After years of delays, the house of Albert Wilder and Mary Linley Taylor by a famous ginkgo tree in central Seoul will finally open to the public next month. The opening of this storied residence of the American gold mining businessman and his British actress wife will commemorate the March 1 Independence Movement of 1919. That is when the lives of the couple intersected with a seminal event in modern Korean history.
The Associated Press asked Taylor to cover the funeral of Emperor Gojong, who was rumored to have been poisoned to death by the Japanese colonial rulers. The funeral was scheduled for March 3, 1919 and by Feb. 28, throngs of mourners from across the country already were gathering on the streets of Seoul.
By happenstance, the Taylors’ first child made his entry the same day: Bruce Tickell Taylor was born at Severance Hospital, then located across the street from Seoul Station. After filing a story about the funeral vigilance, Taylor rushed to the hospital to see his newborn son.
Unaware to the Taylors, some leaders of the resistance movement had hidden their printing press at the hospital and printed their declaration of independence there. The copies were thrust under Mary’s bed cover by a nurse to avert Japanese troops. In her autobiography, “Chain of Amber,” published in 1992, 10 years after her death, in the United Kingdom, Mary describes what her husband did upon arriving at her hospital bedside:
“The room was almost dark when I was awakened. He stooped and kissed me and made an awkward attempt to pick up the baby, and in so doing, uncovered the papers which were still hidden beside me. Very suddenly, he put the baby down and hurried to the window where there was light enough to read.
“‘Korean Declaration of Independence,’ he exclaimed, astonished. To this day, I aver that, as a newly fledged newspaper correspondent, he was more thrilled to find those documents than he was to find his own son and heir.
“That very night, Brother Bill (Albert’s younger brother) left Seoul for Tokyo, with a copy of the Proclamation in the hollow of his heel, to get it off, with Albert’s report, over the cables to America, before any order could be issued to stop it.”
Thus, Albert Taylor became the first Western journalist to report on the nationwide anti-Japanese struggle by Koreans, who were angered by the sudden, mysterious death of their emperor. They were also inspired by US President Woodrow Wilson’s speech advocating national self-determination at the Paris Peace Conference in 1918.
Peaceful demonstrations sparked by the independence declaration spread throughout the country. They continued through April and into May, despite brutal Japanese repression. Statistics vary widely on the movement and repercussions, depending on the source: 500,000 to 2 million participants; 553 (Japanese authorities) to 7,509 (Korean historians) deaths; and far more wounded, arrested and imprisoned.
Although the Taylors’ brick and stone home became a government asset in 1965, it was neglected and dilapidated. Some whispered that it was haunted. Squatters occupied the building, once the grandest Western-style mansion in Seoul, and all of the spacious gardens that had sprawled around a hillside eventually surrendered to terraced houses and apartments.
Then, as dramatically as the lives of its owners unfolded a century ago, the house came into the spotlight when Bruce Taylor visited Korea in 2006. Public interest was drawn, above all, to the hitherto-unknown fact that his birth was closely linked to the overseas press coverage of the Korean independence movement and his father was the man behind it.
Bruce’s revelations also included an explanation of “Dilkusha 1923,” carved into a granite cornerstone of his family’s home the year it was completed. It means “the heart’s delight” in Urdu, and it fulfilled a vow his mother had made to herself.
Mary Linley (her stage name) came from a British noble family with high-level connections in India. While on a performance tour, she visited the ruins of Dilkusha Kothi palace in Locknow, northeastern India. She recalled that, during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, her grandfather, then a young cavalry officer, delayed the advance of rebels at Dilkusha.
Constructed around 1800 by British resident Major Gore Ouseley, Dilkusha Kothi was intended to be a hunting lodge. Later, it served as a summer resort as well, but the localized English baroque-style building became a casualty of the Indian rebellion against British rule.
“From that moment in India when first I saw the Palace of the Heart’s Delight, I dreamed of this moment when I would bestow upon our home the name ‘Dilkusha,’” Mary wrote in her autobiography. Thus, “Dilkusha” became associated with two independence movements thousands of miles and six decades apart.
The book, supposedly written in the late 1950s, abounds with fascinating tales -- how the couple met in Yokohama, Japan, while Mary was on a visit with her theater company; how Albert made gifts of her favorite stone, amber; how he suddenly appeared in Calcutta to propose; how they traveled on donkeys in the depth of winter to Albert’s far-away gold mines in the snow-covered mountains; and how their house was destroyed by lightning and rebuilt. What the book is wanting are important dates and names, leaving holes for researchers to fill.
The Taylors lived in their Seoul house until 1942, when Japan expelled them from Korea. Before the expulsion, Albert was imprisoned and his gold mines were confiscated. Mary also was confined, placed under house arrest. In 1948, Albert died of heart attack in California. In accordance with his wish, Mary visited Seoul in September that year to bury his remains in the Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery, beside the tomb of his father, George Alexander Taylor.
After Bruce Taylor’s death in 2015, his daughter Jennifer donated hundreds of the family’s belongings to Seoul City. They will be exhibited at Dilkusha.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.