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

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