“In This Way Only Can You Satisfy an Offended God, Violated Law, and Outraged Humanity”: From the Coroner’s Inquest to the Grand Jury Report on the Chinese Massacre of 24 October 1871

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In a multi-post deep dive into the horrific Chinese Massacre of 24 October 1871 as part of the commemoration for its 150th anniversary, we pick up after the conclusion of the four-day coroner’s inquest and lead up to the convening of the Grand Jury and the issuing of its report in early December.

On 30 October, nearly a week after the terrible tragedy, the Los Angeles Star conducted an interview with Yo Hing, the reputed leader of the Hong Chow Company, one of the Chinese benefit associations, and a core figure in the events leading up to the massacre. The paper noted that, not only was he “one of the best and most favorably known Chinamen in the city but that he had the respect of many of the town’s prominent citizens.

Yo claimed that a key part of the problem was that one of his associates, who ran a story in the building owned by future mayor Prudent Beaudry, on the east side of the Calle de los Negros (Negro Alley) across from the Coronel Adobe or Block, where much of the massacre transpired, was confronted with an increase in rent from Sam Yuen of the rival Yung Wo Company. Yo went on to say that Sam, on the 23rd, contracted six men to kill him for $1,000 and the incidents that followed were mentioned here previously. Yo added that he spent the 24th in the Main Street shaving parlor of Alejandro (Alex) Rendon, who, incidentally, later had an establishment on William Workman’s portion of Rancho La Puente. Rendon later published a statement saying the Yo remained in his shop for two days and “he had no hand in the shooting.”

Los Angeles Star, 30 October 1871.

One of the Yung Wo men fired the shot that drew Jesús Bilderrain, Robert Thompson and others and which then was followed by the rioting and lynching. Sam and his brother escaped, Yo continued, and he believed that three of the hired assassins were still in the city. Separately, press reports were that Fun Yu, one of the contracted killers, died on the 27th of a head wound sustained during the massacre. Yo went on to say that four of those killed that day were guilty of violent acts, the other fourteen murdered Chinese were innocent of any wrongdoing.

Riled up by the account provided by his rival, Sam then issued, on the 31st, his own version of events, while acknowledging conflict between the two companies, saying the rent dispute was concocted and that the real problem was the battle over Ya Hit (Yit Ho), whose story has been partially told in earlier posts in this series. Sam stated that her brother, Ah Choy, was attacked by Yo and two of his men and mortally wounded in the neck from gunfire.

He went on to recall that “the policemen . . . immediately ran over to where the shooting took place, and then cam back with Yo Hing and others to the Win Chung house [and store] in the Coronel Block.” Those inside, thinking Yo and his men were coming to kill them “commenced firing in defence of their lives.” Sam also blamed Yo and his men for the “roasting” of a woman at San Bernardino in late 1870, also referenced in a recent post.

Star, 31 October 1871.

On 4 November, however, Tong Yu, the widow of Dr. Gene Tong, who was murdered in the massacre, filed a complaint at the Justice Court alleging Yo was “inciting and participating” in the riot. While he was charged, the grand jury failed to indict him and he was released. Meanwhile, there were some interesting brief references to the aftermath of the massacre. In the News of the 31st, it was stated that “there is one thing in connection with one of the lynched Chinamen which is altogether unacountable,” in that his body was the only of the eighteen that went unclaimed. Traditional burial practices, including offerings and the burning of candles and so on, were not tendered for him.

It was also noted in that day’s edition that “the block of tenements, recently occupied by the Chinese, and the scene of the late riot, is now deserted. Their interior is a complete wreck. Broken furniture ad crockery-are are strewn in every direction, and the walls are ploughed with bullet marks. On 1 November the paper also reprinted excerpts from San Francisco papers about the rioting and lynching with one writing that “this awful massacre must forever remain a foul blot upon the fair name of Los Angeles.”

Star, 1 November 1871.

There was actually a good deal of national, and some international, coverage via telegraphed reports and the reputation of the Angel City was, in fact, oft-discussed. As one letter from “S.H.S.” in San Francisco to the Star put it in the edition of the 4th:

Eighteen human beings shot torn, mangled, hung, by an infuriated rabble, is the news which the telegraph flashes with lightning speed to every corner of the globe . . . it is an outrage upon civilization, which demands a thorough investigation at the hands of your authorities, and the punishment of the leaders of this infamous massacre. This affair will retard the progress and prosperity of your city more than you imagine, no matter what creed or nationality your victims professed . . . People at a distance who have never walked Los Angeles’ peaceful streets, and conversed with her generous, law-abiding citizens, will consider it a semi-civilized spot, where life and property is at the mercy of a mob, and where a few bad men can rule a community, and set at defiance the laws of the land . . . As it is, Los Angeles is too slow. Your citizens are yet to think of a preventive or cure, when the breath of life is extinct. They grasp at shadows, and let the substance pass.

On 7 November, the News reported that “the scene of the late outrage—Coronel Block—is having the inside partitions taken down and carried away . . . [as] the tenements are altogether uninhabitable.” It was noted that the roof was ripped apart in many spots and “little more than the bare adobe walls remains inside” while “the rooms and the court yard to the rear are strwen with the wreck of that terrible event.”

Star, 4 November 1871.

It was added that there was “a silent, but significant, tell-tale of the plundering carried out by the mob that night” as a portmanteau, or trunk, was out in the yard, with its sides cut open and the contents removed. A bucket of tea leaves was left out to dry, as well, while “opposite the tenantless house of the late Chinese doctor [Gene Tong]—one of the victims—his signboard still swings to the awning of the corridor.” Given the dilapidated condition of the structures, it was assumed they would be razed “and structures of a more substantial character and creditable appearance, and more in accordance with the warehouses of the vicinity, will be erected in their stead.”

A few days later, the Star wrote that business people in the city wondered why Coronel had not yet replaced the adobe structure with “a fine block of buildings” and a friend of his informed the paper that “the beggarly old ruins were kept standing intact, because that gentleman regarded it as a homestead, and respected it, as being the old mansion in which his family was raised.” The paper wondered though why “the class of tenants who inhabit therein and who have for many years been made up of the lowest and most vile” were in a place that held such a hold on the owner.

Los Angeles News, 7 November 1871.

It continued that “a due and sacred respect for its walls on account of shrine, home and heritage, should cause it to be kept in suitable repair, and be occupied by others than thieves and Chinese prostitutes.” It was understood that Coronel, who was state treasurer, was in the city and it was reported that there were some who would pay above market value and build “new and inoffensive buildings” in place of the crumbling adobe structure. It was later reported that Coronel filed suit against the city for $5,000 for damage done to his building during the suit, but he apparently was not successful in pursuit of this claim.

In December 1872, Coronel was charged with allowing a public nuisance in hs building with an “ill-governed and disorderly house” used by “evil disposing persons . . . of evil name and fame” who were engaged in “drinking, tippling, whoring and misbehaving themselves.” The County Court case file, however, only contains an indictment, a recognizance filed for Coronel, and a demurrer by his attorney and the outcome was not stated in the file.

News, 7 November 1871.

The same issue of that paper, edited by Charles E. Beane, also took the Star to task for, as stated by a Sacramento paper, its “craven pandering to the mob spirit which is inexpressibly disgusting” in its initial coverage of the massacre and added “it is not to be wondered at that brutality and dastardly cruelty should reign in Los Angeles” with such an attitude. The News noted that as “an apologist in the past for the illegal organizations that have overriden the law, and, unmolested, strangled their fellow-men in the streets of Los Angeles,” its competitor was “simply consistent.”

The editorial continued that the Star had not recognized “that the unauthorized strangling of a human being, whether Chinaman, Indian or Caucasian, had come to be regarded as murder.” It added that the Anaheim Gazette, recently launched by George W. Barter, and also the publisher of the Star, did not even offer “a single editorial allusion to the subject” even as it was “having all the time all the horrid details before it.” Barter’s sheet did issue “a lame apology” but a rhetorical question concluded the piece, asking “what wonder that murder is made respectable in Los Angeles, when papers are found that either openly pander to the mob or shut their mouths, not deeming the matter of sufficient importance to require comment.”

Star, 9 November 1871.

In its reply on the 10th, the Star admitted to “a confessed neglect on our part” and claimed that the first editorial, castigating the Chinese, was written in pencil at a store as Thompson lay groaning and dying and then published amid great excitement and at a late hour before “the work of the mob commenced and the dark scenes, which we have repeatedly censured in the most severe language we are capable of, were enacted.” It then quoted extensively from subsequent editorials in an attempt to show that its tone changed and concluded by saying that it did not support mob violence, publicly or privately.

A special grand jury, called for right after the massacre by County Court Judge Ygnacio Sepúlveda, was impanneled on the 8th. Long-time resident, Juan José (Jonathan T.) Warner; builder William H. Perry; merchant Kaspare Cohn; farmer Martín Sánchez; El Monte farmer Thomas Wiggins; farmer William Blake of Spadra, later part of Pomona; and William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, were among the members.

News, 9 November 1871.

There were seventeen men held in jail whose cases were being submitted to the jury, while there were others who were cited by the jury at the coroner’s inquest for encouraging and inciting the mob. The News, in printing the charge to the grand jury by Judge Sepúlveda, added that its responsibility was to act so that “mob rule would be at a discount in this city.” As for the jurist, he was quoted as telling its members that “lawlessness has again raised its monster head in our midst, and in the most inhuman manner has satiated its barbarous instincts.”

Sepúlveda went on that the lynching “sent a thrill of horror throughout the State” and, when it came to the history books, “a page is marked in the record of Los Angeles forever indelible, making the name of this community a reproach to humanity and civilization.” He added that, when Michel Lachenais was lynched in December 1870, he talked about mob action and noted “the the violation of law only entails to us injustice, cruelty, dissension, anarchy and immorality.” The jurist continued that “that Grand Jury saw fit not to act in the matter” and asked this one “will you do likewise in this instance?”

Star, 10 November 1871.

Sepúlveda warned the jury, “we see the bitter consequcnes which follow impunity” and then asked another couple of questions, including whether they would “challenge the vengeance of Divinity” by not following their responsibility and “shall law stand for naught, and immorality and crime have high carnival in our community.” Not wanting to believe that, given the horrors of the massacre, that the jury would not act and said that “moral apathy” could not be extended to this situation. In his impassioned plea, he concluded:

Remember, gentlemen, the accountability you owe to society. Act, and be true to your manhood, to morality, and to mankind. You must indict all who, after the hearing of legal evidence, you consider as deserving punishment for crimes committed within the county. Set an example of true courage in the performance of your duty; be faithful to your trust. In this way only can you satisfy an offended God, violated law, and outraged humanity.

As the grand jury continued its investigation and deliberations, the News, under the heading of “Let Justice Be Done,” expressed concern that “there is an influence at work in the community which aims at shouldering the responsibility [for the massacre] upon a few poor devils without money or influential friends.” It added that “time will demonstrate whether these influences will find entrance into the Grand Jury room, and hoodwink the members of that body.” The paper noted that the city’s honor, respect for law, and “outraged humanity” required that anyone involved in the massacre be punished and concluded “the wearer of broadcloth and he whose limbs were enclosed in cheapest satinet should be placed upon the same footing. No mere scapegoats are wanted at this time.”

News, 16 November 1871.

Despite its earlier attempts to burnish its reputation in light of its early attacks on the Chinese, the Star continued to show its disdain for that population, mocking a Chinese launderer for purpotedly truing to build his establishment over the city zanja, or water ditch, to avoid too much overhead in building on land. He also had fun discussing how the Chinese in the Calle de los Negros were engaging in a “war of extermination” with dogs and how “Chinatown now rejoinces in the acquisition to her population Dr. Man Cho Tong, of a ‘high toned’ Celestial, with a handle to his name, and a ten-foot queue to his head, but who was likely filling a need for the community because of the murder of Dr. Gene Tong.

At the end of November, the paper said there was “considerable amusement” among Americans by how the Chinese were marveling at gold-leaf lettering applied to the windows of the newly opened Temple and Workman bank, which commenced business on the 23rd. The paper jested that the Chinese “evidently [were] thinking some American was trying to imitate Chinese advertising” and that the artist decided to further “the delusion along by trying to imitate their characters.” Apparently, after some twenty minutes, the Chinese left “each with a scowl of infinite disgust on his ‘bronzed pate.'”

Star, 22 November 1871.

After over three weeks, an unusually long time just as was the case with the coroner’s inquest, the grand jury issued its report. With respect to the massacre, that body lamented the “crimes which must cause christianity to weep, civilization to blush, and humanity to mourn” and noted that 111 people were called to testify, but it also noted that “we have encountered a blamable reluctance on the part of witnesses to disclose all they know of the matter.”

It went on to state that there was “a deadly feud [that] has existed between Chinese companies, engaged in business in this city” and that this led to the gun battle on the streets that then led to the wounding of officer Bilderrain and the killing of Thompson. The indiscriminate shooting by the Chinese in the Coronel Adobe

created an alarm, reaching almost, if not, to a panic, which opened the way for evildoers to create a confusion, in the midst of which the worse elements of society, consisting of all nationalities, not only disgraced civilization by their acts, but in their savage treatment of unoffending human beings, their eagerness for pillage, and bloodthirstyness, exceeded the most barbarous races of mankind . . . [Moreover, there is] the painful conclusion forced upon us . . . that the officers of this county, as well as those of the city, whose duty it is to preserve the peace, and to arrest those who, in their presence, are violating the law, by the commission of crime, were deplorably inefficient in the performance of their official and sworn duties, during the scenes of confusion and bloodshed, which disgraced this city, and has cast reproach upon the people of Los Angeles county.

The statement continued that there was only “a feeble, and in most cases ineffectual, effort” to rescue Chinese being dragged to the gallows and to make arrests of anyone involved in the lynchings. Moreover, it was asserted that “where [there were] two resolute men, or even one determined man, resolved to rescue a captive from the hands of those who were hurrying him away to execution, they were successful, and met with no overpowering resistance.” The report added that “had the officers performed their duty . . . there [would not] have been any riotous acts on that night to stain the records of this county, or the reputation of Los Angeles city.”

News, 3 December 1871.

The jury opined that “a great majority of those who witnessed the sad spectacles of that night, instead of being a blood-thirsty mob . . . were unwilling witnesses, anxious to prevent the revolting scenes that were passing before their eyes and would, quickly and successfully, have prventd, or put an end to the anarchy” if any leadership had been demonstrated by an official “with an average share of ability and judgment.”

As to the claim by some accused participants that they were acting on orders given to them by an official, the jury noted that “there is ground to suspect that improper instructions were given by officers to men placed upon guard.” Yet, it was added that it was “the duty of every man, to know that the orders of an officer are no excuse for the commisssion of a criminal act.” While the indictments contain 150 names, many were of the “John Doe” variety, and “the majority have not yet been arrested.” There were 49 indictments, 25 “for the crime of murder and accessories” and the rest for a variety of felonies.

News, 3 December 1871.

When it came to criminal trials, however, that number was winnowed down considerably and the post tomorrow takes us into 1872 and those proceedings along with other material related to the aftermath of the massacre.

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