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The Korean Post Office Massacre
It was cold that night on Dec. 4, 1884
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2007-12-05 10:22 (KST)   
Silence hung over the city of Seoul broken only by the rhythmic tapping of women ironing their families' clothing with wooden sticks, the occasional cry of a small child unable to sleep, or the tentative barking of wary dogs as a tall, lanky, red-haired foreigner made his way through the darkened lonely streets, dry snow crunched beneath his feet.

The evening bell that signaled the curfew had already tolled leaving the only Korean people on the streets: women, an occasional attendant on an official mission, doctors going to aid people in need, or foreigners who were exempt from the curfew.

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It was cold that night on Dec. 4, 1884, as Dr. Horace Allen made his way to his own home, next to the American legation, after having dined at the home of David Townsend and his Japanese wife near the Japanese legation. It had been a good night with good food and, despite Townsend's wife being Japanese (Allen did not approve of mixed marriages), pleasant company.

Attending the small get-together was Ensign John B. Bernadou, a skilled linguist who was assigned to the American legation as a naval attache instructed to assist with collecting natural and cultural specimens of Korea for the Smithsonian Institute. Bernadou was 26 years old and had graduated from the naval academy fifth in his class in 1882. He was assigned to American warship, U.S.S. Alert and arrived in Korea on March 1, 1884. He was an energetic man who feared nothing, and would later be recognized, not only in Korea but Cuba as well, for his bravery. However, according to one of his peers, he was cruel to his servants and Koreans in general.

Shortly after Allen arrived at his home, he and his wife were startled by a loud pounding at their door. It was the American Minister's personal secretary, Charles L. Scudder, splattered with blood and looking frightened. He quickly presented Allen with a note from Paul G. von Mollendorff, the German advisor to the Korean government, informing Allen that he (Mollendorff) had "a dying man on his hands." Scudder and an escort of fifty Korean soldiers were to accompany Allen to the Seoul Customs House.

Undoubtedly, as they raced through the streets, Scudder informed Allen of the events that had transpired earlier that evening.

The Dinner Party

Earlier that evening, the foreign representatives and several Korean officials were invited to a party at the new post office to celebrate its opening some two weeks earlier. The post office's inaugural party seemed doomed from the beginning. The Japanese Minister, Takezoe Shinichiro was "indisposed" and unable to attend and so in his stead he sent the secretary of the legation, Shimamura Hisashi, who had the "reputation of savoring intrigue" and his interpreter Kawakami Tateichiro. Captain Otto Zemsch, the German Consul, was also "indisposed."

There were 18 participants at the party including Lucius H. Foote, the American Minister to Korea, accompanied by Scudder, and Yun Chi-ho, his translator. Amongst the other foreign guest were: William G. Aston, the British representative, Mollendorff, Chen Shu-t'ang, the Chinese minister, and his secretary, T'an Keng-yao, and the two Japanese formerly mentioned. The Koreans present were some of the highest officials in the court including Hong Yong-sik (the postmaster), Pak Yong-hyo, Kim Ok-kyun and Min Yong-ik. Some of them were revolutionists while the others were their victims.

The party was catered by Sugi, a Japanese man who owned Rokugyosha restaurant in Seoul and specialized in Western cuisine. He evidently knew that something was going to happen that evening because he warned the three Japanese postal workers to be careful.

According to Yun Chi-ho's and Mollendorff's diaries, Foote was impeccably groomed and tried to liven up the "stiff, formal atmosphere" of the party by entertaining the group with humorous anecdotes, but despite his efforts the atmosphere remained heavy and the conversation tended to be rather depressing. Kim Ok-kyun's nervousness and frequent jaunts outside further provoked the uneasiness amongst the guests.

It was during the final course, at nearly 10 p.m., that the shout of "fire" interrupted the silent conversation of the party. Kim Ok-kyun raced to the window and opened it revealing a fire nearby that his co-conspirators had set. Fire was greatly feared because it could quickly spread through the city of densely-packed wooden and straw houses virtually unchecked.

In addition to the fire, a giant of a woman said to be nearly seven feet tall, was setting off dynamite within the palace ground to further sow confusion amongst the palace guards and aid the revolutionists. It has been alleged that she was Queen Min's bodyguard and was lonely and hurt from the constant taunts she received from members of the palace.

The Attack

The guests all got up from, their seats to go to the window or go outside to view the fire. Prince Min Yong-ik, whose duty it was to help command the efforts to fight the fire, went out the door with his servant. The assassin's blow was unexpected, the servant gallantly tried to protect his master but had his arm chopped off in a single blow. The assassin's sword struck quickly and Prince Min staggered backwards into the room and into the arms of von Mollendorff. "An assassin has killed me," he gasped. Indeed it seemed he had for there was blood everywhere coming from the seven horrible wounds the Prince had received.

The other Korean guests, unnerved by the attack, or part of it, quickly fled into the courtyard and over the walls, stripping away their official garments in an attempt to make themselves less obvious targets. But the assassins had already disappeared into the confusion of throng of soldiers and servants who came to investigate.

Only the Westerners were left with Prince Min. A chair was summoned and the prince was carried to the nearby Korean Customs Department building. The accounts differ but at some point von Mollendorff clumsily attempted to staunch the prince's wounds with bandages and then decided to call for Dr. Allen, instead of the Japanese physician at the Japanese legation because there was some question as to the Japanese's involvement.

A note was given to Scudder to take to Allen's home and 50 armed Korean soldiers were provided to act as an escort. No one was quite sure who the assassins were and who their targets were.

Allen Takes Charge

When Allen arrived at the Customs house he found it a place of terrified confusion. The Korean officials and the foreigner representatives were splattered with blood, while Min Yong-ik was "all blood and gore." Surrounding the profusely bleeding prince were 12 or 14 Korean doctors who, as one historian caustically remarked, were "trained in dog-soup therapy." Allen began to work on the wounds, one wound was so severe that it "would have cut off his head if he had not dodged." The wound had sliced through an artery and split the ear "longitudinally and cleanly, one-half lying back on the hair of the head, the other upon the face."

The Korean doctors hindered Allen's attempts to staunch the bleeding by insisting that pitch be poured into the wounds. Frustrated, Allen enlisted the aid of German businessman Kniffler, who was "a giant of a man" and armed with a pistol. Without any hesitation, "all the Korean doctors were ejected by being invited to a consultation out on the porch.'" It was noted that the porch was nearly six feet off the ground and the "magnificent flight of marble steps" were "still in the quarry." Horace was alarmed at the action taken by his "aggressive assistant" and would not have sanctioned it had he known what Kniffler was going to do. Fortunately for Allen, they realized he meant well and forgave him for "their sudden exit from the presence of their prince."

Allen struggled to keep the prince alive. He tied the severed artery, cleansed the wounds with carbolic solution and put in 22 silk and five silver sutures. When it appeared that the prince had stabilized somewhat, Allen returned home at about two in the morning to check on his wife.

He was relieved to discover Bernadou standing guard, but that relief soon turned to fear when a messenger from the palace announced that the Korean population was rioting and a massacre was expected. Allen, realizing he was still needed, reluctantly agreed to leave his wife and small child, but only if a guard of Japanese soldiers was provided to protect his home. Not fully confident the guard could hold off a determined attack, he presented his wife with his only pistol and commanded her "to use it on herself and the baby if it became necessary."

Allen borrowed a short carbine that he was determined to use to protect himself. "I carried [it] with me constantly to my great discomfort, and which reposed under our bed at night." It was fortunate that he did not have to use the weapon for later, when things had quieted down, he went out "to try [his] marksmanship...[but] the clumsy weapon could not be discharged since the cartridges, of which the magazine was full, were too large for the caliber of the gun."

Allen returned to prince Min and spent the rest of the night "sponging, cleansing, stitching, [and] bandaging the gaping wounds." Because of the prince's weakened state, Allen did not bother with some of the wounds while others his missed in the darkness or were hidden in the "matted hair dress." With the morning light brought hope: there was enough improvement in his patient that Allen went ahead and finished dressing all the wounds with the assistance of the Japanese physician from the Japanese legation.

Unfortunately for many in Seoul, the new day also brought the massacre of a great many Japanese and Koreans that has come to be known as the Kapsin Revolt -- an event that would continue to haunt Korea over the next decade.
Robert Neff is an historian and long-time resident of Seoul.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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