The greatest unsolved murders in Los Angeles' history — bloodier than the Black Dahlia, more coldly vicious than the hit on Bugsy Siegel — occurred on a cool fall night in 1871. Seventeen Chinese men and boys, including a popular doctor, were hanged by an angry mob near what is now Union Station, an act so savage that it bumped the Great Chicago Fire off the front page of The New York Times.
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.
The truth about the Chinese Massacre remained buried for 140 years, until writer John Johnson Jr. took up the hunt. Johnson spent more than a year examining every piece of evidence, including documents long thought to have been lost to history.
Aided by newly discovered records at the Huntington Library, Johnson found that the men convicted of the killings were in fact guilty. Little surprise there.
But Johnson found something astonishing — and sinister. The bloodlust unleashed that October night was allowed to unfold (if not also set in motion) by some of the city's leading citizens, men so powerful they could arrange to have the convictions fall apart and the reasons for the massacre covered up.
What emerged from Johnson's research is a portrait of a town engaged in a death struggle against its own worst nature. Come with us on a journey into the liar's den of our Los Angeles ancestors.
P olice officer Jesus Bilderrain was settling into his drink at Higby's saloon on the evening of Oct. 24, 1871, when he heard gunfire.
Bilderrain, one of just six cops in rowdy, fast-growing Los Angeles, jumped on his horse and galloped hard for Calle de los Negroes, or Negro Alley.
The officer didn't need great detecting skills to guess that the trouble came from the Alley, a narrow lane fronted by crumbling adobes left over from the city's earliest days. Named for the dark-skinned Spaniards who owned property there, Negro Alley for two decades had been the most dangerous piece of topography in the United States. Its gambling houses and flesh markets were home to gamblers and quick-draw artists, men like the princely Jack Powers, the bloodthirsty Cherokee Bob and the notorious man-killer Crooked Nose Smith.
Of 44 homicides that occurred in Los Angeles in one 15-month period — the highest murder rate ever recorded in the United States — a good portion took place in the Alley.
Bilderrain arrived to find a man named Ah Choy lying on the ground, blood spurting from a gunshot wound to his neck. Spotting a group of fleeing Chinese men, Bilderrain chased them into a large L-shaped adobe, the Coronel Building, a crowded warren of shops and tiny apartments that housed the core of the Chinese community.
According to the first version of the story Bilderrain told (before revising it several times in the months that followed), he courageously dashed into the building and was immediately shot. He came back through the doorway, minus his gun and with a bullet in his shoulder.
Falling to his knees, the officer blew his whistle to raise the alarm.
Responding, a man named Robert Thompson ran to the door of the Coronel Building. Thompson was not a cop. In fact, he had been the proprietor of one of the town's most notorious saloons, the Blue Wing. But in frontier Los Angeles, citizens were used to taking the law into their own hands. In the previous two decades, 35 people were lynched by Vigilance committees in Los Angeles.
As Thompson approached the door, a sometime cop named Adolfo Celis called out that the Chinese were armed.
"I'll look out after that," Thompson replied. Sticking his weapon inside the door, he fired blindly into the darkened interior.
He then pulled open the door to go inside and took a bullet in the chest. "I am killed," he is supposed to have muttered as he turned back toward the street and collapsed. He died an hour later.
Incensed by Thompson's mortal wounds, a mob estimated at 500 — nearly a tenth of the entire population of Los Angeles — gathered in the Alley to lay siege to the Chinese.
At first, the mob was held at bay by gunfire coming from inside the Coronel. Eventually, the mobsters hatched a new plan. Climbing onto the roof, they used axes to hack holes in the tar covering. Then they sprayed shotgun and rifle fire into the rooms below. By the time the mob had battered open a second door with a large rock, the Chinese had all but given up.
What came next was an orgy of violence shocking even by the decadent standards of the city of Los Angeles.