On December 12, 1934, Wing Quen Lee (1909-1934), is found lying in a street in Seattle’s International District, bleeding profusely from the head. A Seattle Police patrolman takes him to Harborview Hospital where dies from severe head injuries. On March 20, 1935, homicide detectives arrest Hong Yick (1895-1935), a Suey Sing Tong hatchet man, who eventually confesses to the crime. During a three-day trial in April 1935, he is convicted of first-degree murder in King County Superior Court and sentenced to death. There are no appeals filed on Yick’s behalf and he is hanged on July 19, 1935. Yick is the only person of Chinese descent ever to be executed at the Washington State Penitentiary.
A Young Man's Death
In the early morning hours of Wednesday, December 12, 1934, Benny Risco, a passerby, found a young Chinese male laying in the gutter at 8th Avenue S near S Lane Street, bleeding profusely from head wounds. A patrolman on the beat in Chinatown, Officer Laurence A. Whitlock, rushed him to the emergency room at Harborview Hospital. He was identified as Wing Quen Lee, age 25, a member of the Hop Sing Tong, headquartered at 420 ½ 8th Avenue S (now the Hip Sing Association Building). The victim, who remained semiconscious, died at 4:50 a.m. An autopsy, performed by Dr. Pearl C. West from the King County Coroner’s office revealed that Lee had been struck five times on the head with a carpenter’s hammer. Any one of the blows would likely have been fatal.
Chinese tongs were secret fraternal societies whose primary interest was territorial control of gambling, prostitution, and narcotics. In their quest for power and wealth, the tong leaders used extortion, terror, and violence, liberally administered by “hatchet men” (enforcers), to gain and maintain control. Recruits were required to swear oaths of allegiance, enforceable by death, and subjected to initiation rites before being accepted as trusted members of the tong. Eventually most tongs transformed into legitimate social and benevolent societies dedicated to developing the community and were renamed associations or clubs.
Detective Captain Ernest W. Yoris, Seattle Police Department, assigned three detectives to the homicide investigation: Flavius A. Himes, Edward R. Shirran and Harry J. Weedin. After weeks of questioning reluctant informants, the detectives located three witnesses who identified Lee’s probable killer as Hong Yick, age 38, a hatchet man for the rival Suey Sing Tong, headquartered at 417 ½ Maynard Avenue S (now Hing Hay Park). Detectives arrested Yick on Wednesday, March 20, 1935, and brought him to Seattle Police headquarters (now the Yesler Building), 4th Avenue and Yesler Way, for questioning. Captain Yoris was familiar with the suspect, having questioned him in 1921 regarding a tong-war shooting. Yick had also served a term at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary for trafficking in narcotics.
Initially, Yick denied knowing anything about Lee’s murder He eventually confessed, however, after three Filipino men were brought into the interrogation room to confront him with the crime. The men said Yick tried to hire them to lure Lee into a dark alley, ostensibly to purchase bootleg whiskey, where he planned to attack Lee with a hammer. The men said they didn’t want to be involved in a tong killing, and walked away. On Saturday, March 23, 1935, Yick confessed to Captain Yoris that he had killed Lee to prevent a tong war. He also mentioned that they had argued over a woman, but claimed it had not been a love triangle and she was not involved in the killing.
In his signed confession, Yick said Lee came to the Suey Sing Tong late one night in November 1934, and awakened him. He told Lee to go away because he was sleeping. Yick, who was the night watchman, thought Lee entered the room surreptitiously while he was asleep and stole a Suey Sing Tong membership list. On Tuesday night, December 11, 1935, Yick encountered Lee at 7th Avenue S and S King Street and asked about purchasing some bootleg whiskey Lee kept at the Hop Sing Tong headquarters.
Lee was extremely derisive toward Yick, so he decided to kill him that night. Yick arranged to meet Lee after midnight and left to get a carpenter’s hammer, which he concealed in the sleeve of his coat. They met again at 8th Avenue S and S King Street and started walking toward S Lane Street. When Lee resumed leveling insults, Yick slipped the hammer from his coat and struck him five times on the head. “I feared with the names of all our members in the possession of another tong, that there might be a tong war, if I did not kill him” Yick said (“Chinese Admits Tong Slaying”).
Although not openly hostile, the Hop Sing Tong and Suey Sing Tong were not allies and Captain Yoris believed Yick’s confession could strain their relationship. On Saturday afternoon, March 23, 1935, he brought the leaders of both tongs to Seattle Police Headquarters for a summit conference. He explained the murder had been solved, but the list of Suey Sing Tong members had not been recovered and Yick had no proof that Lee was the man who stole it. The leaders agreed to let the law take its course and promised there would be no warfare between the tongs as the result of Yick’s confession.
Trial began on Wednesday morning, April 24, 1935, before King County Superior Court Judge Chester A. Batchelor. The courtroom was crowded with tong leaders and their followers, anxious to see how American law would deal with Lee’s killer.
For a death-penalty case, Yick’s trial was remarkably short and received scant attention from the newspapers. King County Prosecutor Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) personally handled the death-penalty case for the state, but the press never mentioned the name of Yick’s appointed defense attorney. Before noon, a jury was impaneled and sworn in. Magnuson outlined the state’s case in opening arguments and proceeded with testimony laying the groundwork for a first-degree murder conviction and the death penalty.
On Thursday afternoon, April 25, the prosecution concluded the state’s case with the testimony of Captain Yoris, who read Hong Yick’s confession, signed before six witnesses, into the record. On Friday morning, defense counsel put Yick on the witness stand to offer his version of the event. He testified he killed Lee in self defense during a fight and then proceeded to demonstrate how he struck the victim.
On Friday afternoon, the case went to the jury, which deliberated for approximately one hour before returning a verdict of guilty with recommendation for the death penalty. Hearing the verdict, Yick turned to his attorney and said stoically: “Does that mean I get the rope? It was just as well that way. If I’d ever gone out on the street, I’d been killed anyway” (“Slayer Satisfied by Death Verdict”). As expected, Yick’s attorney immediately moved for a new trial based on judicial error and jury prejudice.
On Saturday, May 11, 1935, Judge Batchelor denied the motion for a new trial and sentenced Yick to be executed on Friday, July 19, 1935, at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. “As unpleasant as pronouncing the death penalty must be, this court can do nothing else,” remarked the judge. (“Tong Man-Killer Sentenced to Die”). Judge Batchelor advised Yick’s attorney he had 60 days in which to file an appeal with the Washington State Supreme Court, which would stay the execution date. With the trial over, however, Yick’s attorney withdrew from the case. The Suey Sing Tong refused to help because the Hop Sing Tong was demanding $7,000 retribution unless he died on the gallows. No appeal was ever filed.
Yick remained philosophical, telling the guards at the King County Jail that it didn’t matter because members of the Hop Sing Tong would quickly avenge Lee’s death if he was ever set free. On Sunday morning, May 12, King County Sheriff William B. Severyns and two armed deputies embarked on the 290-mile drive to Walla Walla to deliver the condemned prisoner to the Washington State Penitentiary.
At midnight on Friday, July 19, 1935, Hong Yick was taken from his death-row cell and walked 40 feet to the gallows accompanied by two prison guards and Reverend Peter Schmidt, prison chaplain and pastor of the Emmaus Lutheran Church in Walla Walla. Five days earlier, Yick had announced his faith in Christianity and was baptized by the minister. After reading Yick the death warrant, Warden James M. McCauley (1890-1940) asked if he had any last words. Yick said quietly: “Nope, no statement except I am willing to pay my debt to society and may the Lord have mercy on my soul” (“Seattle Tong Slayer Hanged”).
The state executioner pulled a black cloth hood over his
head, followed by the hangman’s noose. Yick dropped through the trapdoor at
12:11 a.m. and was pronounced dead by a prison physician at 12:24 a.m. He was
the 37th prisoner, the eighth sent to death-row from King County,
and, to date (2010), the only person of Chinese descent to be executed at the
Washington State Penitentiary.