Shanghai Harbor, Undated

The river harbor in Shanghai, China, circa 1910, was an area patrolled by the River Police, many of them Americans. Courtesy Virtual Shanghai Project.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

(Editor’s note: This story is based on a query posed by CDCR employee regarding a great-great grandfather who was in San Quentin but the family had no details other than a mugshot. Story ideas may be submitted to don.chaddock@cdcr.ca.gov.)

Those who walk the toughest beat in the state deal with people who made very poor choices. From car thieves to thrill seekers, the reasons some of those early inmates landed in state prisons are varied. The following inmate, who served his time in the early 1900s, was a police officer who almost sparked an international incident.

American citizen Joseph Gustav Munz put on a badge and patrolled the river in Shanghai, China, to help keep the navigation channels clear. Munz didn’t get along well with the local population and when his methods ended up claiming the life of another, his 1904 case strained relations between China and the U.S. He was found guilty by the American Consular Court.

The American Consul and two members of the court went so far as to plead with the President of the U.S. to pardon the policeman. To help calm the situation, Munz was loaded on a boat and sent to America to serve his sentence in San Quentin.

Shanghai river policeman gets 5 years

Munz went to work in Shanghai, China, patrolling the harbor, rivers and creeks as a police officer. He apparently didn’t have much respect for the Chinese. In the course of his duties, he tended to be heavy handed and even brutal.

Joseph Gustav Munz 1904 Vertical

Joseph Gustav Munz served time at San Quentin as a federal prisoner, 1904.

Munz arrived on the USS Princeton in 1901, quickly accepting an appointment as a river policeman. He was “prone to beat his way through Chinese in his way,” according to the book “Bargaining with the State from Afar: American Citizenship in Treaty Ports China 1844-1942” by Eileen Scully (2001).

The officer’s brutality landed him in the Shanghai consular court in 1904 as documented in a Chinese newspaper.

“The defendant was a constable in the River Police at Shanghai, particularly charged with the duty of keeping clear the channel (along) Soochow Creek. When he went on duty on the morning of the 13th October a rice boat was lying near the North Tibet Road bridge in such a position that it obstructed the navigation of the creek. Munz ordered it to be moved. Accordingly the crew moved it a little way up the stream and anchored again,” reported the North China Herald, Nov. 4, 1904. “It is admitted that when he first ordered it to be moved Munz struck one of the boat (men) about the head with a light bamboo stick, causing (his) nose to bleed, but inflicting no serious damage. On the second time Munz first threatened (them) with the bamboo and then took his boat to the shore side of the rice boat so that (they) could not escape. He then went on board the rice boat and ordered it to be moved. One of (them) went to the oar and Munz seized the second (man) by the clothing with his left hand, struck him several times in the lower part of the left side with his right fist and then kicked him once or twice and left the boat and went about his ordinary duties. The man who had been struck fell … into the hold and died within five or ten minutes thereafter. These facts seem to us to be undisputed.”

American authorities refused to believe Munz killed the man with punches and kicks. They demanded an autopsy but Chinese authorities refused, arguing it went against their customs and beliefs. Without knowing the condition of the deceased man’s internal organs prior to the altercation, the Consular Court indicated they were forced to find Munz guilty.

“The deceased died on account of his spleen having been ruptured by the said blows given by the said defendant Joseph G. Munz. … The crew of this rice boat were disobeying the lawful commands of Munz in his (course of duties as) River Police in that they did not move the boat from the navigable channel when ordered. Nevertheless, the constable had no right to strike any man except in self-defense. … I judge and sentence him … to imprisonment with hard labor for eighteen months from this day in the prison for American convicts at Shanghai, China, or at such prison as may be designated by the United States Government through its proper officers,” said the Consul General, according to the newspaper report.

Trying to enlist U.S. President’s help

American Consul John Goodnow thought it best Munz serve his sentence in the U.S. so as not to further aggravate the situation.

Two assessors also hearing the case with the consul dissented and forwarded their petition for a pardon to President Theodore Roosevelt, saying the Chinese were “extremely ignorant, stupid, obstinate and averse to any interference and control,” according to the book. “Consul Goodnow endorsed the request but suggested that Munz, ‘a man of most excellent character,’ ought not be permitted to return to China until expiration of his sentence lest Chinese be provoked.”

According to the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, published in 2000, this was “two years before the establishment of the nonconsular U.S. Court for China, and the case was heard by U.S. Shanghai Consul General John Goodnow, sitting together with two local Americans acting as ‘assessors.’ … After a verdict of guilty, these assessors wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt asking that Munz be pardoned. …. (Munz was to) not be permitted to return to Shanghai until his unserved sentence expired, so as to avoid provoking the Chinese.”

Since this was during a time long before the establishment of the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz, inmates under federal jurisdiction were sent to San Quentin.

Return to China

When Munz was released from San Quentin, he made his way back to Shanghai, China, and ended up in trouble once again.

The U.S. District Attorney initiated a preliminary hearing in the consular court against him for wounding Sun Kau-sz after he struck her over the head and wounded her male companion. Although the case was sent to the higher US Consular Court, the charges were later dropped for unstated reasons.

According to the North China Herald’s Aug. 7, 1909, edition, Munz brutally attacked multiple people that night.

“Joseph J. Munz was charged with having feloniously and unlawfully wounded Sun Kau-sz by striking her on the head with a gun … at about 10 p.m. on (Aug. 2) ; further with having feloniously and unlawfully wounded one Sun Tsau-yin by striking him on the face with a gun in accused’s house at the same time, thereby causing both complainants grievous bodily harm. Mr. A. Bassett prosecuted, and Mr. F. M. Brooks appeared for the prisoner. Inspector Bourke represented the Police. On being charged accused pleaded not guilty. Sun Teau-yin … said that accused assaulted him the previous night. Witness was talking with others in front of accused’s house when (Munz) walked on to the veranda and threw water on them. Accused then descended and assaulted witness and his wife with the air-gun produced. Witness’s wife was struck on the head and she was now in the hospital. After striking the woman, (Munz) pulled witness by the hair, dragged him into the house, and assaulted him also. Some ladies in the house told accused not to assault witness any more, and Munz then ran out of the house and assaulted everyone he met. Witness’s right leg was bitten by accused’s dog,” the newspaper reported.

He broke his gun using it to pistol-whip people. He also brandished an ax, but didn’t use it.

“At the time of the assault there were five or six Chinese looking on. Witness did not strike defendant; no one struck him….Zau Sang-ming, a member of the Paoshan Police Force, said that he was on duty in the alleyway near accused’s house, the previous night. A Kompo man and woman began to quarrel about some beds. Witness went up to try to settle the matter, when some water was thrown over them. Some natives then knocked at accused’s back door. Accused came out and assaulted everyone who came in his way. (The officer) ‘settled the trouble’ and went off to the station to report that the foreigner had a gun outside the Settlement. After going fifty paces, he heard that there was more trouble so he returned and found the Kompo woman lying on the ground suffering from injuries to her head,” the newspaper reported.

What happened to Munz after this isn’t clear, but he most likely returned to the U.S.