1920s murder in China

English major Sophia Rich explores mission work in pre-Maoist China and an incident with dire consequences (2017 senior projects, part 2)

This six-part series highlights academic projects completed by Walla Walla University students during their senior year.

Sophia Rich, 2017 Walla Walla University graduate, has done extensive research for her senior writing project on her ancestors’ history as missionaries in pre-Maoist China. Her project weaves together the historic political tensions between China and the United States, the culture of the Yunnan people, and Rich’s family history to tell the tragic story of a double murder that took place on an Adventist mission compound.

In 1928, Rich’s great-grandfather, Claude Miller, along with his wife, Victoria, and their friends, Dallas and Vera White, established an Adventist mission compound in the province of Yunnan, China. Claude worked as a dentist and pastor, and Victoria taught English and music. While Claude and Dallas were away on an extensive trip, Victoria, Vera, and Vera’s daughters, Ardyth and Jean, remained in the compound. An incident took place that prompted the dismissal of one of the locals who worked as a staff member on the compound and that lead to the murder of Victoria and Vera. The children, Ardyth and Jean, escaped safely. Claude and Dallas did not learn the news of the deaths until their return a week later.

Researching the incident
While investigating the story of the double murder, Rich was able to expand her research and use the project to discuss the shifting politics that were taking place in China at the time, the Adventist church’s missionary role in the country, and feminist criticism. Four years after the tragedy, Claude married Irene Dawson. The family remained in China, where they had their only child, a daughter named Victoria Irene in memory of Claude’s first wife. The family left for America during Mao’s rise to power.

Rich did not have many resources to use that covered the incident. She relied a good deal on the correspondence from Claude that was published in two Adventist magazines, the China Division Reporter and the Far Eastern Outlook. Sophia’s feminist criticism was found in the way women were written about in published articles. For example, instead of writing “Victoria Miller,” writers would refer to Victoria as “Mrs. Claude Miller.” Only on their death certificates were Victoria and Vera’s full names printed. When news of the women’s deaths was printed, their role as helpless white women was emphasized, while reports from contemporary publications carried racist undertones and propagated fear that Communists were behind it all. Other helpful sources for Rich were her grandmother, Victoria Irene (Miller) Wahlen, who shared stories about the event and her life growing up in the mission compound, and Sylvia Nosworthy, former WWU professor of English, who assisted Rich in finding Victoria’s official death certificate.

The story lives on
One surprising thing that Rich learned was how the story of the murdered missionaries is still shared among the Chinese Adventists. In fact, when her mother and brother visited the Yunnan province a few years ago, the locals identified them as the descendents of Claude. She found plenty of resources that discuss the political tensions that were developing in China at the time. She struggled to find exact details related to the murderers and the investigation that ensued, but did greatly enjoy gaining knowledge of her family’s history, which until her work on this project, had only been passed down verbally through the family.

With her bachelor of arts degree in English, Rich aspires to be a novelist or to do narrative writing for video games and board games. She is also working on writing poetry, which she hopes to publish someday.

Posted July 24, 2017

Portrait of Sophia Rich looking at the camera with a huge smile, wearing her hair down in loose ringlets.
Sophia Rich, 2017 WWU graduate with a major in English, researched her family's history as missionaries in 1920s China and an incident that lead to a double murder.
A black and white photo of Claude and Victoria Miller's wedding day.
A photo from Claude and Victoria Miller's wedding day.
Black and White photo of the Miller and White families.
This photo of the Miller and White families was taken at the Yunnan mission shortly before the murders. The Millers are seated and the White family is standing behind them. Vera is holding Ardyth, and Dallas is holding Jean.
Plack and white phot of Claude and Irene (Sophia Rich's great-grandparents).
This photo of Claude and Irene (Rich's great-grandparents) was scanned from C.C. Crisler's 1937 report on the Adventist mission in China.