An attack on six Chinese workers on the Lemm Ranch shocked the citizens of Chico and brought infamy to the town. The Lemm Ranch was located near today’s intersection of Highway 32 and Forest Avenue. On the night of March 14, 1877, as six Chinese laborers lay asleep in their cabin, a gang of five men and a boy broke into the cabin and searched for money to steal. They then shot the men in cold blood as they lay in their bunks. They piled bedding in the middle of the room, doused the pile with kerosene and set fire to it, then fled out the door.
Three of the Chinese men were killed outright and one died the next morning. Wo Ah Lin, who had feigned death, threw himself on the fire and extinguished it, then staggered to the ranch house to report the attack. There his wounded arm was bound up, but nobody at the ranch house went to attend to Wo’s dead and wounded companions. Nor did they send to town for help.
Wo walked the two miles to town where he sought out Constable Ben True, a man trusted by the Chinese. True alerted Butte County Deputy Sheriff James Hegan, who rode out the next morning to the scene of the crime. As the bodies were brought in to Chico, horrified onlookers clustered on the streets to watch. Prejudice against the Chinese ran high, but no one expected outright murder. A citizen’s committee was quickly organized to investigate and to raise reward money.
John Bidwell reported on the committee in his diary:
Fri. March l6.
Warm bright beautiful day. = Laying out dump vineyard. = Meeting of Citizen’s Committee in Masonic Hall against the murders of the Chinese on Lemm Ranch, = Received notice last night from a “committee” to discharge Chinese. . .
Threatening letters were sent to a number of employers in Chico. Bidwell’s note read as follows:
To General Bidwell– Sir; you are given notice to hereby discharge your Mongolian help within ten days from date, or suffer the consequences. Let this be enough. signed Committee
Bidwell ignored the demand, but since the post office was in his business building, he had the mailbox watched for suspicious letters. Within days, a suspect named Fred Conway was caught dropping threatening letters in the mail, and he was soon arrested. He confessed and gave the names of others involved in the murders.
Conway was convicted, and the other four men pled guilty to the murders. They were given sentences of twenty-five years each in San Quentin, and one, Thomas Stainbrook, received a sentence of twenty-seven and a half years. It would seem that justice had been served.
But in the town of Chico there was more fellow feeling for the white murderers than there was for their dead Chinese victims. Four years later, in 1881, men from Chico sent a petition to the governor for the murderers’ release. Governor George Perkins, formerly of Oroville, pardoned four of the men and they returned to Chico. Only Thomas Stainbrook remained in prison.
Most of the information for this entry was taken from a monograph by Michele Shover: Chico’s Lemm Ranch Murders and Anti-Chinese Campaign of 1877, published by the Association for Northern California Records and Research in 1998. This essay also appears in her collection entitled Exploring Chico’s Past (2005). Both books are highly recommended for anyone interested in Chico history.