Chinese massacre of 1871

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Chinese massacre of 1871
Los Angeles, corpses of Chinese victims, Oct 1871.jpg
Chinese immigrants who were murdered during the massacre
Chinese massacre of 1871 is located in Los Angeles
Chinese massacre of 1871
Chinese massacre of 1871 (Los Angeles)
LocationLos Angeles, California, U.S.
Coordinates34°03′24″N 118°14′16″W / 34.056583°N 118.237806°W / 34.056583; -118.237806
Date24 October 1871
TargetChinese immigrants
Attack type
Deaths17 to 20
PerpetratorsMob of around 500 non-Chinese men
MotiveRacially motivated, greed, revenge for the accidental killing of Robert Thompson, a local rancher

The Chinese massacre of 1871 was a racial massacre that occurred on October 24, 1871, in Los Angeles, California, when a mob of around 500 White and Hispanic persons entered Old Chinatown and attacked, robbed, and murdered Chinese residents.[1][2] The massacre took place on Calle de los Negros also referred to as "Negro Alley". The mob gathered after hearing that a policeman had been shot and a rancher killed by Chinese. A few 21st-century sources have described this as the largest mass lynching in American history.[2][3]

An estimated 17 to 20 Chinese immigrants were hanged by the mob in the course of the riot, but most had already been shot to death. At least one was mutilated, when someone cut off a finger to get his diamond ring. Ten men of the mob were prosecuted and eight were convicted of manslaughter in these deaths. The convictions were overturned on appeal due to technicalities.


The Chinese Massacre of 1871 was an unprecedented progression of violence and deaths in Los Angeles, a town of 5,728 people at the 1870 census.[4][5]A dispute internal to the Chinese community spilled out, leading to the “death of an American bystander and the wounding of a city policeman.” This unfortunate incident sparked a frenzy of hatred and violent destruction centered in Calle de Los Negros, one of the town's oldest alleys and known for both its Chinese residences and businesses as well as its gambling dens. All but one of the eighteen Chinese killed in the hateful act of vengeance were innocent of the original violence leading to the tragedy. After all, the confusion had settled, at least a hundred and fifty individuals were identified and directly linked to the violence “after an exhaustive coroner’s inquest and the convening of a grand jury.” [6] The jury ultimately identified seven men for trial for their direct involvement in the death of one of the violence victims. Judge Robert M. Widney secured convictions for lesser charges of manslaughter, ranging between two and nine years. However, an appeal to the California Supreme Court reversed the convictions and remitted the cases back to Widney’s court. However, District Attorney Cameron M. Tom decided against retrying the cases and freed in late spring of 1873. This blight in the history of Los Angeles has been referenced multiple times. Newspaper coverage and court coverage papers offer a comprehensive perspective regarding the criminal justice system’s role on the backdrop of this unfortunate part of the city’s history.

The Massacre’s immediate cause traces to a fight between rival tongs, the Nin Yung, and Hong Chow. The rival factions fought over the alleged abduction of Yut Ho. While Ho was reported as married, prostitution was rampant, and there were many cases of women sold into sexual slavery. The police had previously helped either side to capture and return escapee women in exchange for a fee. However, in the case of Ho, things had gotten out of control. For two days, the conflict escalated, leading to the death of Jesus Bilderrain and Robert Thompson, a police officer and a bystander, respectively. Not long after the fateful events, a crowd gathered around the Coronel Adobe, the events’ location. Indiscriminate shooting and hanging ensued, leading to hundreds of deaths and replicated in at least three other areas. Amid the melee, a few individuals, including a would-be District Judge, Robert M. Widney, tried to calm the situation. The Los Angeles Star reported that a Vigilance Committee addressed crowds at the point where Los Angeles Street, Calle de los Negros, and Main Street met. The police, led by Sheriff James F. Burns, were only able to arrest the situation hours later. After that, the criminal justice administration system began to piece together factual details to punish those responsible for the heinous acts. The Massacre’s primary basis is viewed mainly as the escalation of fights amidst the associates of two Chinese tongs over the possession woman called Yit Ho. The two groups’ enemies ragged gunshots from 23rd to October 24, 1871, which caused a police officer from Los Angeles named Jesús Birderrain and Robert Thomson, the passer-by. Reports presented disparities; impetus then being the murder of the city police and bystander. A few minutes after the dusk, a large gathering assembled everywhere in Coronel Block, where the undertaking was spotlighted. According to the reports, some persons tried to calm the group and preclude the Chinese slayings. Inclusive was Robert M. Widney; the contestant intended to be a victor in the elections as the District Judge and chair the cases of the seven murders involved in the Massacre. The last killing occurred at 9:30 pm, the basis of the news report. [7]At the time, Sheriff James, with further community associates, had gained sufficient reinforcement; besides, it was four hours from the Massacre’s commencement, scattering the crowd and guarding them throughout the night. The criminal justice dispensation structure, which was utterly defective in stopping the massive killing, started its investigations to seek facts to administer justice on the unprecedented inhuman act.


Discrimination had been rising against the increasing number of Chinese immigrants living in California. It has been described as a root cause of the massacre.[8][page needed] White and mestizo residents of Los Angeles resented the expansion of the Chinese population, considering them an alien group. In 1863 the state legislature had passed a law that Asians (defined as Chinese, Mongolian, Indian, etc.) could not testify in court against whites, making them vulnerable to abuse and injustice, and putting them beyond reach of the law.[9] In 1868 the United States had signed the Burlingame Treaty with the Chinese Empire, setting conditions for immigration.[9] In this period, most Chinese workers who immigrated to the United States were men, intending to stay only temporarily. The small Chinese community in Los Angeles numbered fewer than 200, and 80% were men.[9]

Another factor was the rough frontier nature of Los Angeles, which in the 1850s had a disproportionately high number of lynchings for its size, and an attachment to "popular justice" (this was also a period of violence across the country).[10] It attracted transients from across the country, and alcohol use was high among the predominately male population.

In Los Angeles in the few days preceding the riot, two Chinese Tong factions, known as the Hong Chow and Nin Yung companies, had started a confrontation from a feud over the alleged abduction of a Chinese woman named Yut Ho (also documented as Ya Hit), who was announced in the paper as having married. Most women in the community served as prostitutes and had essentially been sold into sexual slavery. Previously the police department had assisted the Tongs in keeping their confrontations over the women internal to the community, and sometimes capturing and returning women who had escaped, in exchange for payment by the Tongs, but in this case, things got out of hand. Two Chinese men were arrested for shooting at each other, and were released on bail, but the police kept watch on the Old Chinatown neighborhood. It had developed along Calle de los Negros, which was named in the colonial period.[9][11]

Calle de los Negros[edit]

1888 map. Calle de los Negros had just been renamed Los Angeles Street. On either side, the buildings are marked "Chinatown". Coronel Adobe at the corner of Arcadia St., on Broad Place. Old Chinatown continued northeast across Alameda St., to what is now the Union Station complex.

Calle de los Negros was situated immediately northeast of Los Angeles's principal business district, running 500 feet (150 m) from the intersection of Arcadia Street to the plaza. The unpaved street was named by Spanish colonists for Californios (pre-annexation, Spanish-speaking Californians) of darker complexion (most likely of multiracial ancestry: Spanish, Native American, and African) who had originally lived there.[citation needed] The neighborhood had deteriorated into a slum by the time the first Chinatown of Los Angeles developed there in the 1860s.[9]

Early 20th-century Los Angeles merchant Harris Newmark recalled in his memoir that Calle de los Negros was "as tough a neighborhood, in fact, as could be found anywhere."[12] Los Angeles historian Morrow Mayo described it in 1933 as

a dreadful thoroughfare, forty feet wide, running one whole block, filled entirely with saloons, gambling-houses, dance-halls, and cribs. It was crowded night and day with people of many races, male and female, all rushing and crowding along from one joint to another, from bar to bar, from table to table. There was a band in every joint, with harps, guitars, and other stringed instruments predominating.[13]

October 24[edit]

As Los Angeles police officer Jesús Bilderrain was patrolling Calle de los Negros, an altercation broke out in which he was wounded and so he blew his whistle for reinforcements. Some civilians came to his aid, including rancher Robert Thompson, an ex-saloon keeper who pursued a Chinese man up to the door of a house in the alley, despite warnings from others. He was fatally shot there, dying about an hour later at 6 pm at a nearby drugstore.[citation needed]

Lawmen, including chief of police Francis Baker, came and went as a larger crowd gathered along the edges of Chinatown, acting as a guard to prevent any Chinese from escaping. Informed of the growing crowd, three-term Mayor Cristobal Aguilar, a longtime politician in the city, also surveyed the situation and then left. When news of Thompson's death passed through the city, along with the rumor that the Chinese in Negro Alley "were killing whites wholesale", more men gathered around the boundaries of Negro Alley.[9]


By the end of the riot

The dead Chinese in Los Angeles were hanging at three places near the heart of the downtown business section of the city; from the wooden awning over the sidewalk in front of a carriage shop; from the sides of two "prairie schooners" parked on the street around the corner from the carriage shop; and from the cross-beam of a wide gate leading into a lumberyard a few blocks away from the other two locations. One of the victims was hanged without his trousers and minus a finger on his left hand.[9]

Historian Paul de Falla wrote that the trousers were taken to get to his money, and his finger was cut to take a diamond ring.[9]

The mob ransacked practically every Chinese-occupied building on the block and attacked or robbed nearly every resident. A total of 17 to 20 Chinese immigrant men were hanged by the mob.[citation needed]


The following people were lynched:[11]

  • Ah Wing
  • Dr. Chee Long "Gene" Tong, physician
  • Chang Wan
  • Leong Quai, laundryman
  • Ah Long, cigar maker
  • Wan Foo, cook
  • Tong Won, cook and musician
  • Ah Loo
  • Day Kee, cook
  • Ah Waa, cook
  • Ho Hing, cook
  • Lo Hey, cook
  • Ah Won, cook
  • Wing Chee, cook
  • Wong Chin, storekeeper

The following people were shot and killed at the Coronel Adobe building:[11]

  • Johnny Burrow
  • Ah Cut, liquor maker
  • Wa Sin Quai

The Associated Press sent a report that night at 9 pm to the San Francisco Daily Examiner, detailing an on-the-spot account. It estimated the mob was about 500 persons, which would have constituted eight percent of the city's population of nearly 6,000 persons, including all men, women and children.[9]

The Coroner’s Inquest[edit]

The inquest covered an entire four days and encompassed interviewing of various range of eyewitnesses. Disappointedly, no data from the inquest was ascertained, known hitherto, and newspaper feedbacks serving as the sole source of information. Firstly, the two interviews involving Robert Thomson, which took two hours, emerged to be broad and elaborate. Still, only a single observer, Constable Bilderrain, was examined. His description of the event was reliant on facts and was apprehensive that Thompson got shot in the process of assisting him. In the process of pursuing justice for the killed Chinese, utterly innocent of the Massacre, seven men were sentenced in the law court, whether unquestionably guilt-ridden or not. The Supreme Court omitted the prosecution on Gene killings. Further, it is crystal clear that there was no basis in the High court verdict that compelled them to trust the sentenced demonstrators were blameless. The District Attorney and Judge felt in 1873 that it was becoming unrealistic and illogical to pursue new trials; the issue was called off. Since then, the Chinese have to perform an exceptional prayer at the city in honor of the carnage and misfortune.

Grand Jury and Indictments[edit]

Following the coroner’s inquest, Tong Yu, widow to Dr. Gene Tong, fled a complaint in the Justice Court, accusing Yo Hing, one of the tong leaders, of “inciting and participating” the Massacre that led to her husband’s death. While Yo was initially held following the November 4 complaint, the Grand Jury could not link him directly with the events, and he was later released. Four days after this complaint, “County Court Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda convened a special Grand Jury to investigate the events around to the Massacre.” A jury composed of individuals of diverse backgrounds, Juan Jose (long-time resident), William Perry (building contractor), Kaspare Cohn (building contractor), William Henry (saddle maker and councilman), and Martin Sanchez (farmer), was constituted. Judge Sepulveda condemned the violence pattern in the strongest terms possible and challenged the jury to stand up to the occasion.[14] The jury’s report noted forty-nine indictments for felonies and murders (almost split halfway). The report highlighted full statements of the events leading to the Massacre. Immediately after the report’s publication, A.R. Thompson, Charles Austin, and Charles Crawford (official records Edmund Crawford) was held. Another set of five individuals, Louis Mendel, Jesus Martinez, Andreas Soeur, Patrick McDonald, and D.W. Moody, were arrested and held. Three Chinese and two whites were held, but for lesser charges, an additional five unnamed individuals were held.


The most famous case was People v. Kerren, in which the defendant was accused of shooting at two Chinese women, Cha Cha and Fan Cho, with a deadly assault weapon. Kerren was released on a $1000 bail.[15] Several other witness statements were full of objections by District Attorney Thom and defense counsels based on irrelevant leading questions. In People v. Quong Wan and Ah Yeng, Wan and Yeng were accused of being the originators of the riots and subsequently charged with the murder of Ah Coy. Coupled with these charges were rumors that the Chinese had been on a gun-buying spree days before the Massacre and that some Chinese were also expected in from San Francisco in readiness for a fight. In People v. Crenshaw, the case pursued the murder of Gene Tong. Later, all the cases were combined into one and attracted interest from both the public and the press. While the convicted rioters were sentenced and taken to the San Quentin, a few other cases remained. Such cases included Fong Yen Ling, Sam Yuen, Yin Tuck, and Ah Ying v. The Mayor and Common Council of the City of Los Angeles, in which the merchants sued for damages to their stores during the Massacre. The Judge held that the city was not liable for the destruction of businesses and noted that such liability would only hold if the business owner had notified the city before the collapse. Several other cases were declined on the ground of lacking evidence. Thus, a review of the legal provisions was imperative to understand the court’s decision despite the destruction of property and deaths.

Freeing of the Rioters[edit]

In People v Sam Yuen, Yuen was charged for shooting Jesus Bilderrain before Justice Trafford. The constable charged Yuen with “willfully, deliberately, feloniously and of malice aforethought, aiding, abetting, assisting, counseling and encouraging a Chinaman, identified as John Doe, to kill and murder. While an arrest warrant was issued for Bilderrain, Yuen could not be traced. When he returned in 1872, no warrant was served. Complications further arose when a second warrant was issued.[16] However, reports indicated that a post-Massacre addition to the force, Constable Frank Hurtley, arrested Yuen. Adolfo Celis testified that he had seen Yuen running behind another Chinese man as both entered the Coronel Block at the time of the violence.[17] He narrated details that placed Yuen at the scene of the Massacre and confirmed his playing an active role. The Massacre brought to fore the protection of the minority through the laws of Los Angeles. At the same time, there was open prejudice against minorities. The judicial process, such as in the case of Sam Yuen, went on smoothly. A jury that determined its case based on race would have found Yuen liable. However, the court followed all the due process of the law, relied on witness testimonies, including the reversal of misleading accounts by Jesus Bilderrain. It can thus be concluded that due process of the law was followed. There is, however, no clarity on whether the Massacre led to any positive advancements towards the fight against crime. Anti-Chinese hate flared in the weeks that followed. Overt anti-Chinese violence died naturally after the proceedings. This notwithstanding, however, anti-Chinese feelings persisted and was expressed more subtly.


Authorities arrested and prosecuted ten rioters. Eight were convicted of manslaughter at trial and sentenced to prison terms at San Quentin. Their convictions were overturned on appeal due to a legal technicality.[vague] The eight men convicted were:[18]

  • Alvarado, Esteban
  • Austin, Charles
  • Botello, Refugio
  • Crenshaw, L. F.
  • Johnson, A. R.
  • Martinez, Jesus
  • McDonald, Patrick M.
  • Mendel, Louis

The event was well-reported on the East Coast, and newspapers there described Los Angeles as a "blood stained Eden" after the riots.[19] A growing movement of anti-Chinese discrimination in California climaxed in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.[citation needed]

Calle de los Negros was renamed as part of Los Angeles Street in 1877 and obliterated in its previous form in 1888 as Los Angeles Street was widened and extended to the Plaza. The Coronel Adobe where the Chinese massacre occurred was torn down in the late 1880s. In the 21st century, the site of the Coronel Adobe is now an offramp from the US 101 freeway to Los Angeles Street, immediately south of the El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument, a national historic district.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

L.P. Leung wrote about a main character involved with the 1871 massacre in The Jade Pendant (2013).[20] This has been adapted as a Chinese-produced film by the same name, which was released in 2017 in North America.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hart, James (1987). A Companion to California. University of California Press. pp. 94–99. ISBN 9780520055438.
  2. ^ a b Johnson, John (10 March 2011). "How Los Angeles Covered Up the Massacre of 17 Chinese". LA Weekly. Retrieved 1 August 2016.
  3. ^ Erika Lee, "Review of The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 (2012), by Scott Zesch", Journal of American History, vol. 100, no. 1 (June 2013), pg. 217.
  4. ^ "Census of Population and Housing". Retrieved June 4, 2016.
  5. ^ Tinsman, Heidi. "Narrating Chinese Massacre in the South American War of the Pacific" (Journal of Asian American Studies 22, no. 3, 2019), 277.
  6. ^ Blew, Robert W. "Vigilantism in Los Angeles, 1835-1874" (Southern California Quarterly 54, no. 1, 1972),18.
  7. ^ Zesch, Scott. "Chinese Los Angeles in 1870-1871: The Makings of a Massacre" (Southern California Quarterly 90, no. 2, 2008), 112.
  8. ^ Loewen, J. W. (2008). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. The New Press.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i Paul M. De Falla, "Lantern in the Western Sky", The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, 42 (March 1960), 57–88 (Part I), and 42 (June 1960), 161–185 (Part II); via JSTOR; accessed 3 February 2018.
  10. ^ Paul R. Spitzzeri, "Judge Lynch in Session: Popular Justice in Los Angeles, 1850-1875", Southern California Quarterly Vol. 87, No. 2 (Summer 2005), pp. 83-122; via JSTOR; accessed 3 February 2018
  11. ^ a b c Scott Zesch, "Chinese Los Angeles in 1870—1871: The Makings of a Massacre", Southern California Quarterly, 90 (Summer 2008), 109–158; via JSTOR; accessed 3 February 2018
  12. ^ Harris Newmark, Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853—1913 (1916; 4th ed., Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1984), 31.
  13. ^ Morrow Mayo, Los Angeles (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1933), 38.
  14. ^ Zesch, Scott. "Chinese Los Angeles in 1870-1871: The Makings of a Massacre" (Southern California Quarterly 90, no. 2, 2008), 123.
  15. ^ Jew, Victor. "The Anti-Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles as a Reconstruction-era Event" In (Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, 2016).
  16. ^ Dorland, Chester P. "Chinese massacre at Los Angeles in 1871" (Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, Los Angeles 3, no. 2, 1894), 24.
  17. ^ Jew, Victor. "The Anti-Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles as a Reconstruction-era Event." In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. 2016.
  18. ^ Paul R Spitzzeri, "Judge Lynch in session: Popular justice in Los Angeles, 1850–1875", Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 87, No. 2 (Summer 2005), 108; via JSTOR; accessed 3 February 2018
  19. ^ "CRIMES FROM THE PAST" Los Angeles – (Oct. 24, 1871) Archived September 24, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ Leung, L. P. (2013-01-08). The Jade Pendant. FriesenPress. ISBN 9781460207451.
  21. ^ Frater, Patrick (2017-05-18). "Cannes: China's 'Jade Pendant' Set for North American Release (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved 2017-10-18.

Further reading[edit]

  • Scott Zesch, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 34°03′24″N 118°14′16″W / 34.056583°N 118.237806°W / 34.056583; -118.237806