In search of Miss E., student and gun-runner
Tracking down an elusive Civil War icon
By Anu Nousiainen
In the spring of 1918, Helsinki was indeed a strange city.
The Civil War is raging in Southern Finland, and the capital is in the hands of the forces of the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic, generally known as the Red faction. Schools are closed, and the Red Guards patrol the streets.
After nightfall, a curfew further empties the city’s streets and avenues.
Then somebody’s doorbell rings. Doors are forced open, drawers are rifled. Homes are searched.
Everything seems confused and chaotic.
The presses of the bourgeois newspapers have been stopped, and only Työmies (“The Worker”), the mouthpiece of the Social Democratic Party, is permitted to appear.
The capital is rife with rumours and whispers. There are long lines - often hours on end - for food, and the black market flourishes.
Somewhere in the centre of the city, a student at the Helsinki University of Technology - an attractive young woman - wraps three ammunition belts around her waist and chest, and then thrusts a large pistol in behind them. Over the assembled arms she pulls on a woollen overcoat with a handsome fur collar.
Then somebody takes a photograph of her, coat held open to reveal the weapons.
The picture is published on the cover of the weekly magazine Suomen Kuvalehti on June 15th, 1918, by which time the Reds have lost the Civil War and Helsinki is already in the hands of the forces of the White faction, commanded by Cavalry General (and later Marshal) C.G.E. Mannerheim.
Accompanying the striking image is a short caption:
“One of the finest protectresses of the Helsinki White Guard. Miss E., a student at the University of Technology, bearing three bandoliers and a large pistol. Altogether Miss E. Is carrying some 1,350 bullets strapped to her person.”
In 1934, the publishers Otava included the same image in a work depicting the Finnish Civil War in pictures. Now, however, the mysterious woman has been given a name: Miss E. is Verna Erikson.
“Many Helsinki women also carried arms and ammunition for the clandestine White Guard units in the Red-occupied capital, displaying great courage and ingenuity”, reads the later caption.
Over the years, the image of Verna resurfaces from time to time. It becomes one of the icons of White Finland.
But there is never any further information on the demurely-smiling woman in the woollen coat.
Who was Verna?
The best clue lies in the photograph itself.
It was clearly taken by a professional. Or at least, this is the firmly-held view of Jukka Kukkonen, a researcher at the Finnish Museum of Photography. He knows immediately which image we are talking about.
Kukkonen is compiling an exhibition for the Museum on the theme of images taken in 1918. As he understands it, the arms being smuggled by Verna would have been carried from the premises of a Helsinki photographer's studio.
Kukkonen also recalls having heard somewhere that Verna would have died that same year of the “Spanish Flu”, the influenza A-virus pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide between 1918 and 1920.
Young adults were particularly susceptible to the disease, with high mortality rates. Some 25,000 people died of Spanish ‘flu in Finland alone.
But Kukkonen’s knowledge peters out at this point, as does that of Helsinki University docent and military historian Jussi Niinistö, who has studied the military and personal history of the years on either side of Finland’s declaration of independence.
How is it possible that Verna’s story has never been followed up?
The picture is a total stunner, one of the most compelling images to have survived from the Civil War era.
It contains in equal measure innocence, sensuality, and a sort of gung-ho spirit of adventure.
The Wild West and Pancho Villa at large in our own little capital.
Who was behind the camera, and what really happened to Verna?
Historian Panu Nykänen also knows about the photograph of Verna.
Last year Nykänen put the finishing touches to a book on the history of the University of Technology. He promises to go and search out Verna Erikson’s student card from the university’s archives.
This would at least give us a birthdate to work with.
Oh, and Nykänen points out in passing that there is something about Verna written in the memoirs of the architect and novelist Salme Setälä (1894-1980).
Setälä graduated from the same establishment, formerly known as “The Polytechnical School”, in 1917, and in her book Polusteekin koulussa (“At The Polustechnic School”, 1970), she writes about student life in Helsinki during the First World War.
Sure enough, when the Civil War breaks out and the girls at the Technical University set about helping the boys in the machine-gun company, Setälä mentions Verna’s part in things. Verna apparently has a nickname that is used quite as often as her real name - "Peija".
Setälä herself goes by the nickname "Priska".
Then there are other girls, variously named Pannukakku, Kirppu, and Poro (“Pancake”, “Flea”, and “Reindeer”).
The girls swear a solemn oath of silence. Not even their immediate families know what they are up to.
The girls are ordered to take some kick-sledges across the ice to Lauttasaari, to the west of the city proper. The boys intend to take the sledges on further across the ice to the west and so to circle around the Red lines to link up with the White Guard forces outside the city.
The inner circle of the White resistance group meets every morning at the Nissen Café close to the Market Square. There Verna and the others receive their instructions.
They are for instance ordered to go out to the outskirts of the city to buy bullets and cartridges from Russian arms merchants, and the cartridges are packed into shoeboxes.
There are Red Guard detachments on patrol all over the place. The girls also carry weapons in Girl Scout napsacks. These are stuffed full of revolvers and then strapped to the girls’ waists in such a way that they hang down between their legs and under their skirts.
Like a baby kangaroo, giggle the girls.
A pretty large backpack can be secreted under a full skirt, but such an item weighs quite a lot and bangs uncomfortably against the knees and shins when walking.
The bandoliers of bullets are disguised as wrapped-up bouquets of flowers.
“It was naturally a very exciting business, which cast a kind of romantic sheen over all the grimness and pain that surrounded the period of instability and revolution”, writes Setälä.
Panu Nykänen rings: he has unearthed Verna’s student card.
Verna Erikson was born in Turku in April 1893.
So she is 24 in the picture, or perhaps she has just celebrated her 25th birthday.
Nykänen lists her studies. They seem something of a mixed bag: analytical geometry, laboratory work on general physics, inorganic chemistry, construction engineering...
“She appears to have completed some basic courses here and there. That was quite typical for the war years; nearly a third of the students dropped out before graduation. In 1915, for all practical purposes the entire board of the Student Union went off to Germany to be trained as Jägers [elite light infantry]”, says Nykänen.
He goes on: “That specialised physics course in 1916, it could quite easily have been training in firing a light machine-gun.”
According to Panu Nykänen, there were not many more than a dozen girls all told enrolled at the University of Technology. They were either in the Faculty of Architecture, like Salme Setälä, or in the Chemistry Faculty, where Verna studied.
The student card also lists the names of Verna’s parents. Her father was a ship’s master, Capt. Karl Erikson, and his mother’s name was Adolfina Erikson (née Sjödin).
Verna graduated from high school in Helsinki, at a Swedish-language school whose.former premises on Korkeavuorenkatu have housed the Design Museum since 1978.
Where might Verna have lived - perhaps somewhere near the University down at the western end of Bulevardi, in the district known as Hietalahti?
The old hand-written police address cards are kept on microfiche in the City Archives.
The first name to surface is that of Verna’s mother. Verna apparently had two siblings, an older sister Lilly and an older brother, Karl. The family moved to Helsinki from Turku in 1907.
Oh, but wait a minute. The card has a notation in Swedish referring to “the widow of a captain”. Which means Verna's father was dead by this time.
The first apartment listed is on the North Esplanade, at No. 35. The family then move to the suburb of Huopalahti, but return to Esplanadi 35 E.
This is the so-called Wrede Building on the corner of Mikonkatu - and right now the ground-floor premises here are being fitted out for a new Louis Vuitton store.
Block E still exists, with access from the inner courtyard.
But there have been no residential apartments in this building for years.
This is slap-bang in the centre of one of Helsinki’s busiest shopping districts and the upper floors are offices.
In Verna’s time the house would have been seething with people, shops, and restaurants, and through the building it was possible to pass from Esplanade to Aleksanterinkatu along the Wrede Passage.
Eventually a card turns up for Verna herself. Something has been scrawled across it by hand, and then circled. What does it say?
Avliden enl Hbl 17/X-18. ("Death announced in Hufvudstadsbladet [Hbl], 17.10.1918")
Verna died in the capital in October 1918, roughly six months after the Whites took Helsinki back from the Red Guards.
The old address and professional calendars kept at the city Archives confirm that Verna actually did live at Pohjoisesplanadi 35 E, in apartment No. 56. These calendar-registers are hefty beasts. Helsinki was quite a big town by 1918.
Also preserved for posterity are Verna’s school’s register of pupils, the book of punishments meted out to transgressors, and the records kept of grades awarded at the school.
Verna’s personal card is located quickly enough: she started in the seventh grade in 1909, and passed her matriculation exams in 1913.
There is no mention of her in the little black book of punishments - Verna seems to have been a good girl.
Her grades [on a scale of ten] vary from a rather mediocre six for Finnish, German, and English to a nine for physics.
She was an average pupil in the class of more than thirty students.
In her matriculatation examinations, Verna got the lowest passing grade “Approbatur” for Swedish and Finnish, the middling "Cum laude approbatur" for mathematics, and - something of a shock here - she got the top mark of "Laudatur" for her German exam.
So, is that it? Is that all we know?
Were there no other traces left of Verna’s young life?
Continued - click on linked article below
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 22.3.2008
The article is one of several published in Helsingin Sanomat in the early part of 2008, marking the 90th anniversary of Finland's short but bloody civil conflict between January and May of 1918.
More on this subject:
In search of Miss E., student and Civil War gun-runner (continued)
Previously in HS International Edition:
After 90 years, the Finnish Civil War remains a sensitive subject (29.1.2008)
Finnish Civil War (Wikipedia)
Helsinki University of Technology
ANU NOUSIAINEN / Helsingin Sanomat