People v. Hall

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The People of the State of California v. George W. Hall or People v. Hall, 4 Cal. 399, was an appealed murder case in the 1850s in which the California Supreme Court established that Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants had no rights to testify against white citizens. The opinion was delivered in 1854 by Chief Justice Hugh Murray with the concurrence of Justice Solomon Heydenfeldt.[1]

The ruling effectively freed Hall, a white man, who had been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Ling Sing, a Chinese miner in Nevada County. Three Chinese witnesses had testified to the killing.[1][2]

Background[edit]

Accession of California to the United States[edit]

With the conclusion of the Mexican–American War, the area of Alta California (which contains the modern U.S. state of California and some other states to its east) came under the control of the United States. Formally, the area was ceded to the United States as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In 1850, California formally joined the United States as the 31st state. Other parts of Alta California that became all or part of later U.S. states included Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming.

California Gold Rush and Chinese migration to California[edit]

In early 1848, gold was discovered in California. This led to the California Gold Rush, where people from the United States, Mexico, and China arrived at California in search of gold. Although mining was the original attraction, many Chinese moved into the cities to provide services. Although their competition in mining was not liked by the whites in California, their presence in city services was initially highly appreciated.[3]

Legal background[edit]

Section 394 of the Act Concerning Civil Cases, passed in 1850, stated that "No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man."[1] As written, the Section did not appear to apply to Chinese witnesses.

Between 1849 and 1854, Chinese had made use of the California court systems, with varying degrees of success. For instance, Ah Toy, a female from China who arrived at San Francisco in 1848, started a brothel in 1850, becoming the first Chinese madam operating in the United States. She attempted to use California's court system to seek justice twice:

  • She unsuccessfully sued a group of miners for paying her in brass filings instead of gold dust.[4][5]
  • In August 1852, she threatened to sue Yee Ah Tye, a notorious Chinese leader, for extortion, claiming that he had demanded that her prostitutes pay him a tax. Yee Ah Tye backed down, although he would later be imprisoned for other charges.[6]

The case[edit]

In 1853, a California court convicted George Hall, a white man, of the murder of Ling Sing, a Chinese miner, based on the testimony of Chinese witnesses.[2] George Hall appealed the verdict, arguing that the testimony of the Chinese witnesses should not be accepted and that Section 394 of the Act Concerning Civil Cases, that barred the use of testimony by blacks, mulattoes, and Indians against whites, should also be extended to banning the testimony of Chinese. The California Supreme Court, in an opinion delivered by then chief justice Hugh Murray with the concurrence of Justice Solomon Heydenfeldt, sided with Hall.[1][2]

Consequences and responses[edit]

The case did not make violence against Chinese de jure legal: it was still possible to convict a white person of murdering Chinese if credible white witnesses, or other reliable evidence, could be produced. However, it de facto made it much easier for whites to get away with violence against Chinese.[2]

Ah Toy, the successful Chinese madam, closed down her brothel. While this was primarily because of the anti-prostitution laws instituted in California, it is also believed to have been motivated in part by the increased risk of harassment due to the decision in People v. Hall.

In 1860, Pun Chi, a businessman from China, wrote an impassioned appeal challenging the verdict in People v. Hall and in general challenging the negative view of Chinese in California. His appeal was translated to English by the Presbyterian minister William Speer in 1870.[7]

A state law passed in 1873 invalidated all testimony laws, and therefore overrode the decision in People v. Hall.[8]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]