Madame Marie Depage in Boston
From 14-16 April 1915, Dr. Samuel J. and Wilhelmina (Galloupe) Mixter had a special guest at their home at 180 Marlborough Street, Boston. Madame Marie Depage was in town to drum up support for Belgian Red Cross field hospitals. She’d been traveling across America on a whirlwind fundraising tour, speaking about the suffering of the Belgian people after the outbreak of World War I. Dr. Mixter served as treasurer of Depage’s Boston fund, and the Fay-Mixter papers here at the MHS contain some fascinating papers related to the visit, including original correspondence from Depage.
Depage was a popular and high-profile guest. Her husband, Dr. Antoine Depage, was director of the Belgian Red Cross, past president of the International Congress of Surgery, and personal surgeon to King Albert I of Belgium. The king and queen had officially delegated Madame Depage, a Belgian nurse, to undertake this trip, and her comings and goings were covered extensively in American newspapers.
Americans had been generous in their aid to Belgian civilians living under German occupation, but medical care to soldiers in the field was sorely lacking. An article in the Rocky Mountain News quoted Depage as saying, “The conditions are so terrible you cannot imagine them. […] No men in the world can fight more bravely than the men of my country.” She wrote to the sympathetic Dr. Mixter, “You know what proper and urgent care means – one life saved, one limb saved means a family out of trouble after the war.”
I was particularly interested in Depage’s statements about wounded German soldiers. The Red Cross field hospitals she worked to establish treated injured allies and enemies alike. According to another newspaper article, she said, “When they were sick I never felt any different toward them than toward my own countrymen. They were simply poor, wounded men. It was only when they recovered and came to me in their gray German uniforms to say good-by that I felt it hard to treat them the same, but wounded men have no nationality.”
Depage used her personal charisma and professional connections to great advantage. She was unmistakably passionate, but pragmatic. She asked Dr. Mixter before her arrival, “Now can you tell me if a visit in Boston shall pay? I must put it in a very plain business way; you know this is not a pleasure trip and I may not think of what I should like or not like.” She thought smaller meetings in the private homes of wealthy Bostonians would be more lucrative than large gatherings. An individual visit, she knew from experience, would flatter her host into giving more: “I suppose Boston is a smart town where society leaders have a great deal to say. I have experienced that in Washington: if it was smart to go and listen to me the people came…and paid!”
Depage also had a personal stake in the cause. Her oldest son Pierre was a soldier in the Belgian army. When she heard that her second son, a teenager named Lucien, was going to the front, she decided to sail back to Europe to say goodbye. Unfortunately, the ship on which she booked passage was none other than the RMS Lusitania. She drowned when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat on 7 May 1915.
Depage had been euphoric about her fundraising success. On the morning of the Lusitania’s departure, she bragged in a letter to Wilhelmina Mixter, “I have altogether collected about $115,000.00 [in] contributions and about $50,000 in supplies. Are you not proud of America? I am! And specially of my Boston friends.” She was sorry that Mrs. Mixter hadn’t received an earlier telegram and protested “that you could believe for one minute that I forgot you! Please never do that, whatever happens for it can never be true.” In a previous letter, she’d called the Mixters “the best friends in the world.”
Wilhelmina Mixter was also very active in World War I work. She served on the general committee of the Special Aid Society for American Preparedness (SASAP), a women’s group that promoted military preparedness and national defense. The Fay-Mixter papers include meeting minutes and newspaper clippings documenting the activities of this group, which met just down the street from the MHS at 601 Boylston Street. In addition to the SASAP, Mrs. Mixter was involved with Emergency War Relief and sent care packages and supplies to soldiers. Some of my favorite items in the collection are these McCall sewing patterns for hospital clothing.
The MHS holdings include many papers related to World War I relief work, so we hope you’ll visit our library to learn more.
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