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How We Sold Our Soul-The People of the State of California v. George W. Hall

The Articles in the Category cover a vast range of history not only in our country but in the world as well. The category is entitled “How We Sold Our Soul”. In many cases our history has hinged on compromises being made by the powers at be. They say hind-sight is 20/20, which is why I am discussing these land mark decisions in this manner. The people that made these decisions in many cases thought they were doing the right thing. However in some instances they were made for expediency and little thought was given to the moral ramifications and the fallout that would result from them. I hope you enjoy these articles. The initial plan is to discuss 10 compromises, but as time progresses I am sure that number will increase.


This California Supreme Court ruled that the testimony of a Chinese man who witnessed a murder by a white man was inadmissible, largely based upon the opinion that the Chinese were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point” and as such had no right “to swear away the life of a citizen” or participate “with us in administering the affairs of our Government.”  This decision categorized Chinese alongside Native and African Americans as lacking status to testify against European Americans in court.

Thomas Nast Cartoon: “The nigger must go,” and “The Chinese must go.” The poor barbarians can’t understand our civilized Republican form of government”

This California Supreme Court case ruled that the testimony of a Chinese man who witnessed a murder by a white man was inadmissible, largely based upon the prevailing opinion that the Chinese were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown; differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation; between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference” and as such had no right ” to swear away the life of a citizen” or participate” with us in administering the affairs of our Government.”

Supreme Court of the State of California, 1854.

Mr. Ch. J. Murray delivered the opinion of the Court. Mr. J. Heydenfeldt concurred.

The appellant, a free white citizen of this State, was convicted of murder upon the testimony of Chinese witnesses.

The point involved in this case is the admissibility of such evidence.

The 394th section of the Act Concerning Civil Cases provides that no Indian or Negro shall be allowed to testify as a witness in any action or åproceeding in which a white person is a party.

The 14th section of the Act of April 16th, 1850, regulating Criminal Proceedings, provides that “No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man.”

The true point at which we are anxious to arrive is, the legal signification of the words, “black, mulatto, Indian, and white person, ” and whether the Legislature adopted them as generic terms, or intended to limit their
application to specific types of the human species. . . .

The Act of Congress, in defining that description of aliens may become naturalized citizens, provides that every “free white citizen,” etc. . .

If the term “white,” as used in the Constitution, was not understood in its generic sense as including the Caucasian race, and necessarily excluding all others, where was the necessary of providing for the admission of Indians to the privilege of voting, by special legislation?

We are of the opinion that the words “white,” “Negro,” “mulatto,” “Indian,” and “black person,” wherever they occur in our Constitution and laws, must be taken in their generic sense, and that, even admitting the Indian of this continent is not of the Mongolian type, that the words “black person,” in the 14th section, must be taken as contradistinguished from white, and necessary excludes all races other than the Caucasian.

We have carefully considered all the consequences resulting from a different rule of construction, and are satisfied that even in a doubtful case, we would be impelled to this decision on ground of public policy.

The same rule which would admit them to testify, would admit them to all the equal rights of citizenship, and we might soon see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls.

This is not a speculation which exists in the excited and overheated imagination of the patriot and statesman, but it is an actual and present danger.

The anomalous spectacle of a distinct people, living in our community, recognizing no laws of this State, except through necessity, bringing with them their prejudices and national feuds, in which they indulge in open violation of law; whose medacity is proverbial; a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown; differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation; between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference, is now presented, and for them is claims, not only the right to swear away the life of a citizen, but the further privilege of participating with us in administering the affairs of our Government.

These facts were before the Legislature that framed this Act, and have been known as matters of public history to every subsequent Legislature.

There can be no doubt as to the intention of Legislature, and that if it had ever been anticipated that this class of people were not embraced in the prohibition, then such specific words would have been employed as would have put the matter beyond any possible controversy.

For these reasons, we are of opinion that the testimony was inadmissible.

The judgment is reversed and the cause remanded.

The Opinion That Silenced Non-White People

In 1854, the California Supreme Court prohibited all non-white people from testifying against white people, freeing a white man who had been convicted for killing a Chinese man in front of multiple witnesses.

I learned about this case many years ago in law school, and my classmates were understandably shocked and horrified at the opinion and the racial views embedded there. But I thought that there was something more to the case. A judge cannot overturn a conviction with a terrible opinion unless other people had done the right thing in the first place.

I ended up researching the case in libraries and archives to find out more about those other people, and I wanted to share with you what I found, especially in light of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Let’s begin with the murder, which took place in 1853 in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The first mention that I could find in a newspaper was in August 1853 in the Nevada Journal: “We learn that three men were arrested at Little York yesterday and would be brought to Nevada [City, California] for trial, for shooting and dangerously wounding a Chinaman while he and others were endeavoring to prevent the robbery of their sluice boxes.”

According to a later summary, George Hall, his younger brother and a third man came upon a Chinese camp and beat one Chinese miner, searching for gold. The miner tried to run away, and the three men chased after the miner. Another Chinese miner whose name had been reported as Ling Sing or Lyn Chain, came out to help the initial victim, and he “was immediately shot down by the elder Hall.”

The prosecution was led by William Stewart, who later became a U.S. senator from the state of Nevada, helped draft the 15th Amendment, and briefly employed Mark Twain as a secretary. Stewart himself found the witnesses to be credible, writing later in his reminiscences that “they all told the same story” and that he had “not the slightest doubt” that George Hall had committed the murder.

Acknowledging the “great prejudice against Chinese testimony,” Stewart took steps to build a successful prosecution.

First, Stewart got extra funds from the county government to do the trial, an allowance of $5,000, or about $150,000 in current dollars.

Second, he separated the witnesses so that they were “unable to communicate with each other until after the trial.”

Third, he went to San Francisco and recruited a Presbyterian missionary, Rev. William Speer, to serve as an interpreter. Rev. Speer had served in China as a missionary and had become fluent in Cantonese, and he became an advocate for Chinese immigrants in California.

Fourth, Stewart asked Rev. Speer for an oath that would be binding upon the Chinese witnesses as an oath on the Bible might be for a Christian. “I told him that I had heard it stated that cutting off a chicken’s head or burning paper, or something of that kind, would ‘swear’ a Chinaman.” Rev. Speer replied: “Burning paper is just as good as anything.”

The trial was held in October 1853 and ended with the jury convicting George Hall and acquitting Hall’s younger brother and the third man.

Hall asked for a new trial, but the presiding judge, Judge William Barbour, rejected the request before a “densely crowded” courtroom:

“There is but little doubt from the character of the testimony, that the verdict of the jury was just, and in strict conformity to the evidence. The firm belief of your guilt was impressed on the minds of the jury, and the Court. Indeed, the clear and positive proof the Chinese witnesses, corroborated by American testimony, together with the strong circumstantial evidence attending the whole affair, would not have permitted the most incredulous to form any other conclusion.”

Judge Barbour then pronounced a death sentence on Hall:

“You most unfortunately have participated in a delusion which has prevailed to an alarming extent in California. Many persons here have supposed that it is less heinous to kill a Negro, an Indian, or a Chinaman than a white person. This is a gross error. The law of our country throws the aegis of its protection upon all within its jurisdiction; it knows nor ace, color or distinction.”

These stirring words were said before the Civil War, before the 14th Amendment, and before the civil-rights movement. And had these words been the end of the story, this would have been a story of justice prevailing over what Judge Barbour called the “delusion” of racial superiority under the law.

But that, unfortunately, was not the end of the story.

George Hall was scheduled to be hung on December 30, 1853, but he appealed his conviction to the California Supreme Court.

The prosecutor, William Stewart, did not think much of the appeal at first. As he later wrote, “No exceptions had been taken during the trial, and by the statute nothing could be considered by the Supreme Court unless exceptions had been taken in the court below.” Stewart was surprised that the appeal was being heard and then he was surprised by the argument on appeal.

George Hall’s lawyer argued that Chinese testimony was inadmissible because of an 1850 California law that prohibited Indians, black people, or mixed-race people from testifying for or against a white man in a criminal case. Stewart argued that the statute simply did not apply because the witnesses were not Indians, but Chinese.

But the California Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Hugh Murray, agreed with George Hall’s lawyer for two reasons.

First, Chief Justice Murray wrote that the “general, or perhaps universal” opinion as of 1850 was that “there were but three distinct types of human beings”: Caucasian, Ethiopian, and Mongolian. This was overstating the consensus about racial classifications at the time. One scientist Georges Cuvier did argue for three races, but others such as Carolus Linnaeus and J.F. Blumenbach had more classifications and distinguished Asian people from Native Americans. Glossing over those other views, Chief Justice Murray argued that the California legislature must have meant “Indian” as a generic term that would encompass all people who were not “white” or “Negro,” and thus would encompass Chinese people.

Second, Chief Justice Murray wrote that it would be “most anomalous” and absurd to think that California law would not protect white people from the “degraded and demoralized” castes of all non-white people, including Chinese people.

“The apparent design was to protect the White person from the influence of all testimony other than that of persons of the same caste … We have carefully considered all the consequences resulting from a different rule of construction, and are satisfied that even in a doubtful case we would be impelled to this decision on grounds of public policy.”

Allowing non-white people to testify against a white man would be dangerous, Chief Justice Murray wrote. If they were allowed to testify, they might then be allowed to become citizens and jurors and legislators. That was not mere speculation, he wrote, but “an actual and present danger.”

The California Supreme Court’s decision set George Hall free. Without the testimony of the Chinese witnesses, there was not enough evidence to sustain the conviction or re-try the case.

The decision also had massive consequences for non-white people in the 1850s and 1860s, who could not testify against white men who victimized them.

Thanks to the 14th Amendment, subsequent opinions by the United States Supreme Court and other changes in the law, a law that prohibited a person from testifying based on that person’s race, national origin, or religion would not be permitted today. The justice system today is far from perfect, but it is worth remembering how far we have come and how people at least tried to do the right thing, even more than 150 years ago in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

This is another legal decision that should never have been made. It pretty much striped all rights away from anybody who was not white. To say that you could kill any minoritywith impunity was absolutely unconscionable.

Resources, “PEOPLE V. HALL (1854).”;, “The People Vs. Hall 1854.”;, “The Opinion That Silenced Non-White People.” By Stephen Lee;

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