Forgotten Los Angeles History: The Chinese Massacre of 1871

Kelly Wallace, Librarian, History Department,
Detail of a map of Los Angeles, as it appeared in 1871, showing the site of the 1871 Chinese massacre

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a month in which we celebrate the culture, traditions, accomplishments, and history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. It is also an occasion to reflect on the turbulent history and hard won achievements of previous generations and to recognize that the Chinese community, like many ethnic communities in Los Angeles, survived and prospered despite discrimination, prejudice, and persecution.

"These ugly things in our past history ought to be known …They may not be pleasant to read about. They are not pleasant to write about…"—Horace Bell

Los Angeles in 1871 was a dirty, violent city of nearly 6,000 people. Though the city had a higher homicide rate than New York or Chicago, it employed only six police officers to maintain law and order. Lynchings and mob justice were commonplace. 

According to the U.S. Census, in 1870 the Chinese population in Los Angeles numbered 172, or roughly three percent of the total population of 5,728. More than half of the Chinese lived in the adobes along Calle de los Negros, or Negro Alley (named not for African Americans but for the dark-skinned Spaniards who originally lived there). Negro Alley was the infamous vice district of Los Angeles. Saloons, gambling parlors, and brothels lined the short, unpaved alley just off the Plaza.   

Map of Los Angeles as it appeared in 1871
Map of Los Angeles, as it appeared in 1871

During the 1850s and 1860s, few attacks against Chinese were reported and press coverage of the Chinese was fairly neutral. The tolerant attitude changed in 1869 when the Los Angeles News and The Los Angeles Star began running editorials condemning Chinese immigration and attacking the Chinese as inferior and immoral. Unsurprisingly, there was a concomitant increase in racially motivated attacks against the Chinese. 

In October, 1871, tensions were running high in Chinatown because of a feud between leaders of two rival Huiguan (mutual benefit associations) over the kidnapping of a young Chinese woman. A shootout between several Chinese men broke out in the middle of Negro Alley. The ensuing response by two police officers resulted in the wounding of one of the officers and the death of a civilian who assisted the officers, Robert Thompson. The shooters took cover in the Coronel Building. 

Lafayette Hotel stagecoach near the adobes in Calle de los Negros circa 1870, presently Alameda Street near Union Station and Terminal Annex Building. The old Antonio Coronel adobe is in the background.

Lafayette Hotel stagecoach near the adobes in Calle de los Negros circa 1870, presently Alameda Street near Union Station and Terminal Annex Building. The old Antonio Coronel adobe is in the background

Word quickly spread that Chinese had killed Thompson, a popular former saloon owner. A mob of rioters quickly grew to 500 people, ten percent of the population of the city. The rioters forced the Chinese out of the Coronel Building and dragged the captured Chinese to makeshift gallows at Tomlinson’s corral and Goller’s wagon shop. When John Goller protested that his children were present, a rioter pressed a gun to his face and said, "Dry up, you son of a bitch." After Goller’s portico crossbar was filled with seven hanging bodies, the crowd dragged three more victims to a nearby freight wagon and hung them from the high side of the wagon. While there are varying accounts of exactly what transpired, there is no disputing the brutality and savagery of that night.

The bodies of 17 Chinese men and boys lie in the Los Angeles jail yard on October 24, 1871, the results of the Chinese massacre.

The bodies of 17 Chinese men and boys lie in the Los Angeles jail yard on October 24, 1871, the results of the Chinese massacre

The next morning, seventeen bodies were laid out in the jail yard, grim evidence of the horrific events of the previous night. The eighteenth victim, the first man hanged, had been buried the night before. Ten percent of the Chinese population had been killed. One of the Chinese caught up in the mob violence was the respected Dr. Gene Tong. In fact, of the killed, only one is thought to have participated in the original gunfight.

Though a grand jury returned 25 indictments for the murder of the Chinese, only ten men stood trial. Eight rioters were convicted on manslaughter charges, but the charges were overturned on a legal technicality and the defendants were never retried. 

The tragedy was quickly forgotten; the local newspapers made no mention of it in the year end recap of major events of the year. The unfortunate truth is that little changed in Los Angeles as a result of the massacre on October 24. The massacre did not result in racial tolerance, in fact, anti-Chinese sentiment increased in the following years. The Anti-Coolie club was formed in 1876, counting many prominent citizens among its members, and the newspapers resumed their editorial attacks against the Chinese. 

Further Reading 

Photos from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.