Crown Hill — America’s third-largest public cemetery — has a few hundred thousand stories to tell. One of its more extraordinary burials took place in 1902, when a Confucian ceremony officially ushered Doc Lung, a murdered Chinese laundryman, into whatever mystery awaits us on the yonder side of death.
That summer, August Diener & Sons, tombstone makers, erected a “modest white marble marker” over the dead man’s grave. The carved inscription, later inlaid with gold leaf, was written and traced onto the stone by a man named Moy Kee. Official leader of Indianapolis’ tiny Chinese community at the turn of the century, Moy Kee ran a popular Chinese restaurant at 508 East Washington Street and a tea store and confectionery at 19 Massachusetts Avenue. As HI’s Joan Hostetler has already uncovered, Moy the restaurateur, who moved to America in the wake of the California Gold Rush, was also one of the richest men in the city — though he made his fortune not from gold dust, but from the gold you can eat.
Around 1900, Moy was designated mayor of Indianapolis’ Chinese community by no less a figure than the Emperor of China. Though not recognized, of course, by the U.S. government, as a civic leader he was a well-liked man and was treated with deference, even fascination, by Indianapolis city officials. So when a notorious and especially gruesome murder rocked Indy’s so-called “Chinatown” in 1902, Moy Kee was inevitably drawn into the police investigation.
Called “one of the deepest murder mysteries in local annals,” the gory killing happened sometime in the early morning hours of May 5, 1902. The location? Doc Lung’s Laundry at 207 Indiana Avenue.
Today this is the site of the One America Tower. In 1902, a building called the Shiel Block stood there. Doc Lung was one of a few Chinese on “the Avenue.” His patrons and neighbors were a mix of white and black, as a press photo from the Indianapolis News shows — the day after he was hacked to death inside:
Though you wouldn’t think a laundryman who ran a business next door to Bernard Kathman’s filthy shoe-repair shop would be a rich man, apparently he had quite a stash of dough.
As reporters gathered, when the laundry wasn’t opened on the morning of May 5, neighbors telephoned the Indianapolis Police Department. Patrolman Musgrove stopped in, crawled through a window, and made a hideous discovery. Behind a calico curtain in the rear, Lung lay stretched out on his bed, “a long board about two feet wide, the head of which rested on a chair.” A grisly scene awaited the officer: the man’s head was nearly severed. If the knife used to kill him had cut another inch or two, his head would have fallen to the floor.
Not a good scene for a laundry. Stories started to fly around about the “assassin” who almost decapitated Doc Lung. As Musgrove quickly found out, whoever the murderer was, he’d ransacked the place, robbed the money drawer, then washed his hands in a trough, leaving a bar of soap covered in blood. A coroner’s investigation later determined the killer had used a huge meat cleaver to do the deed.
In the wake of the mysterious murder, one suspicion terrified the city’s small Chinese “colony” — that highbinders had come to Indy. A problem on the West Coast, highbinders were Chinese criminal gangs involved in prostitution and illegal immigration. Newspapers often called them the “Chinese mafia.” Yet simple robbery was the more likely cause of Doc Lung’s demise.
Moy Kee, who translated for the IPD, insisted “There are no highbinders in this city, and no other Chinese would kill Lung. All of us belong to the same lodge of Masons.” (The Masonic Order of China met in the apartment of E. Lung, probably a brother of Doc Lung, at 243 North Delaware Street, the site of today’s downtown Wheeler Mission.) When a reporter asked Moy if highbinders usually killed their victims by chopping their heads off, “he answered in the affirmative, but laughed at the idea that Loung was killed by a highbinder.” Chin Hee, a newcomer from Chicago, was suspect #1. A Mr. and Mrs. Julius F. Herman, charged with blackmail, also fell under suspicion.
Moy’s role as a police interpreter caused him to fear for his own life. In June, papers reported the restaurant owner was afraid of “Chinese factions” who made death threats against him for helping the IPD get the scoop on Chin Hee. Then, while conspiracy theories ran amok, four African American men were brought in.
Moy Kee suspected robbery from the start. The gist was that Doc Lung often bought beer for his African American neighbors, some of whom must have known that he carried hundreds of dollars in cash. One of the accused was a young black man named James Andrews. Along with three others, he was brought in in the spring of 1903, a year after the murder.
The court case took on several absurd twists. Andrews’ lawyer, Fred Sheetes, even tried to suggest to a Detective Gerber that Doc Lung might have cut his own head off. “‘No, sir,’ replied Gerber, with a broad smile.”
Yet the craziest twist in the trial had led to the arrest of Andrews in the first place. One of Indianapolis’ most famous grave robbers had gotten involved.
Rufus Cantrell was an African American from Tennessee who joined the black exodus north after the Civil War. At the turn of the century, he and a team of African Americans were working for several white doctors in central Indiana, the most notorious of which was Dr. Joseph C. Alexander of the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons. (A forerunner of IU Medical School, the college sat at 212 North Senate Avenue across from the State House. Sacks full of cadavers spirited away from the school were found downtown in October 1902.) Dr. Alexander allegedly paid the “gang” to bring in corpses for anatomical instruction in his classroom. In the 1890s, teams of “ghouls” emptied out thousands of fresh graves in Indianapolis and Hoosier country graveyards. Investigators on the Cantrell case, which came to court in the spring of 1903, used the astonishing number of empty coffins unearthed in local cemeteries as evidence against the robbers and their employer.
The colorful Cantrell was suspected of being mentally ill but might have just been a windy talker. In any case, he turned state’s witness, spilling everything he knew about every criminal case in town — from Dr. Alexander’s role as a “resurrection man” to whoever killed Doc Lung. At one point, the “Ghoul King” himself was suspected of murdering Lung, based on circumstantial evidence that he’d had Chinese coins in his pocket and seemed to know an awful lot about the murder. On Cantrell’s tip, however, James Andrews, Nimbus Davidson, and two other young African American men were arrested. All four, it seems, might have belonged to Cantrell’s gang of ghouls.
By June, the judge and jury had convicted Andrews and Davidson, who were sent off to the State Prison in Jeffersonville. Cantrell might have made false accusations to save himself, but after a spell in the Michigan City penitentiary, he joined them. As a white physician, Dr. Alexander, Cantrell’s boss, was — not surprisingly — let off the hook. In Hamilton County, angry farmers whose loved ones’ bodies had ended up on the dissecting table rioted. In then-rural Fishers, they hanged and burned effigies of Dr. Alexander, another doctor, and the Indianapolis judge who acquitted them, threatening to lynch all three if they ever came out that way. The crowd only stopped when it almost burned down the Fishers train station. Alexander might have gotten off easy, but Cantrell didn’t finish his life in jail. He was let out on parole in 1909, then worked at a steel mill in Anderson and performed vaudeville stunts on stage.
As newspapers bemoaned the wholesale devastation of graveyards around Indianapolis, it wasn’t surprising that at Crown Hill, the Chinese community posted a guard over Doc Lung’s fresh grave — out of fear of body snatchers.
Reporters were fascinated by the laundryman’s “last rites.” After Lung was retrieved from the city morgue, pioneer mortician Charles Kregelo prepared the body for public viewing.
At Kregelo’s funeral home (223 North Delaware Street), a “regular Chinese masonic service for the dead” was held, said the News. The service “was conducted with all the mystery peculiar to the work of secret societies. . . From within the chapel came the sound of monotonous reading in the peculiar sing-song Chinese voice, and the occasional rattle of earthenware. For over half an hour the Masonic services were held” before a mob of spectators practically broke in. “The coffin was in the rear of the room, with the Chinese about it, some standing and some kneeling. Fruit, cakes, rice, tea, candy and two baked chickens were on the floor near the coffin, and sticks of incense were burning, filling the room with a pungent, fragrant odor. The food was for nourishment on the journey to the land of the spirits: in the coffin was a fan and five or six nickels with which to pay passage across the river of the dead.” Lung’s mutilated body was dressed in black, with a black silk cap “surmounted by a brass knob.”
As far as St. Clair Street, “a dense mass of people” thronged the horse-drawn hearse as it carried the silk-lined metal coffin up Delaware and Meridian. Americans tried to hold on to the sides of the hearse, and “an army of wheelmen glided along to the tune of hundreds of bicycle bells.” The driver then “whipped up” for the gates of Crown Hill.
A Chinese man sat next to him. His “duty was to scatter small strips of paper, about the size of a laundry check and filled with small gashes, through which the evil spirit will have to make its laborious way if it follows the body to the grave. In this way the evil is so retarded that he arrives at the grave too late to be of any harm.” At the graveside, the Chinese threw handfuls of dirt in. A large crowd of Americans gathered around to watch. “Food will be left upon the grave,” said a reporter, “if the crowd of Americans conducts itself as it should.” The dead man’s clothes would have been burned according to Confucian tradition. But since police had them, that part of the rite was skipped. A “disgraceful” crowd of onlookers then mobbed the grave. Police had to push them away.
A year later, on the eve of Cantrell’s trial, Lung’s grave was reopened to satisfy the Chinese he was still inside.
In Chinese funerary tradition, the body would stay in the grave until decomposition was over. Then the bones would be cleaned off and placed in a shrine. Immigrants’ remains often got sent back to their families in China in this way. Lung’s aged parents, however, were considered too ill to bear the shock of their son’s murder — so it seems they were never told of his death. Yet the grave at Crown Hill is certainly gone. The whereabouts of Lung’s mortal remains are a mystery.
Moy Kee must have known what became of them. But he was a Methodist. He died in 1914, while eating dinner at his restaurant. Was it the chop suey spiked with whiskey?
And did evil spirits take Doc Lung after all? Probably not. Because as Moy Kee reminded Indianapolis fireworks lovers every Chinese New Year, he was good at warding off demons:
Scott D. Seligman, “The Hoosier Mandarin: Moy Kee, the ‘Mayor of Indianapolis’ Chinatown.'” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Fall 2011.