Once Upon a Time

World War I nurse proved to be unlucky in love

Grace McWilliams was stationed at Camp Grant in Rockford when she met Sgt. Leslie Anthony. A romance began there, and eventually the two married, though the marriage soon turned into a fiasco. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Jul. 1, 2018 12:01 am Updated: Jul. 1, 2018 12:18 am

Grace McWilliams was born in 1896 to Anson and Millie McWilliams in Knox County, Ill. She later lived with her sister, Roberta, known as Bertie, and her husband, Fred Hunsaker, in Camp Point. She left the Hunsakers to enter Blessing Hospital Training School for Nurses on March 10, 1914. After two months as a probationary student, she was accepted into the program. During her training, she had a tonsillectomy, a badly infected finger and pneumonia, but she managed to graduate April 12, 1917. The graduation ceremony took place at the Vermont Street Methodist Church. Six of the eight students who graduated were from Illinois and two from Missouri. A former superintendent, Mary Wheeler, came from Chicago to deliver the graduation address, speaking about the "the duties and hardships of a nurse," according to The Quincy Daily Journal. After graduation, McWilliams took the train to Chicago, where she took the two-day licensure exam. After receiving her passing grade, she worked in Galesburg for a few months and then returned to work at Blessing Hospital.

McWilliams applied to be a Red Cross nurse, and was accepted in January 1918. The hospital granted her a leave of absence, and in February she was sent to Camp Grant in Rockford. There she was assigned to the army base hospital. Camp Grant, quickly built in 1917, included over 1,000 buildings. When the war ended, the camp was given to the Illinois National Guard, who used it until the federal government needed it again in 1941.

After six months at Camp Grant, McWilliams was sent to France as a replacement nurse for the Army Nurse Corp Reserves. She left Hoboken, N.J., in early September 1918. The war ended in November 1918, and in December, she was assigned to the American Nurse Corps detachment. The nurses boarded the Celtic and left Liverpool, England, on Dec. 8, 1918. The detachment was assigned to the Casual Army V Corps, which had fought in three campaigns in September. The ship was full of the sick and wounded men from those battles and the able-bodied who would be discharged from service back in the United States. McWilliams was discharged in January 1919.

While living and working at Camp Grant, McWilliams had met Leslie Anthony, a sergeant from Iowa. A romance was kindled before they were both sent to France in the same week but on different ships. Anthony was wounded in France and returned to the United States, where he waited for McWilliams to return and be discharged from the nurse corps. They were reunited and married in St. Joseph, Mo., shortly after her discharge. They were married in secret and a week later, after accompanying his wife back to Quincy, Anthony left on a business trip. Not long after, McWilliams received word that he had been injured and died after an automobile accident. The Anthony marriage had lasted two weeks, only one of which was spent together. Though grief-stricken, McWilliams was concerned that she had received no details about the accident, and after a few weeks she and her brother, Henry, decided to investigate.

To their surprise, the siblings found Anthony in Waterloo Iowa, very much alive. He also had a wife and three children. He was arrested, charged with bigamy and jailed in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He was quoted in The Quincy Daily Whig stating that he had "found himself ‘in bad' and tried to clear up the situation by having his new bride believe that he had been killed."

Grace McWilliams visited Anthony while he was in jail, but it was a frosty reunion according to newspaper accounts. His court hearing was in St. Joseph, the site of their marriage. His excuse at trial was that he thought his first wife, who lived in Minneapolis during the war but was from Iowa, was divorcing him at the time he was drafted into the Army. He further attested that he was told the divorce was final, and she had custody of the children when he returned to the United States. Discovering this was not true only after he married McWilliams, he decided to fake his death. Anthony pleaded guilty, and at his trial, McWilliams asked for clemency. He was sentenced to six months in jail.

The entire Anthony-McWilliams episode only lasted about three months. Upon returning to civilian nursing in Quincy, Grace reverted back to her maiden name, McWilliams. She never lost her regard for the soldiers of the Great War and became involved with the American Legion. She attended the third national convention of the American Legion in Kansas City in 1921, with her fellow Red Cross nurses. She also attended conventions in 1924 and 1925 with her friend and fellow Blessing graduate nurse, Maud Howell.

In 1923, McWilliams ran for mayoress in the " ‘Slippery Gulch' election." The three elected positions were sheriff, mayoress, and popular lady. The "Slippery Gulch" show was a frontier entertainment that ran in Quincy for seven nights. Sponsors of the entertainment were the Hill-Emery post of the American Legion and the Legion Auxiliary. The show consisted of former service men and their relatives as the talent. The winners were those who sold the most tickets. McWilliams was in the top 10 ticket sellers.

From 1924 to 1926, McWilliams lived on Bird Street in Hannibal, Mo., working as a public health nurse for the Metropolitan Insurance Co. This unlucky love story partially ends with the announcement of the engagement of McWilliams to Lt. Edward S. Kornmann of Baltimore in February 1926. Kornmann was in the American Expeditionary Forces during the war and active in the American Legion. They married in Washington, D.C., and later moved to California. They remained active in the American Legion and even traveled back to France when the American Legion Convention was held there. McWilliams continued to work as a nurse. They divorced in 1946, and Grace married Lloyd Ryviers. Perhaps the third time was the charm, as she lived to age 81 and is buried in Hayward, Calif.


Arlis Dittmer is a retired medical librarian. During her 26 years with Blessing Health System, she became interested in medical and nursing history--both topics frequently overlooked in history.



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‘Remembering WWI'

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of America's service during World War I, this column features a series of articles about the area and its involvement in the war. The articles coordinate with the "Remembering WWI" exhibit at the History Museum, which runs through November.