October 24, 1871 is the date of one of Los Angeles’s greatest unsolved murders. During a cool fall night, a violent lynch mob of around 500 entered Chinatown to attack, rob, and murder at least 18 Chinese men and boys. The events of that night made it the largest mass lynching in American history.
The city where the massacre took place would be completely foreign, yet somewhat familiar to us. Los Angeles was still a sleepy town, not even on the radar of most Californians. In 1850-1851, it had the highest recorded murder rate in American history, a place where judges pulled pistols on witnesses in court, and police officers shot at each other in the street.
Events leading up to the massacre
To begin with, the massacre was not spontaneous. Events had been building toward violence among Chinese factions in Negro Alley for several days, and tensions between Chinese and Angeleno also were on the rise.
The Chinese were already looked at with both fear and revulsion; fear because they were seen as virtually superhuman in their ability to work long hours for a pittance, and revulsion because their religion and culture were so different and not understood. One editorial of the time wrote:
“The Chinese have no business here, and never can form part of our people.
“But being here, they must not be suffered to carry out their heathenish customs.”
Popular books at the time were suggesting that the Chinese were streaming into California by the thousands in search of gold and would eventually take over California and elect a silk-clad Mandarin as governor. Hatred was so intense, during the Civil War, California’s Legislature passed a law that prohibited any Chinese from testifying against a white man.
The law virtually gave white men immunity, which some saw as an invitation to violence or at the very least encouraged racism with impunity. Historian Paul De Falla noted that the people of Los Angeles took up with “a glint and a glee” the night of the massacre.
Violence among Chinese factions
The violence among the Chinese gangs came to a head with the kidnapping of a Chinese woman who belonged to a rival gang. Evidence recently brought to light by historian Scott Zesch indicated the kidnapped woman, named Yut Ho, was a married woman who was kidnapped to be sold into marriage.
The kidnappers were led by a master manipulator named Yo Hing. His ability to curry favor with the white power structure was second-to-none in L.A. The other gang was led by a shopkeeper named Sam Yuen.
In an effort to return the young woman to her husband, Yuen employed several tong warriors (hit men) from San Francisco; one of the tong warriors was Yut Ho’s brother. Soon after arriving, Ah Choy spotted Hing in Negro Alley and fired several shots at him on October 23.
Hing had escaped injury and quickly swore out a warrant against Choy, who was arrested soon after. In a testament to Hing’s influence with whites, Choy’s bail was set far greater than that of murder at a staggering $2,000.
It was not long after that rumors of Yuen’s unexpected wealth started circulating through the city. Against that backdrop, it’s easy to imagine the response to the surprise that a Chinese gang possessed a small fortune, protected only by a locked trunk.
Night of the massacre
As Jesus Bilderrain took a sip of his drink at Higby’s saloon, a shot rang out through the evening. Bilderrain, who was one of six cops in Los Angeles, jumped on his horse and galloped toward Calle de los Negroes, or Negro Alley.
The officer didn’t need to guess that the trouble had come from the Alley. Named for the dark-skinned Spaniards who owned property there, Negro Alley for two decades was the most dangerous place in the United States.
Bilderrain arrived to find Choy lying on the ground with blood shooting out from a gunshot wound to his neck. He then witnesses a group of fleeing Chinese men and gave chase into a building. According to Bilderrain’s first statement (he revised it several times in the months that followed), he fearlessly dashed into the building where he was immediately shot.
He then returned back through the doorway, missing his gun, but had received a bullet in his shoulder; he fell to his knees and blew his whistle, raising the alarm. Upon hearing the whistle, Robert Thompson, the proprietor of the town’s most notorious saloon, the Blue Wing, ran down the street to the door of the building where Bilderrain was kneeling.
As Thompson approached the door, part-time cop Adolfo Celis warned that the Chinese were armed. Thompson replied with: “I’ll look out after that” as he fired blindly into the darkened interior. As he opened the door to go inside a bullet hit him in the chest, and he was supposed to have muttered: “I am killed.” He turned toward the street and collapsed, an hour later he was dead.
At the news of Thompson’s mortal wounds, a mob estimated at 500 had gathered in the Alley to lay siege to the Chinese. At first the mob was held at bay by gunfire coming from inside the building; however it was not long before the Chinese had all but given up. What happened next is truly shocking.
Armed bands of men under the dim gaslight of recently installed street lamps dragged Chinese men and boys quickly to the erected gallows downtown. It wasn’t long before bodies were swinging from two upturned wagons on Commercial Street, as well as the crossbar of the Tomlinson Corral.
The porch roof of John Goller‘s wagon shop at Los Angeles and Commercial also had victims swinging from ropes. Goller objected bitterly as the Chinese were hoisted outside his windows, but was met with a rifle pointed at him.
As the Chinese were hung, men danced a jig, a woman who ran a boardinghouse even volunteered to cut up clothesline for nooses screaming: “Hang them.” A boy came running from a dry goods shop: “Here’s a rope,” he called helpfully.
Even the most eminent and beloved among both his countrymen and Americans was not safe. Dr. Gene Tong (Chee Long Tong) was dragged along the street, where he offered to pay $3,000 in gold to let him go; he even offered his diamond wedding ring. However, one of his captors shot him in the mouth to silence him. Before hanging him, a captor cut off his finger to steal the ring.
Many were shot and bashed before being hung. While the looting and murder were carried out mostly by hoodlums, the deeds required the unspoken approval of the town’s elite. According to later accounts, some of the city’s leading citizens were seen cheering on the killers. What’s more, the vast majority of those responsible would not have escaped punishment without their approval.
Drunken revelers showed up at saloons after the killing was done, bragging of how many “Chinamen” they had themselves murdered. The dead were, to the killers, faceless embodiments of the Chinese menace. By 11 p.m., the bars raging as the mob quenched its thirst, one man with blood on his hands and shirt saying:
“Well, I am satisfied now. I have killed three Chinamen.”
Trial and conviction
Too many people had been involved in the riots for all the guilty to be punished — or even accused. Several criminal and civil trials were held; however, one witness after another, including police, was unable to recognize any of the mob members.
Although over time some citizens recovered their memories, naming various merchants as having aided the mob in one way or another, from a clothing store owner to a farmer, a silk grower, a butcher, a blacksmith, a saloon owner, and a carpenter.
Celis the cop who had warned Thompson before he was shot dead and a constable named Richard Kerren were identified as the men who shot at the Chinese. A city councilman by the name of George Fall was also identified as having attacked Hing with a plank of wood.
The grand jury finally issued indictments accusing two dozen men of murder. But not one prominent person was on the list. However, this did not stop them from having one of the most distinguished and successful members of the bar to defend them, Edward J.C. Kewen, and would have certainly been beyond the financial reach of the defendants.
The prosecution was led by District Attorney Cameron Erskine Thom, the grandson of a Scottish warrior and who had been on friendly terms with Thomas Jefferson. Los Angeles’ first Trial of the Century began in March 1872.
The vigilante movement had penetrated the city so badly that one prospective juror after another had to be disqualified because he belonged to a vigilance committee. Presiding over the trial was Robert Widney, the hero of the massacre, who acted to save Chinese people when police would not.
However, he wasn’t even a member of the bar, and wouldn’t be for some months. If that wasn’t enough to question his fitness, he should have excluded himself because he had personally witnessed the violence that night. How could he remain neutral when he seen who see guilty?
The first to stand trial was L.F. “Curly” Crenshaw. He was seen to be firing down on Chinese from the roof of the building. He was convicted of manslaughter, not the obvious crime of murder; however, he had a powerful ally in policeman Gard. Gard did little to stop the lynching, and had testified when he got his rifle back from Curly that the gun still had the same number of bullets.
The next nine defendants were trialed together. All nine were convicted, but again, of manslaughter. Imposed sentences ranged from two to six years, fairly light terms given the crime. However, not long after the guilty boarded ship for San Quentin, Kewen filed papers with the Supreme Court of California, claiming that the convictions were improper because the district attorney committed a fatal legal error.
Although prosecutor Thom had correctly charged the defendants with murdering Dr. Tong, he had failed to introduce evidence that Tong had actually been killed. The Supreme Court agreed and the convictions were set aside.
No veteran prosecutor would have made this mistake, and it really showed Thom’s inexperience. He made no attempted to retry the defendants, nor did he bring to trial the majority of those accused by the grand jury.
After a short while, the indictments themselves were mislaid, meaning that no future trials could be held. And just like that, L.A. had disposed of its messy public relations problem.