There have been many stories of insanity in European royal families. Some even, unfairly or not, have gotten the sobriquet of “the Mad”. However, European royalty did not corner the market on insane family members. This example comes to us from the Korea’s Cho’son dynasty, which had ruled Korea since 1392.
Prince Sado was the crown prince, who was born February 13, 1735, as the second son of King Yeongjo with his favorite concubine. Sado was the second son of King Yeongjo and only surviving male heir as his older brother tragically died at age 9. There was great rejoicing at the birth of a healthy son. However, Sado’s life wasn’t all rainbows and roses. His father was reported to have a terrible temper, and as such Sado was terrified of him from a very young age. The young boy was reported to be quite timid around his father, which of course made Yeongjo more angry with his son. As with many abusive relationships, Sado idolized his father but never seemed to gain Yeongjo’s approval. Yeongjo was hypercritical of any mistake Sado made and never showed any pleasure when Sado succeeded. His relationship with his mother was not much better. To stay on Yeongjo’s good side, she was mostly concerned with following the king’s rules on raising the crown prince to the letter and let any loving motherly relationship go to the wayside. As with his father, Sado loved and revered his mother, but their relationship was also not very nurturing.
As crown prince, Sado was married very young to Lady Hyegyong, the daughter of a poor scholar but with an impressive lineage and grasp of knowledge. The bride and groom were both around eight years old. Hyegyong eventually wrote her memoirs discussing her life at the royal court and with Sado. She reports she was quite anxious about being selected as the wife for the crown prince “as if there was a premonition of the myriad trials and tribulations [she] would go through in the palace”. Since the bridal couple were so young, their relationship was that of childhood playmates at first. They lived in separate houses, and although the ladies of the court were very kind Hyegyong was still an eight year old child thrown into a drastically different situation. She was completely overwhelmed. So although, the two children seemed to get along fairly well, she could provide no real support for Sado. However, Hyegyong’s father was able to step in and provide the fatherly care for young Sado that he was sorely lacking.
A year and a half after the marriage in 1746, Sado became seriously ill. When he recovered, he and Hyegyong were moved to a new home. The palace was near his mother ostensibly so she could help care for him. This illness seems to be a turning point for Sado. No one is quite sure what he was sick with, but during his illness and after his recovery Sado’s behavior became erratic. There are not many details on this, however, reports do say that despite this Sado became serious about his studies and athletic pursuits. However, relations did not improve with his father, and a short time after his recovery, Sado and Hyegyong were moved away from court so that Yeongjo did not have to deal with him. Sado became even more isolated from his family because of this.
After Sado had his coming of age ceremony at 14, he and Hyegyong began to live as a more traditional man and wife. Soon after, they had a child, who sadly only lived to age 2. The couple deeply grieved their lost child as could be expected. However, a new son was born a year later in 1752. Things seemed to be looking up for the young couple. Then Sado’s odd behavior took a turn for the worse. Historians speculate that an attack of the measles exacerbated his already agitated state and Sato began having hallucinations and nightmares. He believed he could see the god of thunder, and had an irrational fear of the sky. Sado was convinced he would be blamed by his father for any thunderstorm that hit the country. He was obsessed with Taiost magic, in particular the book known as the Jade Spine Scriptures. He would take hours to dress and choose clothes. Entire outfits were burned as a spirit offering. His clothes became associated with the weather, and would please or displease the sky gods on criteria only he could understand. Despite this Yeongjo began sending Sado in his place for more and more official duties, especially the ones Yeongjo did not want to do. This included supervising the torture of imperial prisoners, which did not improve Sado’s mental state.
Now court politics take a hand. Both Sado and Yeongjo were having affairs with court ladies. Thankfully, different ones. However, this did affect their already poor relationship as Sado had two sons with his concubines and Yeongjo had two daughters. Yeongjo was extremely jealous of the two sons. To make matters worse, the brother of one of Yeongjo’s concubines was giving Yeongjo daily reports of Sado’s strange behavior, embellished or not. This all came to ahead when Sado came to the queen’s deathbed and was greeted by his father. Yeongjo berated and screamed at Sado until Sado escaped out a window and ran home. Around this time, Sado developed a pronounced stammer, which did nothing but enrage his father more who was convinced he was drunk. At one memorable encounter, Yeongjo was berating Sado, who in turn began chasing and beating the servants. At this time, the palace was set on fire and a heavily pregnant Hyegyong barely escaped with her life and their young son.
From this moment on Sado’s behavior was violent and erratic. He dealt with most problems or upset by taking it out on his servants with violence. When his mother died, he beat several eunuchs to deal with his grief. He killed another eunuch by beheading, then had the corpse’s head put on a stick, which he carried around with him. Hyegyong reports in her memoirs as that being the first severed head she ever saw. He was reported to be a serial rapist, and would force himself on any woman, maid or court lady, that did not immediately acquiesce to his demands. Hyegyong also reports that he would leave the palace and walk among the people, but no one is sure what he did if anything. Hyegyong also reports she almost lost an eye after Sado hit her with in the head with a chess board. She was lucky as one of Sado’s concubines was beaten to death. If there was any sort of stressful event or tragedy, it was expected that Sado would deal by killing a string of servants. Hyegyong reports Sado as saying, “It relieves my pent up anger to kill people or animals when I’m depressed or on edge.” Whoa.
It has been recorded that Yeongjo asked Sado why he was committing the crimes he had, to which Sado replied along the lines of, “Because I’m in pain! You are my father but do not love me.” He also began drinking heavily, which was a serious breach of Korean society. By 1762, everyone in the palace- family or servant- was in danger. The body totals are unknown, but reports are that multiple bodies had to be carried away from the palace he was in every day. Sado didn’t even seem know he was killing people as he was in a semi-lucid state most of the time. Sado turned his dangerous attentions to his younger sister, and repeatedly tried to seduce then rape her. Something had to be done.
On July 4, 1762, Sado was summoned before Yeongjo. The crown prince was stripped of his title and was ordered to get into a rice box, which was a large heavy wooden chest. The lid was shut, and Sado was left to swelter in the searing July heat. Sado lasted for eight days in the chest, with no food or water and died screaming for mercy. His servants and attendants were also put to death. Hyegyong makes note of a terrible thunderstorm on the eight day as a coincidece with his obsession with the thunder god. Unbelievably, his death was idea of his mother. She is quoted in Hyegyong’s memoirs as saying to Yeongjo, “Since the prince’s illness has become quite critical and his case is hopeless, it is only proper you should protect yourself and the royal grandson in order to keep the kingdom at peace. I request you eliminate the prince even though such a suggestion is outrageous and a sin against humanity. It would be terrible for a father to do this in view of the bond of affection between father and son, but it is his illness which is to be blamed for this disaster and not the prince himself. Though you eliminate him, please exert your benevolence to save the royal grandson and allow him and his mother to live in peace.” Pretty harsh sentence from your mom. This was a controversial action at the court, as at the time Sado’s execution would mean the execution of the whole family. Because Sado was killed in the manner he was, it was considered a loophole to this rule. The king didn’t kill him, Sado died of starvation. Great.
Hyegyong did not commit suicide as was usual at that time for the wife of an executed man. Instead, she stayed alive to raise her son and daughters with Sado. It has been theorized that she was either staying alive to indicate her husband’s innocence or to protest the handling of the matter by the king. In the 19th century, there was speculation that Sado’s illness was a fabrication to cover his murder. Hyegyong wrote her memoirs in response to that speculation to settle the matter once and for all. Despite all of the terrible behaviors, Hyegyong treats Sado with a lot of sympathy as she realizes he was mentally ill. Sado and Hyegyong’s son, Jeongjo, was posthumously adopted by Sato’s long dead older brother. Despite all this, Jeongjo became one of the greatest kings of Korea. One of his first acts was to rebury his father in a grave fit for a king. His grave is now a UNESCO world history site in 1997.
Sources available on request