Juanita Sheridan, author of the Lily Wu mystery series attributed her inclination to writing about murder to “ancestral genes,” claiming that her grandfather was murdered by Pancho Villa and her father was also probably murdered by a political rival. This claim seemed slightly far-fetched and I wondered if I could trust Sheridan’s other claim that Lily Wu was “a composite of several Chinese friends.”
Sheridan’s letter to her Doubleday editor that is quoted in the Schantz’s bio gives a colorful portrait of her maternal grandfather and his violent death: “Grandpa House came from Texas; a cousin of his was advisor to Woodrow Wilson. Instead of hanging up his law degree, Grandpa went adventuring, and part of the time he dragged his family along. They lived in Texas. Indian Territory, the Yukon during the gold rush, Arizona (where he killed a man and had to leave the state until the ruckus died down) and finally, Mexico. He was a gambler, and his dependents never knew security. After the children grew up he took Grandma to Mexico where he became paymaster for the Texas Oil Company. Pancho Villa ambushed the Tampico River boat and demanded a $30,000 payroll. Grandpa pulled a gun — but Villa shot first.”
In fact, a search in the New York Times archives confirms much of Sheridan’s colorful story. Here is the headline from the article of October 20, 1918.
The article reveals that US dependency on oil and violence related to that dependency started early on in our history. “If conditions now existing in the great Mexican oil fields are allowed to grow worse it is inevitable that our army and navy and the armies and navies of our allies will feel the petroleum pinch — that to a serious extent they too will become “gasless.” US oil reserves were only expected to last a month according to the article and the concern was that Mexican imports had fallen off due to a reign of banditry. The article goes on to list a series of outrages against the oil companies in Mexico, including the murder of one Paymaster House (Juanita’s grandfather).
Of course nothing was said about Pancho Villa in the article, but since he was one of the most famous Mexican bandits of the time, it’s plausible that he was involved.
How about Sheridan’s claim that her father was also probably murdered? Armed with census records from Ancestry.com, I located the obituary for Juanita Sheridan’s father John Light. It DOES appear that he died under suspicious circumstances:
From the July 3, 1911 Daily Oklahoman
The funeral of John R. Light, who died suddenly Friday afternoon at 4 o’clock while playing with his little daughter at him home, 917 West California street, was held Sunday afternoon at 3 o’clock from St. Luke’s M.E. church, and was very largely attended. Mr. Light was president of the New State Laundry company, and was well known here. He was born in Texas, December 3, 1872 and removed to Ardmore, this state, later going to Lawton where he engaged in business. He came to Oklahoma City nine years ago. He is survived by his wife, one daughter, Juanita, three brothers, a sister and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. R. D. Light of Ardmore.
It must have been very traumatic for the 4-year-old Juanita to witness her father keel over and die so suddenly. The July 1 paper’s death notice reported that the attending physicians attributed the cause of death to be “heart trouble induced by nicotine poisoning and severe stomach trouble of several years standing.” Hardly a conclusive diagnosis and one that leaves the door open for an active imagination. According to Sheridan, “We never found out where he had lunch that day — or with whom.”
Since Sheridan’s family murder stories panned out for the most part, I had a lot more confidence in her claim that Lily Wu was based on several Chinese friends. I would just have to keep on digging to find out who they were.