The Tragedy of Chung Ong

America can boast of a shop atrocity which in its horror and unrestrained savagery would be hard to parallel. The deed was perpetrated in the broad daylight during a busy hour, there were business premises above and on each side, yet the assassin completed his butchery unheard and unsuspected. Robbery there was it is true, but a deeper motive than this lurks behind. The victim was a Chinaman restaurant keeper, and in its principal features the case suggests the craft, the silence, and the lust of blood which belong to the East. It is not to be wondered at that the police could make nothing of it. What adds to the mystery was that the murder of Chung Ong​—​trading under the name of Antonio Soloa​—​was but one of a series of similar crimes, none of which could be traced to its source.

The basement of an old brick building on the south-east corner of Spring and Worcester Streets, New York, was hired in July 1885 by a mild-looking Chinaman, who fitted it up as a restaurant. He probably knew where to look for customers and probably had a good connection among his countrymen. Otherwise it is hard to conceive how he could expect to run a business of the kind he carried on. The approach to this underground shop was poverty-stricken and uninviting. One had to descend a flight of stone steps to get to it and there was nothing about the entrance to invite one to enter. For all that, Chung Ong, known as Antonio Soloa, did a good trade and, thanks to his thriftiness, made money.

Once inside the restaurant you saw before you in its front part four tables, with room for twenty diners. Two canary birds were in brass wire cages hanging from the ceiling. On the walls were several Chinese prints and a photograph of Chung Ong. In the rear were thin partitions enclosing a kitchen and a bedroom.

Chung Ong’s customers were mostly Chinamen who worked in cigar factories in the neighbourhood. Ong had himself been a cigar maker in Cuba ten years before and most of his customers had also been employed in Cuba. There was a good deal of routine attached to the business. The customers breakfasted every morning at the restaurant and did not appear again until the evening. Very little was doing in the middle of the day, and Ong usually closed his place at this time and went out for a walk. He occupied the little bedroom at the back of the restaurant at night. A young, sickly-looking Chinaman was employed as a waiter, but about three weeks before the tragedy we are about to recount he disappeared, and during his absence Ong did everything for himself.

Nothing happened to cause any foreboding; the restaurant was quietly conducted, and when Thomas Daly, a vegetable vendor, descended the stone steps about 2.30 p.m. on November 2nd, he had no suspicion that anything was amiss. He noticed, however, that a pane had been broken in the window of the glass door and that the pieces were scattered on the floor inside. The door was partly open and Daly entered. He shouted, “Do you want any ——” but the word “cabbages” died away on his lips, for glancing towards the door leading to the bedroom, he saw Chung Ong’s body lying in a pool of blood on the floor.

Daly was too frightened to examine further and ran for the police. A posse were soon on the spot and it was discovered that a murder of terrible atrocity had been committed. The man’s head had been crushed as though with heavy weights, there were hideous wounds in the chest, the walls and furniture were spotted with blood.

The bed in the little room was found littered with boxes and various articles. A trunk had been opened and rifled. On some of the things were marks of bloody fingers. The money drawer under the counter in the restaurant had been torn from its supports and was lying empty on the floor. Ong’s pockets had been searched by blood-smeared fingers and his empty wallet lay on a table. Near the door was a wash-basin half full of blood-stained water, and a towel, showing that the murderer had hastily removed the traces of his crime before he left the place.

One need not go into the details of the wounds and mutilations. They were too revolting. It will be enough to say that they exhibited all the ferocity which characterises the Asiatic murderer. The puzzle was how such a deed could have been committed in the middle of the day without attracting attention. The floor above the restaurant was occupied and business premises were on each side. Certainly there was no cry of any kind, indicating that Ong was taken by surprise and struck down without the slightest chance of raising his voice. It is true that Ryder, a plumber who lived next door, heard a smashing of glass and sent his boy to see what was the matter, but nothing came of it. The boy glanced down the stone steps but did no more. Had he descended the staircase he would have seen the broken window in the door, and had curiosity stimulated him to look through the opening the murderer might have been revealed to him. But as it was the miscreant was undisturbed at his work and easily made good his escape.

What was the motive? At first it was assumed that it must have been robbery, but this theory does not entirely meet the case. An ordinary robber does not, after despatching his victim, proceed to stab and hack the body after death. He might have been actuated by spite, but if so, it is fair to assume that he visited Ong on murder intent and armed with some weapon which would serve his purpose speedily. But he appears to have trusted to chance and made use of what he could find in the place. The body wounds were inflicted with the broad-bladed bread knife belonging to the establishment, and the head was battered with heavy weights from the restaurant scales. Nothing had been left behind to give the police the slightest clue.

Naturally, the enquiry was directed towards finding out who had last seen the Chinaman alive. It appears that about noon of the day of the murder he was in his kitchen and bustling about as usual when Julius Dichong, a countryman of his who had known him for ten years, went down to dine. Only one table was then occupied. The diners at it paid their score and went out. A little before one Dichong left. Ong was then standing near the canaries feeding them. About an hour later, before two, John Wauchus, a member of a grocery firm occupying the floor above the restaurant, was going out of his store when he met Ong coming up the steps. Ong had turned the key in the door, and as he returned the grocer’s nod he said: “I’m going over to the Bowery to see someone.” As he spoke he turned in that direction and Wauchus never again saw his Chinese neighbour alive.

Ong, or Soloa, was a quiet, affable sort of a man. He dressed rather well for a Chinaman, discarding all the native gear with the exception perhaps of an alabaster bracelet, and he wore his hair like his neighbours, without a suspicion of its having ever been trussed up in a queue. He appeared to be on the best terms with his customers and was altogether a good-natured, hard-working fellow. The absence of any personal reason why he should have been put out of the world reminded people of two strange outrages of a similar character, and it was surmised that Ong had incurred the anger of some Chinese secret society. It was now remembered that on January 6th, 1883, Loo Sing, a Chinese laundryman, was murdered in his laundry at Clinton Street, New York. Fifteen stab wounds were found in his back and there was abundant proof that his murderer had also robbed the place. The police were not able to fasten the crime upon anyone, although they arrested several Chinamen on suspicion. In December 1884, Hang Chang, a Newark laundryman, was hacked with knives in a frightful manner and hung up by the neck in his laundry by two Chinamen who robbed his till and escaped. Chang was discovered and cut down alive. He also recovered, though he had received wounds enough to kill more than one white man, and he was able to assist the police in tracking the robbers. Sing, one of the ruffians, was arrested, and after confessing his guilt was sent to prison for seven years. It was ascertained that Sing, who had accompanied the Jeannette Expedition to the Polar Seas as cook, belonged to a band of desperate Chinamen. Sing’s companions were believed to have committed the Clinton Street murder, but the police were not able to catch any of them. It was considered probable that one or more of the same ruffians killed Ong in his restaurant.

A story was then put about to the effect that any Chinaman who came to America bound himself to the Chinese Six Companies, first to obey under all circumstances the law of the Imperial Chinese Government, and next, those of the Six Companies. The penalty of disobedience to these laws was the enslavement of his family in China or the forfeiture of his life if he had no family at home. It was further asserted that it was no uncommon thing for a Chinaman to disappear in San Francisco or to be butchered in cold blood, and that the Chinese there in such a case not only made no effort to punish the criminal, but would use all possible efforts to shield the murderers. If the murder of Chung Ong was the result of a sentence of death imposed for disobedience of some of those laws that he had bound himself to obey, then there was little or no chance for the discovery of the murderer. The fact that Chung Ong had discarded his Chinese name and taken a Cuban one, as well as dispensing with the queue and costume, lent probability to the theory. All investigators agreed that the work was that of a Chinaman, and the cold-blooded ferocity indicated by the mutilation of the dead body was thoroughly in keeping with all the previous Chinese murders which the police had had to deal with.

For a fortnight or so the papers contained nothing about the murder. People were, of course, shocked at the horror, but the assassination of an obscure Chinaman, no matter how mysterious and terrible the circumstances, was a different matter from the doing to death of a respectable New York citizen, and public interest soon languished. It was renewed, however, when the New York Herald announced on November 21st that a witness of the murder had been discovered who not only saw the murder but could describe the murderer. This witness was an errand boy in the employ of a nickel plater in business in Worcester Street. Why the boy had not spoken before was easily understood​—​he was too frightened. He now told the police that he had been sent on a message in the afternoon of November 2nd, and on coming back he saw two men quarrelling on the top steps leading to Soloa’s restaurant.

“One was a short, thin man who looked like a Chinaman. The other was a tall, strong Mulatto. They were very angry with each other and their loud voices made me stop. I thought there was going to be a fight so I watched. I saw the tall man suddenly draw a knife and plunge it into the little man’s heart. He had hard work to draw it out. When he did pull the knife out the big man ran down the stairs out of my sight. The little man followed him but he seemed to fall down, for I heard a crash as he disappeared. I was so frightened that I ran to the office and did not tell my master until long after.”

The boy was asked if he could recognise the tall man if he saw him, and he said he could because of a terrible scar in the fellow’s left cheek.

The police decided that the murderer was a cigar worker, and for two weeks the detectives went with the boy from one Cuban cigar shop to another, but without result. Quite by accident it was discovered that there existed in New York an organisation of Cuban insurrectionists, the members of which were nearly all cigar makers. The meetings and doings were kept secret, but in a moment of vanity the members of the club were photographed in a group. One of these photographs fell into the hands of the detectives and it was shown to the boy. The latter looked at it and pointing to one man, exclaimed, “There he is! That’s the man I saw stab Soloa.”

Upon this the detectives showed the picture to hundreds of Cubans, but they shook their heads. But at last one man was found who, in reply to the oft-repeated question, said, “Yes, his name was Rebell.” Soon after Rebell was arrested in a cigar factory.

The police had no doubt they had the right man, for on Rebell’s left cheek was the scar the boy had seen. Rebell, however, denied most strenuously that he had killed Soloa. He knew the Chinaman, he admitted, but he never went to his place. He also asserted that on the day of the murder he was at work at a cigar factory in Brooklyn. Enquiry corroborated this statement in a way. Rebell had made a hundred cigars on the day in question, but the number to be made in a day was two hundred. No one could be found who could say how long Rebell was at work or at what hour he left off.

Rebell was taken into custody and when before the magistrate he broke into a fit of sobbing and protested his innocence. He also declared that the man in the photograph was not he. From time to time the trial was continued but nothing came of it. No witness could be found to say anything against him. On the other hand, a score or more of his fellow workmen made affidavits that he did not leave the shop on the day in question. It was said that there were men who would have come forward to help the prosecution but they were afraid. They were threatened with death if they opened their mouths. The prisoner, who, it was said, had previously made two attempts on the life of Soloa, was consequently acquitted.

Here the story abruptly ends. No theory based on the facts can be advanced with any degree of probability. All that can be said is that in the hands of a writer of powerful imagination a weird plot of Eastern subtlety, craft, and blood-thirsty instincts could be evolved from the facts such as they are, and to these the murder of Chung Ong, alias Antonio Soloa, must be left.