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Nancy Waples, the newest associate justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, ascended to the bench this year — two generations after a prominent Brattleboro lawyer and federal judge gained national notoriety for his efforts to prosecute and persecute Chinese immigrants.

News / Column

Man with a mission

Anti-Chinese sentiments caught fire in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One Brattleboro man made it his mission to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act — as a federal district attorney, as a federal judge, and even as a vigilante on a train in Vernon.

Rolf Parker shares stories mined from the archives of local history. (Editor’s note: This discussion of local history quotes from contemporaneous sources that, by today’s standards, are very often shocking and hurtful — likewise, drawings from that era illustrating this piece. We explore these topics from the past not to perpetuate these noxious beliefs but to become better people in the present and the future by confronting the source material with honesty and empathy.) Owing to an editing error, the date for the debate and passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act was incorrect in the print version of this column; that legislation was passed in 1882.

BRATTLEBORO—In February of this year, Gov. Phil Scott nominated Nancy Waples to a seat on Vermont’s Supreme Court, and she was unanimously confirmed by the Vermont Senate in late March. Judge Waples’ ascendance could never have happened if ethnic quotas that limited the number of Asian people who could enter this country were not lifted when she was a child. Her Chinese parents fled Communist China, but her father was the only member of her family allowed to immigrate to the U.S. In 1965 the quotas were lifted, and her family was reunited in the United States.

As restrictive as the quota system was, there was a time when Chinese immigration was even more vigorously opposed by the United States government. One of Brattleboro’s leading citizens was deeply involved in that effort.

Both the anti-Chinese policy and its local champion are largely forgotten today, but according to the Vermont Phoenix, James L. Martin, who lived here in the 19th and early 20th century, was the person who “did more than any other man who ever lived to drive Chinese immigration away from Vermont’s ports of entry.”

Over his lengthy career, Martin arrested Chinese men on trains that passed through Brattleboro, prosecuted them in his role as U.S. district attorney, and eventually decided their fates as a federal judge.

Most significantly, in 1901, the attorney general of the United States asked him to travel to the U.S. District Court in New Jersey to defend the constitutionality of the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law in 1882 by President Chester Arthur.

The law, which prohibited virtually all Chinese immigration, would not be repealed until 1943, when China became an ally of the United States against the Japanese during World War II.

* * *

The U.S. government had not always been opposed to Chinese immigration. According to the Office of the Historian of the U.S. State Department, a treaty with China in 1868 actually encouraged immigrants from that country to settle here.

But a mere two years later, strong anti-Chinese sentiment erupted. On top of a racist fear of Chinese people and their culture, some U.S. populists promoted a fear that Chinese laborers would steal jobs from white Americans.

This feeling intensified following a heavily publicized strike at a shoe factory in North Adams, Mass., in 1870. The strike was broken by management, who brought in Chinese laborers who were willing to work for lower wages.

The incident quickly rose to national attention through the pages of Harper’s Weekly, The New York Times, and many other publications.

As described by Mary M. Cronin in the Historic Journal of Massachusetts, “The North Adams ‘experiment’ quickly developed into a national discussion that went beyond the issue of whether or not Chinese immigrants should be employed as an inexpensive industrial work force. In an era that witnessed growing factory mechanization and a subsequent de-skilling of industrial labor, nativist beliefs steeped in Anglo-Saxon racial superiority came to the fore regarding immigration. The young Chinese men never suspected their presence helped fuel ongoing, roiling national debates about race, class, labor, and citizenship. Reporters covered clashes between nativist and progressive viewpoints, and editors weighed in about the era’s economic upheaval, industrial strife, and racial concerns.

“During a period in which reporters still mixed facts and opinions in their stories and editors viewed themselves as a key source of education and information, the arrival of the Chinese provided a catalyst for journalists to consider some key questions of nationhood during the Reconstruction era, including: What did it mean to be American? Who had the right to become an American? Did race, culture, or religion disqualify someone for citizenship? And, relatedly, in a country that upheld individualism as a bedrock of nationalist belief, was there a place for organized labor?”

* * *

In 1875, the Page Act closed the country’s previously open borders to Chinese women, the first time in U.S. history that immigration was barred on an explicitly racial or ethnic basis.

The act was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred entry to all Chinese laborers “both skilled and unskilled.” (An exception was made for teachers, students, travelers, and those who could prove that they were merchants with businesses that had been established in the U.S.)

By 1902, “Chinese Inspectors” could demand any person they believed to be Chinese to show them a federally issued paper that documented their right to be in the country.

Much of the political opposition in Congress to the exclusion act came from lawmakers from Connecticut, though New England’s politicians were divided. In 1882, the year the Chinese Exclusion Act was debated and passed, Vermont Sen. George Edmunds supported it, which surprised many people at the time.

Prior to the law’s enactment, the editor of the Vermont Phoenix favored the bill and praised Edmunds’ claims that, ’The race, religion, habits, modes of thought and development of the Chinese and our own people... are entirely different.’

The editor recognized getting New Englanders to agree with Edmunds on the need to halt Chinese immigration would be challenging. “It will be hard to cure New Englanders of their belief, that [...] opposition to the Chinese is grounded in prejudice, narrow jealousy and intolerance,” he wrote.

He held out the hope that Sen. Edmunds’ view would inspire constituents to “hold their views with more moderation, and a little less assurance that there may not be a defensible other side to the question.”

* * *

The Vermont Phoenix and the Windham County Reformer appear to have had different sensibilities about reporting on topics related to China and Chinese people.

When the Boxer Rebellion broke out in China in 1899, both papers carried news of atrocities against Christian missionaries and other civilians by the Boxer rebels. But the Phoenix published 20 stories on the rebellion, while the Reformer printed three.

Nationally, there was a wide range in the expression of anti-Chinese prejudice in the late 19th and early 20th century. At one extreme was Denis Kearney, an Irish immigrant to the United States, who rose to prominence in California as an anti-Chinese and pro-labor activist. His speeches were openly racist and called for acts of violence so blatantly that he was repeatedly arrested.

While Kearney’s speeches landed him in jail, his imprisonment gave him a higher level of credibility with his followers. He started a political party in California that won enough seats and influence to re-write California’s constitution in 1879. As a result, immigrants of Chinese descent were barred from voting, regardless of whether they had achieved citizenship. That same year, a riot in San Francisco resulted in the burning down of many buildings in Chinatown. In 1880, even the editor of the Phoenix, who wrote inflammatory headlines against Chinese immigration, approved of sending Kearney to prison, noting that his followers had raised money to make “permanent gallows” and were talking about “wading knee-deep in blood” and wanted to “clean out all the Chinese and all who sympathize with them.”

Kearney’s success at turning California’s legal system into an instrument of persecution was short lived. Many of the laws promoted by Kearney’s party were deemed unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court. Despite this setback, Kearney could and did boast of being responsible for paving the way for the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

In the years following the passage of the law, the Phoenix published many articles on James L. Martin’s actions to stop Chinese immigrants from coming to this state and lauded him as a hero under sensational and racist headlines.

One such head was “The Heathen Chinese,” on an 1898 article about Martin’s success in getting those threatened with deportation to perjure themselves. It went on to explain that under Martin’s direction, testimony from Chinese people was not entered into the court record without an investigation of every claim.

“The Wily Chinese” read another headline over a story in 1899 about how skilled Martin was at discovering the falsehoods that the “celestials” were supposedly apt to engage in.

* * *

In his efforts to prevent Chinese immigration, Martin did not limit himself to the courtroom.

In 1902, the then–U.S. district attorney was riding a train to Greenfield when, according to a Burlington newspaper, he “made a sensational capture of three Chinamen.”

“Suspecting that they were in the United States in violation of the Chinese exclusion laws, he asked for their identification papers which they failed to produce,” the account continued.

When the men failed to produce the documents, Martin “took the celestials into custody and caused them to be sent to Brattleboro and committed to jail.”

In Vermont, there was one government official who became as well known for his apparent leniency toward people charged with violating immigration laws as Martin was for vigorously prosecuting them.

According to the Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files — documents created during the application process of those looking to enter or re-enter the country — Felix W. McGettrick, the immigration commissioner for the district of Vermont, set free more than 1,000 men who had been arrested in this state and gave them “Certificates of Discharge,” effectively securing for them U.S. citizenship.

When questioned by the Bureau of Immigration about his high rate of discharges and asked for his records of these cases, the commissioner claimed that hundreds of them had been stolen.

McGettrick — the Democratic Party nominee for governor of Vermont in 1902 — was never charged with a crime, but he was kept under the watchful eye of the Bureau, and his leniency was known well enough for it to be lampooned in Vermont newspapers.

According to the Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files — a blog maintained by National Archives volunteers dedicated to analysis of these documents and this period of U.S. history — “Word got around about which judges were sympathetic to their plight. Arrested people of Chinese descent tried to go before Commissioner Felix W. McGettrick.” Whether McGettrick was zealously opposed to the Chinese Exclusion Act that Martin was zealously enforcing, is not known. “Some judges and commissioners held the government to high standards in proving its cases against migrants,” notes the author of the Case Files, “others held sympathetic humanitarian beliefs; and many simply accepted bribes.”

While McGettrick handed out more than 1,000 certificates to Chinese immigrants, in the long run, these documents did not stop the deportation of everyone who received them. In 1906, a booklet listing McGettrick’s certificates was published by the government to make it easier to identify some of the people the commissioner had freed.

“So many of them showed, upon examination, that they were either fraudulently issued or not in the possession of the rightful owner,” noted the book’s author, “that United States commissioners generally discontinued accepting them as evidence of the holders’ citizenship.” We don’t know how many of the holders of McGettrick certificates were eventually deported.

It is impossible that Martin and McGettrick did not know of each other, and unlikely that they approved of each other’s work. But there is no known record of either of them publicly commenting on their differences.

* * *

Expressions of opposition to the enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act may have played a role in freeing two men in Woodstock, Vermont.

Leon Bow helped run a laundromat there and, along with another laundry worker, was arrested in 1904. In a news story about their arrest, the Spirit of the Age reported, “The men have been peaceable and industrious residents, and mutterings, not to say loud comments on the street here, showed unmistakable indignation over the issuance of the warrants.”

Martin uncharacteristically accepted the claims of two men who testified that the duo who were arrested were their nephews. According to the The Spirit of the Age, Martin also accepted the two men’s testimony that Leon Bow had been born in San Francisco and had always lived in the United States. The two were released on Martin’s recommendation, “as nothing was found which would warrant holding the men.”

However, a previous story about the laundry’s owner in The Spirit of the Age, published four years before the arrests, stated that Leon Bow was born in Canton. Whether Martin knew this information or whether he was swayed by local sentiment against the arrests is not known.

* * *

In Brattleboro , hostility toward Chinese immigrants was not limited to prejudicial comments in the columns of the Phoenix. A confusing report in that newspaper on June 2, 1905, under the sensational headline “Chinaman on Rampage,” documents some hostility toward the “Chinese laundryman” on Elliot Street who was preparing to move to Massachusetts.

After the unnamed owner got into an argument with a customer over charges for cleaning, a crowd of men and boys gathered around the laundry. As the Phoenix put it, the laundry owner “became further wrought up when boys began throwing stones into his front door.” (There were other reports of rocks being thrown at Chinese laundromats in Brattleboro’s papers.)

Eventually, lawmen dispersed the onlookers by picking one of them up and throwing them to the sidewalk, and “the rest of the crowd profited by the example.” In closing, the Phoenix noted, “The Chinaman left town Wednesday.”

* * *

Chinese American civil rights activists, including Wong Chin Foo, fought against the persecution they suffered. The constitutionality of the Chinese Exclusion laws was repeatedly challenged in the courts.

News coverage does not identify who made the case against the law in 1901, but we know from the Phoenix that then–District Attorney J.L. Martin was called to Newark, N.J., to defend the laws.

The case involved a man named Chee Foo, who had originally been apprehended in Vermont and was about to be deported. In fact, Foo was already placed on a steamboat to China when unknown parties filed a writ of habeas corpus in the federal District Court of New Jersey. Foo was brought before Judge Andrew Kirkpatrick.

According to the Phoenix, “The friends of the Chinaman argued that in this case the commissioner had no jurisdiction because the order of deportation was in effect banishment of his liberty in the United States unless he commits a crime, in which case he has a right to a trial by jury in the state where the crime had been committed.”

In reply, Martin argued that “the power of the United States to regulate the immigration of Chinamen is a political right co-extensive with our sovereignty as a nation, that the deportation of Chinamen is merely sending them home and cannot be regarded in the light of a sentence and does not involve the liberty that the framers of the constitution intended to protect.”

Judge Kirkpatrick ruled against Chee Foo, who was returned to the custody of the government and ordered to be deported. The case file for Chee Foo v. United States is missing, and it is not known if the ruling was appealed.

* * *

Martin was named a federal judge serving in the district of Vermont in 1906. (That same year, McGettrick was appointed assistant district attorney in Massachusetts. One has to wonder what Martin and McGettrick thought of each other being appointed to such positions of power.)

Once in his new role, the judge held his court hearings in his office in the American Building on Main Street in Brattleboro. Here, a spirited defense was made against the deportation of Chin Hen Lock under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The hearing was described by the Phoenix in a 1909 story as “the spiciest one that has occupied Judge Martin’s attention in a long time.”

The case is also filled with mystery. When he was arrested, the man presented identification papers with the name “Chin Hen Lock” on them. The man’s photo was attached to the document. We do not know whether the man in Martin’s courtroom was actually Chin Hen Lock or someone merely posing as him.

According to the Phoenix, during the hearing Inspector Arthur Weeks “mentioned evidence which had come to him involving an agency issuing bogus certificates to Chinese immigrants, and at this point the music started.”

Was this mention of “an agency issuing bogus certificates” a reference to the controversy surrounding Commissioner McGettrick’s office? There is no further explanation in the article, but the Phoenix noted that Judge Martin “appeared to be impressed with the suggestion of fraud.”

Whether McGettrick was involved or not, Martin may have previously encountered forged identification papers. As noted by Anna Pegler-Gordon in her book In Sight of America: Photography and Development of U.S. Immigration Policy, many Chinese people, desperate to stay in this country, used forged documents and “relied on photography as part of their strategy to elude exclusion.”

The young lawyer from Massachusetts fighting for Lock’s release was referred to as “J. J. Walsh” and was probably John Jackson Walsh, who would later serve in the Massachusetts Senate and would go on to run for the governorship of his state.

Walsh was more passionate than successful in his attempts to prove that vital information about his client’s credentials had not been given the attention it deserved.

At one point, while disagreeing with Judge Martin, Walsh stood up excitedly from his seat and was ordered to sit back down.

“Mr. Walsh said he was perfectly sure Chin was a citizen of the United States and could prove it if he had full opportunity,” the Phoenix reported.

The newspaper reporter noted the court’s reply: “that the law of Congress made the decision of the inspector final, except on appeal to the department of commerce and labor,” and that it would be “detrimental to the sovereign power of the country” for him to make a ruling about the correctness of the department’s decision.

Martin stated in his final decision that even if the inspector could be shown to have made the wrong decision, it was not in the purview of the court to do anything more than ensure that Lock’s original hearing had been fair.

Walsh was complimented by the Phoenix in the closing lines of the article. “He had an exceptional command of English, meeting every unexpected situation in which he found himself without hesitation and with rare diction.”

However, while Walsh indicated that he would appeal the ruling to the United States Circuit of Appeals, his “rare diction” may not have done Chin Hen Lock any good.

To date, records of any such appeal have not been discovered, and the last record we have is of Judge Martin’s decision confirming that Lock was to be deported.

* * *

What finally happened to the man in Martin’s court that day is another mystery, but his fate seems perilous. After he left Judge Martin’s office on that day in late October, he was sent to the Chinese detention house in Richford, Vermont. The final decision against his suit was made in mid-November of 1909. Current evidence suggests that he was put onto a boat, and after a long ocean voyage, probably arrived in China in either late 1909 or early 1910.

Unfortunately for the man, China was about to fall into the chaos of the Revolution of 1911. Within a short time, uprisings spread over the country, the government of the Chinese Empire collapsed, and warlords took over portions of the nation. We can only hope that the man who walked out of Martin’s office in the American Building was able to walk off the boat in China and find either friends or family, a way to survive the tumultuous years, and some measure of happiness.

The front page of the Brattleboro Reformer on Jan. 14, 1915 announced the “Sudden Death of Judge Martin,” who died Jan. 11 at a train station in Montpelier at age 68.

“While holding the office of district attorney he was particularly aggressive against the illegal immigration of Chinamen over the Vermont border, completely wiping out a business that once flourished,” the Reformer wrote.

“For this work, he was highly complimented by the department of justice,” the story said.

* * *

Epilogue: On Feb. 25, more than 100 years after Judge Martin’s death, during a recent national wave of anti-Asian hate crimes, Gov. Phil Scott nominated Nancy Waples, the daughter of immigrants from mainland China, as a member of the state’s supreme court.

In a statement released on the day of her nomination, Waples said that her parents “traveled halfway around the world with literally nothing more than the clothes on their backs to live in a place that didn’t speak their language, where they didn’t have any friends or family.”

Exactly one month later, the Vermont Senate approved her nomination unanimously.

The role of State Supreme Court Associate Justice Nancy Waples — the first woman of color to be seated on the state’s highest court — in shaping Vermont’s laws is probably something that Judge Martin could neither imagine nor approve of.

“I hope my appointment inspires other people of color to reach outside of their comfort zone and climb the same ladder I climbed, and I will be there to lend my hand,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #665 (Wednesday, May 25, 2022). This story appeared on page B4.

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