On October 24, 1871, Los Angeles was home to a mass lynching. That night, between 17-20 Chinese men and boys were murdered by a mob of around 500 in a seedy LA neighborhood with an incredibly high murder rate. The event was a product of both the burgeoning Southern California town’s corruption and its deep racism - and the nationwide economic fallout of the post Civil War era.
The massacre was sparked after a police officer was killed. On the night in question, Officer Jesus Bilderrain claimed he pursued an unknown Chinese assailant after finding a man named Ah Choy with a gunshot wound in his neck. According to Bilderrain (his account changed many times over the years), he himself was shot by the unknown assailant. It was this gunshot that began a chain reaction of chaos that grew into a mob of 500 Angelenos targeting random, innocent Chinese residents.
At the time in Los Angeles, no lynchers had ever been prosecuted - and they didn't start getting prosecuted with the massacre mob, either. Although there was public outcry across the country as news of the event spread, and nine men were brought to trial, they were convicted of manslaughter, not murder, and their sentences were only two to six years. These sentences were due to one highly suspicious technicality.
In order to prosecute the men for murder, there had to be evidence of killing. Several misplaced testimonies later - along with some highly divergent reports from city officials and mob participants - and the murder verdict was unobtainable. Many believe the city government interfered in order to try to sweep the massacre under the rug.
It's theorized that LA cops and city officials stood by while the massacre took place. Reports began to surface of people stood by and did nothing to curtail that night's events: like Marshal Francis Baker, who heard the gunfire and went home to bed, or police officers Emil Harris and George Hard, who both allowed a Chinese man to be taken from their custody by the mob. Future sheriff and democratic party member H.M. Mitchell was even heard cheering “hang him!” to the executioners. Questions have risen as to whether this event was tacitly permitted to unfold.
Some of the residents of LA were out for blood that October night, and they found a subjugated, vulnerable group to take their aggression out on. Not all members of the mob were white, but they were united in their target nonetheless. Women and children joined in, and there are several accounts of them offering ropes for lynching.
The victims were chosen at random, and the amateur murderers had to try several times to hang them successfully. 17-20 men and boys were murdered, but countless other Chinese individuals were savagely beaten. Homes of Chinese residents were also ransacked and looted, leaving the small population utterly devastated by morning.
Although the Chinese Massacre reached unprecedented levels of violence, vigilante justice was common in Los Angeles at the time. On the one hand, there were fewer policemen; on the other hand, there was a certain level of frontier survivalist ego that often saw citizens taking the law into their own hands. Lynchings were not uncommon in the area; they had just never occurred at the scale of the Chinese Massacre.
A year before, in 1870, Angeleno vigilantes had lynched a French man, and no one was convicted of any wrongdoing. When the case against the Chinese Massacre mob went to trial in March of 1872, a jury was difficult to come by as residents could not serve as jurors if they belonged to a vigilante committee (which most of them did).