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Smith F. Philips, the topknot shooter

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Korean passengers board a train at Jemulpo, circa 1900. / Robert Neff Collection
Korean passengers board a train at Jemulpo, circa 1900. / Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

Working on the railroad can be extremely hard and dangerous work; accidents are frequent and often fatal. While the railroad from Seoul to Jemulpo (modern-day Incheon) was being built in the late 1890s, there were several accidents ― including explosions ― that cost the unwary and clumsy their lives. However, not all dangers the Korean railway construction workers faced were inherent of the occupation.

In early August 1897, Smith F. Philips, a railroad engineer from Chattanooga, Tennessee, stepped off the steamship at Jemulpo. He was there to work and by the time he left Korea, he would enjoy a degree of anonymous infamy.

Philips caught everyone's attention. He had bluish-gray eyes and, although he was only 38 years old, his hair was already gray, along with his neat beard and moustache. He was an impeccably dressed man whose appearance and demeanor suggested he was a gunfighter. Perhaps even more imposing was his height. In a letter to The Independent (the English-language edition of the Dongnip Sinmun, published in Seoul), a Jemulpo resident described Philip as "one of those gentlemen you can see with the naked eye. He stands six foot six inches [198 cm] in height [which gave him] a sort of bird´s-eye-view advantage over most of us." His nickname was, of course, "Shorty."

We don't know much about Philips' personal life except that in the 1880s and 1890s ― prior to coming to Korea ― he worked for the Chattanooga Union Railroad. One can easily imagine the crew he worked with consisted of hard men who drank more than a little, gambled more than they should and were probably not shy about using a knife or a gun during a brawl to ensure the odds were in their favor.

Construction of the railroad between Seoul and Jemulpo / The Railway Age, March 25, 1898
Construction of the railroad between Seoul and Jemulpo / The Railway Age, March 25, 1898

While Jemulpo was not as wild as an old cowboy town in the American West, it apparently had enough spirit for Philips. The port consistently had a large number of transient sailors from steamships and naval vessels, as well as an influx of newly arrived Americans who had come to Korea to work on the new railroad or Seoul's streetcar system or at the American gold mining concession in northern Korea. The members of Jemulpo Club ― especially its poker table ― probably readily welcomed this new member to their midst, as well as the proprietors of the many small bars and taverns in the port.

William Franklin Sands, the secretary of the American legation in Seoul who was no stranger to the poker table or the bottle, seemed especially impressed with Philips ― especially after seeing him shoot with his 45 Colt. According to him, Philips is "one of the most beautiful, efficient revolver shots I have ever seen. He could shoot the head off a flying bird without seeming to aim."

Despite his seeming prominence amongst these American Wild West characters, almost nobody wrote about him (or any of the other members of his crew) in social settings. The only real anecdotes of Philip we have concern his shocking behavior as a foreman.

As soon as he arrived, Philips was put to work. According to his hometown newspaper, Philips was the superintendent of construction and in charge of "over 1,000 laborers, consisting of Koreans, Japanese and Chinese [who were] divided into gangs with Korean and Japanese bosses for each gang."

Construction of the railroad between Seoul and Jemulpo. Philips (third man on the viewer's left) is dressed in a dark suit, and standing to his right (in the white suit) is General Dye ― the American military adviser to the Korean government. / The Railway Age, March 25, 1898
Construction of the railroad between Seoul and Jemulpo. Philips (third man on the viewer's left) is dressed in a dark suit, and standing to his right (in the white suit) is General Dye ― the American military adviser to the Korean government. / The Railway Age, March 25, 1898

By mid-August, the advanced grading crew were in the vicinity of Oricol ― the halfway rest stop ― and were progressing rapidly. The heavy rains that had caused so much concern did little damage to the roadbed and the railroad's officials and the general public were anticipating great progress.

Of course, there had been some earlier problems when 150 Korean laborers went on strike over their wages. The Korean laborers received a daily wage of 31.5 cents, but were convinced they were being underpaid according to the terms of the concession which, according to them, entitled them to a daily wage of 50 cents. The railroad officials denied the claims and immediately hired strikebreakers and, as an additional preventive action, threatened to employ Chinese laborers if the Koreans did not want to work. Things calmed down quickly and the Korean laborers went back to work "cheerfully and faithfully for 35 cents a day, paid in silver," but the potential for further trouble remained ― all it needed was a catalyst.

On Sunday morning, Sept. 5, 1897, Horace N. Allen, the American minister to Korea, was feeling anything but Christian-like. He was furious, as he quickly penned a rather undiplomatic missive to Philips' supervisor, William T. Carley (who was also from Chattanooga). Allen informed him that the governor of Seoul, Yi Che-yun, had just paid a visit to the American legation and lodged a serious complaint over the "uncalled-for conduct of Mr. Philips."

A rural station in between Seoul and Jemulpo, circa 1900 / Robert Neff Collection
A rural station in between Seoul and Jemulpo, circa 1900 / Robert Neff Collection

According to the governor, on several occasions ― which Allen suspected Carley was fully aware of ― Philips "shot towards Koreans with the intention of scaring them." This conduct was "inconceivable," declared Allen, and he added, "I would like to disbelieve it, but fear it is all true." Allen (as well as any sane person) could not understand why an American would "shoot at Korean coolies to scare them, after the manner of American cowboys with a 'tinderfoot.'"

However, if we are to believe the account of Sands' ― which may have been exaggerated to make a great anecdote even better ― this move was more than a simple act of shooting at someone's feet to make them dance. He claimed that the American was shooting the topknots off Korean men as they passed along the road ― up to a distance of 100 yards (91.4 meters).

Sands also provided the reason for the unbelievable behavior ― Philips "had only been afraid of getting out of practice."

Allan declared that this "kind of conduct from Americans cannot be for one moment tolerated." He further emphasized that before word of the incident "gets to the ear of the king" it must end. "I want to say most positively that this must be stopped at once and for all time, or I shall have him disarmed or sent out of the country if he will not comply."

Yeongdeungpo Station, circa 1900 / Robert Neff Collection
Yeongdeungpo Station, circa 1900 / Robert Neff Collection

Later, after he had time to think, Allen softened the tone of his scolding:

"I wrote you a pretty strong note this morning as to it [the incident], and stating what I would have to do if it was not at once stopped for good, but I don't think that my relations with you and Mr. Philips are such as to make necessary anything in the nature of a threat."

Allen explained that he destroyed the earlier note and just wanted assurance that this incident would never happen again. He caution Carley that he did not want rumors of the incident to get out "among the foreigners who dislike us" or for the king to become aware of it. Allen was certain the railroad company would not sanction such "inconceivable conduct," and he reasoned that after "Mr. Philips has lived longer here, he will be very much chagrined to think that he ever did such a thing."

It isn't clear who finally told Philips to desist with his target practice, but Sands implied he was responsible. "[Philips] was perfectly reasonable about it when I asked him to stop."

It was the first and last time Philips needed to be told and for the remainder of his time spent in Korea his name was fortunately ― for the most part ― missing from his American contemporaries' correspondences (personal and official).

Philips departed Korea in January 1899 and eventually returned to Chattanooga, where he continued to work for the railroad until his death on Aug. 12, 1917. I would like to say that this story was an isolated incident but unfortunately it wasn't. However, these are tales for another time.


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




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