Rewind: February 15, 2024 – “Until His Luck Ran Out: The Story of William McKay”

Until his Luck Ran Out: The Story of William McKay

 by David Waite

 

     Our friend David Waite has found a story about a man with a bit limited connection to Warren County, but we share it here because it is an interesting tale.  William McKay worked in Warren County, and his wife was from Bolton, but they certainly had an adventure!

 

     Will McKay was a very lucky young man. Over the course of two years starting in 1885, he had married his sweetheart Anne, been blessed with a healthy newborn son, and with them at his side was about to embark on a trip to Korea paid for by Thomas Edison.

     In 1863, 12-year-old Gojong was crowned Monarch of the Korean Empire.  As Korea was forced out of isolationism in the 1870s, the country began to move towards Western innovation and technology.  One of these was the development of electricity, which had been introduced into Korea through Japan and China.

King Gojong signed a peace and trade treaty with America in 1882 opening up the opportunity for Korea to obtain American advisors and financing.  The Korean government quickly responded to this opportunity and their representatives arrived in New York City in September of 1883 where they were welcomed to the country by President Chester A. Arthur.  It was during a stay in Boston that the Korean envoys encountered the electric light, an invention that had been introduced in that city by Thomas Edison only the year before.

     In negotiations that followed, Edison was granted exclusive rights to develop electric lighting at the King’s residence at Kyongbok Palace in Seoul.  Hired as one of the electrical engineers for the project, William McKay arrived in Korea in December of 1886, with his wife, newborn son, and all necessary hardware to light the palace grounds, including a 7-kilowatt coal-fired Edison dynamo.

     At the age of 23, William McKay was already an experienced electrician, who by the summer of 1886 had been in charge of the electrical system at the Sagamore Hotel in Lake George.

     A native of Scotland, McKay’s family lived on Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs, where his father, Thomas, worked as a clerk in the city.

     William’s wife was 22-year-old Anna Lenox, the daughter of gardener Alexander Lenox and his wife Elizabeth of Bolton, Warren. County.

     The family debarked from their ship at the Port of Chemulpo (present-day Incheon, South Korea) where they were finally able to rest after a rough ocean crossing.  In a series of letters to their family in Bolton, which were published in the April 29, 1886, Glens Falls Messenger, William shares some of the difficulties he faced on his arrival:

    “The machinery is here, but I will have to take it twenty-six miles over land.  I can’t get such a thing as a horse to draw anything, for they are only as big as a good-sized dog.  The horses here are not a bit larger than Mr. Gate’s dog.  A man could carry one with ease.”

     McKay went on to say that a house in Seoul was being built for them by the king, but likely would not be finished for many weeks.  Once in Seoul, they would be part of a group of only thirty foreigners in the city, the majority of whom were American missionaries.  While there, they would be guarded at all times as well as being constantly accompanied by servants, including a Chinese male nurse to carry their child wherever they went.  Even with theft rampant in the poverty-stricken city, thieves who were caught faced the penalty of immediate beheading.  Therefore, the couple felt little fear either at home or out in the community.

     Mrs. McKay noted in one letter home that their only difficulty was the “awful” situation of encountering the headless bodies left in the streets.

     In January of 1887, McKay traveled to Seoul to inspect their new home, and again William’s words describe what he found:

     “They don’t have chairs or beds; they lie down anywhere and sleep.  Even the King sleeps and eats on the floor.  The palace grounds are as large as Green Island.  The palace itself is as pretty as Robert Taylor’s blacksmith shop, only it has a mud roof.  They build a fire underneath all Corean houses to warm them.  The houses have stone floors, and the heat runs around in a flue, and that warms the house.”

     Work progressed at moving the electrical apparatus east across the Korean countryside to the palace grounds.  In the end, William found that the only animals strong enough to handle the heavy loads were native cattle.  By using large two-wheeled carts pulled by seven bulls, the loads were finally brought to their destination.

     By late January, the family had settled on the palace grounds in an eight-room house with walls, windows, and doors all made of paper.  The floor as well was covered with oiled paper and with heat coming up from underneath often so hot, they were unable to walk around.

     Anna McKay wrote to her parents in early February and told of another requirement of the Korean culture, servants:

     “You would think we are pretty high-toned when I tell you how many men we have to work for us.  We have got a cook, two to do the rest of the work around the house, and two at the gate to keep the Coreans from coming in the yard.  Will and Mr. Dearstyne are each going to buy a pony to ride on from the house to the palace, and we will have to employ two more men to take care of them.  That will make seven in all.  They are all Coreans except the cook who is Chinese.”

     On March 6, 1887, the first electric lights were turned on at Kyongbok Palace.  As William worked to finish the installation two days later, he unlocked his toolbox, leaving it open as he continued his work.  A nearby guard took advantage of his lapse, reached into the toolbox, and picked up a loaded pistol McKay kept there.  In what was later called an accidental discharge, the guard shot William in the side penetrating his stomach.  Even with medical care from the palace, William McKay died in agony sixteen hours after the accident.  King Gojong responded swiftly, having the guard beheaded and a purse of four hundred dollars given to William’s widow.

     With McKay’s death, installation of the electrical lighting system came to a halt, the work not resuming until additional electrical engineers were brought in from England.  Anna McKay and their infant son boarded the steamship Oceanic which left Korea on March 31st, arriving in San Francisco on April 30, 1887.  The body of William McKay was embalmed in Korea and buried until a suitable case could be obtained from America and his remains shipped home.

An early electric light pole outside an residence

 

Illustrations: Gojong in 1897, Wikipedia.org; Thomas Edison with his early dynamo, Library of Congress; Street light in front of the Queen’s Residence, B. Holms, Travelogue, vol.10, New York, N.Y. 1908

Sources for this article are Edison and Electric Lighting in Korea at ethw.org. Wikipedia.com and the newspaper archives at fultonsearch.com and nyhistoricnewspapers.org.

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