Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Murder of Chong Ong.

Little Murders

The murderer identified.
The basement of the building on the corner of Spring and Wooster Streets in New York City, housed the Restaurant Cubana, run by a former cigarmaker named Antonio Soloa. It was very popular among the Cubans and others in the neighborhood looking for a good inexpensive meal—Soloa’s specialty was ham fried with spice and garlic and served with vegetables.

On November 2, 1885, Thomas Daly, a produce vendor, entered the Restaurant Cubana to see if Soloa needed any provision and found him lying dead on the floor of the restaurant in a pool of blood. He fled from the place but went back down with Wooster Street coal dealer James Caughlin. Butchered, was how they described the body to the police. His face and the right side of his temple had been crushed, his shirt had been slashed open and his chest stabbed through his undershirt. Blood had spurted high enough to stain the ceiling. A closer examination revealed nine stabs to the chest, severing two ribs. A knife with a ten inch blade, bent and bloody, lay on the floor near the body. The coroner later discovered that one of the stabs had severed Soloa’s heart.

In Soloa’s bedroom, his trunk had been rummaged by someone with bloody fingers. The police found a cheap leather pocketbook empty on the floor. Theft was believed to be the motive.

But Antonio Soloa was a complicated man and the police changed their assessment when they learned that, although he had come to New York from Cuba, Soloa was actually Chinese. His real name was Chong Ong. This fact, together with the severity of the attack, led police to believe that the true motive was revenge and that the murder was committed by highbinders, the hitmen of Chinese secret societies.

The victim was living alone at the time of the murder, but had previously lived for five years with a German woman named Susie Vestreg. She said that he had saved several hundred dollars and she believed that he was murdered for his money. Regardless of his heritage, it was clear that Antonio Soloa saw himself as Cuban, not Chinese. He had taken a Spanish name, wore western clothes and had worked as a cigarmaker prior to opening a Cuban restaurant. None of this impressed the police. To the police and the press he was Chong Ong victim of Chinese revenge. The Chinese consulate in New York provided resources to find the killer and defrayed the cost of burying Chong Ong in the Chinese section of Evergreen Cemetery. 

The investigation took another turn when William Schimper, who owned a store across Wooster Street from Restaurant Cubana, went to the police with his hired boy, George Manz. Manz told police that he had been outside, around fifteen minutes before the body was discovered and saw a tall Cuban man with a scar on his face run up the stairs followed by Chong Ong. The Cuban drew a big knife, thrust it into Ong’s breast, and seemed to have difficulty drawing it out. Then the Cuban ran down to the basement again, Ong turned to follow him but fell headlong down the stairs. After overcoming his fear, George Manz told his employer what he saw and they went together to the police.

Detective Sergeant Haley, who was assigned to the case, took Manz to several factories in the city where Cubans were known to be employed, but Manz recognized none of them. The police now had the co-operation of the Spanish Consulate as well who provided information about Cubans in the city and vessels leaving the city for the West Indies. Haley talked to a group of Cuban insurrectionists at their lodge room on the west side of the city. There he saw a group photograph of the lodge members; he obtained a copy and showed it to George Manz. “That is the man,” Manz said, pointing to a face in the picture, “and if you get him you will find he has an ugly scar on his cheek.”

Haley learned that the man’s name was Augustine Rebell and he worked at a Brooklyn cigar factory. He did, indeed, have a large white scar down the side of his face, that had been inflicted a year earlier by an Irishwoman with whom he was living. He later spent some time in the Tombs for assaulting her. Rebell was arrested and taken to police headquarters, George Manz was brought to the station where he identified Rebell in person as the man who murdered Chong Ong.

Inspector Thomas Byrnes, Chief of Detectives, praised Haley’s work but suspected that Rebell would have a good alibi ready and conviction would be difficult. Rebell denied any knowledge of Chong Ong’s murder. He had been at the factory that day and was credited on the books with making 100 cigars that day. His foreman, however, said Rebell could have made that many in half a day. The police claimed that they had additional evidence that could not be used in court because the witnesses were afraid to let it be known that they assisted the police.

Two cigarmakers came forward and, through an interpreter, told police that the murder had been a continuation of a fight between Rebell and Ong a week earlier, over money Rebell owed Ong. They said it was an open secret among cigarmakers that Rebell was the killer but no one was ready to betray him because he had friends among the Cuban revolutionists.

The Cuban community in New York rallied around Rebell, securing counsel and making sure all his needs were met while incarcerated. His employer, Mr. Jarequi, called Rebell a man of excellent character and said the scar on Rebell’s face was the only reason for his arrest. Some claimed that Rebell was not the man in the phototograph. Many of his friends and coworkers also spoke well of Rebell. Jarequi and other workers at the cigar factory were ready to testify that Rebell was at the factory all day.

It is not clear how the matter was finally resolved. The district attorney probably decided that there was not enough evidence against Rebell to prosecute him. No one was ever tried for the murder of Chong Ong, alias Antonio Soloa.

"A Cuban Arrested  for Murders." Boston Daily Globe 21 Nov 1885.
"A Real Boy Detective." National Police Gazette 5 Dec 1885.
"A Trail of Blood." Boston Herald 3 Nov 1885.
"Betrayed by a Scar." New York Herald 21 Nov 1885.
"By a Boy's Evidence." Cincinnati Commercial Tribune 22 Nov 1885.
"Did He Slay Soloa? ." New York Herald 4 Dec 1885.
"Did Rebell Kill Solao?." New York Herald 29 Nov 1885.
"He is not the Assassin." The Evening Bulletin 30 Nov 1885.
"New Clew to Chong Ong's Murderer." New York Tribune 4 Nov 1885.
"No Mourners For Chong Ong." New York Tribune 6 Nov 1885.
"Novel Theory of Chong Ong's Death." New York Tribune 5 Nov 1885.
"Roubles or Revenge, Which?." Evansville Courier and Press 6 Nov 1885.
"The Murder Of Chong Ong." New York Tribune 21 Nov 1885.


Tessa says:
August 14, 2016 at 2:54 AM

Whether Rebell committed the murder or not, he still lived up to his name!

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