Ethel Tulloch Banks: union leader and healer

Strong woman in the "jungle days" of the San Diego post office

Ethel Tulloch Banks taught herself typing and stenography at home.
  • Ethel Tulloch Banks taught herself typing and stenography at home.

Ethel Tulloch Banks believed in miracles. For years she fought for miraculous changes at her workplace — and may have lived one herself.

Tulloch married Father John Gaynor Banks, an Episcopal priest who incorporated healing techniques into his theology.

Tulloch married Father John Gaynor Banks, an Episcopal priest who incorporated healing techniques into his theology.

Tulloch was a clerk at the San Diego Post Office. In January 1919, she was appointed fifth vice president of the National Federation of Post Office Clerks, the first woman so honored. Upon hearing the news, she telegraphed: “Stunned but game. Will accept and do my best.”

They wanted her to attend the national convention in Washington D.C. that September. She’d go, she said, but not for personal glory. She preferred to be a secondary figure: be the frame, not the painting. Nor did she fear being the only woman among 150 men. The convention was far too important to fret about trifles.

When union secretary/treasurer Thomas Flaherty requested a photo and list of her accomplishments for the Union Postal Clerk, the national newsletter, Tulloch declined. Flaherty wrote back: “I realize you are naturally modest and will resent any feature story, but it is absolutely essential you make your official bow to your constituency in this manner.”

Tulloch sent the photo and a brief list: clerk at San Diego Post Office since 1908; secretary of Local 197 since 1917; edited (and wrote most of) the “Woman’s Page” of the Union Postal Clerk since 1917; helped organize unions in California, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.

She could have added that she was the San Diego post office’s “Information Department.” She replied to every complaint that came in. There were so many, an admirer said she “probably met more people…than any other person in the city. She was known for her courtesy in the treatment of the public.”

Attending the convention was a must. But there was a problem. Tulloch would begin her cross-country trek on the eve of a railroad strike, and Ethel Esselstyn Tulloch would never set foot on a scab-run train.

She left San Diego on the last “closed” — union — train to Los Angeles. The strike began when she arrived. Instead of heading on to San Francisco, the proud unionist had to lay over for several days.

She phoned her younger sister Helen in San Diego. Nicknamed “Jitney Jenny,” Helen ran an independent taxi-like service. She began in 1914 and was the first female commercial driver in the area, much to the ire of the San Diego Transit Company.

Helen and her mother, Jessie, sped to Los Angeles in a second-hand Pierce Arrow. Although World War I had been over for a year, ruts, chuckholes, and arm-sized fissures still pocked the roads of California. Just about everywhere one looked, it seemed, someone was changing a flat tire. The three Tullochs decided the best way north was through the San Joaquin Valley. According to the San Diego Labor Leader, Helen “made the run to ’Frisco in 13 hours, which is a record, going the inside route.” They reached San Francisco just in time for Ethel to board the last union train east.

At the convention, the issues included a new wage standard ($1800 a year entrance wage per year for clerks) and time-and-a-half for overtime. Tulloch fought hard for the changes, in particular to eliminate the section in the constitution opposing strikes in the postal service.

Toward the end of the session, she declined her appointment as fifth vice president. It was an honor, of course. But she worked 90-hour weeks at San Diego: postal duties, union organizing, and volunteering for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

St. Paul's Cathedral & Episcopal Church

2728 Sixth Avenue, Bankers Hill

When the third vice president slot opened up, a delegate raised his hand from the back row. “He rose,” wrote the Labor Leader, “and in a flowery speech placed her name before the convention.” A chorus of seconds bubbled around the hall. Before she could protest, the convention nominated her by acclamation.

Along with being the first woman to hold office, Tulloch became the only vice president of the organization west of the Mississippi. The Labor Leader (Sept. 1919) hailed her as a “live wire” and “one of the strongest workers for the cause in the country.”

Born August 11, 1885 — “within sight of the Washington Monument,” she liked to say — Tulloch came to San Diego in 1907. Her family lived at 2243 Front Street. Her father, Seymour Wilcox Tulloch, worked in the city treasurer’s office. The deeply religious family worshipped at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, then located at Eighth and C.

Twenty-two years old and single, Tulloch couldn’t find work. The Panic of 1907 made jobs scarce. She bought a touch-system text for 25 cents at a used bookstore and taught herself how to type. She took a 24-lesson home-study course in stenography. In 1908, she took the civil service exam and made top of the list. When the postmaster heard of her skills, he hired her as a clerk and correspondence secretary.

In 1908, the San Diego Post Office had no eight-hour day, pension plan, overtime, or sick leave. If someone was injured on the job, pay stopped until a full recovery.

Tulloch worked seven days a week: 12 to 14 hours from Monday through Saturday, and “only four” on Sunday. For 35 cents an hour. “There was no eight-hour law, so the supervisor didn’t have to think about planning the work; you just worked until it was done.”

When she started, horse-drawn wagons hauled the mail to the Maryland Hotel and dumped it on a moldy wooden floor. The “awful old building,” at Seventh and E, was “so rotten,” one time the letters and parcel posts were too heavy: the floor made an agonized, pinching sound like the limb breaking off an old tree. Then it cracked, opened up, and the mail fell through.

“These were the jungle days of the post office,” Tulloch recalled.

Bernard Hoffman, a postal worker since boyhood, was head of the register division. When his right hand became infected, “he worked some 18 hours — wrapped up and in terrible pain.”

Another man had tuberculosis. Since the mail must go out — “We didn’t want anybody to be disappointed,” said Tulloch — he worked long hours without complaint. He died “after the first of the year. Of course, no pension or anything.”

Tulloch gave every negative letter a carefully written response, “as no one else seems able to pacify the irate public for the abominable service we give.” She enjoyed writing the letters, even appreciated harsh criticism.

“Seventy-five percent of the friction and trouble in the world occurs because of misunderstanding — and so I consider it a favor when anyone, instead of harboring resentment or bitterness, asks for an explanation.”

She identified two kinds of workers: “lifters” and “leaners.” Lifters labored rain, shine, or pain. Leaners just watched, often giving advice. A devout Episcopalian, Tulloch extended her terms beyond the workplace. “Those who lift help God to carry out his plan for the good of mankind.”

But, she added, “those of us who do the useful work of the world are still looked down upon by the Leaners,” though “we have our reward in knowing our labor is most worthwhile.”

She had a second level of Leaner: “Possnop.” The word comes from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: “a person who pretends to be doing something for his country when in fact is doing it for himself.”

She complained to friends that it was hard to keep Lifters on the job: “If they could get work anyplace else, they naturally would do it.”

It didn’t take long before she realized “the only way to have anything repaired was for the clerks to get together.”

Clerks had a union, begun in 1899, but a fledgling one in the west. Dues were a dollar a year, which prevented many from joining. And in the politically wary national climate during and after the war, most postal workers were afraid to join because they “might be fired if they belong to something that was trying to get something better.”

Tulloch respected the rules. She never did union work on the job. Every morning she walked to the post office (moved to the Federal Building at 325 F Street in 1913). If she got a ride, she’d use the extra time before work began for her union duties or to write a letter. Otherwise, “the only time I would work on the organization was at night and Sundays and my vacation.” Conventions and executive committee meetings every other year swallowed up those hours.

When she began writing the “Woman’s Page” for the newsletter, Tulloch became fast friends with her editor, Thomas Flaherty. She vented her many frustrations with him. But when she put them in her column, he balked: at her complaints about “postal slaves” and at a poem she reworked from Edwin Markham’s famous "The Man with a Hoe." Part of the original reads:

  • Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
  • Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
  • The emptiness of ages in his face,
  • And on his back the burden of the world.
  • How will it be with kingdoms and with kings —
  • With those who shaped him to the thing he is ­—
  • When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world
  • After the silence of the centuries?

On September 12, 1918, Tulloch sent Flaherty her version, which no longer exists, and said “put more misery in.”

Her poem was “a literary gem” but unpublishable, Flaherty wrote. He had to “keep the columns… free from anything that might in the widest possible construction be deemed an attack on our democratic institutions.”

Albert Burleson, Postmaster General, saw enemies everywhere. A tall, grim-faced Texan who dressed like an English cleric, Burleson was a Southern Democrat who still believed in slavery.

He transferred black clerks in Washington to the Dead Letter office, where they would have no interaction with the public. He withdrew second-class mail privileges for socialist publications, and he squelched all public criticism of the post office, firing any union president who attacked his policies.

Flaherty told Tulloch he couldn’t print the poem because “to picture the postal employee as a down-trodden, exploited being who craves democracy, might be viewed by the Burleson inspectors as good propaganda for the Hun.”

As he came to know her better, Flaherty noticed that Tulloch worked excessive hours at an inhuman pace. But when he suggested she take one day off a week, she replied, “I fear it cannot be…. When I am away, things get balled up seriously.”

She must slow down, Flaherty insisted. He noted her extreme fatigue and growing anger.

On May 6, 1920, the person who handled all complaints complained in a letter to L.R. Fitch, a fellow clerk at Lincoln, Nebraska. “Isn’t the postal service the limit now? It is hard for a self-respecting person to stay in. I hate to acknowledge I belong to such a farce and failure.”

She continued for seven more paragraphs. At one point she thanked Fitch for kind words about her “Woman’s Page” columns, though she disagreed: “They are pretty weak. I cannot hand out the raw meat I feel, so I just try to coddle the women of the service along and impress on them…that they can be worthwhile members.”

She also sloughed off a damaging letter from a “Chris.” The postal workers’ union, he said, “was threatening a Soviet Government for the country.” The Department of Justice should “ferret out every German spy” — especially “the Lenins, Trotskys, and Emma Goldmans of the service.”

“Chris has chummed with Burleson,” Tulloch wrote to Fitch. She added that, if the Emma Goldman reference pointed to her, “I am shaking in my shoes.”

The letter was a private correspondence between friends. Somehow it reached the Postmaster General. Burleson read subversion in every word and raised his eyebrows even higher when Tulloch mentioned Emma Goldman. He ordered F.M. Jarvis, San Diego’s Post Office Inspector, to make an inquiry.

The letter was personal, Tulloch told Jarvis. “There was not the least idea on my part that [it] would be read by anyone but the addressee.” She voiced the complaints, she said, because “when one takes pride in the service, it is humiliating to have one’s attention called by a patron to name things that should not have happened.

“No patron has ever received the impression from me that I was disloyal to the postal service.” Her efficiency rating was never lower than 98 percent, and that was the only instance it wasn’t 100 percent.

Jarvis sent her reply to J.C. Koons, first assistant Postmaster General. “The Department objects to a clerk expressing himself in the manner you did to Mr. Finch,” Koons wrote to Tulloch. An investigation was under way, “and may result in your removal.” He demanded a full account of her criticisms.

On January 21, 1921, she responded with eight concise, detailed pages. She concluded, “War conditions, the many resignations, and the difficulties in recruiting and training new employees have hampered the postal service and made its administration hard. I appreciate this, as does any fair-minded person, and I think that causes over which local or national administrators have no control should not be considered a reflection on them.”

Though no one in charge ever said so, the critique had many positive results — improvements came quietly, with no credit given where due — and one negative: Tulloch became a marked woman. Just about every move in her now legendary workweek came under scrutiny. She remained at the post office another four years. But Flaherty was right. Incessant work and the stress of constant surveillance wore her out. Around the time she wrote to Fitch, a doctor diagnosed her with an incurable illness.

A year after the internal investigation, the postal service found that Tulloch’s work was exemplary. One source praised her “self-sacrifice, without ulterior motive, to the…ideals of the best in life.”

But by mid-1920, a massive workload and the constant pressure of close scrutiny made her “brain weary.”

Tulloch’s doctor urged her to see a specialist. During a routine check-up, she writes in Come Unto Me, a devotional pamphlet about spiritual healing, the specialist discovered a “fatal illness beyond the help of man.”

She never names the condition, except to say it was “incurable” and that the doctor gave “his unspoken appeal to bear heavily my burden of hopelessness.”

“Incurable.” She heard it everywhere. Four hard syllables pulsed at work, on the streets, in overheard exchanges. At night the clock beside her bed “pounded the verdict nonstop.”

She needed a quiet place, a safe haven somewhere in her mind, from incessant images of “Pain... pain... pain. Pain and death.... Where could I hide from them?”

One night, when able to sleep, she dreamed she heard the opening lyrics to “Rock of Ages”:

  • Rock of ages, cleft for me
  • Let me hide myself in thee
  • Let the water and the blood
  • From Thy side, a healing flood.

Her family sang the song so many times at St. Paul’s they closed their hymnals when the organ began. They knew every note, every verse. But in the dream the song was different: the words were brand new — and painted pictures.

She saw the Rock of Ages — a gigantic mass, not a metaphor. “Living water” spilled through a V in the stone. It was “a healing flood!; I had never noted that word ‘healing’ in the song.” She cried: “‘Lord help me’… from the bottom of my troubled heart.”

The words of Psalm 145:18 came to her: “The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him.”

The original St. Paul’s Episcopal Church stood at 1054 Eighth Avenue, corner of C Street. Constructed in 1886, the all-wood structure had a sharp steeple, many gables, and may have been the only Victorian Gothic church on the West Coast. Inside, a tall brass crucifix rose from an altar draped with white silk and gold trim. Behind, five stained-glass windows, made in Germany in 1854, faced east. Morning sunlight streamed dappled rainbows.

When the Tulloch family joined the church in 1907, the wooden columns still had holes drilled for gaslamps.

Tulloch’s dream shifted to St. Paul’s, the altar in readiness for Holy Communion. But above the altar was something new and strange: a white light, brighter than the sun, beamed down on her.

She saw the flowing “raiments of a being, as white as the light.” There was no face or body. Just eyes that glowed with such “yearning and tenderness and compassion,” she knew this was “a vision of the Savior.”

Two hands stretched toward her from the light “with a loving welcome — and there were nail prints.” The gesture invited her to the altar. “I knew he was pleading ‘come unto me.’”

As Tulloch stepped forward, the illumination dimmed, then vanished. She felt “the peace that passeth understanding” and fell into a “restful slumber.”

A second dream followed: St. Paul’s, early the next morning. Two Eucharist candles stood on the altar, covered with “snowy white hangings and linens. Behind the brass cross, the “early morning sun lit the beautiful familiar window of the Crucifixion. The scene from Calvary stood out with unusual brilliancy.”

“In the stillness of the church with other silently kneeling figures,” Tulloch sank to her knees. She raised her eyes, hoping to see the glittering raiments once again. Instead she found herself in a Holy Communion service, reenacting the Last Supper.

Visions came to her so vivid she became “astonished and terrified.” In the first, Jesus told sorrowful Jairus to “fear not, only believe” and his ailing daughter “shall be made whole.” And she was.

Next Tulloch found herself amid a multitude trudging up a mountain where Jesus awaited. They fell “at the Savior’s feet.” And she watched the lame walk, the dumb speak, and the blind see.

Was she not of this multitude? “Was I not cast down at Jesus’ feet and would he not heal even me?”

But was she worthy enough to ask?

Another scene: a Roman Centurion helped the people of Capernaum build a synagogue. Jesus healed his servant from a “tormenting palsy.”

“What cause had I to fear?” Tulloch wondered, and prayed for “God’s most mighty protection for my poor, sick, mortal body as well as my soul.”

At that moment, the cross on the altar radiated a bolt of light so powerful she dared to ask: “What a simple trifle it would be for such an almighty god to make over my ailing body and give it new strength and life?”

But was her faith strong enough to brave an encounter with her maker? Or would she, “with fear and unbelief shut the door of my heart?”

She heard the priest beseech the Lord “to comfort and succor all those who, in this transitory life, are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.”

Encouraged, Tulloch raised the question: “Could not my sick body be made clean of disease by his body if he dwelt in me and I in him?”

At that moment, she heard the “lifeless figure” on the altar say: “I will, be thou clean.”

The words “echoed down through the centuries, or had they been spoken anew to me by the Lord?”

She knelt by the altar rail and received the wafer of the Holy Sacrament and “my whole heart was filled with wonder: I was a partaker in his blessed body and blood.

“It was too wonderful, too glorious for me to grasp but a fragment of its meaning, but my heart said, ‘surely this Food, so awful and so sweet, can preserve my mortal body from its sickness.’

“Every fear and doubt disappeared, and with my whole being I praised him, and the doors of my heart flung open wide to him. And as he took possession of my full surrender.”

She sank to her knees in benediction: “The beautiful old words came to me as heaven sent assurance of my new, wondrous blessing of healing.

“‘Amen,’ I said fervently, in my dream.

“And amen I have said many a time since, in the happy, useful years that followed that amazing night.”

The next morning she went to St. Paul’s, took communion as in the dream, and found herself “made whole.”

Tulloch died in 1968.

She resigned from the post office in 1924. Some suggest that the powers that be ran her out. More likely her workload ran her down. She told Flaherty she “was tired out” and felt she was “wasting life there.” That she would leave her union in much better shape helped with the decision.

When it announced her resignation, the Union Postal Clerk wrote of her future plans: “the wonder girl of the Golden West will undertake religious warfare in her home city.”

“I guess I had to find some other pioneer movement where I could put up a nasty fight.” She established a “Guild for the Sick” in San Diego: “not Christian Science or New Thought, just old fashioned faith. Medicine included, of course.”

Come From Away was published in 1924 in a slim, leather-bound pamphlet. Many were surprised that Tulloch, who always refused to take credit, could be so open about something so personal. That she signed her name was also a surprise. Then they realized: she had always been outspoken, why not with her faith?

Father John Gaynor Banks, an Episcopal priest who incorporated healing techniques into his theology, read the pamphlet. An English widower with a doctorate in therapeutic psychology, Banks recommended that Tulloch head the San Diego Chapter of the Society of the Nazarene, a healing organization. In 1928, they met in person. He was conducting services at St. James Church in La Jolla. They corresponded for a while, then married in New York. The minister, Sam Shoemaker, cofounded Alcoholics Anonymous.

John and Ethel Banks wanted to establish a “healing guild on a permanent basis.” When John became rector of St. Luke’s Church in Normal Heights, the parsonage and Tulloch’s home at 2243 Front Street were headquarters for the Order of St. Luke. They founded the non-denominational “healing network” in 1932. Ethel wrote and edited Sharing Magazine, which began as a mimeographed newsletter and grew into a journal-sized publication. Many say she also ghost-wrote her husband’s numerous books on healing while he went on missions around the world.

“While he was away I had to do double work here, still carrying on when he died in [June 30] 1953,” Tulloch said in 1957. “I’ve been carrying on alone ever since.”

In all her works, Tulloch never mentioned her achievements as a healer.

Tulloch conducted Monday prayer meetings at the St. Paul’s parish house. She began each session with the question: “Has anyone been a witness to faith?”

In 1928, Katherine L. Powell attended. She was impressed that they took no collection and that donations went to a lending library. It wasn’t long before Powell witnessed her own faith.

“I became seriously ill,” she wrote in Sharing Magazine. “The doctor said I might live two weeks.”

She went to a rest home to live out her last days. Members of the prayer group visited. One day, Tulloch brought her the poem, “A Very Present Help,” by Annie Johnson Fling.

“My life saver,” writes Powell. “I learned it by heart and said it often. Then I recovered and went back to work.”

Interviewed in 1957 by the the San Diego History Center, Tulloch said she lived at 2243 Front street and attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral for 50 years. She edited and wrote much of Sharing Magazine for 38 years. She conducted Monday prayer meetings for 40 years. When she died, the Order of St. Luke had gone international.

In the interview she recalled that she always concluded her column in Sharing with: “If there are any questions, write to me.” Whenever she remembered the statement, she laughed, “as if I knew it all. But anyway, I did help a number of people.”


Ethel Tulloch Banks: “There were none of the eight hours and the pensions and the sick leave…but we got the mail out and we were glad for it.”

Labor Leader observes “Postal Impact Week” (Sept. 1919): “Without the Post Office business would languish in a day, and be at a standstill in a week. Public opinion would die of dry rot. Sectional hatred and prejudice would flourish and narrow-mindedness thrive.”

Anon, “Our Ethel” (final verse):

  • Like the sunshine of her hair
  • First she’s here, then she’s there
  • Always helping everywhere
  • Our Ethel

Thomas Flaherty: “The Tullochs always lined up with the needy and unfortunate.”

John Gaynor Banks: “People are very scared of the healing ministry. They’re scared that nothing might happen, and they’re scared that something might happen.”

Eulalie Chase (letter to Tulloch): “There is so much sorrow in this world it seems that tears must oft-times fall in fields of greatest beauty.”


Anderson, Adrian, “President Wilson’s Politician: Albert Sidney Burleson of Texas,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly.

Banks, Ethel Tulloch, Come Unto Me, pamphlet, Dave & Robinson Printers (San Diego, 1924); articles in “The Woman’s Page,” National Federation of Post Office Clerks; letters and “Guide to the Ethel Tulloch Papers” on file at San Diego History Center; “An Interview with Ethel Tulloch Banks (San Diego Historical Society, Oral History Program).

Banks, John Gaynor, Healing Everywhere (OSL, 1961); Manual of Christian Healing (St. Luke’s Press, 1954).

Carden, Julabeth, executive director, Order of St. Luke, interview.

Henry, Jamie, editor, Sharing Magazine, interview.

Leonard, Devin, Neither Snow nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service (New York, 2016).

Powell, Katharine L., “Remembering Ethel Tulloch Banks,” Sharing Magazine (December, 1991).

San Diego Labor Leader, The Union Postal Clerk, articles in Sharing Magazine and various newspapers.

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