SAPAHM: Chinese Massacre of 1871 in L.A.

“The largest incident of mass lynching in American history.

So … I’m not really sure how to go about writing this post. I know most (all) of the Heritage Month posts that I’ve put up are celebratory. And basically all the posts here generally. I’m not posting an image because the only ~relevant one I can find is a group of the corpses which … no. I’m not really going to say much more because I just want to put the information out there. I might add my thoughts later … I might not.

Despite going against the grain, I think this is a really important topic, and it speaks to an area of Heritage. And little known history. I learned about the incident some time last year while researching a different Heritage topic/group. I was … shocked. I mean, I knew of course that Asian [Pacific] Americans experience racism just like any other minority group in America. I also knew a little bit about the horrible conditions of railroad workers and the like – The Chinese Exclusion Acts … (America really hated Asians…) but … I had no idea that the victims of [one of] the largest mass lynching in American history was a group of Chinese Americans. If you’re like me, I think you’d have assumed that dubious title would be attributed to some atrocity in the south against African Americans. But no.

At least 17 Chinese men and boys were lynched as a result of the incident. Most of them were innocent of any wrong doing. It appears that only one had been a bad actor (and fired bullets into a crowd indiscriminately). Some articles say eighteen, others nineteen men  and boys were lynched. And … isn’t it that much more of a tragedy that what are legitimate sources report different numbers.

The greatest unsolved murders in Los Angeles’ history — bloodier than the Black Dahlia, more coldly vicious than the hit on Bugsy Siegel — occurred on a cool fall night in 1871. Seventeen Chinese men and boys, including a popular doctor, were hanged by an angry mob near what is now Union Station, an act so savage that it bumped the Great Chicago Fire off the front page of The New York Times.

That’s a quote from an article in LA Weekly. I had a really difficult time reading that article. Here’s another quote that describes the incident – with one man protesting the mob action. It also gives you a snapshot of the sentiment toward (against) Chinese Americans at the time.

Goller was a model citizen, a former city councilman, respectful husband and dutiful father. He objected bitterly as the Chinese were hoisted outside his windows. There are small children inside, he protested.

“You dry up, you son of a bitch,” growled a teamster as he leveled a rifle at Goller.

As the Chinese were hauled up, a man on the porch roof danced a jig and gave voice to the resentment many Americans felt over the Chinese willingness to work for low wages. “Come on, boys, patronize home trade,” the man sang out.

The bloodlust was not only in the men. A woman who ran a boardinghouse across the street from Goller’s shop volunteered clothesline to be cut up for nooses.

“Hang them,” she screamed.

A boy came running from a dry goods shop. “Here’s a rope,” he called helpfully.

Of all the Chinese in Los Angeles, Dr. Gene Tong was probably the most eminent and beloved among both his countrymen and Americans. He could have made much more money hanging his shingle in the American part of town. But Tong stayed in the Alley, dispensing both traditional and modern cures from a small shop in the decrepit Coronel Building.

As Tong was dragged along the street, he tried to strike a bargain with his captors. He could pay a ransom, he said. He had $3,000 in gold in his shop. He had a diamond wedding ring. They could have it all.

Instead of negotiating, one of his captors shot him in the mouth to silence him. Then they hanged him, first cutting off his finger to steal the ring.

Eight men were convicted, but their convictions were almost immediately “thrown out for a bizarre technical oversight by the prosecution.” No one was prosecuted again.

This incident appears to have stemmed from conflict between two existing Chinese factions – but I think this tragedy can be considered as both a separate and a whole. There were rival gangs warring, an officer went into Chinatown and was shot, which led to a mob of [whites] descending on the area and just … destroying Chinatown.

You can read the JSTOR article here, which gives you the background as well.

These were the instructions the judge gave to the jury for the lynching trial. (I screencapped the JSTOR article.)

One of the judges I used to work with would swear in witnesses, ordering them to tell the truth “as you shall answer on to God.” Pretty heavy stuff.

2 thoughts on “SAPAHM: Chinese Massacre of 1871 in L.A.

    1. Limecello

      I agree, Denise – I think when it’s one of “the most” incidents in American history … it’s important to know. Good or bad. Of course, I remember my World History Class [honors!] only focused on European history O_o


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