This is the seventh in the “Tientsin at War” series, highlighting a controversial English author assassinated in his own Tientsin home in the fall of 1930. The culprits of his cowardly murder were never caught. The suspects are still many. After 84 years however, the most important question is not who killed him, but why Bertram Lenox Simpson, aka Putnam Weale forsook his writing to take up a cause most people considered lost.
By C.S. Hagen
TIENTSIN, CHINA – When author Bertram Lenox Simpson set down his pen in 1930, he broke journalism’s cardinal rule.
He took a side. And then he was murdered for his choice.
Simpson, better known by his pseudonym Putnam Weale, had an Englishman’s skin, but his heart belonged to China. Born near Shanghai in 1877, he picked up a rifle during the Siege of the Legations. He replaced the Enfield for the pen two years later, damning Western soldiers and missionaries for the ensuing rapes of Peking and Tientsin. The Manchu Dynasty fell on his watch, and he became an advisor to Chinese presidents and warlords, who one by one stripped away his dreams of a united China. With apocryphal clarity he foresaw the upcoming Japanese invasion and warned the world, producing nearly one book every year.
Despite critical acclaim, no one truly listened. His novels and letters from China’s interior became conversational centerpieces, served at tiffin with crumpets and Yunnan tea in dainty porcelain cups.
English politicians called him an unsavory adventurer. Newspapers frequently headlined Simpson “the cynic.” Japanese demanded his deportation when he allied himself with the Shanxi warlord, Marshal Yan Xishan. No longer able to stand by his journalistic oath, he staged a coup in the marshal’s name on June 16, 1930 of the Tientsin Customs House, ousted the “mad dogs,” and made sweeping changes to China’s northern maritime trade.
Simpson’s Chinese name was Xin Pusen, (辛博森), which can be phonetically linked to his surname, Simpson, but ironically means in part “plentiful suffering.” Simpson saw himself as China’s avant-garde, perhaps even as a martyr, for few foreigners dared to leash the mad dogs starving for China’s brittle bones. While Edwardian high society assured each other their lavish lifestyles could never end, Simpson foresaw the empire on which the sun never sets’ demise, and then, in one desperate act took matters into his own hands, hitting the politically-infused trading world in their most private place – maritime monies.
All his adult life Simpson strove for change. He didn’t stop until the day three assassins entered his home on Woodrow Wilson Road in the former German Concession, now Jiefang South Road, and shot him in the back.
Simpson’s Assassination Attempt – October 1, 1930
Simpson was listening to his gramophone in his drawing room shortly before 8 p.m., when his Number Two Boy knocked on the door, according to December 5, 1930 inquest report at the British Consular Court in The Straits Times.
Three men had come calling. They showed Number Two Boy, a common name in those days for a domestic servant, a card bearing the name Fu Lu-lin of the Enlarged Plenary Session, the newly formed and short-lived government that Simpson supported. Simpson ushered two of the men into his drawing room. One man stayed outside the front door.
“My master was walking in front of the two guests who followed behind,” Number Two Boy said at the inquest. “As soon as my master entered the room I heard the shots fired.”
The Peking and Tientsin Times reported the following day that Simpson’s shooting was a “sensational sequel… to the long controversy in regard to the Tientsin Customs.
“Mister Simpson was about ten feet from the door, with his back to the strangers, when one of them drew a pistol and fired twice. One of the shots penetrated the spinal column, and the other, believed to be the second shot, missed its mark.”
The assassins spoke in a Fengtian, or Manchurian dialect. One was dressed in a long black Chinese coat with a black outer jacket; the second man wore a long light blue coat and carried a leather bag. The third was dressed in a military fashioned Zhongshan suit, and after the attempted assassination pulled a pistol on Number Two Boy.
Number Two Boy ran to the street after a waiting vehicle sported the assassins away, and yelled for police.
Simpson’s gatekeeper helped Number Two Boy call for police, he said at the inquest, although he did not know that Simpson had been attacked. The gate to Simpson’s yard was closed, he said.
“I started to shout with the boy just as the car started to move,” the gatekeeper said.
“The boy said the gate was open and not closed and that you were outside on the pavement,” coroner Sir A.G.N. Ogden said at the inquest.
“The boy was lying.”
According to Tientsin Consulate records Chief Inspector P.J. Lawless affirmed most of Number Two Boy’s story, who also had the sense of mind to remember the car’s license plate number, but Lawless blamed local police for inactivity in apprehending the assassins.
“When I arrived at least thirty minutes after the shooting, no action had been taken by their police,” Lawless said. “They had failed to telephone information to various police stations on Peking Road, nothing had been done with a view to tracing the car or owner. A party of armed police were simply lolling about the house and the compound.”
The car was identified as a taxi number 517 from the Hua Mei Motorcar Garage in the French Concession. Inspector Tsui Ch’an Fu found the car as it was pulling into the Tien Hsiang Bazaar, a shopping area, but the assassins had already escaped. The twenty-six-year-old chauffeur, named Ching Hsien, was visibly shaken and made no attempt to flee. He told authorities the assassins ordered him at gunpoint. While parked at Simpson’s house, he was told to keep the engine running, and after four or five minutes the assassins returned and he drove them to an alleyway beside a Catholic church.
“The man sitting abreast with me threw on the seat five dollars and said in Fengtian dialect, ‘Turn off the switch. If you drive away the car now, I shoot you,’” Ching said. The assassins walked north, toward the train station. “When I saw they had gone very far, I just drove the car to our garage.”
The Hua Mei Motorcar Garage received a call from Room 65 of the Pei Yang Hotel at 7 p.m. the same night and ordered car number 517, consular records reported. The assassins checked into the hotel earlier that afternoon, and had paid their bill in full by the time they left.
“It appears that four men arrived at the Ta Pei Hotel in the Japanese Concession at four o’clock this afternoon,” the Peking and Tientsin Times reported on Simpson’s attempted assassination. “They looked like military men, though wearing plain clothes, and it is asserted that they spoke the Fengtien dialect. They pretended that they had come from the railway.”
The hit squad’s fourth man, according to hotel staff, had hired a rickshaw to take away the men’s luggage.
The fact that Simpsons’ Number Two Boy reported all three men came to the house while the chauffeur said the third man remained in the car was not lost on investigators at the inquisition. No one, however, was charged as an accomplice.
“That it was a political affair seems probable,” Ogden said, “as there was no attempt at kidnapping or robbery, and the assailants were not in Mr. Simpson’s house for more than a couple of minutes and no conversation passed between them and their victims.”
Simpson was first taken to the German-American Hospital and later transferred to the Victorian Hospital, where he suffered, paralyzed from the chest down, until ten o’clock at night on November 2, 1930. Only after his death was the coroner able to dislodge the bullet stuck into his spinal column, which he showed as an exhibit to inquest investigators.
The assassins were never apprehended. Suspects ranged from angry English merchants and politicians to Chinese servants and disgruntled employees to Japanese and Nationalist agents, and then veered to Tientsin’s drug lords, but the majority of international press and British politicians believed his assassination was the work of Nationalist soldiers under orders from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
Treaty of Tientsin
Anger toward Simpson stemmed from what officials believed was his interference with the Tientsin Treaties, also known as the Unequal Treaties, which were effected after the Opium Wars in 1858. The treaty gave foreign traders the right to pay all taxes due on imports at the port of entry, then a pass exempting further taxation along the way. These tariffs, both in Tientsin and Shanghai, were of vital importance to Great Britain.
The treaty was also the gateway to open more Chinese ports, demanded foreign legations in Peking, allowed Christian missionaries free movement throughout the country and legalized opium as legal tender for trade in China.
For nearly one hundred years most of North China’s trade came in and out of Tientsin. All tariffs were paid to the Customs House, which in Tientsin averaged USD 600,000 a month in revenues. A small portion, roughly five to ten percent went to China, the rest lined merchant’s and Great Britain’s coffers. Nearly all customs commissioners in those days were Englishmen.
The Mad Dogs
The fact that Simpson’s assassins spoke a Manchurian dialect was a brain squeeze on case investigators.
Accusations first fell on Marshal Zhang Xueliang, who controlled Manchuria after the Japanese Black Dragon Society assassinated his father. But the Shanxi and Manchurian armies had once been allied under the Fengtian Clique during the Warlord Era, and the “Young Marshal” offered assistance with the criminal investigation. Simpson had also been an advisor to the Young Marshal’s father, and the Manchurian government was not entirely at peace with the southern Nationalists. There was no motive.
Great Britain’s legal finger, much stubbier and weaker than it had been in years past, then pointed to the Japanese, who were already suspects in a long list of assassinations. When dealing with Japan’s secret assassination societies, proof was difficult to find.
The law waved frantically between Tientsin’s opium magnates and the Nationalists, the only Chinese government Great Britain officially recognized at the time. The Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Nationalist, or Kuomintang government could have easily hired Manchurian assassins to shoot Simpson in the back and shift blame toward the Young Marshal, who had only recently weaned himself off opium and was preparing for war with Japan.
Once again, police had no proof since the assassins had disappeared.
Police officials could not forget to include trading giants like Butterfield & Swire, or financiers of England’s “Lion Bank,” the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, or angry ship captains now forced to pay double duties. Ironically, despite veiled threats made by high-ranking consular officials, the only entity investigators didn’t accuse was their own good selves, for Great Britain had the most to lose with Simpson’s coup.
Although thousands read Simpson’s books, few, it seemed, enjoyed his company. He was known to be stubborn, a hothead, and always looking for an argument. Although Simpson had injected himself into politics many times before, when the writer cum warrior stepped up to Tientsin’s Customs House, he entered a political world from which there was no turning back.
Since Simpson’s first internationally acclaimed book Indiscreet Letters from Peking, he began to stockpile enemies, but he also garnered a handful of like-minded friends. His controversial books frequently hit the best seller’s lists, and his newspaper articles told the truth about China through his looking glass. After publishing Indiscreet Letters from Peking in 1906, which was a personal account of his experiences fighting Boxers and Manchu soldiers during the Siege of the Legations at Peking, his writing became increasingly bitter toward Western colonialism of China and the wars raging up and down China’s coast. Simpson considered himself an expert on Chinese affairs, and many publications of the time agreed.
“I can lay claim to an intimate knowledge of the Far East and of everything that affects it,” Simpson said in a March 4, 1922 interview for The Register.
Until June 16, 1930, nearly a month after Marshal Yan Xishan’s Shanxi Army defeated the southern Nationalists and took control of Tientsin, Simpson’s words offered little more sting than a Tientsin mosquito to British authorities, but his coup, performed suddenly at gunpoint, kick started top secret letters and accusatory notes between British consulates in China.
“On June 16 the Shanxi Authorities appointed Mr. Lenox Simpson, an adventurer with an unsavory reputation, Commissioner of Customs at Tientsin,” Sir John Thomas Pratt, a British diplomat, reported to consular authorities. “On the same day Simpson appeared at the Customs House and gave Hayley Bell [the previous customs commissioner] a letter stating he had taken charge of the Customs by force.”
Colonel Hayley Bell had stated previously that if this happened, he and the whole staff, Chinese and foreign would withdraw. Simpson clipped the colonel’s wings.
“Simpson stated that any Chinese who obeyed Colonel Bell’s orders to withdraw would be shot, whereupon Colonel Bell alone withdrew, and the staff stayed,” Pratt said in the report.
Simpson’s coup, according to Pratt, was not only a betrayal of British interests, but froze all Tientsin trade. The British-recognized Nationalist Government wanted their cut, but Simpson allocated the funds to support Marshal Yan Xishan and his money-poor Shanxi army.
“Customs employees complained of Simpson’s attitude as over-bearing,” reported The West Australian on June 21, 1930. “He is conferring with the rebel leaders regarding the further steps to be taken. In the meanwhile shipping is completely tied up at Tientsin, and the Nanking [Nationalist] authorities are demanding Mr. Simpson’s punishment and deportation.”
Since the Nationalist Government was receiving no monies from Tientsin, they threatened an embargo, and levied double taxes on all ships coming from or going to Tientsin.
The doubled tariffs infuriated merchants, predominantly Butterfield & Swire shipping lines, whose agents wrote an angry letter to the Tientsin Consulate.
“The tacit recognition of Simpson’s improvised control on behalf of Yan Xishan may have far-reaching consequences and if some action is not taken by the Power[s] to undo the unfortunate damage already done, the effect… may well prove to be disastrous.”
Consular officials considered the company’s words a threat to Simpson’s life, but the writer refused to hire bodyguards and did nothing to protect himself.
“The precedent set at Tientsin is a most dangerous one, inasmuch as upstarts such as Lenox Simpson – and there are unfortunately more than one in China – may be encouraged to influence the militarists to follow the example set by the North.”
An agent named in consular records as W. Park worked for the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, through which customs revenues were usually saved and sent, and complained Simpson had been speaking publicly before the coup.
“Simpson, a foreigner, has abused his extraterritorial status by suggesting in a public speech that Yan should take this step. Any seizure of additional duties would create a dangerous precedent and shatter China’s credit at home and abroad.”
Desperately striving to remain neutral, Pratt suggested a series of compromises, which included Simpson’s removal by force, if necessary. Letters written back and forth between Peking and Tientsin debated if Simpson’s actions were tantamount to treason.
“I think probably that Mr. Lenox Simpson’s action, in accepting a post which involves his assisting the Northern authorities to divert customs revenues… would be held to amount to aiding and abetting the Northern [Shanxi] authorities in their ‘war, insurrection or rebellion,’” Pratt wrote in a consular reports. “The question whether a prosecution should be launched is very largely a political one.”
“His Majesty’s Government saw Simpson’s activities as an incursion into Chinese organized politics,” reported Edward Ingram, vice consul-general and was also coroner for Simpson’s final inquest. Great Britain recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s national government, and deemed the newly arrived Shanxi government as an insurrection.
One of the reprisals considered against Simpson was to lift British protection of him, which would make Simpson “liable to the severest punishments that could be meted out under Chinese law in such circumstances.”
“We could hardly sit silent if he was murdered or otherwise barbarously treated,” British Minister Sir Miles Lampson argued on July 18, 1930. He opposed drastic measures taken against a British subject, not for any harm that may have come to Simpson, but because he knew the author. “Simpson is not a man to be influenced by threats unless they are obviously serious.”
“Simpson will probably indulge in a journalistic campaign and publish claptrap interviews meant to hoodwink the public,” Sir Frederick William Maze, inspector-general of Chinese Customs, wrote. He supported any action to right the situation and appeal to British maritime interests.
“The issue is a clear-cut one: do or do not the Powers consider that the existing Maritime Customs system ought to be preserved? If the answer is “yes,” then we are entitled to ask: What are they doing, either collectively or individually? I can’t answer, because I am left in the dark. But by transacting customs business with Simpson they have in fact interfered… and the Central Government [Nationalist] takes a serious view of the fact that Simpson’s action – which they declare is entirely illegal – appears to be condoned.”
Maze became the inspector general of Chinese Customs in 1929, taking an oath to obey the president of the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party. He saw Tientsin’s hesitancy to stop Simpson’s coup as a mistake, and angrily declared tacit recognition of Simpson worse than active intervention.
“The Tientsin Consular Body in their collective wisdom advocated the latter policy [tacit recognition], and it seems the Diplomatic Body have not rejected their advice. This, of course, is exactly what Simpson desires.”
Nationalist diplomat Dr. Wang Ch’ung-hui demanded Simpson’s removal with a “veiled threat.”
“He suggests that I might still do something to clip Simpson’s wings,” Lampson wrote. “I said I had not the power… I made it absolutely clear I was not prepared to do anything further: but equally clear that we deplored Simpson’s getting mixed up in the affair at all.”
Japanese secretary Tsuneo Matsudaira called upon Great Britain to deny Marshal Yan and his northern government any recognition. Both the Shanxi and Nationalist governments refused all compromises made by Great Britain. When the Japanese and the Nationalists demanded Simpson’s deportation, English consular officials went to Marshal Yan asking him to release Simpson from his duties.
“Simpson has done his work loyally and Yan will stand by him,” wrote Dr. Tchou Ngao-hsiang, director of department of foreign affairs for the short-lived Shanxi Government. “Yan will have nothing to do with Bell and Maze with whom he is much incensed on account of closing of Customs…”
For nearly four months consular officials and angry politicians fought each other to a standstill. In the interests of objectivity, no move was made against Simpson. According to newspaper reports at the time, Simpson made sweeping changes within the maritime trade, attempting to make the office a model for others to follow.
Why did Simpson Choose Marshal Yan Xishan?
Marshall Yan was known as a survivor and social reformer. Lord of Shanxi Province since the end of the Manchu Dynasty, he survived five eras by shifting allegiances when needed: the Yuan Shi-kai era, the Warlord Era, the Nationalist Era, the Japanese invasion era and the ensuing civil war between communists and Nationalists. Firmly anti-communist, Yan later fought the “Reds” to a standstill for many months before finally fleeing in defeat to Taiwan in 1949.
According to newspapers at the time, Yan was a proponent of Western technology to protect Chinese traditions. Instead of involving his armies in the civil wars, he strove to modernize Shanxi Province, one of China’s poorest areas, earning him the title of “Model Governor.” He hired Western doctors and advisors, and befriended the Generalissimo in the 1920s by suppressing local communist movements.
Some analysts say Marshal Yan joined the Generalissimo’s enemies, including Feng Yuxiang “the Christian General,” subsequently invading Tientsin because his armies needed money, and the Tientsin Customs was one potential source of income. While in Tientsin he attempted to set up a new national government in direct opposition to the Nationalists, or Kuomintang Party. But the marshal’s dreams were short lived. The Generalissimo first beat the Christian General’s armies in Shandong, and then turned on Tientsin, ending the Warlord Era in the fall of 1930.
In a July 10, 1927 editorial Simpson wrote entitled The Masked Money Battle, he saw Western interference in China’s affairs much like a paper tiger, and destined to destroy itself. “To be dramatic about money may sound like finding poetry in a dust heap; nevertheless the story of the past thirty years in China in terms of cash is so queer that it reads like an amazing romance.” He goes on to describe China’s love of money had been influenced directly by Western imperialism. “This habit, which is imbedded in a hoary past, has been enormously influenced by the foreigner. He became known as a phenomenon through the country… when he brought casks of Spanish dollars, minted in the Americas, to the open port of Canton, and commenced buying all sorts of commodities.
“It was the coined money brought by the nations of the West, which was the corrupter…”
Simpson’s writing became increasingly vexed toward 1930, bearing titles such as the Cauldron of Hate and a novel called China’s Crucifixion. One of his last books, The Unknown God, dealt with the futility of missionaries in China and is “unflattering to the last degree,” critics wrote. Simpson portrayed missionaries as voracious men and women who think more of dollars than human souls, and are instantly jealous of each other and stubbornly ignorant of the Chinese culture and faith.
He began blaming the Japanese, more specifically the Black Dragon Society in The Advertiser, for the Young Marshal’s father’s assassination. Japan, of course, denounced the accusations. And then in 1928 according to The Argus and then again in The Daily Mail, Simpson painted a grim picture of the hapless foreigner surrounded by mad dogs, and criticized the Nationalists, saying they are “murderers led by criminals,” to which the only remedy was bullets and cold steel.
“You have betrayed us!” The Register reported Simpson saying in 1927. “This is what men of all nationalities are saying; even the Chinese now marvel at the astounding phenomenon of a passivity that is self destructive. Today there is yet time to wipe out humiliation. Tomorrow it may be too late… We are surrounded by mad dogs.”
When Simpson took over editorship of The Leader in Peking, a position which he held until the Tientsin Customs House coup, he repeatedly called for a stronger China led by the Christian General and Marshal Yan. Some say Simpson found Marshal Yan’s policies best suited for the China he thought he knew.
“Salvation must come from within,” Simpson wrote in a 1915 article entitled The Cleansing of the Augean Stables.
“It may be interesting to note in this connection that Mr. Simpson now holds the same post as his father did in 1909, when he died in Tientsin,” reported The Leader on June 17, 1930. Simpson was no stranger to customs duties, having worked before with the Chinese Maritime Customs Service.
A Heavy Price
“Mr. Simpson had a personal interview with Marshal Zhang Xueliang, in which he requested that his services should be retained,” reported The Straits Times after Marshal Yan’s armies had retreated back to Shanxi Province. “But the request was ‘flatly refused’ and an entirely new Customs staff was appointed at Tientsin.”
“He was warned more than once by friends that he ran a grave risk of being assassinated, but he pooh-poohed any such ideas,” consular records report Sir Lancelot Giles, the consul-general said.
“Whether, as Mr. Maze suggests, Mr. Simpson was the victim of nefarious dealings with opium or drug dealers, or whether, as seems more probably, he was simply the victim of his own recklessness in directly meddling in Chinese political strife, he has paid heavily for the part he played in this particular adventure,” Lampson wrote in a report to the Peking Consulate. “His short-lived regime of control of the Tientsin Customs had gradually come to be regarded with some favor by local merchants, and he himself was loud in his claims that he had done much to eradicate the antiquated methods of the customs proper… With the lapse of time, however, and in view of the peculiar circumstances surround the crime, it seems unlikely that the criminals will ever be brought to the book… The exact truth will probably never be known.”
According to Tianjin Daily records within Tianjin Archives, the Ta Kung Pao newspaper reported in 1930 that Simpson and Marshal Yan obtained little from their takeover of the Tientsin Customs, accruing 1.5 million Chinese taels in silver, hardly worth the costs of a war.
“Mr. Lenox Simpson, who, under his penname “Putnam Weale,” was one of the most prolific and best-known writer[s] on Far Eastern topics, was an Englishman by birth, but a cosmopolitan through long residence among the peoples of many nationalities. He was 53 years of age at the time of his death…” The Straits Times reported on November 12, 1939.
Simpson died at 10 p.m., November 2, 1930, a month after the cowardly attack. The bullet that was lodged in his spine was inoperable. He was buried at the Canton Road Cemetery in Tientsin, (between Chifeng and Yinkou roads), next to his father’s grave, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser reported. His funeral at the Church of England’s All Saint’s Church, was private and simple, and he left behind his wife, an American named Mary Parrott, his brother, Evelyn, a mining engineer who worked in China, and a sister, Esme.
“There was an unusually large number of wreaths sent by friends and by various clubs and organizations both in Peking and in Tientsin, testifying to the deceased’s popularity and the fact that he was one of the most widely-known personalities in North China,” The Straits Times reported.
Simpson tried to leash what he called Tientsin’s Mad Dogs, and failed. Ten short years after his death the same dogs were imprisoned in internment camps, sailed for home or pillaged Tientsin and many other areas of China, which most assuredly made Simpson turn in his grave. He could be called a hero or villain, a revolutionary or rebel. Whatever name Simpson is branded his reputation as being one of China’s most controversial Western authors is still true to this day.
The Canton Cemetery is gone. Chinese clothing shops and a hutong now stand where Simpson and many others who once called Tientsin their home were buried.