Two Japanese men were traveling with a circus in the United States in October 1908. They stopped in Catawba County near Newton where they prepared for their next show.
F. Kikuchi, a performer, and Henry Yamakuchi, a show director, went for a walk together in a wooded area that Saturday night. “They left in a friendly and cheerful mood, singing Japanese lullabies as they went and speaking in their native tongue,” read an article published in The Newton Enterprise on November 19, 1908.
What started as a civil conversation turned into an argument over the treatment of two young girls who were traveling with the show. Yamakuchi shot Kikuchi several times in the back, killing him. He then attempted to conceal Kikuchi’s body under wooden planks, according to an article printed on October 15, 1908.
During Yamakuchi’s trial, he said he told Kikuchi that they should buy warmer clothes for two young girls who were traveling with the circus as actresses, according to the November 19 article. Yamakuchi said Kikuchi disagreed and the argument quickly escalated. Kikuchi told Yamakuchi that he beat the girls when they were unable to perform well in the show. Kikuchi then suggested selling the girls.
People also read…
“The two men got very excited over the argument over the sale and (Yamakuchi) pulled out his gun and shot (Kikuchi),” the post read.
The Newton Enterprise article stated that Yamakuchi never claimed self-defense. “…his own story sounded so true, that the jury believed him when he said there was no premeditation or malice…” the article read.
A jury found Yamakuchi guilty of second degree murder and the judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison.
Sympathy extended to Kikuchi and Yamakuchi
Kikuchi was buried in a cemetery in Catawba County, according to a Catawba County News article printed on October 16, 1908.
A large crowd gathered for the funeral, according to the report. “Two locks of hair were cut from the dead man’s head and handed over to Mr. Kudara, who will send them to the relatives of the deceased in Japan…”, reads the article.
Richard Eller is a local historian and works at Catawba Valley Community College. He said that many in the United States were fascinated by Japanese culture at that time and that some arts from Japan were beginning to appear in the region.
“You would have all this literature about Japanese culture that Americans were fascinated with,” Eller said. “You’d see Japanese art in places you never thought…it’s really this fascination with things beyond the United States”
Chrysanthemums were used for the funeral and a photo was sent to Japanese newspapers. “Tower. EW Fox of the Methodist Church led church services and delivered a moving speech on the greatness of the Japanese people and the relationship between their nation and the United States,” read an October 22, 1908, article. .
The Catawba County community also advocated for Yamakuchi’s early release from prison, according to the November 19 article.
Yamakuchi was transported to Raleigh State Penitentiary with another man recently made famous in a different murder, Lonnie Radar. Rader was ordered to be taken to the Criminal Insane Department after being charged with the murder of Willie Bollinger the same year, according to an article published in the Newton Enterprise.
None of them were handcuffed, and the article says that Yamakuchi was joyful the day he was transported as he was throughout his trial. “He was such a model prisoner that many believe he could have been trusted to go to Raleigh without an officer and search the penitentiary,” the article read.
Yamakuchi escaped from prison years later and was never found, according to a 1995 Hickory News article. falls somewhere in this world…” reads the article.
Eller said he questions much of the information in this case due to conflicting information in the articles.
“The motives are suspect, but I think the facts of the story are there, and what we’re left with is ‘Why did they do that?’ I think that’s why we love murder mysteries, is because it gives us the opportunity to understand this stuff,” Eller said.