Death on Mulberry Street – Short Story by Charlie Chin

by Charlie Chin. Posted June 6, 2022.

Introduction:  Charlie Chin graces us with another story featuring the Chinese herbalist Dr. Gong who helps solve mysteries in New York at the turn of the century.

   “Why is Russia having a war with China?”  Detective Sean Carter looked up from the paperwork on his desk.   The patrolman that asked the question was Jim Gillesby.  Detective Carter was patient with the man.   Gillesby was not stupid, just uneducated.  Carter put down his pen and explained,

     “It’s not China and Russia that are having a war, it’s Japan and Russia that are fighting.”

    “Oh, I thought you told me that you were over there in Japan once, right?”

    “Well, no, I was in China with the expedition forces to save the westerners that were trapped in the Forbidden City. “

     “When was that?”  Carter looked at the ceiling for a second.

     “Back in 1900, some several years ago.”  Gillesby was still confused.

    “Isn’t Japan a part of China?”  Carter shook his head.

   “No, there’re two different countries.  You see, China is huge, and Japan is…”   The lesson was interrupted by a policeman with a message.

Mother and child outside Lower Eastside tenemant building, 1900. Photo by Jacob Riis.

     “Detective Carter?  I have note for you.  They found a man’s body up on Mulberry Street in a back ally.  It’s wrapped up in a carpet and half naked.  You better come and look.”

    It was the start of another day.  The Fifth Precinct police station in New York City covered Chinatown, Little Italy, the Jewish section, the Bowery, and it was always busy.

    About thirty minutes later Carter was standing in the back alley of Mulberry Street and making mental notes.  The alley was dark, filthy, and smelled of rotten garbage.  The body was of a White male, about 28 years old.  He was stripped to the waist and without shoes.   He was half wrapped in an old carpet that had been used to carry him down to the street level.  As he stood in the alley Carter stamped his feet several times to chase off the rats which were coming out from the surrounding cellars to feast on the remains.  He noted that the flies were landing on the body, but maggots hadn’t formed yet.  The man hadn’t been dead very long, maybe less than a half a day.  The man’s fingers and nose were black as if they had been burned in a fire.  On his chest he had six circular brown and red marks in two rows.  As far as Carter could see, there were no wounds, bullet holes, or cuts on the body.  His thoughts were stopped by the speculation of another policeman.

    “Look at his hands.  They’re black and swollen.  Maybe this is the work of the Black Hand.  You know, the Italian gangs.”  Carter dismissed the speculation.

      “No, I don’t think so.  They leave a print of a hand in black paint on the wall when they do their work.  This is something else.”   Carter turned to the patrolman next to him,

     “Gillesby, you go to 16 Mott Street and get Dr. Gong.”

Slum dwelling in Mulbery Bend, 1900s. Photo from City Museum of New York.

     “Why do want that Chink witch doctor?”  For the sake of convenience, and because of the prejudice among the members of the police, Carter had not informed the lower ranked patrolmen about Gong’s involvement in solving the “Pi Pa Girl murder” or the Elise Segal case.  He wasn’t going to start now.  He gave Gillesby a hard stare and snapped,

    ‘First, he’s a Chinese Herbalist, not a witch doctor, I need him because he’s a very keen observer, second it’s none of your business, and third, it’s an order.”  Gillesby walked away complaining to himself under his breath.   Forty minutes later, Gillesby returned with Dr. Gong.  The stout moon-faced little man wore a washed blue silk jacket, Chinese cloth shoes, and wore his hair in the long braid that marked the oriental inhabitants of Chinatown.  Picking his way gingerly pass the garbage, dog excrement, and into the alley, he came up to Detective Carter and gave a little polite bow.

     “Detective Carter, I have the pleasure of meeting you again.  How might I be of service?”

     ‘Gong Sin Saang, it is always good to see you.”  Carter always made a point of being polite as he worried about accidently insulting this valuable resource.  He gestured towards the body.

    “Please Doctor, tell me what you make if this?”   Gong stopped where he was.  Took a long slow look at the scene of the alley from his right to the left.  Then he looked up to the rooftops, then down to windows, and cobble stones on the ground.  When he had observed what he could about the alley and the surrounding area, he stooped down to look at the body.    He put his teak wood medicine chest down on the ground, opened the lid, reached in and found a clean wooden stick.  He used the point of it to move the carpet edge back, he inspect the body carefully without touching it.  He looked up and asked,

    “Who put this man here?”

    “That’s what we don’t know.  There’s speculation that he was murdered, or this is an Italian criminal matter.”  Dr. Gong shrugged,

     “This man was not murdered.”

     “What about the round marks on his chest?  Was he tortured?”

     “No, I think somebody tried to help him.  These round marks are the signs of cupping.”

     “Cupping?  What ‘s that?”   Doctor Gong stood back up and tossed the piece of wood he was using into a nearby garbage can and explained,

     “Cupping is an ancient medical treatment of using glass or porcelain cups that have been heated.  They are applied to the body to draw out the fever that the body is suffering.  It’s used in the Orient, the Mediterranean, and in some European countries.  The practice was spread a thousand years ago by the Muslims and Arabs.  The cups draw blood to the surface of the skin and help break the fever, but they leave a red mark where they were applied.  This man was not tortured, no, I think somebody was trying save him from the disease that he had.”

     “What disease was that?”   Doctor Gong rubbed his chin and said quietly,

    “There’s no need to discuss this here.   But it would be wise to begin to question the tenants of this building.  Start at the top floor and work your way down.  But make sure nobody leaves.  See if any of them are recent arrivals, and if any of them are sick or have a fever.  If you find such a group of people, keep them separate from the others, and don’t get too close them yourselves.  It is very important that you cordon off this building, let nobody in or out.  Bring a large bottle of water with you and while you question the tenants, offer them a drink of water but don’t drink of it yourself.  That is also very important. “

        Carter repeated the instructions to Sergeant Benedict and several other policemen and then suggested that Dr. Gong and he go back down to the precinct house for a discussion.  Carter weighed how he would have to explain to the precinct captain about forcefully containing a building full of people on the word of a Chinaman, but he also knew that in several cases when he took Doctor Gong’s advice, the little man was always right.  Using an empty interview room, Carter and Doctor Gong sat down.  Carter asked his guest if he wanted coffee, the little man politely declined.

     “Well Gong Sin Saang what do you think?”   Doctor Gong put his medicine chest on the floor, sat down across from Carter, and folded his hands into the sleeves of his silk jacket,

    “Detective Carter, you have heard of the Black Death?”  Carter was stunned.

    “You mean the plague?”   Doctor Gong chose his next words carefully.

   “Yes, the plague as you call it.  Cases of the dread disease show up occasionally. “

    “How do you know he had it?”

    “First of all, the dead man was being treated by somebody because he had an extreme case of fever.  The body has a blacken nose and fingers.  These marks are signs of the gangrene that happens to parts of the body and that give the disease its name.  You may not have noticed that he had egg shaped swollen bumps in his armpits, and I would venture to say, he most likely has them in his private parts.  These are all signs of this deadly disease.”   Carter was becoming very concerned.

     “I can see why you didn’t want to discuss this in public.  News of this would start a panic.  It would shut down the city.  What do we have to do?  How do you think we should begin?”

     Doctor Gong gently waved his right hand back and forth.

     “Don’t become alarmed.  I believe it’s the Black Death because the man is a recent immigrant from a place in southern Italy.  As you saw the tenement buildings on that street and the one that he lived in, are filled with rats.  We don’t know why but where there are rats, there is plague.  If one person, has it and there are rats about, then many others will get it.  It is a mystery but very well known.  As far as the building is concerned, if nobody else shows signs of sickness, there should be no problem.  But if somebody in the building, somebody who lived in close quarters with him, shows signs, then they must be taken to Bellevue Hospital on 23rd street.”   Detective Carter was becoming concerned,

     “If this gets out, people will start fleeing the city.  Can you do anything?”   Doctor Gong frowned slightly,

Italian immigrant family in Little Italy, 1900s. Photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals.

     “Chinese herbal medicine is ancient and wise but there are things we don’t know and cases where we are helpless.   Western medicine may work.  If it is the Black Death, then anybody else that’s infected should go to Bellevue hospital and see a Western Doctor.”

    About an hour later, patrolman Benedict came back into the station.  He took off his hat so he could wipe his brow.

    “What a mess.  Detective Carter, you better have a good explanation for why those people must be kept in their apartments.  I had a hell of time stopping some of them from going out.”

    “You mean some of them got rough?”

    “No, it was the little old Italian ladies wanted to go shopping and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  We had to pick up some of them bodily and put them back in the building.  What’s the reason for all of this?” Carter was anxious.

     “Anybody sick?”  Benedict reported,

    “In the basement, we found five Italian men, all living together and packed in like sardines in a can. They’re workmen and hardly speak English.  We questioned them and they wouldn’t say anything until Murphy told them if they didn’t cooperate, they would all be deported back to Sicily.  Then they started to open up.  Seems they all came over as stowaways on a steamer.   None of them have papers.  When one of them got sick, the Italian grandma up in apartment 3G tried to help him by using some old country cure using candles and cups, but he died anyway.  They were afraid to call the police or the hospital, so they just wrapped him up in an old carpet and put him in the alley.  One of the other neighbors was putting out the garbage when she found the body.  By the way, none of the other people in the building would touch the bottle of water I offered.  They said they were Italian and drank wine, but when I asked the boys in the cellar if they wanted some water, they drank the whole bottle and asked for more. They were quite thirsty.”

     Detective Carter glanced at Doctor Gong.  Doctor Gong smiled and commented,

    “This is because they all have a slight fever. “Detective Carter slapped the tabletop in triumph and gave the order.

    “Benedict, have all of those men in the cellar taken to Bellevue Hospital right now, double quick.”

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Author’s Bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).

Cover Photo:

Manhattan, Little Italy in 1900. Photo from the Library of Congress found via www.goodfreephotos.com

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Peter Horikoshi on June 9, 2022 at 6:08 pm

    Another interesting mystery by Charlie!

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