Researching history requires sifting through pieces of information to uncover true facts from alternative facts—or as we used to say, fact from fiction. I was preparing to write about the strange case of the US High Commissioner, Mark Bristol, who often used the phrase “true facts”, when I came across a report of a massacre of school girls in Smyrna in 1922. This bit of news sent me on a tangent. I discovered that a naturalized American lawyer, Vahan Kardashian, was behind the report. The first thing I did was check the spelling of his name because the author of my source material was prone to misspelling names. In true fact, the lawyer was Vahan Cardashian. And this little tale was his very own version of the Bowling Green massacre. As I got deeper into the research, I found it difficult to sort the true facts from honest mistakes, sloppy reporting, alternative facts, and down-right lies.
I found a few online sources about Vahan Cardashian, some that obviously lifted paragraphs from each other or from the same source—without citing any sources. Therefore it’s pointless for me to cite them or provide links. The tidbits of info from those websites said that he was born circa 1884 in Cesarea, Turkey, attended Talas American College, was a graduate of Yale, practised law in New York City, married a wealthy American widow who was a prominent women’s rights activist, divorced her a few years later, worked in the Ottoman Embassy for a few years, founded the American Committee for the Independence of Armenia (ACIA), and was the Director of the Armenian Press Bureau. As I discovered, all this was more or less true. More or less because there’s more to truth than mere facts.
According to his 1914 book, Actual Life in the Turkish Harem, Vahan was born in Cesarea, Turkey. (Um, actual as opposed to fake?) There was no publisher listed, so the book may have been self-published. Given my intensive research on the Talas group, I knew that there was no American college in Talas. There was a boys’ boarding school run by ABCFM missionaries, so perhaps this is what was meant. The Talas connection would have been extremely interesting to me but for the fact that Vahan immigrated to the United States in 1902, before the focus of my book (1908-22).
According to the Catalogue of the Officers and Graduates of Yale University (1910), Vahan was a graduate. According to the US Census of 1920, he immigrated in 1902, was naturalized in 1908, and practised law in NYC. He was also single then. I tracked down the record of his May 15, 1907 marriage to Cornelia Alexander Hollub, and promptly went on another tangent to find out more about this “wealthy American widow.” Technically, when she married Vahan, she was a divorcée, since her ex-husband, Louis de Wardener Hollub, was very much alive when he applied for a passport in October 1907. However, she had been a widow (Mrs. Smith) when she married Mr. Hollub in 1891, with whom she had a son in 1892. Apparently Cornelia liked younger men. She was 31 and Mr. Hollub was 23 when they married. Her third husband, Vahan, was also 23 on their wedding day, but by now, Cornelia was 48. She had to have been wealthy to have lived at 70 W. 89th Street, and to have been active in so many of New York’s women’s clubs. According to the Club Women of New York 1906-07 directory, she was on the executive of three clubs and a member of at least five others, mostly supporting women’s rights. I didn’t bother tracking down the divorce record of Vahan and Cornelia (some sources say in 1916), but noted as interesting that she used her second husband’s name for the rest of her life.
Activism for Armenia
According to his obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on June 13, 1934, Vahan had been a counselor of the Ottoman Chamber of Commerce in the United States (1910-1914), and counsel to the Ottoman Embassy in Washington and the Consulate General in New York. It seems he had no further association with the Empire after 1915, which stands to reason considering the Ottoman government’s genocidal policies against Armenians. Some writers have claimed that his mother, sister and brother were victims of the genocide, but his obituary states that they survived him.
At the end of WWI there was considerable talk about the division of the Ottoman Empire, and creating an American mandate for an independent Armenia. This seems to be when Vahan found his passion. He was vehemently opposed to the United States establishing political and/or economic relations with Turkey, and was opposed to the Treaty of Lausanne, which did not support the annexation of eastern Turkey/western Anatolia for Armenia. In 1918 or 1919, depending on the source, he founded the ACIA and the Armenian Press Bureau, and devoted his efforts to garnering public support. But according to a letter from James Barton of the NER and ABCFM to Mark Bristol on March 28, 1921, the ACIA was a one-man band. “He has organized a committee, so-called,” wrote Barton, “which has never met and is never consulted, with Mr. Gerard as Chairman. Cardashian is the whole thing. He has set up what he calls an Armenian publicity bureau or something of that kind, and has a letterhead printed. Gerard signs anything that Cardashian writes. He told me this himself.”
Gerard was James Watson Gerard, the former American Ambassador to Germany, who still had some political clout. The Committee may have been driven by Cardashian, but as Richard G. Hovannisian noted in The Republic of Armenia: The First Year, 1918-1919, it “was not to be taken lightly, for among its ranks [or at least its supporters – my comment] were Congressional leaders of both parties, more than twenty state governors, and a host of noted clergymen, industrialists, and philanthropists.”
The Committee, however it was really structured, was very busy. John M. Vander Lippe wrote about its activities in a 1993 article, The “Other” Treaty of Lausanne. By the Spring of 1922 the ACIA “reported that it had already distributed 246,500 copies of 321 different pamphlets, mailed 17,000 personal letters and telegrams, and mass mailed 173,000 letters. … distributed pamphlets to 116,000 churches, asking them to write to the President and to Congress in favor of Armenian independence… [and] had also secured the names of 20,000 ministers and priests, 250 college presidents in favor of Armenian independence.” But what was the content of all this propaganda?
Mr. Cardashian’s Bowling Green Massacre
Though Vahan Cardashian is revered by some online sites, and most likely wrote a lot of true facts, I had concerns about some of his “actual facts” when I read in Actual Life in the Turkish Harem, “The Turk is in the minority and the Greek, Armenian, Jew and European constitute the majority” of the Ottoman population. This was an out-and-out whopper. Historians generally agree that the 1914 Ottoman census wasn’t too inaccurate with its count of 15 million Turks, 1.8m Greeks, 1.3m Armenians, 200,000 Jews, 200,000 Others (includes Assyrians). By no stretch of the imagination were Turks in the minority.
So I wasn’t surprised when I read in Potpourri, the journal of Canadian missionary Alexander MacLachlan, that reports of a massacre of school girls in Smyrna, simply weren’t true. MacLachlan had been called to the US State Department to help officials verify the truth of the contents of “a steady flow of protest petitions … against ratification.” He was unable to comment on many items because he had no expertise concerning them. However, as the President of the International College in Smyrna (1902-26), and having been present during the burning of the city in September 1922, he felt well qualified to comment on the supposed massacre. The petitions stated that a group of seventy or eighty “Christian girls—Armenians and Greeks… [who] were students in the American Collegiate Institute for Girls” were taken by a Turkish mob. “As the fire approached their school,” MacLachlan wrote, “the protest stated they were handed over to the cruel, sensual rapacity of those brutal Turks and not one of these girls has been heard of since that day. So much for the charge. Here are the actual facts.” The teachers had divided the girls in pairs, and marched them from the school down to the quay “to the protection of the Naval ships, without being disturbed, or in any way molested.” In his footnote, MacLachlan noted, “It transpired later that this man Karindashian [sic] and his group were the inspiration and authors of many of these protests signed by such men as Mr. Gerrard [sic] and the Episcopal bishops.”
Barton’s anger over this incident is palpable in his letter to Bristol: “Cardashian is out with his own people and with everybody else, except Gerard and perhaps one other leading Armenian who was in London a month ago, Pasdermadjian. Not long since, Cardashian came out with a pamphlet in which he charged the Near East Relief and the American missionaries as being the greatest enemies Armenia has ever had, claiming that they, in cooperation with President Wilson, had crucified Armenia, and a lot of other matter of this character. … We have had many a conference with Armenian leaders as to what can be done to stop this vicious propaganda carried on by Cardashian. He is constantly reporting atrocities which never occurred and giving endless misinformation with regard to the situation in Armenia and in Turkey.”
Why did Vahan go to the trouble of making stuff up when there were so many true facts he could have chosen from? It’s beyond my imagination. Naturally I was reminded of the 2017 massacre in Bowling Green that also never happened.
Original photo of lawn bowls: Vera Kratochvil; Vahan Cardashian, from Wikipedia.