A Death in Peking investigates the cold case of the brutal murder of Pamela Werner in 1937 using primary source material un-examined.
Born and raised in London, Graeme 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 a 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 Hampshire, UK.
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Interview by Matteo Damiani
China-underground: Who was Pamela Werner?
Graeme Sheppard: Pamela was the nineteen-year-old adoptive daughter of the retired British consul, E.T.C. Werner.
She was found murdered one freezing morning in January 1937 in a ditch under Peking’s old city-wall, only a few hundred yards from her home.
The previous evening she had gone skating with friends at an ice rink in the nearby Legation Quarter. From this safe and gated area, she had set-off alone into the dark on her bicycle. She was not seen alive again.
Not only had she been raped and her body mutilated beyond recognition, but, most mysteriously, her heart had been stolen. It had been cut from her chest.
In a joint effort, the British and Chinese police spent months investigating the crime. But without a result.
The case remained unsolved.
After which her father began his own lengthy enquiry, resulting in him openly accusing several of Peking’s foreign residents of the crime.
How did you discover the story of Pamela Werner?
Like most police officers I generally don’t read about crime in my spare time (the job exposes you to more than enough of it).
But my wife’s grandfather was a consul in Peking at the time of the murder and then coroner in the case, so at her request, I reluctantly agreed to read Midnight in Peking, a 2011 account of the crime.
Prior to that, I had not heard of the case. Though the book was a good read, I wasn’t convinced by its conclusions.
I could not conceive how the elderly victim’s father had succeeded incorrectly identifying killers still living openly in Peking, while the British and Chinese police had failed.
Something, I realized, was very wrong. It roused my curiosity.
Was it difficult to find the research material? Where did you start from?
I began by looking up Midnight in Peking’s principal source: ETC Werner’s many letters to the Foreign Office, now stored in the UK National Archives in London.
It became immediately apparent that the letters were written by a man possessing a very peculiar mind.
ETC Werner was in no way objective. He also had a long history of making unfounded allegations and problems with the truth.
Instead of seeing where the evidence led, he decided first upon the guilt of an American dentist, a former US Marine, and an Italian embassy doctor – i.e. men fitting his preconceived ideas.
He then paid Chinese agents to find evidence that supported his assumptions. Unsurprisingly, he found witnesses willing to provide or alter testimony to whatever was required.
It was an elementary mistake.
Werner also made many wild allegations: that up to ten people were involved in the crime, including three doctors; that a hospital ambulance could have been used to move the body from place to place; that the senior Chinese police officer was a sexual deviant and in league with the murderers.
“Maniacally quarrelsome”, “morbidly suspicious” and “completely mad” was how Werner was described by those who knew him well.
None of this appeared in Midnight in Peking.
By this point, I was hooked on the case. What, I wondered, really happened back in 1937? Where did the police investigation take them? What could still be discovered today?
So I looked further – a great deal further.
A search of the UK National Archives alone uncovered two previously unrevealed murder theories in the Werner case.
One involved a senior diplomat at the British Embassy. The source of the other – involving the Japanese and political assassination – was no less than Sir Edmund Backhouse (the subject of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s biography Hermit of Peking), probably the most controversial and mysterious characters in China during the period.
My approach to the case was as though conducting a police investigation; searching for evidence far and wide.
Perseverance was the key; leave no stone unturned. Peking’s international community created an international trail of documents from as far as the USA to Australia, from China to Italy, from Canada to Singapore: letters about the murder between diplomats; notes and memoirs; newspaper articles; military personnel records; church missionary documents; secret reports of espionage.
I even managed to find and speak with people Pamela had lived with just prior to her death – children she had shared a home with eighty years before. There was so much more to the crime that had ever been made public.
Why was she brutally murdered?
My list of suspects grew to at least nine.
A Death in Peking examines the case against each one. Some are easily dismissed, others less so.
But only one stands out as the likely offender.
It was an odd combination of the contributions of Backhouse and British Chief Inspector Richard Dennis that pointed the way for me; Pamela’s murderer was no stranger to her, but a young Chinese friend, one who formed part of her adolescent past.
The crime was driven by a combination of frustrated sexual desire and years of resentment.
The book also describes how the removal of the victim’s heart is explained by Chinese cultural practices of longstanding. E.T.C. Werner’s murder theories were very wide of the mark.
What was the social environment in which Pamela Werner was moving? What was the cultural atmosphere of the foreigners’ community in Beijing?
Pamela’s Peking was a very different place to the Beijing of today.
Imperial China vanished in 1912. Communist rule was yet to come.
It was period now almost unimaginable: a weak Chinese state, racked by civil wars, labouring under a form of semi-colonial rule, with large sections of its major ports and cities given over to foreign control; thousands of foreign residents; patrols by foreign armies; and the humiliation of extraterritoriality (whereby foreigners were not subject to Chinese law).
Peking’s Legation Quarter was a town in itself, a square mile of western-style hotels, shops, cinemas, gardens, and clubs, where ordinary Chinese were excluded.
International trade or the missionary calling dominated the lives of most foreigners in China.
But not so in Peking, which tended to be populated by 1) diplomats and 2) wealthy western expats enjoying the old capital’s cultural delights and the many servants their money afforded.
A party atmosphere prevailed.
For generations of foreigners, it was a life of separation and privilege, one many thought would never end.
What was the fate of family members and possible suspects?
After the murder, nearly all of the suspects remained living and working in Peking as they had done before – that was, until war and international events overtook their lives.
The fact that they did so is one of the factors that indicate their non-involvement.
Only one disappeared immediately after the crime, never to be located: Pamela’s former school friend.
The book takes place during the tumultuous years of the Sino-Japanese war. How do national events reflect on the fate of individuals?
The China of foreign enclaves disappeared in the decade following Pamela’s murder.
And with it the lives and spaces occupied by the main characters.
There were several factors: the Sino-Japanese War that began in the summer of 1937; the Pacific War starting 1941; and finally the triumph of communism.
Everyone connected with the case had their world turned upside down.
A Death in Peking describes their fate. Two were to die soon: one at sea, the other in the same elusive manner in he lived. E.T.C. Werner found himself interned by the Japanese in the same tiny camp as his two American suspects, which must have added to everyone’s misery.
With Italy, an ally of Japan, Ugo Cappuzzo got to remain at his embassy post – at least for the short term. 1945 saw a false dawn, with a few souls making a return to Peking. But it did not last long.
By the early 1950s, even the cemetery where had Pamela had been buried was swept aside. The graves were disinterred, the bones bagged, and then reburied anonymously and without ceremony somewhere outside the city.
Have there been any episodes or characters that have impressed you the most?
The bizarre Sir Edmund Backhouse, with his fabulous tales, is a star character beyond compare, but, for me, I think perhaps the most interesting of the book’s international cast is the Italian Ugo Cappuzzo.
Cappuzzo, one of Werner’s suspects, who first arrived in China in the early 1930s as a newly qualified doctor from Legnaro.
Installed as the Peking Embassy doctor (with the influence of Galeazzo Ciano), he stayed for twenty years.
Not only was he a very capable surgeon, operating on improvised tables in poor Chinese villages, but he also excelled at microbiology, volunteering to lead a dangerous project to create a typhus vaccine.
It was a brave work. He then made the mistake of remaining in China after 1949; he was arrested for being a “spy” and endured several years in a communist gaol, only being released on a prisoner exchange.
Another fascinating character was that of Pinfold, a mysterious British national arrested and released early on in the police investigation.
I took great satisfaction in finally identifying the origins and history of this most solitary and elusive of individuals.