The Highbinders and Hatchet Men of the Old West,
The California Gold Rush in 1849 brought people to the West Coast from all around the world who sought opportunity, wealth, and success. In the mid 19th century thousands of Chinese immigrants moved to California and the west. While the vast majority of Chinese immigrants had come to America simply for a fresh new start, many of the less savory parts of the Chinese old world also tagged along. The Chinese Tongs were the organized criminal elements of China that had also come to America looking for new criminal opportunities. Often originating as reputable organizations such as Chinese fraternities and business leagues, the Tongs dealt in slavery, illegal gambling, opium dealing, illegal booze, extortion, assassination, thievery, bribery, blackmail, and many other criminal enterprizes.
So who were the worst outlaws of the Old West? Billy the Kid? Jesse James? John Wesley Hardin? Compared to the “highbinders”, the most famous outlaws of the day were mere boyscouts. The highbinders were footsoldiers, enforcers, and assassins of the Tongs. Every criminal organization needs ruthless killers to enforce it’s bottom line on the street. The highbinders were certainly such men, as they were willing to kill anyone who crossed them, sometimes in the most gruesome ways. In San Francisco in 1889 one of the Tongs demanded protection money from a 19 year old girl named Fung Wing. When she refused, she was shot to death on the streets. Two years later a white man named John Gibbs was murdered by a Tong hitman. His body, or at least the small pieces of it, were found in an alley a short while later.
The highbinders were often recruited from the lower classes of Chinese American society and were typically also uneducated. What is interesting about the highbinders was their choice of weapons, an odd mix of the old world and new. Commonly the highbinders used an assortment of Chinese melee weapons such as short swords, knives, daggers, and clubs. One popular traditional weapon was a type of short cutlass, often wielded in pairs, called the butterfly sword.
Interestingly, the highbinders also tended to wear a chain mail shirt under their clothing. Needless to say hand to hand combat was a must for any aspiring highbinder. One of the favorite weapons of the highbinders was the hatchet. With a hatchet a highbinder could assassinate a target, but also use the weapon as a tool to dispose of the body (chop it up) or savagely mutilate it for intimidation purposes. Because of this, highbinders were often also nicknamed “hatchetmen”. While the highbinders were skilled with melee weapons, the highbinders also adopted modern firearms such as revolvers, rifles, and shotguns.
By 1880 there were numerous Tongs located in San Francisco alone. Like many mafia organizations, it was not long before they began to intrude on one another’s turf. Between 1880 and 1913 the West Coast was embroiled in the “Tong Wars”. During this period, scores of Chinese gangsters were killed in a period of months. During the The Bing On tong – Wah Sin San Fan Tong War seven were killed and eight were wound in just a single phase of a three part war. In the mining town of Weaverville, California, a pitched battle between 260 Tongs led to the deaths of 8 men with dozens wounded. For the most part, the police and law enforcement stayed out of the Tong’s way, not wanting to get involved in affairs that did not involve white people. However, whenever the police did get involved, they would usually quickly back off when the Tongs started targeting police officers.
The decline of the Tongs came in 1906 after the San Francisco Earthquake, which destroyed many of the buildings and businesses controlled by the Tongs. This was also combined with strict crackdowns by local, state, and federal law enforcement, as well as a crackdown on prostitution, sex slavery, and opium dens. Today some Tongs still exist, most of which have gone straight and returned to their roots as legitimate fraternities and business organizations. Some have not. regardless there is a never ending line of mafioso’s, gangsters, triads, and cartel goons who have picked up where the Tongs have left off nearly a century ago.