Thanks to the help of Canadian missionary Dr. Frederick MacCallum, 17-year-old Aurora Mardiganian finally escaped the physical and sexual abuse she’d endured during the massacres and deportation of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire. He had arranged for her safe passage to New York in 1917 through the ACASR. But little did she (or MacCallum, it’s safe to say) know she was in for a different kind of exploitation—from Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and American wartime propaganda.
Ravished Armenia is touted to be Aurora’s autobiography. It’s the story of her kidnapping during the beginning of the deportations in April 1915, the horror of witnessing starvation, death and destruction all around her, the harrowing descriptions of herself and other young girls as sex slaves, and her desperate and lonely escape. While it is entirely believable that Aurora experienced all these terrible things, it’s impossible to accept that, as the book’s “interpreter” H.L. Gates stated, “every word is true.”
What is much more likely is that the publicity committee of ACASR, which was launching a $30 million fundraising campaign [$480 million today], said “How can we turn to our advantage the sad tale of this abused young girl? How can we appeal to the emotions of our target audience (known later as the Madison Avenue advertising technique) to convince them to donate—and donate big? Ha! We’ll get a writer who can “interpret” her experiences into something that will positively yank on every heart-string on the continent! And then we’ll sponsor a Hollywood film. And we’ll make it as salacious as possible—whatever will pass the censor boards—so we can sell as many tickets as possible!” The audience consisted of North American Christians, who were the vast majority of the population. Canada had been engaged in World War I since 1914, and the Americans were about to enter the war when Aurora arrived in New York in the spring of 1917. Therefore, references to Christianity and “the enemy” would be most effective.
Ravished Armenia – The Book
There’s no doubt that Aurora had been severely traumatized by her experiences. Nora Waln, the 22-year-old Publicity Secretary for ACASR, located at 1 Madison Avenue, New York, noted in the Foreword that Aurora had to take “intervals of rest of several days” while she was telling her story to the interpreter because “her suffering had so unnerved her.” But there was something more at play here. Waln admitted that “Miss Mardiganian’s names, dates and places, do not correspond exactly with similar references to these places made by Ambassador Morgenthau, Lord Bryce and others.” In other words, they were not accurate. Waln excused the inaccuracies by first blaming Aurora’s young age and the trauma she’d suffered. But then she admitted that the “interpreter, in giving this story to the American public has not attempted to write a history [italics mine]. He has simply aimed to give [a] message to the American people that they may understand something of the situation in the Near East during the past years, and help to establish there for the future, a sane and stable government.” This last part was an appeal for support for an American mandate in eastern Turkey for an Armenian homeland—an idea that President Woodrow Wilson and his friend, Cleveland Dodge, the president of ACASR, wanted. So did the chairman ACASR James Barton, who was also Secretary the American Board.
The emotionally manipulative language leaps off the pages of the book. Armenians are described as “superior to the Turks intellectually and morally,” “among the first converts to Christ,” and being “a noble race,” reinforcing the North American attitude that Armenians were not really part of the uncivilized world that Christians were trying to civilize, unlike the Turks. In fact, they were just like us! There are a couple of references to “friendly Turks”, but for the most part they are described as violent, hateful, mercenary, and resentful.
Appealing to American patriotism, in two separate instances Aurora is “hugging the walls of a house” and sees “a beautiful sight—the American flag” which “is very beautiful to the eyes of all Armenians!” In one section the adjectives are so descriptive you can almost hear The Stars and Stripes playing in the background while “the rays of a searchlight played on” the flag. Several names are dropped into the text so the public will know of their good works for the cause, e.g., “Cleveland Dodge is the best friend the Armenians have in all the world.”
Apparently Aurora sold her life story for $50, possibly to H.L. Gates, which was re-sold for $700 to the International Copyright Bureau. Each book sold for 50¢ and Aurora was to get 5¢ of that per presentation talk. Gates later admitted that other women posed as Aurora in different parts of the country to sell books, the implication being that she never saw a large portion of earnings.
Ravished Armenia – The Movie
There is only a 20-minute fragment of the silent film, which was renamed Auction of Souls, still in existence. However, we do know certain things about it. Director William N. Selig acquired the film rights, with a portion of the profits going to ACASR. Aurora Mardiganian’s legal guardians, Henry Leyford Gates, the book’s “interpreter” and his wife, novelist Eleanor Brown Gates, took her to Hollywood for the filming. As if going through the original trauma weren’t enough, Aurora played herself in the movie, thus being forced to re-live it. During the making of the film, she was injured physically and, not surprisingly, psychologically. In one scene, naked girls are crucified on large Christian-style crosses (poster at right shows a still from the movie), but Aurora insisted it never happened; small crosses were used by some captors for vaginal impalement instead.
There was a promotional tour around North America in 1919-20, and accompanying screenings of the film, which broke box office records in most places it played. In keeping with the advertising techniques used in the book, the posters highlighted Aurora’s youth, innocence and purity, and “the Turks” were portrayed as monsters. Indeed one poster by artist Dan Smith was modelled after a E. Fremiet sculpture entitled Gorilla Carrying Off a Woman. This poster (at right) suddenly inflated the estimated deaths from a likely 600,000-700,000 to “four million perished.” Aurora earned $15/week for the promotional tour, and was to have been paid $7,000 for the film. Her guardians claimed that her expenses amounted to $650/week. It took a court case for her to eventually get $5,000.
Conclusion: Aurora Mardiganian was Ruthlessly Exploited
Film historian Anthony Slide interviewed Aurora shortly before her death in 1994. Sadly, she had led a difficult life. In 2014 he published an annotated and revised edition of the original Ravished Armenia, that includes the film’s script, illustrations, and a foreword by Canadian director Atom Egoyan. More recently author James Bone found evidence of Aurora’s court case and guardianship.
Nora Waln received credit for screenwriting, and in other instances, for writing the scenario. Slide seems to have confused Henry Gates with established screenwriter Harvey Gates, but concluded that Gates “undoubtedly” had a hand in writing the script; he certainly was credited for “interpretting” the book. Waln later had a successful writing career, but Bone described Gates as “an extraordinarily talented hack journalist.” Though it’s their names attached to the projects, it’s reasonable to say that they couldn’t have proceeded without the blessing of those at the top of ACASR.
Both the book and the movie were propaganda, publicity and fundraising tools that did their job well. They helped raise millions of dollars for ACASR and public support for both the war effort and an Armenian homeland. But they did so at a tremendous personal cost to Aurora Mardiganian. She was twice exploited, and ruthlessly so. She was exploited by her abusers during the genocide, and again by Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the political publicity machine.