Sister Chrysostom Moynahan: AEF chief nurse buried with military honors.

On Veterans Day, it’s good to remember that veterans come from many different backgrounds. Such a veteran is Sister Chrysostom Moynahan (1863–1941), a member of the Daughters of Charity religious order that has a long history of caring for the sick and vulnerable. Its record includes distinguished service during the Civil War by American Daughters of Charity and during World War I by some 15,000 French Daughters of Charity and the only U.S. nuns to work in the European theater.

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The Daughters of Charity nurses of Base Hospital No. 102. Sister Chrysostom Moynahan is in the front row, center. El Paso Herald 24 Aug. 1918

Born in Ireland as Hannah Moynahan, Sister Chrysostom immigrated to the United States with her parents in 1879, and they resided in Massachusetts. According to the History of American Red Cross Nursing, Sister Chrysostom, after graduating from the seminary of the Daughters of Charity in 1889, was sent to Carney Hospital in Boston. Sister Chrysostom then entered the Daughters of Charity’s school for nurses, graduating in 1894. During the Spanish American War, she cared for the Spanish who were injured after the Maria Theresa attempted to run a U.S. blockade and was fired upon. She had subsequent assignments at Fort Thomas (KY), in Evansville (IN), and in Birmingham (AL). In Birmingham, she served as administrator of St. Vincent’s Hospital and founded the hospital’s school of nursing—the first nursing school in Alabama. In 1916, Sister Chrysostom became the first registered nurse licensed in Alabama. In 1918, she was appointed chief nurse of Base Hospital 102 (aka the “Loyola Unit” or the “New Orleans Unit” because the personnel mainly was from Loyola University in New Orleans) and set off for Italy on the Umbria from Baltimore in August. Along the way, the Umbria rescued survivors of the torpedoed oil tanker Jennings, who received medical attention from the hospital staff. Said Sister Chrysostom in the El Paso Herald prior to their departure:

We are all registered nurses and are anxious to go across and get to work. . . .We will have charge of the operating rooms and hope to do our full duty to bring the American boys back to health and happiness. . . .The sisterhood feels keenly the desire to be of the utmost service in caring for the soldiers of Italy or any of the other Allies of America. War makes its demand upon the woman power of America as well as upon the man power, and all who can do so, no matter what the sacrifice, should serve the interest of America’s part in the war.

The Herald account noted that the nuns were unaccustomed to having their photograph taken and only consented so “they might serve as an example for others to follow.” The Daughters of Charity nurses were permitted to wear the garb of their order but also wore a device and a cap while on duty to indicate that they were members of the Army Nurse Corps (see The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War 297). From September 1918 to the end of March 1919, Base Hospital No. 102 in Vicenza cared for a total of 3,000 patients, which included nearly 400 Americans. Twenty-eight deaths occurred. The Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives blog notes that the hospital was located 15 miles from the Italian front, and its cases included burns from mustard gas, pneumonia, malaria, and influenza. Sister Florence Grace Means, one of Sister Chrysostom’s colleagues, provided some harrowing glimpses into their environment in her diary, describing stoves that “blow up at regular intervals” and 2000 lying wounded and dying at a field hospital that had only 10 nurses in attendance. A 21 June 1919 Literary Digest account of the unit’s work at the front provided equally sobering details on air raids, lack of heat, and patient conditions, and stated:

The entire detachment, including the nurses and officers, was also mentioned in the order of the day issued to the Sixth Army on December 12, and awarded the Italian service ribbon with the Monte Grappa medal commemorating that memorable campaign… (76)

Sister Chrysostom returned to the United States in April 1919, going on to administer hospitals in St. Louis, St. Joe (MO), and Mobile. When she died in 1941, she was accorded a funeral with full military honors and was buried in Mobile’s Catholic Cemetery. Sister Chrysostom was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in October 1982.

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Illustration from a 21 Apr. 1919 South Bend News Times article, including staff of Base Hospital 102 returning on the British liner Canopic and Sister Chrysostom

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Elizabeth Claghorn Potter: Refugee and canteen worker, Intelligence Service secretary.

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Elizabeth Claghorn Potter, from her 1918 passport application

From April 1917 to March 1919, Elizabeth Claghorn Potter (1894–1985) worked as a staffer in Paris for Duryea War Relief, which assisted refugees; as secretary to Lieutenant Colonel Cabot Ward, chief of the U.S. Intelligence Service; and as a Red Cross canteen worker in St. Pierre-des-Corps. The daughter of Harvard librarian Alfred Claghorn Potter and cousin of author Conrad Aiken, Potter graduated from the Winsor School in Boston.

The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School 1914–1919 reprints part of a letter on her canteening experiences. In one moving passage she writes:

I have been called out to an American hospital train to sign for the effects of a boy of nineteen who died from gassing while I was in the interpreter’s office calling for an ambulance for him, and seen the pitiful blanketed figure put out on the platform in the warm sunlight . . . . Instead of retiring to cry, one dashes back to the canteen, puts on another record, pours more coffee, swallows one’s tears, smiles the eternal canteen smile, and hands out the snappy back talk over the counter. (77)

In May 1921, Potter married Stedman Buttrick Hoar (1893–1961), a Harvard graduate and World War I veteran who turned to canning grapefruit and orange juices in California.

Aftermath: Health of U.S. Women in WWI.

“Super-sensitive people should not come here.”

—Margaret Hall, on the suicides of her colleagues Dorothea and Gladys Cornwell after their service in France (see Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country)

Although there has been recent coverage about the health care needs of U.S. female service members, it is not a new matter. In 1923, the American Legion called attention to disabled American women who had served in World War I. In 1931, Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R–MA), the first congresswoman elected from New England who had served in France and at Walter Reed, asked President Hoover to open homes and hospitals specifically for female veterans.

Accounts of U.S. women who served in the war and had their lives cut short tend to be deeply sad, not least because often little of their story is known. The following are some examples.

  • Yeoman (F) Genevieve Cox Petrone was murdered by her husband on the Southern Pacific ferry Santa Clara in October 1917. The husband’s suicide note included in the newspaper account suggests that Petrone intended to leave him after a history of marital discord. Another newspaper article stated that they were separated.
  • Canteen workers Dorothea and Gladys Cornwell jumped from the ship taking them to the United States in January 1919 after suffering under bombardment in France (discussed in my book In Their Own Words).
  • Azeele Packwood, a member of the New York chapter of the Women’s Motor Corps (affiliated with the Red Cross), was found dead from chloroform asphyxiation at the Palisades in January 1919. According to newspaper accounts, she was despondent after the October 1918 death in France of her close friend (and rumored boyfriend) Dr. Clarence Fahnestock, son of millionaire banker Harris C. Fahnestock. Packwood, the daughter of businessman and Civil War/Spanish-American War veteran George H. Packwood of Tampa, was not mentioned in Fahnestock’s will. Her nephew, Ernest Packwood MacBryde, asserted that she was murdered. Azeele Street in Tampa is named after her. (The New-York Tribune has side-by-side accounts of the Packwood and Cornwell deaths).
  • Former Yeoman (F) Grace Coombs, 28, committed suicide in her lodgings in Washington, DC, in April 1919. Relatives attributed it to ill health. Her brother, Guy Coombs, was an actor in silent films.
  • Yeoman (F) Flossie May Rosell, who graduated in 1917 from Colorado State Normal School (the precursor to University of Northern Colorado) and enlisted in the Navy in September 1918, drowned at Great Falls, VA, in September 1920. Her body was discovered in Maryland.  The coroner deemed it an accident (without hearing testimony from witnesses who had details about Rosell’s despondency due to erratic employment, which probably influenced the earlier accounts listing the death as suicide).
  • Dr. Caroline Purnell’s 1923 obituary attributes her death to overwork during the war. Purnell received the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française and honorary French citizenship for her service with the American Women’s Hospitals.
  • The 1925 death of war composer and former senior chief yeoman (F) Daisy May Erd is attributed in her death certificate to the tuberculosis she contracted during her military service.
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Members of the New York chapter of the Women’s Motor Corps, September 1918. Azeele Packwood is in the middle row, far right. National Archives.

Marion Gregory, translator/entertainer; Alice Gregory, surgeon.

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Marion Gregory, from her 1917 passport application

During World War I, Fannie Marion Gregory (1874–1923) served as a YMCA entertainer/canteen worker and a translator with the American Women’s Oversea Hospitals (sponsored by the National American Woman’s Suffrage Assn) that counted her sister, Dr. Alice Gregory (1876–1953), as a key staffer before Alice resigned to serve in the French Army medical corps. The Gregory sisters had a few notables in their family tree: their paternal grandfather was Dudley S. Gregory, the first mayor of Jersey City, NJ, and a NJ congressman; and their maternal grandfather was J. Marion Sims, dubbed the “father of modern gynecology” and recently the subject of statue controversy.

Marion recounted her experiences in Memories of Service in France (1918). She left the United States on the Espagne on 3 Nov. 1917 and remained in France for seven months. She stayed at first with her widowed aunt, Eliza Sims Pratt, who had a house in Paris. She wrote:

One had to try to get used to seeing maimed men everywhere. At first it was heartrending for the newcomer, but it was beautiful to see the care and devotion shown the returned mutiles by everyone. (9)

She had firsthand experience with the large German gun called Big Bertha and air raids:

The night raids were horrible. No words can convey the sickening sensation of hearing the explosion of a bomb. The firing of the defense is nerve-racking, but when the horrible bomb comes one’s heart is cold at the thought of what it means. (11)

Marion next went to Labouheyre—a village near Bordeaux—with American Women’s Oversea Hospitals staff to care for civilians and provide medical assistance to nearby US Army engineers. She worked with refugee families before she moved to YMCA service as a singer and canteen worker (noting that she was unable to cope with the climate of the hospital’s locale).

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Dr. Alice Gregory in WWI uniform. National Archives

Her sister Alice graduated from Cornell Medical College in 1902 and was on staff at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, along with fellow Cornell Medical College alums Caroline Sandford Finley and Anna von Sholly. Her WWI service began in early 1915, when she was part of the medical team for approximately five months at a French military hospital headed by Dr. Percy Turnure and located in Chateau de Passy, about 60 miles southeast of Paris. In 1917, Alice set off for France with the American Women’s Oversea Hospitals staff (including Finley and von Sholly). Her matter-of-fact, often wry account “Work at a French Army Dressing Station” (Women’s Medical Journal, Jan. 1920) describes day-to-day life close to the front as a first lieutenant in the French Army medical corps. Stated Alice, “we averaged 1000 wounded every 24 hours” (3). Her 21 Apr. 1953 obituary in the New York Times noted that at this station, “it was not unusual for her to perform forty-two operations in eight hours,” and her account indicates that these procedures were not minor—”infected compound fractures, chest wounds, cranial injuries, and amputations galore” (1). Alice received the Croix de Guerre for her service.

Marion and Alice are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

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Dr. Alice Gregory, left, fences. From Around the World with a Camera (1917)

Marian Baldwin, canteen worker.

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Marian Baldwin,  from her 1917 passport application

“…[T]heir souls shine through their eyes.”
—WWI canteen worker Marian Baldwin on U.S. servicemen she encountered in France (Canteening Overseas 78)

Daughter of Elbert Francis Baldwin (1857–1927), editor of the Outlook (read William H. Rowe Jr.’s ode to Baldwin), and resident of Lakewood, NJ, Marian Baldwin (1895–1972) sailed for France in June 1917 on La Touraine, headed for canteen service in Paris with Anne Morgan’s American Fund for French Wounded. In Canteening Overseas, 1917–1919, she refers to “Frank Sayre” on the ship with her; this may be Francis Bowes Sayre, son-in-law of President Wilson, who was en route to France to serve with the YMCA.

Once in Paris, she helped out at a new YMCA canteen operated by Adele Verley of Providence, RI,  and Eleanor Butler Roosevelt, wife of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. A graduate of Miss Porter’s School, Baldwin could speak French and German (although she was not very confident in her French-speaking ability and described herself as “a lady with moods … who has been spoiled all her life” [88]). She provided reactions from the crew of the Alcedo, who previously had rescued the men of the Finland and the Antilles before a German U-boat torpedoed their ship.

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Elizabeth Burt: Reporter, Editor, Yeoman (F).

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Elizabeth I. Burt

In September 1918, Editor & Publisher noted that Elizabeth Ingalls Burt (1889–1973), who had been a Boston Sunday Post reporter, had enlisted as a yeoman (F) and was editing The Salvo, the employee newspaper of the Boston Navy Yard. It stated that Burt was the first female newspaper reporter from Boston to serve in the Navy.

Born in Boston, Burt enlisted in May 1918. During her term as editor, many of The Salvo’s pieces ran without bylines, thus complicating the question of who wrote what. But Burt definitely wrote this July 1918 article.

An earlier Editor & Publisher article outlined Burt’s tactics in obtaining stories, including “play[ing] the part of shop girl, chorus ‘lady,’ waitress, etc.”

It appears that, after the war, Burt was involved in public relations and became manager of the Handel and Hayden Society in Boston.

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Elizabeth Cabot Putnam, secretary for the AEF’s U.S. Air Service and Red Cross worker.

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Elizabeth Cabot Putnam, from her 1917 passport application

Boston-born Elizabeth Cabot Putnam (1888–1984), daughter of Harvard neurologist James Jackson Putnam, graduated from Radcliffe College in 1910 and left for Paris in May 1917.

Her wartime letters to her family, collected in On Duty and Off (1919), discuss her service with the American Ambulance Hospital in Paris (which cared for French soldiers), the AEF’s U.S. Air Service (the precursor to the Air Force), and the Red Cross. For the hospital, she largely worked on patients’ medical histories and leisure activities, and even assisted one patient in obtaining an artificial leg (an expensive proposition at the time). In September 1917, she moved to the Air Service’s production division (responsible, according to Putnam, for “the choosing and training of flyers as well as the decision on types of machines and equipment” [81]). She first was assigned to “Major G” (hints by Putnam point to Edgar S. Gorrell), whom she stated “swears a good deal in a casual, genial way” (83). She clearly enjoyed her job—”I feel every morning when I set forth as if I personally were going to lick the Germans,” she wrote (88)—and characterized it as “more E. Phillips Oppenheim-y every hour” (84, meaning spy-like). There were difficulties with the switchboard (“It is awfully hard to hear, especially names” [82]) and filing (“There are millions of papers that may be urgently needed at a moment’s notice and may be demanded under a million different guises. It is really a job” [100].) Putnam mentioned unannounced inspections by a strict General Pershing—”who left death and destruction in our unmilitary milieu” (102–03). Her sense of humor extended to air raids:

I am getting awfully tired of these air raids! . . . . We sat in our “salon” for an hour and made cocoa and then when two bombs were dropped that really sounded as if they were in our street (they weren’t), we went down to the cave where many of the others were. They say, however, that the second floor, where we are, is the very best place for a bomb striking the top of the house does not usually get as low as that, and a bomb going off in the court or street doesn’t go as high. . . . It certainly gives you a queer feeling to sit conversing in front of the fire awaiting your own special bomb. (146–47)

In June 1918, she helped care for wounded Marines at a hospital in Neuilly after the Chateau Thierry campaign and made some grim observations:

Saturday night turned into Sunday morning with the stream absolutely steady—three or four operations all the time. When at about half-past three in the morning someone drew the curtain and opened the window on a marvellous deep violet-blue sky with the trees coal black against it and a fresh breeze, it was more than one could bear with equanimity—so heavenly outside and so horrible inside—all the blood and the hacked-up flesh, and the thought of how each one is going to suffer when he gets out of ether. (184)

Putnam then was assigned to Base Hospital 24 (aka the Tulane Unit) in Limoges. She became a Red Cross searcher, which involved searching for missing servicemen, interviewing the missing’s fellow soldiers, and writing to families with missing loved ones. She wrote enthusiastically, “The ‘searching’ is quite exciting. The first day I came upon a murder and a desertion!” (188).  She also visited with the wounded and facilitated refugee matters.

She sailed for home in September 1918 and returned to the Air Service in late 1918. In 1922, she worked as a secretary to the dean of Harvard Medical School. She married physician Monroe Anderson McIver in 1923; they later had two children, Elizabeth and Marian, and lived in the Cooperstown, NY, area.

Women on the U.S. entry into World War I.

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Today marks the centenary of the U.S. entry into World War I.  Here are a few American women’s reactions at the time about this development.

On a visit to England in 1915, Ohio-born actress Elsie Janis had sung for British wounded. She wrote in The Big Show (xi), “I was never really happy again until April 7, 1917, when America stepped in to take her share of the burden and glory of the world.” She headed off to France in 1918 to entertain the AEF for six months.

Wrote Boston native Amy Owen Bradley, an American Fund for French Wounded motor driver, from Quimper, France, on 8 April 1917:

Above the “Mairie” opposite, a huge French flag flung out. Under it were the flags of all the Allies, and in the middle, taller than all the others, our own beloved stars and stripes, floating in the breeze. . . .[We] asked for the Mayor’s secretary . . . we, as Americans, thanked him, for America, for putting our flag with the others, where for so long we had wanted it to be. (Back of the Front in France 26)

New Jersey-born refugee worker Esther Sayles Root wrote similarly from Paris on the same day:

The long-waited-for news of our actually going to war had rejoiced us all yesterday, but it was more thrilling than we ever could have imagined to drive past the big French Administration Buildings and see the Stars and Stripes waving with the other Allies’ flags in the Easter sunshine! To be one of the Allies at last! To have our flag and the French flag flying side by side as they should be, to have our great country wake up and fight its own fight—it is not only Easter but Thanksgiving to-day. (Over Periscope Pond 131)

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Elsie Janis. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div

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Amy Owen Bradley, from her 1916 passport application

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Esther Sayles Root, from her 1924 passport application

Foxwell library event, March 26.

WWIcvrIn honor of Women’s History Month and the April 6 centenary of the US entry into World War I, I’ll be speaking at 2 pm on March 26 at Jarrettsville Library (Jarrettsville, MD) about my anthology In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I. I’m looking forward to it, as I’m told one of the library’s book groups includes female veterans.