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And you think today's world is crazy

August 11, 2011 - Betsy Bethel
My grandmother was born in January 1917. I never thought too much about the world into which she was born ... until yesterday as I was reading the novel "The Given Day" by Dennis LeHane, which is set during that time period.

In fact, the earth-shattering atrocities -- both manmade and microbial -- that occurred that year and in the couple years preceding and following it, have simply astonished me.

On Jan. 25, 1917, my grandmother, Jean MacElwain Murphy entered the world as the only daughter of a Bethesda physician and a one-room schoolhouse teacher in Belmont County. Here's what happened in her first year:

— In February, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia was overthrown by a people's revolution. Once they saw what the people could accomplish, some French, German, Austrian and Hungarian soldiers on the front lines of World War I engaged in mutinies and desertions. Just think on it: soldiers just walking out of the trenches and into the countryside, leaving their countrymen to fend for themselves. ? In July, while my grandmother was just learning to crawl, the most deadly race riot in American history occurred in East St. Louis, Ill. A mob of working-class white men, women and children beat, stoned, clubbed, shot, drowned, hung and set fire to black men, women and children. Political, economic and social issues fueled the massacre. Lehane's account describes women slashing the throats of other women and children stoning other children. Blacks were chased into the river and then stoned or shot as they tried to swim back to shore. One source cites 1- and 2-year-olds shot in the head. Three hundred buildings were burned to the ground. The official body count was 49 with hundreds injured, although an NAACP investigation put the death toll between 100 and 200.

— In November, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the new government (which supported the war — the Bolsheviks opposed it). Lenin created the Soviet Communist Party and founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, with plans to bring socialist revolution to the world.

— In December, probably just about when Gram was starting to toddle, influenza infiltrated a U.S. Army camp stateside. By the next spring, the flu, coupled with pneumonia, was killing civilians in cities throughout the United States. By fall, the epidemic hit its peak, taking men, women and children from all walks of life, wiping out anywhere from 15 percent to 53 percent of a city's population. "It has been estimated that there were about 20 (million) cases of influenza and pneumonia in the United States in 1918-19, with approximately 850,000 deaths. In 1918 alone, 464,959 deaths from influenza and pneumonia were registered in the registration States and the District of Columbia as compared with 115,526 in 1917," according to "The Pandemic of Influenza in 1918-1919" report from the National Office of Vital Statistics.

— Then came the Red Scare in 1919 fueled by the Russian Revolution and given teeth by the Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918, which led to a roundup and deportation of immigrants suspected to be subversives who were out to destroy democracy and capitalism. In the late teens and 1920, terrorists indeed bombed government buildings and the office of Wall Street giant J.P. Morgan, the latter bomb killing 38 and injuring 400. In 1919 during the Palmer Raids led by J. Edgar Hoover, thousands of anarchists, socialists and communists were arrested. Civil liberties were not high on the government's priority list for these individuals.

"The Given Day" is set during this time period, with characters living through the East St. Louis massacre, the workers' rights uprisings and bombings, and the deadly flu pandemic. Even baseball great Babe Ruth is a character in the book. In a scene I just read last night he meets the infamous socialist and journalist John "Jack" Reed in a Boston pub just prior to a dustup between riled-up workers and attorneys who just lost a case against a proven subversive.

As I began ruminating about the craziness of the world at that time, I realized the dates coincided with my grandmother's birth and early years. Can you imagine? I mean, you often hear people — mostly older people — wonder aloud: "How can you bring a child into this world today?" I admit I've wondered it myself. I also wonder what the old folks were saying to the young couples in 1917. Today, we have our own sets of problems, of course. But quit having kids? That's not an answer. If anything, we should be having more kids and be bringing them up to love this country and learn from its mistakes and, above all, to serve each other. Children give us hope. I am sure my grandmother brought hope and happiness to her parents all those years ago.

All of this reflection comes to a head today, Aug. 11, 2011, the 20th anniversary of Gram's death.

When she died, it was a shock, and my world felt like it was blown into another orbit, one void of the sun, of gravity, of all the laws of the universe. But once I recovered from the grief, her death was a catalyst for my career path and many of my interests. She was always teaching me, and because of her (and Dennis Lehane), I have learned a little bit more about American history this week.

Thanks, Gram. I'm glad your parents decided to choose hope in crazy times. I love you.

— — — Note: I have provided links to my most of my sources under "Blog Links"


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The Given Day by Dennis Lehane


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