Hannah Snell AKA James Gray
Hannah was born in 1723, the daughter of Samuel Snell, a Worcester hosier and dyer, and Mary Williams, his second wife.
According to Google a hosier is someone who makes hosiery. Hosiery, also referred to as leg wear, or garments worn directly on the feet and legs.
Her parents both died in 1740, when she was seventeen. After her parents died she went to live with her sister and brother-in-law in London.
After a couple years she met a Dutch sailor named James Summs, who she married in 1744.
Summs did not keep the best company. He associated with criminals and he would sell Hannah’s possessions in order to pay off his debts. He was not kind, many sources called him a nasty-piece-of-work. He left shortly after finding out that Hannah was pregnant with their first child.
Their daughter, Susannah, was born in 1745 or 1746, depending on the source, but sadly she died less than a year later. Some sources said she didn’t die but was left with Hanna’s sister, but the majority did say that the child passed away before she turned one.
After Susannah’s death Hannah set out to look for her husband, who despite everything she was still in love with. Hannah had convinced herself that he had been forced to join the Army or Navy against his will, which was a common occurrence in the eighteenth century. She borrowed some of her brother-in-law’s clothes as well as his name, James Gray, and set off to find her husband. She would never succeed in this goal, however, as she would later find out that her husband was executed for murder in Genoa.
According to her account, shortly after assuming her brother-in-law’s name she heard that troops were gathering to counter the Jacobite Rising and Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland and she made her way to Coventry where she joined John Guise’s regiment, the 6th Regiment of Foot, in the army of the Duke of Cumberland.
A Regiment of the Foot is what we would now call and Infantry Regiment.
And for a brief history lesson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, or Charles Edward Stuart, was the elder son of James Francis Edward Stuart, and the Stuart claimant to the throne of Great Britain after 1766 as “Charles III”.
The Jacobite rising of 1745, also known as the Forty-five Rebellion or simply the ’45, or The Year of Charles, was an attempt by Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) to regain the British throne for his father, James Francis Edward Stuart. It took place during the War of the Austrian Succession, when the bulk of the British Army was fighting in mainland Europe.
Long, complicated, story short, it didn’t work and Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Scots went back to Scotland in December of that year. I tried to sum up the whole thing and I ended up with 6 pages of Stuart and English and Scottish history that had nothing to do with Hannah Snell. But this uprising gave Hannah the opportunity she needed to join the military and look for her husband.
Some accounts suggested that Hannah was forced to join the military like she thought her husband hand been, but most agree that Hannah joined of her own free will, reasoning that at least she would be fed, paid and protected in her search for her husband. The army was moving north and the 6th Foot marched to Carlisle. Her disguise went undiscovered and she set about learning how to handle her arms and perform drills properly. She was quick to learn and the company officers noticed her progress.
One of her Sergeants, named Davis, set his sights on seducing or raping a girl in Carlisle and tried to enlist Hannah’s aid, practically ordering her to do so. Instead she warned the girl and, hearing of this, Sergeant Davis alleged ‘neglect of duty’ against Hannah. This was a serious offence and the punishment reflected it; she was sentenced to 600 lashes of the whip.
This was not an uncommon punishment in the 18th century. Hannah was tied to the barrack gate, with her back out, so it hid her breasts and thus her disguise remained unsuspected. Although her flesh was torn and bleeding, she bore 500 lashes without a sound. The officers admired her courage and the Commanding Officer cancelled the final 100 lashes. Having had no luck in the search for her husband, and then recognizing a recruit as a former neighbor from Wapping, she deserted from the 6th Foot and made for Portsmouth. In Portsmouth she enlisted in Colonel Frazer’s regiment of the Marines in 1747. October 27th, 1747 Hannah joined the crew of the naval sloop, Swallow, where she sailed to India to take part of the siege of Pondicherry.
Naval sloops were initially single-masted ships between 1700–1711; all sloops after 1716 were re-rigged as two-masted, and all new sloops continued to be two-masted until the 1750s, when three-masted – ship-rigged – sloops were introduced.
Hannah proved that she was an admirable fighter with a gun, shooting thirty-seven shots during the course of the battle of Pondicherry. During the battle, Hannah was injured with six shots in her right leg, five in her left and one in her groin. Not wanting her identity to be exposed Hannah dug the bullets out herself as she recovered in Cuddalore rather than risk a doctor noticing that she did not have the necessary parts to be enlisted in the navy.
After making a full recovery, Hannah was made an ordinary seaman. She served in this position upon two ships and gained the nickname of ‘Molly’ because of the smoothness of her face. She was good-natured and popular though, so, having mixed well with her fellow sailors, she was soon able to take on the, more discreet, name of ‘Hearty Jemmy’. During this time is when she learned her husband’s fate, being executed for murder.
On June 2nd 1750, just before finishing her last tour she revealed her disguise to her shipmates. She then petitioned the Duke of Cumberland, the head of the army, for her pension. She was honorably discharged and the Royal Hospital, Chelsea officially recognized Snell’s military service. Her battle-wounds led to her receiving an annuity as a Chelsea cut-pensioner. She was officially granted her pension in 1751. In 1785 her pension was increased to £30 a year for life. That equals about $6,200 in 2020. At the time she was one of only 2 women who were recognized for their service and granted a pension of their own.
Tales of Hannah’s exploits quickly spread throughout the country and were even published in print. She started appearing on stage in London theatres. Dressed in uniform as a soldier or a marine, she would go through her old drill-motions and sing appropriate ballads.
In 1751, she even went on tour to Bath and Bristol. After that tour Hannah bought a pub in Wapping, naming it ‘The Female Warrior.’ The pub sign represented her in regimental dress on one side and marine uniform on the other, with the inscription ‘The Widow in Masquerade’.
In November 1759, she married again to a journeyman carpenter named Samuel Eyles. Hannah was heavily pregnant at the time and a son, George Spence, was born soon afterward. A second son, Thomas, followed four years later. Upon Samuel’s death, she remarried again in 1772, to Richard Habgood of Welford.
Together they seem to have moved to the South Midlands, although Hannah is also reported again in Wapping and also in Weston Longueville in Norfolk.
However, her son, George, became a London attorney and, by 1785, Hannah had settled near him in Stoke Newington. Unfortunately, the symptoms of insanity, thought to be caused by syphilis, began to develop and she was removed to Bedlam Hospital in August of 1791, where she died in 1792, aged sixty-nine. She was buried among the old soldiers at Chelsea Hospital as she had always wanted.
Matthew Stephens, “Hannah Snell: the secret life of a female marine, 1723-1792”, Ship Street Press, Sutton, 1997
First Lieutenant Reba Z. Whittle
Graduated from the Medical and Surgical Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in San Antonio TX in June of 1941, later that month she joined the Army and a nurse. Was given the relative rank of second lieutenant and stationed in ABQ, NM. She served as a general duty ward nurse for a little over two years there in New Mexico.
In January of 1943 she applied to the Army Air Force School of Air Evacuation. These missions were flown with C-47s that would off load troops and equipment and then would be quickly converted into ambulances or hospital planes. Since they served this dual purpose, they did not have the red cross markings on them.
So working on these planes as a medical professional was pretty dangerous. Everyone who worked on these were volunteers. They also had to meet additional requirements and pass fitness evals due to the extreme conditions they often had to work under. Reba had no issues passing all of the qualifications and in August of 1943, she was accepted into the school and in September she reported to the school in Bowman Field, Kentucky.
The six-week course taught the nurses how to use all of the equipment and medical supplies on the plane. They learned things like pain management treatments, treating shock and many other scenarios that they may encounter. The fact was that they would often be working without a physician, so they had to be able to treat the patients effectively. She graduated in November of 1943 with an excellent rating.
So not only was she amazingly capable at with standing all these pressures of the training, she did it with flying colors.
After graduation she is assigned to the 813th Medical Aeromedical Evacuation Transportation Squadron (MAETS) in England. While assigned to this squadron, she flew 40 missions in the span of nine months.
Those 40 missions equaled 500 hours total flying time, 80 of which were combat flying hours. These flights went from Scotland, to Ireland, Belgium, and France.
When Reba left on her flight September 27, 1944, she was thinking about how she was going to spend her time on her day off the next day. Unfortunately she wasn’t going to get the chance to tour around London that next day. The plane she was on was shot down by the German forces and she was captured along with the rest of the crew. There was a total of six of them. One pilot died in the crash, leaving five crew four men and one woman. One of the men had a bad leg injury, which slowed the group as they had to walk from one place to the next as the Germans worked out what they were going to do with them.
Whittle had a concussion from the crash landing.
They were shuffled around for a few days, terrified and in shock. This was the first time a woman had been captured and no one knew what to do with her. Eventually they ended up in Koln before being taken to Frankfurt by train. She was separated from her crew and placed in a 8×8 cell. It was dirty, but she was warmer than she had been during this entire ordeal.
Eventually she is taken to a British American run prison camp hospital and has to sleep in an exam room since she was the only woman. She is shipped to another location due to the lack of accommodations for her. In her next location in Meiningen, she had a room and plenty of space to herself away from the men. She was also allowed to take walks with a guard.
The guys put on a concert and she said they had to edit it quite a bit since there was a woman in the audience. Performing skits and singing songs.
She was put to work with burn victims and she enjoyed having something to do. She appreciated how well her fellow POWs treated her. She said they went out of their way to try to make her comfortable and happy.
Its sweet to imagine these men all gentlemen trying to care for her as they would their own sister in this mess. Making her things and giving her what little they had.
She struggled with passing the time. Finding entertainment in washing laundry and doing her hair. It was hard for her to read or draw. But she did write in her journal until November of 1943. She stopped writing and this period of time she didn’t even discuss with her husband. So we don’t really know what happened during that time.
She was sent to Switzerland on January 25th 1945 where she was repatriated with 109 other POWs. She flew back home to the US February third and signed a nondisclosure statement on the 6th.
Whittle was awarded the Purple Heart on 7 February for injuries sustained during the crash and on march 2nd she was promoted to first lieutenant.
She spent a little over four years as a second lieutenant.
She was finally released from the hospital on April 23rd 1945 and returned to duty in May. She is stationed in Miami Beach Florida, where unfortunately her flight status was suspended indefinitely. Ultimately due to the concussion and frequent headaches. In June that year she is reassigned as a Ward nurse and Stationed at Hamilton Field in California.
August she married her husband LTC Stanley Tobiason and requests a relief from active duty which is eventually granted in January of 1946. This is where her biggest issue lies in the battle ends over her disability benefits.
10% for pruritus, chronic, moderate, 10% for sprain, chronic, lumbar spine, 10% for fissure
50% for post traumatic personality disorder, 10% for scar of the forehead, moderately disfiguring
She appeals these rating in 1950, and fights for another ten years fighting to get a medicl retirement status.
Physical Standards Division, of the Office of The Surgeon General (OTSG), stated and I quote, “did not suffer disability of a degree warranting retirement for physical disability at the time of separation from the service ….”
She keeps appealing and requesting a review over and over only to have them continually denied. Reba fights that she had to leave the service due to her injuries. She is granted retirement pay benefits in February of 1954, however her injuries were not combat incurred. And it isn’t until 1955 before they finally agree to back pay her $13 grand. She appealed to receive her full back pay in 1960, but was denied.
She stopped fighting the system and in 1981 she died of cancer.
On Sept. 2, 1983, Whittle was given the status of official POW. Which her husband had to fight for. Up until that point the official stance was that there hadn’t been any female POWs in the European theater.
I spoke before about Col Ruby Bradley and her experience as a POW in the Philippines. She endured horrible conditions for years until she was liberated.
Reba, being in Germany, a signatory to the Geneva conventions, was repatriated after four months.
Reba however was alone and I think her isolation along with her inability to acknowledge what she went through didn’t help her mental health. She was being told, pretty consistently that this didn’t happen to you. She was never recognized as a POW while she was alive.
Ruby and the other POWs from the Philippines didn’t have to sign that same nondisclosure agreement.
You can read Reba’s journal in the Study Project written in 1990 by LTC Mary Frank.