Rev. Henry G. Appenzeller was one of the earliest American missionaries in Korea. His accomplishments in Korea were many and are well documented but the details of his death may have been exaggerated. Although I am not sure who started the story about him martyring himself to save the life of a young Korean girl (I feel William Elliot Griffto (wiki) had a lot to do with it), I think Appenzeller’s death was caused more by his inability to swim due to his physical condition and the manner of the accident.
On the day he died:
Appenzeller was only 44 years old but looked much older. He was thin and haggard and apparently moved somewhat slowly — not because of his age but because of a brutal beating that he had received some weeks earlier by Japanese coolies working on the Seoul-Busan Railroad.
The account of Appenzeller’s last moments come from Appenzeller’s fellow traveler, James Bowlby, an American gold miner at the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company (OCMC) in northern Korean:
At about 10 p.m., both men retired to their cabins for the night but shortly afterwards were awoken by a tremendous crash. Bowlby hurriedly dressed and called to Appenzeller to do the same.
Only a minute and a half had passed since the crash and the air was filled with the screams and yells of frightened passengers and crew calling out to one another in confusion. Already the ship was beginning to sink making it difficult to move.
Appenzeller led the way and together they raced to the deck only to find their situation critical. The entire forward deck was already submerged and the stern was high out of the dark sea — the Kumagawa was rapidly sinking bow first. In the near distance the shape of another steamship, the Kisogawa, could be seen and it became apparent to Bowlby that the ships had collided. Without a moment’s hesitation, the miner raced for the railing, but Appenzeller, still recovering from his injuries, “seemed to be laboring under great excitement, [and] apparently made no attempt to get away from the ship.”
It is often claimed that Appenzeller drowned while heroically trying to save the life of the young girl. This doesn’t appear to have been the case. Bowlby recalled that just before the ship sunk he looked back and saw the reverend, still rooted to the same spot and with water up to his waist, “groping vainly for something to take hold of.”
Only three minutes after the collision, the Kumagawa completely disappeared beneath the waves. Bowlby was lucky and survived — in fact, he was the only survivor. Appenzeller, four Japanese and fourteen Korean passengers along with eight crewmembers all perished. Not all of the dead were from the Kumagawa. When the ships collided, two passengers on the Kisogawa became so excited and confused that they climbed from their ship onto the Kumagawa and were lost.
Photo credit – mine, taken at the Seoul Foreigners’ Cemetery a couple of years ago.