Policing the Public: Public Outcry and the Threat of Moral Intervention in San Francisco, 1857

By Carolyn Levy 

On April 4th, 1857, the San Francisco newspaper Daily Globe published a column concerning the existence of Chinese prostitutes in the city. Daily Globe was a short-lived newspaper, published only from 1856 to 1858. Although the newspaper did not last, the column published in the Daily Globe is indicative of the public sentiments that pushed for the development of organizations like the California Workingmen’s Party—which, in turn, pushed for laws targeting Chinese immigrants. Police forces alone could not prevent Chinese prostitution in San Francisco. However, the combined actions of the police, white citizens, and the federal government effectively targeted the Chinese and reduced the number of potential threats to white America. The column on April 4th read:

“The Voice of Many Citizens.

An indecent exhibition of harlots, has, for some weeks, disgraced the streets of San Francisco. An open insult to the family of every citizen is daily paraded through the principal promenades, in the shape of a gaudy equipage with liveried servants, filled with the most notorious of the abandoned women of the city. In a larger place than this, so audacious a violation of the proprieties of life, would perhaps pass unnoticed, but this community, the wrong to good morals, and to the fair name of our city, is too apparent not to require prompt action to stop so disgraceful a scene—one which tells to every child in the city a tale of infamy, and which is a mock and insult to every honest woman who is forced to meet it in her walks. This thing has been suffered long enough. It is now a crying evil, and while Chinese brothels are being deluged with water on every opportunity, infamy in a gilden [sic] coach is allowed the freedom of the city. A warning is now given that this scandal can not be permitted. It will be well for those interested to take heed.”

Professional police departments were a relatively new development at the time this column was published. As such, the anonymous writings published in the Daily Globe speak to the perceived need for citizens to aid in dealing with crime in the city. Published prior to the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments as well as the building of the transcontinental railroad, there were few reasons for the federal government to intervene in immigration in San Francisco in the 1850s. However, within a few decades, the federal government had enacted multiple laws—including the Page Act (1872), the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), and the Geary Act (1892)—in order to control Chinese immigration and therefore the composition of individuals living within the United States. How did moral policing instigated by citizens, understood here as white, likely middle-class individuals and groups, transform into a federal immigration issue? The answer lies in the policing of racialized others within the United States.

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History of San Francisco mural “Beating the Chinese” by Anton Refregier at Rincon Annex Post Office located near the Embarcadero at 101 Spear Street, San Francisco, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Carol M. Highsmith collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Historians have attempted to trace the development of Chinese and Asian racialization in the United States.[1] Racializing the Chinese as yellow, and therefore not white, made it easier to attach other issues to racial difference. Arguments about moral and religious differences stemmed from racialization, and these accusations of difference had real political consequences. Individuals like the proclaimed “Voice of Many Citizens,” pointed to Chinese prostitutes as symbols of immorality, and therefore the antithesis of respectability. The writer’s threat to take heed should not be viewed as a mild warning, as moral policing in the United States could result in forcibly intervening in the lives of those deemed immoral. Indeed, as reform movements surged during the Progressive Era, reformers used intrusive and violent strategies, as seen with groups like the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Committee of Fourteen and Committee of Fifteen in NY.[2]

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Anti-Asian sentiment in turn of the century American media, “How John may dodge the Exclusion Act“, circa 1905, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The 1857 column cited here serves as an early sign of the sentiments behind the push to legally discriminate against the Chinese. The arguments for Chinese exclusion were not limited to gendered moral critiques. The Page Act stated that, “the importation into the United States of women for the purposes of prostitution is hereby forbidden…it shall be unlawful for aliens of the following classes to immigrate into the United States, namely, persons who are undergoing sentence for conviction in their own country of felonious crimes other than political or growing out of or the result of such political offenses, and women “imported for the purposes of prostitution.””[3] The Page Act was created in order to prevent Chinese female prostitutes from immigrating to the United States, but in practice the law was used to stop almost all Chinese women from coming to the United States. The Page Law’s emphasis on the deviant moral character and sexual nature of Chinese women demonstrated the significance of maintaining and protecting an American form of culture and sexuality that was considered the moral norm. Scholar Eithne Luibhéid described the Page Law as the “harbinger not only of sexual, but also of racial, ethnic, gender, and class exclusions that were codified by subsequent immigration laws.”[4] The Page Law serves as proof of the role public discourse and the state played in determining respectability. This relationship between the public and the state is further revealed in the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Geary Act. The power to police was not restricted to police forces, nor was it solely based on the impetus of state authorities. Within the general public, white American citizens played a crucial role in monitoring and policing racialized others.

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Carolyn Levy is a PhD Candidate in the dual-title program with the departments of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on constructions of gender, sexuality, and respectability in the United States during the nineteenth century. You can find her information at http://history.psu.edu/directory/cal65 and follow her on Twitter @carolynannlevy.

Image at top of the article: A Chinese grocery – San Francisco, circa 1904, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] Najia Aarim-Heriot, Chinese Immigrants, African Americas, and Racial Anxiety in the United States 1848-1882 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003). Aarim-Heriot describes the process of racializing the Chinese as “Negroization”. See also Michael Keevak, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[2] See Jennifer Fronc, New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009). See also George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (Basic Books, 1994).

[3] Forty-Third Congress, Sess. 11, “Ch. 141,” 1875.

[4] Luibhéid, Entry Denied, 31.

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