The Matter of the Chinese Coffins

The Matter of the Chinese Coffins

Captain Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was halfway through his second cup of English Gray and deep into his homicide paperwork when the phone rang. Actually, a pile of reports rang and it took Noonan a few seconds to locate the telecommunications device in the sea of arrest reports. Commissioner Lizzard had promised him an autopsy report by ten and he had been waiting for it since eleven and wanted to be gone by noon so he wasn’t in a good mood when he snapped the phone to his ear.

“Lizzard, I needed that caliber report two hours ago!” he roared into the phone. “What have you been doing at the morgue, looking for a bridge fourth?”

“No,” came the reply in a strange voice. “I’ve been looking into Chinese coffins.”

“Sorry?” Noonan stalled mid-sentence.

“Is this Captain Noonan?”

“Better be, I’d hate to think I was doing someone else’s paperwork.”

“Good response. Very quick too, sir. This is Lt. Daniels with the Sacramento Police Department. Your name was given to me by my Commissioner and he suggested that I call you.”

“Uh huh,” Noonan mumbled, “usually this means that there’s a problem that someone wants solved.”

“Our commissioner said that you were the best.”

“Your commissioner has a rather poor sense of who’s best.”

“Perhaps, sir, but I’ve still have a problem I haven’t been able to solve.”

“I hope this is something that I can handle over the phone. I’ve got five pounds of air fresh Alaskan king salmon and a bottle of Zin beside a barbecue pit at home. If I’m not home by four my wife will have me in a coffin.”

“Well, I’ve got a two-day-old old corpse of Chinese woman buried in a hundred-year-old coffin beneath three feet of sixty-year old pavement.”


“I can see that you’ve got a problem. Go ahead and tell what you can. I’ll see what I can do.”

“OK, I’ll try to be quick. I’ve been trying to get to Alaska to go king salmon fishing for ten years. Every time I want to go the wife drags me off to the in-laws in South Dakota.”

“The only reason I see my in-laws is because they live in Alaska,” Noonan snapped. “Now, about that corpse.”

“Here in Sacramento we are going through a major renovation of what we call Old Town. Actually it’s the oldest section of town, down by the river, Sacramento River if you’ve never been here. Sacramento was founded as the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railway and at that time we had quite a few Chinese.”

“I thought you still did.”

“We do. But what I’m talking about is historical. A lot of the Chinese who had worked on the railroad settled in the cheaper sections of town down by the river. In those days, more money you had, roughly, the further from the river you lived. Except if you were Chinese. Even if you had money you lived down around the cisterns, docks and warehouses. That was the way it was.”

“Go on.”

“One of the few open spaces anywhere along the river front was the cemetery. It was basically a paupers’ cemetery because most of the Chinese could afford to send their ashes home. But over the years, well, the Chinese made less and less and fewer and fewer were able to afford to send their ashes home and over the years more and more didn’t really care about the customs of the motherland. They were Americans even though they weren’t treated that way.”

“So these cemetery had a preponderance of Chinese?”

“Actually we don’t know. It was used a cemetery until about 1910 when it was abandoned. It lay fallow, I guess is the term, until the 1930s when it was paved over as part of the WPA.”

“The Works Public Administration, right?” Noonan was reaching into his desk drawer for a pen with one hand and shuffling through forms on his desk to find a clean sheet on his desk.”

“That’s right. Either they didn’t know the open space had been a graveyard or didn’t care. But it was a pauper’s graveyard so there weren’t a lot of headstones.”

“So the WPA paved it.”

“Right. Then, with the end of the Second World War there was boom and Sacramento went from a sleepy little town on a river to a major transportation hub for the Central Valley. As the economy improved, the city grew. Eventually what had once been Old Town, the warehouse area down by the river, was turned into office space and now, with the help of some bucks from the feds, we’re turning it into an economic hub with theaters, department stores, boutiques, . . .”

“Which still doesn’t tell me what your problem is.”

“I’m almost there. Part of that renovation meant pulling up the pavement that had been laid by the WPA back in the 1930s. We didn’t know there had been a cemetery under the road until we pulled up the macadam began finding coffins, bones and a headstone here and there. That actually isn’t too bad. It’s making the Sac State anthropologists real happy and the Chinese historians are pleased as punch. But pulling up those coffins is taking time and pretty soon we were traveling at a snail’s pace. We’d move three feet forward, find three coffins, wait for the cultural archeologists. Then we’d move another three feet, find another three coffins, and you can guess the rest. Things weren’t moving fast but they were moving. Then, last week, we pulled out a coffin that had a fresh body in it.”

“How fresh?”

“Our forensic people say days.”

“How old was the coffin?”

“As old as the others we’ve been pulling out. At least 70 years old. It even had square nails so I’m guessing that it was up to 100 years old.”

“Are you opening all the coffins or did you just happen to open this particular one.”

“Actually, we aren’t opening any coffins. The only reason we opened this one was because one of the cultural anthropologists saw what appeared to be a modern wood nail in the side of the coffin. When he turned the coffin around, he saw another one in end.”

“By a wood nail you mean one of those nails that has a round head just a shade larger than the shaft of the nail.”

“Right. You’d use it for finishing work, so the head of the nail could be covered with paint easily.”

“Was there anything else unusual about the coffin?”

“I don’t know what unusual means in a case like this. The coffin was smaller than normal. I’d say it looked like a child’s coffin. It was so small that even though the woman was small she had been bent to fit inside.”

“Let me make sure I understand what you are saying. You found a 70-year old coffin with a body that was only a few days dead under pavement that had been laid in the 1930s.”

“That’s right.”

“I presume you checked to make sure that the macadam on top and the soil around the coffin hadn’t been disturbed?”

“Yes and no. As far as the macadam is concerned, it was intact. We have been moving so slow that we’re pretty sure of that. Besides, the woman’s coffin was six feet back from our latest cut so we’re pretty sure no one lifted the pavement.”

“Do you know for sure?”

“We’ve found the pavement very brittle. The moment we pull on it, it splinters. As far as the earth, that’s another manner. We’re moving slowly because of the coffins so the earth is churned a bit. When we find a coffin, we stop. In this case we found two, one abutting the other.”

“In which one was the body?”

“The back one, that is, the one deepest in the earth. It was about seven or eight feet back of where we started the pavement cut that day. While the earth was disturbed in front of the first coffin, the front one, it wasn’t touched behind that.”

“Are you sure?”


“What about below the coffins?”

“We thought about that. Both coffins had left their imprints on the earth. The coffin with the body was a bit loose but the first coffin left imprints that were rock hard. It’s been there for decades. After we got the coffins out we dug down a bit. We found some chinks . . .”

“Excuse me?”

“Chinese, not chinks.”

“No. These were chinks, as in fissures and cracks. There were all kinds of anomalies in the earth but none that could be described as leading us to believe that the coffin had been disturbed from the bottom.”

“Have you identified the body?”

“No. But it’s not going to take very long. It was a very old Chinese woman, possibly as old as 100. She was dressed in what the Chinese historians label as traditional dress. We surmise someone wanted her buried with her relatives and took the easy way.”

“Where are the coffins going to be reburied?”

“In another cemetery.”

“So she could have been buried in the new cemetery area with no problem.
“Yeah. It doesn’t make sense.”

“How did she die?”

“Shot. We found a .222 slug in his brain.”

“Any signs of cancer, heart ailments, stuff that would lead you to believe it was a case of euthanasia.”

“Hey, Captain, I’d like to be in as good shape at 55 as that corpse was at 100!”

“How are you listing the death?”

“It’s officially listed as a murder.”


“No match but that’s not unusual. We’re talking about a woman who probably retired before taking fingerprints were routine. Add to that she’s clearly Chinese and that’s a whole other world.”

“OK. So what you want me to do is figure out how the body got there.”

“It would be nice.”

“Give me a day or two to mull it over.”

“Can I call you on Monday?”

“No. I’m taking a long weekend. Catch me next Wednesday, about this time.”

“You got it.”

* * *

When Daniels called back, Noonan was, again, waist-deep in paperwork.

“Daniels,” Noonan said tiredly when he answered the phone. “I was kind of hoping you would have figured this out by now. I’m not sure that I can help you very much.”

“Anything you can tell me would probably be something I don’t know,” came the reply.

“Well, since I don’t know that much about American Chinese culture I can only guess that the old woman specifically chose to die when she was killed. Since you cannot identify her, it’s a good bet that she didn’t leave any estate. Clearly, she was in tune with her culture and its history. But since you have cultural anthropologists and Chinese historians working with you and they could not identify the woman, it’s a good bet she either came from out of the area or had dropped out of the cultural community so long ago that no one remembers them. Or she could have come to Sacramento and not checked in, so to speak, with the local community.”

“We’ve been working that angle but haven’t had any luck.”

“You’ve probably been looking for the wrong thing. I’d say that when the story of the disinterring of the Chinese coffins hit the press, and I’m assuming that the story made it into a lot of California papers . . .”

“It did.”

“When it did, the woman saw the article. She was very old and was probably concerned more with where her body would lie rather than when she would die. She and her husband — and I say husband because whoever killed her did it for love, not money or revenge — spotted the article and figured that this was the only way she could lie with her people for all of eternity.”

“Seems reasonable.”

“So the couple came from wherever they lived to the Old Town area. I doubt they stayed in a hotel because there didn’t have very much money and didn’t know how long they had to stay for the right moment. I’ll be they checked the construction site every evening after the workers went home. Their search procedure could have been as simple as sticking a piece of metal into the earth beneath the pavement looking for coffins. They probably found one and extracted it. The bones from the coffin were probably covered loosely with some earth so you’d find it in your normal course of work. Then the coffin was carefully pulled apart and the pieces adjusted to the smaller size. That was the one they would use for the woman. Then, last week, they found a second coffin that was about to be uncovered the next day. That’s when they set the final part of their plan in motion.”

“But there were security guards on the site.”

“Sure there were, but they were looking for people trying to steal something from the site, not bringing it in.”

“OK, I’ll buy that.”

“Since you said that there were two coffins, one abutting the other, I’m guessing that they carefully extracted the coffin that they found. It wouldn’t have been hard. The ground had already been chewed up by the steam shovels so it was just a matter of loosening the earth around the box and pulling it out. Then the husband slipped into the cavity left by the extraction of the coffin — probably lying on some old boards to keep from leaving his imprint — and dug out another cavity.”

“That’s a lot of digging for one night.”

“Not really. If the coffin he found was already a foot and a half under the pavement, he only had to dig out another foot or two to get the second coffin in. The coffin had already left a rock-hard imprint in the dirt so that even if the coffin didn’t fit exactly into the hole from which it had come, it would still appear to have been locked in place for a century. And the woman probably help him with the digging. You might check her hands and fingernails for signs of dirt.”


“Once they had the hole dug, the woman made whatever last-minute preparations were necessary. Her husband shot her, possibly covering her with his body to muffle the sound and bent her into the coffin. Then he put the coffin with the woman in first and put dirt around it. Then he slid the other coffin in after her and covered the exposed end of the coffin with earth. No one was looking for disturbed earth so it didn’t matter. The construction workers cut into the pavement, moved forward and, presto, found the first coffin. Out comes the coffin and, boom, there’s the second one. As you said, the first coffin had left an imprint that had hardened over a century. The inside one had fissures under it indicating that it had been placed there recently.”

“Sounds good to me. In fact, I can’t think of anything to dispute.”

“Ah, but there’s a bit of twist here.”

“I don’t think I can take another surprise.”

“Then you’d rather that I not speculate further?”

“No, no. I thrive on the bizarre.”

“OK. What puzzled me were the wood finishing nails. Why go to all the trouble of burying the woman and then draw attention to the coffin with the wood finishing nails? Cultural anthropologists and Chinese historians were looking over every coffin. They were sure to spot the new nails.”

“Good point!”

“So there had to be a reason. Without the nails that coffin would have been transported to the new cemetery and buried in a matter of hours.”

“Not that quick, but yes, you’re got the procedure down.”

“So the husband and wife wanted the coffin discovered. Why? Possibly because they assumed that she would be placed in a larger coffin before she was re-buried. Possibly to draw attention to the old ways that the woman believed were being ignored. Possibly to spark interest in Chinese culture and history in California. I don’t know, but the husband put those nails in on purpose. In fact, I’ll bet that if you take a close look at the coffin you’ll find a wood finishing nail in some conspicuous place on all six planes of the coffin so that no matter which way it was laid down one of the nails would be exposed. He was counting on someone spotting those nails.”

“We did.”

“Right. And the woman’s body will be reburied in a new, full length coffin?”

“When we finish with the case, yes.”

“Then the couple got what they wanted. She’ll lie in a cemetery in a full-length coffin with other Chinese and news stories will spark interest in the history of the Chinese and Chinese culture in California. She believed that she could do more in death for her culture than she could have alive.”

“She did.
“Then she succeeded.”

“But what about her husband? There’s still a murder charge out there.”

“Yeah, so? What are you going to do? Charge him? If the woman’s 100 the husband is in his 90s. If it’s her son, he’s in his upper 70s. If you really want to find him, I suggest you do a search of the cheapest hotels in the area. Whoever shot the woman probably had a change of clothes ready. Then he had to get out of the area quickly so when the coffin was discovered he would not be suspiciously close. He’s probably hiding out in a cheap hotel room where he’s washed the clothes he used to shoot the woman — and reading the paper to see if he’s as clever as he thinks he is.”

“The story hit the papers on Sunday.”

“Do whatever you want to do,” Noonan replied as he looked with disgust at the paperwork on his desk. “But I’ll bet your perp was homeward bound an hour after the press hit the streets.”

There was another moment of silence for a moment. Then Daniels said, “Maybe we’ll just list this as another unsolved homicide.”

[Steven Levi’s impossible crime novels can be found at]



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