Saturday, November 5, 2011

Did you know that

The first female war correspondents

Irish-Canadian Kathleen “Kit” Coleman is generally credited as the first accredited female war correspondent for her work in Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898. But was she?

That honor may belong to another Canadian-born writer, Margherita Arlina Hamm.

Hamm was born on April 29, 1867 (some sources say 1871) in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada but her family soon moved to Bangor, Maine, where her father (Rufus Hamm) started a successful timber business. She was of French and Spanish descent and was able to speak English, Spanish and French fluently which helped her greatly in being published in American and French newspapers when she was only 13 or 14 years old. Not only was she very attractive but she was also extremely tenacious, if not overbearing, which enabled her to interview several leading American politicians when other, more experienced (and male) journalists had failed.

On Oct. 14, 1893, Hamm married William E. S. Fales, a lawyer and former newspaperman who had been serving as the American vice-consul to Amoy, China since 1890. Following their wedding, they departed for Asia where, according to various newspapers, Hamm became a war correspondent when the Sino-Japanese War broke out in the summer of 1894.

According to one writer, “She scored a journalistic beat of major proportions with her account, sent to a number of American newspapers, of the attacks on the palace at Seoul, the attempted assassination of the Queen of Korea, and the declaration of war.”

She is further glorified by the claims that she performed nursing duties following some of the battles. As one newspaper noted “Hamm’s experiences were very lively and vivid.” But were they accurate?

Despite her fame, her visit to Seoul is not mentioned in any of the journals or books written by Westerners residing in Korea at the time. Other journalists — including those from newspapers she reported for — were duly noted and written about. It is also strange that her husband, a vice-consul, is not mentioned in the American diplomatic dispatches in Seoul.

Her time in Korea, and for that matter, the Far East, during the war was very short. The Sino-Japanese War official officially began on Aug. 1, 1894 and yet she and her husband were in the United States by at least Sept. 22, because he attended a dinner party thrown for him by the New York Press Club on that date.

Unfortunately, many of the articles of the Sino-Japanese War to appear in the American newspapers did not have the authors’ names so we have no real record of what she wrote during this hectic period.

Hamm went on to capitalize upon her experiences in the Far East. Famed for her “conversational gifts,” she went on to give lectures throughout the United States about the Far East. In 1896, she was declared “the womanliest woman on two continents” and elected as an honorary vice-president of the Writer’s Club of London. Newspapers in the United States noted that she had “traveled more in the interests of the press than any other representative of her sex” and was “the first woman war correspondent.”

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Hamm went to Cuba to cover the fighting and also to serve as the head of the nursing staff for the National Guard. Obviously Hamm’s journalistic achievements were overshadowed by Coleman who was “an accredited” correspondent, but she was later recognized by the president of Cuba for her volunteer efforts.

Fame comes with a price and being away so much from her husband was apparently detrimental to their marriage and it ended on July 29, 1901. Somewhat damning to her character is to note that two days after her divorce she married 26-year-old John Robert McMahon, a fellow newspaperman. Their happiness was short-lived.

On Dec. 17, 1907, Margherita died. She was followed 8 years later (May 1915) by her nemesis, Coleman. It wasn’t war that claimed the lives of two of history’s earliest women war correspondents — it was pneumonia.

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