Friday, January 29, 2010

Margaret Brent – Colonial Attorney

Margaret Brent, the first woman to act as an attorney before the court of common law in an American colony, arrived in Maryland in 1638, along with two brothers and a sister. She quickly secured a land grant and engaged in many business ventures, including trading in tobacco, indentured servants and land.

Because of her many enterprises, she often appeared in court to force collection of debts and to protect her interests. She soon, however, was also appearing on behalf of her brothers and of other women landowners. And it is apparent that the courts did not know quite how to deal with this as she is often referred to in court documents as “Gentleman Margaret Brent.”

Maryland governor Leonard Calvert so respected her that he named her the sole executor of his estate, and although he appointed Thomas Greene to succeed him as governor, it was Margaret Brent who handled the affairs of state, including asking the assembly to transfer Leonard Calvert’s power of attorney for his brother, Lord Baltimore, to her. Once in possession of the power of attorney, she sold some of Lord Baltimore’s cows in order to pay the army Leonard Calvert had mustered, thereby averting a mutiny.

And it was 362 years ago this month that Margaret Brent attended a meeting of the assembly and rose to speak. She requested that she be given a vote because she was a property owner and a second vote because she held Lord Baltimore’s power of attorney. Although there were those who felt the request should be granted, more felt it should be denied because she was a woman.

As the political winds turned against her, Margaret Brent moved from Maryland to Virginia where she acquired a large tract of land, living there until her death.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lilian E. Bland–Irish Aviator

Before Amelia Earhart there was Lilian Bland. Lilian, whose reputation was more spicy than bland, particularly for the granddaughter of the Episcopal Dean of Belfast, had already made a name for herself as a press photographer and sportswriter, two professions thought not suitable for women, before she became interested in flying. She was photographing birds when she noticed the soaring black seagulls, inspiring the design for the plane she built just seven years after the Wright brothers’ flights.

She named her creation the “Mayfly,” testing it in rather unorthodox ways. To determine the amount of weight it could carry, she stationed four Irish policemen and her helper holding on to the wings of the plane. The wind lifted the plane with the men in place, and Lilian knew it could carry an engine of that weight.

Returning from London with the engine late at night and in the middle of a rainstorm, she couldn’t wait to test it. The gasoline tank was not yet ready, so she rigged up a makeshift tank, using a whiskey bottle and feeding the gasoline into the engine through her deaf aunt’s ear trumpet.

Lilian’s longest flight was only about a quarter of a mile. Her father, worried about her flitting about in kite-like flying machines, offered to buy her a car if she stopped flying. She accepted and soon was running a Ford dealership, the first in the north of Ireland. Unfortunately no one would buy a car from her.

She married her cousin and moved to British Columbia, where they attempted to wrest a living from the land. She later made her home in Cornwall, where she died in 1971, age 93. In a 1965 interview, she told the reporter she was less impressed with her flight than others were. “One tries one thing then moves on to other things,” she said.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Elizabeth Tabor – Guardian of the Matchless Mine

It is a riches to rags story. Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Elizabeth McCourt decided early that she wanted to be rich. She married Harvey Doe, the mayor’s son, and insisted they move to Colorado in search of gold or silver. The miners gave the incredibly beautiful Elizabeth the nickname “Baby Doe.” Far more ambitious than her husband, she recruited her own crew, working beside them, dressed in old shirt and trousers, to sink a shaft into the mine. The mine came up empty.

She and Harvey were soon divorced, and Baby Doe scandalized the neighborhood when she determined to capture the attentions of Horace Austin Warner “Haw” Tabor, a married man, who had already made several million dollars in silver. There began a complicated and convoluted courtship which resulted in a splashy wedding ceremony at the Willard Hotel in Washington, with the President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur, in attendance. Her dress alone cost $7,000.

They lived a life of luxury until the bottom fell out of the silver market, and they lost everything. Neither gave up hope that the Matchless Mine would once again bring them riches. On his deathbed, Haw made her promise to keep the mine. That promise would eventually take her life. For 36 years, she guarded the mine, driving off trespassers with a double-barreled shotgun, living in a rickety shack near the mine, even after creditors foreclosed on the property.

In March 1935, neighbors found her frozen body in the shack. The coroner’s report said she died of a heart attack and had been dead for at least two weeks. She claimed to be 73; her brother said she was 83. In the 1940s her life became a WPA project of the Denver Historical Museum after 17 trunks of her belongings were found in a warehouse. Her story has also been the subject of several books and movies.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jeanne Baré – Botanist's Assistant

The first woman to circumnavigate the globe earned her keep as a botanist’s assistant–and managed to keep her gender a secret for a great part of the voyage.

Jeanne Baré (or Baret) was an orphan from the Burgundy region of France. She had no desire to become a prostitute, a profession many female orphans resorted to in order to support themselves. Instead, she disguised herself as a boy and hired out as a valet. When she learned in 1767 that the French government was sending an expedition around the world to collect rare plants, she approached Philibert Cammerson, the royal botanist, and signed on as his male assistant.

In Brazil, Baré followed Cammerson into the jungles where they found a plant which was named for the captain of the expedition and is known today as the bougainvillea. Although some members of the crew were suspicious that she was a woman, her cover wasn’t blown until they reached Tahiti. The natives immediately recognized her as female and were so taken with her that she had to flee back to the ship to escape their attention. She confessed to Captain Bougainville, who agreed to arrange a pardon for her from the French government.

Cammerson honored Baré by naming the plant genus which contains a species of plants with ambiguous sexual characteristics, Baretia, for her. Little is known about her after the voyage except that in 1785, the French government granted Baré, then known as Madame Dubernat and living in the French countryside, a pension, arranged by Capt. Bougainville, for her work as the botanist’s assistant on the expedition.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Alice Ramsey – First Lady of Automobile Travel

Less than a year after she learned to drive, 22-year-old Alice Ramsey kissed her two-year old son and her husband goodbye and set out to drive a dark green, four-cylinder, 30 horsepower Maxwell across the United States, becoming the first woman to do so.

On June 9, 1909, Alice, along with her two, 40-something-year-old sisters-in-law and a 16-year old girlfriend, none of whom could drive, left New York City bound for San Francisco. Fifty-nine days later they arrived unscathed, but now veterans of many exciting adventures. In Nebraska they happened upon a manhunt for a murderer and in Nevada were surrounded by a group of Native Americans hunting jackrabbits. There was, of course, also the inherent problems in driving an early automobile on 3,600 miles of road, only 152 of which were paved. Not only was Alice the first woman to drive across the county, but she also did it in record time-–exceeding that of the men who had done it before her. The Maxwell at times whizzed along at 42 miles an hour.

After the trip, Alice continued to drive, making more than 30 trips across the country. In 1961, she published her memoir of her record-setting trip, Veil, Duster and Tire Iron. It was reprinted several years ago under the title, Alice’s Drive. When Alice died at age 96 in 1983, she had been driving 80 years and had received only one traffic ticket–for making an illegal U-turn.

Alice’s adventure still resonates with women today. In 1999, Tara Baukus Mello and Sue Mead recreated the 1909 trip, and in 2009, Emily Anderson and Christie Catania did the same in a vintage 1909 Maxwell.

By the way, Alice’s husband, New Jersey Congressman John R. Ramsey, never learned to drive a car. He left the driving to Alice.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mary Peck Butterworth –Colonial Counterfeiter

Mary Peck, born in 1686, was a member of one of the first families of Rehobeth, Massachusetts. Her marriage to John Butterworth, a well-known house builder, was looked upon as a good match.

Some say that Mary, even before her marriage, was well on her way to becoming the most successful female counterfeiter in history. At the peak of her “career” she was counterfeiting eight different types of bills. Her method was ingenious. She would dampen a starched cotton cloth and lift the ink from a genuine bill to the cloth by using a hot iron. She would then use the iron to transfer the pattern to a blank piece of paper, later inking the counterfeit bill with quills specially made by her brother. The transfer cloth was then burned in the fireplace, destroying all evidence.

At least three of her brothers and one sister-in-law were engaged in the counterfeiting ring, and she employed a number of “passers,” people who got the money in circulation, including a deputy sheriff.

Mary’s business boomed for seven years without a hitch. By this time, her counterfeit bills were having an impact on the economies of three colonies–Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Authorities became suspicious when John built a large, expensive house for his family, presumably from her counterfeiting proceeds.

She, along with other family members, was arrested, and although one of her brothers and a sister-in-law testified against her before the Grand Jury, the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

It is assumed that Mary mended her ways, and lived the rest of her life as a model citizen. She died at age 89 in 1775. She had, however, made more than £1,000 worth of fake bills during her “career.”

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cathay Williams – Buffalo Soldier

Cathay Williams was born in slavery in Missouri in 1842. When the Union army 
“liberated” her in 1861, she found herself taken as contraband and assigned as cook to Gen. Philip Sheridan’s staff. Cathay, however, could not cook, and after the staff ate a few of her meals, she was reassigned as a laundress.

Cathay appreciated the constant movement of the army, and after the war, she decided she would like to stay in the army, especially now that the government was recruiting several units of black soldiers to protect settlers, cattle herds and the U.S. mail from Indians in the West. But the army was certainly not accepting women recruits.

After discussing the proposition with a cousin and a “special” friend, Cathay enlisted on November 15, 1866, as William Cathay. There was either no physical exam or she somehow managed to avoid it. William Cathay’s service in the Buffalo Soldiers, the name given to the black units by the Indians because of the tenacity of their fighting, was unremarkable. There is no report that “he” saw any direct combat. What is remarkable is that William Cathay was hospitalized at least five different times during the almost three years of his service, and at no time was it discovered that William Cathay was Cathay Williams.

As the end of the three-year hitch neared, Cathay Williams, apparently suffering from diabetes, grew weary of army life. In an ironic twist, she feigned illness, and this time upon admittance to the hospital, allowed her gender to be discovered. She was given an immediate honorable discharge.

She resumed wearing women’s clothing and spent the rest of her life, moving throughout the West, working as a laundress, seamstress and cook. She married once, but her husband stole her money and her horses. She had him arrested.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Ada Curnutt – Deputy Marshal

Daughter of a Methodist minister, Ada Curnutt moved to the Oklahoma Territory with her sister and brother-in-law shortly after it opened for settlers. She soon found work as Clerk of the District Court in Norman and as a Deputy Marshal to U.S. Marshal William Grimes. The slim 20-year old, however, was not a “hard” woman as evidenced by her avowed favorite hobby of painting china.

But when duty called, Ada was ready to respond. Shortly before Christmas in 1893, she received a telegram from Grimes, instructing her to send a deputy to Oklahoma City to bring in two notorious outlaws named Reagan and Dolezal. All the other deputies already had warrants and were out scouting for suspects. Not one to shirk her duty, Ada boarded the train for Oklahoma City and upon her arrival asked around for information on her quarry. It didn’t take her long to find them at a gambling house and saloon. She then asked a man on the street to go in and tell them that a lady needed to see them outside.

When the two emerged, Ada read the warrants to them and placed them under arrest. Heavily armed, they scoffed at the idea that this unarmed young woman could actually arrest them. Calmly, she pointed to the crowd gathered around and announced that she was prepared to deputize every man in the crowd to aide her in doing just that. She handcuffed them without incident and escort them to the train station, where she telegraphed the marshal’s office in Guthrie that she was bringing them in.

This was not Ada’s first arrest. Earlier that year she had arrested 19 men one night at the Black and Roger saloon in Oklahoma City for perjury in land contests.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Betsy Ross - Businesswoman

Today is Betsy Ross’s 258th birthday. Generations of American children knew Betsy as the maker, and perhaps designer, of the first flag of the United States of America. Many historians now, however, question Betsy’s participation in this event.

Regardless of whether or not she made the first flag, Betsy Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole had plenty of pluck. As a young woman, Betsy was apprenticed to an upholsterer, where she met another young apprentice named John Ross. Betsy, a Quaker, and Ross, son of an Episcopal assistant rector, eloped to New Jersey in 1773, an act which would cut her off from her family and her religion as she was “read out” of the Quaker congregation for marrying outside the faith.

Shortly after their marriage, they opened their own upholstery shop in Philadelphia. As the colonies moved ever closer toward war with England, John Ross joined the militia and was seriously wounded in an explosion while guarding an ammunition cache. He died soon afterward.

Betsy carried on the upholstery business, and it was not long after John’s death that, according to the story she told her grandchildren, none other than George Washington approached her about producing a flag for the soon-to-be nation. As upholsterers of that day also designed and made flags, this is not out of the question .

Betsy married twice more, outliving both husbands and continuing in an active role in the upholstery business until she was 75 years old. Her business thrived, and at one time she had as many as 50 women working for her. Through the years, she brought many of her family members into the business, providing employment and skills which allowed daughters and grandchildren to support themselves.