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Colonial Cases

Ferris v. Spitzel, 1896



Ferris v. Spitzel

United States Consular Court, Shanghai
Jernigan, 2 April 1896
Source: North China Herald, 10 April 1896




Shanghai, 2nd April.

Before J. R. Jernigan, Esq., Consul-General, Acting Judicially.


   In this case Mr. Adolph Spitzel, of Messrs. Louis Spitzel & Co., appeared to answer a summons charging him with assaulting Mr. F. F. Ferris, the editor of the Sinwanpao newspaper. Mr. D. McNeill (Messrs. Dowdall and Hanson) prosecuted, the defendant appearing in person, and pleaded "Not Guilty."

   Mr. McNeill addressing His Honour, said - Before I ask Mr. Ferris to give his evidence it will probably be convenient that I should briefly outline the circumstance which took place and in regard to which I propose to ask him to give testimony. 

   Mr. Ferris is the editor of a native newspaper called the Sinwanpao.  In that newspaper on the 24th, 25th, 26th, and 27th of this month he published certain paragraphs to the effect that notwithstanding the Chinese law which forbids high officials and their families engaging in trade in their own districts, nevertheless a certain high official's son was in fact connected with a foreign firm at Tientsin. That was the substance of the paragraphs published on those four days, and I have translations of them here. I do not think it is necessary that I should deny - I am not prepared to deny - that the paragraphs did refer as a matter of fact to the ex-Viceroy Li and the firm of Messrs. Spitzel & Co. 

   On the 27th of March, the day on which the last paragraph appeared, Mr. Ferris was returning to his office about half past two in the afternoon. Outside his office he was met by the accused, Mr. Adolph Spitzel. Mr. Spitzel is, I believe, a friend, or, as I do not wish to reflect upon an absent man, I should perhaps say an acquaintance of the ex-Viceroy, and he has taken the precaution on this occasion to secure the companionship of an athletic defender of the name of Markwick, who I believe is also a friend, or acquaintance, or at any rate an admirer of the same distinguished personage. Mr. Spitzel was not on this occasion apparently concerned to vindicate the Viceroy Li from any impropriety which had been charged against him in the Sinwanpao.  He proceeded, on the contrary, to charge Mr. Ferris with having attacked his firm in the newspaper. Mr. Ferris, as might be expected, denied that he had published any such attack, and I think he denied it, as the Court will understand, with some justice, because the connection between the firm of Messrs. Spitzel & Co., and the ex-Viceroy Li could not be considered otherwise than with credit - at any rate to Messrs. Spitzel & Co.

   Thereupon Mr. Spitzel retorted that Mr. Ferris was a liar.  About this time Mr. Ferris turned aside to address some remark to Mr. Markwick in response to something that had been said to him by that gentleman.  This was Mr. Spitzel's opportunity. He thereupon delivered two violent blows upon Mr. Ferris' left eye, and, following what I believe is the usual custom in such cases, he subsequently invited him to fight. Mr. Ferris, I need not say, declined to accept the challenge, and Mr. Spitzel having threatened that if he (Mr. Ferris) repeated the publication of such paragraphs, he would thrash him within an inch of his life, went away. Mr. Ferris as soon as he recovered himself, found that he was bleeding and cut from the effects of the blow, proceeded to Dr. Lalcaca, who attended him, and he has now brought this charge. I shall call Mr. Ferris to ask him to state what took place.

   Mr. F. F. Ferris, having been sworn, was examined by Mr. McNeil. He described himself as the editor of the Sinwanpao. Last month he published some paragraphs referring to a foreign firm at Tientsin and its connections with the son of a high Chinese official. He now produced translations of those paragraphs, which referred to the son of Viceroy Li engaged in business. By the foreign firm was meant Yuen-fung-shun (Messrs. Spitzel & Co.). The last paragraph appeared on the 27th March, and upon that day the defendant met complainant outside his (complainant's) door and said: "Why do you attack my 

firm in your paper?" Complainant replied that he had not done so; he had not mentioned witness's hong name, but had used Chinese characters with a similar sound. Defendant then said: "You are a liar, and if you don't stop attacking my firm in your paper I will thrash you within an inch of your life." 

   Just then Mr. Markwick said something and complainant turned round. The defendant then struck him twice and asked him (complainant) to fight, which he refused to do. Then Spitzel said: "I am an American, and you are a coward." Markwick and Spitzel went away, while he (complainant) went to see Dr. Lalcaca, as he was bleeding.  [Dr. Lalcaca, see The Spectator, 10 July,1909, page 17.]

   Some time last year Mr. Spitzel sent an advertisement to complainant's 

office, and he (complainant) went to see him about it. Mr. Spitzel then complained about a certain paragraph and asked him where the information came from. Complainant said he got it from Tientsin, and declined to disclose the correspondent's name. Complainant offered to correct any mistake in it, but 

the defendant said it was not necessary. He did not say it was incorrect.

   By His Honour - I published the statements in the paragraphs, of which I have put in translations, on my own responsibility. The firm referred to is Spitzel & Co. My motive in publishing them was to draw attention to Chinese law.

   Was it necessary for you to discredit a foreign firm in Shanghai in order to show what Chinese law was? - No. 

   Then why did you do it? - I don't see any discredit in it.

   Are these all the publications you made? - Yes.

   The defendant at this point handed in some documents.

   By his Honour - Did that (produced) appear in your paper? - Yes, something to that effect; I am not sure.

   Well, Mr. Ferris, in this paper you charge this firm with deliberate dishonesty? - I say it is a rumour from Tientsin.

   You charge them with an act which, if they committed it, stamped them as dishonest.  Now, is that part of the office of a journalist to go into a man's private business and expose it in the newspaper? - If it is dishonest, yes.

   Do you consider that is the legitimate office of a journalist? - I do.

   Would you consider it legitimate to go into the office of your attorney, there uncover his private transactions and publish them in your newspaper? - If it is true.

   And you expect when you do that that you are to be allowed to do it with impunity, and you are not to be held responsible for it? - I am held responsible for it.

   A newspaper is an educator of the pubic. Its object is to enlighten the public; to encourage a high-toned public sentiment - but do you think that can be done by going into the private office of gentlemen in Shanghai and searching into their business and publishing it in your newspaper? - I do not go into their private offices.

   Do you think it right to examine into the private affairs of a firm and make it public? - No.

   But you have done so in this case? - It is only rumour.

   That makes it worse. It shows your indifference to the character of men by publishing a serious charge like this upon rumour? - It came from a correspondent in Tientsin who is reliable.

   Suppose one of those gentlemen present now (pointing to the reporters) who have papers, heard a remark about you and published it, without first going to you and ascertaining whether it was true or not, what would you think of it? - If it was true I would have nothing to say.

   You ought to be willing to do to others as you would have them do to you.

   Mr. McNeill said the witness was trying to say, that if a rumour were true it should be published. Of course the publisher ran the risk of action for libel if it were not true.

   The defendant cross-examined the complainant with the object of showing that the latter denied that Messrs. Spitzel and Co. were mentioned by name, and thus by implication calling him (the defendant) a liar when he complained about the paragraph. He admitted striking the defendant but not when his attention was attracted by Markwick.

   His Honour remarked that Mr. Ferris seemed to have exercised a great deal of industry in investigating the firm's affairs, published dates and numbers of cheques alleged to have passed.

   Dr. Cawas Lalcaca, L.M., L.R.C.P. (Lond.), said that when Mr. Ferris came to him on the 27th he had a contusion at the centre of the left eye, accompanied by a certain amount of laceration. Judging from the handkerchief complainant showed it must have bled freely. He said it was the effect of a blow from Mr. Spitzl and asked witness to appear in Court. Witness said it was only a small matter and they might settle it out of Court. The blow must have been a hard one to cause that injury.

   Mr. Adolph Spitzel, the defendant took the stand and was duly sworn. He said - Mr. Ferris had made it his business to blackmail people in Shanghai.

   His Honour said the defendant must not speak in such a way.

   Defendant - Mr. Ferris has thought it necessary to attack me in his paper every time he got a chance. Last summer he attacked me several times, until I did not think it worth while taking notice of him. One day he came to my office - I did not send for him -  but he came there and I suppose for a little squeeze.

   His Honour again stopped the defendant.

   Defendant went on to say that he spoke to Mr. Ferris about the paragraph.  And as he said he would not repeat such reports, defendant was quite content to let the thing pass over. But recently paragraphs had again commenced and he (defendant) went to the office to remonstrate. He said to Mr. Ferris: "Why do you attack me in your paper?" Mr. Ferris said: "If it is true."   Defendant said: "I never allow a white man to call m a liar and I won't allow you," and he thereupon struck the complainant.

   Cross-examined by Mr. McNeill, defendant said he struck Ferris because he called him a liar. He (defendant) spoke to him very quietly and used the best English he could.

   Mr. McNeill - Was the information published in the paper true?

   Defendant - If it was true I would not go and ask him about it.

   Mr. McNeill - I think I must ask you to tell the Court whether the statements were true or not?

   Defendant - I don't want to make any statement at all; and I decline to answer.

   His Honour - Just say yes or no.

   Defendant - There is nothing true about it.

   Mr. McNeill in addressing the Court pointed out that the alleged provocation for the assault was a paragraph which did not relate to Spitzel & Co. by the Chinese characters correctly representing their hong name, but which actually did attack high Chinese officials. If Mr. Ferris, as editor, had done anything unbecoming, the aggrieved parties had their remedy at law by civil or criminal action. The learned advocate was commenting upon the business relation of Messrs. Spitzel & Co. with high Chinese officials.

   His Honour observed - You are so complimentary to Mr. Spitzel that I expect he will be willing to pay a big fine. (Laughter.)

   Mr. McNeill - That is what I suggest he should be asked by the court to do. (Renewed laughter.)

   His Honour in giving his decision said - The Court decides first, that the evidence shows that at the conversation in his office Mr. Spitzel did complain of these attacks. Mr. Ferris says Mr. Spitzel did not complain, but substantiates the fact the attack was alluded to, and the circumstances show that it was natural for Mr. Spitzel to complain; that he gave Mr. Ferris notice not to attack him any more in the paper. 

   The Court further holds that Mr. Ferris knew he was attacking Spitzel & Co., that he meant to attack them and that it was his purpose to disparage the firm, and that he investigated the private affairs of that firm as far as he could for the purpose of injuring them.

   The Court holds that that is not the legitimate sphere of a journalist. 

   It further holds that it was natural for Mr. Spitzel to go to Mr. Ferris' office for the purpose of complaining against these attacks. Mr. Ferris says that Mr. Spitzel made the attack upon him there at his office when he was not on his guard. Mr. Spitzel says he approached Mr. Ferris and protested, and requested him to desist from these attacks, whereupon Mr. Ferris stated that he was not telling the truth. To say that a man is a liar makes him equally guilty with the man who resents the lie by a blow. That is the law.

   The Court has no jurisdiction over Mr. Ferris, and it holds that Mr. Ferris was as guilty in provoking the blow as Mr. Spitzel in giving the blow. 

   The Court is disposed to be governed by the view taken by the doctor. That is, that it is an affair which should have been settled outside. As it is brought before this Court I will decide it. I fine Mr. Spitzel one dollar, and costs.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School