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 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 after she was found, Mary E. Banta, claimed the child was born “Frances Michaelson” to Morris and Sadie Michaelson in New York City and that she was placed in a foundling home nine days after her birth in 1908. Mary also claimed that Marie Chin Wore became the girl’s foster mother 1916 and legally adopted her in 1919, changing her name to “Anna Chin Wore.”
In 1919 Marie arranged for Anna to marry David Lee Nong. A California-born man of Chinese ancestry, David owned a restaurant in Binghamton, New York. After the marriage, according to the 1920 census, 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. 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 to New York City.
Mary Banta took Anna back to Binghamton. Marie was arrested there and charged with abduction.
Marie testified in court to being an opium addict and said she was in the clutches of a gang of Chinese criminals who dealt opium and smuggled Chinese men and drugs across the border of 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, but no proof of these claims was provided.
However 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 located. She appeared to be nervous but unrepentant and angry in court, at times shaking her head and sneering at Anna while she gave her testimony.
Anna testified that she was unsure of her age but had 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.
David, who was arrested as a material witness but wasn’t charged, testified that it was the custom in China for children to marry very young but he claimed he hadn’t known that Anna was only 11. He paid about $700 ($10,214 in 2018 dollars) to Marie and Harry to help them move to Binghamton and set Harry up in a laundry business. Nonetheless the cash was seen as a quid pro quo for his marriage to Anna.
Marie and David applied for and received a license for his marriage to Anna on November 20, 1919, but when they tried to get a judge to perform the ceremony, he refused due to Anna’s youth. 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 who was unnamed.
There was no evidence that Harry Chin Wore was directly involved in the marriage plot 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 him. 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 missionary Mary E. Banta as her guardian, where she would 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 of liver cancer on July 10, 1922 in the Binghamton city hospital. He was 42 years old.
Before condemning David’s role in the case it’s important to realize that U.S. immigration laws in the late nineteenth century resulted in there being few females in America for Chinese men to marry and 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 and it’s only recently been changed to 17.
Questions about Anna’s parentage went unanswered. If what Mary Banta said was true and Morris Michaelson was her father, he was likely white and Jewish. Therefore 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, though she may have died shortly after the child’s birth and that could explain why the baby was placed in an institution.
The New York Extracted Birth Index lists a Frances Michaelson who was born in 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 — to hide that fact from Harry Chin Wore?
This case is full of perplexing clues but short on verifiable facts. We’ll 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.