The Lost Love Letters of Prince Tiyong of Korea (1898-1907)
Updated: Feb 16
From a young boy to an internationally recognized Korean patriot, Prince Tiyong (also known as Yi Wi-Jong or Yi Ouitjyong) wrote a series of letters from 1898-1907 during a time of great political turmoil for Korea. Mayfair stamps has uncovered a trove of personal letters from Yi Wi-Jong penned to two American women, Lillian Dann and her mother Laura Dann in Washington DC which provide historical insight and interesting primary source information during this compelling time in history. The Korean struggle for sovereignty sets the backdrop for this important collection of letters.
In the late 19th century a growing power struggle between Russia and Japan was taking place in Korea, as they fought for a political foothold in the country. Meanwhile inside Korea, tensions between Queen Min and her father-in-law, Tai-won-Kun were growing as Tai-won-Kun sought to reclaim power from the queen. On October 8, 1895 Queen Min was assassinated by the Japanese military in the Korean palace with the assistance of her father-in-law in his grab for power (Pan). Her husband, Emperor Gojong eventually fled to the Russian legation for safety on February 11, 1896.
Amidst the upheaval, Yi Beom-Jin (Yi Wi-Jongs father) a Korean political leader close to the Emperor also left Korea shortly after Queen Min's death. He procured himself a position as the Minister of the Korean Legation in Washington DC and moved with his family to the United States in 1896.
Life in the United States for Yi Wi-Jong
In 1896, 12 year old Yi Wi-Jong moved
to Washington DC with his family, as his father took his post with the Korean Legation. Yi Wi- Jong was frequently found socializing in drawing rooms with his father in DC during these years He attended Washington DC public schools up until he left the United States in 1900. (“Corean Legation, Interesting Personality of the Minister and his family” 24).
It was during this period of his life that Yi Wi-Jong began his friendship with an American girl Lilian Dann and his first letters to her are written.
Laura & Lillian Dan
Over the course of the following 9 years Yi Wi-Jong writes letters to mother and daughter, Laura and Lillian Dann. The Dann family resided in the Sherman Flats in Washington DC, less than a mile from the Korean Legation building where Yi Wi-Jong lived. A Washington DC Native, newspapers report Laura worked serving veterans in DC much of her life (“Mrs. Laura Dann, Worker for Veterans”). She had also worked as a public school teacher as a young woman. The letters from Yi Wi-Jong to Laura are occasionally signed “Your ex-pupil”, which suggest that he was likely a student of hers. Laura was a young widow in the 1890s, with two children Wallace and Lillian.
Lillian Dann grew up in Washington DC where she attended public schools. She was in elementary school at the same time as Yi Wi-Jong. The letters suggest they were playmates, close friends and likely schoolmates during his family's stay in Washington DC. Yi Wi-Jong eventually falls in love with Lillian sending love letters to her for years as he travels the world.
Lillian's name is prevalent in the DC society pages during this time period, attending a variety of her friends' parties. She also appears as a bridesmaid in the wedding of the well known lawyer, JJ Darlingtons daughter. It is notable that it appears Lillian may have never married. As late as 1938 she had not (“Mrs. Laura Dann, Worker for Veterans”).
Move to France in 1900 In 1900 Yi Beom-Jin, Yi Wi-Jongs father, was transferred from the US delegation to serve as the Minister to Russia, France and Austria. The majority of the letters
in the collection are sent from France and Russia after the family moves from the United States. As Yi Wi-Jong moves to France he sends multiple letters to Laura documenting his family's journey. A note on SS Mesaba letterhead in 1900 describes the scene as he approaches Eddy lighthouse in London. The SS Mesaba is famous as being the ship that attempted to warn the Titanic about the iceberg years later. Yi Wi-Jong goes on to describe his arrival in London before heading to France.
Yi Wi-Jongs Life in France
Arriving in Paris in France in 1900 Yi Wi-Jong began his studies at Jainson de Lailly for 2 years before entering St Cyr Military Academy in 1902. There he became the first Korean student to study international law at St Cyr.
The letters provide new details on his life and whereabouts during military school. In 1902 he was appointed as an attache to the Korean legation in Paris. In 1903 Yi Wi-Jong writes that he was given permission by Emperor Gojong to complete his studies before taking his post in Paris. Meanwhile his father begins living in St Petersburg as Minister of the Korean Legation of Russia.
Russo-Japanese war breaks out in 1904
The Russo-Japanese war broke out February 8, 1904 while Yi Wi-Jong was still attending St Cyr military school in France. Shortly after the war begins, he notifies Lillian that he will be leaving for Russia to join his father.
Korean communications were severely disrupted during this period of time, with the Japanese intercepting much of the communication coming out of Korea. Yi Wi-Jong confirms this when he writes On April 19 1904, that he had not heard from his family in Korea Since January 19. The Korean legations were also struggling for funding at this time, including the Russian legation where Yi Wi-Jongs father was posted. In his letters he describes his intentions to go to war in Manchuria as commander to the Penyang army in 1904. Late that year he returned to St Cyr France and graduates from military school, before returning to join the Korean legation as secretary in St. Petersburg.
Russo-Japanese War ends and Yi Wi-Chong gets married
On September 5, 1905 the Russo-Japanese war came to an end, essentially ending Russian influence in Korea. In 1905 Yi Wi-Jong wrote with increasing urgency to Lillian, detailed plans on his desire to marry her in Russia. He offers transportation arrangements for her and even finds an Episcopal church that would be suitable for Lillian and her family. The seriousness of Yi Wi-Jongs proposal is evident by the letters sent by his father Yi Beom-Jin to Mrs Dann at this time. It has been suggested that his father Yi Beom-Jin was unsupportive of Yi Wi-Jong marrying a woman who was not of Korean descent, until later. However the letters from Yi Wi-Jong and Yi Beom-Jin to the Dann women suggest that is not accurate.
In a final letter Yi Wi-Jong writes if he does not hear from Lillian, his father tells him he will have to marry in the fall of 1905. His last letter to Lillian is his wedding announcement to Elizabeth Noeltke, a woman of Russian Nobility in the fall of 1906.
Hague Secret Emissary Affair
By 1907 the Eulsa treaty had helped to cement Japan's position over the Korean Peninsula. Emperor Gojong, hoping to find justice for Korea, sent a trio of Secret Emissaries to the conference.
Yi Wi-Jong, along with Yi Sang-Seol, and Yi Tjoune were secretly sent to the The Hague Peace Peace Conference with the hopes of getting into the conference to deliver a letter from the Emperor denouncing Japan (“Hague Secret Emissary Affair”). They were denied entry to the Hague due to Japanese objections (“Yi Ouitjyong”).
Yi Wi-Jong gave a moving speech to a group of journalists outside of the conference demanding Korean independence, which gained international attention (Kweon-hyun). However, they were never admitted to the conference.
Political Fallout from the Hague Emissary trio
As a result of the failed attempt at the Hague, Emperor Gojong was pressured to hand over his throne to his son. Meanwhile, Yi Wi-Jong and the other emissaries were charged with treason, and sentenced to life in prison or death in Korea if they returned, due to Japanese pressure. Yi Tjoune mysteriously died in his hotel a few days later after the trio was not allowed entrance into the Hague on
July 14, 1907. Today the hotel has been converted to the Yi Jun Peace Museum celebrating Yi Jun's patriotism (“Activist honors Yi Jun with memorial project”).
Yi Wi-Jong returns to the United States
After Yi Tjounes funeral Yi Wi-Jong immediately went on to the United States on a campaign to gain American support for Korean sovereigny. He even attempted to meet with President Roosevelt at the time but was denied. American newspapers covered
him as he attempted to draw US support. He wrote a "Plea for Korea" a four page letter published by the Independent in August 1907 (Chong).
Yi Wi-Jongs last letter to Mrs Laura Dann was sent from the Broadway Central Hotel in New York City upon arrival in the United States after leaving the Hague Convention in 1907. It is signed "Prince Tiyong Korean Delegate to the Hague".
Yi Wi-Jong living in Russia
Yi Wi-Jong would continue to fight for Korean freedom as an exile in Russia following the Hague incident. In 1911 his father committed suicide after a failed military effort to regain Korean independence. Korea would not regain independence from Japan until August 15, 1945
Yi Wi-Jong continued to live in Russia unable to return to his native Korea using the Russian name Vladimir Sergeyevich Li (Woo, prologue). He fought for Russia in World War 1. Eventually, disillusioned with the growing Japanese power within the ranks of the royal family, Yi Wi Jong joined the Bolsheviks and split from his wife and family. According to Russian intelligence that became public in modern times , Yi Wi-Jong was spied on during much of his time in Russia by the Japanese, including when he worked at the Russian delegation (Woo).
Yi Wi-Jong today remembered as a Korean patriot
Yi Wi-Jong's courage and life long struggle for Korea has secured his place in history as a Korean patriot and freedom fighter. The discovery of these letters written at such a defining time in Korean history makes them interesting for historians, postal history and cover collectors.
The tidbits discussed here only begin to scratch the surface of the content and stories in this collection of letters. When we began our research into the history of Yi Wi-Jong we did not expect to find such a fascinating back story and to uncover such an important figure in Korean history.
This important collection will be available for sale from Mayfair Stamps. W