393.1123 Coveyou, Walter/26

The Secretary of State to the Minister in China (MacMurray)

No. 1320

Sir: The Department has received your despatch No. 2134 dated June 12, 1929,48 in which you refer to previous reports regarding the murder of Fathers Walter Coveyou, Clement Seybold and Godfrey Holbein in Hunan Province on April 24, 1929. You request the instructions of the Department in reference to the question of whether the American Government should demand an indemnity in this case, if only as a means of assuring more adequate protection of other Americans in the future.

The Department has followed with close attention the representations made at the instance of the Legation and the action taken by the Chinese authorities following this brutal murder. The Department has transmitted to the Reverend Mr. John J. Burke, General Secretary of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the information contained in the reports received from the Consul General at Hankow and from the Legation. By him the information has been sent to the Community of Passionist Fathers at Union City, New Jersey. If the information in the Department’s files is to be relied upon the victims of the outrage, although they had made inquiries concerning possible danger along their route of travel, were not in possession of travel certificates, had not notified the local Chinese authorities of their intended journey and, in fact, made no request for an armed guard until they had arrived at Hwa Chiao, when they asked for protection from a local military organization, the Hwa Chiao Defense Corps, and were refused. It would appear from the Department’s records that the Reverend Mr. Walter Coveyou was in possession of a passport issued July 28, 1928, but that his two associates possessed no passports still in force. The record indicates that as soon as they were informed of the crime the Chinese local and provincial authorities made prompt and apparently sincere efforts to apprehend the guilty persons49 and inflicted the dealth penalty on the following: [Page 509]

Lu Sheng-lung Head of the United Guard of the Chen-Chih District.
Hwang Tze-yuan Chief of the Hwa Chiao Defense Corps, who refused to give protection.
Ho Ching-chiang Chief of the Hwai-Hwa Defense Corps.
Nieh Yi-shih The inn-keeper.
Mrs. Nieh The wife of the inn-keeper.
Chu Chia-tsai Member of the Hwa Chiao Defense Corps.
Chu Chang-nan Member of the Hwa Chiao Defense Corps.
Chen Tze-ming A brigand leader (killed while resisting arrest).

The Department believes that if the circumstances of the murder and the subsequent action taken by the Chinese authorities were as indicated above, the provincial authorities can hardly be accused of culpable negligence before the fact, although it remains to be proved that they were exerting their utmost endeavors to maintain general conditions of peace and order. The utility of a demand for exemplary damages from the province, or from the National Government, therefore, seems doubtful. If, on the other hand, exemplary damages were to be demanded and assessed on the local community in which the murder occurred, it seems debatable whether the demand would reinforce, in any useful way, the warning already given to the community by the execution of a number of its members. If the Legation entertains views different from those expressed herein, the Department desires to be informed thereof.

You are requested to indicate to the American Consulate General at Hankow and the American Consulate at Nanking the Department’s satisfaction with the manner in which those offices have acted in reference to this regrettable occurrence.

I am [etc.]

For the Secretary of State:
Nelson Trusuer Johnson
  1. Not printed.
  2. The Consul at Nanking on July 11 reported his receipt of information from the Chinese Foreign Office concerning the death of another guilty “bandit” named Mao Chi-yung during fighting in Hunan, presumably in June (393.1123 Coveyou, Walter/27).