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The Chinese Highbinders, or Hatchet Men and the Lee Chuck and Little Pete Murder Cases

Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
Celebrated Criminal Cases of America
Part I: San Francisco Cases

The word “Highbinder” is a phrase once used by a New York policeman in referring to a certain Chinese hoodlum, and ever since that time it has been applied to that class of Chinese.

In recent years nearly all of the “bad men” among the Chinese have joined different “tongs,” or societies, which are organized for the sole purpose of blackmail and extortion and to protect their own members.

The fact that they do protect their members has caused a great number of reputable merchants to join and submit to heavy assessments for the purpose of being protected from extortionate demands from opposing tongs, and some merchants belong to several tongs for this reason.

The fighting is always done by the “bad men” of the organization, who seldom follow any legitimate vocation. They were formerly called “hatchet men,” because their favorite weapon was a lather’s hatchet, with which they would split open their victim’s skull. A hatchet has often been found partially buried in the head of the victim. In later years they have discarded the hatchet, as there were several instances where the prospective victim overpowered the would-be assassin before the fatal blow was struck. They now use large revolvers, and usually aim at the small of the back, with the expectation that if the wound does not prove fatal immediately, the bullet will cut the intestines and death will eventually follow from blood-poisoning.

The assassin is always accompanied by a confederate. They aim to commit the deed when no white witnesses are present, and as the Chinese witnesses are afraid to testify, it is difficult to obtain convictions.

Fong Ching, alias Little Pete, was born in Kow Gong, Canton, China, in 1864, and came to San Francisco ten years later. He attended the Sunday school of the Methodist Chinese mission and learned to speak the English language fluently.

Two of the largest associations in Chinatown are the Sam Yups and the See Yups, and a great deal of rivalry has existed between them in the past.

Pete joined the Sam Yups, and became the society’s interpreter and conducted all of their business, so far as their dealings with Americans were concerned. He was really quite a handsome appearing fellow and was always immaculate in appearance. He took excellent care of his health, was bright eyed and clear skinned, and indulged in none of the vices common to his race. While he had the Oriental cunning to a rare degree and combined with it the ability to adapt it to Occidental conditions, still he had many redeeming qualities. He was extremely ambitious, and even when he was receiving but $10 per month, while employed in a shoe store, he contributed toward the support of his relatives.

When Pete had acquired a sufficient knowledge of the shoe business he borrowed a few hundred dollars and established himself in that business under the name of “F. C. Peters & Co.” He rapidly built up a big wholesale business and paid his white drummers and other employees as high salaries as they could obtain anywhere in that line.

The object in using the American name was to prevent the patrons of the retailers, who might be prejudiced against Chinese, from knowing that their footwear was manufactured in the heart of Chinatown. The enterprise flourished up to the time of Pete’s death, and he also conducted several gambling clubs.

Pete also found time to woo and win a Chinese maiden, and he had a happy little family, consisting of a wife and three bright little children.

Before he was of age he organized the “Gi Sin Seer” society or “tong,” and a large proportion of its members were of the criminal class and principally highbinders. Pete was unscrupulous, audacious and resourceful, and backed up by this organization of hatchet men he levied tribute on all classes, and if the demand was not complied with the obstinate one’s “head’s assurance was but frail.”

This “tong” was so successful that another faction of the same class of criminals organized, naming their “tong” the “Bo Sin Seer.”

The bitterest enmity existed between these rival organizations, as Pete constantly outwitted the opposition.

It was decided that the only way to conquer him was to kill him, and Pete, learning of this, immediately employed a Chinaman named Lee Chuck to act as his bodyguard.

About July 23, 1886, Detective Glennon told Lee Chuck to be on his guard, as a conspiracy was afoot to kill him. Accordingly, Lee procured a heavy coat of mail, which weighed thirty-five pounds. It was shaped like a vest and was a mass of small steel chains.

On October 28 he met Yen Yuen, a highbinder of the rival tong, at the corner of Spofford alley and Washington Street. After an exchange of words Lee Chuck pulled a pistol and shot his opponent five times, killing him instantly.

Officers J. B. Martin (afterward Chief of Police) and M. O. Sullivan rushed to the scene. Martin pursued Lee Chuck, and was rapidly overtaking him when the Chinaman turned and snapped his pistol twice as Martin came upon him. Fortunately the cartridges did not explode, and the officer had about overpowered him when the Chinaman drew another revolver; but Sullivan arrived at this moment, and between the two the murderous heathen was disarmed. When he was searched at the prison he was wearing the coat of mail above described.

Shortly after the arrest of Lee Chuck, Little Pete approached Officer Martin and offered him a bribe of $400 if he would perjure himself and give testimony favorable to the defendant. Martin took Little Pete into custody, and on August 5, 1886, he was indicted by the Grand Jury for attempting to bribe an officer.

On August 23 Lee Chuck was held to answer before the Superior Court by Judge Rix, and on January 26, 1887, the trial began before Superior Judge Toohy.

In the early part of the trial Pete, who was out on bail, was ordered from the courtroom for attempting to prompt witnesses. The next sensation was the arrest of one Dick Williams for attempting to bribe one of the jurymen, but he was acquitted.

On February 4, 1887, Lee Chuck was found guilty, and on March 29 he was sentenced to be hanged. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, and a new trial was granted, but with the same result. The case was again appealed and again a new trial was granted, and on this occasion he was sentenced to fifty years imprisonment.

On February 10, 1892, he was adjudged insane and committed to the Agnews Asylum, where he remained until May 30, 1904, when Governor Pardee agreed to pardon him provided he was deported.

He was reported as having recovered, but the steamship companies refused to carry him, fearing that the Chinese Government would not permit him to land. He was taken back to San Quentin on June 17, 1904, but on April 13, 1905, he was again sent to Agnews.

We now return to the trials and tribulations of “Little Pete,” who was held to answer for the attempted bribery, and on January 7, 1887, his trial began, which resulted in the jury disagreeing on January 18. On May 16 the second trial began, and on the 27th inst. the jury again disagreed.

On August 16 the third trial began, but was far more sensational than those preceding, as numerous efforts were made to bribe jurymen. A. Mayfield was the first juror to report that he had been approached by a mysterious white man, who offered him $250 “to look after Pete’s interests.” The next day a similar proposition was made to Juror Feder by a Chinaman. Then Juror Blanchard swore out a warrant of arrest for J. T. Emerson, charging him with offering a bribe. This was the same Emerson who testified in behalf of Williams, who was charged with a similar offense in the Lee Chuck case.

Assistant District Attorney Dunne afterward stated that but for the untimely publicity given to the attempts to corrupt this jury, he would have trapped the leaders, and when the facts were known it would have caused one of the greatest sensations in the criminal history of San Francisco.

On August 24, 1887, this jury returned a verdict of guilty, after thirty minutes’ deliberation, and on September 7 Pete was sent to Folsom for five years.

At the expiration of Pete’s term he was liberated, but the only effect that his imprisonment had was to make him more cautious.

In the early part of March, 1896, the bookmakers and the public who attended the races at the Bay District track realized that they were being systematically victimized, but the conspiracy was too deep for them to fathom, and their bankrolls were diminishing at an alarming rate. It was impossible to say what would have happened if a jockey named A. Hinricks, who was one of the conspirators, had not become disgruntled and confessed. It was then shown by his statement, which was substantiated by confessions subsequently obtained from others, that Little Pete had told Dow Williams, a colored trainer employed by Lucky Baldwin, Jockey Chevalier, Jockey Chorn of Barney Schreiber’s stable, and Hinricks, that if they would follow his directions they would all become rich and no one would be the wiser.

He explained that as Chevalier, Chorn and Hinricks usually rode the fastest horses, it could be arranged in advance which one of the three should win the race, and then Pete would play heavily on that horse and share his winnings with the four.

Suspicion would be at once aroused if any of these jockeys were seen talking confidentially to such a notorious character as Pete, so the colored trainer, Williams, was to perform his little part by ascertaining the horse selected to win and whisper the word to Pete.

After a few weeks Hinricks began to suspect that he was not getting his share, so he confessed everything to Tom Williams, the President of the California Jockey Club.

Pete was known to have bet as much as $6,000 in one day, and it is estimated that the conspirators cleared up about $100,000 in a few weeks. Pete also gave tips to his close friends, many of whom profited by the fraud.

After hearing all the evidence the Board of Stewards made public the following findings:

“To the Board of Directors, California Jockey Club :

“Gentlemen : The Stewards having become cognizant that a conspiracy existed between certain jockeys riding at the Bay District track and a Chinaman known as ‘Little Pete,’ in the placing of horses in the races tor the purpose of fraud, have instituted a most thorough investigation, and their findings warrant the expulsion of Jerry Chorn, Hippo-lyte Chevalier, and ‘Little Pete’ for conspiracy and fraud, and the ordering off of Dow Williams and his horses, and the refusal of permission to ride to A. Hinricks.

“(Signed)            THOS. WILLIAMS, JR.

“J. J. BURKE.

“J. W. BROOKS.

“EDWIN T. SMITH.”

After his return from State prison, Pete employed a white man named Ed. Murray to act as his bodyguard, and on the evening of January 24, 1897, Pete left his home, located at 821 Washington Street, and went downstairs to the barber shop to get shaved.

Believing that he would not be attacked in that place he sent his bodyguard down to the New Western Hotel, two blocks distant, to learn the result of the horse races.

This was the first time that Pete had been unguarded for months. The assassins had probably trailed him all of that time, and like a flash they took advantage of this opportunity. Two Chinese rushed into the shop and began firing at Pete as he sat in the barber chair. He was virtually shot to pieces, two bullets passing through his head.

The two highbinders then fled around the corner into Waverley Place, threw their guns in the Street, so as to be rid of all incriminating evidence, entered a building, passed out the back way and were never seen again.

Two Chinese named Wing Sing and Chin Poy were arrested as suspects, but were released because of insufficient evidence.

The news of the murder spread like wildfire through the Chinese quarter, and Pete’s adherents flocked to the scene of the crime. They saw the brains of their organization oozing out on the barber-shop floor, and the sight transformed them into wild-eyed fiends.

A Chinaman known as “Big Jim,” because of his gigantic proportions, was the leader of the See Yup Society, and as this organization was said to be antagonistic to Pete’s society, the Sam Yups, it was suspected that he was the chief conspirator, especially as he was near the scene of the killing when it occurred.

Jim was a millionaire and undoubtedly the richest Chinaman in America, with the possible exception of some of the officials at Washington.

Pete, because of his resourcefulness, was a constant thorn in the side of Jim, as he was continually upsetting his best laid plans, and it was in view of these facts that Jim was suspected and a price put upon his head.

Jim then demonstrated that he had none of Pete’s fighting qualities in his composition, for he immediately went into seclusion, and after hurriedly arranging his business affairs, he fled to China with his white wife and family.

Pete’s loyalty to Lee Chuck even commanded the respect of his adversaries and caused him to be worshiped by his adherents, many of whom would have gladly fought and died for him.

On the day of the funeral they came by the thousands from adjoining towns to pay their last respects, and it was estimated that there were at least 30,000 Mongolians in the Chinese quarters while the services were being conducted.

All factions suspended business, and the feeling between the See Yups and Sam Yups was so intense that one overt act would have instantly started a battle whereby hundreds of lives might have been lost.

Although Pete received his religious training in the Methodist Chinese Mission, the moment he died his relatives took all the precautions in vogue among the heathen Chinese to bribe any evil spirits which might be hovering near.

Little slips of paper, supposed to have intrinsic value because they were “blessed” by the priest, were burned in front of the door to appease the wrath of the evil spirits, and while en route to the graveyard a Chinaman sat on the hearse, which was drawn by six magnificent black horses, and scattered similar slips to the four winds of heaven.

A roasted pig, surrounded by Chinese delicacies and burning punks, was placed at the head of the casket for the purpose of preventing Pete’s spirit from suffering from hunger. By placing small cups of tea near the other delicacies, the spirit’s thirst was also provided for.

The funeral was conducted with all the barbaric splendor known to the Chinese race, with a mixture of Occidental customs. The services at the home were conducted by a long, lean and hungry-looking priest, who was attired in his gaudiest array. The widow and children were seated on the floor, and whenever the paid mourners, who were on their hands and knees, with their heads down to the floor, ceased their “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth,” the priest would ring a little bell and begin “chanting” a prayer until again interrupted by the wail from his leather-lunged brethren on the floor. He would then salaam and patiently await another opportunity.

In strange contrast with the general surroundings were the magnificent floral pieces sent by American friends. The funeral procession was headed by an American military band, followed by the Chinese band.

After the American band finished playing a dirge, the Chinese would make an attack with their tom-toms, cymbals and screeching flutes, which certainly must have created a panic among the evil spirits thereabout.

The immense tinsel-covered image of a dragon, the head of which was at least eight feet across and the body at least seventy feet long, was carried by about two dozen Chinese, who had it propped up in the air by means of sticks. About one hundred carriages escorted the remains to the receiving vault, where they reposed until his widow had them shipped to China.

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