by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This weekend marks the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the horrific Chinese Massacre of 1871, in which seventeen Chinese men and one teenage boy were lynched by a mob of hundreds of Anglos and Latinos after inter-Chinese battles led to the killing of an American man and the wounding of a Latino police officer on 24 October.
The bloodthirsty crowd ransacked adobe buildings on the Calle de los Negros, often called by the Anglos Nigger Alley, though the street, just southeast of the Plaza, was apparently named for a dark-skinned Latino resident from the pre-American period. As evening fell amid the ill-lit area, victims were shot in the street or dragged to improvised gallows at a lumberyard, along beams at the front of commercial buildings or even overturned wagons. Others fled the city, hid as best they could in their homes or businesses or were secreted away by sympathetic residents.
Even for a City of Angels often riven with shocking levels of violence, such as during the Gold Rush years of the 1850s, the sheer scale of the massacre was stunning, while the news was broadcast far and wide across the United States and overseas. For a city and region that was in the early stages of its first sustained and significant growth period, the massacre was an indicator that ethnic and racial violence remained a terrible threat, though some sources indicate that the wake-up call was met forcefully and law and order became more established and pronounced afterward.
For this series of posts dealing with this crucial event in Los Angeles history, I’m relying on work that I did nearly a quarter century ago with my master’s thesis, which dealt with several major “extralegal” cases from the first half of the 1870s including the lynchings of Michel Lachenais (December 1870) and Jesús Romo (June 1874) and the capture, trial and execution of Tiburcio Vásquez (1874-1875), though about 40% of the work concerns the Massacre.
For this first part, we’ll set the scene by taking a look at the Chinese community in Los Angeles for roughly two decades prior to the tragedy, move tomorrow to some of the conflicts within that population that were taking place in the period right before the event, and then go into some detail about the Massacre and its aftermath, including the coroner’s inquest, grand jury investigation and trials. It should be added that, of all that is written about the Massacre, perhaps the definitive account remains Scott Zesch’s 2012 book The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871, which cannot be recommended highly enough for its remarkable analysis.
Not long after the Gold Rush was launched in 1848, miners from China arrived in California searching for “Gold Mountain,” though it did not take long, in a recently seized territory of the United States lacking any real government or law enforcement system filled with people from Asia, Central and South America, Europe and America competing for riches (realized or not), for the Chinese to be subjected to expulsion, a foreign miners’ tax, and violence. The 1850 federal census, actually conducted in the early weeks of the following year because of California’s admission to the Union in September, enumerated two Chinese men.
A decade later, the next census counted eleven Chinese people, including the only one not residing in Los Angeles, this being “John Chinaman,” a 30-year old cook in the household of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste where the Homestead is today. Not surprisingly, we know nothing more about him, as was the case for virtually any Chinese person living in the region in those years. Not long before that, in the 22 October 1859 edition of the Los Angeles Star it was recorded that,
Our city was honored last week, by the advent of one of the ladies of the Celestial Kingdom, being the first specimen of the sex who has visited this section. The Johns were out in full fig, and the fair one was conducted to her home with all due ceremony. The event caused great sensation in Chinadom. The “outside barbarians” were not silent on the occasion—they hovered around the stage, and made as much din and tumult, amost as the Celestials themselves, though probably not quite as complimentary.
Two months later, the Star noted that a “Working Men’s Association” was created in San Francisco “for the purpose of self-protection against competition by the Chinese Coolie system,” meaning the importation of cheap labor to the detriment of white workers. Specifically, it was averred that such “coolies” were working mines and then extracting gold “to be handed over to the masters and shipped to China” rather than spent in California or elsewhere in the United States.
Beyond mining, however, it was reported that “they are now coming into competition with mechanics and working men” and that one cigar factory was paid $2,000 to teach Chinese the manufacturing process. The paper added that “the Chinese are an undesirable feature in our population and bemoaned the labor problem in which there was no wish “to see [white] laboring men reduced to starvation prices [wages],” but, rather, “to see them constantly employed at fair wages.”
This could not happen, it was charged, so long as the Chinese were driving down wages and stealing jobs and the article concluded by noting that “the presence of the Chinese in our State is an unavoidable evil.” It was alleged that “they cannot be driven out, and the tax on their labor in the mining region, considered to be sufficiently high, is not so serious a consideration as to deter their continual immigration.”
In its 17 March 1860 issue, the paper noted that “we see an increased number of Chinamen in our midst” and continued that while those few that wer here before were limited to laundry work “recently we observe them employed as servants and we learn a company of them have organized to supply this market with fish.” It is worth adding that the following week’s edition decried the recent arrival of the first Japanese to San Francisco (this seven years after American naval forces demanded the opening of Japan to ouside contact and trade) and stated that “the poor Japanese, like their brethren [!] from the ‘Flowery Kingdom’ would soon be kicked and cuffed at every corner.”
Yet, not all was hostility and hate. The Star, in its 15 January 1861 edition, wrote “we learn that a Chinese merchant is now in the city, who intends soon to open a store for the sale of all varieties of Chinese goods.” It continued that it was expected that “novel and useful” merchandise would be found in the establishment and concluded “we see no reason why he should not prosper.” The proprietor of the paper was Henry Hamilton, a devoted Southerner who would very soon, with the outbreak of the Civil War, be a pronounced advocate for the Confederacy.
Halfway through the year, the Star noted that, under the heading of “Something New,” “it will be seen by advertisement that the pioneer Chinese store has been opened in our city.” Noting that it was anticipated that there would be goods not found elsewhere in the city, the paper noted that “as a curiosity shop, the store of Mr. Chun Chick is well worth a visit.”
The ad, written like those for most other such establishments, blared “A Chinese Merchant! to the Public of Los Angeles!!! Chun Chick respectfully announces to the public of Los Angeles that he has opened a store on Spring Street opposite the Court House [this would be the east side between Temple and First] where he has on hand and for sale a general assortment of Chinese Goods.” Included were preserves, sugar, tea and those grocery items generally brought from China “for the American market” and citizens were asked to come either to buy or “through curiosity.”
At the end of 1861, another Chinese entrepreneur advertised in the paper as Lee Sing opened, on Main Street. the “China Hotel and Restaurant” with the former operated on the “American Plan,” meaning that three meals a day were provided along with accommodations. As with Chun Chick, Lee Sing sounded like a seasoned American business person by adding that “the table will at all times be supplied with the best the market affords” and emphasizing that “oysters [are] constantly on hand.” Room rates were a dollar a day and five a week, while meals were fifty cents, though Lee was savvy enough to note that there was “no credit” offered.
The mid-January edition, however, had a lengthy account of a “Chinese Row” employing the typical mocking language about the Chinese, in this case over the battling of two rivals for supremacy over that small community. The article began with
it seems that the sons and daughters of heaven and first cousins of the moon, have as many weak points regarding mundane affairs, as the rest of mankind who have a less celestial origin. For some time past a score of them have been settled about here, who seem to be “captained” by an old residenter named “John,” (of course,) who for the last five or six years has been among the chiefs in lavatory employment about Los Angeles. In fact all our Chinamen acknowledged John as chief mandarin, from whose decision there was no appeal. Like all sovereigns, John is jealous of his prerogatives, and can scent danger from afar.
The report was that “another invoice of the pig-tailed community” arrived from San Francisco and that “John saw his throne was tottering, and took the earliest measures to avert the impending defeat.” His method, however, was not violence, but, rather, a legal strategem, in which “he went before a magistrate and had a warrant issued against his rival and a couple of others, on a charge that they had threatened his life.”
While arrests were effected, the parties were released on their own recognizance, pending a hearing, but “John did not like the latter arrangement, and offered an officer five dollars if he would put the enemy in jail.” This failing, “he went to the house of his enemy and commenced ‘from the shoulder,’ clearing the house and smashing the furniture after the fashion of an ‘enraged Christian.”
Apparently, “John” was astonished to find that he was charged at the hearing for his proactive stance and when “informed of the decision, he immediately sprang up and declared: ‘Me no lie ee dat! Me catchee him! You catchee me! Why me pay, eh?'” Purportedly, the Justice of the Peace calmly replied, “Me make you pay for jealousy, John. That’s all.”
In mid-August, the paper titled a piece “Chinese Nuisance” and stated that “for a time past, the public of this section of California have been listless readers of the anti-Coolie demonstrations of the up-country” but that was changing because “at least we are brought in contact with a portion of the degraded of the almond eyed family.” Continuing that such persons were living “in the most respectable neighboroods,” the Star decried “their unblushing conduct” which “has drawn down the wrath of the authorities upon them.”
The accusation was that Chinese prostitutes were then in the Angel City and, in a spate of cases filed against them and other purported “soiled angels” of other ethnicities, “by counsel [they] fought their case manfully.” As was true for most other accused “ladies of the night,” the Chinese pled guilty, though the paper added “we suppose [they] will be complained of from time to time, as their ingenuity may be met.” The piece ended with the prognostication that “in this section, we have enough of the substratum of the human family to attend to, who are natal to the soil, without being troubled with the outcasts of the Flowery Kingdom.”
The early Sixties included a ravaging flood in the winter of 1861-62 followed by the devastation of drought the following two years and it is possible the small Chinese community lost numbers as was the case elsewhere in greater Los Angeles, which also suffered from the afflictions of smallpox. Mention of the Chinese tailed off for a bit, though the 6 February 1864 edition of the Star, which elsewhere rejoiced that there was “Rain! Rain!! Rain!!!” after “two long years” of “perpetual sunshine,” briefly reported that “tomorrow will commence the Chinese new year and will be celebrated by our ‘fellow citizens of celestial descent'” so that “pigs, chickens and fire crackers will be largely consumed.”
Speaking of chickens, the Star published a remarkable story in it 9 April 1864 edition about a civil case before Justice of the Peace William H. Peterson involving two Chinese persons. It was reported that a plaintiff’s witness testified that the defendant signed a contract that was the focus of the proceeding, but the latter responsed that this was not the case because he could not read or write.
The witness then sought to prove his honesty “by the rite of cutting off a chicken’s head . . . calling upon the heathen Gods to witness the truth of what he said” to which “the defendant immediately succumbed and had no more to say.” The paper added that “this form of attestation is the highest and most solemn known to Chinese law and custom.” Regardless of how “ridiculous it may appear to civilized and Christianized eyes,” this act of “cutum chicken-head” was said to be “the only sure means of getting the truth out of a Chinaman in litigation among themselves.”
Another moral crusade was enacted against those accused of practicing the oldest profession in the world in late winter 1864 (another in November 1862 went after roughly 30 Chinese persons for “keeping houses of ill-fame), but the Star noted that the preceding Wednesday night “the city was the scene of one of those wanton and disgraceful outrages that have become so painfully common in American communities generally, and in California communities especially.” In particularly, the account continued,
A party of riotous persons [white men], in pure viciousness, without any other rational motive than to do violence to the helpless and defenseless, went forth upon the unmanly mission of demolishing the domicil[e]s and furniture of a number of Chinese women. How many of these humble and unobtrusive establishments were broken into and laid waste we have not learned; but one such outrage is enough to stain the character of any community, and to cover with shame those who were guilty of it . . . We may be told that these houses and their inmates are nuisances. If they are so, the laws of the State supply abaundant means for their abatement . . . Had the rioters of Wednesday night been actuated by a desire to abate a public nuisance, they would have resorted to the law instead of violence and outrage.
The paper called upon the county grand jury to indict these “perpetrators of such outrages” because, in so doing, calling them to task in court “would go far towards impressing upon the minds of evil disposed persons the necessity of orderly behavior if not of just and manly principles.” While four German men were tried for disturbing the peace and destroying property, the minute book of the court revealed that, on 26 September, Gustavus Brown was found not guilty by a jury, while the cases against Henry Kuhn, William Swartz, and Fritz Hauff were subsequently dismissed.
In some ways, this attack may be seen as something of a presaging of what transpired seven years later and it is notable that Hamilton, whose paper was soon shut down because of his increasingly agitated pro-Confederate editorializing, expressed anger at the rioters who invaded the residences of Chinese women with “violence and outrage.”
Tomorrow, we’ll continue this post with a look at conditions within the Chinese community in 1870 and 1871 involving legal and extralegal actions that had direct bearing on what would follow on that terrible late October night, so please check back with us then.