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John G. Magee Family Papers

Call Number: RG 242

Scope and Contents

This collection documents the life and work of John G. Magee, John G. Magee, Jr. and other family members. Additional documentation related to John G. Magee is held by the Archives of the Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas, including letters written by Magee from Nanking in 1937.

Series I, Family Correspondence, is divided into two subseries, Extended Family and John G. and Faith B. Magee Family. The Extended Family subseries contains personal correspondence between John G. Magee and his mother and siblings. His early years in China are documented in the letters he sent to his mother. He sent many letters to his sister Mary Scaife in 1937 and 1938 documenting the conditions in Nanking during the Japanese invasion. The subseries also includes correspondence between Faith B. Magee and her parents and siblings. Faith B. Magee wrote letters to her parents documenting the courtship between her and John G. Magee and their marriage. The John G. and Faith B. Magee Family subseries includes numerous letters between John and Faith from the time of their courtship throughout their marriage. Letters documenting the conditions of Nanking leading up to the invasion by the Japanese and then the following conditions are detailed in John's letters to his wife during the time period.

Series II, General Correspondence, is comprised of general correspondence with John G. and Faith B. Magee and their children. Included in this series is a significant amount of correspondence with John G. and Faith B. Magee following John G. Magee, Jr.'s death and regarding his poem, "High Flight".

Series III, Writings, is comprised of writings by John G. Magee, Faith B. Magee, John G. Magee, Jr., and F. Hugh Magee. John G. Magee's writings include personal diaries, class notebooks, sermons and articles. The writings by Faith B. Magee include personal writings and poems. John G. Magee Jr.'s writings are comprised of the poems he wrote, including "High Flight". A sermon, article, and book by F. Hugh Magee are also included in this series.

Series IV, Nanking Documentation, contains two main components: material produced and collected by John G. Magee at the time of the Nanking Massacre, and material collected by David B. Magee through his research and work dedicated to remembering the Nanking Massacre and the important role his father played in the support of the people of Nanking. The Nanking Documentation collected by John G. Magee contains correspondence, typescripts of radio broadcasts, publications, films, and photographs arranged chronologically. The Nanking Documentation collected by David B. Magee, and by his brother F. Hugh Magee, contains correspondence, conference information, newspaper clippings, articles, photographs, and films.

Series V, Personal Items and Memorabilia, includes John G. and Faith B. Magee's date books and letter books, personal documents, biographical information, memorabilia, and Magee family newspaper clippings. The John G. Magee, Jr. subseries is comprised of personal documents, memorabilia, and collected material related to his life and his poem, "High Flight". The Henson photocopies were gathered by Ivan Docker-Henson and are comprised primarily of photocopies of material that appears elsewhere in this collection.

Series VI, Photographs and Films, contains photographs of the Magee and Backhouse families spanning the years 1870-1965. Of special interest in this series are the photographs taken of the Magee family in China, as well as photographs of Nanking and their Chinese colleagues, friends, and students. Film footage from during the Nanking Massacre as well as from other periods in Magee's life is available.


  • 1870–2014


Language of Materials

In English.

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of David B. Magee and F. Hugh Magee, 2012; gift of John G. Magee III, 2015


  1. I. Family Correspondence, 1890-1970
  2. II. General Correspondence, 1901-1999
  3. III. Writings, 1906-1989
  4. IV. Nanking Documentation, 1937-2004
  5. V. Personal Items and Memorabilia, 1902-2011
  6. VI. Photographs and Films, 1870-1965


11 Linear Feet (25 boxes, 2 Oversize)

Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


This collection includes correspondence, writings, photographs, films, and other documentation of the life and work of John Gillespie Magee, his son John Gillespie Magee, Jr. and other family members. The Rev. John G. Magee (1884-1953), a graduate of Yale University, served as a missionary to China under the Episcopal Church for twenty-eight years. John G. Magee witnessed the Japanese invasion of Nanking (Nanjing) in December of 1937 and the subsequent Nanking Massacre. At great risk to his own well-being and safety, Magee filmed and photographed atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese soldiers against the citizens of Nanking, He was later able to smuggle these films out of Nanking, providing evidence and witness to the war crimes that had taken place. This collection also includes the papers of John G. Magee, Jr. (1922-1941), eldest son of John G. and Faith Magee. John G. Magee, Jr. wrote the well-known poem "High Flight" prior to his death at the age of nineteen while on active service in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. The papers regarding John G. Magee, Jr. document his life through his writings, photographs, and correspondence.

Biographical / Historical

John Gillespie Magee, Sr. was born in Pittsburgh, PA on October 10, 1884 to a notable Pittsburgh family, the son of Frederick M. and Hannah Gillespie Magee. He attended Shady Side Academy, the Hotchkiss School, graduating in 1902, and then Yale University, graduating in 1906. At Yale, Magee was a member of the Freshman Religious Committee (1902), Sophomore Class deacon (1903), and Vice President of Dwight Hall, the center for religious activity at Yale during his final year. He was a co-founder, with William Whiting Borden, of the Yale Hope Mission in 1907. From 1908 to 1910 Magee served as General Secretary of Dwight Hall. He spent the summer of 1909 as a missionary among the Winnebago Indians in Nebraska under the sponsorship of the Dutch Reformed Church. After receiving his B.D. from the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1911, he spent the fall of 1911 visiting colleges on behalf of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions.

Magee was ordained as a minister of the Episcopal Church and appointed to be a missionary in China in 1912, stationed in Nanking [Nanjing]. While in China he met his wife, Faith Emmeline Backhouse, an English missionary serving under the Church Missionary Society. They were married in July 1921 and subsequently raised four sons: John, David, Christopher, and Hugh. When Japanese soldiers invaded Nanking in December 1937, Magee remained in Nanking as a member of the International Safety Zone Committee, which arranged with the Japanese for a section of the city not to be destroyed. As the Japanese soldiers perpetrated atrocities against the people of Nanking, John G. Magee worked tirelessly to save and protect the people he could. During this time he risked his own life to film and document the war crimes carried out by the Japanese soldiers. In 1938, he was able to smuggle these films out of China providing evidence of the Nanking Massacre. Upon his return to the United States in 1940, John G. Magee became the Curate of St. John's Church in Washington, DC, leaving in 1945 to become the chaplain to Episcopal students at Yale University from 1946 to 1953. Magee was serving as Assistant Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, PA when he died following a heart attack in September, 1953.

Biographical / Historical

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., eldest son of John and Faith Magee, was born in China in 1922. Following his early education at the American School, Nanking (1929–1931) he went to Britain in 1931 where he continued his education first at St Clare preparatory school near Walmer, Kent (1931–1935) and then at Rugby School (1935-1939). In 1938 he won the Rugby School's Rupert Brooke Poetry Prize. Following a visit to the United States in 1939, Magee was unable to return to England due to war time conditions so he completed his education at Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut. He earned a scholarship to Yale University in July 1940 but did not enroll, choosing instead to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force in October of that year. He died on December 11, 1941 at age 19 in a mid-air collision while on active service in England. Magee was the author of many poems but is best known for "High Flight", which was written in 1941 shortly before his death. This poem is a favorite among aviators and one of the most celebrated poems resulting from World War II.

Processing Information

Place names were modernized in the description, with the name originally used in the collection material or in an older version of the finding aid in parenthesis: e.g. “Beijing (Peking)” or “Benin (Dahomey)”.

Guide to the John G. Magee Family Papers
Compiled by Kristen G. Albert and Martha Lund Smalley
2012, 2015, 2019
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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