The case against Wentworth Prentice
Midnight in Peking repeats Werner's claims that Peking dentist, Wentworth Prentice (with others), was the abductor and murderer of Pamela Werner. However, readers may not realise that Prentice is neither named nor alluded to as a suspect by anyone or anywhere else.
- Prentice is not mentioned in any crime or police reports (albeit, none appear to exist).
- He is not mentioned at any coroner’s court hearing (the hearings were reported by the Press).
- He is not mentioned in any newspaper report.
- He is not mentioned in either These are Strange Tales or My China Years.
- In spite of the Dennis/Prentice scene described in Midnight in Peking (chapter 13) there is no evidence that Prentice was ever interviewed by police.
- It is only through the allegations of Werner in his letters that we hear that Prentice was allegedly a cruel sadist, a knife-wielder (and threatened girls with the same), a nudist-colony frequenter, that he held sexual orgies at his flat (and had it redecorated after the murder), that he was involved in another murder or similar in America, that he lied to police, that he knew and was intimate friends with Knauf, Pinfold, and Capuzzo.
Werner’s case against Prentice
Word for word, here is how Werner describes the case against Prentice on page 12 of his letter of 30 June 1939 to the British Ambassador in Shanghai (modern reference FO371/23513, former file reference F8038/1510/10):
- He is said, on reliable authority, to have committed a serious crime in America before he came to live in China. One informant said this crime was murder.
- His proved extremely sadistic practices, which would disgrace even the Ancient Babylonians.
- His seduction of Chinese and other girls.
- A Russian girl tried to commit suicide after having been seduced by him under promise of marriage (he has a wife and child in America).
- His habit of threatening girls with a knife to compel them to submit to his lustful desires.
* He employed Knauf to act as his bodyguard, fearing he would be assassinated.
- He sent this same notorious criminal to Tientsin to engage a lawyer to defend him in case he were charged with the murder of Pamela.
- His constant association with brothel-keepers and his frequenting of brothels.
- His friendship with Mrs. Leschinsky and Mrs Oparina, both keepers of houses of ill-fame. The latter operated one of those places in partnership with Knauf.
Mrs. Oparina is the woman who was married five times and benefitted on each occasion by the death of her husband, under most suspicious circumstances.
- His having six different keys made for the door of his flat, each of which he gave to his special “pals” so that they could use his flat for adulterous purposes whenever they wished.
- His holding of sexual orgies, such as nude dances, in his flat, no servants being present.
- His friendship at the time with Pinfold, who was acting as pimp to procure girls for him and the marines.
Werner has Prentice as friends with all the other persons he somehow connects with the crime: Pinfold, Knauf, Cappuzzo, Gorman, Leschinsky, Oparina, even Han. They make for a disparate group of persons. But yet again, we only have Werner's word on the subject, their alleged association is only made known to us via his letters.
- Pinfold’s question, whilst detained in the Police Station, “Have they got the American?” after which he telephoned from the Wagon Lits Hotel to him saying: “We must have no more parties.” Prentice refusing to come to the phone, the message being taken by Knauf, who was then in consultation with Prentice in the flat.
- Prentice’s refusal to discuss the murder case though it was being openly discussed day after day by members of the foreign communities.
- His failure, after he had agreed to attend a dinner arranged by several men at which he was “was to lay his cards on the table” in regard to the murder case, to put in an appearance.
- A petty officer (said to be Italian) was sent with $4,000 to Prentice within twenty-four hours of the murder.
* Prentice’s various attempts to put the police and other officials off the scent.
- His false alibis and other statements calculated to throw the blame on others.
- His lie: “I have never seen the girl (Pamela) in my life” proved to be a lie by letters in his own handwriting still in my possession.
Readers of Midnight in Peking will recall the episode in the book where Prentice is interviewed as a suspect by Dennis at Morrison Street (chapter 13):
Dennis pressed him. ‘Weren’t you her dentist?’ he insisted.
‘I was not. I have never seen the girl in my life.’
Dennis terminated the interview …
Also through Midnight in Peking (Chapter 17) we learn that Werner claimed to possess a bill for dental treatment for Pamela from Prentice:
The dentist was a man of secrets. And, as Werner already knew, he was a man who lied to the police. If detective chief inspector Dennis had not been barred from talking to Werner, he too would have learnt of the lie. Werner had proof of it, handwritten evidence in the form of a professional note he had received. It was dated 1 December 1936:
‘This is to confirm my statement that the sum of (Dollars fifty) $50, will not be exceeded for the whole course of treatment for Pamela …’
To readers of the Midnight in Peking the "interview" and the dental bill, taken together, will probably sound extremely damning and yet both are incorrect.
Here is how and why:
1) Werner does claim in his letters that Prentice said “I have never seen the girl in my life.” But to whom, where, when, and in what context was this said, if it really was said, is never stated.
2) There is no evidence to suggest the police ever regarded Prentice as a suspect or that he was interviewed by Dennis. There is no evidence to even suggest the two men ever met. Midnight in Peking simply 'recreates' Werner’s quote into the form of a fictional police interview.
3) Werner does indeed refer to a dental bill from Prentice in his letter of February 1939. But the date of the bill is 1 December 1930, not 1936.
The alteration of the year, 1936 rather than 1930, cannot fail to portray Prentice as both a liar and as having had very recent contact with Pamela.
- His having considerable medical or surgical skill
A dentist need not have considerable medical or surgical skill, and such an assertion would also place every doctor in Peking as a suspect. Butchery and dismemberment does not require medical or surgical skill.
- His cringing politeness and exaggerated attempt to express sympathy with me, a stranger, who had not seen him for years. This uncalled for attitude and his manner generally after the murder aroused strong suspicion in my mind that he was either the actual murderer or was present and knew the facts
Werner’s very early conclusion that Prentice was involved in the murder (i.e. before he had commenced his own investigations and procured any evidence to support the fact) is born out by a Werner letter at Kew dated as early as 12 July 1937, document FO 371/21004 (F 3976/2396/10). Writing to Harry Day, M.P. in London, Werner complains:
- The case has been grossly mismanaged. The “gravest suspicion” rests on a destitute British ex-soldier, an American ex-marine, and another American, all close friends and known to indulge in the grossest sexual excesses.
The quote below serves to illustrate Werner’s intransigence of mind having first come to a conclusion.
A telling description from Werner’s wife, Gladys. It is an extract from a letter from a doctor (Moorhead) who worked with great difficulty with Werner in Foochow in 1913 :
“That once my husband gets an idea into his head there is no use trying to convince him to the contrary” ( FO 228/1861)
- The proximity of his flat to Cappuzzo’s house and to the French rink
Whatever the proximity may actually amount to, on its own, this adds nothing to the case against either man.
- His statement that he was at the cinema, whereas there was no cinema at eight o’clock. Had he been to the 5.30 p.m. cinema, he would have arrived at his flat just about the time when Pamela would be passing his door on her way home.
We only have Werner's word that Prentice claimed to be at a cinema at eight o'clock.
- Prentice’s very superficial examination by his American Vice-Consul from Tientsin.
… to see if he can, unsuspectingly, obtain Prentice’s and Knauf’s fingerprints, either from dental implements or the bicycle handles, or by getting them to hold some paper or other material.
The above request made to an American diplomat appertaining to American citizens is of course preposterous. However, it is likely that Mr. Ringwalt spoke with Werner both out of sympathy and respect for a retired British consul whose daughter had been murdered. It is also likely that as a result of such contact he felt it appropriate to speak with the American citizens concerned. Ultimately, Werner appears to be nearly as dissatisfied with the American action as he was the British.
- The description of the car given by the ricksha coolie coincides with that of his car, which he disposed of soon after the murder.
- The statement made on different occasions by three separate persons: “Prentice killed her” (Pamela).
- “Peggy’s” statement: “Prentice killed her.”
In the months and years after the police investigation, Werner sets about conducting his own investigation. By his own description, he goes about this through the use of agents who use financial inducement to obtain witnesses. As a result various willing witnesses are readily forthcoming. This is hardly surprising given the deprivation in which many were living.
If Werner’s rickshaw coolie is indeed the same one who according to initial newspaper reports was questioned by police soon after the murder about blood on his cushions, his several later changes of mind as to events leaves his evidence entirely compromised. Unsurprisingly, his later evidence manages to fit perfectly with all of Werner’s theories, more especially given that Werner had offered $5,000 reward for evidence leading to a conviction (Werner letter of 30 June 1939, F8038).
Midnight in Peking asserts that if only the coroners had listened to Werner, and not wantonly dismissed his evidence, the police investigation may have been reopened and Werner’s hard-won evidence substantiated, and that Prentice and the others may then have been bought to justice.
- I heard some years ago that were the full truth known about Prentice it would be seen that he is one of the cruellest, foulest, most devilish creatures who ever disgraced this planet.
It is difficult to credit a man with a legal training including this last statement in a letter to his ambassador. It is hard to imagine just what Werner thought its reader would make of it.
The Werner letters make for a long and difficult read, but this is necessary in order to form an opinion about them and compare the various assertions some of which are simply fanciful. For example:
- Later on, Prentice would have bribed Han, whose close friend he was, to protect him (letter dated 5 October 1938).
- … which has to be remembered that Prentice has for years been a very close friend and co-sexualist of the Chinese Magistrate Han … (letter 31 Oct 1939).
- It would seem that the murderer and the manageress decided to take the girl to the Korean hospital in Nan Ch’ih Tzu … It should be noticed that this hospital is kept by Dr. Kim, who is a Korean and also at one time owned the White Palace Dancing Hall … being himself also known as a sadist sexualist … thus if the body was taken to Kim’s Korean hospital … or if Kim performed the operation in Prentice’s flat (perhaps using the bath in which to drain off the blood) … being possibly helped by Pinfold, who had access to the premises … there would be involved, besides the actual murderer, some ten persons at least … (letter 5 October 1938).
- It will be found, I predict, that three doctors were implicated in the case (letter 5 October 1938).
- It is also possible that some Italian marines were ordered by an Italian doctor to take the body back to No. 28 from the place where the blood is said to have been drained off … (letter 17 November 1938).
- At No. 28 the persons most likely to attempt this gruesome task would be the Chinese cook or possibly the Korean woman herself or one of her servants … Failing in completing it, through their fear, horror at such a deed, or from want of time, it was then decided to have the body taken to the city wall, as described by the rickshaw coolie. This is more a Chinese or Korean than a European idea; it seems unlikely that it would have occurred to a Westerner residing in the Legation Quarter (letter 31 December 1938).
- They hug themselves as they continue as before to carry on their sexual sadist existence, and smile at their impunity owing to the corruption of the Chinese police and the incompetence of foreign officials, outwitted here as in other parts of the world (letter 30 November 1938).
In describing its case against Prentice, Midnight in Peking has selectively taken parts of Werner’s long accusatory letters to the Ambassador, got facts wrong, imagined various situations, and then woven them together into a narrative in a huge exercise of "reconstructed history".
As it stands, Werner’s case against Prentice would not get as far as the inside of a criminal court, where the burden of proof required - beyond all reasonable doubt - is set very high. But neither, however, would it bear examination in a civil court where the burden of proof is much lower - that being on the balance of probabilities. Taken all round, Werner’s case against Prentice would fail even before a defence was prepared.
Werner's claim to have discovered the murderer(s) and Midnight in Peking's claim to have uncovered the truth will remain just that. Claims.
I am not convinced that the case against Prentice would stand up in court. Many of Werner’s informants were unreliable witnesses or people of ill-repute, such as drug addicts, prostitutes and criminals. Putting aside the important fact that some informants disappeared or died soon after speaking to Werner or his investigators, it is unlikely that their statements would ever have made it to court or been admissible as evidence, since their testimony was in many cases paid testimony or uncorroborated
Glen Jennings Steep Stairs Review Literature and Culture from Trinity College Foundation Studies, University of Melbourne
"It’s easy to be swayed by the materials that the author, Paul French, has put
together, and it sounds really convincing in regard to who the murderer is.
However, one thing remains elusive, i.e., the accounts of the witnesses, who had earlier lied, and who later, after about a year, came clean to Werner when
prompted by monetary gains during a turbulent time. Were they telling the truth
to Werner? Was Werner making it all up, by bribing the witnesses to agree to the testimonies that could likely be constructed entirely by Werner? I believe that is something that will never come to light."
VF: Do you have any previous experience or training in investigation?
Paul French: I have no training in murder investigations. I am a fan of the great true crime novels such as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, so perhaps I learned from them.