by Simone Wilson
Northern California newspapers encouraged anti-Asian racism in the 1880's, particularly against Chinese.
A Sonoma County murder, committed at the height of anti-Chinese hysteria, inflamed racial tensions across California in 1886. Not only did the crime furnish all the elements of a truly sensational mystery, it dovetailed with anti-immigrant passions similar to those today. Seizing on the lurid case, politicians and newspaper editors flung aside any pretense of objectivity and fanned the flames of ethnic hatred. When it came to inflammatory journalism, the National Inquirer and "Hard Copy" had nothing on California editors of the 1880's.
Bigotry seems to have rearranged the evidence. The case involved Jesse C. Wickersham and his wife, members of a prominent Petaluma family. There's still a Wickersham building in downtown Petaluma, built in 1910 on the site of Wickersham & Co., the first bank between Oregon and San Francisco. Jesse was the brother of Isaac G. Wickersham, president of the Petaluma National Gold Bank and one-time city council member. Jesse Wickersham was also a director of the bank; in 1880 he had bought a sheep ranch 28 miles northwest of Healdsburg, near today's Skaggs Springs Road.
On Jan. 21, 1886, a Thursday, some Italian woodcutters told neighbors the Wickershams had not been seen for a few days. Neighbors, going over to investigate, found the couple dead. Mr. Wickersham was slumped in his chair in the dining room shot in the head and chest; his wife had also been shot. An empty shotgun was found on the kitchen floor. Wickersham's watch was in his pocket; Mrs. Wickersham's gold watch and chain were still in her bureau. Sheriff Bishop, accompanied by Jesse's nephew Fred Wickersham, Marshal Blume and Coroner King, were summoned by telegram. They took the evening train north through Santa Rosa and rode out to the ranch the following day to survey the crime scene and retrieve the bodies.
Conflicting versions of the crime scene appeared in local papers over the next week. Some of the discrepancies can be put down to faulty memory, but bigotry seems to have rearranged the evidence retroactively. The first account of the murder, in the Jan. 23 edition of Santa Rosa's Sonoma Democrat, said Mrs. Wickersham's remains were found outside the house. Sheriff Bishop also told the Democrat reporter the couple's Chinese cook was rumored to have disappeared -- and was therefore a prime suspect.
Two days later the other Santa Rosa paper, the Daily Republican, ran its story, and circumstances of the murder had altered considerably.
Constable Truitt related that he found Mrs. Wickersham, "in a chamber bound with cords to the rails of the bed." Truitt freely describes the actions of "the Chinaman," including how he shot the couple and arranged the bodies, although there was no evidence of the cook's guilt so far except his absence from the scene. The cook, Ah Tai, had left his letters and money behind in his room -- proof, concluded the paper, "that the Chinaman in his flight did not stop to take any of his property."
Later editions of the paper refined this story still further, asserting Mrs. Wickersham was found neatly laid out on the bed, with a piece of cake placed on her pillow in some sort of symbolic Chinese gesture -- supposedly further evidence of the cook's guilt. The presence of the gold watch was taken as proof that the object of the crime was not robbery, but rape. As for the stale slice of cake, it developed a life of its own and was cited repeatedly as a key piece of evidence in subsequent accounts of the crime.
The Wickershams were buried in Petaluma on Jan. 25. The same day it was rumored the cook had been apprehended in San Francisco, and the Daily Republican announced that in Santa Rosa "lynching the brute was freely discussed" -- if, that is, the citizens of Petaluma didn't beat them to it...
...J.W. Ragsdale, owner of the Daily Republican, fulminated, "The tragedy that occurred in the northwest portion of this county on Monday last, where two of our most highly respected citizens, man and wife, were murdered in cold blood by a Chinese fiend, has done much to increase the bitterness against a race that are most wicked and inhuman. It only proves the assertion that they have neither conscience, mercy or human feeling and think no more of murdering a human being than they do killing a pig. They are monsters in human form, cunning and educated therefore more dangerous and vile. Let us get rid of them and at once."
A week later Thomas L. Thompson's Sonoma Democrat weighed in: "The sentiment against the Chinese runs high in consequence of this act of heathen brutality, and the Chinese during yesterday kept in close quarters," said the Jan. 30 Democrat -- not in an editorial but in the news story itself. "Chinese cooks will find great difficulty in securing employment in this section of the country hereafter."
However, the Democrat's news story also introduced an intriguing element that was soon pushed aside in the general hysteria: "the theory that the deed was done by some one who purposely left evidence pointing toward the Chinaman as the perpetrator of the crime." In that case, continued the story, the real culprit also killed the hapless cook and hid his body to focus suspicion on him.
The Democrat's editorial on the same day harbored no such doubts:
"Whatever fine spun theories may be invested to account for it, there is no doubt in our mind that the Chinaman, Ah Tai, who was employed in the family as a cook, and who disappeared as soon as the deed was committed, is the guilty wretch."
Editors Thompson and Ragsdale both parlayed their staunch anti-immigrant stances into political gain. Thompson became California's Secretary of State and later a U.S. Congressman. Ragsdale was appointed U.S. Consul to Tientsin, China, proving that ignorance is no bar to political appointment. The ending of the case bore an uncanny resemblance to the 1880 Marin tragedy...
...The one element the Wickersham murders didn't provide was a tense courtroom drama, because the accused never got to state his side of events. In fact, the trajectory of the case was eerily similar to a murder in Marin County in April 1880; the victim's Chinese cook had been promptly arrested and, according to an account in the Sonoma Democrat, "strangled himself in his cell." Whether Ah Tai knew about the Marin case or not, and whether he was guilty or not, he was probably aware he didn't stand much of a chance in the racial climate of 1880's California. He wisely skipped town and made it to San Francisco. From there he slipped onto the steamer Rio de Janeiro bound for Yokohama.
From here on the accounts become clouded. The Sonoma Democrat reported on Feb. 23, 1886 that U.S. detectives had captured Ah Tai in Yokohama and were waiting for government papers before returning him to the U.S. Perhaps the documentation fell through; perhaps he escaped. (Perhaps the man arrested was not Ah Tai at all.) At any rate, Ah Tai was reported arrested in Hong Kong a month later; accounts filtered across the Pacific that he had confessed his guilt to the Chinese quartermaster of the ship from Yokohama. No less an eminence than U.S. President Grover Cleveland signed papers requesting the British government at Hong Kong release the prisoner to American representatives.
At the end of April a steamer from Hong Kong brought news to San Francisco that Ah Tai, while lodged in the city's Victoria Jail, had taken the cord from his draw-string pants and hanged himself in his cell....
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