Rev. J.J. Thomas a Presbyterian missionary in the Laos Mission wrote of Marion Cheek’s death, "No man has done more in a few years for our mission here, and no man has been so - I was about to say hated - but I will say pitied and discarded by his former friends and loved ones because of what they deemed a misspent and bad life, as Dr. Cheek."
Few men have lived a life quite like the missionary Marion Alphonso Cheek. In 1852, Cheek was born in Arkansas, but he soon moved to North Carolina. At the age of sixteen, he entered Baltimore Medical College, where he graduated four years later with high honors. After graduating from medical college, he practiced medicine in North Carolina. When Dr. Daniel McGilvary was on furlough in the USA, he recruited Dr. Cheek to return with him to serve at the Laos Mission. The Laos Mission had recently lost Dr. Vrooman, who went onto serve in China.
Dr. Cheek arrived in Bangkok and waited there until after Sophia McGilvary gave birth to a son, Norwood. The delay in going north to Chiang Mai, allowed Cheek to spend time with the young half-sister of Sophia, Sarah A. Bradley. Dr. Cheek departed with the McGilvary's to Chiang Mai, but soon returned to Bangkok, where he married Sarah A. Bradley on 30 November 1875. Their marriage ceremony was not straightforward, as the US Consul refused to marry them in the Bradley home. Instead, the consular insisted they be married at the US consulate with an Episcopal service and ring. According to New York state law, Dr. Cheek and Sarah Bradley consulted with an English barrister and found they could obtain a license from the consulate with witnesses.
Dr. Cheek appears to have shown early on in his missionary tenure an inclination for money. Since his new bride had recently sailed to Bangkok at her own expense, he requested that the Presbyterian Mission pay for some of that expense and fully appoint her as a missionary. For ten years, Dr. Cheek served as a missionary with the Presbyterian Laos Mission. But the temptation of money appeared to be great for him. A point many missionaries who served with him saw in his life. Chalmers Martin wrote of Dr. Cheek:
"I cannot endorse him as a missionary physician... He has always avowed his conviction that as a missionary physician, he was concerned only with men's bodies, not at all with their souls, and his practice has squared with this avowed conviction."
At first, Cheek's resignation from the Laos mission was denied. Still, after he went about work into private practice and began doing contract work in logging and having a timber business in Chiang Mai, it became clear the Mission would have to see him depart. Dr. Cheek still was quite diligent and had an entrepreneurial spirit. His logging mill was the only one with a steam-powered engine, and he became quite wealthy.
Dr. Cheek obtained leases for six years of teak forests. Over two-hundred men worked in his employment and he reportedly owned one-hundred and seventy-six elephants. He maintained a fleet of boats, horses and mules, and a general store that supplied provisions and ammunition. Yet, his personal life became even more colored.
After winning concessions for logging rights from the King of Siam, Dr. Cheek began floating thousands of logs downriver to Bangkok. An English logging company confiscated logs from these early attempts. To get around this infringement, Cheek placed an American flag on his logging raft and requested American officials to assist in his plight. The US government chose not to support Cheek, and he sued the US government for damages. The official US government response was that Cheek "had no right to fly the American flag in the situation he was then in.”
After Cheek's missionary tenure ended, he would assist the Laos Mission and the community in some matters. He helped with the construction of schools, Chiang Mai First Church, built a bridge across the Mae Ping River (where the current Wararot Market walking bridge is located), and would provide medical care to many missionaries.
The relationship between the Laos Mission and Cheek was not always on the best of terms. When a new hospital was to be built, Cheek refused the Laos Mission from using his logging mill. Possibly, this is attributed to Cheek feeling slighted years earlier, when he had raised $10,000 in funds for the building of a hospital in Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, this project by Cheek had been denied by the Presbyterian Board. Cheek also continued to take further steps down in his standing with the missionary community. It became well known that he was becoming a gambler, and in time he was also consorting with other women. Whether this occurred before or after his wife's departure to the USA with their five children, the historical record is unclear.
During the early 1890s, Cheek became indebted to a Siamese Prince for a failed contract. A drought had caused his logs not to be delivered downriver during one year of the agreement, but he had doubled the amount called for the following year. Still, on this pretense, his business was taken over by the Siamese government. This included the confiscation of all of his logs and property. On 4 July 1895, while in Bangkok, Dr. Cheek died while fighting for his business's return, which he felt was wrongly taken from him. At his deathbed, his final desire was to see his family whom he had been separated from for over five years.
Like all things with Dr. Cheek, his death did not go silently into the night. An American Consular visited Chiang Mai, to attempt to obtain the return of some Cheek's business interests to his family. The consular was accosted and knocked down by a Thai general in rage, which certainly complicated the situation and brought the American government to make a forceful response. The Cheek situation was discussed in the US Senate, and a warship was dispatched to Bangkok to show the United States government's displeasure. The case was brought to an intermediary, who judged that the business was wrongly taken from Dr. Cheek and called for the Siamese Government to award his family $250,000 in return for their business losses. Afterward, the Cheek case became a precedent for international law concerning government takeovers of international businesses.
‘Death of Dr. Cheek.’ San Francisco Call, Volume 78, Number 42, 12 July 1895
Carpenter Family Records http://carpenterpitkin.com/FamilyRecords/d36.htm
‘Confiscated Elephants – Cause of Discussion Between This Country and Siam – An American Missionary Who Acquired Property and Got Into Trouble with the Siamese Royal Family.’ Heppner Gazette, Fourteenth Year, 24 July 1896.
Memoir of Mrs. Sarah Bradley Cheek [Unpublished Manuscript] Presbyterian Historical Society.
“Claims of the Estate of M. A. Cheek", 1897 Box 103, Folder 37, Margaret and Kenneth P. Landon Collection. Wheaton College.
Microfilm. Letters and Reports of the Board of Foreign Missions. Presbyterian Church in the United Statesof America Vol. 4, 5, 11, 13. Reels 2, 3, 4, 6. [028/79]. Payap University Archives.