(Red dots represent the number of persons lynched or executed. The largest = approx. 20)
Lynching in the West: Los Angeles Downtown Walking Tour
By Ken Gonzales-Day
This walking tour revisits places and events made infamous in the first decades of the city—a period that was colored by great social, economic, and cultural unrest. The modern city has erased much of this past, but there are still places where the old city can be found, and like a war-torn battlefield, it demands recognition for its dead.
The Tongva tribe, later called the Gabrieliños, inhabited the region for over a thousand years. The combined Spanish and Mexican periods (1769 - 1850) did not even last a century. In the 1850s, the dirt roads leading out of the old Spanish plaza were still lined with many of the same adobe homes, and families, that had built them. In these early days, the plaza was little more than a dusty patch of land whose presence was intended to symbolize civilization more than embody it.
Surrounded by prominent Latino families and some of the city’s most successful entrepreneurs from Europe and the “States,” it remained the city’s center until the 1870s when, from such noble beginnings, these same streets would house brothels, bars, and Chinese gambling houses. Race hatred would also mark the city’s first decades as cultural tensions, crime, and a fledgling legal system would each inflame and infect the plaza square.
Even in the 1850s, as visitors flooded into the Bella Union Hotel to dine on a bear that had been killed in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains, others made their way to the Montgomery Saloon where Anglos crowded in to get a glimpse at a rare necklace. The necklace was made of human ears that had once belonged to some of the regions most notorious Latino bandits. The necklace’s maker remains a subject of historical debate, but one can be certain that in such fierce times, no person of Mexican or Latin American descent would have risked entering an establishment where the bloody gleam of such jewels was admired. Each of these buildings stood near the intersection of Main and Arcadia Streets.
One can get to Union Station by any number of methods including bus lines, Metro’s Red Line subway station, the Gold Line light rail, and Amtrak and Metrolink trains. Once there, you can walk or take DASH shuttles to many parts of downtown.
This self-guided tour begins at Union Station. Once known as the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, it is located at 800 N. Alameda Avenue in downtown Los Angeles (1). The father and son team of John and Donald B. Parkinson designed this landmark building. It opened its doors in 1939 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Its design is as remarkable as the city itself, blending the Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne styles with Moorish elements.
Exiting Union Station you will immediately see the old plaza. Take a sharp left at Alameda and go south one block to Aliso Street (2). This is the site where in 1861 an angry mob dragged Francisco Cota up from lower Alameda, repeatedly stabbing him before they hanged him in the vicinity of this intersection. He was fifteen years old and had killed Frau Leck, a local shopkeeper.
Return to Union Station, cross the street, and head to the small park next to, of all things, the entrance to the Hollywood Freeway—hardly a hollowed end for the site of the city’s most notorious mass lynching (3). Known as the Chinese Massacre of 1871, 18-24 Chinese men died here at the hands of a mob of over 300 Anglos and Latinos. The struggle lasted well into the night and when it was over at least fourteen men (and one boy) were lynched to anything that would hold the weight of a man. The original site was known as Calles des Negros or “Nigger Alley” but it was eliminated when Los Angeles Street was extended—and further altered by the construction of the 101 freeway though downtown Los Angeles.
As you continue walking around the southern perimeter of the plaza you will encounter the city’s first firehouse at 126 Plaza Street (4). This structure dates from 1884 and is open to the public. The Chinese American Museum is around the corner at 425 N. Los Angeles (5), and the Pico House is just up the street at 430 N. Main (6). It was built in 1869 and was the city’s finest hotel. Its demise can be linked to shaky lending practices more than to its popularity. Connected to the Merced theater (1869) at 420 N. Main, the Pico House offered guests easy access to a late night supper of oysters and imported wine and practically guaranteed a celebrity sighting. In the 1860s, the city was hit with a massive drought that ended the days of cattle and ushered in an agricultural revolution of sheep herding, citrus groves, almond orchards, and vineyards.
Turning left onto Main, continue to Temple Street. This corner is near the original location of the Tomlinson & Griffith corral (7) . The high beam of its gate, and an angry mob, claimed the life of Michael Lachenais in 1870. Some historians have argued that as many as a half-dozen died at this site. Continue down Main and stop mid-block (8) . This was the approximate location of the city’s first courthouse and no fewer than seven men were summarily hanged or lynched in its shadow: David Brown (1855); Thomas the “Indian” (1860); Eli Chase, Boston Daimwood, José Olivas, “Wood,” and “Ybarra” (1863). Today, City Hall stands atop the actual site. Continue down Main to First Street, and turn right. At the end of the block you will see Spring Street. Banning’s corral gate was located on a part of Spring that now lies buried under City Hall (9). This was where Charles Wilkins was lynched in 1863.
Turn right on Spring and continue north to Temple Street. Turn left on Temple and right on Hill Street. Cross over the freeway and the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial will be visible to your left (10). Once there, you can walk up the stairs to the top and you will be able to share the same view witnessed by at least nine men who were legally executed, and an additional seven who were lynched before the gathered citizenry: Doroteo Zabaleta, Cipriano Sandoval, and “Baramus” in 1852; Juan Flores in 1857; and Pancho Daniel in 1858. All seven of these men were of Mexican or Latin American descent, and the last two lynchings drew crowds that may have numbered in the thousands.
Continue north on Hill and turn right at Cesar Chavez Avenue. This will lead you back to the old Plaza where you will pass the Plaza Church (11). Continue into the plaza and you will see the entrance to Olvera Street on your right (12).
The plaza has changed quite a bit since 1850 but there are places where the old city seeps out from between the cracks of this paved metropolis. In the earliest days of the city this plaza served as a bullring, a parade ground for Commodore Stockton’s troops, and a dusty oval that housed the city’s first water tower. Its current configuration is no less remarkable. Christine Sterling (1882-1963) had a passion for the city’s past, and in the 1920s she waged a personal battle to save this historic street.
Wine Street was renamed Olvera Street in memory of the first County Judge, Agustin Olvera (d.1876) in 1877. He lived on this narrow little street, which still contains one of the oldest houses in Los Angeles. The Olvera home has long since returned to the earth from which its adobe bricks were made, but the Avila House (1818) is still standing and open to the public (13). Other historic buildings include the Pelanconi House (1855) and the Sepulveda House (1887) at 622 N. Main (14). This is the last stop on the tour.
Having witnessed this turbulent past, the hungry (and thirsty) explorer may wish to end their trip by visiting some of the many shops and restaurants on Olvera Street. Whether sipping an oversized margarita at La Golondrina (inside the Pelaconi House since the1930s) or taking a rest under the massive plaza tree, I hope that you will agree that walking in the footsteps of the condemned cannot be easily forgotten. Los Angeles has always been a city of dreams, of flesh, and bone.
For more on the history of lynching in California, see
Lynching in the West: 1850-1935 (Duke University Press, 2006)