1918 Queens: WWI Rages, Women’s Suffrage On Rise
Welcome to February 1918!
The month of February 1918 brought a cruel, biting chill to millions of war-weary soldiers in trenches scarring the face of Europe as the Great War entered its fifth year. Early that month, German U-boat UB-77 sent the luxury liner SS Tuscania and 210 American soldiers and crew to a cold, watery grave in sight of the Irish coast.
Farther east, the Republic of Estonia declared its independence from the new, war-torn Soviet regime in Petrograd after seven centuries of Russian rule.
Closer to home, the last known Carolina parakeet, a species of parrot native to the United States, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo.
America had sent her doughboys into the European fray with declarations of war the previous year, and the young men of Queens were eager to join the fight. It was that February that Private Joseph Maystrick of Clark Street in Astoria met his end on the ill-fated Tuscania. He was laid to rest in a simple grave on the Scottish coast, with American survivors from the wreck singing The Star-Spangled Banner, followed by local villagers in a loving rendition of God Save the King. Among the Tuscania survivors, perhaps at Maystrick’s graveside, was 21-year-old Private Harry Truman of West Virginia. Truman would later gain notoriety as the cantankerous owner of Mount St. Helens Lodge in Washington, who refused to leave his beloved home only to perish in the 1980 eruption of the volcano which loomed ominously nearby.
George A. Rauh of College Point was another Queens boy who stood up and answered the call. In February, his father and seven siblings received word that young George had fallen in combat while raiding German trenches in late January. After enlisting in March 1917, Private Rauh wrote in a letter to his sister, “I am going to give a good account of myself. My family will always be proud of the record I will make.” He was 23 and worked for a coal company in Brooklyn before the war.
With the nation on a war footing, registration of enemy aliens living in Queens was well underway. All male citizens of Germany aged 14 or older were required to report to local police stations to fill out papers, submit photographs and be fingerprinted. Facing a disappointing turnout of those needing to register, local officials mentioned they were ready to take drastic measures to ensure all Germans living in the borough were accounted for. Nearly 500,000 German nationals lived in the United States at the beginning of hostilities, and some 4,000 were arrested on suspicion of espionage and other charges.
With her young men going off to fight, a growing Bolshevik menace in far off Russia, and world peace nothing but a dim ember of hope, the people of Queens dared to look ahead to a brighter future for themselves and the nation. Some local women got together at the Democratic Club on 43rd Street on a wintry day that February in anticipation of a fundamental right still denied them on a national level: the right to vote. With New York the first eastern state to fully enfranchise women in 1917, members of the Women’s Suffrage Party gathered to learn how to cast ballots and push for passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women nationwide the right to vote in 1920.
While the women of Queens were building a political future for themselves, it was time for L. Bradford Prince, former Governor of the New Mexico Territory, to burn his fences. Having recently returned to his childhood home, the old Prince Homestead in Flushing, Judge Prince found the rambling estate lacked the coal supplies to keep his family warm in the harsh winter. Not knowing any good suppliers, the retired politician resorted to burning his fences – the wooden ones surrounding the ancestral land – to heat up the old home that February. Fortunately for locals, the famous Cedar of Lebanon, which had stood for nearly 200 years on the family estate, survived Prince’s axe. The proud old tree stood until after World War II, when the lightning bolt-damaged landmark fell to developers. A housing project now stands on the site of the tree and the historic Prince Homestead.
That’s the way it was in February 1918!
We are open to the public, Saturdays, noon until five at “Quinn’s Gallery,” 4th Floor, 35-20 Broadway, Long Island City. Additional hours Monday and Wednesday two to five! Visit our gift shop on line. For further information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278- 0700 or visit our website at www.astorialic.org.