The Mystery of Marston E. Banks

As another Memorial Day rolls around, many more Americans will likely be celebrating the beginning of summer than those who will be honoring the men and women who sacrificed their young lives so that we could live ours.

As part of the group who volunteered to clean up Union Cemetery so that we could pay proper tribute on this Memorial Day to those who died defending their nation, I took particular notice of the lonely bronze plaque attached to the large boulder that sits in the triangular green between the cemetery and Stepney Road. I remember the days when WWII veteran Bill Peters would raise and lower the flag each day that flew proudly over that memorial to those who served during the first World War. He gladly sacrificed a few minutes of each day to properly acknowledge those who had served before him. That honor roll was the first one created and placed outside the cemetery before Easton even had a Town Hall. I sometimes wonder just how many current Easton residents even knows that it exists.

As I read down the list of names that are cast on that plaque paying homage to Easton’s World War One soldiers and sailors, there was only a single name listed under “The Fallen”. Being somewhat surprised that Easton would have only lost one person during the conflict, that was then known as simply as “the Great War,” my question was, “Who was Marsten E. Banks?” And in what battle did the young man perish?

The Banks name is one of Easton’s oldest. The family dates back to Fairfield and then transitions through the years as Weston splits off to become its own town in 1787, and then again in 1845, when another split results in the incorporation of Easton. Following the generations can be a bit of a challenge to say the least.

I figured the best place to begin was at the Connecticut State Library where they maintain a wonderfully complete set of resources that contain the names and service records of all those from the state who have served in our wars. It didn’t take long to find him, but sadly those who approved Easton’s plaque all those years ago had misspelled the poor lad’s first name. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as complete surprise, since they also had the years of the war wrong; the last time I checked, it ended in 1918, not 1919! The name on that plaque should read, “Marston.” His full name was Marston Edson Banks, Marston being his mother’s maiden name and Edson the middle name of his grandfather, Moses Edson Banks. Moses was an accomplished educator turned publisher who grew up in Easton. He received his education at the Staples Academy, then taught in Redding and various other towns before becoming a successful publisher in New York.

Family histories, especially those originating in Easton, are often full of surprises, and this one is certainly no exception. There’s another “Banks” name on that same plaque. “C. Lincoln Banks” to be exact. Any relation to Marston, I wondered? Just his father, Charles Lincoln Banks – born in 1865, so there’s likely no question as to where the “Lincoln”name came from, although one wonders if he received his middle name before or after the 16th President was assassinated only six days after Charles’ birth?

A father and son serving in the same war isn’t an everyday occurrence, especially when the father was 52 years of age!

Called up to full-time duty from his position as a surgeon in the Connecticut National Guard where he served as a captain, Doctor Charles Lincoln Banks was assigned to Camp Upton on Long Island on October 18, 1917 (Camp Upton eventually became the Brookhaven National Laboratory).  Educated at Lehigh and then Columbia University, he practiced medicine in Bridgeport prior to the United States entering the war.

Marston Edson Banks, born July 27, 1895, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, was the only child of Doctor Charles and Edith Marston Banks. He was a student at Yale when the United States became involved in the war. Like most of his classmates, he felt the need to serve. Marston enlisted in the Navy on April 16, 1917. Having studied mechanical engineering at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, he thought he might best help his country by putting his education to good use.

WWI Naval Patrol Boat. These vessels sailed along the Eastern Coast searching for German Submarines

Beginning as a Machinist Mate Second Class, Marston was assigned to patrol boat duty for the first five months of his military service. He was allowed to return to Yale in June of 1917 to receive his degree, a Ph.B with cum laude honors in mechanical engineering. He was promoted to Machinist Mate First Class after 7 months of service and before he had been in the Navy for a full year, he was a Chief Carpenter’s Mate assigned to the New York Naval Shipyard at Brooklyn.

1918. The New York Naval Shipyard at Brooklyn where Marston E. Banks was assigned to duty as a Chief Carpenter’s Mate.

In early June of 1918, Marston received his orders to begin officer training school where he would have earned the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade after completing his studies. However, prior to commencing those studies, on June 7th, Marston visited Camp Upton on Long Island to spend a few days visiting his surgeon father, Captain C. Lincoln Banks. While at Camp Upton, young Marston decided to have minor surgery to alleviate his frequent bouts with tonsillitis. In 1918, the preferred treatment was a tonsillotomy, the scraping or partial removal of one or both of the tonsils.

He was operated on Sunday, June 9, 1918. He was up and about on the following day, but his tonsils showed abnormal swelling and he was in a good deal of pain. He was then advised that in order to be fully fit for duty, he should have both tonsils removed. That operation took place on Thursday, June 13.

Typical 1918 operating room. The anesthesia used on Banks was cocaine.

The anesthesia that was administered that day was cocaine. Marston died on the operating table. The official cause of death was listed as “Status lymphaticus,” which is medically defined as “hyperplasia (swelling) of the lymphatic tissues.” Status lymphaticus was often thought to be the cause of sudden death in infants and children, but it is no longer even defined as a genuine pathological condition. The more likely cause of Marston’s sudden death was an improperly large dosage of the cocaine that was meant to alleviate his pain during the operation. His obituary stated that “suddenly, with no warning, death claimed him.”

While never mentioned in any of the documents I could locate, one can only assume that Marston’s father had some involvement in the young man’s surgery. The Naval Shipyard at Brooklyn had its own military hospital and there should have been no other reason that Marston chose to have his operation done at Camp Upton other than his trust in his own father’s capabilities or oversight during the procedure.

The fourth and final page of the State of Connecticut Military Service Record that every veteran or his survivor was asked to complete at the end of their service in WWI. This one was completed by Martson Banks’ mother Edith. “Cocaine was administered and my fine, strong, and splendid boy died on the table.”

Chief Carpenter’s Mate Marston Banks is interred at the family plot in Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport alongside his paternal grandparents, Moses and Amelia Collins Banks.

The irony in Martson Banks death during World War One is that he would have likely never seen combat as a mechanical engineer. His wartime service would have been spent either in Brooklyn or one of the Navy’s other five East Coast naval yards either building or refurbishing ships.

Charles Lincoln Banks continued to serve in the Army as a surgeon, first in Europe, where he rose to the rank of Major, and then back home in the United States from May 1919 until he retired from active duty in August of 1928 at the age of 63. Major Banks died on September 2, 1946 and is interred at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno California.

Exactly how both Charles and his son Marston came to be listed on the Easton Great War Memorial outside of Union Cemetery is still a complete mystery. There are no records of either having ever resided in Easton. Their only connection to Easton was Moses Banks, Charles’ father, who was born in town but moved as an adult to Fairfield, then Derby, and finally to New York City where he was a successful publisher. He died in New York on November 27, 1916. The Easton plaque would have likely been placed there in the mid-1920’s when most towns were finally getting around to honoring those men who had served in World War One.

It is also most interesting that Marston is listed as the only “fallen” member of the military from Easton during World War One. While not exactly “fallen,” he did die while in uniform during the war and therefore qualifies for that distinction – although he should be recognized in his hometown of Bridgeport, not Easton.

So, as we commemorate Memorial Day once again, let us remember and pay homage to those who perished while in service to their country. And while not an Easton native, we can still honor poor Marston E. Banks. But let us also get the spelling of his name correct going forward.

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