History More than Twisted at Healdsburg Museum

The new exhibit at the Healdsburg Museum benefits from the audio tour, which helps focus these often disturbing episodes in our town's past

Did you know that Healdsburg has been the scene of, or a prime player in, murder, rape, poisoning, lynching, union-busting and tar-and-feathering?

That’s the sort of history on display at the ’s new exhibit, now and continuing through October. 

“Twisted” may not be strong enough a word for the show, and the exhibit even features a sign right inside the front warning of “disturbing or offensive” subject matter.

Be sure to ask for the free audio tour when you visit, not only for its cohesive and well-narrated explanation of the museum’s exhibit by local voice-over talent Elizabeth Holmes, but for the cautionary introduction by curator – she gives the exhibit a PG-13 for content.

The exhibit was assembled from files Hoods has kept over the years, with notes and details on the strange goings-on beneath the big smiles of civic boosterism.

True, there are relatively harmless, offbeat topics like the once-glamorous world of cigarette smoking, the party-hearty tradition of civic leaders in the Squeedunks who hid their familiar faces behind fake noses and glasses just to have fun; or the 1880s ladies club known as the .

But make no mistake, the bulk of exhibition space is taken up by three signature events in early Healdsburg history, dating from the 1880s to the 1930s, events that are troubling to say the least – and reflect poorly on the sort of town this place used to be.

Take for instance the 1886 murder of the Jesse and Sarah Wickersham on their Skaggs Springs ranch, ostensibly by their Chinese cook. The couple were found brutally slain, the woman raped, and the cook missing.

Ang Tai Duc was immediately suspected because someone left a piece of cake on Sarah Wickersham’s pillow, supposedly a Chinese superstition to appease the dead by leaving something sweet. He fled the country, and was later arrested in China.

"The 1880 census reports that two-thirds of the Chinese living in the Healdsburg area were employed in laundries," Holmes' audio tour tells us. "The rest were cooks."

The Chinese population were almost all men, as women were not allowed to immigrate.

"Gambling and opium use were common pastimes that highlighted the daily routines of this disenfranchised population," the narration continues.

In the wake of the Wickersham murder, 500 Healdsburg area [white?] men signed a pledge not to hire Chinese labor or patronize Chinese businesses, and the Chinese virtually disappeared from Sonoma County.

It gets worse. Around the corner, we learn of the 1920 lynching of three men who were suspected of killing Sheriff Jim Petray of Healdsburg and two others who tried to arrest them for crimes in San Francisco.

Once they were apprehended, they were being held in the Santa Rosa jail for trial – when a well-organized gang of 100 vigilantes (or so claimed the acting sheriff) stormed the jail, took the prisoners and hung them all from a locust tree at the cemetery.

Whatever you may think of the killing of a law-enforcement officer by a gang, vigilante justice is not justice at all, but a violent act of mob rule.

That some otherwise upstanding local citizens were probably  involved in the episode is hinted at, but we may not know for sure until 2018, when Gaye LeBaron's taped interview with a now-deceased participant will be released.

Finally there was the anti-union attack of another area vigilante team in 1935 that broke up a union meeting in Santa Rosa, captured Jack Green and Sol Nitzberg, then had them tarred, feathered and run out of the county. Green bravely returned to press charges, but the jury deliberated only 16 minutes before returning a not guilty verdict against his attackers. (There is currently a Jack Green Civil Liberties Award given annually by the Santa Rosa ACLU chapter.)

True, the exhibit is not without its lighter moments, but even these seem infected by old-fashioned intolerance. Such as the tale of the editor of the Windsor Herald, Ande Nowlin, who referred in doggerel to the 1904 Queen of the Flower Festival, as a “swarthy Dago.”

In response, irate Healdsburg locals created an effigy with a cabbage for a head (the exhibit’s signature image, by the way), strung it up and burned it; the next day the ashes were buried in a widely attended public ceremony that even amused Nowlin himself.

There are more twisted tales for history buffs here, and the exhibit is highly recommended with the above caveats. The audio tour ends with a quick review of some of the colorful characters whose own lives are part of Healdsburg’s history, including cartoonist Rube Goldberg and Lillian Hitchcock Coit, benefactress of Coit Tower.

A personal favorite, though, has to be developer Larry Wilson of Hawaii, who bought up a significant percentage of commercial property surrounding the Healdsburg Plaza as recently as the 1970s, hoping to turn it into a theme park called “Plaza of the Flags.”

Only when the general populace got wind of his plans did he give up.

The Healdsburg Plaza, a theme park? Hard to even imagine such a thing.

George Campbell November 14, 2011 at 09:14 PM
I am curious to know if Cecil Petray is related to Jim Petray. In the 1950's (and probably earlier) Cecil had a connection to the owners of the Brown and Wolfe drugstore.


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