The wisdom of allowing young white women to help immigrant Chinese men learn English at Sunday Schools was seriously questioned following the discovery in New York City in June, 1909 that one such teacher, 19 year old Elsie Sigel, had disappeared. She was found murdered and stuffed in a steamer trunk in the apartment of a Chinese, Leon Ling, a restaurant waiter with whom she had had a love affair. Jealousy was thought to be a possible motive as police found love letters from Sigel to another Chinese restaurateur, Chu Gain.
The incident created considerable anxiety over the ever present dangers that Chinese men presented for white women.
Newspapers inflamed the panic with articles and depictions such as the one above from the Brooklyn Eagle on June 25, 1909 that branded all Chinese men as predators lurking to attack white women.
One church in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, decided to consider using males in place of the females who had been tutoring Chinese men in English on a one-to-one basis. In protest, in August, 1909, the 7 or 8 Chinese attending the Sunday School at this church threatened to "strike" or boycott the classes if the plan was implemented, a threat which led the church council to reverse their decision.
News of this decision stirred a heightened outburst of anti-Chinese rhetoric. A letter in an Atlanta newspaper proclaimed, "These carrot-faced little opium fiends are as treacherous as a be hog, and care no more for the Christian religion than a monkey cares for rhetoric," and argued there should be a lunatic asylum for the person responsible for "furnishing every lousy Chink who sneaks into this country with a special young female to teach him how to get to heaven."
The editor added a note for good measure: "Greensburg's need is not peculiar to itself. These lunatics are not all in Pennsylvania."
"Echoes of the Sigel Murder" Jeffersonian (Atlanta, GA) February 3, 1910 Volume 7 Issue 5 Page 16
Two years after the murder, in June, 1911, it was reported that the Chinese Lothario had been apprehended in a chop suey joint in upstate New York and that a speedy resolution to the case would occur."
That news proved overly optimistic, and the search continued. Several months later news came on November 23, 1911 that another Chinese assumed to be Leon Ling was sighted in Texas.
However, this lead, like several others, was false. Leon Ling was never found, and the murder remained unsolved.
Historian Mary Ting Yi Lui examines the case and its implications for social and sexual relations between Chinese and non-Chinese in depth in her book, The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City
Postscript: Sept. 17, 1919
A chivalrous Chinatown offered a white woman an umbrella during a rainstorm because he said "New York Missions taught him to be courteous to white women." To which the judge who fined him $50. commented, "The Sigel murder would have never occurred if Chinese were not allowed to address white women."
Postscript 2: July 6, 1909
The Sigil murder put all Chinese laundrymen under the eye of suspicion. In New York Chinese secret societies took the precaution of posting warnings (in Chinese) in Chinese laundries warning Chinese men not to engage in conversation with white women.