Rhinelander's Cold Case of 1939

Apr 24, 2019

For this week's A Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tells us about a cold case that exists in Rhinelander from 1939.

A cold case is a criminal case where probative investigative leads have been exhausted but could be reopened pending the discovery of new evidence.  Such a cold case exists in Rhinelander’s history, and it is a grisly case of alleged murder.

In early May 1939, Merrill Warren, owner of the Rathskeller on Coon Street, thought he hit on a winning idea to bring new patrons into his restaurant.  In Minneapolis he found a Chinese chef who had been working in Fargo, ND, brought him to Rhinelander, and began offering Chinese cuisine.  The chef’s name was George Wong.  Warren advertised him heavily, and the Chinese dishes were an instant hit.

Wong was an American citizen and about 38 years old in 1939.  He lived in a time of intense anti-Chinese discrimination, but his reception in Rhinelander, at least for his culinary skills, seems to have been an overall positive one.  Nonetheless, Wong had learned not to trust institutions like banks and carried his savings on him, which was allegedly between 500 to 700 dollars, and that made him a tempting target.

Around midnight on May 23, 1939, Wong told bartender Lyle Cloutier that he needed to check the dining room and would return momentarily.  When Wong failed to reappear, Cloutier went to the upstairs dining room to check.  He found Wong lying in a pool of his own blood, his throat having been severely cut.  Still alive, Wong was rushed to the hospital where he momentarily regained consciousness.  When asked if he had cut himself, he whispered: “A man did it.”  When asked if it was a white or Chinese man, he indicated a white man.  Wong died on the operating table.

Inside the Rathskeller dining room, police investigators found a blood-stained butcher knife on one side of where Wong fell, his empty wallet on the other side, and the key to the dining room but no apparent sign of a struggle. One of two women who were in the bar that night said she heard a car drive off at the time of the incident. A coroner’s inquest was convened, and the knife was sent to the FBI for fingerprinting. 

The FBI report came back stating that the knife was too blood smeared to lift any prints.  Wong had no friends or relatives in Rhinelander, and there were no obvious suspects.  Therefore, on June 1, 1939, the coroner’s jury returned with a verdict of death by suicide.  The case was closed.

This is a cold case because the investigation was minimal and too many questions were left unanswered.  Wong had about $45 in his pants pockets, but what happened to the cash in his wallet?  He was earning better wages in Rhinelander than he had in Fargo, so his financial prospects were promising.  No compelling reason was given for suicide, which makes this a case awaiting the attention of an amateur sleuth.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.