The San Francisco Riots

Weekly Story

In 1877, at labor meeting in San Francisco, workers decide to join in the national rioting.

A Citizens’ Executive Committee was organized, under the presidency of W. T. Coleman, and this body called upon the people generally to volunteer for the defence of the city against the mob, promising arms to all who would join their organization. The call was largely responded to, and during the 25th a force of 3,000 determined citizens was organized. They were generally armed with clubs and pistols, but preparations were made to issue muskets to them in case of necessity.


riot san francisco chinese quarterFire in the Chinese Quarter, San Francisco.

The San Francisco Riots.


Hatred of the Chinese by the Lower Class of San Francisco—Origin of the Riots—The Labor Meeting—Attack on the Chinese—The Riot Spreads—Action of the city Authorities—Arming the Citizens—Fire at the Pacific Mail Dock—The Rioters attack the Vigilantes and are Defeated—Exciting Scenes—A Night of Terror—The Mob Cowed—End of the Danger—Triumph of Law.

THE city of San Francisco contains a large Chinese population. Between these and certain portions of the white inhabitants there has always been a bitter enmity. The working classes are especially hostile to the Chinese, as they regard them as rivals in the labor market; but the bitterest enemies of the Mongolians are the “Hoodlums,” or the idle loafers, street loungers, and “bummers,” of the city. Many riots have occurred between the Chinese and their enemies in San Francisco, and not long since it was seriously proposed by the whites to organize a deliberate movement for the purpose of compelling the Chinese to leave the entire State of California. It was well understood in San Francisco that this feeling of hatred to the Chinese only lacked a favorable opportunity to break out into open hostility.

The news of the labor troubles in the Eastern and Western States was received with profound interest in San Francisco, especially by the working classes. On the evening of the 23d a workmen’s meeting was held, and was attended by about 10,000 persons. The meeting broke up at ten o’clock without making any violent demonstrations as a body. Shortly before adjournment a portion of the crowd wrecked a Chinese wash-house in the neighborhood. The majority of the throng dispersed towards their homes; but several hundred of the men banded together and proceeded to the corner of Geary and Leavenworth streets, which was occupied by a two-story frame building containing a Chinese laundry and fruit store on the ground floor and forms the residence of the family above. The crowd attacked the place, broke the street-lamps, and by smashing a kerosene lamp inside set the building on fire. A white. woman was saved alive with difficulty from an upper story. The mob impeded the firemen and cut the hose, and the building was destroyed. The mob then started down Geary street to Dupont street, with the evident intention of raiding the Chinese quarter. On their way they attacked and closed up a number of Chinese washhouses. By the time they reached Dupont street they were 500 or 600 strong. Here they were met by a force of police, who formed in line across the street. The rioters attempted to break through the line, but the police stood firm, and were promptly reinforced from the City Hall. By a free use of clubs they beat back the crowd.

The police held Dupont street at the corner of Pine street all night against the main body of the mob, while strong squads were posted at the intersection of M. street crossing Dupont, the main object being to keep the mob out of “China Town.” The rioters evidently lacked leaders, and their movements were without concert They made little show of resisting the police other than crowding upon them, yelling and deriding them. The general impression among the authorities was that by vigilant and determined action on the part of the police, the crowd could be held in check during the night, though their cries of “China Town,” at one A. M., were ominous. The militia were ordered under arms, but remained at their armories all night, not having been called upon for service. The firm front presented by the authorities finally had its effect, and the mob finally dispersed, and the police remained masters of the situation.

All the streets leading to the Chinese quarter were strongly guarded during the night and the next day, and no one was allowed to pass along Dupont street. During the contest several stones were thrown at the police, hitting one or two of the force, but doing no injury in consequence. While the disturbance was in progress in the south end of Dupont street, another mob, numbering 500 or 600, gathered at the northern extremity of that thoroughfare, wrecked a few Chinese houses, and attempted to penetrate into the Chinese quarter. They were finally forced back by the police and dispersed.

During these attempts to assail their quarters the Chinese manifested much alarm, and early in the evening every door and shutter was closed fast and not a Chinaman was to be seen on the streets.

The violence of the mob thoroughly aroused the city authorities to the danger. The police were kept on duty through the 24th, and held the rioters down. About nine o’clock, on the night of the 24th, a crowd of hoodlums collected, and wrecked a Chinese house on National street, near Fifth. They then gathered on Fifth street, near the United States Mint. A few officers were sent to disperse them, but were unable to effect anything. Reinforcements were sent out, and after a severe clubbing the mob broke. Some two or three hundred of them subsequently started up Mission street, and from Eighth to Twelfth streets cleared out every Chinese house on the street, the occupants abandoning them to secure personal safety. Arriving at Twelfth street, they were joined by a crowd, who had been depredating on Brannon street, and the combined force moved to the corner of Twelfth and Folsom streets, where they tore down and set fire to a Chinese match factory and laundry. Here they were again attacked and roughly used by the police, and quiet was restored. The mob dispersed and apparently sought their homes. About fifteen minutes after eleven o’clock P. M., a Chinese wash-house in the extreme northwestern portion of the city was fired and burned down, but the police, on their arrival, found no trace of a crowd or further disturbance.

It was clearly evident that the police force of the city would not be strong enough to control the mob in case of a general attack upon the Chinese, and it was resolved to call upon the citizens for aid. A Citizens’ Executive Committee was organized, under the presidency of W. T. Coleman, and this body called upon the people generally to volunteer for the defence of the city against the mob, promising arms to all who would join their organization. The call was largely responded to, and during the 25th a force of 3,000 determined citizens was organized. They were generally armed with clubs and pistols, but preparations were made to issue muskets to them in case of necessity.

A meeting of the vigilantes, as the force was termed, and of all citizens wishing to aid in enforcing order, was called to assemble at Agricultural Hall on the night of the 25th. It met at the appointed time, and was called to order by W. T. Coleman, the President of the Executive Committee, about eight o’clock. At this moment news was received of a large fire at the docks of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. It was soon ascertained that the fire was in a large lumber yard near the dock. One hundred of the committee armed with clubs were at once despatched to the scene, followed soon after by a hundred more. The remainder of the committee were then told off in companies by wards, and with the exception of about two hundred proceeded to the City Hall to await orders from the Chief of Police. Sixty were despatched to Sixth and Howard streets, to disperse the crowd collected there smashing Chinese houses. The fire department was promptly on hand at the Pacific Mail docks, and, under the protection of the police and the vigilantes, set to work to extinguish the flames. A rioter was caught in the act of cutting the hose, and was shot down. The vigilantes closed the streets leading to the fire, and made every effort to protect the firemen in their work. The sight of the flames rendered the rioters furious, and they exerted themselves to spread the fire. They pressed heavily upon the police and vigilantes, and the riot increased in dimensions every moment.

The wharves and lumber and coal yards in which the fire was raging were surrounded on the land side by a fence running near the bottom of a steep hill leading up to St. Mary’s Hospital. On the top of this hill a crowd had assembled. While a portion of them attempted to set fire to the fence, the police and citizens attempted to drive them off, and were met by a shower of stones from the hill. The hill was then stormed in the face of a hot fusilade of stones, and the mob began firing pistols. The force answered with a volley, and, getting to close quarters, used their clubs with telling effect.

In the charge Herman Gudewill, the note-teller in the London and San Francisco Bank, fell fatally wounded. Another citizen was shot dead, and a great many were wounded, more or less seriously, by stones and pistol shots. It is impossible to state the loss of the rioters. Several were reported killed and wounded, but nothing is definitely known. At least one hundred shots were fired into the mob. This charge broke the courage of the mob, many of whom were captured, and a long chain being stretched across in front of the mail dock, they were manacled to it for safe-keeping. The mob at no time obtained access to the mail dock, which was closed, strongly guarded, and several cannon planted commanding the entrance. In the meantime, the fire had burned immense quantities of lumber, mostly belonging to Simpson Brothers, McDonald, Mills & Co., and Starbuck & Goldstein; also the wood yards of O’Connell and Higgins and Collins, and a great deal of similar property owned by various parties.

The ships at the wharves were hurriedly towed to places of safety. The firemen, after the first outbreak, were well protected and worked with but slight hindrance. After the police and citizens had dispersed the mob, a portion of the latter, including some who had been raiding on Howard and Folsom streets, gathered in the vicinity of the Grand and Palace hotels, on Market street. Some of them penetrated into Kearny street. Here they were met by a force of citizens and driven back to Market street, while another detachment of citizens and police marched along Montgomery street, and taking the crowd between them punished them severely and scattered them. During the remainder of the night the rioters roamed in small gangs over that portion of the city lying south of Market street, closely watched by the police and citizens.

During the night a number of Chinese houses were attacked, and a house near the corner of Folsom and Eighteenth streets was set on fire. The alarm was sounded, and the engines and a force of vigilantes repaired to the spot. It was rumored that a Chinaman had been burned to death in the building. A man was arrested by the vigilantes on the suspicion of being the incendiary. A bottle of benzine was found upon him, and he was sent to prison.

During the 26th the enrolling of citizens went on actively, and several companies of veterans of the civil war were organized. A number of arrests of rioters’ were made, and several attempts to collect crowds on the streets checked by the police and vigilantes. The city was thoroughly patrolled, and it was made evident to the rioters that any further outbreak would be promptly and forcibly crushed. A letter from San Francisco, on the 26th, says:

The vicinity of the City Hall early in the evening presented an aspect calculated to convince the dangerous classes that any outbreak would be attended with consequences disastrous to themselves. All the court rooms in the building, the outer police office, the police yard, and the court of the building were crowded with well-armed and determined men, representing every class of society. Merchant street, between Montgomery and Kearny, was lined on one side with large express wagons ready to transport reinforcements rapidly in any direction. The other side of Merchant street, and on Kearny street, in front of the City Hall, was filled with the ranks of the Committee of Safety, and large bodies of the same force were marching and drilling in the immediate vicinity. In addition numerous companies of fifty had been despatched to every quarter in town, and in some localities, where danger was more particularly apprehended, their numbers were increased.

The riot was crushed, and the danger over; and though the disorderly clement made loud threats of vengeance, no further disturbance was attempted.

The San Francisco riots, it will thus be seen, were in no way connected with the railroad riots east of the Rocky Mountains. They were a brutal and unprovoked outbreak of the worst elements of the city, and were caused by nothing but a love of violence and disorder on the part of those who engaged in them. As they occurred simultaneously with the railroad troubles in the East, they are generally classed with them; and for this reason have been related here.

—James Dabney McCabe, The History of the Great Riots.

Courtesy of Democratic Thinker