Stirling Fessenden

Stirling Fessenden (29 September 1875 – 1 February 1944), an American lawyer who practised in Shanghai, was the chairman of the Shanghai Municipal Council from 1923 to 1929 and then Secretary-General of the Council from 1929 to 1939.

Stirling Fessenden
Stirling Fessenden.png
Chairman of the Shanghai Municipal Council
In office
12 October 1923 – 5 March 1929
Preceded byH.G. Simms
Succeeded byHarry Edward Arnhold
Secretary General of the Shanghai Municipal Council
In office
6 March 1929 – 30 June 1939
Preceded byNew position
Succeeded byG. Godfrey Philips
Personal details
Born(1875-09-29)September 29, 1875
Fort Fairfield, Maine, United States
Died(1944-02-01)February 1, 1944 (aged 68)

Early lifeEdit

Fessenden was born September 29, 1875 in Fort Fairfield, Maine, United States.[1] The son of Nicholas Fessenden, Judge and later Secretary of State of Maine, and Laura Sterling, he came from a prominent New England family which included Samuel Fessenden, a Massachusetts state senator and US Treasury Secretary William P. Fessenden.

In 1896, he graduated from Bowdoin College with a B.A.. (Bowdoin College, in 1932, awarded him an honorary LLD.[2]) He studied law in the New York Law School, evening department.[3]

Legal Practice in ShanghaiEdit

Fessenden came to Shanghai in April 1903 to work as a sub-manager with the American Trading Company.[4] In 1905, he commenced practicing law in partnership with Mr Thomas R. Jernigan. In 1907, he was admitted to practice in the newly established United States Court for China. He and Jernigan, were, initially, the only American lawyers to pass the strict bar exam introduced by the new judge, Lebbeus Wilfley.[5] Later he formed a partnership with Major Chauncy Holcomb in the firm of Fessenden & Holcomb. He served as Chairman of the Far Eastern Bar Association in Shanghai for many years.[6]

Shanghai Municipal CouncilEdit

A caricature of Fessenden as the "Lord Mayor of Shanghai", 1927

In 1920, Fessenden was elected a member of Shanghai Municipal Council Board of Trustees and in October 1923 he became chairman of the Municipal Council.[7]

Following the outspring on violence in Shanghai from 1925, he re-organized the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. He created the American Mercantile Company, mostly dealing with Shanghai real-estate in 1925 along with Harry Virden Bernard.

In 1929, Fessenden resigned from his post as Chairman of the Municipal Council and took up the post of Director-General (later Secretary-General) of Municipal Council, charged with the administration of the council.[8]

After the Japanese invasion of China, the Shanghai International Settlement was encircled by Japanese troops. The Japanese authorities claimed that he conspired with the Americans against Japan.

With effect from June 30, 1939, Fessenden retired from his position with the council due to eye disease.[9]

Internment and DeathEdit

In 1941, when Japan occupied the Shanghai International Settlement at the start of the Pacific War, the Japanese forced Fessenden to be interned with Russian refugees. After he was completely blind, Chinese servants took care of him.[10]

Fessenden was offered a passage out of Shanghai in September 1943 on the Teia Maru to Goa (where passengers would transfer to the MS Gripsholm to take them back to the United States). However, knowing that he had little time to live, he declined.[11] He died of a heart ailment, in Shanghai on February 1, 1944.[12] Fessenden had indicated before his death that he wished to be cremated.[13] There is no record of his burial in Shanghai, so he presumably was.


  1. ^ Fessenden's profile in Men of Shanghai and North China
  2. ^ Fessenden's entry in Men of Shanghai and North China.
  3. ^ New York Law School, "Student Ledger Book 7, page 014" (1900). Student Ledger Book 7. 16.
  4. ^ Affidavit to Explain Protracted Foreign Residence and to Overcome Presumption of Expatriation made by Fessenden on 29 October 1917.
  5. ^ Douglas Clark, Gunboat Justice: British and American Law Courts in China and Japan (1842-1943), Vol 2, p81 ISBN 978-988-82730-9-6
  6. ^ Fessenden's entry in Men of Shanghai and North China.
  7. ^ Fessenden's entry in Men of Shanghai and North China.
  8. ^ Fessenden's entry in Men of Shanghai and North China.
  9. ^ North China Herald, January 4, 1939, p17
  10. ^ John B Powell, "My Twenty-Five Years in China", p327
  11. ^ John B Powell, "My Twenty-Five Years in China", p327
  12. ^ Telegram from US Consulate in Bern to State Department dated February 5, 1944 reporting on telegraph received from Swiss Consulate General in Shanghai informing them of Fessenden's death. John Powell and Time Magazine of January 24, 1944 reported him dying on September 20, 1943. This appears to be based on a belief that he had only days to live when the Teia Maru left Shanghai.
  13. ^ Letter dated September 8, 1943 from Fessenden to his brother Thomas Fessenden.

Further readingEdit

  • Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai by Robert Bickers
  • The Fall of Shanghai by Noel Barber
  • Gunboat Justice: British and American Law Courts in China and Japan (1842-1943) by Douglas Clark
  • My Twenty Five Years In China by John B Powell
  • Hunting opium and other scents by Maurice Springfield (Halesworth: Norfolk and Suffolk Publicity, 1966)
  • Shanghai and beyond by Percy Finch
  • Shanghai and the edges of Empires by Meng Yue
  • Shanghai: Collision Point of Cultures, 1918-1939 by Harriet Sergeant
  • Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City, 1842-1949 by Stella Dong
  • The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime, 1919-1937 by Brian G. Martin
  • Shanghai splendor : economic sentiments and the making of modern China, 1843-1949 by Wen-hsin Yeh
  • Barney, Journals of Harry Virden Bernard, by Barbara B McGee, 1982