By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Last week I was researching the history of Pulga, a small town in Northern California, for some copy I’m writing for their website.  As it happens, this town is very close to Willows, where our dad’s family settled in 1829.  Our dad was born and raised there and the land is still owned and ranched by members of our extended family.  When I wrote our family history six years ago I discovered that we had something of a colorful past – our great-great grandmother, Julia Billiou, was murdered while sitting at her dining table.  That’s not something you find on Ancestry every day.

When I was writing our history I was lucky enough to connect with a third cousin (I think twice removed but I can never keep that stuff straight) who had a treasure trove of information about Julia and her husband, Joseph Billiou, including copies of the newspaper accounts of her murder.  The local papers in Oroville and Chico reported that the Billiou’s 16 year-old Chinese cook, Hong Di, burst out of the kitchen on the night of April 7, 1887 and in a drunken rage, shot the ranch foreman, William Weaver, in the shoulder.  He then shot Julia as she rose from the table, striking her directly in the heart and killing her instantly.  Our great-grandmother, Annie, was shot at three times, but by that point Hong’s aim was a bit off and he missed her each time.  Hong ran from the ranch, hiding in the brushes near the local creek for three days until he was caught and brought to trial.  The jury found him guilty, but instead of the normal death sentence for a murder, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

It would be a vast understatement to say that the verdict did not go down well with the local townspeople.  Before the judge and jury had even left the courtroom there was shouting from the gallery calling for Hong’s lynching.  The mayor called out the posse to guard the jail that night but a raucous band of 200 vigilantes stormed the facility.  They found the cell in the basement where Hong was detained and demanded a full confession.  This confession is what was reported in the local papers – that he’d imbibed in too much whiskey and that he didn’t mean to kill Julia as she had been kind to him.  Nevertheless, the vigilantes dragged him down the street to the train turnstile and hung him.  According to the papers, there was great celebration that night over the “justice” that was carried out.  None of the vigilantes were ever arrested for their actions.

Joseph Billiou – jerk or jilted?

Fast forward to last week when I was doing research on Pulga.  I decided as long as I was studying the local area I’d Google Julia’s murder to see if there was anything I’d missed.  It turned out to be a lesson in “be careful what you wish for” because there was new information and it did not reflect well her.  A recently published book about lynching in California has a full page devoted to Julia’s murder and Hong’s hanging. The author wrote that both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee published the FULL account of Hong’s confession while the local papers chose not to run the full story because it “impinged on the good character of one of the town’s most beloved citizens”.  To say the least. It turns out that a couple of months prior to the murder, while Mr. Billiou was in San Francisco on business, Hong stumbled upon Julia and Mr. Weaver in a “compromising position” up in the hay loft when Joseph was out of town.  Mr. Weaver threatened Hong with death if he told Mr. Billiou about the affair when he returned to the ranch.  Hong’s full confession also stated that his real target was Weaver and that he had great affection for Julia because she taught him to read and write English.  So in that spring of 1887 I think it’s safe to say that tensions were running a little high in the household.  Julia was cheating on her husband, the ranch foreman was fooling around with the boss’s wife, and the cook was scared of being killed at any moment.

These new revelations have me taking a second look at Julia.  Her track record for fidelity wasn’t so great to begin with.  Shortly after she arrived in Willows from Ireland she was engaged to Joseph’s brother, Michael.  When Joseph arrived in California to join Michael, Julia broke off the engagement and married Joseph.   That had to make for an awkward Thanksgiving.  Then at age 50 – which was like 100 in 1887 – she has a fling with the ranch foreman.  Maybe Joseph was a real jerk and she could only find true love with Mr. Weaver.  She took her secrets to the grave, not even leaving a photograph of herself behind, so she’ll forever remain an enigma.

All I know is that I will never again look at all those prim and proper women in my family tree in the same way.



  1. This next article is interesting to me. It is found in the San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California) on July 21, 1887:


    Alleged Confessions Shown to Be False.

    A dispatch from Chico states that Hong Di, the lately lynched murderer of Mrs. Billou, said that Marshal Burns told him to tell the story about Weaver, and also promises the confessions made to Cottle, the cell-mate of the Chinese. At a late hour last night Marshal Burns was seen at his residence on Seventeenth, near Mission street. He said that he left Colusa on May 11th and never even saw Hong Di, so that it was impossible for him to have imparted the alleged instructions about Weaver. Referring to the confession that Hong Di proposed wiping out Weaver and the Billou family and then, after ravishing and killing Maud Billou, committing suicide, Marshal Burns said that the story was absurd, and believed to be so by Mr. Billou as well as by the daughters. The general opinion he found prevalent in Colusa was that Weaver cowhided the Chinese for some offense and then Hong Di took the horrible revenge, with the details of which all are familiar. Hong Di, Mr. Burns said, was an unusually smart Chinese and could evidently lie glibly.

  2. Hi
    Julia Stack was my great grandmother. This is Bullshit started by a Chico State “professor” over 30 years ago. I have asked her about her facts on this, and she backed down. I challenge you to provide information proving the accusation of any hanky panky between her and Weaver. Or showing that she was ever engaged to Michael Billiou and dumped him for Joseph.
    Go ahead and print the out of town newspaper articles you say confirmed this.
    I’ll bet you an 1856 silver dollar that you can’t. O\Hoover,Michelle has led you astray!

  3. And here I thought family lore was only embellished with time. The facts ma’am, just the facts…make for an even better story!

    • Truth is stranger than fiction, right? I just wish I had a picture of her – she must have been a doozy!

  4. Always interesting. Read “Loving Frank” a biography about Frank Lloyd Wright whose second wife was murdered by their cook as well!!! Also, its a fascinating read on both Frank and the Other Woman #2. …Not as fascinating as your work, however.

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