The brutal murder of 19-year-old Pamela Werner in Peking one night in January 1937 shocked the world, and the police never named the murderer. The best-selling book Midnight in Peking, by Paul French, declared the perpetrator to be an American dentist, but Graeme Sheppard, a retired British policeman with 30 years’ service in the UK, with the Metropolitan Police, decided that conclusion was flawed. After spending years investigating the case, he came up with an entirely different conclusion. So who did it? Who killed Pamela?
Over to Graeme...
As a police officer it can be difficult to switch off from work. You can’t stop seeing the world through police eyes. And that was very much the case when I was lent a book to read some years ago: Midnight in Peking by Paul French (Penguin 2011). The subject was the brutal unsolved murder of Pamela Werner, a young British woman in Peking in the winter of 1937.
Pamela had been cycling home in the dark from a skating rink. She never made it home. Her body was found the next morning in a shallow ditch under the shadow of the city wall. She had been mutilated beyond recognition and, most mysteriously, her heart stolen.
The crime terrified the large community of Western foreigners living in Peking. But the case frustrated the police and remained unsolved. Midnight in Peking now pointed to the guilt of several local residents - an American dentist, a former US Marine, and an Italian embassy doctor - as revealed by the archived investigative letters of the victim’s elderly father, retired British consul and sinologist, E.T.C. Werner. The book was a best-seller.
But I wasn’t convinced. Not at all. From a policing perspective, the evidence simply didn’t add up. Something, I realised, was very wrong. I could not conceive how the British and Chinese police somehow failed with suspects where the father claimed to have succeeded. The police had access to none of the latest aids to policing: no DNA, no CCTV, no offender profiling, no internet-use monitoring, no mobile phone records. Yet neither had the father. The officers would have been working solely with the basics of evidence-gathering: find and secure both witnesses and exhibits, assess and make good use of intelligence. Methods as valid today as they were then. Yet no one was charged. What, I wondered, had really happened back in 1937? Where had the police investigation taken them?
Intrigued, I visited the UK National Archives in London and examined the father’s letters for myself - some 160 typed pages addressed to the Foreign Office in the late 1930s. And I found that my instinct had been correct. Not only were the accusations far from being objective, but they also revealed Werner’s extremely peculiar personality; in no way could the letters be relied upon as criminal evidence. Not without corroboration. So I searched further and discovered that the UK National Archives alone held more on the the crime than had so far been revealed, including an additional suspect.
By this stage I was hooked on the case. I spent the next several years searching for evidence from archives across the world, from the USA to Australia, from China to Italy, from Canada to Singapore: letters about the murder between diplomats; notes and memoirs; articles in newspapers; military personnel records; church missionary documents; secret reports of espionage and political assassination. I even managed to find and speak with people Pamela had lived with just before her death - children she’d shared a home with. There was so much more to the crime than had ever been made public.
I also found the list of suspects growing: doctors, journalists, diplomats, soldiers. And then another discovery: there in Peking’s shadows, bringing his own influence on the case, perhaps almost inevitably, was the enigmatic and controversial figure of Sir Edmund Backhouse, one of the greatest fraudsters of the 20th century.
As to identifying the offender. It was an odd combination of the contributions of Backhouse and British Chief Inspector Richard Dennis that pointed the way for me; it transpired that Pamela’s murderer was no stranger to her, but in fact formed a close part of her adolescent past. It also went a long way in explaining police actions at the time. Determined though he was to solve his daughter’s murder, E.T.C. Werner’s theories were a long way wide of the mark.
Having gathered such a wealth of evidence, I then felt compelled to write of the affair, to pen an evidence-based account of what occured. A Death in Peking provided an opportunity to not only reveal the facts behind the 1937 crime, but also to illustrate the extraordinary lives of the people involved - both foreign and Chinese - living in a period of China’s history with which many today will be unfamiliar: the turbulent decades between the fall of Imperial China and the announcement of the People’s Republic in 1949. This was the China Pamela Werner grew-up in: one of city walls and foreign enclaves, nationalist governments and communist rebels, warlords and Japanese invaders. More than eighty years on, it’s a history very much worth the telling.
Details: A Death in Peking is published by Earnshaw Books, in paperback and eBook, priced in local currencies.