Henry Arao murders tailor Sam Chow in Spokane on December 29, 1904.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 12/28/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9993

On December 29, 1904, Sam Chow (ca. 1861-1904), age 43, a Chinese tailor, is stabbed to death by Henry Arao, age 28, formerly employed at his shop in downtown Spokane. Chow is in bed when attacked and not able to defend himself. His body sustains multiple stab wounds, several of which are severe enough to be fatal. After the killing, Arao escapes from the shop and vanishes. He will eventually be arrested at Waverly, Washington, on January 11, 1905 and brought back to Spokane to stand trial. On March 1, 1905, Arao will be  convicted of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of death. There are no appeals filed on Arao’s behalf and he will be hanged on June 3, 1905. To date (2011), Henry Arao is the only person of Japanese descent ever to be executed at the Washington State Penitentiary.

From Conflict to Murder

In 1904, Chow Chong, known alternately as Sam Chow and Sam Chong, a Chinese immigrant, had a tailoring business located at 325 W Main Avenue. He and his wife, Fong Gum, known as Lucy, age 32, lived in a small apartment in the back of the shop. For several months, Chow had employed Henry Arao, a Japanese immigrant, as a helper and delivery boy, but Arao considered himself a partner. In September 1904, Arao, believing he was being cheated by Chow and could do better alone, quit and started his own tailoring business at 204 N Post Street. However, he visited Chow often and was allowed to procure dry goods for his shop on credit. Business was slow in coming and Arao became convinced that Chow was purposely keeping customers away from his shop by telling everyone he had left the country. Also, he owed Chow $9.75 and, with scant income, was slow in paying. Chow made several demands for payment which infuriated Arao. 

On Wednesday night, December 28, 1904, Arao stopped by Chow’s shop, sullenly paid his debt with a $10 gold piece and then left after receiving his change. At 7:00 a.m. on Thursday, December 29, 1904, Arao knocked on the front door of Chow’s tailoring shop. Eventually Lucy, Chow's wife, answered. Arao said angrily that he had lost a $5 gold piece when he was visiting Chow the night before. Lucy, unhappy about being roused from bed at such an early hour, told Arao to find it himself, as he was familiar with the store. She then went to the rear of the building to build a fire in the potbelly stove. Chow was still in bed at the time. Lucy was in the backyard emptying the ashes when she heard yelling and a loud commotion. She hurried back inside and saw Arao leave the bedroom, carrying a bloody knife, run out the back door and climb over the backyard fence into the alley.  Lucy went to see which direction Arao went, but lost sight of him. She went into the bedroom, saw her husband lying on the floor bleeding profusely from stab wounds and summoned the police. There was nothing that could be done and by the time help arrived, Sam Chow had bled to death. Police followed footprints in the snow to Sprague Avenue and searched for the assassin, but he was long gone.

Chow’s body was removed to the Smith & Company Undertaking Parlors, 119 Post Street, for a postmortem and preparation for burial. Spokane County Coroner David L. Smith determined that he had sustained 14 deep stab wounds to the head, chest and back. Several of the wounds would likely have proved fatal, but one severed an artery and the victim died within minutes. A coroner’s inquest was held on the following afternoon and the jury determined Henry Arao was solely responsible for causing the victim’s death. Sam Chow was buried at Fairmount Cemetery (now Fairmount Memorial Park), 5200 W Wellesley Avenue in Spokane.

Search and Capture

On Friday, December 30, 1904, Spokane County Prosecutor Richard M. Barnhart filed a complaint in justice court before Judge John D. Hinkle charging Henry Arao with first-degree murder and a warrant was issued for his arrest.  A teletype was sent to all sheriff’s offices and police departments in the Northwest to be on the lookout for Arao. He was described as an Asian male, approximately 30 years old, five-foot two-inches tall, slender, with black hair and a three inch scar on his forehead.  The Chinese community offered a $300 reward for information leading to his capture.

At 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday, January 10, 1905, Arao was arrested at Waverly, approximately 36 miles south of Spokane, by Constable Jack Frodsham. Arao sneaked into town Monday night, hoping to find food and shelter from a former acquaintance in Japan who called himself “Dick.” He was unable to find Dick, but hid in his shack overnight and then went in search of food. While foraging, Arao was recognized by another Japanese, hoping to claim the reward money. The informant told Constable Frodsham who then apprehended Arao at the shack without incident.  They boarded the first northbound train, arriving in Spokane at 9:30 a.m. Arao was taken directly to the sheriff’s office at the Spokane County Courthouse. Prosecutor Barnhart, Sheriff William J. Doust and Spokane Police Chief Leroy C. Waller interrogated the suspect for several hours without obtaining a confession. Arao claimed he often didn’t know what he was doing and was not responsible for his actions. Constable Frodsham was paid the $300 reward for capturing the fugitive.

On Friday morning, January 13, 1905, Prosecutor Barnhart filed an information in Spokane County Superior Court charging Henry Arao with the first degree murder of Sam Chow.  Arao appeared before Superior Court Judge William T. Warren and pleaded not guilty to the charge.  The judge appointed Spokane attorneys James W. Marshal, a former U.S. Commissioner, and Guy B. Groff to represent the defendant and scheduled the trial for February 27, 1905. Arao was remanded to the custody of the Spokane County Sheriff and ordered held without bail.

Murder Premeditated

The murder investigation revealed that Arao was known in the Asian community as a troublemaker. He had been arrested by the Spokane Police in the summer of 1904 for uttering threats and assaulting a Chinese businessman with whom he had quarreled. The Japanese members of the community rallied to his defense, however, and negotiated a peaceful settlement without going to police court. But Arao’s volatile temperament and tendency to hold grudges remained cause for concern.

While sitting in a jail cell awaiting trial, Arao initiated conversations with Deputy Sheriffs James M. Hone and Francis K. Pugh and Jailer Howard B. Doak, which, although never formalized in writing, sufficed as a lawful confession. According to Arao, one month before Chow’s murder, he purchased a revolver and a folding knife with a four-inch blade. A week before the killing, he went to a hardware store and bought a whetstone to hone the blade and a box of cartridges. On the day before the murder, Wednesday, December 28, Arao purchased two dozen cans of lye (sodium hydroxide) with which to burn Chow’s body. That evening, he stashed the lye near Chow’s shop when he went to pay his bill.  Early Thursday morning, December 29, Arao went to a saloon, drank whisky, and ate breakfast.  Afterward, he walked to the Northern Pacific Railway passenger depot (now the Amtrak station, 221 W First Street) and then wandered toward Main Avenue. He passed Chow’s shop several times before finally stopping and knocking on the door. Arao intended to quietly kill Chow with the knife, but took the gun along as insurance. 

After the murder, he left Spokane, walked 19 miles to Freeman, rode a freight train 12 miles to Fairfield, and then traveled another five miles by wagon to Waverly. At Dick’s house, Arao hid the revolver under a mattress in the attic and stashed the folding knife in the cook stove. Twelve days had passed since the incident and Arao reckoned it was safe to leave the shack and gather some provisions before moving on.

Deputy Hone traveled to Waverly and recovered both the gun and knife from Dick’s shack. He brought the knife to the Spokane County Jail and Arao identified it as his property, calling attention to the fact the tip had been broken off in assaulting Chow.  At trial, this evidence would corroborate Arao’s oral confession and prove premeditation.

Trial and Conviction

The trial began at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 27, 1905, before Judge Warren and by 10:00 a.m., a jury of 12 men had been impaneled to hear the case. In his opening statement, Prosecutor Barnhart told the jurors the evidence he was about to present proved beyond question Arao deliberately murdered Chow and that justice demanded a guilty verdict which carried the mandatory penalty of death. Defense Counsel Marshall waived making an opening statement until later in the trial.

The trial proceeded at a rapid pace and the state rested its case after just one-and-a-half days of testimony. The first witness called was Lucy Chow who gave the background of her husband’s relationship with Arao and was at the shop when he committed the murder. The most damaging testimony against Arao, however, was given by the officers at the jail to whom he had confessed the killing in detail.  Attorney Marshall strenuously objected to the testimony, arguing that, at the time Arao made the confession, he was a prisoner and was not informed of his rights against self-incrimination. Judge Warren overruled the objection on the ground the confession was made voluntarily and not under duress or with promises of leniency.  The court further allowed the murder weapon, recovered in Waverly by Deputy Hone, to be admitted into evidence.

At the conclusion of the state’s case on Tuesday afternoon, Attorney Marshall requested a recess so Arao’s mental state could be evaluated by a psychiatrist. He intended to pursue a plea of insanity or possibly diminished capacity to save Arao from the gallows. But when Dr. Adolf R. Matthews from Eastern State Mental Hospital concluded the defendant was sane, Attorney Marshall informed the court the defense had no testimony to present and would rest its case after making an opening statement. Attorney Groff spoke for half an hour, summarizing the testimony of the state’s witnesses, pointing out a number of inconsistencies and criticizing the methods sheriff’s officers used to inveigle Arao to talk. At the conclusion of the statement, Judge Warren decided the case might as well go to the jury right away and ordered an evening session after a recess for dinner.

At 7:00 p.m., Deputy Prosecutor Albert J. Laughon, in his closing argument, summarized the history of the case as proven by the witnesses for the state.  Defense Counsel Marshall countered with a lengthy and vigorous argument against capital punishment. He attacked the testimony of Lucy Chow, accusing her of being intimately involved in the deadly conflict between Arao and her husband. As for the behavior of the sheriff’s officers, Attorney Marshall said: “I was appointed by the court to defend Arao. I found him alone and helpless behind the bars of the county jail.  He had not a friend in the world. He had no one to talk to. He was shunned by his countrymen.  It was from a man in this condition that the officers secured the confession.” Concluding his argument, Attorney Marshall pleaded: “If you can not turn him loose, for God’s sake, give him the benefit of his life. Let him live in the penitentiary where he may be useful.  As you judge, so shall you be judged. Give this friendless boy the same chance you would a man with influence”  (“Arao Fate Is With Jury,”).

In rebuttal, Prosecutor Barnhart reviewed the crime in vivid detail and asked the jury for justice and protection of the public from wanton murderers. Judge Warren’s instructions to the jury followed and at 11:00 p.m. the case was given to the jury for deliberation.  Everyone expected a speedy verdict, but at 12:30 a.m. jury foreman William R. Parks informed the bailiff they were still deliberating and Judge Marshall adjourned the court until 10:00 a.m. in the morning. The jurors reached a verdict shortly afterwards, however, and court was back in session at 2:00 a.m. As everyone expected, the jury found Henry Arao guilty of first-degree murder which mandated the death penalty. Arao stared at the floor, showing no emotion and refusing to speak.  Attorney Marshall immediately filed a motion for a new trial and Judge Warren said he would hear arguments and make the ruling at a later date.

Death Row

On Wednesday, March 15, 1905, Judge Warren heard Attorney Marshall’s hour-long argument for a new trial. His main contention was that Arao’s confession had been obtained through fear or coercion and was therefore inadmissible as evidence, according to previous rulings by the supreme court. Judge Warren wasn’t interested in hearing the prosecution’s side of the argument and overruled the motion. He then sentenced the prisoner to be executed at the Washington State Penitentiary on Saturday, June 3, 1905, and signed the death warrant. On Monday March 20, newly elected Spokane County Sheriff Howard B. Doak and Deputy Sheriff Francis K. Pugh took Arao and two other prisoners to Walla Walla on the train. Immediately upon his arrival at the penitentiary, Warden Arthur F. Kees placed Arao in a single cell on death row and had him closely monitored to prevent any attempt to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, Attorney Marshall notified Judge Warren of his intention to appeal Arao’s conviction to the Washington State Supreme Court. But his client had no funds and the Japanese community in Spokane showed little interest in his plight. The expense of his murder trial had been borne by the public and by the two attorneys appointed by the court to represent him. Ultimately, no attempts were made to raise money for the appeal of Arao’s case to the Supreme Court. Nor were there any appeals made to Washington State Governor Albert E. Mead (1863-1913) for commutation of sentence.


At 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 3, 1905, the death watch roused Arao and told him to get dressed. A short while later, Warden Kees entered his cell and read him the death warrant.  When all was in readiness, Warden Kees and two penitentiary guards marched Arao from the death house across the yard to where the gallows had been constructed in 1904. (The Washington State Legislature had mandated in 1901 that all executions take place at the state penitentiary.) 

A group of about 30 spectators, including, law enforcement officers, prison officials, and physicians, stood about the scaffold as Arao calmly mounted the steps to the platform and stepped onto the trap. After straps were fastened about his body, Warden Kees asked him if he had any last words.  Arao shook his head and replied “No.” The state executioner pulled a black hood over his head and adjusted the noose behind his left ear. At 4:28 a.m. the executioner released the trapdoor, dropping the prisoner to his death.  Twenty-one minutes later, prison physicians Yancy C. Blalock and Walter E. Russell pronounced Arao dead and his body was taken down minutes later.

As previously arranged with Warden Kees, his remains were released to members of the Japanese community in Spokane for ritual interment. Arao was the third prisoner and, to date (2011), the only person of Japanese descent ever to be executed at the Washington State Penitentiary.

Sources: “I Am Not Responsible Pleads Sam Chow’s Assassin,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 10, 1905, p. 1; “Caught Orar Just a Little Bit Too Soon,” Ibid., January 11, 1905, p. 13; “Henry Orar Is Baptized,” Ibid., January 25, 1905, p. 3; “Will Judge Arao for Death or Life,” Ibid., February, 27, 1905, p. 1; “Arao Confessed His Awful Crime,” Ibid., February, 28, 1905, p. 1; “Doomed Man Went Back to His Slumber,” Ibid., March 1, 1905, p. 1; “Make One More Fight to Save Arao’s Neck,” Ibid., March 2, 1905, p. 1; “Smiling, He Faces an Awful Death,” Ibid., March 15, 1905, p. 1; “Arao Clad in Stripes Now,” Ibid., March 23, 1905, p. 3; “Not Trying to Save Arao,” Ibid., April 6, 1905, p. 13; “Awaiting His Fate,” Ibid., May 30, 1905, p. 5; “Henry Arao Was Hanged at Sunrise,” Ibid., June 3, 1905, p. 1; “Murder Bears Mark of Cain,” The Spokesman-Review, December 30, 1904, p. 7; “Jap Slayer In Clutches of Law,” Ibid., January 11, 1905, p. 7; “Arao Verdict Is Murder,” Ibid., March 1, 1905, p. 1; “Arao Fate Is With Jury,” Ibid., March 1, 1905, p. 7; “Arao Is Found Guilty of Murder,” Ibid., March 3, 1905, p. 1; “He Smiles at sentence,” Ibid., March 16, 1905, p. 8; “Henry Arao Is Taken to Pen,” Ibid., March 21, 1905, p. 14; “Three to Die By the Rope,” Ibid., April 2, 1905, p. 4; “Arao Will Be Hung Today,” Ibid., June 3, 1905, p. 5; “Chinese Brutally Murdered,” The Seattle Times, December 29, 1904, p. 11; “Pays His Penalty Bravely,” Ibid., June 3, 1905, p. 4.

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