“Justice is Complacent, and the Eagle Roosts High”: The “Lame and Impotent Conclusion” to the Trials After the Chinese Massacre of 24 October 1871

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

When, following the guilty verdicts handed down in the trial of seven men convicted of manslaughter for their roles in the Chinese Massacre of 24 October 1871, the Los Angeles Star opined that the outcome “will doubtless have a very salutary effect in restraining the lawless class in the city,” it must have been obvious that the defense attorneys, E.J.C. Kewen and James G. Howard, were going to file an appeal, which then went straight to the state supreme court.

In the meantime, the Star of 8 April 1872, a little more than a week after sentences of two to six years were handed down by District Court Judge Robert M. Widney, who tried to dissaude lynchers that horrible evening, testified at the coroner’s inquest, and then was appointed in December to replace Murray Morrison on the bench, reported that six of the men were sent by steamer to San Quentin State Prison. Refugio Botello, given a two-year stretch, was out on $5,000 bail as he appealed.

With respect to the Chinese community in the Angel City, the vitriol, sarcasm and other blatant expressions toward them by the media was somewhat muted in the aftermath of the massacre. In mid-December 1871, the Los Angeles News wrote about “War Clouds in Negro Alley” and a concern that “there still seems to be danger of an outbreak among the celestials in Negro Alley [Calle de los Negros], at any given moment” after a fight broke out betwen a man and a woman. An unnamed Anglo who broke up the “scrimmage” took the male to jail and stated that “when making the arrest, one of the Chinamen drew a pistol and palced it at his head, threatening to shoot him.” There were, purportedly, “several other indications lately of coming troubles,” but the language was somewhat restrained.

Los Angeles News, 15 December 1871.

Another notable tidbit came at the end of January, when the Star noted that police officers George Gard and Emil Harris, both future chiefs of the police department, were “the recipients of a beautiful gift, consisting of Chinese embroidery, presented by the Wing Chong company, as a testimonial of their appreciation of services rendered from time to time.” In fact, it was said that officers were given financial consideration for extra protection of Chinese businesses and this appears to be an indication of just such an example.

Meanwhile, the center of the terrible tragedy of the massacre, the Coronel Block, occasionally was discussed. The 3 February 1872 edition of the Star noted that “the old Coronel building is still depreciating and its hsitoric walls now contain an element of civilization much more depraved than its former occupants. It has in turn passed from bad to worse” as the adobe structure “is now used as a rendezvous for the vagabonds [presumably, the homeless],” some said to be observed “retiring to their den in a staggering condition, late every night.”

Several days later, the paper wrote of “Treasure Seeking” and reported that “the floors of the old Coronel building, have been partly torn up . . . [by those] evidently in search of Chinese gold.” The account continued that, during the massacre, “a Chinese man was heard to say, before being hung, that he hid his money underneath the floor.” The short piece ended with the statement that it was unknown if any “prospectors” hit paydirt.

Los Angeles Star, 9 February 1872.

When the Star talked about the celebration of the Chinese New Year in its issue on the 9th, it was largely descriptive, referring to the “elegantly dressed” women, the display on tables of “a Chinese flower of great beauty” identified as Suey Sin Faw, or a narcissus (thanks to Homestead volunteer Larry Lin for pointing out the type of flower) which bloomed once a year and then died, the use of red paper strips as “calling cards,” Writing that the observance as much like that of the American New Year or Independence Day, the paper noted there was “a fine pyrotechnic display of differ[e]nt fireworks” and it felt compelled to add that “we visited Chinatown yesterday and were surprised to see them orderly.”

By the end of the month, though, there was another reference to “Trouble Again Among The Chinese” as the News of the 23rd reported on another fight between Chinese companies over a woman. Much as with the previous situation with Yit Ho, the reporting was that “a woman belonging to one of the companies eloped with a man belonging to another.” The first company sought the arrest of the woman on a theft charge, while “the general agent of the Yo Hing company, who is here now investigating into the results of the riot” was jailed, though freed by a writ of habeus corpus.”

News, 23 February 1972.

What followed was a marriage solemnized by Justice of the Peace John Trafford, also involved in prior fights within the Chinese community, between “Ono Za,” the groom and “Sing Hee,” the bride. The paper repeated the common assertion that “the majority, if not all, of the Chinese women who immigrate to this country are brought hither by the various Chinese companies for the purpose of prostitution.” It also recycled the charge that “the Chinese have found that by going through the form of marriage . . . they can defy their rivals, and consequently they always resort to it as a final means of securing their prize.”

The Star added that officers Harris and Bilderrain (the latter wounded in the massacre) saw a carriage hired to go to a home on Alameda Street and learned “that the object of the movement was to abduct or entice away a China woman, belonging to the See Yup Company.” This failed, but the officers were later approached and told that the woman went to Yo Hing’s house and asked for help in retrieving her because “she had taken with her certain articles that belonged to other parties.”

When Bilderrain and Harris arrived at Negro Alley, they found an excited crowd, which were persuaded to disperse, but the woman and the purported items were not found, though they did arrest “Charley Chung,” who hired the hack and was said to be “General-Agent of the Yo Hing Company.” The officers stayed in the area all night, but, the next morning Yo Hing showed up “and became very boisterous and making riotous demonstrations” causing his arrest and jailing.

Star, 24 February 1872.

It was discovered that the woman was removed from his house before Harris and Bilderrain showed up and that she “was taken to the house of ex-policeman J.F. Dye,” this being the officer who killed Marshal William C. Warren over a dispute involving another contested Chinese woman not quite two years earlier, but for which shooting Dye was acquitted. It was in his home that Trafford performed the nuptials. The paper was told that the dispute was not between Yo Hing and the Wing Chung companies, which the News claimed, and that the See Yup Company “from whom the woman was taken, had nothing whatever to do with the riot of the 24th of October.”

Yo wound up being found guilty in a Justice Court of a misdemeanor incitement charge and sentenced to pay a fine of $25 or twelve-and-a-half days in the county lockup. He, however, averred to the News that his anger was because “his home was invaded by the guardians of the peace” and a mess made in the search for Sing Hee with clothes and bedding scattered, boxes torn open “and every nook and corner of his domicil[e] peered into.” Without a warrant executed for the invasion of his residence, Yo “gave vent to his feelings” which engendered his arrest. After his conviction, Yo appeared to the district court on a writ of habeus corpus, but Judge Widney denied it so the defendant returned to Justice William H. Gray and ponied up the fine.

Star, 21 February 1872.

The Star mocked the News for defending Yo and the Chinese generally and it claimed that its rival, being “a great institution,” felt it could “sit in judgment not only to try criminals, byt, also, to determine the competency of the Courts.” Several days prior, the paper published a diatribe titled “Our Chinese Population a Curse to the Country,” which, while not about Los Angeles specifically, castigated them for competing with whites for labor and “preventing the immigration of a better class of people [who exactly was not stated] to this coast.” It claimed that some $7.5 million from the gold fields was shipped back to China, so, whereas “the immigration . . . of the people of nearly all other nations is desirable,” a long period of “thorough experience” meant “that the Chinese are a hindrance and a curse to the country.”

A letter to the Star of 1 May, stated that it was “a pity and a grievous wrong” for others to think “there is a lurking demon of ferocity among the people of Los Anglees, because they had a boody riot among them a short time past.” The unnamed correspondent averred that the masacre was due to those who “experiencing a hard winter [of economic discontent] are liable to be incited by desperate border-men to acts of violence.” Moreover, he alleged that “even the Chinese gentle and docile as they are presented to be, will be guilty of riotous proceedings once in a while when they have the power to do so in their own country.”

Adding that the killing of Thompson created an “indignation and horror” among citizens, the writer went on to say that “it is no light matter to hang a number of men, and put an end to their pursuit of happiness, for even Chinamen pursue happiness in a way of their own.” He claimed that every well-governed nation has its paroxysms of mob violence and referred to the 1870 massacre of some 60 Christian missionaries at Tianjin. Instead of senseless violence, the writer called for “the wealthy land owners and busines men of Los Anglees . . . to encourage the working men who are natives of this country” or immigrants from Germany, Ireland or other nations in Europe. While “the Chinese, of course, have a right to subsistence as well as other people, when they work for it.” his closed by saying that “their presence deprives many many white men of employment.”

Star, 27 February 1872,

In its edition of 21 March, the Star briefly alluded to “The Dead Feast,” reporting that five women and two children “visited the graves of the Chinamen killed during the riot” and left gifts of “sweetmeats, chickens, brandy, tear, and other delicacies on their graves, for the spirits of the departed to feast on.” The burning of colored strips of paper and joss sticks also were enacted “to frighten away the evil spirits.” The somber scene ended and the paper concluded that “after considerable weeping and gesticulation they departed for their homes.” This rare allusion to the overwhelming grief of women and children in the Chinese community is striking and powerful. At the end of the month, the paper reported that “the defunct Chhinamen at the graveyard will soon be taken up and sent to the Flowery Kingdom.” At the end of April, though, the News decried “the refuse” left by “the heathenish custom of a barbarous race” that “intrudes upon the graves of the whites” and desecrated the cemetery, located atop Fort Moore Hill.

The next day, though, the paper published a very lengthy article on “The Chinese Wash Houses,” reporting that there were eleven such establishments, employing about 100 “almond-eyed, long-tailed children of the Sun” hired for the “cleansing [of] the soiled linen of our citizens” with the majority hailing from southern China and earning some $15-20 per month, up to five times, purportedly, what was earned back home. Highlighted was the method of sprinkling or spraying clothes with water taken into the mouth and then emitted in “a very fine spray, in equal quantities, over the garment.

News, 25 February 1872,

Naturally, the paper ended by bringing attention to the claim that some $4,000 a month is earned by “these celestials” and that some two-thirds “is sent directly away to Chinaland, never to return again for ciculation in this country.” The rest, it was alleged, went to purchasing food, clothing and opium from San Francisco importers, so even that sum was, it was said, to comprise a situation of “disappearing in the yawning pockets of the Chinamen.”

There were still some legal matters in the months following the massacre, including a coivil case filed in district court by Sam Yuen and three partners against the city for damage done to their Wing Chung store by rioters. Though the city prevailed in the proceeding presided over by Judge Widney, the merchants filed an appeal to the state supreme court and their attorneys, Andrew Glassell, Alfred B. Chapman and George H. Smith argued that

the firing upon the officers in the Wing Chung store and the alleged participancy of Sam Yuen, occurring about 5 o’clock can, under no view of the law, be held to be a justification of the outrages of the mob committed five hours afterward.

The high court, however, determined that “persons whose goods are destroyed by a mob, in a riot in a city, are not entitled to recover from the city the value of the goods destroyed, unless such persons, if they had knowledge of the impending danger, use reasonable diligence to notify the mayor or sheriff.” It was added that “nor are they entitled to recover if they instigate or participate in the riot.” Another statement aded that “before the riot commenced, the plaintiff knew of the impending danger, and had ample opportunity to notify the Mayor.”

Star, 21 March 1872.

Justice Joseph B. Crockett cited evidence that Sam Yuen and members of his company were sureties for bail for those who attacked Yo Hing and his men, were gathered at the store because of the inter-ethnic conflict, and that Sam “resisted the interference of the police, and himself fired at the officer.” Yet, the justice issued these statements in 1874, well after the conclusion of a criminal case filed by the county against Sam for his aiding and abetting the unnamed killer of Robert Thompson at the massacre.

Sam was the subject of a criminal complaint filed by officer Bilderrain in late November 1871, but he was out of the city until mid-March 1872, when he was arrested, though the News of the 30th reported that Bilderrain and “those officers [Gard and Harris] who were recently recipients of presents from the company of which Sam Yuen is a member . . . [are] exhibiting a suspicious disinclination” to arrest him. The paper added that, if this was so, “such men are utterly unworthy of the badges they wear, and ought to be immediately dismissed from the force.”

News, 30 March 1872.

In a habeus corpus hearing, Adolfo Celis, who was acquitted in the People v. Mendel, et al. case, gave detailed testimony about Sam’s role in the gunbattle that involved Bilderrain’s wounding and Thompson’s death. He said that Sam fired over his head as he appraoched the Coronel Block, albeit not in an official police capacity, in the early moments of the conflict. Bilderrain followed Yuen into the adobe structure, faced a hail of gunfire, and raced out, yelling “Keep out Celis, or they will kill you.”

Celis said Yuen then emerged and fired at Bilderrain, hitting him in the shoulder, and he added that, as Thompson came to the scene, he fired a shot through a glass door pane. Celis and Thompson then approached the building and, seeing Yuen and other men with guns pointed at them, Celis jumped back and warned his compatriot, but Thompson thrust his arm inside with the gun in his hand and fired simultaeously as a Chinese man inside and received his fatal wound. Amazingly, Celis said he had no gun during this encounter. When questioned by the defense, he was asked if he’d ever served time in state prison, with Celis allowing that he’d been at San Quentin briefly for manslaughter bebefore receiving a pardon from the governor. Judge Widney, however, sustained District Attorney Thom’s objection and the statement was stricken from the testimony.

News, 2 April 1872.

Office Esteban Sánchez also testified that Yuen fired his gun during this scenario and said he told Thompson not to approach the Coronel Block until he could reload his gun or get a new one. He also stated that there were up to twenty men firing from the building and from several rooms, not just the one in which Yuen was hiding. It was pointed out, though, that Sánchez told the grand jury that he did not recognize any of the Chinese, but now he identified Sam.

Bilderrain also provided detailed testimony of the incident and said he was walking with an arrested Chinese man from the Beaudry Block when he passed Sam’s store and saw a man with a gun drawn. The officer then went in and grabbed the weapon when he was shot by another person inside, with four or five others shooting at him, as well. He ran outside because he “was anxious to die outside” and young Juan José Mendibles was shot in the leg.

News, 3 April 1872.

After he blew his whistle to call for help, Bilderrain encountered Refugio Botello, who was convicted in the Mendel case, and saw Thompson get shot. But, the officer now changed his story about Yuen’s complicity, testifying that the shooting from the store was by unidentified Chinese men. On further testimony, Bilderrain denied key points of Celis’ explanations about Yuen being a figure shooting at the several men approaching the Coronel Block. Pedro Badillo took the stand and stated that Thompson dismounted from his horse, walked to the door to Sam’s store and fired right away. While shooting a second time, Thompson was hit and fatally wounded, but Badillo also could not identify Sam as one of the three men who entered the store before that battle began.

When two more witnesses, Cyrus Lyons and Ambrosio Ruiz, corroborated what Celis stated about seeing Yuen in the store and in the corral at the back of the Coronel Block just prior to Thompson’s killing, Judge Widney decided to hold Sam to answer before the grand jury and set bail at $3,000. One of those who put up money as a surety for Sam was city council member William H. Workman, a future mayor and nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman. On 9 May, the grand jury indicted Sam on a charge of manslaughter and a new bail of $1,500 was ordered with Workman again a surety.

News, 30 April 1872.

The trial was continued for a term or two and then the trial was held in October and November 1872. Notably, the case file does not contain witness testimony and, for whatever reasons, the papers did not reprint any either. What is in the file are several documents relating to jury instructions including what Widney read out in court. Bascially, the judge told the body that, if they believed from the evidence that Sam was definitely participating in the gun battle outside and then was in the store when Bilderrain and Thompson were shot, whether he was the one firing at them or not, “then the jury are justified in finding the defendant guilty as accessory before the fact.”

Moreover, the judge continued, it was up to Sam to prove “that he was in no way party to the killing of Thompson” unless the evidence was enough to back up the manslaughter charge “or that the killing was justified or excused.” Otherwise, he went on, “if you have a reasonable doubt on any of the above points, you will acquit the defendant.” On 19 November, the jury, whose foreman was Juan José (Jonathan Trumbull) Warner, also foreman of the grand jury which investigated the masacre a year prior, found Sam not guilty.

Star, 20 November 1872.

Some six months later, in May 1873, the state supreme court heard the appeal in the People v. Mendel et al. case. Defense attorneys E.J.C. Kewen and James G. Howard, in their arguments, honed in on the indictment written by District Attorney Thom, but which Judge Widney ruled was more than sufficient. It was on this point that the high court noted that the indictment

is fatally defective in that it fails to allege that Chee Long [Gene] Tong was murdered . . . admitting that the defendants did all these things [aiding, abetting, encouraging, etc., the rioters and lynchers], still it does not follow, by necessary legal conclusion[,] that[,] after all[,] any person was actually murdered.

Kewen and Howard sent a telegram to Los Angeles, saying that the high court ordered a new trial “in the test case of the Chinese riot indictments,” with the Star dourly noting that “this will bring all that disgraceful business again before the courts.” Even then, when, on 10 June, Howard, with the remittitur from the supreme court filed with Widney’s court, filed motion to release the convicts from San Quentin forthwith, Thom did not object. He obviously did not feel that a new trial would be succesful and simply gave up.

The Star of the following day concluded wanly that:

To this “most lame and impotent conclusion” has come the great Chinese riots which at the time sounded the note of objurgation [harsh rebuke] against our city in two hemispheres. The convicted parties escape full punishment for their crimes by a quibble, justice is complacent, and the eagle roosts high. Thus it goes.

The Chinese Massacre of 1871 is a signal event in the history of Los Angeles, even as it remains too little-known and under-recognized. The presence of the Chinese in the city was, from the beginning of their settlement there, begrudged by Anglos and Latinos alike, though what percentage of each community was participatory in the horrendous attacks and lynchings of that terrible night of 24 October cannot be known. How much of the hatred was due to perceived competition of labor or to cultural and social difference or to physical appearance or to other causes cannot also be known with any specificity. Some reports stated that lynchers decried Chinese immigration and even referred to the Freedmen’s Bureau for assisting freed black slaves after the Civil War as they were murdering innocent people.

Star, 11 June 1873.

What we do know is that inter-ethnic conflict among the Chinese, exasperating others in the city for some time before the massacre, led to a gunbattle that, once Jesúus Bilderrain and Juan José Mendibles, both Latinos, were injured and once Robert Thompson, an Anglo, was killed, ignited a latent firestorm that animated a mob of hundreds of Anglos and Latinos to indiscriminately shoot and hang seventeen Chinese men and a teenage boy and pillage and loot businesses and dwellings with impunity.

Legal proceedings at once provided some significant detail, but also a striking lack of clear identification of perpetrators. A grand jury indicted nearly 150 persons, but most were unidentified, while, of those who were arrested, only a handful faced trial. Of the seven men convicted, with two acquitted, their sentences of two to six years for manslaughter were abbreviated because, on appeal, the California Supreme Court ruled that the indictment simply did not state that Dr. [Chee Long] Gene Tong was murdered, therefore invalidating the convictions. The decision to not retry the defendants went unexplained, but likely was because it was just not believed that convictions could again be obtained.

Star, 11 June 1873.

It was long suggested that the horrors of the massacre chastened the city into becoming less crime-ridden and more law-abiding. There is no way to know that, but what does seem clear is that an abysmal level of professionalism from law enforcement to the district attorney’s office to the courts needed to be rectified if any reasonable hope for a modicum of justice was to be achieved. That was a change that slowly and fitfully, if unevenly, occurred even as we still have a long way to go, as current events with anti-Asian hate clearly demonstrate.

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