Pilgrimages on the Western Front of the 1WW
October 18 - October 20
Three Rude Crosses:
The Jerome Family Pilgrimage to France, 1919
For mother of American aviator Gilbert Nelson Jerome, there was no chance that she was going to wait for the United States government, for her parish priest, for her daughter, or for anyone else to tell her when the time was right to go to France to trace her son’s last movements. Less than a year after the Armistice, Elizabeth Maude Jerome was on a steamship to France with her reluctant daughter Jennie in tow. They were the remaining members of their small family. Gilbert, the son/brother, was shot down in his SPAD during the summer of 1918. The missing father figure was Yan Phou Lee, a Chinese scholar-writer-activist who had left the family when the children were little. Elizabeth Maude had then raised her two children with her own mother’s help, changing her last name and the names of her children back to her maiden name, erasing their Chinese heritage. For the rest of their lives, Gilbert and Jennie passed for white, important in an era shaped by virulent racism.
Elizabeth Maude had an ulterior motive on this pilgrimage. While she wanted to experience the places her beloved son had seen, she was also already making plans to bring his body back to New Haven, Connecticut, despite the reluctance of the United States government to manage this process. While on pilgrimage in France mother and daughter would see some of the famous sites of Paris, but more importantly they visited the village of Blâmont, near to where Gilbert was shot out of the sky by a German anti-aircraft gun, his gravesite featuring three wooden crosses (one of which is kept today by his Boy Scout troop in Connecticut), as well as the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, which was Gilbert’s second but not final burial site.
Back in New Haven after the pilgrimage, while Elizabeth Maude waited for Gilbert’s body to come home, she began a series of memorialization practices, common to the turn of the 20th century. She asked Jennie to design a stained-glass window for their church which Tiffany & Co. of New York would produce, she published a book about Gilbert’s life and service as a Boy Scout executive and as a scout in the air, and she planned for the third, and final funeral, in the living room of their house called Greenway, in the newly built leafy suburbs of New Haven.
This pilgrimage was the first and only time the family traveled outside of the United States. Jennie’s perspective is perhaps unique among WWI battlefield pilgrims: she was not drawn by some spiritual or personal force to undertake the pilgrimage, as was the case for her mother. Instead, as the remaining “child” of the Jerome family—she was a woman of 33—it was expected that she would accompany and assist her mother in her pilgrimage, which she did, but not without emotional struggle alluded to in the diary she kept.
This paper, then, will introduce the audience to the Jerome family pilgrimage through a reading of the photographic images in a scrapbook kept by Elizabeth Maude and the diary kept by Jennie, placing this family in the context of their particular circumstances against the larger movements for memorialization after World War I.