I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Stories of rags to riches are plentiful. Oprah Winfrey was born into poverty in Mississippi. Ralph Lauren once worked as a store clerk for Brooks Brothers. J.K. Rowling was a single mother living on welfare. But few can match the extraordinary rise from nothing that was the life of Moishe “Two-Gun” Cohen.
A Rough Start
Morris (Moishe) Abraham Cohen entered this world in a Polish shtetl on August 3, 1887. His family escaped from the Russian pogroms of the time and settled in the East End of London.
(Some accounts say his birth was in 1889 in London. The confusion points up the difficulty of sorting myth from truth about this extraordinary man’s life.)
London’s East End was a rough neighbourhood in the Victorian era. It was a place of grinding poverty, filthy slums, and rampant crime. It was, in the words of University of Warwick English professor Emma Francis “… characterized by dull, hopeless monotony …” This was the squalid locale in which Jack the Ripper plied his demented and violent trade.
Virtual Jerusalem notes Cohen “… was a bad youngster, a pickpocket and street kid who ended up in a reformatory, but stuck to his criminal ways.” As was the way of things in those days, badly behaved kids were often shipped off to the colonies, in Moishe’s case to an unsuspecting farmer in Saskatchewan, Canada. But, that effort at reform didn’t work either.
Certainly, he learned how to handle horses, but he also picked up skills in card playing and guns.
Again, Virtual Jerusalem reports “he became a peddler and gambler, and even potentially violent gun-toting crook.” Apparently, he was inclined to cheat and for this reason he kept a gun close by at the poker table relying on the old adage that a Smith and Wesson beats five aces every time.
A New York Times article lists some of Cohen's other occupations: “He worked at a brick kiln for a few months and as a barker for the Greater Norris & Rowe Circus in the boomtown of Moose Jaw. He also sold fake gold wedding rings and pocket watches, as well as selling real estate, pimping, and picking pockets.”
A Fateful Meeting—Perhaps
In 1908, Dr. Sun Yat-sen visited Canada. He was trying to drum up support for his revolutionary movement aimed at bringing down the corrupt Manchu dynasty in China.
Cohen had already made contact with the Chinese ex-pat community in Canada, having an affinity with an oppressed minority dealing with discrimination from the Anglo-Saxon majority.
Through the Chinese immigrants he met Dr. Sun―or did he? In his somewhat fanciful autobiography, The Life and Times of General Two-Gun Cohen, Moishe claims he was a bodyguard to the Chinese leader during his visit to Canada. However, The Edmonton Journal reports that “… the historical records show that Cohen was actually in prison for the length of Sun’s visit to Canada.”
The Canadian Encyclopedia picks up the yarn: “Cohen became a member of the Chinese National League and acted as its English-language secretary in Alberta. He represented Chinese interests to all levels of government, attempting, among other things, to combat the growing anti-Asian sentiment.”
World War I came as Moishe had entered a period of financial embarrassment, so he decided to enlist. Joe Spier writes (San Diego Jewish World) that, “Cohen’s army service was distinguished by contracting gonorrhea in England and nine months of front line service in France.”
In 1922, his tough-guy persona got him a job as one of Sun Yat-sen’s bodyguards in China. He was grazed by a bullet in an assassination attempt on Dr. Sun. As a result, he concluded that the one gun that served him well at the card table was not enough on the new assignment, so he carried two. Hence, the nickname that he carried with pride throughout the rest of his life.
Sun Yat-sen and Morris Cohen became friends and Moishe moved up to the rank of aide-de-camp.
A New Chapter for Moishe Cohen
Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 but his followers thought so highly of Moishe Cohen that he was given a pension and the rank of major-general.
With his benefactor gone, Cohen stayed on in China as commander of the Chinese 19th field army. Working for Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek, he led troops in battles against Chinese communists and Japanese invaders.
He is also said to have been involved in the banking business and in setting up arms deals with Western suppliers; two sometimes murky occupations that fitted well with his larcenous instincts.
As the Japanese conquest of China advanced in 1937, The Jewish Press puts Cohen at the centre of the action: “Two-Gun got Sun Yat-sen’s widow out safely on one of the last planes to escape. Cohen himself was captured by the Japanese and thrown into the Stanley Prison Camp, where he was beaten and mistreated.”
After the war he took up another cause, the Zionist campaign to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Cohen became a go-between for China in talks at the United Nations aimed at setting up the state of Israel.
The Chinese at the Security Council were leaning towards voting against the division of Israel and Palestine. Zionists called on Cohen to intercede because he was personal friends with many of the Chinese delegation. Cohen’s lobbying turned the negative vote into an abstention and the resolution passed. Without that intervention the state of Israel might not have been created.
He returned to England and lived in Manchester, a city known for its ample rainfall. What better place than this to go into the raincoat business, as Moishe did with some cousins. He died in Manchester in September 1970 at the age of 83.
University of Haifa Professor Steven Plaut wrote of him “Two pistols and a Chinese generalship notwithstanding, Two-Gun was a proud Jew―and he could even get you a raincoat wholesale!”
- While working with the Chinese secret service, Moshe Two-Gun Cohen palled up with anti-Soviet Russian Jew, Moses Schwartzberg. According to The Jewish Press, “Because of the importance of the Schwartzberg-Cohen pair, Yiddish became one of the three languages of the Chinese secret service, after Mandarin and English.”
- Young Two-Gun became a prize fighter in his youth, boxing under the names of “fat Moishe” and “Cockney Cohen.”
Sun Yat-sen's Funeral. The Tall Man in the Top Hat in the Procession is Moishe Cohen.
- “The Fascinating Tale of Two-Gun Cohen.” Virtual Jerusalem, April 28, 2016.
- “Sun Yat-sen and Canada: The Historic Ties Between Alberta and China’s Revolution.” Paula Simons, Edmonton Journal, September 13, 2014.
- “Morris (Moishe) Cohen.” Canadian Encyclopedia, undated.
- “The Amazing Saga Of Two-Gun Cohen.” Steven Plaut, The Jewish Press, August 30, 2012.
- “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; A Minor but Colorful Player in Chinese History.” Richard Bernstein, New York Times, September 15, 1997.
- “Morris ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen a Hero in China.” Joe Spier, San Diego Jewish World, June 1, 2016.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on June 30, 2017:
That was really interesting to read. I've never heard of him before.