture was entirely successful” while the Santa Clara Argus wrote “the lecture disappointed.” For his second San Francisco lecture the Chronicle called his performance unpolished and raw: “Some of ‘Mark’s'” jokes were very much strained, and others were so nearly improper–not to say coarse–that they could not be heartily laughed at by ladies.”

This was not harsh criticism, but that any were negative has to be weighed with understanding he had a “favorite son multiplier.” Samuel Clemens was a fellow newspaperman and drinking buddy of everyone in the City and in the Sierras who reviewed his appearances. They all wanted him to succeed, if for no other reason that he used his box office receipts to buy rounds of drinks after the show.

So great was his popularity that the harsh Petaluma review received its own smackdown from the Grass Valley Union:


Unfortunate Clemens! Why did you blight your lecturing prospects by attempting to pass the ordeal of the corn and spud-producers of the Russian river country? You may do in San Francisco and ‘sich like places,’ but you ought to have known better than to brave the Petaluma lions in their den…what business had you, Mark Twain, up in that part of the country? Telegraph to the St. Louis and Cincinnati Boards of Commerce that you cannot accept their invitations to lecture – that your lecturing star went down in Petaluma.

We have that sublime gob of sneer thanks to Santa Rosa’s newspaper, the Sonoma Democrat, where editor Thomas L. Thompson was still locked in battle with the Petaluma Argus over the Civil War, by then over a year and a half. (In an adjacent article, the Confederacy-mourning Thompson ranted at length about “the Radical tools and dupes of Abolition despotism.”) Thompson was clearly delighted that another editor handed him a cudgel to bash Petaluma and he did so with relish, taunting their critic as not “able to appreciate the entertainment” and comparing him to a dimwitted character in a Shakespearean play.

By the end of 1866 Mark Twain was on a ship headed to the East Coast. Over the next seven years he would deliver the Hawaii lecture some 150 times, by his count, almost always to acclaim. How did he completely turn it around?

For starters, he must have sharpened his focus once he was facing audiences of strangers and not his personal acquaintances, as was the case in California and Nevada. In the second Chronicle review they noted his weeks performing in front of his old pals in the Gold Country had changed his performance and not for the better: “…He was a little too familiar with his audiences. What will be thought very funny by the inhabitants of the desolated wastes on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, won’t do at all in great metropolis like San Francisco.”

He also likely improved the writing; the Hawaii lecture he gave in 1873 probably was very much evolved from the original of 1866. His early reviews remarked at how much information he packed in about the climate, volcanoes, weird food, “board surfing” and the native people who were primitive because they did not act or dress like Victorian-era Americans. That didn’t leave much time for humor beyond making witty asides; were people filling his theater seats for a geography lesson or to have some laughs?

An incident during the Nevada leg of his tour should have given him cause to reflect: While walking the short distance back to Virginia City after an appearance at a mining town, Twain was held up by masked robbers who took his money and expensive gold watch. It soon came out the highwaymen were really his friends playing a prank and everything was returned to him, but Twain was livid and unforgiving. Why did they do it? Some forty years later, one of would-be brigands revealed they hoped it would cause him to stick around Virginia City and give another talk. And hopefully for that lecture, the robbery – which they had made as scary as possible – would be his topic instead of rehashing those damned factoids about Sandwich Islands.

But it appears his biggest improvement was dropping the stage business – the silly gimcrackery of pretending he had no idea what he was doing in front of an audience. He became less targeted on checking off the list of Hawaii’s wonders than sitting back and telling us a story about the place. Here was the emergence of the beloved Mark Twain we all know (well, the Hal Holbrook we all know), the man in the white suit, relaxed in the comfy chair and flicking ashes off his cigar while keeping us spellbound with whatever fool thing that happened to pop to mind. Volcanoes? Jumping frogs? Steamboats and your Missouri childhood? Whatever, Mark, just keep talking. We’ll listen to anything you have to say. You never needed the theatrics.

Unknown illustration, probably from early edition of Roughing It

 

“Mark Twain’s” Consolation

Meeting “Mark” this morning on Montgomery street, the following dialogue ensued:

“Mark” — Well, what do they say about my lecture?

We–Why, the envious and jealous say it was “a bilk” and a “sell.”

“Mark” — All right. It’s a free country. Everybody has a right to his opinion, if he is an ass. Upon the whole, it’s a pretty even thing. They have the consolation of abusing me, and I have the consolation of slapping my pocket hearing their money jingle. They have their opinions, and I have their dollars. I’m satisfied.

– San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, October 3, 1866

SECOND LECTURE BY “MARK TWAIN”-Platt’s Hall has been engaged for to-morrow by “Mark Twain,” tor the delivery of his second lecture on the Sandwich Islands, and in addition he promises “the only true and reliable history of the late revolting highway robbery, perpetrated on the lecturer at the dead of night between the cities of Gold Hill and Virginia.” The tickets for the lecture are for sale at the book stores, “The wisdom will begin to flow at 8.” “Mark” will depart on the steamer of Monday, for a visit to the Atlantic States.

– Daily Alta California, November 15, 1866

…”Mark” was not as happy in this new lecture as he was in his old one. He was not in very good condition, having of course got alkalied while in the savage wilds of Washoe, and at the same time we fear that he had become a little demoralized. He was a little too familiar with his audiences. What will be thought very funny by the inhabitants of the desolated wastes on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, won’t do at all in great metropolis like San Francisco. Some of “Mark’s” jokes were very much strained, and others were so nearly improper–not to say coarse–that they could not be heartily laughed at by ladies. However, “Mark,” of course, sent the audience into fits of laughing again and again; and as a whole, his lecture was thoroughly enjoyed by those present. “Mark’s” travels to the interior, where he has so many friends, have not improved his style. The lecture which he delivered last night might have been polished considerably without wearing down any of the sharp points with which it was ornamented.

– San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, November 17, 1866

“Mark Twain,” the Missionary. styled the “Inimitable.” by the Mercury, favored a large and appreciative audience at San Jose, on Thursday, with an amusing account of what he heard, saw, and “part of which he was,” in the Sandwich lslands. One attraction, he announced, was necessarily omitted. In illustration of Cannibalism, as practiced anciently, he proposed to devour, in presence of the audience, any young and tender cherub if its maternal parent would stand such sacrifice for public edification, but there being no spare infants at hand the illustration was not given. With this exception, the Mercury says the lecture was entirely successful. They want him to do it again.

– Daily Alta California, November 24, 1866

The Argus, concerning ” Mark Twain’s” lecture, says: We have long been an admirer of the infutitable humor of the lecturer, as shown in his numerous letters and sketches that have been so widely published but confess that the lecture disappointed us. We expected to hear the Kanakas “joked blind,” but had no idea of being treated to such an intellectual feast as he served up to his audience. We never heard or read anything half so beautiful as his descriptions when he laid aside the role of the humorist and gave rein to his fancy. To use the expressions of a wrapt listener to the lecture, “he’s lightnin’.”

– Daily Alta California, November 25, 1866

MARK TWAIN.– The Alta of Sunday last says that Mark Twain is to deliver a lecture in this city Friday evening. We hope this is not a mistake.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus, November 22, 1866

REPREHENSIBLE.– The gentleman who enjoys a wide celebrity on this Coast as a spicy writer, over the non de plume of “Mark Twain,” delivered his lecture on the Sandwich Islands, in this city, on Monday evening last. While we accord to him the merit of being a spicy writer, candor compels us to say that as a lecturer he is not a success. We say this through no desire to be captious, but simply because it is literally true. As a newspaper correspondent Mark Twain is a racy and humorous writer, but as a lecturer he falls below mediocrity. In this connection we think it not inappropriate to address ourself to the editorial fraternity on this Coast, and to our San Francisco contemporaries in particular, in relation to the reprehensible practice of disguising the truth in reference to the qualifications and ability of persons who sell their talents for a valuable consideration, and too frequently “sell” those who go to hear them, innocently expecting to be instructed or amused. To remedy these evils we must begin at the fountain head. San Francisco occupies that proud eminence, and what she has of intelligence and real worth we delight to honor. She possesses an array of talent and varied accomplishments of which she may justly be proud; but her journals have apparently yet to learn to discriminate between stars of the first and ninth magnitude. They seem to lack the power of discrimination, and bespatter with printer’s ink all aspirants for public fame, without any seeming regard to their fitness or ability to meet the requirements of the public. Through their fulsome praise the public expectation, in the interior, is worked up to the highest pitch of expectation, and as a consequence nine times out of ten is doomed to disappointment. These frequent dampers upon public expectation has rendered the people so suspicious that lecturers of real merit are frequently mortified by finding themselves facing an audience that would be a discredit to the attractions of a hand organ.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus, November 29, 1866

POKING FUN AT PETALUMA.— The ridiculous comments of the Journal and Argus upon “Mark Twain’s” lecture in Petaluma, which we noticed at the time, have called forth some pretty sharp remarks from various quarters. The Grass Valley Union lets off steam in this manner: “Unfortunate Clemens! Why did you blight your lecturing prospects by attempting to pass the ordeal of the corn and spud-producers of the Russian river country? You may do in San Francisco and “sich like places,” but you ought to have known better than to brave the Petaluma lions in their den. What Mud Springs was to the Californian who crushed a certain young lady’s musical aspirations with a few well directed word-shots, silencing the match-making parent forever, Petaluma is in a lecturing way. Have not the Petalumans had Lisle Lester and other lecturing and reading stars up their way, and what business had you, Mark Twain, up in that part of the country? Telegraph to the St. Louis and Cincinnati Boards of Commerce that you cannot accept their invitations to lecture—-that your lecturing star went down in Petaluma.” There is a mistake here, through which injustice has been done to the people of our neighboring town. They had no fault to find with “Mark Twain.” On the contrary, his humorous and instructive lecture was highly appreciated by them. The editor of the Journal and Argus is the dissatisfied individual on whom Clemens wasted his wit. Not being able to appreciate the entertainment, he at once pronounced “Mark Twain” a failure. Evidently, when doing so, in the opinion of the press of the State, he followed the example of Dogberry of old, and displayed his ears rather prominently.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 22, 1866

 

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