Excerpts

The Dirty DA of Shanghai14 min read

US judge Leonard Husar’s sordid judiciary in 1920s Shanghai – Douglas Clark

In Justice by Gunboat, Douglas Clark tells the history of the British and American courts that operated in China for just over 100 years from 1842 to 1943. Under treaties with China, foreigners were not subject to Chinese law, but were tried in consular courts under their national law. If a person changed nationality, as the Hong Kong born, Hawaii raised British-American-Chinese lawyer Lawrence Kentwell did from time to time, the court with jurisdiction would have to change. The United States Court for China was established in 1906 to oversee the US consular court system in China and remedy the weak enforcement of law in US consular courts that had created, as described by US Secretary of State Elihu Root, a “disgraceful condition of affairs” that was “discreditable to the United States and humiliating to American self-respect.” Root noted that, in particular, that the situation was so bad that all foreign prostitutes in Shanghai were referred to as “American Girls.” The US court had a chequered history, and its first judge Lebbeus Wilfley was forced to resign for over-zealous enforcement of the law. Two subsequent judges were also investigated. The greatest scandal, however, was the prosecution of the US District Attorney Leonard Husar. Husar had arrived in Shanghai in 1923, just before the arrival of a new judge Milton Purdy. Husar had immediately launched a large-scale prosecution against gun running by Americans into China. He also investigated opium smuggling, and his investigations of opium smugglers ended with Husar, the prosecutor, ending up before the court as a defendant. This extract tells that story.


Milton Purdy, upon arrival as the US Judge in Shanghai at the hearing to welcome him, commented on “how fortunate had been the U.S. Government in getting men of such excellent quality and ability as the officials of this court.” At the very end of 1926, he learnt how wrong he had been. The US Court for China saw the trial of two of its officials for engaging in serious criminal misconduct.

First, Purdy had the sad duty to pass sentence on the former Clerk of the US Court, William Chapman, who had pleaded guilty to embezzling $15,000 from the court. He had originally fled to Seattle, but was caught on arrival in the US and was brought back to Shanghai for trial. Purdy sentenced Chapman to three years and five months imprisonment. Having arrived in Shanghai to be sentenced, Chapman was then put back on the same boat, the President Roosevelt, heading back to Seattle. Long-term US prisoners were now imprisoned at the federal penitentiary on McNeil Island in Puget Sound just near Seattle.

At that very same time that Chapman arrived in Shanghai to be sentenced, a scandal of far greater proportions, in fact the largest scandal to occur in the 37-year history of the US Court for China, was unfolding. Leonard Husar, the United States District Attorney, was arrested for corruption. The allegation was that he had solicited and taken a $25,000 bribe to hand over to Tracy Woodward, an opium smuggler, a file detailing Woodward’s dealings in opium. Woodward’s file had been sent to Shanghai from the US Consular Court in Persia. A few month’s earlier, Husar’s wife, Mary Jo Grubb Husar, had filed for divorce in California. As part of her divorce petition she alleged that Husar had taken the bribe.

As soon as the allegations were made, Husar resigned as District Attorney. He also decided to hit back, filing his own divorce proceedings in Shanghai, accusing Mary Jo of drunkeness and infidelity. He later filed a cross-complaint in the US proceedings where he “named 10 men with whom she openly consorted” and called her a “vulgar-minded woman without any sense of decency, pride or shame.” He added she habitually drank to excess and danced nude at a party. All terribly scandalous, but the best was yet to come.

The new, very young, District Attorney, Thomas Sellett, prosecuted Husar. Sellett, who held a PhD, had been appointed to replace Husar. Sellett had been born in November 1898 making him 28 at the time of his appointment. He had graduated from the University of Michigan in 1923 and come to Shanghai where he commenced practice as an attorney. He also taught at the Comparative Law School of China for a year before becoming Dean of the school.

The allegations against Husar were that he had arranged for another American lawyer, Neil Heath, to approach Woodward who was at this time running a successful business. Heath blackmailed Woodward by telling him that Husar intended to prosecute him for his dealings in opium unless Woodward paid a bribe of $75,000 to get the file back. This was bargained down to $25,000. Woodward then said that he had arranged to meet Husar and Heath at the Shanghai American Club on Foochow Road (Fuzhou Road) where Husar handed over the file. He had arranged to pay $25,000 Mexican, but Heath told him it was Gold Dollars, take it or leave it. Woodward paid and then took the file home and with the assistance of his chauffer burnt it.

Sellett decided that he would only be able to get a conviction against Husar and Heath if he offered Woodward immunity from prosecution. Heath’s trial started first before Purdy with Sellett prosecuting. Heath was represented by a phalanx of Shanghai’s leading American lawyers, including William Fleming, Cornell Franklin, P. Faison and Norwood Allman. Heath also represented himself. Surprisingly, given the allegations that were to be made in both trials, Husar also appeared to defend Heath. Heath was charged with two counts of receiving and taking government property and one count of larceny of US property. 

Woodward was the main witness and gave evidence of how Heath had contacted him to shake him down and how over a course of four meetings he had negotiated a price of $25,000 plus a 2,000 taels commission for Heath. He said that he had not met Husar when he came to club to hand over the file, but had instead stood with his face to the window so he did not see him. However, as he left the club he had seen Husar standing outside of the bathroom. 

A letter Heath had sent to Woodward when the case was being investigated was the most damning evidence. The letter read:

“The situation is serious for both you and I, it is dangerous… The Secret Service in Washington obtained our names some way … they are looking for me now, I feel that they will get me … I am using a false name … You know that the U.S. Government will not let drop a case as this … Husar thinks that I had relations with his wife, this is not true, although he alleges it … I would spend a year in prison to see him get the limit … he will be begging me on bended knees to save him. I am going to write to Dr Sellett … I’m busted, this worry is driving me crazy. I am etc., Neil McKay Heath.” 

Detective Inspector Tinkler of
the SMP who had been sent by his
superiors to inspect the file was
called to give evidence what he had
seen on the file. He said the SMP had
decided to take no action against
Woodward because they believed the
US authorities would prosecute him.
He said that about eight charges had
been brought against Woodward in
Persia and he had pleaded guilty to
about half of them. Tinkler added,
mysteriously, that, “certain foreigners
were mentioned, including Father Costello, Mr Kentwell and Lissie Bell.” 

Even in such an important case as this, the mention of Kentwell’s name was too good an opportunity even for the erudite and serious Dr Sellett to resist. He asked Tinkler, who of course knew Kentwell well having arrested and given evidence against him two years before in the British Supreme Court: 

“Do you know Mr Kentwell’s nationality?” 

“No”, deadpanned Tinkler to laughter in the court. 

One suspects that even Purdy was forced to have a chuckle at this entirely irrelevant question and answer. After the prosecution closed its case Franklin and Fleming argued that Purdy should dismiss the charges on the basis that Woodward was a co-conspirator and that the law required that his evidence be corroborated by other evidence. Purdy agreed that much of the evidence was not corroborated. But Purdy considered the Heath’s letter to Woodward to be totally damning. He said: “I cannot imagine a letter being written more clearly linking the author with a crime. You would have a hard time convincing any jury in Christendom that this letter did not refer to this case.” He dismissed the application. 

Heath chose not to give evidence. His only defence was to attack Woodward’s credibility by calling a number of witnesses to testify as to his bad character. 

At the close of the case, Franklin applied for a dismissal of the charges on the basis that there was no evidence the file was US Government property and that Woodward’s evidence was not corroborated. Purdy held that two of the counts had not been properly proved and acquitted Heath. However, he found Heath guilty on one count, larceny of government property. He then, over the objections of Heath’s lawyers, put off sentencing of Heath until after Husar’s trial. 

Husar’s trial commenced on April 20, 1927. He was also represented by Fleming, Franklin, Allman and Faison. He pleaded not guilty. Much of the same evidence that was called in the Heath trial was given again. There was also evidence from the Consul-General and other consular and court officials and staff as to how the Woodward file had gone missing. It was also formally admitted that Husar had been District Attorney at the time. 

Woodward gave additional evidence of how he had met with Husar a few times after the bribe had been paid and that Husar had told him that he believed Heath had had an affair with his wife. Woodward said Husar told him of Heath that, “after giving him $17,000 in the book deal the sneak and dog had the impudence to eat at my table and conduct himself in a shameful way with my wife.” Woodward also said Husar told him Heath was blackmailing him over the payment of the bribe. 

The most damning evidence against Husar, however, was that on the day after the alleged bribe had been paid, December 16, 1925, Husar had opened a safety deposit box at the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. He had visited the box eight times until it was closed a little over a year later in mid- January 1927. There was also evidence that Husar had made other transactions at other banks.

Husar had two defences. The first was an alibi. He called witnesses and gave evidence himself that he could not have been at the American Club at the time in question. The first witness Cornell Franklin tried to call on behalf of Husar was Heath. Heath had been subpoenaed. Heath had not yet been sentenced so the case against him was still pending. He had a right not to answer questions that might incriminate himself. He answered a few questions before Purdy warned him of his right against self-incrimination. He was then withdrawn as a witness.

Husar’s second defence was absolutely startling: that, he claimed, he had made the money in his safe deposit box from dealing in guns.

He said that in 1924 he had befriended Colonel Hsu, the intelligence chief of a Chang Tsung-Chang who was then in charge of the defence of Shanghai. He said he had received $6,000 a year paid in cash. This had been increased to $750 per month (or $9,000 per year). From December 1925 he had acted as a go-between in an arms deal between an Italian named Parlani and Colonel Hsu. A total of 6,000 rifles with bayonets and ammunition had been sold and Parlani had offered him a 5% commission on the deal. He had introduced Parlani and Chang and then told them he would look to Chang for the commission because he was not familiar with Parlani. The sale price had been agreed at 500,0000 taels giving Husar a $37,000 commission. 

Colonel Chang paid the commission, he said, on December 15, 1925. Husar had asked for cash payment because he did not want to be identified with the deal “as anything that has arms connected with it in China carries a stigma.” He, of course, knew this because two years before this purported deal he had prosecuted Kearny and his “gigantic organization” for gun running. Despite this he said, “at the same time, however, I did not feel I was doing any wrong. General Chang was the accredited militarist of this area at the time. I was simply offered a commission by his agent and took it.” Husar then said he took the bulk of the money and put it in the safety deposit box at the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. 

The next day, Sellett cross-examined Husar. He first asked about Husar’s domestic difficulties and Heath’s relationship with his wife. Husar said that he had beaten Heath once Heath had denied any relationship with his wife, but Husar said he was convinced they had committed adultery. He also admitted that having prosecuted Captain Kearny for arms smuggling he had, only two years later, turned around and made money the same way. He had interviewed Woodward when he had come to Shanghai and obtained a lot of useful evidence from him about opium smuggling. He had decided, however, not to prosecute him. Husar said that Parlani was in Europe and he could not get Colonel Hsu to give evidence due to the political situation in Shanghai. This was, in relation to Hsu at least, probably true. Shanghai was at the time surrounded by Nationalist troops. Hsu had most likely long since vanished. 

Sellett then changed tack completely to attack Husar’s credibility. He suggested that the amounts of $500 and $750 that Husar had been paying into his bank account were, in fact, protection money he had extorted from two American prostitutes, Virginia Nelson and Blanche Bennett. Husar responded sarcastically: “That’s the best insinuation I have heard you make today.” Sellett pushed Husar to answer as to whether he had met Blanche Bennett. 

Husar’s response was telling in terms of showing the divisions in the American community in China and, given Husar’s own admissions in the trial, how the old District Attorney and new one were like chalk and cheese. He said: 

“The only business I ever had with these unfortunate women was when some of your people – missionaries – came to me with an affidavit that they had gone into some of the houses and spent money and asked me to help get them out of town.” 

Even from the written page, you can almost hear Husar spitting the word “missionaries” out.

This closed the case. Both prosecution and defence agreed to make limited arguments in closing. Sellett said the case was clear and Husar’s own admissions about the money in the safety deposit box made his defence impossible. Cornell Franklin, for Husar, asked simply, who would you believe, “a useful citizen, a man honoured with a responsible position of high trust and a man with an unblemished record” or a convicted opium smuggler of low character. 

Purdy gave a very short judgment saying that after hearing all the evidence he believed the convicted opium smuggler, Woodward, and that Husar was guilty. The next day, saying “it pained and grieved him” to be in the position of sentencing a government official he had been associated with since he occupied the bench, he sentenced Husar to two years in McNeil Island in Washington State. He also sentenced Heath to 18 months in McNeil Island. 

The prosecution and convictions of Chapman, Husar and Heath were a very bad start to 1927 for the United States Court for China. For China, on the other hand, 1927 started with the hope for the first united government of China in more than a decade. ∎

Excerpted from Justice by Gunboat by Douglas Clark (Earnshaw Books, July 2018), used with permission.

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