By Heidi Bunch
Ninety-five years ago on Feb. 8, a Mineral County murder would put Nevada on the forefront of science when a Chinese gang member would be the first put to death by the use of deadly fumes at the state prison.
The story actually began on the evening of Aug. 27, 1921 when Tom Quong Kee, a Chinese laundryman living in Mina, was woke up by the sound of someone knocking on his back door of the little cabin where he lived. Kee, a member of the Bing Kung Tong gang, made his way to the door clad in nothing but pajamas and a jacket, holding a candle for his only source of light. When he opened the door, he found two other Chinese men on in front of the other outside his home. The man in the back pulled out a .38 caliber Colt revolver and fired two shots into Kee. The bullets hit the laundryman in his heart.
The senseless killing in the town of Mina was an act of tong gang warfare that had been spreading from the Chinese-American communities of California and had now trickled down into neighboring Nevada.
These feuds, started by a member of the Hop Sing Tong stole a Chinese slave girl which had belonged to the Suey Sing Tong gang. To avenge the injustice – the Suey Sing council took an ally with the Bing Kung Tong gang and declared war on the Hop Sings.
On the morning of Aug. 28, 1921, a Chinese vegetable peddler went looking for Kee. Peering through the windows of Kee’s cabin, the peddler saw the old laundryman on the floor. The peddler notified Mina Justice of Peace L.E. Cornelius, who turned the death over to Mineral County Sheriff Deputy W.J. Hammill.
Deputy Hammill examined the body and the scene and traced two sets of footprints from Kee’s cabin to a spot where an automobile had been parked and some empty beer bottles had been disposed.
Unknown to the two men who had shot Kee, Deputy Hammill had observed these strangers at the Palace Café in Mina over a week earlier. They had been asking for work in the area. The deputy had been warned that the two men were neither unemployed nor innocent, instead were tong members sent to kill Kee. Deputy Hammill contacted Reno Police Chief John M. Kirkley to be on the lookout for a car bearing two Chinese male suspects.
The two men captured would be 29-year-old Gee Jon and 19-year-old Hughie Sing. Both slight in stature, neither were physically intimidating. China-born Jon stood 5 foot, 5 ¼ inches and weighed 129 pounds. Sing, born in Carson City, measured only 5 foot, 2 ½ inches tall and tipped the scale at only 105 pounds. Gee had emigrated from Canton, China around 1907 and had lived most of his life while in the United States in San Francisco’s Chinatown except for a few months when he lived in the Stockton Chinatown. Kee had difficulty understanding and speaking English but Sing, could read, speak and write both English and Chinese, having attended grammar school in the place of his birth. Sing had only been a member of the Hop Sing Tong for two months prior to enlisting the help of Jon.
After their arrest, both Jon and Sing were interrogated by the Reno police. Sing was advised that anything he said could be used against him in court. Hoping to be set free, he confessed to his role in the crime of killing Kee in Mina and implicated Jon.
Both were taken back to Mina where they were held without bail until their preliminary hearing was held on Sept. 8, 1921. W.H. Chang, an attorney from San Francisco and most likely to be a Hop Sing Tong member would represent Jon and Sing in court along with James M. Frame.
Sing withdrew his confession given to the Reno police and both waived the right to make a statement at the hearing. Their attorney entered pleas of “not guilty” for each man.
The trial of Kee and Sing would be held in the Mineral County courthouse in Hawthorne from Nov. 28 to Dec. 3, 1921 before the Seventh Judicial District Court. Both men denied being members of the Hop Sing Tong gang, shooting Kee or even going to Mina with intentions to kill the old laundryman. Their defense was they had “been to Tonopah where they wanted to be employed at a restaurant.” Sing explained that his confession to the Reno police was in belief that he would be freed immediately.
After testimony of witnesses and law enforcement, the court wasn’t convinced. It was brought to the attention of the court that Sing had previously lived with Kee in Mina for two years. Sing’s knowledge of Kee, the town of Mina and his ability to speak English made him the best guide for Jon to commit murder.
Both men were found guilty of first degree murder of Kee. District Judge J. Emmett Walsh handed down death sentences to the two Chinese men in 1922.
A law had been passed in 1921 by the 30th session of the Nevada State Legislature and signed by Governor Emmett D. Boyle that all criminals sentenced to deal were to be executed by means of lethal gas. Jon and Sing were the first to be affected by the passing of this new law. It was thought that gas was to be a more humane way to end life of those convicted to death.
After Judge Walsh handed down his sentence to Jon and Sing, their attorney Frame moved for a new trial. Walsh denied the motion and Frame was ready to appeal to the state supreme court.
Under the custody of Sheriff Frederick B. Balzar, Jon and Sing were taken to the Nevada State Prison in Carson City where they were incarcerated until their sentence was to be carried out. Sing had confidence in his attorney, but also was prepared for the worse stating, “I don’t think there’s no hope, unless maybe the supreme court does something. Our lawyer said he’d file something in the supreme court within thirty days, but if the court doesn’t act I guess we’ll have to die.”
Frame did file with the Nevada Supreme Court in the later part of February 1922, expressing that execution by lethal gas constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
A stay of execution for the two men, who had been ordered to be executed between April 16-22, 1922, was granted. A long legal battle would begin.
In January of 1923, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that lethal gas execution was neither cruel nor unusual punishment. Attorney Frame motioned for a new trial. It was denied.
Frame would again file another appeal with the state supreme court for a rehearing of the Kee and Sing case. The higher court would again render a negative verdict. Not one to give up, Frame and his partner, Fiore Raffetto, applied for a writ of certiorari in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The attorney’s stressed that the Nevada Supreme Court did not grant Kee or Sing separate trials, the use of lethal gas execution and the wording of the title of Nevada’s 1921 capital punishment statute.
Nothing happened as a result of the writ of certiorari, however, the Nevada Supreme Court refused to give its assent to be sued on the writ. The attorneys for the Chinese again petitioned the supreme court for a rehearing and were once again denied.
By September 1923, the United States Supreme Court seemed to be the last resort. The attorneys applied to the Nevada State Supreme Court for a writ of error, so that Kee and Sing’s case could be carried out in the nation’s highest court. Nevada State Chief Justice Edward A. Ducker denied the application for a writ. If one of the justices on the United States Supreme Court was willing to hear the petition for a writ of error, then he and his fellow justices could hear the case, even with the prejudice of the Nevada Supreme Court’s refusal grant a writ of error.
The writ of error was first presented to Associate Justice Joseph McKenna and then to Chief Justice William Howard Taft. Both members of the highest court refused to permit the petition be filed. Thereafter, Frame and Raffetto could only direct their efforts of their clients to state officials.
The attorneys began to petition the public in hopes to sway opinions. Their petition read, “The undersigned respectfully petition your honorable body to commute the sentence of Gee Jon and Hughie Sing, Chinese, from death to life imprisonment. We are informed that Hughie Sing is a mere boy, being only nineteen years of age at the time of the commission of the crime, and that Gee Jon was at the time of the commission of the crime an illiterate Chinese unacquainted with American customs and not likely to fully know and appreciate the enormity of the act. We feel that the extreme penalty should not be exacted and think that commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment would fully vindicate the law and subserve public good and avoid the horror of taking human life by administration of lethal gas, and new and untried method.”
Over 400 letters were sent to prominent Nevadans. Students on the Reno campus of the University of Nevada, the League of Women Voters I Reno and citizens of Reno and Carson wrote in behalf of the Chinese.
Mineral County District Attorney Jay H. White called the murder of Kee: “Purely a clean-cut premeditated murder without any extenuating circumstances. The crime was one of the most atrocious and cold-blooded in the history of the state. Testimony of the trial will show that applications for commutation of the sentence are illogical in view of the facts of the case.”
After reviewing all evidence, Sing was released from death row and put to work in the Nevada State Prison laundry. Firecrackers in Carson City’s Chinatown would be shot off in honor of Sing.
Jon was left to face death alone. To be gassed to death for the death of Kee in 1921 with the use of hydrocyanic gas (HCN).
The morning of Gee’s execution would be cloudy, humid and cold, only 49°F. Jon had fasted for ten days prior to this morning and ate his last meal of ham, eggs, toast and coffee. At 9:35 a.m. two guards escorted him forty yards from his cell to the gas chamber. He was strapped into the execution chair where he began to weep. At 9:40 a.m. four pounds of HCN acid was introduced into the chamber.
The use of the HCN malfunctioned due to the cold temperatures of the chamber. It began to pool on the floor in a liquid state but was also in the air as a gas.
Within five seconds of exposure, Gee appeared unconscious though his eyes remained open and his head moved for six minutes. He stopped moving after 9:46 and at 10 a.m. the ventilator gate was opened and a suction fact was turned on. The chamber door was not opened until noon.
Jon was pronounced dead at 12:25 p.m. by prison physician, Dr. Anthony Huffaker. He was placed in a plain pine box without services and buried in the prison cemetery on the hill overlooking the prison.
It is unknown how long Sing stayed in prison. A call to the Nevada Department of Corrections filed to offer any further information.
As for the victim, Tom Quong Kee, the elderly laundryman, he was buried in the Mina Ceremony shortly after his death in August of 1921.