The honeymoon murder in the quietest of Lake District villages

The farmer Thomas Wilson was walking to the local pub in Grange, Borrowdale, on the night of June 18, 1928.

He passed a woman lying on the bank of the River Derwent, near the Cummacutta Wood, at around 7.30pm. She was partially hidden under an umbrella and Thomas thought she was enjoying the unnaturally sunny Cumbria weather.

Later, a police officer asked Thomas to lead him to where the woman had been laying.

It transpired that she had not been resting in the sunshine, she was in fact dead.

A thin white chord was about her neck, her skirts were ripped and the umbrella shading her body had been used to hide her.

Police immediately launched an investigation which took them on a short but bloody trail to the nearby Borrowdale Gates hotel where a Chinese American law student, called Miao Chung-yi, was enjoying his honeymoon.

The case would take the police down several routes, even bringing up theories of secret Chinese societies, eastern gang wars and avaricious plans for revenge.

An alien in New York

The Chinese began migrating into America during the early 19th century when Sino-US marine trade picked up pace across the Pacific Ocean.

The first Chinese people to settle in America were former sailors, merchants and traders in 1815. Their number continued to rise, with the first Chinese woman, Afong Moy, settling in New York City in 1834 .

But it was the 1849 California gold rush, a fever which flowed as freely as water through the wild west, that attracted a larger, more substantial wave of Chinese immigrants.

Chinese labourers popped up across the west, used by giant US corporations to build their transcontinental railways. The Chinese faced as much, if not more, racial discrimination and racism than other ethnic groups as they began to arrive. White workers were angered that, in their mind, Chinese labourers were undercutting them.

A scene from New York’s China Town in 1910.

Other Chinese migrants mirrored many hopeful Americans during the gold rush by grabbing a shovel and heading west, hoping to find their fortune in sifting for a few nuggets of gold.

China Towns began to appear across the major American cities, the biggest being in San Francisco, as the population of Asian Americans began to swell.

But, as levels of easily accessible gold began to dry up across the west, the animosity towards Chinese migrants grew.

Organised labour groups and miners demanded that California’s gold was only for Americans, and began to physically threaten foreign miners or gold diggers.

It was this animosity and threat which forced the Chinese populous into the inner cities, pushing them into low end jobs with many involving themselves in restaurant or laundry work.

China Town, Lower Manhattan, New York in 1930.

The American Civil War brought with it a vast down turn in the American economy during the 1870s. Cotton exports had been slashed in the south after the free slave labour force was wiped out while the country tried to recover from the loss of life, vast destruction and cost of the conflict.

With the downturn in US economic fortunes, levels of austerity, racism, and anti Chinese feeling, intensified. Political anti Chinese movements even sprung up across America, with the anti Chinese labour leader Denis Kearney, leading his Workingman’s Party during the later half of the 19th century.

He blamed depressed wage levels on cheap Chinese labour, saying it had caused a slump in pay for European Americans, leading to job losses.  In 1882 political pressure lead to the Chinese Exclusion Act in America, outlawing Chinese immigration to the states and denying Chinese nationals already in the USA any means to obtain citizenship. It was an act that was renewed in 1892 and later made permenant.

In 1900, amongst the febrile environment of a country with elements eager to portray the Chinese as a menace to society, a boy called Miao Chung-yi was born in east China. He would later call America his home.

A dance of dragons

We know very little about Miao and his early life.

He was born in Chekiang, in the Chinese province of Chaing Kai-shek, in 1900. Miao would later make claims about his family during his murder trial in England, namely that he had a mother and sister living in Shanghai and that his father was a member of the Chinese Legislative Council.

Miao studied Law in his native country before leaving for Loyola University in Chicago to continue his forays into law by studying a docterate.

Miao was extraordinary in this, able to bypass the aggressive American laws that would seek to keep him out of the country for good. He was the first Asian man to gain a law degree from Loyola Univeristy. In fact, in 2018, the university released an article about Asian students in law, mentioning Miao as paving the way for other migrant students in the field. They fail to mention that, later in life, he was hanged for wilful murder in England.

Miao later moved to New York, presumably living in the burgeoning China town area in Lower Manhattan.

In 1927 the newly qualified Miao attended a Dragon Dance on October 10.

Miao Chung-yi was the first Asian man to get a law degree at Loyola University in Chicago.

The Dragon Dance is part of the traditional Chinese celebrations for new year and feature vast street parades with dancing, fireworks and revelery. The streets of Lower Manhattan would have been alive with Miao’s countrymen, celebrating the passing of 1927 as the year of the rabbit and the coming of 1928, the year of the dragon.

Among the crowded streets and party goers, Miao met a beautiful 29-year-old woman called Siu Wai Sheung.

Wai Sheung was an enigma by the standards of early 20th century China. Young, powerful and unbelievably rich while remaining single, she was in New York that October to negotiate the sale of several rare artefacts.

We know a lot more about Wai Sheung then Miao. She was born in 1899 to the wealthy Macau merchant Sui Ying-chau who had vast business interests in Hong Kong. Her mother was Ying-chau’s primary wife as he had many concubines who he regularly slept with, making her one of his many offspring.

By all accounts Wai Sheung was a clever and resourceful girl. Her mother died in 1910 when Wai Sheung was only 11 years old but that didn’t prevent her from helping run her father’s household.

She was educated at St Stephen’s Girl’s college in Hong Kong, the island’s most prestigious educational institute, later responsible for educating major female political figures in the region including Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, the president of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong between 1997 and 2008.

She left Hong Kong in 1917 for Emerson College in Boston, America. Whether Wai Sheung’s wealth or her intelligence allowed her to bypass the animosity towards her people, we don’t know, but she graduated from the college in 1922 before retuning to Hong Kong.

A Chinese Dragon Dance in Seattle in 1909, the Chinese built new lives and communities in the USA.

She then spent a period of time helping her father, who exhibited rare artifacts and items, even travelling to London with him to act as a curator for a display of Chinese artifacts in the capital. She was known to be a pretty and confident girl who enjoyed her stay in London, frequenting night clubs and dancing halls. 

Two years later, Wai Sheung’s father died. She had been named sole executor of the will and was left more than a million US dollars (about $15m today or £12m). It was a more than rare occurrence for a woman to inherit such a sum in the 1920s, especially in China where women had very restricted testamentary rights.

Wai Sheung had beaten her younger brother and several half siblings to the her father’s riches and she went on to open a shop selling artefacts from her late father’s collection. In 1927 she left for New York, bringing many of her father’s items with her to sell to rich prospectors in the USA where she would later meet Miao at the fated 1928 Dragon Dance.

According to those who knew her, Wai Sheung was beautiful, short, at only five feet, but kind, intelligent and altruistic, throwing herself into charity work.

She fell in love with Miao, a tall, slim man who towered over her. He was not unintelligent, judging by his law degree, but not much else is known about him, only that he spoke in confident, but broken, English and would later possess a ruthless, evil streak that no one could have expected.

A blood honeymoon

Young, rich and in love, the couple married on May 12, 1928, just eight months after they first met. It was considered a modern and western phenomenon to be Christian in the newly burgeoning Chinese society and the couple were joined by the eyes of god at an American Episcopal church.

They honeymooned in Buffalo Chicago before deciding that a two month stint across Europe would be a more suitable way to celebrate their nuptials.

In June, they left for Edinburgh where they spent two days before dropping down into the Lake District. The rolling moors, peaks, craggy mountains and hills of Cumbria must have felt like a different world to the couple who had only ever lived in an American urban environment or Chinese countryside.

They arrived at the Borrowdale Gates hotel in Grange on June 17. The hotel, which still stands to this day, provides views over the blasted landscape of the Cumbrian countryside including Derwent Water and Grange Fell.

Grange Fell in Barrowdale.

After spending a night at the hotel, the couple enjoyed a walk around the beautiful village of Grange, returning to the Borrowdale Gates for lunch before leaving for a second walk at 2pm.

Two hours later, Miao returned to the hotel alone.

Miao told the hotel staff that his wife had travelled to Keswick, about four miles away, to buy warmer underwear. The Chinese couple were not used to the chilly climates of the area and the staff thought little of it, until Wai Sheung failed to return.

Various other explanations were offered up by Miao as his wife remained noticeably absent and the Chinese law student dined at the hotel alone that night, before returning to his room, claiming that he had a cold and had been told by his wife to rest. He still seemed unconcerned by his wife’s disappearance.

The hotelier, Miss Crossley, told Miao that a bus was due from Keswick at 9pm and asked if he wanted her to meet his wife off the bus, seeing as he had a cold. Miao told Miss Crossley that his wife had an aversion to buses and would be arriving by hired car.

At 10.30pm he went to bed. His wife had not returned and, despite asking a hotel maid whether he should contact the authorities about his wife’s absence, Miao did not once alert the police.

Unbeknown to him the body of his wife had already had been found by police several hours earlier.

The Barrowdale Gates hotel where the couple stayed.

A farmer called Thomas Wilson spotted a woman laying on her back along the bank of the Derwent River near the Cummacutta Wood at around 7.30pm.

She was partially hidden under an umbrella with her legs spread eagled. The farmer, perhaps keen to enjoy a tipple at the local free house, thought she was just enjoying the good weather or was perhaps asleep and decided not to bother the woman.

Later, while at the pub, he recounted seeing the woman which peaked the interest of Detective Constable William Pendlebury, an off duty police officer from Southport, who was holidaying in the Lake District.

DC Pendlebury followed Thomas to the site overlooking Derwent Water. Removing the umbrella, they found that the woman was dead.

A thin, white blind chord had been knotted about her neck four times. The Illustrated Police news claimed it was so tight that the chord cut into the skin and Wai Sheung’s face as bloated and distorted. It appeared as though there had been an unpleasant struggle, her skirts were hitched up above her thighs, while her underwear had been torn.

Several rings, a jewelled ankle bracelet, as well as a bag, were all missing from the body.

‘Consider on arrival in Europe’: Arrest, trial, execution

It was clear from the beginning that the hitched up skirt and torn underwear of Wai Sheung were intended to throw the police. There was no medical, or real physical, evidence that the Chinese woman had been raped or sexually assaulted before she was strangled and this was only enforced when police made their way to the Bowland Gates to inform Miao of his wife’s untimely demise.

At 11pm the police entered the Grange hotel with, local police officer, Inspector Graham, at their head.

Miao was woken up and told the grim news.

His first reaction was strange, unexpected and gave away his guilt almost immediatly. “Had she knickers on?” were the first words that came out of his mouth before he went on to say: “It is terrible. My wife assaulted, robbed and murdered” even though the police had failed to mention robbery or sexual assault.

Police searched the hotel, finding some identical white cord from the hotel window blinds and blood stains on Miao’s coat. Wai Sheung had been bleeding from the mouth. Two rolls of film were found in his room and police took these to a local photographer’s shop to have them developed. Inside one were the two missing rings.

Officers also found keys to Wai Sheung’s jewel case rolled up in Miao’s dress shirt. The jewel’s were worth some £3,000 (almost £190,000 today) and the police decided they had found enough circumstantial evidence to charge Miao.

He was taken to Keswick police station and formally charged with wilful murder. In response to the charge, according to the Newcastle Journal, Miao said, simply, “no” before asking court officials if he could have two solicitors.

A picture featured in the Illustrated Police News, depicting the Chinese couple in Grange, the discovery of Wia Sheung’s body and Miao’s arrest.

He was held at Keswick where, according to an edition of the Leeds Mercury, Miao asked for a Chinese translator, a lawyer and for his and Wai Sheung’s families to be present at the upcoming trial. His wife had a brother in Portugal and her grandparents were still in Hong Kong.

At some point Miao did away with the idea of having his own lawyer. With his grasp on English and his law degree, he had possessed a modicum of arrogance that made him believe he would be adept at defending himself at the trial.

The trial was held at Carlisle before Mr. Justice Humphreys on October 22 and 23, 1928.

In his defence, Miao claimed that two Oriental men had been following him and his wife since they had arrived in the Lake District. Although there were witnesses who had seen two Chinese men in Keswick at the time the jury did not believe that this was anything more than a coincidence.

The evidence against Miao was massive, the rings, the keys, the blood on his coat, the blind chord, what he had said when police had entered his room but there was one killer piece of evidence that put the final nail in his coffin.

Miao and his wife had stayed at a hotel in Edinburgh before coming to Cumbria. A chambermaid had found three slips of paper left in the room, one covered in Chinese script. The maid had kept the slips and they were later translated and used as evidence in the trial.

The news appears in the Liverpool Echo.

The script read: “Be sure to do it on the ship.

“Don’t do it on the ship.

“Again, consider on arrival in Europe.”

The judge told the jury to disregard the slips but they must have had a great impact on everyone present. The paper surely proved that a possible crime of passion had become decidedly premeditated.

It took the jury just one hour to convict Miao and he was sentenced to death.

The law student represented himself again at his appeal in November before the Lord Chief Justice Baron Hewart.

The Chief Justice said: “It is impossible to say that there is not ample evidence to find that this appellant committed this crime.

“Miao is guilty of a diabolical, calculated crime. This appeal is dismissed.”

Miao replied to the judge, continuing to protest his innocence. He said: “If this is my last moment, I did not kill my wife.”

Before he was led away he was heard calling: “I am innocent.”

On Thursday, December, 6, 1928, the Chinese American lawyer was executed by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Henry Pollard, at Strangeways Prison in Manchester.

Motives: Sex, money or a secret Chinese society?

So, why did the young Miao, recently married to a rich woman, and with a sure fire path back to his native China, and away from the racism in America, murder his wife?

There are three possible motives.

Either Miao was keen to get his hands on his wife’s vast fortune, to have it for himself, and, being a law student, he would have been able to fashion the appropriate paperwork to get what he wanted once his wife had died.

Grim rumours behind the motivation for the killing were circulated in the British press.

But there is another, stranger, and cynical suggestion that holds some weight.

Wai Sheung had serious gynaecological problems, in fact she had required surgery in the US before her and Miao could consummate their marriage. There were reports that intercourse between the two was problematic to say the least and rumours abound that Wai Sheung couldn’t conceive.

But a startling, and rather out of the blue theory about the murder, and its motives, emerged after Miao was hanged.

Several British newspapers began circulating articles about secret Chinese societies and gangs which had ordered Miao to kill his wife as part of a ritualistic murder, that Miao had been hired by Chinese mafia groups to assassinate Wai Sheung as a form of revenge. 

The Liverpool Echo suggested that Miao had been part of a society which had been involved in a ‘Tong’ turf war between rival gangs in the east.

Wai Sheung’s family had supposedly been engaged in a long standing bitter feud with Miao’s gang and he had been ordered to kill her.

The two Chinese men Miao had tried to blame the murder on in his trial were believed to be the emissaries from his gang, ensuring he carried out his orders.

It was a wild theory, and never fully proven.

Whatever the reason for the murder, a mere eight months after marrying, a bright, young woman was dead and so was her killer.

Lancs Live – Cumbria