by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On the evening of 24 October 1871, an ongoing series of disputes among rival tongs, or companies, in the small, but growing community of Chinese residents of Los Angeles, led to violence as shots rang out in Calle de los Negros (called by some Americans and Europeans Nigger Alley, though the name was for a dark-skinned Latino long before the American era), where most of the Chinese lived.
When constable Jesús Bilderrain appeared to investigate, he was shot and wounded, and citizen Robert Thompson, who decided to interject himself into the scenario and pointed his gun into the room of a building owned by state treasurer Antonio Franco Coronel, was shot and killed from someone inside.
After the shooting of Bilderrain and Thompson, a mob of hundreds of Americans, Europeans and Latinos quickly descended on the scene and, over the course of a few hours, engaged in a largely indiscriminate rampage and riot through the Calle. Chinese men and women were dragged from buildings, some were shot or captured as they fled for their lives, and enraged rioters smashed open doors and punched holes in roofs, pillaged businesses and residences, and some took eighteen Chinese males, one a teenager, and beat, stabbed, shot and hung them from several locations in the city.
While the sheriff, police chief and the handful of police officers in town arrived on the scene promptly, there was a palpable lack of organization and clear direction in trying to get a handle on the rapidly changing situation. It was also dark and chaotic and officials were badly outnumbered as well as poorly prepared. Some citizens intervened in the mob’s attempts to lynch the Chinese, but success was fleeting in most cases.
By about 9:30 p.m., the orgy of plunder and murder finally was exhausted, but the outcome was grossly shocking and revolting, even for a “City of Angels” with a long track record of extraordinary levels of violence and vigilantism. Distrust, suspicion and hatred of the “heathen Chinee” was long evident in the town and the wounding of Bilderrain and killing of Thompson was kindling to the long-smoldering emotions of the mob. The massacre drew widespread attention throughout the country and the heinous incident was a blot on the already less-than-stellar reputation of the city.
Legal proceedings began with a coroner’s inquest, which was almost always a short and simple process, but the sheer scale of the massacre necessitated four days of work from 25-28 October involving the interviewing of a large number of witnesses, including some who were identified by others as being direct participants in lynching and who wound up being indicted and, in some cases, tried for their roles.
One witness was real estate promoter and attorney Robert M. Widney, who directly addressed a claim by an alleged rioter that they were vigilantes. He stated that none of the participants in the massacre were of any prior organization and that any previously acknowledged vigilantes (the last such activity was less than a year before when Michel Lachenais, a serial criminal, was hung by a mob, one of which was said by Horace Bell in his 1881 memoir to have been Widney) actually worked to protect or rescue some Chinese from rioters.
The verdict of the coroner’s jury was that “we find the mob consisted of all nationalities as they live in Los Angeles” while adding that there was enough evidence to accuse over 100 persons as “having taken part in the destruction of the lives and property of the Chinamen.” Moreover, it was recommended that the Grand Jury note that testimony included “many names of such persons who seemed to have encouraged the mob.”
The grand jury was convened on 8 November by County Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda, who was then not quite 30 years old. Its foreman was long-time resident Juan José (born Jonathan Trumbull) Warner and included prominent lumberman William H. Perry, merchant Kaspare Cohn and future city council member, mayor and city treasurer William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman.
In his comments to the jury, Sepulveda noted that “lawlessness has again raised its monster head in our midst and in the most inhuman manner has satiated its barbarous instincts.” The massacre rendered “the name of this community a reproach to humanity and civilization,” and he referred to the inaction of the grand jury that he convened after the Lachenais lynching in December 1870. With this in mind, the judge implored:
Will you do likewise in this instance? Will you challenge the vengeance of Divinity by violating your oath? Shall law stand for naught, and immorality and crime have high carnival in our community? Be true to your manhood, to morality, and to mankind . . . in this way only can you satisfy an offended God, violated law, and outraged humanity.
It took over three weeks for the jury to do its work and, when it issued its report on 2 December, there were forty-nine indictments, roughly half for murder and the rest constituting a variety of felonies, and there were over 150 persons named. Among those named were several already jailed on suspicion of participation in the massacre and Judge Sepulveda praised the jury, stating that he could not call any of the twelve men back for service as long as he was on the bench (he remained a local judge for thirteen more years.)
Several civil and criminal trials ensued in local courts, the first of which was in early January and two more commencing in mid-February. In these latter pair, the judge was Widney, who was appointed after the sudden and unexpected death of Murray Morrison. One of the trials was People vs. L.F. Crenshaw, who was given a separate trial from several other men indicted for murder in the killing of one specific Chinese victim of the massacre, Doctor Gene Tong, a mild-mannered and much-liked figure among many non-Chinese residents.
Crenshaw’s case came up in court on 16 February 1872 and a local paper stated that “the whole country has been looking forward to this event. The progress of the trials, step by step, will evidently be keenly watched by the entire world, and it was no less anxiously await the result.” The first day was occupied with the selection of a trial jury, involving questioning by defense attorneys and prosecutors.
Likely because of the question of whether organized vigilantes participated in the massacre, as well, perhaps of the awkward fact that the presiding judge had been accused of involvement in the Lachenais lynching, defense attorneys asked each prospective juror about any affiliation with vigilantism.
This included F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of William and Nicolasa Workman, and who was a prominent rancher, farmer, banker and business figure in Los Angeles. When he was called and examined, a defense attorney for Crenshaw asked about any affiliation with vigilante groups. Temple responded “that he was not a member of any secret organization known as a Vigilance Committee; [and] never have been.”
The question was then restated as “if not a member of such organization on the 24th of October, 1871, are you now, or have you ever sympathized with such or a like organization?” The prosecutor, District Attorney Cameron Thom, objected on the grounds that the question was repetitive and “which catechized the witness and juror as to his association, affiliation and sympathy with all concealed classes of organizations and committees.” Widney sustained the objection and Temple was then sworn in as a juror, becoming the jury foreman in the case. Although five others interviewed admitting to having been vigilantes in the past, one was impaneled while the others were released.
Crenshaw’s trial lasted two days, not an unusual length for a murder trial in that era, but the jury’s deliberations yielded a vote of eleven for conviction and one for acquittal. Judge Widney allowed the body to consider a lesser charge of manslaughter and the holdout agreed to vote for conviction, probably in the belief that Crenshaw’s actions were not premeditated, but on the spur of the moment or in the heat of the moment. Sentence was delayed because of a change in attorneys, who motioned for an arrest of judgment and a new trial. This was not granted, but sentencing was held until the trials of the rest of the accused murderers of Tong was held.
Crenshaw’s new attorneys, Volney Howard and E.J.C. Kewen, also became the counsel for the remaining ten men and a combined trial was arranged for nine of them (one was discharged). Jury selection began on 22 February, but it took five panels and 255 men called up before a dozen were seated for the trial jury on 15 March. Among those impaneled was “E.H. Workman . . . accused on account of having served on the Grand Jury.” This was almost certainly William H. Workman, although his older brother was Elijah H. Workman.
What was called People vs. Mendel, et. al. took place over twelve days, a much longer span than usually found. Though the News earlier stated the world would watch intently, the long jury selection process appears to have led to “little interest and Judge, jury, counsel, witnesses and prisoners exhibit more than ordinary weariness.” The tactic of Kewen and Howard was to try to get as much evidence from the prosecution withdrawn as possible, though Judge Widney denied all such motions. At that, Kewen and Howard declined to call witnesses and offer any testimony.
When closing arguments were offered on 27 March, it was reported by the News that “the Court-room [located in a building erected by Jonathan Temple, F.P.F. Temple’s half-brother, about a dozen years prior] was thronged with a curious crowd, who apparently manifested a great interest in the argument of the respective counsel.” Nine hours were spent by both sides in laying out their statements.
After deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on the lesser manslaughter charge, as was the case with Crenshaw and based on the defense assertion that there was no premeditation, for seven men, including four Americans or Europeans and three Latinos. One Anglo and one Latino were acquitted. As for others who were alleged to have been involved in the massacre through various felony actions, it was felt that cases would not be brought forward, largely because obtaining jurors would prove too challenging, while having enough evidence to convict was also at issue.
On 30 March, Judge Widney sentenced seven men, one, Refugio Botello, remained in limbo pending a separate appeal, to sentences varying from two to six years. On 7 April, a steamer took the seven north to San Quentin, while Botello remained in Los Angeles and another accused rioter, an American named Crawford, sat in jail, as he had since late the prior year, waiting for news of a trial.
Kewen and Howard’s appeal for their seven convicts sent to San Quentin was heard in the April 1873 term of the state supreme court. The ruling from the high court was for the cases to be remanded back to the District Court for retrial “as a test case of the Chinese riot indictments” because, it was determined, the indictment issued by D.A. Thom in each instance “is fatally defective in that it fails to allege that Chee Long Tong [Gene Tong] was murdered.” The opinion added that even if the defendants did what was alleged “still it does not follow, by necessary legal conclusion that after all any person was actually murdered.”
So, on a technicality involving a lack of precision with the indictment (a problem Thom had going back to his earlier terms as District Attorney in the 1850s), there was, as the Los Angeles Star, expressed it a “most lame and impotent conclusion” took place because of “a quibble.” On 10 June, Judge Widney held a hearing, at which Volney Howard and new defense counsel James G. Howard (no relation to Volney) moved for a discharge of the seven defendants. Thom did not object. Perhaps he felt it would be impossible to secure a conviction at a second trial. One wonders why Widney, who knew of the faulty indictments, did nothing to correct the problem.
In any case, the debacle was a simple case of the miscarriage of justice in the brutal and inhuman killing of nineteen Chinese persons, all but one totally innocent of wrongdoing, but that one still subject to due process.
One other connection to the Workman and Temple families is that, for years the Chinese community held special services at the city cemetery on Fort Moore Hill for those killed in the massacre. In 1887, Mayor William H. Workman, a member of the grand jury that handed down the indictments that were determined to be “fatally defective,” was invited to be an official dignitary to attend what was called the “Ah Dieu” ceremony. It is not known if he went, but not long after, even those events ceased.
Still, the Chinese Massacre remains a signal event in the violent history of 19th century Los Angeles. In April 1992, after I watched the unfolding of the civil unrest after the acquittal of officers accused in the beating of Rodney King, I decided I wanted to pursue a master’s thesis that dealt with the Chinese Massacre and other instances of vigilantism and notable criminal events in the first half of the 1870s. That work was completed in 1999 and led more research and writing on broader crime and criminal justice in Los Angeles from 1850 to 1875. This included a session on the massacre in 2015 for the first of the four years of the Homestead’s “Curious Cases” series.
For those wanting to know more, easily the most comprehensive and best treatment of the massacre and of the Chinese community in Los Angeles during the period is Scott Zesch’s excellent 2012 book, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871.