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Durham White Stevens’ assassination in San Francisco in 1908 was an indirect result of U.S. imperial interests in the Far East.

“Japan is doing in Korea and for the Koreans what the United States is doing in the Philippines,” proclaimed Durham White Stevens in a San Francisco newspaper interview published on March 21, 1908. He was right.

That’s probably why Korean nationalists killed him two days later. The somewhat comic-opera assassination in San Francisco a century ago was front-page news all over the United States and the world—then it vanished down America’s memory hole.

The United States at the turn of the 20th century was flexing its imperialistic muscle. Having paid Spain $20 million for the Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, President William McKinley declared a policy of “benevolent assimilation” to bring the “blessings of good and stable government upon the people of the Philippine Islands under the free flag of the United States.” For America, the deal meant a military base in the Pacific and access to the markets of the Far East.

The Filipinos, however, took great exception to exchanging one set of colonial rulers for another. Uprisings broke out both among the Catholics on Luzon and the Muslims on Mindanao and soon descended into brutal guerrilla warfare. In retaliation for an ambush on American troops on the island of Samar that left some 50 soldiers dead and their bodies mutilated, General Jacob W. Smith infamously ordered his men to take no prisoners: “I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms…against the United States.” Smith interpreted that to mean that anyone, male or female, over the age of 10 was a potential enemy combatant and should be treated as such. The long guerrilla war resulted in an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 executions, 200,000 battle deaths and 2 million people left homeless.

At the same time, other would-be imperial powers were also sizing up potential conquests in the region. Japan, in particular, had designs on Korea, the Hermit Kingdom located just across the Sea of Japan. It was inside this convoluted web of competing interests that Durham White Stevens found himself entangled at the time of his murder at age 56.

Stevens could have been described as a man with too many countries. His father, Oberlin College graduate Ezra Stevens, was the educational supervisor of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs from the 1870s to his death in 1890. Durham Stevens graduated from Oberlin in 1871, studied law at Columbian (now George Washington) and Howard universities in Washington, D.C., passed his bar exams in 1873 and then joined the U.S. diplomatic corps on an appointment by President Ulysses S. Grant.

Stevens was stationed in the American legation in Tokyo. In 1883 he resigned his post to enter the Japanese diplomatic corps, and served as secretary to the Japanese legation in Washington. A year later, he was Japan’s representative in Korea—then still an independent country beset with a feuding, squabbling dynasty— along with Kaoru Inoue, a close confidante of Hirobumi Ito, “the Bismarck of Japan.” Ito was a peasant-turned-samurai who had written Japan’s modern constitution and devised its counter-aggressive foreign policy. Fearing the expansion of Russia into Asian territory, Ito looked to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany, the other upstart nation of the late 19th century, as a role model of militarism and constitutional monarchy. In fact, it was actually more monarchical than constitutional.

Japan’s Prussian military adviser, Nicklaus Wenkel, defined Japanese strategy for the next quarter-century: “Korea is a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.” The endless dynastic feuds and political instability inside the Hermit Kingdom, located so near Russian territory, convinced Japanese statesmen and strategists that they needed to cover their flank. They went to war with Russia in 1904 to battle for control of Korea and neighboring Manchuria.

At the turn of the century, Korea believed it had an ally in the United States. The two nations had signed the Chemulpo Treaty in 1882, which pledged “perpetual peace and friendship between the President of the United States and the King of Chosen and the citizens and subjects of their respective Governments. If other Powers deal unjustly or oppressively with either Government, the other will exert their good offices, on being informed of the case, to bring about an amicable arrangement, thus showing their friendly feelings.”

The Koreans, however, were unaware that in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt—who would win a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War in September 1905— had approved the secret Taft-Katsura Agreement that would reinforce both American and Japanese influence in the region and spell doom for Korean sovereignty.

The Japanese, feeling their imperial power growing, had been making politic noises about white Westerners oppressing fellow Asians in the Philippines. In July 1905, Secretary of War William Howard Taft—former U.S. Commissioner to the Philippines and future president and Supreme Court justice—cut a secret deal with Taro Katsura, Japan’s foreign minister: The Japanese agreed not to interfere in the ongoing rape of the Philippines if the United States agreed not to interfere in the forthcoming rape of Korea.

Japan imposed protectorate status on Korea in 1905. Hirobumi Ito was installed in Seoul as resident general and it was Ito, not Korean King Kojong or his ministers, who was now in charge of all governmental affairs. Durham White Stevens was appointed by the Japanese government to be foreign adviser to Kojong—“a post of such importance that he became known as the American dictator of the Hermit Kingdom,” according to Stevens’ obituary in The New York Times. A dismayed Kojong appealed to the United States for assistance under the terms of the Chemulpo Treaty, but Roosevelt did nothing. (He would write in 1915 that the treaty “rested on the false assumption that Korea could govern herself well. It had already been shown that she could not in any real sense govern herself at all.”)

Ito eventually forced Kojong to abdicate his throne, dissolved the Korean army and set about securing Japan’s hold on Korea. Resistance fighters were summarily executed by Japanese occupation troops. Meanwhile, Stevens was dispatched to the United States to drum up American backing for Japan’s outright annexation of Korea. “Korea is a natural bulwark of Japan,” he told his American audience by way of justifying Japan’s actions. “Its state of complete isolation…invited aggression and possible conquest.”

Stevens did find support among Americans, including influential Progressives such as George Trumbull Ladd, the president of Yale University, whose 1908 book In Korea With Marquis Ito wholeheartedly endorsed the protectorate over a people he described as hopelessly corrupt and incompetent. Lucrative business opportunities were also at stake. Stevens had assisted in negotiations between the Japanese government and U.S. rail magnate Edward H. Harriman, director of the Union Pacific. Harriman had a grand scheme to build a round-the-world railroad controlled by American stockholders, and the plan included acquiring the South Manchurian Railroad, Japan’s prize booty of the Russo-Japanese War.

Some of Stevens’ statements on behalf of the occupiers were factually accurate: The Japanese initially did make vast improvements in Korean education and sanitation, and may have spent more money in the country than they took out. But Stevens ignored the face-slapping arrogance of the Japanese and the hurt pride of the Koreans. He claimed that the common people loved the Japanese when in fact most Korean peasants found them dreadful. Many of the yangban, Korea’s elite scholar/ruling class, did sell out to the Japanese but others retired into respectable obscurity or even committed suicide rather than serve them. Still, as the San Francisco Call reported, “Stevens denies that the Japanese are exploiting Korea for Japanese profit or that the revenues of the land are being used in maintaining an arm of Japanese office holders.”

Outraged by the Japanese and betrayed by the Americans, several young Korean nationalists in California turned their anger on Stevens, regarding him a Japanese agent and spy. Stevens got to face his future killers in the lobby of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel on March 22, 1908, the day after his quotes about Japan’s many benefits to Korea hit the newspapers. Earl Lee (born Yi Il), a Korean journalist driven out of his beleaguered homeland by Japanese censors, served as the spokesman for four Koreans who asked Stevens about the rebellion of the Korean Righteous Army. The group of former Korean soldiers, who had been cashiered by the Japanese who originally trained them, shot their way out of Seoul with Japanese soldiers in hot pursuit and touched off a courageous but doomed revolt that ultimately killed about 14,000 Koreans and 160 Japanese. Aided by students, peasants and bandits, the rebels, taking the offensive, got within eight miles of Seoul before the better-armed Japanese wiped them out in a series of one-sided engagements. Still, Stevens stood by his statements that Korea was better off for the Japanese being there.

“Aren’t the Japanese killing off the Koreans?” Lee demanded.

“No,” Stevens said.

“Haven’t all Korean officials been eliminated?” Lee persisted.

“No,” Stevens said. “You’ve probably been away from your country too long to know the exact condition of the government.”

Lee and his companions had heard enough. They snatched up rattan lobby chairs and started swinging them. Stevens took one clip, hit the marble floor, got up bleeding from the face and grabbed a chair of his own. The big American, his back against the wall, was holding his own when other hotel guests jumped the four Koreans, ripped the chairs away from them and kicked them out of the Fairmont.

“We are all very sorry that we did not do more to him,” Earl Lee said later. He wasn’t kidding. The leader of the Righteous Army in Korea had recently issued a message to Koreans living abroad: “Compatriots, we must unite and consecrate ourselves to our land and restore our independence. You must appeal to the whole world about grievous wrongs and outrages of barbarous Japanese. They are cunning and cruel and are enemies of progress and humanity. We must do our best to kill all Japanese, their spies, allies and barbarous soldiers.”

The next day, two of the chair fighters, Chang In Hwan and Chun Myung Un, loitered at the San Francisco railroad station, knowing that Stevens was leaving the city. When he didn’t show, the Koreans shifted their stakeout to the ferry landing. Stevens approached the ferry with the Japanese Consul General, Chozo Koike, incongruously carrying Stevens’ luggage. Chun’s hand was wadded with a bandage that concealed a pistol—exactly in the manner of Leon Czolgosz, who had assassinated President William McKinley in 1901 in retribution for the U.S. slaughter of Filipino freedom fighters. But the bandage jammed the trigger and the pistol wouldn’t fire. Chun, confused and furious, hit Stevens in the face with the pistol. Stevens grabbed for him and Chun took off like a frightened schoolboy, with Stevens rampaging after him up the cobbled street.

Chang, the second Korean gunman, stepped in behind Stevens, leveled his own pistol and pulled the trigger just as Chun turned to see if Stevens was gaining on him. Chang’s first round hit Chun full in the chest. The next two bullets struck Stevens in the back and brought him crashing to the cobblestones. Consul General Koike and a crowd of Americans collared the two Koreans, and the Americans began to shout, “Lynch the Japs!” Koike’s comments were not recorded, but an American lawyer stepped out of the mob and argued, while the Koreans were being beaten up, that they deserved a fair trial.

“This evidently is the work of a small group of student agitators in and about San Francisco, who resent the fact that the Japanese have a protectorate over Korea and believe that I am to some extent responsible,” Stevens told the press from his bed in the San Francisco Harbor Emergency Hospital. The article described Stevens as “the coolest man in the place.” He had been hit once in the lung and once in the groin, but his condition seemed stable.

“I don’t feel any pain,” he said. “Is that a bad sign?”

Apparently it was. When Koike picked up Stevens’ enormous diamond stickpin, forgotten on top of his rumpled, bloody clothes and asked, “What shall I do with this? It looks rather valuable and should not be left lying around,” a nurse answered, “You had better wear it yourself.” Koike tucked the stickpin in his pocket and walked away with the luggage. Stevens died two days later, after an operation revealed serious internal injuries.

“This is most unfortunate, a great loss to Japan, Korea, and this country,” Koike said. Hirobumi Ito added, “I regard the death of Mr. Stevens as a national disaster and a personal loss.” Stevens had been a lifelong bachelor, but the Korean cabinet— under Ito’s control—voted to give 50,000 yen to Stevens’ two sisters in Asbury Park, N.J. The Japanese cabinet added 100,000 yen. As a sign of the regard with which he was held by the American government, Secretary of State Elihu Root was an honorary pallbearer at Stevens’ funeral at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

On March 24, the San Francisco Call had published a statement from Chang, who was imprisoned without bail: Stevens “is working for the interests of Japan and against those of the nation who looked to him as an American for justice and  good rule. He had endeavored to make the people of the United States of America believe that Japanese protection of Korea was the best thing for that nation in the present and would be so in the future. He lied when he said that the Korean people were happy under Japanese rule. So, for his falsehood, I shot Stevens.”

Chun was charged with being an accessory to murder, but he was released from prison in June 1908 and fled the country. Chang was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years at San Quentin but was paroled after 10 years. He was celebrated as a national hero by Korean patriots.

A year after Stevens’ death, Hirobumi Ito was himself gunned down by Chang Ahn Gun, perhaps the most revered assassin in Korean history, when he got off a train in Harbin in Russian-controlled Manchuria. Ito’s last speech had advocated a joint Japanese-Korean effort to develop Manchuria using Western technology. Instead, Japan annexed Korea outright and embarked on 35 years of brutal cultural repression that permanently scarred relations between the two Asian nations.

The legacy of Durham White Stevens was perhaps best summed up by the San Francisco Chronicle: “Three shots that will be heard around the world rang out yesterday morning. Fired from the revolver of In What Chang [sic], confessed assassin and avowed patriot of Corea [sic], two [bullets] pierced the body of Durham White Stevens, an American and advisor of the Corean Council of State. In Corea the story of the shooting will be heard by a captive people with fanatic praise. In Japan the report will be regarded with contrary emotions. All the diplomatic world will be stirred by the assassination of the American who had served the Japanese well, if not wisely.”


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.