|The tomb of Namyeongun, the father of the Korean regent Heungseon Daewongun, in Yesan-gun, South Chungcheong Province, in July 2010. Robert Neff Collection|
By Robert Neff
Ernest Jacob Oppert, a German merchant in Shanghai, is perhaps one of the most infamous Westerners in Joseon history.
He and his co-conspirator, Stanislas Feron (a French priest who allegedly came up with the idea), planned to dig up the tomb of the Korean regent's father and hold his bones hostage until the regent (Heungseon Daewongun) agreed to open his kingdom to the West.
In the spring of 1868, they put their plan into action when they and a band of armed henchmen ("the riff-raff of humanity") arrived off the coast of Chungcheong Province and marched inland to the tomb and tried to break it open. But they were foiled by the sturdiness of its construction and the outrage of the people. Two members of the party (Filipinos) were killed and Oppert and his band were forced to return to Shanghai empty-handed.
Not only did their attempt fail to force Heungseon Daewongun (the Korean regent) to open to the West but it strengthened his resolve to further isolate his kingdom. It also won Oppert and his band of grave-robbers popular condemnation by the foreign community in Shanghai for their deplorable act and Feron a new posting in faraway India.
|The path leading up to the tomb of Namyeongun in July 2010. Robert Neff Collection|
However, grave robbing in Korea wasn't confined to just over-zealous foreigners. In the early 1880s, William Griffis declared:
"No country is more famous for its skilled grave thieves and expert desecrators of tombs than is Korea, for no custom is more common than that of seeking revenge on the living by molesting the resting places of the dead."
Judging from articles that appeared in The Independent (an English-language newspaper published in Seoul), Chungcheong Province in 1896 was plagued with a series of these grotesque kidnappings.
In June, Kang Chun-sik ― described merely as a thief ― stole into the ancestral graveyard of Song Kyeng-in and dug up Song's mother and decapitated the corpse. He then left a note declaring that he would only return the head if a ransom of $80 was placed within a nearby grove.
Song immediately reported the incident to the governor who sent a squad of police to wait for Kang to try to recover the ransom. When he appeared, the police snatched and imprisoned him.
In the past, digging up and stealing a corpse could be punished with 90 blows on the shin and two years' banishment, but ― due to recent changes in the law ― the governor appears to have been confused as to what crime Kang should be charged with and what punishment would be suitable.
The governor sent a missive to the Justice Department asking for help because, as he claimed, there was no precedent for the crime and the law books did not mention such cases.
Fortunately, the Justice Department soon had another case.
|Perched on a hilltop, the tomb was fairly isolated and had few visitors. July 2010. Robert Neff Collection|
In the fall of 1896, Park Ki-yang, the former governor of Chungcheong Province, discovered that a nefarious gang of body-snatchers had dug up his father's tomb and hacked the head from the corpse. They left a note at the site declaring they would only return the head if, within three days, a ransom of $2,000 in silver or paper money (yen) was left at a designated spot within the graveyard. Park refused and apparently the head was never returned.
Seoul also experienced a rash of grave robberies. In December, through luck or skill, a Korean policeman reportedly captured a gang of these ghouls single-handedly just outside the West Gate near Pekin Pass (near the Independence Arch area).
Sometimes the thieves didn't even bother to dig up the tombs ― they just threatened to. In late 1897 and early 1898, mining prospectors, sanctioned by the government to locate mines, took advantage of their positions to extort money from wealthy families by threatening to search for gold where their ancestral tombs were located. Others just sent notes. In 1901, four wealthy Korean residents of Seoul received anonymous notes demanding several thousand yen to prevent the desecration of their ancestral tombs.
Sometimes these ghoulish acts were rewarded with poetic justice.
|The view from the top of the hill. July 2010. Robert Neff Collection|
In the early 1900s, a man (we will call Kim) living in Gyounggi Province, received a note demanding a large sum of money be placed in a desolate site within a couple of days at twilight or his father's grave would be dug up and the bones removed and destroyed.
Kim had once been fairly successful but had lost his fortune due to his filial piety. His older brother was a drunkard and gambler and had lost his home, wife and his son. The boy now lived with Kim's family and thought of his uncle more as a father than his true biological father.
Kim was convinced the note had come from a band of highwaymen who haunted the area and knew that it was useless to resist. So, following the instructions on the note, he and his nephew gathered up all the money they could and some food and placed it in a bag and left it at the appointed spot. They then stole off into the brush and hid themselves to see who would come and collect the ransom.
They waited hours but no one came to claim the ransom. Finally, just after midnight, Kim returned home to rest and left his nephew to stand watch. Just after his uncle had left, the nephew noticed someone in a black cloak moving near the bag. Ascertaining there was only one man, the nephew crept up behind him and struck him with a huge stone. The man went down and did not move.
Elated, the nephew ran back to his uncle's home and told him what had happened. Kim gathered all of his neighbors and ― armed with torches ― they returned to the site where the incident had occurred. It was only then that they discovered the dead extortionist was none other than Kim's older brother ― and the father of the boy who killed him.