Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Wash-House Murder.

An excerpt from Wicked Victorian Boston. 

When a Chinese man was found brutally murdered in his laundry on Shawmut Avenue in Boston’s South End, in July 1886, the Boston Police—who usually steered clear of Chinese affairs—were forced to delve into city’s aloof Chinese community. Chinese immigrants, who first arrived in Boston in the 1840s, settled in a small, densely populated stretch of Harrison Avenue and its side streets, which soon became known as Chinatown. From the start, they preferred to handle matters of crime and justice in their own way, without outside interference. The police were happy to oblige but a murder, especially one outside the confines of Chinatown, could not be ignored.

Its residents, as much as possible, modeled Boston's Chinatown after their native land. Sacks of rice were piled along the wall of groceries, with displays of herbs and vegetables; from the back of the store, the cackle of chickens could be heard. Men in long shirts and cotton trousers hustled by or idled on street corners, some with long braided queues of hair trailing from tight silk hats. They spoke rudimentary English when required for transactions, but to each other, they spoke a language completely bewildering to western ears.  Boston’s Chinese citizens practiced their traditional customs of diet, religion, justice and social hierarchy, with little regard to western notions.

They also indulged in their traditional vices. When the sun went down on Harrison Avenue, the backrooms and upper floors of the commercial buildings became busy gambling halls and opium joints. Vice operations in Chinatown, were controlled by mutual protection organizations called “companies” in Boston—in other parts of the country, they were known as tongs or “hatchet societies.” They provided capital and services to advance the members’ business interests, as well as providing protection and meting out justice in the community and arranging for lawyers for matters in the outside world. In return, they expected loyalty, obedience, and regular payments. Four companies controlled business in Boston’s Chinatown—Moy, Ching, Lee, and Sing. They were extremely competitive, and relations among them were often “at swords’ points.” The Boston Police were aware of what went on in Chinatown, but throughout the nineteenth century, opium was legal in Massachusetts, and as in all other parts of the city, the police would seldom raid gambling halls unless they had a formal complaint. In Chinatown, the only formal complaints came from rival gamblers hoping to shut down the competition for a night.

Most Bostonians had little contact with the Chinese community, though some adventurous diners visited Chinatown for the food. Hong Far Low, “the first man in Boston to make chop suey” opened a restaurant on Harrison Avenue in 1879 that became a Chinatown landmark lasting well into the 20th Century. The most common interactions between native Bostonians and Chinese immigrants were in the Chinese-run laundries operating throughout the city. The storefront laundries also served as residences for the laundrymen and were divided into three rooms; customers were received in the front, the manager and sometimes an assistant would sleep in the middle room, and in the back room a big coke-burning stove boiled water to wash the clothes and gave off the heat to dry them. The laundrymen cooked their meals on the same stove and at night the back room was used for opium smoking. Customers found the aroma of Chinese laundries pungent and exotic, but they were pleased with the quality and value of the laundry service.

The murder at the Shawmut Avenue laundry was so shrouded in mystery that even the victim’s name was uncertain. The Boston Journal called him Bin Chong, the Globe, Ding Chong; the Post, Wong Kong. Adding to the confusion, the original owner of the laundry was Quang Sing Kee, and sometimes newspapers used this name. The victim of the “Wash-House Murder,” as the papers called the crime, had been a successful gambler and had saved $500 which he planned to take with him to China. He had been a member of the Lee company. The money was missing but the brutality of the murder—stabbed fourteen times—and the fact that his queue had been cut off, implied that revenge, either by the Lee company or against it, had been the motive.

The people of Boston were fascinated by the case and amateur detectives were inundating the police with worthless clues. Three Chinamen were seen looking at daggers in the window of a store on Washington Street; a Chinaman was seen walking fast on Dover Street and frequently turning his head as if he feared he was being followed; Five Chinamen were seen boarding a boat to Portland, Maine. The legitimate clues the police were following were not much better. Reliable witnesses saw a man leaving the laundry the night of the murder, but there was no way to find him. Lee Sing, who appeared to match the description had been unaccounted for the night of the murder and was found packing his trunk to leave the city was brought in for questioning. The police brought in three more suspects matching the description but charged none of them.

The investigation suffered from the usual complaint—most of the Chinatown residents questioned could not understand, or would not admit to understanding English. The leader of the Moy company, Ah Moy Chong, was brought in for questioning. Ah Moy Chong, who wore a black slouch hat, but otherwise dressed in Chinese style, had a violent reputation. He carried a bamboo cane, wore a long Chinese knife in his belt and in his pockets carried a revolver and a blackjack. Allegedly, he had killed three men in California, and in Boston had driven the leader of the Ching company out of town at gunpoint. He fit the description of the Wash-House murderer, but he had a solid alibi. Ah Moy Chong spoke fluent English, and before he was released, he expressed the opinion that the killer was not Chinese. He also recommended that the police hire his cousin as an interpreter. They politely declined.

Warry S. Charles.
They did, however, bring in a professional interpreter from New York City, a Chinese man who went by the name of Warry S. Charles. Charles wore his hair short and dressed in western clothing, and although he was fluent in both languages, he was not fully trusted in Chinatown. He was inclined to think that the murder was premeditated, and the killer was Chinese, and someone who knew the victim well or he would not have allowed him to remain in the laundry at night. He did not believe the killer was a member of the Western hatchet society that had murdered a man in St. Louis a year or so earlier, as some had suggested.

But none of the information gathered by Warry Charles brought the police any closer to solving the Wash-House Murder. As the case grew colder, it became apparent to everyone that the murder would never be solved and before long the crime faded from memory. The police continued to watch Chinatown and now included the rooms on Harrison Avenue in their increasingly frequent gambling raids throughout the city.

Warry Charles decided to remain in Boston, working as an interpreter for the city. He also bought a lucrative laundry on Beacon Hill and became a member of the Sing company, eventually taking a leadership role. Charles himself would later be charged with murder. In 1907, as leader of what was then called the Hep Sing tong, he brought in “highbinders” from out of town to kill the leaders of the On Leong tong. The assassins, armed with hatchets and army revolvers, wreaked havoc in Chinatown, leaving four dead and six wounded. The following May, Warry S. Charles and seven others were found guilty of first-degree murder.

Wilhelm, Robert. Wicked Victorian Boston. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2017.


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