Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Dead Man's Hand -- The Murder of Poker Tom

(Copyright: J. Rubio)
It's widely known throughout history that many men have lost their lives around a poker table, or because of gambling. Sensational stories told over the years such as the death of Wild Bill Hickok at the hands of Jack McCall in the No. 10 Saloon of Deadwood, South Dakota, might come to mind. Even the narrative about Fred Chisholm, a young gambler who was shot to death after cheating and running out during a game at a Chinese casino in Locke, California, is another one I recall off hand.

It appears that when it comes to money and gambling, the two do not mix well, at least not when you are on the losing end. Famous poker champion Doyle Brunson was once quoted saying, "Poker is war. People pretend it's a game," and that statement appears to be right "on the money."

In the end of May, 1891, in a little town known as Bridgeport, California, two individuals would cross paths with one another, and set in motion events that would ultimately seal both of their fates. The two people in this story went by the names Ah Quong Tia and Poker Tom.  Ah Tia was a Chinese merchant who ran a business in Bridgeport, while Poker Tom was a Piute Indian who lived on the Walker River Reservation just east of Yerington, Nevada.  According to all the recorded documentation, it appears that Poker Tom came to Bridgeport to purchase some calico and ended up spending a few nights gambling with the Chinese. The first night that he was there he played in a poker game with a few people, which included Ah Tia. The night resulted with Tom winning some pretty good money. Since Ah Tia had lost, and wanting to win back his money, he offered Poker Tom to come to his store the next evening and have a private game, just the two of them.  Poker Tom accepted and the plans were set.

The next evening, Poker Tom arrived at Ah Tia's store, who quickly locked the doors behind him and began their game to settle scores. Five local Indians had passed by Ah Tia's store that night, and when they tried to enter the business they found the door to be locked. So they peeked through a hole in the window curtain and saw Ah Tia and Poker Tom playing cards. They thought nothing more of it, and went on their way. What really happened next will forever remain a mystery, since there were no eye witnesses to confirm or deny the stories. Some say that Tom won again, which infuriated Ah Tia, who in turn attacked and killed the Indian. Other versions of the story claim that Poker Tom lost the game, and in anger he attacked Ah Tia, which led to a fight, where ultimately Tom was killed. Either variation ultimately ended with the same result, Tom was dead.

So what did Ah Tia do? Did he contact the Sheriff and tell him that he acted in self-defense and that he had been attacked by the Indian? Nope. Did he try to get help from anyone? Nope. Instead, he dragged the body to the kitchen and began hacking it to pieces. First he cut off the legs, and the arms, and then the head and packed them in brine. Then he gutted the torso, carefully removing the organs and chopping them up into small pieces. The gutted trunk of his body was then thrown into the river.

He took the time to meticulously clean the front room of his store, reapplying new wall paper to the bloody walls, attempting to cover up any sign of foul play. He was seen scrubbing and re-scrubbing his floors, which according to newspaper reports were clearly blood stained. If that wasn't bad enough, he boiled up flesh he had saved from Tom's body, and prepared meals with it. To add insult to injury, several reports claim that Ah Tia went out of his way to invite some of the local Indians over to enjoy a "feast" that he had cooked up---which subsequently was his way of getting rid of the evidence. Even Tom's brined legs were cut into chops and sold that week for 6 cents a pound, under the guise that it was goat meat. No one suspected a thing, at least for the moment.

It wasn't until a few weeks later that some of the Indians from Tom's tribe began to worry about their friend after his horse came back to the reservation by itself, unsaddled and without it's bridle. It was then that they came to Bridgeport to look for him. The natives from the Walker River Reservation gathered up some of the local Mono Lake Indians and they discussed the situation, asking if they knew anything about the disappearance of Tom. Some remembered that he had been seen playing cards with Ah Tia in his store the night he disappeared, but when questioned, Ah Tia denied having seen him at all. They knew that was a lie, and so they were certain now that he had done something to their friend. They searched the area for any sign of Poker Tom, finding some of the calico he had purchased and his reservation coat at the outskirts of town.

At one point Sheriff Cody came by, at the request of the Indians, and even the Sheriff found a bullet hole in the wall, that Ah Tia had tried to cover up with new wallpaper. Ah Tia blamed "red ink" for the red stains on the walls and floors, that he seemed to be seen continuously scrubbing clean. Later on some of the natives fished the headless torso out of the river, identifying it as that of Poker Tom.

An native woman, known as the wife of Mono Lake Indian "Lundy" came forward claiming that her husband and Tom were drunk the day he disappeared and that he and his friends probably killed him. It turns out though that Lundy had left his wife, and she had been shacking up with none other than Ah Tia! It was assumed that she tried to place blame on her estranged husband and his friends to draw attention away from Ah Tia, the real murderer.  At this point the situation was getting heated. The Walker River Indians were ready to kill some of the Mono Lake Indians in retaliation, thinking that they killed one of their men. Eventually the story sorted itself out and they all turned their eyes back to the real monster, Ah Tia.

Knowing that the Indians were closing in on him, Ah Tia willingly confessed to the Sheriff that he was responsible for the death of Poker Tom, claiming that he was acting in self defense after being attacked by Tom during their card game. Of course there was no way to prove his story, but the authorities knew they had enough to charge him for the murder and so they held him in the jail, which was also at the request of Ah Tia.

It appears that perhaps the locals didn't want to deal with this issue, although legally they were supposed to. Maybe they knew that if they didn't let the Indians deal with the situation their way, they might have had to deal with hostilities later on from both tribes. To avoid any further issue, the Justice of the Peace dropped all charges. Of course this choice would come back to bite the town in the rear later, but it was what it was. And so when Ah Tia was released, the constable went out onto the street and yelled out the verdict. It was then that Ah Tia realized what waited for him outside the courthouse. He begged the authorities to protect him, he asked anyone to be his hired bodyguards and he offered compensation, but no one volunteered. As for the Sheriff, he went to his office and shut the door. Everyone knew that if Ah Tia was set free that meant a certain death for him, but given the circumstances of his previous actions, I doubt anyone felt sorry for the position Ah Tia found himself in.

When the Indians learned he had been acquitted, several of them charged to the courthouse and dragged Ah Tia out to the streets, binding him with a rope and riding out of town with him dragging behind their horses. According to several newspaper accounts, including this one it states, "a half mile from town, the brother of Tom cut off one arm. The Chinaman cried piteously, but the Indians cut off the other arm. Then they cut off both legs and his head. They cut his breast open with a cleaver and scattered his entrails throughout the sage brush. Two hundred armed Indians were present, and the butchery was witnessed by two white men. As the Sheriff did not protest, no one interfered with the Indians."-- Los Angeles Herald, June 15, 1891.

Bridgeport Courthouse (Wikimedia Commons)

When it came time to hold the Indians accountable for their act, no one would come forward to identify the culprits, and thus nothing could be done further. The town was shamed in newspapers across the country, including law enforcement in the County, who were berated over and over for not following through with the set forms of law and order. According to the Grand Jury investigation quoted in the San Francisco Call, dated December 1, 1891, it states that after a two week session they had completed their final report.

"After a careful and thorough investigation, twenty-eight witnesses having been called and examined, we find that the Indian was murdered and cut in pieces by Ah Quong Tia; that Ah Quong Tia was charged with the murder by the Coroner's jury and was arrested on the Coroner's warrant; that the verdict of the Coroner's jury and the testimony taken by the Coroner were no immediately field with the Clerk of the Superior Court, nor were they delivered to the commuting magistrate as required by the Penal Code. We also find that at the preliminary examination the Justice refused to commit the accused to appear before the Superior Court, but discharged him from custody. In this we are of the opinion that Justice erred, for the evidence seemed amply sufficient. We further find that the Deputy District Attorney did not interpose any objection whatever when counsel for the defense moved for a dismissal, and that the defendant's attorney's urged his dismissal contrary to his expressed request, well knowing that their client would be murdered if left unprotected."--

Of course to the outsiders looking in it was easy to judge, it was easy to complain, but they were not the ones living in Bridgeport at the time. The locals lived among the native tribes and I believe that they didn't want to deal with issues later on over this one incident. The natives wanted an "eye for an eye"-- it was their justice to do to Ah Tia what he did to Poker Tom, and once they were finished they went home. The people in charge of the town looked the other way, not only to avoid possible hostilities with the Indians but I believe they didn't want to waste tax payers money on it either.

Many journals and newspapers blamed the "White Man" for his role in this story, even trying to insinuate that they egged the Indians on to take matters into their own hands. I think that is pretty pathetic that even back then someone had to go and start blaming others for this. The bottom line was that Ah Tia murdered and covered up the murder of Poker Tom. If it really was self defense he could have went to the Sheriff and explained, but the fact he covered it up, and then fed the dead man to who knows how many people in town, even selling his leg meat as goat chops, that is reason enough for the Indians to want to get revenge. They didn't need any coaxing from the townsfolk, that's for sure.

It appears that even back then, the media and even the court systems would find bias in one group over another. In this case they took the side of the Chinese man over the Native Americans. It seemed that Poker Tom's life, or brutal death didn't mean anything to the courts, yet they made the biggest spectacle over the way Ah Tia was treated. The last time I checked Ah Tia was the one who committed an atrocious murder and an even more heinous cover up. Poker Tom didn't kill anyone and there is no way to know if he truly attacked Ah Tia in the first place. It sounds to me like he had a lucky streak gambling but that Ah Tia made sure his luck ran out that night, one way or another.

Famous author Mario Puzo once wrote, "Show me a gambler, and I'll show you a loser." As much as Poker Tom won, he ultimately lost his life. And as fate would have it, Ah Quong Tia, thinking somehow he'd win back the money he lost, he ended up with the worst hand of all...the dead man's hand, which was really his own.

~~Thank you Roland for pointing me in the direction of this story!! ~~

(Copyright 2017- J'aime Rubio,

Photo of gambling paraphernalia: Copyright, J'aime Rubio
Photo of Courthouse: Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco Call, June 11, 1891  
San Francisco Call, July 25, 1891 
Los Angeles Herald  June 15, 1891  
Los Angeles Herald,  June 11, 1891  
San Francisco Call  December 1, 1891  
Sacramento Daily Union , June 11, 1891  
Los Angeles Herald  December 1, 1891
Sacramento Daily Union  June 15, 1891  
Los Angeles Herald  November 20, 1891  
Sacramento Daily Union,  November 20, 1891  
Los Angeles Herald   July 25, 1891  
Weekly Courier,  June 20, 1891  
Scientific American,  January 16, 1892

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Georgia Fisher's Monument of Love

Monument for Georgia Fisher (J.Rubio)
This monument sits at one of the higher points of the Historic Sacramento City Cemetery. Facing east on the northern section close to the Broadway entrance, it's ornate tile design is what caught my eye the very first time I walked by it.  The sheer beauty of the monument is equally matched with the sudden feeling of sadness upon closer examination. It isn't just a sadness solely because of the tragic back story of the grave itself, but also the painful realization knowing how horribly this grave has been treated over the years. If we could have only seen the monument in its full splendor back when it was constructed, then we would be able to fully realize the love and craftsmanship -- literally blood, sweat and tears, it took to create such a masterpiece.

The monument was built for Georgia Fisher, a young lady, only 19 years old at the time of her death. The man who built her beautiful memorial was none other than her devastated groom-to be, Martin Bergman. The couple were to be wed on New Year's Day in 1876, but Georgia passed away just days before the wedding, on December 27, 1875.

Georgia's Story

Georgia Fisher, or "Georgie" as she was sometimes called, was the only daughter of George Fisher and Narcissus Tucker. Born on February 25, 1856, in Louisiana, it appears that Narcissus brought Georgia with her to Arkansas at some point shortly after her birth, as the Tucker family: William Tucker and Paulina Adelina Humphrey-Tucker (Narcissus' parents), all traveled together in an ox-team of settlers across the plains from Arkansas to California around 1857-1858. Although I could find no records of a divorce or death, I believe George Fisher more than likely died, leaving Narcissus a young widow.

It was after getting to California that Narcissus, a young single parent with an infant child to raise, married Thomas Kirtlan, a Blacksmith by trade. Their marriage date is estimated at around 1858, when Georgia was 2 years old. Kirtlan had originally been born in England, but came to the United States with his parents across the Atlantic as an infant. He was raised in Ohio, and there he learned his trade. By the time he was 19 years old, he traveled to California, via the Isthmus of Panama and settled in Jenny Lind (Calaveras County). He would remain there until 1869, when he moved his family to Sacramento to set up his new shop on Twelfth and K Streets. Eventually the family moved again, this time to Freeport, just south of Sacramento, along the Delta, near the other small towns of Clarksburg, Locke and Walnut Grove.

Georgia was the eldest half sister of nine children born between Narcissus and Thomas Kirtlan. Around the age of 17 (1873-74), Georgia left home and went to work as a hired domestic for the Bergman family in Sacramento. Other records state that she had only been in the employ of the Bergman's for five months before her death, which would mean she came to work at the household at the age of 19. It is uncertain the exact date that she came to be employed in the Bergman household, but the fact remains that by 1875, she was working there.

The Bergman sons, Johann and Martin, had came to California from their native Sweden in the late 1860s, after having been so impressed by a sample of California clay they had seen in Stockholm. The two potters were convinced that their future was in America, so they left everything behind to start a new life. The journey was long, crossing the Atlantic and then walking the Isthmus only to board another steamer to San Francisco, but their determination was unshakable.

After settling in Sacramento, the two brothers set out to buy out their competition, Sacramento Pottery. The Bergman's began prospecting, not for gold, but for clay, finding a rich deep pocket of the best clay at Michigan Bar and Cook's Bar in Sacramento County (near Rancho Murieta). In fact, according to The History of Sacramento County, California, by G. Walter Reed, Michigan Bar was thought to be "the best bank of clay for pottery" in the entire state. The Bergman brothers became so successful that they paid for their parents and siblings come to California from Sweden.

Georgia Fisher and Martin Bergman 
The monument as it looked Circa 1930
Their Love Story

According to an article from the Sacramento City Cemetery's website,  Georgia was hired by Mrs. Bergman, Martin's mother. Their home was located at 30th and N. Streets in Sacramento.  It appeared that Martin Bergman fell for the young lady while she worked in their household, and although he was much older than her, Georgia reciprocated the feelings.  According to a quote within the article, from a Bergman descendant, Pat Pors, it appeared that the family was quite happy with the union of the two, and they were preparing for the holidays and the upcoming nuptials said to have been scheduled at the Presbyterian Church (13th & N Streets) on New Year's Day.

At some point during the hustle and bustle of getting so much done to prepare for the festivities, Georgia fell ill. Some say she died from typhoid pneumonia, while another genealogical report by Charles Wm. Berberich, another Bergman descendant, listed her cause of death as diphtheria or brain congestion/meningitis.  I could not find any death record for Georgia, so I am undecided on which cause of death is certain. Either way, we know she fell ill and passed on December 27, 1875.

Martin was devastated at the loss of his beloved Georgia, and so in his final act of everlasting love, he chose to construct for her the finest monument, made from the best materials, by his own hand. It was said that he worked tirelessly with tears streaming down his face to create a memorial worthy of Georgia, who undoubtedly was the love of his life.

The plaque erected by the Old City Cemetery Committee in 2010, sits in front of the monument and summarizes the tragic love story for passersby to learn while strolling through the cemetery.

According to the plaque, "Shortly after Georgia's death, Martin, together with his father and brother, created this monument on her grave site. Martin, a Swedish immigrant sculptor, constructed the ornately tiled base. His father, John Bergman, added a statue of the angel Gabriel. Martin's brother, John, created an equally beautiful column. Together, they built an ornamented clay pedestal fence around the plot. 

Georgia's picture, in repose, was placed on the monument beneath the angel. Over the years, vandalism, theft and natural forces have taken their toll on the monument, leaving only a shadow of its original beauty."---

 According to the online records posted by Charles Wm. Berberich, he quotes a letter that Georgia had written but never had a chance to send that described Martin in her own words, "a gentleman in every shape and manner...honest and of good principles....He is in business with his brother and another man, but it is good business and pays pretty good. It is the pottery business...he is not rich neither is he well off but he has good health and understands his trade well. He is about 31 years of age and his name is Martin L. Bergman. He weighs about 160 lbs and has long dark beard and dark hair and blue eyes." ---

Martin waited nearly 20 years before allowing himself to marry, in the 1890s. But even so, it appears that he and his wife became estranged over the years. When Martin died in Spokane, Washington, in 1920, he left all his estate to his only daughter, and nothing to his wife. Martin Bergman was a very prominent potter and sculptor who truly made a name for himself in his lifetime.

To date, the only known photo of Georgia Fisher is the one that was taken after her death.

Rest In Peace, Georgia.

(Copyright 2017, J'aime Rubio-

Photos at cemetery by: J'aime Rubio
Sketch by: J'aime Rubio
Photos of Martin Bergman and Georgia Fisher and monument from the Sacramento City Cemetery plaque.
"A Monumental Love Story" by Marilyn Demas -(Published June 2005)
via Sacramento City Cemetery website;
Rootsweb post by Helen Fingado (2004)
History of Sacramento County, G. Walter Reed;
Individual Report for Martin Laurentius Bergman, by Charles Wm. Berberich.