Dr. Edward W. Ryan, American Badass

Short notices published in the Tacoma Times on May 1, 1914
Short notices published in the Tacoma Times on May 1, 1914

I like plucking little known but fascinating people from the pages of newspapers published 100 years ago, and damned if Dr. Edward W. Ryan, of Scranton, PA, isn’t one of the most interesting I’ve read about. Dr. Ryan was a fearless and manic physician and he was everywhere in the 1910s. He may have first arrived in the public consciousness on today’s date, May 1, 1914. That’s when several American papers published notice that he was about to executed in Mexico, as a spy.

The Mexican Revolution was in full swing in May, 1914, and it seemed like America might join in the fray at any moment to make it a full shooting war between our nations as well, because why not? After all, President William Howard Taft’s secretary of state, Henry Lane Wilson, had colluded with the Mexicans to bring about a coup in 1913, overthrowing Mexican president Francisco Madero and installing Victoriano Huerta in his place. Of course America screwed it up, because Huerta ended up being a brutal dictator. By this time in 1914 troops loyal to him had come face-to-face with American warships at Veracruz and there were prisoners being taken and people getting killed on both sides. U.S. newspapers were in a froth about the whole thing, each day. Events in Mexico were a complete obsession–at least for the media. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expected the Great War to come, elsewhere.

So–Dr. Edward Ryan’s arrest wasn’t particularly surprising, given everything going on at the time,

Dr. Edward W. Ryan, badass. (state.gov)
Dr. Edward W. Ryan, badass. (state.gov)

but nothing could stop an early 20th Century American newsman from finding drama. So it was reported on May 1 that “The government is today endeavoring to learn the truth concerning Dr. Edward Ryan, an American, who is reported to be in danger of execution as a spy. It is admitted that Ryan has been acting as an agent of the state department as well as a Red Cross representative, but It is said that not the slightest effort has been made to conceal the fact, so there are no grounds for treating him as a spy.”

My first thought was how interesting it might be if he really was a spy. But after some additional research I discovered Dr. Ryan may not have been a spy–but he was a badass. The Mexicans would end up letting him go, and the tale of how that occurred is worth quoting in full. This is from a document published by the U.S. Department of State about Dr. Ryan, titled “The Amazing Dr. Edward Ryan and the Work of the American Red Cross in Estonia.”

This is the section about Dr. Ryan’s time in Mexico:

Ryan’s quiet life as a New York City doctor came to an abrupt end in 1913. When the U.S. Department of State went looking for volunteers to help evacuate American citizens caught up in the ongoing Mexican revolution, Dr. Ryan answered the call to adventure. After working in various parts of Mexico, Dr. Ryan ended up in the city of Torreón in the state of Coahuila.Everything went well until the day when Dr. Ryan was captured by a rebel leader from the neighboring state of Zacatecas and declared a spy and prisoner of war. And so began Dr. Ryan’s first near death adventure.

As The [Scranton, PA] Republican described it in his obituary, “the conventional order to ‘be shot at sunrise’ became a serious reality for Dr. Ryan, and the next morning, he was lead out to the post where he was to meet his death. His sentence of death was read to him, but he listened to it with such calm contempt and stoic demeanor that his enemies – especially the rebel chief – abandoned their plans for his immediate death. Better to say that they postponed their plans, for the performance was repeated the next day – and for thirteen consecutive days. Then, through some whim of their captors, Dr. Ryan and a few associates who had been taken prisoner with him were set scot-free and went soon on their way back to Mexico City. The local physician later denied the statements of his associates that he had been ‘stoical’ under the harrowing experience in the rebel camp, rather explaining that after the first few sunrises he began to get rather hopeful, and finally got used to it. The State Department of this country interested itself in having Dr. Ryan released and overnight he became a national figure.” While Dr. Ryan seldom talked about any of his own adventures, others – awed by his complete lack of fear – did that for him. And so the Ryan legend was born.

The dude was the real deal. No one wants to die, but a lot of people probably like to think that if it death becomes inevitable, they’ll greet it with that kind of stoic calm–on the surface, anyway.

You’d think that for many, nearly getting shot by Mexican revolutionaries might put the kibosh on further adventuring, but then you’re evidently not thinking like an Edward Ryan. As the State Dept. document goes on to explain, when the Great War erupted across Europe in August, 1914, the Red Cross sent physicians to do work in some of the worst places on the continent. That’s how, in 1915, Dr. Ryan ended up in Serbia. And it may have been the American media’s tendency at the time (and let’s face it, they still do this) to puff up our positive contributions to anything, but in January, 1915, the New York Times published an article, complete with interviews, positing the idea that Dr. Ryan’s actions in Belgrade may have saved Serbia. The Grey Lady quoted Mrs. Slavko Grouitch, an American who’d ended up the wife of the Serbian Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs. She quoted letters from her husband, who wrote that “Dr. Ryan had saved Belgrade and its remaining population when the Austrians captured the place, and … in the presence of the American Minister and other high officials, Dr. Ryan had been thanked by the Crown Prince for the great services he had rendered the [Serbians].”

Dr. Ryan, who specialized in treating “fevers”–illnesses like typhus, for example–was himself killed by malaria while in Tehran on September 18, 1923. He was just 39, and due to work he did throughout the Great War as lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, responsible for the American Red Cross commission to Western Russia and the Baltic, he was a decorated hero. As the Scranton Times-Tribune reported in December, 2012, Serbia eventually awarded Dr. Ryan “commander of the White Eagle and commander of the Order of St. Sava” in addition to “the Charity Cross and the Red Cross.” His service in Estonia after the war led to that nation awarding Dr. Ryan “Officer First Class of the Order of Liberty.” According to the Scranton paper, he received similar awards from France, Russia and Greece, to name a few.

It’s great that his hometown papers remember him, as does the State Department, but Dr. Edward Ryan sounds like the kind of guy who deserves a little more. He packed a lot into 39 years, made all of it count. He was gone when my grandpa was still in short pants, but he has all my respect.