As evening arrived in Boston on August 2, 1907, Chinatown merchants began closing their shops and laundries for the day. Breaking through the mundane clanking and clattering of city life, a firecracker exploded. It was a signal to a crew of 10 thugs – hatchetmen – assembled on tiny Oxford Place to begin the tong wars.
After a few short minutes of chaos, punctuated by gunshots and stabbings, the street emptied of people. Left behind were three dead men and many injured, one fatally.
The Chinese tong wars had erupted in a shocking massacre.
The Boston Police, after making inquiries, developed a theory of the case.
The Hip Sing tong was emerging as a powerful new Chinese gang and stealing territory from the better-established On Leong tong. It tried to recruit members from Boston’s Chinese business community. Facing reluctance, the members of the Hip Sing decided to recruit thugs to carry out a raid. The objective was to demonstrate the need for Hip Sing protection, and to punish some of the On Leong loyalists.
The incident that night became New England’s biggest entry in the history of the tong wars. But it wasn’t ultimately a Boston story. The violence had its roots, oddly enough, in the murky world of New York politics. There, rival tongs had pitted different wings of the New York legal and political establishments against one another.
The tong wars would ultimately slop over into Boston.
The case would eventually reach right to the top. Massachusetts’ industrialist governor and its patrician lieutenant governor would be asked to choose sides: the people of Massachusetts or the Republican powers in New York.
Tong Wars Come North
The word tong means “meeting house” or “hall.” Chinese-Americans initially formed tongs as sort of civic associations to protect their members from unfair business practices and discrimination and to promote their own business interests. Out of these, however, grew the criminal tongs of the late 1800s and early 1900s. These secret societies specialized in gambling, prostitution, opium dealing and protection rackets. It was a lucrative and violent business.
The tongs started, and were strongest, in the cities of California where the Chinese population was larger. Chinese immigration to the United States began in earnest in the mid-1800s, as Chinese came to the country seeking work as miners and laborers. Twenty-five thousand Chinese lived in the U.S. by 1851; that number increased to roughly 110,000 by 1890.
As they grew, the immigrant communities established businesses that served both the Chinese community and the Americans. However, the increase in prosperity opened the Chinese to discrimination and criminal harassment by native workers who resented their presence. This situation initially gave rise to the tongs — and to the tong wars.
By 1900, the Chinese population waned after Congress passed several laws that stifled its growth. With few Chinese coming to this country, and many leaving to return home with their savings, the Chinese influx had ended. Except some, of course, wanted to stay. Warry Charles was just such a man.
At first glance, Warry Charles seemed an odd man to be involved in tong wars. The civic and business aspects of the tongs no doubt would appeal to him. But the criminal ones? The picture was not so clear.
Charles was born in China in 1857 and had come to America via San Francisco and New Orleans as an 11-year-old boy. He was thoroughly Americanized. He attended business school in Nebraska, where he met and married his American wife, Mary Whiting, who came from a prosperous family.
Together the Charleses moved to New York, and Warry got jobs as a ticket agent for the Santa Fe Railroad and a floorwalker at a department store. He ran a small business selling stoves and hardware.
Charles also had connections to government. He was an official interpreter in the U.S. Customs House, and an officer for the immigration service, enforcing immigration laws among the Chinese arriving in New York.
There are hints, however, that he was also involved in less upstanding pursuits. He ran a poolroom on Darcy Street in New York’s Chinatown. And in 1893, he was arrested for extorting money from Chinese immigrants, threatening to deport them if he wasn’t paid.
The Chinese community accused him of extortion, bribery and using his influence with authorities to push out competition. And there is no doubt he was active in the Hip Sing tong, trying to expand its membership.[optinrev-inline-optin2]
What happened in Boston after the Oxford Place massacre resulted from the tong wars in New York.
Hip Sing had been started by a flamboyant gangster in direct opposition to On Leong and its longtime leader Tom Lee. On Leong had ingratiated itself with the Tammany political machine, providing information in exchange for police protection.
The Hip Sing tong wanted to shift the balance of power with the help of men like Warry Charles. By 1896, however, Charles’ enemies pressed in on him in New York. After one of them assaulted him, he closed up his pool hall and moved to Boston. However, he left his wife and family behind in New York.
In Boston, he established a laundry that flourished and added several storefronts. And in 1903, with a $400 contribution to open an office, he established a Hip Sing chapter in Boston.
The Hip Sings in Boston
By the time of the 1907 tong wars in Chinatown, Charles claimed to have curtailed his involvement in Hip Sing. But soon after the killings, police came looking for him.
In rounding up nine of the alleged shooters, police noted at least three carried Warry Charles’ business card. And several of them specifically asked police to contact Charles with news of their arrest.
In New York, where the tong leaders had longstanding relationships with their protectors in government, this may have been standard practice. Perhaps they were letting the authorities know which side they were on in the tong wars.
In Boston, it only raised eyebrows among the police. They began asking around about Warry Charles, and the story they heard was damning.
A series of Chinese-Americans interviewed by police all told very similar stories. Charles, they said, was upset that the Hip Sing was not growing fast enough and he wanted to attack those businessmen reluctant to join. The goal: Frighten them into membership. The result: the tong wars.
Several people gave detailed accounts of Charles’ crusade, including explicit descriptions of money offered in exchange for participating in the attack. Another witness testified that he saw Charles provide the guns to the men involved. Police arrested Charles was arrested and charged with organizing the entire attack.
While the evidence was building, the Hip Sing leader in New York, a man named Mock Duck, took pains to tell the New York press he had retired. He had no involvement in the Boston violence, which he feared would soon spread to New York.
Tong Wars Trial
Back in Boston, a jury made quick work of the case following 33 days of trial. Despite Charles’ flawless English and American mannerisms, he was convicted as the ringleader, with four others, of the Oxford Place massacre. The weight of the evidence against him was overwhelming.
One witness told the jury: “Charles said that he would have to do some killing and make the Chinese businessmen so afraid that all of them would join our society.”
The judge handed down his sentence in March of 1908: Warry Charles would die by electrocution at the Charlestown Prison.
Wife Battles to Save Charles
By now, the Charles story gained an audience. His wealth, in particular, seemed to surprise a society that thought of Chinese as living in ghettos and doing other people’s wash. And his friends, who had stayed mostly quiet during the trial, began stepping up.
Mary Charles, and their son Warren, began a public crusade in support of Charles. Warren, a veteran of the Spanish-American war, was now a police officer in New York. Together they began tapping Warren’s military friends and the Hip Sing political networks in New York to put together a $10,000 defense fund to spring Charles.
And the Hip Sing political machinery sprang into action to help, too. Hip Sing was then providing information to New York’s Parkhurst Commission, a private organization bent on exposing and cleaning up prostitution and gambling in New York.
The On Leongs, meanwhile, were aligned with New York’s district attorney. The records show several cases where the Parkhurst Commission, working with friendly police, would raid On Leong operations. The district attorney, meanwhile, relying on On Leong’s ‘honest’ leader, Tom Lee, would target Hip Sing.
The point man for the Parkhurst Commission was Frank Moss. A spotlight-seeking criminal lawyer, he led the investigation to free Charles. As appeals and requests for a new trial failed, Charles’s chances for freedom grew slim.
In 1909, three of the men convicted with Charles declined to seek a further stay of execution in hopes of a pardon from the governor. On October 12, they were electrocuted in Charlestown Prison. On Leong members celebrated upon hearing the news.
Charles and another Hip Sing member, Joe Yuen, had made a request for clemency. The governor granted a stay through November so the case could be considered. Charles’ fate now rested in the hands of Massachusetts Gov. Eben Draper and Lt. Gov. Louis Frothingham, who would conduct a hearing on Charles’ request.
While Charles was fortunate that both men were Republicans with political leanings similar to his New York connections, Massachusetts was not known for commuting death sentences. The public had little sympathy for Chinese criminals, even if they were wrongly convicted.
The Final Hearing
When Frothingham convened the governor’s council to hear the appeal, Frank Moss took on the task of building the case for Charles. Moss explained that on many occasions in New York Charles had used his Hip Sing connections to gather information about On Leong gambling operations. He said Charles had often provided confidential information that allowed the Parkhurst Commission to break up protected On Leong operations.
When the Boston murders occurred, the On Leong saw a chance to implicate Charles in the tong wars. Working within the Chinese community, they recruited the people who would testify that Charles had orchestrated the massacre.
Witnesses came forward who, only six months earlier, had implicated Charles. Now they said they took money to lie. Most damning, a witness who said he saw Charles providing the hatchetmen with guns now said he had made it up.
The bottom line, Moss said, was that Charles’ enemies from New York were getting the Massachusetts’ courts to do their dirty work for them.
When he rested the case, public opinion was divided. The lawyers had not cleared Charles, but they had muddied the waters. Charles’ supporters demanded the governor pardon him.
His enemies said that the governor’s council shouldn’t hear new evidence. It was not a judicial body, and didn’t properly handle witnesses.
In one remarkable passage, one of Charles’ supporters made a showboating statement that he knew who had orchestrated the crime. But he would not name the person.
The council, meanwhile, privately made its own rule under which it intended to operate. It would not recommend pardoning Charles, no matter what. It didn’t intend to stand in place of the jury on deciding guilt or innocence.
So instead, it recommended that Charles’ sentence be commuted to life in prison. Governor Draper agreed, though he carefully noted that he only followed the council’s recommendation.
For his part, Warry Charles expressed disappointment. He had expected a pardon. Still, his supporters insisted, he would fight on for a new trial and parole.
The tong wars did not end with Warry Charles. There were several other flare-ups in the years before World War II.
The tongs, in fact, still exist. If you walk through Chinatown (in Boston and elsewhere) and you know how to read Chinese, you will find their addresses. But the bloody tong wars have ended.
Charles never made another bid for freedom. He died in prison in 1915 of natural causes. [optinrev-inline-optin1]
If you enjoyed this story about the tong wars, you may also want to read about the New England roots of the Chinese revolution here. This story about the Boston tong wars was updated in 2020.