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Commemorating LA's Chinese Massacre, possibly the worst lynching in US history

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The bodies of dead Chinese men and boys lie in the Los Angeles jail yard on October 24, 1871, the results of the Chinese Massacre.
Los Angeles Public Library /Security Pacific National Bank Collection
The bodies of dead Chinese men and boys lie in the Los Angeles jail yard on October 24, 1871, the results of the Chinese Massacre.

Monday marks the 145th anniversary of the Chinese Massacre, when vigilantes tortured and hanged at least 18 Chinese men and boys in LA's Chinatown.

"We are holding this solemn observance to remember the bigotry and hardship endured by the early immigrants and to share the lessons that are embodied within that experience for this and future generations." -- Dr. Gay Yuen, Friends of the Chinese American Museum.

Monday evening, L.A.'s Chinese American Museum will commemorate the 145th anniversary of possibly the worst lynching in American history, the Chinese Massacre, which happened near the present-day museum.  Robert Petersen tells the story in his podcast, The Hidden History of Los Angeles, which he shares with Off-Ramp.

Standing on Los Angeles Street today, just north of the 101 Freeway in downtown, I can hear the hum of the freeway behind me. I can see tourists congregating on the plaza and people walking to and from Union Station about a block away.  But 145 years ago, this was the site of one of the darkest chapters in Los Angeles history, when 18* Chinese immigrants were tortured and hanged.

In 1871, Los Angeles was a small, but notoriously violent town of little more than 5,000 people. The town also had a small Chinese community. And during this time there was a growing anti-Chinese sentiment based on fears that the new immigrants were taking white jobs. This economist resentment, which quickly devolved into racial hysteria, serves as the backdrop to our story.

On the evening of October 24, 1871, one of L.A.’s six police officers, Jesus Bilderrain, was at a saloon on the corner of Arcadia and Main Streets when he heard gunfire.  He jumped on his horse and headed for Calle de los Negros, which was the center of L.A.’s Chinese community. He shouted for a fellow police officer, Esteban Sanchez, to join him. They arrived and found five or six Chinese men shooting at each other in the middle of the street. When the officers arrived, the men ran off in different directions.

The officers found a Chinese man named Ah Choy lying in the street with a gunshot wound to his neck. The gunfight was caused by a dispute between two rival Chinese factions over the kidnapping of a young Chinese woman. A group of gunmen had fled the scene and headed into the nearby Coronel Building. The Coronel Building housed the core of the Chinese community and was filled shops and tiny apartments.

What happened next is not entirely clear, as different eyewitness offered different accounts of the incident. In one version, Bilderrain said that he courageously ran into the Coronel building and was immediately shot. Falling to his knees, with a bullet in his arm, Bilderrain blew his whistle to raise the alarm.

A popular rancher and former saloon owner named Robert Thompson ran up to the other officer, Esteban Sanchez, and asked what was happening. A bystander then yelled out: “The Chinamen have shot Bilderrain.” Thompson was not a police officer. But in 1870s L.A., private citizens were used to taking the law into their own hands.

And so, an armed Robert Thompson drew his pistol and stepped to the open doorway of the Coronel building. He fired a wayward shot inside. A bystander shouted to Thompson, “Don’t go in there or they’ll shoot you.” Thompson replied, “I’ll look out for that.” He stepped into the hallway and was immediately shot in the chest. Thompson turned back into the street, collapsed, and died.

Thompson’s death incited a mob estimated at 500 people — nearly a tenth of the entire population of L.A. — to gather around Chinatown. The mob laid siege to the Coronel building. Climbing up the walls they used axes to hack holes into the roof. They sprayed gunfire from shotguns and rifles into the rooms below. At one point the mob tried to set the building on fire before attempting to use a fire hose to force the Chinese into the street. Finally, they stormed the building.

What happened next was an outbreak of violence that was shocking and brutal even by the savage standards of 1871 Los Angeles. Mob members dragged Chinese to hastily erected gallows at several different locations.

One of the victims, Dr. Gene Tong, was probably the most respected Chinese men in L.A. As Dr. Tong was being dragged in the street, he pled for his life in English and Spanish. He could see the bodies of his neighbors hanging from a nearby gate. Dr. Tong reminded the mob that he was innocent and had not taken part in gun battle earlier that evening. He even offered his captors his entire savings of several thousand dollars if they would let him go. That only prompted mob members to rip open his pockets and search for money. Then a mob member raised his pistol and shot Dr. Tong in the mouth.

By 9 p.m., nearly all of the Chinese who had not escaped early in the evening had either been captured by the mob or found refuge at the jail or in friendly American houses and shops. The next morning, Angelenos witnessed the devastation as they saw the bodies of the dead laid out in double rows.

Subsequent criminal trials in connection with the massacre resulted in eight convictions. But the convictions were overturned by the California Supreme Court based on a technicality. All eight men were set free and the D.A. decided not to retry them. And so it ended. And it was quickly forgotten. During the following years with waves of new residents and the arrival of the transcontinental railroad, L.A. grew to become a modern city.

Today, there is little left of L.A.’s original Chinatown, before it was moved to its present-day location to make way for the construction of Union Station. And while mostly forgotten, echoes of 1871 still remain at the present-day locations of the massacre. On Los Angeles Street at Arcadia Street — this is the approximate site of the Coronel building where the massacre started. Or the parking entrance to the L.A. Mall on Los Angeles Street, just north of Temple -- this is the approximate site of Goller’s wagon shop where ten victims were lynched. Or the Hall of Justice, on Main and Temple Streets — this is the approximate site of Tomlison’s Corral, where four other victims were lynched. It is ironic that the Hall of Justice stands upon a place of such injustice, but also apt for Los Angeles which is home to so many contradictions.

(*The exact number killed is in dispute. Scott Zesch, in his book "The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871," documents 18 deaths.)

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