Hugh Murray: California’s Racist Supreme Court Justice
John J. Dunphy
(Originally published in 10/2/11 edition of The Telegraph of Alton, IL
Whenever I am asked who is the most famous graduate of Upper Alton’s Shurtleff College, I immediately reply that it’s a tie between John M. Palmer and Hugh Campbell Murray because both men figured so prominently in our nation’s history.
Palmer rose to the rank of major general during the Civil War and, while serving as military governor of Kentucky in 1865, liberated the slaves in that border state. He later entered politics and served as governor of Illinois and, later, as our state’s U.S. senator. Murray, on the other hand, achieved success outside of Illinois by becoming the third chief justice of the California Supreme Court. Some recent research on Murray, however, has convinced me that he was one of the most contemptible and morally bankrupt figures in American history.
Born in St. Louis on April 22, 1825, Murray’s family moved to Alton when he was still an infant. After graduating from Shurtleff College, he read law in the office of Alton attorney N.D. Strong. Murray interrupted his reading long enough to accept in 1847 a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army during our war with Mexico. When the conflict ended, he returned to Alton to complete his legal studies. There is no evidence that Murray ever practiced law in the Prairie State. He left Illinois for California during the height of the Gold Rush. Murray took a ship to Panama, crossed that pre-canal nation and then caught another ship that got him only as far as Cabo San Lucas in the Mexican state of Baja California. Murray and a few hardy companions then walked hundreds of miles to San Francisco, where he established a successful law practice. He returned to Alton for a few months in 1853 to visit his mother and brother.
This Shurtleff graduate was made a justice of the San Francisco Superior Court in 1850. A year later, Gov. John McDougal appointed Murray to the California Supreme Court as an associate judge. Upon the resignation of the chief justice in 1852, Murray succeeded him at age 27 — the youngest person to hold that position in the history of California. He was elected to a two-year term in 1853.
Murray was a vindictive man whose fiery temper sometimes placed him on the wrong side of the law. When he heard that a political enemy had called him “the meanest chief justice ever,” Murray sought out the man and beat him with his cane. The city recorder of Sacramento subsequently fined Murray the sum of $50, plus court costs.
Nineteenth-century California was a far cry from the progressive state that we know today. Racism was deeply embedded among the white population. Since 1850, state law had prohibited blacks, mulattoes and American Indians from giving testimony in court when the defendant was white. A ruling by Murray made the California judicial system even more biased.
George W. Hall, a white California miner, in 1854 killed a Chinese miner named Ling Sing and was sentenced to death. Hall appealed to the California Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction and freed him. Although three Chinese men had testified in court that Hall had committed the murder, the court ruled that the Chinese-Americans had no right to testify against white defendants. Chief Justice Hugh Murray wrote the majority decision. This ruling meant in effect that white Californians could murder Chinese Californians without fear of prosecution.
In the 1850s, a new party was born in the United States. Popularly known as the Know- Nothings, its membership was composed of native-born white Protestant Americans who resented the influx of immigrants, especially the Irish and German Catholics. California Know-Nothings added the Chinese to their list of undesirables. Murray’s ruling endeared him to that state’s Know-Nothings, and in 1855 he accepted this party’s nomination as its candidate for a six-year term as Supreme Court Chief Justice. He won the election by a small margin. Nonetheless, Murray’s victory paved the way for the election of a Know-Nothing candidates as governor as well as mayor of San Francisco. Murray was delighted by the party’s success in California.
While Murray’s racism disgusts most Americans today, it greatly enhanced his popularity with the white Californians of his era. When he died on consumption in 1857 at age 32, California Attorney General W.T. Wallace praised Murray’s “generous and kind heart” and stated that “it is not to be denied that his position was in the front rank of the jurists of our country.” The new chief justice, David Terry, eulogized Murray as one “whose judicial reports, bearing the impress of his genius, will remaining a lasting monument to his memory.”
California in 2009 issued a formal apology for the discrimination and persecution that the Chinese had suffered in that state. Murray, who is interred in Sacramento Historic City Cemetery, surely turned over in his grave.
John J. Dunphy is a writer and poet. His books include Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois and Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials.