One hundred years ago this week in Sydney, a crazed gunman’s violent siege with police came to a bloody end when an American cowboy used a six-shooter to commit an act of “frontier justice”.
But who was this vigilante?
Back then Australian newspapers didn’t bother to find out, but now the truth about “Arizona Ryan” can be told for the first time.
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In Surry Hills, on Sunday, June 1, 1919, a 40-year old Chinese man named Lee Hin decided to seek revenge on the world.
Reportedly angry because he’d been recently romantically rebuffed, he armed himself with smoke bombs and two revolvers.
Around 7pm, Lee Hin burst into the first-floor Church of Christ and Chinese Mission School on Wentworth Avenue.
He set off the smoke bombs, causing panic and confusion, and then began firing wildly.
Within a minute, Lee Hin had shot and wounded nearly a dozen people, with one of his male victims later dying of his wounds.
Lee Hin fled the scene, just as fire trucks responding to reports of smoke screeched into Wentworth Avenue.
He shot at bewildered firemen and, chased by an angry crowd, ran through the narrow streets of Surry Hills before disappearing into List Lane, where he retreated into the little cottage he called home.
After a few minutes two brave blokes ventured into this dark alleyway.
Six shots rang out, and they both went down with serious gunshot wounds.
By now police had arrived at the church, learned who had done the shooting and which way he’d gone.
Arriving at the scene, they traded fire with Lee Hin, with one of the cops suffering a minor wound.
Now the gunman barricaded himself inside his house as dozens more police arrived on the scene.
Over the next 12 hours, Lee Hin fired more than 200 rounds, while police riddled his little cottage with bullets.
Incredibly, the gunman wasn’t injured — or about to give up.
Attempts to dislodge him with poison gas and burning sacks failed.
When two firemen tried to flood him out, Lee Hin pumped bullets into them.
The gunman had now shot 17 people.
Overnight, thousands of onlookers poured into Surry Hills, as The Sun newspaper put it, “to see the fun”.
At around 9.30am, senior police were conferring about their next move when a man approached them.
He was middle aged, about 178cm, sturdily built, with brown eyes and brown hair — and he wore a broadbrimmed cowboy-style hat.
“I am a great gunman,” this man drawled in an American accent. “Give me a regular gun, and I’ll do this job. I’ve done this before in Texas.”
The cops told the American his services weren’t needed.
They told him plenty of police had already volunteered to rush Lee Hin, but there was no sense sacrificing lives to stop a gunman who wasn’t going anywhere.
Sooner or later, Lee Hin would run out of ammunition or food or need to sleep.
Minutes later, as firemen renewed their attempt to wash the gunman from his citadel, they lost control of their high-pressure hose, and people scattered as it whipped around spraying water.
Using this as a distraction, the American in the cowboy hat ducked through the gate into Lee Hin’s yard and crouched beneath one of the windows.
“You see!” he called to the shocked police. “I’m here. Give a gun.”
The American was lucky not to have been shot already.
But if he tried to move from the spot, or Lee Hin fired out the window at him, this foolhardy fella was as good as dead.
He needed to be able to protect himself.
The senior police inspector ordered one of his sergeants to throw a revolver to the American.
What the police saw next surprised them, though given what the American had already said it probably shouldn’t have.
He coolly checked the gun was loaded, cocked the weapon and peered inside the house.
Then he jumped up on the window sill and disappeared inside.
Inside the dark front room, the American didn’t see anyone.
Keeping the revolver close to his body, he walked into the next room, which was also empty.
Hearing the police coming into the house behind him, he signalled for quiet as he crept forwards into the kitchen.
That’s when he saw, just a few metres away, in a dark corner, an arm and a revolver behind a piece of plywood propped off the floor.
Lee Hin jumped up from behind this flimsy barricade and fired as the American dropped to one knee, two bullets flying harmlessly over his head.
He returned fire, hitting the Chinese man in the neck and then in the shoulder.
Lee Hin went down with a scream.
Then the American fired four more times.
Behind him, two cops came in, expecting to see the cowboy dead, but, in the American’s words, “the show was all over”.
Walking out of the building, with word already spreading, the American was given a tremendous ovation by the crowd.
In five minutes, this man had done what half of Sydney’s police had failed to do in 15 hours.
But the adulation was just beginning.
The American’s name was Albert Herbert Ryan, and before Lee Hin’s body had begun to cool, this cowboy was giving colourful interviews to every newspaper reporter who asked.
“Ryan is a typical-looking Western American,” the Sydney Morning Herald told its readers. “His card is characteristic of the big, square jawed man and reads, ‘Albert H. Ryan, anywhere, everywhere’.”
Ryan hailed from Indianapolis, Indiana, and had learned marine engineering with the US Navy while serving in the Spanish-American War.
Since then, he’d travelled the world, getting into adventures.
Though he no longer mentioned Texas in interviews, he said he’d spent a heap of time in Arizona and had served as a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles.
“I used to feel I wasn’t dressed up if I didn’t have a gun with me, just the same as if I haven’t got a collar on,” he said.
Ryan had arrived in Sydney from California just six months prior to the shootings, having worked his way to Australia aboard the motor schooner Carmen.
So how had he found himself at the scene of the siege that morning?
Well, it wasn’t an accident. No, sir.
Ryan had woken that morning and read in the newspaper accounts of a raging battle in Surry Hills.
“I went down there this morning looking for excitement, and I asked the police for a real gun to take a chance on him,” he said.
He recounted how he’d gone into the house and fought it out with Lee Hin.
“Then I jumped in right close,” he said, “and pumped the rest of the gun into this head to save a trial and expense.”
The newspapers quickly dubbed him “Arizona Ryan”, and numerous reporters commented he seemed like a cowboy from a Hollywood movie.
In a case of life imitating art, by the next night, Ryan, dressed in his “cowboy clothes”, had an exclusive engagement with three movie theatres in Newcastle to narrate newsreel footage of the siege.
Not only was Ryan making some coin from this appearance, police proposed he get a £50 reward for killing Lee Hin.
As celebrated as the killing was, there still needed to be an inquest into Lee Hin and his death, and this was held on June 12 at Sydney’s City Coroner’s Court.
The coroner learned only a little about the dead man.
His brother-in-law spoke through a translator to say the deceased was married, his wife and two daughters lived in China and, though he’d been of temperate habits, he’d sometimes seemed “a little silly in his head”.
The star of the show was Ryan, who got to tell his story all over again, entertaining the court mightily with his drawl, his colourful expressions and his elaborated accounts of his previous adventures.
“It was like this,” he said. “When I got up on June 2nd, I read there was a war on down near the Haymarket. So I went down. I wanted to get as near to the front line trenches as I could.”
The coroner asked: “You are good gunman?”
Ryan responded: “I’m a fair shot. I’ve been a deputy sheriff. I was in the American navy in the Spanish-American War, in the revolution in Nicaragua, and in 1913 I was mixed up in the Mexican revolution.”
He told how he’d asked for a gun, been told no, taken his chance, gone into the List Lane house and only avoided being shot because he made his “quick drop” to the floor.
“He fired two shots and had as good a chance to kill me as I had to kill him,” Ryan said. “It was man to man, and I emptied my gun into him.”
The coroner asked: “The Chinaman was dead when he was brought out, wasn’t he?”
“Sure,” Ryan drawled. “I made a certainty of that. He was probably dead after the first two shots, but I fired a few more to make sure of him.”
Rather than comment this sounded a lot like cold-blooded murder, the coroner instead told Ryan he was a plucky fellow.
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Using a racial epithet, Ryan said his only intention had been to help the police take the Chinese gunman alive.
But if that was the case, why had he emptied the gun into Lee Hin?
It was a question the coroner didn’t pose.
Instead, he concluded Ryan had killed Lee Hin in self-defence while voluntarily assisting the police in the execution of their duty.
Reporters, the police, the coroner, the newsreel people, picture show owners and the general public — everyone loved Arizona Ryan.
No one was about to send a telegram to California, Arizona or Texas to confirm any of the stories he’d told.
But a century later, in the era of digitised newspapers and genealogical databases, it is possible to come up with a much clearer picture of this vigilante.
Ryan was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 20, 1876.
By the mid-1890s his family had resettled in Los Angeles, and that’s when Ryan’s experience with the police and revolvers began.
But he was on the wrong side of the law.
As a troublemaking and trigger-happy teenager, in 1896 he faced court for threatening a Chinese shopkeeper with a revolver.
His far-fetched story it had been the Chinese man’s fault was believed, and Ryan was allowed to go free and to keep his gun permit.
But he had another revolver-based run-in with the cops just a few weeks later when he was caught doing target practice in his neighbourhood.
This time he lost his permit.
In February 1897, Ryan enlisted in the US Navy, and a year later, as he’d told the Sydney newspapers, served in the Spanish-American War.
In November 1901, after being discharged from the navy, Ryan was arrested for assault during a violent left-wing protest.
Again, he beat the charges.
His next run-in with the law was in 1905 in San Diego when he was arrested for biting off part of a man’s ear during a street fight.
He went to trial twice and again beat the rap.
It was just as well, too, because if Ryan had been behind bars on July 21, 1905, several men might have lost their lives.
At 10.30am that morning in San Diego harbour, a boiler exploded on the gunboat USS Bennington, blowing men and machinery into the air and ripping open the hull to the sea.
Sixty-six men were killed instantly or died soon after of their injuries.
Ryan was rowing on the harbour when the disaster happened and heroically rescued some of the survivors by hauling them into his boat.
By 1909, Ryan was a deputy constable in Los Angeles.
This was a part-time appointed position he held for a few years — he never worked in Arizona or Texas — and his law-enforcement career was hardly stellar.
Ryan’s day job was a foreman for a roadwork company, and in December 1909, he pulled a revolver on one of his crew and smashed him in the head with the gun.
He pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace and was fined $5.
In September 1910, Ryan was arrested for disturbing the peace while trying to arrest a man he was having a personal argument with.
This time he pleaded guilty and was fined $10.
In between these two not particularly shining examples from his law-enforcement career, Ryan did, just as he told the Sydney newspapers, get involved in the Nicaraguan Revolution, seemingly as a spy.
From February 1911 to May 1913, he spent a lot of time in Mexico, which also tallied with his claim to have been “mixed-up” in the Mexican Revolution.
Back in the US in 1913, Ryan met and married Sophia Rosenfeld, a wealthy widow who owned a hotel in San Pedro.
Mr and Mrs Ryan were reported as a happily married couple who remained fond of taking road trips in their expensive Franklin touring car.
But in August 1915 they nearly died in this vehicle.
Ryan was at the wheel in Portland, Oregon, when he drove down a long hill and straight into the path of a freight train roaring towards a level crossing.
The circumstances were bizarre.
Somehow they got stuck on the tracks but he was able to throw Sophia and himself clear before the car was smashed to pieces.
If this wasn’t an accident, if this was an abortive attempt at something more sinister, then Sophia didn’t seem to suspect because she and Ryan were soon again going on road trips all over California.
One night in March 1916, back home and hearing noise on the sidewalk outside of their hotel, Ryan grabbed his trusty revolver and chased down two burglars, shooting and wounding one of these unarmed men.
Hero or not, in October 1916, Ryan’s marriage to Sophia was over.
He moved out of the hotel and she sought a divorce on the grounds of cruelty.
Ryan went off the rails and was soon in court for assaulting two men.
He landed himself a 180-day suspended sentence.
Then, on January 8, 1917, he walked into Sophia’s hotel and demanded a kiss from his estranged wife.
When she refused, he pulled out an automatic pistol.
“Goodbye, Sophia,” he said.
Ryan sat down in a chair and shot himself in the chest.
Police arrived and took him to hospital, where his wound wasn’t found to be life threatening.
But discharging a firearm within the city limits was an offence, and this automatically triggered his 180-day sentence.
After 20 years of run-ins with the police, Ryan was finally going to do some prison time.
After his release, he went north to San Francisco and worked on boats.
In late 1918, he signed on to the motor schooner Carmen, which was taking a full load of timber to Sydney.
He arrived at Christmas 1918, met and married an Irish lass named Ethel and by winter 1919 was known across Australia as “Arizona Ryan” for killing Chinese gunman Lee Hin.
Newspapers knew nothing of his somewhat chequered past.
But Ryan’s trigger-happy nature would surface again soon.
After shooting Lee Hin, the newly famous cowboy was given a job as a watchman at the Sydney wharves, which were in a state of unrest due to an ongoing maritime strike.
On July 7, around lunch time, Ryan got into an argument with two sailors who were trying to go ashore from their ship.
True to form, Ryan pulled out his revolver and shot one of the men.
A constable arrived on the scene and asked him what had happened: “I shot that bastard there,” Ryan said. “If he comes near me again, I’ll shoot him again.”
Miraculously, the seaman survived unhurt because the bullet had lodged in a paybook in his shirt pocket.
But Ryan was charged.
An inquest heard how he’d been “either drunk or mad” when he picked the fight and pulled his gun.
Ryan was remanded to stand trial for shooting with intent to do bodily harm.
He was allowed out on £60 bail, which he paid with the £10 in his pocket and a £50 reward he’d just received for killing Lee Hin.
But when Ryan stood trial, the maritime strike had finished, and all the witnesses were away at sea.
The judge had no alternative but to release him.
On September 10, 1919, Ryan and his wife sailed for America.
Before he left, he had one last thing to say to the press: “You’ll hear more about me, don’t worry.”
But Australia didn’t.
Despite all the trouble he’d seen, stopped and caused, Ryan went on to live a quiet life back home in California, fathering 13 children with Ethel before passing away in March 1947.
• For the rest of Ryan’s story and for never-before-heard true stories from Australia’s history, check out the podcast Forgotten Australia
Originally published as Vigilante caught in The Sydney Shootout