“A Very Salutary Effect in Restraining the Lawless Class”: Trials Following the Chinese Massacre of 24 October 1871

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Following the Grand Jury session and the handing down of nearly fifty indictments relating to the horrific Chinese Massacre of 24 October 1871, a series of trials connected to the rioting and lynching were held the following year. In addition to my master’s thesis, this post draws heavily from my “The Los Angeles Chinese Massacre of 1871” published in 2008 in California Legal History, the journal of the California Supreme Court Historical Society. The first was People v. Kerren, concluded on 5 January 1872 in the county court and involving a charge of assault with a deadly weapon against police officer Richard Kerren, alleged to have shot at two Chinese women, identified only as “Cha Cha” and “Fan Cho” in the case file.

Part of the legal wrangling in this and subsequent proceedings involved objections by either the county or the defense about such issues as whether what took place on 24 October was actually a rio, while other times there were objections about questions being irrelevant, leading, or asking a witness to answer based on hearsay. This was certainly the case when Sheriff James F. Burns testified about how he set up a guard around the Coronel Block, the flashpoint for the massacre, and Kerren’s role in being sent to fetch Mayor Cristobal Aguilar, though the sheriff did manage to say, when asked if anyone other than a Chinese person committed a felony, “yes, sir, I saw a good many.”

Los Angeles Star, 8 February 1872.

Unfortunately, the case file does not contain much that has survived in the way of testimony, though there were such witnesses as Marshal Francis Baker, and officers Jesús Bilderrain, whose wounding by Chinese gunfire was followed by the rioting and lynching, B.S. Bryant, Emil Harris, and a few others, including Kerren. Jury instructions by Judge Ygnacio Sepúlveda allowed the jury to find Kerren guilty or innocent of the indicted charge or guilty of the lesser charge of assault and battery. He added that Kerren must have believed “there was an apparent necesity for assaulting the Chinawomen” if he was to be acquitted, but, in any case, the jury did find him innocent.

In mid-February, the District Court case of the People v. Quong Wan and Ah Yeng was heard, though there is no surviving case file, so newspaper coverage is to be relied upon. The men were charged with the murder of Ah Coy, who was shot in the neck with the attack drawing the attention of Bilderrain, Robert Thompson, who was killed, and others. In his testimony, Bilderrain stated that he was told by some Chinese men that “there was going to be a row among the Chinese, ” that “a party of Chinese were expected from San Francisco to some fighting,” and that merchant Samuel B. Caswell informed him that he’d sold “a large number of pistols during the last few days.”

Los Angeles News, 17 February 1872.

Yet, Bilderrain and his fellow officers Harris, George Gard and Esteban Sánchez, along with civilian witnesses, could not identify the defendants. When the county tried to call Ah Ling to the stand, the defense objected citing state law prohibiting Chinese testimony in a case prosecuted by a government entity, yet the judge overruled, correctly noting that the applicable statute from 1863 banned Chinese witnesses against a white person. The judge, notably, was Robert M. Widney, who was a witness in the coroner’s inquest and sought to stop the massacre and who was appointed to the bench when Judge Murrary Morrison died in December.

Ah Ling, who was said to have told an office that Quong Wan shot Ah Coy, stated to the court that he was told this by another person, meaning this was inadmissible hearsay, and added that, though he saw both defendants at the scene, he did not see them with guns. District Attorney Cameron Thom, a veteran of that office in stints dating back to the mid-1850s, then admitted that he had “signally failed” in proving the case because he had “to depend entirely upon unreliable Chinese testimony.” Because of this, Widney ordered the jury to return a not guilty verdict and the Los Angeles News of the 15th reported “the trial itself was a completed farce” and “an utter failure on the part of the prosecution.”

News, 17 February 1872.

With regard to nine indicted rioters from the massacre, Widney scheduled several dates in the last part of February and defense attorneys for four men argued that the indictment was faulty in that they did not conform exactly as stipulated by statute, charged more than one crime and that the facts did not prove a criminal offense. A key point cited by counsel was that the indictment did not actually state that Dr. Gene (Chee Long) Tong was dead, but, rather, accused the quartet of encouraging others to murder him.

Widney ruled that the language in the indictment was sufficient to indicate (rather than state specifically) by “common understanding” that Dr. Tong was killed by rioters ane he added that there was precedent that, even if the murderers were not known, an accessory could be found guilty in the way the indictment stipulated. He added “if the Court had any reasonable doubt as to the sufficiency of the indictment, it would not put the county to the expense of a trial, but would remand the defendants to await the action of a new Grand Jury.”

News, 18 February 1872.

L.F. “Curly” Crenshaw was tried separately from other indicted rioters and the News wrote that “the whole country has been looking forward to this event” while adding that the proceedings “will evidently be keenly watched by the entire civilized world.” Immediately, as jury selection commenced, a major issue became whether or not proposed jurors had any prior involvement as vigilantes. One of the first to be interviewed was F.P.F. Temple, whose Temple and Workman bank had just opened in late November. He was asked by defense counsel if he was part of a vigilance committee at the time of the massacre or had he ever been part of or sympathized with any such organization. The prosecution objected to the query, Widney sustained it, and Temple was sworn in to the jury.

Others, however, including William McKee (whose photo has been highlighted on this blog), former city council member Henry Warternberg, Lous Duror, George Gerkins, and T.C. Campbell admitted to past vigilante participation. Still, after objections were raised by the prosecution to the questioning, Widney, accused of being a member of the vigilance committee which lynched Michel Lachenais in December 1870, sustained these. Duror was dischargd because he answered “I don’t know” about whether he could consider the case impartially, while Gerkins said he could and joined the panel. The others were also set aside, though Campbell was subjected to a panel of three “triers” as to potential bias before the prosecution withdrew its objection to him.

News, 18 February 1872.

Most witness testimony did not link Crenshaw directly to Dr. Tong’s lynching and officer Harris said he saw Crenshaw on the roof of the Coronel Adobe, but did not see him involved in what took place at Tong’s store. Probably the most damning, though, was the statement of Benjamin McLaughlin, who stated that he saw “Curly” in the mob and that “he said he had killed three; he talked considerable about shooting Chinamen for some time.” Crenshaw testified in his defense claiming that, while he took a Chinese woman to jail on orders from officer Gard and that he had a gun, he did not use the weapon. Moreover, he claimed he was home early and denied that he made any comments to McLaughlin abvout killing any Chinese.

The News did not publish prosecution arguments or Widney’s jury instructions and then noted that the jury deliberated for all of twenty minutes, before returning to render its verdict. It was reported that the tally on the murder charge was eleven for guilty and one lone holdout for acquittal, but, after the lesser charge of manslaughter was considered, all agreed. Crenshaw’s sentence, however was delayed because his attorneys were replaced at the end of the proceeding by the veteran barristers Volney E. Howard and E.J.C. Kewen, who also were the counsel for the remaining indicted men, whose case was combined into one.

News, 20 February 1872.

This was People v. Mendel, et al., which lasted more than a month in February and March. Kewen and Howard asked for this merger for Louis Mendel, D.W. Moody, Jesús Martínez, A.R. Johnson, Charles Austin, Patrick McDonald, Refugio Botello, Adolfo Celis, and Esteban Alvarado, while J.G. Scott was discharged before trial began. Jury selection alone took over three weeks, with five venires (jury calls) and 255 men (women were not then allowed to serve on juries) going through the impaneling process. Again, defense questioning of prospective jurors included questions about previous vigilante experiences, including that involving Lachenais, and another trio of triers was called in to examine bias for one possible juror. The proceeding lasted not quite two weeks and ended until the early morning hours of 27 March.

Despite the News claiming that the trial would be carefuly watched with great interest, the drawn-out jury selection process may have blunted such attention, as the paper stated, on the 22nd, that “the trial attracts but little interest and Judge, jury, counsel, witnesses and prisoners exhibit more than ordinary weariness.” The wife of one juror was paraphrased as saying “that it is a great hardship that her husband should be a prisoner while the accused are enjoying their liberty on bail.”

News, 22 February 1872.

Kewen and Howard filed a number of motions to strike out testimony as either lacking evidence of a conspiracy by the mob, that any violence was premeditated, that there was a failure to assert that Dr. Tong was killed, that officers Harris and Gard and Coroner Joseph Kurtz gave inadmissible testimony baed on hearsay from Chinese sources, and that an acquittal should be ordered by Widney because any evidence was “insufficient to warrant a conviction.” When the judge denied all of these motions, Kewen and Howard simply “declined to produce any testimony.”

Closing arguments stretched for nine hours and, at one point, District Attorney Thom huddled with the defense attorneys and the judge over some matter that never was publicly revealed. It was at 1 a.m. on the 27th, when the jury was to return with its verdict and, whatever apathy was manifested before, was evaporatd as “the Court-room was thronged with a curious crowd.” While the News said deliberations took five hours, it also stated that the the verdict was rendered at 2 a.m., while the Star stated that it took three hours to come to a decision.

News, 26 March 1872.

Seven men (Louis Mendel, A.R. Johnson, Charles Austin, Patrick McDonald, Jesús Martínez, Refugio Botello and Esteban Alvarado) were adjudged guilty on the lesser charge of manslaughter, with the question of premeditation clearly being paramount. Two of the defendants, D.W. Moody and Adolfo Celis, were acquitted. Botello, was released on a then-substantial bond of $5,000, pending an appeal to the state supreme Court, thought it looks as if he joined the others in that proceeding. Sentencing was set for the 30th, but it was expected that an appeal was certain.

In its analysis, the News observed that

It has been the universal belief of the entire country that a conviction of the perpetrators of the outrage that cast such a blot upon the fair fame of our city, could never be obtained by any jury impanneled in this county. The press has not been slow in giving expression to this belief. The rendering of the present verdict will at least convince them of the prematureness of that opinion, and will do much toward appeasing the indignation aroused by the committal of the outrage . . . however much these men by their inhuman acts may have earned the punishment which they are destined to suffer, there are others equally as guilty—the men who reaped the spoils. These men the law cannot reach unles they [in]criminate themselves, and they will evidently escape the punishment they so justly merit.

The paper went on to suggest that, while there were many others waiting to see if they would be tried “it is exceedingly doubtful now as to whether any attempt will be made to have them tried in this county, as it may prove impossible to obtain a jury” because of the question of a formed opinion as well as the “long siege in the jury box.” The News wondered if a change of venue to a neighboring county might be the best way to further the pursuit of justice.

Star, 27 March 1872.

As for the Star, it wrote that with the end of “the long and tedious riot case” it was long “thought by many that none of the parties accused would be convicted,” though as the proceeding lumbered to an end “it was evident that quite a change has taken place in public opinion, and the verdict of the jury was pretty generally anticipated.”

Still, the paper continued, while there wasn’t much general interest in the proceedings, “its result will doubtless have a very salutary effect in restraining the lawless class in the ciy who have heretofore been so ready to set the law at defiance.” The piece, a far cry from previous editorials in the paper, concluded with the statement that the trial “also furnishes evidence of the fact that juries can be obtained in our midst to punish evildoers.”

Star, 28 March 1872.

On the 30th, Judge Widney issued sentences with Refugio Botello getting two years, “Curly” Crenshaw ordered to serve three, Austin, McDonald and Martinez handed five, and Johnson and Mendel slapped with six-year stints—all to be served at San Quentin (the only state prison until Folsom opened in 1880.) It was noted that all addressed the court and maintained their innocence, except Mendel, who kept silent, whle “Johnson made a vain attempt to ‘ape’ insanity, but signally failed.”

It should be noted that th case file, incomplete though it is, did have indictments, issued on 28 November 1871, that listed six Chinese men murdered in the massacre: Dr. Tong, Day Kee, Ma Sin Quai, Tang Wan, Lung Quai and Ah Choy. In addition to those who went to trial, those who were indicted and named included Scott, Jacob C. Cox, Ambrosio Ruiz, Francisco Peña, Norman King, Andres Soeur, and Samuel Carson. There were a good many “John Does,” as well, including Dick Roe; Dick Doe; John Roe; Bob, John, Sam and Dick Styles; and Peter, John, Joe and Bill Dix.

News, 28 March 1872l.

The statements were that the accused “countenanced and encouraged many other persons, whose names are to the jurors unknown . . . [in the] assaulting, beating, and strangling a human being known by the name of [blank] . . .” For each, exactly 100 witnesses were listed, though names varied. Other documents included several dozen subpoenas, what looks to be a draft form for recording testimony and at the bottom of which is the recording that theere wa a guilty verdict of manslaughter rendered in the case, a statement for an appeal for the convicted men, and a new trial motion from 30 March.

This latter had the usual claims of faulty jury instructions, that the verdict was contrary to law and that demurrers to the indictments were not sustained. Beyond this, it was against alleged that no proof of Dr. Tong’s death was provided and no evidence of a conspiracy proved, nor could the defendants be tied to the massacre or to Dr. Tong’s murder. Moreover, it argued that “there can be no verdict of manslaughter as to an accessory where principals are charged with murder.”

Star, 1 April 1872.

Widney denied motions for an arrest of judgment and for a new trial and the record stated “defendants adopt upon their appeal the assignment of errors contained in their motion for a new trial” and this was signed by Kewen, Howard and their junior partner, Frank Ganahl. Notably, though the trial of Mendel and the others was completed, the Star of 8 April reported that “E[dmund] Crawford, one of the alleged rioters, who has been confined in jail for the past five or six months, has not been tried yet. He says he is going to demand a trial in the course of a few days. Like all the rioters, he says he is innocent.”

Although, the seven convicted men were readied for transport to prison, there were still other court proceedings to be adjudicated, not to mention the appeal to the state suprme court, so we’ll wrap up this week-long series of posts with the finale tomorrow evening.

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