Author retells violent chapters in North State’s early history, which he shares in excerpts
‘The Biggest Coward in Butte County’
Bullies and misfits usually end up getting what’s coming to them, and when it happens, “poetic justice” has certainly prevailed.
By the early 1880s, Chico was a bustling city of dirt streets and wooden buildings, a citadel of commerce at the northern edge of the Sacramento Valley. Jack Crum was a pioneer in the area and was well known and well liked by the citizens of Butte County.
Crum [was] once a rich farmer who owned one of the most beautiful spreads in the Sacramento Valley. It included farmland, orchards, forests, and a picturesque creek that wandered past his large two-story home. Crum had many friends in Northern California, and his home was a popular stopping-off place for travelers on the road down the valley.
Eventually, silt and mining waste from the Cherokee hydraulic mine poured down the creek and ruined Crum’s property. The mining company paid off a judge or politician and so only had to reimburse Crum pennies on the dollar for the damage to his spread, leaving the old pioneer a financially broken man. Crum left his beloved property and moved into Chico.
Tom Noacks was a big, double-fisted bully who liked to punch out oxen, just like Mongo in the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles. On August 7, 1881, the moronic Noacks got into a quarrel with the feeble, tottering Crum. Noacks knocked Crum down with his fists and then stomped him to death with his heavy boots.
Noacks was quickly arrested and jailed, but as word went out that the youthful town bully had killed the old and feeble pioneer, the citizens of the northern Sacramento Valley started talking about a necktie party. The police soon got word about the general public’s feelings about old man Crum’s murder and knew that, in addition to being a man with many friends, Crum was also a Mason. They secretly spirited Noacks to the more secure county jail in Oroville.
Nothing is a secret for long in a small town. Friends of Crum gathered quickly and quietly in preparation for Noacks’ lynching. In the late summer moonlight, men could be seen carrying axes, ropes and sledgehammers all over the environs of Chico. Butte County Sheriff Sprague was in Chico, but by the time he became aware of the plot, there was little he could do. He sent a telegram to Oroville to warn the jailers about the advancing mob. Mysteriously, the sheriff’s cable was never received.
The friends of Jack Crum quietly entered Oroville, posting men strategically to prevent any word getting out to potential rescuers. A group of men walked to the jail and knocked on the door, where they informed the jailers that they had a prisoner from the town of Biggs. When the iron door was opened, the mob rushed into the jail, overpowering the startled jailers.
Big Tom Noacks cried for mercy and let out pitiful yells as the lynch mob approached his jail cell. The sledgehammers made quick work of Noacks’ cell door and in no time he was dragged from the jail and thrown into a waiting wagon. The mob rode in procession to Crum’s old ranch, where a noose was thrown over an old cottonwood tree and Noacks danced the hangman’s jig. It was reported that Noacks bellowed like a calf from the time he left the jail until the noose cut off his wind.
Noacks was a big intimidating man in life, but there was never a bigger coward in Butte County to die with his boots on.
Jack Crum suffered calamity during his life, and his murder, at the hands of a brazen bully, was an obscenity. While morally and legally reprehensible, the lynching of Tom Noacks, sniveling coward that he proved to be, brought the curtain down on an early California Greek tragedy.
Violated Trust, Trussed Up
Mob mentality draws its own verdict, based upon the passions of the moment. When a jury verdict and a judge-mandated sentence conflicts with the desires of an enraged mob, the mob’s verdict generally prevails.
Seventeen-year-old Hong Di was employed as a houseboy for the Joseph Billiou family. Billiou owned a large ranch near Saint John in what is now Glenn County and lived there with his Irish born wife, Julie and their four children. Little is known about how the family treated the teenage houseboy from China, but it couldn’t have been well, because on April 7, 1887, as supper was being served, Di walked into the Billiou’s dining room with a loaded Colt revolver and shot Billiou family-friend William H. Weaver in the shoulder. The young man then turned and shot Mrs. Billiou square in the heart, killing her instantly.
Di next fired a shot at daughter Annie, barely missing her. Annie ran out of the room as Di fired at her again. Di must have had a lot of animosity towards Annie because he chased her throughout the house, shooting at the girl all the while. At one point, Annie peeked around a door only to be narrowly missed by a bullet fired by Di. As shots continued to ring out, daughter Maude dove out of an open window and ran a mile and a half to St. John for help. Di, his pistol empty, ran to the nearby Sacramento River and disappeared into the thick vegetation that grew along its banks.
Posses were formed, and scores of Chinese male[s] in Northern California [were] questioned and harassed. Fear spread through the Chinese communities and mining camps that an alcohol-fueled posse would mistake one of them for Di. That is exactly what happened in nearby Butte County on April 10th.
While checking out a lead about Di, a posse led by Butte County Sheriff Ball and Colusa County Sheriff Beville came across a woodcutter’s camp above Butte City. As posse members entered the shack, a man of Chinese heritage ran out the backdoor and was promptly gunned down. It wasn’t Di.
On May 22nd, sewing machine salesman A. L. Schubert captured Hong Di in a grain field near Gridley in Butte County. Di spent a couple of days in the jail in Oroville before being extradited to Colusa for trial.
A trial was set for July 10th in Colusa, thirty-seven miles south of St. John, with Judge Bridgeford presiding. Di could not find an attorney to represent him. On the day of his trial, he finally acquired an attorney, who filed a motion of continuance so he could prepare for the defense. Judge Bridgeford outrageously denied the motion, and as the trial proceeded, Di’s defense presented no evidence.
Later that evening, the jury found Di guilty, but two jurors, H. K. Gay and Mathew Edge, held out for a lesser sentence other than the death penalty. On the basis of California law, the judge obliged and sentenced young Di to life in prison. The crowd in the courtroom went wild; many of them drew their pistols and shook them in the air before Judge Bridgeford was able to restore order.
The citizens of Colusa County went wild for blood. The Colusa County Guard was mustered to stand watch at the jail. There was talk of tarring and feathering jurists Gay and Edge, and Gay had the misfortune to ride the same train back to St. John as the Billiou family. During the short ride he was punched in the eye and allegedly knocked off his feet by Maude Billiou.
As the night went on, groups of men huddled around street corners. William Weaver, whom Di had shot and wounded, stood watch in front of the jail, holding a noose while he boisterously led the call to lynch Di. Sledgehammers were the latest fashion accessory for a crowd of over a hundred angry men who arrived on the train from St. John. The leading citizens of Colusa held a not-so-secret meeting in a prominent Colusa businessman’s office. Sheriff Beville telegraphed Governor Bartlett to send the local militia to Colusa, but when they arrived, local merchants refused to sell them ammunition.
A jail guard casually told a Sacramento Bee reporter that he expected the jail to be overrun by the mob. The authorities knew that they couldn’t expect the members of the Colusa Guard or the guards at the jail to fire upon their own family, friends and neighbors over a teenage murderer from halfway around the world. The best that Sheriff Beville could do was to hide the shackled boy in a crawlspace underneath the sheriff’s desk. The Sheriff then stood in front of his men and reportedly announced, “Gentlemen, in the name of the people of California, I ask that every man go down the stairs. I know the public feeling, and I am with it.”
Led by a young bartender named Bud Welch, the mob chanted, “Hang him!” The lynch mob numbered over one hundred and fifty angry men. As they approached the jail, Sheriff Beville dismissed the Colusa Guard and turned the keys of the jail over to the rabble. The jail was searched and eventually the doomed Di was found under the trapdoor.
The crowd yelled and howled as Di was pushed out onto the streets of Colusa with scores of guns trained upon him. Di was pushed and shoved by the mob through Colusa’s Chinatown, representing an unmistakable warning to the Chinese immigrants who made Colusa their home.
The mob stopped at a livery stable, where they intended to hang Di. They soon changed their minds and instead picked up the terrified teenager and carried him off over their heads, running to the Colusa and Lake Railroad yard. A rope was thrown over the rafters of the locomotive turntable and a noose was put around Di’s neck. Weaver was called over to talk to Di, who was hysterically talking in Chinese.
“Why did you kill Mrs. Billiou?” Weaver allegedly asked.
“I was drunk,” Di responded.
Di was yanked up by the neck at ten minutes to midnight and twisted in the wind for five minutes as the crowd cheered. He was let down and a physician was called. The doctor announced that Di’s heart was still beating.
The crowd of 2,000 spectators cheered, “Swing him up!”
Di was yanked back up into the rafters of the turntable where he hung until he was dead. The crowd gave three rousing cheers to the leaders of the mob.
The mob now called for the jurors Gay and Edge, as they returned to town from the depot and no doubt to the saloons. The mob fired their guns into the air, calling the jurors, who had wisely removed themselves far away from Colusa. The mob marched back to the courthouse steps and gave three cheers for the Colusa Guards and three grunts to the jury.
Justice served, California style.
While Hong Di committed a heinous crime and obviously deserved his fate, the workings of the law were far less merciful to the terrified and intimidated Chinese community in general. Justice is traditionally reported to be blind, but in this case, the larger ramifications of law enforcement were certainly not color-blind.