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Colonial Cases

Moh Kwei-Too, 1899

[arson - insurance fraud]


Moh Kwei-Too

Mixed Court, Shanghai
Weng and Mayers, May 1899
Source: North China Herald, 1 May 1899




   At the Mixed Court on Wednesday morning before Mr. Weng (magistrate) and Mr. S. F. Mayers (British assessor), Moh Kwei-too, tailor, surrendered to his bail of $5,000 to answer to the charge of feloniously setting fire to his shop No. 334 Woochang Road, on the 22nd inst. with intent to obtain the insurance thereon. A basket of bamboo shavings soaked in kerosene and a 4-gallon tin of kerosene found on the premises were brought into Court. Four servants in the employ of the defendant appeared to give evidence. Inspector Ramsay had charge of the prosecution, and Mr. W. A. C. Platt (Stokes & Platt) appeared on behalf of the Imperial and Commercial Union Fire Insurance Company.

   P.C. 36 was first called and stated that he first saw the fire at 4.30 on the morning of the 22nd inst. and that at the time he was in Szechuen Road and from 200 to 300 yards distant, and was from two to three minutes getting to the scene. On arriving he discovered smoke issuing from the door of the accused's shop. He immediately broke into the premises and tried to arouse the inmates, if any. He could hear nothing above the crackling of the burning wood and could see nothing for the smoke. 

   Examined by Mr. Mayers, the constable stated that the door was barred in the inside by a wooden bar, that there was no blaze in the front room but that the flames were about to work through and that the smoke was too dense to allow him to look for inmates.  He was quite satisfied there was no fire in the house at the rear, and that the fire bells rang about two minutes after his arrival.

   Mr. E. W. Sharples, foreman of the Mih-ho-loongs, was next asked to give evidence, said that he resided close by the scene of the fire and first heard the police-man's whistles; he did not take the time but was told by his people that it was 4.30 as stated. He looked from his window and saw smoke issuing from the roof at the back of the shop, pointing out the spot on the plan of the building laid before the Court. 

   Questioned by the Assessor,  he asserted that the smoke issued from the back of the store; that he went up the alleyway to look for a good place to play the hose and that at the time there was no fire in the house at the back; that had the hose arrived earlier the house at the rear (No. 172) would have been saved. 

   The evidence as given was then interpreted to the magistrate.

   Mr. L. J. Cubitt's evidence was next taken. He stated that he was the foreman of the Salvage Corps and corroborated the previous accounts of the fire. A packet of empty J. & P. cotton boxes, intended to represent part of stock, were brought into Court which Mr. Cubitt admitted having saved. 

   In reply to Mr. Mayers he started that the prisoner's stock was of little value and that he had probably from 30 to 30 rolls of cloth on the premises, besides a quantity of very inferior soap, scent, etc., and, on being shown the plan, stated that he believed the fire originated on the spot marked by the police. 

   The servants if the prisoner then underwent a searching examination which was conducted solely in Chinese, but from an Interpreter engaged by the Insurance Companies, we learn that they stated that at the time of the outbreak,   they were sleeping in the middle room upstairs. They did not see any policeman, and were aroused by someone knocking. They came down the stairs leading out into the alleyway and at the time there was no fire in their premises.  On being asked why they did not assist the police in removing their chattels they said they were so confused they did not know where to run. The shavings, as in Court, were used for lighting the kitchen fire. They declared that the fire broke out in No. 172 Szechuen Road. 

   In cross examination they contradicted themselves regarding the declaration that there was no fire on their premises when aroused. They also said that the prisoner slept out of the house the night of the fire and the two previous nights. This was afterwards contradicted by prisoner asserting that he only slept out on the night in question and that he was in the habit of occasionally sleeping out for one night. 

   The prisoner in his defence indignantly resented the charge of arson, declaring several times that he was incapable of committing so vile an act; that his house was foreign-built and how could a fire originate there?  and that the kerosene in the shavings was owing to a leak in a lamp suspended from the ceiling.

   At the conclusion of the examination, Inspector Ramsay informed the Court that a deputation of about a dozen of the leading tailors had waited on him on the Monday morning certifying that the prisoner was a man of high moral character, had a good business, and could have no motive for firing the premises. They also stated that they were willing to give security for him.  But in the Wednesday morning Messrs. Ching Fong and Chang Chow had called on behalf of the said deputation and stated that they wished to retract all they had said, as they had since learnt that the prisoner was a man of bad character with numerous outstanding debts.

   The magistrate finding the case proved said: "You cheating devil! You can't cheat me!" and thereupon declared the prisoner guilty. In summing up he said that he wanted to be just in his dealing with so serious a charge and therefore reserved his judgment until Friday that he might consult with the Taotai.

At the Mixed Court on Friday morning before Mr. Weng (magistrate) and Mr. S. F. Mayers (British Assessor), Moh Kei-too, tailor, who was tried and found guilty on the 26th inst. of feloniously setting fire to his shop, No. 334 Woochang Road, with intent to obtain the insurance thereon, was brought up for judgment.

   On the prisoner kneeling at the bar, the magistrate said:

   "Moh Kei-too, I have visited your shop and found everything as stated by the police and others. I saw there a heap of bamboo shavings saturated with kerosene oil, and on that point I am confirmed in my suspicion that you are guilty of the charge of arson. 

   You moved your family to Ningpo in the 2nd moon. Moreover, in a store like yours where business was transacted on so large a scale you ought to have in your premises at least ten or more people, but on the morning of the fire only three persons were found. 

   At the back of your premises are three houses, and I have found that they are occupied by new tenants who are your friends.  In the middle house I also found a quantity of bamboo shavings likewise saturated with oil. 

   In your defence you stated that the fire originated in those premises, and I have examined them and found the ground floor in perfect condition and not burned at all. I have taken away some shavings from your house, and, as they are now before you, you can smell therm."

   Mr. T. R. Jernigan here interrupted the magistrate and asked leave to make a motion.

   Mr. Mayers - The case has already been tried twice, and the prisoner is found guilty; if Mr. Jernigan, on behalf of the prisoner, wishes to make any motion, he can appeal to a higher Court. We cannot allow any lawyer to come in and interrupt the proceedings after the case has been decided. No precedent has been established for such a case.

   Mr. Jernigan - I am sorry to interrupt the business of the Court, but the assertion of the British Assessor is entirely uncalled for.

   Mr. W. A. C. Platt (Stokes & Platt) representing the Imperial and Colonial Union Fire Insurance Companies, here stated that if Mr. Jernigan entered a motion he would object.

   The magistrate then, through an interpreter, informed Mr. Jernigan that the case had been tried by him and the British Assessor on the previous Wednesday, and that they had found the prisoner guilty.  Sentence was deferred until Saturday in order to communicate with the Taotai, and also to visit the scene of the fire.

   Mr. Jernigan - I have nothing personally to do with the case, but I have been asked by a friend of the prisoner to put a motion on his behalf. My motion is this, to postpone the case until Monday; my reason is that I hope to bring fresh evidence to justify a re-opening of the case. 

   The magistrate then sentenced the prisoner to one year's imprisonment with hard labour.

   Mr. Mayers hereupon informed Mr. Jernigan that if he were dissatisfied with the finding of the Court he could appeal to the Taotai.

   Mr. Jernigan then intimated he would make the appeal. 

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