Suffragist, 1 of 3 rescuers in 1915 water case, wanted focus on drowned painter

Following her role in a water rescue, Lucy G. Branham became notable as a suffragist, as shown here in 1919 while speaking at an unidentified location as part of the National Woman’s Party “Prison Special” tour. Branham wore a suffrage sash and a dress issued during a jail stint for picketing the White House. Photos courtesy of Library of Congress.
Lucy G. Branham, who grew up in Baltimore as the daughter of a suffragist and a doctor, graduated from Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and had graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities.

After Lucy G. Branham became known as a suffragist and agitator for other political causes, news reports commonly cited her as a Carnegie hero when she stumped across the country. But for an incident that Branham once minimized as “that swimming affair,” there is an extensive story that includes the heroism of two others, including a man who ultimately drowned.

While Branham’s stature has earned her the longest-lasting notoriety, she was but one of several who responded to save a female teacher and a female student from drowning in the Coffee Pot Bayou near Southland Seminary in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Jan. 30, 1915. Branham, then a 23-year-old teacher at the school, was joined in action by another student, Ruth E. McNeely, 19, and by Ernest W. Henderson, a 31-year-old painter who was working in the seminary.

In the years following the rescue, Branham built a reputation as a leader in the National Woman’s Party, lobbying for the 19th Amendment to codify women’s right to vote. Newspapers often buttressed her fearlessness by noting her medal. Branham, perhaps, was less concerned about discussing it.

“Miss McNeely and I tried to get the Carnegie Fund to help the family of the workman (Henderson) who had given his life for the drowning girls, and I suppose that was how they came to know about the thing,” Branham told The (N.Y.) Evening Post for a story published on June 19, 1920. “Anyhow, they pinned those medals on us.”

Indeed, Hero Fund records show that its investigation began with a focus on Henderson based on a nomination with regard to a potential pension for his widow. In a brief item titled “Heroism of Henderson,” published in the Ocala (Fla.) Evening Star two days after the incident, he’s misidentified as “Edward Henderson” and Branham mistakenly was referenced as a third victim.

As the Commission’s investigation eventually revealed, the teacher, Dema T. Nelson, 26, and student, Izola Aslin, 17, reached a point in the water where they could not touch bottom while wading during gym class. They submerged, surfaced, and screamed for help, sparking McNeely, Henderson, Branham, and others to swim out to them.

McNeely reached Nelson and Izola but soon found herself in trouble as Nelson grabbed onto her thighs and Izola got a hold of McNeely’s right arm. McNeely freed herself, then all three went under water and resurfaced. McNeely guided Izola away from Nelson and a second man took Izola’s arm and led her to wadable water.

Henderson, who had dived off a dock, also swam directly to Nelson. They struggled together for a few seconds, then came apart. When a third man approached Nelson, Henderson grabbed onto the man, who eventually separated from Henderson, who then submerged and was not seen again.

Branham swam to Nelson, put her right arm around her, and swam about 10 feet with her. The third man, whom Henderson had grabbed, then directed Nelson to safety.

Both Branham and McNeely returned to shore, then re-entered the water to search for Henderson, who had drowned.

By late October that year, the Hero Fund announced recognition for McNeely, Branham, and Henderson, with the intention of providing a stipend to Henderson’s wife and his three daughters, all of whom were younger than 10. Henderson’s wife, unfortunately, had died one week before the board’s decision. The Commission then developed a relationship with trustees for the children to arrange ongoing financial assistance, which continued in some manner until 10 years later.

A story in The Ocean Grove (N.J.) Times reported that McNeely, who returned to Ocean Grove in May 1915, was deciding how to use a $2,000 Hero Fund grant for continuing her schooling.

The Hero Fund has no other records about the remainder of her life.

More than a century later, Branham remains the most visible of the three awarded rescuers. Her profile on the Library of Congress’s online “Women of Protest” page mentions her Carnegie Medal. Stories and websites chronicling the suffragist movement today sometimes feature a photo of Branham wearing her jail garb from a 60-day sentence she served for picketing the White House in 1917. A year later, at Lafayette Square across from the White House, she burned a scrap of paper purportedly containing President Wilson’s words, symbolizing the “burning indignation of women who for a hundred years have been given words without action,” according to the Congressional Record.

Branham is credited for organizing efforts in support of the 19th Amendment in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. (In August 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to approve the amendment, enabling its ratification; Alabama and Georgia rejected it until decades later.)

Among her later causes was encouraging the U.S. to improve its relations with Russia. In January 1921, Branham testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations concerning a resolution to re-establish trade with Russia.

Branham died in 1966.

— Chris Foreman, Case Investigator

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