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.