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The Empress and Mrs. CongerThe Uncommon Friendship of Two Women and Two Worlds$

Grant Hayter-Menzies

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9789888083008

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888083008.001.0001

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(p.127) 11 Siege
The Empress and Mrs. Conger

Grant Hayter-Menzies

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the role played by Cixi in the Boxer Uprising. During the uprising, Beijing lay in ruins concealed by smoke, flames, and darkness. Hoping to damage foreign properties, the Boxers instead had dealt a blow to one of Beijing's architectural treasures: fires set in the Dutch legation were shifted by prevailing winds from the real target, the American legation, and soon had the Qianmen (Zhengyangmen), the grand southern gateway leading into the Tartar City, exploding in flames. This chapter argues that although it is not easy to characterize the empress dowager loving a spectacle of destruction, one thing can be reasonably sure, however: through the smoke of burning Beijing, she had an eye trained on the American legation.

Keywords:   Boxer uprising, Beijing, Boxers, Dutch legation, American legation, Qianmen, Tartar City

There were only two ramps to the top of the Tartar City wall, both open to the sky. But Sarah’s dislike of walls that restrained her view of the world outweighed, for the moment, the very real danger of exposing herself atop them. Late on the night of June 18, when it was dark enough for them to be safely concealed, she and Edwin, accompanied by guards, went up to the wall behind the US legation for a midnight view of the destruction.

Looking out across the city, the air filled with the acrid bite of charred wood, they could only imagine the ruins concealed by smoke, flames, and darkness. “Large shops and many of China’s most beautiful things were burned,” Sarah recalled. “There is no way whatever for people to fight fire.” Hoping to damage foreign properties, the Boxers instead had dealt a blow to one of Beijing’s architectural treasures: fires set in the Dutch legation were shifted by prevailing winds from the real target, the American legation, and soon had the Qianmen (Zhengyangmen), the grand southern gateway leading into the Tartar City, exploding in flame.“It made an appalling sight,” Sarah wrote. The Chinese told Sarah the burning of this gate, first constructed in the early fifteenth century, was a “very bad omen; some great misfortune is coming to the Throne.” Yet the (p.128) misfortune Sarah most worried about was what had happened to an ice coolie from the American legation, who had bravely offered to cross the barricades to find out what news was to be had about the approaching Admiral Seymour. He had already left the compound twice on this errand, and this time had been gone over a day. “Poor old man,” Sarah wondered, “where is he?” Her world had already receded to a point where such things loomed large: “We have been fenced in a little more and alittle more,” she admitted to her diary.1

In the related realms of film and legend, one encounters the image of the empress dowager herself up on the ramparts of the Forbidden City palaces, looking out over the same field of destruction as lay burning before the Congers. It is easy to paint such scenes in the imagination for such behavior would have been characteristic of this woman who loved spectacle, but there is little solid evidence to show just what any of Cixi’s actions were at this stage of the troubles. Of one thing can we can be reasonably sure, however: through the smoke of burning Beijing, she had an eye trained on the American legation.

We can only speculate about Cixi’s apparent impression of the Americans as being especially sympathetic to the Chinese. As early as June 11, two ministers from the Zongli Yamen approached Edwin specifically to ask him to stop Admiral Seymour from marching to Beijing, for doing so would make it easier for Prince Qing to solve the Boxer problem. Whether Qing was actually in a position to do anything about the Boxer juggernaut is questionable, and Edwin evidently thought so too: he told them no. Not long afterward, four more ministers from the Zongli Yamen asked and were granted permission to meet with Edwin. They told him they were under orders from the empress dowager (as they had probably been the first time) “to come to the American Legation, as it was friendly to China, and to say that [she regrets] what has happened through the fires and other disturbances”—an apology she never extended directly to the other ministers at this or any other time. What was Cixi up to? Had word got back to her, from the various levels of Chinese guards up through the Zongli Yamen ministers and thence to court insiders, that Edwin was taking pains to treat the Chinese with a respect lacking in the attitudes of the other legations? Did Cixi or her cabinet consider this an opportunity for dialogue, or a chance to take (p.129) advantage of an inexperienced naïf? Cixi must have known that Edwin’s predecessor, Charles Denby, was an admirer who, moreover, held a“jaundiced view of missionary conduct,” and perhaps considering this a common trait of Americans, citizens of the one nation that had not (yet) tried to dismember China, she might have felt a similar trust in Edwin. Or had she heard of Sarah’s social activities with Chinese women of rank from Li Hongzhang and his family?2

Cixi’s biographers all try to divine her actual role in the Boxer Uprising. Aside from the dowager’s first biographer, Phillip Sergeant (1909), and her more recent one, Sterling Seagrave (1992), consensus has toed the party line drawn by Kang Youwei’s calumnies and George E. Morrison’s biased dispatches to the Times—that she encouraged the Boxers to attack foreigners and kill them or drive them away. No more able than subsequent writers to discover what was happening with the dowager between her return to Beijing in June and her flight from it in August, Sergeant believed Cixi went from initial enthusiasm for the Boxers to panicked opposition, but found herself unable to jump down from the tiger she had heedlessly chosen to ride. Seagrave takes the view that Cixi intended to protect the residents of the legations, and that Ronglu, far from being their opponent, created a buffer zone of troops around the British legation to hold back and neutralize the attacks by militants, in a complex game of passive-aggressive chess. Seagrave also asserts that the siege was really not much more than a standoff, with shooting deaths resulting more from stray bullets and unwise exposure than from any deliberate intent of the Chinese to kill the foreigners. Both theories have truth in them, depending on where weight is placed in the body of evidence.

Cixi claimed to her lady-in-waiting, Der Ling, that while she identified with the empire she had ruled from behind her curtain for almost half a century—she was, after all, its “mother”—she still could not make independent decisions about what she considered to be in the nation’s best interest: “I am not my own boss, but have to consult with my Ministers.” In the person of Duan and his cohorts, she also faced threats of a more personal nature, threats as critical, for her, as Duan’s threats to the residents of the legations were for them. Reconstructing her actions and policies through the edicts issued under her name before and during (p.130) the siege gives no proof of any sort of coherent policy—it only shows how many cooks were stirring the pot, swaying events one way and then the other, now protecting the foreigners and now the Boxers. The edicts give a picture of a court and a nation in crisis that lacked a sure (or any) hand on the rudder; and they also suggest a setting in which, had Cixi made a wrong move, she might well have found herself put out of the way, ironically just as the Guangxu emperor’s supporters had intended in 1898. Knowing her past methods of reinforcing her control, it is not impossible that rather than belonging to one camp or the other, she played for time—and power—in the noncommittal but perilous no man’s land in between.3

The New York Times published a dispatch claimed to have been issued from Tianjin on July 2, 1900. Although a mixture of fact and fiction, its details show that whoever shared the information had access to a more positive, and possibly more truthful, view of Cixi than most in the West or than any of the foreigners in the British legation. Its negative portrayal of Prince Duan suggests that it did not emerge from his propaganda machine. Cixi is also described as being a mediator between the conservatives and the moderates at court:

The Empress Dowager, so far from being dead, is actively striving to prevent the factions fighting. Prince Ching has informed her that he would rather lose his head than be constantly obliged to warn her of the consequence of the prolongation of the present anarchy. Prince Tuan is quite willing that Ching should be decapitated, but the Dowager Empress will not allow this. Prince Tuan has decided that he will take full responsibility.4

If this account is true, what power Cixi did have was concentrated in her authority over members of the imperial clan, living up to the “motherly” character of her lengthy title. But her power ended where Duan’s terrorist tactics began. He was taking more than just responsibility—and surely Cixi knew that his failure to succeed in his wild scheme would deprive her of a lot more than her clan authority. Cixi had had everything taken away from her before, when she fled to Jehol with the Xianfeng emperor in 1860. Then she had been merely a concubine raised up a few imperial notches, but she had returned to Beijing an empress dowager, and now in (p.131) that role she was watching it all slip away again like dust off Beijing’s roof tiles. A leader would have been in charge of Duan and the conservatives from the beginning, not allowing them rogue powers—but she had never been a leader, and now she was a figurehead and pawn all in one.

As Robert Coltman pointed out, the tarnishing of Cixi’s authority (perhaps through orders given to General Dong behind her back) had begun as early as autumn 1898, and perhaps even earlier. Duan probably deferred to her as to an elder family authority figure and obeyed her refusal to have moderates like Prince Qing beheaded, against his own preference. This did not save other moderates who were not related to the imperial family later in August. But by then even Cixi’s traditional ceremonial role of matriarch was pointless and powerless, and her game, if it can be called that, was even more critical to her survival.

It is known that she faced threats not just from inside China but from reformers outside it who had never forgotten or forgiven Kang Youwei’s and the emperor’s explosive efforts to alter the imperial landscape. Illustrative of this is an article in the New York Times of July 30, 1900.The paper published an exclusive from Ho Yow, Chinese consul-general in San Francisco and friend of the Congers, in which Ho claimed that a Stanford-educated Chinese named Lee had traveled from Honolulu with Liang Qichao, Kang Youwei’s partner in reform, to “raise an army of 40,000 malcontents in the southern treaty ports of the empire and march on Peking,” the object being to overthrow Cixi and the Guangxu emperor. Ho noted “the absurdity of the claims that this is purely a patriotic reform movement” when it was reported that anyone contributing to the reform coffers would receive military and even imperial titles in return, based on how much they paid out. Absurd this plot may have been, but Ho would have been quick to report it to the throne. As part of the swirling atmosphere of equal parts rumor and fact, it further underscores the instability of the ground beneath Cixi’s feet, and explains, if it does not excuse, her grasping at the nearest firm hand-grip on the swaying runaway train that was China.5

If Cixi or the Zongli Yamen (or Duan and his coterie) thought Edwin could stop Admiral Seymour, even if he wanted to do so, on the basis of his and Sarah’s known sympathy for the Chinese, they were wrong. “Mr. Conger told [the court ministers] that they were repeating the same old (p.132) story,” Sarah recalled. “Their people have been murdering our people, destroying and burning property, and danger threatens everywhere.” Taking another tack, the ministers asked Edwin to assure them that the troops, when they arrived, would be kept outside the city walls, in a camp. Edwin told them no again, adding that they would come straight to the legations, “and if they are not enough, more will come…All we desire is peace, protection, and a harmonious relation with your people,” Sarah heard him tell the men through interpreter F. D. Cheshire. “You do not give it to us and we foreign nations are obliged to call upon our countries for the protection you should give…Your own people are so afraid of the Boxers that it is with difficulty that we can send a messenger, even to the Tsung Li Yamen.”6

Von Ketteler had none of the patience of his American colleague. He seems to have believed that his legation (by no means as close tothe action as the French or Austrian compounds), was the leading edge in the fight against the Boxers, and had ordered his guards to shoot “Boxers” on sight, without ascertaining whether the targets were Boxers or just ordinary civilians. He himself took potshots at passing groups of men he assumed were the militants—any Chinese male wearing red, for example—“killing several.” This was followed by a night like June 13,with “terrific din” and cries of “Sha!” Death was in the air.7

As if to mock the theory that only a good rain was needed to send the Boxers back to their fields, it showered for the first time since the troubles began. Yet things not only did not get better, they got much, much worse.

The next day, June 19, the Zongli Yamen sent a letter to Edwin, copies of which were delivered to the other foreign ministers. In it, the Zongli Yamen ministers stated that as foreign troops were firing on Tianjin (news of which the diplomatic corps had no way of corroborating), all diplomatic relations were to be broken off and the foreign ministers would have to leave Beijing within twenty-four hours, adding that there would be “no further protection.” Each foreign minister received the same letter. But no one went to the Zongli Yamen. After meeting, the ministers (p.133) sent word that they could not safely leave their legations or Beijing, and asked for an audience in the Legation Quarter. They only received silence.

By morning of the twentieth, there was still no response from the Zongli Yamen. This enraged Ketteler, who, against the advice of everyone, ordered two chairs and with his interpreter, Cordes (who had been at the Zongli Yamen and returned safely the day before), and two mafu headed for the Foreign Office. Barely a block beyond the Legation Quarter, a Boxer or an imperial soldier—the story varies—stepped from the side of the street and shot Ketteler, either through the head or in the back. Although also shot, Cordes was able to escape; his brief last glance made it clear to him that the baron was dead.8

The news, when it reached them, electrified the people of the legations. Polly Condit Smith saw the soldiers and officers of the German legation march out to find the baron or recover his body, but the danger was too great and they returned. This is when the severity of the situation seemed to sink in. “When the story of Von Ketteler’s murder had been confirmed,” she recalled, “a shiver of horror shook each and every foreigner then in Peking; and we realized, perhaps for the first time, the horror of our position.”9

This horror was doubled for Ketteler’s young widow. An American who had married a handsome and titled European who was old enough to be her father, and probably served her as father figure as much as husband, Maud Ledyard von Ketteler had apparently already feared for her husband’s safety, since she seems to have induced him to take a revolver to the Zongli Yamen. But even under the circumstances, it would probably not have occurred to her to plead with him to stay home—what was there to be afraid of from these cowardly Chinese? Cordes had come back safely the previous day, as has been pointed out, and as has also been noted, Ketteler was probably more motivated to give the Zongli Yamen ministers a lesson in how to keep appointments than to accomplish anything serious. When Ketteler was hectoring on such matters, there was no stopping him.10

Now that Ketteler was dead, nobody wanted to be the one to tell Maud. Sarah volunteered or, as she put it, “it fell upon me to state to the wife of the German Minister what had happened. She is a young, sweet, (p.134) American woman. How my heart ached for her. I did so wish that I could blot the whole thing out of her life, instead of taking it into it.”The young baroness refused to believe the news she brought, and Sarah stayed with Maud some three hours, convincing her to come to grips with the truth. She probably would have remained longer, but Ketteler’s death had shaken all the foreign ministers to their foundations (as Sugiyama’ shad not). It was decided that as the British legation was the biggest compound and the easiest to defend, everyone should move into it that day. So on top of having broken the news of Ketteler’s death to his wife, Sarah had to persuade her to pack up and leave the German legation, which she finally did, with the help of Maud’s maid. Sarah’s task was to be shouldered by other women over the coming months as they helped Maud von Ketteler regain the will to live. (Polly Condit Smith even took credit, on one memorable occasion, for saving the suicidal Maud from enemy gunfire.)11

The British legation was comprised of some seven acres, with numerous buildings, including a chapel, scattered around a court (which served for tennis) at the southern end of the rectangular site. Because the British had staked their claim so early, they had the advantage of securing a much larger compound than any of the subsequent European or American powers. Originally the palace of a Duke of Liang, whowas descended from one of the many sons of the Kangxi emperor, the property was located at what could only be described as the center of official Beijing: to the northwest was the main gate of the Forbidden City, to the west the Imperial Carriage Park (a sort of Qing royal garage),beyond which were the Boards of War, Works, State Ceremonies, Astronomy, and Medicine, with the Boards of Revenue, Rites, and Civil and Imperial Clan Affairs the next block over. The British had restored the many pavilions of the Liang palace to make it habitable, constructing only a few buildings that were not in Chinese style and largely maintaining the integrity of the original buildings. They paid the imperial government a rent of five hundred pounds per year, delivered as silver ingots stacked in a cart and accompanied by a top hat-wearing emissary from the legation.12

With its broad entrance gate, “the British Legation is a large place, ”judged Cecile Payen, “with fine trees, a tennis-court in the center, and (p.135) with about ten houses about the court…It has two wells of good drinking water [and it] is easiest to fortify” with its fifteen foot walls. But as the Americans had felt that the United States legation had been overfilled with guests, despite its greater size and numerous buildings, the British legation was to replicate that crowded situation. The Americans—the families of Conger, Squiers, Bainbridge, and Coltman—along with single people like Cecile Payen, the Woodward’s, and Polly Condit Smith, plus their servants—were given the bungalow that had recently been the home of legation physician Dr. Wordsworth Poole. Its six rooms had been adequate for him but they were hardly so for this many people, who now brought with them not only their trunks and silver chests but many containers of tinned fruit and meat. These would come in very handy over the next several weeks but they still crowded the edges of the rooms, making them seem even smaller.13

Life in the bungalow began with challenges for the Americans. None of them had ever been acquainted with real want or such crowded conditions—and it was worse for the Squiers’ governesses, who according to Polly were given pallets to sleep on “in the ends of small halls.” The kitchen stove did not function properly, which meant that the families had to take their meals at different times, eating dishes which according to Polly were not often hot. The Coltmans, well-versed in Chinese ways, had their meals cooked in the courtyard, but the others coaxed Dr. Poole’s recalcitrant range. Polly would have us believe that she hardly had much appetite anyway, given where her room, which she shared with Harriet, was situated: it opened “directly on the filthy, dirty Chinese servants’ quarters,” sniffed Polly. A broken sewer made having to breathe “the servants’ air” even more difficult. She probably meant their outdoor toilet; before long the entire compound would smell of more than a Chinese latrine. All in all, it could have been much worse, as was recognized by Cecile Payen. “We Americans in this house are about as well off as anybody in this compound,” she noted. “We six ladies [Cecile, Sarah, Laura, Anna and Ione Woodward, and Mary Pierce] sleep on the floor (on mattresses which we roll up against the wall in the daytime), surrounded by trunks, boxes, canned fruit, etc. The other room we use as an eating- and living-room, and at night two mattresses are laid on the floor for Mr.Conger and Dr. [W. A. P.] Martin.”14

(p.136) “When I went to South America,” Sarah wrote her nephew, “and first realized that I was a ‘foreigner,’ it was a strange feeling that came over me—and now to be a ‘foreigner’ and a ‘refugee’—it is no joke. What next?” (emphasis in original).15

If this depressed any of them, all they had to do was contemplate the fate of the Chinese Christians. When the Methodist mission was threatened, and then word came that all who would seek protection should come to the British legation, Edwin was approached by one of the missionaries and asked what was to be done with the Chinese in their care. Though he had earlier expressed solidarity with Sir Claude MacDonald, “the most backward of any in taking measures against the Boxers,” in the view that “foreign soldiers could only protect foreigners,” for reasons we can only guess at he had changed his mind. Without hesitation, Edwin said, “Bring them. I do not know how they will be fed, but it is sure death to leave them behind. Bring them.”16

That same day (June 20), George Morrison and Dr. F. Huberty James, a British scholar fluent in Chinese, had made a “deal” with Prince Su, a conservative Manchu who owned a palace, known in Chinese as the Suwangfu, located across the Jade Canal from the British legation’s main entrance. Su, a relative of the imperial family, was probably not keen on dwelling in what he must have known was soon to become a battle zone. As the foreigners were not about to take no for an answer, he departed, “leaving all of his treasure and half his harem,” according to Polly, and the estate was turned over to the supremely competent Japanese military attaché, Colonel Shiba Gorō, a samurai’s son, whose cool head and brilliant tactics greatly assisted the defense not just of the British legation but of the Suwangfu, where the Chinese Christians were housed and became special targets. Always amused by such strange ironies, Polly Condit Smith wrote, “How queerly things happen! These poor wretches, who had been tortured and hounded to death only two hours before by Imperial troops, were now housed in the palace of a mighty prince, and almost within the shadow of the Empress-Dowager’s palace.”17

Unfortunately for Professor Huberty James, he extended his trust of the Chinese with whom he had lived for so many years to include those firing on the legation. “On the afternoon of that first day of the siege,” remembered Robert Coltman, who had known the professor since (p.137) 1885, “F. Huberty James, professor of English in the Imperial University, noticed several Chinese soldiers upon the bridge, a few hundred yards north of the legation gate.” Without telling anyone what he was doing, Huberty James was seen by the sentry at the gate of the British legation walking toward the soldiers. He made his way along the canal and to the bridge, when other soldiers, whom Coltman imagined were hidden in a wall of the Suwangfu, shot him—perhaps word of his protection of the Chinese Christians had made its way to the snipers hidden among the bullet-pocked masonry. “The sentry saw him hold up his hands, then heard a report and saw him fall. He was seen to partly raise himself, when several of the ruffian soldiers hurriedly ran out, picked him up, and carried him behind the corner of the wall and beyond the reach of rescue. His fate was probably a hasty death at their hands, if, indeed, he was not already mortally wounded.”18

Everyone hoped the troops were not far away, but with the deaths first of Ketteler and so soon after Huberty James at Chinese hands, the danger grew sharper and hopes thinner as each new claim of hearing Seymour’s guns or seeing his signal flares evaporated as mere hearsay.“There are rumors that the troops are getting near,” wrote Cecile Payen, “but we are getting tired of these false rumors.” To Sarah it was plain that only the arrival of Admiral Seymour—known now as “Admiral See-No-More”—could save them, because in tandem with the murders of Ketteler and Huberty James, she quickly saw that the harassment of noise, the occasional firing of guns, and arson attacks on the part of the Boxers, were hardening into a fully armed offensive—not just courtesy of the Gansu soldiers of General Dong, but also the soldiers of the imperial forces. Cixi’s declaration of war meant that whether they were firing alongside the Boxers they were supposed to be holding back, or had sent them out of the way, her troops were deploying the full complement of European armaments purchased from the same powers they were now attacking.19

“The Chinese placed a big gun near the Chi’enmen,” Sarah recalled, “and opened fire on our men. If the [Tartar City wall] were to be forsaken, the Chinese could come from the East and West and throw their shells right into the British Legation.” Everybody knew what that would mean.20

(p.138) According to the official report filed after the siege by Captain John T. Myers, the firing by the Chinese began at 6 p.m. on June 20, before the refugees had even settled into the British compound and before the Chinese Christians had been conducted into the Suwangfu. A barricade was erected across the wall, just over the Water Gate and behind the Temple of Three Officials at the back of the American legation. American and Russian marines held this crucial point of the wall, but not without difficulty. Cecile Payen wrote how everyone stayed inside their various buildings because “bullets are flying in all directions and whizzing by our windows,” some of them fired by what she was told were Boxers concealed in trees near the legation walls. The next day, on the bell tower located between the tennis court and the chapel, and to the east of the Americans’ bungalow, was placed one of the first bulletins of the siege, one of many that would be tacked to its painted pillars over the nextmonth and a half:

June 21st

10 a.m. Methodist mission burning.

Afternoon. Sixty Boxers killed. Late report that Chinese troops are firing on the Boxers who are attacking the Customs legation.

6 p.m. Austrians have not given up.

9 p.m. Yung-lu’s troops are firing on us, and Prince Ching’s men are fighting the Boxers.21

Again that internecine combat assumed to be occurring between the progressive Prince Qing and the conservative Ronglu at the court of Cixi—the reality of whose allegiances was probably far more complicated and fluid than the foreigners could possibly understand.

Barricades were being fashioned out of anything the men could find, and had to be built at night to avoid the worst of the gunfire: it was a struggle to get the Chinese, who were pressed into much of the hard labor, to risk their lives raising walls in daylight under increasingly accurate gunfire. By June 22, all women and children who were able to do so were working alongside the men in the legation’s defense. When not helping put out fires or tend to the wounded who were filling up the (p.139) makeshift hospital in the chancery, the American women joined their international sisters in sewing sandbags for the barricades. As with Dr. Poole’s uncooperative stove, there was sewing machine malfunction to contend with, and not enough machines to go around. But with what they had, the ladies worked miracles. “We have made several hundred [sandbags] in this room today,” Cecile wrote, “out of table-linen, sheeting, everything we can get hold of, including beautiful silks and satins.”22

Much of this table and bed linen came from the supplies Sarah had brought with her from America, as replacements for the linens in the American legation, while yards of it came from the stores of the British legation and from shops, Chinese and foreign, near the compound. The silks and satins were taken from abandoned Chinese buildings around the British legation; bolts of imperial silks given to the foreign ministers’ wives during their first audience with Cixi in late 1898 were added to the stockpile. The silk curtains of both Sarah and Lady MacDonald were also pulled down and put to use. One woman later wrote that from fears that this colorful mélange would attract enemy fire, the women tried dying the gorgeous fabrics with a stew of coal dust and water. They gave up the effort as impracticable, and Cecile Payen was pleased: she thought these bags, stacked up with those of sheeting, sackcloth, and coarser materials in the embrasures of windows, on porches, and along rooflines made a striking mosaic worthy of her paint-box, actually executing a pleinair watercolor of the scene (with protective marine guard standing by).Under some of the worst of the fire, Cecile would paint a view of Dr.Poole’s bungalow as a gift for Sarah’s fifty-seventh birthday in July.23

As for Sarah, who rejoiced in any proof that underneath their social class, education, experience, clothes, race, and language, men and women were brothers and sisters in the great human family, the constant work that started soon after the removal to the British compound inspired and consoled her: “We have worked diligently making thousands and thousands of sand bags,” she recorded in her diary. “The walls, housetops, windows, doorways, gateways and other places of danger have been fortified with these bags. All have done coolies’ work, with Coolies, or Barons, Sirs, Ministers, ladies or Priests. All have most willingly worked for a common cause,” even as in the barricades, silk did duty beside sackcloth. Yet as she would discover, just as some of the fancier silks (p.140) would not take the black dye, there were those working for the common cause who nevertheless drew the line at sisterhood.24

The fear many women felt was increased by the fact that they had their children with them; the possibility of a repeat of the 1857 Cawnpore massacre was terrifying. The Victorian method of raising offspring in a controlled cocoon would have ensured that the children were shielded from knowing the full danger of their circumstances, though from what Polly Condit Smith saw, most of them understood the situation all too well. Growing increasingly stir-crazy as they were made to stay indoors, the children were already echoing the siege in their games. Polly noted that “the younger ones are forced into being the attacking Chinese, and I am afraid when the big ones repulse them, they occasionally get very real bumps on their heads.”They even built little barricades (often using carved Chinese printing blocks), made their own sandbags, and fashioned cannon out of bamboo. Polly joined in the fun but with a heavy heart, hoping “that relief will come before they lose their spirit and before they know.”25

The dangers to the children in the Poole bungalow were far more real than any of the Americans wanted to imagine. Polly recalled a singular example of this on June 23. She was with Mrs. Coltman in the Coltmans’ room; the baby Mrs. Coltman had carried into the American legation earlier in the month was sleeping in “a funny, old-fashioned, high-backed crib,” Polly wrote. “Although the sound of exploding bullets was to be heard outside the house, we were much startled to feel one…enter the room, hit the headpiece of the baby’s crib, detaching itself from the main part, and bury itself in the opposite wall.” Had the bullet been a mere inch lower, it would have struck the infant’s head. Mrs. Coltman grabbed the child and with Polly ran to another part of the house. At that point they were joined by Sarah, who does not seem to have been in the room where the shot had entered. And here is where one of the enduring legends of Sarah Pike Conger begins—one that has clung to her through numerous accounts of the Boxer Uprising, and is accepted by many as the truth of who the woman was.26

(p.141) According to Polly, as she, Mrs. Coltman, and the wailing baby hurried to a safer place, Sarah, dismissively described by Polly as “an open follower of Mrs. Eddy,” advised the startled women “that it was ourselves, and not the times, which were troublous and out of tune, and insisted that while there was an appearance of warlike hostilities, it was really in our own brains.” Polly claims Sarah took this notion too far by stating unequivocally that a bullet had not actually pierced the room, that “our receptive minds…falsely [led] us to believe such to be the case.”27

W. A. P. Martin, while he felt a friendliness toward Sarah for her hospitality—“Had I been her brother I could not have been treated with more affectionate kindness,” he noted later of his stay in the Poole bungalow—even had a few comments to share on this subject in his account of the siege. Though she was “Calm, resolute, hopeful and, as Pope says, ‘Mistress of herself, though China fall,’ ” Sarah’s views that “all those events [were] as nothing more than a horrid nightmare” were hard for Martin to take seriously. “The round shot by which our walls were pierced,” he wrote, “was too tangible to be resolved into fanciful ideas.”28

The problem with this characterization of Sarah—as party to a cult so weird it moved its followers to deny the hard reality of a bullet—is that none of Sarah’s own diaries, those published and those not, bear proof that this is the way she thought or spoke. Nor do any of the extant letters she wrote to Mary Baker Eddy about the Boxer Uprising. All through the siege, Sarah’s writings are full of her detailed accounts of near misses by bullets and small gauge cannonballs, of her gathering and measuring the numbers of bullets to be melted down for the defense, and of her actually holding bullets still warm from being fired and showing them to Laura and the girls. Sarah also took note of the damage caused by bullets, as when, in July, a six-inch ball flew through the dining room of the British legation. “Fortunately, it passed near the ceiling,” Sarah noted, “so it did no damage aside from knocking off a corner of the frame of Queen Victoria’s portrait.”29

Sarah can be counted among several perceptive witnesses whore corded how the Chinese in fact seemed to habitually fire too high—compelling evidence that some kind of control was being exercised over the Boxers by the government, or over the troops who replaced them, on the foreigners’ behalf. “The Chinese have been remarkably (p.142) bad marksmen,” insisted Dr. Coltman. Instead of aiming they fired over the barricades willy-nilly, “having never ventured their lives in the least.” Given their access to German-made munitions and their superior advantage, had the Chinese intended to really smash down the walls of the British legation and massacre everyone inside, as many feared and others insisted was the plan, they could have done so within the first few days. But most of their bullets went astray. This constant fire over their heads even moved Sarah to write in her diary, with wry humor, that “the air is musical with these whistling missives. But I cannot say that I love the music”—not the comment of someone deluding herself as to the realities of the dangerous situation she was in.30

Sarah was attempting to calm the frightened women as best she could, using the only method she knew, the language and precepts of Christian Science. While perhaps appropriate for life’s more meditative moments, metaphysics was not designed to flatten stormy seas, not least because few people frightened for their lives are receptive to philosophical thinking. In the hallways of Dr. Poole’s bungalow, Sarah’s Christian Science mind-over-matter approach would have been distorted by Polly’s fear of the moment and what appears to be Polly’s bias toward the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy. Dr. Martin had his own bias—his religious background was of the old-fashioned hortatory sort, full of Biblical quotation but short on the what-ifs that made up Sarah’s approach to faith and life.

In any case, whatever Sarah said, it was uttered under stress and not likely to be as subtle as she intended; but it did not end there. Polly probably told Harriet Squiers, or perhaps Dr. Martin jokingly mentioned Sarah’s comment to someone, and the story took on a life of its own: Mrs. Conger denies the Chinese are really shooting us, she claims that the bullets are not real—it’s all in our heads! Of course she would come off as seeming slightly crazy. And the process by which she came to be seen in this light was curiously not unlike that which had, by the time Sarah saw her again in January 1902, and on a larger scale, eroded the credibility and dignity of the Empress Dowager Cixi.

(p.143) “Mr. Conger counts the night of the second and the morning of the third of July as the most anxious and trying period of his life,” Sarah wrote.31

The last part of June had been bad enough. In the week of June23–30, the residents of the legations had had fires to put out and gunfire to avoid, and sometimes both simultaneously, as when a blaze broke out in part of the Hanlin Library located on the other side of the north wall of the British legation. A repository for the Yongle Dadian, a massive encyclopedia of over eleven thousand volumes, ordered by the Yongle emperor and completed in 1408, the Hanlin Library was what one of those trapped in the legation called the Chinese equivalent of “Oxford and Cambridge, Heidelberg and the Sorbonne of the eighteen Chinese provinces rolled into one.” That the Boxers, or General Dong’s men, would set fire to this treasure-house just to achieve what, depending on the wind, was a questionable short-term goal of burning out the foreigners, was unthinkable to many of the cultured who were besieged in the legation. But that imperial troops did nothing to assist the foreigners in putting out the blaze by at least scattering the militants (who were shooting at the residents of the legations from behind a screen of smoke),or help them douse the flames, has begged the question of how the fire really got started. It was an early test for the women of the compound, many of whom may have never before hoisted a bucket in their lives, to find themselves in a pail chain stretching from the nearest well to the burning buildings, bullets whizzing overhead. The closest well was the “sweet” one just north of the Poole bungalow; the water they used was potable, which the residents of the legations could ill afford to toss away.32

The south wall, on the other side of Wall Street from the United States and German legations, continued to be a thorny patch. The attackers, who recognized this as a superb vantage point for breaking the legation’s defense, refused to give up the effort to take it. German and American marines tried to hold the wall, while increasingly larger shells were being lobbed directly into the British compound; the worst fusillades were saved for the middle of the night which, with the terrible wail of the conch shell horns the Chinese blew before and during attacks, made for a constant assault on the ears as well as on the body. When the coast was clear, bomb shelters of trenches covered with boards and sandbags were built in safer areas of the property, but there was not much (p.144) hope for anyone inside should a shelter take a direct hit. The wounded and the dead filled respectively the siege hospital and the little burial ground in a corner of the compound, and the need for sandbags began to be superseded by a dire shortage of sheets, pajamas, bandages, and other supplies. Cecile Payen recalled sitting with Sarah, Anna and Ione Woodward, Mary Pierce, and Laura as on any given day they turned out dozens of sheets, aprons, pajamas, devising bandages, and other materials useful to the doctors and nurses. Anna also nursed in the hospital, “where our wounded boys affectionately called her by the name ‘Mamma.’” The women had all given up their mosquito nets to the men, right at the time when the insects were adding stinging misery to the shot and shell of night. “At the hospital they call Mrs. Conger their fairy godmother, “Cecile wrote, “for whenever they need anything she finds the means to provide it.”This included risking frequent returns for more supplies to the war zone that had once been the American legation.33

On June 27, there was a heady rejoicing when the Americans on the wall surprised “a crowd of greenhorn Boxers,” as Robert Coltman described them, and mowed down several dozen with their Colt gun as the men scrambled at the base of the wall. But the triumph did not last. Snipers had found the ruined Chinese houses around the American legation perfect concealment for picking off American marines, so that nobody in their right mind risked crossing Legation Street. And in a sort of crazed climax to the month, in which the weather seemed to conspire to drive the residents of the legations out of their wits, on June 30 there was a crashing thunderstorm, during which “the Chinese started a terrific fusillade from all quarters,” recalled Coltman. “The hideous noise, with vivid flashes of lightning, produced an effect on the minds of all who witnessed it that they will probably never forget.”34

Chinese shelling at the south wall proved too heavy and at one point both the Americans and Germans had to abandon it. According to Deaconess Jessie Ransome, who was nursing at the hospital almost without sleep for days at a time, “some blunder” on the part of the Germans had led them to evacuate their position; and by agreement the Americans evacuated theirs as well. “As soon as the blunder was discovered,” she recalled, “the Yankees most pluckily retook their positions, and are holding it but at a fearful cost.” She added that the (p.145) Germans had yet to return to their own barricade, and the Americans’ position was little more than tenuous at best.35

Day after day, the attackers were raising their barricade, so that it overtopped the American one some forty yards away. The Americans would not be able to hold out if fired down upon. “This was an exceedingly dangerous position for us,” Sarah wrote. “It was too near and must be taken, or the wall abandoned.” Because this section was under the Americans’ jurisdiction, Edwin had to figure out how the Chinese barricade was to be seized. He conferred with the other ministers, then with Sir Claude, and discussed practical options with Captain Myers. The decision was then made to take sixty men—American, Russian, and British marines—to storm the attackers’ defenses. Sarah was well aware of the odds. Sixty men, she meditated in her diary, “to meet hundreds of Chinese.”36

On July 3 at three o’clock in the morning, Captain Myers gathered his men and gave them a do-or-die speech which both Coltman and Sarah recorded for posterity, but in widely different versions (neither was likely present). Where the two accounts sing in unison they agree on the vivid image Myers summoned to exhort his marines. “Remember there are three hundred women and children whose lives depend on our success tonight,” he said. “If we succeed, they live; if we fail, not only are our lives sacrificed, but their lives, too. Now go!” It was a reminder Edwin did not need; he wore his responsibility for the sortie and the men carrying it out very heavily indeed.37

Hugging the walls on either side of the open space atop the wall, which was wide enough, it was said, for four Chinese carriages to be driven abreast at top speed, at Myers’ signal the men whooped and swarmed over the startled Chinese, driving them as far back as their barricade near the ruined Qianmen Gate. Two men died, several were wounded, and Myers took a spear cut to the leg that laid him up in the hospital (where he contracted typhus and nearly died). But for the time being, the Chinese threat to this important section of the south wall was abated. As many recognized, this single action was the turning point in the siege, giving the residents of the legations the leverage—such as it was—that they needed.38

At least the successful sortie made for a less bleak Fourth of July than it might otherwise have been. According to Cecile Payen, there was no (p.146) celebration of the American holiday as “firecrackers will be rather tame to us after this.” And nobody had the energy or will to celebrate anything. She added that it was hard to overcome their disappointment “as we had based our hopes on [Seymour and his troops] getting here on this date.”Yet Edwin and Sarah wore small American flags on their lapels, and now that it was relatively safe to do so, they both went to the American legation to retrieve a silk flag, which they laid over the graves of the six American marines (located in the Russian legation compound) who had died thus far in the siege.39

“Many of the foreigners and all of the Diplomats called and congratulated us upon our Independence Day,” Sarah wrote rather sadly.“They are always very prompt about these things.” Spanish Minister de Cologan may have risked breaching the boundaries of tact when he wrote in the guest book, “At least today’s firing will remind you of your happy home,” but his intentions were sincere, while Dutch Minister Knobel shared the sober but inspiring thought that “Our virtue under these circumstances, is perseverance, our glory: patience.”40

But Sarah did not really want to be around people. She made her rounds at the hospital—she had offered to nurse but was told she was already “doing [her] duty in [her] present capacity,” which kept her busy enough. Finished there, she found some rare quiet place to sit with her Bible, a precious copy in which she had inscribed the date of her first meeting with Mary Baker Eddy. Like a Chinese shaking fortune sticks out of a jar, she opened the volume at a random spot, looking “for what lesson was there for me,” and turned to II Corinthians I. The eighth, ninth and tenth verses jumped out at her:

For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life:

But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead: Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us…

So struck was Sarah by the appositeness of the verses and the jolt of hope they seemed to offer that she went in search of Anna Woodward, sat her (p.147) down, and showed her the passage. “I read aloud to Mrs. W[ood ward],”she recorded. “We looked at each other and wept together.” Dr. Martin was similarly impressed. He copied the verses and tacked them to the bell tower, like a bulletin not from Sir Claude MacDonald but direct from the Almighty. 41

Edwin had his own epiphany that day. As Cecile, who recounts the anecdote, recalled, Edwin came to her with something he wanted her to see. While he and Sarah had been at the American legation to retrieve the flag for the marines’ graves, he had taken from his office wall his copy of the Declaration of Independence. Cecile looked at the framed document, “through which a bullet had passed, embedding itself in the wall back of the frame.” Not only had Edwin taken down the Declaration, “as one of the relics of the war,” but had similarly preserved the bullet, which he had dug out of the plaster.42

Not unlike Sarah’s happenstance discovery of the verses in her Bible, the part of the Declaration where the bullet had pierced the text was strangely apropos to the circumstances. When Mary Game well, wife of American engineer Frank Gamewell, saw it, she recalled that the bullet had struck “that portion wherein the revolutionary fathers had expressed themselves in somewhat disparaging terms concerning King George.”The “repeated injuries and usurpations” of which the English monarch was accused by the Founding Fathers were not far from those of which the Chinese had long accused the foreigner in the Middle Kingdom.43


(1.) Conger, Letters from China, 104–105

(2.) Ibid., 106The Making of a Special Relationship

(3.) Der Ling, Two Years in the Forbidden City, 175–176.

(4.) “Chinese Officials’ Reassuring Report,” New York Times, July 2, 1900.

(5.) “Prominent Chinamen Quarrel,” New York Times, July 30, 1900.

(6.) Conger, Letters from China, 106

(7.) Ibid

(8.) Hoe, Women at the Siege, 108–111.

(9.) Hooker, Behind the Scenes in Peking, 45–46.

(10.) Hoe, Women at the Siege, 107–108.

(11.) Diary of Sarah Pike Conger, Vol. 1, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1991–217.

(12.) Moser and Moser, Foreigners Within the Gate, 35.

(13.) Payen, “Besieged in Peking,” Century Magazine, 456

(14.) Ibid., 460

(15.) Diary of Sarah Pike Conger, Vol. 1, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1991–217.

(16.) Conger, Letters from China, 109; Ruoff (ed.), Death Throes of a Dynasty, 83.

(17.) Hooker, Behind the Scenes in Peking, 41.

(18.) Martin, The Siege in Peking, 81–82.

(19.) Payen, “Besieged in Peking,” Century Magazine, 457.

(20.) Conger, Letters from China, 110.

(21.) Captain Myers’ report, September 26, 1900, available at http://www.history.navy.mil/index.html; Payen, “Besieged in Peking,” Century Magazine, 457.

(22.) Payen, “Besieged in Peking,” Century Magazine, 457

(23.) Ibid., 461Women at the Siege

(24.) Diary of Sarah Pike Conger, Vol. 1, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1991–217.

(25.) Hooker, Behind the Scenes in Peking, 55–56

(27.) Ibid., 61–62

(28.) Martin, The Siege in Peking, 87–88. (p.291)

(29.) Diary of Sarah Pike Conger, Vol. 1, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1991–217; Conger, Letters from China, 122; Coltman, Beleaguered in Peking, 206.

(30.) Diary of Sarah Pike Conger, Vol. 1, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1991–217The Siege At Peking

(32.) Weale, Indiscreet Letters from Peking, 137; Payen, “Besieged in Peking,” Century Magazine, 457.

(33.) Martin, The Siege in Peking, 95; Payen, “Besieged in Peking,” Century Magazine, 459.

(34.) Coltman, Beleaguered in Peking, 94–95.

(35.) Ransome, The Story of the Siege Hospital in Peking.

(36.) Conger, Letters from China, 110–111

(38.) Coltman, Beleaguered in Peking, 96–97.

(39.) Payen, “Besieged in Peking,” Century Magazine, 459.

(40.) Diary of Sarah Pike Conger, Vol. 1, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1991–217; Guest Book from the American Legation, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,1991–220.

(41.) Conger, Letters from China, 115–116 and 143; Martin, The Siege in Peking, 118–119.

(42.) Payen, “Besieged in Peking,” Century Magazine, 459.

(43.) Preston, The Boxer Rebellion, 154.