origin of ‘hatchet man’: a hired Chinese assassin



The term hatchet man means:
– a person who uses strong written or spoken criticism to attack and destroy the reputation of another;
– a person who carries out unpleasant assignments for an employer or superior;
– (in American English) a person hired to commit murder.

The word hatchet job denotes a biased, malicious attack on the character or activities of a person, institution, etc.




These words are of American-English origin; the original sense of hatchet job was a murder carried out by a hatchet man, that is, a hired Chinese assassin using a hatchet or cleaver.

The earliest instance of hatchet man that I have found is from The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois) of Friday 4th September 1874, which published an article titled Traffic in Chinawomen, explaining how Chinese women were “imported” and sold as prostitutes in San Francisco:

In China females are not considered desirable offspring. Therefore, when a female child is born the father of it, if he be of the poorer class, either destroys the infant or brings it up to be disposed of later on for the purpose of prostitution. The Chinese importer in San Francisco conceives the idea that a flourishing house of prostitution, well stocked and situated in one of the most desirable of the alleys in the neighborhood of Jackson and Pacific streets, would bring in a nice income. He applies to some old hag here, who being no longer able to practice her profession of prostitution, has naturally fallen into the position of procuress. She is sent to China with an order to purchase so many women for the importer’s establishment. The price of a young girl varies from $90 to $400, in proportion to her personal attractions. The procuress returns with the women, and they are handed over to the importer, who, after reserving what he considers necessary for his own harem, disposes of the balance in the following manner: The woman is said to owe him so much money for her passage, and in order to work this out she lends herself to the purchaser for a certain term of years. The purchaser lends her that amount to reimburse the dealer, and she immediately passes it over to him, thus leaving her in the debt of the purchaser. This is the Chinese contract. The buyer, in order to protect himself, calls at the Hip Yee Tong Company’s office. This is the most infamous Chinese organization in this city, and so powerful that no Chinaman dare disobey its mandates. The buyer pays to the Hip Yee Tong Company a certain sum, a tax in fact, for the safe keeping of his woman. For should she at any time run away the Hip Yee Tong Company are bound to return her to the Chinaman who has paid in advance for her protection. The company among the many divisions controlling the several departments also has its hatchet men. These are really the executioners of the company. If the woman refuses to return the hatchet men are commanded to kill her, and once this sentence is passed death is inevitable.

A clear definition of hatchet man emerges from two testimonies given in 1876; on 26th May, the committee appointed by the Senate of the State of California to investigate the subject of Chinese immigration heard one F. L. Gordon, who, for three years, had been publishing a Chinese newspaper in San Francisco:

Q.—What are “hatchet men”?
A.—Fighting men; a class of men in Chinatown that can be hired to defend any house or store that is threatened, and will cut and kill indiscriminately. About a year and a half ago a store at number nine hundred and seven, or number nine hundred and nine Dupont Street, was threatened. A riot took place, and hired “hatchet men” broke into the store, shooting, cutting, and destroying. Some months ago a riot occurred at number eight hundred and ten Dupont Street, regarding the employment of Chinese in shoe factories, and the retention of wages. Store-keepers hired “hatchet men,” and they fought the strikers. Nine were wounded, and fifteen or twenty arrests made. None were convicted.
—from Chinese Immigration. The Social, Moral, and Political Effect of Chinese Immigration. Testimony taken before a Committee of the Senate of the State of California, Appointed April 3d, 1876 (Sacramento, State Printing Office, 1876)

The second testimony was given on 25th October 1876 by Michael A. Smith, a San Francisco police officer, before the joint special committee of the Senate and House of Representatives appointed to investigate the character, extent, and effect of Chinese immigration:

Q. Why are they called hatchet men?—A. A great many of them carry a hatchet with the handle cut off; it may be about six inches long, with a handle and a hole cut in it; they have the handle sawed off a little, leaving just enough to keep a good hold. Those are called among the Chinamen bad men or hatchet-men.
—from Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1877)

Therefore, the original sense of hatchet job, also hatchet work, was a murder carried out with a hatchet or cleaver by a hired Chinese assassin; the earliest instance of hatchet work that I have found is from The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, California) of Friday 21st June 1895, which published an article on the elopement from San Diego of Ah Guey, “the pretty wife of Long Kee”, with Hom Sing, “a good-looking highbinder from San Francisco”:

Long Kee and his bride came to San Diego and seemed to get along first rate. Long Kee made a good living, serving as butcher at the Hotel del Coronado. He gave his wife nice American dresses and kept himself up to date.
Two months ago a cloud came upon their horizon in the shape of Hom Sing, the highbinder, who made his home in Chinatown. He found Mrs. Long Kee without difficulty and paid her devoted attention. Before Long Kee could find anything to justify him in doing a little hatchet work himself, his wife had disappeared. This was on Tuesday, and on the same day Hom Sing failed to appear at his haunts in Chinatown.
Yesterday, after inquiring of white and yellow men all they knew of the runaways, Long Kee got a ticket to Los Angeles and started on the chase. He said he would never come back until he had settled the whole affair.
As a result, Chinatown is in a fever of excitement, waiting to hear from Los Angeles or San Francisco of a horrible double tragedy, with fat Hom Sing and pretty Ah Guey as the victims, and Long Kee as the swinger of the avenging hatchet.

The earliest occurrence of hatchet job that I have found is from The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) of Wednesday 23rd September 1925:

“Hatchet Job”
Only For Vengeance,
Cleveland Chinese Tell Police When Countryman Is Found Slain—Head Nearly Severed.

Cleveland, Ohio, September 22 (A.P.).—The body of Yee Chock, 26 years old, Chinese waiter, his head nearly severed, was found in a third-floor room in Chinatown tonight by police investigating a report that three members of the Hip Sing Tong had fled from the house. There also were gashes across the face.
A hatchet and a cleaver, which police said were used in the slaying, were found near the body.
It was the first Chinese killing in Cleveland in several years, and spread terror through the district. Hysterical Chinese explained to police that a “hatchet job” is for vengeance.

The earliest figurative use of hatchet work that I have found is from an article about prohibition in Kansas, published in The St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, Missouri) of Friday 25th January 1901:

Mrs. Carrie Nation, by her hatchet work in Kansas towns, has called attention to the present status of the prohibitory law in that State.
There has not been a day since the adoption of the constitutional amendments forbidding the sale of liquor as a beverage in that State when the law has not been violated in most of the larger cities.
For the last four or five years little has been said concerning the liquor traffic in Kansas. The people themselves have talked little. The hair-raising accusations of Mrs. Nation have apparently roused some of the communities out of their lethargy. Her work may result in the resubmission of the question to the people. If that is done, it is probable that prohibition will again triumph.

The earliest figurative use of hatchet job that I have found is from The Capital Parade, by Joseph Alsop and Robert Kintner, published in the Medford Mail Tribune (Medford, Oregon) of Wednesday 16th October 1940; Leon Henderson (1895-1986), an economist and a liberal New Dealer, was being disowned by the other New Dealers for having become “the great friend of business”:

Inquiry within the New Deal group shows that Henderson’s former friends are either in active opposition or lukewarm toward him.
This shift in sentiment is amusing because Henderson’s reputation was gained as a left-wing economist, a baiter of businessmen and a member of the White House inner circle. But it may also be significant if, as many informed persons believe, the president after the election returns the New Dealers to their former places of power, their first hatchet job may well be done on Henderson, one of their own group.

The earliest figurative use of hatchet man that I have found is from The Daily Washington Merry-Go-Round, by Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen, in the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) of Tuesday 31st January 1933:

Postmaster General Walter F. Brown has a project which will be much more expensive than the new Lincoln limousine bought to accommodate his top hat. He is backing a site for the new federal building in Cincinnati, against which most of that city is up in arms.
The site is in a crowded, noisy section of the city, was vetoed by the treasury department agent sent to look over the ground, has been the subject of numerous protests received by the treasury.
However, Walter, political hatchet man of the Hoover* administration, controller of Ohio political patronage, remains adamant.

* Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964), 31st President of the USA (1929-33).

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