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The Iron Woman in the American Embassy
[Part 2] Rose Frost Foote's life and work in the late 1800s
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-10-06 13:25 (KST)   

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The Iron Woman in America's Korea Legation


Rose Foote on her way to the palace. Photo: M.V.T. Lawrence, 'A Diplomat's Helpmate'
Rose and Lucius Foote (most people affectionately called him "General") had been married for over 21 years when they arrived in Korea and had, according to her biographer, an idyllic relationship with "an unusual bond of inter-dependence and delightful comradeship."

Foulk, however, described their relationship as troubled and Rose as domineering. In one letter to his parents he wrote, "Mrs. Foote is a handsome woman with an awful temper, and she and the General lead a wretched life, which affects the whole life of the legation." And in another, "Mrs. Foote wears the breeches, and I have seen ample to tell me the General has made a bad match and knows it."

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Rose controlled all aspects of life at the legation and took it upon herself to run the household with an iron-fist. She had a large staff of Korean servants, in addition to her Japanese amah and Chinese steward, Eu Don (who later became a rich and prosperous shop and hotel keeper in Seoul and Chemulpo under his nickname 'Steward'). Rose was fastidious and insisted on doing a lot of the cooking herself, especially the treats that she sent to the Royal Palace. On one occasion "she sent to the Queen a large loaf of fruit-cake, and a larger one of pound-cake, both elaborately frosted and decorated with the national motto, also a boiled ham, jellied and fixed up in a fanciful way, some home-made bread and preserves, some California bonbons, and a large quantity of Pacific canned fruits."

When Ensign Foulk first arrived at the legation he wrote with satisfaction: "The minister's table arrangements are pretty well fixed. Food is costly -- that is, the kind foreigners use, but we get it and cost doesn't count." Soon, however, he grew disenchanted. Mrs. Foote "has given orders that the kitchen servants may do nothing on any other than her own orders. We get two meals a day here now, and I want tea at noon, if that is to be the arrangement; but I will not look up Mrs. Foote to get it. Today, for example, I ate breakfast and dinner, the last at 6:30 p.m., so had a headache all afternoon."

Her control of the household did not end there. Foulk often bitterly griped, or as he described it -- growled, about Rose's treatment and references to him "as her attache." Her control knew no end and she even took it upon herself to inspect his room:

"Mrs. Foote also inspects my room daily and in a soft but nevertheless disagreeable way, attempts to tell me where I ought to keep my socks, money, etc," he bitterly wrote his parents. Apparently she inspected not only his room, but his trunk and wardrobe as well.

It began to weigh heavily upon Foulk who chaffed at living "under petticoat rule," and complained that "A coolness hangs over me, and everywhere else which makes it horrible to have to live here." Unable to endure it any longer he lashed out:

"The result has been my tongue got loose, and I told her I did not understand the position of a lady in the diplomatic service. She made it very hot for me in return. It has come to the point that I must go from the legation." Eventually Foulk moved to a small house away from the legation where he found some respite from the nagging of Mrs. Foote, but not from her meddling - though it was apparently meant with "good intentions."

Despite Foulk's many negative observations of the couple he also noted that Lucius truly loved his wife and reported Lucius was "out of his head, half sick for his wife" when she had gone to Japan."

Charity

According to her biographer, even though Rose directed the renovation of the legation, it wasn't enough -- she longed to do more. She chaffed at being locked up on the grounds of the legation and longed to go out and meet the people. She often climbed a ladder and looked down over the outer wall to study the spirit and the local color of the busy panorama in the crowded streets. The hard, primitive methods of the men and women at work, the hungry children, the squalid poverty and misery enlisted her serious attention."

Seizing upon the opportunity to teach the Koreans "practical lessons while elevating them spiritually," she enlisted the aid of thirty Korean servants and "other receptive natives" and apparently went into the streets around the legation to administer to the needs of the poverty stricken. She "generously and continuously provide money, fuel, food and various comforts for the wretchedly poor all about Legation Hill, while she ministered to the sick and was known even to dress their wounds."

Her generosity was not limited to mere gifts of food, fuel and money; she also provided life. One of the Korean servants, a youth, was discovered by a fellow servant asphyxiated in the heating quarters of the building. Mrs. Foote was summoned and came quickly and, with ready wit, inserted a tube in the boy's mouth, then perseveringly blew her own breath into his lungs till life was restored." It was an act that was "never forgotten by the humble people" of Korea.

It is hard to distinguish what is fact and exaggeration. Mrs. Foote's biographer, her friend, often portrays her as an American patriot and saint. When Dr. George W. Woods of the U.S.S. Juniata visited Seoul in early 1884 he noted: "Mrs. Foote never goes out of the [legation] compound [of thirteen dismal buildings] save to visit the palace..." He also noted the uncharitable attitude that Mrs. Foote held towards Mrs. von Mollendorff:

"The only other European lady in Seoul is Mrs. von Mollendorff, the wife of the German who controls the customs, and therefore both have been for many months near each other. They have not met, in consequence of being unable to get over the point of etiquette as to which should make the first call." He later elaborated: "Mrs. Foote, as the wife of an Ambassador, has the right of entree to the palace. Mrs. V.M., as the wife of an Under Secretary in the Foreign Office, has not; therefore, the latter should call on the former, and in a country where etiquette is worth so much, and every lady, instead of a prayer-book, has her "Book of Etiquette," it would not do to waive this point, as it would affect the prestige of the American representative. So the ladies have never met, and are not likely to."

The Kapsin Riots (Post Office Massacre)

On the night of Dec. 4, 1884, a group of young Korean progressives attempted to overthrow the Korean government by murdering a number of high Korean officials. Large angry mobs of Koreans roamed the streets ransacking foreign homes and killing all the Japanese they found. Most of the foreign residents of Seoul, including a large number of the Japanese, sought refuge in the American legation.

Over the next couple of days, most of the foreigners in Seoul fled to Chemulpo, but Mrs. Foote was one of the few to remain behind. Apparently King Kojong and Queen Min had asked that she remain behind to help reassure the Korean people that the Westerners were not abandoning them. According to her biographer, Lucius reluctantly agreed to allow Rose to remain behind but only if the Chung-Dong area was surrounded by a joint Korean and Chinese guard.

Despite the Royal Family's assurances that she would be safe, Rose was concerned that the Korean people's "thirst for blood" had not yet been satisfied.

"The succeeding long hours of apprehension were as years. Sometimes she was startled by a report of an uprising, and every unusual noise caused her heart to jump. One less strongly equipped might have fancied that at night the ghosts of the long-ago valiant decapitated Mins of 'Chung-Dong' were rising up in sympathy with the uneasy, struggling survivors of their proud house, and stalking about the corridors."

Each morning and evening Rose received a message from the palace asking her if she were in need of anything and thanking her for her steadfastness. It was a brave act that Rose performed by choosing to remain behind, and she may have felt some satisfaction in knowing that even von Mollendorff's wife had fled to Japan.

Eventually Lucius returned to Seoul and made preparations to leave. His decision to leave Korea was not the result of the recent outbreak of unrest but due to his official position and pay having been downgraded by an act of Congress several months previous. Lucius was humiliated and had complained to the State Department which agreed, prior to the outbreak, to allow him to go on leave -- a leave that he would not return from -- in order to save face.

The Return Home

According to her biography, when Rose and Lucius left the legation for the last time on Jan. 12, 1885, "the servants followed them for five miles moaning and crying at the loss of their beloved mistress." Ensign Foulk had mixed feelings. He viewed Minister Foote's departure as "a hasty scamper," to get out of Korea because he was afraid to live there. Foulk was also angry with the Minister because he was leaving on the American warship U.S.S. Ossipee "on a pleasure excursion to Japan, when he might go by merchant vessel." He felt the U.S.S. Ossipee was the only protection the foreigners had in Seoul if trouble should occur. Adding insult to injury, "the General took away with him nearly all the necessaries for living" and Foulk was forced to make do with what he could scavenge.

The Footes arrived in Japan where they were treated as saviors of the Japanese residents of Korea during the coup. They were entertained by the Emperor and Empress of Japan and while visiting a temple Rose was shocked to discover a small hole in her stocking. She was extremely upset by the hole and worried about it constantly -- the same woman whom Foulk charged with "being careless in exposing herself in night dress or petticoats, etc." Lucius often repeated the anecdote and ended it with: "Thus was the gracious poise, which neither riot nor revolution could disturb quite put to rout by a hole in a stocking-heel!" From Japan they traveled back to San Francisco.

It was shortly after their return to San Francisco that physicians informed the couple that the strain of Korea had fatally affected her health. For six months she lingered on before she passed away leaving Lucius alone. Lucius spent his time writing and perhaps he was thinking of her when he wrote his poem "The Wooing of the Rose" in which he stated: "And only a white, white rose was she, The last of her royal line." Shortly after his book of poetry was printed Lucius passed away and rejoined his "Rose."

©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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