From the Desk of Scott D. Seligman: Uncovering a Compelling Story

Seligman_ScottScott D. Seligman is a writer and historian. He is the author of several books, including Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York’s Chinatown and The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, and the China Business Review, among other publications. He has worked as a legislative assistant to a member of the U.S. Congress, lobbied the Chinese government on behalf of American business, and managed a multinational public relations agency in China. His new book The Third Degree: The Triple Murder That Shook Washington and Changed American Criminal Justice is now available. 

Most of my recent works of nonfiction center on the early Chinese-American experience. It’s a topic that blends several of my interests—American history, Chinese, research and writing—and is something of an underserved area. There hasn’t been all that much written about Chinese-American history, and what exists has largely been sensationalized. Since my last book was about true crime in New York’s Chinatown, I decided to stick with that genre. And, on the lookout for a new topic, I turned to my favorite source for ideas: old newspapers.

The digital age has brought us keyword searchable archives of historical papers. These underappreciated resources permit comprehensive searches that would have been quite impossible twenty years ago. You can conduct them from a home PC, and you can find sources that would otherwise take years to discover in a library with a microfilm reader—if you could locate them at all.

I found my way to the compelling story of a young man accused of murder in Washington, DC in 1919 from a search for “Chinese” and “murder” on the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website. Three Chinese diplomats had been shot to death and the DC police could find no obvious motive or leads. But once they zeroed in on their one and only suspect, a Chinese student living in New York, they held him incommunicado in a hotel room without formal arrest for more than a week until they had browbeaten him into a confession.

I eventually unearthed a couple of thousand articles about his interrogation, his trial, his conviction and his appeal and immersed myself in interviews, memoirs and trial transcripts, which are fabulous resources when you’re writing narrative nonfiction. But I was months into the research before I realized that the verdict in his case, which was eventually reversed by the Supreme Court, had implications far beyond his own personal fortunes.

Most story-behind-the-court-case books get their start when a legal scholar works backwards from a landmark decision to discover the underlying story that gave rise to it. But I came at this in exactly the opposite way—it was the story that had grabbed me. As a non-attorney, I wasn’t entirely prepared to write a book that is, in part, about constitutional law. So I sought help from several attorneys familiar with criminal and constitutional legal matters.

In the process of researching the topic, I got to peek at the docket book in which the votes of the Supreme Court justices were recorded. I reviewed notes exchanged among them before the ruling was finalized. And at the National Archives, I perused Justice Louis Brandeis’ handwritten drafts of the ruling—there were ten in all before he was satisfied with his work.

Along the way, I met descendants of one of the victims, some of whom have become treasured friends. That has been an immediate reward for my efforts.

I’m especially grateful to Potomac Books for publishing the book on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the crime that, in a very real sense, set the stage for the famous Miranda v. Arizona decision several decades later—the one that gave rise to the Miranda warnings we hear on nearly every TV crime drama, and that we all know nearly by heart.

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