This entire year of posts exploring the experiences and achievements of Salem women on #SalemSuffrageSaturdays has not featured a single immigrant: a big slight given the important role of immigration in our nation’s, and city’s history. It certainly wasn’t deliberate: I’ve been working with the sources available to me and so far no émigré has emerged from them. But today, finally, I am spotlighting an amazing woman of Irish origin and, at the same time, opening up a window into turn-of-the century race relations: what one life, or even one episode in one life, can tell us! Mrs. Harriet Maxwell was born in Ireland in 1849 and lived in England for a decade or so following her marriage to James R. Maxwell, a sergeant in the Scots Fusilier Guards. After her husband’s death in service she emigrated to the United States in 1879, and to Salem: I’m not sure what the precise draw was. In 1886 she graduated from the Salem Hospital’s training school for nurses, and she worked in private service and at the hospital until the spring of 1898, when the call went out for nurses for the quarantine camps established during and after the Spanish-American War, the first war in which the U.S. Army relied on contract nurses in addition to those from the Red Cross and religious orders. Mrs. Maxwell immediately resigned her position at Salem Hospital and signed up: she was sent to the “city of tents” at Montauk, Long Island: Camp Wickoff, where over 21,000 soldiers were sent for quarantine to lessen the spread of yellow fever and malaria in the wake of the war.
Scenes from Camp Wikoff, Long Island, August and September 1898: the arrival of the 24th infantry, the “city of tents”, men of the 71st infantry regiment,Teddy Roosevelt in camp, camp “street” and nurses, Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard Libraries and Library of Congress.
Far more soldiers died from disease, principally yellow fever, malaria, and typhoid, than combat during and after the Spanish American War, including Salem’s own William Huntingdon Sanders. The American military seemed unprepared for the biological threat, both during and after the war. Camp Wikoff, named for the first American casualty of the war, was hastily constructed and insufficiently prepared or “manned”, in terms of medical staff, for the onslaught of troops which began arriving in August of 1898, including Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Following a succession of deaths (there would be 340 in all), and the outbreak of fever in the camp and surrounding community, Wikoff became the focus of sharp criticism in the national newspapers: the finger was pointed at Secretary of War Russell Alger in particular, and by extension, President William McKinley, who visited the camp in September. Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s son and father of John, a soldier in the 71st Infantry whom he and his wife found emaciated when they visited the camp, expressed an opinion that seems to have been shared by many in the early fall of 1898:
From the great portfolio of contemporary Camp Wikoff texts and images by Jeff Heatley at Art and Architecture Quarterly.
So this is the situation Harriet Maxwell of Salem found herself in when she arrived at Camp Wikoff in August. She was not assigned to nurse the famous Rough Riders but rather one of the “colored” regiments in residence in the camp, in segregated quarters of course: the 10th U.S. Cavalry which had fought right alongside Roosevelt’s troops at the Battle of San Juan Hill. Many of its members were fevered when they arrived at Wikoff, and Mrs. Maxwell nursed them continually, forming the close relationships that were captured in an article first published in the Boston Globe and then in regional newspapers: the story of how she became a “mother” to these troops, a lasting designation that also ended up in her 1931 obituary in the Globe:
The Boston Globe, 4 December 1898; the 10th U.S. Cavalry at Camp Wikoff, US National Archives.
It’s an endearing story, if a bit “matriarchal” and all too illustrative of the perceived boundaries of the time. Mrs. Maxwell’s time at Wikoff was brief but impactful, as everyone’s seems to have been. She went off to another fever hotspot, Ft. Monroe in Virginian, and then back to Salem, where she continued her practice and became a highly-respected member of the U.S. Spanish-American Veterans group and the namesake of its auxiliary. Mrs. Maxwell died in September of 1931, and her obituary (September 22 Boston Globe) notes that her two grandfathers were at the Battle of Waterloo. Two uncles were fatally wounded at the Crimean War. Again, what a life-span.
November 14th, 2020 at 4:38 pm
Thank for this wonderful bit of history.
November 14th, 2020 at 7:52 pm
What a great story. Interestingly Harriet was born in 1849, at the height of the Potato Famine. Regardless of how the Irish may have felt about the the ascendancy in those days, many young men like her husband James Maxwell, did join the British military such as the Scots Fusilier Guards. Recruitment was one of the few employment opportunities open to them at the time.
Another cruel reality in her story is the extent of contagious tropical diseases suffered by our troops during the Spanish American War. Wow, what a powerful letter by Julian Hawthorne. And, of course, you always find the most appropriate pics and sources to support such a touching story. Thank you!
November 15th, 2020 at 7:16 am
I know, Helen—it dawned on me that she was born into a world of few opportunities.