The Dragon Reclaims Its Own Where the Peking Man Fossils Went

The last anyone reliably laid eyes on the original Peking Man fossils was during the packing of the specimens by technicians Hu and Ji, reported by journalists Ming-sheng Li and Nan Yue in a large compendium of the status of the search for the missing fossils published in Chinese in 2000.23 Hu recounted in a letter to Lanpo Jia in 1977 how the fossils had been packed: "We wrapped every fossil in white tissue paper, cushioned it with cotton and gauze and then over-wrapped them with white sheet paper. The packages were placed in a small wooden box with several layers of corrugated board on all sides for further protection. These boxes were then put into two big unpainted wooden crates, one the size of an office desk, the other slightly smaller."24 He then added, "We delivered the two cases to the head of Controller T. Bowen's office, at the Peking Union Medical College, and from then on none of the Chinese knew what happened to them." Controller Trevor Bowen's office was in Building B of the medical school.

There was a reason that the Chinese members of the research project were kept in the dark. As Pei later wrote, "We should be grateful to our American friends, who not only had assumed the entire responsibility for transporting 'Peking Man,' but also were prepared to shoulder the blame if they should become prisoners after the war broke out between Japan and

The front gate of Peking Union Medical College, Beijing, in the late 1930s. It was through this gate that Medical College Controller Trevor Bowen wheeled the crated Peking Man fossils to a waiting car around November 20, 1941. The fossils were reputedly delivered to the United States Legation for delivery to the U.S. Marine Corps and shipment to the United States, but no reliable accounts exist to show that they were ever seen again.

The front gate of Peking Union Medical College, Beijing, in the late 1930s. It was through this gate that Medical College Controller Trevor Bowen wheeled the crated Peking Man fossils to a waiting car around November 20, 1941. The fossils were reputedly delivered to the United States Legation for delivery to the U.S. Marine Corps and shipment to the United States, but no reliable accounts exist to show that they were ever seen again.

the United States so as not to implicate Chinese (namely myself)."25 He mentions Mr. Trevor Bowen, the controller of the Medical School, and Dr. Henry Houghton, as the primary individuals who "took care of the packing . . . as well as their transportation." The fact that there was an intermediate step between Hu and Ji's packing the fossils and the fossils leaving the Peking Union Medical School is an important detail.

According to Jia and Huang's 1990 book, Wenzhong Pei recollected that the crated fossils were moved to a strong room in another building at Peking Union Medical College—Strong Room 4 in the basement of Building F—between November 18 and 20, which was 18 to 20 days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Professor Wenzhao Ma and a worker were identified as the individuals who transported the two boxes by wheelbarrow. Jia and Huang then state simply that "it is known that on the day following the packing, the fossils were delivered to the U.S. embassy located at Dongjiaominxiang in Beijing, and since then they have been missing." No attribution is given for this information. Dr. Harry Shapiro reported in 1974 that a secretary at the medical school, Miss Mary Ferguson, had written to him to say that she had seen Mr. Bowen, the controller, taking a trunk across the marble courtyard to a waiting car at the front gate. She stated that it then "went to the U.S. Marine barracks,"26 not to the U.S. "embassy" (actually a legation, a lower-level diplomatic presence), but it is unclear how she knew this. The U.S. legation was next door to the U.S. marine barracks in Beijing.

A very different story is given in Li and Yue's 2000 book.27 According to Li and Yue, the fossils stayed in Strong Room 4 in Building F for approximately two weeks, but during that time they were repacked into redwood boxes, apparently by Mr. Bowen. No Chinese eyewitnesses attest to this repacking and no independent records from the medical school or the Rockefeller Foundation have been located to confirm this. However, this book reports a recently discovered 1945 interview of two U.S. Marine prisoners of war in Japan—a Sergeant Snider and Sergeant Jackson—who claim to have picked up two redwood boxes at Peking Union Medical College on orders from their commanding officer, Marine Lieutenant MacLiedy. Snider and Jackson said that they believed the boxes contained the bones of Peking Man. According to their detailed recounting they picked up two boxes on December 4, 1941, by truck and delivered them to the lieutenant at the Beijing U.S. marine barracks that day. They were then ordered to take the boxes to the Beijing train station the next morning and guard them all the way to their destination—the Swiss warehouse at the port city of Qinhuangdao where they were to await transport by ship to the United States. The marines reportedly arrived at Qinhuangdao late on the afternoon of December 5, deposited the boxes safely, and left by rickshaw to spend the night at nearby U.S. marine Camp Holcomb. They returned to Beijing by train the next day.

There are still other versions of what happened to the fossils. In one story, discussed in Shapiro's 1974 book and promulgated by former Marine Captain William Foley, M.D., a neighbor of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in Beijing and later a New York cardiologist, the fossils were packed in his personal baggage for transport to the United States. He claimed that the baggage with the fossils had been sent by train to Camp Holcomb, where he and his detachment were all captured on the morning of the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 8, 1941, Beijing time). Other reports claimed that the fossils never made it to Camp Holcomb or to Qinhuangdao, but had been captured by the Japanese en route and thrown out by troops ransacking the train, who were unaware of their significance. Other reports that the fossils had been loaded onto the scheduled ship, the SS President Harrison, which had then been sunk, were found to be erroneous. Records showed that well before the Harrison ever reached port it had been intentionally run aground at the mouth of the Yangtsze River by the captain to avoid capture by the Japanese.28

Deciding which of these conflicting versions of the disposition of the Peking Man fossils is more likely is difficult, but discrepancies in some of the stories make some less plausible than others.

William Foley's claim that the fossils were packed in glass jars makes his story unlikely. This manner of packing would be very unusual for paleon-tological specimens and does not match Mr. Hu's detailed description of how he had wrapped and packed the fossils. Glass jars seem to have been first mentioned by Colonel William Ashurst, Dr. Foley's superior and commander of the U.S. Marine detachment at the Beijing U.S. embassy, to whom the fossils had reputedly been entrusted. Author Ruth Moore in her 1953 book Men, Time, and Fossils states that Dr. Henry Houghton made the request of Colonel Ashurst. Dr. Foley had demanded from Lanpo Jia a meeting with top officials in China before he would discuss more details of what he might have known. Such a request struck Jia as arrogant and he was quoted as saying that it "made me really angry."29 It also suggests an ulterior motive for Foley's claims regarding the high-visibility Peking Man fossils. In any event, Jia was unable to arrange such a meeting and Foley died in 1992 without divulging what if anything he might have known.

The story of the two marines interviewed in 1945 is not verified by another source. Jackson died of pneumonia in Japan and Snider died in an automobile accident in the United States after his release from Japan at the end of the war. Their story does accord with many other details, except

Chief Excavator Lanpo Jia at Longgushan on November 2, 1936.

that their description of the boxes as being made of redwood does not agree with Hu's reliable description of white unpainted boxes. And the marines never saw what the boxes that they had transported contained. The boxes picked up by these two marines could have been two unrelated shipments from the medical school to the United States.

It is worth noting the close similarities between the story related by the two marines and the supposedly fictional account written by Weidenreich's former secretary, Claire Taschdjian in 1977 (The Peking Man Is Missing). Taschdjian was in Beijing throughout the war years. Jia and Dr. Yang met her by accident on a Beijing street in 1947, when she told them that Japanese military police had arrested her and taken her to search a number of warehouses in Tianjin during the war.30 In her "novel," two marines, one of whom is named "Snyder," conspire to switch the fossils with a shipment of laboratory glassware and hijack them to the United States. "Kathy," Tasch-djian's semiautobiographical heroine, is responsible for inadvertently introducing the hijackers to the fossils in the medical school through her romantic involvement with one of the marines—the one who later died of pneumonia, both in the book and for real in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Hokkaido. The fossils in Taschdjian's book were kept throughout the war in China by the wife of a heroin dealer who had masterminded the heist and then died unexpectedly. She then married a diplomat and eventually brought the fossils to New York when he was transferred to the United Nations. The fanciful finale of the novel includes the murder of the heroine and the accidental death of the surviving hijacker. The Peking Man relics end up being smashed in a garbage compactor by the heroine's disgruntled and superstitious landlady, and finally taken off by a garbage truck to the New York City dump.

Taschdjian's book is an imaginative attempt to make up a fleshed-out, plausible explanation that fits most of the facts of the Peking Man case. Even Christopher Janus's then recently published encounter (in a 1975 book by Janus and Brashler) with the mysterious "Empire State Lady," who claimed to have inherited the fossils as a legacy from her late husband, finds an explanation. In real life Claire Taschdjian, who died in 1998, believed that the fossils were eventually discovered at Qinhuangdao by Japanese soldiers. She thought that the Japanese may have considered the bones to represent the ultimate ancestors of the Chinese, and they dumped the relics into the bay as an insult to the country and its people.31

One final category of possibilities is that the Peking Man fossils were buried somewhere to prevent their discovery. Ralph von Koenigswald had buried most of his fossils in Java and managed to conceal them effectively from the Japanese army. Li and Yue reported an interview with a Japanese army doctor who claimed that he took part in burying the Peking Man fossils.32 These had been found by the Japanese and were buried before they evacuated Beijing. Strangely, he added that the preserved internal organs of Chinese political leader Sun Yat-sen (who had died at Peking Union Medical College Hospital in 1925) were buried along with the Peking Man fossils. The location was about two kilometers east of the medical school near an old tree. Chinese authorities took his story seriously enough to excavate down to a depth of more than a meter and a half a large area around an old tree located two kilometers from the medical school. Nothing was found.

Another scenario was recently suggested by Christopher Janus, the U.S. entrepreneur who undertook a search for the missing Peking Man fossils in the 1970s.33 Some time after Janus published his book he was contacted by a hospitalized man in Texas. The man, a Mr. Innes, identified himself as a former marine in China and he said that he had wanted to pass on information about the Peking Man fossils before he died. He recounted to Mr. Janus that he had been on guard duty at the Beijing marine compound one night just before the Pearl Harbor attack. While he was having a cigarette break two marines came through the gate around midnight carrying two trunks. They left shortly thereafter without the trunks. Innes presumed that they had buried the trunks somewhere within the marine compound. He also guessed that the trunks contained the bones of Peking Man. Mr. Janus was not aware of any systematic attempt to search the site of the former U.S. marine compound in Beijing for the missing fossils.34

This story of possible U.S. marine hijacking of the Peking Man fossils finds some support in an opinion expressed by James Stewart-Gordon, an editor of Reader's Digest Magazine who undertook research on the disappearance of the Peking Man fossils.35 Mr. Stewart-Gordon notes that the U.S. marines stationed in China just before World War II were a rowdy lot, notorious for using drugs, taking "cumshaw" (bribes), and having the highest venereal disease rate in the U.S. military. It is not unlikely in his opinion that one or more of the U.S. marines assigned to guard the fossils actually absconded with them or perhaps switched footlockers. The marines may then have been taken prisoner and died during the war, taking the knowledge of the fossils' whereabouts with them. The scenario again recalls the plot of Claire Taschdjian's novel, it could explain the reticence of Dr. Foley to disclose everything he knew about the fossils, and it is not incompatible with the stories of the captured U.S. marines interviewed in 1945 in Japan. If such an event occurred it is easy to see why the United States would not be forthcoming with such embarrassing information.

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Responses

  • Baldassarre
    What happen to the peking man?
    8 years ago
  • lily-rose
    What happened to the Peking Man after Camp Holcomb?
    8 years ago

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