By Charlie Chin. Posted December 12, 2023.
“Today President Wilson has officially declared that the United States is joining the European Allies in the Great War.” Detective Carter shook his head in disgust as he put down the newspaper. He had seen enough of battle. He had his fill in 1900 when he took part as a marine in the Expeditionary Forces that were sent to rescue the European Missionaries and Diplomats that were stranded in China’s Forbidden City.
April 19, 1917 Parade in New York City called the “Wake Up, America!” parade. This parade was days after the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, signaling our involvement in WWI. National Geographic Magazine 1917.
By the 1800’s nations like Germany, France, Britain, had used the time-honored technique of sending Christian missions to gain a foothold, and which was then followed by merchants bringing in foreign goods, and finally troops of soldiers to “protect” the missions and merchants. These foreign nations dismissed Manchu official protests and went about ruling sections of China and enforcing their own laws as if the province was theirs. Upset at the inability of the Manchu government to stop foreign nations from cutting up China into “spheres of influence,” peasant uprisings were taken place across the nation. Using a mixture of Taoist magic, patriotic fervor and martial art training, mobs of the poor and neglected begun a rampage of slaughter that targeted Christian missions, foreign merchants, and brutally put to the sword anyone they deemed traitors to China.
When the foreign diplomats and missionaries fled to the confines of the Forbidden City for safety, on the outside they were surrounded by thousands of Chinese “Spirit Soldiers” who believed their ancient gods and magic spells would protect them from foreign bullets. When the gun boats and soldiers of the various Western nations arrived for the relief of the trapped foreigners, the end was predictable and terrible.
A young American marine corporal named Sean Carter had been posted with a machine gun crew of three men on the northern wall of the Forbidden City. As one man fed the weapon of death with bandoliers of bullets, another man braced the machine and pulled the trigger, and corporal Carter directed the fire. Peasants whipped into a patriotic frenzy and chanting “magic spells,” repeatedly charged their position like the waves of a stormy human ocean.
The rebel Chinese peasants, some armed only with pruning hooks and kitchen cleavers, ran into Maxim automatic machine gun fire and ended up dying by the hundreds. It was enough to turn the stomach of any man. Carter knew it was his duty to fire on the peasants but that didn’t him feel any better about spraying leaden death on men armed with farm tools and spears. At dusk when the fighting had stopped, he gazed out at the mounds of the dying and dead bodies, and he made a personal promise to never do this sort of thing again.
But that was more than 14 years ago. He was now a detective with the New York City police force and had other things to worry about. His beat was Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Jewish section of Manhattan. He had learned a lot along the way and made both enemies and friends. One of his closest friends was the Herbalist, Dr. Gong of Chinatown.
Theirs had been an unusual relationship at best. Detective Carter had been born in Massachusetts and had grown up in Boston. With a taste for adventure, the young Sean Carter had joined the army. With an outstanding record of service and a few medals for bravery, he retired from the Marines and entered the police force of New York City. His skill and patience allow him to rise quickly through the ranks. With several successfully solved cases, and a reputation for quelling dangerous situations without having to draw his gun, he became a Detective.
It was then that he met and worked with Dr. Gong. Their work together in the Chinatown Pi Pa Girl murder case and their partnership in stopping the Typhoid Mary incident from becoming a full-blown epidemic in New York City, had cemented their friendship and their reputation in New York City.
Dr. Gong’s birth took place in Sacramento and his education in San Francisco. Dr. Gong’s father had come to California in hopes of finding gold, but quickly learned that what the thousands of miners in the “Gold Mountain” desperately needed was a medical healer. He became a highly respected herbalist and businessman in California.
With an eye to the future, the elder Gong personally trained his American born son in the Traditional medicine of China and with the help of the progressive Western physician Dr. Abrams, the young man learned about the innovations and discoveries happening in European medicine. In a short time, young Dr. Gong developed a unique skill in observation and healing.
This time the case that brought Detective Carter and Dr. Gong together again was a matter of national security. Somebody was sending important information about shipping and cargo movements in New York City harbor to the German Kaiser’s network of spies in the United States.
The suspect was a German national named Gerhart Bremen. He lived in Manhattan just off Chatham Square in the section known as “Kliner Deutschland,” or “Little Germany.” Most of the residents there were not political, in fact they were only there as a stopping station while waiting to immigrate to the mid-west of the United States and start farms.
Government officials had warned the New York City police to be on the lookout for spies. People who spent too much time watching the trains and ships as they came and went, asking too many questions. Through other double agents at work, it was revealed that somebody in the 5th precinct area was sending messages to the German consulate. There was at least one, maybe two men being watched but the search seemed fruitless. They knew that one of the men was sending messages to his German handlers, but nothing was ever found, not even when they did surprise raids on his apartment. Yet they knew somehow, he was transmitting messages.
Gerhart Bremen was at the top of the list, but he had an alibi. He worked as a German beerhall on the Bowery seven days of the week, almost 12 hours a day. While under constant observation, he was so predictable, you could set your watch by his actions. He went to work in the early morning, ate his lunch at the beerhall and after work, went straight home, talking to nobody along the way.
When he had time to send messages was anybody’s guess. Mrs. Bremen, his wife, stayed at home, and never left except to buy groceries. She could be found at home, sitting by her window, and knitting all day long.
Woman knitting. LIbrary of Congress photo.
It was just the sun was rising on a Wednesday morning that Carter, Dr. Gong, and patrolman Gillespie, knocked on the door of the tenement apartment. Mr. Bremen came to the door and sighed when he saw who it was.
“What do you want?” Gillispie came in first to look around and was followed by Detective Carter and Dr. Gong. Mrs. Bremen came out of the bedroom and snarled,
“Again, you’re here? Can’t you leave us along?” Carter felt somewhat guilty. There was no proof that the couple had done anything wrong. He gestured at the chest of drawers against the wall and announced,
‘We must search the premises Mr. Bremen. I’m sorry.” Sitting down in a snit, Mrs. Bremen made a point of not offering tea. She told her husband,
“Gerhard, it’s already late, you go to work, I’ll stay here with these men.” Mr. Bremen seemed resigned to his fate and started to put on his coat. His wife absent mindedly commented,
“It’s freezing outside Gerhart, don’t come down with a cold.” Carter was instinctively aware that something was going on. He stopped Gerhart Bremen from leaving and said,
“Take off you coat and pants, now.” The man wore a face of disgust and reluctantly, silently undressed, and his clothes were placed on the kitchen table. Gillispie and Detective Carter went through the pockets, and examined the linings of the shirt, coat, and pants. They found some coins, two American dollars, a key to the front door, a pack of matches, but nothing important.
“O.K. you can go.” The man began to dress himself again, then stopped to wrap a scarf around his neck and put on a hat. Dr. Gong had been watching and was certain there was something that he and Carter were missing. Dr. Gong stared at Mr. Bremen for a minute and then he whispered to nobody,
“It’s June and 70 degrees outside.” Before Mr. Gerhart Bremen could reach the door, Dr. Gong stopped him with a hand placed on the man’s chest. Understandably, the man was impatient, and asked,
“What now?” Dr. Gong indicated that the man should stand still. Then the little Chinese man in his silk jacket inspected all the pockets in the clothes of Mr. Bremen, checked the lining of his hat, and then stopped to take a close look at his hat and scarf. There was something about the odd-looking scarf and its loud color scheme that drew his attention. He held the scarf up at eye height and narrowed his gaze. The Bremen’s were stoically staring at the grimy walls of their apartment. Dr. Gong silently mouthed some words and then, in triumph, turned to Detective Carter.
“This man and woman are spies and the proof is here.” Carter was taken aback, he turned to look at Dr. Gong.
“What have you found?” Dr. Gong smiled and put down the scarf on the table.
View of the Brooklyn Bridge and New York Harbor. 1915.
“Detective Carter, please go to the window, look out and tell me what you see.” Carter walked slowly to the window and looked. Sitting in their kitchen chairs the Bremen’s slumped their shoulders in defeat. Carter seemed confused,
“Just the street below, the river, and Bay. What’s so important?”
“Can you see the ships on the bay?” Carter took a longer look.
‘Yes, so?” Dr. Gong was aware that Carter didn’t see the obvious and was politely concerned about not wanting Carter to lose face.
“You are familiar with the Morse code?”
“Yes, I learned it when I was in the Marines.”
“Then take a look at this scarf again.” Carter picked it up and inspected it closely.
“I still don’t see anything.” Dr. Gong was almost laughing.” He spoke slowly as if to a child.
“If a single knot is a dot, and a double knot is a dash, now what do you see?” Carter slowly inspected the stiches, and the light of realization crossed his eyes.
“I’ll be dammed, the scarf has a long message written in Morse code, using single and double knots used as dots and dashes.” Dr. Gong took a long look at the sullen woman in her chair and speculated,
“Mrs. Breman sits by her window all day long, from there she has a view of the city harbor, and she can mark the name and arrival and leaving of ships in New York City, and as she watches she knits and writes down the name, time, the size, and origin of each vessel in Morse code in the knots of the scarf. Then Mr. Bremen goes to work with his scarf on, casually hangs it up at work, and when he leaves work, it is a simple matter to leave the scarf on the coat rack as if he had forgotten it. And then moments later, without saying a word, the scarf is picked up by his contact person, who simply wraps around his neck and leaves. The next morning, Gerhart Breman puts on another scarf at home and in turn, leaves that one at work with its hidden message of the day for an accomplice.” Both Bremen’s glanced at each other and let loose a string of curses in German. Detective Carter turned and barked,
“Gillespie, put Mrs. and Mr. Gerhart Bremen under arrest on a charge of spying for a foreign Government.”
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).