By Robert Neff
Perhaps the greatest fear of a parent is that their child will die before them. For many Westerners residing in Joseon Korea that fear was too often realized. Often these deaths came quickly and without warning. One tragic case was that of Edward T. McCarthy, the manager of the British-owned Gwendoline Gold Mines in present North Korea.
McCarthy recalled that on the morning of Jan. 19, 1901, his daughter suddenly “preferred to nestle in mine or her mother’s arms — so unlike her — but otherwise she
The grave of Justin Barry McCarthy
/ Courtesy of Robert Neff
did not seem ill, for she laughed and talked much as usual.” But by the following morning the little one was deathly ill with diphtheria. Alarmed at the rapid progress of her disease, McCarthy telegraphed Pyongyang asking for medicine to be sent as quickly as possible by the fastest courier. To facilitate its quick arrival he sent out six runners to act as a relay for the courier.
But time was running out. “All that night we watched her closely, for we, both my wife and self saw that she was passing away from us.” Their only hope was the promised serum but unbeknownst to them, the final runner had become disoriented in his race back to the camp and had gotten lost. McCarthy recalled:
“As the first rays of the sun came penetrating her room the little spirit fled from its earthly tenement and only the little clay mould of what she had been lay in my arms.”
Thirty minutes later, the serum that could have saved her life arrived.
Because of the infectious nature of the disease, the Japanese doctor at the mines insisted that the body be cremated but the McCarthy’s refused. They had witnessed the cremation of the doctor’s wife only a few months earlier and were alarmed that as the flames began to burn the coffin the lid suddenly “burst open and the little body rose up and sank back again. It was a ghastly sight.” They were determined that their daughter would be buried in a foreigners’ cemetery.
The nearest foreigners’ cemetery was in Jemulpo but because of the intense cold there was no means to transport the body to that port. Thus, with heavy hearts, they elected to place her body in a sealed cave to await the thaw.
The McCarthy’s were touched by the kindness they received by their Korean hosts who, despite having different religious beliefs, did their best to support the grieving parents. Their small funeral procession was greeted by the Korean villagers “dressed in clean white gala garments, and all so silent; there was no whispering or talking as there would have been amongst an English crowd. They might have been statuette-angels as we passed through that strangely still and silent crowd, a clear pathway having been left for us to go through them.”
When they arrived at the cave they were surprised to see that the Korean villagers — Confucians — had erected three crosses created from beautifully entwined evergreen boughs: tokens of sympathy for the mourning parents.
The Chinese miners also requested to pay their last respects. It was heart-rending for the McCarthy’s “to see these poor coolie-class people making obeisances to the last that remained of our loved little one.”
For nearly two months the parents made daily pilgrimages to the body of their daughter before it was finally carried to Jemulpo Foreigners’ Cemetery by an entourage of volunteers — eight Korean villagers, three Japanese gendarmes and the Korean chief of police.
Her grave, marked with a tombstone that her bereaved mother designed, still stands in a tranquil meadow steeped in history and surrounded by the symbols of progress of a country she lived in and loved — although briefly: Korea.