Almost Forgotten to History: The Chinese Massacre of 1871

Over 146 years ago, on October 24, 17 Chinese men and boys were tortured and hanged in public in Chinatown in Los Angeles, California, in an event called the Chinese Massacre of 1871.

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It’s a shocking event that was almost lost to history. Even now, most have likely never heard of it. Over 146 years ago, on October 24, 17 Chinese men and boys were tortured and hanged in public in Chinatown in Los Angeles, California, in an event called the Chinese Massacre of 1871.

Perhaps one of the reasons why this event is so shocking to learn about is because California is often portrayed as an ethnic, racial, and cultural melting pot and a hub of progressive social thinking. California, as the narrative often goes, never had the same sort of historical baggage as the former Confederate South, so it must have never gone through the same sorts of horrific racialized events. It is entirely understandable why people today may be blindsided in learning that California was the epicenter of one of the largest mass lynchings in American history.

According to John Johnson Jr., a writer who spent over a year researching this event with records from New York’s Huntington Library, this was not a spontaneous event but something that had occurred after years of anti-Chinese resentment and tension. This was not limited to certain extreme and violent pockets of society, but it was a public event that men, women, and even children participated in:

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.

As the mob did its vile work, a crowd of observers gathered along the route of execution to watch. According to later accounts, some of the city’s leading citizens were seen cheering on the killers.

Johnson quickly discovered that the reason why this mass lynching was almost lost to history was most likely intentional:

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Eight men eventually were convicted, but the verdicts were thrown out almost immediately for a bizarre technical oversight by the prosecution. Unbelievably for a crime that occurred in full view of hundreds of people, no one was ever again prosecuted.

As witnesses were questioned, they suddenly and suspiciously failed to be able to recognize those responsible for the killings. Even when indictments were eventually made, the defense attorney for those indicted was the well-known and eminently skilled orator, Edward J.C. Kewen. In stark contrast, the prosecution was led by District Attorney Cameron Erskine Thom, who at the time was “openly sympathetic to the Southern cause in the Civil War.” The only convictions that were actually made were for manslaughter, not murder. And to make matters worse, after Thom made a series of suspiciously amateur yet fatal legal mistakes, the Supreme Court of California set aside the convictions.

Unfortunately, this massacre did not create an opportunity for greater understanding and tolerance for the Chinese and other minorities in California. As historian Scott Zesch states:

In fact, anti-Chinese prejudice increased in Los Angeles in the latter 1870s. One of the reasons for that was the increase in the Chinese population in 1875 when more Chinese immigrants arrived to work on the San Fernando railroad tunnel. The Chinese became much more visible in the labor force. Another factor was the growth of the national anti-Chinese labor movement in the mid-1870s. It started in San Francisco but eventually took root in Los Angeles as well, and finally led to the [Chinese] Exclusion Act of 1882.

Chinese Exclusion Cartoon
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

For a recounting of the Chinese Massacre of 1871, you can read Johnson’s article in the LA Weekly.

An upcoming movie also retells the story of the Chinese Massacre of 1871. The Jade Pendant will open to U.S. box offices on November 3, 2017.

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