Never doubt that I love you, deeply and without reservation. What more can I do to prove it? Please don’t turn away from me, I beg you.
With kisses, your loving,
Patrolman Gilliespie shook his head, “I can’t believe a White woman wrote this to a Chinaman. Anyway, that’s all it says on this one, Detective Carter, you want me to read another one?”
“How many letters are there?” Patrolman Gilliespie glance at the stack of envelopes,
“About 30, maybe 40, they all seem to love letters of some sort.”
“No, that’s enough, put it back.” Gilliespie put down the sheet of paper with a frown.
Detective Carter mentally took in the small bedroom’s few contents, a bed, a bureau, a small closet, and a stack of letters. The stench of death still hung heavily in the room. The coroner had been there and left. The men from the morgue had taken the bloated and blacken body of the woman downtown. The cause of death was obvious. The half-naked corpse still had a curtain cord tied tightly around her neck. By coroner’s reckoning, the woman had been dead for 10 days.
The man who had called the police, Chu Gain, ran the Sun Leung Chinese Restaurant. When his cousin, Leong Lim hadn’t show up at work for a couple of days, he began to worry. He had knocked on the door of the flat where his cousin lived at 782 Eighth Ave., but nobody answered. He turned to walk away when he noticed the smell of rotting flesh and feared something bad had happened. When the police came and broke down the locked door, there was no one inside. Just a few pieces of furniture and a large trunk tied up with a rope. The foul smell was coming from the trunk. When they forced it open, they saw a corpse so badly decomposed, they weren’t sure what the race of the corpse was.
Photo from Library of Congress.
Because of his reputation for knowing Chinatown, Head Quarters had sent for Detective Sean Carter. After inspecting the scene, and the stack of love letters on the bureau, Detective Sean Carter realized it was dynamite. A White woman was having an affair with a Chinese man, the girl was murdered, and her body stuffed in a trunk. That was bad enough, but she also happened to be Elsie Sigel, the granddaughter of a famous Civil war general and a member of New York city’s elite.
Because there was a Chinese man involved in this case, Carter would need the help of his friend, Dr. Gong, the herbalist. Dr. Gong had been invaluable before. Born in Sacramento, raised in San Francisco, California, Dr. Gong spoke fluent English and knew the inner workings of the Chinatown community better than any outsider ever could. Gong’s keen observation and medical skills had been the key in solving several other cases, the typhoid incident in Little Italy, and the Pipa Girl murder were just two. The two men had formed a polite friendship and a mutual respect. Sean Carter finished his report, handed the paperwork to Patrolman Gillispie, and headed downtown.
After checking in at the station, Carter walked over four blocks to No. 16 Mott Street and the office of Dr. Gong. In the second-floor room that served as office and clinic, a short heavy set little man looked up from papers on his desk.
“Detective Carter, you are most welcome. How can I be of service to you?” The little man gestured for Carter to sit down and offered,
“Tea? Some almond cake?” Carter waved his hand to say no.
“I’m here seeking your help in a murder case I’m dealing with.” Dr. Gong sat down and glanced at Carter,
‘It is perhaps the dead White girl in the steamer trunk?” Carter was startled.
‘How did you know?” Dr. Gong folded his hands into his long wide sleeves.
“Men that work in the kitchen of the Sun Leung Restaurant have been talking about the disappearance of the man Leong Lim and the discovery of the dead girl’s body. All of Chinatown is discussing it.”
“Do you know anything? I would be grateful for any help you might be able to offer.” Dr. Gong stared at Carter a long time.
“First, may I ask, am I speaking to my friend, Sean Carter, or to the police Detective Carter?” Carter chose his next words carefully,
“Dr. Gong, I am honored to be called a friend. A good friend would never repeat what he heard in confidence. If Carter, the Detective, were to act on information that he heard somewhere, he is not obligated to say who give him that information.” Dr. Gong seemed satisfied.
“The man called Leong Lim is known in Chinatown. He is of unsavory character with a violent and jealous nature, and he owes money to several people. He frequents the Chinatown Christian Mission.” Carter sat up,
“You meant over 10 Mott Street? Just a few doors down?” Dr. Gong nodded yes,
“As you know, although our culture is several thousand years old, there are people who believe that the Chinese follow a path of uncivilized pagan beliefs and practices, and their duty to save our souls from the fires of hell.” Carter smiled and nodded. Dr. Gong reached for the long tobacco pipe and a match on his desk.
“Yes, the Sigel family, the mother and the daughter are attached to the Chinatown Christian mission, but the daughter Elsie was also frequently seen in the company of this Leong Lim. It seems she found him attractive. As you know, by American law most Chinese men are not allowed to bring wives to the United States. In fact, I believe the number of Chinese men living in the area below Canal Street is about 400 and the number of Chinese women, most listed as the wives and daughters of merchants, is exactly 36. So, Mr. Carter, I think a man far from home, and a young, impressionable White girl intent on saving the soul of handsome Chinese man, it is a dangerous combination.”
“Do you believe this Leong Lim may have been the one that killed the Sigel girl?”
“From what I have heard, it seems logically, but there are bigger problems.”
“Bigger problems?” Dr. Gong stood up, pulled aside a curtain, and peered out the window. He mused,
“The news that a young White girl was sleeping with a Chinese man, was then killed and her body then stuffed into a trunk, that is going to bring problems.” Carter realized there was nothing more to say for the moment. He left and promised to stay in touch.
The next three months proved Dr. Gong right. The newspapers ran lithograph pictures of Elsie Sigel with sensational accounts of what had happen. There were rocks thrown through the front windows of Chinese Hand laundries and restaurants all over New York city. The papers printed lurid tales of Opium dens, of young girls forced into sexual slavery, and the hypnotic powers of oriental masters over the impressionable White females of respectable families.
Train stations and ships were carefully monitored to make sure the murderer could not escape. The whole city was on alert and the captain of the New York City police used the phrase, “Drag Net,” to indicated there was a thorough search. When a young White woman brought shirts to a Chinese hand Laundry in the Bronx, hooligans started a riot outside. The Chinese men inside had to be escorted out by the police for their own safety. Representatives from the Chinese government protested formally to the American president about the harassment of Chinese in America but all to no avail.
In the meantime, White prostitutes who worked the Chinatown area were told by the police to move out. Italian immigrant families quickly took advantage of the vacant apartments and moved in. A thorough search of the city had not revealed the whereabouts of Leong Lim, some speculated that he was no longer in the United States.
Chong (or Chang) Sing, implicated in the murder of Elsie Sigel, meeting with police and reporters upon arrival in New York City, New York. Photo from Library of Congress.
Carter found himself back at the office of Dr. Gong. After the customary polite greetings, the men sat down across Dr. Gong’s desk.
“Dr. Gong, I’m getting a lot of pressure about this Elsie Sigel case. Is there anything that you know that might be of some help?” Dr. Gong shrugged and clapped his hands lightly. A young man appeared with a tea pot and cups on a tray and set it down in front of the men. Carter realized he couldn’t hurry the process, so he relaxed and let Dr. Gong lead the conversation.
“Detective Carter, are you familiar with the organizations of the Chinese people here?” Carter blinked and began to recount.
“There are three kinds of organizations in Chinatown. Family, District, and Fraternal. The first is based on your last name, the second on your home village and district, and the last on an oath of loyalty.” Dr. Gong smiled,
‘There is also guilds, which are based on profession, but that doesn’t concern us now.”
“What does?” Dr. Gong put down his teacup at a slightly odd angle to the others on the table, leaned back and pointed at the cup.
“Do you know what that means Detective Carter?” Carter was puzzled.
“I don’t know. That you want more tea?” Dr. Gong laughed and explained,
“No, but if you belonged to a fraternal organization or Tong, it is a signal that the person, you’re talking to is also a member of the same organization. These groups use secret signs and signals to recognize each other, even if they are far from home.”
“Oh, you mean like the Free Masons, but what are these organizations do?”
“They were first devised hundreds of years ago to help the patriots who wanted to overthrow the foreign rule of the Manchu Qing Dynasty of China. I believe you were in China with the Expeditionary Forces during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Those patriot rebels also wanted to overthrow the Qing dynasty.”
“But what does that have to do with this case?” Dr. Gong smiled again,
“Most people join such fraternal organizations for patriotic purposes, but there are others who join to avoid punishment by the government. The laws of China are harsh. If a man is arrested for a crime in China, he will very likely be executed. One of the few ways he can avoid such a punishment, is through the help of a Tong brotherhood to get him out of the district, the province, or even the country.” Carter became aware of what Dr. Gong was trying to tell him.
“And let me guess, members of such patriotic organizations must take an oath of secrecy that includes helping any fellow member who was in trouble.” Dr. Gong smiled even more broadly,
“Let us accept that what you say is true Detective Carter, let me ask, what if there were a person who did not condone the actions of a criminal, but because of an oath, was unable to give any information that might lead the capture and execution of a fellow Tong Member.” Carter sat and thought about it for a long time,
“Then I have a question for you Dr. Gong, what if a criminal being sought had already fled this country with the help of his Tong. Then the person you are describing wouldn’t have to say where the criminal is, but simply imply where he isn’t. That searching would be pointless as the criminal was now beyond reach?” Dr. Gong laughed and slapped his thigh several times.
“You are a very wise man Detective Sean Carter. And I know that you would never waste time doing anything that was pointless.”
Afterword: The 1909 Elsie Sigel murder case was one of the most famous crimes in New York City history. The perpetrator was never caught. Christian Missions in Chinatown made it a policy to staff them with only middle-aged married women from that point on.
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).