The Strange Case of Marie Chin Wore

A young girl was found wandering in the vicinity of New York City’s Bowery neighborhood on a cold day in February 1920. She was taken to a Christian missionary society, where she told authorities a disturbing story about having been forced to become the “child wife” of a much older man.

Mary Banta, the missionary who took care of the girl, told the press she was born “Frances Michaelson” to Morris and Sadie Michaelson in New York City. According to Banta, the baby was placed in a foundling home in 1908, nine days after she was born. Banta also claimed that a white woman named Marie Chin Wore became the girl’s foster mother 1916. She legally adopted the girl in 1919, changing her name to “Anna Chin Wore.”

Marie arranged for Anna to marry a much older widower, David Lee Nong. A San Francisco-born man of Chinese ancestry, David lived in Binghamton, New York, where he ran a Chinese restaurant. Marie and David got a license for the marriage to Anna on November 20, 1919. When they tried to get a judge to perform the ceremony, he refused because he thought Anna looked too young. So they went to a local Baptist minister who agreed to perform the marriage after Marie lied to him, telling him the marriage was out of necessity because Anna was pregnant.

This is how Anna was described on the marriage license:

Name: Gootsin Anna Chin Wore

Ethnicity: White + Chinese

Age: 15 years and 8 months

Birthplace: New York City.

Marriage photo of Anna and David Lee Nong, collection of the author.

Marie Russol, a native of Greece, and her Chinese-born husband, Harry Chin Wore, were listed as Anna’s parents. Since Anna was underage, Marie had to give her consent for the marriage.

After the wedding Marie and Harry lived with the newlyweds. Marie worked as a waitress in the restaurant and Harry ran a laundry.

Less than two months after the marriage, Anna stole enough money from David to escape to New York City. She ended up at the missionary society. Mary Banta took her back to Binghamton and had Marie arrested on a charge of child abduction.

Marie and her lawyer at her trial, Press and Sun-Bulletin, Binghamton, March 20, 1920.

Amid rumors that Anna had been the victim of “white slavery,” Marie’s trial began in March 1920. She testified to being an opium addict and claimed to be in the clutches of a gang of Chinese criminals, who dealt opium and smuggled Chinese men and drugs across the border from Canada. She also claimed that David Lee Nong was part of the gang and that there was an opium den in the basement of his restaurant. 

Strangely, Marie showed no signs of being addicted to opium or any other drug during her trial. Opium wasn’t found in the basement of David’s restaurant or anywhere on the premises, nor could authorities locate the gang of criminals she had described. Marie appeared nervous but unrepentant and angry in court. At times she shook her head and sneered at Anna when she testified.

Anna told the court that she was unsure of her age, but she’d been told she was between 11 and 13 years old. She testified that Marie “told me that my mother was a dirty Jew and had thrown me into an ash can, where a policeman had found me.” She recalled living in the foundling home in New York City and attending a school in Manhattan before Marie became her foster mother.

David was arrested as a material witness, but he wasn’t charged with a crime. He testified that it was the custom in China for children to marry very young, but he insisted he hadn’t known that Anna was only 11. He said he paid about $700 to Marie and Harry, but claimed the money was to help them move to Binghamton and to set Harry up in the laundry business.

Harry Chin Wore, Press and Sun-Bulletin, Binghamton, April 27, 1920.

Restrictive immigration laws passed in the late nineteenth century meant there were not enough Asian women in America for Asian men to marry. Mixed marriages, while not outlawed in New York, as they were in many states, were strongly discouraged. The marriage age in New York, with parental consent, was 14 at the time. The minimum age was not raised to 17 until 2017.

Anna testified that a few weeks after the marriage to David, Marie took her to a hotel in Worcester, Massachusetts, and forced her to commit “a statutory offense” with a Chinese man she hadn’t met before.

Marie Russol and Harry Wore had been married in Rhode Island on May 9, 1911. There was no evidence that Harry was directly involved Anna’s marriage, but he was found to be in the country illegally under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. He was ordered deported to back China. Marie was offered a suspended sentence if she agreed to be deported to China with her husband. In June 1920, the couple was taken by the Binghamton Sheriff to San Francisco and put on a steamship bound for China.

As she waited to sail, Marie gave a perplexing interview to a reporter from the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin.

I was born in China and I speak Chinese even better than English, although my parents were Americans. In fact, I came to America to be educated and was graduated from the University of Maine, later graduating as a trained nurse at the Portland, Maine general hospital. We were married in Canton, China, and I have no wish to terminate that marriage by taking advantage of the fact that my husband is debarred from the United States. I can be of great service to humanity in the Far East both by sympathy and education and even feel more at home there than in the land that was formerly mine only by parental tie.

Marie waiting to sail to China, Press and Sun-Bulletin, Binghamton, June 16, 1920.

Anna was sent to New York City, where Mary Banta served as her guardian. The plan was for her to attend school under the care of the missionary society. In 1921 Mary brought a suit in the New York Supreme Court to have the marriage to David annulled. Mary testified that Marie’s real name was Veronica Agnes Russell and that she was a woman of “bad reputation” with a criminal record. She apparently wasn’t asked why the aid society had allowed Marie or Veronica or whatever her name was to adopt Anna in the first place if she had such a bad reputation.

David Lee Nong’s restaurant in Binghampton, San Francisco Examiner, January 30, 1921..

David lost his restaurant due to the unsavory publicity about the case. In February 1922 he pleaded not guilty to a charge of gambling at a Binghamton Cafe. A few months later he died of liver cancer at the Binghamton City Hospital. He was 42 years old.

Questions about Anna’s parentage went unasked at the trial. It’s clear from the photos that she is part Asian and part white. If what Mary Banta claimed was true and Morris Michaelson was her father, he was white and likely Jewish, so her mother must have been Asian. According to the 1910 census, several young men named Morris Michaelson, all of them white, lived in New York City, but none of them had a wife named Sadie (as Banta had claimed) or a wife who was Asian. Possibly Michaelson’s wife died shortly after the child’s birth and that was why the baby was placed in an institution.

The New York Extracted Birth Index lists a “Frances Michelson” who was born on March 19, 1908 (the exact birthdate Mary Banta claimed was Anna’s). According to both the 1910 federal census and the 1915 New York State census, an Anna or Annie Michaelson, born in 1908, was a resident of the New York Foundling Hospital and Children’s Aid Society. Was this the girl that Marie took as a foster child and later adopted?

Or was Anna, as one newspaper suggested, the biological daughter of Marie and a Chinese man who wasn’t her husband? Could that be why she was placed in an orphanage and why Marie lied about her relationship to Anna after she got her back? Was Marie trying to hide the fact from her husband that she’d had a child with another man? Did Marie have good intentions for Anna when she arranged a marriage for her? Or did she sell her to the highest bidder?

The last mention of Marie was a short piece in a Binghamton newspaper, claiming that she and Harry were “wrestling with hard labor and keeping the gaunt wolf, Starvation, away from the front door.” According to the article, immigration officials were armed with their photos in case they ever tried to return to America.

Featured photo: March 1920 news photos of Marie Chin Wore and Anna, collection of the author.

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