Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Suzanne Vailland Douvillier – Choreographer

Suzanne Vailland Douvillier is thought to have been the first female choreographer in North America. Little is known of her childhood, except that she was born in Paris.
By 1790, she was in Santo Domingo, French West Indies, where she formed a personal and professional alliance with Alexandre Placide, a theatrical figure. She came to the United States with Placide in 1791.
In January 1792, she danced in The Bird Catcher in New York City. This is believed to be the first ballet piece presented in the United States. She and Placide took their ballet shows to other cities, eventually settling in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1794. There she appeared in several ballets, including her own Echo and Narcissus in 1796.
While living in Charleston Placide made headlines by engaging in a duel with Louis Douvillier, a dancer who had recently joined the company. Suzanne’s affections were at stake in the duel, which received full newspaper coverage and was witnessed by “half of Charleston.” As a result of the duel, Douvillier married the 17-year-old Suzanne. 
They formed their own ballet company and performed in many venues before finally settling in New Orleans, where Suzanne died at the age of 48.
Suzanne Douvillier was also probably the first woman to design and paint stage scenery in the Americas.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Elizabeth Blackwell – Lady Doctor

Although born in England, Elizabeth Blackwell gained fame as the first woman to graduate from a U.S. medical school.
Blackwell moved to the United States with her family when she was 11 years old.  Her father died young, and Elizabeth and her sisters opened a private school in an effort to support the family. 
An elderly friend of the family influenced Elizabeth’s decision to seek entrance to medical school when the friend noted that she would have felt much more comfortable discussing her problems with a female doctor. In 1847, Elizabeth began applying to medical schools.
She was turned down by many. However, administrators at Geneva Medical School in Geneva, New York, decided to let the students make the decision of whether or not to admit a woman. The students thought this was an outlandish joke, and in keeping with the spirit of the thing, voted to admit her. When they discovered that it was no joke, they (and the townspeople of Geneva) were horrified.
Although ostracized at first, she gradually gained acceptance and graduated first in her class in 1949. Geneva College, however, was censured by the New York State Medical Society for allowing her to graduate.
Elizabeth spent some time in Europe, but an eye injury ended her quest to become a surgeon. She later returned to New York where she, along with her sister, Emily, opened a hospital for women and children. 
Although she never married, she adopted an orphan in 1854. She died at age 89 in 1910.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones – Hell-raiser

On her 100th birthday in the spring of 1930, Mary Harris Jones, better known as “Mother Jones,” gave another of the speeches that had been her trademark throughout 50 years of championing the rights of working men and women, particularly the rights of miners. On her birthday she exhorted American laborers to embrace their power and to use it.
Born in Ireland, she came from a long line of agitators. Her grandfather, a freedom fighter, was hanged, and her father was forced to flee the country when Mary was eight years old.
She grew up in Canada, and after teaching in a convent school in Michigan, she moved to Chicago where she became a dressmaker, stating that she preferred sewing to “bossing little children.”
She married, but lost her husband and four small children during an epidemic. If that was not enough, she lost all her material possessions in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. It was shortly after this that she became interested in the plight of those working in the mines, a mission to which she would devote the rest of her life.
Barely five-feet tall and bursting with energy and enthusiasm, this grandmotherly-looking figure was known for her magnetic voice and her speechmaking. She was a dynamic speaker and a good storyteller, who had a way with words. She once said, “I am not a humanitarian; I’m a hell-raiser.” The media called her at times the “miners’ angel” and at other times, “the greatest woman agitator of our times.” She was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate as “the grandmother of all agitators.” She took this all in stride, declaring, “Enough injunctions have been issued against me to make my shroud when I die.”
She lived seven months beyond her 100th birthday, dying in December 1930. Today, a prominent investigative journalism magazine bears her name.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Mrs. L.H. Bath – Oregon Game Warden

In the autumn of 1912, Mrs. L.H Bath pursued the position of game warden in Oregon’s Klamath Lake region. An article in the Februay 1, 1914, issue of The Oregonian stated, “It was not with any great confidence in her ability to police the Klamath country that the position was given to Mrs. Bath.” But Mrs. Bath quickly proved herself in her new position.
Klamath Lake had long been known as a great breeding ground for waterfowl. But it also had a reputation as an area in which the game and hunting laws were not observed by residents and hunters who came to the area to kill the birds for the open market. Hunters slaughtered them by the thousands. 
In 1908, the area became a wild game refuge, and although game wardens tried to curb the wholesale slaughter, they were largely unsuccessful until Mrs. Bath took the position in 1912.
She chose her battles carefully. She was not afraid to confront hunters if necessary. However, by February 1914, she had not had to make an arrest. Arrests and court appearances had done little to solve the problem. Mrs. Bath’s strength lay in her attempts to educate the public, starting with the children. Boys had long made a game of throwing stones on their way home home from school at the ducks and other water fowl on the lake. Mrs. Bath encouraged them to feed the birds instead of killing them, and soon the boys were intent on trying to tame the wild birds.
Mrs. Bath herself successfully tamed six pelicans to eat from her hand and sit on her lap, even though pelicans had a reputation of being one of the wildest of species. That autumn she tagged the birds in hopes of learning more about their migratory patterns.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Elizabeth Vickery – Shipwrecked Bride-To-Be

Growing up on Cape Cod, Elizabeth Vickery viewed sailing as a way of life. So despite the fact that the French and Indian war was raging, she thought nothing of hopping on a trading sloop, known locally as a “corn cracker,” for a trip to Boston to buy her wedding dress. She had carefully saved her money and was looking for the finest dress she could buy in which to become the bride of Jonathan Collins.
Shortly before they reached Boston, another sail appeared on the horizon. Soon it became apparent that it was a French privateer, and the corn cracker was its prey. Not wanting the French to find her money, Elizabeth hid below decks, thinking that the invaders would loot the boat and then be on their way. Instead, the French herded the passengers and crew of the corn cracker into the lifeboats and took over the boat as a spoil of war. From her hiding place, Elizabeth felt the boat begin to move and came back on deck to a surprise–both for herself and for the Frenchmen now in command of the ship.
But they had little time to worry about what to do with her as they were sailing into the teeth of a nor’easter. The boat was shaken and tossed and as it approached Isle de Sable, the captain lashed Elizabeth, himself and the only remaining mate to the rigging. When they regained consciousness, they were shipwrecked on the small island. 
When Elizabeth’s fiancé Jonathan heard the news that she was left on the boat with the Frenchmen, he immediately enlisted on a warship and sailed off to fight the French. About three months after the mishap, his boat was passing Isle de Sable when he saw his sweetheart, thin, drawn and wearing the remains of the tattered sails, on the shore of the island, along with the two Frenchmen. 
Elizabeth begged that the Frenchmen be treated well as they had treated her so. History does not record what happened to them, but she and Jonathan were married Jan. 27, 1704/05. Unfortunately, Elizabeth died a short 10 years after her marriage.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Myrtle Morrison – Bronco Buster

In the 1890s, one of the best-known cowgirls of the Dakotas was a 16-year-old named Myrtle Morrison. Myrtle got a taste for the life of a cowgirl, when a neighboring cowboy convinced her to try to ride a pony that had only been ridden once before. The wild little animal pitched her off three times before she successfully brought him under control. But the thrill of victory was such that she took immediately to the life of a cowgirl.
One incident repeated in the newspapers was the story of Myrtle’s saving her little sister, Jennie’s, life. The story goes that Myrtle was driving cattle past their home, when Jennie carelessly ran out to greet her. A long-horned Texas steer took exception to the move and rushed the child with head lowered. Myrtle screamed to her sister to run, but the steer was steadily gaining ground. Cooly, Myrtle lassoed the steer’s horns, looping the lariat around her own saddle horn. As her trained horse stopped short, the steer turned a complete somersault, giving Jennie time to escape to the house.
Myrtle went on to break broncos, brand cattle and marry a cowboy named  Frank DuPree. The story of their courtship also made headlines.
They were out riding when they encountered a herd of buffalo. DuPree, wanting to show off, rode alongside a huge buffalo, then suddenly sprang from his saddle to the buffalo’s back. The buffalo herd, spooked by his foolhardy action, stampeded across the prairie, leaving Frank no choice but to hang on and pray that he did not fall off as he would be crushed by the stampeding animals.
After about two miles, the animals came to a deep, narrow wash. Frank saw his chance and managed to slip off the buffalo’s back into the ravine. Shortly after his escape, Myrtle rode up with his horse in tow. She had lassoed in while he was on his wild ride.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Petra Rios – Hard-Headed Woman

The expression, “hard-headed woman” applied quite literally to Petra Rios of Los Angeles, California. Her story was told in newspapers in April 1897, after she survived a shooting incident.
According to the news stories, Petra Rios quarreled with her lover–a spat serious enough that he threatened to kill her and then tried to make good on his threat by shooting her at close range. 
The first bullet, fired at her head, flattened against the right side of her scalp. Dazed, she sank to her knees just as he fired again, this time striking her cheek. That bullet entered her cheek, exiting her right jaw, then striking her breast and lodging in a rib. The third shot grazed the back of the left side of her head, lodging in the tissue of her scalp. When it was removed, doctors found that it had flattened into a disc, somewhat larger than a nickel.
The doctors also marveled that despite being shot three times in the head, there was no evidence of skull fracture, and they determined that the thickness of the bone protected Petra from suffering a concussion.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Mary Johnson – Free Black Woman

In 1622, a boat docked in what would become Virginia. On board was a woman known only as “Juana, a Negro.” The plantation owner who bought her raised tobacco, and Juana worked hard among the other slaves in the fields. She was, however, the only  woman on the plantation. Among the slaves was a man known as Antonio. He had come to the New World the year before Juana and was one of only five people to survive the Good Friday Massacre of 1622. He and Juana fell in love and were allowed to marry.
They both worked hard and as a reward were allowed to farm some land as their own. Eventually, they bought their freedom with the proceeds they made from their small farm. They changed their names to Anthony and Mary and chose Johnson as their last name, becoming the first free blacks in what would become the United States with the right to choose a surname.
By the mid-1600s, they had established a family of four children. They owned 250 acres and raised cattle and hogs. They even had two servants of their own.
In 1653, a terrible fire almost destroyed them. Their white neighbors helped them  get back on their feet. Tony and Mary petitioned the courts to grant Mary and her two daughters tax-free status for life, a privilege usually reserved for white women.
Life was not always good, however, and they suffered harassment from some of their neighbors. Eventually, they moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where they leased 300 acres. Tony Johnson died five years later, and Mary re-negotiated the lease for 99 years. She would live only 10 more years, but several times during those years, she appeared in court to defend her rights.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ida Pfeiffer – World Traveler

Born Ida Reyer in Austria, the woman who became a well-known world traveler spent her early years being treated much like her older brothers, dressed in pants, given the same education and encouraged to participate in outdoor sports.
When her father died, her mother tried to reign her daughter in, which was not easy. A Saturday Evening Post article published after Ida became famous recounts that when she was 11, her mother dragged her to see the Emperor Napoleon on parade. From her reading, Ida knew he was a tyrant and stubbornly kept her eyes closed to avoid seeing the man she detested.
She became a music teacher and married a lawyer, J. Pfeiffer, when she was 22. Pfeiffer was 24 years older than she, and they were separated by 1835. As soon as her two sons were out on their own, Ida decided to see the world, scandalizing her family.
Her first trip to the Holy Land became the subject of a book which helped fund her second excursion. By the time she wrote A Lady’s Voyage Round the World, she was famous. She was elected to the Berlin and Paris geographical societies, but turned down by Great Britain because she was female.
The Saturday Evening Post writer was also impressed by a scar on Ida’s upper left arm which she attributed to cannibals in Patagonia.
On a trip to Madagascar, she was at first warmly greeted by Queen Ranavalona but then imprisoned for her unwitting participation in a coup attempt. After some time she was released and expelled from the country, but not before she had contracted “a violent fever” from which she never fully recovered.
Her death notice stated, “Madame Pfeiffer...saw, in fact, all that is worth seeing in the world.”