More about Verna, the bandolier girl
By Anu Nousiainen
Just over a week ago, Helsingin Sanomat’s Sunday pages [and subsequently the International Edition] reported on the short life of Verna Erikson (1893-1918), a Helsinki student who smuggled arms to the White Guard forces when Helsinki was under the control of the Red faction in the spring of 1918, during the Civil War.
Since the appearance of the article - which sought to put flesh on the dramatic contemporary photograph of a young woman dressed in an fur-collared overcoat and a bandolier containing pistol bullets - the paper’s editorial desk has received a phone call from the son of Verna’s cousin, one Håkan Branders.
His grandfather was the younger brother of Verna Erikson’s father, Karl Erikson. Verna’s father, a ship’s master, died when the girl was just five years old.
Verna herself died childless at 25, and only one of her brothers and sisters had any offspring, a daughter who remained in England with her English mother on the death of Verna’s brother, another Karl Erikson. All trace of the daughter was lost.
But now a relative has emerged for Verna - in fact relatives in the plural.
Håkan Branders has always known that the young woman who was the subject of the famous Civil War image was her father’s cousin.
“Verna’s picture displays the distinctive Erikson features, particularly around the eyes”, he says. Branders never met Verna. She died of cancer in the autumn of 1918, while he was born only some ten years later.
But he does remember Verna’s mother and her elder sister Lilly. Branders recalls that Verna’s mother was like something from a theatre piece; she wore long skirts and decorated hats. “And Lilly, who we called Aunt Lilly, was a rather lively individual”, remembers Branders.
At his home in Helsinki, Håkan Branders has a mahogany table inherited from Lilly. On the wall is a handsome cabinet clock that Verna’s father brought back from the United States after a trip on his sailing barque.
It is somehow nice to think that the same clock has measured out the hours in Verna’s home.
Branders also has a little new information to add on Verna’s family background.
“The Eriksons were from the Turku Archipelago and they were not particularly prosperous. They came from Sandö, one of the islands in the Nauvo string south-west from Turku. Verna would almost certainly have spoken Swedish with the dialect of the Turku Archipelago.”
Branders shows a letter written by Verna’s grandfather and sent from Nauvo to his son in Turku in 1870.
The older man is asking the younger for some money in order to be able to buy a one-third share in a new boat.
But even if the family were not wealthy, they had ambitions. “They certainly wanted the children to study and better themselves, the girls as well as the boys."
The family’s documents and old photographs indicate that Verna’s father was married twice, with children by both unions, and that Verna’s mother was appreciably younger than her husband. Verna thus had older stepbrothers and stepsisters.
Håkan Branders believes his father would have known Verna.
Eric Branders studied at the first military academy established in post-independence Finland, and during the Civil War he was involved in special ops on the White side.
The cousins would in all probability have kept in touch.
The last of Verna’s immediate family to pass away was her elder sister Lilly, who died in 1953.
Did she leave behind any papers or diaries that might throw some light on Verna’s life or on the activities of the Technical University girls in Red-held Helsinki during the Civil War?
Branders does not believe any such papers were passed on.
“Lilly did not have much by way of property, mostly just items of furniture, like this mahogany table here.”
Håkan Branders made his own career in the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Before his retirement, he was the Finnish Ambassador to Iceland.
And why, might we ask, is his name Branders and not Erikson? Because the grandfather was taken in by relatives after his mother died. This sort of thing was quite common in those days.
Turning to the inspiration for the original article, the photograph of Verna in her bandolier, with a pistol stuffed rakishly behind it, Håkan Branders unfortunately has nothing to offer on who might have taken it.
However, just as one door closes, another opens: a new hint comes in to the newspaper.
Could the photographer possibly be Vilho Setälä (1892-1985), the older brother of Verna’s student colleague Salme Setälä? Salme Setälä (1894-1980) featured extensively in the earlier article, with her diaries providing some clarification of what went on in those hectic days in the spring of 1918.
The idea is somehow implausibly neat, but it has plenty of other merits: Vilho Setälä became a famous photographer and even taught the subject.
In the spring of 1918 he was much the same age as Verna but was already experienced behind the lens, as he had accompanied his father, the linguist, folklorist, and politician Emil Nestor Setälä on trips to Ingria to the east and to the Gulf of Riga to the south and had documented the life of the Finnic people - Votians and Livonians - living there.
The glass negatives left behind by Vilho Setälä have been catalogued in the Museum of Photography. Verna’s picture from 1918 is not among them.
On the other hand, the archive of early prints and photos belonging to the National Board of Antiquities does include a picture of Verna as a child, shown here.
There can be no doubt that it is the same girl as the gun-runner who launched this quest from ninety years ago.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 30.3.2008
Previously in HS International Edition:
In search of Miss E., student and gun-runner (26.3.2008)
ANU NOUSIAINEN / Helsingin Sanomat