In 1885, one of Pierce, Idaho’s most popular residents was brutally murdered, and five Chinese men were charged with the crime. Furious about the murder, a group of vigilantes took custody of the Chinese men and lynched them a few miles outside of town.
Pierce was a mining town located in northern Idaho that came to be dominated by a large Chinese population in 1885. Though the Chinese were legally banned from mining in Idaho when Pierce was settled, they were eventually given the right to mine if they paid a $4 monthly tax to the county government. With this adjustment, many Chinese migrated to the area. However, like in other western cities, Chinese presence was not particularly welcome, as others worried that their jobs would be taken by Chinese laborers who were willing to work for less money. They also saw the Chinese as dirty and incapable of assimilation.
In 1885, an American merchant named D.M. Fraser was murdered, supposedly by a competing Chinese merchant, Lee Kee Nam. Fraser was a prominent man in the community, and the town was horrified and outraged when they found his body, which had been cut into pieces, in his own store. A group of vengeful vigilantes assembled, and they captured Lee Kee Nam and his business partner. The vigilantes threatened to hang the two men which led Lee Kee Nam and his partner to incriminate one another. After this, they rounded up three more Chinese men, who the mob claimed had actually committed the crime, and turned all five men over to the sheriff. The group was charged for Fraser’s murder and sent to trial.
However, the five men were not given the chance to appear in court. While the sheriff and some of his men were transporting Lee Kee Nam and the other men to the court in the nearby town of Murray on September 18, 1885, they were confronted by a large group of armed men just a few miles outside of Pierce. The men overtook the sheriff’s posse, took the five Chinese men into custody, and lynched them. According to a newspaper report from the next day, a reporter “found the five Chinamen hanging by the necks on a pole lashed to two pine trees.”
The Chinese government found the lynchings extremely upsetting and demanded reparations. The new territorial governor, Edward A. Stevenson, went to investigate the events, and it was found that Lee Kee Nam and his associate really had committed the crime. He used this as an excuse for the vigilantes’ behavior, and no one involved in the mob was ever prosecuted for their involvement. Stevenson did, however, urge Idahoans to stop harassing the Chinese, and there were few anti-Chinese incidents in Idaho following this lynching.