|A Korean woman in a palanquin in the late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection|
By Robert Neff
|Japanese military officers in Korea in the early 20th century. Robert Neff Collection|
|A corpse wrapped in straw in the late 19th century. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection|
Within months, following the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in early February, the Korean Peninsula was awash with foreign troops and displaced refugees. Political unrest was rampant and in Seoul there were several assassination attempts ― some even made with incendiary bombs.
Adding to the misery of the people was the bitter cold and the shortage of food. On January 6, eight Korean soldiers on duty in Seoul, unable to endure the excessively cold temperatures, deserted their posts. In an effort to boost the soldiers' morale, additional money was provided to the soldiers of the twelve regiments of Seoul ― apparently, at least for a short time, it worked.
The common people, however, were suffering as much ― if not more ― than the soldiers. One night three citizens froze to death in the streets. A couple of days later, a dead woman was discovered with a baby at her breast ― both were frozen stiff.
Conditions in the countryside were even worse. The Korea Review ― an English-language magazine published in Seoul ― reported:
"Great suffering is being caused in [Gongju] by the failure of the semi-annual fair. People are afraid of highwayman and war rumors are rife; so neither buyers nor sellers came up to the fair and the people of the town find it extremely difficult to get rice at any price. A foreigner recently offered to pay any reasonable figure for a few bags of rice but found it impossible to buy. No one would even name a figure."
William B. McGill, an American Methodist missionary-doctor in Gongju, recalled that while walking through the city he encountered a group of beggar boys huddled around a small fire of straw and sticks. The boys had discovered a dead dog in the sewer and were attempting to burn off the hair and cook the frozen carcass ― they succeeded in only singeing the flesh.
McGill recalled that "it was a very sad sight to see the little fellows fight for the possession of the only knife in order to cut off a piece of the meat." One young lad managed to secure the dog's head as his share of the carcass and triumphantly declared to the American doctor that it was the best part of the dog.
According to another missionary ― who heard the tale from McGill ― the beggar boys' "clothes are black & filthy. Some are orphans, some of their mothers married again & abandoned their children. They get used to begging & will not work."
To escape the bitter cold, the boys often went to the local butcher shop and slept in front of its fireplace. At the end of the day, the butcher would apparently allow the fire to die and the eight or ten boys ― in an effort to stay warm ― would crawl into the furnace and huddle together. Sometimes they entered too soon and were badly burned by the contact with the hot stones on the sides of the fireplace. These children were then forced to seek medical attention from Dr. McGill. Some children were beyond help.
|Gongju in the early 20th century. Robert Neff Collection|
According to the doctor, the trees surrounding the city were "filled with little bundles which at first glance they look like fetish, but investigation prove them to be dead bodies of children. They never bury children there, but tie them in these trees. The woods are full of bones."
Of course, not all of the bones were those of children. From the limbs of the biggest trees, criminals were hanged and their bodies were allowed to rot and be torn apart by the elements. Wild animals ― such as tigers, leopards, wolves and boars ― probably feasted with impunity while the city's dogs, emboldened by hunger, managed to get a scrap or two before falling victim to their owners or their neighbors.
The local prison was often full and the warden was well-known for his cruelty and excesses. He often made sacrifices to the gods for more prisoners to be sent so that he could extort and embezzle as much money as possible. Rice ― when given ― was doled out miserly to his prisoners. Those who had money could purchase rice from the warden or, if they had caring families, had their meals brought to them. McGill summed it up by saying, "If the prisoner has no friends or money, he starves."
Some people used the law to their own advantage. They accused their neighbors of wrongdoing so that they could obtain property or other valuables once the accused was taken away and likely executed. Sometimes, however, these nefarious plans backfired.
One man falsely accused another of theft and when his duplicity was discovered he was horribly punished == both of his eyes were gouged out for bearing false witness. Through Dr. McGill's skill he managed to survive but was blinded for life by his own deceit.
Homer Hulbert lamented that he took no pleasure in describing "the cruelty, the brutality [and] the cheapness of human life" that was witnessed in Gongju but that it was merely a glimpse of everyday life throughout Korea during this turbulent period. A new year doesn't always bring a good beginning.
Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books including, Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.