Life & Death in Old Peking; the Murder of Pamela Werner
A Guest Post by G. D. Sheppard
As a police officer, it can be difficult to switch off from work. You can’t stop seeing the world through police eyes. And that was very much the case when I was leant a book to read a few years ago. The subject was the brutal unsolved murder of Pamela Werner, a young British woman in Peking in the winter of 1937.
Pamela had been cycling home in the dark from a skating rink. She never made it home. Her body was found the next morning in a shallow ditch under the shadow of the city-wall. She had been mutilated beyond recognition and, most mysteriously, her heart stolen.
The crime terrified the large community of Western foreigners living in Peking. But the case frustrated the police and remained unsolved. The recent account I read now pointed to the guilt of several local residents – as revealed by the preserved investigative letters of the victim’s elderly father.
But I wasn’t convinced. Not at all. From a policing perspective, the evidence didn’t add up. Something, I realised, was very wrong.
So I visited the UK National Archives in Kew and examined the father’s letters myself – some 150 typed pages addressed to the Foreign Office in the late 1930s. And I found that my instinct had been correct. But in addition to that I saw immediately that there was far more to the case than had been revealed.
I delved further, spending two years studying the evidence provided by documents and archives from across the world – from the USA to Australia, from China to Italy: letters about the murder between diplomats; articles in the local press; military propaganda; secret reports of espionage and political assassination. There was so much more to the crime than had ever been made public. I also found the list of suspects growing: doctors, journalists, diplomats, soldiers. And there throughout, bringing his influence to the case, was the enigmatic and controversial figure of Sir Edmund Backhouse – one of the greatest fraudsters of the 20th century.
Having gathered a wealth of evidence I then felt compelled to write of the affair, explaining not only the facts behind the crime itself, but also the extraordinary lives of those involved, and of a way of life in a China that was soon to disappear with the advent of war and the triumph of Mao’s communism.
Leaving the Metropolitan police after thirty years I was finally free of restraints to twin that professional experience with a fervent interest in modern history: Life and Death in Old Peking; the Murder of Pamela Werner is the result. Eighty years after the murder, the book explores every evidential avenue, examines all the suspects, and brings the reader to the door of the guilty. Peking in 1937 was a fascinating time and place, one worth the study, and it provides a tale very much worth the telling.
Title: Life & Death in Old Peking; the Murder of Pamela Werner
Author: G D Sheppard
Genre: History, True-Crime, Espionage, World War 2
The brutal murder of Pamela Werner in 1937 in pre-communist Peking horrified the foreigners living within the ancient walled capital. The appalling injuries the young British woman suffered were as barbaric as they were mysterious. Months later, China was engulfed by war with Japan, and the macabre crime remained unsolved with the murderer still at large.
Life & Death in Old Peking investigates this cold case, using primary source material hitherto unexamined.
Latterly, there has been a rekindling of interest in the death of this unfortunate woman with the account of her murder being derived solely from archived letters of her idiosyncratic father, E.T.C. Werner, a renowned sinologist and long-time member of the China consular service.
In contrast, Life & Death in Old Peking dissects the crime, utilising a broader range of historical sources. The context of her death and its investigation are examined. Men, whose lives intersected with that of Pamela’s, and who thus have been previously named as suspects, accessories, or indeed, murderers, are scrutinized, with their characters and motivations put under the spotlight. Allegations of a political motive to her death are revisited using the newly discovered secret correspondence between the enigmatic Sir Edmund Backhouse and the British Embassy.
In this manner Life & Death in Old Peking touches on many extraordinary lives led by foreigners in a China long since vanished.
Who killed Pamela Werner? Why was the answer to this mystery out of reach for so long? Is it possible that the solution has been overlooked?
Yes. Until now.
Chapter one – The Discovery; body found beside the city wall
The Times newspaper of Saturday 9 January 1937 carried a sensational headline:
British girl’s death in Peking; Murder Suspected
The British authorities and the Chinese police are investigating the mysterious death last night of Pamela Werner, a 17-year-old British girl, the daughter of Mr. Chalmers Werner, the author and former British Consul at Foochow. She disappeared yesterday evening after skating at the French club rink.
The body was found this morning inside the city wall and 250 yards from the girl’s home, at one of the loneliest spots in the city. It had been so badly mauled by stray dogs as to be unrecognizable and to make it difficult, except after a careful medical examination, to hazard a guess how she met her death, but in view of the lack of evidence that an accident had happened murder must be suspected.
The Times had been quick off the mark. It was impressive. The famous Fleet Street newspaper had a local correspondent and teleprinters, but Peking was a long way from London and the victim’s body had only been discovered some 18 hours or so before going to press. The article did contain a few errors – Pamela Werner was nearly twenty, not seventeen, and her father’s name was Edward rather than Chalmers Werner, but it was a timely piece of journalism arriving on the breakfast tables of its British readership, distracting them from the miserably wet winter they were enduring that year.
Despite the intense media interest, the story may have escaped the notice of the British Foreign Office in Whitehall as the following months proved to be a turbulent time for international relations. After years of military skirmishing and political feuding, 1937 saw the commencement of the long anticipated war between China and Japan, a conflict that eventually resulted in the death of over twenty million people. Closer to home, at least from a British point of view, was the Spanish Civil War, already in its second year: another conflict costing close to half a million lives. And as if to signal future intent, the expanding armed forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy both sent military aid to the Spanish Nationalists. For much of the world, war, or the threat of war, loomed large.
By the following summer the murder, still very much the talk of Peking, appears to have slipped beneath the Foreign Office radar entirely.
Question time in the House of Commons, Westminster, 16 June 1937 found Anthony Eden, later prime minister, but at that time Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Neville Chamberlain’s government, fielding questions from members of parliament. Most posed that Wednesday afternoon concerned the pressing and thorny subject of the civil war in Spain but one question was related to more distant international troubles. Harry Day, the Labour MP for Southwark Central, rose from the green bench to ask Eden about the instability in China, and: to what extent the lives and property of British subjects had been adversely affected during the previous twelve months? And what steps had been made to safeguard them?
Ministers were given notice of tabled questions, giving their support staff time to gather facts and prepare meaningful answers. Rising to reply, Eden stated, reassuringly, that no British subjects had been kidnapped or murdered, and that all possible efforts were being made to safeguard their lives and property. And with that, Eden and the House moved swiftly on to the subject of the war in Spain.
Many MPs were well known for asking ministerial questions as doing so kept their names in the newspapers. Harry Day was one of them. When his turn to present a question was called by the Speaker it was often met with an amused chant from the House of Another Day, Another Day. 3 Coming as it did a few weeks before the event that triggered full Sino-Japanese conflict, Day’s China question appears to have received only limited press attention.
But a month or so later Eden had to apologise. He had got his facts wrong. Unwittingly, he had misled the House. For Harry Day had since received a strongly worded letter from a stranger living in Peking, the retired British consul, E.T.C. Werner, whose daughter had been murdered in that city on 7th January. The father, it transpired, had read of Day’s question and Eden’s reply stating there having been no murders in a British newspaper in China and was outraged.
In Peking, however, Pamela’s murder was front page news.
The Peking Chronicle – Saturday 9 January 1937:
Dead Body of Young Foreign Woman Found in Gully along City Wall
Victim believed to be Pamela Werner, daughter of Mr. E.T.C. Werner; Post-mortem Examination Made; Inquest This Morning.
So ran the headline story of Peking’s English language newspaper the morning after crime’s discovery. Accompanying the report was a grainy photograph showing where the body was found in a ditch at a remote and desolate spot directly under one of Peking’s immense city walls. The foreign community was appalled by the news that one of their own had been murdered. Separate and detached from much of Chinese society, as most of them were, foreigners were rarely touched by serious crime. Few could have imagined how many of their number; diplomats; doctors; journalists; soldiers, would sooner or later be implicated as murderers or conspirators in the crime. As details of rape and mutilation were leaked to the press, shock changed to horror. There was a clamour for more information. The local papers obliged.
Born and raised in London, G D Sheppard is a retired police officer with thirty years’ service with the Metropolitan Police and in the Northeast of England. With commendations for crime detection, his policing experience includes working areas as wide-ranging as London’s West End to former coal-mining towns, from rural villages to inner-city housing estates.
His enthusiasm for history and sharp eye for telling evidence has resulted in articles in History Today. Other interests include paleoanthropology, physical fitness, and playing the classical guitar. He now lives and writes in Surrey, UK.
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