It was racism so barbarous that it’s difficult to believe: An adopted child was taken from her mother and loving family because authorities deemed the child didn’t belong with a “lesser race.”

Such was the tragic story of Mah Lo, a nine year-old girl who was living in San Francisco’s Chinatown with her mother in 1909. Her Chinese parents had the paperwork to show they had legally adopted the child in 1904, but that didn’t matter once it was discovered that Mah Lo was really partly Italian (or maybe Syrian) and not Chinese at all. Probably.

(This is the first of two essays on 1909 media racism.)

The news surfaced during the sleepy dog days of midsummer when desperate editors seek any scrap of news, and this story had a sensational angle sure to sell plenty of papers. The San Francisco Call’s headline, “WHITE CHILD IN AN OPIUM DEN” began:

“Mah Ho, 9 years old, with great brown eyes round as the walnut rather than like the almond, and distinctly European features, was taken yesterday morning from a basement opium and gambling den at 54 Spofford alley, Chinatown, and is now in the juvenile detention home…the fact that she was facing the shame and degradation of oriental woman slavery aroused the police and mission authorities.”

Readers of The Call were also told the girl was “kept in close confinement in her prison basement, her only playmate being a puppy, and scarcely it seems, did she ever see the sunlight.” The Call’s version, however, was the very model of restraint compared to what appeared in the San Francisco Daily News: Their version claimed the child was “Secluded for years in a basement where no sunlight can enter, when removed to the street the child covered her eyes with her hands and cried out in pain.” Leaving no lurid description unmilked, her dog was also a “half-starved” mongrel and a “flickering gas light threw fantastic shadows on the blackened walls” as her rescuers descended into the “ill-smelling basement.” As the San Francisco outlet for the UP newswire, the Daily News’ version went out to newspapers nationwide, some using an obviously retouched photograph supposedly showing Mah Ho with eyes large enough and round enough to outbulge some of the goggle-eyed waifs painted by Keane in the 1960s.

In following days reporters continued trying to write about a child abuse/crime story (the girl was described as living in a “hop joint,” a “Chinese brothel” or “discovered during a raid on an opium den”), but the details couldn’t be twisted to fit the usual yellow journalism narratives. For starters, Mah Ho and her adopted mother, Tun See, deeply loved each other; the headline in the next day’s Call was “Little White Girl Longs to Return to Her Chinese ‘Mother.'” Mah Ho could speak only Chinese and was completely accepted as a family member; through an interpreter she told authorities she had “a Chinese papa and mama” and “before the fire [1906 earthquake] we lived in a basement with my papa and mamma and uncles and aunts and cousins.” Even the captivity angle fizzled out; the woman who took Mah Ho from her family admitted she knew about Mah Ho because “she had seen the child in the street.”

From court testimony reported in the papers and an article that appeared only in the Santa Rosa Republican, we can puzzle out some of Mah Ho’s backstory. She was apparently born in Geyserville in 1900 and named Alice. The correspondent to the Republican wrote that the mother’s name was Mabel Bell, and the census that year indeed shows a 16 year-old with that name living in the Russian River area. When her birth mother married a man named William Minto three years later, the toddler was then called Alice Minto. The marriage failed quickly and the mother disappeared. Little Alice was put up for adoption, and later told the court that she had no memories of her birth mother or pre-Chinese life.

Meanwhile, her soon-to-adopt father (called both Mah Juy Lin and Mah Lin Kee in the newspapers) began seeking a child to adopt. His wife Tun See was apparently unable to bear children; he later told the court that she had previously lost two children and was “delicate.”

The adoption process was far more lax than today – see an earlier writeup about the Salvation Army giving away a baby as an attraction for their religious service in Santa Rosa. Thus in early 1904 when two anonymous women showed up at the Children’s Home Finding Society in Berkeley with little Alice in tow, superintendent Rev. Henry Brayton knew he could place her in a good Chinese home.

Brayton later told the Call that he absolutely believed she was Chinese “on account of her dark skin and oriental features. In this belief I placed her with a Chinese family in San Francisco. I would not think of placing a white girl among Chinese.” Others weren’t so sure they could ethnically pigeonhole the girl. Even the woman who took custody of her wasn’t sure she was a “white child,” telling the Call, “I have seen many half whites, but never one that looked as she does. I would say that the child is an Italian Jew.” The Salvation Army captain who delivered her to Tun See thought she was Middle Eastern, probably Syrian.

The girl’s unusual looks led her adoptive parents to fear that Mah Ho/Alice Minto would draw attention from intrusive whites, as happened in an incident described by father Mah Juy Lin. A worker on Central Valley farms, he told the Call they were apparently detained and questioned about the girl, which led them to keep the child away from prying eyes as much as possible: “Once the child and my wife went to the country to see me and the child was arrested, and after that I never sent the child out very much.” In one of the newspaper’s more sympathetic followups, the Call reported “Tun See always said that if they saw her they would carry her away.”

And, of course, that’s what happened on July 28, 1909 in San Francisco’s Chinatown. A police officer, accompanied by an interpreter and Donaldina (!) Cameron of the Presbyterian Mission House along with a reporter or three, seized 9 year-old Mah Ho and took her away. Tun See showed them the adoption papers to no avail; she was told to bring the documents to the court hearing the following week.

One wonders what Miss Cameron thought when she and the other “rescuers” pushed through the door. The Mission had received letters (anonymously written, of course) claiming that Mah Ho was being “whipped, triced up by the thumbs and made to work at late hours of the night” – in short, it was expected to be the situation that Cameron often encountered. Now 40, Donaldina had dedicated her life to rescuing Chinese girls and young women from prostitution and slavery, personally leading the sometimes-dangerous raids. (Good profile here.) But instead of finding a victim needing to be saved, there was a frightened little girl with a puppy hiding behind her mother’s skirt.

Mah Juy Lin, then working on a potato farm near Stockton, returned home immediately and contacted the Six Companies (the umbrella Chinese benevolent society) for legal aid. Before the first court hearing, it was mentioned that he would be petitioning for guardianship of his adopted daughter.

But what of their adoption papers? Weren’t they legal?

Cameron told the Call that she saw a document from the Children’s Home Finding Society. “It purported that the society had investigated and found to the satisfaction of the officers that a certain Lin Juy was a fit person to have the custody of the child.” A Salvation Army worker confirmed “Brayton had investigated the Mah home and himself decided it to be a proper place for the child,” according to the Daily News.

Yet there was a problem with the document, Cameron said: “The name Lin Juy was written over another name, which had been erased, but which was, I believe, a Chinese name.” What this meant is anyone’s guess. Not Cameron, nor anyone else, alleged fraud – that in 1904 the girl was really entrusted to someone else. After all, Rev. Brayton had documented his home visit, and the Salvation Army captain delivered the child to Tun See. More likely the clerk screwed up the pinyin for Mah Juy Lin’s name and corrected it. What impact this had on the outcome of the case is unknown.

Before the next court date, another party announced they wanted guardianship. The new claimant was a Mrs. Ritchie of Healdsburg, who said she was the long-lost Mrs. Minto. Only now she said she wasn’t the mother of little Alice, but actually her first foster mother; she had adopted the child from the Home Finding Society, then forced to return her when the Mintos divorced. She was planning a third marriage to Louis Witschey of San Francisco, whose mother appeared in court on behalf of her future daughter-in-law. “Only God knows how  much I love the child” she sobbed over the girl she had never met. According to the Republican correspondent, they were all liars. Minto-Ritchie was indeed the mom, and this woman claiming to be Mrs. Witschey was actually the true maternal grandmother – and by the way, Mrs. Ritchie was a San Francisco dance hall floozy until recently. (Six gold stars if you followed half of that.)

The last hearing came exactly two weeks after Mah Ho had been taken from her parents. No Witscheys or Mintos were present. After a long conversation with Miss Cameron, Mah Juy Lin and Tun See agreed to drop their application for guardianship.

The only noteworthy events at the hearing was an outburst by one Mrs. Claudia Schad, who told the court she was a missionary among the Chinese. Schad demanded the girl be immediately be taken away from Cameron’s Mission House as no white child should be associating with other Chinese children living at the Mission. Cameron told the court it would be an “unkindness to the child to place her in a white family just now,” as she knew few words of English and was accustomed to only Chinese food. The judge said he would make a decision in two weeks.

The Call reporter at the hearing wrote, “The most pathetic feature of the case is the deep grief of the Chinese pair. When the child was brought to them she clung to the Chinese woman with every demonstration of affection.”

The curtain fell on the tragedy at the end of August. A wire service filler item circulated: “Judge Murasky orders that little Alice Minto, who was taken away from Chinese foster-parents in Chinatown underground den, be placed permanently in care of a white family.”

NOTES ON SOURCES: Articles from the Santa Rosa newspapers and other local journals are transcribed here when they are not available via the Internet. All six of the San Francisco Call articles can be read via the California Digital Newspaper Collection, and the San Francisco Daily News/United Press wire service stories can be found via the Library of Congress.

White Girl Has Lived With Chinese Family

Little Mah Ho, the Italian child who for six years was kept in a dark room in the home of her adopted father, a Chinaman in San Francisco, has been found to have been born at Geyserville in 1900. William Baker, a teamster residing on Cypress Alley, in the metropolis, has made a statement of what he knows about the child’s early life, and his knowledge of the child’s mother.

Baker declares that little Alice Minto is the daughter of Mrs. Mabel Minto who Tuesday secured a marriage license to wed Louis Witschey, of San Francisco and who was until 3 months ago employed as a dancer in the O. K. dance hall on Pacific street.

Since that time she has been living as Mrs. Mabel Ritchie in Healdsburg.

According to Baker’s story Alice Minto was born in Geyserville in 1900, and the woman who called upon Miss Cameron of the Presbyterian Mission and represented herself to be the first foster mother of the child, is really its own mother, and the woman who wrote to Judge Van Nostrand is the real grandmother.

“Alice Minto was named for her aunt, who was a girl of thirteen years of age when the child was born,” declared Baker.

“I have heard that the child was sold for $15. Mrs. Minto’s maiden name was Mabel Bell and in 1903 she was married to William Minto, an employee of the Chutes, and took the child to live with its grandmother at San Jose. She later disappeared and the person who probably knows most about what became of her is Mrs. Laura Thomas, afterward of the Salvation Army. Mrs. Thomas was engaged to be married to a cousin of Alice Minto’s mother and the mother asked her to dispose of the child. I do not believe the adoption story and know that at the time the child is claimed to have been adopted. Mabel and Alice Minto and their mother were destitute and in no position to care for another.”

H. W. Brayton of the Home Finding Society, admits that he knew the child was placed in a Chinese family and that it was done at the request of Captain Williams. He says that until the time of the fire he kept track of the child, and believed she was in good hands, but since then he had no knowledge of her whereabouts.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 5, 1909

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