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Coming to the rescue in 1884: Part 2

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Korean officials in the winter of 1883-84   Robert Neff Collection
Korean officials in the winter of 1883-84 Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

On Dec. 5 and 6, 1884, Seoul was a sea of chaos. As Captain Ferdinand H. Morsel and his two companions, Captain Fritz W. Schultz and Ernst Laporte, made their way warily through the streets, they were alarmed at how violent the "Land of the Morning Calm" had become.

"As we passed from the wide street at the Great Bell into a small alley which leads into Pak-dong, then the headquarters of the Customs House, we were suddenly surprised by bearing the rush of a mob of yelling Koreans near us and soon saw a Japanese running for dear life into one of the small streets leading into Pak-dong with the yelling mass at his heels. In spite of his efforts to escape he was soon overtaken and fell a victim to the fury of the mob, as did so many others of his countrymen during that reign of terror."

The three men were able to make their way to the safety of the Customs House where they found their superior, Paul Georg von Mollendorff, his German assistant Henry George Arnous, James F. Mitchell (a 55-year-old English merchant from Nagasaki who was visiting Korea in hopes of obtaining a timber concession on Ulleung Island) and a member of the Chinese embassy (possibly S.Y. Tong). In addition, the severely wounded Prince Min Yeong-ik, some Korean officials and about 200 Korean soldiers.

Korean military hats displayed for sale in the winter of 1883-84   Robert Neff Collection
Korean military hats displayed for sale in the winter of 1883-84 Robert Neff Collection

As Morsel recalled, the six Europeans and one Chinese agreed to stand watch throughout the night ― two at a time ― for their own safety and that of the prince. One can only imagine the fear that must have coursed through their veins as they listened to the screams, yells and gunfire.

In his account some 13 years later, Morsel graphically describes the events that took place in the palace. Obviously, he did not witness these acts but over the years collected information from purported witnesses and stories on the streets.

Once the royal family was secured (seized or protected depending on your view) leading members of the conservative party were summoned to the palace where "they fell victims to the ferocity of the Progressive Party" ― students recalled from Japan.

"The victims as they arrived were ushered into a waiting room in a building opposite the Audience Hall. Here they were dispatched with swords ― hacked to pieces it is said ― the blood and gore bespattering the floor and walls. For many years the room was kept tightly closed, for the marks of the ghastly deed still remained plainly visible."

The events that followed were a confusion of power struggles and far too complicated to describe in just a few paragraphs. However, using Morsel's account, we learn that the Progressive Party, "assisted by hangers-on and Japanese soldiers," only allowed officials favorable to their cause access to the Korean monarch. When the Chinese representative tried to gain access, he was allegedly fired upon. An ultimatum was issued for the palace to be opened but the Progressive Party refused.

A view of one of the palaces in 1883-84   Robert Neff Collection
A view of one of the palaces in 1883-84 Robert Neff Collection

An army of 3,000 Korean and 1,500 Chinese soldiers forced their way into the palace. It was a brief battle ― only about an hour long and mainly in the second court ― and though the Progressives "held out against the combined power of the infuriated soldiery, many had already fallen and most likely more or all would have fallen victim to the rage of the mob, had it not been for the arrival and inference of the Chinese general." The Korean Progressives (at this point, rebels) took their "opportunity to escape over the walls to the Japanese legation."

Morsel claimed that he was later ― in 1890 ― able to get a peek (with great difficulty) of the site "where the wholesale murder took place…. The buildings were riddled with bullets, the marks of which were plainly visible on all sides."

Morsel paints a very dark picture of the events happening as he and his peers hid in the relative safety of the Customs House as evidenced by this lengthy quote from his account:

"It was impossible to obtain reliable information as to what was transpiring in the city or in the palace… Insurrection, however, was abroad and the people in the city passed the night in riot and bloodshed. Seventy-four Japanese were killed, among them being counted the thirty-five soldiers who fell in the fight in the palace. A number of Japanese women were murdered in cold blood. The houses and property of the leaders and members of the Progressive Party were sacked and burned and the homes of the sympathisers and suspects attacked and looted and the inmates wherein captured were murdered. In fact the peaceful Koreans (as I have always called them and even call them so now) were, in a few hours, changed into furious, bloodthirsty, wild beasts. About the city in various places fires were seen to rage, and above the noise of destruction was heard the howls of the mobs crying, 'Blood, blood, let us have the blood of the Japanese.'"

Morsel's guard shift was from 4 a.m. until 8 a.m. and he spent much of that time examining the Korean soldiers' weapons. He was not impressed. "Some of them had defective locks; others had the ramrod jammed down the barrel; while others still had a stone or some other kind of plug stuck in the muzzle."

It was while examining their weapons that a commotion took place at the front of the gate house. A young Korean soldier, dressed in the military uniform of the pro-Progressive battalion, was seized from the street and dragged into the compound. "One man got him by the topknot while the others kicked down into the gutter and the sergeant drew his sword to kill him." Morsel stopped the sergeant from slaying him and one of the Korean officials was summoned who, after questioning the man, had him escorted to confinement in another part of the city. "Whether he reached his destination or not I do not know," wrote Morsel, "but I suspect his wife was short after leaving our place…"

The Audience Hall at one of the palaces in 1883-84   Robert Neff Collection
The Audience Hall at one of the palaces in 1883-84 Robert Neff Collection

Again, Morsel's timeline is to be questioned as it seems at odds with the other accounts and even his own. He claims that on the 6th, they summoned Dr. Horace Allen from the American legation to come and care for the prince but Lucius Foote, the American minister to Korea, refused to let the doctor go as it was too dangerous without a Chinese guard.

Morsel claims that he and Laporte ― finding it "rather scant quarters in our compound" ― volunteered to escort Allen and took along a Korean guard "for form's sake." As they passed through the streets they were relatively unmolested ― they did encounter some bands of armed Korean citizens who wanted to know who the foreigners were and where they were going. When the Korean corporal explained that they were seeking medical aid for the prince, their faces brightened with pleasure as "they were all in favor of the King and Prince Min Yeong-ik, or better, the Min family."

After what must have seen like hours, but was probably only about 30 minutes, they arrived at the American Legation. Morsel notes that the Chinese general and his escort were there (visiting the American minister) and there were several other Westerners including Walter Townsend (an American businessman), John Baptiste Bernadou (an American naval officer) and Thomas Edward Hallifax (an Englishman teaching English while waiting to help establish the telegraph service in Korea) ― "all armed to the teeth."

Morsel merely states that he and Laporte "made known our mission and the Doctor was at once ready to accompany us." In the next article we will augment Morsel's account of events with the doctor's.


Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books including, Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.





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