The woman who became America’s first female war-time news correspondent was born April 25, 1878, in Osborne, Kansas. The daughter of Venetia Emeret Shearer and Calvin Reasoner, Elsie Reasoner received her education in Osborne, Leavenworth, Kansas, and in Washington, D.C. At the age of seventeen she began work in Salt Lake City, Utah, as a newspaper reporter, followed by stints at newspapers in Chicago, Illinois, and Omaha, Nebraska, where she also helped to put together the Omaha Exposition of 1898.
That same year the United States declared war on Spain. It was the biggest news story of the year and Elsie wanted to be a part of it, so she took a temporary leave of absence from her job in Omaha and left for New York, where she got a job as a correspondent for McClure’s Magazine.
“It may interest my friends out there to know that an Osborne girl is bound for the war. I leave Saturday on the steamer Atlai for Kingston, Jamaica. Here I will probably meet my father. We go from here by the dispatch boat Dauntless to Santiago, where I will meet the Red Cross Society. Am to write an illustrated article on their work in the field for McClure’s. Have two months leave at Omaha, and think I can do the trip in that length of time. Will be glad to bring the Osborne people any little souvenir they may desire, say a Spaniard-in-alcohol.
“Many thanks for the many kind notices you’ve been giving me. Three cheers for Kansas, McKinley and Old Glory. Hastily, but very sincerely, Elsie Reasoner.” –Osborne County Farmer, June 30, 1898.
Once in Jamaica, Elsie met Clara Barton and talked her way aboard the American Red Cross steamer State of Texas. “Tonight I am going over to Santiago de Cuba and will board the Texas, Miss Barton’s boat,” she wrote in a letter to her sister in July, “Will probably don a cap and apron and go right into the field with the nurses . . . I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m the only woman correspondent that will see this war. They call me ‘plucky’ and ‘courageous,’ but nine-tenths of the American girls would be here if they had the chance.” Elsie then sailed to Santiago, Cuba, where she bowled over the hard-bitten press correspondents and won a place on the Associated Press packet boat.
“To a bright and winsome miss of 20 years, fresh from the Sunflower State, belongs the distinction and glory of having been the only American girl to follow the boys in blue to Cuba and to make her way to the front against many obstacles and by her own exertions . . . .” — Boston Globe, September 15, 1898.
“Miss Reasoner was on the Associated Press boat at the time of the battle of Santiago, but went over to do active work in the field with Miss [Clara] Barton as there was at that time a scarcity of nurses. In appearance Miss Reasoner is short and a brunette with dark hair and eyes.” — Kansas City Journal, August 8, 1898.
Elsie worked with the Red Cross in Cuba and wrote several articles on the ravages of war. She was interviewed by the major papers of the day and later that September she was given the plum assignment of covering the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina of Holland–again the only female correspondent present. Elsie continued working for the Associated Press over the next few years but gave up her promising newspaper career when she married noted illustrator Lester Ralph in New York City.
“The wedding of Lester Ralph, son of the late Julian Ralph, author and correspondent, and Miss Elsie Reasoner, a war correspondent, occurred at All Saints’ Church at five o’clock yesterday . . . Mr. Melville E. Stone of the Associated Press, who gave Miss Reasoner some of her greatest news assignments, gave the bride away, and Mr. William Ralph, brother of the groom, was best man.” — New York American, May 16, 1904.
Elsie took up modeling and sculpting as a hobby, and in 1908 went to Europe, where she studied in London, Paris, and Munich, Germany. A bust of hers at the Royal Academy in London garnered international attention in 1910 and orders began to pour in from around the world, and Elsie soon became widely known in the art world. She was also one of the first artists to work with plastic.
“Mrs. Lester Ralph, the talented American sculptor now working in her own studio in London, has sold a sculptured sun dial to Otto H. Khun of the banking firm of Khun, Leob & Co. for $2,650. He saw it in clay and was so favorably impressed with the beauty and originality of the design that he made the offer before it left the studio.
“Mrs. Ralph has received several orders for busts, including one from J. J. Shannon, the portrait painter, and she is making rapid progress as a sculptor. Half a dozen of her completed works will be exhibited at the next Academy and the International Society show.” — Philadelphia North American, January 19, 1911.
In 1913 Elsie returned from Europe and was visiting her sister in Lloyd, Florida, when she died from phlebitis, the sudden giving away of a blood clot on the brain, on April 29, 1913 at the age of 36. She was laid to rest in the Ralph family lot in the Fair View Cemetery at Middletown, Monmouth County, New Jersey. To this day her grave along with her husband Lester’s remains unmarked.
Elsie was named to Who’s Who, International Edition, shortly before her death. Two of Elsie’s works, a bust of Dillon Ripley and a relief entitled “The Dance of Life,” are still on exhibition by the Royal Academy in London, England. It is only right that this talented Osborne County native be recognized at last for her accomplishments with a permanent place in the Osborne County Hall of Fame.
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VOL. 1, NO. 23 SALT LAKE CITY, NOVEMBER 21, 1896 $2.00 A YEAR, FIVE CENTS A COPY
MISS ELSIE REASONER OF SALT LAKE CITY.
“1 saw a vision of deep eyes.
In morning sleep when dreams are true,”
These beautiful lines of John Addington Symonds are recalled by the face that looks out from our columns this morning and gives greeting to Nebraska readers from the capital of Utah. The illustrations the Excelsior is printing every week of Salt Lake City beauties are causing much talk, so much comment among the men in fact that we almost hesitate to print more lest there be a stampede for the city by the salt, salt sea.
“And now a beam of pity pours,
And now a spark of spirit flies,
Uncounted, from the unlocked stores
Of her rich lips and precious eyes.”
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What a Young Girl Saw at Siboney.
by Elsie Reasoner
(Reporting from Santiago de Cuba, just after the great Battle of Santiago)
As the “State of Texas” steamed into port, we sighted on our starboard bow four gray, sinister battleships, while to port, a white, hopeful messenger of courage, rocked the great relief boat “Solace.” Massive cruisers and blunt-nosed torpedo boats were about us, and here and there, like swallows, skimmed tiny yachts and launches.
I talked with Miss Barton of her experience. She told me how, the night after our first great battle, when hungry men needed food, weak men needed stimulant, and wounded men needed care, word came from General Shafter to seize all means of transportation and to hurry supplies to the front.
It was at this juncture that the Red Cross people arrived. When they went ashore, they found no suitable habitation for the nurses. Yet, undaunted, the nurses packed their satchels, and went forward to their work. Under the efficient direction of Miss Barton, supplies from the Red Cross boat were sent to the front long before any other. After superintending the loading of two carts of provisions, she took her seat beside the driver, and rode to the firing line, ten miles away. Her story of her experience is most thrilling.
“We arrived,” she said, “at night, in a drizzling rain. All along the line the wounded were lying in trenches. A few were nursing a sickly fire of soaked brushwood. No food nor comforts of any kind were visible. We immediately kindled an opposition fire and unloaded one cart of provisions. Out of the extracts and cordials we had brought with us, I succeeded in making a great kettle of excellent gruel. Little did I think, twenty-five years ago, when doing the same thing or our boys in blue and gray, that at this time and place I should be following the same old recipe. Our next trouble was in clothing the wounded. Theirterrible condition cannot be described. When they were varied in from the battlefield, their clothes were soaked with blood and rainand caked with mud. Heroic measures were necessary. With a few quick slashes they were cut loose, stripped off, and thrown away. A few surgeons were there to attend to the care of their wounds; but with no shelter, no clothes, no provisions of any kind, the poor fellows were reduced to the primitive condition of the savage, and could only be laid in rows, weak, wounded, unconscious, and stark naked, upon the bare, wet ground. I hope that never again may I see such a pitiful sight. From some rolls of muslin we had luckily brought with us we tore strips the length of a man and covered them. All night we tended the fitful brush fire, and made kettle after kettle of the strengthening broth. Next day we journeyed back, and the following night I slept on a dry-goods box in the old abandoned post-office.”
In a near-by house were the fever patients, tossing restlessly, impatience of the enemy in their veins, eager to be once more in the thick of the battle smoke. Moving noiselessly among them, bathing here a fevered brow, administering there a helpful medicine, were the sisters of the Red Cross. Deftly, quietly, and skillfully they performed their work, equal to any emergency. One sat in a corner, with the head of a negro in her lap, carefully bathing his black face, and fanning away the troublesome insects. He had fought gallantly; had proved that in his dusky veins flowed the true soldier’s blood. For two hours the nurse sat, her cramped position bespeaking complete fatigue. In an outer room, over a hot fire, others were making kettles of strengthening gruel, and still others were assisting the surgeons in dressing wounds.
At midday the heat was intolerable. The blinding sunlight beat down in great waves, and the white sand gathered it up and threw it back with dazzling brilliance that blinded the eyes and made strong brains reel. Not a breath was stirring. Up the narrow street the silence was broken by strange moans and cries. It was the hospital of the wounded Spanish prisoners. Small, uninviting tents were scattered here and there, and in them lay weak, despairing men. Some babbled in delirium, others cried like children with the pain of their wounds, while all of them shot out sullen looks of revenge. Among them, with steady hands and unmoved faces, were the Red Cross doctors. A number of gaunt, half-clad reconcentrados looked on idly.
The quiet courage of the American soldiers, who accepted all that came without complaint, was in sharp contrast to the constant moaning of the Spaniards, many of whom were not badly hurt.
A lieutenant of one of the regular regiments was brought in horribly wounded. A Mauser ball had pierced his shoulder, and half of his hip was shot away. The surgeons looked at him and shook their heads. Then he smiled, and called a newspaper correspondent who was standing in the doorway of the tent.
“Will you send a cable message for me?” he asked.
Taking a pencil, he wrote an address and two words: “Am well,” and asked that it be sent to his wife at a frontier fort in Montana.
As we stood in an open tent, a poor fellow was brought in on a litter. He had a nasty wound which threatened life-long enfeeblement. As he entered the tent he spied a friend. “Hello, Fred,” he shouted, “where did they get you?” “In the shoulder,” replied his comrade. “And you?” “They did me in both legs. Good shot for the Dons, wasn’t it?” was the laughing retort. In all the place there was not a groan, not a word of complaint, save now and then an ejaculation of impatience lest the fighting should be over before they should have another chance.
[The “Miss Barton” mentioned is Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.]
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Hall of Fame postscript: The compiling of the story of Elsie Reasoner Ralph was probably the most interesting and challenging of all the Osborne County Hall of Fame members. All sources in the U.S. knew her story from the Spanish-American War until her departure to live in Great Britain, after which they had no clue. All sources in the United Kingdom knew her story from the time she arrived there until her decision to visit family in the U.S. in 1913, after which they had no clue. The trail of her early life in the U.S. and the manner of her passing took 13 years to traverse, ending with the discovery of her unmarked grave in New Jersey and the introduction to Elsie’s Florida grandniece that yielded, among many other things, the first known photographs of an adult Elsie.
SOURCES: Boston (MA) Globe–September 15, 1898; Kansas City (MO) Journal–August 8, 1898; Kansas City (MO) Journal–August 8, 1898; Kansas City (MO) Star–April 29, 1913; Leavenworth (KS) Times–April 30, 1913; Monticello (FL) News–May 9, 1913; New York (NY) American–May 16, 1904; New York (NY) Times–April 30, 1913; Osborne (KS) County Farmer–June 30, 1898, July 21, 1898, September 15, 1898, September 22, 1898, December 29, 1898, May 19, 1904, May 1, 1913; Philadelphia (PA) North American–January 19, 1911; Topeka (KS) Capital–June 5, 1910; Florida State Library, Tallahassee, Florida; Leavenworth County Historical Society, Leavenworth, Kansas; Metropolitan Museum of the Arts, New York, New York; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.; Royal Academy of Arts, London, England; Women’s Art Library, London, England.