The Gruesome Unsolved Murder Of Elsie Sigel

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Joe Marshall famously uttered these words to Jack Nicholson at the end of "Chinatown" (1974) as the two slumped away from a grisly scene of tragedy and death (per IMDb), but there are some things one can't unsee — things one can't forget. One such horror happened deep in the concrete thicket of Chinatown when the body of a young woman was discovered dead, bloated, and strangled. She'd been locked in a large trunk and left to decay in a small apartment. Of her vicious killer, there was no trace. It was New York City, and the year was 1909. 

The case of 19-year-old Elsie Sigel remains a mystery. Sigel came from an affluent family who resided in a small section of the Bronx. Wealthy missionaries who maintained well-meaning and altruistic notions toward the world, the Sigels could have never anticipated the horrific fate that awaited their only daughter. Elsie had been missing for more than a week when her body was found on June 18, according to Find a Grave. A manhunt for her killer commenced. Sadly, her grieving parents were doomed to never find peace or justice, and thus was born the Chinatown trunk mystery (per New York Daily News). 

Who was Elsie Sigel?

Elsie J. Sigel was the only child of Paul and Anne Sigel, two wealthy New Yorkers whose influence throughout the city at the time distinguished them amongst their peers. Paul's father (Elsie's grandfather) was celebrated civil war hero Franz Sigel. Two years before her disappearance, the people of New York erected a statue of him in honor of his war efforts and venerable feats throughout his life. The Sigel family was popular and respected within their community, with Anne investing much of her time into teaching Sunday School for the children of Chinese immigrants. Despite public aversion to Chinese presence in New York, Anne never shied away from welcoming the stigmatized group into American society with open arms (via Inside Sources). 

Her 19-year-old daughter frequently joined her in the classroom as children and their parents gathered to learn English and adapt to their new surroundings. Even those without children often joined for the mere sake of expanding their knowledge and making new connections amongst their fellow countrymen in an unfamiliar land. Unbeknownst to her mother, however, Elsie began fraternizing with young men within the immigrant community, often exposing herself to dangerous social environments behind her parents' backs. Before long, she met Leon Ling, 30 years old and new to The United States. Anne welcomed the young man into their home without hindrance, though her husband maintained his discontent with his daughter spending time with a foreigner (per Inside Sources).

Jealousy, angst, and a love triangle

Leon Ling was the cousin of Sun Leung, a Chinese immigrant and restaurant owner in the lower rung of New York's Chinatown. Ling, who was living in an apartment above his cousin's place of work, spent an increasing amount of time with Elsie Sigel as their courtship developed. However, he was entirely ignorant to Elsie's second lover, Chu Gain. Maintaining relationships with both men, it wasn't long before Ling became aware of the secret correspondence, and shortly thereafter started sending Gain hostile messages. 

"You know what will happen to you if you are seen with Elsie again. You'll be killed and the girl too." One such letter read. Nonetheless, Gain never expected the seemingly petulant threats to ever manifest themselves in the unfortunate demise of his lover. It wasn't until after Elsie's death that authorities obtained Ling's vengeful letters (via Inside Sources). 

Sun Leung noticed he hadn't seen his cousin in several days and approached the door of his cousin's apartment, taking investigative efforts into his own hands. Ultimately, he was prompted to contact the police who arrived on the scene and broke in the door. Upon entering, Leung and the group of officers encountered a putrid miasma saturating the air. It turned out to be the stench of death, and it wasn't long before they found the source: a dark trunk resting against the far wall wrapped several times over with rope (per New York Daily News). 

The scene of Elsie Sigel's murder

After police exhumed her body from the trunk, they observed that Elsie Sigel had been strangled so viciously that the skin on her neck had been cut open. Because she'd decomposed and bloated so severely, they were initially unable to identify her. Across the floor of the apartment, hundreds of letters were strewn addressed to Ling from women throughout the city — 35 were from Elsie. Ultimately, despite their reluctance to accept their daughter's fate, Paul and Anne Sigel confirmed that it was in fact Elsie who'd been found dead in the trunk. The smoking gun evidence was her bracelet, inscribed with her initials, that police found in a drawer in Ling's apartment (via New York Daily News). 

The hunt for Elsie's killer was on. Chu Gain was apprehended and brought in for questioning, but the prime suspect was Leon Ling. Additionally, authorities commenced pursuit of Chong Sing, Ling's neighbor who disappeared after the murder scene was discovered, and Willie Leon, a friend of Ling's who was confirmed to have also had intimate relations with Elsie (per New York Daily News). 

Police efforts prove futile

The killing and subsequent rumors about the dalliances between the American woman and various men of Chinese descent "infuriated white Americans," as the New York Daily News described. A section from The Los Angeles Herald read, "The New York police are now threatening to close up the missions in Chinatown unless their promoters agree to keep women and girls away from them and employ only missionaries," after news of Elsie Sigel's death spread (via Center for Biological Studies and Research). 

Across North America, Chinese men were apprehended by authorities without reservation or hesitation and brought in for questioning. None turned out to be Ling. 

However, Chong Sing was discovered in upper New York State and promptly arrested. The testimony he provided to police of how he witnessed Ling killing Sigel — and how afterward he helped him stuff the body in the trunk — proved faulty and unreliable. The search went on but drew no conclusions, though theories — some more outlandish than others — as to what may have happened proliferated with vigor (per New York Daily News).

Prevailing theories

Some believe that the case of Elsie Sigel's murder was more elaborately carried out and covered up than one would expect. One theory posited that Leon Ling had traveled all the way to Washington with Sigel only to kill her and bring her body back to New York in a trunk, due to a telegram allegedly sent from Sigel to her parents on June 9. The telegram said, "Will be home soon, or Sunday evening. Don't worry."

Others believed that Ling was smuggled back to China by confidants who helped him escape. Some even claim that Leon Ling and Elsie Sigel had fled to China to start a new life together, leaving behind someone else's mangled corpse in place of her own in an effort to quell any searches for her. At any rate, no conclusion was ever ascertained and The Chinatown trunk mystery remains just that — a mystery (via New York Daily News). 

Elsie Sigel was buried at Woodland Cemetery in the Bronx where her Grandfather Franz Sigel was also laid to rest. Her gravestone is unmarked (per Find a Grave).