I. The Suicide Room
Episode II. The Scented Death
Episode III. Kiki
Episode IV. Chang Foo Lee
Episode V. The Return of Hanoi Shan
Episode VI. The Mystery of the Stolen Portraits
Episode VII. The Whirling Madness
H. Ashton-White: Books and American Weekly appearance
Pocket Lost Treasure #19
Quality Trade Paperback, 141 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55497-300-2 $15.00
The Crimes of H. Ashton-Wolfe
Harry Ashton-Wolfe (1881-1959) is not generally considered a pulp author. However, several stories from his book, The Invisible Web (1928), were serialized in Detective Fiction Weekly starting with the issue dated December 1, 1928. Writing as H. Ashton-Wolfe, the vast majority of his stories appeared in American Weekly, a Sunday magazine published by the Hearst newspaper empire. In this tales, Ashton-Wolfe featured crimes as bizarre as those depicted by Sax Rohmer, Walter Gibson or Seabury Quinn. Nevertheless, these stories were presented as non-fiction. Ashton-Wolfe was one of the greatest liars of all times.
Trying to clarify the facts of Ashton-Wolfe’s life is difficult because he’s our primary source of information. Apparently, he was the son of a Scottish doctor who served with the Eighth United States Calvary stationed in New Mexico. Although born in London, he spent his childhood in Arizona and Colorado. In the early 20th century, he supposedly served with the Sūreté, the French police, in Monte Carlo, Paris and Lyons. He was an assistant to two great forensic scientists, Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) and Edmond Locard (1877-1966). Some editions of The Invisible Web identified Locard as co-author, and that French investigator confirmed his association with Ashton-Wolfe publicly. During World War I, Ashton-Wolfe was allegedly a British spy operating in Belgium.
One aspect of Ashton-Wolfe’s life can definitely be confirmed. In 1923, he was serving as the French translator for the British courts. Two extraordinary murder trials happened in that year. In both cases, the defendant spoke French and no English. Marguerite Fahmy shot her husband, an Egyptian prince, in a London hotel. Jean Pierre Vaquier poisoned a British innkeeper. Ashton-Wolfe acted as interpreter for both of the accused. Madame Fahmy was exonerated (on grounds of self-defense) while Monsieur Vaquier was sent to the gallows.
Ashton-Wolfe wrote of these cases in a book called The Underworld (1926). He also included "true" accounts of his career as a Sūreté operative and a British spy. Seven books followed. These mainly concerned his exploits with the Sūreté, but two books dealt with historical crimes.
As his writings progressed, the crimes supposedly investigated by Ashton-Wolfe became more and more outrageous. Some of these criminals encountered by Ashton-Wolfe really existed. These actual felons include the Bonnot-Garnier gang of bank robbers, Mata Hari the World War I spy, the murderous Dr. Pierre Bougrat, and Red Lopez the Utah bandit. However, other lawbreakers are clearly made up. Several are mad scientists who act like characters from horror movies. For example, there is "The Mystery of the Floating Bodies" from Strange Crimes (1932). The malefactor in that story beheaded men and kept their brains alive (like Peter Cushing in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed). Other evildoers are clearly inspired by Fu Manchu and the Oriental villains popularized by Sax Rohmer.
Best known of the fraudulent criminals manufactured by Ashton-Wolfe is Hanoi Shan, a Chinese hunchback who supposedly lorded over the French underworld in the early 1900’s. The first two tales about Hanoi Shan, "The Suicide Room: Hanoi Shan" and "The Scented Death: Hanoi Shan" were collected in Warped in the Making (1927). Two more stories, "Kiki: A Tale of Hanoi Shan, the Spider" and "Chang Foo Lee" appeared in the British edition of The Thrill of Evil (1928). The 1930 American edition of the same book replaces "Chang Foo Lee," with "The Devil’s Telephone," a story that doesn’t feature Hanoi Shan. At least three additional exploits of Hanoi Shan were never collected in book form, but appeared in the pages of American Weekly (see checklist). Unfortunately these stories have no titles because American Weekly frequently printed Ashton-Wolfe’s accounts as chapters of a book.
The first Hanoi Shan story, "The Suicide Room," may be a plagiarism of a famous horror story by Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871-1943), "The Spider." This tale was highly praised by H.P. Lovecraft in his famous essay, "Supernatural Horror in Literature." "The Spider" was written in 1907. A new translation by Joe E. Bandel can be found in Hanns Heinz Ewers: Volume 1 (Order of Anarchistic Knights, 2009).
"The Spider" related a series of deaths in a hotel located on the Rue Alfred Stevens in Paris. The story opened with three successive tenants having apparently committed suicide in the same hotel room. All of the dead men were founding hanging from a hook on a window crossbar. Since the window is low, none of the corpses were found hanging in the air. Each of the man seemingly strangled themselves by bending their knees on the floor.
A fourth man, a medical student named Richard Bracquemont, rented the room. He soon discovered himself haunted by a sort of changeling that could take the form of both a woman and a spider. Ashton-Wolfe had Hanoi Shan, a master criminal called the Spider, behind virtually identical murders in a hotel in the Rue Lhomond.
Ashton-Wolfe claimed that there was an account of these crimes in the "Chronique de Tribunaux," 1907-08. Since I don’t have access to these documents, I can’t verify the criminologist’s claims. However, the similarities between the works by Ewers and Ashton-Wolfe are too much to be a coincidence. There are multiple possible explanations for the parallels. First, Ashton-Wolfe actually told the truth about this 1906 crime. Ewers then based his 1907 story on a real event. Second. Ashton-Wolfe invented his account of Hanoi Shan by re-working the elements of Ewers’s story. There is a third possibility. Ewers could have based his fiction on an actual crime that Ashton-Wolfe falsely attributed to a non-existent Asian mastermind. All the evidence points to Ashton-Wolfe plundering the works of Hanns Heinz Ewers.
There exists another convergence between the works of Hanns Heinz Ewers and H. Ashton Wolfe. In 1908, Ewers wrote "The Death of Baron Jesus Maria von Friedel " Like "The Spider," this story can be found in the recent Hanns Heinz Ewers: Volume I. Like Norman Bates from Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959), Jesus Maria von Friedel was a schizophrenic man whose other personality was feminine. In his alter ego. Friedel dressed up as a woman. Eventually, Friedel committed suicide with a gun. However, the author argued that this was really murder. One of the two competing personalities had slain the other.
In Warped in the Making, Ashton-Wolfe recorded "The Murder of Don Ramon Valdes Y Cazal." Don Ramon had the same personality disorder as Baron von Friedel. Don Ramon was found poisoned. The French police initially suspected murder. When the truth was learned about Don Ramon’s double life, it was concluded that the death was technically suicide. The female personality had left a poisoned decanter for the male counterpart. Ashton-Wolfe professed that the details of the case were documented in Gazette des Tribunaux, Paris edition, July to August 1909.
In a rather wild subplot, it was revealed that Don Ramon’s in his female identity had once gone to Haiti in order to become a voodoo priestess. There was a rather vivid description of the sacrifice of a child in a voodoo ceremony. This scene was very similar to an episode form Ewers’s "Blood," a novelette that was translated into English in 1930, but which seems to have been published in German before World War I.
Ashton-Wolfe became friendly with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the noted mystery writer. Ashton-Wolfe dedicated Outlaws of Modern Days (1927) to Doyle. At least one of Ashton-Wolfe’s renditions of a factual crime influenced a story by Doyle. Warped in the Making: Crimes of Love and Hate includes the story of Mario Allivi, a swindler who attempted to sell a phony death ray to the Italian navy. This event became the basis for Doyle’s Professor Challenger story, "The Disintegration Machine." Challenger even alluded to Allivi in the course of the story: "We have not forgotten a recent case where an Italian, who proposed to explode mines from a distance, proved upon investigation to be an arrant impostor."
Seabury Quinn, the author of the Jules de Grandin stories in Weird Tales, clearly read Ashton-Wolfe. Dr. Sun Ah Poy, the only recurring adversary to fight de Grandin, is a virtual copy of Hanoi Shan. The villain of Quinn’s "The Brain Thief" (Weird Tales, May 1930) may have been inspired by Chundah Lal, a Hindu hypnotist who robbed people of their memories. Chundah Lal appeared in two stories from The Thrill of Evil, "The ‘Happy Death’" and "The Passing of the Euthanasia," as well as a third untitled story in American Weekly. "The ‘Happy Death’" was probably plagiarized by Ashton-Wolfe from W.C. Morrow’s "The Removal Company" (California Illustrated Magazine, October 1891).
In order to support his wild claims, Ashton-Wolfe reproduced photographs that allegedly depicted the people and objects from his stories. Occasionally Ashton-Wolfe was careless with his photographic evidence. In the pages of American Weekly , the photograph of the same tattooed man was used for three distinct criminals. "Leaves of Lethargy" (American Weekly, October 27, 1940) had a voodoo criminal equipping zombies with a circular pistol. A photograph of this weapon was produced. Supposedly the zombie master invented this weapon in the 1900's. Actually, it’s a French firearm, the Protector, patented in 1882 by Jacques E. Turbiaux.
Ashton-Wolfe’s literary career seems to have peaked in 1932. He sold the film rights to his "true" Sūreté accounts to David O. Selznick of RKO pictures. Selznick was hoping to make a series of B movies featuring Frank Morgan, the actor best known for playing the title character in The Wizard of Oz, as Ashton-Wolfe. According to the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) website, the RKO legal department discovered that Ashton-Wolfe’s accounts were full of blatant falsehoods. Subsequently, only one film, Secrets of the French Police (1932), was released. The name of Frank Morgan’s character was changed from Harry Ashton-Wolfe to Francois St. Cyr. The screenplay was based on Ashton-Wolfe’s "The Mystery of the Orly Highway" and two untitled stories from American Weekly, as well as Samuel Ornitz's Lost Empress, an unpublished novel about Princess Anatasia of Russia.
According to the TCM website, Ashton-Wolfe was under investigation by the British and French authorities for fraud in 1932. If this is true, he was never arrested. He continued to write stories for American Weekly until 1940. However, the authorities of another country did apprehend him. Ashton-Wolfe made the mistake of residing in San Remo, Italy. In June 1940, Benito Mussolini declared war on the British Empire. Ashton-Wolfe was interred as an enemy alien.
When the Allies invaded Italy in 1943, they located Ashton-Wolfe. In January 1944, he told an horrific account of his incarceration by the Fascists to the London Times. He does not seem to have written any new stories after World War II, although some of his earlier tales were published in South Africa during the 1950's. He died at the age of 78 in Sussex during July 1959.
Hanoi Shan had largely been forgotten until the false theory that this "real-life" mastermind was the basis for Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu was circulated. The idea was first proposed in John Harwood’s "Speculations on the Origin of Dr. Fu Manchu" (The Rohmer Review #2, January 1969). Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973) by Philip José Farmer widely publicized the premise that Hanoi Shan’s crimes influenced Fu Manchu. In actuality, the popularity of Rohmer’s novels prompted Ashton-Wolfe to create Hanoi Shan.
This collection reprints all seven known stories about Hanoi Shan. The three tales that appeared solely in American Weekly bore no titles. Based on internal evidence, I have given them titles. "The Return of Hanoi Shan" was serialized in 2 two parts (November 8 and 15, 1931). "The Mystery of the Stolen Portraits" appeared in the issue dated December 6, 1931, while "The Whirling Madness" comes from the issue dated April 12, 1936.
Other Books in the Series