Academic journal article Journal of Social History

'Chinese Demons': The Violent Articulation of Chinese Otherness and Interracial Sexuality in the U.S. Midwest, 1885-1889

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

'Chinese Demons': The Violent Articulation of Chinese Otherness and Interracial Sexuality in the U.S. Midwest, 1885-1889

Article excerpt

By the evening of Wednesday, March 6, 1889, many residents of the neighborhoods bordering Grand Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin suspected something was afoot. By the next morning, numerous persons were convinced that something was wrong. One such person was Richard Whitehead, the Superintendent of the Wisconsin Humane Society. Through the night of March 6, 1889, Superintendent Whitehead thought his worst fears were confirmed when he witnessed the same drama enacted in many households: girls ranging in age from 8 to 12, collapsing and crying hysterically, their mothers distraught, their fathers threatening murder. Meanwhile, in the state capital of Madison, the local newspaper reported other strange stories: peculiar men whom neighbors did not recognize were suddenly remembered as walking Milwaukee's streets, strangers for whom no one could explain whence they came nor where they mysteriously disappeared.

Before the evening was over on Thursday, March 7, a number of persons living on Grand Avenue, Fifth Street, Fourth Street, and in the Third Ward needed no further proof that the climate in Cream City (1) had turned dangerously angry and ugly against them. One person received a threatening letter that night, and before a week had past, would find himself a prisoner within his own place of business. Indeed, within five days after March 6, a frightening figure appeared at Joseph Caspari's saloon on Chestnut Street. Hanging from a death-dealing height, dressed in blue, the face an ashen white, the figure seemed to augur worst times ahead.

One of the local newspapers reported that people shuddered when they saw the shape of what looked like a man lynched in front of Caspari's: the tell-tale noose around the collar and the body hoisted like a trophy--or a warning. Upon closer inspection, however, the hanged body was actually an effigy, a likeness dressed up in the clothing so often worn by those who now found themselves besieged in Wisconsin. The lynched figure--a stuffed together apparition--was meant to resemble a Chinese man. Stretching across four days, Milwaukee saw up to 3,000 of its male denizens and citizens partake in a mounting fury of anti-Chinese excitement. Over those four days, white Euro-American males would congregate at the City Hall and scream "lynch 'em," "hang 'em," and "scald them"; march in protest against the Chinese presence; and eventually spend one day and one night smashing the windows of laundries and chasing and threatening whomever might look Chinese.

Anti-Chinese riots were not uncommon in the 1880s. As will be shown, that decade was the bloody era of mass anti-Asian violence. What distinguished Milwaukee was its regional difference: the "sinophobic" events on Lake Michigan's shore were the only instance of such occurrences in Northern states east of the Rocky Mountains. (2) Moreover, Milwaukee's anti-Chinese moment culminated a number of simmering developments that stemmed from both local and national trends. These tendencies sought to discipline unruly elements in the increasingly disorderly American city of the late nineteenth century. In doing so, they brought into intersection the larger uncontrollable elements of race, gender, and sexuality. This article will recover the Milwaukee incident and highlight the manner of that intersection. In the case of "Cream City," it was a three-way crash that climaxed in a wreck of violence and scandal.

To Asian Americanists and 19th century U.S. historians, Chinese-targeted violence on the shores of Lake Michigan is "news." Historians are more familiar with the acts committed in Denver, Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco, and Rock Springs, Wyoming. (3) Indeed, the anti-Chinese violence that occurred after the Civil War is always assumed to be a "Western" phenomenon. From the 1850s to 1908, recorded instances of that anti-Chinese violence numbered 153. These outbreaks tolled the following human costs: 143 Chinese murdered and 10,525 displaced from their homes and businesses. …

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