Viola Mae was born April 20, 1863 to Elijah and Sarah (Llewellyn) Boley while they were living in Bourbon Township, Marshall County in Indiana. Viola and brother Alphonso were the only two of the four children who would live to maturity. Viola's parents farmed, milled grain and raised and traded livestock until 1863, when they moved to Monona, Clayton County, Ohio near Sarah's family. In Ohio, they operated both a farm and small hardware business.
In August 18, 1877, Elijah and son Alphonse traveled to Dakota Territory where they selected a claim on the west bank of the Missouri River, northeast of the future city of Mandan. Their claim was reportedly the fourth claim west of the Missouri and north of the Heart River. Sarah and Viola, arrived on February 21, 1878 into Bismarck by train.
The Boleys gradually built their homestead into a 990 acre farm. Elijah became one of Morton County's first commissioners and would play an enormous role in early civic matters in Mandan.
Gilbert Cabinet Card of Viola Boley Coe c. 1890
Like her husband, Viola Boley Coe was a medical doctor, graduating from Woman's Hospital Medical College of Chicago (one of several schools combined to become today's Feinberg Medical School at Northwestern University). She is likely the first female Dakota Territory resident to become a medical doctor.
Before graduating in 1889, she married Dr. Henry Waldo Coe on June 20, 1882 in Mandan at only 19 years of age. Viola Mae Boley Coe had three sons with her husband Henry; George Clifford born on January 17, 1885 in Mandan; Wayne Walter Coe born October 10, 1894 in Portland; and Earl Alphonso born August 7, 1896 in Portland.
In 1891 the couple moved to Portland, Oregon. While living there, she focused on philanthropic activities. In 1907, her and her husband were among a group commissioned by her husband's close personal friend (and then President of the US) Theodore Roosevelt to travel to the Panama Canal Zone to report to the president on the working conditions during the construction of the project.
Viola and her well known husband Henry Waldo Coe went through a very public divorce in 1913. Viola Coe “instituted suit for the dissolution of their marriage contract and for the custody of two of their sons, aged 18 and 20 years.” She also brought suit against the Sanitarium Company of which her husband was the major stockholder of the company which held a “contract with the government for the care of the Alaska insane and the sanitariums that were built and operated so those contracts might be carried out.” In this suit Viola Coe claimed her portion of this contract.
The courts consolidated both of these suits because they were related. The lower court granted Viola Coe the custody of her sons, but the court would not give her the property “held by her trust.” She appealed this decision to the Oregon Supreme Court and she received one-third of the property involved. In a time where divorce and lawsuits were not very common, she chose her own life happiness over pleasing society norms.
Dr. Coe fought to achieve woman suffrage in Oregon. She was acting chair of the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association. According to first generation suffrage leader Abigail Scott Duniway, Coe was a woman “able and tactful.” Coe was Duniway’s close associate for the campaign, and carried out Duniway’s work until the suffrage ballot passed in 1912.
Dr. Coe could lead in the time of need. She kept Duniway involved for she was the foundation of the Oregon cause, and Coe made sure she conferred with her often. Viola also lived in an era that thrived on mass media and knew it was important to reach Oregonians through advertising leaflets, speeches and galas that promoted this cause.
Viola Coe also founded several hospitals that were dedicated to the care of women and girls. She helped many women and “working girls” that were recuperating from ill-health but could not afford the stay in a hospital or receive proper care at home by operating boarding house for them.
Signing Oregon Suffrage Proclaimation <Click To Enlarge>
According to her obituary in the Oregon Journal, she devoted her time to the “church, club and philanthropic work.” She also spent her retirement caring for wildlife and directed her energy to conservation and the safety of birds. She founded a garden sanctuary for birds in Portland Heights.
Viola Coe, a physician for a half century, passed away at the age of eighty in Portland, Oregon on May 27, 1943. Her funeral service was presided over by her longtime pastor Dr. Raymond B. Walker.
She can be remembered for her dedication to women and the general welfare of the public. Viola Coe, M.D. was a woman of many roles; a medical doctor, feminist, suffragist, wife, divorcee, friend, woman of faith and leader.
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