(20) John G. Flanagan: first American tried for murder in Korea
On Sept. 31, 1898, George W. Lake was discovered dead in his bed. Although the initial cause of death was ruled natural causes, political pressure and public opinion forced the American Minister to Korea, Horace N. Allen, to find Lake’s murderer.
Lake’s Chinese neighbors were all questioned and ruled out so suspicion shifted to John G. Flanagan — Lake’s young partner and protege.
We know very little about Flanagan save that he was a naturalized American, probably from Ireland. William Franklin Sands, the American vice-consul, speculated that Flanagan came to the Orient as a sailor, and upon reaching Shanghai was either discharged for his poor character or quit. Here he met Leigh Hunt, an American investor who had recently been granted a gold mining concession in northern Korea — this later became the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company. According to a recently discovered letter, Hunt, who needed miners, brought Flanagan with him to Korea in Sept. 1896 but, because the gold mine was still in its infancy and lacking funds, wasn’t able to retain him. This contrasts greatly with the character assassinations of Allen and Sands who claimed that Flanagan was fired for his poor character.
Unemployed, Flanagan made his way to Jemulpo where he met Lake. Considering Lake’s past it’s hard to associate him with good judgment but evidently he saw something he liked in Flanagan and hired him — even offering to make him his partner. But just prior to Lake’s death, there were rumors that Flanagan owed his mentor a large sum of money — a sum large enough to kill for rather than pay back.
Flanagan was questioned and gave, in Sands’ opinion, a “satisfactory account of himself.” Allen, however, was not convinced. He insisted that Flanagan was the “obvious person to arrest” and so, on Sept. 21, Flanagan was brought back to Seoul and placed in the new jail that Allen had built for the occasion with his own money.
On Oct. 31, Flanagan was brought to trial in the American Consular Court in Seoul. Allen presided over the court with a four man jury consisting of three missionaries and Clarence R. Greathouse, a lawyer and advisor for the Korean Government. Allen felt Greathouse’s experience would be a “safe guarantee that all legal requirements would be complied with.” Publicly Allen described Greathouse as a “distinguished lawyer of well known ability” but privately he disparaged him as a drunk. Greathouse was a notorious drunkard but, as Sands noted, “the drunker he got the more lucid he became.”
Most of the evidence introduced into court by Allen was circumstantial and conflicting. Horace Underwood (who represented Flanagan) suggested that the murderer, if there was one, was Lake’s neighbor, a Chinese butcher, who suspiciously disappeared shortly after his death. Compounding all of this was Flanagan’s propensity to lie. His fate rested in the hands of the jury and public opinion, “but prejudice and the reputation of the prisoner for loafing and general uselessness were against him.”
On Nov. 11, the court found Flanagan guilty and Allen sentenced him to execution. Fortunately, Greathouse “woke up long enough” to inform Allen that he did not have the authorization to extend the death penalty so his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
For over two years Flanagan was held in the legation’s jail awaiting transport to a prison in the United States. During this period he escaped from jail when the legation’s constable, drunk, left the door to the cell open. A fugitive, with no money and no way of leaving the country, Flanagan soon returned.
In the summer of 1901, Flanagan was transported to San Quentin Prison in California. There, he was given a new trial. After nearly seven and a half years of imprisonment, Flanagan was found innocent and released on April 6, 1906 — the day of the San Francisco earthquake. He became free of one hell only to deal with another hell.
Robert Neff is contributing writer for The Korea Times.