One of my favorite pastimes over the years has been wandering the stacks (hundreds of shelves on two floors) at the UVM library. My searches have ranged from science and engineering to art, literature and books about writing. And of course, WWI. I happened to be in the memoir/biography section recently when I noticed a biography about a young woman in WWI. When I read who it was about, Nancy Johnson (my maiden name), I knew immediately I would read it.
The book is called Deliver Us From Evil: A Southern Belle in Europe at the Outbreak of World War I, by Mary W. Schaller. It’s about Mary’s Grandmother, and she uses her grandmother’s own letters and stories. Unless you’re keen on WWI or your name is Nancy Johnson though, I probably wouldn’t recommend it. Yet, there were some interesting tidbits I learned from reading the book. This time period (late 19th/early 20th century) in U.S. history is often called the Gilded Age. There was a huge amount of wealth being made, but it was concentrated primarily in the upper classes. The author writes that 90% of the wealth in the U.S. was held by 10% of the population. Sound familiar? I think it’s even worse today.
Traveling to Europe had been for a long time, a favorite pastime of well-to-do Americans, and even the not so well-to-do. It still is. In the summer of 1914, there were 120,000 thousand American’s vacationing in Italy, France, Switzerland and elsewhere on the continent. Nancy Johnson, the daughter of a rich southern Congressman, was one of them, traveling with a friend under the protection of U.S. State Department personnel. It seems that Nancy was a bit of spoiled rich kid, but she had her good points too, independence and intelligence.
Anyways, when the Archduke was killed on June 28, 1914, most of the Americans didn’t pay any attention and went on their merry way. It wasn’t until various nations declared war (end of July and August 1914) that everything became chaotic in Europe. Trains, horses, and ships were commandeered for the war effort. Banks closed and wouldn’t cash American checks. Then borders closed. Tens of thousands of Americans were stranded without a dime. Most of these were privileged rich Americans too. The U.S. government had to send cash to help out the stranded Americans because the European banks would take nothing else. The U.S. commissioned a ship, a captain, and crew, and added some U.S. marines for good measure and on August 5, the ship left New York City with $2.5 million in gold bullion in its hold. All going to help the Americans stranded in Europe. Wow!
Back in Europe, the U.S. State Department and a group of wealthy stranded Americans weren’t going to wait the two weeks it would take for the money from home to arrive. They were able to charter a ship in Genoa, Italy to take 400 people back to America. Nancy Johnson was one of the selected few to get on board. The only person who could manage to get the money for the charter (500,000 francs in cash) was Frederick W. Vanderbilt. The Italian banks, with a lot of persuading, were willing to give him cash on his credit.
It took two weeks to cross the Atlantic. They were stopped by British warships and required to take action to evade German submarines. But Nancy made it home. She soon married the man her parents had sent her to Europe to forget. Good for you, Nancy.