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Know the West

150 years ago, 19 Chinese Angelenos were murdered in California

In October 1871, a frenzied mob was responsible for one of the largest lynching in Western U.S. history.

 

Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown at the north end of Los Angeles Street, near where 19 innocent Chinese men and boys were murdered in 1871.
Los Angeles Public Library

On the evening of Oct. 24, 1871, a mob of 500 people, seething with racial resentment, rampaged through Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown, shooting, stabbing and hanging 19 innocent Chinese men and boys. A crowd of Angelenos watched and cheered, “Hang them! Hang them!” according to Chinese American historian Iris Chang in her 2003 book, The Chinese in America. It wiped out 10% of the town’s Chinese population — perhaps one of the largest mass lynching events in the West and one of the worst acts of racial violence the West has ever seen.

This year marks the massacre’s 150th anniversary. Recently, the Chinese American Museum, Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, the University of California, Los Angeles and other institutions in the city hosted in-person exhibitions and online programs highlighting the little-known history and remembering the 19 murdered Angelenos.  

A scene from Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown around the turn of the 20th century. Chinese Angelenos faced immense discrimination, counties issued eviction notices to Chinese miners and slapped punitive taxes on Chinese-owned businesses.

In 1848, news of the discovery of gold near California’s Sacramento River spread across the world. Dazzled by tales of immediate riches, many Chinese people from coastal provinces crossed the Pacific on boats bound for America’s West Coast. By the early 1850s, they were arriving by the thousands. Building a new life was challenging, but as Chang’s book noted, “The greatest threat would come not from the harshness of nature,” but from “the racism endemic to their beloved ‘Gold Mountain.’” 

In 1854, a California Supreme Court ruling in a case involving a white man who killed a Chinese miner in Nevada County, California, established that people of Chinese descent could not testify in court. (Indigenous Americans and Black people were already unable to testify.) As historian Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer put it, “This decision opened the way for almost every sort of discrimination against the Chinese.” Assault, robbery and murder “could be perpetrated against them with impunity.” During the same period, California counties issued eviction notices to Chinese miners and slapped punitive taxes on Chinese-owned businesses. 

Despite their many contributions to the development of the colonized West — including the building of the Transcontinental Railroad — few people of Chinese descent were eligible to vote. The small number of American-born male children of Chinese immigrants who had access to the ballot box were too few to make a difference. When the United States slid into a depression in the 1870s, the Chinese community was scapegoated — blamed for high unemployment. California politicians promoted anti-Chinese sentiments in their election campaigns, culminating in open violence like the massacre of 1871, researchers Eric Fong and William Markham found in a 2002 study on anti-Chinese politics. 

“This decision opened the way for almost every sort of discrimination against the Chinese.” 

Amid rising anti-Chinese sentiment across the West, a white mob ransacked Denver's Chinatown on Halloween in 1880. The mob beat one Chinese man to death, injured dozens more, and destroyed Chinese homes and businesses.
Museum of Chinese in America

By then, the racial hatred had been simmering for decades in Los Angeles, then a frontier town of 6,000 people. Newspapers like the Los Angeles News and Los Angeles Star called Chinese residents “an inferior and idolatrous race” and even “barbarians,” further stoking the racism that led to the massacre.  

According to local press coverage, the 19 victims included a respected doctor, who begged for his life in English and Spanish before he was hanged. In early 1872, the case was brought to trial, and nine men were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to between two and six years in prison. But in April 1873, astonishingly, California’s Supreme Court overruled the decision and released the men on a technicality.  

Today, 150 years later, LA’s Union Station stands in the place of the city’s Old Chinatown. In front of the Chinese American Museum, on the ground where the massacre happened, a plaque commemorates the episode in English and Chinese. “The incident is one of the most significant riots in U.S. history,” the Chinese caption reads. “Since the mid-19th century, racial discrimination has had a deep impact on people of Chinese descent.”  

Today, the Chinese community is seeing a new surge of hate. Many historians believe that education and special events, including exhibitions about the massacre, can encourage meaningful dialogue. “It’s distressing to see in the current days the ongoing violence against Asian Americans and Chinese Americans,” said Eugene Moy, a board member and former president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. “It is clear that we need this proactive effort to admit and reconcile these historic errors.”

Wufei Yu is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Note: This story was updated to clarify that this was one of the largest lynching events in the West, not the largest.