|King Gojong, circa 1883-84.|
By Robert Neff
On the cold, pale morning of February 10, 1896, Seoul was filled with excitement. A large procession of more than 100 Russian soldiers ― armed and fully provisioned ― with 22 ponies and a machine gun, marched through the streets to the Russian legation.
Their presence excited suspicion among the foreign diplomats ― particularly the British and Japanese. When questioned, the Russian authorities insisted the soldiers were there as protection for the Russian residents of the city, as well as other nationals, due to unrest in the country.
Since the murder/assassination of the Korean queen the previous October, the Korean monarch and the crown prince were kept as virtual prisoners within the palace ― carefully monitored and controlled by the Japanese-friendly government. Many people were displeased and the scent of rebellion was constantly in the air.
The explanation was accepted ― perhaps because of the diplomatic party held at the British legation that evening. The American Minister to Korea's wife described the party as "very pleasant" and added, "everyone seemed jolly and in good spirits, especially the Russians."
In the morning, she and most of the residents of Seoul were surprised to hear the cry, "The King is in the Russian legation." One American claimed that the news came "like a clap of thunder from a clear sky." The elderly mother of Clarence Greathouse ― an American adviser to the Korean government ― jotted down in her diary:
"Now at 10 o'clock, news has just been received that the King and the Crown Prince & wife have gone to the Russian legation for protection, up to this writing we don't know just how he got off from the palace or when…"
|A Korean palanquin, circa 1900-1910s.|
Lillias Underwood, an American missionary, claimed to know. According to her, the previous evening there was a birthday celebration at the palace and the two female minders of the king were invited "to celebrate with the king, and to partake of a great feast, with plenty of wine and prolonged amusements."
"All night the king's watchers reveled, both falling into a heavy sleep before dawn … when everyone in the palace was off guard, supposing the king and crown prince asleep, they entered a couple of women's chairs which were waiting.
"The bearers of these chairs had been specially selected and paid with a view to their carrying two, and thought nothing of it, as the palace women went out to their homes in this way.
"So in each chair a woman sat in front of its royal occupant, screening him from view should anyone glance in.
"The sentinels at the gate had been provided with hot refreshments and plenty of strong drink, and were so fully occupied that the chairs with their valuable burden passed out unnoticed and unhindered."
|A lady on an outing, circa 1900-1910s.|
Yun Chi-ho, a Korean activist and later government official, also described the incident in his diary. Much of his information echoed Mrs. Underwood's and added to it ― identifying the two women minders: one was the wife and the other the concubine of the king's father, Heungseon Daewongun.
"The two old ladies … kept watches by turn in the night. His Majesty had failed once before in his attempt to escape. But in the early part of the night of the 10th inst., he, having made all necessary arrangements, made the two old ladies tired and sleepy by talking about old times etc. etc. The ladies, sure enough, went to sound sleep about 2 this morning.
"The King and the Prince pretended to go to bed. Then, with the help of the na-ins [palace ladies], they went to one of the women's rooms to wait for the opening of the gate.
"As soon as the day began to dawn, the parties got into the box chairs. The King had to fit behind a 'na-in,' and so did the Prince. This however excited no suspicion as 'na-ins' often ride two in a chair.
"In order to get out, the sentinels of the gates, through which the chairs had to pass, were invited to drink some 'sul' [alcohol] and soup of unusual flavor in some retired corner.
"While they were at it, the chairs got out unmolested through different gates."
Safely in the Russian legation (where he remained for a little over the year), the Korean monarch reasserted his rule over the country.
|The Russian legation, circa 1900.|