“The ‘Heathen Chinee’ is Not Only an Adept at Villainy”: Prefiguring the Chinese Massacre of 24 October 1871

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the year leading up to the horrors manifested in the lynching of seventeen Chinese men and one teenage boy by a mob of hundreds of Anglo and Latino rioters on 24 October 1871 after an inter-Chinese dispute led to the death of an Anglo man and the wounding of a Latino police officer, there were indications that tensions within and outside the small, but growing Chinese community of about a few hundred persons were growing and might have prefigured at least the possibility of violence directed at them, if not at the shocking level of that horrible night.

For example, battles among the Chinese over the few women in their community became more pronounced. On 30 October 1870, the Los Angeles Star reported that City Marshal William C. Warren and officer José Redona came back to the Angel City from Ventura with a woman named as Sing Lo, who purported “about three weeks ago almost broke the heart and pocked of her owner Ah Jo, by absconding from the classic precincts of Negro Alley with another Chinaman and a lot of valuable jewelry.

Los Angeles Star, 31 October 1870.

The couple was said to have gone to the harbor burg of Wilmington and then to Anaheim, where they “hired a Mexican with a stylish turnout, and left” for Ventura. Ah Jo issued a reward of $100 for the return of the woman, so Warren and Redona “followed on the trail, and upon arriving at that pleasant little burg found the object of their search in the hands of the marshal” who arrested Sing Lo not long before they got into his jurisdiction.

What then transpired went beyond the incident at hand and into a shocking confrontation between Warren and police office Job Dye outside the office of Justice of the Peace John Trafford at the corner of Spring and Temple streets when, as a witness stated, “I . . . saw a crowd of Chinamen and white men standing . . . around Dye and Warren, who appeared to be disputing . . . both parties seemed much excited.” The statement continued that Dye told Warren along the lines of “you have taken fees in the case which belong to me. I can, and will prove it, in a court of law.”

Star, 23 December 1870.

Warren, in turn, rebuffed Dye and called him a liar, leading the latter to “raise his cane as if to strike” with Warren, in response, firing with a Derringer pistol. Dye dropped his cane, produced “a heavy six-shooter” and was met by his boss drawing his own similar weapon. The witness added “both commenced firing; after seven or eight shots had been fired Warren fell, but he made several ineffectual attempts to rise; Dye ran up and grabbed him.” Several bystanders, including Horace Bell, future author of the well-known, if fanciful, memoir Reminiscences of a Ranger, “ran in and with considerable difficulty separated them.”

Warren was shot in the groin with the bullet lodged in his bladder and he died from this wound (it was later found that a bullet hit a watch in his vest pocket.) Dye had a head injury and a graze on the inner thigh, while Redona, who tried to intervene, was hit in his right arm and constable Robert Hester had a minor hand injury. It was also reported that “an unfortunate Chinaman who was standing among the bystanders, received a ball in the head from the effects of which he is expected to die.”

Los Angeles News, 23 December 1870.

Not quite two months later and a couple of days before Christmas, there was a report in the Star of a “Chinese Row” and it was stated that “about a hundred celestials,” which would have comprised a substantial proportion, perhaps a third or more, of the community, “attempted to prevent the arrest of a Chinawoman by the Deputy Sheriff of Santa Barbara County.” It was added that, during the fracas, taking place at Main and Commercial streets, “four shots were fired by the Chinamen, four Chinamen arrested by the officers, and one Chinawoman, arrested last night on the charge of grand larceny, is by this time safe in the jail at Santa Barbara.”

The same incident was covered by the Los Angeles News, which added that the local deputy federal marshal went with the Santa Barbara under-sheriff to the Calle de los Negros “where the samsel was found in bed.” She was taken out and put into a waiting wagon “but not without a fight with the Chinamen, who swarmed about when they found out what was going on.” With several shots purportedly fired, but none taking effect, the quartet of arrests were made “and the incipient riot was quelled” as the unnamed woman was takenn to Santa Barbara.

News, 24 December 1870.

The Christmas Eve edition of that paper provided more detail about the matter, stating that Justice of the Peace William H. Gray was hearing the case “of Lee Woo, a ‘heathen Chinee,’ charged with grand larceny.” That term was popularized in a poem by noted California versifier Bret Harte and which was published in the September 1870 issue of The Overland Monthly and then issued widely the following year. Harte intended the work to be a satire on anti-Chinese sentiment, but that irony was lost on many, who believed the words to be taken literally and embraced it as an anti-Chinese screed.

It was noted that “the prosecuting witness in this case is Miss Lin You, the girl that has figured several times in court, and it is said has been kidnapped more than once by the rival dealers in prostitution.” The piece, after noting that there was to be a hearing the day before, went on to observe:

In the meantime the defendant, in connection with others who were ambitious to become possessed of the charms and person of the fair, but frail Lin You, sent an emissary to Santa Barbara, and lodged a complaint against the unsuspecting moon-eyed beauty, who was arrested in this city on Thursday evening, and hurried off to santa Barbara, to answer to a charge of grand larceny. How she could have stolen any thing in that county from any one but the jailer, is a mystery, as the only time she was ever there was when she led from here, and was arrested by the officers of that county the moment she came within their jurisdiction . . . The arrest, however, served two purposes, it gave a rival company possession and control of the girl Lin You, and prevented her from appearing this morning as a prosecuting witness against Lee Woo.

It does appear that “Sing Lo” and “Yin Lou” were the same woman and the notion that she, as one of the few of her gender to be in Los Angeles, was being treated as property by two of the “companies,” long existent as benevolent associations, but generally viewed by suspicious Anglos as a type of gang, was clearly being discussed here. The account from the News ended with the assertion that even “the most skeptical” observer could see “that the ‘heathen Chinee’ is not only an adept at villainy, but that he knows how to make the laws and law officers serve him in the commission of a crime.

Star, 24 December 1870.

In a separate editorial, under the heading of “The ‘Heathen Chinee’,” the paper lambasted the behavior of the “peculiar civilization” of “the Chinese mob,” but went on to suggest that “bad as the affair was, the riot is ot the most disgraceful and immoral part connected with it.” It went on to assert that “the woman is a prostitute, imported from her native country by the Chinese companies who deal in human depravity and prostitution, and who avail themselves of the laws intended for the suppression of crime, to obtain posession and control of their sometimes unwilling subjects.”

The game, as the paper went on, was for a rival company “in their accursed profession” to file a charge of grand larceny to get the woman they were pursuing arrested and then “provide a bond for her and secure her release and possession.” This done, “they refuse to appear in Court as witnesses in support of the charge” and then force their captive to prostitution. It was stated that Yin Lou was treated in ths way several times previously and “her posession as often changed from one company to that of another.” The piece ended with the statement that

Under all circumstances, the presence of the Chinese is a curse to our country, and a foul blot upon our civilization, but to the permit them to use the machinery of the law for the furtherance of their infamous traffic, is a mockery of justice, as degrading to law and decency, as it is vile and immoral its in practice and influnece.

That day’s Star added its own further purported details in the matter, stating that the two peace officers were “following a guide into one of the filthy dens in” Negro Alley, when Yin Lou was found and removed for transport back to Santa Barbara. The account claimed that this “excited a grand commotion amonst its denizens, who hastily catching up knives, six-shooters, or whatever came handy, swore by ‘Josh’ that no ‘Melican man’ should ‘heap catchee China looman.'”

Star, 24 December 1870.

As the two officers exited the “hovel” in which the woman was found, “they found themselves in the presence of a dense crowd of terribly excited Chinamen, armed with knives, pistols, etc., seemingly determined to rescue their countrywoman.” The officers used “a few persuasive appeals from the heavy six-shooters” and headed out, but “whilst passing through Commercial street, the Chinamen caught up with the vehicle, stopped it, and attempted the forcible rescue of the ‘heavenly maiden with the almond eyes.'”

The report continued that one Chinese man from Santa Barbara was shot in the back, perhaps fatally, while a horse was hit by a ball, as “the firing was done entirely by Chinamen, neither of the officers present using their pistols, exept as clubs.” As local police officers arrived, “the ‘heathen Chinee,’ minus four of their number, who were captured by the police, beat a retreat to their dens in Negro Alley.” There, the piece concluded, for “the balance of the night they indulged in ‘muchee talkee’ and ‘heep cussee,’ ‘Melican man.”

News, 25 December 1870.

If these accounts were not sufficient to show the racist attitude of the two papers, which, of course, leads to questions about the veracity of the reports, the Star, in the same issue, expressed exasperation with the release of four Chinese men, sentenced to two years each at San Quentin for a crime in which they “roasted for two hours one of their countrywomen” and “for which crime, it appears, there is no punishment by law.” In another column it reprinted the decision of state Supreme Court Justice William T. Wallace, which noted that the men were acquitted of felony assault to commit murder, but were convicted instead of a misdemeanor, which called for a fine or county jail, not a fine and state prison, as was ordered by the judge. So, the release was not because there was acrime involved, but because the punishment dfid not fit the crime for which the quartet were convicted.

Separate was a report of a “Chinese Row” as “Ah Hung” and “Ah Yon,” referred to as ‘celestial visitors to the angels de Los Angeles” acted in “Rome . . . as the Romans do” and got into a fight at the Plaza. While Justice of the Peace Trafford issued fines of $10 for each of the combatants, the Star concluded its short briefing with the “hope that, disgusted with the things of the world, they will speedily return from whence they came.” Obviously, there were Anglos, Latinos and others who occasionally for into fisticuffs, but were not discussed in this way, if at all, in the local press.

Star, 8 March 1871.

Just prior to all of this, on the 17th, Michel Lachenais, a native of France married to a Californio woman (who died suddenly the prior year) and who killed a fellow French resident in 1861 and a Latino in 1866 before murdering his neighbor Jacob Bell in a property dispute, was lynched by a vigilance committee. The News, in its Christmas Day edition, reported that Los Angeles County Judge Ygnacio Sepúlveda presided over a case in which an unnamed “Chinaman had been convictd of ‘threats to kill,” but his unidentified attorney surmised that this “was hardly a crime, inasmuch as the threatener might belong to the vigilantes and claim to kill by divine right.”

In March 1871, another dramatic series of events took place, beginning with the report in the Star of the 8th that Lee Yong and Yut Ho were married, but which added that “Yut Ho was married to Sing Small, a very welthy but most infernally ugly old heathen” who objected to the attentions paid on his wife by Lee. Moreover, it was asserted that the couple “belonged to rival companies, which hated each other like Christians,” yet the two transacted the nuptial at Justice Trafford’s office. The piece ended with the observation that “the rage of old Small is terrible, and he thirsteth for blood.”

Star, 8 March 1871.

Separately, however, the paper wrote that Yut Ho was the subject of a habeus corpus case, preceding her quick marriage to Lee Yong, in which Hung Shin “alias Sing Small . . . recovered posession of the lovely Yut Ho” and that “a struggle for the possession” of her “occurred in the Court room, ending in a Chinese free fight,” which then spilled out into the street. This account concluded with the note that “Yut Ho and her owner, accompanied by a crowd of pagans, wended their way to Negro Alley,” while one Chinese indvidual was arrested.

Yet, elsehwere in the issue, another habeus corpus proceeding was initiated by Lee Yong, this time with District Court Judge Murray Morrison, “for the recovery of the possession of Yut Ho.” Police officer Emil Harris (later a police chief) and others of his compatriots found Yut “secreted in one of the dens of Negro Alley” and took her to Morrison’s court. There, “she was restored to the custody of her husband” and the judge ordered that officers be sent “to escort and protect them from a mob of Chinamen, who followed the carriage through the streets as long as they could keep up with it.”

Star, 10 March 1871.

On the 9th, the Star recorded that a suit was filed by Hing Sung (presumably Hung Shin/Sing Small) against Yu Hong and six others to recover Yut Ho on the argument that she was abducted for the purpose of marrying her of to Lee Yong. That same paper, on the following day, reported on “The Inter Chinese War” which “for some days past kept the shady suburb of Negro Alley in a state of bubbling excitement” over “the twice-married lovely Yut Ho.” It noted that she was married to Lee Yong, denoted “a Chinaman of another color,” but that her “lord and master appeared in scene second” and with a writ of “have her carcass” in hand “qushed the elopement.” This led Lee Yong to play “the grab game” with “a flank movement” leading to his arrest, along with five others, “on a charge of abducting and defiling Yut.”

On 10 March, a card “To the Public” was published by Sing Lee and six others, averring that “it is due to the respectable Chinese residents of this city that the American public should understand the causes of the late disturbance among us” so readers would know who was to blame “and not hold all of us accountable for the villainy of a few.” It noted that the Chinese companies “are generally formed among us for the purpose of protecting and caring for its members, but Yu (Yo) Hing formed his “for the purpose of plundering and oppressing their countrymen” and was not one of the established organizations.

Star, 10 March 1871.

It was added that the four men who “roasted the woman in San Bernardino are members of Yu Hing’s company,” which also tried to deflect blame by accusing others of the crime or mistreating them. More importantly, it was asserted that Yo Hing was behind the debacle involving Yut Ho, as she (referred to as “Ute How”) was “dragged up to Judge Trafford’s office” by “Lee Leeung” and forced to marry him. Judge Sepúlveda, then, ordered her released to her first husband, “Heng Shun.” It was added that, after this was enacted, Yo and his friends seized Yut and took her away, but police officers intervened and brought her back to Heng Shun, but a new battle was enacted at the court of Judge Morrison, who placed her with Lee Leeung. The card concluded that the mastermind behind the incidents at San Bernardino and Los Angeles was Yo Hing.

For his part, Yo Hing issued a short rejoinder in the Star on the 15th, in which he asserted that, as a resident of seven years, he “can with pride refer to the many respectable citizens of this city” with which he had conducted business, including lawyer and News co-owner Andrew J. King, in whose household Yo worked for two years; former mayor John G. Nichols, Yo’s landlord for several years including for a farm then occupied by Yo; William McKee, friend of Star publisher Henry Hamilton; and the Internal Revenue Service staff, who bought cigars made by Yo.

Star, 15 March 1871.

He claimed that he was, “in a peaceable, quiet and humble way attending strictly to my own affairs” with nothing to do with lawsuits or inter-Chinese battles. Instead, it was “recently evil-disposed persons” who sought to “ruin my good name, and despoil me by harrassing law suits of the savings of years of honest industry.” It is also worth pointing out, as we lead in to tomorrow’s post about the Massacre, that the Star of the 16th noted that “the Hon. A.F. Coronel,” who was then state treasurer, “will soon commence the erection of a fine three-story building on the property at the head of Los Angeles street, which is at present infested with Chinamen.”

That building would become the flashpoint for the Massacre and, with this post setting the proximate scene with respect to inter-Chinese fighting and the attitude of Angelenos, at least as expressed through the press, toward the Chinese, we will return tomorrow to mark the 150th anniversary of that terrible tragedy with a detailed look at what transpired that dark and horrifying evening.

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