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An Early Case of Foreign Depravity in Asia
[Part 2] A look at late 19th century American businessman George W. Lake
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-10-20 08:55 (KST)   

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An Early Case of Foreign Depravity in Asia


In 1871, George returned to the United States as a man of means. He had a chance to begin again; his past transgressions in Japan were unknown in the United States, but it was not to be. Perhaps it was his continued infatuation with his former sweetheart, Emma Sweeny that led him to New York where he promptly sought her out, only to discover that she had married another man. George also discovered that his daughter, Emma, named after her mother, had been placed in the Boston Orphan Asylum, probably as a baby; no longer wanted by her mother and her mother's husband -- or so it seemed.

When George learned of his daughter's whereabouts he sought and gained custody of her, and placed her into a seminary so that she might obtain a good education. At first glance a noble gesture, but George's heart was cold and calculating.

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For nearly four years young Emma was educated; all expenses paid for by her father, who she rarely saw, but seemed to love her deeply. Evidently the bond of motherhood was too strong for Emma Sweeney to completely sever; she still cared for young Emma and occasionally visited her as a friend but not as her mother, keeping their true relationship a secret. She obviously knew that George was caring for their daughter, and perhaps it brought joy to her heart to know that the child she could not claim was loved openly by someone -- even if it was the irresponsible father.

Nothing is known of young Emma's life at the seminary, but considering her past abandonment and subsequent stay at an orphanage, the years at the seminary must have been some of her happiest. She was surrounded by friends in a neat and friendly environment, well educated, and occasionally visited by her newly-found father.

The Depravity Begins

However, in 1875, young Emma's bliss ended when George removed her from the seminary. She was only 16, but she was beautiful with fair hair, and was "unusually well developed for her age." Perhaps when George gazed upon her she reminded him of her mother, his first love -- a love that he never forgot. Under the pretense of having her work for him as a bookkeeper, George brought her with him to New York where they found lodging in the Washington Hotel. Immediately their true relationship was suspected. George registered her as his daughter, but his actions bespoke of another relationship -- a vile and unacceptable one.

Many noticed that Emma was virtually a prisoner. George isolated her from the other guests, escorting her to and from work and even going so far as to walk her from their apartments to the dining room for dinner, and then back again to ensure she talked to no one. When he occasionally went out he locked her up in their apartment. Rumors began to circulate amongst the other boarders, especially when Emma showed signs of pregnancy, and the management was forced to evict George and his young charge.

George then rented a small house, and although he did not say what Emma's relationship to him was, the landlord assumed that they were married -- despite the obvious difference in their ages. Emma soon gave birth.

It is unclear why he did it, but the day the baby was born, George sought out the former Emma Sweeney and brought her to the house so that she might see the baby. Perhaps he was trying to show her that they were all still family, or perhaps it was a form of revenge for her marriage, but for whatever reason he did it -- it proved fatal.

"When she [Emma Sweeney] arrived at the house and found that her shame had been carried down to her daughter she went stark raving mad, and had to be removed from the house by force. She was taken to an insane asylum, where she died of the shock a few days later."

Once again the responsibilities of fatherhood were too much for George. Just as he had done to her mother and the young prostitute in Japan, George abandoned Emma and her infant. Emma, however, was not going to let him slink away. She went to the police station and charged George with abandonment. When he was arrested he claimed that she was not his wife and that the child was not his, but upon hearing rumors of their stay at the Washington Hotel, the police investigated and were appalled at what they discovered.

George was promptly charged with incest. He denied it and probably cited young Emma's mother's previous indiscretions. He claimed that Emma was not actually his daughter, but a "young girl whose mother had died and whose father was never known." He indignantly declared that he had taken "charge of her and had her educated. After she graduated he placed her in charge of his affairs, and she loved her benefactor so much that she married him."

Released from jail, George moved his family to a quieter part of the city, where they lived in seclusion -- Emma nearly a prisoner -- "in a comfortable, but not pretentious cottage." George continued to go to and from work "in his fine buggy," and was often seen by his neighbors, but Emma, "who was doubly related to him," was virtually invisible; rarely allowed outside of their home. Over the years the unlawful relationship between George and Emma resulted in even more children, all "found to be idiots." Dark rumors began to circulate and "the public indignation ...became so bitter that [the family] was forced to leave the neighborhood."

They moved to another small home several miles away, but what peace they might have found was soon shattered. A dispute with another large and wealthy corporation resulted in George being investigated and allegations of his misconduct were brought to light. Once again, George sought to escape by abandoning his family.

On Dec. 6, 1883, George found himself in court "for the commission of an unnatural crime with his daughter, also for abandoning and starving his family of four children, whose mother has been recognized as George's own daughter." The first trial ended in a conviction, and George was sentenced in February 1884 to 10 years in prison for incest, but he promptly appealed. The second trial for George was more successful: he was found neither innocent nor guilty -- it was a hung jury. He was released from prison. Emma at this time was 24 years old, and the mother of four mentally challenged children; the strain was too much and she slowly began to lose her grasp of reality.

Again George took his family and tried to find sanctuary away from the nation-wide notoriety that he had gained. There was none. In March 1886, he was once again charged with knowingly marrying his own daughter and this time found guilty. He was sentenced to serve out nine and a half years at Sing Sing prison, and after a short series of appeals, was promptly incarcerated. The toll upon George's mental state was a heavy one -- he was alleged to have been half demented when he attended his final appeal.

But George was not the only one to suffer. Emma had just given birth to another baby, and its arrival, along with the third trial, was just too much for her: she suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized at the Middletown Insane Asylum in New York. The children were at first kept at the county poorhouse, but after the trial they were moved "to the state asylum for idiots at Syracuse."

One newspaper described George's sordid affair as: "Three generations of wrecked minds are the result of his wicked and shameless career. His case illustrates, aside from the depravity to which human nature may sink, the evil effects of intermarriage between blood relatives."

The Return to the East

Pusan in the late 1890s
©2008 Burton Holmes 1901
George does not appear to have served his full sentence, but instead was released early -- perhaps, ironically, for good behavior. The circumstances behind his release are unknown, but as he walked away from prison George must have pondered what was to become of him. He was no longer wealthy, his family undoubtedly shunned him, and people probably still whispered his name and stared at him when he walked by. As long as he was in the United States he would always be a marked man. There was only one thing that he could do -- return to Japan and try to start anew.

In January 1893, George arrived in Nagasaki, Japan. Many of the Americans in the Far East were from Massachusetts and the surrounding New England states, and generally kept abreast of the news in the United States. While George's business activities in the United States were virtually unknown, his nefarious transgressions were a matter of public record, and yet no one in Nagasaki seemed aware of them.

George, however, could not stay out of trouble. In August 1893, the local Nagasaki newspaper wrote: "Mr. Geo. W. Lake, an American subject well known to a few of the oldest residents, lodged a charge of assault against his brother, Mr. E. Lake, and Mr. T. Scott [his brother's assistant]..." The reason for the assault is unknown but perhaps it was due to the charges of incest in the United States or merely a difference in business -- regardless of the reasons, he was quickly put on notice by the foreign community.

The warnings fell upon deaf ears and on Jan. 1, 1894, nearly a year after his arrival, George was deported from Nagasaki to Shanghai, China. George refused to be expelled and quickly returned to Nagasaki. Over the next six months he was deported three times from that city. The final deportation was to Pusan on July 13, 1894, just prior to the opening of the Sino-Japanese War. The outbreak of the war probably prevented him from making his way back to Nagasaki and instead moved to Chemulpo.

With nowhere else to go, he chose Chemulpo, evidently because of its large general foreign, Chinese and Japanese settlements, whereas Pusan had very few Westerners and Chinese, and only a large Japanese community. In addition, the land and building in Chemulpo that he occupied were possibly property that the Lake & Co. had foreclosed on in 1885. It was economical and practical considering he was too well-known to try and reside in Shanghai.

It was in the Chinese settlement of Chemulpo that George hoped to live and conduct a profitable business selling alcohol and commodities supplied to him by his brother in Nagasaki, who he apparently patched things up with. George was able to keep his past a secret and live in relative obscurity, but his time in Korea was short-lived. And while his past may have been notorious, it is his death that he is best known for.


The final part will examine his death and its aftermath.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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