Set-up: Marie Equi is an early woman physician and publicly known lesbian who lived and worked in Portland, Oregon. She became a political radical after being abused by the police during a labor strike. For speaking out against the U.S. joining World War I, Equi was charged with sedition. Her trial was set during the equivalent of “sheltering-in-place.”
Excerpt from: “Marie Equi, Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions”
Equi tried to delay the start of her trial as long as possible. Like other
radicals, she anticipated trumped-up charges, biased juries, and fraudulent
court testimony. As a result, she adopted the wisdom of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn,
“a prominent radical known to many as “The Rebel Girl.” Flynn explained,
“Time was our greatest asset.” For radicals, she believed, “A trial was
tantamount to a lynching.”
Equi intended to feign illness to postpone the start of her trial, scheduled
for November 6, 1918. She hoped a jury might be more sympathetic once the
war had ended. At first she considered having her appendix removed and then
requesting two weeks or more for recovery. Then she planned to ingest a noxious
thyroid compound along with a morphine solution to induce fever and
nausea. She settled on something less dire: rubbing an ointment in her nose
that would trigger influenza-like symptoms. Equi figured her deception
might merit empathy or even exploit fears of the influenza pandemic plaguing
They had neither treatment or vaccine to offer
The first wave of the so-called Spanish influenza struck the East Coast
and the Midwest in the spring of 1918. No one paid much attention to the
peculiar flu that came on quickly and initially struck soldiers and sailors, and
after a few weeks the number of cases dropped and the danger seemed to have
passed. In the fall, however, a second, more virulent wave slammed the general
population, especially young adults of all classes. The rapid onset of symptoms
often meant a patient complained of fever, headache, and backache one day
and then struggled to breathe the next before suffocating to death. Not until
the onset of AIDS sixty-five years later would the nation exhibit so much
panic and fear of a mysterious, deadly disease. Physicians struggled with an
enormous demand for diagnosis and care although they had neither treatment
nor vaccine to offer. During the course of the pandemic, nearly 30 percent of
Americans became infected, and 675,000 died. Half of the fatalities among
American soldiers in Europe were due to the epidemic. The psychological
impact of this toll must have staggered the population.
"...I'd go through hell to help one of my boys."
diagnosed in early October 1918. The state’s board of health quickly ordered
all places of public gatherings closed: schools, theaters, churches, libraries,
and assembly halls. No meetings were allowed, and people were advised to
avoid crowded streetcars and wear gauze masks at all times. The number of
cases soared so high that the public auditorium and several schools were
converted into emergency hospitals. Portland registered 157 deaths the first
week of November when Equi’s trial was set to begin, but the federal court
system disregarded the risks of transmission and announced plans to begin the
fall session as scheduled. Equi put her ruse into effect and induced symptoms
the night before her court appearance. That same evening she learned that an
acquaintance of hers, a young Wobbly named Morgan, really was ill with the
flu and had been taken to the emergency hospital.
Equi Feigns Illness
Equi’s trial began on Wednesday, November 6, 1918, in Portland’s
federal courthouse at Sixth and Morrison Streets with Judge Robert S. Bean
presiding. Bean was a dignified and distinguished judge who had previously
served as Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court before assuming a position
as a US District Judge in Portland. As planned, Equi’s attorney Heckbert
informed Bean that she was ill with influenza and needed rest. Madge Paul, an
undercover informant, had already informed US Attorney Haney of Equi’s
deception, and he requested that a court physician examine her and advise
the court of her condition. The doctor determined Equi required, at most,
forty-eight hours of rest. Judge Bean ordered Equi to appear in court on Friday,
November 8 or forfeit her $10,000 bail. During the same court proceedings,
Haney revealed that he had received regular reports of Equi’s activities and he
knew of her ploy to delay her appearance. Equi was furious that her plan had
been exposed. At first she blamed one of her attorneys of double-crossing her;
then she suspected Madge Paul, the informant who had befriended her.
evening from a nurse at the influenza ward who informed Equi that her friend
Morgan was dying and begging to see her. When one of her friends advised her to
delay her visit, Equi exploded and yelled, “That dying boy is alone and wants
me, and I’d go through hell to help one of my boys.” She grabbed a bunch of
red carnations from a vase, rushed to the patient’s bedside, and stayed with him
through the night until he died. She was distraught for days afterwards—angry
with herself for not providing more care and furious with the government for
keeping her from her patients.
On November 7, George Vanderveer arrived in Portland, ready to serve
as Equi’s lead counsel the next day, but all plans were tossed aside once the
dailies broke the news the war-weary public longed for: the war had ended.
Portlanders erupted in deliriously happy, raucous celebrations. Longshoreman
left the docks and marched downtown, whistling, shouting, and ignoring
attempts by the police to maintain order. Office workers several stories above
rained paper scraps on a street parade below. Everyone ignored flu precautions
and littered the streets with face masks. Oregon had sent thirty-five thousand men
to the war, a full 14 percent of the state’s adult population, and everyone wanted to
banish the dread scourge from their lives.
Equi took comfort in delaying her trial until after the war had ended. Several
hours later, however, all celebrations stopped. People on the streets were stunned into
silence when they learned there was no peace, not yet. An overeager wire correspondent
on the front lines in France had filed a premature report, and Germany had yet to surrender.
The next morning, Equi’s trial resumed.
Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions, Michael Helquist, Oregon State University Press, 2015. Available in print at bookstores and in Kindle at Amazon.
Note: the courage and example of Marie Equi is now memorialized as part of the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco and in Portland’s Walk of the Heroines.