This was the week that the westerners besieged in the embassies in Beijing died. They would be reborn again quite quickly, but for several days in the middle of July the world was firmly convinced that they had all been slaughtered. According to the New York Times of July 13th, working off a report by the Daily Mail of London, the Chinese Army had mounted a final assault on the legations in Beijing on July 6th, backed by heavy artillery:

“The two remaining legations, the British and Russian, were attacked in force on the evening of July 6, Prince Tuan being in command. The attackers were divided. Prince Tuan commanded the center, the right wing was led by Prince Tsai-Yin and the left by Prince Yin-Lin. The reserves were under Prince Tsin-Yu.

The attack commenced with artillery fighting, which was severe, and lasted until 7 o’clock in the morning, by which time both legations were destroyed and all the foreigners were dead, while the streets around the legations were full of the dead bodies of both foreigners and Chinese. Two foreigners are said to have escaped through the gates, one with a sword wound in his head” [1]

The story, the Times says, came from the Daily Mail’s Shanghai correspondent and “emanat[ed] from Chinese official sources.” [2] It is interesting to note that the news came from a city nearly 800 miles from Beijing, rather than the capital itself, or any of the closer ports. In addition, the copious detail is fascinating: the specifics of the commanders, the time of the battle’s end, the foreigner wounded by a sword in the head.

This news story was published the same day as another bit of “fatal news”: the price of tea was rising “as a result of the troubles in China.” Such an occurrence would cause “the domestic woes of Americans…to be increased a hundred-fold. For is it not known of all men that the lady who rules in the kitchen will not stay in a house where she cannot have plenty of tea?” [3] And so slaughter and tea came together in a way they had not, perhaps, since the American revolution.

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The next day, the news was worse, or so it seemed, kind of. A giant headline announced “ALL HOPE LOST FOR PEKING FOREIGNERS” and was sub-headed “Even State Department Now Believes They Are Dead.” After these dramatic headlines, with the surety of disaster and tragedy, the story itself was a bit of a let down. “Positive information that the foreigners in Peking have been murdered,” the piece led off, “is still not forthcoming, but each addition report received seems to make their fate more certain.” We don’t know anything new, the Times seemed to be saying, but we’ve lost all hope. So has the State Department: “Even the State Department at Washington, which up to now has regarded the dispatches about the tragedy in the capital as of doubtful veracity, has given up hope for the Europeans and Americans there.” The vagueness of this is annoying. Did someone from the State Department say something? Could you give a specific name? And why didn’t yesterday’s article talk about the State Department’s doubts?

Bizarrely, after two sentences, the story veered off from a discussion of the slaughter of the foreigners to discuss an edict from the Emperor of China that ordered the Imperial troops and Boxers to combine. This was “suggestive,” the Times thought, but suggestive of what? The paper did not quite know, but finally argued that “this seems to show that [the Emperor] has one kind of edict for home and another for foreign consumption.” Hello? An article headlined “ALL HOPE LOST” was now mucking around in imperial pronouncements to demonstrate that a government said different things for consumption home and abroad?[4]

The explanation came in a different article on the same day. “GOODNOW’S GLOOMY REPORT,” it was headlined, and it explained the State Department’s pessimism:

The Department of State today received a dispatch from Consul General Goodnow at Shanghai, saying that the Governor of Shan-Tung wires that the Boxers and soldiers were bombarding the legations for a final attack on July 7. He is extremely anxious for the safety of the Ministers and friendly Chinese in Peking. The Consul adds that fears that the worst has happened are generally entertained. This short cablegram terribly depressed the officials here. , All along they have suspected that the various communications received from Chinese sources in Shanghai have been preparing the way for the announcement of the extermination of the foreign Ministers and their, wives, children, attachés, dependents, and guards. The Consul General’s message, it is understood, is but a repetition of the latest press reports from Shanghai, but the State Department has come to place a high estimate on Mr. Goodnow’s advices. It appreciates the fact that he does not send every piece of unreliable gossip afloat in the sensational news center where he is stationed, but uses good judgment in sifting out the probable from the other kind of news. Moreover, his advice this time is from the Chinese Governor of the province wherein Shanghai is situated, and it is hard to conceive of an adequate reason for the falsification of the facts by that official in the direction of this particular report. Therefore, the State Department, which has all along been hopeful of the ultimate rescue of the Ministers at Peking, has now joined European Chancelleries in the belief that they have all been killed.[4]

Here was a much meatier report. Now, the information in the Daily Mail was seemingly confirmed by another reliable source, one who did not buy into “every piece of unreliable gossip afloat in the sensational news center where he is stationed.” The article about Goodnow also shored up the other article and made it appear more definitive.

Two days later, on July 16th, came more confirmation, from the Associated Press:

LONDON, July 16.—The Associated Press learns that Lady Hart, wife of Sir Robert Hart, Director, of Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs, received on July 5 the following telegram from her husband: Our people, including the women, are in the legations, prepare to hear the worst.

And more detail from the Shanghai correspondent of the Daily Mail in a thousand word article that related the fate of the legations hour by hour on July 6th and July 7th. The tale was of heavy Chinese attacks and repulses, valiant stands by the legation defenders, and the ultimate overwhelming of those defenders by sheer numbers and owing to the exhaustion of ammunition. It finished with a last stand:

Thus, standing together, as the sun rose, the little remaining band, all Europeans, met death stubbornly. There was a desperate hand-to-hand encounter. The Chinese lost heavily but as one man fell others advanced, and, finally overcome by overwhelming odds, every one of the Europeans remaining was put to the sword in the most atrocious manner.

There was no other conclusion possible. The westerners in Beijing had been slaughtered, killed without mercy or conscience, and any allied effort to save them was simply too late.

The only difficulty with this entire story was that it was not remotely true. There had been no sustained assault by the Chinese on the legations, no breakthrough, no last stand, and no slaughter. In fact, July 6th had been quiet enough that Private R.G. Cooper, one of the British soldiers holed up in the legations, had not mentioned it in his diary of the siege. The most pressing news of those few days was the discovery of a buried British cannon from 1860, which the defenders of the legations refurbished and put to use.[6] But there was no massacre. The entire chain of stories, from Britain and the United States were entirely, albeit unknowingly, fictional. The specific details–times, events, attacks, defenses, sword wounds to the head–were all made up. It’s an impressive lesson about the power of a news vacuum. By the middle of July, the legations had been cut off from the outside world for more than a month, and in that newly insatiable world of news, where daily mass newspapers demanded content everyday, reporters and editors had every incentive to write about every tidbit, rumor, or hint no matter how far-fetched. The smallest local items lived in the pages with the largest, most distant stories, the accuracy of each measured somewhere along a spectrum.

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Results produced by this search.

[1] July 13, 1900
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] July 14, 1900
[5] Ibid.
[6] R. G. Cooper, “A Private’s View of the Siege of Peking in 1900,” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research (1983): 81-91.

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