Tragedy struck in Los Angeles’ Chinese quarter.
On October 24, 1871, Robert Thompson, a saloonkeeper turned rancher, cautiously approached the front door of a house on Calle de los Negroes (aka “Negro Alley”). The occupants, members of a neighborhood Chinese tong, were quiet now, but they were well armed, and they had shot a police officer. Although not a member of the force, Thompson was angry and wanted to lend a hand. A bystander warned the vigilante rancher to be careful, but he kept moving toward the door. “I’ll look out,” Thompson said. Just then a Chinese man stepped outside with a six-shooter in each hand. He went right up to Thompson on the porch, pressed the barrel of a revolver to the rancher’s right breast and pulled the trigger. The pointblank shot was no misfire. “I am killed,” Thompson said, as he slumped to the ground. Actually, it would take him half an hour to die. And after he did, things heated up even more in Negro Alley. Vigilantes took action; they were out for Chinese blood. The murder and mayhem that followed has become known as the Chinese Massacre of 1871.
Calle de los Negroes was not a black neighborhood but was named for the high levels of vice and crime committed there. It lay within the Chinese quarter, where native brotherhood associations known as tongs thrived. These had their roots in triads, underground societies that operated in China for more than 2,000 years to protect local populations from brigands and marauders. As Chinese migrated to California during the California Gold Rush, triads established themselves in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. Most of the Chinese came to California under contract. The triads would pay their traveling costs and contract their fees for services; the laborers would eventually pay back the triads and either remain in the state or return to China. Tongs, criminal gangs modeled on the triad system, engaged in three other lucrative businesses— gambling, prostitution and opium smuggling. Such illegal or semi-legal activities led to trouble as rival organizations vied for territorial domination and warred over gambling debts, women and economic spheres of influence.
The trouble in October 1871 started when two Los Angeles–based tongs, the Nin Yung and Hong Chow, argued over which had the conjugal rights to a certain female. Fistfights and gunfire broke out in Calle de los Negroes between members of the rival tongs. The Los Angeles Daily News reported that the rivals had accumulated 600 six-shooters and that a number of Chinese had arrived from San Francisco “for the express purpose of taking [an] active part in the fight.” On October 24, the same day as the massacre, Judge Wilson Gray presided over a preliminary hearing involving two tong members who had tried to kill each other. Both men posted bail, but neither side was willing to let American justice run its course. Later that afternoon, gunfire again erupted in Calle de los Negroes. Tongs also fired shots at white and Mexican neighbors who tried to interfere or were simply onlookers.
Policeman Jesus Bilderrain responded to the gunfire and found Ah Coy, a member of the Nin Yung tong, bleeding from a bullet wound to the neck that would prove fatal. Without differentiating between Nin Yung and Hong Chow tongs, Bilderrain instructed a bystander named Adolph Celis to help him catch any fleeing Chinese. The officer then followed two armed tong members into a house and took a bullet in the shoulder for his trouble. Unknown to Bilderrain, given the chaotic scene, his assailant was a member of the Nin Yungs, not the Hong Chows. The wounded policeman emerged from the house and blew his whistle, hoping to summon another officer. Rancher Thompson responded first. Big mistake. Minutes later he was dead.
Soon after Thompson’s murder, lawmen (policemen and sheriff’s deputies) and civilians (both Mexican and white) surrounded the narrow alley. The city marshal ordered that fleeing Chinese be shot. Working-class Los Angelenos resented the Chinese for accepting low pay and taking away jobs. And over the preceding two decades, a culture of vigilantism had sprung up in Los Angeles and surrounding counties. By 6 p.m., scarcely 90 minutes after the wounding of Bilderrain and killing of Thompson, a mob was either hanging or shooting any Chinese trying to escape the alley.
A few people on hand tried to do what was right within the law. Early in the fracas, when patrolman Emil Harris arrested a hatchet-wielding Chinese man, the mob snatched away the prisoner and hanged him. Later, someone in the crowd hurled a torch onto the roof of a building to burn out the Chinese. Ignoring the blood lust of the crowd, Harris entered and climbed upstairs to remove the torch. When Judge R.M. Widney tried to save a 14-year-old Chinese boy, someone thrust a revolver in his face, and the boy was soon swinging from hastily constructed gallows. But Widney was able to escort several terror-stricken Chinese to a local jail for protection, and other good Samaritans helped various Chinese to escape. But the massacre continued. The mob didn’t differentiate between tong members and bystanders. Gene Tong, the only Chinese physician in Los Angeles at the time, lost a finger to a vigilante who coveted his ring. The doctor soon lost more than that when the mob summarily strung him up by the neck. By the time the mayhem was over that evening, 19 Chinese men lay dead, and most of the Chinese establishments on Calle de los Negroes had been looted (Chinese financial losses reportedly ranged from $30,000 to $70,000). Several days after the massacre, a non-Chinese businessman told the Daily News, “The cheap labor was done away with now; the sons of bitches were hanged.”
A coroner’s report confirmed that 19 Chinese immigrants had been killed; the report also claimed that only one Chinese, Sam Yueng—the man who shot Thompson—had acted in malice. But a grand jury gave a “not guilty” verdict. Others who may have participated in the shooting of Bilderrain either escaped or were among the 19 killed that evening.
The grand jury indicted 15 rioters for murder. Judge Widney presided over the trial. In March 1872, Louis Mendal, Jesus Martinez, Esteban Alvarado, Charles Austin and three others were convicted of manslaughter and handed two- to six-year sentences in San Quentin. A year later, however, the California Supreme Court overturned the convictions, ruling that “the indictment in this case is fatally defective” since the seven codefendants only “aided, abetted, assisted and advised,” and “admitting that the defendants did all of these things, still it does not follow by necessary legal conclusion that, after all, any person was actually murdered [by the accused].”
Tongs would continue to expand, and not just in California. By 1875 a dozen major tongs operated in the West, and tong wars followed in San Francisco and elsewhere. The last great tong war raged for six months in 1917, spreading from San Francisco to Portland, Ore., and Tacoma, Wash. Down through the years, the back-alley skirmishes and “hatchet man” assassinations puzzled and terrified many whites and Hispanics, though most of the violence was directed at Chinese by other Chinese. Tong activity certainly triggered the trouble in Los Angeles in the fall of 1871, but the massacre itself (one newspaper called it “The Tragedy of Negro Alley”) was a multiethnic melee in which almost all the victims were Chinese.
Negro Alley lay southwest of the Plaza de los Angeles, the cultural hub of Spanish and Mexican influence in the city, across from Union Station and bordered by Olvera Street to the north and the Pico Building to the southwest. Today, the Chinese American Museum [www.camla .org], adjacent to the plaza along state Highway 101, relates the history of the late-19th-century Chinese quarter.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.