It was the crime of the century. Not this century, the last one.
A wealthy and respected couple were murdered in their mountain ranch home in northwestern Sonoma County in 1886.
The killings were brutal and shocked the entire county - and sparked an organized and efficient campaign to rid Sonoma County of all Chinese.
The main suspect, in fact, the ONLY suspect in the murders of Captain Jesse C. Wickersham and his wife was the couple's Chinese cook, who fled the country before the bodies were discovered. The pursuit of Ang Tai Duck and the use of the tragedy as a moral lesson for all who would defend, trust or employ Chinese turned the Wickersham tragedy into a political issue before the funeral knell had sounded.
The first news of the murder came from rancher J.E. Jewell, whose ranch adjoined the Wickersham place, some 20 miles west of Cloverdale. Two Indians who were camped on the Wickersham ranch, cutting wood, came to rancher Jewell one evening in January inquiring if he had seen Capt. Wickersham. When he replied in the negative they repeated "You come Wickersham?" so insistently that Jewell promised to drive over the next day.
When he arrived at the Wickersham place he questioned the Indians who were camped some 300 yards from the house about when they had last seen the rancher. They replied that they had seen him Monday morning. It was now Thursday morning.
After trying the door and finding it locked, Jewell went around to the dining room door. It was also locked. Then, as he tells it, "I went to the window, pulled aside the blind and there my eyes fell on the rigid form of my old friend - a blanket about his head and his feet in in a pool of blood. I was horror-stricken. I left the spot immediately knowing that the foulest of crimes had been committed and I hastened to Skaggs Springs to give the alarm."
In Petaluma, where Capt. Wickersham's uncle, I.G. Wickersham, was the town banker, an important figure, the wordcame by telephone. Banker Wickersham immediately dispatched his son, Fred, on "the up-train" to Healdsburg.
With Fred Wickersham went the coroner and the county marshal. The first news in the Petaluma Argus was on Jan. 23 and contained only the sketchiest information. Capt. Wickersham, a veteran of Sherman's army in the Civil War and a former employee of his uncle's Petaluma bank, was dead. It was supposed, although not known, that his wife,a younger sister of banker Wickersham's wife, was also murdered.
The Santa Rosa Daily Democrat, on the other hand, told it all in the headlines: "Wickersham Assassinated While at Supper - Wife Outraged and Shot Through Heart - Chinese Cook Supposed to be the Murderer."
It all fit so nicely, with the hate campaign against the area's Chinese that the Democrat, and indeed political leaders all over the state, had been conducting for months. The shots, according to the Democrat story, were fired by a short person "which points to the Chinaman." His bloody apron was found in the kitchen. Initial reports indicated that Mrs. Wickersham had been raped, although the word, of course, was never used - "violated" was the term. Anyway it was an act of "heathen brutality," the Democrat reported. Two days later it reported that it wasn't true. But much of the desired effect of the earlier reports had been achieved.
The Chinese were terrified. "Chinese yesterday kept in close quarters," the newspaper reported smugly. And they had much reason to be afraid.
The people of Sonoma County were reacting to the Wickersham murder as a personal family tragedy. When young Fred Wickersham, with the coroner and the marshal arrived in Cloverdale on the "up-train," dozens of people stood on the street corners, pressing close on the official party for information. The trio had a difficult time making its way through town for the journey to the mountain ranch. When Fred brought the bodies out to Healdsburg, in a tremendous winter storm, crowds of people lined the railroad track and the stations as the "down-train" took the Wickershams back to Petaluma.
Anti-Chinese meetings were called in Healdsburg, Petaluma and Santa Rosa. Merchants in Santa Rosa's Chinatown quickly "got a purse" for the apprehension of the Chinese cook in order to show disapproval, but it did no good. Chinese quarters were roughly searched in case the murderer was hiding there and editorials in the newspapers pointed out that the Wickersham murders only proved "that Chinese are not only utterly untrustworthy as help but positively dangerous and the family that takes one into the house only whets the razor for its own throat."
By Jan. 30, a week after the bodies were found, there was not a single Chinese left in Cloverdale. "The last one left Thursday," the newspaper reported.
As for the Chinese cook - well, local authorities had some difficulties with his description. The first bulletin that went out to apprehend him described him as "short, wearing blue trousers and a blue blouse." The description probably fit every male Chinese in California in 1886 - except this one. The later descriptions, offered by train conductors who had seen him, indicated he was wearing a brown jacket, overalls with a green sash and a low felt hat.
Even his name was a problem. The newspapers called him Ah Tai, then Ai Duck. In truth he was Ang Tai Duck and he was long gone. He had boarded a ship in San Francisco for China. Authorities wired ahead to Yokahama, the ship's first port of call in the Orient, and Ang Tai Duck was taken into custody. He was jailed in Hong Kong, awaiting extradition to California, but hanged himself there in his jail cell before the state detective sent to bring him back could reach Hong Kong.
When word of his suicide reached Sonoma County, the newspapers and the authorities considered the Wickersham murders solved and set about the business of "starving out" the Chinese. This was accomplished by a boycott of any firms employing Chinese and by the establishment of a "white laundry" to rob them of a major source of income.
Ang Tai Duck was forgotten. But there are those who wonder still if the Wickersham murders were ever solved. One is Dee Blackman, whose paper on the Chinese in Sonoma County for Sonoma State University is the best work on the subject locally.
Dee maintains that Ang Tai Duck was innocent. The evidence was all circumstantial, she says, and even the fact that he fled isn't proof of guilt.
Look what was happening all over California," says Dee. "Look what they had done to the Chinese in Eureka. Did he, dare hang around here for a fair trial?"
The defense rests.
Source: Gaye LeBaron of The Santa Rosa Press Democrat dated Sunday, January 28, 1979