By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
This week, in honor of Mother’s Day, I want to pay special tribute to my paternal great-grandmother, Annie Billiou Hoever. Last year I received a ring from my mother that I always assumed was my paternal grandmother’s engagement ring. When I told mom I would enjoy wearing Grandma’s ring she looked at me with alarm – something I’ve become used to – and said, “It wasn’t her engagement ring, it was her mother’s engagement ring. It belonged to Annie Hoever.”
Sheesh! Good thing I found this out before mom died or I would never have known the truth. In all the stories I’d heard about our family, I couldn’t remember one mention of Annie Hoever. Mom had only met her a few times after she married our dad so she couldn’t tell me much about her. I wanted to know more about the woman who first wore the ring so I started doing some research. Luckily, I found a second cousin who had stories, pictures and old newspaper clippings about the whole Billiou clan. Jilted lovers, murder, insanity…it was all there. Just your typical American family.
Annie’s father, Joseph Billiou, was born and raised in St. Louis. Her mother, Julia, had emigrated from Ireland to Willows, California in the 1850’s. Willows is in rice farming country north of Sacramento. My father, who was raised in Willows, often spoke of his home town in rapturous terms. I’m not sure Fodor’s would agree with Pop; Willows is a typical agricultural outpost that could barely be found on a map until Interstate 5 was built and they constructed some off ramps to the town. Now its claim to fame is that there is a both a Denny’s and a Burger King right off the freeway exit.
In any event, when Julia came to Willows she fell in love with Joseph’s brother, Michael. Michael (rather foolishly in hindsight) asked Joseph to move from St. Louis to Willows to join him in the rice business. In a move worthy of a Kardashian, Julia took one look at Joseph, broke off her engagement to Michael, and married Joseph. That must have made for some rather awkward Thanksgiving dinners.
Joseph became major rice and grain farmer in his own right. He and Julia eventually had four children, Annie being their firstborn, and they lived a wonderful life on the ranch. Annie was educated at a Catholic boarding school near San Jose and then returned to Willows to settle down. However, no eligible bachelor presented himself and by age 27 she was still unmarried. Today, that would be the equivalent of someone at age 40 still being single. In other words, getting hit by lightening was a more likely event.
Unfortunately, in 1887 the family idyll was rather unceremoniously torn apart when their cook, having drunk too much of the cooking sherry, stormed into the dining room one evening and shot Annie’s mother to death. The cook then chased Annie around the house, shooting at her twice but – the cooking sherry having taken its toll – missed her both times.
The subsequent newspaper accounts of the cook’s trial and the vigilante justice that took place afterward are something right out of the Wild West. I guess because it was the Wild West. A jury convened the week after the murder (makes you long for frontier justice, doesn’t it?) and found the cook guilty, sentencing him to life imprisonment. Upon hearing the verdict an angry mob formed and demanded “an eye for an eye”. The sheriff, knowing a “situation” when he saw one, put guards at the entrance to the jail and hid the cook in the basement. He wasn’t aware that one of the vigilante group members was a former sheriff’s employee who knew all of the jail’s hidden entrances. That night the group broke into the jail, extricated the cook, and lynched him in a nearby field. No member of the group was ever arrested for the cook’s murder.
You would think Annie had suffered enough trauma to last her a lifetime, but unfortunately she had more ahead of her.
Stay tuned for Part Two…coming on Thursday!