The Cheney Lynchings

Mob violence or ethnic cleansing?

In the early 1880s two men were hanged without trial, one Chinese and the other a Spokane Indian.

This quiet street corner in Cheney was once the scene of two brutal murders.

From 1881 until 1886, the frontier village of Cheney was also the seat of government for Spokane County. A courthouse stood nearby, and here on the northeast corner of College and Fifth was the simple wooden-framed country jail. If you were arrested in Spokane County in those days you probably ended up here.

In 1883 Lee Goy, a Chinese immigrant, was arrested for murder. The victim, an unnamed Chinese woman, had been bludgeoned with an axe behind a Cheney hotel. Another Chinese man testified that Goy had been on the scene, and When Goy was arrested he was found with some of the dead women's property in his possession. "That night while our quiet town was wrapped in sleep," reported the Cheney newspaper, "some party or parties broke open the jail, took the Chinaman out and hung him to a pine tree a few feet from the jail." It was further noted that a coroner's inquest for the man ruled that the "deceased came to his death by hanging, and that the parties were unknown."

An even darker incident the next year reveals more about how such extra-legal violence worked in early Cheney. In 1884 a Spokane Indian man (none of the sources provide his name) was accused of raping a white woman in Spokane Falls. He was arrested and brought to the jail in Cheney. That night a group Cheney residents took matters into their own hands. They busted down the door of the jail and dragged out the accused. Their first attempt to hang the man failed when the rope broke, but the second effort succeeded. The killers left their victim hanging in a tree.

The citizens of Cheney concocted a story that the deed had been done by a mob of masked men from Spokane Falls, who had come in under the cover of night, murdered the Indian man, and rode home "by separate routes." We peaceful Cheneyites had nothing to do with it! This is very typical of 19th-century lynchings, where citizens of the town where it happened blame the whole thing on an unidentifiable mob from somewhere else.

In this case, however, we have contemporary evidence that this was not the case. The afternoon before the lynching, Charles Ratcliffe, a Cheney resident, wrote a letter to his sweetheart back in Illinois. It reads in part:

"Oh Louise will I tell you of the dreadful thing that happened here yesterday and what I fear is going to happen tonight. A woman riding alone between Cheney and Spokane about dark was met by two Indians and draged out of the wagon by the fiends after accomplishing their purpose left her insensible. hundreds of men turned out and today the principle was caught and is now in jail. Tonight an attempt will be made to lynch him. I sincerely hope they will although it is an awful thing to do. I saw him as he passed the office just a few minutes ago."

The letter shows that the murder of the Indian was no act of spontaneous violence by people from out of town. It was planned in advance, by the residents of Cheney, and was generally known about town. This also means that the sheriff and other local law enforcement were complicit in the act.

Within days, it became known that they had murdered the wrong man. Indian agent Sydney D. Waters noted that he had been "positively assured" that the killers lynched the wrong Indian, but that he "no doubt deserved his fate." This too is sadly typical of 19th-century lynchings. Often the wrong party was murdered, but when this was discovered the local newspapers concluded that the victim had been a "bad" person anyway and needed killing.

The body of the Indian man was cut down the next day and taken to Spokane for burial--there is no record of where. No marker or monument marks the spot, and the name of the victim remains unknown. The lynching of this man was no isolated incident however--it was a part of a larger movement in the 1880s and 90s to drive Indians off their traditional lands in Cheney and Spokane and to force them to relocated to the reservations.