It was the last known crime of its kind to take place in the San Gabriel Valley. The victim was a Chinese cook, his name unknown, his alleged offense the murder of a white girl. The perpetrators: a gang of local ranchers seeking blood vengeance.
By Matt Hormann
In the 1880s, the small settlement known as Azusa — then consisting of two ranchos — was ripe for acquisition. “Some of the most beautiful locations for homes […] are along the foot of [these] mountains, with the lofty peaks for a background, and gently sloping off to the plains as far as the eye can reach,” wrote the L.A. Times in 1882.
“The acreage of fruit trees and vines is rapidly being multiplied [in Azusa],” noted another paper, the Los Angeles Herald. “And the day is not far distant when every acre of land in this settlement will be profitably occupied.”
But Azusa was not simply a place of abundance. On the frontier edge of Los Angeles, it was also the site of occasional savage violence.
In November, 1862, John Rains, owner of Rancho Cucamonga, was brutally murdered east of Azusa. His accused killer, Ramon Carrillo, was subsequently killed by vigilantes near the same spot.
In 1878, John Oltman — a German immigrant who ran a Sierra Madre beekeeping business — was found dead on an Azusa road with a bullet in his head and with his skull severely beaten. “An active search is being made for the assassin and no effort will be left untried to effect his capture,” reported the Herald.
Five years later, an alleged Mexican bandit named Ygnacio Romero, who had fled a Ventura jail cell, was cornered in Azusa and shot in the head at point-blank range by a sheriff’s constable, who was later exonerated for the crime.
In 1884, Azusa experienced two of its most horrific murders — savage acts that would be whispered about in local lore for the next fifty years.
Drawn by opportunity, a family named Ellridge — a husband, wife, and two children — settled in the area to work as farm hands. Mr. Ellridge soon secured a spot as “lead man” on the Hollenbeck Ranch.
According to a 1937 feature in the Azusa Herald, the early city was “a favorite spot of many Chinese, including Wing Ling, famed for his culinary art,” whose dinners were “hailed” throughout the district.
“There were a few Chinese residents who predominately did laundry for the area who were treated horribly,” explained Azusa City Clerk Jeffrey Cornejo in a 2015 interview. “It was a very sad situation.”
According to the Azusa Herald, a “favorite pastime” of local youths was to “throw stones at windows of the wash-house to scare the Chinese laundryman, so he would come out and say unintelligible things.”
This uneasy coexistence was shattered on June 29, 1884.
It was a Sunday afternoon and the Ellridges were out for a walk near their home. Bessie, their five-year-old daughter (some accounts say she was seven), “was hungry and with her brother started for the camp to get something to eat,” said a newspaper report. “The boy soon returned, and stated that he had been abused by [a] Chinaman, who had thrown him in the water.” The man was identified as one of the community’s Chinese cooks.
Bessie Ellridge was found minutes later, face down in a creek behind the family home. “She had been stabbed in the left breast, the knife taking a downward course, evidently causing instant death,” reported the Pasadena & Valley Union. “From the appearances of the body the Chinaman had attempted rape and afterwards killed the innocent and helpless child.”
Word of the crime raced through the community and a posse was quickly assembled. “I was working down by the bridge and they came and told me what had happened to the little girl,” recalled Azusa resident Emmett Dougherty in October, 1937. “I said I’d get my gun and guard the bridge — because the Chinaman would surely try to get across the ditch there.”
Dougherty and Tom Smith — a shoemaker and fruit-grower — gave an unflinching account of what happened next: “A manhunt was organized. Harvest hands and ranchers gathered within a few minutes and started across the country, spreading fanwise. Patsy Allen [a local youth] started afoot with his 5-shooter. He looked in a cave, where the ditch had undermined a tree, and the roots hung in a curtain over the front.
There was the Chinaman. He was crouching in the semi-darkness. He had cut his throat—but not enough to sever a major blood vessel—and was waiting to die. The youth called ‘Here he is,’ and several of the hunters, near enough to hear the shout, rushed to the spot. They hauled the Chinaman out and kicked him. Then one, who knew how, knotted a rope around the Oriental’s neck, in true hangman’s fashion—and without any ceremony they strung him up to a sycamore tree.”
Hours later, the man’s bullet-riddled body was discovered by the local sheriff and transported to the Chinese section of L.A.’s Evergreen Cemetery in present-day Boyle Heights. (Chinese had to pay for burials; white indigents were buried at no charge.)
“No questions as to the particulars were given and none asked, for all were satisfied that the heathen had met his just desserts,” wrote the Pasadena & Valley Union on July 5, 1884. “If lynching was ever justifiable it certainly was upon this occasion.” The paper went on to state, in a chilling snapshot of prevailing attitudes, “Those who know most of the sudden end of the heathen’s career, care to say little or nothing about it, for obvious reasons.”
As a strange addendum to the story, the Los Angeles Herald reported three days later that, “Several families on the Azusa have been poisoned recently from eating vegetables bought from Chinese vegetable peddlers […] The parties all recovered, however.”
Though the lynching is mentioned in two newspaper articles from the time, again in 1937, and lastly in 1980 — when the Azusa Herald reprinted Smith and Dougherty’s account in a section titled “The Golden Days Herald: Covering the Days that Made Azusa Great” — the perpetrators remained anonymous.
Violence against Chinese in the region, however, persisted. In 1885, a year after Bessie Smith’s murder and the revenge killing that followed, a white mob drove 60-100 Chinese residents from Pasadena in a night of rioting, looting, and arson. They demanded that “every Chinamen in town […] leave that night or be hung” and the next morning the Chinese were legally barred from the city.
In the years that followed, signs on local businesses often read: “No Chinese Employed.”
According to historian Ken Gonzalez-Day, there were 103 lynchings in Southern California alone — the last occurring in 1904 — though the number was “probably higher.” Many cases, he notes, “were never recorded at all.” The last known lynching in the state took place at the northern border, in Siskiyou County in 1947.
Gonzalez-Day, who wrote the definitive history of lynching in the West, noted in an email for this story, “There are so many cases I could never find information on – and I [had] never heard of this one before.”
Azusa City Clerk Jeffrey Cornejo also attempted to find a burial record for Bessie Ellridge, and further information on Bessie’s mother and father, but was unsuccessful. “Sadly, as I was doing my search, I see how very poorly the Chinese were treated and viewed,” he said.
Matt Hormann is a Pasadena-based freelance writer and historian whose work has appeared in Westways, the Pasadena Weekly, and American Bungalow.
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