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Marcellus Township Wood Memorial Library

History of the Library - Part 2

Dr. D.E. Compere’s Amazing Letter-Writing Campaign By Suzanne Lind

Marcellus Library’s benefactor, Russell Wood, died alone on a military hospital cot in an army training camp in Morrison, Virginia.  He had written a will in February 1918, before enlisting.  He died of influenza in October of the same year, still in training camp. 


That might have been the sad ending of the story.  The will would have been read,  the library built, and Russell Wood’s name honored without any real sense of who he was, or of the broader effect of his death.


However, as Russell Wood lay dying, a man was sitting on the bed next to him.  He watched with increasing dismay as Russell lay alone, gravely ill, receiving no treatment.  That man was Dr. Dolphus Edward Compere, a military doctor who had come to Camp Morrison to visit his brother, who was also sick. 


Because Private Wood was not under Compere’s command, the doctor was not allowed to treat or even touch him.  However, Dr. Compere later wrote a book about his experiences with the army, in which he described what he saw as he sat near Wood’s bed.


“I could not prevent hearing and seeing dangerously ill soldiers around my brother,” he wrote, “but one especially attracting my attention was unconscious and breathing so fast and hard that as I sat on my brother’s cot I held my watch and counted his respiration—fifty per minute.  About 12 o’clock the ward orderly came around giving one-thirtieth grain strychnine tablets and Dovers powders, and finding he could not prize this poor fellow’s mouth open with a spoon, he remarked: “Oh, well, when you can’t get their mouths open, there’s nothing else to do.”  I saw the nurse sitting in the ward record office writing and filling in papers.  Also I talked with Lieutenant Nelson, the ward surgeon, and hereby testify that absolutely nothing was done for this dying soldier from 8:30 a.m. until after 3 p.m.  Also, my brother said: “All others are treated the same and this soldier, Private Wood, has been expected to die for three days.”


Dr. Compere then talked with the camp Major about things he had seen in the hospital ward, and was told his concerns were not important and that it was inappropriate for him to raise them.   Dr. Compere said, “I would like to know if all your cases are allowed to die without medical attention, as I know one man to be doing in Ward 13.”   The Major called Compere a “spy,” even though he had official permission to come to see his brother, and told him to make his complaints to Washington through official channels. 


Amazingly, Dr. Compere did just that. On his way back to his camp in New Jersey, he visited Col. Bert W. Caldwell in Washington, D.C., who refused to allow him to explain his concern; he told Dr. Compere to “drop him a line” about it.  Dr. Compere believed that Woods might still be alive at this time, and was incensed that such a high-level military person would not try to help in some way.     


An investigation was nevertheless held at Camp Morrison, at which Dr. Compere’s brother testified that all Dr. Compere’s statements were true and that Private Wood died at 6:51 p.m., October 11, unattended by a doctor.  The report of the investigation was not made public. 


In his book, Dr. Compere wrote:  “I received my honorable discharge, December 14, 1918, at Fort Monroe, Va., and after spending Christmas at home, Dallas, Texas, on December 30th I visited the Surgeon General in Washington, asking to see the results of this investigation of Camp Morrison Hospital.   Lieutenant Colonel Hopwood in the investigation department asked me upon what authority I asked to see these papers.  I replied: ‘I am the officer who put in the complaint.’ He said: ‘That is not sufficient.’ Then I said:  ‘Well, I am now a private citizen,’ and he replied: ‘A citizen has not the right to ask for such information.’   I said: ‘Then, you refuse me this privilege.’  He finally found the papers and I read their excuse for white-washing this case, [it] was in Article 3—‘Lieut. Dolphus E. Compere has made some false statements.’   I said: ‘Do you think I will allow that lie to stand on your records?’   He said: ‘The case has been closed and there’s nothing to be done.  Now don’t make a damn fool of yourself.’



At this point, an angry and worried Dr. Compere began a major letter-writing campaign to inform as many military and political leaders as possible about what he considered a cover-up of mismanagement and abusive treatment of soldiers in army hospitals.  During 1919 and early 1920 Dr. Compere  wrote many, many letters to military leaders, the Surgeon General, government leaders --  including President Woodrow Wilson!  --   news organizations, and the American Legion.  No one took him seriously or replied with any respect for his concerns.


So Dr. Compere decided to write a book!  He wanted to reach a broader, and hopefully a more interested audience.   He compiled his letters and his account of his search for attention to medical care for soldiers. He used the letters to illustrate his belief that the military deliberately provided protection for military personnel who did not do their jobs well.  But, knowing that people do not want to read only sad and disturbing things, he devoted the major portion of his book to a collection of funny stories, poems, sayings, silly one-liners and songs that he had gathered before and during World War 1. 


Dr. Compere titled his book Army Frowns and Smiles.  It was published in 1920.  It presents a unique look into the World War I era of history.  Next week’s article will take the form of a book report about this remarkable and charming book. 


We do not know how Dr. Compere found an address for S.N. Lowery at the First State Savings Bank in Marcellus, and the book does not have a copy of the letter he wrote to Mr. Lowery.  But Mr. Lowery’s letter in response is included in Army Frowns and Smiles, and provides the information that was shared in last week’s article about his joy in learning more about Russell Wood’s death.


What a surprise it can be to read old books, articles, and letters!  Russell Wood is much more “alive” in Marcellus because the library archives have provided greater context and a broader picture of a kind person who lived a short but useful life.