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John Gillespie Magee (1884 – 1953) was an American Episcopalian priest.


Early life and education

Magee was born in 1884 in Virginia of the United States. Magee came from a wealthy Pittsburgh family. He went to school at Yale University and then on to divinity school in Massachusetts. A missionary in China, he was the minister at an Episcopal mission in Nanking from 1912 to 1940.

While in China, Magee married another missionary, Faith Emmeline Backhouse. They had four sons: John, Hugh, David and Christopher. Their first son was named after his father: John Gillespie Magee, Jr., who went on to write the famous poem, "High Flight."

Nanking Massacre

During the Nanking Massacre Magee was doing missionary work in Nanking and was at the same time the chairman of Nanking Committee of the International Red Cross Organization. During the dark period when hundreds of thousands of defenseless Chinese were ruthlessly slaughtered by the Japanese army, Magee was appalled by the atrocity of the Japanese invaders.

Disregarding his own safety, Magee ran out of the Nanking Safety Zone, going through streets and lanes, and took part in rescuing more than 200,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians who were facing being slaughtered. Magee shot several hundred minutes film with then the most advanced 16mm movie camera, which filmed at 6 shots per second. These films recorded men being beheaded by the Japanese army, women raped, and babies who lost parents with corpses lying all over in villages. They are the earliest and the most complete photo evidence of the massacre.

In 1938 when Magee published 10 of the photos in Life magazine the whole world was shocked. Some people wanted to buy Magee's original film with large sums of money for political purposes, yet he was not budged. He said he wanted to give the historical materials to the right person without charge at a right moment. In 1946 while standing at the witness seat of the Tokyo War Tribunal for the Japanese war criminals Magee disclosed the irrefutable evidence that proves the crimes of the Japanese invaders.



Magee managed to film abuses of Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers during the Nanking Massacre in December 1937. Magee's films were smuggled out of Nanking; copies were shown to members of the United States government, and sent to the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin, in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade them to institute sanctions against the Japanese government. On 10 February 1938, Legation Secretary of the German Embassy, Rosen, wrote to his Foreign Ministry about a film made in December by Reverend John Magee to recommend its purchase. Here is an excerpt from his letter and a description of some of its shots, kept in the Political Archives of the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

«During the Japanese reign of terror in Nanking - which, by the way, continues to this day to a considerable degree - the Reverend John Magee, a member of the American Episcopal Church Mission who has been here for almost a quarter of a century, took motion pictures that eloquently bear witness to the atrocities committed by the Japanese. (....) One will have to wait and see whether the highest officers in the Japanese army succeed, as they have indicated, in stopping the activities of their troops, which continue even today (...)» [1]

«5. On December 13, about 30 soldiers came to a Chinese house at #5 Hsing Lu Koo in the southeastern part of Nanking, and demanded entrance. The door was open by the landlord, a Mohammedan named Ha. They killed him immediately with a revolver and also Mrs. Ha, who knelt before them after Ha's death, begging them not to kill anyone else. Mrs. Ha asked them why they killed her husband and they shot her dead. Mrs. Hsia was dragged out from under a table in the guest hall where she had tried to hide with her 1 year old baby. After being stripped and raped by one or more men, she was bayoneted in the chest, and then had a bottle thrust into her vagina. The baby was killed with a bayonet. Some soldiers then went to the next room, where Mrs. Hsia's parents, aged 76 and 74, and her two daughters aged 16 and 14. They were about to rape the girls when the grandmother tried to protect them. The soldiers killed her with a revolver. The grandfather grasped the body of his wife and was killed. The two girls were the stripped, the elder being raped by 2-3 men, and the younger by 3. The older girl was stabbed afterwards and a cane was rammed in her vagina. The younger girl was bayoneted also but was spared the horrible treatment that had been meted out to her sister and mother. The soldiers then bayoneted another sister of between 7-8, who was also in the room. The last murders in the house were of Ha's two children, aged 4 and 2 respectively. The older was bayoneted and the younger split down through the head with a sword. (...)» [2]

According to the Asahi Shinbun on Dec. 25, 1937, this photo is Rev. John Magee holding a Sunday worship service and singing hymns with Chinese Christians in Nanking "after order had been restored to the city".[3]

Magee's role in documenting the Nanking Massacre is featured in the movie Don't Cry, Nanking.

Disposition of the Nanking Massacre film

In 1953 Magee left the 16mm camera and the film to his son David who had accompanied him in Nanking. In 2002 when David heard of the news that China was going to build a museum in memory of the people who were killed during the Nanking Massacre, he came to Nanking in defiance of the great ocean, which he had left for 60 years. According to his father's last wish he offered the historical materials without charge. To remember the special contribution that Magee had made to the Nanking people a library was built in the name of Magee.

Later career

After Magee left Nanking, Magee served as assistant rector at St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square (Washington, D.C.) in Washington, D.C. While there he was one of the Episcopalian priests who officiated at the funeral of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945.

Before his death in 1953 he also served as the Episcopal chaplain at Yale University.

Magee was brother to aviator and Congressman James McDevitt Magee.

See also


  1. ^ Woods, John E. (1998). The Good man of Nanking, the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 187.  
  2. ^ Woods, John E. (1998). The Good man of Nanking, the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 281.  
  3. ^ "Nanking Smiles". Asahi Shinbun. Dec. 25, 1937.  

External links


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