CityDig: The Chinese Massacre of 1871

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This rather beat-up original of a classic pictorial/historical map of Los Angeles is fascinating for two reasons: first, for the accuracy and beauty of the rendering, and second, for the inclusion of one of Los Angeles’s most shameful events.

The map traces local history, from Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s sail-by in 1542 right on up to the newly built City Hall, still shining white against the backdrop of the old L.A. at the close of the 1920s. Though it was created in 1929, the date of the street representation is 1871, the same year that the old pueblo was rapidly Americanized (a change that bore good and bad repercussions). The Women’s University Club coaxed University of Michigan professor and artist Walter Gores out west to recreate the city as it looked in 1871, when it was only two years away from being connected to the rest of the country by the Southern Pacific railroad. Gores’s very accurate cartography demonstrates exactly how the place was shifting away from the old pueblo and Sonoratown, where the dispossessed and minority population was now living. Despite the idyllic picture painted on the map—notice a grand court house, St. Vibiana’s cathedral, Hazard’s Pavilion, and St. Vincent’s college—there was a rough-and-tumble quality to life in town, what with a corrupt police force, open gambling, dance halls, and prostitution.

While the map shows dancing at the Coronel domicile and fun at the Fiesta de las Flores parade, it also shows the Federal Building, where vigilantes had conducted at least 35 hangings. Murder was fairly commonplace within city limits—some estimates put homicides at one per week in the City of “Angels.” Yet the most shameful tale of 1871 L.A. lies under the number 13 on this map: “Site of the Chinese Massacre.”

Location number 13.
Location number 13.

What was then Chinatown had been established around 1860, and the common council even made the sex trade legal there in an attempt to confine it (quite unsuccessfully) to that rather seedy area. Many of the Chinese who were brought here for cheap railroad construction labor stayed on and actually began to prosper despite terribly restrictive laws. The xenophobia of white newcomers combined with a sour post-war economy created resentment toward any non-whites and particularly the Chinese, whose dress and traditions set them apart like their black and Indian neighbors.

The tension between the Yankee arrivals and the “others” had been building for decades and was on a dangerously low boil by 1871. When two Chinese gang factions spilled blood outside the Coronel building in Chinatown due to a dispute over the kidnapping of a young woman, a sworn city lawman named Jesus Bilderrain showed up (there is much debate as to why) and was wounded. That led to one Robert Thompson, the owner of the Blue Wing saloon, intervening, only to be shot dead almost immediately. After that, all hell broke loose: A mob of about 500 white vigilantes gathered, which was almost one tenth of the entire population at that point in time. They stormed the Coronel and captured any Chinese they could find, dragging them through the streets toward three separate places where they would be hung. In what was the worst mass lynching in American history, eighteen innocent Chinese men were murdered, and most Chinese businesses in the area where ransacked and destroyed by the rabble. Meanwhile, the police stood by, unable or unwilling to stop the hundreds of rioters who used Thompson’s murder as an excuse to vent their racist hatred on the Chinese.

In a familiar scenario, some 24 of the worst in the mob were arrested and charged with murder; However, a clever attorney named Edward J.C. Kewen managed to have all of the cases dismissed on a legal technicality when the court met in March of 1872. The judge in the case was none other than Robert Widney, sometimes known as the founding father of USC.