Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French
Penguin Books, 272 pp, April 2012, ISBN 978-0143121008
The body, dumped in a ditch at the foot of a fifteenth century tower, was white, dishevelled, and horribly mutilated. An opening in the sternum showed where the ribs had been broken outward and the heart removed. The face had been stabbed repeatedly, making its owner almost unrecognisable. Only her fair hair and expensive watch, still attached to her wrist, gave her away. Pamela Werner was nineteen when she was murdered on January 8th, 1937. Her murder would consume and fascinate the city of Beijing for months to come as it perched on the precipice of World War II.
Beijing in the 1930s was a peculiar place. Spurned by Chiang Kai-shek as capital of the Republic of China in favour of Nanjing (which he would later abandon to the Japanese and retreat to Chongqing), Beijing was on the verge of becoming something of an international backwater, eclipsed by the so-called treaty ports of Tianjin and Shanghai, with their bustling foreign settlements and easy access to the sea.
The international community in Beijing was also somewhat peculiar. Not for the former imperial capital the embarrassment of foreign controlled settlements, with their separate police forces and administrative officials. Expatriates in Beijing mostly kept themselves to a small, walled enclave known as the Legation Quarter, in which Britain, America, France, and Japan all had their embassies and consulates (or legations, from which the area drew its name). Alongside the governmental buildings stood expensive, Western-style clubs and hotels that would not have looked out of place in any European or North American city.
The memory of the 1901 Boxer uprising, in which the fanatics of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists laid siege to the Legation Quarter for fifty five days and massacred any Christians they could find, loomed large over the international community. Few foreigners, or at least, those foreigners with money money enough to choose, lived outside of the Quarter’s reinforced, heavily guarded walls.
Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner was one such foreigner. A former British diplomat, ETC Werner arrived in Beijing in the 1880s as a student interpreter with the British Legation. Werner remained in the diplomatic service until 1914, serving in postings as far apart as Beijing, Macao, and Tianjin. As well as a number of less desirable locales, such as the remote Qiongshan county on Hainan and at Beihai in the Gulf of Tonkin. In 1911 Werner took up his final diplomatic posting in Fuzhou, where he would remain until his retirement in 1914.
On the evening of the 7th of January, the day before Pamela’s body was discovered, ETC Werner had become concerned. His daughter had left with friends several hours before to go iceskating but had never returned, nor had she gotten word to him that she would be late. When word still had not come by 10pm, Werner took to the streets of Tartar City, the mostly Chinese neighbourhood in which he and Pamela lived, a short distance from the Legation Quarter. Werner strode the streets of Beijing, attempting to retrace Pamela’s steps. He visited the home of the friend she had gone skating with, who had returned home herself at 8pm. The girl’s parents sought to reassure Werner, saying that Pamela must have met an old acquaintance and lost track of time, they advised him to return home where he would probably find her waiting for him. When Werner, who was sprightly but still subject to his seventy two years, made it home, Pamela was not there. By now the house staff shared Werner’s concern, and he sent a number of them off to search for Pamela while he sought out Commissioner Thomas, the bureaucrat in charge of the Legation Quarter. Thomas wasn’t home so Werner left a note saying that Pamela had gone missing, and returned to his search.
Werner was still out walking when, early the next morning, he saw a crowd gathered at the foot of the Fox Tower, part of the Ming-era Tartar Wall which stretched the length of the Legation Quarter. The Fox Tower was thought by locals to be haunted and was generally avoided. Moreover, Werner spotted police uniforms in the crowd, and he recognised Colonel Han of the Chinese police, and Commissioner Thomas.
Pamela Werner, 1936.
Werner pushed through the crowd and saw what had attracted their attention. The fair hair and clothing were all he needed to see to know that the mutilated body at their feet was that of his daughter’s.
When a foreigner died in suspicious circumstances it was standard procedure for the respective legation to be invited to send an envoy to monitor the investigation. Not only was Werner a former member of the British diplomatic service, but he was considered a friend of China by the Kuomintang government. Pressure was therefore on, both at the British consulate and in the Beijing police force, to solve this murder as soon as possible.
Richard Dennis, chief of police of the British Concession in Tianjin, was just the man for the job. DCI Dennis was a seasoned officer, experienced and highly qualified, a Scotland Yard man. Dennis joined Colonel Han’s investigation, he would not have any powers of arrest, nor could he question suspects without prior approval, but he would be there for Britain to see that justice was done.
Pamela’s death, despite the horrific state of her corpse, had likely been quick. An initial autopsy found that the cause of death was blunt trauma to the head causing massive haemorrhaging in the brain. The mutilation, including the removal of her heart and, doctors later discovered, the slashing of her genitals, had occurred postmortem.
Two things were clear from the autopsy and initial investigation, the Fox Tower was not the site of the murder, which would by necessity be drenched in the victim’s blood; and there were no immediate leads.
Common investigative practice held that where there are no other suspects, the murderer is likely someone the victim knew, and knew well. Without any alternatives then, the spotlight of the investigation swung onto ETC Werner.
Werner was unpopular in Beijing, indeed, he was unpopular in most parts of China. An irascible and difficult man, Werner was a committed atheist and teetotaller, beliefs which managed to annoy both the pious and the louche members of the expat community. Werner’s movements within the diplomatic service, from remote posting to even more remote, were often due to his rubbing up against his superiors. Being unlikeable does not a murderer one make, however. Dennis’s initial questioning of the old man neither confirmed nor allayed his suspicions, Werner was distant and not particularly helpful, but this could be put down to the shock of losing his only relative (the old man was a widower), or may simply have been his personality.
The expat rumour mill did its upmost to fill in the blanks for Dennis. He heard from numerous people that Werner was hugely unpopular, that he had once attacked a group of monks in Beijing’s Lama Temple with his riding crop, and that he had fought with other foreigners while stationed in the remote Pagoda Anchorage, a posting that was notorious for driving even the most composed diplomat insane with boredom. In Fuzhou, Werner and his wife reportedly attacked a customs officer with whom Werner had previously quarrelled. Werner was eventually recalled to London and persuaded, politely but firmly, to resign.
The biggest black mark against Werner, at least in the eyes of the wider foreign community, was the apparently suspicious death of his wife. Gladys Nina Werner, beautiful and much younger than her husband, was always an unlikely match for the career diplomat and scholar of obscure Chinese dialects. She died of an overdose of Veronal in 1922, though rumours persisted that Werner had administered the drug, or at least wilfully stood by while she did so herself.
Werner’s unpopularity aside, there was little to tie the old man to the murder. Moreover, the nature of the attack, its sheer savagery, made it unlikely that the perpetrator was a septuagenarian ex-diplomat. Another lead arose. A foreigner named Pinfold was arrested with blood on his clothes, and an uncertain alibi for the night of the 7th of January.
On investigation, Pinfold proved to be a fascinating character. Dennis’s sources in the British Legation said that Pinfold, along with an American dentist named Wentworth Prentice and an Irishman, George Gorman, was a member of a secretive nudist colony that operated in the Western Hills outside Beijing. Prentice was said to be the organiser of the colony, and rumour had it that he also threw soirees in the city at which young girls were hired to dance naked for his friends.
When questioned about the nudist colony, Pinfold admitted to working security there on the occasional weekend. He also told the detectives that he hunted with Prentice and Joe Knauf, manager of a club in Beijing’s Badlands, where opium dens and brothels predominated. The hunting, Pinfold said, was the cause of the blood on his clothes. On his arrest, Pinfold had been found to be in possession of a set of keys, these were eventually matched to a property in the British Legation, placing its owner nominally under the protection of British authorities. When Dennis approached the Legation for permission to formally arrest Pinfold, he was refused; Consul Fitzmaurice felt that there was insufficient evidence for a conviction, moreover, he told the detectives, the perpetrator was most likely Chinese. Pinfold walked.
The investigation stalled. When Dennis approached the other men named by Pinfold, they mostly claimed not to know Pamela or had alibis. Prentice, the dentist, was rumoured to have had Pamela as a patient, but told Dennis that he’d never laid eyes upon the girl. George Gorman did know Pamela, it was his family’s house that Pamela had left her bicycle at while she was skating, but she had been seen collecting the bike alive and well, and there was nothing further to tie Gorman to the crime.
Helen Foster Snow approached DCI Dennis two days after the inquest into Pamela’s death returned a verdict of unlawful killing, perpetrators unknown.
Helen was the wife of Edgar Snow, the notorious American journalist who was the first foreigner to interview Mao Zedong, then a Communist guerrilla fighter based in rural Shaanxi province, for his soon to be published book Red Star Over China. Like the Werners, the Snows lived outside of the Legation Quarter, Edgar also having a knack for upsetting the dignitaries and assorted flunkies that made up much of the international population at the time.
Helen told Dennis that Edgar’s writing, both in his upcoming book, and in the radical journal Democracy that the couple founded, had infuriated the Kuomintang regime. The Snows believed themselves to be targets of Chiang Kai-shek’s Blue Shirts, a fascistic paramilitary force that called itself the Spirit Encouragement Society. Worse, Helen said, Edgar had attracted the attention of Tai Li, head of Chiang’s Military Statistical Bureau and the Kuomintang regime’s spymaster general. Tai was known to be behind numerous assassinations of high-ranking Communist sympathisers, and it was he, Helen Snow believed, who was responsible for Pamela’s murder. The Blue Shirts had not intended to kill ETC Werner’s daughter, rather they had mistaken her for Helen Snow. The two women did indeed look alike, they also lived in the same part of Beijing, and Helen, like Pamela, regularly rode her bicycle at night along the old Tartar Wall.
Though Dennis initially found himself somewhat taken in by Helen Snow’s story of intrigue and murder, the manner of Pamela’s death didn’t fit with the style of the Blue Shirts, who favoured quick assassinations, not messy mutilations. Moreover, if Tai Li was behind the killing of Pamela Werner, then the case was as dead as she was. No Beijing police officer was going to arrest or even question a man as powerful as Tai Li. Nor would the British authorities likely pursue the matter themselves, Tai was Chiang Kai-shek’s right hand man, and Chiang was, at least for now, China’s ruler.
DCI Dennis eventually returned to Tianjin, and Colonel Han moved on to other cases. The investigation into Pamela Werner’s murder stalled again, and, in July, ground to an absolute halt, when Beijing fell to the Imperial Japanese army.
ETC Werner, 1924.
While occupied Beijing understandably busied itself with other, more pressing matters, ETC Werner threw himself into an investigation which would consume the rest of his life. The murder of his daughter had broken Werner, and the failure of the police to find the killer, along with the growing apathy of the British establishment in China towards the case, left him despondent and isolated. He became determined to solve Pamela’s murder, and, while he would not be credited with doing so in his lifetime, it appears that he did.
Contrary to Helen Snow’s dramatic tale of violent espionage, the motive for Pamela’s murder was actually quite a simple one, one which has caused the death of countless women then and now. Sex.
DCI Dennis had been lied to. The dentist, Wentworth Prentice, had treated Pamela, straightening her upper left canine in December 1936. Werner’s investigations, on which he spent the majority of his considerable fortune, unearthed more details about Prentice’s nudist colony and his naked parties in the city. A chance encounter with a former classmate of Pamela’s revealed to Werner that the girls at these parties were not always there completely voluntarily. Pamela’s classmate told of being propositioned by Prentice, and said she’d heard of other girls, all foreign, attractive, and young, who’d been invited to parties with Prentice and his friends. At the parties the men, all powerful figures in the foreign community, all much older than the girls who attended the parties, would force themselves upon the girls, raping them. The men would rely on the threat of societal scorn and their own unimpeachable reputations to keep the girls quiet. Who would believe some teenager over professional, upstanding members of the Beijing expat community?
Now with a firm lead to go on, Werner’s investigators tracked down a Chinese rickshaw puller who reported taking a fare on the night of the 7th of January that matched Pamela’s description. The rickshaw puller, roughly the same age as Pamela, was stationed outside a club in Beijing’s Badlands when two men frogmarched a young, blonde woman to the rickshaw, where she didn’t move. The puller noticed that the woman’s skirt and blouse were torn, and that she was unresponsive. When he dropped off the fare by the Tartar Wall, he was threatened with a knife and told in no uncertain terms to leave.
In the months that followed, Werner pulled together more and more strands of evidence that all pointed towards Prentice as, if not the actual murderer, then certainly the man pulling the strings. The old man compiled a huge, detailed file of all his findings, which he dutifully delivered to Consul Archer at the British Legation, expecting the British government to act on his findings. The British establishment in Beijing rebuffed Werner however, Consul Archer refused even to meet with him. Werner took the case over Archer’s head, to the British ambassador to China, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr. But Archer, in a particularly cruel move motivated by spite against Werner, whom he regarded as a nuisance, wrote to Kerr assuring him that Werner’s allegations had been fully investigated by the Beijing police and been found wanting. Eventually Werner wrote to the Foreign Office in London, enclosing a copy of a report of his investigation and its findings. Whitehall was no more responsive to Werner’s quest for justice than its representatives in China however, receipt of his report was acknowledged, but little else. Werner’s investigation, which had taken over eighteen months and cost him a small fortune, was ignored by his country’s government.
In the following year, Werner would unearth yet more evidence that supported his theory that Prentice’s gang had abducted Pamela, attempted to rape her and, when she resisted, killed her. The mutilation was likely done as a means of throwing police of their scent, or as part of an aborted attempt to divide and dispose of the body. Werner wrote again to the Foreign Office, detailing his new filings, including the murder scene and names of all those involved, but, apart from adding a note to her file, Whitehall continued to ignore Pamela Werner’s murder.
ETC Werner remained in Beijing until March 1943, when he and all other Allied nationals were rounded up and sent to Japanese internment camps. Werner spent two years in a camp in Shandong province, until it was liberated by American troops in August of 1945.
Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner died, in Britain, in 1954. He was never able to achieve justice for his daughter.
Author’s note: This article is a hugely abbreviated version of ETC Werner’s tale and the investigation into Pamela Werner’s murder, told with verve and poignancy by Paul French in the excellent Midnight in Peking. I cannot recommend Mr French’s book highly enough, it is an exemplary piece of narrative non-fiction to which all journalists should aspire.
Midnight in Peking Official Website