Chinaman Charley

by Mary Kasulaitis

On the news we often see horrific crimes that have been committed by people who could have been stopped, we think, if only we had known. Many think this kind of thing didn’t happen in the “good old days.” I invite you to read a few old newspapers. There is nothing new under the sun. Evaluating our neighbors’ mental health is an old if not honorable activity. A certain man who lived in the Oro Blanco mining district was alleged by the neighbors to be insane. But in 1892 they didn’t use the words allege or insane. They said he was crazy and that was that!
It seems there was a man who had immigrated from China and came to Southern Arizona to work in the early 1880s. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, so it must have been before that date. He was known simply as Charley, a Chinaman. Perhaps he worked on the railroad but he was in Oro Blanco Mining District quite early. Chinese could not work in the mines, after a law was passed in 1878, but they could cook or do other jobs. He apparently learned English. Charley would have left China for many reasons: famine or wars, or just because the U.S. offered opportunity. Apparently he had relatives in Tucson, but preferred to stay in the Arivaca area.

In 1891 a charge of insanity was brought against him and he was examined by a physician in Tucson. He had claimed that a certain family owed him money, which they denied. He claimed that he was the true owner of the Montana and other mines in the area and that he had been robbed of their ore. This too, could be refuted. He customarily carried a big knife and talked to everyone about the injustices against him. As a result, many people in the area considered him crazy and were afraid he might actually try to use the knife. The physician found him to be insane, and felt that he was homicidal. However, Judge Wood did not think he was dangerous to property, himself or others, and released him into the custody of a cousin in Tucson in August of 1891. Charley told someone that the Judge let him out of jail after only a day or two, and after that he came back to Oro Blanco.
In January of 1892, another charge was brought against him, supported by members of the community of Oro Blanco. One person wrote to the Judge: “I have known the Chinaman for twelve years and have considered him (Charley) crazy all that time.” Nine other members of the community petitioned: “We the undersigned residents of Oro Blanco have known this Chinaman named Charley for a number of years and from his actions have always considered him crazy and unsafe to be at large and his removal from this district is in our opinion absolutely necessary as he is a dangerous nuisance here and liable to try to kill someone at any time as he is reported to be carrying a large concealed knife and to have threatened to commit murder.” Another letter said, “I thought you would be up to take charge of that crazy Chinaman before this time. . .Is it necessary to wait for a crazy man to try to kill someone before arresting him? Suppose he accomplishes the deed, where would the responsibility lay, the officers being notified before and requested to take charge of him?. . . Now, Judge, I wish you to arrest him right away. Be careful as he packs a big knife. You will have to keep a good watch on him on the road.”

Well, needless to say, times were different then. As a result of these petitions and a somewhat cursory questioning given Charley by a Doctor, he was indeed committed to the Territorial Mental Hospital in Phoenix. I don’t know what happened to him after that, or how long he stayed there. There were 5 Chinese men living in the hospital in 1900, but since we don’t know his Chinese name we don’t know which one he was, or if he was still there. The question is, How did he come to be the way he was? It might be interesting to look into the experiences people from China were having in Southern Arizona in the 1880s and 90s. The kind that might drive you nuts.
Chinese gold seekers began arriving in the California gold fields as soon as the word was out. After they had exhausted the possibilities there, they turned to other sources of employment such as working in laboring jobs or for the railroad. Anti-Chinese sentiment grew gradually. Beginning in the early 1850s, the U.S. and local governments began to enact legislation that limited foreign labor, such as the California Foreign Miners’ Tax. In times of economic difficulty, Non-Asians blamed Chinese immigration for their troubles, resulting in legislation that limited immigration. According to Lawrence Michael Fong, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 provided for the rejection of laborers–‘skilled and unskilled and those engaged in mining’–over the next ten years… The Geary Act of 1892 extended the Exclusion Law for another ten years and required certificates of residency with detailed particulars about the person…Regulations called for the arrest of any Chinese without one. So even Chinese who had lived here in the U.S. for years, if they had not become citizens, found themselves unable to be naturalized. These laws underscored the discrimination practiced against the Chinese immigrants. In fact, there were Anti-Chinese Leagues in most major towns in the Territory, although not in Tucson. Charley must have arrived before the Chinese Exclusion Act, but he found himself in a hotbed of prejudice.

There were about 300 Chinese people in the Tucson area in 1900. There were few Chinese women and Chinese men had little opportunity to marry. Laws were passed that denied marriage with non-Chinese. They tended to be shunned socially by the predominant Anglos and Hispanics, and if they did not have a colony of other Chinese with which to socialize, they had few opportunities to make friends. Charley had relatives in Tucson, where there was a sizeable Chinese community, but apparently he didn’t want to stay in Tucson.

In (new) Oro Blanco in the early 1890s, the Kempton family had Chinese domestic servants, but they were not the only Asians in the district. Arthur Noon told this story: “In 1895 there was a Chinese cook at the Old Glory Mine south of Oro Blanco. (Perhaps Charley?) One of the miners thought to have some fun, so after catching a rat in one of the tunnels, he placed it in his lunch box. When the box was opened in the kitchen, the rat crawled to the top of the Chinaman’s head before he was able to knock it off. The cook, recognizing the box and realizing who the joker was, burst into the dining room wielding a cleaver. The guilty miner, not taking any chances, jumped for the door and was last seen scampering down a hillside trail.” This scene reappeared in the dreams of Arthur’s son Fred for years.

There may have been other Chinese besides Charley working in the camps and they definitely had minority status. Since we do not have the 1890 census we don’t know the ethnic makeup of the area in those years, particularly when it comes to counting the people who didn’t own a business. There was a Japanese man who had a cabin on the Warsaw road, date unknown, which was unofficially called “Jap’s Cabin.” Nearby was a water tank for cattle. Now that has been changed to “Japanese” Tank.
I was reminded of Charley’s story while recently reading an article about Betty Lee Sung, a Chinese American scholar. She was determined to go to college in the 1940s, but was told by her diplomat father that she must do what he said and marry, or he would disown her. She went ahead with her college plans, graduated in 1948, and he did disown her. Betty went on to become a college professor and write numerous books on the Chinese American experience. And she married the man of her own choosing and raised eight children in a very organized household. Now 94 years old, Betty continues to educate the country about her ancestral culture.
We must all keep in mind the struggles of our ancestors, no matter what their ethnicity or country of origin, as we read about the struggles of the current immigrants.

References: “The Chinese Experience in Arizona and Northern Mexico”
by Lawrence Michael Fong, Journal of Arizona History reprint, 1980.
“Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans” by Ronald Takaki.
Mountain of Gold: the story of the Chinese in America, by Betty Lee Sung
Newspaper articles accessed on

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