You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

They Were Fearless 1890s War Correspondents—and They Were Women

Were Harriet Boyd and Cora Stewart rivals in Greece in 1897? The fog of war has obscured a groundbreaking tale.

From left: Stephen Crane Collection/Syracuse University Library; Harriet Boyd Hawes Papers, Smith College Archives
Cora Stewart (left) and Harriet Boyd

The Greco-Turkish War of 1897 was a short and ignominious conflict, waged for a mere month or so after the Greeks attempted to annex the Ottoman province of Crete. It did not, however, lack for innovations. Doctors brought X-ray machines to a theater of war for the first time in Greece. It also was the first conflict shot with a movie camera.

Yet perhaps the war’s most enduring legacy—and mystery—is the prominent part played by two American women on its front lines. Harriet Boyd was a Smith College graduate living in Athens. Cora Stewart traveled to Greece with author Stephen Crane and later became his common-law wife. (She is best known to history as “Cora Crane.”)

The two women apparently never crossed paths in Greece. But within the space of 24 hours in May 1897, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Advertiser trumpeted both Stewart and Boyd—individually and in separate articles—as being the “only” woman covering the war.

Disingenuous? Yes. Boyd and Stewart’s articles appeared in the same newspaper, after all. But two American women publishing dispatches from the same conflict was unprecedented.

Before 1897, there had been only one female war correspondent: Jane McManus Storm Cazneau, who accompanied New York Sun editor Moses Y. Beach on an official 1846 peace mission during the Mexican-American War—and then filed dispatches for that paper from U.S. General Winfield Scott’s successful siege of Vera Cruz.   

So the fact of two women offering firsthand accounts of battles and casualties for newspapers in the late nineteenth century is striking in itself. But Boyd and Stewart were more than that: They were fascinating figures in a war that offered an influential new model for how American journalists would cover future conflicts.  

However brief, the Greco-Turkish War of March and April 1897 was a formative experience for a new generation of American war correspondents. It was also a dress rehearsal for war coverage that became a key element in notorious “yellow journalism” circulation battles when the United States went to war with Spain in Cuba a year later in April 1898, when Hearst is alleged to have famously barked to Frederic Remington, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war!”

The best-remembered writer in that generation was Stephen Crane. Greece was his first experience on a battlefield. After having conjured America’s bloody Civil War solely with his own imagination in his classic novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), he traveled to Greece with Cora Stewart to see conflict with his own eyes. Crane and many other reporters who toiled in Greece were the correspondents sent later to the front lines of the Spanish-American War. And when the public appetite for bloodshed stoked day after day in morning and evening editions finally resulted in war, they sent home the vivid dispatches that fed a growing public appetite for coverage.    

History has painted Boyd and Stewart as rivals in this notable experiment in a new way to cover war in the United States—a view articulated most powerfully in Lilian Gilkes’s immensely flawed 1960 biography, Cora Crane: A Biography of Mrs. Stephen Crane. Gilkes speculates that Boyd cabled the Journal directly to obtain an assignment as a war correspondent, but she was wrong. A closer look at Smith College’s archives and in yellowed newspapers tells a startlingly different tale. Cora Stewart did seek to send copy from Greece that would generate salacious headlines in New York; Harriet Boyd, on the other hand, was a volunteer nurse. Even so, she unwittingly became a “yellow journalism” sensation—if only for a few weeks. In a moment when U.S. newspapers began to find profit in sensationalizing global conflict, the stories that both women found in Greece proved to be an essential part of a new formula. 

“At Any Rate, I Am Going”

No “letter of assignment” from the New York Journal and Advertiser to Cora Stewart has survived. How exactly she ended up as a war correspondent remains murky.

It is also surprising. In the straitened late-Victorian atmosphere of 1897, Stewart was a 28-year-old woman with a past—and a present. Twice married, she was unable to secure a divorce from her second husband, Donald William Stewart. And there was an additional complication. Not only was Stewart a captain in the British Army, but his father—Sir Donald Martin Stewart—had served as Queen Victoria’s commander in India, a position of high rank and prestige in the British Army.

Cora Stewart met Crane in late 1896 in Jacksonville, Florida. Stewart had escaped England and ran the Hotel de Dreme—a lavish nightclub and house of assignation where prostitutes could rent rooms to entertain clients. Crane was in town to sail with a ship trying to break a blockade that the U.S. government had placed on arms shipments to Cuban rebels. One attempt to do so almost cost him his life on January 2, 1897, when the ship on which he was traveling sank near present-day Daytona Beach. The incident was the spur for one of his finest short stories, “The Open Boat.”

The couple intertwined their fates shortly after Crane’s near-death experience. In March 1897, he found assignments to cover the war in Greece for the Journal and the Westminster Gazette—an English daily specializing in long-form war journalism. Stewart abandoned the Hotel de Dreme to accompany him. They arrived in Greece in early April, journeying together from New York via London and Marseilles. At some point, Stewart wrangled her own assignment as a female war correspondent from the Journal. And any potential whiff of notoriety that might be attached to dispatches sent under her own name? It was vanquished with her use of the nom de plume “Imogene Carter.”

Stewart quickly undertook the work of a journalist in Athens: obtaining letters of introduction, submitting two dispatches to the Journal about her plans to be “the only woman correspondent within even the sound of the guns,” and preparing to travel to the front. In a piece published in the Journal on April 30, 1897, she wrote, “Acquaintances among the foreign residents here all strongly advise me not to go” to the war zone. But she was undaunted by their disapproval of her plans and stated flatly that “at any rate, I am going.”

“Answer Quick Yes or No”

Harriet Boyd had grown up in Boston. She attended Smith College in its first decades of operation and graduated with a degree in classics. She turned 25 years old as she arrived in Greece in October 1896 to study the language and nurture her interest in its ancient past. Three years later, Boyd became the first woman to lead an excavation in the region. Her discovery in 1900 of a Minoan city in Crete that dates back to the Late Bronze Age (which she named “Gournia”) was a landmark achievement in an era of dazzling discoveries.

But archeology was in Boyd’s future. In 1896, Athens simmered with anger over decades of conflict with the Ottoman Empire—and Greece’s desire to enlarge its own territory. Conflict over the disputed island of Crete brought the simmer to a boil in early 1897, when Greece defied stern warnings from the so-called “Great Powers” (Russia, Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Germany) and annexed the island. The war between Greece and Turkey quickly followed.

As a young American woman in a circle of (largely English-speaking) Greek women, Boyd was swept up in the fervor as mobilization began. The “letters home” she sent from Athens to the Philadelphia Public Ledger oscillate between keenly dispassionate observations and the enthusiasm of her own immersion in Greece’s jingoistic frenzy. Her desire to be part of these events prompted her to take a nursing course in the early winter of 1897. But her hopes of becoming a volunteer nurse seemed all but dashed when she flunked a practical exam in front of Queen Olga of Greece on March 20, 1897.

As open hostilities loomed in mid-April, however, Boyd played a final card. On the day before the nurses planned to depart for a Red Cross hospital near the front, she sent a letter directly to Queen Olga, asking for permission to join them. Hours before the nurses embarked, the queen gave her assent.

Boyd arrived in the port town of Volos on April 19, 1897—the day the Greco-Turkish War was declared. Volos was in chaos, and its hospital beds were soon filled with a wave of soldiers wounded in the Greek army’s hasty collapse in the first week of the conflict. At some point during Boyd’s first two weeks in Volos, the substance of a telegram from Athens was passed along to her. Dated April 26 and signed, “M.A Frost, Women’s Editor, New York Journal,” the cable asked Boyd to supply

articles Greek womans work in war will you cable one thousand words on queens work for soldiers and article same length on personal experiences in ambulance corps fifty dollars an article answer quick yes or no you are on ground and may have special ideas if so cable for instructions.

Hospital officials encouraged her to write the dispatches. When she arrived in Athens on May 4 on a hospital ship transporting wounded men, Boyd likely had drafted both pieces. She returned to Volos by nightfall two days later. In a letter to her brother Allan written on board the ship as she returned, Boyd reported sending the “personal experiences” piece from Athens and the Queen Olga piece from the port of Chalkis on May 5: 

No cables can go from Volos now. Journal gives me $50 for each cable message—besides paying cable charges. One $50 must go to the cause + actually giving food and medicine to the sick—the other we will see. How Journal people found me out I don’t know.


“Miss Harriet Boyd, Special Correspondent of the Journal, With the Greek Army”

Apparently, Boyd did not reply quickly enough for the Journal’s editors. Before she had boarded the hospital ship on May 3, her byline had already appeared in the May 2, 1897 edition of American Woman’s Home Journal—a Sunday supplement of that newspaper. The liberties that the Journal took with Boyd’s name and situation are staggering. The May 2 article—headlined “The Queen of Greece Appeals to the American Women for Help”—featured wildly out-of-date information with Boyd’s name attached, likely culled from a private communication sent back in March. It also stated that “Miss Harriet Boyd is a bright American girl” and promised that she would “send a series of special letters to American Woman’s Home Journal” on her work in Greece.  

Boyd’s actual cables, meanwhile, arrived in New York on May 6 or 7—a day or so after she sent them. Her Queen Olga piece was moot, of course, since the paper had run the out-of-date May 2 account. But both the timing and substance of Boyd’s “personal experiences” piece proved fortuitous—for the Journal, at least.

News was trickling back in fragments already about a major battle in the town of Velestino (only 12 miles from Volos) on May 5 and 6. But detailed accounts of a Greek defeat that led to the Ottoman occupation of the port city were delayed.

Boyd’s vivid account of nursing in Volos’s crowded hospitals as alarms about “the Turks” filled the air must have been irresistible to the paper’s editors. For the May 9, 1897, edition, they bumped her dispatch from the women’s supplement to the front page of the Sunday news supplement: American Magazine. An all-caps headline trumpeted “A JOURNAL WOMAN ON THE BATTLEFIELD IN GREECE.” The story also featured an outsize and overdramatized illustration of a terrified young woman.

What’s more: The volunteer nurse had been promoted to “Miss Harriet Boyd, Special Correspondent of the Journal, With the Greek Army,” with the opening paragraphs of her article rewritten to present her activities as being undertaken “on instruction of the Journal.”

One can see even now why Boyd’s piece made such a splash in Journal offices. Her sharp depictions of blood-and-guts nursing brimmed with acerbic opinions on topics ranging from the unpopularity of the British consul in Volos to inaccurate reporting by journalists who lacked Greek language skills.

Boyd paints a harrowing picture of a hospital near the front lines:

These wounded Greeks certainly know how to bear pain. The candles and torches flared on their powder grimed faces as they were jolted hither and thither, from litter to cot and from cot to litter, but never a complaint did they utter. They would only follow you with dumb, pleading eyes that asked for everything where nothing could be given.

The number of wounded on our roster gradually increased until every cot was occupied. This made no difference. Another squad of ten poor, mangled fellows were taken in and placed on sacks of straw in the aisles. At sixty we stopped.

The inconveniences wreaked by continual alarms of imminent doom also did not escape her notice:

Panics have been of daily occurrence since my arrival. It is very annoying just when one is fixing a bandage nicely to have the cry raised that the Turks are coming.

“The War Correspondent Business”

Boyd left occupied Volos on a hospital ship to Athens a few days later. But she was back on the front lines again by May 12. Her next eight days were a whirlwind. Boyd arrived in Domokos the evening before the last major battle of the war on May 17, and she tended wounded soldiers on that battlefield. When Greek commanders ordered a retreat, Boyd joined the bedraggled horde as it fled to the city of Lamia. She walked part of the 22 miles in darkness, taking only two swallows of cognac and a bit of bread along the way.

On May 20, the war ended. Boyd continued nursing sick troops, often at the request of Queen Olga or other high-ranking officials. Mail was slow, so it was weeks before she saw how the Journal had sensationalized her work, But when she finally beheld a copy of the May 9 edition, she became livid. In a letter to her brother Allan dated June 16, Boyd declared that “the whole newspaper affair seems now to me most humiliating.” She related a tragicomedy of error. A letter sent to a professor at Smith College (with Queen Olga’s appeal to America enclosed) had been passed along to the Journal—and sparked the telegram expressing their interest.

Worse yet, Boyd discovered that the Journal’s main newsroom was unhappy about her cables. The newspaper’s Athens reporter—Edward Abbott—told her he had been chastised by the editors for sending her work to New York: “Who is Harriet Boyd? Send no more from her till authorized by us.” Abbott added that he set them straight: “Harriet Boyd showed me a telegram, authorizing dispatches to your paper.”

Boyd was angry with the flagrant liberties that the Journal had taken with her name and experience as a volunteer nurse. (Not to mention the sensational art that accompanied her story.) Intent on protecting her now-glowing reputation as a Greek patriot with the royal family and in Athenian society, she told Allan she was seeking advice on how to “deny” the whole experience. One can literally taste the sour grapes of a job perhaps too well done in her missive home:

Never fear—I’ve learned my lesson I have received for my famous—or rather infamous dispatch—not one penny as yet though I believe it will be given me I should prefer not to take it as then there can be no doubt about the War Correspondent business moreover one does not like to take money for lies.


“Her Bravery Amazes Soldiers”

And what of “Imogene Carter”? The full range of Cora Stewart’s activities during her time in Greece remains unknown. Her published work from the war comprises three dispatches. A small number of her unpublished writings from the conflict are in the archives at Columbia University.

But what is known is a riveting tale. Over the same nine days in late April and May 1897 that Boyd was nursing and writing her dispatches, Stewart traveled with Crane and two other prominent journalists (The Times of London’s Richard Harding Davis and the Journal’s John Bass) to the front lines of the conflict. She accompanied Crane to the battlefield of Velestino itself, arriving by horseback on the afternoon of the battle’s first day. The couple spent the night on the battlefield and stayed until the retreat of the Greek army in the late afternoon on May 6, 1897. Indeed, Crane and Stewart almost left their exit too late. They barely escaped from the battle on the very last train bound for Volos before Ottoman troops occupied the station.

Crane’s accounts of Velestino and its aftermath are classics of American war reporting. But Imogene Carter is not mentioned in them. Cora Stewart’s own pen picture of the battle was published in the Journal on May 10, 1897. The headline advertises Imogene Carter as the “Last of the Writers to Go; Shells Screamed About Her as She Left the Field.” This statement is amplified with an all-caps intensifier: “HER BRAVERY AMAZES SOLDIERS.”

Perhaps it should amaze us as well. In their separate accounts, both Stewart and Crane describe a narrow escape from an Ottoman artillery shell as they fled to the train station where they made their escape. 

On a visit to Velestino in March, I walked along the same road the couple took. It runs through the center of the 1897 battlefield—a position that Ottoman troops sought to occupy quickly as the Greek troops retreated that afternoon. Today, the road is the main route to the highway. It is a desolate stretch dotted with two gas stations and an auto parts store. But one can sense still the flat expanse Crane and Stewart must have journeyed across—and how exposed they were to danger—as they raced to catch the train.

Cora Stewart earned every syllable of her vivid pen picture. But it was also Imogene Carter’s last dispatch from the Greco-Turkish War. Back in Athens after the battle at Velestino, the couple had photographs taken of themselves as war correspondents. They left Greece together later that month and settled in England as “Stephen and Cora Crane.” On a cabinet card made from the photo, Cora Crane wrote a note to Stephen: “To me old pal Stevie with best wishes—‘Imogene Carter’ Athens May 22/97.” 

All quotations from unpublished letters by Harriet Boyd are taken from the Harriet Boyd Hawes Collection in Smith College Special Collections.