A Chinese Puzzle

A Chinese Puzzle

Tangled skeins of evidence which are being closely investigated by the authorities may result in the unearthing of one of the largest gangs of white slavers in the country with headquarters in New York City and also in other cities, as the result of the arrest of Mrs. Marie Chin Wore of Chenango street, who was taken shortly after midnight by Chief Detective Loren W. Rummer and Detective Larry Abel, police officials declared today.

Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York), February 28, 1920

A young girl was found wandering in the vicinity of New York City’s Bowery neighborhood 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.

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

Harry Chin Wore

Harry Chin Wore

The same year she adopted Anna, Marie arranged for her to marry David Lee Nong. A California-born man of Chinese ancestry, David owned a restaurant in Binghamton, New York. According to the 1920 federal census, after the marriage Marie, age 32, and her Chinese husband, Harry Chin Wore, age 44, lived with Anna and David. Marie worked as a waitress in David’s restaurant and Harry ran a nearby laundry. Anna, age 16, was listed on the census as Marie and Harry’s biological daughter (possibly this was an error). Marie’s birthplace was listed as “Greece” and Anna’s as “New York.” Marie’s native language was recorded as “Greek.”

Less than two months after the marriage Anna stole enough money from David to escape and return to New York City.

The missionary, Mary Banta, took Anna back to Binghamton. Her stepmother, Marie, was arrested and charged with child abduction.

Anna Chin Wore marriage portrait_marked

Anna had on a dress that was much too large for her in her wedding photo. News photo, collection of the author.

Marie and her lawyer

Marie and her lawyer in court

Marie testified in court to being an opium addict. She said she was in the clutches of a gang of Chinese criminals who dealt opium and smuggled Chinese men and drugs across the border from Canada into the United States. She claimed that David Lee Nong was part of the gang and that there was an opium den in the basement of his restaurant.

Rumors of “white slavery” swirled around the case. News stories proclaimed that Marie went by multiple aliases and had been imprisoned several times in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island in New York City. The press offered no proof of these claims.

Marie showed no signs of being addicted to opium or any other drug. Opium wasn’t found in the basement of David’s restaurant or anywhere on the premises, nor was the gang of criminals she described located. She appeared to be nervous but unrepentant and angry in court. At times she shook her head and sneered at her adopted daughter when Anna testified.

Anna told the court she was unsure of her age but she’d been told she was between 11 and 13 years old. She said 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 school in Manhattan before Marie removed her from the institution.

Nong restaurant

David Lee Nong’s restaurant

David, who was arrested as a material witness but wasn’t charged with a crime, testified that it was the custom in China for children to marry very young, however he claimed he hadn’t known that Anna was only 11 when he married her. He paid about $700 ($10,214 in 2018 dollars) to Marie and Harry. He claimed the money was to help them move to Binghamton and to set Harry up in a laundry business.

United States immigration laws passed in the late nineteenth century resulted in there being few Asian women in America for Asian men to marry. Mixed marriages, while not outlawed in New York, were frowned upon. The marriage age in New York, with parental consent, was 14 at the  time. The minimum age was only recently changed to 17.

Marie and David applied for and received a license for his 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. Next they went to a local Baptist minister who agreed to perform the marriage after Marie lied to him, telling him that Anna was 16 and the marriage was out of necessity because she was pregnant.

Anna testified that a few weeks after the marriage, Marie took her to a hotel in Worcester, Massachusetts, and forced her to commit “a statutory offense” with a Chinese man she’d never met before.

There was no evidence that Harry Chin Wore was directly involved in the marriage scheme, 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 as long as she agreed to be deported to China with her husband. The couple was taken by the Binghamton Sheriff, in June 1920, to San Francisco and put on a steamship bound for China.

As she waited to sail, Marie gave an intriguing interview to a reporter for 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.

Anna was sent to New York City, with the missionary, Mary Banta, as her guardian. The plan was for her to attend school under the care of the missionary society. Mary sued in the New York Supreme Court to have Anna’s marriage annulled.

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. He died, age 42, of liver cancer on July 10, 1922 at the Binghamton City Hospital.

Questions about Anna’s parentage went unanswered at Marie’s trial. If what Mary Banta said was true and Morris Michaelson was her father, he was almost certainly Jewish, so her mother must have been Asian. That would have been an unusual pairing for the time, though not impossible. Several young men named Morris Michaelson, all of them white, lived in New York City, according to the 1910 census, but none of them had a wife named Sadie or a wife who was Asian. Possibly Michaelson’s wife died shortly after the child’s birth, which could explain why the baby was placed in an institution.

The New York Extracted Birth Index lists a Frances Michaelson who was born on March 19, 1908 (the exact birthdate Mary Banta claimed was Anna’s) and there’s an Anna Michaelson, born in 1908, who was a resident of the New York Foundling Hospital and Children’s Aid Society until 1915. But there’s no way to definitively link either of those girls with Anna Chin Wore.

Could Anna have been, as one newspaper suggested, the biological daughter of Marie and a Chinese man who wasn’t her husband? Could that be why the baby was placed in an orphanage and why Marie lied about her relationship to Anna after she got the child back? Was Marie trying to hide the fact that she’d had an illegitimate child?

This case is full of perplexing clues but short on verifiable evidence. We’ll likely never know if Marie had good intentions when she arranged a marriage for Anna or if she sold her to the highest bidder.

Featured photos: March 1920 news photos of Marie Chin Wore (left) and Anna Chin Wore. Collection of the author.