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Elephants and airplanes in early 20th century Korea

James
James "Bud" Mars in Japan, circa 1911. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

American aviator James "Bud" Mars was one of those dashing men in the early 1910s who the media ― and public ― loved. He was brave ― said to be the most daring aviator in the United States ― and he had ambition. He also had an imagination.

In early 1911, he and his team traveled extensively throughout the Far East and demonstrated their aerial prowess to astonished crowds. In an interview, Mars claimed to have given over 250 flying exhibitions in places such as "Honolulu, Manila, Sumatra, Japan, Java, Singapore, Calcutta, Siam, China, Korea, Siberia, Russia and Poland" ― making him the first person nearly to circle the world in an airplane.

James
James "Bud" Mars, circa 1911. Robert Neff Collection
There is no question that he flew in many of these places. Newspaper accounts verify these claims. It is even said that he gave the young Japanese emperor a ride in his plane. But his claim of visiting Korea seems to be more imagination than reality.

If he traveled to Korea, it would have been in late March after his tour in Japan and perhaps on his way to Siberia.

Mars claimed that while in Korea he was "under government protection continuously" to protect him from the superstitious citizens. Allegedly, while in Japan, he had narrowly avoided being assassinated by poison by some superstitious Japanese who were intent on destroying him and his flying machine, so the precautions in Korea (which was in a degree of unrest) by the authorities seem rather reasonable.

Yet, despite the danger, Mars was able to give an aerial demonstration in Seoul. He claimed that he received the "greatest mark of favor" from the Korean monarch who had been so enthralled with the performance that he presented the aviator with an elephant. The aviator, however, thought of the elephant as "an embarrassment of riches" and gave it to a Korean girl (who had been following him), with the instruction for her "to be good to it."

But the aviator's claims to the American press aren't supported by facts in Korea. I am yet to find a contemporary Korean newspaper account of this supposed aerial exhibition and the anecdote of the elephant makes it even more unbelievable.

James
James "Bud" Mars in Japan, circa 1911. Robert Neff Collection

The only zoo in Korea was at Changgyeong ― a former palace in Seoul ― but it was rather small and still trying to acquire large animals. In May 1910, the Seoul Press ― an English-language newspaper ― reported two large elephants had been purchased in India and were expected to arrive at the end of the month.

This was big news to the Korean public as the last elephant on the Korean Peninsula had arrived almost 500 years earlier as a gift from Japan. It was the epitome of a white elephant ― a useless and unwanted burden ― and was banished to the southern provinces of the peninsula after it killed a Korean official who had been mocking and teasing it. Its final fate has been lost with the passage of time.

Despite the hype in the newspaper, the elephants from India never arrived. So it is relatively safe to assume there were no elephants in Seoul during the supposed visit by Mars and he most likely fabricated the tale to amuse the American public.




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James
James "Bud" Mars in Japan, circa 1911. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

American aviator James "Bud" Mars was one of those dashing men in the early 1910s who the media ― and public ― loved. He was brave ― said to be the most daring aviator in the United States ― and he had ambition. He also had an imagination.

In early 1911, he and his team traveled extensively throughout the Far East and demonstrated their aerial prowess to astonished crowds. In an interview, Mars claimed to have given over 250 flying exhibitions in places such as "Honolulu, Manila, Sumatra, Japan, Java, Singapore, Calcutta, Siam, China, Korea, Siberia, Russia and Poland" ― making him the first person nearly to circle the world in an airplane.

James
James "Bud" Mars, circa 1911. Robert Neff Collection
There is no question that he flew in many of these places. Newspaper accounts verify these claims. It is even said that he gave the young Japanese emperor a ride in his plane. But his claim of visiting Korea seems to be more imagination than reality.

If he traveled to Korea, it would have been in late March after his tour in Japan and perhaps on his way to Siberia.

Mars claimed that while in Korea he was "under government protection continuously" to protect him from the superstitious citizens. Allegedly, while in Japan, he had narrowly avoided being assassinated by poison by some superstitious Japanese who were intent on destroying him and his flying machine, so the precautions in Korea (which was in a degree of unrest) by the authorities seem rather reasonable.

Yet, despite the danger, Mars was able to give an aerial demonstration in Seoul. He claimed that he received the "greatest mark of favor" from the Korean monarch who had been so enthralled with the performance that he presented the aviator with an elephant. The aviator, however, thought of the elephant as "an embarrassment of riches" and gave it to a Korean girl (who had been following him), with the instruction for her "to be good to it."

But the aviator's claims to the American press aren't supported by facts in Korea. I am yet to find a contemporary Korean newspaper account of this supposed aerial exhibition and the anecdote of the elephant makes it even more unbelievable.

James
James "Bud" Mars in Japan, circa 1911. Robert Neff Collection

The only zoo in Korea was at Changgyeong ― a former palace in Seoul ― but it was rather small and still trying to acquire large animals. In May 1910, the Seoul Press ― an English-language newspaper ― reported two large elephants had been purchased in India and were expected to arrive at the end of the month.

This was big news to the Korean public as the last elephant on the Korean Peninsula had arrived almost 500 years earlier as a gift from Japan. It was the epitome of a white elephant ― a useless and unwanted burden ― and was banished to the southern provinces of the peninsula after it killed a Korean official who had been mocking and teasing it. Its final fate has been lost with the passage of time.

Despite the hype in the newspaper, the elephants from India never arrived. So it is relatively safe to assume there were no elephants in Seoul during the supposed visit by Mars and he most likely fabricated the tale to amuse the American public.




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