Scott Seligman is honest when it comes to admitting how he hit on the subject of his latest book. The D.C. author pointed his browser at the Library of Congress’s online historic newspaper archive and entered the words “Chinese” and “murder.”
“I was doing pretty well on true crime, so what the hell?” said Seligman, whose earlier books include one on Chinese gang warfare in 1920s Manhattan.
His latest book is called “The Third Degree: The Triple Murder That Shook Washington and Changed American Criminal Justice.”
Seligman, 66, has a long history with China. He was among the first U.S. business executives to enter China after the Communist country started relaxing its economy. He moved there in 1980 and later ran the China office of public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. He speaks Mandarin fluently and is fascinated by the history of Chinese immigrants in the United States.
One of the first hits in his search was an article from the old Washington Times. “It was about the triple murder of Chinese diplomats that had roiled two continents,” Seligman said. “ ‘What the hell is this?’ I thought. I never heard of a triple murder in 1919. I started digging.”
The unfortunate victims were Theodore T. Wong, Chang Hsi Hsie and Ben Sen Wu, who were shot to death in a rowhouse at 2023 Kalorama Rd. NW. The house was the headquarters of the Chinese Educational Mission, which supervised Chinese students who were studying at U.S. colleges. The three victims worked there.
Two brothers — also Chinese — were quickly arrested. Police were convinced that the triggerman was Ziang Sung Wan, who allegedly committed the murders to steal a checkbook and embezzle money from the mission.
So, those are the murders that shook Washington. But how was the American criminal justice system changed?
Well, D.C. police officers traveled to New York City to pick up Wan. They brought him back to Washington, stuck him in a run-down hotel and interrogated him for a week. The entire time, Wan was ill with a nasty intestinal condition that left him barely able to eat or to void.
“He was essentially under arrest without being under arrest,” Seligman said.
Wan was never tortured or beaten, but, Seligman said, the police “insulted him. They used racial epithets. They sequestered him with no attorney. Nobody knew where he was. They kept his location secret for a week and certainly used against him the fact that he was so sick.”
Wan eventually confessed to killing one of the men. He tried to recant during his trial but was convicted and sentenced to death.
Wan’s attorneys appealed, lost again, and then sought to have the case reviewed by the Supreme Court. “To everybody’s astonishment, the court took the case,” Seligman said. The court threw out Wan’s coerced confession, with Justice Louis Brandeis writing that “a confession obtained by compulsion must be excluded, whatever may have been the character of the compulsion.”
Said Seligman: “It made the point that you don’t have to use the rack and the thumb screw to compel somebody to confess.”
The Supreme Court ordered a new trial.
Wan was tried a total of three times before the charges were finally dropped in 1926. He briefly ran a confectionery business in Washington — Wan’s Mandarin Creams, 50 cents a box, which were advertised as “an ideal confection for the fat person, the invalid and for children” — before returning to China in 1928.
Wan’s experience in custody was central to a government report issued in 1931 that decried the use of the extensive and often uncomfortable interrogation method known as the “third degree.” And Ziang Sung Wan v. United States was referenced in a later court case, one called Miranda v. Arizona. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it inspired the dialogue in a thousand police procedurals on TV: “You have the right to remain silent.”
Seligman set out to write about a Chinese murder. Instead, he said, he wrote about “legal history and American history.”
One of the interesting things I learned from Seligman’s book is why there was a Chinese Educational Mission in Washington in the first place. During the Boxer Rebellion of 1899 to 1901, many foreigners in China lost their lives and property. The Chinese government agreed to pay reparations to the nations whose citizens were harmed.
As it happened, China overpaid the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt agreed to refund some of the money but insisted it be in the form of schools established in China and Chinese students coming to America to study. I like that idea.
Oh, and was Wan a murderer? Let’s put it this way: No one else was ever tried for the crime.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.