Living on her wits

It was a huge sensation in the late spring of 1912, 35 year-old Miss Miriam Monteith, ‘well known in society in China’, was arrested at the Peak Hotel in Hong Kong on the basis of a warrant issued by the British Supreme Court in Shanghai, and brought to the colony by Detective Sergeant William Brewster of the Shanghai Municipal Police. The charge was having earlier that year in Peking given a cheque for £50 — in purchasing power equal to over £4,000 in 2014 — to an Austrian, Fritz Materna, serving in the Chinese Maritime Customs. The cheque was a dud. After a police court hearing in Hong Kong, Brewster accompanied Miss Monteith north to Shanghai where on 17 May things started to get complicated.

On 21 June she was sentenced to 8 months, with hard labour, for fraud, and two days later was escorted back to Hong Kong and entered the Victoria jail. Others had been waiting for Miriam Monteith in Shanghai, principally the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, which had taken a cheque from her for almost $250 in September 1910, drawn on the Equitable Trust Company of New York. This too had been refused when presented, and the bank at Shanghai had alerted its branches about her. What started to complicate things was that the woman who presented the cheque to the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank was known there, and to her fellow residents at Bickerton’s Hotel on the Nanking road, as Miss Macnaughton.

She told me she was a correspondent for Scribner’s magazine, deposed one man, that her father was a British consul in Tehran, and her mother from Virginia. Another met her at Bickerton’s Hotel and gathered that she was writing books. Yes, this is her, he said in court, though I knew her as Macnaughton. That was how she was known in Kobe, where she spent part of the spring of 1912. Chequebooks for banks in Beirut, Rome and Simla were found amongst her papers in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Fritz Materna thought better of joining in the show, and failed to arrive in Shanghai to give evidence. That case was withdrawn, but the Bank’s proceeded, and the evidence against Miriam Monteith seemed to be piling up despite a line of defence that partly revolved around the fact that she, a woman who provided proof of how she had only the previous year crossed the Atlantic First Class on the Mauretania, would hardly knowingly defraud the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. She did indeed make that journey and on that ship in March/April 1911, and she may well have had a trust fund established under father’s will worth £1,000 p.a. as she claimed, but the jury took ten minutes to find her guilty.

It is a beguiling tale because Miriam Monteith, if that was her name, remains a mystery, but she had made some interesting connections in her time. In 1911, three weeks before she sailed to New York, the 1911 census enumerators recorded her as a visitor at Warwick House, next to St James’s Palace in London, home of a fantastically rich American heiress, Mary Hoadley Dodge, theosophist, suffragist, and great friend of Muriel, Countess De La Warr. The Countess De La Warr’s residence was given as Monteith’s last address in Britain before she sailed to New York. The immigration form records the arrival in New York of an Edinburgh-born woman, five foot four, with brown hair and eyes, who had visited New York before in 1904 and 1906. She was on her way to stay with a friend, she said, a Mrs Getsinger, at the Willard Hotel, Washington DC. Given Monteith’s apparent contacts in London, it would be no surprise to find that this was Lua Getsinger, who was certainly in DC in June that year, and who was a prominent early convert to the Baha’i faith.

When Miriam Monteith appeared back in Hong Kong in June 1912, she was the subject of an excited eyewitness account in the Hong Kong Telegraph, delighting in the fall from her station of a ‘society’ woman heading into jail wearing ‘a Panama hat with a black band, a soft collar and black tie, black skirt and silk shoes of the same sombre colour relieved by silk bows’, and accompanied by her cabin trunks and travelling rugs. Clearly Fritz Materna was discomforted by her also, and so I think were other male witnesses who mentioned dining with Miss Macnaughton, and who were summoned to court to identify her.

In court in Shanghai back in 1912 there had been were two further odd episodes. Mina Shorrock, editor of a local society monthly, Social Shanghai, was caught during a break trying to speak in Monteith’s favour to members of the jury. She was fined £10. And Miriam Monteith at one point interrupted the proceedings to accuse one of the witnesses, Amasa Standish Fobes, a 74 year-old American merchant who had ‘met her several times’ in 1910, and who provided the crucial letter of introduction to the bank, of covertly taking a photograph of her in court. Fobes denied the charge, saying ‘he had no camera with him and had never owned one’. It is perhaps a moment telling of Miriam Monteith’s aim to hide and mask herself.

After the jail door shut in Hong Kong I have managed to trace only one more appearance of Miriam Monteith in the public record. In London in May 1916 she was fined £9 for travelling on the underground railway without a ticket. ‘She represents herself as the daughter of Lord Monteith’, said the police detective prosecuting her, ‘but she is a dangerous woman and a society adventuress’ who had been jailed in Shanghai for fraud. Living in Twickenham, she was allegedly ‘living by getting money from missionary societies and other charities by representing that she was highly connected’. Clearly she was connected, at least in 1911, but who she was really remains a mystery to me. I cannot trace any likely British consul as her father; I cannot find her birth listed; I cannot trace her after 1916. Simla, Beirut, Kobe, Washington DC, London, Peking, Hong Kong and Shanghai: Miriam Monteith moved through them all, at times it seems living quite hand to mouth and on her wits, leaving a few traces, but as silent about herself in the end in the records, as she mostly was in court in June 1912.

Update, Spring 2021: Prompted to return to this by a query about Fritz Materna, I’ve now managed to track ‘Monteith’ backwards and forwards in time, from her true origins until her death. This has generated almost as many puzzles as it has solved, fittingly. More anon.

Sources: North China Herald, mainly 22 and 29 June 1912; Hong Kong Telegraph, 28 June 1912; 1911 Census of England and shipping records, via Ancestry; Times, 13 May 1916.