Friday, April 30, 2010

Caroline Herschel – Astronomer

Born in Hanover to a bandsman in the Prussian army, Caroline Herschel, along with her five siblings, was encouraged by her father to study mathematics. Caroline’s mother, however, felt Caroline was best suited to looking after the house, and when a bout of typhus stunted Caroline’s growth, her mother became even more adamant.
Her father, however, gave her lessons behind her mother’s back, and her older brother, William, took her to live with him when he moved to England. While she was ostensibly his housekeeper, he gave her singing lessons, and she soon became the most well-known soprano in Bath, despite her four-foot, three-inch height.
William eventually quit his job as a chorus director to pursue his hobby of astronomy and telescope-making. Before long, Caroline was grinding lenses for telescopes and not long after that became her brother’s apprentice.
In time, Caroline made a name for herself by discovering eight comets, and after William’s death, she catalogued all the discoveries they had made, including 2,500 nebulae. One of the well-known stories told about Caroline Herschel is that she never learned the multiplication tables but carried a chart of them around with her at all times.
In June 1847, newspapers marked her 97th birthday by printing: “Miss Caroline Herschel, sister, and for a long time assistant to the illustrious astronomer, celebrated her 97th birthday at Hanover on the 16th ult. She still, sometimes, passes a whole night in her observatory.
She died shortly thereafter, having received many awards in her long life, including the Gold Medal of Science from the King of Prussia.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Daisy de Melker – Murderess

Known as South Africa’s first serial killer and the second woman to be hanged in the country, Daisy de Melker has become an icon of sorts. Born in 1882 to British parents who had moved to South Africa to become dairy farmers, Daisy was the sixth child of 11 children.

Although Daisy was quite intelligent, a speech impediment caused her problems and her unruly hair would become a trademark. When she was 10, her father and some of her brothers went to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in search of gold. For some reason, Daisy accompanied them. 

She received a good education and wanted to become a nurse, even putting off marriage to the young man she loved while she completed her nursing course. Unfortunately, her fiance died of complications from malaria, and so the date they had finally set for the wedding became the day of his funeral.

Daisy went on to marry three times. People noted that both of her first two husbands suffered from digestive problems which grew progressively worse over time. Daisy, meanwhile, made sure that both of them made wills before their untimely deaths, leaving all their worldly goods to her.

While the motives for these two deaths appear to be the husband’s money and possessions, it is less clear why she chose to murder Rhodes Cecil Cowle, her only surviving child. What is clear is that the boy was spoiled and did not like to work. His mother, however, appeared to dote on him, visiting him regularly wherever he might be, always taking him cookies.

When Rhodes Cowle developed digestive trouble that ultimately caused his death, Daisy’s second husband’s brother became suspicious that his brother’s death might not have been completely natural. An investigation led to Daisy’s arrest and trial for the death of her son. She was sentenced to hang on December 30, 1932, becoming only the second South African woman to go to the gallows. For all her preoccupation with wealth, she lost all she had inherited from her husbands in mounting her legal defense and is buried in a pauper’s grave.

For a generation after her death, South Africans shied away from naming baby girls “Daisy” and anyone with unkempt hair is said to look like Daisy de Melker.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Mary Ann Cotton – Black Widow

Mary Ann Cotton, suspected of killing at least 16 of her family members and possibly 21, is regarded as Great Britain’s most notorious mass murderer. Cotton is believed to have killed her mother, three of her four husbands, various lovers and all but two of her children and step-children over a period of 20 years.
In 1871, she with her then husband Frederick Cotton, whom she married while still married to James Robinson the only husband to survive her, moved to Durham County with Cotton’s two stepsons and her six-month old baby. Two months later Frederick died at age 39 of a gastric illness, as had a previous husband and several of her children.
Mary Ann quickly took in a lodger, Joseph Natrass, who was really her lover. But he was not the only one. She soon discovered that she was pregnant by a local excise officer, and because the officer was well-to-do, Joseph had to go. Within 24 days in the spring of 1872, Joseph, Mary Ann’s baby and the oldest of Frederick’s stepsons all died of gastric disturbances. In July, the other stepson also died. Because death was so common at this time, it was only after the fourth death that neighbors went to the police.
Mary Ann was charged with the last death. Her trial was delayed due to her pregnancy, but shortly after the delivery, she stood trial. The jury deliberated only an hour before finding her guilty. She was hanged in Durham jail on March 24, 1873.
Mary Ann was well-known across Britain for her deeds, parents often threatening their children with stories that she would “get them” if they misbehaved. Ditties, such as this, sprang up about her, and are still recited at the mention of her name:
Mary Ann Cotton/She’s dead and she’s rotten./She lies in her bed/With her eyes wide open./ Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing?/ Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string./ Where, where? Up in the air/Sellin’ black puddens a penny a pair.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mary Katherine Goddard – Printer

When Mary Katherine Goddard’s father died in 1762, she and her mother left Connecticut for Rhode Island, where her brother, William, was attempting to establish himself as a printer. William had a reputation for starting disputes, and thus his mother and sister found themselves taking charge of the business and the Providence Gazette, the paper he had started.
William soon left for Philadelphia, and not long afterward, Mary Katherine left her mother in Rhode Island to go to Philadelphia to take charge of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, one of the largest papers in the colony, because her footloose brother had moved on to Baltimore.
In 1774, Mary Katherine closed the Philadelphia paper to move to Baltimore to bail William out once again. This time, she insisted that her name appear on the Maryland Journal as publisher. During the American Revolution, she was the only printer in Baltimore, keeping the paper alive even during the toughest times by bartering subscriptions for “country goods.” Mary Katherine also stuck to her principles and refused to be budged by upset subscribers.
She went after and received the contract to print the first copies of the Declaration of Independence with signatures in January 1777.
Shortly after she moved to Baltimore, she became its postmaster, probably the first woman in the colonies to hold that position, and likely the first woman in the colonies to be employed by the government. She held the post for 14 years and was greatly distressed when she was relieved of her duties because the government wanted the Baltimore postmaster to travel throughout the South to oversee post offices there and felt that this was too much for a woman to handle.
She protested her removal, and 200 of the leading businessmen of Baltimore signed a petition in her support, but to no avail. She remained in Baltimore, devoting her time and energies to a bookshop she had opened in conjunction with the printing company. She died at age 78.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Patience Lovell Wright – Sculptor Spy

Patience Lovell was born in New Jersey in 1725 to a strict Quaker family. She ran away to Philadelphia at age 20, later marrying Joseph Wright. 
Widowed by age 44, Patience, with the help of her sister Rachel, turned her hobby of sculpting faces out of bread dough and putty into a thriving business sculpting busts of important people, using tinted wax as the medium. The sisters apparently set up a business with Rachel headquartered in Philadelphia and Patience in New York. During the winter, they moved to Charleston, South Carolina, because the warmer climate helped the wax remain pliable.
Thus, she became one of the first American sculptors and is recognized as the first professional American wax modeler.
In 1771, a fire at her New York studio, melted many of her works. Her friendship with Jane Franklin Mecom led to an introduction to Jane’s brother, Benjamin, when Patience went to England. Benjamin Franklin introduced her to English nobility, and she received many commissions for busts. It is said Patience delighted in shocking people and scandalized the British by addressing the King and Queen as “George” and “Charlotte.” She fell out of favor with the royals during the American Revolution due to her fervent support of the colonies.
She still continued to receive commissions from the nobility, however, and legend has it that she listened as she sculpted and heard much information concerning British war plans. She purportedly secreted this information in busts that she shipped to the colonies. Apparently the British did not suspect her of spying.
Toward the end of the Revolution, she apparently became involved in a plot to overthrow the King. However, the plotters lacked the financial resources to pull it off and had to abandon the plan.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman – Free Woman

Bett and her younger sister Lizzie were born in slavery. Sometime after 1758, they were inherited by John and Hannah Ashley, having been the property of Hannah’s father, Pietre Hoogeboom.
The sisters served the Ashleys until Bett was in her 30s. It was a trying time, for while John Ashley was a kind master, Hannah was hard to please and thought nothing of abusing them, particularly Lizzie who did not take orders as easily as Bett.
Bett, however, used her time at the Ashleys wisely. John Ashley was one of a group of men who chafed under British rule. They met often at the Ashley home, and Bett’s job was to sit outside the door and keep the men well-supplied with drink and food. She also kept her ears open, and what she heard made a deep impression on her.
From these meetings came the Sheffield Resolves, one of the earliest protests from the colonies against England. Bett wondered then, and later after she heard the Declaration of Independence, if these lofty ideals applied to her, a slave.
One day, after Bett had intervened between Hannah Ashley and Lizzie and had been burned by a fire iron intended for Lizzie, she decided she could stand living under Hannah Ashley’s roof no longer. she walked three miles to the home of Theodore Sedgwick, another of the group who drafted the Sheffield Resolves, and asked him to represent her in a suit for her freedom.
Sedgewick agreed after listening to her compelling argument. John Ashley secretly sided with Bett but allowed the suit to go forward as both he and Sedgewick were interested in how the courts would rule. At that time, women could only be party to a criminal suit, not a civil one. So a male Ashley servant, Bron, was added to the complaint.
The court found in favor of Bett and Bron. John Ashley appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, just to make sure the ruling was sound. That court upheld the lower court’s ruling. 
Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman and went to work for the Sedgewick family, who called her “Mumbet” and came to love her so much, that she is buried in the family plot in Stockbridge, MA, a decision that stirred controversy of its own.
Bett’s determination was inherited by her great-grandson, W.E.B. Dubois, who later became a strong proponent of the civil right’s movement.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Lydia Barrington Darragh – Eavesdropper

Living across the street from British headquarters in Philadelphia in 1776, Lydia Darragh and her peace-loving Quaker family, had many opportunities to learn military plans, which they passed on to the Pennsylvania militia in an intriguing way. Lydia’s husband William would encode the messages on small bits of paper, which Lydia would sewed into covered buttons. Their 14-year-old son would then deliver the buttons to American authorities, sometimes even to Gen. George Washington himself.
In late 1777, Maj. John Andre informed the Darraghs that the British were taking over their home as a billet for officers. Lydia refused and determined to take her cause to Lord Howe. On her way, she serendipitously met one of her Irish cousins, who was a British officer. He intervened on her behalf, and the Darraghs were allowed to stay in the house, provided they allow the British use of one room as a meeting place.
On the night of December 2, 1777, the Darraghs were instructed to be in bed by 8 p.m. as the British were to have a special meeting. Lydia secreted herself in a linen closet in the room adjoining the meeting room, where she avidly listened to every word of the British plans to ambush the Americans. When she sensed the meeting was winding down, she slipped off to bed, pretending to be asleep and only “rousing” after Andre pounded three times on her door to tell her they were leaving.
The next day, Lydia secured a pass to go into the countryside to get flour from a mill. There are two versions of what happened next. Her daughter reported that Lydia set out on the road where she met a militiaman to whom she entrusted the news. 
Elias Boudinot’s private journal records that while she was making the request for her pass, she slipped him a needlebook, which contained the information.
Lydia’s daughter also notes that after the British attack failed, the Darragh household came under suspicion, but Major Andre believed Lydia when she vehemently denied that anyone in her home had warned the patriots.
We know that in January 1786, Lydia moved as a notice in the Philadelphia papers states: Lydia Darragh takes this method of informing her friends that she has removed from her late dwelling house in Second, below Spruce street, to the west side of Second street, eleven doors above Chestnut street, to the home formerly occupied by John Connolly.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Nell Richardson, Alice Burke–Traveling Sufragettes

In 1916, the United States was divided into “yellow” and “black” states instead of the “blue” and “red” we hear about today. Yellow states supported women’s suffrage; black states did not–and the tension between the two was just as fierce as today’s political polarization.
On April 6 of that year, two women, Alice Burke of Illinois and Nell Richardson of Virginia, left New York City, driving a yellow Baby Saxon car to tour the country in hopes of influencing politicians and public opinion on women’s rights, particularly the right to vote. With them was a black kitten, also named Saxon. The trip was sponsored by the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
The yellow car, nicknamed the “Golden Flier,” became a symbol for women’s rights that summer. Richardson and Burke also used it as a podium for the speeches they made in many towns, cities and backwaters along their route. In addition, the car was covered with various promotional ads. 
The trio carried what they needed in the car, including clothing, a typewriter and extra parts for the car. If the car needed repairs, Alice Burke performed them herself. 
They arrived back in New York City at the end of September, having traveled nearly five months and 10,700 miles. They visited every state in the union except those in New England and stated that they had little trouble beyond being lost for four nights in the desert. They also expressed surprise that Southern men were more interested in hearing what they had to say than those in more northern states.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Grace O'Malley – Pirate Queen

The life of Grace O’Malley is the stuff of which legends are made. Born in 1530 in County Mayo, Ireland, Grace was the daughter of a sea captain. Early in life, she decided to become a sea captain, too, much to the dismay of her mother. Angry that her parents would not allow her to accompany her father on one of his voyages, she cut off her hair and dressed in boys’ clothing to prove that she was an able sailor. Eventually, her father relented and took aboard his ship.
Legend has it that this was a wise move by Owen O’Malley, for it was Grace who saved his life when the ship was boarded by pirates. Ordered to go below decks, Grace ignored the command and climbed the rigging instead. From her bird’s eye view, she was able to see one of the pirates advancing on her father from behind. Launching herself upon the pirate’s back with a murderous howl, she alerted her father to the danger, and he promptly dispatched the pirate.
Grace married at age 16 but did not let acquiring a husband deter her from the sea. And it was not long before she was commander of her own fleet. While her family had relied on fishing and trade, Grace turned to piracy when the port of Galway refused to trade with her and her husband’s vessels.
After her husband’s death, Grace amassed enough property to become a chieftain in her own right. As England gained control over Ireland, Grace was among those who resisted and rebelled against English rule. She resisted longer than most, but at age 56 she was captured by Sr. Richard Bingham and sentenced to die. Determined to die with dignity, she held her head high, but at the last moment, her son-in-law offered himself as hostage if she would promise not to return to her rebellious ways.
Most historians believed she lived into her 70s and was still active in business well into her 60s.