Friday, September 10, 2010

Jane Griffin–Lady Franklin

Born in London in 1791, Jane Griffin was well-educated for her time. As a young lady, she was strongly attracted to Dr. Peter Mark Roget of Thesaurus fame, but while, she claimed Roget made her swoon, the attraction was apparently not mutual. 

Three years after her friend Eleanor Anne Franklin died, Jane was engaged to her widower, Sir John Franklin. When he was appointed lieutenant governor of Tasmania in 1836, they moved to Australia.

Jane was quite interested in her new surroundings and began exploring, becoming the first European woman to travel overland between Port Phillip and Sydney. Later she was the first European woman to  travel overland from Hobart to Macquarie Harbor.

Interested in education, Jane also sought to improve the lives of female convicts, provoking accusations that she unduly influenced her husband’s decisions although there was no proof of such influence.

She is best remembered for her unceasing efforts to find Sir John when the ship he was on disappeared in the Arctic in 1845. She sponsored seven expeditions in search of him or his records, refusing to believe facts presented to her regarding his death. These expeditions did, however, add to the world’s knowledge of the Arctic. The ballad, Lady Franklin’s Lament, tells the story of her unswerving belief that Sir John was alive.

Meanwhile, she spent much of her time traveling extensively around the world with her husband’s niece who served as her secretary.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Grace and Rachel Martin – Daughters of Liberty

Elizabeth Martin of the Ninety-Six District of South Carolina (now Edgefield County) had seven sons fighting in the American Revolution. Yet, it is two of her daughters-in-law whose names have come down to us through history as heroines of that cause.
Grace Martin was the daughter of Benjamin Waring, one of the early settlers of what has become Columbia, while Rachel Martin was the first cousin of statesman Henry Clay of Kentucky. Grace and Rachel were married to the two eldest sons of Elizabeth Martin, and while their husbands were off fighting the British, the two women stayed with Mrs. Martin.
One day they heard that a courier, guarded by two British officers, was headed north to deliver an important message. He would be passing quite close to the Martin home. Dressing in their husbands’ clothes, the two women took up positions not far from the house, determined to keep the courier from delivering his message.
As the British party passed by, the two leaped upon them, demanding the dispatches and taking the guards completely by surprise. So shaken were the British that they surrendered the message without a fight, and once they had it in their possession, Grace and Rachel took a shortcut home through the fields.
Not long after their arrival back home, there came a knock at the door. The elder Mrs. Martin answered only to find the courier and officers her daughters-in-law had so recently waylaid. The British asked for accommodations for the night and were treated quite cordially by all three women. The men never suspected that the young women attending to their needs were the same “lads” who had thwarted their mission by relieving them of their dispatches.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Juliet Thomkins Howe – Southern Spitfire

Juliet Thomkins was the daughter of the Episcopal vicar of Mount Sterling, Kentucky, during the Civil War. A Confederate sympathizer, she did not take kindly to Capt. Edward Howe of the Union Army’s deciding to rest his troops on the Thomkins’ property during a march from Massachusetts to Tennessee.

Capt. Howe ordered two of his men to ride to the house and request food and water. There they were greeted by a tiny woman, barely five-feet tall, who ordered them off the property. Unused to this kind of treatment from a woman, one of them called out that they just wanted water. “I’ll die before I let any Yankee drink the water from our well,” she retorted.

When the men reported their reception, Howe sent his aide to approach the porch. The Yankees and their horses were fed and watered, but not before the aide suffered a scratched face and kicked shins.

         Before leaving, Captain Howe rode up to the porch and stated matter-of-factly, “I don’t know who you are, young lady, or for that matter where you come from. But I do know one thing. After this war is over, if I manage to get out of it alive, I’m going to come back to Mount Sterling; I’m going to find you, and I’m going to make you my wife. Any woman with the courage to take on an entire Yankee regiment is the girl for me.”

Stamping her feet, Juliet shouted, “Sir, I would die before I’d marry you!”

Famous last words. Wounded at Chickamauga, Howe recovered from his wounds, was discharged and set out for Mount Sterling to pay a visit to Vicar Samuel Thomkins. Thomkins told him, “I’ll put in a good word with the Lord for you, and if you can persuade her, she’s all yours. God help you!”

Howe pressed Juliet to marry him. She adamantly refused. He refused to give up. She weakened, but she told him she didn’t think she could adjust to life in Massachusetts. He promised to move South if she didn’t like it.

Edward and Juliet Howe spent many happy years of married life--in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lydia Dyer – Frozen at Owl's Head

Lydia Dyer, half of the “The Frozen Couple of Owl’s Head, lives on in Maine story and legend, following her experience at Owl’s Head light on December 22, 1850. Five vessels were lost along the Maine coast that night in addition to a small schooner on which Dyer, her fiancé, Richard Ingraham, and seaman Roger Elliott were left by the captain. 
After the captain departed, the storm worsened, and the three tried to protect themselves by huddling under blankets. In some versions of the story, it is said that Richard and Lydia passed out from lack of oxygen. Roger, however, was able to chip his way out from under the frozen blankets. With a tremendous reserve of strength, he climbed the icy outcropping to the shore. Once on shore, he managed to reach the road to Owl’s Head Lighthouse, where the keeper happened to be passing in his sleigh. He carried Roger to the keeper’s house, fed him warm rum and put him to bed. Roger begged him to rescue his shipmates.
The keeper gathered a dozen men, who found the wrecked boat with Lydia and Richard frozen in a block of ice. While the rescuers believed the two were dead, they could not leave them and so hoisted the block of ice to shore. They took it, too, to the keeper’s house, where they chipped away at the ice, leaving the two in cold water. Once the ice was chipped away, they began to slowly warm the water, massaging the pair’s arms and legs. Lydia recovered first, followed by Richard, who opened his eyes and asked, “What is this? Where are we?” 
After several months, they recovered, married and eventually had four children. Poor Roger Elliott, however, never recovered and died shortly thereafter.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Molly Kool – Sea Captain

Myrtle “Molly” Kool was the first woman in North America officially recognized as a sea captain. Born in Alma, New Brunswick, Canada, in 1916, she grew up intimately involved in shipping in the Bay of Fundy as her father operated at 70-foot transport vessel. 
Graduating from high school during the Great Depression when jobs were scarce, she decided to pursue a job as a sea captain. At the age of 23 she earned her Master Mariner’s Certificate, sending a telegram home which read: “Call me Captain from now on.” For the next five years, she commanded the “JeanK,” her father’s vessel. Her most common tranports were pulp and paper products in the Bay of Fundy, which is described as having the highest wave action in the world, although occasionally the “JeanK” would venture as far south as Boston. 
Molly's resourcefulness is reported in one story involving the collision of the “JeanK” with another ship in one of the dense fogs of the North Atlantic. Molly was thrown overboard in the collision and came close to losing her life in an encounter with the ship’s propeller. However, she saved herself by grabbing a piece of timber as it floated by. Meanwhile, passengers on the ship were pelting her with life preservers in attempts to help her. Finally, she is reported to have yelled, “I’m already floating. Stop throwing useless stuff at me and send a boat.”
After a gas explosion demolished much of the “JeanK,” she moved to Maine with her first husband, Ray Blaisdell, where she worked selling Singer sewing machines and found that she actually like living on solid ground. She retired after losing both legs to vascular disease. She died of pneumonia on Mar. 4, 2009, two days after celebrating her 93rd birthday. Her ashes were scattered on the Bay of Fundy not far from her birthplace.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rose de Freycinet–Round-the-world chronicler

In September 1817, the “Uranie” left Toulon, France, for an around-the-world scientific expedition. Commanding the voyage was Louis Claude de Freycinet, a naval officer, appointed by the French government.
Louis and 22-year-old Rose Marie Pinion had been married just three years and did not relish the idea of such a long separation. They carefully plotted for Rose to stow away on the vessel, making her the lone woman among 125 men on the voyage. It was strictly against French regulation for women to sail on their boats.
Rose documented her adventures in letters to her mother and her dear friend Caroline in France. In them, she recounted the interesting cultures and customs she encountered on the voyage and included tales of meeting pirates off the coast of New Guinea and being shipwrecked in the Falkland Islands. Her letters, published in diary form after her death, were written with a great appreciation for detail, vividly describing the voyage.
Although never officially mentioned in records of the voyage, Rose’s presence was unofficially acknowledged in the naming for her of a new variety of dove discovered off New Guinea, two ferns gathered by botanists and an island in the Pacific near Samoa.
Rose became the first woman to write a complete account of a three-year circumnavigation. Tragically, she died at age 38 during a cholera epidemic.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Vera Atkins – Spymistress

Born in 1908 in Rumania, Vera Rosenberg was to play an important role in World War II. As the Third Reich began its pogrom against Jews, she changed her name to Atkins to hide her own heritage. It was Vera who recruited, devised legends (cover stories) for, trained and supervised over 400 British agents who parachuted into France to sabotage the Nazis. 
Although she held no rank, she has been described as a “sledgehammer” who worked 18-hour days briefing the agents in minute detail on life in occupied France and was totally devoted to the agents she trained, standing on the runway to watch as each plane took off for its mission to France, some say sending the agents off with a single expletive.
After the war, she demanded the assignment of investigating the 118, including 13 women, who did not return. She traced 117 of them (the 118th was an inveterate gambler who disappeared near Monte Carlo along with 3 million francs of secret service money), all dead, and made sure that justice was served by bringing their surviving killers to trial in the war crimes’ courts. Atkins relentlessly questioned Nazi officers of the concentration camps, including Rudolf Hess. The information she obtained from him was used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials. 
Although unconfirmed, many believe that James Bond author Ian Fleming patterned Miss Moneypenny on Vera. Vera lived to be 92 years old and worked most of that long life to keep memories of the Resistance alive. She settled in a cottage in Winchelsea, Sussex, from which on clear days she could see the coast of France.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Miriam Amanda "Ma" Ferguson – Texas Governor

Texas governor Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson was the first woman elected to a four-year term as governor in the United States. By a quirk of fate, she was the second woman sworn in as governor as Wyoming’s Nellie Ross, elected to fill her husband’s unexpired term, was sworn in 15 days before Ma.
Ma Ferguson had lived in the Texas Governor’s Mansion before. Her husband Jim had served as governor before he was impeached, charged with using state funds for personal items. In 1924, Jim Ferguson talked his wife into entering the race, proclaiming that Texans would get two governors for the price of one. She ran with the slogan, “Me for Ma,” and the sunbonnet became her symbol during the election. She was not particularly happy about any of this but later came to appreciate its value. Under Texas law at that time, her husband was entitled to all of her salary, but this did not stop her from campaigning energetically–so much so that her right arm swelled to twice its normal size from shaking so many hands.
Controversy over her granting pardons (2,000 in her first 20 months) and highway contracts (Many believed the Fergusons received kickbacks.) dogged her first term as governor. She was defeated in 1926 and 1930, but ran again successfully in 1932. Her second term was less controversial, but she “retired” from politics after four years However, she attempted to seek another term in 1940. She was defeated, although she was still able to poll 100,000 votes in her effort.
Among her positions as governor, she is perhaps best remembered for a statement she uttered in defense of her opposition to teaching foreign languages in the public schools. She was quoted as saying, “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas.”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lillian Evanti – Opera Star

Annie Lillian Evans was born into a Washington, DC, African-American family which counted a Revolutionary War soldier, two abolitionists at Harper’s Ferry and the first black U.S. Senator as ancestors. Lillian herself would become the first African American to sing Grand Opera anywhere in the world.
Her parents were both educators and for a short time she followed in their footsteps by teaching kindergarten. However, she left teaching to study at Howard University, receiving a degree in music in 1917.  Shortly thereafter she married her music professor, Roy Tibbs, and combined their last names to form “Evanti,” the name she would use professionally.
By 1925, she had moved to France, believing it would be easier to cross the racial divide in Europe. She lived there until the beginning of World War II, although she made a number of trips back to the United States during her time in France.  In 1932, she auditioned for the New York Metropolitan Opera but was not asked to join the company because she was African American. 
In 1934, she gave a command performance for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. On that same trip to the United States, she also performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
She and Mary Caldwell Dawson founded the National Negro Opera Company in 1941 in Pittsburgh. Newspapers of the time gave very favorable reviews to the efforts of this company. 
Lillian was quite popular in  South America and sang, as well, in Africa. She performed in 24 operas over her lifetime. A very versatile singer, she spoke (and sang) five different languages. Later in life, she returned to Washington, D.C., where she coached singers and gave voice lessons. She died in Washington in 1967.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Lydia Pinkham – Venus de Medicine

In the early part of the 20th century, Lydia Pinkham’s likeness was familiar to most American women. Born in Lynn, Massachusetts to a Quaker family, Lydia was well-educated when she married shoemaker Isaac Pinkham.
Poor Isaac, however, was not able to succeed in any of the several businesses he tried. He lost what little money he had been able to accumulate in the Panic of 1873, leaving the Pinkham family in serious financial straits.
For some time, Lydia, like most women of her day, had been brewing medicinal compounds. Most folks looked askance at the medical profession during this time. It was expensive to visit a doctor, and quite often the remedies they prescribed were more poison than medicine. There is a legend that Isaac Pinkham had received the recipe that would become Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for female complaints as payment from one of his customers. However the Pinkhams received it, Lydia had been brewing it and distributing it free to her neighbors.
When the family found itself in serious financial straits, their son, Daniel, suggested marketing the elixir as a patent medicine. Lydia concocted it on her stove at home until 1876 when the volume of sales necessitated moving operations to a factory. By 1925, it had gross sales of $3.8 million, probably helped along by Prohibition. News stories in the 1920s noted that Lydia Pinkham’s “signature” often appeared on bogus prescriptions for “medicinal alcohol.” The plant continued operation until her great-grandchildren sold the formula to another company in 1973.
Lydia was also the inspiration for a number of popular folk songs. “Lily the Pink,” popularized by the Irish Rovers in the latter part of the 20th century was a sanitized version of one of these songs.
Lydia died in 1883, the same week as the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Catherine Schuyler – The Morning Star

A member of the privileged Van Rensselaer family, Catherine married Philip Schuyler in 1755. For much of the early part of her marriage, Catherine Schuyler seemed content to manage the household and take care of her children (She would have 15 in all.). 
During the French and Indian War, she distinguished herself by taking care of the sick and wounded. Philip Schuyler, serving in the military under General John Bradstreet, was called upon by Bradstreet to go to England in his stead (There has been much speculation over the years of a romantic entanglement between the much older Gen. Bradstreet and Catherine Schuyler during this time.)
While Philip Schuyler was away, it became evident that Catherine was completely capable of managing the business of the family’s estates. She arranged and oversaw the building of a pretentious residence in Albany. 
The Schuylers had a second home in Saratoga, and during the American Revolution as General Burgoyne advanced into this area, Philip Schuyler sent word that the wheat fields around the Saratoga house must be destroyed to prevent the British from harvesting it for their own use. Catherine Schuyler immediately left Albany for Saratoga although she was advised against travel after word reached them of the murder of Jane McCrea. Catherine personally set fire to the wheat fields. This act was immortalized in a painting by Emanuel Leuzte.
Catherine and Philip Schuyler’s daughters were not wallflowers, either. Four of the five arranged their own marriages–not at all usual for the time–with several of them eloping much to the dismay of their parents. The fifth daughter, Elizabeth, married Alexander Hamilton.
Catherine Schuyler spent her later years tending her homes and family, dying in 1803 of apoplexy.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Babe Didrikson Zaharias – Outstanding Athlete

If there was ever an overachiever in sports, that person would be Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias. She excelled in almost everything she tried, including track and field, golf, basketball, diving, bowling, roller skating and pool. When asked once if there was anything she didn’t play, she replied, “Yeah, dolls.” But she was also an excellent seamstress, making many of her own golf outfits and winning the 1931 Sewing Championship at the Texas State Fair.
Born in Texas to Norwegian immigrants, she was encouraged early to participate in sports. She always claimed she was given the nickname “Babe” because she hit five home runs in one baseball game when she was a teen.
She competed in the 1932 Olympics, winning two gold and one silver medal in track and field events. She also participated on a vaudeville-type basketball team. At age 31, she turned seriously to golf. She became the first woman to make the cut in a regular PGA tournament and was the first female golf “celebrity,” becoming a leading player in the 1940s and early ‘50s.  She won 17 straight amateur and pro victories. In 1949, She became one of the founders of the LPGA.
She married pro wrestler George Zaharias, who later became her manager.
Although described by her competitors as flamboyant, cocky and often overbearing, she was overwhelmingly popular with her fans. In 1953, she was diagnosed with colon cancer, and doctors told her it was unlikely that she would ever play golf again. They had not reckoned with her competitive spirit, and within a few weeks of surgery, she was back on the golf course continuing her winning ways. The cancer, however, returned, and Babe Didrikson Zaharias died at age 45 in 1956.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Penelope Pagget Barker – Tea Party Planner

At age 27 Penelope Pagget Craven became the richest woman in North Carolina with the death of her second husband, James Craven. She later married Thomas Barker, who often traveled to England, leaving her in charge of her inherited property as well as his own. So it was only natural that she would take an avid interest in the public affairs of the colony, a position that led to her being called "one of the most courageous women in U.S. history.

Her interest in colonial affairs led her to express her displeasure at the Crown's tax on many goods without giving colonists a say in that taxation. In October 1774, she composed a public statement to this effect and hosted a "tea party," now known as the Edenton Tea Party, at the home of Elizabeth King. In addition to herself, 50 women attended and affixed their names to her statement. She was quoted as saying, "We are signing our names to a document, not hiding ourselves behind costumes like the men of Boston did at their tea party."

She made sure the proclamation was sent to a London newspaper, where journalists and cartoonists depicted the women as "bad mothers and loose women." However, in the colonies, other women took note and began a major boycott of British goods, quickly getting the attention of British authorities. An enlarged version of one of the cartoons hangs today in the entry hall of the Barker home, now headquarters of the Edenton Historical Commission.

When the American Revolution began in earnest, Penelope continued to take a courageous stand. When informed that British officers were raiding her stable of its carriage horses, she snatched up her husband's sword and dashed to the stable. With a mighty slash of the sword, she severed the horses' reins and drove them back into the stable, informing the British officers that they could not molest her property without peril. The commanding officer apologized, assuring her that neither she nor her property would again be molested.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Madame C.J. Walker – Millionaire

Sarah Breedlove, child of former slaves, was born in 1867 in rural Louisiana. Orphaned at age seven, she was married by 14, a mother at 17 and widowed at 20. After her husband’s death, she moved to St. Louis to be near her brothers who were barbers. She established herself as a washerwoman, little dreaming that the barber and beauty industry would one day make her American’s first woman millionaire.
In the late 1890s, Sarah was going bald. Like most women of the day, she only washed her hair once a month and had developed severe dandruff and scalp disease. She experimented with various compounds and developed a shampoo and salve containing sulphur which healed the condition.
An enterprising woman, she took the name of her late second husband, and, calling herself Madame C.J. Walker began to market these products under the name Madame C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair-Grower. In 1906, she started a company with headquarters in Indianapolis, using African-American women to help her sell her products. At one point she employed 3,000 workers.
Madame Walker soon found that she had become the first self-made woman millionaire in the United States. She built a large home on the Hudson River in New York, which is still standing. She was also one of the first Americans to own an automobile.
When she died in 1919, she was hailed not only as a millionaire but also as a philanthropist. She once said, “I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it. Don’t sit down and wait for opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
Her great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles has written a biography of Madame Walker, On Her Own Ground.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tempe Wick – Revolutionary Horsewoman

During the American Revolution, ordinary citizens were often forced to give up or share their homes with British or Colonial soldiers. Such was the case of the Wick family who lived in Jockey Hollow, near present-day Morristown, New Jersey.
The Wick home was comandeered by General Arthur St. Clair of the Continental Army. Although the Wick family continued to live in the house, their daily routines were greatly interrupted.
One thing that didn’t change was that young Tempe Wick continued to ride her horse, Colonel, through the countryside. It was not particularly safe as British, Tories and mutinous Continental soldiers roamed at large.
On one of her rides, Tempe met a group of soldiers from Pennsylvania. Not realizing they had mutinied because of conditions, she suspected nothing when they stopped her. However, she soon realized they had their eyes on Colonel, who was quite a fine horse.
Thinking quickly, Tempe waited until the soldier holding the horse’s bridle removed his hand for a moment. Instantly, she gave the horse a slap and galloped away with the would-be horse thieves in hot pursuit, firing shots at her as they got the chance. 
She could outrun them, but she was aware that some of them knew where she lived, and if she returned Colonel to his barn, the angry men would simply wait until nightfall and steal him. So upon her arrival at the farm, she boldly led the horse into the house and into a bedroom. Some stories say the guest room was on the first floor and rarely used; other that she led him upstairs to her own room. Most of the stories state that she kept the horse hidden in the house for three weeks until she felt the danger had passed.
The Wick home is now part of the Morristown National Historic Park. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ruth Haynes Wyllys – Daring Colonial

Ruth Haynes was the daughter of the Connecticut colony’s first governor, John Haynes. She married Samuel Wyllys, whose father and grandfather before him had been Treasurer of Connecticut. Because of their position, it was in the Wyllys home that the cherished charter, given to the colony by King Charles II, was kept under lock and key. 
However, in 1687, King James II named Edmond Andros the governor-general of all New England. And to consolidate his power, Andros laid claim to all prior charters. In October of that year he arrived in Hartford to remove the Charter.
Some residents of Connecticut were resigned to this state of affairs, but others were determined to do all in their power to retain their Charter. Among those was Ruth Haynes Wyllys. 
On the day appointed, Andros arrived in Hartford. He was escorted to the council chambers where the charter, removed from the Wyllys home, lay on the table. Much debate had already gone on when Andrew Leete, whose father had also been governor of Connecticut rose. Leete looked ill and trembled as he began to speak. Midway through his speech, he fell forward onto the table, upsetting the candelabrum and leaving the room in darkness.
By pre-arrangement, Lt. Joseph Wadsworth, a lineal descendant of the poet William Wadsworth, was stationed outside a window. The charter, quickly scooped up when the lights went out, was handed to him, and he made haste to return it to the Wyllys home.
Ruth Wyllys, home alone, authoritatively told him that it would not be safe in the house as Andros’ men would be sure to search there. She quickly led him to a huge tree standing near the Wyllys house, known to all as “the oak.” Ruth Wyllys held the charter while Wadsworth climbed up into the tree and then handed him the document which he secreted in a hollow limb. 
No one could explain the charter’s disappearance, and Andros was soon on his way back to Boston, highly miffed, while the Wyllys’ oak tree was known forever after as “The Charter Oak.”

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dorothea Lange – Documentary Photographer

Dorothea Lange left a successful portrait studio in San Francisco to become a documentary photographer, and from that time on, she documented the effects of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and Japanese internment camps, as well as other events and movements. “Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1935,” a stark photograph  of Florence Thompson Owens, taken in California during the Depression, has become one of the most recognized photographs in the world.
Lange understood the suffering of the people she was photographing. As a small childhood, she contracted polio which left her with a twisted foot and permanent limp. She and her mother were abandoned by her father when she was 12, and she spent her teenage years wondering the streets of New York because her mother became so preoccupied that she rarely noticed her daughter. 
As an adult her work was often curtailed by her debilitating illnesses. (She was the first woman awarded a Guggenheim fellowship but was unable to complete it because of illness). Her marriage failed, and she was forced to put her children in foster care because she was gone so often in her work with the Farm Security Administration as a photographer.
Lange was more than a photographer in that she wrote captions for all the photos she took for the Farms Security Administration, and she was furious all her life that the FSA never published the captions with the photos. They were, in fact, distributed free to newspapers by the government. Linda Gordon, Lange’s biographer, has said that “she hated the iconization of her art.”
Lange herself said late in life, “I’ve been weary all my life, and I’ve always had to make a great effort to do the things that I really wanted to do, combating not having quite enough to do it with...You do, really, what you must do.”

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Prudence Crandall – Educator

Prudence Crandall, a Rhode Island-born Quaker, opened a school for young ladies in Canterbury, CT, in 1831. The school quickly became a success, attracting young women from other states. The young ladies studied reading arithmetic, English grammar, geography, history, natural and moral philosophy, rhetoric, chemistry, drawing and painting, French and the delineation of maps.
In 1832, Prudence’s housekeeper asked if she would consider accepting a young black woman into the school. Sarah Harris, daughter of a prosperous, local farmer, wanted to become a teacher. Prudence accepted Sarah, arousing the anger of the townspeople.
Many parents removed their daughters from the school. Prudence retaliated by opening a school solely for young black women, which only intensified the anger against her. Storeowners refused to sell her food. Residents of Canterbury threw rocks and eggs at the building. In May 1833, Connecticut enacted laws making it illegal to educate black children. Prudence refused to close the school and was arrested June 27, 1833.
After a jury failed to reach a verdict, she was given a second trial, at which she was found guilty. That verdict was overturned on a technicality, which so angered the townspeople that they stormed the school with clubs and iron bars. Prudence closed the school the next day, fearing for the safety of her students.
She married and moved to the mid-west, but throughout her long life, she continued to teach and was always a champion of equality in education and women’s rights.
Fifty years after she was forced to close the school, Samuel Colt and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) pushed Connecticut to grant her a yearly pension. Garrison Keillor of “A Prairie Home Companion” traces his ancestry through Prudence Crandall, according to one of his books.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Bessie Coleman – Queen Bess

Growing up one of 13 children in a Texas family in the early 1900s, Bessie Coleman learned early about both race and gender discrimination. Not able to attend school regularly, Bessie educated herself through books she borrowed from a traveling library.
In 1915, she moved to Chicago with two of her brothers, earning money as a manicurist. When her brother, John, returned from World War I, boasting that French women were superior to the women of Chicago, with some even flying airplanes, Bessie immediately set out to prove she could fly. But because she was both black and female, no American flight school would take her.
Robert Abbott, publisher of an African-American newspaper in Chicago, learned of her frustration and suggested she save her money and move to France. Bessie was soon on her way to France. On June 15, 1921, after only seven months’ instruction, she obtained a pilot’s license in France, becoming the first black woman in the world to do so. According to newspaper accounts, she also received the first pilot’s license granted to an American woman in Germany and turned down an offer to teach women to fly in Moscow.
She returned to the United States, determined to open a flight school for African-Americans, but again doors would not open for her.  She returned to France in 1922 for lessons in stunt work.
When she again returned to the United States, Robert Abbott encouraged her to tour the country, giving exhibitions, flight lessons and lectures, particularly aimed at blacks and women.
Her career was to be short-lived. On April 30, 1926, she was a passenger in a plane flown by William Willis. They were scouting areas for possible parachute landings, and Bessie was not strapped in as she was leaning over the side of the plane to survey the terrain below. At some point, the plane dropped into a steep dive, flipping over and throwing her to her death. 
Airplane clubs named for her began springing up all over the country, and in 1931 a group of African-American pilots started the tradition of participating in an annual flyover of her grave in Chicago.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ada H. Kepley – Lawyer, Suffragette

Ada Miser moved to Effingham, Illinois, with her parents while she was in high school and remained there the rest of her eventful life.
After graduation, she married Henry Kepley, a local attorney. He trained her to be his legal assistant, but after a short time, Ada had other ideas, enrolling in Union School of Law in Chicago. She earned a law degree in 1870, becoming the first woman in the United States to do so. 
However, she hit a brick wall when she applied for her license to practice and was informed by state authorities that “Illinois law does not allow women to enter the learned professions.”
Henry Kepley aided her in challenging the law by preparing a bill for the state legislature forbidding sexual discrimination in the professions. Although the bill was adopted into law in 1872, Ada did not receive her license until 1881 because she had become embroiled in the suffragette and temperance movements. After she was licensed to practice law, she handled occasional court cases but devoted most of her time to her passion.
“I like to be at the front of great movements as far as possible,” she was quoted as saying. Her temperance work put her at the front of the movement in Illinois and also put her in some personal danger as she was once clubbed over the head by an angry shopkeeper and arrested for removing a poster of a half-nude woman advertising a female minstral show from the post office.
Ada’s name also appeared in the newspapers as she pursued her goals. In 1886, she ran for the position of school trustee–against her husband–defeating him soundly. And a 1905 newspaper article announced that she wished to be chief of police of Effingham. It added that she wanted a ju jitsu assistant.
After Henry’s death, Ada tried many means of making a living but was not very successful at any of them, and, therefore, found herself viewed as an eccentric by the residents of Effingham.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Agnes Sorel – Lady of Beauty

Considered by many to be the most beautiful woman in the world at the time, Agnes caught the eye of King Charles VII of France, who quickly made her his mistress. She was the first to be the acknowledged mistress of the king and the first to hold this semi-official position which was later to be of great importance in the monarchy.
Her beauty, enhanced by her intelligence and wit, so captivated the king that he gave her wealth, castles and property, giving her a status almost equal to that of the queen’s. These actions and his open acknowledgement of Agnes as his mistress scandalized the French people while her strong influence over the king and extravagant tastes stirred up jealousies and intrigues that earned her a number of powerful enemies.
She had three daughters with the king and while pregnant with their fourth child journeyed in midwinter to join him at Chinon, where she suddenly died at age 28, days after the child was born. The baby died shortly thereafter. Her death was attributed to dysentery, but a forensic investigation of her bones in 2004 revealed the cause of death to be mercury poisoning, leading to speculation that she was murdered. The two prime suspects were Charles’s son, the Dauphin and future King Louis XI, and French minister Jacques Couer.  However, as mercury was used in cosmetics and also as a cure for worms at that time, accidental death cannot be ruled out.
Legends have grown up around her, including one that she carried on the work of Jeanne D’Arc and encouraged Charles to invade Normandy. This has largely been disproved. Agnes’ likeness was also used for the Queen of Diamonds on French playing cards.
It is also noted that her cousin, who greatly resembled her, took her place as the king’s mistress after her death.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dame Nellie Melba–Superstar

Born in the early 1860s near Melbourne, Australia, Helen Mitchell would become a superstar and give her name to at least two foods before her death in 1931. Her musical talent was discovered early. She sang in her first concert at age 6. She went on to become one of the world’s first superstars in opera, changing her name to Nellie Melba, the Melba coming from her hometown of Melbourne.
Her motto was: See to everything yourself, which she did with great gusto, even managing to negotiate a fee for her singing at one pound higher than that the famed Enrico Caruso received at the height of his career. Melba was one of the first artists to make a gramophone recording and was also one of the first to sing on a radio broadcast.
She was known for her flamboyance, and it was reported in newspaper articles of the time that she often wore as much as $1.25 million in diamonds.
She is, however, perhaps best remembered today by the two foods which bear her name. In 1893, the Duke of Orleans held a dinner for Nellie at the Savoy Hotel in London. A special dessert was prepared with peaches and ice cream. Nellie loved ice cream, but was afraid the cold would damage her vocal cords. She became convinced that if it was only one element in a desert it was much less dangerous. Recipes for peach melba today now include raspberry sauce as well.
By 1897 Nellie Melba was concerned about her figure and complained that the great chef Escoffier made his bread too thick. The chef then presented her with a thinly sliced piece of toast, which he named Melba toast.
Nellie Melba died in 1931 from blood poisoning contracted as a complication of cosmetic surgery. Her portrait now adorns the Australian $100 bill.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Mary Pickersgill – Flagmaker

Mary Pickersgill learned flag making from her mother, Mary Young, when she was just a girl. When she married, she moved to Philadelphia with her husband. They stayed there until his death. Mary then moved back to Baltimore with her mother and daughter, Caroline. 
In order to support her family, Mary put the skills she had learned as a girl to use. She set up a successful flag-making business which she advertised as making “Ships Colours, Signals, etc.” She was soon receiving order from the U.S. Army, Navy and various companies with merchant ships. Her business prospered such that she was able to buy her own home.
And although it was not the norm for the time, Mary Pickersgill bcame involved in a number of social issues, particularly those faced by disadvantaged women.
This woman, born in the year the American colonies declared independence from Britain, was to find her place in history by making the flag celebrated during the War of 1812 by Francis Scott Key in his poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” which was to become our National Anthem.
Mary was given a $500 contract to make two flags for use at Baltimore’s Ft. McHenry, one measuring 30’ x 42’ to be “so large the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance” and a smaller one to be flown in inclement weather. Using over 400 yards of fabric, and with assistance from her mother, daughter and several other women, Mary completed the largest battle flag in the world in just six weeks. The flag had to be assembled on the malt house floor of Claggett’s Brewery in the evenings while the brewery was not in operation. It took 11 men to raise it on a 90-foot flagpole.
Today, the flag is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, although about 8 feet of the original flag is missing–cut off for souvenirs over the years.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Belle Boyd – A Rebel Lady

Growing up in what is now Martinsburg, West Virginia, Belle Boyd was considered a tomboy who often scandalized the neighbors with her exploits. However, by the time she was 17, with the Civil War raging, her tomboy ways stood her in good stead as she spied for Confederate generals Turner Ashby and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
To get information, Belle relied on her outgoing personality, her “joyous recklessness” and what have been described as the best pair of legs in the Confederacy. By the time she reached age 21, her activities had been reported to authorities over 30 times; she had been arrested six or seven times and put in prison twice.
Always restless, Belle was galvanized by the Civil War. Her self-described “first adventure” involved killing a Union soldier for pushing her mother. Union troops celebrating the Fourth of July stumbled drunkenly up to the Boyd’s home. One of the drunken troops pulled out an American flag and started to climb to the roof to hoist it over the house. 
Belle’s normally meek mother called out, “Men, every member of this household will die before that flag is raised over us.” The soldier pushed Mrs. Boyd aside, prompting Belle to pull out a pistol and shoot him. Pandemonium broke loose as the Union soldiers began firing shots at the house and threatening to burn it down. The Union commander investigated, listened to Belle’s “tearful” story and posted a guard at the house to make sure no other incident occurred.
Belle’s exploits continued throughout the war, with her once racing across an exposed portion of a battlefield to deliver a message. 
After the war, Belle took the road with a one-woman show about her daring exploits. She lived until 1900, dying in Wisconsin on a speaking tour. She is buried there, far from her beloved Confederacy.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Frances Benjamin Johnston – Photographer

The daughter of a U.S. Treasury official, Frances Benjamin Johnston spent her girlhood among Washington’s public figures. When she reached adulthood, she determined to pursue a career, a daring move for a young society woman of the time. In the late 1880s, she began working as a journalist, illustrating her stories with her own drawings. Soon, however, she decided that photographs would work better.
She asked George Eastman for a camera, which he provided. Few people knew how to operate one, so Frances took it to the Smithsonian for instruction. Not long afterward, she opened a studio in Washington.
She pursued stories all over the world and became the first to photograph the camera-shy Adm. George Dewey after presenting him a note from President Theodore Roosevelt. Dewey even turned his ship’s torpedo room over to her to use as a dark room.
She was the first press photographer ever allowed access to the White House. In this capacity, she took the only photo available of the signing of the treaty with Spain to end the Spanish-American war. She photographed Theodore Roosevelt’s children in the White House, and she took many portraits of Washington’s elite, dispensing with stiff formal portraits and portraying them in more relaxed settings.
Frances also took the final photograph of President William McKinley, just 30 minutes before he was assassinated.
At age 50, she began shooting color film of gardens throughout Europe and America. At 60, she undertook a major project, single-handedly filming historically significant buildings and places throughout the American South through an agreement with the Library of Congress. During this period, she was often thought to be a spy and was arrested in some places. At age 85, just three years before her death, she began taking pictures of the architecture of North Carolina.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Wilma Rudolph – Born to Run

On June 23, 1940, Ed and Blanche Rudolph’s 20th child was born prematurely, weighing only 4.5 pounds. Wilma Rudolph was a sickly baby and young child so it was not surprising when she contracted polio at age four. The disease left her without the use of her left leg, and she and her family were soon to realize that they lived in a segregated world which made getting anything from an education to medical treatment an uphill battle.

Doctors told her mother that she would never walk, but Blanche Rudolph was a fighter, and she would not give up. She found treatment at Meharry Hospital, a part of Fiske University. Treatment there allowed Wilma to walk using braces and crutches, and the doctors instructed her mother in physical therapy. Her brothers and sisters pitched in to help with the therapy, and by the age of 12, Wilma Rudolph was walking unaided.

In high school, the once sickly invalid became a basketball star, leading her team to a state championship. She was spotted by a college track coach who secured her a scholarship. At age 16, she qualified for the 1956 Olympics, winning a bronze medal in the 4x4 relay. 

But it was in Rome at the 1960 Olympic Games that Wilma Rudolph made an indelible mark on the athletic world. She won three gold medals becoming the first American woman to do so. Her achievements went much farther than the Olympics as they helped break down gender barriers in track and field events around the world.

Her medals led to many awards, but she considered the greatest achievement the fact that her “Homecoming” parade in Clarksville, TN, was the first racially integrated event ever held in the town. The banquet held in her honor that night was the second.

Wilma Rudolph died in 1994 at age 54, after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. In 2004, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Martha Bratton – Compassionate Revolutionary

Martha Bratton was one of many South Carolina women who staunchly defended their families against the British and Tories during the American Revolution.

The Brattons lived in York District, and Martha’s husband William, along with many other men in the district, had joined forces with General Thomas Sumter to attempt to drive back Capt. Christian Huck and his men.

The day before the battle, now known as Huck’s Defeat, Huck and his men arrived at the home of Martha Bratton.
She met them on the piazza, her five-year-old son clinging to her skirts. When asked where her husband was, she replied that he was with Sumter’s army and that she would rather him remain true to his country and perish than to align himself with Huck’s forces and live.

Infuriated by her brashness, one of Huck’s men grabbed a reaping hook hanging on the porch and held it to her throat. Huck made no move to check him, but his second-in-command, John Adamson, stepped in and ordered the soldier to release her.
Huck commanded Martha to prepare supper for his troops. She complied, but sent a servant out the back way to warn her husband and Sumter’s troops.

Early the next morning, Sumter’s troops surprised Huck, who had camped just down the road from the Bratton’s on land owned by James Williamson. During the fighting that ensued, Adamson was wounded. William Bratton was told that this was the man who had threatened Martha. Bratton ordered him executed, but Adamson swore he was not the man and asked that Martha be brought to the scene to vouch for him. She came and not only confirmed his story, but also took him into her home, tended his wounds and nursed him back to health.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Pearl Hart – Lady Bandit

There are many versions of Pearl Hart’s life story. Some say she and her younger sister ran away from their home in Canada while in their teens and spent time in Chicago. Others say they crossed the country to Walla Walla, Washington, before settling in Chicago, or Kansas City. Still others say that her parents, unable to harness the girl’s energies, put her in boarding school in Kansas City, where she met Frederick Hart and eloped.
Whatever, the truth of her early life, most stories agree that she was petite and attractive. And all of them note that she was abused by her husband, eventually leaving him to seek her fortune in the Wild West. 
Again stories vary, but it seems that in 1899, she got word that her mother was dying. She wanted to go back east to visit her one last time but had no money. She had, by this time, taken up with a man known only as Joe Boot. She and Joe decided to rob the stagecoach.
Pearl dressed in Joe’s clothes, and the two of them held up the stage, taking around $450 from the driver and riders. However, they were now on the run, and it wasn’t many days before they were apprehended.
In jail, Pearl reveled in the role as the “lady bandit,” giving autographs to all who came to see her. On Oct. 2, 1899, she and a male prisoner escaped, but she was soon in custody again. 
In Nov. 1899, a jury acquitted Pearl. This infuriated the judge who accused her of “flirting with the jury.” He empaneled another jury to try her on another charge. This group sentenced her to prison. While there, she became quite a celebrity.
After she was paroled, there are again various stories of her owning a cigar store and starring in a one-woman show about her exploits. She was arrested again in 1904 for buying stolen canned goods. After that, no one knows exactly what happened although it is generally believed that she lived until the 1950s.