Murder in Peking8 min read

Graeme Sheppard reopens an old investigation


The Times of London published this short but sensational news item on Saturday, January 9, 1937, under the title ‘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 unrecognisable 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 was impressively quick off the mark with its report from its own correspondent in Peking, but the article contained two errors. Pamela Werner was nearly twenty, not seventeen, and her father’s name was Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner. 

It was a sensational international story with a strong British angle, and newspapers and news agencies for a short time covered the story on an almost daily basis. But in Peking (then officially called Peiping), Pamela’s murder was front page news for much longer, and at much greater length. On the morning after the crime’s discovery, the city’s only English-language newspaper, The Peiping Chronicle ran the following headline and strapline above its story:

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.

Accompanying the report was a grainy photograph showing where the body was found in a ditch at a desolate spot directly under one of Peking’s immense city walls.

The foreign community was appalled by the news that one of its own had been murdered. Detached from Chinese society as most of them were, foreigners in Peking were rarely touched by serious crime. As details of rape and mutilation were leaked to the press, shock changed to horror. Few on that day could have imagined how many of their number – diplomats, doctors, journalists, soldiers – would sooner or later be implicated as either murderer or conspirator in the crime. Dogs, motor cars, houses and rickshaws – rumors were indeed plentiful. The difficulty, then as now, was how to sift substance from speculation. 

George Gorman, Liverpool-born and Irish by descent, was editor of the English-language cultural magazine Caravan, and well-placed to offer the Peking community a unique perspective. He knew the Werners personally and, indeed, Caravan had included a profile of E.T.C. Werner just the previous month. Pamela had, in fact, visited the Gormans the day before she died. Gorman used this closeness to full advantage and published an exhaustive report in the February edition, the text of which is reproduced in part below. It provides a valuable insight into the crime from a contemporary source:

The Pamela Werner Case 
Peking Wall Mystery Baffles Foreign and Chinese Detectives
Slim, fair-haired, grey-eyed, gentle English schoolgirl, Pamela Werner, was murdered in Peking on January 7th under horrifying circumstances. As the magazine goes to press three weeks later the crime is no nearer solution than it was when the corpse was discovered in the shadow of the Tartar Wall, although every resource and ingenuity of Chinese and British detectives, together with the wholehearted cooperation of the native and foreign community has been employed in a determined effort to solve the mystery and apprehend the slayer.
When the authorities examined closer they discovered the terrible nature of the injuries. Her face was almost unrecognisable. Most of the surface flesh had been scraped, gnawed or cut away. Some heavy cleaver, knife or axe had been used in a terrible orgy of mutilation. There were deep cuts or slashes in the upper part of the cadaver. The lower trunk had been cut open. Her heart was missing. Several bones had been smashed through. Her head had been terribly bashed and it is believed she may have been knocked unconscious or killed outright before she was otherwise attacked.
Considering the facts as they are known here are the principal theories reached:
1. Pamela was waylaid by some person made desperate by poverty who killed the girl to quieten her.
2. Attacked by a sadist.
3. Slain and mutilated in revenge.
4. Followed along the route from the skating rink and attacked by more than one person.
5. Trapped by an insane person.
6. Invited by someone she knew to visit a house where the deed was done.

Gorman knew his readers extremely well. His article and writing style would have enthralled the large number of China’s foreign community who had suddenly become avid armchair detectives. Gorman’s comprehensive summary of the murder is important because it appeared so soon after the crime and was written by someone so close to the people and events.

In his article Gorman also reported, wrongly, that Pamela had attended Tientsin Grammar School for only two years: she had, in fact, been a pupil there for at least the previous four, during which time she boarded with several missionary families, the last being the Mackenzies, a Canadian family.

“Well behaved and charming” was how Mr. and Mrs. Mackenzie described Pamela. Indeed, the whole Mackenzie family was fond of her, and also somewhat sorry for her. The children sensed that until coming to live with them, she had led a lonely existence and was somehow bravely coping with an inner sadness. They also had the impression that, although too polite to say, she did not get on well with her adoptive father, who they understood to be difficult. Pamela’s adoptive mother died when she was a small child, and E.T.C. Werner was her only remaining family.

Pamela appears never to have travelled outside China. Her adoption by the Werners from an orphanage as an infant might have been an informal one as there is no record or mention of how it came about. Details of her birth are also unknown, although it was probably local to Peking. Her real parents may have been poor White Russian exiles and she may have been illegitimate. If so, this last would have been an additional cause for silence on the subject. Pamela’s given middle names were Greenhalgh Chalmers, after an uncle of her adoptive father.

Life was very different for Pamela with the affable Mackenzies in Tientsin. The eldest daughter Florence had married the Scottish athlete Eric Liddell, who won gold in the 400-metre race at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Liddell then became a missionary, working in China, and was for many an inspiring character. Living with the Mackenzies, Pamela would have known both the Liddells well. And in Tientsin, Pamela, unsurprisingly, also had boyfriends, often a key subject in this kind of murder.

The value of Gorman’s lengthy Caravan piece is increased all the more by the absence of surviving police records, either British or Chinese. No exhibits or photographs appear to have survived. Also missing are the case records of the British coroner’s court held in Peking. All were possibly lost or destroyed during World War II, or later weeded by government clerks in accordance with a Whitehall policy of reducing old paperwork (only a minority of Foreign Office documents are preserved in the UK National Archives).

The Caravan’s version of events is corroborated by the Peiping Chronicle which published daily updates on the actions of the police and the coroner’s court. The newspaper confirms that Pamela’s body was found on the morning of Friday, January 8, with the British Consul for Peking, Nicholas Fitzmaurice, opening an inquest into the death the following day.

During the brief initial hearing on Saturday afternoon, the only witness to give evidence was the victim’s father. Werner could only provide a partial identification, by recognising the victim’s torn skirt, her wristwatch and an artificial flower she wore. No medical evidence was given.

On February 1, Consul Fitzmaurice resumed the inquest to receive medical evidence from the autopsy. Initially, at least, this was held in camera, probably owing to the gruesome nature of the injuries, but this stipulation appears to have been soon dropped as the Peiping Chronicle reported the evidence in some detail on February 6.

Although failing to state which organs were missing entirely, this newspaper account of the autopsy allows a number of reasonable conclusions to be drawn: While still alive, Pamela was struck a number of times about the head with a blunt instrument; at least one of the blows proved rapidly fatal; there were other minor wounds suggesting a struggle; sexual intercourse had occurred either before or after death; two or more instruments had been used in mutilating the body; the perpetrator possessed some knowledge of anatomy; the mutilations could have occurred at the scene; the times of the death and mutilation were unclear; the motive for the mutilation was unclear.

The challenge for the police was now to translate these facts into a culprit. ∎

Excerpted from A Death in Peking by Graeme Sheppard (Earnshaw Books, November 2018), used with permission.