Memorial to Harriett Louise Carfrae

Harriett Carfrae
Photo courtesy of Miami County Museum

Missouri Baptist Sanitoriam

Harriett Louise Carfrae

 WWI Nurse

     Born Ninety miles south of Lake Erie at Norwalk, Ohio on January 10, 1879 to immigrant parents, Harriett Louise Carfrae moved west with her family to Miami County, Indiana before her first birthday.   Her father, James, was Scottish and worked as a boilermaker for the railroad.  Her mother, Margaret Dillon Carfrae, was Irish, but arrived in the United States by immigrating first to Canada.   Harriett had curly, dark hair, light eyes and wore round wire glasses.  It can be guessed that she was not very tall from the average size of others with the same nationality of her parents. 
     When she was 18, Harriett was part of the leadership of a Christian youth organization named, The Christian Endeavor, which was involved in the temperance movement.   She was known as Hattie by her friends. When she turned 21, she moved to St Louis in order to attend the Baptist Sanitarium Hospital School of Nursing.  She graduated with 17 other women in 1903.  The school of nursing was a two-year program which enrolled its first students in 1895, indicating Harriet was part of the school’s seventh graduating class.  At some point, the nursing school expanded to a three-year program. 
     The Baptist Sanitarium Hospital consisted of large brick buildings which were located on three acres of well landscaped and groomed land, a healthy distance from down town St Louis.  It’s 1308 patient count in 1904 included 204 charity cases. The nursing staff was considered exemplary.  In hospital nursing programs, it was common practice for the students to work on the hospital units during the evenings and nights and attend their classes during the day.  Homework was done between work and class, leaving students exhausted and bleary eyed.  Hattie took a special interest in the younger nursing students while she attended nurses training.  After completing her training, she worked in the field of private duty nursing in the St Louis area for 15 years, where she was remembered as a tireless caregiver of her patients. 

During the World’s Fair in 1904, Hattie was one of the nurses who worked in the Baby Incubator exhibit.  The incubators displayed were ones invented in 1888.  Premature infants from local orphanages and poor families were in the incubators and people paid to watch the nurses care for the babies.  The money helped fund the exhibit which educated the public about advances the in care of premature infants. 
     In June of 1916, Hattie was one of the women who formed the human “Golden Lane” to impress upon the Democratic National Convention and Democratic nominee for president, Woodrow Wilson, the importance of Women’s Suffrage.  Thousands of women stood shoulder to shoulder, on each side of Locust Street in St Louis, in floor length dresses, holding yellow parasols and wearing yellow sashes which read “votes for women”.  Surely sweat trickled down from under her arms and beaded on her forehead as she held the line in the early summer sun.  An all-male delegation had to walk between the lines of women to arrive at the Democratic National Convention, resulting in the delegation adding women’s suffrage to the national platform.  Therefore, with Hattie’s zest for life and involvement in the health and well-being of humanity, it is no surprise that when the call went up asking for nurses to go with the Red Cross into WWI, she enthusiastically stepped up to the plate. 

     On May 14, 1917, The St Louis Dispatch printed the list of the personnel that had been selected to become Base Hospital Unit 21, which was comprised of doctors and nurses trained in the St Louis area.  Harriett Louise Carfrae was on the list.  She would be part of 28 officers, 141 enlisted men and 65 nurses who would be traveling to France.   They had been training since July of 1916 so were as prepared as much as anyone could be for what lie ahead when the U.S. declared war in April of 1917.  Hattie surely was both excited and apprehensive when the group traveled to New York on May 17 and waited to board the steamer called S. S. St Paul, which was taken over for war time service, sailing on May 19.

      The group from St Louis was at their destination by June 12.   Base Hospital 21 was one of 50 base hospitals organized by the Red Cross.  It was formerly the British Red Cross Hospital 12 prior to the St Louis group’s arrival.  Located in Rouen, France it had been in operation since 1914 and was located on what had formally been a race track.   There was lack of adequate bathing, heating and cooking facilities.  Hattie probably longed to relax feeling the warm water of soaking in a hot bath enveloping her skin. She probably missed the special things from home such as the sweetness of a bite of Indiana cream pie dissolving in her mouth.   The capacity of Base Hospital 21 was 1350 beds but was known to swell at times to 1950 patients.  The facility cared for 29,706 surgical cases and 31,837 medical cases with 2833 of these cases being Americans.   Soldiers were moved into the base hospital from the field where they were stabilized by mobile units and camp units while being transported to the base hospital.  Some of the nurses were rotated through surgical teams which were sent forward during battles. 
     Surely on a daily basis, Hattie’s eyes were greeted with visions of row after row of beds of soldiers suffering agonizing injuries, her nose full of the acrid smells of rotting flesh putrid with infection, the metallic odor of blood, the sourness of vomit, mixed with urine, sweat and feces, and her ears echoing with screams and groans of pain and delirium.   In letters written home to her brother, Hattie talks of rainy weather and lots of flowers, which she would go into the woods and gather for her “boys”, explaining she liked to keep her ward full of them.  She described tea parties and games of tug and war among the staff.  She explained that she was not allowed to write about her work but did request that people send some things to the injured soldiers, such as suspenders, tooth brushes, hair brushes, tobacco, cards, a mouth harp, cake and chocolate.  She explained that many of them had to go back to the front upon their recovery.   She asked her brother to save the post cards she had sent him from New York and said she was taking pictures as she wanted to make a scrap book when she arrived back home.  Hattie complained to her brother about the shortage of writing materials.  She also expressed excitement over the plans that were being made for a 4th of July celebration.

     Even though armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, Harriett’s service records say she was at Base Hospital 21 until April 2, 1919. She then was at EMB Hospital 4 until May 11, 1919.   There are conflicting reports whether or not Base Hospital 21 was ever bombed but it is known that Harriett underwent an operation prior to leaving Europe. She may have been rotating through with a group that went close to the front when she sustained injuries. Chemical warfare was first used in WWI and one chemical widely used by the Germans was mustard gas. When exposed to mustard gas the victim developed both internal and external blisters within hours.  Later cancerous tumors sometimes developed, especially in the respiratory tract.  Upon returning to the United States Hattie spent time at General Hospital 28 until discharge.
      After receiving an honorable discharge in May of 1920 Hattie returned home to Peru, Indiana.  In October of 1920, Hattie received a Victory Medal from the British Government.  It was a token of reward for her service to the soldiers during the war while she was stationed in France.  Receiving the medal must have been a moment of great pride for her.  

Researched, written & submitted by Mary Rohrer Dexter
Departure of the S.S. St. Paul
Departure of the S.S. St. Paul

The S.S. St. Paul at sea
The S.S. St. Paul at sea

British General Hospital 12 - US Base Hospital 21
British General Hospital 12 - US Base Hospital 21

Carfrae Tombstone in Peru Mt. Hope Cemetery
Carfrae Tombstone in Peru Mt. Hope Cemetery

     At the end of February in 1921, Hattie was admitted to the hospital at Peru, Indiana to have surgery related to the injuries she received while in France.  On Tuesday March 1, 1921, at 4 a.m., Hattie, age 42, passed away from complications of her surgery.   Her cause of death was listed as cancer of the left lung with general metastasis, indicating that mustard gas may well have been the contributing cause of her injuries.  She was laid to rest on March 3, 1921 in Mount Hope Cemetery.  Funeral visitation was at her mother’s home.  The American Legion provided the customary rites with the flag and staff, following a service at the Presbyterian Church.  The service was performed by the Methodist minister, and was considered one of the largest held in Peru for many years.  
     Upon the announcement of her death Hattie’s nursing colleagues in St Louis wrote that she suffered a great deal during the last four months of her illness but that she maintained a good attitude, remaining patient and cheerful. They described her as unselfish, faithful and true and used the word “bright” to describe her. They admonished that she left many friends behind.   Harriett Louise Carfrae is a World War I heroine and a daughter of Miami County, Indiana of which its citizens can be proud.

Works Cited
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