Cholera carnage: Deadly rat spirit ravages 1886 Seoul - Korea Times
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Cholera carnage: Deadly rat spirit ravages 1886 Seoul

A Korean funeral, circa 1900s.  Robert Neff Collection
A Korean funeral, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

In June 1886, cholera appeared in Fusan (modern Busan). Its arrival was dreaded but not totally unexpected by residents as it had already wreaked havoc in Japan.

Characterized by horrible cramps ― which many of the superstitious believed to be a malevolent rat-like spirit clawing its way through its victim's legs in an effort to reach the heart ― the disease was extremely painful and deadly.

From Fusan, it rapidly spread north, killing tens of thousands of people. Yet, despite knowledge of the destruction in Japan, the Seoul foreign community ― judging from diaries and letters ― seemed, at least in the beginning, relatively blase to the dangers it faced.

Horace N. Allen, the American missionary doctor residing in Seoul, made no mention of the disease until July 2, when he sent a dispatch to the British legation announcing the first cases in Seoul.

A couple of days later, Annie Ellers, an American missionary, arrived at Jemulpo and recalled that as her party traveled between that port city and Seoul, the streets were filled with people mourning the loss of friends and family.

Efforts were made to appease the spirit through offerings made at little booths or shrines throughout the city. Some residents sought to protect themselves by pasting images of cats on their walls and doors. Others used wooden instruments to make scratching sounds similar to those made by cats in hope of scaring away the evil rat spirit.

A Korean coffin and what appears to be a dead horse, circa 1900s.  Robert Neff Collection
A Korean coffin and what appears to be a dead horse, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

Even the Joseon government resorted to superstitious beliefs ― a battalion of soldiers, armed with rifles and a cannon, fired into the air one night in an attempt to drive the disease away from the city. And mudangs (shamans), equipped with drums and cat pelts, roamed the streets offering to dispel the evil spirit from those who could afford their services. Nothing worked.

As the days passed, the residents of the city avoided going out for fear of contracting the disease. Funerals became a luxury few could afford ― financially or physically ― and the corpses were often carried out in litters, sometimes piled four or five high, covered with straw and cloth. They were quickly buried in shallow graves that were just as quickly dug up and gorged on by feral dogs and other wild animals.

Sometimes there were no burials. Reportedly, the bodies of young girls were frequently seen floating in the streams and rivers. Even the living were occasionally taken out of the city and abandoned alongside the road in small straw huts so as not to burden their families.

Allen later wrote that the residents of Seoul "acted like fatalists and let their friends die almost uncared for once they were taken" with the disease.

Western doctors in the city could do little for their Korean hosts. Morphine and brandy were given to alleviate the pain of the cramps but the victims usually died within a few hours ― a few managed to live for a day or two.

A Korean funeral going through the streets, circa 1910-1920s.  Robert Neff Collection
A Korean funeral going through the streets, circa 1910-1920s. Robert Neff Collection

In Seoul alone (within the city walls), hundreds of people died daily. The peak was on July 26 when 460 corpses were carried out the gates to be buried. Newspapers in the United States claimed that the city was "threatened with positive extinction" and so many people had died that it was "impossible to bury the dead."

For nearly six weeks, the disease lingered in Seoul and then suddenly disappeared. According to Allen, "its disappearance was doubtless due to the fact that all the available material was exhausted." The northern part of the peninsula, however, continued to be ravaged as the disease spread and eventually reached the Russian Maritime provinces.

The toll on Seoul's 150,000 residents (within the walls of the city) had been horrific. It was estimated that between 6,150 and 12,000 perished.

The Year of the Rat will begin on January 25 and, despite the wonders and marvels of modern medicine, we find ourselves again confronted with a dreadful disease. Hopefully, medical authorities will be quickly able to contain it and the rest of the year will be filled with surplus, wealth and stability.


A Korean funeral, circa 1900s.  Robert Neff Collection
A Korean funeral, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

In June 1886, cholera appeared in Fusan (modern Busan). Its arrival was dreaded but not totally unexpected by residents as it had already wreaked havoc in Japan.

Characterized by horrible cramps ― which many of the superstitious believed to be a malevolent rat-like spirit clawing its way through its victim's legs in an effort to reach the heart ― the disease was extremely painful and deadly.

From Fusan, it rapidly spread north, killing tens of thousands of people. Yet, despite knowledge of the destruction in Japan, the Seoul foreign community ― judging from diaries and letters ― seemed, at least in the beginning, relatively blase to the dangers it faced.

Horace N. Allen, the American missionary doctor residing in Seoul, made no mention of the disease until July 2, when he sent a dispatch to the British legation announcing the first cases in Seoul.

A couple of days later, Annie Ellers, an American missionary, arrived at Jemulpo and recalled that as her party traveled between that port city and Seoul, the streets were filled with people mourning the loss of friends and family.

Efforts were made to appease the spirit through offerings made at little booths or shrines throughout the city. Some residents sought to protect themselves by pasting images of cats on their walls and doors. Others used wooden instruments to make scratching sounds similar to those made by cats in hope of scaring away the evil rat spirit.

A Korean coffin and what appears to be a dead horse, circa 1900s.  Robert Neff Collection
A Korean coffin and what appears to be a dead horse, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

Even the Joseon government resorted to superstitious beliefs ― a battalion of soldiers, armed with rifles and a cannon, fired into the air one night in an attempt to drive the disease away from the city. And mudangs (shamans), equipped with drums and cat pelts, roamed the streets offering to dispel the evil spirit from those who could afford their services. Nothing worked.

As the days passed, the residents of the city avoided going out for fear of contracting the disease. Funerals became a luxury few could afford ― financially or physically ― and the corpses were often carried out in litters, sometimes piled four or five high, covered with straw and cloth. They were quickly buried in shallow graves that were just as quickly dug up and gorged on by feral dogs and other wild animals.

Sometimes there were no burials. Reportedly, the bodies of young girls were frequently seen floating in the streams and rivers. Even the living were occasionally taken out of the city and abandoned alongside the road in small straw huts so as not to burden their families.

Allen later wrote that the residents of Seoul "acted like fatalists and let their friends die almost uncared for once they were taken" with the disease.

Western doctors in the city could do little for their Korean hosts. Morphine and brandy were given to alleviate the pain of the cramps but the victims usually died within a few hours ― a few managed to live for a day or two.

A Korean funeral going through the streets, circa 1910-1920s.  Robert Neff Collection
A Korean funeral going through the streets, circa 1910-1920s. Robert Neff Collection

In Seoul alone (within the city walls), hundreds of people died daily. The peak was on July 26 when 460 corpses were carried out the gates to be buried. Newspapers in the United States claimed that the city was "threatened with positive extinction" and so many people had died that it was "impossible to bury the dead."

For nearly six weeks, the disease lingered in Seoul and then suddenly disappeared. According to Allen, "its disappearance was doubtless due to the fact that all the available material was exhausted." The northern part of the peninsula, however, continued to be ravaged as the disease spread and eventually reached the Russian Maritime provinces.

The toll on Seoul's 150,000 residents (within the walls of the city) had been horrific. It was estimated that between 6,150 and 12,000 perished.

The Year of the Rat will begin on January 25 and, despite the wonders and marvels of modern medicine, we find ourselves again confronted with a dreadful disease. Hopefully, medical authorities will be quickly able to contain it and the rest of the year will be filled with surplus, wealth and stability.




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