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Colonial Cases

Sultan, 1882

[fraud - assault]

Sultan, alias Abraham

Mixed Court or Austrian Consular Court, Shanghai

Source: North China Herald, 23 September 1882



     The case of the soi-disant Rev. Sergius Sultan alias Abraham, was heard at the Austrian Consulate-General yesterday afternoon before Chen, Magistrate of the Mixed Court, and Mr. Haas.  The prisoner affirms himself to be a Nestorian presbyter, a native of Persia, sent by the Church he represents to try and discover traces of early Nestorianism in Mongolia, the language of which country, he says, has an affinity with Syria.  He was arrested, however, some days ago on a charge of obtaining money under false pretences and also of beating and ill-using a lady whom he called his wife.  After a few preliminary questions with regard to his nationality and antecedents, the Chinese Magistrate asked whether he was a married man.   He replied, yes; that he had married a Miss Alice King a few years before in Australia, and that two children had been born to them.  Chen then asked whether he was on good terms with his wife.  The prisoner looked bashful, and said he did not like to make a direct reply; Australia women, however, he added, were generally of very bad dispositions. The Consul enquired how it was he was staying at the London Tavern, such a place not being very suitable for a clergyman.  The prisoner said because he considered it the best and most respectable hostelry on the coast; moreover, there were persons living there with whom he could converse, as he understood the languages they spoke, while he did not understand English sufficiently well to feel at home in the Temperance Hall.  To an enquiry from Chen about the wife-beating he replied that he preferred not  to say anything about the woman, except that she had been his wife for two years and a half and that they had come to China together from Australia in the same cabin, first class. The magistrate was anxious to know whether he had been married in church.  He had not, he said; they had sworn on the Bible, in the presence of a witness, to live faithfully as man and wife together.  The magistrate considered that the 'witness' in question was no doubt what was called a go-between in China.

 The prisoner further stated in answer to enquiries from the Bench, that he was forty-eight years old; that he had no intention to take his wife to Mongolia with him, but to leave her in Chefoo with the child, who was in bad health; and pleaded Not Guilty to both charges.  The magistrate here begged to leave the conduct of the case in the hands of Mr. Haas, who thereupon questioned the prisoner as to the sums of money he had collected in Singapore, Hongkong, and other places.  The prisoner declined to give any information upon this head, averring that nobody in Shanghai had a right to call him to account for what he had done elsewhere.  He said at last that he had devoted part of the money to his personal expenses, and intended to pay his way to Mongolia with other portions of it.  When asked how he proposed to travel in China and Mongolia, without knowing any Chinese, he replied that he was conversant with Arabic, and expected to fall in with Mohammedans who would  be able to speak with him in that tongue.  He declined to say where his money was, or how much he had.  

 Mr. Stripling here remarked that he had been collecting money all over the world on false pretences; to which the prisoner rejoined that he was responsible to his own Church for the funds he received, and recognised no authority in Shanghai to enquire into matters which had taken place anywhere else.  He acknowledged having been once before a Court already, on the same charge.  He had been admitted to bail, but had made off in the meantime. That was in Australia.

 He had always represented himself as a Nestorian minister, and said that the contributions he solicited were for schools.  He considered $300 quite enough to take him to Mongolia and back, his "missis" included.  He intended only to travel about here and there and try to find men who could read the Syriac character.  If his money proved insufficient, he should just do the best he could - see if any benevolent brother would help him.

  The magistrate here interposed a question.  Had he passed any examination, or taken a degree? To this he replied fluently in Latin, which he said he had learnt in his own country, affirming that he was an educated man. Questions were then put to him respecting the different sums he had collected, which amounted to several hundred dollars altogether; and the Consul again asked him why he should have chosen to put up at the London Tavern instead of at some more respectable place. The prisoner replied in a loud voice and with somewhat dramatic gestures, De gustibus non est disputandum; and the Consul acknowledged the conclusiveness of the reply.

 The prisoner was then removed, and Alice King appeared, holding in her arms a child some few months old.  She said that she was not married to Mr. Sultan. She had lived with him for three years, and had two children by him, one of which was dead.  They had met in Sydney.  He was keeping a boarding-house, three young Indians living with him.  He had very little money at that time.  He went one day to a Protestant Registration Office, and engaged her as his housekeeper, saying that she would have very little to do, for there was somebody else to do the tough work, and that her wages would be eight shillings a week.  He then had a girl living in the house, but she ran away in a very short time.  He had promised to marry the witness several times, offering to take her to church and get an Episcopal clergyman to perform the service properly; but he never did so.  In fact he was, and is now, married to as Jewess who keeps a greengrocer's shop in Kent street, and who goes by the name of Mrs. Abraham. He had only lived with the greengrocer for seven days, however.  He used to ill-use the witness much worse in Australia that he had done here; kicking and beating her severely. He has a terrible temper, said the witness, but he is not an unsober man.  He only drinks brandy and porter occasionally7, but then he begins abusing her.  When he assaulted her the other day, Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs, the proprietors of the Tavern, was present. He struck her with his fists, and the witness took up a bottle of milk to defend herself with in her anger, but could scarcely tell what she did with it.   The Consul here asked the witness whether she would like to go on living with him, or whether she would prefer to separate. She replied she hardly knew; she had lived with him now some time, and had had two children by him, and she was the only man she had ever cohabited with.  When questioned about the Chefoo and Mongolia project, she said she had heard nothing of it at all.  He had never mentioned any such thing to her.  He had told her, in the contrary, that he was coming to Shanghai to try and make enough money to enable him to go to Saigon and open a hotel there.  But hr often expressed fears lest he should be found out. On arrival at Shanghai, he told her to say that they had come from New York.  He was dreadfully afraid he might fall into the hands of the detectives, thinking that there might be a warrant awaiting him from Australia. As they landed at the wharf they saw two men standing there.  This put him into a great fright, for he thought they might be constables come to arrest him.  He said he had decided to live either on the American or the English Settlement, and dressed very shabbily indeed - like a common sailor  [The prisoner's costume in Court was scrupulously clerical.]

 Reverting to domestic matters, the witness said that the prisoner was separated from the greengrocer.  He had married her because he was in mortal terror of her.  Afterwards he always put on spectacles when he passed her house.  He told her (witness) that he was a Roman Catholic - Chen here asked whether Miss King considered that Sultan had cheated her.  She replied, Yes, she did; they had never sworn on the Bible at all.  He had ill-used her so that she often went to the police in Melbourne; then he used to cry, and they got reconciled again.  He had collected 5000 Pounds in London.  There was never any intention on his part to go to Mongolia.  He had called her the foulest of names, and on one occasion had threatened to murder her with a carving knife.

 The Rev. Charles Henry Judd was then examined.  He deposed that he was a member of the China Inland Mission, stationed in Shanghai.  The prisoner had come to him on Monday, when he saw him for the first time.  He represented himself as being a Nestorian minister, and expressed great interest in the Nestorian Tablet, which he said he had been to see several times at Hai-an Fu.  Mr. Judd showed him a tracing of it, in Syriac and Chinese; and the ease with which the prisoner read off the Syriac version created a favourable impression of his honesty upon witness's mind.  He also produced letters from Bishop Moule, Bishop Burdon. Rev. W. Muirhead, and other clergymen; he had received ten dollars, too, from the Rev. W. L. Groves, and all this confirmed the belief of Mr. Judd in the man's genuineness.  Mr. Judd asked him then of his doctrines.  He replied that he laid no stress on sectarian dogma or questions of Church government; he simply believed that the blood of Jesus Christ was efficacious for the remission of sins.   To this Mr. Judd replied by wishing him Godspeed. He (witness) gave him $100 to prosecute a journey he said he was about to undertake to Mongolia and Kashgar or Cashmere - there was some misunderstanding about the latter word.  This led to a conversation about his travels.  The prisoner said that he had been to Hai-an Fu on a former occasion to see the Nestorian Tablet.  It turned out, however, that he did not remember the name of a single place en route, and further made the blunder of saying he had gone part of the way in a bullock-cart.  Mr. Judd said that this made him feel rather suspicious, as there was no such thing in or near the place as a bullock-cart; the animals used were mules.  He pointed this out to the prisoner, who replied that really he didn't know the difference between the two; they were cattle - that was quite enough for him. To Mr. Judd's  questions about what interpreter he was going to take, seeing that he knew no Chinese, he replied that he had "somebody going with him;" "a person;" afterwards, he reluctantly said it was an Indian! He further told witness that he had a wife and children and had left them in Persia; that he had not been in Australia in his life.  He confessed afterwards however that he had been married in Australia to his present wife, who had lived with many men before and was a bad character. When Mr. Judd offered to put him up in his own house the prisoner declined, stating that he was living free of expense on board the steamer.

 Here the prisoner was brought into the Court again, and confronted by the witness.  In reply to the glaring inconsistencies and contradictions that had been thus proved against him, he contented himself with saying that he had been so confused that he had not known what he said.  His knowledge of English was imperfect, and he might have been betrayed into making contradictory statements. In some instances he confessed that he had said things that were not true. As regards the accusation brought against him by Miss King, he remarked that he would never deny anything she said; he would submit entirely to her statements.  He was again removed.

 Mr. Jacobs, landlord of the London Tavern, was then called.  His evidence dealt almost exclusively with the alleged assault by the prisoner upon Miss King.  He deposed that he had seen the lady throw a bottle of milk at Mr. Sultan's head, and that it had struck him on the thigh.  She had also screamed terribly, and he had tried in vain to pacify her.  He had not seen the prisoner beat her.  The prisoner on arriving at the Tavern had said that he was the High Priest of Protestantism at Damascus. The witness went into many details of the scuffle, and was subjected to a severe cross-examination at the hands of Mr. Haas, who warned him against prevarication.  The witness, who was of the Jewish persuasion, replied that the day was a high religious festival, and that he would not dare to speak anything but the truth on such an occasion. His evidence however was firmly rebutted by Miss King, who said he was telling a lot of stories. The testimony of the two speakers was here diametrically opposed, Miss King asserting positively that he had been in the room while the prisoner was striking her, and he affirming that he had come in afterwards and saw nothing whatever of the assault.

 The prisoner was here recalled.  He flatly refused to give any account of his money, saying that it was in the hands of friends and was to be devoted to the welfare of his child.  He made several statements, many of which were disproved by the police. With regard to the charge brought against him in Australia, he was brought to acknowledge, after many evasions, that the lawyer he engaged was a Freemason, and as a member of the same Lodge had told him he had better abscond.

  He will be brought up in a day or two before Chen for sentence.  At the rising of the Court he kissed his child as it lay in the mother's arms, and wept considerably.  

  The proceedings were conducted in English, French, German, Latin and Chinese.


North China Herald, 11 October 1882

The 'Reverend' Sergius Ischan Sultan, the soi-disant Nestorian missionary, was to have been brought up for sentence at the Mixed Court on Saturday last, but in consequence of the illness of Mr. Haas, the foreign Assessor who assisted in conducting the trial, the proceedings were conducted at the Austrian Consulate.  Mr. Chen arrived about 2 p.m., and together with Mr. Haas, took his seat at the table.  Messrs. Stripling and Fowler appeared as prosecutors; the prisoner, in clerical attire, was escorted by Sergeant Mack, and Miss Alice King with her child and the Rev, C. H. Judd were in attendance as witnesses.  After Mr. Chen had delivered an address in Chinese Mr. Haas informed the prisoner that by the laws of China he had been found guilty of vagrancy and of obtaining money from people under false pretences, and that he was amenable to those laws in consequence of the nation to which he belonged having no treaty with China.  

 The sentence was one month's imprisonment, to count from the date of his arrest (20th Sept.) and to be deported from the eighteen provinces of China.  Mr. Haas  remarked that the sentence was a much more lenient one than the prisoner deserved, and that he was indebted to the magistrate for such leniency. He hoped it would prove a lesson to the prisoner for his whole life, and cautioned him never to return to China. Mr. Haas concluded by saying that the documents found on the prisoner would be returned by the police to those who issued them.  

The prisoner was then removed, and Miss Alice King was called into Court.  Mr. Haas informed her that the Chinese authorities would provide her with a passage ticket to whatever place she desired to go, and sufficient money to meet necessary expenses. The lady then thanked Mr. Haas and withdrew.

 We hear that the prisoner is at present detained in the Hongkew Station, and that he was greatly surprised at the lightness of his sentence, as well he may be.


North China Herald, 1 October 1882


THE sentence passed upon the Rev. Sergius Sultan for assault and systematic embezzlement of funds is undoubtedly a very lenient one. According to Chinese law, by which he is supposed to have been tried, he was liable to receive severe castigation with the bamboo; while had he been brought before an English tribunal upon English soil, a prolonged term of imprisonment would have been considered no more than his just due.  But the circumstances under which he was apprehended were of a peculiar nature.  There seemed to be no formal prosecutor at whose instance the arrest was made - we speak now of the charge of embezzlement exclusively - the Rev. Charles Judd having only consented, we believe, to appear against him at the request of the police and in the interest of public justice.  None of the witnesses were sworn, and there was some shrewdness in the prisoner's refusal to recognize the right of a Chinese Magistrate in Shanghai to cross-question him about what he was alleged to have done in Australia.

But for all this the public are deeply indebted to the police for the service they have rendered in stopping the career of one of the most plausible swindlers that have ever come to China.  It is easy to understand the somewhat enthusiastic welcome accorded to Mr. Sultan by the clergymen and consuls whom he duped.  There are few more interesting chapters in the history of Christian missions than that which deals with the introduction of the Nestorian form of Christianity into China during the early portion of the Tang dynasty.  The celebrated Nestorian Tablet of Hai-an Fu is certainly one of the most valuable relics of antiquity that have been found in the empire.  Many are the pilgrimages that have been made by Christian missionaries, of Jewish parentage and other, to K'au-feng Fu to investigate the remains of the Chinese Jews; and now, when a real live Nestorian, armed with the highest certificates from Bishops and Patriarchs, an undoubted native of Armenia, and abler to discourse fluently in Latin and Syriac, presents himself on a similar voyage of discovery to the seat of the old Nestorian triumphs in China, it is no more than natural that he should be received with open arms by the clergy.  The impression he seems to have made on the occasion of his first visit was favourable in the extreme.   At one church in Shanghai he was even admitted to a seat behind the communion-rails, and invited to supplement the preacher's sermon by an account of the great evangelising work in which he was engaged in Persia.   The few who doubted the veracity of the interesting visitor were reproached with wicked want of charity towards a most excellent and earnest evangelical, and it cannot be denied that the many who believed in him had a good deal to show in support of their faith.  

With great cleverness he had traded on each testimonial he received to procure others, and it is whimsical to read the cordial letters and subscriptions he obtained under these circumstances from so goodly an array of reverend, very reverend, and right reverend, divines, all of whom seem to have been much fascinated by the learning of their visitor as  well as by the interesting object he had in view, supported as he was by the certificates of several Consuls and officers of Government.,

The first idea  that occurs to one's mind is a condemnation of these gentlemen for so readily placing on record their faith in a man of whom they knew absolutely nothing; but again it must be remembered that nothing could have been more plausible, more apparently genuine and satisfactory, than the tale he told, and that the faith of one well-known missionary's name naturally led to a similar mark of confidence being given by the next applied to.  The real career of the impostor is both instructive and extraordinary.  It is very possible that he may have started originally as a bona fide clergyman, and then fallen gradually into misappropriation of funds and  eventually into a system of deliberate swindling; or it may be that, like another of whom we have heard, he was a liar from the beginning.  Certainly his proceedings  during the last few years have not been characterized by much diplomacy.  At the very time that he was collecting for the Persian Relief Fund he was living a disreputable life in Australia, having married a  Jewish lady connected with the greengrocery ineptest and cohabiting at the same time with the unfortunate young woman he engaged as his house-keeper. It was apparently his brutal treatment of this person which led to his detection, and while it is difficult to clear her of all blame as having been to a certain extent his accomplice, though we are sure a victimised and unwilling one, there is no doubt that her lot has been very far from enviable.  It is to be hoped that some opportunity will be given her to start in a less questionable career than that she has hitherto pursued, and that the withdrawal from Sultan of the certificates on which he had been trading will at least prevent him from practising any further imposition upon credulous and charitable folk.

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