America’s Largest Mass Lynching

On this day in 1871, the largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place when around 500 white rioters entered Los Angeles’ Chinatown to attack, rob, and murder its residents. Almost every Chinese inhabitant was affected, and 17 to 20 Chinese immigrants (including children) were tortured and then hanged.

While the proximate cause was the accidental killing of a white man caught in the crossfire of two feuding Chinese gangs, racial discrimination against Chinese people was long-standing and visceral, and pogroms of this sort were not unusual. As the LA Weekly observed in its detailed (and grim) article on the massacre:

The Chinese were already the objects of both fear and revulsion in L.A.: fear because they were seen as almost superhuman in their ability to work long hours for a pittance, revulsion because their religion and culture were alien.

Popular books at the time suggested that the Chinese streaming into California by the thousands to search for gold eventually would take over California and elect a silk-clad Mandarin as governor.

Hatred was so strong that during the Civil War California’s Legislature passed a law that forbade any Chinese from testifying against a white man. The law gave whites immunity — an invitation to violence that historian Paul De Falla says the people of Los Angeles took up with “a glint and a glee” the night of the massacre.

No surprise, then, that only ten rioters were brought to trial, of whom eight were convicted, although all verdicts were thrown out due to a “technical oversight” by the prosecution. Although much of the country was shocked and appalled — enough so that even the New York Times saw fit to make the incident front page news over the Great Chicago Fire — widespread prejudice against the Chinese remained entrenched both socially and institutionally.

In fact, about a decade later, the growing movement of anti-Chinese sentiment culminated in the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major federal legislation to restrict immigration. Not only did it almost completely end Chinese immigration to the U.S., but it imposed additional restrictions on Chinese already living in the country. While it was mostly rescinded in 1943 — due in large part to China being a key ally in the Second World War — various other restrictions remained on Chinese and other nationalities until the landmark Immigration Act of 1965.

Photo courtesy of AsAm News / Chinese American Museum

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