All in all, travel on the regular routes is as safe in China as in any other part of the world. Robbers and pirates exist, of course, and there is usually a revolution or rebellion going on in some part of the country, but these things add zest rather than danger to the journey. —The Travelers’ Handbook for China, 1921

After the Revolution of 1911 ended more than 2,000 years of imperial rule in China, the country ruptured into regional political factions, each jockeying for power in a constant state of internecine warfare. The armies of the provincial military warlords dominated the countryside as the hapless leaders of the Republic of China in Peking struggled to maintain a semblance of control over a fractured nation. The warlord armies obeyed no higher authority than the warlord himself.

In the following decade, rival warlords settled scores by resorting to arms, and after each battle their defeated soldiers scattered for survival. Poor and starving, most of these soldiers sought to be reinstated into an army, anyone’s army. But others became outlaws. Every day, swarms of men armed with rifles and sabers swept through the countryside, looting factories, hijacking trade routes, and kidnapping children. By 1923, bandits had become an existential threat.

Few Westerners ever set foot in the lawless interior of the country, where the bandits and warlords did battle. Yet, that same year, China’s newly launched express trains—a showcase of its modernity—were passing right through the heart of bandit country, their seats filled with prominent and wealthy passengers traveling back and forth over the 892 miles between the raucously cosmopolitan city of Shanghai and the nation’s more austere but still thriving capital, Peking (now Beijing).

May 5, 1923, Shanghai

The royal-blue Peking Express was a luxurious overnight train service that had launched just four months earlier.

As he made his way past the ticket booths and into the station’s cavernous waiting hall, John Benjamin Powell, the American publisher of Shanghai’s Weekly Review and the Chicago Tribune’s man in China, observed a mix of businessmen and vacationers.

John Benjamin Powell (right), the American publisher of Shanghai’s Weekly Review and the Chicago Tribune’s man in China.

There were reporters from Chinese-language newspapers, as well as a large group of well-dressed young men whom Powell recognized as major players in the city’s Jewish-merchant community. Lee Solomon, the leading exporter of mah-jongg sets to the West, was there. So was the heavyset Shanghai-based Italian lawyer Giuseppe D. Musso, who represented the Shanghai Opium Combine, which drove the opium trade before and after it became outlawed. Musso was also a well-known confidant of Italy’s new Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. Accompanying Musso was his very young and dainty secretary, Alba Corelli.

The most conspicuous personality, however, was an American lady in her 50s, who seemed at ease in her surroundings yet was dressed more for an Easter-bonnet parade than an overnight train ride. Lucy Aldrich was the eldest daughter of U.S. Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, of Rhode Island, and the sister-in-law of American financier John D. Rockefeller Jr., heir to the fortune of the Standard Oil Company of New York.

Aldrich had come to Shanghai on her second circumnavigation of the globe and had been traveling for months in the company of her very proper secretary, Minnie MacFadden, and a French maid, Mathilde Schoneberg. She had been on her way to Beijing to acquire Qing-dynasty-court coats for her textile collection.

Lucy Aldrich in 1923, the year she was kidnapped on the Peking Express.

The call to board the train was announced over a tinny public-address system. A stampede of mostly Chinese passengers ran down the raised platform to the second- and third-class coaches at the front of the train. The first-class passengers were in the rear cars, away from the smoke and cinders that the coal-burning steam locomotive spewed into the air. Aldrich, her companions, and the other foreign passengers were ushered by the first-class-compartment porters to their assigned carriage.

The engineer then sounded the large, swinging brass bell cradled atop the locomotive again and again. As the hissing steam was blown out from the cylinder cocks on the sides of the engine and the exhaust from the smokestack started to belch, the train moved forward. The journey had begun.

May 5, Lincheng, Shantung Province

Sun Mei-yao saw himself as a soldier, not a thief, yet he was about to pull off the biggest train heist in the history of China. Twenty-five years old and born to a prestigious family clan in Southern Shantung Province, Sun had begun his career as an officer in a local militia. He had tried to fight with honor, but the warlords who vied for power and plunder in rural China did not care about honor. To them, Sun and his men were little more than cannon fodder. And when peace was made, his unit was disbanded, and his men were left to starve.

Sun decided he would no longer be a soldier of fortune, a slave to the spurious for-profit campaigns of the warlords. He told his troops not to lay down their arms. He said their next battle would be different. It would be an economic insurgency, a chance to fight back against the warlords and business interests that extracted local resources from Shantung and gave nothing in return.

The most conspicuous personality was an American lady dressed more for an Easter-bonnet parade than an overnight train ride, who was the sister-in-law of John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Sun’s target was the Peking Express. His idea was to brazenly attack the country’s main railway artery, derailing the train and kidnapping its passengers. Only by taking people hostage—not only scores of rich Chinese but also prominent foreigners—would Sun get the world’s attention and thus the leverage he needed to strong-arm Peking and make his revolutionary plans a reality.

As the Peking Express lumbered northward, the scenery changed, and the passengers saw mile after mile of rice paddies and straw-thatched-roof villages, with no roads except for narrow paths for oxen and donkeys.

As the sun set across the vast horizon of China’s central plains, the passengers went to the dining car for an elaborate five-course banquet featuring enormous prawns, fresh-steamed garden vegetables and salad, French cheeses and breads, Swiss chocolates and pastries, and an assortment of fine wines. As if in an elegant restaurant, all the passengers dressed in their swanky best for the onboard dining experience. Over dinner and drinks, they talked about the sights and shopping they had enjoyed in Shanghai and the things they planned to see in Peking.

Around 10 o’clock, the passengers retreated to their carriages and were lulled to sleep by the rhythmic chuff, chuff, chuff of the steam locomotive engine driving the train northward.

May 6, 2:40 A.M.

As darkness descended, Sun Mei-yao led his troop of 1,200 bandits to a specific section of the rail line just south of the town of Lincheng. His spies had informed him that on this weekend, all the senior officers of the railway police, who were responsible for the protection of both the track and the trains, were in Tientsin, 377 miles to the north, attending the birthday party of their commander. The junior officers left behind either chose not to go to work, given the absence of their bosses, or were bribed to stay home. In any case, only a few rank-and-file guards were there to protect the entire train system.

Once in position, Sun’s troops seized the few railway police on duty in the vicinity and forced some railroad workers to remove the steel nails and fishplates connecting 16 rails—without actually removing the rails from the railroad ties. Each fishplate, joining two rails together on the track for alignment, had six large bolts that could be removed only with a special wrench. Without fishplates and nails holding the rails to the sleepers, the track could not support the weight of an oncoming train.

The spot chosen was about two and a half miles south of Lincheng, where the track was on a slight uphill grade and curve. This uphill curve not only forced approaching locomotives to slow down, but it also made it difficult for any train crew to see far ahead.

Sun Mei-yao saw himself as a soldier, not a thief, yet he was about to pull off the biggest train heist in the history of China.

Sun knew that his plan was audacious. He would be taking the typical kidnapping and thievery practiced by bandits in the Chinese countryside to a whole new level. But he did not realize, as his men lay their trap for the Peking Express, that he was also about to become an international media sensation and a subject of major concern in halls of power around the world.

The train snaked its way through the flat, central plains and then crossed a rail bridge above China’s ancient Grand Canal. Then, without warning, it lurched sharply side to side, and the brakes squealed like a pig being slaughtered. This was followed by a loud crashing sound.

For a moment, there was an uncanny silence. Then the first gunshots came. They seemed to be coming from all sides at once. Out of his carriage window, Powell could see raiders lying in the fields and firing, and others dashing across the embankment toward the train.

He could hear cries in Chinese:

“Tsou, tsou! (Go, go!)

“Sha, sha! (Kill, kill!)

Sun Mei-yao and his troops set upon the Peking Express in waves. The first group ransacked compartments and grabbed any cash, coins, jewelry, watches, and other small objects of value that could be traded for ammunition, supplies, and opium. The second wave was the gleaners—removing the less precious items left behind (clothing, hats, bedding, and fixtures from the train), which the bandits could put to their own use or barter for food and shelter with the villagers. The final group of bandits was the kidnappers. It was their job to sweep through the train cars and take passengers hostage.

Slowly it dawned on the passengers that they were not just waiting for the bandits to finish robbing the train—they were being kidnapped. They begged to be let back into their compartments to collect shoes and warmer clothes.

Over the shouting, Powell could distinctly make out the sound of a mature female voice. ”Socony!” she screamed. ”Socony! Socony!” Powell chuckled, amused that Miss Aldrich believed that a Chinese bandit would be impressed by her connection to the venerable Standard Oil Company of New York (often referred to by its acronym, Socony) or to the Rockefeller family. Socony, he thought, is certainly not going to be much help out here!

Aldrich was not frightened as much as outraged. Don’t these fools know who I am? She peeked out through the curtain and in the dim light saw swarms of gaunt figures surrounding the train. As the guns kept popping outside, she quickly grabbed her passports and letters of credit. Then Aldrich yelled to the faithful Schoneberg, imploring her not to fight back and to give the bandits everything they demanded. (She did not know that her crafty maid had already secreted away her diamonds and emeralds in a sachet, which she then hid in her undergarments.)

With pistols in their backs, Aldrich, MacFadden, and Schoneberg were led down the corridor and out of the train.

May 6, 4:00 A.M.

Sun Mei-yao watched as the first wave of bandits brought from the train the cash, jewelry, and other valuable objects looted from the passengers and handed the cache over to a trusted subchief, who took inventory and placed the treasure into a pilfered portmanteau. As the second wave passed through the train, Sun started to get impatient. He was most interested in the passengers, especially the foreigners.

He watched as the third wave of men swept through the train cars looking for passengers, room by room. Sun smiled when he saw the foreigners being carried off the train and onto the embankment where he was standing. This was exactly what he wanted for his grand political agenda: hostages.

Chinese Army troops in pursuit of the bandits and captives of the Peking Express.

At some point, Powell heard the shriek of the train whistle. It was time to move out. The bandits began to push and shove the hostages eastward in single-file lines toward the mountains. It was a surreal, terrible sight. Without a common language, the bandits used their guns to direct traffic, gesturing and sometimes pressing their rifle barrels into the backs of hostages to push them along.

Of the 300 passengers recorded on the manifest that evening, more than 100 had been taken prisoner, including 28 foreigners. The march to Paotzuku Mountain had begun.

A group of bandits had pulled Aldrich and MacFadden by their wrists down the track embankment and into the adjoining fields. In the cool, pre-dawn air, the women inhaled the earthy scent of farm animals and freshly tilled soil. Aldrich supported her companion as they walked. MacFadden’s loose, thin slippers kept sliding off and were no match for the uneven, hardened ground.

Lucy Aldrich was not frightened as much as outraged. Don’t these fools know who I am?

MacFadden was not the only one having trouble; many of the foreign men were also walking barefoot as they were goaded across the fields. The next few hours were a nightmare, and it was almost a blessing that the bandits were weighed down by their loot, for it kept the pace slow.

Schoneberg, Aldrich’s maid, soon caught up to the pair. She was dressed in multiple layers of clothing, including Aldrich’s pale-blue velvet dressing gown trimmed with gray fur. Mathilde is getting by wonderfully, almost prancing along, Aldrich thought.

“Dear, you look like the Queen of Sheba in that outfit, and much too conspicuous,” Aldrich said to her. “You will end up attracting the unwanted attention of the bandits, so you better take it off!”

As she removed the covering, Schoneberg whispered to MacFadden that she had concealed within her undergarments a sachet holding Aldrich’s jewelry. Because Schoneberg was wearing shoes, the bandits prodded her to walk faster and to catch up with another group. Soon she was separated from Aldrich and MacFadden.

Bandit chiefs Sun Mei-yao (foreground, left) and Po-po Liu (foreground, second from right) flank hostage Lee Solomon.

Two hours later, the group came upon an assortment of donkeys, ponies, mules, and horses scattered across the open fields. Powell persuaded the bandits to round up some of the grazing animals to carry Schoneberg and some of the other, frailer foreign hostages who were trailing behind them, including Aldrich and MacFadden.

It took several bandits to load the hefty Aldrich up onto a small, frisky pony that brayed and moved side to side in obvious disapproval under the weight. Aldrich finally managed to catch up with Schoneberg, who waved her mistress to come closer. Schoneberg then quickly passed the sachet of jewelry to her. She carefully hid the pouch inside her brassiere.

The bandits and captives eventually reached the base of a steep, conical mountain. Here the bandits separated the foreign hostages into smaller groups and continued on foot. This way, they would not risk losing all of the foreigners if they were attacked by the pursuing army or train guards.

Aldrich winced as she trudged forward. Her journey was particularly arduous, not only because of her age and poor health but also because she was walking on her mother’s emerald and diamond rings, which she had moved from her brassiere and hidden in a pouch inside the toe of her right slipper. With every step she took, the rings dug deeper into her toes.

It was stupid to endure this pain for the sake of holding on to rings that were of negligible value to a woman of her wealth, but something in her refused to give up her mother’s jewels to the bandits.

At some point, Aldrich drifted apart from her group and was discovered by villagers who took her in and helped her; she eventually returned safely to the U.S. The other women hostages were released a few days later, while the men were held for more than a month as negotiations between the U.S., China, and the bandits took place. They were finally released on June 12, 1923, after 37 days of captivity. The attack would become known as the Lincheng Outrage, before being largely forgotten.

James M. Zimmerman is a Beijing-based lawyer who has lived and worked in China for more than 25 years. His book, The Peking Express, is out now