How America Forgot the Chinese Massacre of 1871, One of the Worst Mass Lynchings in U.S. History
The beloved Dr. Gene Tong was dragged through the roughest street in Los Angeles, an angry mob calling for his quick death by hanging. Dr. Tong fervently bargained for his life, begging his predominately White captors to take his money or his diamond ring, desperately hoping they’d spare him of a gruesome fate in exchange for monetary gains. Instead of immunity, he received a bullet to the face, his frantic pleas silenced as blood gurgled from the wound in his mouth.
Moments later, he, along with at least 17 other Chinese men and boys, were hung from a makeshift gallows, a finger severed from his left hand. The ring, like his life, had been taken by a mob of approximately 500 men who shared one common sentiment: their frenzied hatred for the Chinese.
Unfortunately for the broken Chinese families and businesses, they were unable to bring their attackers to justice — a law preventing a person of Chinese descent to testify against a White person was established years prior. As such, only eight of the 500 men were ever convicted for their actions during the Chinese Massacre on the night of October 24, 1871, their sentences ultimately overturned due to some legal finagling.
How could a massacre, touted as one of the bloodiest acts of violence in Los Angeles, be swept under the rug so efficiently?
The answer is as complicated as it is dark and sheds light on the delicate web of old Los Angeles, woven from the various ethnic groups that developed the once tiny settlement into the megalopolis that it is today.
Anti-Chinese sentiments are nothing new — from the moment they set foot on California’s shores, the Chinese were already distrusted by their Anglo counterparts. Still, they were allowed to settle in the region, as cheap labor was needed to build the burgeoning state’s cities, businesses, and, of course, the Transcontinental Railroad. Even though they were hired by the elite Whites to do grunt work, the Chinese thrived. They set up businesses, established networks, and eventually developed into powerful family factions that were known for wealth and “relative immorality”.
Never was this more true than in the small, dusty city of Los Angeles; by 1871, only a few sleepy streets existed, one of the oldest being the Calle de los Negros. Named for the dark-skinned Spaniards who once owned it, the alley had been converted into one of the most dangerous places in the United States. Brothels, gambling houses, and saloons dotted the alleyway, attracting some of the most notorious men of the region, like Crooked Nose Smith, Jack Powers, and Cherokee Bob. In a little over a year, the street was coated with the blood of 44 people — the highest murder rate ever recorded in U.S. history — slain by the villainous scoundrels who frequented the alley.
It was this perilous street that the majority of the Chinese in Los Angeles called home.
Years of hard work and perseverance had paid off for the Chinese immigrants, who, despite the unfair hand they’d been dealt in Los Angeles, were able to cultivate their family businesses into massive companies. The two most powerful organizations, led by Sam Yuen and Yo Hing, went from long-time rivals to bitter enemies when Hing’s company kidnapped Yut Ho, a beautiful woman who was married to one of Yuen’s men. In an attempt to rescue her, Yuen hired several Tong warriors from San Francisco, one of whom was Ho’s brother, An Choy.
On October 23, 1871, Choy spotted Hing in Negro Alley and opened fire. Hing escaped with his life and, due to his influence over local law enforcement, had Choy arrested with a bail set to $2,000 — nearly $40,000 when adjusted for inflation. Yuen promptly posted bail, which flabbergasted Hing’s attorneys. How could a Chinese man, in a system stacked against him, possibly have so much money? But it was true; officials followed Yuen to his home, wherein they found a trunk with enough cash for Choy’s bail…and much, much more.
Although accounts are murky at best, historians agree that Yuen’s fortune is what lured police officer Jesus Bilderrain to investigate Yuen’s home on October 24, 1871. Known for stealing property and accepting bribes, Bilderrain likely made his way to Negro Alley to help himself to Yuen’s cash, only to find himself in the middle of a gunfight between the two factions. Bilderrain spotted Choy, blood gushing from a gunshot wound in his neck, and his initial account depicted him heroically chasing who he alleged to be Choy’s killers into the Colonel Building, the structure looming over the infamous street. According to his first version of the story, he was hopelessly outgunned and quickly shot in the shoulder. Retreating, he raised the alarm, blowing a whistle in an attempt to gain any able-bodied man’s attention.
The man who answered the call was Robert Thompson, the owner of one of the most notorious saloons in the city. In true vigilante-justice style, Thompson kicked down the door to the building, guns blazing. He summarily took lead to the chest, succumbing to his mortal wound an hour later.
If anti-Chinese sentiment was the tinder, Thompson’s death was the spark; almost immediately, Los Angeles was engulfed in the flames of one of the most violent events in the city’s history, as a mob of 500 predominately White men swarmed their Chinese neighbors in a dark and deadly showdown.
After subduing the Chinese gunmen inside the Colonel Building, the mob battered their way through each home. In some, they only took money and other precious goods; in others, they dragged men from their crying wives and inconsolable children, hauling them to a makeshift gallows to be publicly hanged. At least 18 Chinese men and boys, among them Dr. Tong, would lose their lives on this fateful evening, either by hanging or by gunfire, in an evil, violent act perpetrated by nearly a tenth of the entire City of Angels.
Yet, due to the legal restrictions placed on the Chinese Angelenos, the grief-stricken community could not testify against their countrymen’s killers; in fact, it was likely because of the overwhelming publicity the massacre received that it was even brought to trial at all.
In 1871, Los Angeles was doing its best to attract new citizens, and the mass lynching soon proved to be a veritable public relations disaster in this endeavor. How could the city possibly hope to convince people to settle near the bloodiest street in L.A.? Cautiously, officials and prominent figureheads decided to bring two dozen men with weak ties to the most powerful among them; with a whimper, the court only convicted up to eight of them with manslaughter, although their sentences were later shortened or overturned due to “fatal legal errors”. Most of the men that the grand jury indicted were also never brought to trial due to “mislaid indictments”, and the victims of that gruesome evening never saw true justice.
The press, likely in cahoots with the powers that be, decided it was best to speak about the massacre as infrequently as possible; local papers failed to publish even a whisper of the evening during their year-end round-up of major events that had happened in 1871. With no new information, the world largely forgot about the mass lynching, and the PR disaster had been successfully averted.
To this day, the massacre serves as a discolored stain on the country’s history — while lynchings were subsequently outlawed in Los Angeles in response to the murders, the efforts made by Anglo Angelenos to wipe the event from memory has been largely effective. Not only does the massacre itself tarnish the city’s past, but also the successful attempts to cover up the misdeeds of the guilty parties and the decades of deafening silence thereafter. The mere fact that people now park their cars where innocent blood was shed is a travesty, an embarrassing testament to the injustices the Chinese in America have faced.
Perhaps the best chance for the voices of the victims of the Chinese Massacre of 1871 to be heard now lies in the upcoming movie, “The Jade Pendant“. After 146 years, the event that occurred on that grisly evening is finally being depicted in media. And although it is much too late for the families of those slaughtered to receive any closure and a far cry from actual justice, it is a step in the right direction to make known what happened on October 24, 1871 — the night of the Chinese Massacre.