“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Truly Criminal – A 1907 Murder in the Shanghai Trenches, the sad case of Eliza Shapera

Posted: April 23rd, 2015 | 3 Comments »

I’m delighted to be a contributor to the new true crime anthology from the UK Crime Writers’ Association – Truly Criminal. My contribution – A Murder in the Shanghai Trenches – is the true story of the 1907 murder of Eliza Shapera, a Jewish woman of dubious virtue, a prostitute, probably trafficked from Russia in the then notorious red light area of Scott Road in Hongkew, aka The Trenches. The murder was investigated by two veteran detectives of the Shanghai Municipal Police Detective-Sergeant Thomas Idwal Vaughn and Detective-Inspector John McDowell. Their investigation took them into the heart of The Trenches and the brothels of the area and their suspects included a mysterious Indian pimp, two Chinese house thieves and various Chinese and European prostitutes. It was a major cause celebre at the time and highlighted the dark underbelly of turn of the century Shanghai, a world of vice and crime that was to make the city notorious as it grew and festered throughout the first half of the twentieth century up to the Second World War. I’ve based my reinvestigation of the case on the newspaper articles and court documents of the time and, I think, that even after more than a century we can now see quite clearly who killed Eliza, and why they did it….

I’ve added some additional background on old Shanghai’s districts of sin and murder as well as an excerpt from the piece here on the Los Angeles Review of Books China blog and an interview on the case of Eliza Shapera and writing about old Shanghai on RTHK Radio 3 in Hong Kong…..


Truly Criminal

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3 Comments on “Truly Criminal – A 1907 Murder in the Shanghai Trenches, the sad case of Eliza Shapera”

  1. 1 David Walsh said at 11:01 pm on April 27th, 2018:

    Hi hope you a re still doing your stuff on China, Shanghai in particular. I’ve just had a holiday over there. In the course of which I remembered my mother telling me about John McDowell, her uncle and my grandmother’s brother. They hailed from Achill in County Mayo. So all I was wondering is whether you have any more information on this character. It can only be him who is mentioned in the article above. I’ve tried to find further mention to no avail. Would be good to find out some facts as there is talk of a scandal and dismissal involving a child out of wedlock. All disappearing in the mists of time. Some of the next generation are trying to piece together some family history and John McDowell could be an intriguing chapter. Fyi My mother’s father was Joseph Polke of Ballycastle County Mayo, his ancestor a few times removed I think was James Knox Polk 11th President of USA. Anyway if you can throw any light on the mysterious John McD we will all be extremely grateful.

  2. 2 Celia Budge said at 2:03 am on March 2nd, 2019:

    Thomas Idwal Vaughan was my grandfather’s uncle. Grandad also joined the Shanghai Municipal Police Force because of Tivvy’s adventures!

  3. 3 Gwilym Fychan (Vaughan) said at 1:34 am on September 15th, 2020:

    Thomas Idwal Vaughan was also my great grandfather’s cousin. My father’s name was also Thomas Idwal Vaughan, named after Thomas Idwal Vaughan Shanghai (but known to my father as Uncle Idwal China). I remember a wallet that my father had, and the only thing I knew about it was that it was a present from Uncle Idwal China, either to him or to my grandfather. My father’s cousin also had an identical wallet, with an oriental scene on the front.

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