by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was 150 years ago today that a riot and still shocking to ponder given the small size of Los Angeles, at probably around 7,000 persons, took place in which hundreds of Anglos and Latinos, already hostile to the small, but growing Chinese community centered on the Calle de los Negros and angered by gun violence that spilled into the streets on 24 October 1871, descended on the area and lynched seventeen Chinese men and one teenage boy.
The Chinese Massacre, even for an Angel City with a stunning history of violence, remains one of the most horrific events ever to have taken place in Los Angeles and, given the recent upsurge of anti-Asian hate and violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, it very much has relevance now for our ethnically-diverse region. The posts from yesterday and Friday presented some of the fraught history of the Chinese in the city from the 1850s through the early 1870s as attitudes and actions against them were a prelude and a prefiguring of the tragedy that burst out that terrible fall evening.
The denigration of the Chinese in the town’s newspapers was sometimes satirical with an attempt at humor but also often hostile and hateful. Mocking their dress, accents, traditions and beliefs and other aspects was accompanied by vitriol about them being a cancer, a danger and a threat to laborers and society broadly. There were occasional references to a risk of disease emanating from them and their community, as was stated, for example, in the 7 October edition of the Los Angeles News in a short piece titled “Notable Squalor.”
The condition of Negro Alley, as the Calle de los Negros was often called, was such that “the street is filthy, strewn with garbage and refuse matter” and which would “breed an epidemic . . . and will afford an inviting field for the cholera.” On the 10th, that paper discussed “the evaporation of the sewage which meanders at will down the classic slope of Negro Alley” and “impregnated the surrounding atmosphere with the most malarious perfume” thus being, along with an area on First between Main and Los Angeles, “good nurseries for infectious diseases.”
The paper’s issue on the 8th made a somewhat joking reference to a “War of Races” in that a Chinese boy known as “Ah Goff” and “a colored boy named Reuben” got into a fight, though Justice of the Peace William H. Gray “could see nothing in the case and dismissed it.” A similar attempt at humor was attempted on the 11th concerning Justice Gray hearing a case involving “Ah Yu” and “Ye Sup”, “residents of a lovely retreat in Negro Alley” and their fracas leading to a guilty verdict and a fine.
On the 23rd, the News reported on a “‘Melican’ Marriage Ceremony,” cliaming that “the Whites’ marriage ceremony is becoming quite fashionable among the followers of Confucious [sic] in this city.” In reporting that Justice of the Peace John Trafford condcuted a nuptial for “John” and “Maly” the prior night, the paper then went on to suggest that these marriages “are contracted to avoid paying the purchase money to the company from whom the woman may have been previously bought by the bridegroom.”
The following day, the paper wrote fairly extensively on “Celestials on the War-path,” noting that the previous morning “that nursery of crime, and hot-bed of depravity—Negro Alley—was othe scene of one of those numerous shooting affrays for which it is notorious.” It discussed the alleged fact that two Chinese companies, or benefit associations, were battling for control and that the leader of one, Yo Hing (discussed in yesterday’s post concerning events of the prior spring), took a woman “belonging to the other company” and forced her to marry one of his men.
This angered Ah Yup of the other company, who was said to have plotted revenge and that he arranged for a cadre of Chinese to be brought down by steamer from San Francisco. These men, it was reported, accosted Yo at the north end of Negro Alley, though the resulting gunfire led to no injuries. Police officers arrived and, after a search of buildings, three men were arrested and taken to Justice Gray , while Yo was also brought in on the accusation of assault with a deadly weapon. After all were released on bail, a hearing was set for 2 p.m. on the 24th.
In its coverage, the Los Angeles Star referred back to the controversy in the spring involving the marriage of Yit Ho and Lee Long (Leung) and the conflict between the two companies mixed up in the matter. The paper, moreover, asserted that, among those who came down from San Francisco, was Ah Choy, a brother of Yit Ho, who, with his compatriots, were “anxious to recover possession of their loved and lost.” It was also stated that a “$1,000 reward was to be paid for his [Yo Hing’s] scalp.” Purportedly, Ah Choy swore out a complaint against Yo for assault. The paper ended by asserting “their thousand and one friends tell five hundred and one lies, and it harder to separate the grain from the chaff than to find a needle in a stack of hay.”
On the afternoon of the 24th, Justice Gray’s hearing was conducted and historian Paul de Falla wrote that Ah Choy and Yo Hing were both held to answer to the county grand jury on attempted murder charges. He added that merchant Sam Yuen offered sureties for Ah Choy, telling the judge he had $6,000 in gold stashed at his business and that Gray sent police officer Emil Harris and Yo’s lawyer, Andrew J. King, to verify this, which they did. Yo Hing, of course, was present for all of this–a fact deemed significant by de Falla.
About a half-hour or so after Ah Choy returned to his quarters, office Jesús Bilderrain made his rounds through the Calle and then met his compatriot Esteban Sánchez at a nearby saloon (on duty drinking obviously not being a problem?) Two shots rang out and it was reported that one of Yo Hing’s men fired on Ah Choy, who was hit in the neck and mortally wounded, dying three days later. Bilderrain ran over to the Calle, while the News, in its edition of the 25th, stated that “officers and citizens rushed to the scene, and an attempt was made to arrest the parties engaged in the melee.”
The paper then wrote that the Chinese shot at those descending on the scene and that Bilderrain, “with one or two others of the officers and some volunteers” entered a building as this occurred. Bilderrain was hit in the shoulder, while his 15-year old brother (why he was there was not explained) was shot below the knee in his right leg. The News added that “another man a well-known and respected citizen—named Robert Thompson, who was called upon to assist—while endeavoring to enter was confronted by a Chinaman with a loaded pistol in each hand. These he placed against Thompson’s breast and fired” with one bullet resulting in death in about an hour-and-a-half. The paper added that “in less time than it takes to be told, the entire block was surrounded, so as to permit none to escape.”
Meanwhile, the Star, in its issue from the 25th, stated that “when the first shot was fired in this affair, our [unnamed] reporter was near at hand and arrived on the scene of action in time to see officers Jesus Bilderrain, Sepulveda, and Esteban Sanchez, and several others rush in and separate the combatants.” The paper averred that the Chinese launched “an indiscriminate firing . . . at the police, at each other and at every man in sight,” with one of these purpotedly Ah Choy. The wounded boy was said to be Juan José Mendibles and injured while standing on nearby Arcadia Street. As to Thompson’s killing, the paper stated that it was “from a bullet fired through the door of a Chinese store.” It continued that “the house in which the Chinese devils had taken refuge was surrounded by citizens, armed with pistols, shot guns and any convenient weapons” while it was separately noted that “the citizens armed themselves hastily and ran to the rescue of the police.”
The descending of citizens on the Calle was described by the News as involving “a string of men extended across Los Angeles street along the east side of Negro alley, and on the west side of the block along Sanchez street and an unbroken line formed around the Plaza connecting with both the ends of the lines on Sanchez street and Negro Alley.” In the Star, the statement was that “the people closed in on the accursed pagans and forced them to seek shelter in the adobe dens of the Coronel Block. This latter largely faced onto Sánchez Street with one wing entered from the Calle.
As the crowd swelled, the News added, “the mob was demoralized and uncontrollable. No definite organization existed.” It added that some were hoping to force the Chinese to the upper end of the Calle and into the Plaza “where parties were stationed to receive them.” The Star claimed that, as “the house in which the Chinese devils had taken refuge, was surounded by citizens,” those inside “barricadd every aperture, and prepared to fight to the death.” It continued that “Don Refugio Botelo, armed with a six-shooter, ascended to the roof” while “armed and terribly excited men watched every means of exit.”
The News reported that one Chinese man tried to escape via Los Angeles Street but “he was quickly captured by one Romo Sortorel [perhaps Ramon Sotelo],” who received a hatchet wound on the hand. As officers took the man toward the city jail, located on Spring Street between Temple and First,
The infuriated mob followed. Cries of “Hang him!” “Hang him!” “Take him from [Emil] Harris!” “Shoot him!” arose in every direction. The officers proceeded safely with their prisoner until they arrived at the junction of Temple and Spring streets. Here they were surrounded, and the Chinaman forcibly taken from there, and dragged up Temple street [one block] to New High street. The frame of the sliding doors of a corral at he corner of this street, afforded a convenient gallows. A rope was soon at hand, and amid his own wailings and the hootings and imprecations of the crowd, he was elevated. The cord broke, however, but another was at hand, and he was against hoisted to the beam, and there left to swing.
The Star described the scene more simply, noting that, rather than being taken first by officers, the man “was captured by the crowd, dragged through the streets to the eastern gate of the old Tomlinson corral, and hung.” It mentioned that the first rope broke and “a stronger one was substituted” and that “the breath of the wretch went out into the night air, and his body was left dangling from the upper cross piece of the gate.”
Given that it was late October, darkness descended on a town with ill-lit streets somewhat quickly and the News recorded that “efforts were made by the Sheriff [James F. Burns] to organize a body of men to watch the place until morning, when more efficient means would be used for capturing those remaining the houses. But all his efforts failed.” Again, the Star was brief on this point, merely stating that “a posse summoned by the authorities kept watch and ward over the house.”
In its section of its coverage headed “The Multitude Maddened,” the News wrote that “parties then proeeded on the roofs of the Chinese dens, breaking them in with axes, and discharging their pistols into the interior, hoping thereby to succeed in driving” the Chinese out. For its part, the Star stated, “a party of determined men mounted the roof, cut a hole in the brea [tar covering] and opened fire through the aperture. Whereas the paper noted that “another Chinaman who attempted to escape by way of Negro Alley was shot about 8 o’clock,” the News noted that some Chinese were captured in a corral behind the adobe dwellings “and four of them were summarily despatched.”
The paper continued that “the demoniacal desire to set the block on fire and burn them out was broached, but a better spirit prevailed,” meaning that those who yelled “burn the sons of bitches out” were shouted down, even as some fire balls were thrown into structures. Clearly, the fear of a conflagration spreading through the city was in the minds of many, especially as the Great Chicago Fire took place just two weeks prior. The Star also made an allusion to these “propositions” as well as that there was “fire breaking out in one or two places.”
Then, reported the News, came “a novel idea” in the form of the concept “that water through the Firemen’s hose be brought to play,” while its competitor noted that “the county hose was sent for, attached to a plug on Main street opposite Arcadia and a stream of water thrown on the roof of the building.” George M. Fall, a member of the Common [City] Council and chair of its fire and water committee and who was in negotiations to bring a fire engine down from San Francisco for the volunteer company that existed before a professinal city department was formed in the Eighties, appears to have been involved in this effort, though the flushing out appears to have failed.
The News noted that “for three hours, that portion of the city was a pandemonium. Yells, shouts, curses, and pistol shots, rent the air in every direction.” Alternatively, the Star said that “dense crowds of people assembled at the head of Los Angeles street and on Main” were reminded that the Vigilance Committee which oversaw the lynching of Michel Lachenais the previous December was still in existence and that it should be reconvened. Even as some called for a guard to be placed around the area and a daylight action be made to arrest all inside the buildings, “the authorities were powerless to act, the crowd treating commands, entreaties, and expostulations with disdain and refusing to listen.
The Star then said that, about 8:45, the east side of the Coronel Boock was breached and “eight Chinamen were found within and dragged out to the infuriated crowd.” Of these, one was dragged by a rope around his neck and killed as he was being taken to be lynched. Three more were hanged on a wagon on Los Angeles Street. Four others were taken to the “the western gate of the Tomlinson corral, the gate upon which Lachenais, the murdered of Bell, met his fate.” As “the crowd appeared maddened with the taste of blood, and clamored for ‘more,'” “several other Chinamen, not captured in the house where the murderers took refuge, fell victims to the thirst for vengeance.”
While some Chinese escaped the town, others surrendered for the safety of the jail, though they did so with “the cries of hang! hang! hang! ringing in their ears.” There were those who tried to stop the bloodletting “and not without effect.” At 9:20, the paper reported, “Sheriff Burns addressed the crowd at the corner of Spring and Temple streets, commanded the peace, and called upon all good, law-abiding citizens to follow him to the Chinese quarter.” He got onto a porch and told the crowd that, while “he had attempted in vain to check the affair in its incipiency,” he needed 25 armed volunteers to keep the peace and guard the Coronel Block until the morning.”
For its part, the News identified that it as 9:30 when someone entered a building and came out with a prisoner, who was promptly taken by the crowd down Los Angeles Street to the south side of Commercial and hung from a wagon. It continued that
further search resulted in the capture, as far as we could ascertain, of fourteen others, who were similarly deal with, four of them being taken to the place of execution on New High street [the Tomlinson corral], and the other ten to Los Angeles and Commercial streets. The dwellings on Los Angeles street, where these scenes were enacted, have an awning projecting over the sidewalk. Six of these Chinamen—one a mere child—swung from it in a row, three hanging together in a bunch. An empty wagon close by had four others hanging to its sides. So furious had the mob become, that they placed the ropes around the necks of their captives, as soon as they got them into their hands, and then dragged them along the street, to the places of execution, where, more dead than alive, their existence was ended.
Reference was made to “an effort to stay the proceedings, as possible inccocence was being sacrificed for guilt,” but this “was squelched, and the humanitarian threatened with having a place given him among the ghastly row of victims hanging there before him.” With all that transpired over those few savage hours, “such was the terrible vengeance that overtook these men.”
As the bloodlust slowly subsided, the Star recorded that “guards were stationed at intervals around the [Coronel] building,” but added that “before the last rush was made, the crowd louldly applauded a suggestion that all Chinamen in the city be given forty-eight hours in which to leave town.” It was also claimed that one Chinese woman was involved by firing a shotgun at a man who sought to arrest Chinese men “with an empty pistol.”
By 11 p.m., it was “all quiet on the streets,” although the saloons were busier than normal with the discussion about “the night of horrors.” After naming several citizens who were “instrumental in resotring order,” including Sheriff Burns, District Attorney Cameron Thom, attorneys George H. Smith and Robert M. Widney and others, the paper claimed that gun dealers stated “the Chinamen of both Companies have been investing largely in pistols” to the tune of some 300 weapons in the previous month.
The News recorded that looters were very active during the mayhem and the cry of “help yourselves, boys” was heard among them. There was one report of a looter who was accosted and “the crowd marched him back and force him to disgorge” his ill-gotten gains. The paper also stated that, as the massacre was taking place, “about forty of the opposition party of Chinamen, of the Yo Hing Company, had decamped, crossing the Los Angeles river, and going in an eastward direction.” Seventeen bodies were laid outside the jail, with three persons wounded, besides a large number of women and children in custody.”
It is noteworthy that the headlines for the feature articles describing the massacre were very different for the two daily papers. The News had its in relatively small print, with the main heading being “Tragedy in Negro Alley” and the first part of the subheading stating “Judge Lynch Supreme.” For the Star, the headline was in much larger type with a series of lines, almost all with exclamation points, offering a decided opinion as to guilt:
FIENDS IN OUR MIDST!
AN OLD CITIZEN MURDERED!
POLICEMAN SHOT BY THE FIENDS
Fifteen Chinamen Hanged and Three others Shot!
THE KILLED AND WOUNDED!
In a separate editorial on the 25th, the Star did not attept to hide its feelings about culpability:
The horrible assasinations whyich were perpetrated in our city last night by the brutal, uncivilized barbarians tht infest our country, is an indication of what the consequence would be were their race transmigrated in large numbers upon this coast. Upon all the earth there does not exist a people who value life so lightly, who practice so many horrors, or who are so unmerciful in their outrages. From their very mode of existence they have little regard for their own lives and none whatever for the lives of others. The shooting of four of our citizens upon the streets yesterday, ere daylight had gone, and the frequency of their horrible acts of a similar nature, has now, at least, set our citizens to thinking as to the best mode of ridding ourselves of their accursed presence.
Before publication, the paper tried to issue something of a caveat at the end of the piece by claiming that with regard to the “eighteen Chinamen [who] were hanged and shot to death,” those who were “the friends of the killed and wounded Americans were exasperated to such a degree that all attempts to quell the hanging and shooting were without avail, until the very horror of the scenes became sickening to the participators themselves. Comment is useless.”
Obviously, this was a pathetic and weak attempt at ameliorating what the Star thought was anything but useless commentary. We’ll continue tomorrow with a look at the aftermath of the massacre, particularly what was and was not revealed at the coroner’s inquest as we commemorate one of the signal events in the history of greater Los Angeles.