Late one night in 1877 this Chinese woman, said to be strikingly beautiful and who owned property in the gold boomtown, made the mistake of opening her door to a man.
Each August the town of Deadwood in South Dakota’s Black Hills holds its Days of ’76 Parade in which a beautiful young girl is chosen to ride on a float down Main Street as that year’s China Doll. While the former gold-mining boomtown keeps that name alive, hardly anyone today knows about the original China Doll and her fate. It’s a gory story, befitting Deadwood’s violent past.
Deadwood in 1877 was a place of hustle and bustle, its unpaved streets clogged with thousands of people. A mysterious Chinese woman named Di Lee was among them. No one knows where she came from. But she no doubt attracted attention from passers-by. Old-timers claimed this early Black Hills pioneer was the most beautiful woman in Deadwood, and sometime in the 20th century they nicknamed her the “China Doll” or “Yellow Doll.” Unfortunately, no documented photograph of this striking woman exists. She was reportedly single and wealthy, though as far as anyone knew, she was not a prostitute. Someone cut short her life in a horrific act of murder. Legend has it she was hacked to pieces and later haunted her home as a ghost. Authorities never apprehended her murderer(s).
Of the many Chinese who came to North America, especially during the various gold rushes, few are remembered today. But the name China Doll lives on, even if one can only imagine her face. In her time, women of any nationality who did not sell their services to men were a rarity in Deadwood. Thus her story raises interesting questions. Why did she come to Deadwood in the first place? What circumstances led to her murder? And, of course, the biggest question in any murder mystery: Who done it?
The Chinese who came to America in the mid- 1800s were largely from China’s southern Guangdong province. During that period Canton (present-day Guangzhou), the provincial capital, was the seat of rebellion against China’s Qing Dynasty. The central government cracked down against the rebellion, resulting in tens of millions of deaths. At the same time British merchants seeking to evade trade restrictions were importing opium into China. When Qing officials tried first to control and then to stop the trade, the British declared war and beat the Chinese. The resulting 1842 Treaty of Nanking legalized the opium trade. A financial crisis in 1847 dried up funding to Guangdong businesses, throwing thousands of men out of work. The next year a Chinese man living in California wrote to a Cantonese friend about the discovery of gold. All of Guangdong was soon talking about Gam Saan (“Gold Mountain”), where one could pluck gold nuggets off the ground. The California Gold Rush was on, but unlike most Forty-Niners, Chinese would-be prospectors got there by traveling east.
Most Chinese prospectors hoped to find enough gold in Gam Saan to support their families back home in Guangdong and ultimately return there themselves to live in luxury. Their early success led Anglo competitors to restrict their mining, immigration and other rights. The Chinese drifted to other jobs, most notably helping the Central Pacific build its portion of the first intercontinental railroad in the late 1860s. And other gold rushes soon beckoned elsewhere on the frontier. Wherever there was a new strike, the Chinese soon arrived in that mining district, either to prospect or to run such businesses as restaurants, laundries and stores carrying Asian goods. Most Chinese men trying for a piece of the American dream did so in the absence of wives. Most Chinese women on the Western frontier were either servants or prostitutes.
In the mid-1870s the Black Hills of Dakota Territory (present-day South Dakota) was the place to go for risk-takers looking to get rich quick. An 1874 military expedition under Lt. Col. George Custer had reported the discovery of gold in what was then part of the Great Sioux Reservation. The military could not keep prospectors out, so the federal government attempted—but failed—to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux. Deadwood became the most notorious illegal gold camp in the area. Prospectors found placer gold deposits there in Whitewood Creek in late 1875. By spring 1876 miners and those providing goods and services for them were pouring into Deadwood Gulch. Chinese accounted for many pioneers to the gulch, as Deadwood was wide open for everyone.
Consider one Fee Lee Wong, who arrived with an early group of white prospectors. The group divided up claims along Whitewood Creek. Fee Lee received two claims, promptly sold them for $75,000 and opened the Wing Tsue Emporium. He went on to become a respected liaison between the Chinese and Anglo communities. In addition to placer mining, Chinese operated laundries and restaurants. At the peak of Deadwood’s Chinatown, its population numbered some 400 Chinese men and women. A 2001–04 archaeological dig there unearthed more than 300,000 artifacts.
Unfortunately, no information has surfaced on what business Di Lee pursued, but she did own three lots with houses on Sherman Street, Deadwood’s main street at the time. At the very least she likely earned income from two of those properties while living on the third. Given her holdings, Di Lee almost certainly arrived in town already wealthy, but like virtually everyone else who ventured to that remote community, she was there to make more money.
The murder of Wild Bill Hickok on August 2, 1876, is the crime most people associate with Deadwood, and plenty of eyewitnesses saw Jack McCall pull the trigger. The murder of Di Lee, the China Doll, ranks as perhaps the most notorious unsolved crime in a place that had little law and order. Di Lee (who also appears in sources as Di Gee and Di Hee) was one of the first Chinese to come to Deadwood in 1876. How long she had been in North America is unknown. What is known is that she was young, attractive, unmarried and able to afford those three well-furnished houses on Sherman Street. It seems clear she was no servant, and there is no evidence she was any kind of soiled dove or for that matter involved in the thriving opium trade in Deadwood.
The mystery woman did not live long enough to put down solid roots in the community, if that was her intention. She was murdered on November 27, 1877. In the most likely scenario, two people entered Di Lee’s home (with perhaps a third person standing guard outside). One intruder stabbed her with a small knife. The other smashed in the front of her skull with the blunt end of a hatchet. A bloody print on the face of the corpse suggested one of the intruders had placed a left hand over Di Lee’s mouth to stifle her screams. Blood was splattered on the walls of her room, and the furnishings were in disorder. Was greed the motive? Authorities were uncertain she had even been robbed. They had the China Doll’s body removed and taken to the rear of a shanty in Chinatown. According to The Black Hills Daily Times, her face and clothing were clotted with blood, presenting “a disgusting spectacle.” Later accounts of the crime that claimed the victim was “chopped to bits” were exaggerations.
At an inquest the next morning several people spoke up about what they might or might not have seen, but none of the information shed light on the murder. Deadwood’s acting coroner, Dr. Charles W. Meyer, examined Di Lee’s corpse and found a small wound 2 inches below the sternum and about 1 inch in depth made by a blade similar to a pocketknife. This wound was not severe enough to cause death. There were two fractures to the frontal skull apparently caused by the blunt end of a hatchet. The coroner’s jury decided the unknown assailants had murdered Di Lee by blows to the head.
On November 29 the Chinese community held an elaborate funeral for the China Doll. Typically, attendees at such funerals wore white or brightly colored clothing, a band played cymbals and drums, people tossed firecrackers and colored pieces of paper, and mourners set aflame perfumed paper, incense and colored candles placed around the body. Di Lee’s countrymen likely buried her in Ingleside, Deadwood’s original cemetery, although her plot may have been in the newly opened Mount Moriah Cemetery. A few years later, to make room for housing, officials disinterred all identifiable bodies at Ingleside, including that of Hickok, and moved them to Mount Moriah. There is no record of Di Lee’s gravesite. Perhaps the Chinese community wanted her burial location kept secret.
The mystery of the China Doll’s life continued with her death, but apparently she did have at least one relative living in Deadwood. The November 30 Black Hills Daily Times stated that Hong Lee claimed “kinship” to Di Lee, and that Dr. Meyer ordered her three lots with houses on Sherman Street, along with “considerable personal property,” transferred to Hong Lee. This caused a bit of a stir in the non-Chinese community among those who thought that the probate judge—not the acting coroner—should determine ownership.
Meanwhile, the two big questions lingered: Who murdered Di Lee? What was the motive? The Chinese would not cooperate with Deadwood authorities. Lawmen produced several suspects, but no one would testify against them.
On the night of December 2, 1877, according to the Times, lawmen arrested Ah Sing and his wife “on suspicion of being implicated in, or cognizant of” the murder of Di Lee. Two days later the same newspaper reported that Ah Hem and his wife, Ark Hem, were arraigned that morning on charges of complicity in Di Lee’s murder, “but for lack of testimony they were, upon motion of W.G. Hollins, their council, discharged.” The papers record nothing further about Ah Hem and his wife. Primary sources suggest that authorities likely arrested only one couple (not two), the Times simply misspelling Ah Sing’s name as Ah Hem on December 4. Ah Sing stayed on in Deadwood. According to news accounts, he froze his feet ringing in the New Year in 1879, transferred real estate on October 25, 1881, and left Deadwood by stagecoach on August 7, 1883.
The December 4, 1877, edition of the Times also provided more details about the murder, reporting that three “Mongolians” had likely committed the crime out of greed but could not be arrested for lack of evidence. One of the trio was a paid killer (who received $100 for the job), according to the paper, and had come armed with a hatchet and a butcher knife. As the paper saw it, this paid killer had “dealt her a terrific blow upon the head, felling her to the floor, and then assaulted her with the knife.” After making sure she was dead, he and the other two Mongolians ransacked Di Lee’s home, taking many valuables. The article further claimed that Di Lee was the slave of an Asian currently living in California, and that she had kept a large sum of money in the house.
The Times had nothing more to say about the Mongolians, but the China Doll still made news—of sorts. In its December 22, 1877, issue the newspaper reported on a ghostly encounter at the murder scene:
The first night that the premises were occupied after the removal of the remains. A gentle tap, tap is heard at the door; the voice of the dead is heard in reply, the door is opened, and a male voice without begs admission; the door creaks upon its hinges as it is opened wide, the hurried steps of two men is heard, a struggle follows, and then again all is still. An examination shows the room is in its usual order, the door fastened as before. Of course the haunted premises are promptly vacated and have so remained since.
And that wasn’t all. The paper continued:
And now comes the occupants of the adjacent houses, who tell that in the dead hours of the night…there is heard in the vacant tenement struggling, muttering curses and the voice of the murdered woman exclaiming in pitiful, pleading accents, ‘Moo shoot nghin!’ ‘Moo shoot nghin!’ ‘Moo—’ and the words die away in a gurgle, as though the speaker was being strangled, and all this when no one in the flesh is about.
The paper surmised that the Chinese community believed Di Lee’s spirit was “disquieted” and had returned to the scene of her death—not only because of the violent nature of the crime, but also because Deadwood authorities had disrupted the burial ceremonies. “Chinatown is stirred to its very centre [sic] over the ghostly presence, and vigorous steps are being taken to conciliate the grieved ghost,” the Times added. “Meanwhile, our real estate speculators are interested and predict that property in that neighborhood may soon be bought dirt cheap.”
Four months after Di Lee’s murder the newspapers reported a more down-to-earth development in the China Doll case. A young Chinese woman ran screaming into the IXL Hotel, closely followed by an angry mob of Chinese men and women. The woman begged the proprietor to call the sheriff. A lawman, perhaps Lawrence County Sheriff John Manning, arrived as the noisy crowd sought to drag off the frightened woman. She told the sheriff she had seen her “fella” kill Di Lee, but when she tried to have him arrested, law officers had paid no mind to her accusation. Now this fella wanted to get back at her, and so did the mob. The sheriff placed the woman in protective custody. How long she remained in the Deadwood jail is unknown, as is her fate after the sheriff released her. She disappeared from the record. Likewise, the papers didn’t identify her fella.
The Times made its final reference to the China Doll case in its January 25, 1880, edition. Deadwood authorities were investigating the opium dens in Chinatown. Certain Chinese men there had marked a man named Coon Sing for death because he had been seen in the company of a Deadwood peace officer and was suspected of being a snitch. A judge assured Coon Sing the law would protect him. But the newspaper suggested otherwise:
When any one of them [the Chinese] violates one of their laws, in a few days he is found most brutally murdered, as in the case of…the woman here in town less than two years ago, and the authorities were powerless to even find a person that could be suspected. Not a Chinaman could be found that knew a thing about it, they were all as reticent as the grave.
It is unlikely that anyone from Deadwood’s Anglo community killed Di Lee. Motives are lacking. She was not raped, and it is unclear whether she was robbed. Deadwood’s sporting girls might have been jealous of her beauty, but there is no evidence she was competition to them or had any disagreements with them.
Most likely a person or persons in Deadwood’s Chinese community committed the murder. Perhaps that anonymous fella of the frightened young Chinese woman was involved. The murderer(s) used a small knife and the blunt end of an ax. The ax was the weapon of choice of the tongs, the secret Chinese societies that sometimes dealt in prostitution, gambling and drugs. The use of two different weapons in the crime suggests two assailants, though a lone attacker could have used both weapons.
It is possible the Chinese people who reported ghostly encounters knew more about the circumstances of the murder than they were willing to reveal to Deadwood authorities. The ghost story related by the anonymous occupants of the house after Di Lee’s death featured a man begging to be let in, the China Doll apparently opening the door for him, two men hurrying inside and sounds of a struggle. The neighbors’ ghost story had the victim pleading in Cantonese, “Moo shoot nghin!” (loosely translated as “Do not kill me!” or “Do not hit me!”).
If it was two men who committed the crime, that would absolve Ah Sing and his wife (or Ah Hem and his wife, if they are even different people). If Di Lee did let a man into her house in the middle of the night, she must have known him. Hong Lee came forth afterward, claiming to be a relative of the late China Doll. Could he have planned her murder and brought along an ax-wielding accomplice? He did stand to gain her property as next of kin. The December 4 Black Hills Daily Times suggested that Di Lee was the slave of an unknown Asian in California, but it is doubtful he had anything to do with the murder in Deadwood, if he even existed. In short, there are no definitive answers to the mystery. Barring the unlikely discovery of some revealing Chinese journals or letters, the murder of the China Doll must remain an open case, historically speaking.
Jerry L. Bryant is a historical archaeologist, a former member of Deadwood’s Historic Preservation Board and past president of the Lawrence County (S.D.) Historical Society. Bill Markley, of Pierre, S.D., often writes about Black Hills subjects. For further reading the authors suggest Ethnic Oasis: The Chinese in the Black Hills, by Liping Zhu and Rose Estep Fosha, and Deadwood: The Golden Years, by Watson Parker.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.