12 Gruesome Murders that Shocked Old China

By Paul French, December 2, 2019

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It’s way past  Midnight in Peking and Shanghai is a City of Devils. The Middle Kingdom has seen its fair share of trouble. In the first half of the 20th century foreigners bludgeoned, shot, stabbed, strangled, poisoned and hatcheted their way through China.

A new Audible Original from Paul French (available exclusively through Audible online) contains 12 cases of murder, revenge killings and crimes of passion, from the sedate American tennis club of Tianjin to a remote island bay off Hong Kong; the Tibetan borderlands to the Shanghai Badlands. 

Justice was slanted, rapid and, often, rigged. All of these cases uncover new evidence that was overlooked, ignored or simply unknown at the time – murderers who got away with it are identified and long-hidden corruption and lies revealed. 

You could kill and get away with it in 20th century China for myriad reasons; the racism of the times, combined with the chaos and political turmoil surrounding the fall of the Qing Dynasty, warlordism, rampant espionage, the Japanese invasion and Civil War. Extraordinary times meant extraordinary crimes – rough justice at best, no justice often.

Specially commissioned by Audible, Murders of Old China, written and narrated by Paul French, is a way to understand China’s last century through its crimes, criminals and murder victims. Thanks to Big Data, digitization and document releases in Europe, North America, Russia and China, we can investigate many crimes of old China, sleuthing by hindsight, to know more now than the cops, judges or journalists knew at the time. 

Here, French gives us a introduction to the gruesome crimes in very different times…

An American Murderer in Tibet

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Henry Demenil – put on trial in Shanghai for killing a Tibetan lama in 1907

In May 1907, while passing through a village in China’s Yunnan province near the Tibetan frontier, the well-known and wealthy American adventurer Henry N. Demenil killed a Tibetan Buddhist lama by shooting him in the eye. The Demenil case came before the American Court in Shanghai in December 1907 – the first-ever case of an American accused of killing a Chinese subject. 

But the trial was highly suspect – the judge dispensed with a jury, witnesses were unreliable, evidence was doctored and Demenil’s claim that he had shot to scare the lama away looked untenable when it seems he fired at point blank range into the man’s eye socket. It was a case that tested the limits of foreign justice in China and enraged Chinese people seeking equality before the law.

The Death of a Rickshaw Man

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A ricksaw puller

In 1908, Briton Thomas Stevenson became the first white man to stand trial in Shanghai for the murder of a Chinese rickshaw puller. It was a full jury trial, and, if convicted, Stevenson faced the hangman. 

After a long night drinking, Stevenson hailed a rickshaw heading into Hongkou. He claimed the rickshaw puller attempted to rob him and that, fighting, they both fell into a creek. Stevenson claimed he killed the Chinese man in self-defence. Local residents, and even the police, thought differently. What did happen on the banks of the creek at dawn that August day in 1908? Why did the men fight? How did one of them end up dead?

Trafficked to Her Death

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Thomas Idwal Vaughan, detective in 'Trafficked to her Death'

In September 1907, a Russian woman was found strangled up near what is now Lu Xun Park, but was then a notorious red light district. The detectives of Shanghai’s Hongkou Police Station knew her to be a sex worker and a trafficked woman. The prime suspects were an Indian man – a known local pimp – and, Meena, the woman’s closest friend. But the man and the woman both had an alibi. 

When the case came to court, it was about who killed the Russian woman. But other questions also had to be answered – what was the murdered woman’s real name? Where did she come from? And how did she come to be a sex worker in Shanghai?

A Strange Shooting in Tai-O

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The man killed in Tai-O – Thomas Glendinning with his wife, Daisy, in Hong Kong, in 1917

In 1918, at a remote police station on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island, a cold-blooded killing by a police constable left a baby without a father and a young mother widowed. Both men worked in Hong Kong’s remotest police station watching for pirates. A Sikh policeman was accused of the murder. 

At the time, accusations of lunacy and racial character stereotyping flew about. Later investigations tended to focus on institutional racism in the Hong Kong Police Force. But now, sleuthing by hindsight and looking at more documents and sources, we can perhaps see deeper causes behind the horrible killing that were overlooked at the time. 

The Indiscreet Putnam Weale

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Portrait of Bertram Lenox Simpson

Bertram Lenox Simpson (aka the scurrilous journalist BL Putnam Weale) was hatcheted and shot to death in Tianjin in 1930. There were many who would have liked to kill him – he was an irritant, a thorn in the side of many officials in China, both Chinese and foreign. He was a muckraking journalist who mocked the Chinese government, British diplomats and warlords alike, making numerous enemies. 

He could never resist an intrigue and involved himself in the dark machinations of warlord politics. But was his assassination revenge for some prior slights given? For his satirical writing? Or was it due to his role in the murky world of Chinese warlord politics? 

A Deadly Dinner in Shanghai’s Gangster Mansion

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Captain Fioe - chief of the Frenchtown flics

In the early 1930s, the French Concession police, perhaps unwisely, tried to wrestle back control of Frenchtown from the legendary gangster Du Yuesheng. They thought he had conceded defeat when he invited the leading cops and politicians of the district to a banquet at his mansion. 

On February 11, 1932, the five men sat down to dinner with Big Eared Du. Within a few days, four of the men present were dead. Accidental food poisoning, Du claimed, but others thought it a determined, and very public attempt to wipe out of all the remaining opposition to his complete control of Shanghai. 

Slain by his Best Friend

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Rodney Heim in the Corpus Christi Caller Times

In June 1932, 25-year-old American Rodney Heim was found shot dead by the side of the road in the then remote district of Hongqiao. The Shanghai Police immediately sought Heim’s closest friend in Shanghai, New Yorker John Hansen. But Hanson took his own life before the cops could question him. 

What, or who, drove one man to cold-bloodedly murder another, a victim who also happened to be his closest friend in Shanghai?

Murder in Inner Mongolia

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Gareth Jones in the San Francisco Examiner

Welshman Gareth Jones was a fearless journalist, having exposed the crimes of Stalin, the Nazis and the Japanese militarists. In 1935, Jones headed to remote Inner Mongolia, where he was kidnapped and eventually murdered in cold blood. 

His murder could be as simple as bad luck and some opportunistic but deadly Chinese bandits. But perhaps it is a hidden tale of intrigue, espionage and double-dealing. Did they kill Jones on the orders of the Nazis in Berlin, the Soviet secret police in Moscow, or senior Japanese army officers in Tokyo? 

The Good Doctor Colbert – Wife Poisoner?

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Dr. John Colbert was a well-liked medical professional from Albuquerque living in Tianjin with his much younger, and fourth, wife. He was a WW1 veteran and ran an orphanage for poor Chinese kids, but in 1935 he was put on trial for the attempted murder of his wife.

Was Colbert a wife murderer? Some doctors gave evidence that he was poisoning his wife, but he maintained these were simply medicines to combat exhaustion in the Chinese heat. Questions surfaced about his former wives and, perhaps, the woman he planned to make wife number five. Just who was John Colbert? Good doctor, or wife poisoner?

The Sikh They Couldn’t Hang

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Atma Singh

There was no doubt about who killed the Sikh Shanghai policeman Bawa Singh – he was found hacked to death with a chopper by his fellow policeman (but no relation) Atma Singh in a police station bathroom. Atma was sentenced to hang for murder and sent to the city’s Ward Road Jail in Tilanqiao, known as the ‘Shanghai Bastille’. Atma had the noose around his neck and dropped through the trapdoor to the end of the rope… which then snapped! He woke up some time later in the prison hospital.

What had happened? A genuine error by two very experienced hangmen? A sympathetic Sikh prison warder weakening the rope? Had the rope been cut? Was it divine intervention? And what now to do with Atma Singh – hang him again? 

Who Killed the Baron of Frenchtown?

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Baron Reginald d’Auxion de Ruffe

Baron Reginald d’Auxion de Ruffe was a Paris-born aristocrat who lived in an elegant villa in the heart of Shanghai’s French Concession. On a June morning in 1941, as he climbed the stairs to his office on Jingling Lu, two Chinese men shot him three times in the back and then fled.  

There were wild rumours about the Baron and his many enemies: that his execution could have been arranged by a high-ranking Frenchman with whom he had had a business dispute; that his assassination was linked to his fascist politics or his racy private life. So, who did order the killing of the Baron – a business rival, a political rival or a jealous lover?

The Death of A Shanghai Gold Dealer

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Charlie Archer in court for murdering a Chinese gold dealer, Shanghai 1947

The war was over; Shanghai liberated, the Japanese defeated. But around Shanghai the Chinese Civil War was raging and the city full of American army GIs and the remnants of the gangsters that had infested the city before the war. It was 1947, but the Badlands of Shanghai still had a few more years to run. What became known in 1947 as ‘The Gold Bar Murder Case’ was indicative of the times.

It seemed obvious that two men – one British, one American – murdered a Chinese gold dealer out in the western suburbs. But in court, each man accused the other of the killing. Meanwhile the gold itself had not been recovered. Who was the murderer? And what happened to the victim’s Shanghai gold?


For more history stories, click hereFor more on Paul French, click here.

[All images courtesy of Paul French]

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