Flirting with History: A Romance in Early 20th Century China, Part Five

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We come to the fifth and final part of a post on the romance of Elizabeth Gowan Haskins Workman and her first husband Thomas Haskins as they lived with the American legation in China in the first decade of the 20th century.  Based on a 1969 interview with Elizabeth conducted by her daughter Anne Workman Janeway, with an original draft transcript donated with other items to the Homestead by Anne’s daughter, Barbara Janeway Kome, the story is filled with the romance of the two young people living in a country just removed from the horrors of the Boxer Rebellion and the turmoil of European colonization.

Previous posts covered how Tom was appointed to join the legation and further his studies of Mandarin; how Elizabeth traveled two years later to China to marry him; and aspects of their lives together including his work, their relationship with people from other legations, and recollections of the Chinese, mainly household servants but also the Empress Dowager during grand receptions.

Haskins 1900 census LA
Thomas Haskins and his brother Samuel, a Los Angeles city clerk, resided with their sister in the 1900 census, just before Tom went to Berkeley to attend the University of California and study Mandarin.

The later portions of the interview often revisited topics covered earlier and sometimes added new information or items of interest.  With respect, for example, to the servants in the Haskins household, Anne asked her mother what the names were of the Number One and Number Two boys and the coolies who worked for the “boys.”

Elizabeth only remembered the last of the “Number One” boys as Wong, noting “you called the boy.  You didn’t speak to the coolies.  Well, I mean, we had no occasion to.”  When her daughter inquired whether her mother smiled at or was cordial to them, the reply was “Oh yes.  If we saw them in the morning, we smiled at them.”  Beyond being foreigners in the country, Elizabeth and Tom were living in an island of diplomats and their connections to the Chinese were, therefore, limited by the circumstances and interactions were sparse and formal.

Notably, when she talked about their residence, she observed, “it was not nearly so attractive as the Chinese houses.”  An architect was sent from Washington, D.C. to design structures for the legation compound, but “instead of taking his tips from the Chinese people and the way they built their houses [for local conditions], he didn’t at all.”  For example, she went on, “the Chinese close their houses to the north, where the cold winds come from,” but the American architect didn’t take that into consideration.  In all, the house was comfortable, but there was “nothing attractive about” it.

Haskins 1905 China legation (2)
Tom listed with other American legation personnel in China in a 1905 government document.  Note his salary at $2,000 per year.

There was some discussion about the many Christian missionaries in the area and Elizabeth, while stating that they knew quite a few, particularly mentioned Isaac T. Headland, who began his work in China in 1890.  She observed that he “made a great deal of money” because “he used to escort tourists to shops, and then he’d go back afterwards and get quite a rake-off” or “squeeze,” a term for a financial consideration or a bribe that was a commonplace practice in China at the time.

Elizabeth’s sister, Edith (Dee Dee), was present for part of the interview, so Anne asked her
“What happened at your house before Mother went to China?”  The answer was hardly surprising:

all the time that Tom was in China, Bess spent her evenings and her night, and late at night, scratch, scratch, scratching away writing letters to Tom, and poor Alice [another sister who shared a room with Elizabeth] who had to get up and go to school the next day, trying to go to sleep with this bright light shining.

Elizabeth added, “Well, what a thoughtless person I was,” to which her sister rejoined, “Well, people in love are.”  Asked to continue with her remembrances, Dee Dee stated “ours were very hectic days and weeks, before she left . . . all the pretty clothes , , , oh, and, when all the packages [wedding presents] would come, you didn’t care that we opened them.”  She added that her sister “was in love.  Oh, yes.  And the first thing when she came in the door, ‘any letters, any telegrams, any American Beauty roses?'”   When Elizabeth responded that Tom never sent her roses, her sister slyly responded, “but you had other people interested while Tom was away.  Don’t let us forget that.”

Haskins 1907 China legation
A 1907 listing of legation employees included a new “envoy extraordinary”, William W. Rockhill, while Haskins retained his position and salary from two years prior.

After Minister Edwin Conger left China in 1905, he was replaced by William W. Rockhill, of whom Elizabeth remembered, “he was quite a star—he was a strange sort of man—he didn’t care for people, he liked things.  And he used to walk around the compound with a string of Tibetan Rosary beads.  Just fingering them, you know.”  He also took a liking to Tom’s sister Mary when she visited.

Rockhill and Tom journeyed in June 1908 to visit the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader, at Wutaishan, a sacred Buddhist site in Shanxi province, about a four hours drive today southwest of Peking (Beijing).  The Dalai Lama left Tibet for that location because of perceptions of his safety during difficult times.  Elizabeth recalled,

Well, he was thrilled at being asked to go along.  Mr. Rockhill could have gone by himself for he could speak Chinese and Tibetan, but it would have been sort of “in for a dig” [trouble] for him to have done that.  For, after all, he was supposed to have something of an entourage, somebody to talk for him, and arrange for the trip, and the mule litters [animal transport], and all of the stuff.

The trip was made both by mule and walking and the journey lasted about a month with about a week spent with the Dalai Lama.  An important outcome of the trip was Rockhill’s convincing the spiritual leader to return to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and pursue friendlier relations with the British regime in India rather the engage with China.  A half-century later, the latter nation seized Tibet and the issue continues to be a sensitive one today.  Meanwhile, Tom’s experiences on the remarkable visit with the spiritual leader were recorded in a journal, which is now at the Library on Congress.

Haskins 1906 passport application
Tom’s passport application for his return to China after a stay in the United States, 9 August 1906.

Elizabeth remembered that Tom returned before an American Independence Day tennis tournament at Tientsin (Tianjin), southeast of Peking, and then prepared to travel to Swatow (Shantou) in the far southern province of Guangdong.  This was because Tom had just been appointed United States Consul there and took the oath of office on 1 July 1908.

First, though, the couple planned to go from Tientsin after the tournament to Peitaiho, the seaside resort northeast of Peking mentioned in an earlier post in this series.  The plan was for Elizabeth to stay there, while Tom went ahead to Swatow to make arrangements for their move.  She continued,

we took the train to Peitaiho, and he seemed to want to lie down all the time.  And he said he couldn’t see—he didn’t play a good game the day before [at Tientsin] because he couldn’t see the balls.  Something affected his vision. And, so, four days later [on 12 July] he was gone.  It was something like meningitis.  His throat was paralyzed.  He couldn’t even swallow water.

While not in pain, Tom’s condition baffled four doctors, two each from the capital and from Tientsin, who were called in to treat him.  After his death at the house in Peitaiho, he was buried at a Protestant cemetery in Peking, though Elizabeth heard that “the graves have been desecrated,” though she did not know whether this was true or not.

A short article on Tom’s death, Santa Ana Register, 13 July 1908.

To add to the tragedy and trauma, Elizabeth gave birth to their second daughter, who lived only twelve hours, just prior to Tom leaving for the trip to visit the Dalai Lama.  She told Anne,

I made the great mistake of leaving immediately for home.  If I had stayed there a while longer, I would have known that that part of my life was finished, that there was nothing more there for me.  And I would have been much more content.  As it was, I was always wanting to go back—which would have been a mistake, you can’t go back.

Elizabeth used the ticket intended for the trip south to Swatow and, on the 17th, left China for California.  After her arrival, she recalled that “my family leaned over backwards to be nice to me” and her sister added “It was awful.  It was like a nightmare, the whole thing.”  Elizabeth continued “I used to go to bed at night and pray I wouldn’t wake up.  I did that for a long time” until a friend confronted her and told her “life goes on.  You have to go with it.”

She came to Los Angeles for a time to stay with her late husband’s family and then returned to the Gowan family home in San Francisco, but felt “I just couldn’t see any future at all.  What there was for me to do.  It was a bad dream.”   It was in spring 1909 that a friend of Tom’s brother Sam called to visit Edith (Dee Dee) and who had visited Tom in China in 1903 during a trip around the world before Elizabeth went there.

Elizabeth’s interview recollections of Tom’s visit to meet the Dalai Lama in June 1908.

William Henry Workman, Junior was born in 1874, the fourth child of William H. Workman, nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman, and Maria Elizabeth Boyle, whose father Andrew settled on land east of the Los Angeles River in the late 1850s.  When William H., Jr. was a year old his father subdivided Andrew Boyle’s land and created the Boyle Heights neighborhood.  A member of the board of education and common (city) council in the 1860s and 1870s, William H., Sr. was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1886 and, during his two-year term, presided over the famed Boom of the Eighties which swept over the city and county.

The younger Workman. attended Los Angeles High School and then earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from St. Vincent’s College (now Loyola Marymount), followed by technical courses in engineering at Stanford University, finishing a four-year course in half that time.  He went to work for the Southern California Power Company, soon absorbed into Southern California Edison, where he was assistant to the president.  He tired of that work, however, so he quit and went on his global travels.

When in Peking visiting Tom Haskins in 1903, however, Elizabeth recalled “when he first went into Tom’s room he saw the picture . . . a photograph of me . .  and he said, ‘Well, Haskins, it’s just as well I’m not meeting that girl now because I’d take her away from you.'”  Tom merely replied, “The devil you would—try and do it.”  Five years later, she stated, “he didn’t do what he was supposed to do, fall in love with Edith.”  Dee Dee retorted, “Didn’t he know who he was coming to see?  He wasn’t coming to see me.  He knew you were there, and he was coming to see you.”

Elizabeth’s remembrances of Tom’s death.

The friendly sisterly banter continued when Dee Dee explained that, when Workman came to the door of the Haskins home, it wasn’t Elizabeth who answered the door, because “she never opened the door  . . . because you liked to make an entrance.  You liked the service.”  When Anne asked about her impressions of Workman, Elizabeth responded

Oh, I wasn’t interested in him.  I wasn’t interested in meeting anybody, or marrying anybody, and I resisted it just as long as I could, and I had made up my mind to go any somewhere . . . where he couldn’t get at me. But he said it wouldn’t make any difference, he’d follow me wherever I went.

Workman took a job with Union Oil Company in San Francisco and pursued Elizabeth relentlessly, with her recalling, “I fought him off as long as I could, and I had to marry him to get rid of him.”  The wedding took place in September 1909 and the couple remained together for over four decades and had four children.

Elizabeth’s discussion of her being courted by William H. Workman, Jr., who she married in September 1909.

Workman, who co-owned a realty company and then managed his father’s estate after William H. Workman died in 1918, formed a Morris Plan Bank (which issued loans to those in the middle class who had trouble getting them from traditional banks) and remained with it for the rest of his career.

Workman died in 1951 and Elizabeth returned to the Bay Area, where she died in 1975 at age 93, having lived a remarkable and dramatic life.  It is clear from the interview that she never got over the terrible loss of her first husband and the romance they shared in the waning days of Imperial China is a particularly compelling story on this Valentine’s Day.


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