The unsolved Chinatown trunk murder of 1909

In June 1909, 19-year-old Elsie Sigel’s well-to-do Bronx family thought she had gone to visit her grandmother in Washington DC.

Instead, she had been murdered—her decaying body stuffed in a trunk with a rope around her neck in an apartment at 782 Eighth Avenue.

Police at the scene quickly figured out Elsie’s identity based on the 35 or so desperate love letters strewn across the apartment floor.

They were addressed to the man who lived there, Chinese immigrant Leon Ling, who had apparently fled New York days earlier.

Investigators quickly pieced the story together: Sigel (granddaughter of Civil War hero Gen. Franz Sigel) did mission work in Chinatown, part of an effort to convert immigrants to Christianity.

There she met Ling, a dapper ladies’ man, as well as another Chinese immigrant. She became involved romantically with both of them.

When Ling found out about the other man, police theorized he killed Sigel in a rage.

The murder of a young white woman by a Chinese man made huge headlines in all the New York papers—especially since the supposed murderer had vanished.

Theories were proposed: Ling fled back to China. The couple ran off together and put another girl’s body in the trunk to throw off cops. Sigel killed herself, and Ling was smuggled out of the city by other Chinese.

Whatever the real story, the case remains officially unsolved 102 years later.

[Top right illustration from the New York Daily News; bottom left, the Mott Street mission where Sigel met her supposed killer]

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3 Responses to “The unsolved Chinatown trunk murder of 1909”

  1. Josie Says:

    The three buildings shown in the 1909 photo of the mission stand there on Mott Street in Chinatown, probably rehabbed three times over, but still recognizable.

  2. little abe relis Says:

    little abe relis here! first time long time! I like these stories on old chinamatown. I remember as a kid aways back when this old chinamaman neighbor we had used to tells me stories like this. He was a nice fellow named mister chew and we used to sit out on the stoop on summer nights and he’d tell me these great stories like the ones you got. so thanks for the story and for making me remember chew. keep up the good work!

  3. Some Assembly Required Says:

    I recently read the novel The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld, which takes place in 1909 and incorporates the discovery of Ms. Sigel’s body into the story.

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