Thursday, November 7, 2019


From Malesso' to Folsom Prison to Gold Rush Country

He was from Guam and he went by more than one name.

Ben Walkins G. Joseph
Ben WG Joseph
Ben Joseph
Benjamin Joseph

The Walkins is really Watkins, a family that was started on Guam by an Englishman named William Watkins who settled on Guam around 1824 and married a Chamorro woman. William Watkins had some children, but the male line died out and the women married so the surname died out that way, too.

His Social Security information states that his father was John Warquin (Watkins) and his mother was María Borja. There was, in fact, a couple living in Malesso' in 1897, Juan Pangelinan Watkins and María Borja. The problem is - they had no children!

What they did have were relatives, on María's side, it seems, living with them. None of them have Watkins in their names. The youngest of the group is Vicente Borja, 13 years old in 1897. But remember that people in those days were very casual about dates. So this is very likely Ben, as Ben is a common Anglo nickname for Vicente. Ben's documents say he was born on August 14, 1887, so he'd be 10 years old in 1897. Not a big difference.

In the 1897 Guam census, Vicente has no maternal surname. He's just Vicente Borja. This suggests that he was illegitimate. Why isn't he being raised by his mother, a Borja? Maybe she had passed? So here we see some shadows of things to come. The boy is starting off life with some challenges already. Later in life, he credits the old folks who raised him, Juan Watkins and María Borja, as his father and mother.

And yet....he flees.

In 1907, or at the age of 20, he arrives in the United States. He could have left Guam even earlier, and went here and there before moving definitively to California. Like so many of the other Chamorro men who moved to the US, he used a different name from his own. Several versions, in fact. I don't know how he settled on "Joseph" for a surname.

Ah the poor lad. He then made a horrible mistake. Just the following year, in San Mateo, California, he committed murder.

Very common for Chamorros back then

His victim was a Chinese merchant named Wong Ying Gim. Ben and Mr Wong lived in the same place, the cabin of a Mrs Nettie Harrison in Fair Oaks, a neighborhood of Redwood City south of San Mateo. It was Chinese New Year's, February of 1908, and Wong and Ben went to the Chinese neighborhood of nearby Menlo Park to celebrate and indeed they did. They had a lot to drink. When they got home, they argued, as drunk people often do. It was an argument about taking a trip to San Francisco, and Ben lost his cool. Unfortunately, deadly instruments were at hand. A club, a knife and a razor. Ben used all three. With the razor, he almost cut Wong's head clean off his neck. Blood was everywhere.

Ben ran, all the way to Oakland, across the Bay.

But another Chinese man, a relative of Wong, knew that Ben lived with Wong and may have also seen the two together that night at the Chinese New Year's celebration. The Chinese community of the area got the action started. They put reward money together and offered it to whoever might track the murderer down. Then they tasked Wong's relative to get on Ben's trail and never let go till police apprehended him. The man knew what Ben looked like, so it was a matter of time. The man spotted Ben in Oakland and called the police. Ben was arrested. Ben also confessed, making the police department's job a lot easier. Ben was sentenced to life imprisonment at Folsom State Prison.

And yet....he was released after just 8 years and 8 months.

In the 1920 census, Ben is living in a small town called Gridley in northern California, north of Sacramento, doing manual labor. For the census, he told the enumerators that he was from the Philippines and was 31 years old, which makes his birth year 1889. Like many others, he wasn't bothered by accuracy!

By 1930 he had moved to his more or less permanent home. Placer County, California. Gold rush country. Once again he told enumerators that he was from the Philippines and his stated age gave him a birth year of 1886, rather than 1887.

In 1944, he asked for and got a full pardon for his crime.

Ben lived many more years after that, remaining in Placer County. As he got out of prison after such a short time, when he had been sentenced to life, I'm not surprised that Ben avoided going back to San Mateo or the Bay Area. His victim's relatives and friends were still there. I don't think they would've been happy to know Mr Wong's murderer served such a short term.

Ben passed away on August 30, 1968 at 81 years of age. He was buried in the public cemetery in Roseville, in a grave marked Benito "Ben" Joseph, giving yet another variation on his name.

Apparently, Ben never married and never had children. He probably worked very humble jobs. One was at the Pacific Fruit Express plant, which transported farm products in refrigerated cars, at one time the largest network of refrigerated rail cars in the world.

But he managed to live to 81. Who attended his funeral? Did he connect with any Chamorros before his life was over? By the 1960s, there were a decent number of Chamorros living in the Sacramento area, not far from Placer. Had Ben made any contact whatsoever with relatives on Guam? So many unknowns in Ben's mysterious life from tropical Malesso' to the wooded hills of Placer County.

In this draft registration in the 1940s, Ben says he was from Guam in the Philippines!

In an earlier draft registration for World War I, Ben adds Watkins to his name and fudges his birth date again. One day off and if that says 1889 then two years off.

Ben also says he was born in Luzon, the Philippines! And is of the Malayan race.

He also says his work at the time was growing rice for a company in Gridley. Gridley and the surrounding area was, and is, a rice growing region. And so was Malesso'. So Ben probably had some rice farming experience already.

If I ever meet you in the afterlife, Ben, I'd ask you the questions I've already posed here, and a final one. What did the G stand for in your name Ben WG Joseph?

Rest in peace, Ben.


I'm old enough to remember the days when people would ask me where I was from and when I'd answer "Guam," they'd reply, "Where is Guam?"

That was in the 1970s and even 80s. Can you imagine 1900?

So many Chamorros just didn't bother with the hassle of explaining. Many Chamorros just said they were Spanish or Filipino.

1 comment:

  1. There are Watkins descendants in Rota. Father Isaac Masga Ayuyu being one of them.

    *Vernon Lee Inos Mangloña