Born in a small American town, Mary Louise Graffam went on to have an impact greater than anyone could have predicted. She was single-handedly responsible for saving the lives of thousands of Armenians and changing their futures forever. The American missionary’s brave work and self-sacrifice during the Armenian Genocide became legendary as she sheltered and cared for survivors in Sivas while also documenting the horrors taking place around her.
Born on May 11, 1871 in Monson, Maine, Graffam graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1894. In 1900, Graffam’s sister Winona and her husband Ernest Crocker Partridge went to Sivas as missionaries, contributing to Mary's landmark decision to travel there as well.
In 1901, as a missionary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), Graffam arrived in Sivas. A year later, Graffam, 31, became the principal of a girls’ high school, where she taught algebra and geometry and organized literary and cultural events. Graffam quickly became fluent in Armenian and Turkish, in addition to English, her mother tongue, and French. She also worked as a high school teacher in the nearby towns of Kurin, Derendeh, Tebrik and Zara.
In the early part of the 20th century, the ABCFM mission to Sivas was at its peak. The number of its missionaries doubled and a missionary hospital and school were built in the Armenian district of the town. Before the outbreak of Wolrd War I, the girls’ high school in Sivas numbered 200 students.
Turkey entered World War I in November 1914. A month later, Turkish troops suffered a defeat with severe casualties on the Caucasus front. Although Graffam had a chance to leave the country, she decided to stay as a nurse. Together with doctors, she went to the Caucasus front in Erzurum.
While at the Red Crescent Hospital, she saved the lives of hundreds of Turkish soldiers from typhus and hypothermia.
In 1917, she received the decoration of the Red Crescent by Imperial Grade from the Turkish government for her selfless service at the hospital. Graffam continued to receive letters of appreciation from Turkish soldiers until her death.
An aching heart and unwavering resolve
When Graffam went back to Sivas, the government had already released a decree starting mass deportations of the Armenian population. To Mary, it was clear that the deportations would spell death for Armenians. In an attempt to save her students from exile, Graffam paid a personal visit to the “vali," or province governor named Mora bey, asking him for permission to keep the girls in Sivas. The Turkish official argued that there was no need for girls to be “separated from their families” and that they were going to “travel safely.” Graffam, however, was determined to accompany her students on the so-called “safe” trip.
On July 7, 1915 the third convoy with 3,000 Armenian deportees left Sivas. The American missionary was among them, together with 50 of her students. Graffam described all the horrors of the deportations she had witnessed in a letter to the ABCFM treasurer William Pitt (Malatya, 7 August, 1915). Her letter was then published in the American Missionary Herald magazine (December, 1915) and in Lord Bryce’s “Blue Book.”
The convoy of Armenian refugees travelled under the scorching July sun without food and water for days, enduring repeated attacks and looting. Here, Graffam saw dwindled caravans with emaciated, miserable Armenians from other provinces, and described the shocking scene in a letter. “One’s heart was aching at the sight of them,” she wrote.
The roads were lined with the corpses of mostly women and children. Soon after the convoy left Hasançelebi, Graffam was transferred to Malatya. In this town, described by the missionary as a pit of hell, her efforts to rescue Armenian refugees from imminent death were in vain. The “mutesarif,” or administrative authority of the region in Malatya, not only refused to help Graffam, but also prevented her from going any further with Armenian refugees. “That seemed to me a very great mistake on the part of the government, for although the horrors of the present situation among the Armenians are sufficient, the false reports are so many, that a report of an eyewitnesses would have been of value, if I could have continued the whole way,” wrote Graffam.
She later got a chance to write a letter to Pitt, and on September 13, 1915, the U.S. Ambassador in Constantinople Henry Morgenthau sent the letter Graffam had written, depicting violence against the Armenian population in Turkey’s inner provinces, to the U.S. State Department.
In mid-August 1915, Graffam, who looked like an emaciated and sunken refugee herself, went back to Sivas, where almost no Armenians remained. “At this time I was like a skeleton and lookеd a refugee myself. I was half crazed; I could not be left alone, and yet I could not give in…because refugees were beginning to come from Marzovan and other places,” she wrote.
Graffam was so focused on taking care of the refugees gathering in Sivas that even a considerable decline in her own health did not prevent her from rescuing what remained of the Armenian people.
Shortly after her arrival in Sivas, the local authorities demanded that she take over a Swiss orphanage designed for Armenian children. She managed to take charge of hundreds of Armenian orphans in a short period of time. The altruistic American not only sheltered orphans, but also hid Armenian girls aged eight to 14 years who had been abducted and taken into Muslim harems. She retrieved some of them from their Turkish owners for a few Turkish liras.
The missionary provided starving, tattered, half-sick refugees with food, clothes and medicine and helped 200 Armenian women of age find job at a manufactory. This angered the local Turks, but Graffam argued that “they are working for the Turkish government,” thus saving a small number of women from inevitable death. Before the 1918 armistice, Graffam sheltered around 1,000 Armenian survivors and became a kind of personal guarantor of their lives. By the end of the war, she became a legend.
The American orphanage in Sivas, circa 1922
In the spring of 1919, when James Barton, the missionary and executive of ABCFM, along with representatives of the American Near East Relief arrived in Sivas, an Armenian met them. When Barton asked the man how Armenians lived in Sivas, he answered, "They are safe in Sivas. Miss Graffam is there and the Turks are all afraid of her.”
Armenian survivors and staff members of the American Near East Relief returned to Sivas after the armistice went into effect. In 1919 to 1921, the province was revived. Near East Relief opened a gender-inclusive orphanage here for 1,100 Armenian children and Graffam facilitated post-war relief work, initiating the opening of footwear repair shops, forge shops and stores. Graffam, the guardian angel of Armenians in Sivas, also assumed leadership of the American Relief Unit. Ashkhen Avagyan documented Graffam’s activities in that period:
“In 1918, Graffam bought out the building of the Aramean school that had been turned into a hospital by the Turkish authorities and was considerably damaged as a result. Graffam turned it into an orphanage and got back the buildings of the American college in Hogdar that started to serve as orphan asylums for thousands of liberated Armenian children and young people.”
Unfortunately, just a few years after organizing these asylums, Graffam died of breast cancer on August 17, 1921, leaving her life’s work unfinished.
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.