Napa County’s history holds its share of horrifying acts, including a murder-suicide along Sage Canyon Road on March 16, 1898. On that fateful day, the Julius Bhend violently claimed the young life of Victorina Sasselli, ending her promising future as a gifted writer and musician.
On that Wednesday afternoon, Joseph Sasselli and his 17 year old daughter, Victorina, were in good spirits as they were returning to their Chiles Valley home from St. Helena, until they crossed paths with 26-year-old Bhend.
After Joseph declined Bhend’s request to return to town, Bhend asked to drive Victorina to the Sasselli residence. Although she initially refused, Joseph assured her it would be all right. With that, Victorina changed buggies. Bhend’s horse quickly carried him and Victorina around a sharp turn in the road.
Shortly thereafter, three shots rang out but Joseph was initially unaware of their devastating reality. Bhend had shot Victorina twice, once in her right jaw and again in her right temple. He then stood up and shot himself in the head. His lifeless body was thrown to the ground as the frightened horse bolted.
Somehow, the dying Victorina managed to regain the reins and remain seated until another sharp turn in the road caused her to fall between the buggy’s front wheel and shafts. She was dragged for about 25 yards. Just past her home, Victorina was thrown to the ground and then run over by the buggy’s back wheels causing a gruesome head injury.
This horrifying scene was witnessed by her mother and maternal grandmother. They rushed to Victorina’s aid. While her mother fainted, her grandmother, Victorina Arnaud, picked Victorina up into her arms where the teenager died a few moments later.
As this tragedy played out, Joseph came across Bhend’s remains. Realizing what had transpired, Joseph rushed home to find his wife and mother-in-law sobbing over Victorina’s lifeless body. Understandably, Joseph was immediately consumed by immense grief and guilt for having sent his daughter off with her assassin.
An official inquest report revealed the details leading to the murder-suicide. Apparently, Bhend became obsessed with Victorina while working for a neighbor and constantly showed up at the Sassellis’ in the vain hope of winning her hand in marriage. Victorina always replied to his proposals — as she did with all of her many suitors — she was too young to marry anyone.
Her constant rejections eventually pushed Bhend over the edge. The Friday before the cold-blooded act, he went to San Francisco and returned to St. Helena inebriated where he continued to drink for days.
On March 14 a sober Bhend, a Swiss immigrant described as a steady and hard-working man, went to Steves’ Hardware store and purchased a revolver. On March 16, he drove a rented a horse and buggy to Chiles Valley. After being informed Joseph and Victorina were in St. Helena, he headed in that direction to eventually meet up with them and carry out his deadly plan.
On his body a note was found. It said, “Madam Sasselli: I am writing you for the purpose of demanding your pardon for the act that I have intention of doing. I would rather die with her than be separated from her. I love her too much to see her in the arms of another. Yours devotedly, Jules Bhend”
As for Victorina, she, her parents, grandmother and three of her six siblings were also from Switzerland.
The Napa Register reported, “She was a beautiful young lady, spoke and wrote three languages and was an accomplished musician. She was not only attractive in appearance but possessed vivacious and charming manners.”
Authors W.F. Wallace and Tillie Kanaga wrote, “this young woman was probably one of the most intelligent and gifted personages that ever lived in this county...(her) poetry shows her to have had one of the brightest minds on this Coast, (her) verses equaling, if not surpassing that of Helen Hunt Jackson, the most brilliant poet that this Coast has ever produced.”
Hopefully, samples of her writings and other positive aspects about Victorina and her life will be a subject of a future column.
Unfortunately, Victorina was one of many local women in crisis during her era. However there was hope and help. In secrecy, a small group of brave local women established an underground women’s crisis assistance program.
At 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 28, at the Napa Library, I will share some of the details drawn from a personal journal about this piece of unknown Napa County history. For more information visit napalibrary.org or call 707-253-4235.